Traditionally, this is the earliest day in the debate on the Gracious Speech when a particular topic is singled out for debate, and the Opposition have decided to take this first opportunity to raise the whole question of our future food supplies and the profound problems of the agriculture industry. In fact, this is no less than the fourth parliamentary day this year which we in opposition have used for discussing agriculture and horticulture, and I think that that must be something of a parliamentary record. It indicates the high degree of priority which the Conservative Party attaches to this subject. We have treated it in this way all through the year and throughout the election, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition referred specifically to agriculture on Tuesday.
The single sentence in the Gracious Speech dealing with agriculture indicates with awful clarity the Government's complacency and their failure to take action to deal with the reality of the crisis. If Minister's have "recognised the value of expansion"—the words in the Gracious Speech—they have turned their backs upon it. I am all in favour of discussion, but the need is for action, and immediate action. There is no hint of it in the Gracious Speech, and that is a matter for regret.
It is not altogether surprising, though a tragedy, that the right hon. Gentleman became Minister of Agriculture in March without having thought about how he would approach his responsibilities or what his policy would be. The measure of his failure, which every hon. Member hopes will be rectified today, is best demonstrated by comparing the realities of livestock farming today with his words in the House on 14th March. He said in the debate on the Gracious Speech:
The purpose of that policy"—
that is, the policy to encourage the maximum economic production of food—
is to create the conditions in which British agriculture can thrive, in which farmers obtain a fair return for their produce and in which consumers pay a fair price for their food.
Later he said:
… it is overwhelminly in the national interest to reduce our dependence on imported food by the encouragement of an expansion of British agriculture —".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 384-5.]
I quite agree with the intentions expressed in those words.
Since that date, the Minister has taken part in at least four sets of negotiations within the European Community. Each time he has returned in triumphant mood, believing that he had achieved a valuable arrangement, but each time his hopes have proved false. On 25th March, when he returned on the first occasion, he said:
I have now given a direct injection to that industry"—
namely, the pig industry—
and this will give confidence to pig producers.
I said in response to his statement on that day that we were glad that he believed that he had achieved his objective, but he had not, and the plight of the pig producers since that statement has been agonising.
The real disaster of these negotiations in March was the complete removal of the floor in the beef market. Unilaterally the right hon. Gentleman opted out of intervention. That is what caused the collapse. Whatever criticisms can fairly be laid against the intervention system, it worked in other countries and was relied on by British producers, who were entitled to rely upon it.
In the debate on 8th May, the Minister said:
… it is no part of the Government's intention to let market prices for beef fall to unrealistic levels. We shall be watchng developments very closely to see what, if any, temporary measures may become necessary to prevent this. We shall want all the beef we can get from our farms in the future and we must be prepared to pay reasonable prices for it".
At the bottom of the column the right hon. Gentleman referred to prices which appertained in the last month of the Conservative administration—£18.25 per cwt—and to
a return which, given reasonable prices for store cattle, must surely give confidence for the future".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May 1974; Vol. 873, c. 420.]
It did not give confidence for the future, and the depression in the beef market has increased ever since.
The right hon. Gentleman's assurance on that day that market prices would not be allowed to fall to unrealistic levels was repeated the next month at a Farmers' Club meeting on 26th June, and he added:
We want all the beef we can get from our farms in the future and I accept that we must be prepared to pay reasonable prices for it".
Later he said:
Beef is produced for people to eat, and it must be sold at prices they can afford. This does not mean that the beef producers' returns have necessarily to be squeezed to fit the consumer's purse.
That was said on the day that we had a Supply debate on a motion calling on the Government
to take immediate steps, especially in the livestock sector, to safeguard the future supplies of home grown food for the consumer".
On the basis of what he had done and what he announced in that debate he would do, the Minister advised the House to accept the motion. One of his announcements related to beef. He said:
We need to be in a position to give producers the assurance over a period that their returns will not drop below about £18 per live cwt. for clean quality cattle".
In the next column he said:
I shall give farmers the support for which they are asking".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June 1974; Vol. 875, c. 1593-4.]
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that there is a beef farmer who believes that he
has received either the support that was asked for or what was taken to be an £18 per cwt guaranteed minimum price?
Finally, when the Minister made the statement introducing his slaughter premium, he said:
The effect of these premia will be to assure beef producers of a reasonable return, and to offer a real incentive to phase marketings in such a way as to maintain stable market conditions. They amply fulfil the intention I announced to the House on 26th June of giving our beef producers an assurance that, over a period, their returns would not fall below about £18 per live cwt for clean cattle".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th July 1974; Vol. 877, c. 456.]
However good the right hon. Gentleman's intentions, he can only be acutely embarrassed by the way in which things worked out so differently and at such cost to thousands of farmers.
Indeed, the farmers' bitter experience has been a continuing plunge in prices while costs continue to rise, despite the slaughter premium which was intended to help, but in some weeks regrettably the prices have fallen more than the premium has increased. At present it stands at £29·24 per head and will rise through the winter. But it is already clear that with fodder as expensive as it is scarce, the heavy interest payments due, and with all costs generally rising, fewer farmers are retaining their animals.
I should like to take up the right hon. Gentleman's point about the British Government not accepting the intervention system. Is he aware that there has been widespread discontent within the EEC countries and widespread militant action by farmers in France, Germany and Holland against the system of intervention and the deal that they are getting from the Common Market countries? If intervention is successful, what about that point?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear himself with patience, I shall come to that in due course.
The slaughter figures speak for themselves. The Meat and Livestock Commission's October report has this to say:
… in September, the average weekly slaughter rate … reached a level of 42 per cent. higher than a year earlier. Steer and heifer slaughtering rose by 18 per cent. between August and September … and were 32 per cent. higher than in September last year. The
number of cows and bulls slaughtered also increased in September by 19 per cent. to reach a level of 32 per cent. higher than in the same month of 1973. Calf slaughtering showed a seasonal rise in September and remained almost four times as high as a year earlier.
Last week there was a 15 per cent. increase in the number of animals being offered at market, but I have heard of cases where there were no bids, so a market does not always exist. In those regions where livestock is the only livelihood a farmer can have, with heavy dependence on autumn sales, the outlook is at best bleak and in some cases ruin. These regions include Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
If we were still operating the intervention system, the intervention price today would be a little more than £20 per live cwt. As it is, prices today are not much more than £12—nowhere near even the right hon. Gentleman's own figure of £18 which he has signally failed to provide.
We have been pressing the Minister to restore a guarantee for beef. I see trailed in the Press the outline of a scheme to pay a premium for beef held in store. That does not seem to be very different from intervention. I do not know whether the Minister will announce this, or anything like it today, but I do know that he should never have removed the intervention support. If its continuation had led to too many problems he could have adjusted it within the Community.
What proposals has the Minister put before the Commission to replace the intervention system? What plans or propositions has he left with the Commission for a new beef régime? What is lying on the Commission's table from him on this matter? After all that has happened, a new régime is needed now.
My view has been that a combination of intervention and a system of monetary payment would provide the right sort of floor for the market. The right hon. Gentleman should certainly have had something settled before now. I only hope that whatever new plan he announces today will this time be adequate and be applicable immediately, today, if not retrospectively.
I am sure that the whole House is disturbed by the spectacle of demonstrations by Welsh and other farmers against the import of Irish cattle. No one can blame the farmers for their anger. They see excessive supplies on the United Kingdom market depressing the price of beef further and further, and beef is often their only source of income. Indeed, in some cases, it is their actual capital. It is only natural that they should be enraged as they see shipload after shipload arriving here for slaughter.
It is true that this is no new trade but, unfortunately, there is a financial incentive for Irish producers to sell here at present. The subsidy that they receive, of 7·8 per cent. of the United Kingdom intervention price, is greater than the Irish export tax of 4·7 per cent. of the Irish intervention price. The net effect is a subsidy of about 60p per cwt. on imports from Ireland. In present circumstances that is a thoroughly unsatisfactory and unfair situation.
I ask the Minister to tell the House today what can be done. Has he considered the possibility of bringing back the 60-day waiting period that used to apply to Irish imports? Something should be negotiated to relieve this pressure on the market.
I also hope that the Government will soon announce their conclusions on the O'Brien Report. This is an important matter, of direct relevance to our situation. I heard the exchange between the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) and the Leader of the House, who said that he would bear this request in mind. I hope that we shall have an earlier debate than that reply would imply.
It is extraordinary that this House took a decision to ban the export of live animals, yet no one seems to have raised a whisper of protest—except for those of us on both sides of the House who are interested in agriculture—at the import of live animals, which is having a devastating effect on the markets.
Perhaps I can settle that immediately. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman heard the Leader of the House say that the matter will be debated. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?".] He said that it would be debated. There was a decision on this and hon. Members on both sides of the House expressed differing opinions. The report has been considered, but we have had to have discussions with our people and our friends in Europe. These have been long discussions, and as soon as possible we shall announce our conclusions.
I do not object to that. I said that the Leader of the House said that he would bear this in mind, and I thought that a slightly greater degree of urgency might be desirable.
There will be concern on both sides of the House about the animal welfare aspect of livestock. There are about 1 million more head of livestock in the United Kingdom now than there were last year, but supplies of fodder are lower and of poorer quality. I have ascertained that the view of the Veterinary Association of Great Britain is that at least on the hill and marginal land the stock is in general in a poorer condition and less healthy than normally, and that some people fear for the consequences in terms of malnutrition this winter. That would concern the House deeply.
We also know that the National Farmers' Union is anxious about fodder supplies, and I hope that contingency plans are being worked out with the industry to cope with such emergencies that seem all too likely to arise. With slaughterhouses working to capacity there must be a real danger.
Throughout the last 12 months the pig industry has faced its greatest difficulties ever. It is true that today the level of slaughtering is no higher than it was a year ago, but the slaughtering figure today represents a much higher proportion than it did 12 months ago, simply because the nation's pig herd is significantly smaller than it was then. Our pig herd is now back to the level of 40 years ago. Prices to producers are beginning to rise at last, though they fell again last week, but the prices at present prevailing are hardly more than the break-even point.
The Minister's recent announcement that the special subsidy which he introduced is to be phased out will not help pig producers through another hard winter. I fear that the Minister has acted prematurely in removing the subsidy at this stage. We look for clarification of the new guarantee system which he promised two weeks ago.
During the summer the Minister introduced a series of subsidies and made financial help available to the industry. It is unfortunate that, with the exception of milk, he produced the money a little at a time, so that it has not had the desired effect. It has been paid in such an indirect way that not only have market prices dropped in sympathy with the payments but in many cases the money payment does not seem to have been received by the farmers for whose benefit it was intended.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why the low prices for beef received by farmers do not seem to have been passed on to the consumer? The total amount of money made available by the Government is, on my calculations, considerably over £200 million, but since the industry is still in a plight I am convinced that that large sum could have been used to better advantage. To have spent that amount of money and not solved the problem must worry the Government greatly, but they have no strategy and without a long-term strategy the agriculture industry cannot work effectively. A piecemeal approach will always be ineffectual.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that such a long-term strategy could have been worked out by a Conservative administration? Does he not agree that the figures for 1970–72 showed an 82 per cent. degree of self-sufficiency and that the Conservative Government should have been able to foresee the trouble coming? They should have done something to discourage the production of meat, instead of still further encouraging production. The ridiculous position of vast over-supply could thereby have been avoided.
The last Conservative Government had a long-term strategy—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] We certainly did. The record between 1970 and 1974 shows the most staggering increase of production and productivity which the country has ever seen. It is fair to say that the process was interrupted by the oil and grain price explosion, but that was being dealt with last winter. There is no question about the strategy we were pursuing, and the industry had confidence in it—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Labour Members to shout about past records. I have gone through the record since March, involving the actions of the Minister of Agriculture, and it is sorry reading.
For months now we Conservatives have been clamouring for an immediate review followed by a cash injection. The Minister's series of minor injections has not begun to revive the patient. I acknowledge the Minister's review of milk and his increased award, which will be helpful, although the beef market must also be put right before the milk industry can again function effectively and economically. The general position of the whole industry is now so grave and the threat to future supplies of food so alarming that nothing less than an emergency review should now take place. I want the Government to take over the effective and constructive proposals which we Conservatives have been advocating for some months.
These proposals involve a short-term immediate operation such as I have already spoken about, as well as a total reappraisal and reassessment with the industry of every sector. It is the astronomical rise in feeding stuff costs that is the main cause of trouble. In each case the price has gone up tenfold, and every conceivable way of easing the impact of this increase must be urgently examined. Indeed, such a process should have taken place throughout the summer. A different method of assistance will be needed for each sector, but I am convinced that it is right to try to help on the input side as well as to secure fair market prices for efficient production.
My hon. Friends and I believe that there is plenty of scope for improving marketing arrangements and giving further encouragement to agricultural co-operatives. We know the views expressed in the industry in recent years, but after the traumatic experience of 1974 I believe that in some sectors farmers will take a different view. I hope that the Minister will institute immediate consultations with the industry on this aspect and bring forward proposals as soon as possible.
On a wider front, I welcome the general review of agriculture which is now in progress in the Community. I have been asking for this since July. It has been obvious that such a review is essential because every member of the Com- munity, and, indeed, every other country, is affected by the oil and grain price explosion. Therefore, I am glad that the review is now in hand. However, it is not necessary to wait for the conclusion of the review to make an adjustment to the United Kingdom transitional period. The Minister will recall that in the June debate I suggested that we should jump the period in respect of sugar in one go. This he has done, and it has been helpful. I believe that at least an acceleration of the period would be helpful in terms of other commodities. From the farmers' point of view, the sooner the transitional period is over the better, but the consumers' interest must be protected. This is why we believe that the transitional arrangements should be adjusted on a commodity basis, and I hope that the Minister will say something on this topic today.
I should be trespassing on the time of the House if I went into the problems of each sector of the industry. All sectors are interdependent and none escapes the ramifications of today's crisis or the danger of being affected in the future. Many of my colleagues will be dealing with these other sectors in the debate.
I want to mention the obvious importance of seeing that the maximum acreage of sugar beet is grown next year. The Minister has shown a willingness to act, but in the context of a world shortage that grows worse it would make good sense to give a genuine and generous incentive for profit to beet growers, so that we may obtain the largest possible increase in home supplies next year. I am delighted that the Minister negotiated an increased acreage quota, but the problem is to get it planted. The way to achieve this aim is to give financial incentives.
I do not wish to raise any scare about a possible sugar shortage or what supplies may be next year, but it is clear that the position will be serious and I presume that in his speech the right hon. Gentleman will say something on this topic.
On the subject of horticulture, I hope and expect the Minister to announce today what is to happen after the subsidy ends. The uncertainty has gone on for too long already, and we need to know what the situation is to be.
The only other matter I wish to raise relates to the potential damage to our food production posed by the new capital taxes referred to in the Gracious Speech. I asked the Minister in the debate last March to watch his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer over any such proposals because the Chancellor does not know very much about land. I asked the Minister to keep his eye on the situation from the point of view of the needs of farming being fully taken into account. We are convinced that the preservation of the family farm is every bit as important economically as socially. These new taxes are nothing less than a direct threat to the capital of the industry. No industry has a better record of improved production and productivity than agriculture. This has been achieved in part by large-scale capital investment, which ought to continue in the national interest at a high level but which now, I fear, will slow down and conceivably stop altogether unless the proposals are altered in a radical way.
I ask the Government to give full weight to the effect of their proposals in respect of food supplies and not impose any additional burdens, let alone crippling ones, on our farming at present. With agriculture now plunged into the deepest crisis for a decade this is no time even to talk of impositions which will be disruptive and disastrous. I cannot believe that this plan has the Minister's approval, and a heavy responsibility rests on him and his colleagues to see that these impositions are altered, if for no more compelling argument than the safeguarding of our food supplies.
Let me try to sum up—and, in view of Mr. Speaker's remarks, I have tried not to talk at too great a length. In this speech I have tried to set out the real nature of the problems facing agriculture. I have thought it right to explain frankly how and why the bit-by-bit approach made by the Minister in the summer was unfortunately doomed to failure, and I have reiterated some of the constructive proposals which we have been putting forward from these benches for some months. I notice that the Liberal Party is now in support, and I welcome that. I hope that the Minister will take a similar line today.
There is only one matter that really worries me, and that is the safeguarding of our home-grown food supplies and the well-being of our farming industry. The position is now so serious that I want to see everybody who is concerned with and involved in agriculture meet together and act together to set the industry forward again on a path that will lead to higher production. Since the election, though not before, I think, the Prime Minister has himself spoken of the need for national unity. The agriculture industry needs a united approach, and any knowledge or ideas that I and any of my right hon. and hon. Friends may have will of course be at the disposal of the Minister.
I invite the right hon. Gentleman now to rise to the occasion and to match the needs of this hour in agriculture with decisions and action—not just the words and discussions referred to in the Gracious Speech—which can command universal support and which will restore prosperity to this, the oldest and greatest of all our industries.
I believe that the latter remarks of the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) about a national approach and his demand for me to examine carefully the implications of the capital transfer tax and the wealth tax on agriculture and farm structure are extremely constructive. Nevertheless, I intend to deploy arguments against some of his assertions in the earlier part of his speech which were similar to those which he made when we previously debated agriculture.
I welcome the opportunity to set before the House our record and our intentions on agriculture. There is no question of more direct concern to each one of us than the supply of food. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is the central concern of my Department. If we are to get the food that we need, producers must have a reasonable return for their labour and investment. If the producer does not get a reasonable return over time production falls and the consumer suffers. In government the Conservative Party presided over a massive increase in beef prices in the shops. There was consumer resistance. Thus the producer and consumer share a common interest in getting the right balance, and this should be the aim of any Government's policy. The British housewife has not forgotten the high rises in food prices, especially in beef prices. But when the balance began to swing so obviously the other way the then Government did nothing to stop it. I need say no more to bring out their total failure to achieve a meaningful policy of food production and food supply.
The Government recognise also that the cost of the food and feed which we import from abroad can have a substantial bearing on the course of our economy. This cost has increased substantially in the past two years. The volume of imports of food, feed and beverages will probably be down about 4 per cent. between 1972 and 1974, but higher world prices are likely to increase our food trade deficit over this period by about £1,500 million.
There are very strong reasons, therefore, why we have made clear in the Gracious Speech that we attach importance to the expansion of domestic food production in an economic and efficient manner. Even more than in the past, we need to make good use of our own resources of land and labour. For the longer term, we have already set in train discussions with the farmers' unions and other interests. In our election manifesto we said that we intended to continue these talks
with the dual objective of drawing up a meaningful longer term expansion and of determining the means whereby this can be achieved".
That was the promise that we made, and it will be carried out. [Interruption.] We are having these discussions now with the unions. They should enable us—[Interruption] I ask the Opposition to do me the courtesy of listening to my speech. I listened carefully to the Minister deploying the Opposition's argument—[Laughter.] I apologise for that Freudian slip. The right hon. Gentleman was a very good Minister in Northern Ireland, and I wish he were still there—[Laughter]—if ever he had to be in a position of responsibility.
I hope that these discusions will prove to be fruitful and constructive. We are also determined that the farm workers' unions should contribute fully to the development of our longer-term policy. There is a tendency in some quarters to under-estimate the tremendous contribu- tion made to our economy by the agricultural labour force. I met representatives of the National Union of Agricultural Workers and of the Transport and General Workers' Union last week.
I deal now with the short-term issues. In the short term we shall be pursuing our objective, with due regard for the interests of the consumer, in the discussions on the fixing of Community prices for the next agricultural year. These discusions will begin soon. The Council of Ministers has agreed to take decisions by 1st February next. The right hon. Gentleman knows the timetable. We shall also pursue this objective in the wider stocktaking of the common agricultural policy which is now under way. This stocktaking is to be presented to the Council of Ministers early next year. We expect that the Council will be dealing with this important subject at its February meeting.
I want to stress to the House the very substantial action which we have taken on behalf of British agriculture in the short period in which we have formed the Government. I can quite appreciate that interest tends to be centred on sectors in temporary difficulty at any one time. It is understandable that attention is focused mainly on the beef sector today. But beef represents only 15 per cent. of our agricultural output, and it is important to look at the total picture. Very many United Kingdom farms are mixed farms. When cereal feed prices are high to the livestock producer, farmers will be earning high prices for their cereal production. Of course, the high cost of feeding stuffs, which continues to benefit certain producers, is a cause of concern now to livestock farmers in many countries. However, I intend to make clear to the House what we have done in the face of such large cost increases not of our making.
I take milk first. Within the area of livestock production, milk is the most important sector. At the meeting of the Council of Ministers in September I negotiated an arrangement by which returns to United Kingdom milk producers over the six winter months would be raised by the very substantial figure of 8p a gallon. This is worth more than £100 million to dairy farmers over this six-month period. How can Opposition spokesmen say that we have been tinkering with this problem? It is worth more than £100 million to our dairy farmers. Its real value was perhaps best illustrated by the widespread fear amongst producers that it would be lost, along with other elements of the package, when Germany had second thoughts after that meeting.
In the course of his adoption speech, reported in the local Conservative Press, the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw) said that he "welcomed the proposals for farming released by Labour yesterday". He welcomed the Brussels package. He made no criticism, and I believe that responsible opinion in the farming industry welcomes our approach and what we have achieved. Dairy farmers had been pointing out that they would be bearing substantial increases in costs over the winter months. But there has been a general recognition that the action which we have taken will enable the dairy industry to go forward with confidence.
At its meeting this month the Milk Marketing Board gave careful consideration to the difficulties which milk producers face over the calf prices and the availability of fodder. Nevertheless it concluded that there were very sound reasons for farmers to aim at an increase in production over the winter months. Its chairman said:
We believe it would be profitable for them to do so
conditions in the months immediately ahead do provide a firm enough basis for raising production targets.
That is the board's advice. It is entirely consistent with the objective of Government policy to see an expansion in domestic milk production, and I remind the House that we are speaking here of the largest section of our livestock production.
The point that the right hon. Gentleman was making about offsetting costs by growing one's own cereals surely loses sight of the fact that the real pinch is being felt by the small farmers, the smallholders, and the pig, poultry and egg producers. They cannot stand this any longer.
I believe that one sector has suffered because of that. I accept the point about high feed costs and the difficulties that have been caused. That is why I shall be dealing next with pigs, poultry and eggs. I hope that the hon. and gallant Gentleman will consider some of the arguments.
Before turning to the beef situation, I should point out that, notwithstanding the increases in costs, producers of pigs, poultry and eggs, which together represent a substantially bigger area of livestock production than cattle, are also in an improving situation. We certainly had a fall in our pig herd during the summer as supply and demand came into balance, but producers are now getting a good price from the market—about £4·90 per score—which is one of the highest in Europe. Earlier this year I introduced the special pig subsidy of 50p per score which will have put between £20 million and £30 million into the pig industry. Now, as market prices have improved, we are phasing out this subsidy.
Egg producers, who were also receiving low prices earlier this year, can now see a recovery to more reasonable levels. In all these sectors of livestock production there is a benefit to our producers from the extension to cereals of the Community-financed import subsidies. I negotiated this extension of the coverage of monetary compensatory amounts at the meeting of the Council of Ministers in September. This has now begun to reduce the feed costs of our livestock producers below what they would otherwise have been.
I turn now to the beef situation. Let me say straight away that I fully understand the industry's anxieties in this sector. I have continually met the National Farmers' Union on this matter. The sharp fall in returns to the beef fattener has been allowed to create an atmosphere of gloom that has been spread to sectors where it is in no sense justified. I think that is a great pity and against the interests of the industry itself. But I fully understand the difficulties of the beef fattener. The fall in his returns is all the more marked because it follows the boom conditions of last year when prices and profits were very high. The low prices now are the direct result of very heavy marketings. Many of the cattle now coming on to the market are of poor quality, which depresses the average price to the beef fattener. I hope to see market prices firming up again over the coming months.
Fluctuations of this kind are especially bad for a sector of industry which requires a measure of long-term stability in the interests of producer and consumer alike. That stability used to be provided in this country by our Fatstock Guarantee Scheme for beef with its deficiency payments. I believe that when right hon. Gentlemen opposite abolished the scheme last year they acted prematurely, and I think that events have proved me right. I hope that they will not try to evade their responsibility for the present situation. The leaders of the Conservative Party destroyed the real guarantees for the producers. Under the arrangements that they negotiated, the only form that additional support could take at present would be permanent intervention. That has been tried in other countries and, as I have said again and again, it has proved incapable of providing the producer with the security that it was supposed to bring. Indeed, it has kept fresh beef at reasonable prices away from consumers. I believe that it is a bad system.
The leading article in a recent edition of the Meat Trades' Journal carried a major heading
Intervention system has failed, admits the European Economic Community.
Only today in The Times editorial there is mention of the EEC system of intervention buying:
There is no doubt that it has proved unsatisfactory for the purpose that it set out to achieve.
Intervention has not worked, and I do not believe that it has worked in Europe.
Whatever weaknesses it may have had, there was absolutely no reason for the right hon. Gentleman to opt out of it. He could have stayed in until he had something better to put in its place. There was no reason to leave no floor in the market in the meanwhile. That is why we criticise him.
The system in Europe provided no guarantee for European farmers. They are facing extreme difficulties. Protests are growing every day against the intervention system in Europe. It has not worked, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it.
I cannot change the system overnight. I have already made clear to the Community that changes are needed. We shall be starting discussions next month to establish new arrangements from the beginning of the new beef year on 1st March. [Interruption.] Will right hon. and hon. Gentlemen defy the Community unilaterally? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] A Liberal spokesman, with whom I debated this matter recently during the election campaign, had to admit when questioned that the Liberal Party would not defy the Community. A Conservative spokesman, sitting near the Shadow Minister, on that very programme also took the same attitude. They would not defy the Community, and they know it.
The right hon. Gentleman will remember the debate in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), sitting by my side—I am the spokesman on this matter —agreed that we should break it, if necessary. Is not the real problem that the right hon. Gentleman has tied his hands absolutely? On 2nd October he agreed with the German Minister of Agriculture that this country would knock it unilaterally in return for Germany not using the veto. The right hon. Gentleman has put it beyond the power of the Government to act to help beef producers until 1st March.
I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman has different views from his Leader about entry into the Common Market. I see that he has been demoted. The Leader of the Liberal Party was more enthusiastic about going into Europe than some Conservatives who destroyed the guarantees. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am right.
In the meantime, let me recapitulate what we have done to bridge the gap and describe in more detail how we propose to put a greater measure of stability in the beef fatteners' returns for the future.
First, we have secured, on a Community basis, the system of marketing premiums to supplement the return from the market on a rising scale throughout the winter. By February these premiums will be £36·65 per head, giving the fattener an increasing incentive to orderly marketing.
Added to that is the social beef subsidy. Next, we shall introduce a Community arrangement worth 20p a week to all old-age pensioners on their beef purchases from 2nd December. This must serve to strengthen effective demand and so sustain the market prices.
I have been asked about private storage. We have just agreed in Brussels to the introduction of large subsidies—£262 a tonne—to cover the costs of the private storage of beef. This should also help to produce a better phasing of supplies on to the market and reduce the pressures of the present surplus. But the most important step that we can take over the coming weeks is to ensure—[Interruption.]—this is not the intervention system that operates in Europe; hon. Gentleman must listen carefully to what I say—in the discussion which will soon be starting in the Community that the new beef regime will be sound, providing genuine security and an adequate return.
This will call for substantial changes and is a central part of our renegotiations. The changes should take the following form.
First, we must establish an effective alternative to permanent intervention as the main instrument of support in Europe. An improved system of variable marketing premiums should be introduced which will give producers an assurance of a fair return. That would be a real improvement; but, of course, this is not to rule out the alternative of intervention in countries of the Community which still prefer to operate in that way. It is true that I have an option, but if some in the Community still prefer intervention they should have that right.
Secondly, I want to see the continuation, on a Community basis, of production grants designed to safeguard the supply of good quality calves and store cattle for the fattener to buy. Our own calf and beef cow subsidies could well serve as a model.
Thirdly, I want to see a better and simpler import régime. This should give reasonable access to third countries, particularly for specialised types of beef required by food manufacturers, and for developing countries with a traditional trade. But it must also afford adequate safeguards to producers against the undermining of their own market.
These are the main elements in the new régime which I want to secure in negotiation in the Council of Ministers. Pending the introduction of a new beef régime, I have regarded the Government's prime task in this sector as being to safeguard the future supply of beef. To this end we have increased the calf subsidy by £10 a head from last July. We have brought forward the beef cow and hill cow subsidies for 1975, so that producers can get the money when they need it to help with the winter feed bills. This will be particularly helpful to the hill farmers: it will put an extra £35 million in their hands. Further, the award of more than £100 million to the dairy sector will, by maintaining the profitability of dairy production, help to ensure a continuing supply of calves from the dairy herd.
These measures, with the beef marketing premiums, will have the effect of raising actual payments of subsidies to the beef industry for the year ending in March 1975 from under £65 million to over £150 million. That is the measure of our determination to ensure a continued and adequate supply for consumers. I hope that what I have said will assure all our beef producers that when the present short-term difficulties are overcome they can look forward with confidence to conditions of prosperity and stability. It is my aim and determination to ensure that this will be so.
I will not give way. I have already given way three times.
Before I leave the beef sector I should like to refer briefly to the action that some farmers have taken in the last few days to try to exclude Irish cattle from this country. I can understand their feelings in the current state of the beef market. But I cannot condone, and I hope that no one in the House would wish to condone, any action which means taking the law into one's own hands. [Interruption.] The Tory Party always talks about law and order. I am just saying that this is not the way we do things in this country, and it would be fatal to our way of life if it became so. I hope that those who have been tempted to take this sort of action will think better of it.
Some of the problems of the beef sector affect the sheep industry also. But we do not have a common price régime in operation for sheep within the Community. It was, therefore, open to us to take our own action to protect our breeding stock in the United Kingdom at a time of higher feed costs.
Recently I announced a substantial increase in the hill sheep subsidy. This increase is worth about £9 million in a full year, and complements the measures I have just outlined for beef to improve the prospects for the hill sector.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen instead of shouting.
Cattle and sheep producers in some parts of the country are facing difficulties over the supply of forage, especially hay and straw. We have been in touch with the unions on this. The first step here is to establish the full facts about the quantities available nationally, not only of hay and straw, but of silage and other feeds such as root crops. We are doing this urgently. Immediately thereafter we shall decide, in consultation again with the farmers' unions and others concerned, what action the industry or the Government may be able to take. Already our advisory efforts have been directed to the most efficient use of the fodder which is available. I believe that we must regard this as an urgent matter, and we are doing so.
Outside the particular sectors of livestock production most affected by the feed cost increases, we have not hesitated to take special measures where they have been needed. Producers of horticultural crops under glass have received a special subsidy to alleviate the impact of the sharp increase in oil prices. This was worth £7 million. We have also reinstated the lime subsidy, costing £5 million. Right hon. Members opposite took it off. The sugar beet price to our producers is being increased to the Community level, and we have achieved—I am glad that the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire paid tribute to this—a large increase in the "A" quota from 900,000 tons to 1,040,000 tons. There is also a very large increase in the "B" quota, and next year the full EEC price will apply to no less than 1·5 million tons of home-produced sugar—far more than the most we have ever produced. I hope that this will encourage the expansion we all want to see.
In my speech I have recognised the concern of certain livestock producers, particularly beef fatteners, at their present returns from the market. But let me finally put the situation in perspective.
The right hon. Gentleman made a short reference to the horticulture industry. I do not know whether it was the only reference he intends to make. Will he inform the House what the future of the protection against oil price increases is likely to be for that important industry?
I obtained this subsidy for the year. We took quick action. Naturally, I placed it before the Community, and it was accepted. It is in existence. Before I phase it out I will carefully consider the industry's needs. I give the right hon. and learned Gentleman that assurance.
I have not dealt with cane sugar, because it was home production that I was concentrating on. I believe that the deal which we achieved in Brussels recently was satisfactory. The deal was linked with Protocol 22 countries and, I believe, will be of great help to the Caribbean, Swaziland, India, Fiji and Mauritius.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the proposals are guaranteed financially for only one-third of the officially estimated shortfall next year? As we have not got 1 ton of cane sugar guaranteed for next year towards the 1·4 million tons which some people agreed we would get, the future of cane producers and of sugar refineries in this country is particularly critical.
My hon. Friend has been to see me. The assurances I have received are particularly satisfactory. The Lardinois proposals go beyond the figure that he mentioned, and he knows it.
I have already answered several people in interruptions. I do not want to monopolise the time of the House because back benchers will want to make speeches.
We took over from the Conservative Government—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Am I not right in thinking that it is a tradition of this House, which is responsible for so many important sections of the British Isles, that when a whole section is in dangerous jeopardy and the Minister is specifically dealing with it in his speech, if he gives way to others, he should in courtesy give way to those who represent that section?
The right hon. Gentleman said that the deal that he did over cane sugar was satisfactory. Would he not agree that if we pay £140 per ton to the EEC, the EEC will have to buy that sugar on the world market, where the price is currently running at about £420 per ton, which means that there will have to be a subsidy of £280, of which this country will pay 25 per cent.? If one adds to the £140 per ton the £70 which is 25 per cent. of the £280, that gives a figure of £210 per ton. If we could have got a deal with Australia at £180 per ton, surely the consumer in the shops or the taxpayer is paying far too much for sugar.
I know that the hon. Member has a deep interest in the industry. I would only say that it was not possible to get an Australian deal on this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I did the negotiations. I believe that, through the Community, unless it was agreed by the Community—[Interruption.] I did the negotiations. All I am saying at this stage is that I believe that the deal was a very good one.
I should like to conclude by examining the situation broadly. First, we took over from the Conservative Government a situation in which they had abandoned the beef guarantee and dismantled a number of important subsidies, such as the fertiliser and lime subsidies. It would appear that they were putting their faith in intervention in order to deal with the surplus of beef which was in prospect. Certainly they should have anticipated such a surplus: in the 1972 Annual Review White Paper, for example, they made it clear that they had
decided to put the chief emphasis on the livestock sector and particularly on cattle".
We decided not to operate intervention. Experience in other countries during this summer and autumn has shown that the Conservative Government would have been putting their faith in a quite unreliable method of assuring producers' returns.
In the space of a few short months, the Labour Government have taken substantial action. We came to office finding ourselves a member of the Community on terms which, as is well known, we do not regard as satisfactory. Nevertheless, we have not allowed this to prejudice United Kingdom interests. Accordingly, with the aim of securing the best possible deal for our consumers and producers we have participated fully in the business of the Community. Indeed, I even broke off during my own election campaigning in order to attend the whole of a vital meeting of the Council of Ministers in Luxembourg. We pressed for a stocktaking of the common agricultural policy. This is now under way in Brussels. We have negotiated a £100 million increase in milk producers' returns. We are paying £80 million into the beef industry directly through the premia, partly financed by FEOGA, and through the higher calf subsidy.
We have increased the cash flow of beef producers and rearers by bringing forward the 1975 payments of the beef and hill cow subsidies. We have made a large increase in the hill sheep subsidy. We have also paid a special subsidy to pig producers. We have negotiated a higher price and substantial quota increases for United Kingdom sugar beet producers. We have paid a special oil subsidy for glasshouse producers. We have reintroduced the lime subsidy. We have negotiated an extension of Community-financed import subsidies on cereals to the benefit of all forms of our livestock production. All this represents a massive injection of nearly £300 million into the industry. We have also set out today our intentions on a new and better Community régime for beef. All this has been achieved without imposing any resulting substantial increase on our consumers' food bills.
Our agricultural policy, unlike—
If so, he does not listen to what they say. It is absolutely fantastic that we should have heard a speech like that from a Minister at this time. He is facing an industry crumbling around his feet and all he can do is say, "We have done this; we have done that." What he has done so far amounts to practically nothing. Unless he does something quickly, there will be no farmers next years to produce the food.
We on the Opposition side have been accused at times of being alarmist. Of course we are alarmist at present. Many of us represent constituencies with many farmers. We do not look for much sympathy from the Labour Party. We know only too well that unless one goes down a mine or works in a steel works, one will not get much sympathy from it. That is the sort of situation that this country faces.
It cannot be said that the Government have not been given warnings. In May of this year, farmers' unions from all the home counties gave severe warnings to the Government about what we were likely to face. Also in May, the Scottish NFU warned about poultry, pigs and beef, and also said that egg producers' losses were running at £500,000 a week. It warned that the poultrymeat industry was running a loss of £750,00 per week.
In these conditions, why are we faced with the Minister's complacency? We were told that the number of breeding herds of pigs was likely to fall by up to 20 per cent. Food costs in this part of the industry amount to 80 per cent. of production costs. In May 1973, one ton of compound feed cost £48. By May 1974, the price had risen to £86. The market price, despite what the Minister has said, did not keep up with production costs.
The Minister referred to the £4·60 per score for pigs, but in May of this year, the price was around £3·77. This is simply not good enough. Sow slaughterings since the beginning of this year have doubled over any previous similar period. The result must be shortages and higher prices, which will affect the consumer.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) said that when prices drop on the market it still does not seem to affect the cost of the end product. Perhaps the Minister could suggest to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection that this would be a suitable exercise for her Department. Why is it that when prices drop in the market there still appears to be no similar drop in the shops?
I am glad to hear that; it is a source of great concern to farmers throughout the country.
I want to talk about the beef industry particularly as it affects Scotland. No doubt right hon. and hon. Members will be making points about the industry as it affects the rest of the United Kingdom, but whatever hardship is being experienced by the agriculture industry in other parts of the United Kingdom, that which is being experienced in Scotland is made that much worse because of transportation costs. The present strikes that we have in Scotland, which it is estimated will put 25 per cent. on to costs of haulage, will affect the agriculture industry to an even greater degree.
The beef industry in Scotland is a major one. It accounts for 30 per cent. of the total output of Scottish agriculture. It is valued at about £100 million a year. In May of this year, again, the Scottish NFU gave a warning. It pointed out that production of beef was a long-term investment and that beef producers must be given some assurance that their investment would be worth while and would be safeguarded if they were to undertake the kind of investment necessary to bring the beef industry up to standard.
I want to mention some of the other warnings which have been given from Scottish sources. We believe that there must be an immediate return to a policy of expansion. We are supported in this view by the Scottish NFU, which, in May of this year, in its hand-out brief, stated:
We believe that a vigorous, progressive and expanding beef industry is important for Scottish agriculture and for the country as a whole. It is an industry which has a striking record of efficiency based on skills, technique and knowledge which have put Scotland in the forefront of developments in livestock.
That is the situation in regard to Scottish livestock. Unless action is taken, and taken quickly, the whole country will suffer as a result of the damage to the livestock industry.
The Black Isle and Mid-Ross Branch of the Scottish NFU, in my constituency, sent a telegram to the Prime Minister in March of this year drawing his attention to the serious state of the industry. On 6th May the president of that branch, who himself has a medium-to-small interest in livestock, sent the Prime Minister details of just how serious the situation was. He illustrated that cattle which he had bought in October 1973 and had kept during the winter and sold in April 1974 had, for him, realised a loss per beast of £40·11. At the same time, he submitted details from two other members of that branch of the Scottish NFU who had suffered similar losses. This can be reflected all over Scotland.
Today, however, I should like to turn to the very small men in agriculture, because it is they who are least able to withstand the conditions prevailing—the small group of people, in mostly single-person units, who farm in the western highlands of Scotland. I should like to give one or two figures which have been passed to me by these people. I received a letter only this morning from the Loch Duich Branch of the Scottish NFU. This branch, by normal standards, has relatively few members, but it is a branch which must be considered—[Interruption.] Hon. Members on the Government benches may laugh at this sort of thing, but those of us who represent rural constituencies, in which the population is spread over a considerable area, represent parts of the country in which, we believe, people count—each and every individual. We may not represent the hordes of the industrial areas, but we represent areas in which people matter. We shall make quite sure that they get a hearing in this House that is just the same as the hearings obtained in this House by the big unions.
The figures submitted to me are based on a unit of 500 ewes and 20 cows, and have been presented to me by the combined group I have mentioned. In 1973 their costs amounted to £1,365. That was until October of that year. The similar costs today are £1,957—an increase of about £600. The sales of their livestock in 1973 amounted to £4,440, but this year their livestock was sold for £2,660. That is a drop of £1,800. That means a drop of £2,400 in gross income. To the tiny unit that is a drop of astronomic proportions, which simply cannot be maintained or absorbed. When one considers that these people have to put up with the 20 per cent. inflationary rise which we all face, one can really appreciate the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves.
There is a strange paradox in many parts of Scotland where, because of oil-related developments, companies moving into areas are able to claim substantial Government grants in order to help them with their operations, while only a few miles away sections of the agriculture industry are virtually dying on their feet.
The question of who is to blame for this is not a matter of immediate issue today. The present Government are the Government of the land. It is up to them to act, and to act quickly, for if they do not the country will suffer as a result, because there simply will not be farmers to produce the livestock that we shall need for the consumer market in the years ahead.
On behalf of the small men in agriculture as well as the larger farmers, I plead with the Minister to act, and to act quickly—and to get rid of his complacency.
I thought that the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) was rather less than objective when he launched his intemperate attack upon my right hon. Friend the Minister at the commencement of his speech. In this House we should try to look at the whole picture and be as objective as we can. The hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends were not so excited in February when the cost of feeding stuffs soared. Indeed, that cost doubled during the three years in which the Conservatives were in office. Therefore, the difficulties that exist are not, in all fairness, attributable to the present Government. They are a cumulative problem and have been developing over a period of years. It is our job to see whether we can suggest ways and means of solving it.
I should have thought that the reference in the Queen's Speech to
the value to the nation of expanding domestic food production
would have received general support on all sides of the House. The expansion of agricultural production is, without question, essential for simple economic reasons. To achieve it, all of us know, farmers must be enabled to plan for some years ahead. We import about one-third of the temperate foodstuffs that we eat. If we can grow more at home, we shall be saving money and eating better at the same time. The era of cheap food, as
we knew it some years ago, is over. There are no "bargain basements" for food overseas any more. I think that everyone realises that today.
In a comparatively short space of time during the previous Parliament, my right hon Friend the Minister and the Government had some substantial achievements, for which they must be given credit. By way of the calf subsidy, to which my right hon. Friend has referred, the pig subsidy, the horticultural oil subsidy and the lime subsidy, some £77 million was injected into the industry in a short space of time. In addition, as my right hon. Friend said, more than £100 million has gone into the dairy industry. Negotiations have been started to bring about some radical and necessary changes in the common agricultural policy. I have no doubt that these will be pressed forward with determination.
At present, the cereal farmer is doing well, and the problems of the dairy farmer have been alleviated as a result of the recent award. But, as we have already heard, there is an acute problem in the beef sector, and I shall now address myself to that.
The crisis is significant in the Welsh context because of the dependence of Welsh agriculture on the livestock sector. My right hon. Friend said that beef represented 15 per cent. of the total agricultural production of the United Kingdom. Cattle account for more than 62 per cent. of total Welsh agricultural production, and the proportion for beef alone is 26·5 per cent. Obviously, therefore, today's problem is far more acute in Wales.
The production of cereals, which is so important in eastern England, is very limited in Wales. We do not benefit to anything like the same extent. A crisis on the livestock side, therefore, hits the Principality very hard.
There has been a downward trend in the price paid to the farmer for beef since the beginning of 1973. Beef farmers have been losing money because the prices they receive have not risen in line with the costs of production. The danger here is a decline in the breeding herd and an inevitable shortfall in production, with the economic consequences which I have mentioned—a beef shortage, and high-cost imports later on.
We realise—this has been pointed out on several occasions, but it is worth repeating—that when my right hon. Friend took over in March costs in the agriculture industry had reached the astronomical sum of £720 million in 1973–74, and it is against that background that one has to view the industry's problems at this time.
During the past few weeks I have had several meetings with farmers in my constituency. It would be an understatement if I were to say that they are deeply worried men. The prices which they have been receiving in the market in Llangefni in Anglesey—I choose my word with care—have been derisory, and that is for good quality cattle, too. I could give many examples, but here is one, though not the worst. I know of one farmer who sold 28 beef cows at prices ranging from £26 to £42 a head, with strong Buckler calves born in the early spring being sold at £30 each. That is the sort of return which farmers are receiving —far below production costs.
It would help if farmers could hold on to the animals for a further period, but the truth is that most of them are forced to sell at great losses in order to meet their obligations in terms of rent, bank interest and overdrafts, feed costs and other bills, and, of course, to live as well.
The fodder situation in Wales is critical because of the prolonged wet weather. I do not know what figures other hon. Members may have, but I understand that at present a ton of hay costs between £80 and £95, the figure varying in different parts of North Wales, mid-Wales and South Wales.
It is a depressing story. Urgent action is essential if the rot is to be stopped and confidence restored to this sector. As the House knows—my right hon. Friend referred to this—a number of farmers have made protest demonstrations at the port of Holyhead in my constituency and at other ports which receive cattle from Ireland. I have been deeply anxious about the possible consequences of these protests. We read in The Times yesterday that the Chief Constable of North Wales, speaking to the farmers at Holyhead, said:
We are on the verge of tragedy here, and there is no doubt of the danger to life and limb.
He went on:
I am prepared to go to London personally to explain to the Minister of Agriculture the dangers we are in. I ask you to bear in mind the consequences of staying here.
As the House knows, there were further disturbances at Holyhead last night. I spoke to the chief constable on the telephone from London in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and also to the farmers' leaders, whom I had asked to come to the telephone. I urged them to leave the port, and said that I would convey their views to my right hon. Friend as soon as possible, which I did on Tuesday morning.
I add only that, while I understand the acute worries which prompt farmers to protest, I cannot defend the invasion of the port or any confrontation with the police and with the workers at Holyhead, who have no responsibility in this matter and have their own livelihood to consider. The time will come when the farmers will need the port of Holyhead again. It is a very short-sighted policy which they are pursuing, and one which causes great distress.
It is my duty, however, in line with the undertaking which I gave to the farmers, to read out the urgent request which they are making to my right hon. Friend. I hope, however, that, as a result of this debate and the representations which hon. Members on both sides are making, the farmers will reconsider their decision to continue these demonstrations. This is what the farmers ask. First, they ask the Government
to put into effect the floor of £18·25 per live cwt. …back-dated to 5th August.
Their request goes on:
2. That the recommendations of the O'Brien Committee be implemented, thereby lifting the ban placed on the live export of stock. It is known that there is a considerable demand for young calves in the European countries and also for the heavy type of beef animals.
3. That there should be a domiciliary period of three months for live cattle imported from the Irish Republic before they become eligible for the beef slaughter premium.
4. That a country-wide investigation be undertaken by the Minister of Agriculture to ascertain where fodder is available and to make the same available to farmers in those parts of the country where there is a desperate shortage, and to take immediate steps to prevent the export of fodder from the United Kingdom.
It would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman would himself comment on one of the matters which he has just read out from the farmers' document. I refer to the possibility of a waiting period of perhaps 60 days for Irish cattle coming into this country before they qualify for the slaughter premium. We have had this sort of arrangement before, and the right hon. Gentleman has wide experience of these matters. He will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) made the same suggestion in his opening speech. Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this matter warrants careful and sympathetic consideration?
As I have said, this is a strong recommendation from the farmers of North Wales, and it has also been represented to my right hon. Friend the Minister by the farming unions. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that before my right hon. Friend can make a statement on a matter of this kind he must engage in discussions with other Governments. As I see it, this is one of the questions which my right hon. Friend should take carefully into account.
I believe that my right hon. Friend made his July statement in the utmost good faith. There is no doubt that his record in relation to the farming industry is a good one, and farmers know that he is a good friend of the industry. But the truth is that the money which has been paid out and which was intended to give the farmer a reasonable minimum price has not gone to the farmer—or, indeed, to the housewife in proportionately cheaper meat over the counter. I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about the proposed new beef regime. These are sensible proposals, and I am certain that when March comes, if this scheme is put into operation, the beef sector will be able to look forward to a satisfactory future. But the need is to deal with the immediate problem. The administrative machinery operating the beef slaughter premium has not been effective, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will comment on that. Market prices have dropped with each increase in the premium.
Urgent action is necessary to ensure that the money goes where my right hon. Friend intended it to go—to the producer. Again, without fodder, which is both scarce and very expensive, farmers will either dispose of their stocks at low prices or keep them and be unable to feed them. The problem is a short-term one, but it is urgent if we are to save the beef herd from a disastrous decline. If the only solution is a temporary floor to the market until March, and I appreciate the difficulties that that involves, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will consider taking the necessary action. I do not think we can afford to wait until March, as I am sure my right hon. Friend concedes. I am deeply worried about this position, and I am sure that the Government, in order to help the farmers, will wish to take action as soon as possible.
Exaggeration does not help to solve any problem, but I am bound to say that I have not met a group of men as frustrated and desperate as the livestock farmers in Wales now are. They borrowed and invested for expansion, as they were advised to do. I have urged them in this debate to avoid violence, because that is not in their nature and it will not help their case. I also plead with my right hon. Friends, however, to take immediate action to help them over these few short critical months.
My colleagues and I are deeply disappointed that very little reference was contained in the Gracious Speech to the plight of the farmers. We are all aware that the Liberal Party and the Nationals have tabled an appropriate amendment to the motion for the Address. Why, I wonder, have the Conservatives not tabled such an amendment? Is it because they were responsible for abolishing the guaranteed price system for the British farmer?
We have today met dozens of farmers from Wales, and they are keen that we should reintroduce the guaranteed price system for beef as soon as possible. The greatest dissatisfaction has been felt throughout the farming industry at the lack of concern, urgency and determination by the Government to solve the crisis the industry now faces—the worst, I believe, since the 1930s.
On 6th May this year the Secretary of State for Wales told me in reply to a Question that the agriculture industry should not talk itself into a crisis. I wonder whether he still holds that view. We are in a major crisis, but it is not because we have talked ourselves into it. It was a great pity that because of the heavy burden of work he carries in the Welsh Office the right hon. and learned Gentleman was unable to attend the meeting this morning which was so ably chaired by Cledwyn Hughes, the right hon. Member for Anglesey.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The farmers were in a militant mood this morning. They said that they would not leave London until they were given the assurance that the guaranteed price system would be restored within the next few days. Is there any just reason why the Minister will not reintroduce the guaranteed price system for beef within the next few days? If he cannot do that, what are his alternative proposals? The farmers cannot wait.
We have discussed inflation for a long time but another word is now coming into use these days, and that word is "starvation". Many farmers in Wales and throughout Britain are worried that much of their stock will starve during the winter months. Cannot the Minister do anything to help? He has just given an assurance that he will look into the question of fodder. I have here a copy of a letter which Mr. Geoffrey Finch, who is one of the largest agricultural merchants in England, sent to the Prime Minister. He says:
Dear Mr. Wilson,
I should think by now it is time something was done regarding the feeding stuffs position in this country, mainly regarding supplies to the hard hit farmers of Wales who, over the last few years, have become one of our main stock rearing areas. We are fodder merchants ourselves and farmers and realise the seriousness of the situation at the present moment.
I am informed by my salesmen in Wales that unless something is done very very quickly there will be thousands of stock which will starve to death in this coming winter.
We are facing a grave situation. I will not argue the Minister's proposals which are to be introduced on 1st March. But the farmers are worried at what will happen during the next six months. Many of them are facing bankruptcy. Many of them are selling stock that they should retain for breeding. The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) gave figures showing that calf slaughterings increased by 400 per cent. in September this year compared with the previous September. There will
be a shortage in the near future if slaughterings continue at that very high rate. We were told this morning that cows were being sold in Welshpool Market for £1. They were given away. Barley and straw were costing farmers in the region of £35 to £40 a ton.
I hope that the Minister will have another look at his proposals and do something in the near future to help the farmers. If he does not, when history is written I am afraid that the name of Fred Peart will go down as the Minister who forgot the farmers in Wales and the rest of the country.
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye so that I may make my maiden speech at an early opportunity and participate in the debate on matters that are far removed from the substance of the discussion in hand.
I hope that my contribution will accord with the best practices of the House. I represent the constituency of Ipswich. With due deference to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), it is the most important manufacturing and commercial town in East Anglia.
Before I say anything about my constituency in any detail I should like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Ernie Money, who before the 10th of this month was the hon. Member for Ipswich. I do so without reluctance, because of his diligence in the constituency for the causes which he embraced and the work which he did while he was a Member of this House. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Sir Dingle Foot, who represented Ipswich from 1957 till 1970. He has had a very distinguished career in public life. He is a very senior member of the legal profession and currently enjoys a formidable international reputation. In all that he has done and in all that he did he upheld the very best qualities of democracy and humanitarian concern.
The town of Ipswich has a very long history. It owes its importance to its position at the head of the River Orwell. It was a flourishing settlement in Saxon times, but its commerce and peace were interrupted when it was sacked by the Danes in 991. It was a thriving town in mediaeval times, and in 1200, in the reign of King John, it received the first charter of its liberties. The last of the great mediaeval statesmen, Cardinal Wolsey, was born in Ipswich, in a house near St. Nicholas Church. My researches reveal that his father was described as either a tavern keeper or a butcher. He was a man of humble birth but high ambition, and he has given us one of the best historical examples, I am told, of what the political pundits call vertical political mobility—both up and down. I am very pleased to say that he was unashamed of his humble birth, but I am rather disturbed to have to relate that his fall in 1529 indicated the eternal truism that politics is very often a hazardous and an ungrateful trade.
The picture of Ipswich through the years, both in words and in paint on the canvas, has been one of gable-roofed houses huddled close to the estuary of the Orwell. In reality, perhaps, the true picture was always more prosaic, but I must tell hon. Members that one of the greatest writers on British agriculture—Thomas Tusser—in the latter part of the sixteenth century, described Ipswich as
a town of price, like paradise.
Whether he meant that even paradise has its price is lost to us, but the general picture is very clear, because some time later Daniel Defoe described Ipswich as "gay and attractive", and he described the Presbyterian chapel as
the gayest Church in Town.
I would remind hon. Members that he was describing the architecture and not the diversions of the congregation.
Today, Ipswich is a thriving manufacturing and commercial town. It has a population of 123,000. It has a work force of 68,000, 40 per cent. of whom are in manufacturing industry while the rest are in rapidly expanding service trades. The trade of the port of Ipswich reflects its economic and commercial structure, and it has a very vigorous trade with Europe which is rapidly expanding. At this moment the port of Ipswich is expanding through it west bank terminal and container depot. The port has an established future which will be based on channelling an expanding manufacturing industry through a framework of efficient modern port facilities.
I cannot leave this section of my speech without mentioning the pride of place in my community—the Ipswich Town Football Club. Currently, it lies third in the First Division. I am sorry to say that since I became the borough Member the team has dropped two places in the league, but I can assure the House that this is a pure coincidence and it is certain to be temporary. I give all hon. Members due warning if they have First Division football teams in their constituencies, and I say to them, "When you come to Portman Road you will indeed be put to it."
The problems of Ipswich are those of a growing town whose physical resources and environment are coming under very great pressure. It is a pressure coming from, amongst other things, our increased trade with Europe and the quickening pace of economic life in East Anglia. We are in urgent need, among other things, of a bypass to relieve the borough of the very heavy road traffic coming from the Midlands. I shall campaign for this very strongly, as a Member of this House, as indeed, did my predecessor.
The most serious problem in the borough of Ipswich is, without question, housing. As in all urban areas, the housing statistics have to be looked at with increasing concern. There is a very large and unfulfilled demand for housing for rent, and for many people of modest means facing the private market is becoming more and more difficult week by week. This is why I am greatly encouraged by the paragraphs in the Gracious Speech which concern the provision of more houses to rent and the improvement of the quality of the stock of existing property.
I also welcome the proposals to secure an adequate flow of mortgages, because the fluctuations in building society finance have had a serious effect on lender and borrower, and stabilisation is greatly to be welcomed. Although it is to be welcomed, however, I fear that it is not the main problem. Many families who come to see me in my surgeries could service a loan. What they lack is the deposit in order to get started. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, when he deliberates on these matters, to consider some sort of a scheme which incorporates a mortgage advance. This would provide many ordinary people of modest means who want to buy a house of their own with the opportunity of getting started.
I also welcome—because I have seen some constructive examples of them in my constituency—houses built to rent by housing associations. I do so for two reasons. First, it mobilises the resources for house building to a much greater extent than if these associations did not exist. More important, we are rapidly moving towards a situation in which overwhelmingly predominant institutions in the housing market are building societies and local authorities. This is a trend about which I have reservations. In many cases it means not only institutional polarisation but social polarisation as well. Although I do not regret the passing of the private landlord—because I do not believe in the letting of houses for profit—I deprecate the fact that there is a narrow range of institutions providing finance and expertise for increasing the supply of houses.
I shall make one more point which I hope will not be too controversial for a maiden speech. If Ipswich, as well as other towns, is to house its expanding population it must search for land outside its boundaries. If houses are to be built at reasonable prices, land must be acquired at prices which are not unreasonably inflated by pressures created by market prices. I strongly support the view, because much depends on it, that land for development should be acquired for community ownership at reasonable prices so that poor people can be adequately housed.
In the cold print of housing statistics—including figures on starts and completions—the fact that there is a human story behind each statistic is sometimes lost sight of. In Ipswich, as elsewhere, many ordinary families face the threat of breakdown because of inadequate housing. There is enormous pressure on family life. This is a substantial factor in bad physical and mental health, and, no matter how good schools and other educational facilities may be, we shall never educate young children to appreciate a slum.
Real human issues are associated with the question of roofs over heads. Therefore, I welcome the reference to housing in the Gracious Speech, and I am confident that in the months ahead those hopeful paragraphs in the Gracious Speech will be translated into reality for hundreds and, indeed, thousands of ordinary people.
I had been in the House a number of years before I had the privilege of congratulating a maiden speaker on his address. This lot first fell to me at the beginning of the last Session when I had the privilege of congratulating my own new Member of Parliament on his first speech in the House. It is now my lot to congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) on the observations he has addressed to us.
I do not immediately think of Ipswich as an agricultural area, but I could follow the references which the hon. Member made regarding football. Other parts of his speech contained a few controversial matters, but perhaps I should pay no attention to those. What the hon. Gentleman has said was put in an attractive way and we greatly look forward to hearing him on many future occasions.
I am sorry that the Minister of Agriculture has left the Chamber because I particulary wanted to remind him about a letter which was sent to him on 21st October, not many days ago. It was from the chairman of the livestock and wool committee of the East Sussex branch of the NFU. The chairman of the committee urged the resignation of the Minister. I am not sure whether the letter ever reached its target, because the reply was a brief message, signed by an assistant private secretary, saying that the matter had been noted.
The letter was sent to the Minister after he announced increased payments for milk producers. I would have liked to tell him directly that he has said nothing today that would lead the chairman of the livestock and wool committee of the East Sussex NFU to change his mind.
I did not come here in a very hopeful frame of mind because I had seen the Gracious Speech and noted that agriculture rated only the twentieth of the 29 paragraphs of the Speech, and what was stated in the Speech was not a very clear indication of what is to happen to the industry. I had hoped that when the Prime Minister spoke at the start of this debate he might at least have said something about agriculture, but the only reference remotely relating to agriculture that I could detect was a proposal for the abolition of hare coursing.
I want the Minister to know that nothing he has said today will affect the agricultural position in East Sussex. I was interested to note that the confidence which the Minister urges the agriculture industry to have is apparently not shared by people residing in Anglesey. My constituency is a long way from Anglesey, but I assure the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) that similar views to those held there are held by farmers in East Sussex.
In the past there has been a period of expansion in agriculture and it is only in the past six or eight months that that confidence has disappeared. We should recall the expansion that took place over seven years up until 1973. If we also consider current cattle and sheep numbers as against those of some years ago, we can see that they have increased by 2·7 million and 2 million respectively.
When I was fighting the February General Election the main thing urged upon me by farmers was that we should see that the transitional period towards Community arrangements was telescoped so that we would be on a full Community basis as soon as possible. The factors which today are weighing on the minds of farmers in my constituency are those which my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) has brought to the attention of the House.
I therefore wish to refer briefly to the promise given on 8th May by the Minister of Agriculture that it was no part of the Government's intention to let beef prices fall to unrealistic levels. On 19th June the Minister was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire what he was going to do about beef. He replied with the nebulous phrase
That is for me to decide."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th June 1974; Vol. 875, c. 487.]
The farmers of East Sussex have been waiting over four months to hear what the Minister is to decide.
When asked on 4th July when his proposals to increase end prices would become available, the Minister's answer was that it would be within the next three or four months. He was asked when profitability would be achieved and he said that that would be when the scheme was working. Here we are at the end of October, and all he can say to us today is that discussions are going on and that he hopes that on 1st March there will be a wonderful new scheme.
I join the right hon. Member for Anglesey in saying to the Minister qu0ite frankly that it is no good waiting until 1st March, because the problems which the farming industry is now facing mean that 1st March will be too late to put the industry back into a position of being able to expand in the way which the Minister indicates he may wish.
Anyone who has been interested in farming this year knows that it is perhaps the most difficult year in memory. The harvest has been very difficult and the hay crop has been very small. I have been talking to somebody who has visited a number of farms in the south-east of England in recent weeks. He tells me that in that area he found only one farm that has adequate fodder for the whole of the forthcoming winter. That illustrates the dangerous situation farmers are now facing.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that it was the Conservatives who destroyed confidence, but if farmers were today, this October, receiving intervention price of £20·01, they would be in a very much better position than prevails in markets of which I am aware in the southeast where a figure of £12 per cwt. is by no means an unusual price for fat cattle, while the top price for sheep recently was £9. Only a day or two ago Sir Henry Plumb said that a calf was being sold in the market at a lower price than a rabbit. That is an indication of the way in which the industry's confidence has evaporated.
In my area slaughterhouses are rationing the number of animals they can put through for the butchers. The animals going through the slaughterhouses are those that should be retained because they are not finished. The people are not being provided with the meat they should be getting. The wrong cattle are being slaughtered. By 1st March they will not be there to go on providing the meat that we shall require. It is not much use the Minister talking about 1st March if he will not have a viable beef industry then.
The Minister referred to the pig position. The price that has been paid, £4·85 per score, has only just been covering the pig producers' costs. We all know that pig producers have had a very difficult time for many months. Those in my area tell me that, although they are receiving £4·85 now, they know that on 3rd November the 50p per score will be removed. They are very apprehensive about what the future holds for their industry.
I have written to the Ministry over recent months about most commodities. The only other one I should like to mention is eggs. I corresponded with both the previous Minister of State, the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), and the present Minister of State, the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop), on the subject. They said that the imports from France were of no significance because they were only 2½ per cent. of the total. In fact, just after I heard from the present Minister of State, who was then Parliamentary Secretary, that those 2½ per cent. were of little significance, the arrangements in the Common Market were such that French eggs were taken off the English market and exported to various places in North Africa. During that period eggs went up from 19.4p a dozen to 26½p a dozen. That is an indication of the attention the Ministry pays to the problems of the egg industry. The matter caused the greatest dissatisfaction when I circulated those two letters from the then Minister of State and the then Parliamentary Secretary.
It would not be proper to leave the question of agriculture without referring to taxation. The whole strength of English agriculture is based on its structure. The Government's present proposals as we understand them must mean that the fundamental structure of agriculture will be destroyed. The agricultural side has already been dealt with, so I shall say just a word about woodlands, to which it appears that no consideration is being given. Our woodlands produce about 8 per cent. of the country's net requirements. Last year we imported £1,300 million worth of timber and timber products, and the figure may be as much as £2,000 million this year.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Conservative Government's scrapping of existing forestry policy caused a great deal of anger to many people interested in forestry, so much so that in a debate in the other place 22 out of 24 speakers attacked the then Government? The Government who took office on 4th March have given a great deal of consideration to forestry, and a policy has emerged that is much better than that set out in the previous Government's White Paper of July 1972.
I cannot see how that intervention in any way affects the point I was about to make, which is that an oak tree takes about 100 years to mature; and if the proposed taxation policy is proceeded with the tree may well be subjected to tax on five or more occasions during its lifetime. Therefore, surely no one will be planting oak trees or making any effort to see that the forests are replanted. Under the present taxation system substantial farmers are already subjected to the highest rate of tax of any country in Europe. I hope that the Government will reconsider these proposals in relation to agriculture and forestry before they are put to the House.
The industry has a productivity record of a 6 per cent. increase per year, which is as good as that of any industry in the country. Therefore, it seems sensible that it should receive more incentives than any other industry. If it were encouraged, it would certainly be able to reduce our expenditure on imported food. Food from abroad is no longer cheap and no longer plentiful. There are no longer large stocks of cereals available in various parts of the world. Even if there were, we should still be subjected to the oil price increases, as a result of which we should not be able to bring stocks here cheaply.
The Minister should be condemned for his complacent attitude to agriculture. I wish to put to him three concrete suggestions from the Rye Branch of the NFU, one of the most important branches in the country. The first is that the right hon. Gentleman must see that a realistic price is provided for beef, not on 1st March but now. Secondly, there should be a more regular review of agricultural prices. The Rye branch suggests that it should be done at six-monthly intervals. Thirdly, as there is such a shortage of slaughterhouse capacity, everything must be done to see that that capacity is in no way reduced and that the animals that should go to slaughter can do so.
The message I want to leave with the Minister is that, just as in Anglesey, we in East Sussex are not satisfied with the way in which he is running his Ministry.
Few Labour representatives won seats in the county council areas a few days ago. Although he is not a sponsored member of the National Farmers' Union, the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Irvine), like many of his colleagues, speaks for the NFU. He may be a farmer himself. I think that he has never been to Hull in his life.
I said that the hon. Gentleman was not a sponsored member. I said that although he was not a sponsored member he spoke awfully well for that body.
There are many thousands of fishermen in my constituency, and I shall refer to the condition of the fishing industry. Before doing so I must tell the hon. Member for Rye that fishing vessel owners and farmers have something in common. They are both gloomy about the future, despite all the money they have received from Labour Governments in the form of subsidies. However, as soon as they experience 48 hours of difficulty they are at once calling wolf in loud voices. If the fishing owners and the farmers are now calling for help because of the cost of fuel, all I can say is that we would like to see their accounts for the past two, five or seven years.
No one can deny that both the farmers and the fishing vessel owners have done well during the past few years. No one wishes to deny them the opportunity to do well. All I am saying is that we should examine their books. If they now make claims for help, their case must not be merely validated but must be seen to be absolutely copper-bottomed before the House decides to give them any more money.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not now present, but before he left he was chided by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), the Opposition spokesman on agriculture, because there was only one sentence in the Queen's Speech about farming. In addition, there is not a word about fishing. I wish to refer to some matters that my right hon. Friend's capable deputies who now occupy the Government Front Bench can convey to him.
Like the farmers, the fishing vessel owners are shouting loudly for money. At the moment it is a large SOS. That is the call from all sections of the fishing industry—namely, inshore fishing, middle water fishing and deep-water fishing. In addition there are one or two Opposition Members who may echo that call. I see the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) nodding his head in unison.
Further, I refer to limits because whether they are off Iceland, Norway or in the Channel they are heavily bound up with the profit-making capacity of our fishing boats. Of course the fishing vessel owners and the farmers have had good years, and we shall want to know where all the money has gone that has been made in those years. Any business organisation is expected to put away some proportion of the money that it makes and to make certain plans for what must inevitably be a more difficult future. That applies to Hawker Siddeley and the HS146 and to all other firms. Such conduct was to be expected of Ferranti, Upper Clyde, Court Line, Alfred Herbert or any other firm.
If the farmers and the fishermen come to us, they must justify their claims. The behaviour of the fishing vessel owners and the farmers dismays many people who are well-wishers of both industries. Many of my hon. Friends and I believe that they come sometimes just a bit too quickly. They have friends on the Government benches. Let us not have them calling wolf too often. That is the sort of language that we are now hearing.
The British Tourist Federation is now saying:
The situation in the ports is approaching desperation level.
Austin Laing, who is the Director-General of the BTF, has said:
Whilst an application has been made no amount has been defined. The amount is something that needs to be discussed after we have persuaded the Government"—
that assistance for the industry is needed.
If such applications are to be made, not merely the Government but hon. Members must know, as well as trade union workers throughout the industry, why and how they are being made.
We are now hearing language that is a little too high-flown. It is said:
Failure by the Government to grant a subsidy would bring about a sharp and severe contraction of fishing and could well lead to a situation from which the industry might never recover.
That is the present mood of the fishing vessel owners. I have listened to speeches from Opposition Members about the farming industry and it seems that that is also the mood of the farming leaders. Further, it is the mood of some Opposition back benchers.
It is difficult to make any forecasts about the next 12 months or two years beyond saying that costs in farming and in fishing will obviously be higher. In the New Year fuel costs will be three or four times what they have been for the past few years. Unless we can settle our limits, it will be difficult to say what will happen. For example, the Iceland agreement will continue for two years. We thought that we would catch 130,000 tons of fish. That was the target. In fact the deep-sea fleet from Hull and Grimsby, Fleetwood and Aberdeen caught 154,000 tons of fish. We have not done too badly in that region. In Hull we are having a magnificent new dock conversion at the Albert Dock, next door to the old St. Andrew's Dock. As a result of higher fuel costs, there will be a smaller fishing fleet. It is estimated that a middle-water or distant-water vessel on putting to sea will cost £200 more per day to operate. That is a lot of money. If the vessel is out for 27 days, the extra cost will be substantial on top of the escalating overheads and the many inflationary factors that now exist.
There are possible alternatives. A good and efficient farmer, like a good and efficient fishing vessel owner, can obviously cut back and economise. In fact, the fleet is now cutting back. There are firms like Alfred Bannister on the South Bank in Grimsby which are selling vessels to Australia. There has just been a £300,000 deal as a result of selling boats to the Southern Ocean Company which fishes off Perth and Albany in South-West Australia.
If difficulties lie ahead—I am sure that they do—we shall have to do the best we can in Icelandic and Norwegian waters to get the best possible terms. Even allowing for that, there is no doubt that the deep-sea fleet is cutting back in the sense of no longer building large vessels to go, for example, to Labrador and Spitzbergen. It is going to use the stock that it now has. Vessels are now being built by people such as Newington, Marr and Boston Deep Sea to the highest degree of efficiency. They are middle-water vessels and they will ensure that, as we economise greater efficiency can be achieved.
Our fishing fleets have made some magnificent catches off Iceland, but the opportunities for this will run out within two years. Everything depends on the setting of limits, and I hope that I can carry hon. Members with me when I say that following Caracas we shall have to extend our fishing limits to safeguard our fishermen. Conservative Members support the farmers, and I want to support my people, the fishermen.
I repeat that we shall have to extend the fishing limits around our shores. This is inevitable, and it is the honest and decent thing to do. It was in this spirit that the debate on the Law of the Sea took place in Caracas, and I have no doubt that the matter will be debated again at Geneva or Vienna when there is the third session of international discussions on this subject.
I am expressing the feeling of many people when I say that a change in limits must come about. I am convinced that that will happen, just as Charles Meek, the head of the White Fish Authority, which has moved to Edinburgh, is convinced that it will. The change is inevitable, and the sooner it comes the better.
The Minister should adopt a policy of making what is commonly termed a swop. We must ask the Norwegians and Icelanders for licences to fish in their waters to catch 50,000 or 80,000 tons at given times of the year. In return we must allow the Dutch, the Belgians, the Danes and the Poles, who have fished off Scotland for perhaps 80 years, to fish in our waters. We must come to a decent, civilised deal on this matter. I may shock some people by saying that we must deal with this matter in the way that international companies get permission to mine in Africa, but that is the kind of arrangement that will have to be made.
Last Thursday afternoon I attended the saddest occasion of my life, although I have seen miners carried out of a pit and the window blinds going down in the village. I was at the Royal Deep Sea Fishermen's Mission in my constituency to attend a ceremony for the 36 men who went down with the "Gaul". The Lord Mayor unveiled a memorial plaque. It was a most moving occasion, at which one saw a number of women weeping. The occasion emphasised the price we have to pay for the fish that comes to our tables. Nye Bevan once said that there was blood on coal. I remind the House that the Arctic is an extremely dangerous area for our fishermen.
The Minister should go full speed ahead with the introduction of safety measures at sea. The Holland-Martin Commission, which followed the disaster in 1968 when 59 men were lost at sea, recommended what should be done. I know that Ministers of both parties have worked hard on this issue, but I beg my right hon. Friend to pay particular attention to what has been proposed.
The other matter to which attention must be paid is that of decasualisation. Some of my constituents after completing a 21- or 27-day voyage to Iceland or elsewhere are paid off and find themselves on the dole until they get their next ship. We must attempt to decasualise as we have done with dockers on shore.
I hope that when the Minister returns to the Chamber he will be told what has been said. I hope, too, that he will listen to the views put forward on behalf of Hull, Fleetwood, Grimsby and Aberdeen. I know that he will visit us in Hull as soon as he can. I assure him that he will be most welcome in any fishing port and particularly in Hull.
Perhaps I may intervene before my hon. Friend finally sits down. He said that the Gracious Speech made no reference to fishing, but it says that
My Ministers recognise the value to the nation of expanding domestic food production economically and efficiently",
and one can take that to include fishing.
I recall my hon. Friend's comments during the fishing debate in July, even though it was held late at night, at about 11 o'clock. I pay tribute to his knowledge of and concern for the fishing industry, and I assure him that his comments today will be noted.
I hope that in this my maiden speech the House will bear with me if I look not only at agriculture but at other aspects of the Queen's speech.
These are exciting times in Scottish politics. We have witnessed a remarkable and fundamental change over the past few years. I and my colleagues on this bench are physical manifestations of this change, and I am proud to be here as a representative of the Scottish people.
From my point of view, it is interesting to notice that during the past two days—today is a notable and sad exception—time and again reference has been made to Scotland and the Scots. We have received a great deal of attention, and there has been a great deal of talk about us. It is interesting to notice that everyone is a devolutionist now.
One does not have to be the world's greatest political scientist to figure out why that is happening. At the last election we achieved a great breakthrough as Scotland's National Party, and what we are seeing in Scotland is a reawakening of Scottish political consciousness. We are no longer prepared to accept second best. We are no longer prepared to accept blindly whatever London cares to hand out. This is something that is happening outwith the bounds of this House. It is happening in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. Ultimately it will be their decision that will count about the future Government of Scotland, and that is as it should be.
In Scotland, thanks to the rise of the Scottish National Party, we have an alternative. What I am talking about is not separatism in the sense of isolationism, of cutting Scotland off from the world. In fact it is the very opposite, because we want Scotland to join the world. Surely a nation with our history and culture has something meaningful to contribute to the councils of the world, and we believe that we have.
The real separatists are those who see Scotland as some kind of region of the United Kingdom—a neglected, depressed region, permanently outnumbered by about eight to one in this establishment. If every man, woman and child in Scotland wanted something, and if every Scottish Member of Parliament wanted something, they could still be swept aside in this House. I find that situation insulting. The real separatists are those who are trying to separate Scotland from her wealth.
A self-governing Scotland would automatically co-operate with her nearest neighbours. After all, we have many common historical, linguistic, cultural, economic and defence ties. It is in both our interests to have such co-operation, but it would be co-operation on a basis of equality. Anything less than that would be totally unacceptable and no amount of patching up with assemblies can hide this fact.
I am honoured to represent the South Angus constituency. It is a constituency of small towns surrounded by some of the most beautiful and the richest and best farming land in the whole of Europe. The people of South Angus are a hardworking, independent community with a definite identity of their own, and if I can bring even an indication of this individuality to the House I shall be happy to do so.
As a new Member I follow in the footsteps of Mr. Bruce-Gardyne, who represented South Angus to the best of his abilities, and his good work for the constituency should be remembered by this House.
To my mind, the election was about the kind of future that we want to see for ourselves, for our children and for the generations to follow. There is little or nothing in the Gracious Speech to show that the Government have any sort of blueprint for Scotland's future. It is, therefore, simply not good enough.
Let us consider the sort of Scotland that a Scots child is born into. A United Kingdom organisation, the National Children's Bureau, has pointed out that one Scots child in 10 is doomed to fail from birth, through no fault of its own but because of the social and economic environment into which it is born. The Scots child will be born into a land which bears the economic and social scars of previous generations. We have in our major cities some of the worst slums in Europe. The Scots child will have more than an average chance of ending up in slum property. We have slums which are a disgrace to any civilised modern community.
When a Scots child goes to school, what happens then? The once-proud Scottish education system is tottering on its heels. Today our teachers are on strike. They are not normally strike-prone people but are a dedicated, hardworking group of professionals. It is important for us to know what they are trying to say to us. They are trying to say that they do not want to educate our children in school cloakrooms and store rooms, which is what is happening in some schools now, although, I am thankful to say, not in South Angus. The teachers are trying to say to us that they do not want to teach our children in overcrowded classes or overcrowded classrooms. The latest name for a school seems to be a "mobile hut". Teachers are saying that all this is not good enough and they are right.
Our society is being asked to state the value it places on education and educators. A 10 per cent. award is certainly due but I hope that the Houghton Committee will give a proper monetary award to the teachers for the work they are doing. I can assure the Scottish teachers that no Scottish Government would have allowed our education system to reach so low an ebb.
Because Scotland has always had a situation of relatively high unemployment, when a Scots child leaves school he has all too great a chance of being unemployed. Even if he finds work, reports tell us that Scottish wages are below the United Kingdom average, and he may well end up with lower wages than his counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In addition to these lower wages, we are told that the Scottish cost of living is the second highest in the United Kingdom.
As well as unemployment, low wages and a high cost of living, the Scots child of ability ultimately faces the final indignity, the scourge of emigration. Since the Second World War, over a million Scots have had to leave their country because it could not offer its people what Denmark offers to the Danes and Norway offers to the Norwegians. This is the proven record of both Tory and Labour London Governments, and they should never be allowed to forget it.
The Gracious Speech does little or nothing to get to the roots of these problems. Nor does it offer the people of Scotland any real long-term solutions to these outstanding problems. The situation is clear. If the United Kingdom cannot offer the Scottish people long-term economic and political security, then the people of Scotland will take the obvious democratic action required. We have an alternative now.
In my constituency agriculture is of major importance. Yet the Gracious Speech has little of significance to say to our farmers. The crofters and farmers are involved in livestock and livestock products, yet these are the very areas which are now in serious trouble. The beef, dairy, pig and sheep sectors are all in a difficult situation now. The Gracious Speech only offers "continued discussions". The farmers are fed up with "discussions". They want action, and they want it quickly. No business man and no business can continue to suffer the heavy losses which farmers are incurring now. I can assure the Scottish farmers that no Scottish Government would allow our oldest and most basic industry to be hammered in this fashion. The Government must act now to help the farmers and give them decent guaranteed prices and, for example, a solid floor to the beef market.
In any extension of the sugar beet industry, the Government should bear in mind that Scotland's only sugar beet factory was closed down three years ago and that Scotland must be brought back into any such plans.
The message is clear. The measures announced in the Gracious Speech are simply not good enough to meet the needs of Scotland. If the United Kingdom continues to fail the people of Scotland, they will draw the appropriate and logical conclusion. Devolution is no real substitute for self-government. We in Scotland have talent and the ability and we certainly have the wealth. What we have lacked up till now has been the political will. Thanks to the rise and progress of the Scottish National Party the people of Scotland now have a genuine alternative.
It is always a pleasure to follow a maiden speaker, and it is very pleasant to follow so eloquent a contribution as we have just heard from the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh). He said that Scotland would have something meaningful to contribute. I am sure we all agree, after listening to him, that he will have something meaningful to contribute to this House. His predecessor made a peculiarly individual contribution to our proceedings. He always had something worth while to say, and if the hon. Gentleman can follow in Mr. Bruce-Gardyne's footsteps in that respect he will be serving his constituents well.
There are many aspects of the Gracious Speech on which I would have liked to comment—for example, the consequences of the nationalisation proposals, the offshore oil plans, the programme for devolution and the fishing industry. Like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), I have spoken before of the plight of the fishing industry in my constituency. On this occasion, however, I wish to concentrate on the state of the agriculture industry in Wales and will content myself with just one comment about what the Prime Minister said on Tuesday about the Welsh Grand Committee.
We on these benches would have preferred to see the Welsh Grand Committee become a Select Committee, with power to call Ministers and civil servants before it. Few people will be impressed by a proposal that the Welsh Grand Committee will be able to examine.
the principle of Bills relating exclusively to Wales."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th October, 1974; Vol. 880, c. 72.]
During my time in this House there have been no such Bills. In the previous decade there were no more than three or four. I hope that the Government will reconsider the suggestion that the Committee should be given the worthwhile task of monitoring the performance of the Welsh Office.
During the summer I visited marts in Cowbridge, Cardigan, Haverfordwest and Kilgetty, and talked to farmers in Monmouthshire and Breconshire as well as in my own constituency. I received in Cardiff a National Farmers' Union deputation representing all the Welsh counties. I was present at a meeting in Barry in October attended by representatives of the NFU and of the Farmers' Union of Wales from all over the Principality.
I wrote a letter to the Minister at the end of October pointing out the level of prices then reached in the marts, which at that time was about £15 or £16 per live cwt. I asked what he was going to do about the situation in the light of his pledge that we would achieve a figure of £18 per live cwt. I had a reply on his behalf from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who told me that the Miinster of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Wales
share your concern about the downward trend; but we do feel that the beef premium scheme ought to be allowed a fair run before judging what its effect will be on producers' returns during the next few months … However, if the industry responds to the beef premium scheme, producers should be assured of reasonable prices this autumn and winter.
During the election campaign, while I was at the mart, prices fell in Cardigan and Haverfordwest to £13 per live cwt. A week later they were down to £9 in Kilgetty. On 17th October the Western Mail reported that since the start of the election campaign the range of fatstock prices for Welsh markets had fallen from between £12·65 and £16 to between £9 and £14·64. The Farmers' Union of Wales tells me that the average price received in the last week of October was £12·94, or £15·27 with the premium included.
We must contrast those figures with the promise of £18 and surely contrast it, too, with the needs of the industry at the present time, for they can hardly be less than about £21 or £22 per live cwt. A Government supporter earlier in the debate shouted that the farmers in Europe were not complaining, but we could contrast those prices with the prices being obtained by the farmers in Europe, who are getting nearer £28 per live cwt.
To respond to the Under-Secretary's letter that I have quoted, I must bluntly say that there has not been the response for which he hoped from the beef premium scheme and, as has already been observed, as the premium has gone up, so the prices in the marts have gone down. We warned at the time that that would happen, but our warnings were dismissed. In a debate on agriculture early in the summer I was told by the Secretary of State for Scotland that I was exaggerating; I only wish that I had been.
We were told today that after all it was not all that important and that beef represented only about 15 per cent. of agricultural production. But in Wales it represents well over 25 per cent. and in some counties very much more. The time for talk is long past. We must have action.
I must particularly draw the attention of the House to the position of the hill farmers, who, as the Secretary of State for Wales well knows, at this time of the year have to sell their stock. Certainly at this particular time there is the more reason for their doing so because of the condition of the harvest during the summer. Yet I know from my experience in the marts in recent weeks that there is hardly a market at all for cattle, that cattle are simply not being sold and are having to be taken home back to the fields. Many of the cattle that ought to be sold are back on the farms and we may well need an emergency exercise to get fodder to them.
The Farmers' Union of Wales reported to me this morning that we can expect many thousands of cattle to die of starvation this winter, and their condition is already poor. I wonder whether the organisations that have complained about the export of live animals have considered with the same urgency the condition of cattle on the hills of the Principality today.
The fact is that the fields are like billiard tables. The weather has produced a lean crop of hay and the cattle that should have been sold have been put back into the fields that should have been kept for hay or the after-hay cut. Fodder supplies in my constituency are desperate. I am told that we are 10,000 tons of hay short in the county. Straw and hay prices are rising steeply. In other parts of Wales the situation is even more serious.
Even among the milk men the situation is not satisfactory, although the Minister tried to tell the House earlier this afternoon that it was. There is no market for cull cows and I know that five barren cows were sold in Carmarthen mart this week for £30. Nor is there a market for calves. Repeatedly I have watched calves being sold for less than £1, good quality calves at that, which is less than the insemination charge. If one takes account of the cost of the sale commission, toll, VAT, transport and feed charges, the amount lost in each case must amount to at least £3 or £4, and the farmer is in business not to make a loss but to make a profit. Top class suckling calves that were fetching up to £120 last year are down to half that figure now.
Another problem is that the pressure on the abbatoirs is tremendous and slaughtering facilities are now stretched beyond capacity.
So this dismal account can go on. The prices of sheep are half what they were a year ago and there is a serious danger that, because of the lack of winter feed, farmers will be selling ewe lambs that ought to be kept for breeding, and that will take the sheep off the upland farms next year.
What action is needed? Certainly it is not just, as the Gracious Speech suggests, continued discussions with the farming industry, but action now. It is not enough to wait until March. This week, or next at the latest, action is needed if the plight of the hill farmer is to be tackled. The Minister sought to blame the EEC and the intervention system, but in a document sent to Welsh Members of Parliament today the National Farmers' Union of Wales says:
It would be quite wrong of the British Government to wash their hands of the beef problem by laying the blame at the door of the EEC Commission. The EEC system of Intervention Buying is being operated for the benefit of farmers in all member-states except Britain, where the Minister adamantly refuses to have anything to do with it. The Rules of the EEC contain provision for individual member-states to act unilaterally in times of crisis. The British agricultural industry is in such a crisis.
What we need as a first stage is minimum prices, at least for an emergency period. We need emergency action now, before long-term solutions are found. The Minister acted unilaterally when he opted out of intervention; he must act unilaterally now, if that is necessary.
There is also a need for urgent consideration of the ban on the export of live animals, as is recommended in the O'Brien Report. The Minister heard from his right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) a vivid account of the situation at Holyhead and the violent feelings among farmers, particularly in Wales, about the import position. I was informed by a representative of the NFU for North Wales about half an hour ago that he was at Holyhead all night earlier this week and was desperately worried that the situation might get out of hand. He said that, frankly, it was becoming difficult for responsible officials to hold in check particularly the younger farmers. We must share the concern of the right hon. Member for Anglesey about this matter and endorse his remarks about this aspect of the problem.
However, I am anxious that we should not destroy long established and valuable aspects of the Irish trade. There are those, particularly in the eastern counties, who have traditionally kept Irish stores, but the Irish should not be able to send cattle for immediate slaughter and benefit at the expense of the British producer. The Minister should urgently consider a system by which cattle did not qualify for the slaughter premium until the animals had been in this country for, say, a 60-day waiting period. This is not a novel suggestion. Indeed, it has already been made in this debate, and I support those who have made it.
I say very seriously that never, certainly not since the war, has there been such bitterness in the industry. Representatives of the industry tell me that they have never known feelings run so high, particularly among the younger farmers. When the British public as a whole realise what the Government have done to the long-term prospects for food production in this country, that bitterness will be be shared by the whole nation.
Faced by a desperate crisis, this afternoon the Minister produced a personal apologia to which the facts give the lie. I beg him even at this late stage to reconsider his attitude and perhaps to allow the Secretary of State for Wales this evening to announce something positive, because it is desperately needed.
I hope that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) will forgive me if I do not follow him into the details of the case concerning fodder and the problems of the price of cattle, although I must say that in my constituency of Peterborough the farmers with whom I have had discussions have expressed views very similar to those expressed by hon. Members today. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to offer them encouragement and help through what is undoubtedly a difficult period. I hope that he will hold discussions with the NFU and other bodies.
There is also possibly an exacerbation of the fodder shortage being experienced at present because some members of the farming community are holding back stocks of fodder which ought to be brought on to the market in a more orderly way. It is for the NFU and the farmers to discuss how best they can respond to the requirement for a degree of national unity in the months ahead.
I was indebted to the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Irvine), who has unfortunately left the Chamber, for raising the question of woodlands and forests, because it was on this topic that my predecessor for the Peterborough constituency, elected in 1929—Mr. Frank Horrabin, who was the first Labour Member for Peterborough—decided to make his maiden speech. Mr. Horrabin championed in that speech the cause of the workers on the lands occupied by the Forestry Commission and other land workers in the constituency. In the latter part of my speech I shall have some observations to make on a matter touching upon them which is relevant to the debate.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), who asked for deliverance from the Boundaries Commission, it would be churlish of me to deny that one man's misfortune is another man's gain. My immediate predecessor, Sir Harmar Nicholls, owes his present freedom to look back over 24 years as a Member—a Member who gave active service to this House—partly to an accident of demography and only partly to the workings of democracy.
I used the phrase "active service". I think that that sums up Sir Harmar's contribution over these 24 years. He was certainly a Member who, when he rose, gave the smack of alarums and excursions. He certainly contributed to many active and lively debates. I had the pleasure of listening to him on occasions from other parts of the Chamber over the eight years that I was pleased to be his main competitor.
The tensions and switchbacks of fortune which dogged our contests in the Peterborough constituency over a number of years taught me and my opponent, Sir Harmar, more than most, that a majority, however small, is a majority. It was a far more distinguished Member of this House than I who said "One is enough". I can assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that three is certainly more than enough. They are right to put forward to this House a strong and confident programme such as has been set out in the Gracious Speech.
I was interested to hear earlier a lapse by an hon. Member in which he referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as the right hon. Member for "Worthington." That brought to my mind the fact that the famous Soke of Peterborough, which I understand has given rise to many jokes in the House in the past, is the area which now represents the Peterborough constituency, and within that area the ancient cathedral city of Peterborough is dominant.
It is a city that is changing rapidly, thanks to the intervention of the New Towns Commission. We have an active and lively development corporation. The city is rapidly expanding its population and its industrial base, I believe to the advantage both of newcomers and of residents of the city who have been there some years.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central, I particularly welcome the penultimate words of the Gracious Speech, that:
Other measures will be laid before you.
I am mindful of the burden of work which the House will have to shoulder if there are to be, as is reported, 26 or so Bills in the coming Session. I express the hope that there may be among those "other measures" a concise and practical Bill to restore to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 the provisions relating to agriculture which were deleted in another place and never restored by this House.
I appreciate that these are really matters for the Secretary of State for Employment. However, I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has a considerable interest in the question of safety in agriculture and that he supported the provisions which were unfortunately deleted. I understand there was an occasion in this House in July when "the Noes had it", which I believe is not a terribly frequent occurrence. The principle that was contained in the Act of dealing with people's health and safety directly through them rather than their place of work and the processes at work is particularly important for the agricultural worker. He often works alone in exposed and weatherbeaten locations without the support and advice of fellow workers, trade unions or others to whom he might turn.
The agricultural worker is often at a disadvantage through the friendliness of the relationship which can exist between employer and employee in agriculture, because the matters of safety which ought to require a slightly sterner and more responsible approach are the ones sometimes overlooked in such a relationship. The farm worker today, as hon. Members associated with the industry will know well, has to handle materials and machinery which are similar to those found by workers in industry. There has been a great revolution in the nature of the equipment of the farm worker.
I know that many of my hon. Friends believe with me that we must have the benefit of the full force of the Health and Safety Commission's work and of its executive. It is just starting operations. We believe it should be brought into play for the benefit of farm workers. In earlier debates hon. Members have suggested that this issue is really a dispute between officials of the two main Departments of State concerned.
Those of us who have stood outside this Chamber and talked with farm workers during the election campaign and before about this issue can say with confidence that these workers are looking to the Health and Safety Commission to bring in a new approach to farm safety, based on an undoubted need which has come about in recent years in the industry's development.
More than 90 fatalities a year take place in agriculture, and that is 90 too many. Sadly, the rate has been constant for too many years, and, sadly, out of that 90 deaths one quarter are of children. Although farm workers make up only 7 per cent. of the labour force in my constituency, I know that I speak for them and their colleagues in the city's industry, commerce and the public services when I seek from my right hon. Friends a commitment to amend the 1974 Act.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to make an early intervention in this debate. I am glad to accept the challenge of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) and say that the Peterborough Football Club, although, sadly, only in the Third Division, will before long accept his invitation to meet Ipswich in Ipswich—in the First Division.
It is a great pleasure for me to follow in debate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward). I congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. It must have been a dramatic and traumatic moment in the history of Peterborough when the slender majority in the constituency which had endured for so long was finally overturned. The hon. Gentleman can at least claim to have made a small piece of political history. We shall look forward to seeing Sir Harmar Nicholls back in the next Parliament, but I hope that in this Parliament we shall frequently have the pleasure of hearing the present hon. Member for Peterborough.
I was particularly interested in and sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman said about the agricultural worker, who is the salt of the earth. Nothing is more important than that he should be looked after in every respect, not least in respect of his health and safety, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, are a critical element in his employment. I hope that the Labour Party will study seriously the question of the tied cottage and that it will not be resolved by the doctrinaire view that tied cottages must be abolished. I see the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) in his place. Coming from Shropshire, I should like to say how much we appreciated his visit to our farms. I hope that he will persuade other members of his party, though they may represent industrial constituencies, to pay visits to agricultural districts so that they may realise the problems in them. One problem—this applies particularly to the livestock farmer—is that of having workers close to the steading.
I hope that the Government will not form the idea that there must be a root-and-branch abolition of the tied cottage system. If the position must be altered, there are other ways of doing it—for example, by individual arbitration in the small number of cases in which difficulties arise.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook), who seconded the motion in such felicitous phrases, referred to that pregnant sentence in the Gracious Speech which we know so well,
Other measures will be laid before you.
It has always seemed to me regrettable that Her Majesty is not accessible to advice from back-bench Members about other sentences which might be included in the Gracious Speech. I should like to add the phrase "Other crises will soon burst upon you."
I wish to refer to two crises which affect rural areas like mine. The first concerns the question of rates. I am delighted to see in the Press today that the National Union of Ratepayers has gone into action on this front. The ratepayer has been the long-suffering milch cow of national and local policies. Over the years local expenditure has increased at an even faster rate than national expenditure. Before the election the Labour Government inflicted a great injustice on the country areas by altering the rate support grant in a disgraceful way.
I raise the subject of rates now because of reports of a prospect of a further increase of 50 per cent. in the rates. This means—the county council associations have pointed this out—that the Government must choose quickly between three possibilities: massive cuts in services and new projects; a massive increase in Government rate support grants; or a massive increase in the rates. If there are to be cuts in services, policy decisions must be made and the local authorities must know in what directions those cuts are to be made.
The other crisis concerns the livestock industry. The case has been so devastatingly and clearly put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) that I shall not again go over the general issue. I should like to quote a few figures supplied to me by the National Farmers' Union to illustrate the position in my constituency. They relate to the Bridgnorth Market, in what might be called a mixed farming area. In the last October sale, heavy fat stock steers were under £14 compared with £18 in 1973. Medium heifers were just over £13 compared with £19 in 1973. With regard to stores, medium steers were just under £13 compared with well over £19 in 1973. Light heifers were under £9 compared with £19.
Similar figures have been supplied to me by the Cleobury Mortimer and Ludlow farmers relating to the markets at Ludlow and Craven Arms, where overwhelmingly the livestock comes from the hill farms. Here breeding ewes are down £5 to £6 a head compared with 1973. Fat cattle are making £11 to £12 per hundredweight compared with £16 to £18 in 1973. Store cattle are between £7 and £17 compared with £17 to £22 in 1973. The price of breeding cows is more than 50 per cent. down on the 1973 price. Calves are not being sold, or are being given away, or taken back to farms where, alas, in some areas the fodder to feed them through the winter will not exist.
I speak particularly of the hill farming areas, of which there are many in my constituency, because until recently they at least had the hope of being upheld by the sheep trade. Alas, the sheep trade is also on the downgrade. There has been a drop to two-thirds of last year's prices. The latest figures show that the price of store lambs has come down to £10 compared with £12 last year. Fat lambs are 20p a lb. compared with 30p a lb. last year.
Thanks to the Minister's decision, there is no guarantee for beef. There is, I understand, a guarantee for sheep, but it lasts only till next March. In view of the critical situation and prospect for hill farmers, it is of great importance that the Minister should focus on the sheep situation and ensure that something is done to keep it on a profitable plane.
We have heard many arguments about the EEC common agricultural policy. I was not one of those who wished this country to join the EEC. I know all the arguments for not joining, and I can see powerful arguments for joining, but I cannot understand the argument for being neither in nor out, and that is the position now. We are in the EEC, but are opting out of measures which might help us. I hope that the Minister, who was as much against this country going into the EEC as I was, will take a robust view of the problem and will say that if the EEC cannot cure our problems by its methods we must cure them ourselves.
I understand that in the last few months French, Belgian and Italian farmers have had their rules for the beef trade made for them by their respective countries, in each case contrary to the Rome Treaty. Why do we not do the same? Only recently there was an Italian ban on beef imports from West Germany, which was entirely contrary to the Rome Treaty. Why do we not do the same?
The question of imports from Ireland has already been well ventilated. This is a source of grievance, and it is absolutely essential that it should be tackled. If Irish imports cannot be stopped, may we have back the 13-week domiciliary period?
The fodder situation is as critical in some areas in my constituency as it is in the areas of other hon. Members who have spoken. Hay is said to be £75 or more a ton. Barley straw is £50 or more. In many areas the barley straw crop will not be gathered at all. There are strong rumours in my constituency that fodder is being exported to Europe from such areas as Kent. Is there confirmation of that? If so, may it be stopped? Farmers in my area say that it was easy enough last year to stop the export of potatoes. If so, why cannot we stop the export of hay?
The hon. Gentleman raises a matter which should be dealt with here and now. I have seen, as he has, references in the farming Press to the export of fodder. Efforts have been made to trace these references but no evidence has been produced. If any hon. Member has evidence, my right hon. Friend and I will be very interested to see it, but so far there is no evidence. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter so that I can dispose of it.
I am grateful to the Minister and I shall see that that information is passed on.
May I make an appeal—which has been made before—for a price review every six months rather than every 12 months so long as inflation proceeds at its present rate? I second the appeals which have been made for action on the O'Brien Report.
Finally, there is a strong feeling among the farmers in my part of the world, who are suffering so much over the sale of their cattle, that it is scandalous that the price of beef in the shops has not come down. I am no enemy of the butchers. I have discussed this matter with many retail butchers in my constituency, and I believe them when they tell me that they are not making excessive profits. There may be many stages between the livestock market and the retail butchers. I am told that an inquiry into this has been carried out and it is reported that no undue profits have been made. I find this difficult to believe. I hope that the Government will not allow this matter to drop. If something could be done on that front, it would at least relieve some of the grievance felt in the agricultural industry about the desperate position of farmers.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward) on his excellent maiden speech. I am sure that we shall be hearing more from him in future, and I look forward to that.
There is no monopoly of concern about the plight of the farmers, particularly beef farmers, on either side of the House or in any group. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) supported this view when he told the House of my interesting visit to Shropshire. I looked at the farms and heard the concern which was expressed by farmers at first hand, and also lived with them for a few days.
Hon. Members who represent urban constituencies—of which I am one, although there is a farm or two at the perimeter of my constituency—should take a greater interest in farming. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Shropshire. The country is lovely to look at. I hope to persuade some of my hon. Friends, particularly those representing urban constituencies, to follow up the invitation given by the hon. Member for Ludlow to go to Shropshire to see the problems with which the farmers have to struggle.
I was impressed by the excellent contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), who pinpointed my views. I am mindful of the beef problem, as he is. We must try to understand the background, and I should like to pass on, through the Secretary of State for Wales, one or two suggestions I have to make to the Minister.
In fairness, the Government have been in office for only a few weeks and the previous Government were in office for just a few months. When I listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) I felt that, with his great preoccupation with Ireland during the Conservative administration, he may not have been fully aware of what his right hon. Friends were doing—or not doing—during that time. One cannot have a long-term policy for farming beginning in March 1974 and coming to fruition in October 1974. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who spoke of the need for a long-term strategy for farming and a great deal more organisation, but it is impossible to contemplate such a strategy starting in March 1974 coming to fruition by October 1974.
The basis of the present grim situation is to be found in the years 1972 and 1973. Having talked to so many farmers, I know that one evil was the great rise in price of everything that the farmer touched. Probably the worst of the evils was the tremendous rise in price of animal feeding stuffs. That was apparent not in March 1974 or October 1974 but during the summer of 1973. Even earlier than that it was forecast that the Russian harvest would fail and that there would be a tremendous demand on American feeding stuffs, with a consequent increase in price.
At that time my right hon. Friend was not the Minister of Agriculture. The Minister was either the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) or the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) —I am not sure when the change occurred. A Tory Minister of Agriculture was in charge at that time, and little if anything was done to relieve that situation, and it is from that evil that the farmer is suffering today.
The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire should be extremely careful—I am sorry that he is not present to hear me say this—when he talks about the great priority given to farming by the Conservative Party. I appreciate that because of the right hon. Gentleman's preoccupation with Ireland in the last Conservative Government he can to some extent be excused, but certainly his party should have given priority to farmers who faced such high costs in feeding stuffs. Had the then Government taken action, we should not now be facing the present difficult farming situation.
Furthermore, for the right hon. Gentleman to talk about complacency when directing his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture—indeed, for the word "complacency" to be bandied so freely around the Chamber this afternoon—is a travesty of truth. I was not fortunate enough to be a Member of the House at the time, but one Minister in past years referred to his office as a bed of nails. I believe that the present Minister inherited a consider- able bed of nails from the Conservative administration. Therefore, I am appalled at the rough treatment meted out to him by Conservatives this afternoon, although I do not doubt my right hon. Friend's capacity to deal with those comments.
Many Conservatives seem to forget that agriculture involves a longer-term view than, for example, that taken in manufacturing industries. One cannot speed up the process of calving a cow in the same way as one might speed up a manufacturing process by the addition of some new piece of modern machinery in a factory.
A further aspect which we must not forget is that during the tour of office of the right hon. Member for Grantham as the Tory Minister of Agriculture the price of beef in butchers' shops rose excessively. The price put beef right out of the reach of many housewives—and this certainly applied to my wife. The then Minister told us to eat chicken. I also remember him saying in those days that breeding cattle was a long-term business and, in view of the natural process involved, more beef cattle could not be produced overnight. He asked farmers to rear more beef cattle. The advice he then gave to beef farmers has led to the present tremendous glut of beef. Therefore, Conservatives must be extremely careful that the charges which they seek to lay at the door of my right hon. Friend the present Minister do not rebound on their own heads.
I should like to say a few words about the Common Market. Let us not forget that it was not my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture or my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister who took us into the Common Market. It was the Conservative Government. Whether one agrees or disagrees with entry into the EEC, one must surely ask the question: is the CAP an effective policy for Britain? Many of the original Six in the Common Market are self-supporting in food terms, but we all know that Britain is not in that category and it is doubtful whether we ever shall be. Therefore, it was an absolute travesty for the then Conservative Government to enter the Common Market and agree to a common agricultural policy designed to protect the interests of countries capable of producing nearly all their own food, knowing full well that Britain could not possibly produce more than half its own food.
I do not see how anybody can suggest that intervention as a policy is either fair or right. We have only to remember in the last few months the large number of demonstrations by European farmers against the policy. I was in Holland after the demonstrations that took place there and talked to Dutch people about the many tractors that were lined up on the Dutch motorways, driven there by farmers who were protesting at the prices they were receiving for their cattle. Similar protests took place in France and Germany. Does this not prove that the farmer is not getting a fair crack of the whip from the Common Market? Does it not also prove that an intervention policy is not a fair way to treat the housewife? I cannot see the logic of storing massive amounts of food just to keep up the price.
I want to see the farmer get a better deal for his beef and urgent action taken to assist the beef farmer rather than that he should have to wait until March. But I do not want to see it done by the Government being forced to go to the expense of hiring ships, as the Common Market has been, because Europe's storage facilities are full, in order to store the surpluses of beef. Certainly I do not want to see us, if we cannot store any more butter, selling it to a foreign Power at a giveaway price in order to maintain tip-top prices in our shops, which in effect means that the taxpayers of the Common Market countries, including ourselves, not only pay high prices in the shops but pay considerable sums in taxation to meet the difference between the price that the farmer gets and the massive loss which the EEC sustains when it sells its butter or beef to non-member countries.
That brings me to another aspect of the problem about beef. I would not dare to suggest that my right hon. Friend is complacent. The poor chap has had a tough time. However, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to speak to him on my behalf and plead with him to do some-think about the present beef situation. I believe that the slaughter premium was introduced in the best of good faith. I do not criticise my right hon. Friend for it. He faced a tough and difficult situation. He had been left in an almost im- possible mess by the previous administration, and probably did not know which way to turn. He introduced the slaughter premium as a desperate effort to improve the situation. So I accuse no one of complacency. But I am trying to put the blame where it squarely belongs—that is, on the previous Conservative administration.
Something is wrong with the slaughter premium. As the hon. Member for Ludlow said just now, and as I saw for myself in some Shropshire markets, when the slaughter premium was introduced the price offered in the market for cattle dropped by just about the amount of the slaughter premium. Like the hon. Member for Ludlow, I do not suggest that that represented profit going to the little butcher's shop round the corner. But I cannot discover where it is going. Bearing in mind the route of beef from the market to the butcher's shop and the housewife's shopping basket, it is strange that when the price in the market has fallen so very low the price of a joint of beef to the housewife has fallen only a few pence in the past 12 months. I cannot understand why.
I do not expect an explanation tonight. I understand the difficulties, because I have considerable experience of the distributive side of the meat business, though not of the production side. But I understand something of the slaughtering and the abattoir side of meat and the wholesale marketing side. It is a devious setup, and I can well understand my right hon. Friend wanting to investigate the position. However, I should like him to consider the price that the farmer gets, to compare it with the price that the housewife has to pay and to appreciate that there is a strange difference between the two. It might be a good idea to get an independent committee of inquiry to look into the situation. If the farmer is not to get a reasonable price when he sells his cattle in the market, the housewife should enjoy the benefit at the other end. The cream should not be taken by the middlemen.
I, too, make a plea for our farmers. Sympathy for them is not a monopoly of the Conservative Party. We all understand the problems of our beef farmers. My right hon. Friend ought to look again at the slaughter premium to see whether there is not some more effective way of ensuring that the benefit of the subsidy which was meant to go to the farmer is properly distributed to the farmer. That should be done as a short-term measure, because action is needed urgently to save the future of beef production next year and the year afterwards. If a solution along these lines is not found, following these awful gluts we shall face awful shortages which will result not just in farmers going bankrupt, bad though that is, but in a serious effect on housewives purchasing their goods. We need a short-term solution different from the slaughter premium. Some form of help or subsidy is required urgently.
Then the whole situation must be looked at in the longer term to see whether we cannot review domestic beef production. In this connection, let me reiterate something that I said in this Chamber in the course of the previous Parliament. It might be worth my right hon. Friend's time to look at marketing in the longer term with a view to setting up some form of marketing arrangements for beef similar to those of the Milk Marketing Board. Incidentally, let us hope that this ludicrous Common Market will not oblige us to dismantle our Milk Marketing Board. I hope that we shall consider a marketing arrangement whereby the beef producer can be assured of a base giving him confidence to produce for the future and whereby the housewife at the other end can be assured of a fair deal, stopping some of the creaming off which occurs at present in the middle.
We have heard a number of comments about the activities of other EEC countries in taking unilateral action. I do not think that this Government should run away from the possibility of acting unilaterally if the situation demands. After all, it was not the Labour Party which rushed the country into the Common Market. That was done by those who now call us complacent. Therefore, we should not hesitate to act unilaterally if it is in the interests of the nation to do so. In view of the present beef situation and the farming situation generally, in my view it is necessary to act unilaterally. We should not continue to go cap in hand to the bureaucrats in Brussels and Luxembourg begging for permission to do this or that. We should act now to help our farmers.
I want now to make one brief comment on a different aspect of agriculture. I was appalled to see that we did not take the opportunity of concluding a three-year deal for sugar with our Commonwealth partners, the Australians. I believe that this would have assured supplies of sugar for the future far more effectively than what has been done by the Common Market. No supplies are assured. The Common Market has said that it will buy sugar from the world markets and sell it to member States at a subsidised price. It has not yet got the sugar, so we do not know whether there will be any at any price.
Our Caribbean agreements end this year. We had a choice of acquiring 350,000 tons of sugar per annum, starting immediately with 200,000 tons, and we have turned it down. We have turned down what we knew could have for something that is vague and only may be in the bag. We do not know.
I realise that other hon. Members wish to speak. I may have gone on a bit, but I am concerned about this situation and I want to get that concern honestly across to the Minister. I hope that on beef, sugar and all the other important agricultural aspects he will consider carefully what I have said. I hope that for the future of farming and the food of the British people the Minister will act on some of my suggestions.
I have noted with some amusement that hon. Members representing English constituencies have spoken about their parts of England, that those who represent Wales have spoken for Wales and that those who represent Scotland have spoken for the Scottish farmers. It is my privilege and great responsibility to speak for the farming community of Northern Ireland.
That farming community is different in structure from most of the United Kingdom. It came about in the latter years of the last century and the early years of this century through the Land Acts which made the farmers of Ireland owner-occupiers. It is with rather grim amusement that we realise that the real reason for bringing this farming structure into existence was not for the social consequences that inevitably flowed from it but to get rid of Republicanism. However, Republicanism is still with us in its most violent and virulent form, as the present situation in Ulster daily records.
Out of those Land Acts and the farming structure which arose from them, I believe that Northern Ireland has one of the most progressive farming communities in the world with sturdy, independent people who believe in their own ability to meet in fair competition anyone anywhere. Yet we have the present situation in farming, which I believe is moving towards total disaster.
It is well to recall that when we came here in March the great cry was the situation prevailing in the pig industry. It may be of interest to this House to learn what the present situation is in that industry in Northern Ireland. In September 1973 the total number of sows and gilts in pig was 107,000. In August 1974 the figure was 67,000. The pig market has firmed up. It is no wonder when there is a drop of 30 per cent. in the total number of sows and gilts in pig. The most unfortunate aspect is that in September 1973 there were 15,000 gilts in pig whereas in August this year there were only 3,800. This bodes ill for the future of the pig industry in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that that picture will be repeated throughout the United Kingdom with similar grim results for the future of pig farmers here.
Last year at this time the average price for lamb in the markets of Northern Ireland was 31½p per pound. In October 1974 the price was 21·7p per pound, although to that must be added approximately 6p for the guarantee. It is clear that the sheep meat industry is suffering from the side effects of the depressed beef market. That is an indication of what can happen whenever disaster hits one section of the farming industry. The effect is of a stone thrown into a pond: the ripples steadily widen. Every aspect of farming life is affected.
This is a long-term problem, and a long-term strategy must be prepared. The first steps in that long-term strategy have not yet been taken. It is about time that those first steps were taken. We must have some indication of what the future holds for our farming people and our food.
It may come as a surprise to some hon. Gentlemen opposite, especially the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), who spoke about the fishing industry, that Northern Ireland also has a fishing industry. Part of it is situated on the north coast of my constituency. I should like the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to pay close attention to the problems of the inshore salmon fishers who are plagued every year by boats from Donegal, Eire. They come across and fish close inshore. No attempt is made to apprehend them or, indeed, to chase them off. It is a serious matter for those of my constituents who are engaged in that important industry.
It may be of interest to hon. Members to realise that, grim as the beef position in other parts of the United Kingdom may be, it is worse in Northern Ireland. We share a common land frontier with a large exporter of beef and store cattle which flow across our border into the United Kingdom. Some go out through our ports into Scotland and England, but by no means all. Many of them stay there. In the past few months a great number have been choking our slaughterhouses to such an extent that it has been impossible for Northern Ireland farmers to get their beef cattle in. This situation has eased in the last fortnight. I hope that that state of affairs will long continue. However, it is vital that some period should elapse between the cattle being imported and being put in for slaughter. I suggest that the minimum period should be 90 days. I understand that at Belcoo last weekend 588 cattle were punched through into Northern Ireland. That is three or four times the normal number for this time of the year. I think that will give hon. Members some indication of the seriousness of the situation for us.
Early in August this year the average price for beef in the beef markets in Northern Ireland was £16 per cwt. In the third week of October it was down to £10·25. Yesterday in Strabane the average price of steers and heifers was £9·60. That is about £7 per cwt. below the price paid last year. On a 9 cwt. beast, which can be taken as average, it is a loss of £63 on the price paid last year. The EEC subsidy of £20·94 being paid now will not go far towards offsetting the increased costs and total losses being incurred by farmers in Northern Ireland.
Fat cows in the last month in Northern Ireland have fallen in price from £8 per cwt. to £5·95. These prices are nothing short of disastrous for those who are unfortunate enough to be left with them.
The fodder situation in Northern Ireland is no better than in other parts of this country. I fear for the small farmer, especially on the hills, for it has rained in Northern Ireland since the middle of August. The last of the corn crop is only now being cut. Some of the upland hay has not yet been gathered. Indeed, that which has not been gathered will be fit only for the dung heap.
Throughout my experience there has always been a differential in beef prices between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland of at least £1 per cwt. At present the differential is between £2·50 and £3 per cwt. The meat plants in Northern Ireland are currently paying 20p per pound plus 3½p out of the EEC guarantee. In Eire the October price is 27p per pound, in November it will be 29p per pound, and in January it will be 31p per pound. That is in a country that practises intervention. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there.
When there is no floor, prices will fall fast to below where the floor should be and then there comes into that community and that industry a very great loss of confidence. That loss of confidence feeds on the disaster that already exists and magnifies it. So at the end of the day it is much worse than it would otherwise have been. Had we some guarantee in our beef market, confidence would swiftly return. It is a guarantee which must be given within the next week or two. The time for talking is long past. There were seven months when the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knew what the situation was. The first steps should have been taken during those seven months to meet the crisis and disaster that have now come upon the farming community.
Another matter that affects the people of Northern Ireland who live by the farm is the rate of exchange for the so-called green pound. This gives an advantage of about 3 per cent. to the Eire producer —that is, £5 per head of cattle. The Minister should give serious attention to this matter.
Last year suckling calves—a major industry with us—averaged £80 per head in October. In October this year suckling calves have averaged £40. This applies across all farmers whose cattle are sold.
A drop of a half on last years' price cannot be tolerated. It saps what little remaining confidence there is in the beef producers. Many of them are now talking about getting rid of their herds. The farming Press is full of advertisements for sales of cattle from the beef herds of Northern Ireland.
Last year dropped calves averaged roughly £40 per head. This year they are averaging £10. This applies only to those that are sold. There is a story in widespread circulation in Northern Ireland—I believe it to be true—of a farmer who went to a market to sell three calves. He did not sell them. He put them in his trailer and took them home. When he arrived home, lo and behold he had six calves: somebody else had not been able to sell his calves and did not want to feed them either. I know of one farmer who is prominent and well known in farming circles in Northern Ireland; he has a dairy herd, and at present he shoots his calves as they are born and sends them to the greyhound kennels.
All these things have a cumulative effect that will in the long run do most serious damage to the farming community and to the nation's food situation. It is a food situation that every hon. Member should regard as of extreme seriousness, for no cheap food is left on the face of the earth. We must produce every pound of food that we can from our own land, from our own fields, from our own resources.
I wish to remind the House of something which I believe is often lost sight of. In the production of food we cannot aim at exactly what is needed. We must always aim for a surplus if the community and the nation are to have bargaining power in the world markets. We have not been doing that. It must also be appreciated that when we are aiming for a slight surplus we may not achieve what we are aiming for. We may get less than we need or much more than we need of a particular foodstuff. When that happens it is up to the community as a whole to foot the bill to keep alive the confidence of the farming community in the industry.
It is necessary to consider carefully what the trend has been in the beef herd in Northern Ireland. This is a closed community, a small community, a community that can be clearly seen to be moving quickly in one direction or another. From June 1972 the beef herd rose from 324,000 to 376,000. Here I should declare an interest, for I own a few beef cattle. I as a farmer am aware that many of my friends in the farming community have simply held on to their cattle long enough to get the beef cow subsidy or the hill cow subsidy. Next year, unless there is a change in policy, those cattle will go and the cows will not be there next year to produce calves for the following year's meat. Then we shall have to go out into the world market and pay through the nose for it.
We should not forget the high cereal and fodder prices that farmers are faced with. We should not forget the grave difficulties that farmers have faced about oil and fertiliser prices over the last few years, prices that show no signs of steadying and have an important bearing not on this year's production but on next years' production and prices. Farmers need to look at least two years ahead. Already they are deciding how much barley, wheat and oats they will plant next year. Already decisions have been taken in regard to pigs, cattle and milk next year. All these things are interrelated. We are not one industry. We are many industries within the framework of one. We have varying ideas of what prices should be. What pleases the milk man may not necessarily please the beef man. Certainly what pleases the cereal grower will not please those who have to pay for his products later. All these things must be considered and a policy worked out so that everyone has a reasonable level of income.
It has been said today that beef accounts for only 15 per cent. of the total output of farming. I remind hon. Members that for the beef man it is 100 per cent. of his output. When 100 per cent. of one's output is conducted at a great loss to oneself, where are the profits of previous years? Those engaged in farming know that there are rarely great profits in beef, that for every man who has made a killing there are 100 men who have broken even and several men who have suffered a loss. Consider how many people leave the farming industry to go into other industries and how few leave other industries to enter farming. That comparison is the clearest condemnation of the level of income in farming.
Another condemnation is the level of wages paid to farm workers. It is a tragedy that good, loyal, hard-working and intelligent men work on farms for so little money. This is a matter that is tied in with the total income of the farming community. The total income of the farming community, both farmers and farm workers, should be raised to a realistic level. We were told by the Minister earlier this year that the realistic level for beef should be £18 per cwt. As I said earlier, in Strabane yesterday it was £9·60 per cwt. That is not a realistic price by the standards set by the present Government, and the matter is, therefore, serious.
Because the matter is so serious, it is vitally necessary that corrective steps be taken. Not only should there be a 90-day period of keep for imported cattle, but intervention or some such system should be introduced in the short term. Intervention is probably the easiest system to introduce now, and so it should be introduced.
We are looking to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to produce a long-term plan for farming that will guarantee the country's food supplies not just during the life of this Parliament but far beyond the life of the present Parliament—indeed, for the rest of our lives.
I was worried when I saw the scant attention which was paid to agriculture in the Queen's Speech. I was even more worried when I heard the Minister speak. He seemed to have no conception whatsoever of the seriousness of the farming crisis. He came to my constituency during the General Election and many of the farmers in my constituency spoke to him and pointed out the ruin facing them, but, from the speech which he made today, that does not seem to have penetrated a fraction of an inch into his head. He promised us virtually nothing till March. By then it will be too late for many of the farmers in my constituency and their families whose livelihoods and homes will have been destroyed.
I am now even more worried than I was two hours ago because I have attended a meeting in the Grand Committee Room of farmers from the length and breadth of the land, and I have seen how desperately worried they all are at the situation which is facing every farmer in the land. The President of the National Farmers' Union, Sir Henry Plumb, said that he had never seen farmers in the mood that they are in today. Certainly I have not in 30 years of farming.
The Minister, who seems to have been absent from his place for a very long time, criticised farmers in Holyhead for trying to stop cattle coming in. Yet those farmers, unlike some industrial workers, withdrew at the request of the police. As a farmer from Worcestershire pointed out at the meeting which I have just attended, many farmers are connected with the law in their capacity of justices of the peace, and they are desperately worried that if farmers do not get rapid and direct help now it will be very difficult indeed to keep the situation under control, as they can see Irish cattle receiving a subsidy to come in and flood still further an already hopelessly overloaded market.
The Minister referred to the poor quality of cattle keeping down the price. I attend my auction mart in Lancaster fairly frequently. I was there 10 days ago, and the cattle on offer were pretty good, yet they were fetching only £12 per cwt.—little more than half what they were fetching last year. Many of the farmers in my constituency have one crop a year; that is their Buckler calves. Charollais/Friesian suckled calves of 6 to 6½ cwt. were fetching £50. Every time the premium goes up, the price in the auction mart goes down. The right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), by no means a man to exaggerate, described the market price in his constituency as derisory and his farmers as desperate men. My farmers are desperate men too, and they have desperate wives.,
At the end of September hay was on offer in my market at £50 a ton delivered, with no takers. On Friday bedding straw was £30 and feeding straw was up to £35 and more if one could get it, with very ordinary hay at £60 a ton and meadow hay at £90 a ton. If I were paying £90 a ton for meadow hay I would want to be feeding a first-class racehorse, but that is the price paid by people to feed their cattle. Who can afford that price, in view of the end price obtained for beef
I have seen some of my farmers' books and I have heard from many bank managers. There are no two ways about it; the situation is utterly desperate. It is not just the future of agriculture which is at stake. As one hon. Member on the Government side said, the situation for every housewife is now critical. The dinner table of every family in the land is at risk, and for the first time in my lifetime, apart from war, town dwellers are realising that this is the case.
The sugar shortage may have been in a sense a blessing in disguise because it brought home to the people, as no words could ever have done, the fact that there will be massive shortages right across the larder if farmers are driven our of business. They, like every other worker in the land, are entitled to the rate for the job. We must have action now—not in March.
We must have three things at least: first the reimposition of a 60-day waiting period for Irish cattle coming here, subsidised against us as they are; secondly a guaranteed bottom to the market to bring it up to the cost of production; and thirdly, just as important, there must be a retrospective payment to those farmers who have been obliged to sell since certification came in in August so that they can pay their proven bills, their rents and the interest due on their overdrafts in December. The bankers in my area have been very patient. They have not pressed the farmers beyond their limit. But they will not go on lending for ever if they can see no future for their farming customers.
Those three measures would stop the rot. Having stopped the rot, we have got to start to rebuild the industry. Here there is no room for party politics. We must all get together, whatever our politics may be, with the leaders of the farming industry and thrash out a policy on which farmers can rely, whichever party may be in government and irrespective of elections. They must be able to plan their production ahead if they are to play their full part in feeding this nation in the years to come. We must have action, and we must have it now.
May I follow exactly the point on which the hon. Lady the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) concluded. It is with some sorrow that I quote from a speech made by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) to the Kent branch of the National Farmers' Union in January 1971:
…in 1964 and 1965 after the General Election‖Mr. Heath"—
the then Leader of the Opposition—
instructed a group of us to look at our agricultural policy and to suggest what changes could be made in it…the main principle which we came up with was that it was quite impossible for the farming industry to think that year after year they could get their returns from the Government or a proportion of their returns from the Government and that it would be much better if over a period of years we could shift that portion which the industry obtained from the Government, so that it came from the consumer, because we know what happens and I have already had a little experience of this.
Let us be quite clear. Whatever responsibility may lie on my right hon. Friend's shoulders—I would not hesitate to suggest that as Her Majesty's Minister of Agriculture he bears a responsibility for the present situation, but there are other shoulders as well—in analysing the present situation we should not pretend that the cause of the situation is exclusive to one side of this House or the other, to the farmers themselves or their leaders, to the consumer or to those who would protect them.
In the late 1960s and the first years of this decade a policy which, with all its shortcomings, had served the farming interest and the consumer for 25 years was wantonly abandoned, entirely independently of our possible entry into the European Community. The import levy structure which still obtains for sheep—there is still an import levy on mutton and lamb—was imposed totally without reference to our possible entry into the Common Market. The deficiency payments procedure was removed. Notice was given of its removal not because we were entering the Common Market but because it was held not to be in the interests of the farming community or of the consumer.
If one produces a massive increase in the available supply of a product without any countervailing increase in demand, ordinary economic laws suggest that there will be certain difficulties. If we take the five months April to August inclusive in 1973 as compared with the same period in 1974, we find that home-produced beef and veal supplies increased by 17½ per cent. There is no comparable increase in imported supplies—in fact, they went down. At no stage was there a realistic possibility of consumption expanding by anything like that percentage.
At present we have a classic situation of over-supply on the market in which the supply coming from indigenous United Kingdom farms is the overwhelming bulk. We delude ourselves if we pretend that the glut is being created by imported supplies.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to a committee of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) was chairman in 1964–65. I was a member of that committee and so was my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins). The hon. Gentleman would be only fair if he pointed out to the House that apart from the support through import levies there was provision for a residual guarantee backed by Government cash.
I accept that. The destruction of the 1947 Act procedure was an integral part of the restructuring of Government support for agriculture in the post-1970 situation, totally independent of the Common Market. That is the only point I wish to make in that respect.
We have an over-supply of beef of about 17½ per cent. I suggest that the farming community and we in the House would delude ourselves if we assumed that this was because of excessive imports, apart from the possible problem of Irish imports. Here I echo what has been said by representatives of many parties. There is need for a 60-day moratorium before the imports are eligible for a grant head-age payment. This is the very least that is required to remove this obnoxious trade involving switching between Southern Ireland and Ulster and other parts of the United Kingdom.
What has caused this glut, this excess production? Successive Ministers of Agriculture urged farmers to increase production. Farmers saw that the prices obtaining 18 months ago for fatstock gave every encouragement to retain calves and to increase the number of calves put to beef bulls. Therefore, there is a massive increase caused by both exhortation and economic expectations.
It is easy for those outside the House to put the blame entirely on politicians for exhorting farmers to produce more beef, whereas any Minister knows that the farmers produce more beef out of expectations of high profits. When those expectations are not realised, it is easy to blame politicians of any party, whereas what the producers did was to look at the market at a time when a heifer was due to go to a bull, and they made decisions on current market prices. If we assume that farmers increased the number of Charollais Jersey calves on the exhortation of successive Ministers of Agriculture rather than put a Jersey bull to a Jersey cow, we delude ourselves; they did it because they thought there was money in it.
I have recently visited markets in Darlington, Hexham and Sedgefield and I have found that there is stuff coming on to the markets which would have been far better culled at birth. It would take a long time to produce high-quality cattle from what I have seen, and even if money is spent the quality will not be high.
What were the alternatives facing my right hon. Friend over the past six months? There is among many of us on this side of the House, and among people in the country at large, an abhorrence of intervention buying. This abhorrence is not of a doctrinaire nature. The tradition of intervention buying in order to raise the price to the consumer finds little which we can support not, curiously, on economic grounds but rather on quasi-moralistic grounds. Therefore, the continuation of intervention buying was not a direct blow against the farming industry because we did not like the farming industry; it was essential.
Throughout our debates on our accession to the European Community we on these benches have consistently said that intervention buying to restrict the supply to the consumer and raise the price to the supplier was not the way to tackle the matter. Therefore, in July my right hon. Friend came up with the headage payment. It is fair to say that hon. Members on both sides of the House, as well as people in farming, not merely hoped that it would work but for some weeks genuinely believed that it would do the job. Expectation of a floor of £18 was not confined to my right hon. Friend the Minister, or to these benches Equally, however, we must now accept that it has been a total failure and that every penny of public money spent on the headage payment has been public money ill spent, for which there is no justification. The sooner it is scrapped and finished with and replaced by an effective form of Government money, the better.
Therefore one asks what can be done, given that a crucial sector of British farming interests is at risk—indeed, at the moment, at very great risk. I would first diffentiate between the problems facing those involved in stock rearing and those involved in the fattening trade. There is particular concern for stock rearing people, especially those on the hills. The fattening people have had a temporary mischief done to them if they chose to buy store beasts at £130 or £140 a head 12 months ago only to find that stores are now being bought at £50, £60 and £70. Even at the present low level of return their plight, though one hesitates to say so, is tolerable by comparison with hill farmers. Their plight is tolerable though not ideal by a long way.
We must see what we can do about producers of stock from the hills. One suggestion would be to subsidise their feedstuffs. I am on record in the House and elsewhere as being an advocate of feedstuff subsidy. Unfortunately, while I would urge upon my right hon. Friend that this should be examined, if—as the figures suggest, between the June 1970 census and the June 1974 census—there is an increase of 25 to 28 per cent. in the number of store beasts on the hills and the availability of fodder is down by 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. this winter as compared with the winter of 1970–71, to increase the cash to hill farmers to help to buy fodder would benefit not the hill farmers but rather the producers of fodder. It would simply increase the price of fodder without benefiting the hill farmers as such.
Therefore, however attractive a feedstuff subsidy might be on the surface, I have grave reservations. Although I hope that the Ministry will examine its feasibility, I have reservations about how it would work. With great deference to the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), I must say that not many hills would benefit from a hill fodder subsidy in Cambridgeshire. I do not want to see the benefits that I wish to have paid in Merioneth, Caernarvon or Durham ending up in the Fenlands. That is not the object of the exercise. That sort of subsidy has limitations.
There is the 60-day problem of imported Irish beef. Hon. Members who have spoken have been virtually uninimous in saying that that needs urgent attention.
I again draw to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends the question of the timing of income tax payments by farmers. Those who were fortunate enough to make a high taxable income during the fiscal year ending April 1974 are having to pay the tax on it in the bad year that they are now going through. They are almost alone among businesses of similar turnover and capital value in having no means of carrying their tax over a three-year period. It would not be a major change to allow the farming community an income tax roll-over of about three years. However, that would not provide an immediate benefit.
What can be done? The need is to put the aid on the hills, to give it to the hill farmers. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House can isolate the hills as the area of the problem. That can be done by a headage payment to the hill farmer for stock held now. That would give some assistance, but there is the risk of its being transferred elsewhere. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider the possibility of a headage payment, based upon returns in the December census or some other predetermined date, to see whether a cash injection by means of a hill farm headage payment can be made, so that the stock on these reservoir farms is maintained.
The other possibility is brought to mind by the remarks of Herr Ertl in the German Bundestag between the German veto and the next round of the discussions. If the translation I received is accurate, he made the interesting statement that experience in the Community had shown that end price support served the interests of neither the farmer nor the consumer. Given that statement made unequivocally by one of our European partners, I think that we have the right to exercise a derogation from the Treaty of Accession, under the pressing national need to introduce a straight guaranteed price with deficiency payments, as a temporary measure until the February discussions on the restructuring of the common agricultural policy's support price for beef are concluded.
That would not be a permanent situation; it would come within the ambit of a temporary derogation. We should lay before Brussels our intention, given the extreme urgency and pressing nature of the problem, to reintroduce guaranteed prices, deficiency payments and the whole panoply of the 1947 Act. Unless my memory deceives me, we have never repealed that Act. It would require no more than a statutory instrument once more to activate the legislative facilities that are available. It would not require a great deal of parliamentary time. The means are at our disposal. We can isolate and determine the nature of the problem. Unless we make it clear that we are prepared to do this urgently, I fear that we shall fail the British farming community.
However, that should merely be the precursor to the resurrection of a five-year rolling guaranteed programme, somewhat akin to that which occasionally works in the quinquennial estimates of universities. The farming community would then know for at least five years ahead what the minimum and maximum real-term returns were likely to be.
The calves that are not to be born next spring or summer are the beef that will not be on the table in 1977 and 1978. To reverse that long cycle of beef production requires not only an immediate injection of short-term confidence but a return to confidence based on guarantees, of a period longer than that of the cycle of production.
In the pig industry it is possible to increase productive capacity very quickly. In the cattle industry the cycle is four to five years. I entirely agree with Herr Ertl that the system of intervention prices and the end price has been tried and found wanting.
We should unilaterally reintroduce guaranteed prices at the earliest opportunity, using our powers of derogation from the Treaty of Accession, and then see that at the ministerial discussions in February we press for a five-year guaranteed price for the farmers. It is of no benefit to the miners or their wives in my constituency that the livestock producers on the hills should be forced into bankruptcy. There is no benefit to any part of this community in seeing the hill farmers reduced to penury.
I find myself in agreement with many of the constructive suggestions made by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes). I found myself thinking that what he was saying in the whole centre portion of his speech was correct. Many of the suggestions that he was making were sensible and constructive. However. I found that he contradicted himself in the last part of his speech when he said that he wished to introduce the deficiency payments system. He said a little earlier that he wanted to divide beef producers into two categories—namely, the fatteners and those who are rearing store cattle on the hills. He said that he accepted that for the fatteners these were difficult times but their situation was not disastrous. He said that they would be all right given the present price for buying stock. He then said that he wanted to bring in a wholesale deficiency payments system for those fatteners.
I do not think that such a system is necessary. The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that under the derogation provisions in the treaty it is possible for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to take unilateral action for a minimum period or for a short period given a national emergency.
I have never known a time when everything has been as depressing as it now is. I have been in agriculture for a long time and I have not been as depressed before. Hon. Member after hon. Member has reiterated the problems and difficulties which exist in their con- stituencies. I attended a meeting outside the House earlier this evening, and I heard farmer after farmer saying that they were desperate. They pointed out that there was little time left. In my constituency before and during the election and over the past two weeks livestock farmers have been telephoning me and telling me how desperate their position is.
When I came into the Chamber this afternoon I heard the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for whom I have had a high regard in the past, making a speech the like of which I thought he would never have the nerve to make. It seems that he does not understand the exact position. The other possibility is that he is being deliberately misled. I do not know which it is. I do not believe that he is a fool; I have never thought that. Therefore, the position must be that he has not grasped the situation which has been put in front of him by his officials.
This afternoon the right hon. Gentleman said that he appreciated that there are difficulties in the livestock section but that the rest of the industry was all right. He said that by his recent actions he had managed to ensure that dairying which, as he said, is one of the biggest sections of the livestock industry, will be all right. He said that he hoped that dairying would expand. I wish that that were the position. Even in the dairy sector there is no great joy and no great profit. The recent 7·7p per gallon increase which came out of the 5 per cent. overall increase following the Luxembourg negotiations which the right hon. Gentleman conducted will apply for the six winter months. It is an increase that is made up of various elements to compensate for the huge increase in costs and losses from which the dairying sector has been suffering.
Does any occupant of the Government Front Bench really think that there will be enough milk come January and February for any butter to be made? No butter is being made now. Do the occupants of the Government Front Bench think that any cheese will be made in this country come January and February? There is little being made now. I doubt whether any will be made in January and February. I only hope that some of the gloomier forecasts that we hear about a milk shortage which will make imports of liquid milk necessary will be proved wrong. If such imports are necessary it will be the first occasion in all the time that I have been in politics and in farming that they will have proved necessary. Because of the rundown and lack of confidence there is a great deal of despondency. Many dairy heifers in calf are being sent to the abattoirs. That has happened throughout the summer months. At the moment supply and demand is right on the balance. I hope that the Minister will not continue to be complacent about dairying.
I now turn to the beef section of the livestock industry. Here we have a disastrous situation. We have heard of the prices in the various markets. I have exactly the same figures that I could quote from the markets in Derbyshire. I shall not weary the House with the figures. The Derbyshire figures are just as bad for the past week or so as any throughout the country.
Prices are absolutely rock-bottom. There is no doubt that farmers are losing a great deal of money. What appals me is that the right hon. Gentleman has done nothing about it. What he has done is to talk about the situation in March. He set out the three matters that he wants to see in the new overall beef policy brought in by the Community. He referred to the intervention system, marketing premiums, production grants and a different import regime. We have been talking about such matters in the European Parliament and in committees of that Parliament for the past six or seven months. We have been examining them in detail. Various proposals have emerged from the Commission and through the parliamentary machinery in Europe. However, the situation will not be improved by talking about the introduction of such matters in March next year.
One of the things that I have learned from the past 48 hours is that little time is left. That is the point that we must get over to the Minister. That applies not only to the livestock section of the industry but to other sections. There is little time left. That is why I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider what he has said today and whether the various steps that he has taken have been adequate.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will bring in a new premium or sub- sidy for butchers' wholesalers and private cold storage. He has said that he will give them a subsidy for such storage. That is moving to a certain extent on the lines of intervention. It is paying a subsidy for the storing of beef in private stores. He has said that the butchers will get £262 per ton for doing so. By so doing he is encouraging the wholesale trade to take up cold storage. That could be described as intervention. Naturally, an increasing amount of beef which is on the market will be put into storage. That will not raise the price in the markets. I accept what the hon. Member for Durham said about the quality of some of the cattle coming through from the farmers who decided 18 months ago, or less than that, to keep the cattle rather than put them straight down or to cull them out. I accept that the quality has gone down. But this subsidy will not do anything to improve the price structure immediately.
At the moment there is a blockage at the slaughterhouse end. I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman intends to do about that. It is my firm belief that if we go on in the direction that we are now taking many of the small farmers and the hill farmers that the hon. Member for Durham talked about will go out of farming and we shall have the most enormous difficulties in the spring and summer next year. I do not believe that in the autumn the base stock will be available to restart the cycle about which we have been talking. That is what is worrying me. I do not believe that we can allow the present situation to continue for very much longer.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) said that an immediate cash injection into the livestock section of the industry is essential. Indeed, he said that it is essential for the whole industry but particularly for livestock. I could not agree more. The hon. Member for Durham said exactly the same. He reiterated the same plea for an immediate cash injection. It is vital that that should be done. The consequences of not doing so will be dreadful not only in terms of human misery now for many farmers and their families but for consumers in 12 or 18 months' time, when the real pinch will come.
I was particularly attracted to and support what was said by the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) about the import of Irish cattle. It seems extraordinary that we should allow in the amount of Irish beef that is coming here. I know that this is a traditional trade and that the amount being brought in now is probably the same as last year, but conditions this year are very different from what they were. We are now in a surplus situation. The bottom of the market has been torn away. We cannot afford to allow these cattle to come into this country in the quantities in which they are arriving here. I go along with the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, that there should be a minimum period of 60 days—if not 90 days, as suggested by one hon. Member—before there is a headage payment on slaughter.
There has been a traditional trade in store cattle from Ireland. I do not know the figures, but I have put down a Question for the Minister to answer next week and I hope that I shall then get a definitive reply. One has to combine the fact of the import of these cattle with the fact that there is a shortage of fodder—whether the figure is 5 per cent., 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. I do not know.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that he was conducting a nation-wide survey into the matter. If there is a shortage of about 10 per cent., it is important to consider whether, even if the size of the herds at home is reduced, there will be sufficient fodder to enable us to cope with these Irish store cattle. It seems stupid to encourage the import of store cattle at the same level as last year, bearing in mind that the situation has changed.
I am not suggesting that the trade should be banned completely, because that would be against the terms of the EEC treaty and against the terms of the agreement between our two countries, but I suggest that the Minister should meet his counterpart in Southern Ireland and have talks with him to see what can be done to halve the level of imports into the United Kingdom.
On the question of the beef fattener, I am attracted to the way in which the hon. Member for Durham divided up the problem. The fattener, the person who finishes off the cattle, is often a small farmer. In many instances he is also the breeder. He, too, must be helped, and, as my right hon. Friend suggested, some- thing must be done quickly to provide the necessary assistance. The idea of a headage payment for farmers in the hills —most of my constituency is in the hills of Derbyshire—attracts me considerably, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider this proposal as a matter of urgency. This problem cannot wait to be dealt with in January, February or March. Farmers have to pay for their winter feed, and if something is not done within the next 10 days to help them many of the young store cattle will go to the slaughterhouse, and that will be a tragedy.
The sugar beet question is a worrying one. I agree with what was said by my right hon. Friend and by other hon. Members about the need to increase our sugar beet crop. I was pleased that the Minister was able to get a large increase in the amount allowed under Quotas "A", "B" and "C", but these quotas will not be filled unless the Minister does something to increase the price level. I am sure the Minister realises that farmers are now deciding whether to put in winter wheat, barley or oats, or to put in a break crop such as sugar beet.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to see an increase in sugar beet acreage he must do something within the next two weeks to help those who are engaged in this business. New contracts have to be drawn up, and unless the new price level is attractive—£16 per ton plus—there will not be any increase in acreage for the 1975–76 crop year. It is essential to get the maximum acreage planted, and thus get the maximum amount of sugar beet in 1975–76.
I do not think that I need reiterate all the arguments that have been put forward by my hon. Friends and, in particular, by my right hon. Friend. Everything that has been said today emphasises the despair and cynicism that one finds throughout the farming industry. There is cynicism about broken promises made by both the right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative Government. When we were in power, we asked for increased production in almost every sector. That started to happen, and things were going well. Having said that we wanted an increase, we said that we would ensure that farmers received a fair return for what they were doing. From 1973 onwards, by using the machinery of the CAP, farmers were being given a reasonable return for what they were doing.
The present Minister, however, ripped all that away in March 1974—hence the despair in the livestock sector—by stopping the intervention system and putting nothing in its place. Time is not on the right hon. Gentleman's side, nor on ours. I want something positive to be done soon. I want to see money put into the livestock sector. If that is not done there will be disaster this winter for farmers and in 1975 for consumers. I repeat that the Minister does not have very much time in which to take the necessary action.
I am glad to follow the speeches of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins), with whom I find myself in almost complete agreement, and the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes), who is a constituent of mine and who tonight ably stated the needs of hill farmers.
In three debates I have spoken about the situation facing hill farmers and it is sad, representing, as I do, a hill farming area, to realise that my points still have not got across to the Minister for Agriculture or the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales. I do not want to adopt the bad habit of quoting from former speeches, but in the debate on 8th May many of us said that the crisis now facing hill farmers would occur this October. The difficulty has worked its way through the cycle, and the drop in price for fatteners has hit store producers and the people in my constituency who rely so heavily on store cattle for their livelihood.
We heard from the Minister what I can only describe as a speech that was the height of complacency. He said that beef accounted for only 15 per cent. of the agricultural production of Great Britain. In Merioneth, the value of agricultural production derived from cattle is 57 per cent. These figures show the extent of the crisis there. Only last year Ministry officials declared Merioneth a hill project area. The local farmers cooperated all the way. They took the statements and guarantees by Ministry officials about the project at their face value. There has been a threefold increase in stock. The increase has been going on, not only during the past year but over the last 15 years.
However, the area is now facing a crisis of fodder deficiency which is worse than in any other part of the United Kingdom. I look for confirmation from the Secretary of State for Wales of the figures I have had for fodder deficiency in Wales. They indicate that it is over 20 per cent. and that in our hill area it is over 60 per cent. The suppliers of hay, when they are able to supply it, are charging up to £100 per ton to some of my hill farmers in Merioneth. Over the very hard winter before us, lack of fodder and lack of finance to buy what there is will hit the uplands in a way which I can only compare to an outbreak of disease. Farmers are already talking, in my area, about the need for a programme of slaughter as though we had been hit by a foot-and-mouth outbreak.
What action did we expect from the Government today? The House has had a succession of agricultural debates in the last seven months. Honourable Members in all parties have called for the restoration of a form of guaranteed price system. I am glad to see that some hon. Members on both sides who voted, prior to our entry into the EEC, in favour of destroying our previous system have now been converted, but I am concerned about what seems to be the conversion of the Minister of Agriculture himself the other way. It is clear that he has been spending far too much time in Brussels being converted to tacit acceptance of Community regulations.
If I read correctly between the lines of what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday he, too, has surrendered to a renegotiation of the common agricultural policy which is far from fundamental. The right hon. Gentleman referred to it yesterday, comparing it to the walls of Jericho. He said that he had begun the long march round it. While he is marching round the walls of Jericho, followed by the Minister of Agriculture and his trumpets, the cattle of Israel are dying of starvation in the wilderness. This is why I welcome the words and actions of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan). Last night he said:
In terms of agriculture we have not even started renegotiating yet—we have been trying to take ameliorative steps in a difficult
situation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th October 1974; Vol. 880, c. 326.]
The Minister of Agriculture has been clutching at straws for the last six months—a calf subsidy, then a headage payment. Today he said that he will introduce his own Mark II version of intervention, which is what it is in effect. It is the level of payment he is planning to give for storage. All the right hon. Gentleman's schemes have failed to restore a realistic level of income of £22 per cwt. to the beef producer.
What the right hon. Gentleman must do is not catch the next plane to Brussels to ask EEC officials what he can do. The right hon. Gentleman must reintroduce the fatstock guarantee price system in the United Kingdom as a matter of urgency in the period up to next March. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman saying that in March there will be a new beef regime which will be according to the principles he has discussed today. Those principles have already been enunciated in the European Parliament. What we must have is the urgent introduction of a fatstock guaranteed price as it operated prior to British entry into the EEC. It must be restored, and an announcement of its restoration must be made within the next week if we are to avert the total collapse of our hill farming.
The attitude of the Minister of Agriculture is complacent. So was the attitude of the Leader of the House when the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) asked today about the possibility of a debate about the export of live animals. The Leader of the House said that there might well be a debate at some stage. Perhaps it will be after Christmas, after we have had a devolution debate. It is clear that the Government must ensure an immediate debate to enable the House to take a vote on the O'Brien Report. Here, the kind old ladies of the animal cruelty pressure groups have a lot to answer for. They conducted very successfully their campaign to halt this trade. I hope that they will be equally strong in demanding that the trade should be resumed, subject to the O'Brien safeguards. I hope that they will also be as forthright in their pressure for animal welfare at home. There is no difference between animals dying of thirst—as the accusations suggested—in ships going to France and animals dying of starvation on the hills of Merioneth.
I ask the Secretary of State for Wales to state clearly what action the Government plan to take about the fodder question. A survey of the fodder position, which is all we have been promised so far by the Minister of Agriculture, does not go far enough. There is obvious need for low interest loans to be made available immediately to farmers through clearing banks to enable them to buy fodder available at home or abroad, or, as I advocated some months ago, for a direct price supplement on feeding stuffs to match the massive escalation of fodder and feed costs. The credit squeeze which is now on so many family farms and so many young farmers presents a desperate situation.
I myself encouraged many young farmers in my area to go into the agricultural industry. I have seen recently the accounts of some of these boys. No wonder they are in Holyhead stirring up trouble when they see the way they have been losing money over the last two years. The credit facilities available to farmers must be reviewed urgently, not only on a short-term basis to meet the immediate crisis, but on a long-term basis to ensure that we in the United Kingdom have similar institutions for treating the cash flow problems of farmers as already exist in most other agricultural economies.
To meet the immediate crisis in the uplands there must a cash injection of this kind. I was attracted by the proposal of a special headage premium for hill areas, put forward by the hon. Member for Durham, as a way to bring immediate relief to hill areas.
I am also concerned about the store cattle producers in my area who have sold their cattle at disgustingly low prices recently and have to face the winter with the possibility of a slightly increased hill cow and hill sheep deficiency payment being paid at the end of the year. These people are in urgent need now to be able to meet their feed bills over the next two months. This is why I should like to see the winter keep supplement increased immediately for the hill areas.
I have tried to make some constructive suggestions on which I hope for the Secretary of State's comments tonight and when we meet him next week. The hill farmers I represent are not militant men and women. They are not the sort of people who resort to industrial action. They are people who have always lived on a relatively low income, preferring the life style of the uplands to any alternative form of employment in the lowlands.
Assurances have been given to them by successive Ministers of Agriculture about the importance of store cattle production, sheep production and small dairy herd production in the overall livestock and dairy industries of these islands. They are now in a position where they cannot tighten their belts further. They do not have the financial resources to feed their calves and they have an income of nothing more than the average £25 a week that they are now getting for their families. It is no wonder that the agricultural workers' union is concerned about the level of remuneration for agricultural workers in my area, because, clearly, the total income position of agriculture substantially affects any possibility of their being able to have an adequate living standard.
That is why these people have been taking direct industrial action at Holyhead and other ports. I am very worried about what is going on, and I endorse what was said on the subject by the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes). The Minister of Agriculture should be intensely worried about what is going on, because the people who are blockading the ports are desperate men and are acting in desperate need. They are hitting out at the nearest pressure point that they can find. That is what the North Wales farmers have done. They are seeing a totally depressed market being over-flooded, and they are acting accordingly.
I certainly endorse what has been said about the need to restore a 60-day delay period before payment of the headage premium, but I do not want to see things getting worse at Holyhead, where the situation is becoming a confrontation between NUR members, the police and the farmers. I am worried about a possible escalation and I want the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister of Agriculture to take these warnings seriously. I endorse the view of the Minister of Agriculture that we all have a responsibility to protest within the law and to resist violence, but the Government too, have a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the 30,000 people in Wales who are directly or indirectly concerned with the beef sector.
The Government have a social contract with industrial employees, pensioners and the disabled, the people to whom the Prime Minister referred as the useful people in our society. Does this contract also extend to the hill farmers of Wales and of the other areas in Britain under pressure? I can see no distinction between the average workers in manufacturing industry in my constituency so far getting less than the TUC basic minimum of £30 a week, and the small or medium-scale family farmer trying to exist and to reduce and service his increasingly crippling debts on less than £25 a week while keeping his family.
This is my appeal. We have heard clearly from both sides of the House today a measure of strong agreement about the depth of the crisis and the type of measures that must be introduced. I appeal to the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Wales to respond to the rational case that has been put by a united House, because if they will not respond, none of us can bear responsibility for the consequences for agriculture, for our whole social being, and for our rural areas.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) is no longer in his place, because I want briefly to refer to the point he was making. He was something less than fair to my right hon. Friend in his criticism of the special arrangements that were made in Brussels for milk, because although he went to great lengths to criticise my right hon. Friend he did not make it clear that he did not reflect the views that the National Farmers' Union has circulated to all hon. Members today. If the NFU can welcome the arrangement in fairly wide, sweeping and glowing terms, it was rather less than charitable of the hon. Gentleman to refer to the arrangements as being inadequate.
I do not want to go over the problems again, because the House is fairly united about the problems facing agriculture and it does not serve much purpose to spend time discussing where the problem began. What is certain is that it did not begin with the election of a Labour Government on 28th February. It began when arrangements that had served the country well for the best part of a quarter of a century were scrapped by the Conservative Government in 1970.
Perhaps we should note that at the time those arrangements were scrapped there was no outcry about guaranteed prices as there is today. It would be fair to say that a large number of farmers welcomed the scrapping of the arrangements because they felt that a free market would produce greater returns for them than they were getting under the system of deficiency payments. The present outcry that now rightly exists is an admission that a large number of people in the farming fraternity were wrong in their evaluation of the situation then. I welcome their conversion back to recognising the need for guaranteed prices.
What needs to be done? The case has been made very well, and I would merely urge on my right hon. Friend the need for immediate action to provide a guaranteed floor in the beef market, not in March but now as a matter of the utmost urgency, certainly until we can get some clarification about the arrangements that will exist in the Community next March. We cannot wait through this long winter of six months with the present uncertainity in the industry, uncertainty that has already existed for far too long.
The second factor that I urge on my right hon. Friend is the need to use his influence to ensure that we have an opportunity in the House as quickly as possible to express our views on the O'Brien Report. It is nonsensical that we should have suspended the export of live animals while awaiting the O'Brien Report, and now that report has now been hanging around for months. This, too is a matter of the utmost urgency.
I should like to mention one or two problems that I found when I recently toured various farms in my constituency. It is a constituency with a great diversity of agriculture. It has one very prominent farmer in that Sir Henry Plumb himself farms in the centre. I spent a day with representatives of the NFU and found a diversity of problems, as well as those concerned with beef. For instance, there are problems facing poultry producers. In my constituency egg production costs are about 24·5p per dozen. There are substantial dumped imports from France coming on to the market at prices below production costs at a time when there is no reciprocity. Apparently our market is their market but their market is theirs. This matter needs urgent attention in the interests of poultry producers.
The next problem is the vexed question of tied cottages. I am an unapologetic supporter of the abolition of tied cottages, but it is far too little merely to support their abolition. I urge my right hon. Friend to use his influence to ensure that, coincidental with their abolition, which I believe must come, sufficient resources are directed to the building of municipal accommodation in rural areas so that agricultural tenancies may quickly become available to new farm labour. It would be nonsense to have agricultural cottages occupied by people not connected with the land, so depriving the farmer of an opportunity to get, for instance, a herdsman in his employ.
I unreservedly support the abolition of tied cottages, but it must coincide with the direction of resources to the building of municipal accommodation in rural areas, so that farmers may have an opportunity to resecure the tenancy of a cottage that would otherwise be occupied by a former employee.
I do not want to extend that principle too far without further detailed consideration of it. There is no doubt a degree of validity in that comparison. I would want to look at it in detail before saying whether I thought it was an exact comparison.
The statement in the Gracious Speech dealing with agriculture is brief. It says:
My Ministers recognise the value to the nation of expanding domestic food production.
We are in a rather peculiar situation in my part of the country. We apparently have this commitment to expanding domestic food production and yet we
find another Government Department going through the expensive exercise of ripping up large areas of rural countryside to put down motorways of dubious value. I am not sure whether there are people who want to use them. In my constituency we have the proposed M6 and M42 link and the M42 link between the M6 and the M1. But it will go only half-way because the programme is not completed beyond 1990. It will go from the M6 to the middle of nowhere. This continues a process of ripping up valuable agricultural land.
As was rightly pointed out by the document from the National Farmers' Union, which we received during the election, the entire urban motorway programme over the past decade has been responsible for ripping up an amount of farmland equivalent to the county of Oxfordshire. It is nonsense that we should be talking about expanding domestic food production and yet in the period of a decade allow that amount of land to go under. If this process continues it will inevitably lead to much greater dependence on food imports. We must place the same degree of priority on import-saving industries, such as agriculture, as we have always placed on export—promoting industries.
There is a need for much greater clarity of thought about how we use valuable land resources before allowing the interurban motorway programme to proceed. I know, from the public meetings I had with farmers and with NFU officials during the election that there is concern about the implications of the proposed wealth tax upon many people in agriculture. I suggest that one of the reasons why this is so has to do with the degree of speculation that has gone on in agricultural land. Agricultural land values have soared. It is that process which has made many farmers concerned about the effects of the wealth tax. If the escalation in land values had not taken place, many of them would not be worried about this tax.
This is a sector in which a couple of specific things ought to be looked at. In many parts of the country, certainly in my constituency, there are areas of interim green belt which lead to speculation. Farmers are deciding to leave some of their fields fallow in the hope that they will obtain planning consents. Much of the doubt about interim green belt areas has to be cleared up. We must have decisions about the exact perimeters of these areas and clear knowledge of what will happen. This will enable us to stop the speculative non-use of agricultural land.
My main point concerns the beef producers. There must be the introduction of a floor in the market. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) has suggested in admirable detail just what needs to be done about our Common Market commitments. There is far too great a problem to allow us to sit back and wait, hoping that negotiations in Brussels will produce something meaningful next March. Something needs to be done now. It can be done now. I am not so critical as many Conservative Members of the Minister of Agriculture. Nor would I describe him as complacent. I am confident that he is clearly aware of the problems of British agriculture and actively concerned to find a solution.
I hope that at the end of this debate my right hon. Friend takes careful note of the almost unanimous view of the House that we should return to the kind of agricultural support system which had served the nation well for the best part of a quarter of a century and which was capriciously scrapped by the Conservative Government and should now be replaced.
I want to follow the line taken by nearly all speakers from both sides of the House. It is a pity that senior Ministers do not wind up every evening during the Gracious Speech. If the Minister of Agriculture had had the opportunity of sitting throughout this debate he would have been far more impressed than he will be by a report from a junior Minister or from a reading of HANSARD. He would have heard the depth of feeling expressed by hon. Members and would have realised that it is a matter of life and death—something which the HANSARD writers, however able they may be, can never properly convey in the printed word.
I represent a constituency in the Midlands which specialises in the finishing of beef cattle. I can only reiterate some of the facts presented to the House. My constituents who are finishing cattle are now selling those cattle at £15 a cwt., including the £2 or so slaughter premium which they are receiving. Those cattle are passing out of their hands at a loss to them of £50 a head. Without taking into account the new increased fodder prices, my constituents are already standing a loss of about £5 a cwt. When the Minister spoke at the beginning of the debate, before he had the opportunity of hearing the views of hon. Members, he gave me the impression of not being aware that this time Members of Parliament are not crying wolf. I like the right hon. Gentleman and admire him very much but he must realise that everyone is in deadly earnest.
If the right hon. Gentleman could have listened to some of the hundreds of farmers who have come here today as I did this afternoon he would realise that it is a matter of life and death. He said that it might be a little difficult until the new measures came in in March. That is not good enough. That is totally inadequate for livestock producers in my constituency and other parts of the country who have to face what could be a disastrous situation.
What is to be done? We have all said this situation cannot continue. The first of three immediate actions I would like to see taken would be to increase the slaughter premium. At the moment it runs at £20 to £30 a head. It should be increased, and I would like to see it doubled to help finishers of fat beef achieve some solvency.
We have talked about the O'Brien Report. Earlier this afternoon the Leader of the House, in answer to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), said that he was still thinking about when we were to have a debate on that report. We were asking the right hon. Gentleman in June about a debate. I have a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary written in August saying that we were to have the debate. When the Leader of the House was asked today not only did he not know when the debate would be but he gave the impression that it is not likely to be in the foreseeable future and not even before Christmas.
I hope that right hon. Members and hon. Members on the Government Front Bench will convey to the Leader of the House the fact that next Thursday when we ask him about this we would like him to be a little more sympathetic. Can he not give us at least the impression that such a debate is somewhere near the top of the list, because many hon. Members think that the O'Brien Report should have been implemented months ago?
We cannot understand how Irish live cattle on the hoof are allowed to come into Britain and take our markets, preventing our own fat cattle producers from getting a fair return, when at the same time other live fat cattle from Ireland are shipped down the Irish Sea through the English Channel to take over the former export markets which we once enjoyed on the Continent and which we have now abandoned because we cannot make up our minds about the O'Brien Report. It does not help the animals. The length of the journey is doubled and their condition deteriorates. They have to go all the way from Dublin or Cork and undertake a stormy voyage across the Irish Sea compared with the short trip across the English Channel.
I hope that the Leader of the House will give us a fixed date for a debate on the O'Brien Report—we are tired of waiting—so that the House may be allowed to make a decision on this urgent matter.
The third matter on which I should like urgent action relates to fat cattle coming into the country from Ireland. The Times leader is often accurate. Today it was hopelessly inaccurate and inadequate on the subject. It did not define the difference between store cattle and beef cattle. In normal times we are glad to have Irish store cattle. Farmers in my constituency demand them in normal times. What they will not tolerate is Irish finished cattle coming to this country in limitless quantities and spoiling the limited market for our fat cattle producers. This must be stopped.
The recommendation made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) and Members on both sides of the House must be put into effect. A minimum period of 60 days before producers qualify for the slaughter premium must be introduced this week.
I hope that there will be an opportunity soon to discuss the dangerous effects which the Government's proposals for a wealth tax will have on the family farm and the continuance of the practice of handing down a farm from father to son. I hope that if the Government decide to introduce legislation on tied cottages they will bear in mind that the agricultural tied cottage is but a small element of the total number of tied cottages. Only one in six of the tied cottages is owned by farmers. The others are owned by large nationalised corporations such as the National Coal Board. We shall be bringing such points as this to the attention of the House if the Government illogically and unfairly threaten the existence of many small farmers who rely upon the tied cottage system.
One of the gravest responsibilities of the Minister is the supply of food to our people, and it is on one aspect of the supply of a vital foodstuff that I wish to speak.
I am curious, and perhaps disappointed, that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) did not speak yesterday about his resignation from the important position of Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture. I think that the country is owed an explanation on what clearly must have been a difference of opinion. I can only assume that it was because the way in which the Minister treated his juniors could be compared with the way in which he treated the House today, ignoring every problem put to him and failing to deal with any of the vital, crucial issues facing the nation. I imagine that the farming community will be disturbed to read about the appalling way in which the Minister spoke today.
I wish to deal with two items of production. First, dairy farmers in my constituency are pleased with the amount of help that they have received in connection with milk production, but it simply makes up for the difficulties which they experienced in selling their cull cows and calves. I am reminded of a letter which the Minister wrote to my colleagues in Somerset and myself in July in which he dealt with this matter. He said:
An improvement in the beef sector should have its effect for milk producers, who, you anticipated, would face problems later in the year. I will of course be keeping a close
watch on developments in what I know is one of the most important sections of the industry in the area which you represent".
To some extent, he has done that. While the increase has taken account of difficulties to date, what will happen if foodstuff prices rise again this autumn?
I acknowledge that the Government have done something about the matter in that they have dealt with the levy, but what I have not heard mentioned so far is the mutterings of the European Economic Commission that there will be restrictions on imported foodstuffs, particularly soya and other proteins, in the forthcoming winter to save currency and restrict the Community's deficiency payment. I appreciate that this is a minor point, but perhaps it will receive the Minister's attention.
The second matter I wish to mention is the question of glasshouse oil. The Minister was extremely offhand when other hon. Members and myself tried to ask him a question about this during his speech. The purpose of the glasshouse oil subsidy is to enable our producers to compete fairly with producers on the Continent. It is no good the Minister saying how he won this in the face of great hostility, knowing that it is coming to an end in December, when most producers will be planting crops which will be produced early in the new year. In an industry which requires immense capital investment, is highly labour-intensive and is important for the production of fresh domestic produce, it is unfair to leave people so long in the dark.
I wish to direct my main remarks to the question of sugar supplies. I must declare a personal financial interest in that I work for Manbre and Garton the smallest of the three sugar refiners in the country. No one argues about the basic sugar requirements of this country. They are estimated at 2·62 million tons in the forthcoming year. That is the amount which was used last year, and it is reasonable to assume that the amount used in the forthcoming year will be roughly the same. Of that 2·62 million tons, 620,000 tons will be provided by the British sugar beet growers and the British Sugar Corporation. Therefore, the Government must secure for the nation 2 million tons of sugar for the forthcoming 12 months.
The Government are hoping that 1·4 million tons of sugar will come from the developing Commonwealth. But will they? There is no indication that a price or a delivery date has been agreed. There is no assurance under Protocol 22 that the developing Commonwealth will deliver the 1·4 million tons, and there is substantial evidence that, even if we can pay an attractive enough price, the figure will fall short by 300,000 tons or more.
The right hon. Gentleman said that it was not possible to obtain the sugar from Australia. I admit that during the last few weeks there have been special difficulties, but those difficulties did not exist in the early part of this year. It the right hon. Gentleman had moved at the time when everyone in the industry was telling him to get on with it, that supply from Australia—assured and consistently supplied over the years at a reasonable price—could have come to this country.
Let us assume that the whole 1·4 million tons comes from the developing countries. We are still left with a deficit of 600,000 tons. The Minister says that he has secured our sugar supplies when he knows full well that the Lardinois proposals covered only 200,000 tons. That 200,000 tons does not necessarily have to come to Britain. It is 200,000 tons for the whole of the EEC. Our refineries are not tendering for sugar; they are tendering for subsidy. That has escaped the notice of many people. There seems to be substantial evidence that Italy will be better placed to tender for subsidy. Therefore, it is quite likely that we shall not get all that 200,000 tons. I should be grateful to know where the funding for this operation will come from.
Of the 2 million ton deficit in supplies of sugar for next year not one ounce is assured to any refinery in the United Kingdom. Here we are at 31st October, with two months to run before the end of the calendar year, and no assurances of supplies for next year. The consequence of this are far-reaching, not just to the housewife who is already finding it difficult to obtain packet sugar. She is by no means the major consumer of sugar. It is the food industry that we have to worry about in this context. I am not talking simply about jam, biscuits, ice cream and soft drinks. Sugar goes into almost every food and, for that matter, every drink, beer being a big consumer of sugar. The nation's shopping basket will be affected and many thousands of people will be thrown out of work if a proper supply of sugar cannot be assured for the months to come. I am talking not only about the food industry but also about the cane refineries, which employ about 9,000 people, all of whose jobs can be affected by the shortage of cane raws in the coming year. I am not speaking for the cane industry or for my company. I speak in the House only for my constituents and myself and therefore I should like also to comment on the sugar beet side, which plays an important part. The right hon. Gentleman went to Europe to try to obtain 1¼ million tons, and he came back with 1,040,000 tons, slapping himself hard on the back for this achievement and yet in 1971–72 our farmers produced 1,070,000 tons. It is true that he came back with 45 per cent. "B" quota and that the farmer will be paid the same amount for that "B" quota, but he has only one year's guarantee. It is like the 200,000 tons in the Lardinois proposals—only 12-months' supply. So the farmers will not go over board in welcoming these proposals.
It is common knowledge that the contracts are going out to beet growers within the next week or 10 days, and there are good reasons—which have to do with the allocation of quotas internally within the United Kingdom—why they will sign their contracts. There is also reason to believe that they will abrogate those contracts next spring if they do not receive a substantial increase in the price of beet.
I am talking not only about the EEC transition plus the 5 per cent. which will apply from 1st January but also about the increase in cost which sugar beet growers have to bear. They are thinking in terms of an increase of 40 or 50 per cent. in prices.
Perhaps one of the Ministers will explain how the British Sugar Corporation will cope both physically and financially with the extra beet tonnage involved. It is well known that the capacity is not available and that the cost of increasing capacity is huge. The capacity is not available to slice the beet even if 1,500 tons were to be grown next year by our growers.
The paramount item the Minister should consider is the strategic future of the supply of sugar to the nation. If the policy is to be that the sugar comes only from beet growers in the United Kingdom and Europe it would be a good thing if he were to say so. That would mean the destruction of the cane industry. What about the developing countries and their absolutely staple livelihood in cane production? The destruction of our cane refineries would make life very difficult for them.
There is plenty of evidence that we may be running into a world sugar shortage. I quote from an article by David Richardson, an expert on sugar beet published in the Financial Times on 10th October:
There is a growing realisation that the shortage could be more serious and long-term than present problems of grain supplies. Recent German estimates put world requirement of sugar by 1985 at 110 million tons—30 million tons more than at present—to maintain present levels of consumption. This implies sustained expansion of both cane and beet sugar production as well as massive investment in processing capacity in all the sugar-growing areas of the world.
Therefore the present is not a good time to begin to put out of business the quite substantial cane-refining industry in Britain.
Although I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State for Wales replying to the debate I believe that it is a bad habit—a habit which has been developed by both Labour and Conservative administrations—that in agricultural debates the Secretaries of State for Scotland or Wales are asked to carry out the task of winding up. Many of the speeches in this debate have dealt with highly specialised agricultural matters. I am certain that the Minister of State, who is sitting on the Government Front Bench, and whom I welcome in his new appointment, is well able to answer some of the detailed points which have been raised today, whereas the Secretary of State for Wales has so many responsibilities that inevitably he can deal with only some of these problems. This is no reflection on the right hon. and learned Gentleman because it also applies to his predecessors who have found themselves in a similar position.
However, I would ask the Secretary of State for Wales to answer three simple questions. Where is next year's sugar for the United Kingdom coming from? When will the refineries be guaranteed any supplies? Lastly, what do the Government intend to do about the inevitable and worsening shortage of sugar to all forms of consumers in the coming year?
I apologise to the House for being absent for part of this long and interesting debate, but Parliament has soon got very much under way with visits to the House today from two large delegations, from Hawker-Siddeley Aviation and the other from the farmers. Since I have a constituency interest, I felt that it was my duty to meet both delegations. Unfortunately, that duty took me out of the Chamber for part of the debate.
I managed to be present for the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), and particularly noted his remarks about the present situation in farming. I also heard the ideas of the Minister of Agriculture on what should be done to put the situation right. I was interested a little later to hear the contribution made by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes). I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to that speech, and, indeed, will consider drafting the hon. Gentleman into the Ministry of Agriculture, since he offered some positive solutions to the dire situation facing the livestock sector. I hope that the Government Front Bench will pay attention to the remarks of one of their own kind who showed that, although he represents a mining constituency, he has considerable understanding in depth of the problems facing livestock farmers.
In my brief contribution I wish to make it clear that I do not believe that the problems in agriculture began in February. They did not. They have been with us for many years and are the responsibility of successive Governments. I am pleased to say that a number of my Conservative colleagues have expressed the view that the last Conservative Government acted far too late in tackling the problems of the milk and livestock sectors. I share that view. I believe that we should have acted to deal with the situation which we saw developing and of which the farmers, in their wisdom, warned us.
I met the NFU delegation when they visited the House today and, among them, the chairman of the Macclesfield NFU branch. He described the situation in the livestock sector as a national disaster, and I agree with him. The Labour Government showed that they could act quickly when in March they made a substantial offer to the mineworkers because they considered them to be essential to our economy and its future. I believe that the Government should act again now to assist another section of the community, the farmers, who are just as vital to our welfare as are the miners.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) represented extremely accurately the dire situation facing our hill farmers. The chairman of the Macclesfield branch of the NFU said recently that they
are not just dazed by what is happening to their livelihood, they are absolutely shell-shocked.
"Shell-shocked" is the right expression. He went on:
The feed situation is desperate. Few of those who make hay have managed to get in more than half a normal crop this year—and some have harvested none at all.
I will not dwell on the fodder problem. That has been dealt with adequately by hon. Members on both sides of the House. But what this House has said to the Government today is that action is needed if agriculture, especially the livestock sector, is to play any part in the future of the country. Sir Henry Plumb, the president of the NFU, has said that by 1980, given the right climate, farming can make an additional contribution of £750 million to our balance of payments. Surely that is a contribution which is worth while. Surely, therefore, the Government should enable our farmers to make this contribution to the country.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire said, we must put a floor back into the market immediately. We must have a special autumn price review in order to inject cash and confidence back into the industry. If the present Government can squander up to £600 million to date on indiscriminate food subsidies, cannot they halve that and put £300 million into British agriculture, where the effect will be very substantial?
In this direction, too, we should enter into negotiations with the farmers' unions and their other representatives product by product in order to decide where subsidies on feeding stuffs are necessary to see our farmers through this winter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) spoke about the export of live animals and the O'Brien Report. As hon. Members will know, I have taken a considerable interest in the subject. More than a year ago I went to Europe with a consignment of cattle from my constituency to see the conditions that they experienced right from the auction to the slaughterhouse in The Hague. I found the conditions excellent in every way, and that finding has been upheld on a much wider plane by the O'Brien Committee's Report.
In my view this House acted in ignorance when it took the decision to ban the export of live animals. It should recognise today that it is a mistake not to resume the trade immediately in line with the O'Brien Committee's Report.
As a number of hon. Members have said in the course of the debate, we must also look again at imports of cattle from the Irish Free State. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West said that we could not cut them off immediately. But, as well as our responsibility to the Irish Free State, I believe that we have a responsibility to our United Kingdom farmers. Finished cattle from Ireland are flooding the British market, choking our abattoirs and reducing the price that our own farmers can get. The Government can take arbitrary action in this respect and immediately terminate for a period the import of finished cattle from the Irish Free State.
Within the European concept, I believe that we have an opportunity to take unilateral action as and when necessary in order to safeguard our farming industry. We can do it. I am well aware that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House are opposed to the European Economic Community. However, I believe that there is sufficient flexibility within the EEC to enable a Government of this country to take unilateral action to safeguard a particular sector of British agriculture in a crisis situation.
Finally, I want to refer briefly to the Government's proposals relating to a wealth tax, because I think that it has an important bearing on British agriculture. The small family farm is still a vital part of our agriculture industry. I make a particular plea to Ministers on the Treasury Bench to make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that any wealth tax that he proposes to bring in should be carefully considered in its effect on agricultural holdings. We do not want the small family farm to be broken up. We want the son to inherit from his father. That creates tremendous stability and keeps within the industry many of those who know how it should be run, and it has contributed to a large extent to the success of British agriculture in the past.
We face a serious situation. As I said, the chairman of the Macclesfield branch of the National Farmers' Union has described it as a national disaster. It is wrong that the Minister should come to the Dispatch Box today and state that he does not feel that he can take any positive action until March. That is not good enough. This opinion is shared by many hon. Gentlemen opposite. The farmers demand action, and action now.
I should like to apologise for a short absence from the Chamber during the debate. Certain points arise from the Minister's opening speech on which I know that the farmers to whom I have been speaking this afternoon will want some clarification.
The first point to come out of the debate was an allegation that in exchange for the October package it was agreed that we as a nation would not act unilaterally regarding agriculture prices in this country. I should like to know whether that is true or false.
The second point, which arises directly from the Minister's speech, was that there had been a to-ing and fro-ing on whether we should have a guarantee or intervention; whether we on this side were to blame for not having a guarantee or the Government are to blame regarding intervention.
Our farmers can live outside or within the EEC. They cannot live mid-channel neither in nor outside the European Com- munity. I therefore ask, are we to have membership of the European Community and its system, or our own system of guarantee which implies non-membership?
Thirdly, will the Minister distinguish as clearly as possible the difference between the intervention that he now proposes of taking beef into storage and the proposed intervention system of the European Community? Will he also indicate why the cost of the intervention storage that he now proposes is about 50 per cent. more than we are paying for winter keep to our farmers?
It is heartbreaking and certainly distressing to attend the markets at Borough-bridge, Thirsk, Malton and Bedale and to see the effects of the low prices that farmers are getting for their produce. The low price of beef is now working its way back through the various strata of the industry.
I shall confine my remarks to one area, in which I have a special interest and which often goes unnoticed. Cattle rearers on hill and marginal farms are suffering considerably. The Minister has sufficient knowledge of the facts to agree that this is true. He said earlier that by next March his new proposals for a beef regime in the Community might bear fruit. He will find from his statistics and other information available to him that next March will be far too late for a whole range of marginal and hill farmers. Consequently, something must be done now. There cannot be any intellectual disagreement between us on that.
What is required now in that stratum of the industry is an announcement of the price we are likely to be paid for our produce in the fatstock market next February or March so that the full transmission chain of store animals can take place and the interruption to it is stopped as soon as possible. Many hill men who are now keeping cattle which would otherwise have gone as stores are keeping their cattle over the winter and, because they have no alternative, are knowingly converting their business enterprise into a gamble. We should not place such valuable members of the community in such a position.
I will state what action is needed in the form of questions. First, why cannot we have a minimum price for beef determined now, or at least a guide price determined now, so that the transmission chain can take place and we can see our hill and marginal men out of their problems? Secondly, why cannot we have a review of the export of live animals now in view of the O'Brien Report rather than be faced with the delay and hedging, as I suggest it was, to which we were treated at Business Question Time earlier today? Thirdly, why cannot we insist upon a two or three-month waiting period for imported Irish animals? I was present this afternoon at the meeting of the representatives from my constituency who attended the House. They are extremely worried and frustrated and are determined to bring their frustration to the Govrnment's notice at the highest level.
As regards agriculture generally, what has been voiced to me constantly throughout my constituency, which is a major agricultural constituency, is lack of confidence in the future. This lack of confidence is a result of the absence of any recognisable medium-term policy on which people can rely. We have had the worst of both worlds. We have had ad hoc and piecemeal measures which have only added to the lack of confidence and achieved the very opposite of the result the Minister hoped to achieve.
I call for a firm decision on where the farmer is to look for his income and how much he can expect by way of income from selling his output. The farmer wants to know the source of his income. Is it to come from the market backed by intervention, where appropriate, or is it to come from the guaranteed price system? Which is it to be? That decision is all the farmer is asking for. The decision is within the Minister's competence to make. It is urgently necessary that a decision be taken, and I ask the Minister to take it now and to announce it in this debate.
Out of deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), I do not wish to speak for more than two or three minutes, and in that time it would be foolish to develop any kind of agricultural policy; therefore I shall not attempt to do so.
I have been the owner of agricultural land for some 25 years and associated with the ownership of it long before that. I have represented an agricultural constituency for 10 years. I have never at any time known a situation in which Dorset farmers are more desperate or more depressed or more genuinely anxious about the future than they are at this moment. If I make that point alone, it is worth making. Indeed, in the time available there is not much more that I can say.
I do not think Her Majesty's Government are sufficiently aware of that single fact, and in the two or three minutes at my disposal that is the major point that I want to make. The situation is desperate. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales is in contact with farmers almost daily, as no doubt he is, and as I am, he must be aware of the measure of their anxiety for themselves and their families. That is the first and most important point.
My second point is that we are spending some £700 million a year on food subsidies. Some of that goes to subsidising food for cats and those who eat at the Savoy Hotel. That money would be better spent in the interests not merely of the farmer but of the poorest section of the community if it were spent in ensuring that beef and other food products would come on to the market in two or three years' time. Under the present arrangements they will not do so. However much they may be temporarily popular, in two or three years' time disaster will be here if greater encouragement is not given to those who produce beef and other animal products.
Finally, one word on the wealth tax. I do not wish to get involved in Socialist and Conservative arguments. I am concerned with this matter only in the context of agriculture. It has been the opinion of every agricultural expert, and shared by the Ministry, for many years that it is desirable to have large units and that large agricultural units are economic. In Europe, and France in particular, many agricultural troubles stem from the uneconomic 20-acre or 30-acre holding. Whatever other argument there may be for or against a wealth tax, that tax applied to farmers must break up the large farm and tend to create the small and uneconomic farm. Forget all party politics. Within the context of the Ministry of Agriculture and in no other context it must be the Government's duty to represent to the Treasury the harm that this potential tax will do.
I am glad that the Minister has entered the Chamber to hear my concluding words. For many years we have had a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and for many years it has worked well, but I have increasing doubts whether it is working now and whether it call work in the future. There is a Minister who has an influence in the matter of consumer prices and must be keenly interested in food prices. There is a natural and inevitable conflict between the Minister whose main function is to represent farmers and any other Minister who must be concerned with food prices. At this time more than any other we want a Minister with undivided allegiance to represent within the Cabinet an industry which is more depressed, more in danger and more vital than any other in this country. I suggest to the Minister of Agriculture, and perhaps through him to the Prime Minister, who decides these things, that there should be no conflict between the Minister who is responsible for food prices and the Minister who strives—I know how difficult it is—to keep the farming industry alive.
It has not been often in the past decade that one has been able to use the sort of terminology now used in discussing agriculture: Dorset farmers are desperate; English farmers in general are desperate. As the clock strikes nine I beg the Minister to have regard to that fact.
It has been very helpful for the House to have had this first opportunity of this Parliament to discuss agriculture. This was the first possible day that the Conservative Party was able to nominate a subject for discussion. Judging by the strength of feeling demonstrated in the debate, it is clear that the subject of agriculture has been badly in need of discussion.
Tonight we shall not be voting on this subject which we have been debating all day. However, bearing in mind the speech that we heard from the Minister today, I think we shall probably wish to return to this subject before long so that we may demonstrate in the Division Lobby our strong feeling about the emerging situation.
Before I enlarge on the matters we have debated, I must refer to the three maiden speeches made during the debate. All three hon. Members concerned have succeeded figures whom many of us knew very well for many years—Mr. Ernie Money, Mr. Jock Bruce-Gardyne and Sir Harmar Nicholls. We miss them, but we welcome the new Members who have taken their places and we congratulate the new Members on their maiden speeches.
We heard from the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) a good deal about his knowledge of football. I do not know whether he has as much knowledge about this as his predecessor, whose knowledge was immense, or whether his knowledge is as scant as the Prime Ministers, but no doubt we shall soon find out.
I was greatly surprised by the Minister's speech earlier today. I would have expected him to have been well warned about the strength of feeling regarding the acute agricultural situation. On the first day of the debate, on Tuesday, which was a day of general debate, no fewer than 10 speeches referred to agriculture.
I was astonished that the Minister's speech showed so little sympathy and so little apparent understanding of the great crisis facing the nation. It was an unworthy speech. [Interruption.] I do not like to attack the Minister—he is an agreeable fellow—but I must draw attention to the fact that he left the Chamber very early in the debate and was not back until about five minutes ago. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."] I appreciate that the job of the Minister is arduous, but I hope that the next time we debate agriculture he will spend a great deal more time in the Chamber and not treat the House with the contempt he has treated it with today. [HON. MEMBERS: "Unworthy."] His speech showed a quite disgraceful complacency. It was full of watery phrases such as "recognising the anxiety which exists" while farmers throughout the country are going bankrupt and facing ruin.
The Minister's performance today reminded me of the report that a boy I remember going to school with once received. The report said that he set himself a lamentably low standard and usually failed to attain it.
One wonders whether the Minister understands the industry for which he is responsible. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), who spoke immediately after the Minister, asked what on earth the Minister did when he went into the markets in this country. Does the right hon. Gentleman take any notice of what people say?
Since the right hon. Gentleman returned to the Ministry of Agriculture he has tried to lead the industry in a series of hand-to-mouth, short-term measures and palliatives—
The right hon. Gentleman has been muttering from his seat for the past five minutes. I shall give way in a few minutes, but he must learn to contain himself. He is also relying on his PPS, the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Grant), to make noises for him. I should have thought him capable of doing it for himself.
The Miinster has three times renewed the pig subsidy, each time for a few more weeks. He is bringing the hill cow and beef cow subsidies forward to the early part of next year, but his slaughter premiums provide no long-term provision for the industry. They continue only until February. Who in the industry can plan in the long term with policies from the Minister that cover such a short period?
The horticultural oil subsidy is to run out very shortly. How can growers plan when they do not know whether it will continue? The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that it is impossible for farmers to make long-term planning decisions when he produces short-term planning policies.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that what I have done for the dairy industry, involving £102 million, is only a short-term palliative? What his Government did was to nothing like the same extent.
I cannot allow the right hon. Gentleman to get away with that. The award at the beginning of the year by my right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) was worth more than what the Minister has done, and he knows it, though we welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has done. I have talked about other short-term palliatives.
One of the glaring omissions from the Minister's speech, was his failure to answer so many of the questions my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) put to him. I was particularly disappointed that he did not reply to the suggestion that this might be the moment to try to take agriculture out of politics. My right hon. Friend made an offer with the very best will, and the right hon. Gentleman cavalierly thrust it aside. If he chooses to ignore what my right hon. Friend said, will the Minister consider, in the interests of trying to take the industry and its problems out of politics, setting up once more the Select Committee on Agriculture, which was so valuable a few years ago? I do not ask for a decision tonight, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give an assurance that he will discuss the matter with the Leader of the House at an early date.
The right hon. Gentleman also failed to refer to the threat of capital taxation which hangs over the industry. No hon. Member on either side who fought a rural constituency at the recent election can be in any doubt that it has caused a great deal of alarm throughout the industry.
I turn to another unanswered question, that of sugar. One of the few things the right hon. Gentleman told us was that next season the industry will be able to receive full EEC prices for 11 million tons of beet sugar. My right hon. Friend posed the question that unless farmers are given an idea fairly soon of how much they will get for their sugar, it will be difficult to fulfil the acreage contracts that will be necessary to meet the quantity of supply.
I am much concerned about the way in which the Minister has dealt with sugar. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) spent a good deal of time talking about it this evening. I am surprised that the Minister has not taken more action more quickly to ensure the continued domestic supply of sugar. We did not hear very much from him about his actions until August or September. The fact is that he was warned by the trade as far back as 5th April 1973—
I am sorry that the Minister says "Not at all". I have copies of the letters. If he did not know he had lost the letter, that compounds the problem.
The Minister should have taken action very much earlier in the summer to try to ensure supplies of sugar from Australia, for example, rather than waiting until the autumn before he did anything about it. There is immense cause for worry about that.
I now turn to the problem of Irish imports that is causing immense concern to so many hon. Members and to farmers throughout the country. The Minister knows that his constituents and my constituents have been picketing the Port of Silloth, which is close to his constituency. I agree that it would be wrong for any any hon. Member to condone illegal actions. I accept that straight away. The right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) also made that point. We cannot possibly condemn Clay Cross but condone illegal actions around our ports. However, we cannot help but understand the strong feelings of the farmers. The Minister referred to that.
It would also be wrong for us to take action or to recommend the taking of action which would disrupt the traditional trade in store cattle which has gone on for many years between Ireland and the fattening areas of Great Britain. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire suggested a 60-day waiting period. The right hon. Member for Anglesey said that that suggestion was worth considering carefully. My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (.Mr. Edwards) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who know so much about the Irish cattle trade, also said that it was essential to bring in such a waiting period.
The hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes), in an interesting and remarkable speech, referred to the trade in fat cattle as obnoxious. He also said that he wanted a 60-day waiting period to be introduced. There has been a great increase in recent months in the numbers of fat cattle being imported from Ireland. This morning I received some up-to-date figures from York where many store cattle from Ireland are sold. I find that over the past three weeks the number of store cattle has dropped from 948 last year to only 585 this year. The overall figures are more or less static—in fact, they have risen slightly. However, the figures show that many more fat cattle are coming in from Ireland. If the Minister would not mind listening to me for a moment—
The Minister did not refer to the importation of Irish fat cattle. I understand from the Irish Embassy this morning that the Prime Minister will be having conversations tomorrow with the Taoiseach. I hope that the Minister will try to ensure that this problem is discussed at the highest possible level. I hope he will try to get the matter put on the agenda.
Another matter that is causing concern is the effect of the Government's policies on upland areas. It is here that one finds the greatest failure in the Government's agricultural policy during the past few months. This matter was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke. I find myself more in sorrow than in anger at the Minister's personal failure to look after these upland areas.
The right hon. Gentleman's constituency adjoins mine. He knows the people there as well as I do, and I wish that through his policies he had shown as much sympathy for the people in the upland areas as was shown by the hon. Member for Durham in his speech today. The right hon. Gentleman was not present to hear that speech. I hope that tomorrow morning, as a penance for not being here more often, he will set himself the duty of reading his hon. Friend's excellent speech.
I mean as a penance for not being here. The right hon. Gentleman would be rewarded by reading his hon. Friend's speech.
Store animals come from the hills and upland areas. The Minister said that only 15 per cent. of agricultural production in this country was represented by beef, but to the people who farm in the hills and uplands it represents more than that. The Minister referred to his award for milk. I welcomed that provision—it was helpful and necessary—but the people about whom I am talking do not produce milk. Their land is not good enough to allow them to be in milk production, and these are the people who are facing ruin.
I shall not say much more about this. The matter was dealt with by my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence). I repeat that it is the farmers in the hills and uplands who are facing ruin. They have received poor prices at the annual store sales. The suckler sales are on now, and we have been given figures during the debate about how prices have dropped. What the Minister does not seem to appreciate is that these farmers have money coming in during only two months of the year. They spend the rest of the year rearing and breeding the stock so that they can sell it in the autumn months My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) was right to make that point.
Lack of fodder is a serious problem, and I hope that the Minister will study what was said by the hon. Member for Durham, who put forward a most interesting scheme to deal with the situation.
We have seen tragedy follow tragedy. Sheep prices have followed the fall in cattle prices, and in the upland areas sheep production is the other half of the enterprise.
The Minister has brought forward the subsidy to be paid on hill and beef cows. He has hailed this as a great cash injection, but he is merely borrowing money intended for use next year to pay out this year.
If the Minister disputes what I am saying, perhaps he will tell us where the money is coming from and what will be done next year.
I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said about the future of the sheep guarantees. I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us what is to happen when these guarantees run out later in the year.
During the debate some Government Members attacked the policy of intervention. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney)—he is not here now but he has been present for most of the time—interrupted my right hon. Friend to ask whether he was aware that there was widespread discontent in the Common Market about the effects of intervention. It may be that there is discontent in Europe about these schemes, but I invite the House to look at the prices which beef farmers in the European countries are getting, having obtained the benefits of intervention.
The House should know what prices those farmers in Europe are getting and what beef prices are averaging with the benefit or otherwise of intervention. In Belgium they are getting £22·12, in France £23·18, in Italy £23·61, in Luxembourg £21·98, in the Netherlands £19·31, in West Germany £21·26 and in Denmark £19·29. In the United Kingdom, without any intervention, they are getting £12·16.
Some Members on the Government side have spoken today of their abhorrence of the intervention system. If the sort of prices I have quoted are causing discontent on the Continent, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South suggested, I do not know what sort of effect the very low prices of beef in this country without intervention should have, because it is clear that intervention is doing a good job and is supporting the market in Europe.
I come now to another matter which the right hon. Gentleman did not talk about as fully as I had hoped. One of the schemes I thought he announced was that it is the intention of the Government to introduce a private beef storage scheme. He did not make clear whether it is the Government's intention to introduce a beef storage scheme on the lines which have been outlined in the last two days in the Financial Times and in The Times. I can well understand his reticence about explaining in detail exactly what his scheme means. He quoted the figure of £262 a ton being spent on encouraging local proprietors of freezing units to store beef for periods of between four and six months.
As I understand it from the Press, the Government are to introduce a scheme whereby proprietors of cold storage facilities in this country will be paid 15p a pound for putting beef into cold storage and taking it off the market for a period of four to six months. I must therefore ask the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Wales whether it is not true to say that with such a scheme we are back to intervention. Is it that we should not use the word "intervention"? Is it a word that the Minister does not want to use? Does he intend to find another word to try to cover it up?
I was surprised that the right hon. Gentleman refused to give way during his speech on this matter so that he could explain it more fully, but as he announced the scheme I recalled some of the things he has said in the past about intervention. On 1st May he made a speech to the Farmers' Club.
The right hon. Gentleman said then:
I do not see how I could explain to the British housewife that the Government was taking good beef off the market so as to force up the price she would have to pay for what was left.
In the House on 26th June the right hon. Gentleman said:
All that intervention has done is to fill the stores of the Community with a degraded product, whose value has been much reduced by the very process of intervention.
Even if permanent intervention had been successful in pushing up the market price, I would still regard it as a fundamentally wrong approach. Beef is for people to eat, not to pile up in stores. One does not cure an oversupply by choking off demand."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June 1974; Vol. 875, c. 1592.]
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members opposite say, "Hear, hear". It seems to me, however, that with the scheme the Government are now producing they are going to do exactly what the right hon. Gentleman criticised—take beef off the market, put it into cold
store and try to increase the price on the domestic market.
I cannot understand why, if the Minister is prepared to accept this Community scheme, as I understand he is going to, he will not take up intervention too. Why is he so proud that, having made all those rude remarks about intervention in the past, he is prepared to adopt a scheme that will do exactly the same thing but will be called by another name?
There can be no doubt that intervention would help us in our markets today. I notice that the Irish Minister of Agriculture is quoted in the Irish Press of yesterday. It reported:
Whilst he sympathised with the position of Welsh farmers and indeed with British farmers, the whole trouble was due to the failure of the British Government to operate intervention.
I have recalled the right hon. Gentleman's repudiations of intervention in past months and I have drawn the attention of the House to them. He damned intervention then. Why is it that he is now adopting the full brother of intervention? Can it be, as it clearly is, that the election is over and he believes that he can now do just those things that he knows should have been done many months ago?
So I believe that this is another typical example of the policy that the present Government and this Minister have pursued in these few months. I remember when the right hon. Gentleman came back in March saying that he was not prepared to accept the full 17 per cent. increase in the guide price and was prepared to accept only a 6·3 per cent. rise in the guide price. A few weeks later he was scuttling back to Brussels and agreeing to the full increase. Here he is again, having spent the whole of the past six months saying that he would have nothing to do with intervention, bringing in a scheme that is intervention by another name.
We have had no replies today about the problem of beef prices. The Minister made no reference to his previous promises to support the beef industry or his determination to support the price of beef at about £18 a cwt. I am surprised that he does not even have the grace to apologise to the House and tell us that things have been more difficult than he expected and that he has not been able to fulfil his clear promise about supporting the beef industry over the course of the past few months.
Does the right hon. Gentleman intend just to brazen out his failures over these months? Is he determined to go on treating the House with the contempt with which he has treated it today? He has not said what proposals he is to put to the Commission, although my right hon. Friend specifically asked.
We must know what is in the Government's mind. Are we to have the advantage of a guarantee, perhaps backed by deficiency payments? Are we to be able to jump to the end of the transitional period, which would be so helpful to farmers? We must know and the industry must know what the Government have in mind and what is going on.
Will the Minister press in the Commission for a scheme to put a bottom in the beef market? My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) made the point that we had to have a bottom in the beef market. If the Minister is prepared to arrange it, will it be retrospective? We must know these things now.
I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State now understand that there is deep and widespread concern both in the House and outside about the great crisis in our food-producing industry. What is essential above all is immediate action. It is no good the Minister's talking about going on until March next year.
The great theme of this debate has been the demand from all sides of the House for immediate action. My hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Irvine) drew attention to this in a firm way. I was even more interested in the way that Labour Members also pressed strongly for immediate action. The right hon. Member for Anglesey, the hon. Member for Bradford, South and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson) all asked for immediate action. I was interested in the speech made on Tuesday by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars), who said:
I concur with what he said about the nature of the crisis we face. That crisis will be solved only by a massive injection of cash well before the winter is out. I hope the Government will understand that that point of view does not emanate only from the Opposition. Everyone who knows something about agriculture is aware of the present state
of the livestock sector."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1974; Vol. 880, c. 131.]
The Minister retailed his achievements, telling us what he had done for the industry. He does this whenever he gets up to speak. Will he not understand that he has not done enough and that more must be done immediately? Farmers must know where they are going. If this is a task beond his capacity and ability, he must stand down and let the Prime Minister find someone else who is able to do this.
This has been a sombre, earnest debate, and we have had in the course of the day a series of careful speeches which have been on a par with the many agricultural debates that we have had over the years.
I thought that the last speech from the Opposition Dispatch Box by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) contained from time to time a tone of flippancy. I reject completely any suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture was in any way neglecting his duties to this House by way of attendance in the course of debate.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will contain herself. The hon. Member for Westmorland knows that my right hon. Friend, like any other Minister taking part in a debate, has a whole host of other duties to carry out. He will also know that I was present for the greater part of the debate. I am the joint Minister of Agriculture in the Principality. Anyone who suggests that there is any complacency on the part of my right hon. Friend is wholly ignorant of my right hon. Friend's record over the years and his enormous interest in this vital area.
The words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) have been the basis of this debate. He remarked that there was no monopoly of concern for farming in any part of the House or in any sector of the community. Some of us have seen this great industry in periods of confidence, great hopes and expectations. We have also seen it in periods of acute depression—sometimes over the whole of the industry, sometimes over parts of it. I was born and bred in the industry, and I have seen these periods affecting many parts of it.
The hon. Member says "Bloody shame!" He will recall from some of the debates we have had that there has been depression in many parts of the industry. I can recall two occasions when the milk industry was in a state of acute depression and there was a complete lack of activity on the part of the Treasury Bench which the hon. Member was then gracing. He may well say "Bloody shame" if that is the best contribution he can make.
There is nothing new in a feeling of depression in parts of the industry. This is where the debate has somehow got out of perspective. Over the greater part of the industry there is not the crisis atmosphere which has been put before the House. It would be in the interests of the industry as a whole to concentrate on those parts of it where there is great anxiety. This is true of the livestock sector, particularly so of the fodder situation in Wales. The position varies in parts of the country.
I will deal with the dairy industry, which has welcomed with open arms the package which my right hon. Friend brought back from Brussels. Therefore, it is of no service to the industry to catalogue a host of grievances, real and imaginery, and put out of perspective that part of the industry in which there is genuine anxiety. I yield to no one in my concern for the industry. I have more family members in the industry than perhaps any other Member, and I am deeply aware of the concern in one part of it. But many other parts of the industry have accepted and welcomed the decisions which have been brought back from Brussels and have no atmosphere of crisis such as that which has been paraded today.
The one theme which we have heard from the Opposition throughout the debate has been the call for unilateral action. This comes very odd from a party pledged to law and order and to condemning illegal activities in the docks. Yet it is crying out for unilateral action, presumably in defiance of the Treaty of Accession and the Community regulations. The party which took us into Europe with the so-called full-hearted consent of the British people has today time after time called for unilateral action. It may well be that that is the right thing to do, but I find it odd coming from right hon. and hon. Members opposite who wrecked the whole system carefully built up by both Conservative and Labour Governments, which carried out the 1947 Act year in, year out, with amendments, which spelt out in great detail the way in which the margins could be affected and the degree of change which could be effected on an individual product—
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that the deficiency payments system, which merely operated from one year to another, was the way in which the British agriculture industry could prosper and play its part in the economy?
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He must consult the members of his Front Bench and find out exactly what they want. The Opposition's underlying theme throughout the debate has been the advocacy of a floor in the market. That system operated not for one year only but for a whole series of years, from the conception of the change in the 1947 Act when deficiency payments were introduced, with the building up of stability over the years.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that with truth. He and his party destroyed the guarantee system which had been built up over the years —[Interruption.]
In the interests of the industry, I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to calm himself. He knows the warnings about what would happen which were issued, not since 28th February but long before that, by the National Farmers' Union. The NFU has been warning for more than a year of the crisis which has been paraded in the debate, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that.
The Labour Party, of which the right hon. Gentleman is a member, did not warn when it was in Opposition. What I am saying is that the warnings existed since 28th February. The intervention system applied from the moment we joined the Common Market, and it was effective. It was the Labour Government which took us out on 23rd March. That is what is wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman knows, as does the whole House, that when we debated the Treaty of Accession, in the limited time we had, our criticism was that this great industry was losing the security which it had enjoyed for so many years. We said so at the time.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the whole crux of the matter is not that the Minister of Agriculture refused to have the intervention system—I rather agree with him about that—but that he did not have in its place a temporary guarantee system? Whatever the semantics of the arguments, the farmers have been left without a guarantee and what the farmers, as opposed to the Opposition and everyone else, want to know is what the Government will do about that.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has been consistent in his attitude. He has been against the Common Market right from the start.
My right hon. Friend set out what he is aiming to achieve in the discussions which will take place before March of next year. I will repeat some of the salient points he made.
The President of the National Farmers' Union said today that for over a year the NFU has been warning Whitehall day after day that this disastrous situation would arise unless effective action was taken by the Government. This situation did not arise on 28th February but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South said, the seeds were sown long before then. On reading the analysis in today's Times one can see that the problem arose from the encouragement that was given by our Conservative predecessors to the livestock sector. Official encouragement was given to build up a far larger livestock sector for rearing and fattening than could be channelled in the ordinary way on to our markets at reasonable prices.
If the hon. Lady will be patient I will deal with that. I make a second appeal to her. She keeps on shouting. If she waits she will hear in due course what I have to say.
The heart of the matter is the encouragement that was given to the livestock sector. The strategy of the Opposition when in Government was to encourage the livestock sector, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. There is a glut coming on to the market, and that is why we have price problems. The analysis in today's Times concludes —there is other evidence of the position in Ireland—that the EEC system of intervention buying has been unsatisfactory.
We know that throughout Europe there is a great concern among farmers about the operation of the system there. The prices which are being achieved in Southern Ireland are regarded as unsatisfactory. The system has not worked. Hence the need for the vital stocktaking which will undoubtedly take place in the Common Market and in which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will play a leading part.
Before I return to the subject of beef, let me deal quickly with some of the other sectors. In fairness to the industry, I believe that we should examine the whole problem in its proper perspective. What my right hon. Friend the Minister has done for the milk industry seemed to be dismissed in cavalier fashion by some Conservatives as a mere nothing. That is not the attitude of the industry or of the Milk Marketing Board. Indeed, the chairman of the board made a statement only a few days ago in an effort to encourage the industry to aim at an increase. He said:
First we believe that it would be profitable for them to do so. Despite the shortage of fodder, the recent increase in produced prices has restored the comparison of concentrate price and milk price to the more favourable level of two years ago so that it should now be profitable to feed cows well, particularly in early lactation.
That was the message from the board.
There was some anxiety in the industry about the spreading of the 7.7p per gallon and the question of the 3p. Those concerned in these matters will have read the letter in the Farmers' Weekly from the board's publicity officer explaining exactly how the increases will be spread over the months to give some encouragement to those with high yield in October as well as in March.
The situation in the milk industry can be summed up in the following way. The prices on average are 7·7p per gallon more than they would have been before settlement on 17th and 20th September. In 1974–75 the average pool price for the first six summer months was 23·6p per gallon; for the six winter months it would be 35p. That is an encouragement to the industry and is endorsed by the board's chairman.
It sounds a favourable picture, and we welcome the increase in the price of milk, but it does not cover the losses made by farmers in the past six months. The dairy farmers in my constituency are talking not of an increase over the next few months but of the figure being cut by a third.
In my experience, the high costs occur substantially in the winter months, when there is a high feeding of concentrates. There is no need for feeding on the same scale in the summer months. The hon. Gentleman will recollect that there was great anxiety last winter when the price of feeding stuffs went up month after month. Despite the anxieties of the industry the Conservative Government then did nothing to alleviate the situation. They had only a belated death-bed conversion a few weeks before the election.
I am sorry, but I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have given way a number of times. There are many hon. Members who, unlike the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans), have been here throughout the debate. I must seek to reply to as many points as I can.
Several hon. Members raised the problem of imports of cattle from the Irish Republic. We cannot impose a ban or restriction consistently with the Treaty of Accession, which I remind the House was negotiated by the Opposition. Farmers are concerned about what they see to be a flood of cattle ruining our markets. But this is a traditional trade. It has stood the industry in good stead in the past as regards the bringing in of stores. Sendings in recent months have not been much higher than in past years, although they were very much higher than in 1973 when sendings were exceptionally low. There has been some slackening in Irish imports this month.
There is not time to go through the whole issue, but the feelings expressed concern whether we should do something about the domiciliary period of waiting before these cattle benefited from whatever grants were available. The waiting period before Irish cattle could qualify for the fatstock guarantee was laid down in different circumstances earlier. The circumstances are now changed. There has been for many years a traditional trade in Irish stores which has benefited farmers in both countries. I am sure that no one would want to jeopardise the mutual advantage which has benefited both countries.
I undertake that my right hon. Friend, my colleagues and I will consider carefully what has been said in this debate about the waiting period. I hope that that will meet the observations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) in his very distinguished speech and by a number of right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition side. That puts the matter in its proper perspective.
I am glad that the right note has been struck in this House. I understand the strength of feeling among farmers, but they should not be encouraged to take the law into their own hands. They have friends on both sides of the House. Everyone wants to see a prosperous industry. The activities which have been threatened would be of no benefit to the industry in any shape or form. I hope that this message goes out to the industry.
The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) and other hon. Members asked why the Government did not introduce a beef guarantee scheme again at once. If that were practicable and feasible it would be a very attractive solution. However, it would not be possible without renegotiation and without the consent of our partners in the Common Market. I find the hon. Gentleman's suggestion very odd coming from a member of the party which was keener on entry into the Common Market than any other in the House. Perhaps that is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.
It was my hope that in the detailed speech which the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) made he would spell out exactly what he wanted. Does he really want permanent intervention? Is that the policy of his party? Is that what he advocates? Does he think that it would solve the country's problems when we know that it has not solved them in Europe, in Southern Ireland or anywhere else?
In this or any other aspect of Common Market policy it is possible and within the responsibility of this Government to change any system which does not work properly by introducing a better one. It is not reasonable to take away a practicable scheme until a better one is found to put in its place.
The right hon. Gentleman has not grasped the problem. I understand why, despite the opportunity I have given him, he is evading that question. He will not come clean and tell us whether he wants permanent intervention. He knows that it is not the answer elsewhere. He knows that it will not meet the position.
Several hon. Members have referred to the O'Brien Report. The House will recall that the present policy of granting export licences only for breeding or exhibition animals arose from a motion carried in this House on 12th July 1973. A committee was set up and its report was published. All interested parties were given the opportunity to comment on that report. We have undertaken that the present policy will not be altered until the report has been debated in this House. We are in touch with the European Economic Community on certain aspects of the report which affect the Community as a whole. My right hon. Friend regards this as an urgent matter. I hope that that approach will commend itself to hon. Members.
Reference has been made to retail prices. The situation did not seem to be fully understood. I draw attention to the fact that the Price Commission has been asked to investigate fully meat distributors' margins. The commission will establish the facts and, under the Price Code, action can be taken if it is justified. This problem did not seem to be fully understood. I therefore felt it right to draw it to the attention of the House.
The difficulties of the livestock sector have been aggravated by the fodder situation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey referred to the situation in Wales and other hon. Members have referred to the situation elsewhere. This has been a difficult year for fodder growing. It has been worse, certainly in my experience, on the western side of the country than in other parts. I concede that the situation is bad elsewhere, but I think it is much worse in many parts of the Principality and also in Northern Ireland.
We are aware that in some areas fodder supplies may be insufficient to maintain breeding herds and followers over the coming winter. We are, therefore, examining the situation with some urgency, in consultation with farming organisations, to see what can be done to alleviate the problem. I emphasise the approach that we are making. We hope that this examination, which has been started, will be completed as a matter of urgency so that we can examine the whole situation and ascertain what needs to be done.
We have heard stories about large exports of fodder, but we have not found any evidence of this. I have seen the reports in the farming Press, but they have failed to reach any conclusion as regards evidence of fodder being exported. If hon. Members can provide details of any shipments my right hon. Friend and I will be glad to look into them. My right hon. Friend has dealt with the proposals that he is hoping will be acceptable when he returns to discuss the matter with his colleagues in the Common Market.
No. The time is now exceedingly short. I have given way on a whole host of occasions to hon. Members on both sides.
My right hon. Friend yields to no one in his concern for the industry. We have set out our position in the Queen's Speech. We will certainly do our utmost to ensure that the arrangements are right and proper to ensure the prosperity of the agriculture industry.