Orders of the Day — Food Aid

– in the House of Commons at 6:42 pm on 24th February 1987.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 6:42 pm, 24th February 1987

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the un-numbered explanatory memorandum dated 21st January 1987, submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, describing draft Regulations: amending Regulation 1785/81 on the common organisation of the market in sugar; relating to a decision on placing sugar held by the Italian intervention agency at the disposal of charitable organisations for consumption within the Community; on the free transfer to charitable organisations of products processed from cereals held in intervention; and amending Regulation 804/68 on the common organisation of the market in milk and in milk products and Regulation 1842/83 establishing general rules for the granting of milk and certain milk products to students in educational establishments; and endorses the Government's decision to work speedily through charitable organisations to achieve free distribution of beef, milk and certain milk products to the most needy in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and others.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

These arrangements arose from the decision of the Council of Ministers in the European Community to react to the extremely hard weather earlier in the year by ensuring that; the supplies of food that we had in surplus were available to those in the Community who were most needy and had therefore been affected more than others by the weather. The decision was taken after a quick discussion over a couple of days so that the distribution of food might be started before the weather warmed up. I put it as simply as that because, with some of the suggestions that I have heard about what we might have done and how we might have arranged it, it would have been flaming June before anybody got any butter or beef. Therefore, it seemed to me that it was important for us to act as rapidly as possible.

I make no apology for the timetable that was forced upon us by the nature of what we sought to do. Nor do I apologise for the fact that, from the beginning, the United Kingdom was concerned lest the speed with which we acted and the haste with which the Commission presented its proposals meant that the scheme was unworkable. We pressed a number of changes upon the Commission, all of which were accepted, and have ensured that we at least had a scheme that could properly be implemented. For that reason, on the very day on which the decision was made, we sought a meeting with charities in this country to get the scheme under way.

The idea that the scheme would make a major contribution or, indeed, even a partial contribution to getting rid of the surpluses in the CAP was not entertained by the United Kingdom Government. After all, butter stocks amount to one and a half times the annual world trade. They are equivalent to 10 months' supply for every man, woman and child in the Community. Unless one envisages the delivery of a quantity of butter on every family doorstep so enormous as to reach well into flaming June, it would be unlikely to make any real impact on our stores. We were concerned to use the opportunity that was afforded to us in a sensible and realistic way. We were much happier to do so, given that the proposals that came after the decisions in the December Council which, as we know from yesterday's decisions, are soon to be implemented, enabled us to see that there was a change of heart in the CAP, and the tap was turned off. In other words, we shall not produce the kind of stocks that we had in the past. The 9·5 per cent, cut in milk quotas and the further cut in the year after the coming marketing year mean that we have a realistic approach and that our present stocks, once they are removed from cold store, will not be replaced.

In that context, it seemed sensible that even the small contribution that could be made by providing butter and beef and the other surplus products for the most needy was worthwhile, particularly as we were looking for additionality. The idea was that we would seek so to distribute it that it would provide extra food for those who had been most affected by the weather. To do that, we used charitable organisations. That was part of the Commission's intention. It was not a choice by us, although I shall not disguise from the House that it is a system through which I am pleased to have worked. There was no flexibility on this point. There was no way in which we could directly use local authorities, for example, because the legislation was directly applicable in the United Kingdom.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

When I finish dealing with this passage of my speech, I shall be happy to give way.

The point that I wish to make clear is that what we sought—and we achieved this—was to ensure that we should decide which charities we should invite to help us. Originally, the plan was to have only two charities throughout the European Community, the Red Cross and Caritas. Admirable though both organisations are, they are obviously not the two organisations which, alone, would be satisfactory in this country, and, in the event, we have seen that this is so.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

The Minister seems to imply that these rules, to which we must adhere, are laid down by some external body. Will he confirm that that is not the position? The Commission puts up a proposal to the Council of Ministers, of which he is a member, and he and his colleagues in the Council of Ministers are responsible for the ultimate decisions. Therefore, he, together with his colleagues on the Council of Ministers, must take the responsibility for whatever scheme was agreed. They— not the Commission—are the ultimate authority in the Community.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I am happy to accept what the hon. Gentleman said. All that I said was that the decision was not for the British Government alone. That seems to be a perfectly unexceptionable comment. The truth is that, on the recommendation of the Commission, the Council of Ministers agreed that the scheme would be operated through the charities. I said that I agreed willingly. I am not opposed to it—in fact, I am pleased about it. But once we agreed, there was no question of our being able unilaterally to make a different decision. I merely made that point in case people considered that we could have chosen to do both. We felt that it was not necessary to do both, because most of our charities work extremely well with most of the local authorities and they have been able to work side by side with them. However, the charities have been the engine of the operation. That is valuable. The voluntary movement in this country is particularly good at this kind of operation, and it has shown itself to be good in this case.

Hon. Members are familiar with the list of charitable organisations concerned. I do not wish to be invidious by choosing one, or another, or a number, for special mention as having been particularly helpful. Nevertheless, I stress how very generous they have been in terms of the time and effort that have been put into this operation and how enthusiastically the voluntary movement has sought to carry out difficult operations. The charities had to move very quickly. The decision was made at 2 am, our time, in Brussels. I arrived back at 3 am. By 5 pm the charities were sitting round the table in the Ministry discussing how best to carry out the operation. At no time since then have any of the charities, save perhaps one, suggested that they could not cope with this operation.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

I apologise to my right hon. Friend for not being here at the beginning of his speech, but may I endorse what he has said about the British Red Cross, for example. I went to see the ladies who were doling out the butter on Saturday morning in my constituency. They were doing a remarkable job. Many of the people there were delighted to take advantage of the butter that was being provided for them. All that upset them was the thoughtless and rather silly attack of local Labour party members who suggested that old people were being demeaned by being provided with this butter. The British Red Cross are doing a remarkable job and will receive the grateful thanks of the local community.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. That is certainly my experience, too. In Wolverhampton, for example, I found that the Women's Royal Voluntary Service was doing a remarkable job in distributing these products through the meals on wheels service. I have also seen the Salvation Army operation. In parenthesis, may I say that those who have not seen the Salvation Army operation at full stretch have missed a remarkable sight.

I accept that because this came very quickly upon them it caused difficulties for some of the voluntary organisations. Some of them said, "We shall make our arrangements tonight and start tomorrow." Others said, "We are not directional organisations; we do not run from the centre outwards, as the Salvation Army does. We consist of federations; therefore, it will take us a little longer to get off the ground." We accept that. Some voluntary organisations found it easier to deal with some products rather than others. Again we accepted that. We sought to have, not a formal system, but one that they could work out together. We hoped that the smaller organisations — the territorially more limited organisations—would be able to work through the main group.

To the main group we added a number of others. It was felt that the original selection did not wholly cover all the needy. Therefore we sought the advice of the Scottish Office and the Northern Ireland Office to make sure that they, as well as the Welsh Office, were covered and that every part of the United Kingdom had the best mix that we could possibly put forward. Again I thank all those groups, both the ones that we have dealt with directly and the rest, for the work that they have done.

Photo of Mr Tom Cox Mr Tom Cox , Tooting

I accept what the Minister has said about the role of the voluntary organisations, but is he aware that in the London area there appears, sadly, to be a lot of confusion in the minds of elderly people as to where to go to collect the surplus butter? Could he tell the House what kind of publicity has been made available because, frankly, many people have not benefited at all? If this is the start of other surpluses being made available, although the charitable organisations may continue to distribute them, it would be a good idea if the Minister could consider an advertising campaign so that people would know where to go to collect the surpluses.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

When I describe to him what has generally happened I think that the hon. Gentleman will discover that in fact we have reached a very high proportion of those who come into the general categories that we have sought to reach. The hon. Gentleman is quite right; there are difficulties. We could have had a bureaucratic scheme whereby we defined precisely who might have the surplus products. It would have taken us some time, of course. However, we could have given them a voucher and made sure that people knew exactly where to go for the products. But that was not our intention. We decided to use the voluntary system to reach as many needy people as quickly as possible. In general, that objective has been achieved. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there will be some who have not been reached, but if I describe to him how we have done it I think that he will find that he is happier than he was to begin with.

I ought to explain some of the logistical details. Butter is stored in intervention in bulk, and it takes three or four days for the butter to warm up sufficiently to be able to chop it up into suitable packs. That is paid for by the Commission at a flat rate per tonne for repackaging and transport. Beef is made available in boxes of 25 kg. It consists of cuts of boneless beef. Therefore, although butchering is necessary, it is not of a very sophisticated type. We sought to ensure that we got out as much as we could as quickly as we could.

We started with butter, because that was the easiest product for most of the charities to deal with. Then we took the beef and sought first to get the large orders out — in other words, in I tonne pallets — to those organisations that could deal with them. Having got that beef under way, we were able to provide charities with beef in 25 kg boxes so that a much wider range of people was able to receive it. Normally about 10 boxes were taken rather than 40, which is the size of a pallet.

Some organisations and charities found that they did not have the resources to do the butchering. I pay tribute to the initiative of the meat trade. It has provided its expertise free, or at nominal cost, to the charities. As for transport, the Commission is making a flat rate payment for transport to distribution points.

We have discussed eligibility with the charities and have sought to lay down guidelines as to those who might be categorised as particularly needy and particularly affected by the cold weather, but we wanted the charities to feel that they could make sensible judgments about the people with whom they were in general contact. The advantage is that these people are dealing from day to day with the needy. That is why we chose the charities.

We laid down guidelines to the effect that those normally in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement, the homeless, those living in hostel accommodation, or attending feeding centres, or receiving meals on wheels, or those who are disadvantaged in other ways, should receive these products, but we wanted the charities to use their common sense. For example, if the majority of people who use a luncheon club come from needy backgrounds, it would obviously be invidious to provide butter for some but to say, for example, to Mrs. Jones, "No, you can't have it, because you are not on supplementary benefit." I did not want this scheme to be based on people producing their supplementary benefit books or their family income supplement entitlement. It seemed to me to be better to leave it to those who know the circumstances and who can act sensibly within the guidelines.

We have not broadened the scheme to cover all pensioners. That was not the arrangement under the agreement. The arrangement was that these products should go to the needy. Although some pensioners are needy, others are not. Therefore, it seemed to be more sensible to do it that way. We have also sought to ensure that the product received is additional rather than a substitute. It would be very expensive to give butter to those who normally buy it. They would then put it into their own freezers and would not buy other butter, which would mean that we ended up with as much butter in store as we started with, and also with the great cost of distribution. That would not have been sensible. It would have repeated the failures of past arrangements, of which hon. Members on both sides; of the House have been very critical.

Having set up the arrangements for beef and butter, we turned our attention to milk, cheese and certain other milk products. Having talked to the charitable organisations, we decided that milk and cheese were the two that we particularly wanted to distribute. They felt—and we felt, too—that yoghurt was probably not one of the products that we wanted to use in this way. On 6 February that part of the scheme began to operate.

The Community legislation that is in front of us today is different in this case, because instead of the products coming out of intervention store — because we do not intervene in the case of these products—they are bought on the market and the charities are reimbursed. The charities are able to purchase whole and semi-skimmed milk, buttermilk, cheese and concentrated butter and these products are distributed in many parts of the country.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I apologise for missing the start of the Minister of State's speech. However, what about the booze? What about the wine lake? Will pensioners get to grips with that?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I am not sure that the House would have been very enthusiastic if I had proposed that we should spend a large sum of money importing wine to distribute free to pensioners. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), would have had some comments to make about the distribution of free alcohol. I have noticed that the two categories in the population who have remarked about this distribution of alcohol are Members of Parliament and journalists, both of whom fell, that we should do it. I have decided not to accept the blandishments of those who wished us to distribute free olive oil or free wine. Neither of those products came into the categories that we wanted to distribute.

I have also decided, in concert with the charities, that both flour and sugar, for different reasons, should not be distributed.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I was about to explain why and the hon. Gentleman does not need to intervene from a sedentary position.

We have no milling flour in this country in intervention. We would have had to bring it in, although at least it would have been paid for by the Commission. It would have come from Germany, been milled and made into loaves. It would not be easy to provide what I call additionality in the business of bread. That is not a sensible way to use money to which, in the end, we contribute.

Similarly bringing in and distributing quantities of sugar from Italy at great expense would not have been a sensible way of implementing the proposals.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I would have thought that the Minister could have made do with a couple of loaves and a few fishes.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman may make jokes about this, but I believe that we are distributing in a sensible way.

To date, the figures for authorised releases from intervention stores of butter are 22·6 million packs and for beef 4·16 million meals.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I want to make an important point because there are different base lines for the calculations. Did the Minister say authorised for release, but not released?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

No, I used the expression "authorised releases" because I did not want to mislead the House. I am absolutely sure how much has been authorised for release. That means that which has already gone out or is going out in some form. In other words, it may have just left the intervention store or it may already have been consumed. Any other figure is arbitrary. For example, on Wednesday five tonnes of butter will arrive in Tunbridge Wells and I know that because an hon. Member asked me about it. There should not be a moving base line, so I have always used the same base line and the House can see how it builds up. I believe that that is the best base line and I will continue to use it.

A very large number of the most needy in the United Kingdom have already received a substantial addition to their weekly diet and others will receive that addition before the scheme ends. A comparison between our efforts and that of our neighbours will show that we have been very much more successful on the whole. I say "on the whole" because, for example, the French have operated a system for many years which might inevitably be called "beef kitchens". The French provide, as a matter of course, all over the country, the equivalent of soup kitchens, into which they put cheap beef. The French have used that system for distributing free beef. However, the French have been much less successful in the distribution of butter. The Germans appear to have distributed much the same amount of butter as we have, although it is difficult to know the exact up-to-date figures. However, they have distributed a good deal less beef. I must stress that that is the latest position, but we do not have up-to-date figures such as I have been able to give about our distribution.

However, in the rest of the European Community, no other country appears to be distributing in the same way as we have distributed. There has been no report of implementation in Greece. The latest figures from the Netherlands show a very much more limited distribution. The Irish, the Luxembourgers and the Spanish all have a much more limited distribution. The Italians are not reported to have made any distributions. There have been no distributions in Portugal. There has been a certain amount of distribution in Belgium and Denmark. However, none of those countries has operated in the same way as we have.

It was the Council's decision that the distribution should be made. We all had reservations about the method and the sense of making the distributions. However, having decided to distribute, it seemed to be correct that the United Kingdom should take action and do what we could as well as we could. Our action has meant that throughout the country there has been an addition to the diet of those most in need and that has been distributed by those most able to distribute it. The voluntary societies for which Britain has an international reputation and of which we are proud are distributing those goods.

It was therefore, with some amazement that I read today's Order Paper. I discovered that the Labour party, concerned as it always is for the most needy, does not in its amendment mention any congratulations. There is not a word of thanks for the 22·5 million packs of butter for the most needy. There is not a scintilla of thanks for the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. The Opposition have not thanked Help the Aged or Age Concern. They do not mention the Church of Scotland or the Church Army, nor do they reach out to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or to Bryson House. The Opposition have not mentioned any of those organisations. Indeed, I doubt whether they have heard of them. All that the Opposition wanted to do was to make a cheap party political point.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I have two points to make about the Minister's impudent diatribe. First, will he confirm that the Church of Scotland was not included in the original list until some of us raised that matter? Secondly, does he not remember that I used to work at Age Concern and I know a little more about it than he?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The fact that the hon. Gentleman used to work for Age Concern does not change the fact that he did not mention in the amendment the good work carried out by Age Concern. He appears to have forgotten more about Age Concern than he should have. The hon. Gentleman is not correct about the Church of Scotland.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman must really wait for my answer. I shall tell him exactly what happened about the Church of Scotland. We had the meeting at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and the arrangement was made through the Church Army at the behest of the British Council of Churches, as I understand it, which covers the Church of Scotland, that initially the Church Army would make arrangements with the Church of Scotland and tell the Church of Scotland that it could choose how it wished to be associated with the scheme, either directly or indirectly, through the Church Army. The Church of Scotland chose to be associated directly. We made the arrangements as it wanted. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the impudent comment made by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) who did not contribute to the matter. The hon. Gentleman's only contribution is his whingeing and miserable attitude.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

I know about the Minister's connections with the Church of England. Does he not recognise that the Church of Scotland is the established church of Scotland and a direct approach to it would have been appropriate?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman must accept that in the United Kingdom we have a very close working relationship between all the major denominations, both established and non-established. I do not think that the establishment has anything to do with the matter. What we sought to do was deal through all the organisations that were most appropriate and that could be gathered together between 3 o'clock in the morning and 5 o'clock in the afternoon. It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman's knowledge that the Church of Scotland operates mainly in Scotland and, therefore, it was easier, in order to have that meeting, to arrange for someone to stand in for it at that time. I make no apology for that.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman must not say that. What he is saying from a sendentary position is utterly untrue. I was present at the meeting and I heard the statement made on that occasion. It was my statement which said that we should ensure that the Church of Scotland was represented in whatever way it wished to be represented. I do not see how one could be fairer than that. My relationship with the Church of Scotland has always been extremely cordial and I would not wish to remove it or exclude it. I think that what the hon. Gentleman has to say is in a spirit that is far from Christian charity.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am in regular touch with different people in the Church of Scotland and their account of the set-up which took place in relation to its involvement is totally different from the Minister's. Having in my constituency, in Crichton West church in Cumnock, a lady minister, someone ordained in the Church of Scotland, I can recommend that for any church. Women can play a far greater part in the Church than the Minister.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I suspect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would say I was out of order if I tried to explain to the hon. Gentleman what a difference there is between those of us who hold the historic ministry that comes from the universal church and those who seek to break that historic ministry. It has nothing to do with sexism but a great deal to do with the catholic doctrine. I shall now move on to discuss the motion before us and in that I know that I am supported by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) who understands catholic doctrine in these matters.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Bradford West

Before the Minister moves on — I am not in any way seeking to detain him on matters we have been debating in the past few moments—can he confirm some of the amounts of money involved in surpluses? Can he confirm that British taxpayers are now paying well over £1,000 million a year to subsidise the mountains of butter and beef? Can he also confirm that British taxpayers, in the latest sale of butter to the Russians, are having to foot the bill, which comes to £650 million? Are those not astronomic amounts of money coming from British taxpayers and is not the scheme we are debating just a tiny bit coming back to this country?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Obviously the hon. Gentleman was not here to listen to the first part of my speech when I made my point clear. I do not think that anybody who was here missed the point. I said right at the beginning that (his was only a small contribution to the reduction of surpluses but that it seemed, nonetheless, a worthwhile one. In that catalogue of woe that the hon. Gentleman put before us, he might have mentioned that in December, because of the action of the British Government in the British presidency, we have now changed the arrangements of the common agricultural policy so that surpluses in beef and dairy products will no longer be built up. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not in his place when I announced that from the Dispatch Box so that he could congratulate the British Government, which sentiment I know would have been in his heart at the time.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

In the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), could my right hon. Friend find it within himself to pay a tribute to the faithful Church of Rome?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I feel that I am going to be led down a whole series of unsuitable courses. However, I have to say that the Roman Catholic organisations have been particularly good in the distribution of this food. Indeed, I believe that the Roman Catholic cathedral in Middlesbrough has been used as a storage point from which the butter has been distributed over the diocese of Middlesbrough. I should like to thank the Roman Catholic organisations for that and to say how much we appreciate it.

Photo of Cyril Smith Cyril Smith , Rochdale

I should like to ask the Minister to take up the point made by an Opposition Member about publicity. I have listened with great interest to 98 per cent, of his speech — I missed the first three lines or so—but I must tell him that my experience in the north-west is totally different from everything I am listening to in the House. I am fed up with people in the north—I even had it in the train travelling down today — telling me that they have never seen the butter and asking where it is and who has got it and so on. I accept everything that the Minister said. I do not doubt the points that he has made for one second. However, I wonder whether some sort of publicity about the limitations and who are the correct recipients of the butter might be in the Government's best interests. A lot of people who think they should have got it should not have got it within the scheme. Some publicity about that might be in the Government's interest and certainly in the interests of some hon. Members in the north.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I have heard others in the north congratulating us on the extent by which we have been able to get to those in most need. It is in my experience, sadly, that any hope of anybody getting something for nothing tends to bring people out, whether one has advertised to them that they come within the category or not. I have appeared — some Opposition Members would say too often—on the television and radio and on every occasion I have tried to make the point clear. I took every opportunity because I wanted to help the voluntary organisations, which themselves explained the restrictions. I agree that it has not always been understood, but I do not think that further advertising would have been satisfactory.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin , West Derbyshire

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his Department has informed Members of Parliament of the scheme and that it is up to hon. Members, not only his Department, to provide press releases and advertisements on the scheme to inform our constituents about it and not to rely on national advertising all the time?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I agree with my hon. Friend. I made sure that there was a full and detailed statement available to all hon. Members through the usual channels in quantities large enough for every hon. Member to take action on it. That was not only through the usual channels on the Conservative side of the House, but through the usual channels of the various Opposition parties. I did that personally because I thought that it was necessary for every hon. Member to act upon it. I hope that that was successful.

It does not help the House or the reputation of the Opposition if they are not willing to accept even the part of our motion in which we express some thanks and congratulations for the activities that have gone on. It leads me to think that the Opposition amendment is tabled in the vain hope of getting a bit of party political propaganda. I am terribly sad because I would have expected more of one or two of the signatories. I would not have expected much better of one or two others, and with one or two I am surprised that it is as moderate as it is. Their amendment states: Regrets … the lack of proper consultation with, and information to, charitable organisations". They say "proper consultation" but there was a meeting at 5 o'clock on the day on which we decided on the scheme. Not a single one of the charities has complained about consultation. Where is that from? It goes on to say that the charities were "prevented … from making preparations". They were told that the scheme was under way in the morning, they met to discuss the scheme and the scheme is phrased in the way that they wanted. How could we have done it better than that? The motion then goes on to say: as a result of which large numbers of the most needy are likely to be excluded from this aid. That cannot be so because we have already distributed 22·5 million packs of butter—[Interruption.] I was quite clear in saying that it is either distributed or on its way. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) knows perfectly well how this figure has gone up day by day and week by week and will continue to do so. The Opposition would stand better in the eyes of the country if they had the grace and courtesy on occasion to say that the Government have done as well as they could in the circumstances and thanked the charities and the Ministry officials for having made this possible.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd 7:20 pm, 24th February 1987

I beg to move, to leave out from "establishments" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'but regrets that the lack of proper consultation with, and information to, charitable organisations in the United Kingdom prevented them from making preparations for a speedy and efficient distribution, as a result of which large numbers of the most needy are likely to be excluded from this aid.'.

When the Minister was about half an hour into his speech—and had said very little—I began for the first time to feel sorry for the Archbishop of Canterbury. His combination of querulous behaviour and heckling tone sits ill on a Minister discussing an item of this nature. The motion—in a wadge of dough with very little currants in the form of facts—contains no word of congratulation to the charities, but merely asks this House to endorse the Government's action.

The Minister has the effrontery to talk about somebody seeking to extract political capital out of this issue. Scarcely a day goes by without this Minister being photographed in front of some open door or another, in some silly hat or another, yet he talks about political capital. I genuinely seek to have a good and fair distribution of what is available to everyone, but we are not helped by his attempt — thinly disguised by facts, because the Minister can handle them least well of all— to be a national figure.

The Minister and the Council of Ministers have decided to distribute the £36 million worth of food to the most needy. Whatever our views of the idea — and the Minister made clear his dislike and distrust of this scheme —we must now make the best scheme possible for the United Kingdom. But it must be put on record—and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) has already referred to it — that it is a sweetener to smooth the disposition of 400,000 tonnes of butter to the Russians with a forced loan of about £400 million by the United Kingdom on uneconomic terms to the EEC, and for a further 400,000 tonnes to be disposed to animal feed.

How should we assess the success or otherwise of the scheme? The duty on any Government in this country is to give as wide and prompt a distribution of the aid available as possible. The question we must answer tonight is how many of the most needy have received the aid and how quickly, and how many of the available commodities have been distributed? As the Minister made a partisan point, I want to make it clear that nothing in our amendment or anything that I say tonight is in any way critical of the charities that have been involved in this scheme. Many people have worked very hard and with great dedication—

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I do not know what the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) is saying, but I think he probably finds difficulty in following the complexity of this debate.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The hon. Member says that he understands it. A less vacuous appearance on his face might benefit the House.

Many people are working very hard and with great dedication to distribute this food. They deserve our thanks. The hon. Member is now seeking to sing a duet, and since his voice is unmusical the effect is unpleasant.

We must ask ourselves whether the charities were given a fair chance of meeting the criterion of wide and prompt distribution, given the way that they were handed the problem by the Government. Prior to the EEC announcement, as has been confirmed this afternoon by the Minister, there was no warning and no consultation on the likelihood of any scheme being set up. Therefore, I think that the Minister will accept that some of the charities involved are not distributing charities. There was no organisation in place, nor was there any system for this operation. The factors that the charities had to face lead us to suppose that a better system of consultation and more prompt information could have improved the scheme.

Photo of Mr Keith Best Mr Keith Best , Ynys Môn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for none of the speeches. He needs to wait a little while before he can intervene. I will give way to him once he is accustomed to the House.

The first factor that the charities had to overcome was in the form of food. The Minister of State said that both the butter and beef are in 25 kilo blocks — immense quantities. Some of the charities did not have refrigeration facilities, so that once the food was defrosted it was unuseable if the charities did not pick it up. Last Monday the Salvation Army was appealing on HTV in Bristol because 140 lb of beef was on their hands and defrosting. The charities concerned did not pick it up and the Salvation Army was asking any luncheon club to take it. That sort of problem is caused by these large quantities of food.

This morning it was reported in The Scotsman that a Fife butcher has constructed a scheme whereby the beef in question can be reduced to be used in hamburgers. The report said that the butcher had to find some use for it because otherwise the charitable bodies with which he was speaking were suggesting that the best thing to do was to dig a hole and bury the beef in it. That is a real problem facing charities. The form in which the food was released was so large and difficult to handle that the charities had to have help.

Secondly, another difficulty is the number of people involved. The Minister of State said that he did not want to tie that down to any particular figure and that supplementary beneficiaries were a major but not the sole category. Charities such as the Salvation Army and the Womens Royal Voluntary Service can identify the people within this definition with whom they deal, but they have no comprehensive knowledge of who is within this category, even by pooling their ideas. I put it to the Minister that it is unlikely that the pooled ideas of all the charities involved are likely to reveal all those who are eligible. Some may supplement that by phoning in to state their own claim but the DHSS could not possibly release their confidential lists of people who are eligible and in receipt of supplementary benefit. The number is more than 5 million people in this country.

I regret, since the Minister played a part in the decision by the Council of Ministers, that local government authorities were not involved — not for any doctrinaire reason but because they could have helped to identify people within their areas who were in the subject categories. A few became involved in this operation, but had it not been for the exclusive nature of the resolution and the form of legislation which the Commission and the Council of Ministers adopted, many more would have become involved and the charities would have had much better knowledge of those who were eligible for aid. Distribution of food to people eligible to receive it is likely to be more comprehensive and speedier. Earlier and better consultation in that area could have improved the scheme.

Thirdly, there was the question of speed of distribution. Not only was there the need to set up the organisation, but a great deal of hard-pressed charity cash, which could have been used for other cases, was absorbed on postage and telephones. That is not only my view; it was expressed by the European Conservative group when it commented on the measure.

Despite the very careful words which the Minister of State used at Question Time last Thursday—many of us were listening to him carefully—it is quite clear that the cost of distributing food will be borne by charities unless the EEC rules are changed, I do not believe that any charity is in such luxurious financial circumstances as to be able to bear that expense. Moreover, such expense will reduce charities' ability to help those whom they normally help.

The Minister will probably want to convey to the EEC our call for administration and distribution costs to be lifted from the shoulders of charities so that they can do their work safe in the knowledge that their future work will not be hampered as a result.

We have not taken up all the items of aid for which we are eligible. The Minister implied that the charities could not handle the extra burden, but why have we not taken advantage of sugar from Italy? Ireland is just one of the countries which has taken advantage of it. We also have surplus cereals. We have 2·36 million tonnes of bread wheat in store in the EEC. Why have we not used it?

It is not suitable to distribute wheat in the form of bread because it is so perishable, but why are we not distributing cereals as flour which the needy can use for cake or bread? The Government said initially that there was no demand for it. When there proved to be a demand, the Government said that the surplus could not be distributed except at disproportionate cost. The sad thing is that we are the only country in the EEC which is not taking advantage of those surpluses.

I intervened in the Minister's speech to ask about the quantities of food that have been received. He recognised my serious point. There is the world of difference between authorising release from storage when charities ask for it: and distribution. At column 1049 of Hansard on Thursday, the Minister appeared to give different statistical bases. He talked about packs of butter and portions of beef. The Minister has said what is in store and can be released if asked for, but he has not said what has been released.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

It is a matter not of whether charities ask for it but of what they have asked for and what we have released. We will release anything that they ask for. We are talking of butter or beef which has been distributed, is on its way and which charities have ordered. There is nothing potential about it.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

With respect, I think that it is a little different. The figures reveal a wide disparity between the Minister's formula and what has been distributed.

I want to challenge what the Minister said last Thursday. I remind him that he said: Britain got off the ground first. It was the United Kingdom, but never mind. We have distributed more than any other country in Europe and have done it more efficiently." — [Official Report, 19 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 1049.] I would welcome confirmation of the suggestion that he was referring to the figures given to the European Commission as of noon on 16 February. There were no more contemporary figures at that stage. If that is so, his statement was seriously misleading because earlier he told my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) that 15 million packs of butter and 3·15 million portions of beef had been released.

We have already considered authorisation, and I have demonstrated that it does not mean that the commodities have been released. If the Minister's words were taken literally, each of the 5 million supplementary benefit recipients in Britain would already have had three packs of butter. Nobody believes that that has happened. Indeed, none of us has met anybody who has received three packs of butter. As at 16 February, 639 tonnes of butter had been released. By 20 February, 2,358 tonnes of butter had been released. Will the Minister confirm those figures because the number of packs that they imply is markedly lower than the figure he gave on Thursday?

The same is true of beef. We were told about the size of the 3·15 million portions of beef but, at 16 February, only 58 tonnes had been distributed from cold stores in the United Kingdom. The Ministry told me this afternoon that, by 23 February, 191 tonnes of beef had been delivered. The Intervention Board gives a somewhat larger figure. All the figures, however, show a much less sanguine position than that given by the Minister last week. If 3·15 million portions have been issued, on the basis of the volume of beef that is known to have been distributed, each portion would have been less than one ounce — hardly a significant addition to people's diet.

There are even disparities in authorisation as between regions. I understand from the Intervention Board that 174·5 tonnes of beef have been authorised for England and Wales, that the figure for Scotland is 71 tonnes and that that for Northern Ireland is 221 tonnes. Therefore, more beef has been authorised for release in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. Certainly Wales comes out badly because the figure authorised for release there is nil. Northern Ireland seems to have got more than its fair share. Why? Why, for example, has none of the 150 tonnes of beef in store in Truro been authorised for release?

On the figures, can the right hon. Gentleman be forgiven for saying that he was correct in his assertion that we have distributed more than any other country as opposed to saying that we have authorised it for distribution? I looked quizzically at the right hon. Gentleman when he gave the figures because on 16 February we were third in the EEC for the amount of butter distributed. Germany had distributed far more than we had, as had France. We were also third in the distribution of beef. France and Ireland had distributed far more. Ireland, which was second, had distributed four times as much beef as we had. If the right hon. Gentleman reads Agra Europe, he will see the source of the figures. I have checked with the European Commission. I think that the Minister is getting agitated because he is using a different statistical base. I am talking about food actually distributed, food that has got to the needy. We are lower in the pecking order than he suggests.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

To take the Irish position, on 18 February — this is information that we have gathered directly—small, unspecified amounts had been moved. The Irish intend to move considerable amounts, but on 18 February the figures for Ireland for butter, cheese, milk, beef, flour and sugar were small, unspecified amounts. I am happy to mix figures with the hon. Gentleman. I have been trying to give as accurate figures as I can. I have been careful to try to find out the realities. The evidence is as I have given it. If I discover that I have been wrong, I shall be happy to apologise, but that is the evidence we have.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I will release the figures to the Minister, but a perusal of Agra Europe would have given them to him. It gives the figures that were released by the European Commission. I have checked directly with the European Commission that at 16 February the Irish had released 245 tonnes of beef. That is the reason for my assertion. Whereas we are third in the two major categories, all the other countries are also distributing commodities which we have deliberately by our own choice refused to distribute. We have said that we cannot handle them.

We will never know how many of the people who are eligible for this food aid will get it. Some will get more than their share, but many will get little or nothing. That is why I am concerned, and that is why we tabled the amendment. The Minister has given charities the political equivalent of a hospital pass. Let me tell him what that is. It can be seen sometimes on the rugby field, most commonly when England plays international rugby. It is a pass where the ball and the opponent arrive simultaneously at the same spot. In this case the ball is the responsibility for carrying out the scheme and the opponent is the demand which has been stoked up by news of the scheme.

There have been disappointments. We have all had letters from people complaining about their disappointment at not benefiting under the scheme. Paradoxically the disappointments are blamed on the charities and not on the Government. The Government have claimed responsibility for beneficence, with many photographs of beaming smiles. The beneficence of the Government is seen by everyone, but the responsibility for disappointing ordinary men and women who have applied for food aid and who have overwhelmed the system has fallen on individual charities.

Lest the tabling of the amendment is misunderstood by some of the slower learners on the Government Benches, let me once more pay tribute to the work of charities. They deserve better of us than to be landed with the responsibility for disappointing many people. Their organisation has been stretched beyond reasonable limits. If we as a House do not endorse the Government's action, that is in no way critical of the charities or unwelcoming of their actions. It means that if there is any follow-up proposed by the Government it will be much better than this scheme has proved.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham 7:46 pm, 24th February 1987

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) is a notable member of that small minority of sensible Members within the parliamentary Labour party. I am not surprised that he seemed to distance himself from the amendment which was so effectively demolished by my right hon. Friend the Minister in his opening speech.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

In that case, it must be the only example of an author distancing himself from his book.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

There are many cases in which an author has had second thoughts on reading what he has written and has done his best to strike it out. I think that is what happened today.

I note that the emergency scheme that we are discussing is only part of the subsidy system for distributing cheaper food. In 1986, the Intervention Board spent some £5 million on subsidising the purchase of 4,000 tonnes of butter which went to 3,869 non-profit-making organisations. One recipient of the subsidised British butter is St. Christopher's hospice in my constituency. The authorities there tell me that the subsidy is worth about £56 a month to them. That works out at about £1 per bed per month, or nearly £700 in a full year. For an organisation with an annual budget of £2·5 million, a subsidy of £700 a year is very welcome. The Intervention Board scheme is hedged around with rules of Byzantine complexity, which cannot be altered dramatically without the approval of the Community. When the emergency scheme has run its course, I should like to see the Intervention Board subsidy scheme simplified and expanded.

I note in passing that if the scheme were to be expanded in the right way it could be of considerable help to the London borough of Bromley and to the Bromley health authority. Last year, Bromley council provided 200,000 meals on wheels. There were also 100,000 meals served in the day centres for the elderly. The council provided 2·5 million school meals. The local authority also provides meals every day of the year for 600 elderly people in residential homes. In other words, Bromley council provides, directly or indirectly, more than 3 million meals a year, while the Bromley health authority provides more than 1 million meals for the occupants of the 2,000 hospital beds which it maintains in acute, geriatric and mental health wards. A subsidy for the butter, cheese, meat and sugar components of those millions of meals would surely lead to increased consumption of these products and bring considerable benefit to the consumer. In my constituency, some of the day centres for the elderly have been serving meat which has been made available under the present winter emergency scheme, the pensioners have paid 40p rather than the 80p normally charged for their meal, and they have had more meat to eat than they would normally have had.

At Christmas, and perhaps at Easter, there may well be a case on a regular basis for distributing individual packs of butter and cheese, and indeed bags of sugar, to individual pensioners. After the present scheme has run its course it would be sensible to look at the desirability of increasing the scale and the scope of the Intervention Board's butter subsidy scheme to cover other dairy products and meat and sugar as well. This could substantially increase the amount of food used by the caring charities and by local authorities. There would thus be minimum dislocation in the market place and one would be using a method of support which has been well tested over the years. It would also be comparatively easy to monitor the scheme to see whether there had been any real increase in consumption rather than a displacement of normal purchases.

The sale of large quantities of butter to the Soviet Union—some 222,000 tonnes in 1985, at a cost as low as 15p per pound—has provoked widespread protest. If the taxpayer is to go on paying substantial sums in subsidy, we want to make sure that our own pensioners get some of the benefit on a lasting basis.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland 7:54 pm, 24th February 1987

It is not entirely clear what the Minister thought was being achieved by the debate tonight. This question of intervention food to meet needy cases has been drawn to the attention of the House as suitable for further debate by the seventh report of the Select Committee on European Legislation. This was done on two grounds, to neither of which the Minister referred.

First, the Committee asked whether, bearing in mind the objectives of the common agricultural policy set out in article 39, the present proposals could be appropriately based on article 43, on which the regulations were issued in late January. The Minister had nothing whatever to say about this. The alliance view is that the objectives of the common agricultural policy are certainly not being met at this time by the administration of the CAP. They do not give a fair standard of living to the farmers, they do not stabilise markets wholly and they do not take into account a number of other factors which are of considerable importance, including the provision of food at reasonable prices to our consumers. We would wish to see the objectives of the common agricultural policy widened considerably. I need not linger on the legal point, because I do not think that it gives rise to a great deal of anxiety in the House.

On the second point to which the Select Committee drew attention — what it called the wider context in which these proposals were made and their political importance — it was presumably referring to the extensiveness of the scheme and the amount of money involved: the 50,000 million ecu or £36 million in total throughout the 12 member countries of the European Community. Again, the Minister did not refer to that, and I think it odd that he did not choose to do so.

One must therefore ask oneself why the right hon. Gentleman initiated the debate in the way that he did. It seems that his sole objective was to give himself a substantial pat on the back. So far, he has not given us any reason to believe that that is deserved. He has drawn attention to the language of the motion standing in the name of the Government, which endorses what he now calls the Government's decision. I thought that the opening part of his speech was designed to demonstrate that it was not the Government's decision but the decision of the European Community, ratified by the member countries of the Council. He went on to say that not only was it not the Government's decision but it had been laid down by the Council and he had simply to follow the lead of the Council. I understood him to be saying that that was the case and that, although it was the case, he thought that they had taken the right decision.

I say that the Minister has not deserved the pat on the back he wanted, very largely for the reasons that were given in an intervention earlier in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who pointed out the sense throughout the country that, if there is a scheme in operation, no one quite knows how it is going, whether they are eligible and, if they are eligible, whom they should approach.

There is no doubt that any scheme being operated by the charities under considerable pressure of time is bound to some extent to be hit or miss. I would certainly wish to begin my remarks by paying a considerable tribute to the charities for the work that has been done. I will single out two in particular, although they are by no means the only bodies that have played a notable part in this: the Salvation Army and the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, which have, through their national administration, greatly facilitated the distribution of food not only by their own hands but by other charities as well.

However, they are not without their criticisms of the scheme, or of the Government for the lack of consultation. I have spoken today to several of the charities involved. Among those that voiced considerable anxiety was, of course, Age Concern, which specifically criticised the lack of consultation and said that it had had to spend too much time answering inquiries from the public during the initial stages and was unable to concentrate on setting up a system of distribution.

The Red Cross said that it believed that the system would have worked better if there had been more consultation with charities, as the success of the scheme depended on all charities coming together at local level. There have been several other individual comments. To some extent, those difficulties were inevitable because the Government were under some pressure of time. The scheme is due to end at the end of March. When the Minister replies, it would be interesting to hear whether the Government believe it has been sufficiently successful to be extended beyond that date.

A ministerial answer last week to the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) partially gave the game away about the Government's approach and revealed how they could have done better. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that there had been a lack of liaison between the Department of Health and Social Security and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Minister replied, oddly: I must warn my hon. Friend about … the DHSS."— [Official Report, 19 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 1050.] The implication of that warning was that it was inappropriate for the DHSS to be in any way involved. The hon. Gentleman was not saying that the DHSS should be responsible for administering the scheme—that was never in his mind and certainly is not in mine—but if anyone knows who the needy are and who falls into the categories which the Council of Ministers intended to help, it is certainly the DHSS. It is certainly in a position to advise the recipients of the assistance that it dispenses of the availability of this help and how it can be obtained locally. By setting his face against the DHSS, the Minister has not helped to extend the take-up of the scheme.

Similar dogmatism on the part of the Minister has informed his attitude to local government. Social work departments are also well placed to assist in the distribution of food to the needy. Although several have undoubtedly been involved through the work of charities, no systematic attempt has been made to use the services of local government to extend the operation of the scheme.

The scheme is somewhat limited. Not only does it not reach all those who need it: it cannot operate extensively without creating some difficulties in the market place. The disposal of stocks from intervention on a large scale would almost certainly eventually, and probably not far down the track, simply result in stocks being consumed by those who would buy them in any event.

What has been done is a welcome response to exceptional weather. I expected the Minister to give some indication of how much money had been spent or of the value of the stocks released to date. We are now five weeks from the end of the scheme and it would have been informative to know. In judging the value of the scheme, it would have been interesting to know the costs and value of what has been done, together with the costs of storage.

The Government set out in last month's White Paper on public expenditure the figures for intervention stocks held in this country. It shows a steady rise in intervention stocks of beef. In 1981–82, 11,000 tonnes of beef were held in store; the forecast for this year is 60,000 tonnes. In 1981–82, 1,000 tonnes of butter on average were held in intervention; this year the forecast is for 250,000 tonnes. The cost of that to the Exchequer is enormous. It should be stressed that the money does not go to line the pockets of farmers when goods are held in storage. The storage and related costs have risen from £15·5 million in 1981–82 to an estimated £134·2 million in 1986–87 for this country alone. That is some yardstick with which to judge the impact of what has been taken out of intervention for distribution. It is a tiny proportion of what is being held, both in quantum and in value.

The decision that the administration of the scheme should be handled by the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce was inevitable. It has not been made clear how much will be made available under this scheme and how much is being made available at present. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Secretary of State for Scotland said: The amounts of food to be distributed will depend on the needs established by the charitable organisations."—[Official Report, 30 January 1987; Vol. 109, c. 427.] I hope that that remains the position. I have been informed that there is some anxiety that the amount that is available may not be limited by that consideration and that charities are having some difficulty distributing the amounts that they can identify as needed. The Salvation Army told me today that it may be reaching saturation point on inquiries and making supplies available and that it is trying to spread the burden to other charities. I hope that the Minister is in sufficiently constant touch with the charities to help to relieve those that are operating under pressure.

The second question on administration relates to how the needy are to be identified. I have already pointed out that the Minister denied charities the assistance from which they might have benefited, if the DHSS were used to inform those in need of the availability of the scheme and local points of collection.

Furthermore, have charities given priority to the distribution of food to those in institutions ? In some areas, fear has been strongly expressed that understandably charities have focused on institutions with which they are most closely connected and have not, also understandably, known how best to distribute the food quickly to those living at home. That has resulted in some food going to those less in need than those living alone at home. That was bound to be a problem with reliance almost wholly on charitable distribution.

However, these problems should now be taken on board by the Minister in case there is any question of ever utilising such a scheme in the future. There are lessons to be learnt from this, but the Minister does not appear to realise that. Indeed, his cockiness in introducing the debate was quite striking. As a reader of the King James version of the Bible and the Sermon on the Mount, I was reminded of the passage that reads: charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. The Minister would do well to take those words to heart.

The alliance parties welcome the scheme, so far as it goes. It is a modest scheme with, as the Minister has reasonably admitted, a modest impact on the problem of surplus disposal. Indeed, he even suggested that it had nothing to do with surplus disposal, although I suspect that if other suitable occasions arose for the distribution of food in emergencies, the Minister would not recoil from the thought that it would be appropriate to use such a scheme for the distribution of surpluses.

We recognise that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has recently devoted more attention to his activities in the Soviet Union—no doubt butter was on the agenda — than to helping needy people at home—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the Minister's ejaculations reflect his disagreement with the facts or with my interpretation of them. I am bound to say that it seems perfectly self-evident that butter has been on the agenda. We look forward to hearing the results of those discussions about butter because they have certainly been controversial in the past.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

About 5 million people are living on or below the poverty line in this country. All of them could have benefited by being included in the scheme. I do not think that the Minister can tell us how many have benefited from the scheme. However, if he is to operate such schemes in the future, it would be considerably to our advantage to know that and for the Minister to conduct a proper follow-up survey of what happened.

I hope that the Minister will treat this debate not so much as a pat on the back, but as a kick in the pants, and get on with a better analysis of what has been done ex post facto so that when we next have food to spare for those most in need, we do so with greater efficiency than proved possible on this occasion.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside 8:13 pm, 24th February 1987

I had intended to compliment the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on his speech, but he spoiled it in the last few minutes. If ever there was a case of a speech that needed a little oiling, his was it — whether with olive oil or wine from the wine lake.

Although the hon. Gentleman associated himself too closely with the Opposition amendment, he drew attention to my earlier parliamentary question, and I shall pat him on the back for that. He understood what I was asking and I hope that the Minister will give us the answer for which we both hope.

I want to comment on the Opposition Front Bench speech of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) because we have seen action and not words in this scheme.

Quite frankly, if we were to consult all the institutions that the hon. Gentleman would have wished, we would still be talking, the food would still be in the cold stores, and no one would have it. The whole point of the scheme was that it had to be put into operation during the cold weather, although we might like it to continue for a little longer than 31 March. Speed was essential and it is fully to the Government's credit that they showed that they could act.

I want to make three brief points. First, I applaud the splendid work that has been undertaken by the voluntary organisations in my part of Hampshire. Secondly, I want to identify one or two ways in which the scheme might be improved; and thirdly, I want to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and speak about the scheme to publicise it. I trust that hon. Members from both sides of the House will issue to the press the speeches that they now wish they had made to give the scheme wider publicity.

In my part of the country, the voluntary organisations are already doing a magnificent job in distributing the free food. The WRVS, for instance, has extended its initial order of 10 tonnes of butter for Hampshire to a total of 15 tonnes. A tonne of butter and a tonne of cheese are on their way to my constituency right now.

Age Concern should also be praised. In the Southampton area, where it looks after meals on wheels, nearly 4 tonnes of butter a week passed to pensioners, direct to their door with the daily milk delivery by milkmen from the Unigate and Vines companies. That is a good example of co-operation between a voluntary organisation and businesses that are prepared to pick up a challenge and help.

The scheme is being run by hard-working volunteers. They have had to set up their own distribution systems virtually from scratch. The voluntary bodies and their workers are usually unpaid and some of them are elderly; they deserve our warmest congratulations for having clone so well in so short a time.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has been asked by many people to publicise the scheme a little more and I ask him again to do that. Some of my constituents are still unclear about who qualifies for free food, what foods are available and where they can obtain them locally. Cannot my right hon. Friend take further steps to advertise the names and telephone numbers of participating charities on a regional basis, using the regional press, television or radio stations? My local media have shown tremendous readiness to participate. I know, for instance, that the Salvation Army is making good use of the media to spread the word. Can my right hon. Friend say whether the charities that are obliged to buy advertising space can be recompensed by the Government and repaid those costs?

My second point relates to eligibility. My right hon. Friend has told me that the assessment of eligibility for the scheme lies with the charitable organisations. It does not seem to be widely known that there is some room for discretion in the assessment of beneficiaries. Some organisations are including borderline cases in their distribution, for example, an elderly person who has not applied for supplementary benefit but who, in the opinion of the charity worker, would qualify if he or she were to apply. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could take steps to give wider publicity to the fact that some discretion can be exercised by the charities involved.

I should next like to touch on the question of abuse. I am confident that the charities in my area are scrupulous in administering the scheme according to the rules. However, I am afraid that there is potentially some scope for abusing the system as there is no way of checking that an applicant for free food has not toured around the other outlets to obtain supplies of free food from other charitable organisations. I should add that there has not been any evidence that that has happened in my area, but the potential for abuse exists. I suggest that some system of marking pension or other benefit books to denote that the holder has received free food could prevent abuse.

While the charities have been able to organise the distribution of butter and cheese, and I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to extend the scheme to cover milk, cheese, semi-skimmed milk, buttermilk and concentrated butter, the drawback has been distribution of beef. The drawback so far has been the distribution of beef stocks. I welcome the Minister's decision to reduce the amount of beef that can be drawn from store at one time from one tonne to only a quarter of a tonne. That has certainly been extremely helpful, but the charities working in my constituency tell me that they have not opted to take any beef as much as they would like it.

I am pleased to learn that the European Commission has made payments available to charities at a flat rate per tonne for repacking large quantities of food into smaller amounts, but that still does not solve the problem of meat because it must be cooked and distributed as part of a meal. That, incidentally, is probably the reason why the two organisations most concerned in my constituency, the WRVS and Age Concern, are the two that are already involved with meals on wheels. No one else is yet involved in the business of distribution. I hope that my right hon. Friend can be persuaded by us in this debate to return to Europe and argue for the distribution of beef without the stipulation that it is cooked. That would give many more needy people the chance to enjoy food from the intervention stocks.

Finally, I shall say something about the extension of the scheme. This free food for the needy scheme is due to end on 31 March. There are no immediate plans to extend its operation, but surely there is a permanent place for that type of organisation in our welfare state. Far-reaching changes to the common agricultural policy have recently been announced and those will affect future food production. Yet, I see in Lord Bethell's recent publication entitled "Why do we sell butter to Russia?" the following figures for over-production in the Common Market: 24 per cent, more butter and cheese than we consumed, 27 per cent, more cereals, 12 per cent, more beef and veal, 32 per cent, more sugar. Those intervention stocks still exist, despite last December's agreement. The same publication goes on to tell us of the Russians: the butter they buy is 18 months old or more and much of it is used industrially, for lubricating machinery

Which is better, to grease the wheels of Soviet industry or to spread a little bit more happiness among the needy of this country? I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to persuade his colleagues in Europe to extend the distribution period beyond 31 March. This scheme is not pie in the sky. It is a sensible way of giving help to needy people which I hope will become a permanent feature of our welfare state.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley 8:22 pm, 24th February 1987

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) on one thing anyway, and that is for livening up a debate which was beginning to die on its feet. The hon. Members for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) and for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) were both pretty quickly becoming eligible for handouts. I shall return to the speech of the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. A more unctuous and self-congratulatory speech I have never heard in this House.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Not since his last one.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

As my hon. Friend says, not since the previous speech by the right hon. Gentleman.

One of my colleagues commented, after the Minister had been going on for about 30 minutes, that he was making a meal of it, but I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was more on the ball when he said that it was more of a Lord Avebury — I think that he meant a dog's breakfast. 1 believe that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West who said it.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I do not think it was, but it will do.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was certainly an attempt to take the credit for this exercise. As we have seen with the photographs and with the publicity that the Minister has eked out of this whole exercise, it was yet another attempt to gain publicity and congratulation for himself.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I shall not intervene in his speech again. However, I should like to set the record straight because it is rather important. I said that it was typical of the Liberals that it would be their thinnest member, Lord Avebury, whom they offered to the Battersea dogs' home rather than the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith).

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, except that he has lost me half of my audience, with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food leaving. However, I wish to make a few serious points.

As joint chairman of the all-party pensioners group in the House, and, as I said earlier, a former director of Age Concern Scotland, I have been in touch with my successor at Age Concern Scotland about the operation of this scheme and I have spoken about it with a number of the other people involved. However, I also know that the Opposition spokesmen who deal with EEC affairs, as well as my colleagues on the Front Bench today dealing with agriculture, have pressed the Government for some time to use their influence within the European Community to deal with the enormous surpluses of butter, beef and grain and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West keeps reminding us, of wine.

We have pointed out the huge cost to the European Community budget of the common agricultural policy, which is 70 per cent, of the EEC budget. A large percentage of that which supposedly goes to farmers goes to entrepreneurs and speculators who set up more and more cold stores and grain stores and other stores in the Community to store the huge surpluses and less and less of it goes to the farmers, and certainly less goes to the consumer.

What we have been arguing for and what we should have had in this case is a carefully planned, comprehensive and, above all, fair distribution of the surpluses, if we are to have them, to help the people in need. Some of my hon. Friends may argue that that is too much to expect from the European Community, and especially too much to expect from this Government. Instead we have had chaos, shambles, a large number of anomalies, delay and abuses. I agree with the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside that these abuses have not taken place because of the charities or, I would argue, because of the individual people at whom he was pointing the finger. However, I shall mention in a few minutes one or two of the abuses.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

I did not point the ringer at anyone. I merely said that the potential for abuse existed and that there should be some way of preventing it.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has pointed that out, because certainly I thought that there was some innuendo in what he said. I am glad that there was not.

The principal reason for chaos is the political dogma of the Government, as represented especially by the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It was clear to anyone that if we were to have this sort of scheme—we may all have some reservations about it; I certainly have—the most obvious bodies to distribute it effectively, those who have lists of old people and other people in need, those who have the transport ready and available to provide it, and those who have the logistic support were the local authorities. However, it was far too much to expect the Government to do anything that might give any credit to any local authority. The vast majority of local authorities — the number is increasing — are Labour controlled. Conservative Members are always attacking local authorities, undermining them and threatening them, and anything that might give them any credit whatsoever would certainly be ruled out. The social work and social services departments in England, but with the support and the assistance of the voluntary bodies, were the obvious means of distribution.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

In the city of Southampton, the local authority, Southampton city council, is responsible for meals on wheels. What does it do? It gives the job to Age Concern.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I know that that is the case in some places. Where that system is operating, Age Concern can carry on the distribution, but that is not the case everywhere. In many parts of the country the distribution of meals on wheels and the lunch clubs are organised directly by the local authority. The Minister looks astonished, but I can assure him that that is the case.

The social work and social services departments distribute the food with the support and assistance of the voluntary bodies, and that support and assistance, as the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside pointed out, vary from one part of the country to another, according to how much they are involved. But the Government did not want the local authorities to be involved in any way. Therefore, the entire burden has fallen on the voluntary organisations. I know that through my previous connection, which I have already mentioned, and because my mother, who is involved in one of the organisations making the distribution, has told me about the chaos. In some cases, as was said earlier, distributions have been made by the Church of Scotland.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

Is my hon. Friend aware that in my home parish of Hutton food is being distributed to the needy people by the local parish minister of the Church of Scotland, the Rev. Mrs. Geraldine Hope, which might cause some alarm in the breast of the Minister of State but is welcome by people of all denominations in my parish?

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend It is a pity that the Minister of State—not the Parliamentary Secretary, who I am sure is sensible on this issue-is not present to benefit from my hon. Friend's intervention.

The placing of that extra burden on the voluntary organisations has led to some unfortunate results. The energies of the voluntary organisations have been diverted from activities that they should and want to undertake and that they desperately need to undertake. Some of the services that such organisations should be providing to the old and needy have not been provided because they have been diverted from that task. It would have been much better in my local area for Strathclyde region to have organised the distribution with the assistance of the local authorities.

To compound the difficulties of the local and voluntary organisations, there have been confused messages from the Government. The Minister talked earlier about his meeting at 5 o'clock. He told us three times how quickly he had arranged that meeting, but he did not say that the voluntary organisations were receiving confused messages about the rules and regulations relating to the distribution of the food—that it should be distributed directly to the old person, and, as was later mentioned in relation to beef, that it could be distributed only at cooking centres. It is worrying that we should be going back to the concept which the Minister described as the meat kitchen, which we know better as the soup kitchen, to which old people have to go and, effectively, beg for the distribution of food from the EC.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman must not quote me incorrectly. I said that France had meat kitchens and used that method. I stressed that Britain has been using its own methods. The hon. Gentleman really must not say that I stressed that we have meat kitchens.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

The Minister will agree that only butter is being given directly to the old people in their homes or at distribution centres. I visited the Dalmellington street wardens who were distributing only butter on Friday morning. Yet originally we were led to believe that food packages would include meat and other foods. That is not the case. My understanding is that meat is available only at cooking centres or at places where cooking takes place for the distribution of meals.

The regulations have been changing throughout the operation of the scheme and have caused much difficulty. That has resulted in a patchwork distribution of butter. Some areas are getting it, but in some areas there has been no distribution. Such anomalies have occurred.

Let me deal with the abuses about which the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside talked. There have been abuses. People not unconnected with the Conservative party have distributed butter and talked of it being a present from the Government. I suspect that such abuses follow on from the Minister's highly publicised efforts to be seen as the centre of the distribution and taking political credit from it.

I hope that the Minister will specifically deal with abuses in Northern Ireland that have been drawn to his attention.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman has made an allegation. I hope that he has helped with the distribution in his constituency. Indeed he has mentioned that he was out earlier. Can he give me a single case in which anybody has done other than that? I should like to know and would be happy to look into it.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I made it clear that I went to see the distribution taking place by the Dalmellington street wardens, not to hand out food myself. However, Conservative Members and people concerned with the Conservative party have been handing out butter and saying, "This is your free butter from the Government." I may be naive in believing that that was not part of the purpose of the exercise in the Minister's mind right from the start.

I know that specific matters in relation to Northern Ireland have been drawn, if not to the Minister's attention, to that of his Department. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), who is also a Member of the European Parliament, alleged at a meeting in Brussels last week, attended by Mr. Tom Megahy, a vice president of the European Parliament, that paramilitaries were distributing butter in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman said that he had 4 tonnes in his office which he was distributing. If that is the case, what action has been taken to stop it? If none has been taken, what action is proposed?

Let me deal with the future. I, and I think all Labour Members, wish that it was unnecessary to make such distributions to anyone. We would prefer not to have pensioners who depend on handouts. They should have an adequate pension, as the Labour party has promised. Conservative Members have not and are not providing an adequate pension. The Labour party will give an immediate increase and restore the link with earnings so that the ratchet effect increases real pensions. We also want to see a drop in the price of butter within the EEC. Then, if the pensioners have the buying power and if the butter is cheap enough, the pensioners can buy it for themselves.

Meanwhile, I hope that the Minister will tell us about the future when he replies. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside asked several questions. What is to be the policy? Will there be future distributions of the surpluses? I should like to see the surpluses reduced in this way. Will they include grain, as they should, because that would be helpful? Will they include uncooked beef delivered to the homes of the old people or available to them in packages? Will they include milk powder and other goods in surplus at the moment? I hope that that will be the case if the scheme is to continue.

I look forward to the day when our old people have adequate pensions and when we do not have a large number of needy people who the Government have recognised exist in Britain by the need for this distribution. The only way in which we shall achieve that is by the return of the Labour party.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish 8:38 pm, 24th February 1987

I want to place on record the strong feelings of my constituents about the shambles that the scheme has turned out to be. Over the past three to four weeks, I have had many queries from my constituents about how the scheme was operating in my constituency. I found it extremely difficult to piece together what was happening and to know how best to give my constituents good advice on how they could benefit from the scheme if they qualify for it. I was so concerned last week that I put down a question to the Minister. I hoped that the Minister would give a clear picture of what was happening within the Stockport and Tameside parts of my constituency. In the reply that I received yesterday, the Minister was really saying that he did not have a clue what was going on. He only told me what was happening at a national level.

My constituents are resentful because they believe that the Government have designed the most incompetent rather than the most competent scheme to deal with the distribution. They resent the fact that we have a dear food policy in this country. They recall the period from the 1940s to the 1970s when a cheap food policy operated, ensuring that the consumer paid the lowest possible price, but at the same time the fanner was guaranteed a decent income. They persistently ask why we cannot go back to the type of system that was better for the consumer and benefited the farmer by giving him a guaranteed income. I believe that it is tragic that, because we are tied to the Common Market, we cannot return to a cheap food policy.

My constituents wish to know why the Government did not involve the retail and wholesale trade in the distribution of the surpluses. The benefit books could have been used like ration books. My constituents believe that that would have been the logical approach rather than to leave it to the charities, which already have far too much work to do, to carry out the scheme.

I have no great brief to speak for the supermarkets, but I would certainly speak on behalf of many of the small shops in my constituency. They are especially resentful of the fact that the Government and other Governments within the Community insisted that they could not be involved in the distribution of the food. Corner shops provide a social service for many pensioners and to those on low incomes in my constituency. On many occasions such shops offer credit to people on extremely low incomes and offer a welfare service to pensioners. It is of great resentment to those shopkeepers when pensioners come in to ask them to explain the chaos of the Government scheme and the shopkeeper must point out that he is not involved and has been unable to get accurate information from the charities within the area mainly because those charities' phone numbers are engaged because of the number of people who want to know what is going on.

My constituents resent the fact that the Government have not used the existing distribution system within the country, but have asked the charities to distribute the food. In my constituency, the charities already have more than enough to do because of the social deprivation that the Government have created. The Salvation Army does an extremely good job within the Greater Manchester area, but it does not have the surplus resources that it can suddenly switch to this type of distribution. Nevertheless, it has done an extremely good job in difficult circumstances.

Age Concern in Stockport and Tameside provides excellent services but it does not just have people waiting to undertake the Government scheme. The resources of that charity have been stretched and it has now discovered that it is being blamed by local people because the scheme has failed and because it has not had adequate resources to cope with the scheme. The charity feels extremely aggrieved that the Government have taken advantage of it rather than using reasonable means to distribute the food within the area.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the Government are getting rid of the existing surpluses rather than creating other surpluses? Certainly, those pensioners I have met are pleased when they have managed to get hold of their butter allocation. However, they point out that they will spend less money on margarine for that week and that, in fact, one is moving from one surplus to another. The best solution would have been to reduce the prices of all food and return the country to a cheap food policy.

I stress to the House the bitter resentment of my constituents who believe that the Government have made a shambles of the whole scheme. In future I hope that the Government will fight extremely hard for a cheap food policy in Europe. If any more surpluses are to be distributed, I hope that the Government will use the existing trade system to carry out that distribution rather than impose a burden on charities which many of them are unable to carry.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 8:45 pm, 24th February 1987

I will not delay the House long, but I have a constituency interest that I wish to represent. In Stratford, in the London borough of Newham, there are intervention stores of beef and butter. In the past, certainly before this scheme was introduced, I have often argued in the House that the Government should distribute the beef and the butter to the people of Newham because, according to Department of Environment statistics, it is the second most deprived local authority area in the country. Therefore, we have many worthy cases who should receive such food and could make good use of the obscene mountains of food held not only in Stratford but in the rest of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) put his finger on the mark when he said that we are not knocking the scheme as such, but what we should be debating is how on earth those huge food mountains developed in the first place. The House is aware that they came about because of the absurdity of the common agricultural policy. I support my hon. Friend in arguing for a return to a system whereby farmers were guaranteed a certain income and the market decided the price of food. When farmers, as a result of their efficiency, produced much more, it meant that consumer prices went down. That is a sensible food policy and the Government should consider returning to that policy.

There have been reforms, but when the Minister replies —[Interruption.] I hope that I can attract the Minister's attention. The Minister made great play of the changes that have taken place under the British presidency and the fact that we have a common policy as regards the food mountains. Therefore, I hope that we will not see a continuation of such mountains. I would like a timetable from the Minister that shows when we can expect an end to those huge international stores. Will they be like the poor under Conservative Governments-always with us? When will the obscenity end of these vast quantities of food that people cannot afford?

I am sorry that the Minister found my suggestion that Ministers might like to get to grips with some of the wine rather diverting. My grandmother always liked a little drop of Guinness or gin. I am not aware of the presence of any great gin lakes, but if there are any, I am sure that hon. Members are more than capable of draining them. I feel that we should consider the other food stores that are available in Europe. It may be argued that we are not doing pensioners any favours by lining their arteries with cholesterol-heavy food such as butter and beef. Perhaps we should think about distributing the cereals, because they would be far better for the health of pensioners. However, if the butter and beef is available in Stratford, we will take it.

I am not knocking the distribution of the food, because I have been pushing for that distribution for some time, but I would like to raise some of the points that have been made to me by the charities in the London borough of Newham about the way the system has operated. I am merely acting as a conduit in putting these points forward.

The national organisations are organised locally and there is no co-ordination between them in boroughs such as Newham. No money was provided for distribution. That is important, because I have been told that a number of housebound, disabled pensioners, those on supplementary benefit, missed out on the distribution of food because the food was not taken to them. They had to go to a particular place to collect it. Age Concern in Newham said it would have been far better if the whole thing had been done through local authorities. The local authorities have a great knowledge of the needs of the elderly within the area and through the meals on wheels service they could have made sure that the housebound and disabled got their fair share of the butter and beef.

The Government said that only pensioners on supplementary benefit should receive butter, but a number of organisations, certainly Age Concern in Newham, gave it away to all pensioners who asked for it. It appeared discriminatory between different groups of pensioners to control such distribution and it did cause a great deal of aggravation in the area. Therefore, it was decided to give the butter to any pensioners who came to ask for it.

A number of hon. Members said that it would have been better if the meat had gone out uncooked. 1 hope that the Minister will discuss that when he replies. One organisation in my area gave the meat out uncooked rather than cooked.

I should like to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) on the publicity stunt element. A number of charitable organisations in the borough of Newham felt that it was more of a publicity stunt than anything else. They said that because Newham is a newly rate-capped borough. It is an amazing irony that the Government are saying, "You can have a pound of butter and a little bit of beef," but are cutting the amount of money given by central Government to local authorities. This means that boroughs such as Newham have to look to meals on wheels, one o'clock clubs and home helps as possibilities for cuts imposed by central Government. As my hon.

Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley said, instead of the 1 lb of butter and the bit of beef, it would have been far better if the House had realised that there was no substitute for a decent pension which enabled pensioners to choose what they wanted to eat and drink. Perhaps they would choose more healthy foods than the cholesterol-loaded beef and butter. I am afraid that we shall have to wait until there is a Labour Government to give pensioners proper pensions so that they can make a proper choice.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 8:50 pm, 24th February 1987

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I say to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) that we expect that, by the end of this period, Britain will have spent £30 million of the available £36 million on distribution of food. There is clearly a major programme. I have already spoken to the hon. Gentleman about the problem with the figures. We have carefully considered the ones which he presented, but they do not tally with our direct information on the countries concerned. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am only going by the best figures that I have. If I turn out to be wrong, I shall be happy to apologise to him.

We tried to give out the food as rapidly as possible, so we started with the larger packages. Butter has always been available in small packs. The hon. Member for Pontypridd is probably overdoing it by suggesting that, if we only had another form of packaging, distribution would have been much better. I do not agree. Distribution has been more difficult than it might have been because butter is stored in a particular way. We have done everything possible to make the butter available in forms that would enable the local charities to distribute it.

Despite everything that the hon. Member for Pontypridd and his hon. Friends said, they did not mention that the charities almost without exception believe that we have done as well as could be done in the time available. The Commission produced its first proposals of any kind on Thursday 15 January. We agreed them at 2 o'clock in the morning of the following Tuesday. We did not even have the regulations at that stage, because these matters are within Commission competence, for the most part. Therefore, all our discussions with the charities were carried out as rapidly as possible. We have tried in every way to keep the charities informed of our information. I did as much directly as I could and I do not believe that we could have done it more rapidly or more effectively, given the circumstances. Of course I agree that, after the scheme has finished, we shall have to ascertain whether there are lessons to be learned. I am sure that there are. It is always true that the next time one does something, one hopes that it will be done better. We shall certainly do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) referred to the scheme. The present scheme is all that we have in front of us at the moment. No doubt we shall learn from it. We may decide that it is a sensible approach. It has to be an additional scheme. The trouble with many of the schemes to which my hon. Friend referred is that they were substitution schemes. It is easy for them to be substitution schemes, but I think that my hon. Friend will agree that, even though they do not want to make a huge contribution to reducing surpluses, we want schemes that reduce the food in store rather than merely substitute for foods which would otherwise have been bought.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was less than generous. I say that not because I wanted a pat on the back but because I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman, with his charity, would understand that, if one tries to run a scheme that no one has ever run before and one does so as rapidly as possible, one has to do what one can with the regulations and arrangements to hand. It cannot be gainsaid that more than 20 million packs of butter are either out or on their way to the people who need them. We have what amounts to more than 4 million meals — taking account of the quarter of a pound of beef allocated for each meal—on the way to those who need them. At least one should say that that is good rather than bad.

I felt that there was a good deal of whingeing from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. He spoke in a rather miserable way. He may not like the style in which I have introduced the matter, and I agree that one is sometimes led astray by the far-fetched comments of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. The hon. Gentleman has an effect on me, just as he has on most spokesmen. He tends to raise the temperature of the debate without perhaps throwing light on it.

On the other hand, I think that it would be reasonable for the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland to get off his high horse, especially in view of his curious comment that he would give us, yet again, the alliance view of the common agricultural policy. I thought that the alliance was not referring to the CAP any more, ever since it was rumbled on this matter. We all now know about the CAP. We know what would happen if the alliance ever formed a Government — it would introduce a policy which would be beneficial to almost every country in the Common Market except Britain. The president of the National Farmers Union knows that. Only the hon. Gentleman appears not to know it.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is such a rare experience that it seems unusual. I refer him to the article in today's Financial Times by Mr. John Cherrington, a notable commentator, who speaks very highly of the alliance's policy for the future of the common agricultural policy. He has recommended that those proposals should be given wider study. I hope that, when the right hon. Gentleman has given them wider study, he will realise that there is a great deal in what we are saying.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Whatever Mr. Cherrington may have said, the president of the National Farmers Union said to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) that he knew nothing about agriculture and that his proposals in the Bledisloe lecture, to which Mr. Simon Gourlay was listening, would be disastrous to agriculture. I know of no one who has ever said that Mr. Simon Gourlay was unassociated with the sort of ideas put forward by the right hon. Gentleman, but he blasted them to kingdom come. He listened to the lecture and worked out the figures, which show that the alliance would help 80 per cent, of corn growers in the rest of Europe but only 30 per cent, of British growers. What is more, the right hon. Gentleman told the National Farmers Union what can only be described as a "terminological inexactitude" because he said that the figure of 140 tonnes had never been used. Those were the exact words in the speech of the right hon. Member for Devonport. The hon. Gentleman, when challenged in this House, remained unmoved. I challenge him again. Did he or did he not say that? If so, why did he?

Photo of Mr Ernest Armstrong Mr Ernest Armstrong , North West Durham

Order. We are discussing a humanitarian programme — the distribution of food. We really must stick to the subject.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

I am grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity of countering the accusation that I told an untruth. The reality, as the Minister well knows, is that the figure of 140 tonnes was prefaced by the word "say", and that, furthermore, it was not put forward as a normative proposal. It was produced as an illustrative proposal to show the amount that would be required to remove the entire surplus from the Community. It was rather like saying, "If one reduces institutional prices by 25 per cent., one will dispose of the surplus." Now that we have set the record straight, perhaps—

Photo of Mr Ernest Armstrong Mr Ernest Armstrong , North West Durham

Order. I allowed the hon. Gentleman to reply, but he made a 20-minute speech. We should now get on with the matters before the House.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Perhaps it will be more humanitarian if I do not subject the hon. Gentleman to that point any further, although the temptation is enormous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) made many helpful points which I shall examine and see whether I can help. Publicity is a difficult matter because many of the charities considered that one needs to have an ongoing programme and not to overload them at any time. Certainly, I shall see whether we need anything further of that sort.

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley raised many points. It is peculiar to make allegations that do not appear to have any foundation in the mainland part of the United Kingdom. I repeat that I look forward to receiving a letter from him with details of what hon. Members, in what circumstances and at what times he considers were politically motivated. The food has been distributed in Northern Ireland through Age Concern, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Bryson House, the Salvation Army and one other of the six charitable organisations. Any voluntary or welfare group that wishes to distribute food does so, according to the rules, through that group. I can asssure the hon. Gentleman that, as far as I know, there has been no breaking of the rules, but I shall look into the allegations made by Mrs. Janey Buchan on that matter.

The speech by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was so absolutely without foundation that it is not worth referring to.

In the plethora of comments made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), the only point that he had to make was that his local branch of Age Concern is not as happy as it might be. I do not agree that we should distribute wine. I do not think that the country would want to do that. What we have done is right.

I thank the Ministry officials who have done so much to make this scheme work and, above all, I thank the charities for making it a success.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 114, Noes 160.

Division No. 100][9.1 pm
AYES
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Heffer, Eric S.
Anderson, DonaldHogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Archer, Rt Hon PeterHolland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Ashton, JoeHome Robertson, John
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)Howarth, George (Knowsley, N)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Howells, Geraint
Barron, KevinJohn, Brynmor
Beckett, Mrs MargaretKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Kennedy, Charles
Bermingham, GeraldKirkwood, Archy
Bidwell, SydneyLamond, James
Boyes, RolandLeadbitter, Ted
Bray, Dr JeremyLeighton, Ronald
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Buchan, NormanMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
Caborn, RichardMacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Maclennan, Robert
Campbell-Savours, DaleMadden, Max
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Martin, Michael
Clarke, ThomasMason, Rt Hon Roy
Clay, RobertMaxton, John
Clelland, David GordonMaynard, Miss Joan
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMichie, William
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Cook, Frank (Stockton North)Nellist, David
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)O'Brien, William
Corbett, RobinO'Neill, Martin
Corbyn, JeremyPark, George
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Parry, Robert
Craigen, J. M.Patchett, Terry
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'I)Pavitt, Laurie
Deakins, EricPike, Peter
Dewar, DonaldPrescott, John
Dixon, DonaldRandall, Stuart
Dormand, JackRedmond, Martin
Douglas, DickRobertson, George
Dubs, AlfredRoss, Ernest (Dundee W)
Duffy, A. E. P.Sheerman, Barry
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Eadie, AlexSkinner, Dennis
Eastham, KenSmith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Evans, John (St. Helens N)Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Soley, Clive
Fisher, MarkSpearing, Nigel
Flannery, MartinThompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Forrester, JohnThorne, Stan (Preston)
Foster, DerekWainwright, R.
Foulkes, GeorgeWallace, James
Garrett, W. E.Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
George, BruceWelsh, Michael
Godman, Dr NormanWhite, James
Golding, Mrs LlinWilson, Gordon
Gourlay, HarryWinnick, David
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Young, David (Bolton SE)
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)
Hardy, PeterTellers for the Ayes:
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterMr. John McWilliam and
Haynes, FrankMr. Lawrence Cunliffe.
NOES
Adley, RobertBoscawen, Hon Robert
Alexander, RichardBowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)
Amess, DavidBowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Ancram, MichaelBrandon-Bravo, Martin
Ashby, DavidBright, Graham
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)Brinton, Tim
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Browne, John
Batiste, SpencerBuchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyBudgen, Nick
Bellingham, HenryButcher, John
Bendall, VivianButterfill, John
Best, KeithCarlisle, John (Luton N)
Bevan, David GilroyCarlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnCarttiss, Michael
Blackburn, JohnCash, William
Chope, ChristopherHowarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Colvin, MichaelHowell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)
Conway, DerekHubbard-Miles, Peter
Cope, JohnHunt, David (Wirral W)
Corrie, JohnHunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Couchman, JamesHunter, Andrew
Cranborne, ViscountJessel, Toby
Currie, Mrs EdwinaJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dorrell, StephenJones, Robert (Herts W)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Dover, DenKing, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Dunn, RobertKnight, Greg (Derby N)
Durant, TonyLennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Eggar, TimLightbown, David
Evennett, DavidLloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Fallon, MichaelMaclean, David John
Favell, AnthonyMcLoughlin, Patrick
Fenner, Dame PeggyMcQuarrie, Albert
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyMajor, John
Fletcher, Sir AlexanderMalone, Gerald
Fookes, Miss JanetMarland, Paul
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Maude, Hon Francis
Galley, RoyMeyer, Sir Anthony
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)Neale, Gerrard
Garel-Jones, TristanPattie, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Goodhart, Sir PhilipPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Goodlad, AlastairPercival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Gow, IanPollock, Alexander
Greenway, HarryRhodes James, Robert
Gregory, ConalRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Griffiths, Sir EldonRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Gummer, Rt Hon John SRifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Hampson, Dr KeithRobinson, Mark (N'port W)
Hanley, JeremyRossi, Sir Hugh
Hargreaves, KennethRowe, Andrew
Hawkins, C. (High Peak)Sackville, Hon Thomas
Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Hawksley, WarrenSayeed, Jonathan
Hayward, RobertShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Hicks, RobertShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Hind, KennethShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)Sims, Roger
Holt, RichardSkeet, Sir Trevor
Soames, Hon Nicholasvan Straubenzee, Sir W.
Speller, TonyViggers, Peter
Spencer, DerekWaddington, Rt Hon David
Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)Walden, George
Squire, RobinWall, Sir Patrick
Stanbrook, IvorWaller, Gary
Steen, AnthonyWard, John
Stern, MichaelWardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)Warren, Kenneth
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)Watts, John
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)Wheeler, John
Stradling Thomas, Sir JohnWinterton, Mrs Ann
Taylor, John (Solihull)Winterton, Nicholas
Temple-Morris, PeterWolfson, Mark
Terlezki, StefanWood, Timothy
Thomas, Rt Hon PeterWoodcock, Michael
Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)Tellers for the Noes:
Thornton, MalcolmMr. Richard Ryder and
Twinn, Dr IanMr. Michael Portillo.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House takes note of the un-numbered explanatory memorandum dated 21st January 1987, submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, describing draft Regulations: amending Regulation 1785/81 on the common organisation of the market in sugar; relating to a decision on placing sugar held by the Italian intervention agency at the disposal of charitable organisations for consumption within the Community; on the free transfer to charitable organisations of products processed from cereals held in intervention; and amending Regulation 804/68 on the common organisation of the market in milk and in milk products and Regulation 1842/83 establishing general rules for the granting of milk and certain milk products to students in educational establishments; and endorses the Government's decision to work speedily through charitable organisations to achieve free distribution of beef, milk and certain milk products to the most needy in the United Kingdom.