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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Fish Farms (Pollution)

1.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if his Department has commissioned any studies to examine the extent of pollution caused by fish farms; and if he will make a statement.

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

The effect of fish farm effluent is kept under review by the Fisheries Departments and recent studies have pointed to a significant decline in the quantity of waste discharged per tonne of fish produced.

Is the Minister aware that several recent reports have claimed that highly polluted water from fish farms is threatening the survival of some of the native species of fish in our rivers, such as the brown trout? Is he satisfied that the procedures for monitoring the discharges from fish farms are working efficiently? If not, will he set up an inquiry into that matter?

I am satisfied that the procedures are working satisfactorily. As I have said, recent studies suggest that there has been a significant decline in the quantities of waste discharged per tonne of fish produced. We are looking carefully at the matter and are examining one or two specific cases. For example, the Wessex water authority and the Department of the Environment have been trying to deal with the problems that appear to have affected wild fish stocks on the Avon. However, we are sure that things are working reasonably well elsewhere.

Will my right hon. Friend take particular care to ensure that the procedures are not administered in a too discriminating and over-robust manner? Is he aware that fish farming — including crayfish and other crustaceous fish production — is a very important and growing industry which should not be damaged by excessive zeal by anyone imposing the procedures to which he referred?

I agree that fish farming is a very important industry. However, we must ensure that the industry does not badly affect the quality of the water in our rivers. We must keep an eye on the industry, but I agree that we must not do that in a way that makes people feel that they are being harried.

Is the Minister confident that the ban on the anti-foulant tributyl tin, which is used in fish farms, is effective and that no outlet for the chemical exists through wholesalers? How should fish farms dispose of any stocks of that chemical? What advice is being offered to those fish farms on disposal methods?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Ministry took the lead in trying to do something about tributyl tin and the problems that we discovered in our research into sex changes among some molluscs and other small animals, which may have been of particular interest to other molluscs and small animals. The hon. Lady will understand that the particular cases to which she is referring are largely within the purview of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I will ensure that he gives an answer to the hon. Lady on the specific cases to which she has referred.

The Opposition welcome the growth and development of fish farming. A commitment was given by the Government at the recent ministerial conference on the North sea to the precautionary principle applied to pollution of the marine environment. What provisions are made to monitor routinely the use of chemicals used by fish farmers? Is there any provision within the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 to restrict or ban the use of Nuvan 500 EC by fish farmers? Is Nuvan not as dangerous to the marine environment as TBT anti-fouling paint?

The hon. Gentleman will accept that I might have looked at his specific example if he had asked me to do so. However, we take great care about fish farms, not only with regard to the chemicals that are used. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we also consider the problems of water abstraction licensing, and that is another area that we have to watch very carefully. We have already undertaken to amend the Control of Pollution Act 1974 in that direction. I will certainly look at the specific cases that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Foodstuffs (Radioactivity)

2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has any plans to change the levels of radioactivity permitted in foodstuffs exported from, and imported into, Britain and the EEC.

11.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what were the permitted radioactivity levels following the Chernobyl accident for the import and export of foodstuffs in Britain and other EEC countries; and if he will make a statement.

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

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

I have no plans to change present national arrangements regarding radioactivity levels in foodstuffs imported into or exported from this country.

Following Chernobyl, maximum permitted radiocaesium levels for Community imports of foodstuffs from all third countries were set at 370 bq/kg for milk and babyfood and 600 bq/kg for other foods. Those levels remain unchanged. No comparable legislative measures were adopted governing either intra-Community trade or exports. Changes in EC arrangements are, of course, a matter for the European Community.

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

I am grateful to the Minister for that full reply, and I am sure that the information that he gave will be useful to many people. But is he aware that there are reports from many Third world countries that they have received consignments, especially of dried milk powder, which exceed those levels; that, despite that, pressure has been exerted on those countries to accept the consignments; and that some consignments have been returned to Britain? Will the Minister look into the matter to see whether the reports are true? If they are, where are those consignments stored and what will be their future use?

I would understand the hon. Gentleman's concern if what he said had any basis in fact. No Third world country has registered any protest —[Interruption.] I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question as gently as I can, and we shall see what he makes of it after I have finished.

No Third world country has registered any imports from the United Kingdom that are above the EC recommended levels. There were two prongs to the hon. Gentleman's question: first, materials going to the Third world in aid; and, secondly, materials going to the Third world in normal trading patterns. There is no doubt that, at first, in the normal trading patterns some of our customers were reluctant to accept goods from Europe and the United Kingdom. That reluctance has been overcome. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has been much publicity about goods going in aid to the Third world. I shall consider any documents or evidence that the hon. Gentleman may have, but at present it seems that that charge cannot be laid at our door.

The Minister probably knows that a consignment of EEC food aid to Mexico was traced to the Irish Republic and accepted back by the Irish Republic after complaints from Mexico. Although, as the Minister said, Britain has not been a source of over-contaminated food, does he agree that it reflects badly on the EEC as a whole? Did the Minister see early-day motion 733, which brought these matters to the attention of the House, and did he discuss them with those responsible during his visit to Brussels earlier this week?

I agree with the hon. Lady that the United Kingdom's record in these matters is remarkably good and should be a model—[Interruption.] I would have agreed with the hon. Lady had she said that. Since Chernobyl, the United Kingdom's record has been remarkably good. I am as worried as the hon. Lady is that the good name of the European Community will be spoilt by such incidents. It reflects badly not only on aid but on trade, and that is bad for all of us.

Is the Minister aware that my constituency is still suffering from the effects of the Chernobyl accident and that it is affecting sheep production in the mountainous areas? Given recent reports of the slow breakdown of radioactive materials, especially in peat vegetation, can the Minister give the House and the country an assurance that we know how long it will be before the caesium levels in those peat and upland areas fall to a reasonable level so that we can get rid of this dreadful problem, which must have an effect on food production and exports?

Despite the occasional levity, I take the problem seriously, especially in Wales, Cumbria, and Northern Ireland, where the effects of the accident at Chernobyl still linger. Unfortunately, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any idea of how long it will be before the effects of the accident have gone from our land. We are monitoring on a continual basis, not only in the affected areas, but throughout the country and we are also monitoring imports of goods. The hon. Gentleman has heard the answer about exports.

Does the Minister agree that one cannot differentiate between aid and trade when talking about becquerel levels? Those levels are laid down by the EEC and should be adhered to in aid and trade by all countries. Will the Minister once again give us an assurance that he will examine the newspaper reports? I accept that most of them suggest that contaminated food has not been exported from this country, although there is the possibility of one shipment to the Philippines from this country. Will he give us an assurance that he will not only look into that but will take the matter to Brussels and ensure that food that is above the safety becquerel limit is not being exported, in either aid or trade, from any of the European countries? That is important.

Aid and trade are equally important. In many ways, perhaps aid is more important because the recipient countries have less sophisticated facilities than the trading countries that accept our goods. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point on that. I reiterate what I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). I will look again carefully at any documentation that he or his hon. Friends present to me. Having looked at that, I shall talk to my right hon. Friend the Minister and see whether it is necessary to take the matter to Brussels to encourage or fortify our friends there.

Sheepmeat

3.

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.

Nitrates

4.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will give figures for the amount of nitrates applied to land in Britain in each of the years (a) 1960, (b) 1970, (c) 1980 and (d) 1987.

Such information is not available, as details are not maintained of the proportion of nitrates contained in fertilisers applied to land. Nitrates are, of course, only one form of nitrogen found in such fertilisers.

The amount of nitrogenous fertiliser applied in the past 30 years has more than trebled. In view of the serious problem of pollution of water supplies by nitrates in eastern Britain and the major role that deintensification and low-input agriculture could play in reducing Common Market surpluses, will the Minister consider introducing curbs on the use of nitrogenous fertilisers? I have in mind either a tax on nitrogenous fertiliser or, in areas that are severely affected by nitrate pollution, a complete prohibition on the use of nitrogenous fertilisers.

The Government are still considering the options that were identified in the nitrate co-ordination group report. They are complex matters. It is important that we get any policy changes or other proposals resulting from the report absolutely right. Although we are considering what should be done in the light of the report, I do not think that a tax is an effective or efficient means of reducing cereals and other crops in surplus; nor do I think that it would necessarily have the impact that the hon. Gentleman requires. It would have to be a very high tax indeed. Of course, it would operate indiscriminately. Therefore, I am not sure that it is the right approach to take. We are still considering the report in general and will make our views known as soon as we possibly can.

National Farmers Union

5.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the president of the National Farmers Union; and what matters were discussed.

7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met representatives of the National Union of Farmers; and what subjects were discussed.

I meet the president of the National Farmers Union and other representatives frequently to discuss matters of agricultural policy. The last occasion that I met the president was Tuesday of this week.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that news. Will he send a message of Easter hope to members of the National Farmers Union in my constituency, who are pig producers, that his success on stabilisers will open the door to the start of successful negotiations on 18 April, to a change in the green pound regime and to a reduction in the MCAs on pigs, which have so damaged the industry? Will he support the Food from Britain initiative, which is trying to open up new markets for British pork meat in the United States, and will he recommend to housewives this Easter that they should buy British pork?

I am sure that housewives will have heard my hon. Friend's last point, even this early in the morning. I support the efforts that Food from Britain is making to try to increase exports of pigmeat products.

As to my hon. Friend's first point, I raised the matter at the Agriculture Council this week, at which we had a preliminary discussion about the price review—the price proposals for this year—and I also discussed the matter with the president of the NFU. I have made it clear in the Council that, because of the increased use of cereal substitutes in the pig rations of some other member states, pigmeat MCAs are now producing, rather than preventing, distortions. I therefore called for an immediate and complete devaluation of our green rate in that sector. This will be a difficult and protracted negotiation because other member states hold a directly contrary view and the Commission has not made a proposal, but I have made my position clear.

When my right hon. Friend met the president of the National Farmers Union, did he make it absolutely clear that when he is in Brussels he is battling not only for Britain but for our farmers, particularly with regard to the green pound and stabilisers? To illustrate the difficulties that my right hon. Friend faced, will he say what line was taken by other member states on price fixing?

Yes, indeed, I did. As to the general line on price fixing, I imagine that my hon. Friend has in mind green rates, which will be an issue in price fixing. There were some calls from member states in that regard, but the Commission made it clear that it was opposed to changes in green rates, apart from the Greek drachma—Greek MCAs are three to four times greater than those in the United Kingdom. I made my position on the green pound clear in the preliminary discussions that we had at the Council this week.

Will the Minister assure our pig producers that their prospects for the next two years will be better than they are at present? Will he tell pig producers and the industry by what percentage he is likely to devalue the green pound in the next six months?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an assurance, because we have a lightweight regime in pigs and it depends very much on the market. At present pig production is in surplus, and that market position is obviously affecting the price. In so far as measures are available to me, we argued for, and succeeded in obtaining, private storage aids, which are making some difference to market stability. I have made my position clear on MCAs in the pigmeat sector. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that pigmeat MCAs have fallen nearly 20 points since February last year to the current level of minus 7·5, which has made a big difference to the position. Pigmeat prices have stabilised and some feed costs are still coming down.

I accept that my right hon. Friend is doing all that he can to bring about an immediate 9 per cent. green pound devaluation, but will he give an assurance that the Government are exerting maximum pressure in this direction, and will he say what is the chief stumbling block to the devaluation of the green pound?

This is fundamentally a matter for the price proposals. I made it clear this week that it is necessary to take further steps towards achieving the objective of the complete removal of MCAs by 1992 when the single market comes into operation. We shall be discussing this matter at later Council meetings when we discuss the price proposals. With regard to the main stumbling blocks, there are divided views within the Community, and the Commission has made it clear that it is not making any proposals on this matter.

When the Minister next meets the president of the NFU, will he alert him to the increased incidence of licensed security dealers in the City of London who are investing in agriculture-related stocks, and, in particular, to the operation of Afcor Investments Ltd., which specialises in this sector and whose investments are questionable? Will he also raise the matter with his colleague at the Department of Trade and Industry?

I know nothing of the question, so I shall look into it, but it is not the kind of matter that I normally discuss with the president of the NFU.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he does not agree to any devaluation of the green punt without a larger prior devaluation of the green pound, so that British beef producers do not suffer still further from the disparity between the two and a devaluation of the green punt that is not matched by at least an appropriate one of the green pound?

We have not got into detailed discussions on the price proposals yet, so the precise positions of the different member states is not yet clear. My hon. Friend will note that last year we had a devaluation of the green pound in relation to beef that was ahead of the Irish position, and the competitive difference has come down substantially in the past year or two.

Will the Minister accept that, in Scotland at least, farm incomes in real terms are worth only one third of what they were worth 10 years ago? Does he recall that 10 years ago Conservative Members joined Liberal Members to beat the Government and force a revaluation of the green pound? Does the Conservative party accept that the case for devaluation must be prosecuted with as much vigour now as it was 10 years ago?

Farm incomes are under pressure throughout the world because of surpluses. It is because of that problem that we have been devoting so much effort to deal with the surpluses. The position of the green pound is a matter for agreement within the Council. Therefore, we have to get the proposal on the table if we are to get anywhere, and we have to get general discussion among the Twelve. That is where the issue has to be dealt with.

Forestry

6.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a further statement on measures to stimulate tree planting.

On 23 March we announced details of a new forestry grant scheme, to be known as the woodland grant scheme, which is to be introduced on 5 April. Copies of a Forestry Commission leaflet on the scheme have been placed in the Library of the House. We also intend to introduce the farm woodland scheme later this year.

How will the new planting grants impact on the existing farm woodland scheme, about which the Conservative party is so enthusiastic?

The farm woodland scheme, as my hon. Friend knows, is a mixture of two parts. There are the planting grants, which come from the Forestry Commission, and there are annual income grants to farmers to make up for the income that they have forgone by using that land for planting. Therefore, the farmers will benefit from the new planting grants that the Forestry Commission has announced, although we have interpreted them in such a way as to be of particular advantage for the planting of broadleaves and of rather less advantage for the planting of conifers.

Can my right hon. Friend give the House an estimate of what effect the farm woodland scheme and set-aside are likely to have on land use and the countryside over the next decade?

My hon. Friend expects me to have a crystal ball of a kind that I would not claim to have. We believe that there is a considerable opportunity for farmers to use land in both these ways. We are trying to combine a regime of stricter price control with alternative uses. The advantage of the farm woodland scheme, which has been strongly welcomed by the Opposition—[Interruption.]—except, it seems by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be seen quickly and clearly by farmers.

Research And Development

8.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the financial resources currently available for agricultural research.

The total of Government expenditure on research and development in agriculture and food planned for 1987–88 is approximately £195 million. In addition, much relevant research is done by the industry, particularly the food industry and industries which provide agricultural inputs such as agrochemicals and veterinary pharmaceuticals.

When does my hon. Friend expect to come to conclusions about the future level of public funding for agricultural research and development, especially in the light of an internal review recently conducted?

The internal review is still being conducted, and we have held informal discussions with various bodies, such as the Agricultural and Food Research Council, development councils, producer organisations, research associations and the IPCS.

Is the Minister aware of the deep concern in Scotland at the continuing reduction in research facilities? Is he aware of the threat currently hanging over Torry research station in Grampian, and will he take action to ensure that we do not see the loss of this organisation?

I am aware that there is concern in many areas about the new shifts of research, and about areas in which research is going down. That is partly because we are looking at research into diversification and extensification, rather than, as formerly, purely producing more and more food. I shall look into the hon. Lady's question and write to her.

Bees

9.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has any proposals to hive off the responsibilities of his Department's bee officers; and if he will make a statement.

No, Sir. From the next bee season we shall be concentrating our inspection for foulbrood on colonies where the disease is suspected or which have a recent history of the disease, but these inspections will continue to be carried out by the Ministry's bees officers.

Earlier this week I put on the Order Paper a request for morning sittings. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and the usual channels for responding so quickly.

Has the Minister received representations from the Nottinghamshire Beekeepers' Association? Is he aware that, by reducing the number of random checks of bee officers from his Ministry on the hives of this country he will encourage the spread of American foulbrood, European foulbrood and, indeed, the bee equivalent of myxomatosis, varroasis? Will the Minister now restore any of the cuts in bee inspections and stand up for the health of the British bee?

Random sampling over the past 10 years of almost every hive has found disease in less than 1 per cent. of the flock, so the present level of inspection cannot be justified. Nevertheless, we shall inspect those premises that have foulbrood.

The inspections have prevented a further spread of the disease, and we now have a very healthy flock [Interruption.] We shall therefore inspect only premises where we suspect that the disease is present, or whose beekeeper asks us to inspect them.

Green Pound

10.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent representations he has received about the level of the green pound; and if he will make a statement.

I have received a number of representations on this subject. The majority have sought a devaluation for pigmeat. Some have concerned all or a number of sectors. Representations from food manufacturing interests have opposed devaluation.

I recognise that my right hon. Friend has already said that he is seeking a devaluation of the green pound. Is he aware, however, of the considerable importance attached by the British farming community to his success? Bearing in mind that the first 4 per cent. of any devaluation will be used to offset the drop in farm incomes brought about by the recent package of measures on stabilisers, is he seeking a devaluation greater than 4 per cent., so that there will be real benefit to the British farmer?

Of course I am aware of the feelings of farmers in this country, but I think it is important to keep the two matters separate. The stabiliser regime is necessary on its own, with—if production goes beyond the maximum guarantee quantity thresholds—the effects of price reductions. That is necessary to deal with the soaring cost of the common agricultural policy and the surpluses.

Devaluing the green pound is a question of fairer terms of competition between the member states, and is also strongly linked with the move towards the single market by 1992, when it must be right to get rid of the MCA system altogether. It is important to approach the two matters differently, and that is what I am doing.

In my right hon. Friend's negotiations with other member states, will he remind them that they are meant to believe in the principle of fair competition? Are not British farmers suffering considerably because of the level of the green pound? Will he impress upon those member states that, as they have to get used to the principle of fair competition for 1992, it would be far better if they began to get used to it now?

I am sure my hon. Friend recognises that our competitiveness has vastly improved during the past year. United Kingdom MCAs are now 18 to 20 points lower than in February 1987, which is well over half in all sectors and more than three quarters for beef. That has significantly improved our competitive position. I agree about the importance of achieving competition on, overall, reasonably fair terms. I also agree about the importance of moving to that position ready for 1992, and that is what I stressed this week.

Coastal Protection

12.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received from coastal authorities on his proposed changes in the capital allocation for coastal protection works.

Representations have been received from a number of coastal local authorities, from Members of this House, and from others with an interest in this matter.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the important coastal protection work now under way in my constituency to save Hengistbury Head? Will he confirm that the proposed changes in capital allocation for 1988–89 will not affect schemes already under way or being considered by his Department?

My hon. Friend has mistaken the concept. All that we have said is that although there will be 100 per cent. capital allocation, there will be some occasions on which we will not have sufficient funds to give that percentage. We shall, therefore, offer a lower rate to local authorities that can manage with a lower capital allocation. The change is not fundamental; it is merely a means of ensuring that we use all our capital allocation each year, rather than leave some unused because local authorities cannot have 100 per cent. of what they need.

Forestry

14.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what consultations were held concerning the proposed new grant arrangements for forestry; and if he will make a statement.

The forestry grant scheme and broadleaved woodland grant scheme were closed to new applications from 15 March. In order to maintain the confidence of the forestry industry, it was essential to announce details of the replacement grant scheme as quickly as possible. The Forestry Commission therefore had to consider and finalise the details of the new scheme very quickly, which precluded prior consultations on them as such with outside bodies.

In retrospect, does the Minister think that it would have been better if he had consulted the forestry industry, farmers and environmental interests? Does he accept that the result of no consultation is two forestry policies—one for England and one for Scotland and Wales? Does he recognise that the environmental safeguards that apply to Scotland and Wales are lower than those for England? As MAFF is the lead Department with responsibility for the Forestry Commission, does he propose to take any initiative to even out the application of his policy to Scotland, Wales and England?

The policy, in most of its broad details, is applied uniformly throughout the United Kingdom. The difference to which the hon. Gentleman refers arises because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I said that we would be unlikely to accept proposals for conifer planting in the English uplands. That is an English environmental matter. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, on environmental grounds and for forestry reasons that affect those two countries, took a different view on that aspect of the policy alone.

Overall, the policy is the same for all countries. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will approve of the emphasis in the farm woodland scheme on broadleaves rather than on conifers. There is only a marginal difference in the conditions for English upland areas, and that is for environmental reasons.

British Produce (Marketing)

15.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has any further plans to promote the marketing of British produce; and if he will make a statement.

The Government attach particular importance to the improvement of marketing. For that reason we set up Food from Britain in 1983. FFB has spent about £15 million so far at home and abroad, most of it provided by the Government. In each of the three years from 1988–89 our contribution will depend on industry providing at least £3 million.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have excellent products in this country, but that traditionally we have fallen down on the marketing of them? Does he not believe that we could do still better?

I am sure that we could do better. Marketing is of great importance in the industry. It is in the market place that the farmer finds himself most at home. That is why I was pleased to see the excellent presentation of British food at the "Alimentaria" food fair in Spain, which is an increasingly important market.

Forestry

18.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received about his Department's policy towards the encouragement of the planting of deciduous trees in England and Wales in the light of the Budget taxation proposals.

I have received no such representations, but substantial encouragement for the planting of broadleaves will be provided by the new woodland grant scheme and by the proposed farm woodland scheme.

While very much welcoming the Government's woodland grant scheme, may I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that, with the present state of the agriculture industry, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to start re-creating some of our lost woodlands? Does he understand the importance of that envronmentally as well as economically, in the light of the fact that we have probably lost about half our ancient woodlands in the past half century?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a good opportunity for three reasons—the surpluses, the environmental aspect and the other opportunities in farming. We have introduced the farm woodland scheme and it looks as if we shall get a good response to it.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

In addition to my duties in the House I shall be having further meetings later today, including one with the President of Cyprus.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the chief superintendent of the police in Wolverhampton and the 250 police officers in the west midlands on their brave and successful initiative with Wolves earlier this week? Does she accept that we must continue to detect and punish the violent football offenders who are determined to wreck football matches and ruin the game for genuine football fans?

I think that the police in all parts of the country are to be congratulated on their determined efforts to tackle football hooliganism and to track down those responsible for this terrible offence that is doing so much damage to football. With good co-operation between the police, the Football Association and the clubs a good deal has already been achieved, but I agree with my hon. Friend that there is still a long way to go.

Is the Prime Minister aware that from tomorrow, when her changes in housing benefit and rate relief come into effect, an old lady on a basic pension will, because of the 20 per cent. rule, have to pay £2 a week instead of getting £500 rate relief per annum? An 87-yearold war widow with a small occupational pension will have her housing benefit reduced by £17·87 a week. A couple in work with a joint income of £82 a week will lose £16·50 in help with their rent and rates. This is an historic day. It is the first Maundy Thursday in history when, instead of giving money to the poor, rulers are taking money from the poor.

First, more is being given to the poor, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—a great deal more. Indeed, expenditure on social security has gone up from £16 billion to £46 billion—an enormous increase. It will go up a further £2 billion next year. That means—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."]— I am answering the question and I insist on doing so in my own way. The average family will be paying £64 a week to finance social security. Yes, we have had structural changes. Yes, they were meant to re-target the money spent so that disabled people, families with children and those in low-paid work are better off. In cash terms transitional protection of income support means that 97 per cent. of sick and disabled people, 92 per cent. of couples with children, 89 per cent. of single parents and 87 per cent. of pensioners get more or the same.

The Prime Minister is making the same stupid mistake as she made with the National Health Service figures. First, does she not realise that there is no transitional arrangement for housing benefit and for the loss of rates relief, so that is utterly irrelevant? Secondly, the Prime Minister can play the numbers game as much as she likes. There are 9 million people in poverty in Britain now. In 1979 there were 6 million people who were reckoned to be in poverty. The right hon. Lady can talk about targeting as much as she likes, but does she not realise that if the targets missed include war widows, if the targets missed include people who are desperately sick, if the targets missed include hundreds of thousands of poor people, her targets are rubbish?

What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that we can never have a restructuring of social security if anyone loses. It is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. He totally ignores the enormous increases —[Interruption.] We deliberately re-targeted. I dealt with housing benefit last week. Yes, we deliberately did have changes. There is no blunder in the figures. The fact is that 97 per cent. of the sick and disabled, 92 per cent. of couples with children, 89 per cent. of single parents and 87 per cent. of pensioners are getting more or the same. As for war widows, they have more to thank this Government for than any previous Government. It was this Government who totally and utterly relieved war widows' pensions of tax, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to say that once again.

Is the Prime Minister not aware that in order to get those figures she has had to lump together gainers and those who are reckoned to be neither gainers nor losers? The Minister who compiled those figures had to go to the Select Committee yesterday and admit that those who are reckoned to be neither gainers nor losers are already losers because, as he put it, their benefits were frozen in 1987. Does the Prime Minister not recognise that £650 million is being taken away from housing benefit and that 700,000 people will lose everything? They are people who have put a few bob away to tide them through their old age. The right hon. Lady is cutting them off without a penny.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that expenditure that has increased from £16 billion to £46 billion, and that is going up by a further £2 billion, is, even on his arithmetic, an enormous increase?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the miners at the Gedling colliery in my constituency on the figures that were announced earlier this week, which show that productivity over the last year has increased by nearly 25 per cent.? Does she agree that increased productivity and greater competitiveness offer the best guarantee for the long-term interests of the industry, not only in Gedling and Nottinghamshire, but throughout the British mining industry?

Yes. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the miners on the excellent increase in productivity. I join him also in making it clear that there is a very good future for those who work in the mining industry when they produce coal at competitive prices and give a very good return on the massive amount of investment that this Government have ploughed into the mining industry. Many congratulations.

Will the Government rethink their appallingly short-sighted response to the report on AIDS and drug misuse in view of the fact that in Edinburgh 50 per cent. of those on injectable drugs now have the HIV AIDS virus, that this is by far the most likely route into the heterosexual community, and that unless money is spent in Edinburgh and in the country as a whole to control drug misuse we shall run a very serious risk of AIDS spreading into the community as a whole?

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He is very well aware of the large amount of money that has been spent on warning people about the dangers of the behaviour that they assume. We have tried to get over to them an excellent educational policy, and we have tried to make available very good extra facilities. A large amount of money has been put into extra research. I think that we have got the balance about right.

When my right hon. Friend goes to church over Easter, will she see whether the collection is to go to the fabric fund? If it is, will she reflect, as she puts her contribution in the plate, that 15 per cent. is going to her next-door neighbour? Will she therefore have discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see whether VAT can be removed from repairs to listed buildings, especially churches?

The Easter collection normally goes, as my hon. Friend, I think, knows well, to the clergy in the diocese, and I hope that it will continue to do so. I realise that my hon. Friend knew all that and only twisted the question the other way to make his point. The matter has been considered many times, and I do not think that there will be any change in the decision already made.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

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

As the Prime Minister is so dismissive of the views of the Citizens Advice Bureau, does she share the views of the member of her own party who said yesterday that pensioners with modest savings could lose up to £10 per week in housing benefit as a result of the changes coming into effect shortly? Will she give the House a straight answer?

It was a matter of policy that housing benefit should be cut off where people have £6,000 in capital in addition to the ownership of their house, which many of them also have. It was a matter of policy that those people should not be entitled to housing benefit. Every two households in this country support not only themselves but a third household and there really is a limit to the amount that we can have in housing benefit. Again, we think that we have got it right and that people without capital should not be forced to pay housing benefit to those with sums over £6,000.

When my right hon. Friend comes to reply to the letter sent to her by Amnesty International, apparently on behalf of three terrorists—mercifully now dead—will she point out that it is the organisation to which those terrorists belonged that has been in massive breach of all decent standards relating to human rights? Will she further point out that an inquest is to be carried out before a jury in Gibraltar and that the inquiry for which Amnesty International has asked is a stunt without status?

I agree with almost every word that my hon. Friend used in putting his question so ably. I hope that Amnesty has some concern for more than 2,000 people murdered by the IRA since 1969. There will be an inquest in Gibraltar and that is the proper occasion for the matters in question to be examined.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

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

At a moment of weakness on the Cross, Jesus said:

"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Why, by the time we come back after Easter, will the Government have forsaken the poor of this country?

As I said, the Government do not find resources; the people do. The people are already paying £46 billion to state social security, and it is going up by a further £2 billion. The average family will then be paying £64 a week to social security. That is a very considerable amount. It is not the Government, but the people who find resources.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent tragic events in Northern Ireland reinforce, if any reinforcement were necessary, the vital importance of the Army supporting the civil power there? Does she further agree that if the "Troops Out" movement, which is supported by many Opposition Members, were to be successful, it would place many innocent lives in Northern Ireland in jeopardy?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and there can be no question of withdrawing our troops while the security situation remains as it is and the IRA continues to murder and maim indiscriminately. I think my hon. Friend will agree that we have every reason to be grateful to the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary for the considerable restraint and courage with which they carry out their duty.

Would the Prime Minister care to explain why she has chosen to meddle again in Scottish education and impose a major unwarranted and unwanted change —the opting out of schools? Would she care to explain why she intended to choose the dishonest and disreputable method of announcing the change through a planted amendment to the School Boards (Scotland) Bill?

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the system of governing schools in Scotland is quite different from that which obtains in England. He is aware that there is a Bill before the House which has received a First Reading and will soon receive a Second Reading. It will establish school boards in Scotland. That is the initial step which must be taken. There will be no addition, and nor could there be, under the Long Title, to make opting out a possibility during passage of the Bill.[Interruption.] We obviously take a totally different view. Our purpose is to increase choice in education, whereas the attitude on the other side of the House is that that is the education that Socialists want and the people must take it or leave it.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

Will my right hon. Friend recall, especially this Easter time, Mr. Terry Waite and Mr. John McCarthy, who are captive in Beirut? Will she note the deep concern that is felt on both sides of the House for those two good men and all other innocent political hostages? Can she reassure the House and the families of those men that everything possible is being done to secure their release which does not put further innocent lives at risk?

Yes, we are very much aware of those two people and of all those who have been taken hostage. My hon. Friend is aware of the policy that we pursue. We will make representations on their behalf and follow up every lead to try to see that they are in reasonable health and are kept in reasonable circumstances. We will not pay ransom, because to do so would only mean that more hostages are taken. We do not forget these people and are well aware, particularly during public holidays, of the great strain that their families are under.