Protein Deposit and Private Storage Aid

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th April 1976.

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Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North 12:00 am, 12th April 1976

I support the amendment moved by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym).

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said today that it is his purpose to restore the supremacy of this House. I must say that I think he said that on the right day.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has left the House in an impossible position. He admits that this is a crazy scheme which is damaging the country, he accepts an amendment condemning the scheme by this House, yet apparently he intends to leave it in legal operation in this country.

In my view the skimmed milk powder scheme is an economic and legal monstrosity. Even the NFU described it as … ill-conceived, ill-prepared and completely unacceptable in principle". My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture spoke of the background, but he did not explain how the Commission has got us into this crazy situation. The basic reason is that the CAP sets its prices of food, and particularly of dairy products, far too high, so that consumers cannot buy what is produced. All the resulting antics follow from this. First, milk is too dear to buy, and so it is turned into butter. Then the butter is too dear and is turned into a mountain and sold cheap to the Soviet Union and other countries outside the EEC. Then prices are juggled about so that, instead of having a butter mountain, we have a powder mountain—a mountain that is now over a million tons.

The cost of these extraordinary operations—and this is a figure given by the Minister himself—for dairy production alone in the present year will be £808 million of public money. It is not surprising that even the not exactly anti-Common Market journal the Economist recently described these dairy operations as follows: EEC money is used to subsidise buying milk from fanners, converting it into skimmed milk powder and adding water to it, so that it can be fed to the calves of the cows that supplied it in the first place. This in turn will enable the calves to grow up so that they can produce still more subsidised milk. That is a fair description. Having reached this stage, because the skimmed milk powder is also too dear to sell on any sort of free market, the Commission is forced to compel producers to use it. That is what the scheme means, even when, as with the British producers, they in no way contributed to the surplus or to the imbecile EEC policies which have produced this situation.

This move will gratuitously increase still further the cost of British agriculture, as the NFU and the Minister have correctly pointed out, and, before long, raise still further the cost of eggs, poultry and meat. What a piece of madness this is, at a time when incomes policy demands that we should keep down the price of food and the cost of living as much as we can.

In addition, to add insult to injury, the Minister himself went off to Brussels in the first week of March and accepted this grotesque scheme even though the House had not then debated it and even though there was a motion on the Order Paper condemning it. We were told on 16th March that the Government were prepared to accept that motion. Further, the Government apparently put the scheme into legal force in this country partly on 19th March and partly on 31st March, before we had had any opportunity to debate it.

What has become of all those wonderful promises we had in the referendum to the effect that British Ministers would have the power of a veto in Brussels if anything was contrary to British interests? I must remind my right hon. Friend of what was said in his Government's manifesto which was posted through everyone's door during the referendum campaign. It was said: The Minister representing Britain can veto any proposal for a new law or a new tax if he considers it to be against British interests. What is the good of giving that undertaking in the referendum campaign and then swallowing a lunatic scheme of this kind, giving as a defence that it was part of a package and that the Minister could not help it?

The legal implications of this seem to me as disturbing as the economic consequences. Are the Government telling us that they propose to go on imposing a legal compulsion on producers even though the House of Commons is likely tonight to adopt an amendment, accepted by the Government, condemning this proposal in precise terms? If the Government are saying that they intend to defy such an amendment—and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is with us—it is not a happy augury for the rule of law, quite apart from food prices. The matter cannot rest there.

I remind the Minister of what was said by the Foster Committee—which is well known to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—in discussing the question of secondary legislation. The Committee said: Your Committee consider it inconceivable that any Government would act contrary to such a resolution of the House of Commons even if, which is doubted, it were legally and constitutionally entitled to do so. We must know, tonight or very soon, what the Government conceive to be the legal position. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that we should have a statement from the Government, if possible tonight, if the House passes this amended motion invalidating these proposed Regulations, saying that the Government will cancel them forthwith and reconsider the whole matter. This whole lamentable skimmed milk fiasco only emphasises the complete unworkability of the CAP in its present form.

Thank goodness this is becoming even more widely recognised. I could quote many authorities. The editor of The Times Business News, Mr. Hugh Stephenson, on 5th April described the common agricultural policy as "self-evident lunacy". The agricultural correspondent of the Financial Times, on 9th March, condemned the surrender of the Minister of Agriculture in the first week of March as entailing the failure"— for it is nothing less than failure— of the United Kingdom Government's intention, made clear at the time of the referendum, of reforming the CAP". If the Government intended to reform the CAP in any meaningful sense, why did they adopt this ludicrous scheme? Even the EEC's official Bureau of Consumers Unions—thank goodness it has that now—in its report of 24th February this year, said: Consumers are therefore being charged very high prices, which lead to over-production, and then the taxpayer provides for the disposal of the surplus". That is what has been said, not by an extremist below the Gangway but by an official body set up in Brussels.

Therefore, I hope that the House will support and accept the amendment condemning the skimmed milk powder proposals and thereby condemn the whole ridiculous common agricultural policy.