Orders of the Day — Field Vegetables (Destruction)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th March 1979.

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Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston 12:00 am, 29th March 1979

In the course of the last growing season in this country no less than 6,000 tonnes of cauliflowers were destroyed under the auspices of the intervention board. The board paid out £200,000 to buy them before they were destroyed. The Minister of State may say that 6,000 tonnes represents only a small percentage of last year's total crop. None the less, that quantity would have constituted vegetables for some 15 million families. Those families lost the opportunity of having cauliflowers on their table, and as taxpayers they had to pay for the destruction of those cauliflowers.

We know that every vegetable gardener may find, in the course of his year, that his garden has yielded more than his family can eat. Accordingly he puts his surplus on the compost heap. By the same principle the commercial vegetable grower finds it unprofitable to put his produce on the market at the prevailing price, and accordingly he ploughs those vegetables back. That has happened on countless occasions in years past. Everyone would agree that it is unavoidable, and nobody will deny the growers' right to do it.

What we are concerned about in this debate goes beyond that. We might ask ourselves whether the taxpayer should be called upon to buy those cauliflowers before they are destroyed at a time when millions of taxpayers—I do not exaggerate that number—are unable to afford to buy those cauliflowers. Moreover, it is not a little galling for farm workers in my constituency to be instructed to destroy these same vegetables which their wives cannot afford to buy in the neighbouring shops. That is the case, and the Minister of State knows, as well as everyone else in the trade does, that the consumption of fresh vegetables has fallen in recent years.

That cannot be in anybody's interest and no commercial grower can rejoice about it. It is painfully obvious that the more we artificially raise the price of fresh vegetables, the more consumer resistance will grow to their purchase.

We are coerced into paying our taxes and we may ask whether it is right to coerce the British people into paying taxes if even the smallest fraction of that revenue is spent on destroying food which they would like to eat but cannot afford to buy because they are taxed too heavily.

I do not want to make a moral mountain out of a molehill, as the Eurocrats would call the £200,000. I believe that that operation would still be ethically doubtful if the sum were a mere tuppence. I hope that the Minister will not make the point that the cost is being borne by the taxpayers of the Common Market generally. I recognise that the money does indeed come from the Common Market budget, but the money going into that budget comes primarily from taxes and levies upon food. If the Common Market did not impose a high tax upon food imported from low-cost countries, it could not survive in its present form.

The wretched fact is that the British people now pay a higher tax upon the food that they prefer to eat than anyone else in the Common Market. I hope that the Minister of State will spare a minute or two to comment upon that, since we have longer than we expected to have.

The total of £200,000 may not sound much to the bureaucrats. Of course, it is a mere bagatelle compared with the massive sums that go to farmers and growers in the Common Market in order that those vast structural surpluses may be disposed of. Yet it works out at about 6p per cauliflower. It does not make the growing of cauliflowers profitable but it induces a number of cauliflower growers to take the risk and grow more than they would otherwise grow.

Syndicates of cauliflower growers in my constituency are willing to rent land at between £100 and £120 an acre. This is pushing up rents generally. Those farmers who grow wheat, potatoes, sugar beet and other important arable crops cannot possibly compete on those terms. I am sure that the Minister of State agrees with me. Many of my constituents who are tenants of the county council and the Crown Commissioners are facing rent increases and demands for rents of between £40 and £60 an acre. That is the consequence of inflating the rent of neighbouring land for the cultivation of vegetables and an indirect result of this branch of the intervention system.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) is in the Chamber, because I am sure that he will agree that another objection to the intervention system is that only a minority of growers benefit from it. If the system is to exist, it should be open to all commercial growers or to none. I should have thought that the matter was of sufficient consequence for the Minister to have made a statement about it at that time.

On the other hand, if the Minister did know about it, he must have been aware—or would have been advised had he asked about it—that there are ways of keeping cauliflowers. In my constituency it has been done by two processes—freezing and brining. I have seen both at work. Would it not have been more sensible to have urged the officials in Brussels to authorise some expenditure on the freezing or bringing of these cauliflowers so that they could have been eaten by British people later in the year when cauliflowers are scarce? Instead, as we have done this winter, we have had to import cauliflowers.

It seems mysterious that officially we heard so little about the destruction of the vegetables. I should be grateful for an explanation from the Minister as to why no publicity was given to the matter. We know that officials of the Ministry were present and supervised the destruction of these thousands of tons of cauliflowers.

It could be that the managers of the FEOGA fund in Brussels would not have wished to have £200,000 spent on the giving of a grant towards the freezing or brining of the vegetables so that they might be eaten. There might have been an objection from our French competitors who are now successfully exporting cauliflowers to us at a very high price—certainly at a price which no farm worker in my constituency could afford to pay.

Those of us who have criticised the system of intervention would have been chided for being anti-Marketeers. It is now a term of some honour, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone would agree with me on that matter. The common agricultural policy of the Common Market is now effectively the only policy of the Common Market which is in existence. Of the Common Market total expenditure, 75 per cent. goes on the common agricultural policy. Of that percentage, 90 per cent. goes on the so-called guarantee fund—what we in plain English would call intervention. In criticising the intervention system, we are criticising the heart and soul of the common agricultural policy and, therefore, the Common Market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone would agree that the Conservative Party is now persuaded that the Common agricultural policy is in drastic need of reform. He, like I, will be arguing in the forthcoming election campaign for that drastic reform.