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Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what consultations he will be holding with British sheep producers in advance of the next round of negotiations on the community sheepmeat regime.

My agricultural colleagues and I continue to stay in close touch with representatives of British sheep producers and will continue to consult them on aspects of the review of the sheepmeat regime.

The Minister may know what I am about to ask him, because I have written to him on the matter. Does he appreciate that the Crofters Union in the highlands and islands represents some 4,000 hill farmers, the vast majority of whom are involved in sheep farming? Does he appreciate also that crofting is a particularly successful form of agricultural activity and helps to retain a large population in the rural areas—one could say a high population per hectare? Given that, will the Minister undertake to seek a meeting with the Crofters Union on negotiations about the sheepmeat regime, and in those negotiations will he undertake to look for reforms and methods of administration that will benefit the smallest farmers, such as crofters, in the poorest areas?

The negotiations have not yet got under way. However, my noble Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office, met representatives of the Scottish Crofters Union on 5 February and assured the union that the interests of the traditional producers would be kept in mind in the negotiations. Obviously, I shall stay in close touch with my noble Friend the Minister of State and I shall bear in mind the points made today by the hon. Gentleman.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that it would be unwise to be boxed in to a line-by-line defence of every dot and comma of the status quo in the sheepmeat regime and that what matters is to preserve equivalent benefits that exist now for British producers, make sure that we retain access to the continental markets that have grown in importance and retain the advantage that comes from our extensive system of rearing?

It is right not to be committed line by line, because negotiations would never be successful if one started from that point of view. The negotiations have not yet started. I agree broadly with my hon. Friend that those are our objectives and I make it clear that I shall continue to seek measures for the future of the sheepmeat regime that will enable United Kingdom sheep producers to make the most of our natural advantages.

In his consultations with sheep producers in the United Kingdom, will the Minister bear in mind the importance of the sheepmeat regime, particularly the EEC Commission's proposals to change it, to areas such as Scotland and Wales? I plead that, when the negotiations in Brussels come to a head, the Minister will seek to take with him his colleagues the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland, to emphasise the vital importance to those countries of the proposals that are being considered in Brussels.

I work closely with my right hon. Friends. As a Scot, I am clearly well aware of the implications for Scotland. We shall have to judge at the time who goes to the negotiations. We have not yet started the negotiations. I suspect that they will be pretty long. We still lack detail on most aspects of the Commission's proposals, but I shall obviously be in close touch with my right hon. Friends. Of course, I discuss the matter with the industry in Scotland when I visit Scotland. We are well aware of the industry's views and the impacts on the two countries to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Does the Minister recall telling the House immediately after the Copenhagen meeting that the sheepmeat regime proposals for stabilisers discriminated against this country? Does he recall also that such stabiliser proposals were accepted by the Prime Minister in Brussels? How will he ensure that sheep remain on the hills? How will he ensure an adequate income for sheep farmers in upland areas? Some of them have advised me that when the stabilisers come into force next year they will be down £3,000 on their already meagre incomes.

As I have said, obviously there must be a stabiliser for the sheepmeat regime. Currently, costs are expected to be over 1 billion ecu for the sheepmeat regime as a whole. Therefore, it is necessary that there are stabilisers for the sheepmeat regime. We had to look at the overall balance of the outcome of the summit. One element in the sheepmeat stabiliser singled out the United Kingdom. That is because we have the variable premium, and no other state does. There was a feeling in the Community that a different regime had to apply to the different system that we have. There was one other discriminatory element in the proposals which is particularly important to the upland areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred. This is the proposal to limit headage payments. We got that out. Obviously, the impact of the stabiliser next year will depend on sheep production. If sheep production exceeds targets here and in the rest of the Community, the sheepmeat stabiliser must apply.