My right hon. Friend and I have requested the European Commission to take effective action on State aids that distort competition. We have already given £2 million in aid to assist our industry with hygiene inspection, and we are discussing with representatives of the industry possible changes in these arrangements.
As I said, we have already taken action relating to this matter, which I raised specifically in the Council of Ministers on Tuesday of this week. The Commissioner said that he was due to receive a reply from France and that unless the French Government replied within the allotted time he would take action immediately.
Is the Minister of State aware that that is a most complacent reply? It is no use harking back to the £2 million paid towards the inspection service. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the poultry industry, which is one of the most efficient sectors of British agriculture. When will the Government take effective action to save this industry from total collapse?
What the hon. Gentleman says is hypocritical and without understanding of what has already been done. If he regrets the £2 million having been given to the industry and the steps now being taken in consultation with the industry to improve hygiene inspection arrangements, he simply does not begin to understand the industry's problems. We do, and we are not in the least complacent about them.
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the number of questions on the Order Paper on this issue shows the seriousness of the situation? Does he also appreciate that many of us realise that panic measures and the statement that we have just heard do not lead to confidence in the industry to build up supplies? Can he tell the industry that what the Opposition are saying is nonsense?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We certainly understand the position in the industry, and my right hon. Friend and I have had several meetings with representatives from the industry to discuss what we are doing. Moreover, the reply given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in a debate earlier this week shows the action that we are taking.
I welcome warmly the financial aid that has been given to the industry and the steps taken by the Government to try to ensure fair competition for it. Will my right hon. Friend agree, however, that the poultry industry is still facing a desperate crisis and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) said, the French do not hesitate to take steps, at the drop of a hat, to help their industry? Will my right hon. Friend indicate the other areas of agriculture to which the French are giving some form of assistance, quite illegally and outside the regulations of the European Economic Community?
As my hon. Friend heard me say, we have already taken action to help our industry in several ways. I assure him that there is no way in which we shall see our industry destroyed by the French or any other country's industry.
On the narrow point of turkeys, can the Minister offer any hope to our domestic industry, which has suffered enormously from heavily subsidised French production? Unless our industry receives help similar to that available to the French, it will decline very rapidly.
I have no doubt that the British turkey industry sets an example in efficiency, modernisation and innovation to other industries, not only in Europe but elsewhere in the world. I am very conscious of that and we do not want to see that go by default.
Although there are serious threats from French competition, the greatest worry is about future production in France under current French Government aids. The Commision is pressing action on that with the support of other European countries as well as Britain.
Will not the massive expansion in turkey meat production in France, the proposed massive expansion of broiler meat production for Third country consumption and the approved programme announced in the Official Journal of the European Parliament on 17 July lead to a massive capability for over-production of poultry meat within the Community? That must affect not only the United Kingdom market but the market of France and the other countries within the Community. Does not that leave ground for valuable bilateral talks to discuss how the problem could be tackled?
As I said in a previous answer to the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), this is not simply a problem for Britain and France; it goes far wider. It is interesting that there is even anxiety in certain established sectors of the French poultry industry about the effects upon them of encouragement to expand. I must also reiterate that both this week and on previous occasions in the Council of Ministers the United Kingdom was not alone. Many of our colleagues are pressing equally hard for action about State aids.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem arises partly from the fact that the French are using industrial grants under their regional policy to assist the agriculture industry? Will he take into account the fact that on several occasions over the past few months assurances have been given from the Government Front Bench that he and his colleagues did not intend to see our poultry and turkey meat industries destroyed, and that the point has now been reached where action, rather than assurances, is expected?
We are certainly not prepared to see our poultry industry destroyed. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that some of the aids are of a regional nature. Equally, however, some of the aids that the French Government are giving are direct production aids such as the Commission has already pointed out are incompatible with the Treaty. It is in relation to them that action is being taken.
Despite the Minister's tough talk—even, recently, from a soapbox—and despite the reference to the Community, is it not clear that the French will remain determined to continue for substantial periods each year in the future, as during each year in the last decade, to sell eggs in northern markets in England at prices below the cost of production in France? Since the French will clearly disregard anything the Community may say to them, is it not time for action?
The hon. Gentleman is not totally correct. For example, we have regularly exported eggs to France. The hon. Gentleman says that the French are determined to try to expand their industry, and it is clear that they are prepared to do so. Equally, we are prepared to stand by our industry, too.
Has my right hon. Friend seen reports this morning that the French have imposed a ban on the importation of certain agricultural products in the face of falling home prices for their farmers? If he has not seen that report, will he study it and consider whether we should not take certain action in the same arbitrary way?
If the right hon. Gentleman tables a question on that matter, it will be answered. I acknowledge—neither I nor anyone on the Government Front Bench has made any secret of the fact, in any recent discussions on the poultry industry—that our poultry industry, particularly the turkey meat and broiler sectors, is facing a serious situation. It is precisely in relation to that that we are determined to defend the industry.
Do I understand aright? Has the right hon. Gentleman come to the Dispatch Box, having had a week's notice of the six questions that appear on the Order Paper dealing with the future of the poultry industry and the serious situation facing that industry, only to tell the House that although the industry is in, a serious state he does not have in his brief the number of jobs that have been lost in the past 12 months? Why is the right hon. Gentleman a Minister? Why does he not seek a brief? Should he not know how serous the situation is?
As the right hon. Gentleman. would know if he were seriously interested in the poultry industry, jobs are not the only important issue. The question goes far wider, involving, as has been recognised in all the questions asked from the Government Benches, not only jobs but important British trade and business and the need to ensure fair competition. On all those issues we will stand up for the British industry, even though the right hon. Gentleman may not.