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National Farmers Union

Volume 170: debated on Thursday 19 April 1990

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

My right hon. Friend last met the president of the National Farmers Union on 4 April, to discuss how the United Kingdom agriculture and food industry could best respond to recent developments in eastern Europe.

When my hon. Friend next meets the NFU, will he assure it of the Government's continuing and strenuous efforts to achieve a substantial devaluation in the green pound? Does he agree that when farmers in south Suffolk and elsewhere call for such a devaluation, they are merely asking for a chance to compete on equal and level ground with their continental counterparts?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are seeking not to give British farmers an advantage but simply to curb some of the disadvantages that they suffer because of the problem with the green pound. At the same time, farmers should be realistic. Demands that we should devalue the green pound in one go are unrealistic. We shall do the best that we can, taking into account all the facts that must be considered.

Did the Minister discuss with the president his predecessor's abolition last year of the guaranteed price for wool, which will have a disastrous effect on the economy of the hill farming areas? At this late stage, will he have another consultation with the chairman of the Wool Marketing Board to discuss the continuation of the scheme, which has operated so successfully in this country for the past 30 years?

Of course, we have discussed the issue extensively with wool producers and, indeed, with the board. The measures that we propose command broad consensus. We are discussing what the guarantee should be for the current year and hope to decide it shortly. When we eventually introduce the legislation to abolish the guarantee, we expect that it will have broad support in the House.

When my hon. Friend next meets the president of the NFU, will he be able to tell him when European Community Ministers will get round to agreeing not only a devaluation of the green pound, but the final instalment of this year's ewe premium, which is eagerly awaited in this country?

I hope that I shall be able to do that. The premium is fixed by the management committee. At a meeting yesterday it was taken off the agenda by the Commission, as it was the previous month. We are pressing that the decision should be taken quickly so that we can pay the final instalment. I undertake to make sure that once agreement is reached we shall make the final payment within a month to the best of our abilities.

Will the Minister say something about the impact of penal interest rates on the rural economy when he next meets the president of the NFU? Now that interest rate payments from the farming industry have reached a crippling £1,000 million a year and its level of indebtedness has increased threefold to £10,000 million since the Government came to power, does he think that the Conservative party will get any more credit from rural voters?

I am disappointed to see that the hon. Gentleman has not used his recess to think of some new questions. I discuss a large number of matters with the president of the NFU, but few of his comments or the matters that I discuss with my farmers lead me to suspect that they are about to vote Labour. [Interruption.]

Order. The House may remember that just before the recess complaints were made about private conversations during Question Time. I hope that that will not happen now.