To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met representatives of farming unions to discuss the state of the agriculture industry.
I meet representatives of the farming unions frequently to discuss agricultural matters. For example, I have met many of them from different parts of the country, including the president, on various occasions in the last fortnight alone.
I am aware that in some sectors of the industry there are problems of declining incomes, and that others, such as the pig industry, also have real difficulties —although that is the case throughout the European Community. On the other hand, some sectors have experienced improvements in incomes in the past year or so, and in one or two earlier years. The overall picture is not one of declining incomes.
Obviously there have been pressures as we have dealt with the reforms of the CAP—which the hon. Gentleman, I think, agrees are necessary—but in this year's price negotiations we secured a better outcome on green currencies for the United Kingdom than for any other country, and it will come into operation on 1 January. That of itself will add £120 million to United Kingdom farm incomes.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is genuine concern among British farmers that our green pound may not achieve parity by 1992? The fear is that if it does not do so by then some Socialist Eurocrat may decide to freeze values as they are, in which case it would never do so. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the farmers that he will maintain pressure for devaluing the green pound?
Yes, I can. As my hon. Friend knows, the Commission and the Council have both committed themselves this year to the phasing out of MCAs and their elimination by 1992. I have made it clear that I strongly support that, and that I do not believe that there can be a proper single market in agriculture unless it is done. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall use every appropriate opportunity to continue working to that end.
I was by no means alone in making some strong criticisms of the Commission's current proposals for a direct income-aid scheme. Many other Ministers, including those from some of the bigger countries, also chimed in with different criticisms. I believe that the current proposals would not be cost effective, are not directed at the right ends and do not fulfil all the conditions that we were asked to carry out.
Will the Minister inform the House of the present position on his promise that he would work towards the elimination of pigmeat MCAs? Is he aware of the proposals now being ventilated in Europe concerning changes in sheepmeat and beef regimes, which would result in serious agricultural conditions in Northern Ireland? Will he keep in mind that feed stocks for the intensive sector in Northern Ireland are now soaring almost out of control, and that the intensive farmers are in great difficulties?
I argued strongly, and with some good arguments, for the elimination of pigmeat MCAs as quickly as possible. There was still a blocking minority on that, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that, as a result of the changes that we did secure, pigmeat MCAs will be down to zero on 1 January if sterling remains at its current level. That is a big change from a negative MCA of 28 points only about 18 months ago.
On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the proposals have just been presented to the Council. We had a brief discussion about them earlier this week and I believe that it will be a long negotiation. I shall certainly be fighting hard for all the United Kingdom's legitimate interests.
On the third point, the particular problem has been the American drought and its effect on soya, which has had an effect on feedstuffs for the intensive livestock sector—a problem that exists throughout the EC and elsewhere. I understand the problems that that unfortunate element is creating for our producers.
When the Minister met the farming unions' leaders, did he discuss with them the Commission's proposals to abolish the sheep variable premium and the consequential increase in the ewe premium? Will he confirm that the ewe premium will be based on a European, not a British, level, and that many farmers will get only half as much as they are expecting? If that is the case, how will the Minister ensure that we keep sheep farming in the hills and keep the areas attractive for people to enjoy and live in?
As I said earlier, I think that we shall have some complex negotiations on the sheepmeat proposals. There were criticisms from many sides, so I suspect that we shall see changes as they go through.
However, it is early days to be sure about that, as we have had only the most preliminary reactions. It is clear that budgetary discipline has to apply to the sheepmeat sector as to any other, and costs have been rising considerably. However, within that overall requirement, I am determined to ensure that we secure the best possible arrangements, which may well include the continuation of the variable premium. We have still to negotiate that. I am determined to ensure that we secure the best possible arrangements in the new regime for the United Kingdom sheep producers.
From time to time there have been problems in ensuring that the Milk Marketing Board conforms with Community requirements, but, as far as I can recall, the main issue in that respect does not arise from the EC, but may follow from a court case in Northern Ireland, on which I cannot comment because it is sub judice. That is the issue to which the Milk Marketing Board may have to address itself before too long.