Orders of the Day — Horticulture

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th March 1975.

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Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland 12:00 am, 17th March 1975

We have had a most helpful debate. The tragedy is that it has come on so late when there have not been more hon. Members present to hear it and not so many representatives of the media to report it. That is perhaps inevitable at this hour.

I begin by referring to the difficulty under which we discuss this subject and to the Minister's helpful remarks at the beginning of the debate about the error in the Estimates. I hope that he will set the record straight, as I am sure he would wish to do. We must ask for an assurance that there are no other errors in the horticulture section of the Estimates. If there are, I would be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman so that he might tell us.

At what stage was the error discovered? I understand that it is the practice when these Estimates are published and an error is discovered for an erratum slip to be printed and included with the Estimates. We must ask the Minister for an assurance that this error has been discovered only today and that there was no time to print such an erratum slip.

The error puts an entirely new light on the D1 section of the Estimates. The Minister said that we were not talking about the matter involving the error. With respect, I say that we are. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we are perfectly entitled to talk about these things. It would make the debate ludicrous if we were not to know the reasons for increases or decreases in the Estimates. I hope that the Minister will set aside the sort of remarks he made earlier and will not brush us aside and accuse us of raising trivialities.

These are matters about which the House has been extremely jealous. It is important that Ministers should correct errors of this sort. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, when he found out that an error had been made, instituted inquiries about the extent of the error, when it was found and whether it had been reported to Members. The hon. Gentleman was frank when we started this debate, and I hope that he will tell us all when he replies.

There can be no question that the theme behind this debate is the question of the impact of the oil crisis on the grants we are considering. I know that there are difficulties about raising these matters, and I shall do my utmost to keep within the rules of order, but it does no harm in the context of grants to the horticulture industry to point out what the President of the NFU said on the day of the announcement of the decision to end the oil subsidy. I quote from an NFU Press handout: …it will mean that the financial positions of thousands of glasshouse growers will be placed in jeopardy and many will be forced out of business altogether". That is the background to this debate.

The decision which the Minister announced in the House on 20th February was made public a week after these Estimates were published. Therefore, we are entitled to ask the Minister what the impact of that decision to discontinue the oil subsidy will be on these grants. The announcement was made after the Estimates were published and, therefore, it will have an effect on the uptake of the grants. I hope that the Minister will deal with this point and will not hide behind bogus points of procedure. It is important that he does not evade the issue. This is the first opportunity we have had to debate horticulture since the announcement of the decision and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not avoid the issue.

I am particularly concerned about the impact of the end of the subsidy on Subhead D11 on page 68 of the Estimates covering grants for the encouragement of co-operation in agriculture and horticulture. I have with me a Press statement issued on 26th February by Agricultural Co-operation and Marketing Services Limited, which is intimately concerned with the subject matter of Subhead D11. Mr. Jack Garcia, a director of that organisation and managing director of Farmers and Growers Industries Limited, said on that date: This means that growers are unable to make long-term production and marketing plans and thus it undermines the whole concept of orderly marketing which the Government is supposed to be encouraging. Mr. Garcia makes it absolutely clear that the Government's decision on the oil subsidy will have a shattering effect on the grants covered by Subhead D11. We must therefore have answers concerning the impact which the Government's decision has made and will make on the horticulture industry.

If the Government are totally unrepentant about the decision on oil subsidies, the Minister may be good enough to tell us how he thinks that the EEC will be able to help us in future. I know and he knows that at the moment the EEC is actively considering what can be done after 1st July to help the horticulture industry because of the difficulties arising out of the oil crisis. It is likely that the EEC will shortly produce a report suggesting how it might help the industry. I hope that the Minister will give us this information, because it will make a big impact on the take-up of the grants. I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us when he thinks that the EEC report on what will happen after 1st July will be published.

The Minister will also know that COPA —the European farmers' union—has proposed that over the next four years there should be a series of degressive subsidies with regard to oil costs. Here again, if this subsidy were to be introduced, as COPA has suggested, it would mean a huge difference in the take-up of grants in this country. It is very important that the Minister should tell us, and through us, the industry, what the Government's attitude is to COPA's proposal for degressive subsidies.

Because of the impact of the energy crisis it is also important that as soon as possible the horticulture industry should take advantage of any research that may be carried out in terms of new energy-saving techniques, and particularly new materials, in the glasshouse industry. As again I am sure the Minister knows, a good deal of research is going on on this topic in Europe. It is a matter about which I know the Commission in Brussels is particularly concerned. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he is satisfied that the maximum amount of research in energy-saving techniques for horticultural production is being pursued in this country.

Is the Minister satisfied that with these grants we are not running into the danger that the European Commission may be contemplating grants which may have the object of inducing farmers in the glasshouse industry to go out of production? It would be strange if our Government were to pay out these grants and then, before long, the European Commission were to suggest grants to encourage people in the horticulture industry to go out of production.

In the European context I should like to end on a matter which concerns me. Recently I have been reading a document headed "Stocktaking of the Common Agricultural Policy", produced in Brussels on 26th February. I am sure the Minister will have read it, because it is one of the most vital current documents in the agricultural sector—which includes the horticultural sector.

In paragraph 26 on page 11, under the heading Expansion of the Common Market to Agriculture, I was a little alarmed to read these words: More than this, it means that production must be located according to the principles of the optimum allocation of resources and the need for specialisation foreseen in Article 43 of the Treaty. Accordingly, it implies that in the context of the creation of a large market including, for example, northern regions and Mediterranean regions, there should be a division of labour reflecting the comparative advantage of such widely differing areas. The proposals which the Commission sets out in that and other paragraphs seem to imply that various forms of agricultural production should be concentrated in areas in which the environment, climate and other factors give particular advantage to that type of production. It might be held to imply that the Commission's policy would be that tomatoes should be grown only where there is sunshine, which would cut out the need to grow them under glass.