European Community (Agriculture and Fisheries)

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

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Photo of Sir Anthony Meyer Sir Anthony Meyer , Flint West 12:00 am, 17th October 1975

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), like the hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), reminds me of clocks that have stopped: twice every 24 hours they are exactly right. That is no reason for taking much notice of the clocks the rest of the time.

As the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) has pointed out, the debate takes place against the sombre background of a crisis of confidence in the livestock industry and, in particular, in the dairy industry. The crisis is even more severe in Wales than in other parts of the country. Forty-five per cent. of Welsh farmers are concerned in dairying in one way or another. They produce 12·5 per cent. of the nation's milk. Last year production was down by 4 per cent. on the year before. Grimmer still, one milk producer in 12 left the industry. That trend is continuing and probably accelerating. If I had the time, I could give many more equally alarming statistics.

During the recess I spend a good deal of time seeing for myself what these grim figures mean in terms of people, of reasonable hopes dashed, of hard work, of public spirit and of enterprise penalised.

There are two groups of dairy farmers who have been especially hard hit. The first group contains those who by the very nature or size of their land are unable to produce anything other than milk. In Wales there is a disproportionately large number subject to this limitation. The other group which has been badly hit is those who responded to Government appeals to step up production, who even invested heavily in new equipment, and who now find themselves paying huge bank charges on their overdrafts while their income remains uncomfortably compressed. These unlucky ones reflect ruefully on the constant parrot cries from the Trades Union Congress and others that Britain's poor economic performance is due solely to the failure of industry to invest in new equipment.

I very much hope that the further small devaluation in the green pound which the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has managed to get the Cabinet to agree to—as he himself has now candidly admitted, it was not the Common Market that the Minister had to persuade in order to get better prices for British farmers; it was his own colleagues in the Cabinet, notably the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, who still hope to check inflation by cooking the Index of Retail Prices; it was they, not the bureaucrats of Brussels who compelled the Minister to take two inadequate bites at the cherry—as I say, I very much hope that the further devaluation, plus the tiny increase in the price of milk already agreed, will go some way to make dairy farming a viable occupation.

What these measures cannot now do is the one thing they are intended to do—that is, to restore long-term confidence to the industry. The nasty fact is that farmers have lost confidence, not just in this Government but in any Government. I think that they are wrong to pin the blame on the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or on any of his predecessors, who have been, without exception, men of ability with a determination to uphold as best they could the legitimate interests of the farming industry.

The real trouble lies in the fact that farmers, who are so essential to the community, represent such a small proportion of the population and are unable to operate the kind of stranglehold that other key groups, such as the miners, operate. Their ability to do so is still further limited by the provisions of the Restrictive Trade Practices Act.

This is why the overwhelming majority of farmers came to see that it must be in their interest to be in the Common Market, where the farmers represent a much higher proportion of the population, and exert more political weight than they do here. In order to get this long-term basic advantage they were prepared to put up with certain defects in the common agricultural policy.

The defect which has been most commonly deplored—namely, the occasional emergency of gigantic stockpiles or "mountains"—is one about which far too much fuss has been made. It cannot be altogether bad to have stockpiles in a world where food is apt to run suddenly and unpredictably short.

A much more serious defect arises from the basic difference in milk consumption patterns in Britain and on the Continent. It is here that Welsh farmers have some very real misgivings about the possibility of being able to look to the common agricultural policy for long-term assurances such as would enable them to plan ahead with confidence.

I hope that the Minister will be successful in his efforts to get the agriculture Ministers of the Community to recognise the special problems of United Kingdom dairy farmers, which are a direct result of the special drinking habits of United Kingdom consumers, and get them to understand that in Britain, unlike on the Continent, there is no persistent problem of overproduction of liquid milk.

There is one other matter on which I hope that the Minister will be able to give us reassurance. This is a matter which is causing much anxiety in Wales. The directive on farming in less favoured areas sets out in some detail, supported by some hideously small-scale maps, the areas which are to qualify for special aid. Can the Minister tell us whether the areas which are already getting help under existing United Kingdom schemes covering hill farming will in all cases continue to be assisted? I fear that there will be considerable alarm and despondency in many areas of rural Wales, including my own village, unless this is cleared up pretty soon.

But, despite defects and uncertainties, the common agricultural policy holds out a surer hope to farmers than ever the best-intentioned of British Government can now do. This is quite simply because the Community, by its structure, and also by the traditions which it has evolved in its 18 years of existence, is better able to take a long view than democratically elected national Governments who have to face electors, consisting mainly of consumers, every four or five years at best.

Of course, the present Government, with their doleful record of buying electoral support by massive handouts of seed corn, with their consistent bias towards the consumer and against the producer at every level and in every industry, will never be able to restore confidence. It must be to Europe that the long-sighted farmer looks for hope, and every farmer has to be long sighted. That is why farmers should be even more appalled than the rest of us at the way in which the present Government, by their policies within the EEC, in blocking effective action in such matters as pollution control or sabotaging the forthcoming energy conference, are not only totally destroying Britain's good name in Europe but are gravely damaging the effectiveness of the EEC itself.

If there is any country in the world which needs all the friends it can get, it is Britain. Yet when, despite the efforts of most of the party opposite, we find ourselves at last firmly cradled in an organisation whose members are morally and legally obliged to give one another every kind of help, we set about doing all we can to wreck the structure of the organisation and sour its spirit. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to give him credit, has done his best to play a constructive part within the Community, but there are some among his ministerial colleagues, notably the present Secretary of State for Energy and the Secretary of State for Trade, who are carrying on their vendetta against the EEC even if in the process they destroy this country's best chances of recovery.

I warn the Minister. He by himself cannot give confidence back to the dairy industry, but he can stop his colleagues smashing the one remaining hope left—effective European co-operation and, with it, the common agricultural policy.