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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 170: debated on Thursday 19 April 1990

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. By opting to go to Sandringham this afternoon rather than being in his place for Agriculture Question Time in the House of Commons, has not the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food got his priorities wrong? I admire much of the work of Prince Charles, and I have been a staunch supporter in difficult times of the European Community, but does the House agree that it is deeply unhelpful that the heir to the throne and a European Commissioner should consider that their business, however interesting and praiseworthy, should take precedence over a Minister's duty to be in the House of Commons for his own Question Time?

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was going to explain in answer to the first question the reasons for my right hon. Friend's absence. As the House will recall, this Question Time was originally fixed for 5 April and my right hon. Friend, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and two European Commissioners— for agriculture and for environmental affairs—had a long-standing engagement today. My right hon. Friend hopes that the House will understand the importance of his keeping that engagement to deal with extremely important matters.

Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Beef Industry

1.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the present state of the beef industry.

The beef breeding herd is at its highest level for a decade. Last year there was a rise of 9 per cent. over 1988.

Under European Community rules, the Government could pay up to £71·37 per cow in hill livestock compensatory allowance. At the moment they are paying merely £54·50. Why will not the Government support hill farmers to the hilt when their incomes are depressed largely as a result of Government policy?

The Government support hill livestock producers very substantially. We recently increased the hill livestock compensatory allowance for sheep producers and we judged that that was the best place to put a limited resource. The hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that last year we increased the suckler cow premium by 42 per cent. and extended it to smaller farmers. That particularly affects beet producers, 60 per cent. of whom are in less-favoured areas. We direct £50 million a year in HLCAs to beef producers in the uplands. So we have nothing to apologise for in our support of the beef industry.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the increase in the suckler cow subsidy does much to improve confidence in the beef industry? As rearing hill calves is a long-term project, will he give as early warning as possible about the future of the HLCAs for next year so that farmers can plan with confidence?

I take heed of my hon. Friend's comments. The fact that we have to negotiate in Brussels means that sometimes we cannot give as much warning as we should like because negotiations are delayed. It is certainly true that we have at heart the welfare of those beef producers.

As the issue dominating the beef industry is mad cow disease, why do the Government refuse to implement the recommendation of their own Tyrrell working party and undertake a random sample of dead cows at slaughterhouses to ascertain the extent of mad cow disease in the British herd?

The reason is that the measures that we have taken are more effective. We maintain extremely effective controls, and many of our actions have gone beyond the recommendations of our scientific advisers. We believe that the precautionary approach is right. We have done everything possible to safeguard public health and have gone beyond many of the recommendations made in that respect.

Food Hygiene

2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the hygiene standards of British food resulting from the Food Safety Bill and those of food from other European Community countries.

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

The Food Safety Bill is a joint initiative between my Department and the Department of Health.

Once the Bill and various subsidiary regulations are in place, we will have a comprehensive and flexible framework in controls, equal to the very best in the world.

My hon. Friend and the whole House will be aware that the Food Safety Bill creates a framework for a mass of secondary legislation in the form of regulations on food safety. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will consult widely and thoroughly on all the regulations before they and the Bill become law to ensure that British food continues to be as safe and wholesome as any in the world?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill allows us to consult on a wide variety of regulations and I can give the House the assurance that he seeks. We will consult widely on the regulations that will be required as the Bill becomes law. We shall conduct those negotiations and consultations during the summer. I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for his kind comments about the Bill in an article in the Financial Times last week.

If food hygiene standards in Britain are as high as the Minister says, why has food poisoning increased fivefold since the Government took office?

It is strange for the hon. Gentleman suddenly to attribute food poisoning to the Government taking office. That is quite bogus and the correlation cannot be made. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is so.

Sugar Beet

3.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the future of the United Kingdom sugar beet industry.

The United Kingdom sugar beet industry grows and processes about half the United Kingdom's sugar requirements. We will seek to ensure that British sugar interests are defended in the forthcoming review of the Community's support arrangements.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is in the British interest that British Sugar should remain a British-owned company? Does he agree that foreign acquisition of it would be bad for employment and bad for British sugar beet growers?

The ownership of British Sugar is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Office of Fair Trading. My function is to ensure that the interests of British beet farmers and British beet production are safeguarded. I shall pay close attention to that in the negotiations.

Has the Minister discussed the representations concerning the future of the British sugar beet industry with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture?

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to continue to import the present tonnages of cane sugar?

Yes, I can give that assurance. The importation of 1·3 million tonnes of cane sugar from the developing countries is important to the United Kingdom. It constitutes half our supply and a major outlet for cane producers. Next month, I shall address the ministerial meeting of the African, Caribbean and Pacific producers on precisely that subject.

Salmonella

4.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has met poultry farmers to discuss the problem of salmonella poisoning during the last six months.

Ministers and officials at my Department have, on a number of occasions, met and corresponded with individual poultry farmers and organisations on matters relating to salmonella.

Is the Minister fully aware of the serious anxiety and vulnerability of most egg producers? Is not their critical position compounded by the importation of foreign eggs, which may be dumped? Although they are subject to testing, is he aware that the rest of the batch of eggs not taken for testing will have been eaten long before the results of the test are known? Is not that ridiculous?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as has been stated many times in the House, we do not have the power to ban the importation of foreign eggs. Nevertheless, we have followed—and are keen to follow—the Select Committee's advice that we should redouble our efforts in the EC to achieve EC-wide salmonella controls. I am pleased to tell the House that those negotiations are proceeding apace. We expect to hear proposals from the Commission in May with a view to their being completed this year. That is the best safeguard that we can give to our producers and consumers.

Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's excellent efforts to achieve EC-wide safeguards against salmonella, will he bear in mind the fact that other European countries have a far lower standard of overall hygiene than we have? Will he ensure that nothing in the harmonisation process weakens the effects of the Food Safety Bill or the ability of the Government to safeguard our people against food poisoning?

The criticism at present is that we are making too strenuous efforts to control aspects of food poisoning. We do not intend to weaken our efforts to protect our consumers, irrespective of what products they are eating. We shall be stressing in Europe the need for Europewide controls to be placed as effectively in other EC countries as they are placed here.

What is the point of testing the eggs if the vast majority have already been eaten?

Because we can take up the matter immediately with the Government of the egg-producing country concerned—as we did when we found salmonella in eight consignments of eggs—and that Government can take the necessary action. That is the extent of what we can do under existing salmonella controls and that is why we want better ones. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that in the first two months of this year egg imports represented only 4 per cent. of eggs consumed. That is a small proportion of our egg supply.

Will the Minister reassure me that rare breeds of hens will be safeguarded? They may require a special regulation. Their gene banks are very important.

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. There is no question of a special rare breed of bird being exterminated. However, I also give the House the assurance that anyone who sells eggs to the public for profit, whether those eggs come from rare brids or others, cannot expect to be exempt from the salmonella controls or from our public health measures.

Fishing Industry

5.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent representations he has received from representatives of the west coast of Scotland fishing industry.

In response to concerns expressed by west coast fishermen, we have issued a consultation document on fisheries management on the west coast.

May I ask the Minister specifically about the proposal to allow the aggregation of licences? Will he take on board the concern expressed by west coast fishermen that that will simply mean that larger operations, usually on the east coast of Scotland, will buy up the smaller boats of the west coast? That will mean a loss of livelihood for west coast fishermen and will harm conservation in the long run.

I wish to get the terminology straight. The proposals that we have just announced are for the aggregation of capacity, not licences. Even if we then proceed to adopt a consultation document on the aggregation of entitlements, it will not concern licences as such. We are a long way from a transferable licence, although, as I have always made clear, it is an option. The aggregation of capacity is a limited measure which aims to get fishermen away from the tight straitjacket of being unable to increase tonnage or horsepower at all. Fishermen can now buy a bigger boat and obtain the catching capacity entitlement that goes with a boat of that size. Fishing entitlement aggregation would be a more radical measure and would push more in the direction of the rationalisation of the fleet. However, we are committed to consulting widely before introducing such a measure.

Does the Minister understand that thousands of fish processing workers in the west of, and throughout, Scotland face a wage freeze in the current year? Does he appreciate that they are among the lowest-paid industrial workers in the country, in most cases earning £100 or less for a full week's work, at a time when inflation is pushing towards double digits? How long will it be before the Minister and his colleagues snap out of their complacency and introduce a crisis package of measures to stabilise the fortunes of the industry, onshore and offshore?

What the hon. Gentleman means by crisis package of measures to stabilise the industry is that we should simply give it more money; that is his familiar theme. The action that we plan to take is, first, to make management more effective, with the series of measures that I outlined to the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and, secondly, to tackle seriously the question of conservation. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that workers in the west coast processing industry would be much worse off if we did not manage our fisheries to ensure that there was fish to catch in the future.

Grain

6.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has received any representations about the competitive position of bakers using north American grain in preference to European grain; and if he will make a statement.

I have received no representations, but I am arguing for a reduction of the high levy imposed on north American wheat in the current price negotiations. The bread-making quality of home-produced wheat has improved to such an extent that we now use less than a tenth of the amount of imported grain that we were using 10 years ago.

Will my hon. Friend do his utmost to achieve a reduction in agriculture tariffs at the forthcoming GATT talks so that quality bakers, such as Warburtons in my constituency, no longer have to pay a levy of £100 a tonne on imported north American high protein grains?

We shall press to get levies down and the GATT talks will almost certainly result in a phased programme of cuts sustained over a number of years. Without that, I do not think that the GATT talks would succeed at all. I remind my hon. Friend that the stabiliser has produced three years of cuts in grain prices and that farmers are feeling the pinch. It is only fair to say that if we obtain the green pound devaluation for which we are aiming—in the United Kingdom, at least—grain prices will rise, which will put farmers on more equal terms with their competitors overseas.

Does the Minister accept that the major problem affecting competition with European grain producers is the enormous burden and disadvantage imposed on the home industry as a consequence of the gap between the green pound and sterling? Does he accept that the original proposal to cut the gap by one third is inadequate in relation to those commodities for which the difference is well over 10 per cent.?

The hon. Gentleman will see from the arrangements that were on the table when the price-fixing negotiations broke up a few weeks ago that the devaluation of one third had rather passed into history. We very much hope that when the negotiations resume, it will stay part of history.

As British millers and bakers are buying wheat at 30 per cent. less in real terms than they were five years ago, does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time they passed on some of their good fortune to their customers?

It is certainly true that the price of grain as a raw material for the bread maker has not increased recently. It is also true that we must strike a balance—that is what most politics is about—between the interests of the producer and the interests of the consumer. At the moment, it is the producers who believe that they face an injustice, and we are trying to correct that.

Eastern Europe

7.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome of his discussions following his recent visits to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.

The principal purpose of my right hon. Friend's visits to Poland, Czeckoslovakia and Bulgaria was to support political and economic reform in those countries and to seek export opportunities for British business men.

As he is one of the foremost defenders of British fishing interests, will my hon. Friend allow me to congratulate him on organising a three-month course on fisheries management at Hull for Polish fisheries managers, at a cost to the British taxpayer of £133,000? Does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of the size of the eastern bloc fishing fleet and as trawlers no longer have to eavesdrop on boring ministerial conversations and can concentrate instead on fishing, it is important that Britain leads the way in showing the eastern bloc fleet how to conserve its stocks rather than continue to plunder them recklessly?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The project that he mentioned is an example of the carefully targeted aid that we envisage for eastern Europe. On eastern European fisheries capacity, EC resources are shared out according to track record and there is no case for allowing east European vessels to fish Community waters. I have made it clear at a number of Fisheries Councils that we will not allow Soviet, Polish or other vessels into the North sea.

The West German fleet underfishes by about one third of its capacity and there is room for East Germany to take some of that quota without seeking any general allocation at European level. Of course, some eastern European waters might be available for western fisheries if East Germany joins the European Community.

However, I completely agree with my hon. Friend; we are not in the business of giving away a scarce resource, particularly to those who might not be most attentive to its conservation.

Will the Minister give assurances that measures to help east European farmers will cause minimum disruption to the home industry, for example with regard to the bulk import of cheap fruit pulp? If the object of the exercise is to increase finance for east European farmers, would not it be more sensible to do that by fixing cross-border prices rather than by using the tariff system, which can cause great disruption to the home industry?

When proposals were made to give concessions under the generalised system of preferences to Poland and Hungary, the United Kingdom argued that they should be restricted. We have since had close discussions about careful monitoring of the price arrangements. We can sustain imports provided that the prices are genuine and not dumping prices. We are in touch with the Commission and we will ensure that aid is specific and limited, that it will not damage our industry and that we do not make a greater contribution than anyone else to the necessary process of liberalisation in eastern Europe.

During my right hon. Friend the Minister's extremely successful visit to eastern Europe, did he detect any enthusisam to revert to the old-fashioned and failed economic policies of socialism and communism, or did he find an enthusiasm to embrace many of the economic policies that our Government were the first to introduce in this country over the past 10 years?

I understand that when Belisarius reconquered Italy, he coined the phrase, "If you seek a desert, look around you". I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister looked around eastern Europe and saw that 40 years of socialism had had the same effect. He gained no impression of an anxiety to revert to communism, but of a considerable anxiety to learn some of the elements of capitalism.

Farm Animal Welfare Council

8.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what reports he is expecting from the Farm Animal Welfare Council.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council has just started studies of the welfare of broiler chickens and of animals kept in extensive husbandry systems. I look forward to receiving the council's advice when this work has been completed.

The Minister will be aware that the main recommendation of the February 1990 report from the council was that recommendations in earlier reports, which are still outstanding, should be implemented. He has not implemented those recommendations. Will he ignore the February 1990 report like he ignored all the others? Will he continue to allow animals to be subjected to misery?

The hon. Gentleman's remarks are unfair and wrong. We received two reports in February which we are currently consulting on and studying. We have accepted the overwhelming majority of FAWC recommendations and many of them have already been put into legislative effect. I hope to lay before the House shortly detailed regulations on the slaughter of red meat animals and later this year regulations on the welfare of horses at markets. The hon. Gentleman must be careful before he makes erroneous comments to the effect that we have ignored FAWC reports.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the acceptance of many FAWC recommendations has helped to ensure that this country has one of the best records on farm animal welfare in the European Community? In future changes in the welfare codes, will my hon. Friend try to ensure that those practices are extended, not just in this country, but throughout the European Community so that we do not export unacceptable husbandry practices?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. When we consider welfare in this country and the excellent FAWC reports, we accept that it is becoming increasingly important to extend those provisions to other EC countries. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister took a welfare initiative in the EC. We sent EC Commissioners a host of recommendations on animal welfare that we would like to be extended across the Community. If we like animals and believe in their welfare, it is not good enough simply to improve their lot in Britain and these islands; the morality must extend overseas, too.

Will the Minister confirm that FAWC has the right to inspect and to report on puppy farms which, in certain instances, have been the cause of considerable abuse? What is the Government's latest thinking on that matter and what do they intend to do to tighten controls in that area?

The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about welfare on puppy farms. This is a matter for the Home Office, and I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is currently considering what action can be taken. I shall certainly pass on to him the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Further to the previous question, will my hon. Friend take this issue seriously? There have been strong reports about puppy farming in west Wales and we have seen horrific photographs of emaciated dogs being cruelly treated. The matter causes great concern to my constituents and we need Government action immediately.

Those of us who like animals, and especially those of us who love dogs, agree with my hon. Friend that action is required. That is why my hon. Friend at the Home Office is considering what action can be taken. Having heard the views expressed in the House today, I shall be pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend that the House wants action on this matter.

May I remind the Minister that the February report on enforcement specifically recommended that the number of vets in the state veterinary service should be increased to allow them to discharge properly their responsibilities on animal welfare? Given that during the past 10 years the Government have reduced the number of vets in the state veterinary service by 25 per cent., yet, despite that, the Government still apparently have a commitment to animal welfare, will the Minister now undertake to accept that specific and direct recommendation in the FAWC enforcement report and ensure that the number of vets in the state veterinary service is increased?

I have made it clear that, having just received those reports, we are currently considering all the recommendations and are consulting widely on them. The hon. Gentleman should not be obsessed merely with the numbers employed in the state veterinary service. He should be more concerned about how effectively and efficiently it is carrying out its work. I am delighted to be able to tell him that its efficiency and effectiveness has improved considerably. I am proud of the excellent job that it does in all aspects of animal welfare and in enforcing the regulations.

Sheep Fanners

9.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what proposals he has to ensure that the cash flow of sheep farmers is improved in the next 12 months.

Our plans to pay two advances of sheep annual premium to producers in both less-favoured areas and other parts of the United Kingdom will help the cash flow of sheep farmers.

That reply was welcome, as was my hon. Friend's recent visit to my constituency, where he gave an excellent speech to a conference organised by the Exmoor Society and when he made the valid point that no honest Government could guarantee the income of every farmer, irrespective of the circumstances. Will he confirm that his Department gives the highest priority to providing incentives to farmers to remain on the uplands, because farmers are our best conservationists?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct and I am grateful for his kind remarks, despite the fact that it was raining heavily in his constituency at that time. The Government put considerable resources into the uplands, but we cannot guarantee the livelihoods of all farmers there. However, it is clear that society is putting a higher and higher price on conservation of the countryside, and it is in our interests to encourage farmers to take advantage of that and to add to their fundamental role as food producers, the role of being the guardians of the countryside, as we all appreciate.

Does the Minister agree that the incomes of many sheep farmers are still being reduced because of the loss of stock and the worrying of stock by dogs? What is the Government's most recent estimate of the number of animals that are worried to death by dogs and how much does that cost farmers? Is not it high time that we had a proper dog registration scheme to encourage responsible dog owners and to stop some of the waste of animals' lives as a result of sheep worrying?

Most sheep farmers in my constituency have a clear formula for dealing with dogs that worry sheep.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Buckinghamshire there has been an outbreak of caseous lymphadenitis and that the disease affects sheep? Will he take this opportunity to reassure the House and all sheep farmers that his Ministry is taking all necessary precautions to make sure that the disease does not spread elsewhere?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. The disease has been found in goats, but it has not yet spread to sheep. We have taken strict precautions to ensure that there is no risk to human health.

Is the Minister aware that the announcement that he made earlier about the advance payments is welcome as far as it goes? However, does he accept that a serious cash flow problem faces sheep producers in the uplands, particularly in areas such as the Scottish borders? Does he further accept that one of the best ways to solve cash flow problems faced by sheep producers is to take advantage of the flexibility that he still has within the hill livestock compensatory allowance mechanism, which at present affords a payment of only £7·50 per ewe, whereas the European Economic Community would allow a payment of £10·70 per breeding animal? Will the Government use that flexibility to eliminate some of the cash flow problems facing sheep producers?

I am afraid that there is a Catch-22 in what the hon. Gentleman says. If we were to pay the full amount, the number of animals that would be eligible for the full payment under the headage limit would be reduced. We used the resources at our disposal to increase the HLCAs. We also argued for maximum flexibility in the European regulations. The hon. Gentleman must understand that our resources are limited. We shall always put them where they are most effective.

National Farmers Union

10.

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.

Horses

11.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on measures available to protect horses and other equines from abuse; and if he will make a statement.

There are numerous measures that protect equines on common land, on farm, during transit and at export. We hope to introduce specific controls on horse markets in the next few months, and will press in the Community to retain controls on export of horses for slaughter.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the horse is man's oldest and most faithful friend and that our history and prosperity have been borne on his back, but that horses will suffer severe and cruel deaths in the knackers' yards of Europe after 1992, unless suitable action is taken to replace British legislation on minimum values? Will he ensure that the Government will somehow get into place right across Europe proper legislation to safeguard horses, especially British horses, from cruel deaths?

I should think that only my two dogs would disagree with the first part of my hon. Friend's assertion about man's best friend. I can give him the absolute assurance that we are determined to fight as strongly as we can for the unique British system of minimum values for horses, because we are all aware of the strength of feeling that horses should be protected better than the present EC proposal suggests.

What are the Government doing to improve the EEC standards? Does the Minister accept that many people are worried about live animals exported for slaughter, because standards of care for animals throughout the Common Market vary and are often lower than United Kingdom standards? Is not it about time that the Government stood up to the EEC Commission and told it to get on with the job of improving standards, instead of capitulating on every occasion?

The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends must decide which tack to take. Previously they have accused us of resisting too many EC proposals that we think are disadvantageous to the interests of this country. Now the hon. Gentleman's line is that we are capitulating. We shall not capitulate on animal welfare. We shall fight strenuously for our animals and their welfare at slaughter. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister recently took an initiative in the EC to extend the excellent British system throughout the EC. We shall argue for that.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is nationwide anxiety that when our horses and ponies finish their useful lives they should not be allowed to be exported live for slaughter, with all the misery that that may entail? Does he think it intolerable that our European partners should force us to reduce our standards in any way? Will he please do his best to ensure that that does not happen?

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I urge him and our hon. Friends to lobby in the European Parliament and the European Commission, to show the extent of feeling in Britain for our unique system of minimum values. My hon. Friends and I are doing our bit, arguing to maintain the system, but we need the support of welfare organisations in this country and Europe to convince everyone that minimum values are good and should stay.

Parrots

12.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he has taken as a result of the hon. Member for Linlithgow's meeting with the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson), on the import of parrots.

New measures on the import of exotic birds were announced last December following our publication of a detailed study of mortalities among imported birds on arrival and in quarantine.

Is not man's best friend the parrot? In view of the fact that the 13 per cent. bird mortality in quarantine and on arrival is a fraction of the overall mortality, can we have an immediate ban imports pending the negotiations now taking place? Does the Prime Minister think that present Ministers are as active or energetic as the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson)?

The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson), who met him in his office and took the initial initiative. If hon. Members read the speech before Christmas of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and my reply to it at 4 o'clock in the morning, I should have thought that they would conclude that I was the hon. Gentleman's best friend. We are taking strenuous measures to control the importation of exotic birds and all the measures that I outlined in the debate in December are being pursued at this very moment.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 19 April.

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

Will the right hon. Lady explain why she thinks that it is fair that Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher of Dulwich will save £1,700 in poll tax as against rates this year when Mr. and Mrs. Donovan of Greater Manchester— Mr. Donovan is a retired laboratory technician and they are pensioners—will pay £531 more than they would have done, including transitional relief?

I think that we should all be better off if we lived in good Tory authorities such as Westminster. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall not be any net better off when I finish giving the extra away, nor shall I be any better off than I am now by not having taken something like £120,000 to which I am entitled on my salary.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 19 April.

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

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those who deliberately break the law by refusing to pay their community charge, leaving others to pick up the bill? Is not it deplorable that there are Members of the House who also practise that unlawful conduct? Surely such people are encouraged by the pop star antics and clenched fist salutes of the Leader of the Opposition.

Everyone should obey the laws that have properly been passed through Parliament, as that is what the rule of law and democracy is about. Anyone who does not is setting a deplorable example, is also putting great burdens on others and is not in any way being democratic or observing the rule of law. Everyone should condemn such behaviour.

Will the Prime Minister explain why the party of defence and law and order, which never believes that a single Labour soldier fought in the last war, now cannot even recognise a gun barrel?

I should like to say first to the hon. Gentleman that everyone is grateful to all those who fought in the last war; without them we should not now be free. So far there has never been a gun barrel made with an aperture of I m wide, which is the diameter of the proposed Iraqi pipe.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 19 April.

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that Ford's investment of £400 million in south Wales is a sign of investors' confidence in Britain under her Government? Does she further agree that the fact that Ford is spending some of its investment abroad because of previous trade union intransigence is a clear sign that investors are worried about the future and of what investors would do if this country were ever again to be dominated by the Labour party's trade union paymasters?

We do indeed welcome Ford's investment at Bridgend and Swansea, phase 1 of the Zeta project, which will help to sustain employment in south Wales. We very much regret that Ford chose to take the second part of that project to Cologne because, in the words of its press release,

"Another factor in reaching the decision … has been the need to ensure continuity of supply to our continental plants."
As Ford could not ensure continuity of supply from south Wales because of the activities of the unions, it was not prepared to put another factory there. The unions have driven Ford away twice—once from Dundee and once from the Zeta 2 project in south Wales.

Will the Prime Minister say why there has been no effective response from any part of the Government to the inquiries made since 1988 about the Iraqi gun contract by Sheffield Forgemasters, Walter Somers and her hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller)?

The point remains that at no time did either firm apply for an export licence for a gun or other military application. If the firms had done so, the application would have been refused.

That is not an adequate answer on such an issue. As Head of the Government, will the Prime Minister say whom she holds responsible for this shambles over the Iraqi gun contract? Which Minister must bear the blame?

Any company wanting to export something that requires an export licence has a duty to apply for that licence. At no time did either firm apply for an export licence for a gun or other military application. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said yesterday, the enormous lm wide pipes that the firms were making were described in a totally different fashion and at no time did they apply for an export licence for a gun or other military equipment. Had they done so, the application would have been refused. It is their duty to apply if they are exporting something that needs a licence.

That is the most devious evasion. The testimony of the right hon. Lady's hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove has shattered the idea that the Government did not know about this during the past two years. I repeat: which Minister is to blame?

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman ever listens to replies. If a company wishes to export something that needs an export licence—military equipment does—it is its duty accurately to describe it and to apply for an export licence for what it is exporting. No such application came for a gun or other military application. That is the fault of the companies seeking to export the product.

In forming her policies towards South Africa and the African National Congress, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that less than two years ago the ANC publicly announced that it would accept funds from the IRA? Will she personally look into reports coming from Northern Ireland that on Wednesday 4 April two members of the ANC named Sabblae and Karoo were in Downpatrick, County Down, meeting the head of the IRA in South Down and other members?

I am certain that my hon. Friend will have checked the facts that he gives. He knows that we never, never support armed struggle, no matter by whomsoever it is proposed, and the ANC stands for armed struggle and continues to do so. In our view it is time to get down, not to rhetoric but to the nitty gritty of negotiations, and to do that in South Africa with the existing South African Government.

Will the Prime Minister list for the House her reasons for opposing local income tax, raised through the revenue system, as a replacement for poll tax? Does not she realise that it would be easier, fairer, simpler and cheaper to raise than the poll tax, and just as accountable, and that it operates in many countries with full public support? Does not she see that local income tax as a replacement for poll tax is a way out of her and Britain's poll tax nightmare?

There are several reasons why local income tax would not work. First, it is usually dealt with not where a person lives, but where he works, which, for many people, is a different place. PAYE is done in the firm for which a person works, which may be different from the place in which he lives.

Secondly, many people would not wish to divulge all their affairs again to local authorities, and they would have to do so. Those are two good reasons for not having a local income tax.

Ec Budget

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the size of the United Kingdom's net contribution to the European Community budget; and if she will make a statement.

I have at present no plans to do so. The Fontainebleau 1984 mechanism remains wholly intact. Our cumulative benefit from it will be some £7·5 billion by the end of 1990.

As last year's record contribution of £2 billion, or £3 a week for each British family, was outrageous, will my right hon. Friend make it abundantly clear that had she not battled so furiously for rebates in 1984, that amount would have been at least 50 per cent. higher—and this at a time when she was accused of being negative, unhelpful and unenthusiastic about Europe?

As almost everyone seems to be having a go at her these days, will my right hon. Friend also make it abundantly clear that she will maintain her courageous battle for Britain against socialist nonsense and overspending in the EEC? Will she totally ignore the views of the wimps and Euro-nuts among the Opposition—and even among the Conservative party—who are seeking to blow her off course?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. We fought staunchly for Britain's rebate. We started off, to coin a phrase, by being isolated and we came back with £7·5 billion for Britain.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that in addition to financial matters, she and the Foreign Secretary will discuss the Belgian proposals for European union with other Ministers from the Common Market when they meet in Dublin over the next two weekends? Does she agree that these issues render the prerogative an increasingly outdated idea, and accordingly, will she tell Mr. Haughey when she meets him tomorrow that she is not prepared to give any view on, still less any commitment to, that paper unless it has been debated in this House? Does not she think that anything less than that represents an unacceptable democratic deficit in the United Kingdom?

There are now two matters: one is European monetary and economic union; another has been proposed informally by Chancellor Kohl and concerns political union. Neither matter is properly defined, but in so far as economic and monetary union was defined in the Delors paper, in stages 2 and 3, this House has already made its view clear: we could not possibly accept stage 2 or stage 3 of Delors as they stand, although we accept stage 1. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] We accept stage I and its completion and we are well ahead with completing it in this country.

In our view there are plenty of other matters to discuss in Dublin—the consequences of German unification, completing the single market in 1992, bringing the Uruguay round to a successful conclusion, especially on agriculture, completing the EEC-European Free Trade Association negotiations, and devising new forms of association for the countries of eastern Europe. If we got down to discussing those matters, that would be far better than discussing more esoteric issues that do not need to be addressed now.

Engagements

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 19 April.

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

Is my right hon. Friend aware that today is Primrose day, the anniversary of the death of Benjamin Disraeli, that great Conservative statesman? Does she recollect that he used to say that one of the principal aims of the Tory party was to improve the condition of the people? Is not that precisely what my right hon. Friend and the Government are doing?

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In terms of net take-home pay, for every £3 that the average family had under Labour, it has £4 under the Conservatives. Britain has a higher rate of employment and a far better Health Service and environment than ever before. That would have suited Disraeli and I am glad to pay tribute to him on Primrose day.