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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 124: debated on Thursday 17 December 1987

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Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Common Agricultural Policy

1.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome of recent discussions in the European Community on the common agricultural policy.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reported to the House on Tuesday 8 December on the outcome of the European Council held in Copenhagen. I regret that final agreement could not be reached there on the issue of agricultural stabilisers, despite the support that had been built up for that approach in negotiations during the autumn. The main issues in these negotiations are now clear. I am, however, ready to make further efforts with my colleagues in the Agriculture Council on any issues, such as set-aside, where that Council can contribute to preparing the way for the resumed European Council on II and 12 February, and to increasing the chances of agreement there.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In view of the huge EEC mountains of beef, butter and flour, which are sold to countries outside the EEC at cheap rates or are allowed to rot, is it the intention of the Minister and the Government to see that the old and the needy in this country, and in my constituency in particular, are given free food hampers from that mountain this year?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is right to get the surpluses and mountains down. That is the purpose of the discussion on stabilisers and the current discussions, which go wider than that issue.

Agreement has been reached in the Council that individual member states can introduce a free food scheme under the regulations that have been agreed. It is a complex matter. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we introduced a free food scheme last year. There were many criticisms of that scheme. We are now holding urgent discussions with the charitable organisations which participated last year to assess the implications of the regulations that have just been agreed. We were criticised last year for some of the effects of the scheme, which resulted from the haste with which it had to be introduced. Therefore, it is important that we have discussions with the charitable organisations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is required in Europe is a balanced package involving stabilisers, set-aside and other measures, including the welcome environmental developments that my right hon. Friend has pioneered in Europe, and on which he is to be congratulated?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concluding remarks. I agree that a balance is required — a balance in stabilisers to reduce the surpluses, a balance in proposals to reduce and depreciate the shocks, and, of course, a balance in the other matters to which he referred, such as set-aside and the environmental measures. We have made a good deal of progress, especially on the set-aside scheme, with which I am very much involved. I hope that we can reach agreement on it early in the new year.

Is the Minister in a position to inform the House of the latest developments regarding the sheepmeat proposals?

The sheepmeat proposals have not been discussed since the Agriculture Council meeting prior to the European summit. At the moment, therefore, the position is twofold. First, discussions on stabilisers in relation to sheepmeat must be taken up again in the new year, and we shall have to see what happens in relation to the summit meeting on 11 and 12 February. Secondly, there is to be a wider review of the sheepmeat regime, on which we have not yet embarked, at the Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting.

I know that my right hon. Friend will agree that the main problem with the enormous cost of the CAP is the storing of surpluses. May I urge him, as others have done, to take every possible measure to reduce the enormous amount of food that is in store? If it cannot be given away to hon. Members' constituents, can my right hon. Friend think of some way of disposing of it elsewhere? Surely the object of the CAP is to maintain the rural communities, not to maintain intervention storekeepers.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the objective should be to maintain our efficient agriculture and its contribution to rural communities to ensure that we meet as many of our food requirements as possible, competitively and efficiently, without leading to the problem of surpluses. We can reduce the surpluses in a variety of ways. Indeed, I am glad to say that as a result of some of the measures that have already been taken by the Council of Ministers, the level of intervention stocks for products such as butter, cereals and skimmed-milk powder is coming down substantially. However, we need to take further measures to ensure that they continue to come down and that surpluses are not built up to replace the stocks that we are trying to get rid of.

Will the Minister confirm that under the new free food for the needy scheme the administrative costs of charities can be met out of European Commission funds? Is he really telling the House that needy people in France, Germany and Italy will receive free food, but that those in Britain will not? If that is the case, he is the No. 1 nominee for the Mr. Scrooge of this Christmas.

It is correct that some administrative costs can be met under the current regulations. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that last year the needy in Britain who benefited from the scheme did so to a much greater extent than those in many other European countries.

However, the problems are substantial. First, there is only about £10 million of food potentially available in this country. Therefore, there are problems in targeting and deciding who should be the beneficiaries. There are many practical problems, such as distribution. There are also problems relating to the way in which we implement the regulations, if we decide to do so. We are urgently exploring these problems with the organisations that were involved with us last time.

When my right hon. Friend is considering the European common agricultural policy with his European colleagues, will he bear in mind the representations that he has received from the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and especially those from Mr. Ian Grant, the president of the Scottish NFU? Those proposals are not only realistic, because they accept that change is essential and necessary, but seek to ensure that the United Kingdom, and especially the livestock sector in Scotland, receives fair treatment.

I had some extremely useful discussions with the president of the Scottish NFU when I was in Edinburgh recently. I see him quite regularly and I agree that he is taking a realistic and sensible approach to CAP reforms. Yes, we keep in mind the needs of our livestock sector, and that is why we have been fighting so strongly for the removal of the ceilings proposed by the Commission on headage payments on ewe premiums which would adversely affect our livestock sector in the less-favoured areas.

Dairy Industry

2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he next hopes to meet the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board to discuss the future of the dairy industry.

My colleagues and I have regular contacts with the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board to discuss various issues affecting the dairy industry.

The Minister is aware of the concern in Wales at the sale of milk quotas, which adversely affects the balance of the industry in that area and may have an effect on some processing plants. Will the Minister consider representations to introduce regulations to restrict the sale of quota outside specified regions? Will he consider setting up a special quota bank for young entrants into the industry so that they have an opportunity to acquire a quota, which at present is denied to many of them?

I am aware of producers' concerns about quota transfers, and the position is carefully monitored. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that, to date, less than 2 per cent. of quota held by Welsh producers has been transferred out of Wales. The idea of a quota bank has been discussed on a number of occasions, but there are considerable difficulties with it. I do not deny that one of the problems about quota is new entrants into the industry. However, the suggestion of a quota bank has been opposed by most of the industry's organisations that have considered it. As regards the effects on processing plants, it is necessary, when supply and demand are being brought into balance, to realise that there must also be adjustments in the processing industry to reflect that change.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assurances he gave to the Milk Marketing Board about the future of the small dairy farmer? Will he accept that those farmers play a vital role in the rural communities of this country?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the small dairy farmer. I have had several discussions with the Milk Marketing Board, but that matter has not been a topic of recent discussion. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I agree with him on the general point.

Small dairy farmers in north-east Wales and in my constituency are worried and are facing difficulties. Those farmers, and not least my constituent Mr. George Blockley, are discontented and upset about the nature of the quota. What will the Minister do to help the small dairy farmer in Wales?

In the early stages of the quota regime a number of measures were taken to help the small dairy farmer. My clear impression is that the vast majority of dairy farmers want the quota regime to continue and certainly do not want it to be abandoned. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past two years the incomes of dairy producers have risen quite reasonably.

Did my right hon. Friend discuss with the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board the problem that has arisen in relation to cheese making in this country? We are facing a shortage, with the result that the consumer, who is rarely considered by the agriculturist, is paying a high price for ordinary English Cheddar cheese.

I assure my hon. Friend that producers are extremely conscious of the needs of consumers and that marketing and meeting consumers' needs feature prominently in my discussions with farmers. I recognise that there were some difficulties during this year's seasonal trough period—August and September, when milk production drops for natural reasons — in meeting the requirements of cheese producers. We have been in touch with the Milk Marketing Board and the milk industry about that matter and the industry has agreed to changes in the milk supply and pricing arrangements that are aimed at avoiding similar problems next year.

Food (Radioactivity)

3.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will review the arrangements for protecting the population from food contaminated with radioactivity after a nuclear accident; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) on 30 June, new national plans for dealing with the consequences of any future nuclear accident have been drawn up. My departmental responsibilities have been covered in those plans.

In relation to those new plans, what has the Minister to say about the 39 farms in Scotland which were brought into monitoring in August of this year, but which had not been subject to restrictions for the 16 months after the Chernobyl disaster? [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] The reason why I raise this matter is that that news stunned me, and I would hope that it would stun Conservative Members.

I believe that it is perfectly right that we should continue the monitoring. There will be occasions when the monitoring produces examples for which extra restrictions must be provided, but those restrictions are made extremely carefully. They are designed to ensure that the safety limits are high, and we are doing our best to make sure that there is no damage to public health. The public can be wholly reassured by the measures that we take.

Butter

4.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how much butter was in intervention stores in the United Kingdom at the latest available date.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Donald Thompson)

On 31 October 1987 accepted intervention stocks of butter totalled 184,816 tonnes. On the same date in 1986 the equivalent figure was 258,781 tonnes.

With all this butter in store, will the Minister explain the logic of why we can sell this produce to the Soviet Union at 6p a pound, when my pensioners cannot afford the market price of more than £1 a pound? The stocks sold to the Soviet Union have been subsidised by the taxpayer by 82p in the pound — that does not include storage charges. Is not this economic madness an insult to pensioners and taxpayers?

The sooner we can get rid of these huge stores of butter and other materials, the sooner pensioners will be paying less to keep these huge mountains of food in store. That will directly benefit us all.

Can my hon. Friend say whether there will be a more effective scheme for giving surplus butter to pensioners this winter? Last winter the scheme did not work very well. As we have considerable amounts in stock, will my hon. Friend try to improve the scheme so that all pensioners receive their share?

Last year this country spent most of the money that was available in Europe, and this year the limit will be £10 million. If the scheme is taken up, we shall discuss with the charities and other bodies the most cost-effective and efficient scheme by which to distribute the butter. At present, we are discussing the whole scheme.

Surplus Food

5.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the latest total volume and value in pound sterling of surplus food and drink in the EEC; and what is the cost of storage in pound sterling.

A note on levels of Community intervention stocks is deposited in the Library or the House each month. The latest estimate of the book value of these stocks is about £6·3 billion, and this year it will cost about £900 million to store them.

How can the Minister and his colleagues come to the Dispatch Box and continue to try to justify, month after month, the spending of millions of pounds of public money on the hoarding of food supplies that could be distributed to pensioners and others in need in this country, and could make a contribution to feeding starving people in the Third World? If the Common Market continues obstinately to refuse to scrap the common agricultural policy, is it not time that the British Government took unilateral action to withdraw from such an insane and immoral policy, which is making a mockery of the Christmas message of peace and good will?

Before the hon. Gentleman asks the Government to do that, he should get his own party to support that view. It does not take the view that we should withdraw from the European Community, nor do the Government. The benefits for us, for the rest of Europe and for the world are far too great to withdraw from the Community. The Government have been effective in getting, for the first time, major reductions in the amount of food going into store, especially dairy products, on which, because of actions initiated by the Government, we now have much firmer control on production. We are the leaders in Europe in getting these changes. In addition, we are great supporters of the expansion of aid to the developing world. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, Oxfam and other charities say that the need is not for food aid but for extra technical aid and money. We have taken that view also.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the stabilisers policy which he and his colleagues are pursuing in the European Commission is the best approach to reduce the amount of food in storage? It also represents the best policy for farmers, consumers and taxpayers to get the European Community budget into balance.

I am sure that that is right, for the simple reason that every country in the developed world has a system for supporting agriculture, both to ensure continuity of food supply and to see that the land is properly looked after. Other countries have more expensive systems than we have. However, we all have the problems of adapting those systems to the new situation of surpluses. For the Opposition to cat-call when we are talking about the livelihood of many millions of our fellow Europeans shows how uninterested they are in the rural economy.

Venison

6.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will give an estimate of the amount of venison sold in the United Kingdom.

No central records are kept. However, we estimate that about 2,300 tonnes of venison are produced annually in the United Kingdom of which about 1,700 tonnes are exported.

Does the Minister agree that although only small quantities of venison are consumed in Britain, large tracts of land are designated as deer forests? Does he also agree that these large tracts of land have a deleterious effect on tourism, because access to that land is restricted, especially during the stalking season? Therefore, will he consider reducing the amount of land designated as deer forests and restricting the extent of the stalking season?

Will the Minister reconsider the answer that he has just given to my hon. Friend? Does he not recognise that as venison is a low-cholesterol red meat there would be considerable advantage to public health if his Department encouraged its production and consumption? Can he tell the House whether his Department has considered introducing support mechanisms such as those for sheep and beef production?

The first supplementary question went entirely contrary to that and suggested cutting down on the amount of venison that is available. Venison is a useful and low-cholesterol meat. A wide range of grants are available under the agricultural improvement scheme for approved investments in deer enterprises. Grants are also available for certain environmentally beneficial works. Leaflets setting out the eligibility for these grants are available from the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service.

Fish Farms

7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions officials of his Department have recently held with local authorities and other interested parties regarding the siting and development of fish farms; and if he will make a statement.

There have been no recent discussions involving my Department about the siting of fish farms. However, my officials recently met representatives of the National Farmers Union to discuss the Government's intention to extend water abstraction licensing to all fish farms and we have regular contact with the industry and other interests about a range of issues concerning fish farming.

I am sure that the Minister and all hon. Members welcome the growth of fish farms. However, there are two areas of concern—the planning and siting of these farms in places of great scenic beauty, and the pollution of our lochs and rivers. What measures are the Government taking to deal with these matters?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we want to encourage the provision of jobs and the wealth that comes from fish farming. We are concerned to ensure that damage is not done to rivers, which will happen unless we are careful about water abstraction. We are taking such measures as are necessary to keep it under control, but we do not want to control it so strongly that we do not have the expansion that we want. The balance is about right, but we shall keep a very close eye on it.

My right hon. Friend's reply to the first question is welcome. Will he ensure that the legislation for fish farmers to have abstraction licences for the use of water in inland waterways is in place before the water authorities are privatised?

Our intention is for the legislation relating to a National Rivers Authority to cover that. I think that that will help my hon. Friend.

Does the Minister agree that the planning and leasing of fish farms around the coast of Scotland should be removed from the Crown Estate Commissioners, who are charging rates of Rachmanite proportions? Does he agree that that operation should be returned to local authorities?

I do not have any evidence whatsoever of that. It is improper for the hon. Lady to use a phrase such as that about the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is not true, and the hon. Lady's statement is wrong. I have no intention of making any such changes.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a huge demand for salmon in Europe, and that the best way to meet that demand is by salmon ranching, especially as there is widespread poaching of salmon beyond the 12-mile limit? Will he take steps to increase salmon ranching and to decrease poaching, especially by boats from the Irish Republic?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that recent legislation has had a major effect on poaching. There have been some extremely good examples of poachers who have been caught and heavily fined as a result of their activities. When we bring in the dealer licensing scheme, which is the next stage of the legislation, that will help considerably. As for further intervention in the salmon industry, I warn the hon. Gentleman that already private businesses have spent considerable sums to extend the provision of salmon and as a result the price of salmon has been remarkably stable over the years. This is one of the best ways to ensure that we get the necessary supplies. We do not want to expand the supplies so that they exceed demand.

Agricultural Stabilisers

8.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a further statement on progress made towards the implementation of agricultural stabilisers within the European Community.

As I mentioned earlier, the European Council considered the Commission's stabiliser proposals at its meeting on 4 and 5 December. Progress was made, particularly on cereals, oilseeds and protein crops, but more is needed if agreement is to be reached on all aspects of the future financing negotiations at the next meeting of the European Council on 11 and 12 February.

Can the Minister confirm that the European Commission is considering withdrawing its agricultural stabiliser proposals because of lack of progress? Does the Minister agree that unless decisions are made swiftly on curbing agricultural production, farmers and farm workers will have to operate in a climate of cruel uncertainty and the general public will believe that the problems of surpluses will never be tackled effectively?

No, I do not think that the proposals on stabilisers will be withdrawn. I think that it is important to build on the progress already made. I entirely agree with the point raised by the hon. Lady on the uncertainty that this creates for farmers and farm workers, which is why I am so keen to reach agreement on stabilisers, not only to remove the uncertainty, but to get the surplus production and the associated subsidies that go with them cleared from the system, so that agriculture can have a more stable future.

Will my right hon. Friend exert pressure on the Commission to ensure that no proposals for farm price increases are brought forward in the absence of an agreement on future financing and stabilisers at the European Council?

We shall have to look at the price review in the normal way, and the Commission will bring forward its proposals for that, as is necessary each year. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to reach agreement on the stabilisers as quickly as possible, because without them there is a risk of continually increasing surpluses and subsidies, which cannot be in the interests of agriculture. Without that progress, what happens in price reviews is much less important than getting agreement on the new reform.

Milk Quotas

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's response to the European Commission's report on the operation of milk quotas.

The Commission's report on the operation of milk quotas is still under discussion. In the present circumstances, however, it is realistic to continue with the quota system.

When the Minister is trying to reduce the surpluses, will he remember that in the less-favoured areas of Scotland, such as Argyll and Bute, milk producers are not contributing to the surpluses or butter mountains, because all milk is used for liquid consumption and making cheese? Does he agree that the loss of creameries that produce Scottish Cheddar would cause a great deal of unemployment?

I would welcome any creameries producing cheese, but I would not welcome creameries producing butter which then went into intervention to add to the mountains. It is with some disappointment that we notice that butter production has increased this year in Scotland. The creameries are an important part of the countryside, and I am sure that both the Scottish and the English Milk Marketing Boards have them in mind.

Will my hon. Friend include in his response about the operation of milk quotas the fact that milk quotas have made a considerable difference to the dairy industry, in providing security, and have done much to help to establish a secure market for the small dairy farms, which are so vital to the British countryside?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Milk quotas have given to that section of the industry the security for which most other sectors of the industry are looking. The number of people leaving the milk industry has fallen from 2,500 a year before 1983 to 1,300 a year now.

To judge from the Minister's stately girth, he has obviously been doing his best to reduce butter mountains on his own. Would he like a bit of assistance? Would he welcome help from some of the pensioners of Newham, for example, if they were allowed to get at the butter mountains that exist in my contituency in Stratford? Does he accept that because of the price of butter, beef and other foods in intervention stores, there is no question of the people who get that food for free going out to buy more? Therefore, it is no argument for the Government to say that giving food away will only cause more food to go into intervention.

It was shown last year when we distributed £60 million worth of free food that it did make a difference in retail outlets. However, I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituents in Newham appreciate the fact that food price inflation is less than inflation generally and has continued to be so. The range of food available to people makes it possible for them to enjoy a balanced diet at a very reasonable price.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the three diversification grant schemes to be introduced next year will do a great deal to reduce surpluses in this country? Will he consider issuing a statement on the ability of farmers to apply for more than one diversification scheme or to switch between them?

I am sure that farmers and farmers' organisations will be adroit and acute enough to consider all the schemes that they may apply for.

Sheepmeat

10.

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.

Fishing Industry

11.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what meetings he has recently had with representatives of the fishing industry; and what subjects were discussed.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I, since the beginning of September, have had several meetings with representatives of the fishing industry, including earlier this week at the Council of Fisheries Ministers in Brussels, the outcome of which I reported to the House yesterday in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).

Has the Minister ever heard of a company called The Barclay Sound Shipping Company, which was awarded a licence to fish in Falklands waters, following the announcement in Parliament in November last year? Is he aware that that company, at the time of that announcement, had never fished anywhere in the world and had no ships at all when it obtained that particularly remunerative licence? Will the Minister find out how it was able to secure that licence to fish in the Falklands exclusion zone?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the management of the Falklands fisheries is the responsibility of the Falkland Islands Government and is not a subject that I discuss with our fishing industry.

At the meeting in Brussels, did my right hon. Friend raise with his Spanish counterpart the disgraceful situation in which Spanish boats which are on our register, have used up a large part of our quota for certain species, so preventing, or casting doubt on the ability of Cornish fishermen, to catch those species?

I recall that my hon. Friend raised this issue in our debate on fisheries. I raised the matter with the Spanish Government and with the whole Council at the recent meeting, and protested at the way in which the control and reporting of some of these fish landings take place. I agree that it is intolerable for the management of our fisheries. I am glad to say that I was supported by a number of other member states and the Commission, and I hope that there will soon be progress on the matter.

When my right hon. Friend meets representatives from the fishing industry, will he reassure them that, next year, quotas for fishing, particularly to the west of Scotland, will be smoothed out, and that there will not be a repeat of this year's situation, when quotas were drastically cut in the latter part of the year, causing distress to many fishermen, especially at ports such as Fleetwood?

The United Kingdom had a very satisfactory outcome from the Fisheries Council, which helped us in a number of respects. With regard to the management of quotas throughout the year, we try to operate a system which enables fishing to be carried out fairly throughout the year. It depends to a considerable degree on the extent to which fishermen do not overfish at various times of the year.

Can the Minister expand on his comments in today's Official Report concerning the 4 deg west line for mackeral quota and the lack of flexibility around it? Why is the Minister so encouraged by the results of the Council of Ministers meeting, when the report contains only a postponement until the end of May?

I was encouraged because we are making progress. We have made it clear that we think it is important to have that flexibility, which was agreed in the Norwegian agreement. We do not think that undermines the common fisheries policy in any way, but ensures that it is implemented as it was intended. After prolonged negotiations we managed to persuade the Council that this should be the subject of a report by the Commission, and we are committed to taking decisions by the end of May. The hon. Gentleman will know that the problem arises only in the last three months of the year. That gives us time to sort it out.

In his meeting with the industry, did my right hon. Friend discuss the possibility that, in future allocations of North Sea cod quota, special provisions should be made for ports that are primarily dependent on that one species, such as my constituency of Bridlington?

That did not arise in the Council discussions. It was not part of the new package, but I did manage to obtain an assurance from the Commission that if the scientific assessment changed during the year in relation to cod it would be prepared to look at that and come to the Council with proposals.

Does the Minister agree that there are some rough edges to the deal? Given that cod is fetching between £900 and £1,000 per tonne, the cut in the cod quota will harm some of our east coast fishermen. Therefore, will the Minister seek to change that decision, and the Clyde herring decision, in 1988? Are we not to have a regional withdrawal price scheme for herring? On the flexibility agreement for mackeral, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that British fishermen do not lose out to the Danes and others?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must take account of the scientific advice on cod. The agreed quota has gone up from the proposal of 148,000 tonnes to 160,000 tonnes, and it is important that we have that in mind for the future conservation of the fishery. However, as I said earlier, we have reached an agreement that the Commission will come forward with further proposals if the scientific assessment in May proves favourable so that that particular TAC can be raised. In view of the time, perhaps I may correspond with the hon. Gentleman on the other matters.

Prime Minister

Cabinet (Collective Responsibility)

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she has any plans to change the operation of Cabinet collective responsibility; and if she will make a statement.

Since not even one member of the Cabinet will oppose the Prime Minister on her heartless policies towards the National Health Service, and nor will one stand up and fight for Britain on the flat rate poll tax, now appropriately christened the "Tory tax" — [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Order. This is the last Prime Minister's Question Time before the recess, so it is precious time.

As the right hon. Lady says, hon. Members do not like it, do they?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that this is the most gutless, sycophantic Cabinet in which she has ever served?

The hon. Gentleman will find that collective responsibility is vital to produce a prosperous Britain, a good Health Service—[Interruption.]—and to be returned for a second, third, fourth and fifth term. [Interruption.]

Order. I ask the House to pursue this Question Time in silence and with mutual tolerance.

In commending the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility, particularly when tackling inner-city problems, can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that there is a Minister with overall responsibility for that and there is not interdepartmental squabbling, so that the Government's commitment and resolve to urban regeneration are in no way diminished, and may I wish her the compliments of the season?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I reciprocate his good wishes. Our inner-cities policy is one of collective responsibility. It concerns a considerable number of Departments and we meet regularly to coordinate policies. The inner-cities policy is doing well.

Engagements

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Given her actions in this period of goodwill and charity, will the Prime Minister keep in mind the many hundreds in my constituency who are living on an income of £2,000 a year or less? While the giving of gifts is in the right hon. Lady's mind, does she not consider it obscene that she and the rest of her Cabinet will be awarding themselves gifts — in her case, about £2,000 tax-free? When we talked about charity at home, we were not thinking of Dulwich.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will extend what he has said to the whole House, as I recollect.

Given the excellent unemployment figures announced today, and the continuing trend towards more employment, will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing appreciation to the job club and to all who have worked in my constituency to help lower the figures in what was once one of the worst unemployment black spots in the United Kingdom, but where, since 1 January, there has been a 15 per cent. fall in the figures?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. Unemployment has now fallen for 17 successive months. Over the past year all regions have shared in that fall, and unemployment has fallen faster in Britain than in any other major industrial country. We should congratulate all who work in industry and commerce on their enterprise, because it is they who are providing the jobs that are extending all over the country.

Will the Prime Minister give attention to the plight of junior hospital doctors and their patients? Doctors have to work intolerable hours without breaks or sleep, causing danger to patients and harm to themselves. How will the latest health money assist those doctors, if at all? Will the right hon. Lady bear in mind that they are unwilling to complain because there are not enough consultancies, and they are afraid for their futures in a deteriorating service?

The number of hospital doctors and dentists has risen by some 6,200 in the hospital and community services, and by some 7,000 in the family practitioner service. There are, therefore, more highly skilled doctors, and increasing resources have been made available over the past eight years. The Health Service is operating more efficiently and treating more patients, for which we should say thank you to the doctors and nurses.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave some moments ago.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is the first time in this Parliament, or the last, that I have tabled one of these rather odd questions? Will she ponder, during the course of her busy day, that, despite all the gloomy verbosity from the Opposition, in the famous Addenbrooke's hospital in my constituency so many young people are seeking to train as nurses that the hospital is unable to take any more until the end of next year?

It is good to know that a considerable number of young people are coming forward to train as nurses. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are some 64,500 more nurses than there were eight years ago. Their pay is very much better, and their standard working week is down from 40 to 37½ hours. The basic rate of tax that they have to pay is also very much lower.

Yesterday's announcement on National Health Service funding was very welcome. In the spirit — [Interruption.]

In the spirit of Christmas, will the Prime Minister convey the congratulations of the whole House to her monitors for their perspicacity in spotting the crisis only nine months into the financial year? Have her monitors told her that the supplementary sums allocated yesterday will ensure that during the remainder of this financial year no more beds will be lost, no more wards closed and no more operating theatres left unused, and that there will be no more shortages of nurses? Have they told her that the crisis is now over?

The announced increases for this year and the allocations for considerable increases next year have been widely welcomed. My advisers tell me that this year, taking into account my right hon. Friend's announcement yesterday, National Health Service spending will be £843 million more than last year. Contrast that with 10 years ago when the Labour party was in power, when National Health Service spending was being cut by £400 million.

As the season of good will is nigh, is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are recalling her remarkable achievements of the past year in enhancing the international standing of our country, and that we wish her a restful Christmas and a fabulous new year?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. May I warmly reciprocate his comments, and extend them to all people of good will in this House.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the much-needed new maternity and gynaecology unit at Chesterfield hospital has been placed in mothballs because Trent regional health authority is skint? Has the Prime Minister a message of good will for my constituents, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)— who no doubt would like to take part in this Question Time — telling of an improvement in matters there? Has she a message of good will for the 15,000 people in the area of Trent regional health authority—the worst-funded health authority in this country—who have been on waiting lists for over one year?

I understand that for the year 1987–88 the Trent regional health authority, has been allocated £989 million— [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] I am not merely reading it out; the taxpayers had to provide it. What is more, the share of the extra money announced yesterday that will go to Trent is £5·8 million. Contrast that with 10 years ago.

In this great period of the year between the feast of St. Andrew and the feast of St. Nicholas, will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of the people of Scotland for what she has put in their stocking this year: 40 per cent. of regional grant for one eleventh of the population; £127 per head for every £100 spent on an Englishman and £80 per head spent on a Northumbrian; the announcement of an increase of £7·6 million for our hospitals and health services, which is a vast increase in our budget one last year; and for taking Scotland's industrial wage from the bottom of the league to the top not only of this kingdom, but of Europe? May we say that Scrooge Socialism is not something that we want?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I could not have put it better myself, and I am sure that Scotland is quietly very pleased with these results.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Will there not be record levels of homelessness in London this Christmas because of the Government's policies? Will not the bed-and-breakfast hostels he full? Is that the Government's contribution to the Christmas story—no room at the inn?

The number of homes is far greater now than it was at the beginning of this eight-year period. There have been many Government steps to tackle homelessness, and young people can benefit, particularly from our hostels initiative. We have made it easier for council tenants to sublet. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in London there are nearly 27,000 empty homes, and 10,000 of them have been empty for more than a year. Three boroughs — Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets — have more than 5½ per cent. of their stock vacant.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the increase in manufacturing output of 6½ per cent. in the past 12 months announced earlier this week holds out good prospects that the encouraging downward trend in unemployment, confirmed by the figures published today, will continue?

Yes, manufacturing has had a very good year—it is now 6½ per cent. over and above what it was a year ago—and so have other industries such as the construction industry, coal, oil and commerce in general. They are earning for this country a record standard of living and a record standard of care in pensions and social services.