Peter Mills – 1978 Speech on Food Production

Below is the text of the speech made by Peter Mills, the then Conservative MP for Devon West, in the House of Commons on 30 June 1978.

I am grateful for this opportunity of saying a few words about another important subject. Having saved the Government as the only West Country Member here on the important issue of Northern ​ Ireland, I am pleased that I can turn to an important subject about which I know a little more.

I declare an interest in farming and meat plants. When we think of the Government’s responsibility for food production, there is one word that is crucial to agriculture and its future. It is the word “confidence”. It is more important than many other words. In the last three or four years, confidence has been sadly lacking under this Government.

Food production is of major importance to the country. About two-thirds of our temperate food is produced here. It is easy for some folk to think that we can rely on food from other countries, but this has real dangers. One has only to look at what is happening in Australia, where there is a severe shortage of production, to see that that attitude is wrong.

If we want home-grown food, we must have a confident British agriculture industry. The Government have a responsibility for such matters. How can we expect further investment in British agriculture without long-term confidence? As I hope to show, many aspects of Government policy have had a serious effect on confidence in British agriculture.

Farmers would like to hear the Government trumpeting the value of home-grown food as much as they trumpet the value of home-grown oil. We hear much about home-grown oil and its advantages to the balance of payments. What about trumpeting the value of home-grown food?

Consumers are not aware of the position that British agriculture is in. There is lack of confidence. The effects of the green pound are serious to the pig industry. My message to consumers is that if they want British food we must have a healthy and confident agriculture industry. They might have to pay a slight increase in price sometimes, they might have to pay for some storage costs, but in the long run that is better than being held to ransom by world shortages.

What are some of the major fears which stem mainly from the Government’s policies? They are fears which produce a real lack of confidence. First, there is the fear of taxation. Under a Socialist Government farmers have experienced fairly heavy taxation. There are also the problems of the capital transfer tax and the capital gains tax. The Government have made some efforts to help in that direction, but the effect on farms and small businesses is serious.

Extra insurance contributions are to be imposed. That will not help confidence on the part of the small business man, let alone British farmers. One of the most serious articles that I have read in an agriculture paper appeared in the Big Farm Weekly. Under the heading

“Our future role—AMC Chairman”

it stated:

“The main purpose of lending by the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation in the future may be to help the purchase by other farmers of land which some owners will have to sell in order to pay their taxes.”

That is a most serious matter. Indeed, if there is anything that would sap confidence, it is a statement such as that. I am not blaming Mr. Glyn, the chairman, one little bit for making those remarks. What I am saying is that the Government should not, through taxation, sap confidence in this way.

Then there is the proposed wealth tax. Nothing could reduce confidence more than this. I wonder whether the Minister and the Government realise the effect of a wealth tax on British agriculture. Certainly my party would never introduce this, and such an assurance from the Government would indeed restore confidence to agriculture. If we had this tax, it would be a real body blow.

What about land nationalisation? The Minister of Agriculture himself said the other day that the Government would not be introducing land nationalisation in the life of this Parliament. True enough. But what happens if there is a Socialist Government next time? I am pretty certain that a wealth tax would be on the cards then, and I believe that the farming community should beware.

Then what about future needs in production? The lack of any firm guidelines from the Government has weakened confidence in the future. The National Farmers’ Union is quite right when it says “We want to know what is wanted from us in this country as regards food production.” The National Farmers’ Union would, of course, like to see “Food from Our Own Resources” brought up to date. So would I. I think it is only ​ fair and right that this should be done, so that we know where we are going. Perhaps the Minister will be able to answer, even at this late hour, what exactly the position is as regards bringing “Food from Our Own Resources” up to date, so that the farming community knows exactly where it stands.

All these things which I have mentioned weaken confidence. I believe that it is the duty of any Government to see that confidence is restored by dealing with these matters.

I turn now to the food industry and the processors. The relationship between the processing industry and agriculture is very close, because 70 per cent. of United Kingdom agricultural production is processed before it reaches the consumer. It is therefore important that, before any major decisions are reached on agricultural policy or a review is made of the current position, the interests of the food manufacturers are taken fully into account. I believe that the Government have a major responsibility, because the food manufacturing industry has serious problems.

The profitability of food manufacturers has been severely eroded over the past four or five years through price controls.

I speak frankly. The Conservatives were certainly not free of criticism in these matters. One has only to look at profitability when the Conservatives were in power to see that the damage started then. But something needs to be done. The slight improvements that we have had in 1975, 1976 and 1977 have now been completely eroded by the Price Commission legislation introduced on 1st August 1977.

I believe that, because of the position of the food processors and manufacturers, consumers are very much at risk, and this is very undesirable. Again, the Government have a real responsibility in these matters.

I now turn to the poultry industry. More and more consumers are turning to poultry meat, and it is extremely important that the industry is not only profitable but has fair treatment. The poultry meat industry is one of the rare sections of agriculture that has to stand on its own feet. It does not get a lot of help, and at present it lacks confidence. Something ought to be done ​ to help the poultry meat industry to restore its confidence.

What do we find when we look into the problems and difficulties of the poultry meat industry? We find that the industry is facing considerable expenditure in adapting to EEC requirements of inspection. The United Kingdom industry did not oppose this. Indeed, it has gone to great lengths to co-operate in regard to these standards. But fundamental to this support was the requirement to have parity with the poultry meat industries in the Community. That is not happening, and this is why the industry is in serious difficulty. It is causing lack of confidence.

It is true that the Government are now prepared to make about £1 million available to help with the cost of training the poultry meat inspectors. Although we recognise the value of what the Government are doing in this respect, what is required is parity with the poultry meat industries in the Community. I hope that the Government will deal with the anomalies and disadvantages from which our poultry meat industry suffers. Representatives of our poultry meat industry have told me that it is small wonder that the industry doubts the Government’s good faith in their protestations of an intention to protect and promote the industry’s interests. That is a very unpleasant thing to say, but the Government should have discussions with representatives of the industry and try to allay the doubts and fears which exist, because it is important for the consumer that in the long term the industry is stable and viable.

The Government have a major responsibility for the present state of the pig industry. The National Farmers’ Union is right in pointing to the Government’s failures in this respect. Numbers and profitability are down. Worse of all, Community farmers are gaining a much greater share of the market. I recently toured a very well-organised farm at Dorchester. Its killing-out percentage is 70, with a 3·2 to 1 conversion ratio. However, despite all the knowledge and skill available on the farm and the good-quality pigs, the farm was losing about £1 a pig. How British farmers must hate the headline in the Big Farm Weekly which said

“German pig herd is set for a boom”.

​ I did not join the Common Market to see the Germans, the Danes and the Dutch taking a larger share of our pig-meat market. The Government should have done more to help the pig industry in its difficulties, particularly with the composition of the monetary compensation amounts. It is not only the pig producers who are affected but the processing industry, which produces bacon and tinned hams and other products, and jobs are at stake.

I therefore hope that we shall hear from the Minister that he intends to redouble his efforts to save our pig industry so that those working in it can be assured that they will have a profitable job. The problems of the pig industry demand and deserve great attention from the Government.