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Sheep Variable Premium (Protection Of Payments) (No 2) Order 1980

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 15 January 1981

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3.34 p.m.

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 28th November be approved. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Sheep Variable Premium (Protection of Payments) (No. 2) Order 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th November, be approved. I should explain that this order revokes and replaces the Sheep Variable Premium (Protection of Payments) Order 1980. That order was brought to the special attention of both Houses by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which questioned whether the enabling powers given in the Agriculture Act 1957, under which the order was made, were adequate for certain provisions of a fairly technical kind. In the circumstances my right honourable friends the Minister and the Secretaries of State decided not to seek the approval of both Houses for the order but to lay an alternative order which met the Committee's concern. This is the order in front of your Lordships today. Its purpose is to protect payments under the sheep variable premium scheme, which the United Kingdom is operating under the new Community sheepmeat régime, which was introduced on 20th October.

Your Lordships may recall that on 12th November last we debated another order connected with the sheepmeat régime. That order provided general protection for the Community support system for sheepmeat, while this order we are considering covers the variable premium scheme specifically. We had a very useful debate on the sheepmeat régime, and discussed the understandable concerns of some noble Lords on certain aspects. I hope that I was able to convince them of the very substantial benefits which the régime brings and the very satisfactory nature of the settlement which brought to an end the long-standing dispute within the Community on this subject.

In particular, under this scheme our sheep producers obtain a considerably higher level of support; the variable premium level is 12 per cent. above the previous support level under our fat sheep guarantee scheme; and sheep breeders will benefit from annual premium payments on ewes from this summer. Our consumers will benefit from ample supplies of lamb at reasonable prices, as a result of the continuation of a deficiency payments system and New Zealand also benefits from a voluntary agreement which halves the previous rate of duty, on condition that her sendings are within a limit set at a little more than recent quantities. The cost of all this is met not from Exchequer funds, but 100 per cent. from Community funds.

I did not then hide the fact—nor do I do so today—that while the régime was generally advantageous to the United Kingdom, there had been some difficulties, particularly for our export trade under the provisions for the clawback of the variable premium on exported meat. I am pleased to say that there has been some improvement. As a result of our representations, the Commission have introduced a regulation exempting exports to third countries from the clawback until 31st March. Before then there will be a thorough review of the Community's export policy for sheep-meat, during which we shall press strongly for the measures necessary to protect our export trade.

I am glad to say that trade with other member states has recovered from the low levels in the early weeks of the régime and was running at above the pre-régime level before Christmas. As we expected, exports to France, where illegal levies have ended, have increased significantly, although there may be some slight falling-back in the lean period after New Year. We hope that the recovery will be sustained, but we shall be keeping United Kingdom exports to the various destinations under review so that we can make the Commission aware of any further problems as soon as they arise.

My Lords, the variable premium scheme with which the order before the House is concerned is basically a continuation of our traditional deficiency payments method of support for the sheep industry, but with a higher guaranteed price level and clawback to prevent significant sales of subsidised lamb into French intervention. Responsibility for administering the scheme and making payments (which are fully reimbursed by the Community) lies with the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce. To ensure that the payments are made only in the circumstances permitted under the Community regulations, the Board need powers to inspect and mark animals which are eligible for premium, to require proper record-keeping and on occasions to visit and enter traders' premises to inspect records. It is entirely that to which this order refers. There and other powers necessary for proper administration of the scheme are provided in the order, wich I commend to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 28th November be approved.—( Earl Ferrers.)

My Lords, I support strongly what the noble Minister has said about the scheme. I am sorry that I missed the previous debate in which several Members of your Lordships' House spoke, including my noble friend Lord Ross of Kilmarnock. He made a very effective speech, as indeed did all those who participated. It is a very important matter for the uplands and for our sheep industry. I am glad to have been able to understand more about how the payment is made and I welcome the fact that reference has been made to our system of deficiency payments, a system which is virtually enshrined in our agricultural support policy for many products.

I take the view that this is a good bargain. It will help our uplands farmers very much. It will give certainly tremendous help to the farming community, who deserve it. One thinks about the weather now in those areas and the difficulties faced by our farmer friends. Sometimes some of our townspeople forget that the production of food on the hills and uplands is really a very hard job. I am glad to say that this will also help the supply of lamb. I am also pleased to learn that we have an agreement whereby New Zealand will have a certain measure of protection now. I think this is a good deal and therefore I do not wish to oppose it.

My Lords, I would merely like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Peart, for those kind remarks. He is absolutely right. This is a good bargain. He is also absolutely right in saying that life on the hills is a very difficult life, particularly for sheep farmers; and in so far as this régime will help those people, that fact by itself requires this scheme to be supported.

On question, Motion agreed to.