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Volume 124: debated on Thursday 17 December 1987

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if, following the latest meeting of the Council of Ministers, he will make a statement as to his policy on sheepmeat.

My aim in these complex discussions is to avoid discrimination against United Kingdom interests, to achieve fair and affordable support to the sector, including a budgetary stabiliser, and so enable the United Kingdom to capitalise on its natural advantages.

Does the Minister recognise that if the Commission's proposals were implemented they would have a devastating effect on the incomes, particularly, of upland farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in the country? Will he therefore give the House a categorical assurance that he will not support any of the proposals put forward by the Commission on the sheepmeat regime?

That is a very wide-ranging question. We might well want to support some of the Commission's proposals. I believe that the hon. Lady has in mind proposals that are particularly discriminatory against the United Kingdom, and we are fighting against them. I have already said that we are endeavouring to remove the proposal for a ceiling on headage limits in the less-favoured areas, which would be discriminatory against some of the farmers about whom she is concerned. We have had some success so far in that. We shall continue to ensure that we receive an outcome to the wider sheepmeat regime that is totally fair to United Kingdom interests.

Will the Minister acknowledge the importance of the sheepmeat regime to the rural economy, especially in Scotland and in my constituency in the Borders? Will he also acknowledge that it would be helpful if he could give some idea — I know that there are difficulties about this — of the timetable for the budgetary stabilisers to which he referred and the wider review of the sheepmeat regime, so that there can be some stability and framework in the market for the coming months and years?

I acknowledge that the sheepmeat regime has been helpful, although we also have to acknowledge that its costs are now projected to rise at more than 1 million ecu next year. That is why we have to accept budgetary stabilisers. The stabiliser mechanism for sheepmeat will have to be dealt with on the same timetable as stabilisers as a whole. We shall have to await the outcome of the meeting on 11 and 12 February. A broader review is likely to be discussed later in 1988, so there is a problem about the start of the marketing year. It is clear that those changes cannot now take place before the start of the marketing year.