HC Deb 02 December 1932 vol 272 cc1202-12

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a, Second time."

1.54 p.m.

I think that a glance at the contents of this Bill will reassure hon. Members that its scope is not so revolutionary or widespread as its short title might lead anyone to expect. It deals only with one special and even specialised, industry; but, neverthless, the representative composition of the hon. Members who are backing it should show, I think, that the matter is of some moment in the great industrial area of Merseyside. The object of the Bill is to allow a drawback on quota payments on the flour content of exported bread of the kind whose older name is ship's biscuit, in the same way in which a drawback is allowed in the case of exported soft bread.

I think I should say, in the first place, a word or two about the nature of the cabin bread industry. The more romantic days, in which great sailing ships took on board a store of ship's biscuits, which had to last them for the whole voyage, have now passed away, because of the practice of baking soft bread on board ship, but the industry still continues, and exports great quantities of cabin bread to British West Africa, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, where it forma a staple food of the native populations. Until trade depression and native boycott —symptoms unfortunately not confined either to this trade or to that particular Continent—began to do their work, it was growing, and in 1929, which is the last good year, as one may say, 4,474 tons of cabin bread were exported to British West Africa. When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Birkenhead (Lieut.-Colonel Sandeman Allen) raised the question of a, drawback on this industry in the later stages of the Wheat Act, the right hon. Gentleman the late Minister of Agriculture felt that he could not alter the decision that he had made when an Amendment was raised asking for a drawback on the biscuit export trade in general, which is of course a very different thing. At that time, on 17th March, he said, in reply to the hon. Member for West Bermondsey (Dr. Salter): If we assume that these biscuits contain an average of 75 per cent. of flour the cost of flour in a ton of biscuits is at the present price between £6 and £7. With this raw material the manufacturer makes a product which has been exported in recent years at £125 a ton."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, March 17th, 1932; col. 488, Vol. 263.] Of course, with such a large profit it seems that a drawback on the quota payment would not mean a very great deal where such figures obtain, but those figures do not in any way apply to the cabin bread industry, because the content of flour in cabin bread is never less than 90 per cent., and lie price that they command is only £20 to £24 a ton, which is a very different figure from that of £125 a ton. The extra cost of the quota pay ment on every ton of cabin biscuits for export has been worked out to be about £1 6s., which may not seem a very severe tax, but it is quite enough, in the view of the industry, to make it impossible for them to compete successfully against the French manufacturer, who is our keen rival and who is granted a drawback by his Government. So that this trade will pay a quota on a very high percentage of the flour that it uses, and it is entirely dependent upon an export trade which is keenly contested by a rival who is not only not handicapped by his Government but is actively assisted. The position has been fully recognised by those who know anything about the industry, and, at a meeting of the Association of British Ohambers of Commerce, at Noftingham, on 29th September last, the following resolution was unanimously carried: That this meeting calls the attention of the Government to the severe handicap to the export trade of cabin bread (ship's biscuits) by the omission from the Wheat Act, 1932, to provide for drawbacks from the commodity, and urges the Government immediately to introduce amending legislation to put our manufacturers on a legislative par with their foreign competitors. The Bill is simply designed to avoid this severe handicap. With regard to the actual drafting of the Bill, I would just say that Clause 2 (a) provides for the same privileges of a drawback on cabin bread for export as are now allowed in the case of exported soft bread. If you allow the principle of a drawback on the flour content of exported soft bread, there is much more reason to allow it in the case of cabin bread, because cabin bread is baked so hard that the natural moisture of the flour is baked out of it and on every sack of 280 lbs. 20 lbs. is actually lost. In the case of the baking of soft bread, moisture is added, so there is a gain of 60 lbs. in the flour content of a sack of the same amount of flour. Therefore the quota payment falls more heavily on the cabin bread manufacturer. That is the reason why at the end of that Sub-section it says: The amount of the repayment in respect of a hundredweight of cabin bread shall be equal to the quota payments payable in respect of a !hundredweight of flour delivered on that date. Hon. Members will recollect that I said the flour content is about 90 per cent. in cabin bread, but this provision allows for that loss which inevitably occurs in the baking. Paragraph (c) in the same Clause leaves the definition of cabin bread to the Minister. The question of a definition is extremely difficult, but I do not believe it is impossible, because as I have pointed out, this is a very specialised industry. I do not think I need apologise for bringing in a Bill dealing with a matter which I know is not of national importance. The ruin or prosperity of the industry is not going to make or mar Budgets, but it seems to me that in these days no export trade should be completely disregarded, although an export trade of 4,000 tons, as it was in 1929, is something. There may be Bills of much wider scope, such as the one we have been discussing earlier to-day, but I felt that, if I was fortunate in the ballot, given the sympathy of the Minister of Agriculture, who has most courteously told me why he could not be here to-day, I must do what I could, knowing the facts about the industry, to avoid its possible elimination or, if that does not actually happen, at least the adding of hundreds of unemployed to the register in an area which unfortunately already comes under the heading of depressed.


I beg to second the Motion.

2.2 p.m.

This is a very important matter as regards the Merseyside. I do not think the omission was deliberate, but it ought never to have taken place. The Minister, when dealing with the matter, had not taken notice of an old trade well known to all of us on the Merseyside. Cabin bread is altogether distinct from the ordinary biscuits which are a delicacy of the table. The trade has been developed for very many years, and, if it went out, it would be very bad for Liverpool. There is a danger that manufacturers will be compelled to discharge many of their employés. It is because I feel that no injustice, but rather a benefit, will be done by allowing the Bill to pass that I make this appeal to the House. All parties are interested in the economic condition of the country and the provision of work for the workers. I am convinced that the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Toxteth (Mr. Buchan-Hepburn), in bringing forward the Bill, has done a really good turn. It deals with an omission which should never have been left out of the Wheat Act. The Bill will be a, real blessing on the Merseyside, and I hope that it will meet with general approval.

2.6 p.m.


This is one of those very simple Measures upon which very little speaking is required, but it is as well to emphasise what my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for East Toxteth (Mr. Buchan-Hepburn) so very clearly brought out when he moved the Second Reading of the Bill. It may be true that it is not national in the sense that the manufacture of cabin bread does not take place in every part of the country, but there is many an industry which, though only carried on in certain parts of the country, has a national interest. I submit that this is really a national matter, although a small one, because it deals with trade between us and our colonies. It is very important that we should at all times, and particularly at the present moment, hold every bit of trade that we may have with our Colonies, and develop it. The spirit of the nation is all in favour of it and Parliament has emphasised it very strongly. This is trade with West Africa, and our competitors are the French.

Some of us have just come back from Paris where we have been discussing the dangers and difficulties in connection with our shipping industry because of the uneconomic subsidies granted by other countries. We feel that a stand must be made, and we have been successful to a certain extent in persuading other nations to see that those uneconomic subsidies are an interference with trade. Here we have the case of a subsidised industry of a foreign country competing with an industry without any subsidy which has been carried on for many years in. this country. The subsidised industry is competing in our own market, in our own Colonies in West Africa. That is the point I wish to emphasise to the House. I feel that, if it is realised, the House and the country will be in favour of this little action in the Bill.

I am certain from what took place at the time—and I have some knowledge of it—that the real position of this particular industry was not grasped. It was evident that it was jumbled up in people's minds, and at times like that when big questions are in front of the Government one does not always fully appreciate these things. I would not like to say that there was anything wrong in what happened. It was merely one of those incidents where, in dealing with a big question, a small thing like this is not observed in the same way as it is afterwards. Had an alternative name been introduced instead of "ships' biscuits" the position might have been noticed. To-day the whole matter has been brought clearly before the House, and I have no hesitation in strongly supporting the Measure. There are many other points which might well be developed, but I do not think that it is at all necessary to do so. From the points which I have emphasised and which have been brought out by my bon. Friend and colleague who moved the Second Reading and by my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. Logan), hon. Members will see that there is no controversy on the matter, and that it is merely a question of getting the Bill through.

2.10 p.m.


After the admirable and lucid exposition which my hon. Friend the Member for East Toxteth (Mr. Buchan-Hepburn) gave to the House in introducing the Bill, I really feel that there is hardly any need for any further arguments. I only rise to emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for West Derby (Sir J. Sandeman Allen) in his concluding sentence, that there is unanimity in this matter in all parts of the House. I would like to add with reference to what fell from the lips of my hon. Friend the Member for East Toxteth when he referred to the absence of the hon. and gallant Member for West Birkenhead (Lieut.-Colonel Sandeman Allen), who is absent to-day for reasons which we all regret, that my hon. and gallant Friend and colleague would otherwise have been here and taken part in this discussion, having taken great pains and trouble in finding out all the facts and going into the matter in a very thorough manner.

This is the sort of Bill which we may expect to come into this House following some of these big changes which have been made in our trading relationships. I suppose that there is no Bill which be comes law which does not, in fact, have some results and repercussions of a kind which are not foreseen and not expected by those who promote the particular legislation. When big changes are made in commercial policy, it must inevitably happen that there are points of substance which are overlooked at the time, but which it is the duty of Parliament to correct at the earliest possible opportunity. We have already seen many results of recent legislation which have had repercussions which were certainly not intended by Parliament or even by the promoters of the Measures in question. I hope that the Government, in regard to this Bill, will give it a sympathetic reception, and that it may be a happy augury for the other Bills which may reach the House in due time for the treatment of other matters of a similar kind by means of regulation or otherwise which are causing, or likely to cause, an inconvenience to the general trading community and a loss of our export trade in many directions which was neither seen nor intended when the legislation was promoted.

The hon. Member for East Toxteth said that this was a national matter. Indeed, with the export trade as it is, and the necessity of maintaining the balance of trade, even the smallest volume of export trade is a matter of the very gravest moment and importance. I hope that we shall hear from the Parliamentry Secretary to the Board of Trade that they are able to give this matter their careful consideration with a view to eliminating the difficulty which has arisen and which, as 'has already been pointed out, is not merely affecting the profits of a firm but is likely to affect the employment, at, all events, of some hundreds of workers on the Mersey side and in other parts of the country where this manufacture is carried out. I hope that we shall hear from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade that the Measure is to be received favourably.

2.13 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel HENEAGE

I wish to ask the representative of the Government, or the hon. Member who has moved the Second Reading of the Bill, whether the position of British agriculture will be adequately safeguarded if the Bill is passed? It is within the recollection of the House that British agriculture is going through a very hard time at the moment, I suppose one of the hardest times it has ever known. In fact, the House may be interested to know that the Minister of Agriculture is at the present moment visiting one of the most distressed areas of arable agriculture in North Lincolnshire, and for that reason he is very sorry that he cannot be here at the present moment. What I am a little anxious about—and I do not think, though I have not heard the whole of the speeches, the matter has been explained—is whether the Bill will have any effect whatever on British agriculture. If there is to be some rebate of quota payments it is possible that, it may discourage, to a certain extent, the use of British wheat in other parts of the country. I should like that point explained because things are so ticklish and so bad in the arable districts that any slight burden which this might put upon British agriculture would add to the difficulties.

May I just put these problems forward? If there is a rebate on quota payments under this Bill, and I understand they use a very concentrated form of flour which, I hope, they mix as much as they can with British flour, will the money have to be made up by increased payments on a loaf of bread that is used in the industrial towns? That is the first question I wish to put. If that is not so, how are the payments under this Bill to be made up? Are they to be made up by a decrease in the payments that would be made to the British grower? If that is intended I, for one, would be most heartily opposed to this Bill Thirdly, can the promoters of the Bill say whether if this Bill is not passed there will be any decrease in the use of British flour for this cabin bread? Of course that is an entirely different side of the picture, and I hope that, if the promoters of the Bill are not allowed to reply, we may have some answer from the Government Bench on this subject. I can only reiterate that the conditions in arable culture are so bad that we cannot afford even the slightest risk of putting further burdens on British agriculture.

2.17 p.m.


My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture deeply regrets his inability to be present on the occasion of this Measure coming before the House, but perhaps the House will grant me indulgence in making reply. The hon. Member for East Toxteth (Mr. Buchan-Hepburn) certainly need make no apology for bringing in any Bill which deals with export trade in any way, and I entirely concur in the observations that have been made as to the importance of doing everything in the power of this country to preserve our export trade. May we just look at the matter a little more broadly than has emerged from the speeches of hon. Members on this Measure. The Wheat Act, which obliged the payment of a quota, contained drawback provisions. Those drawback provisions were limited to flour that was exported or shipped as stores, and were not intended, in the first instance, to apply to manufactured flour at all. During the passage of the Measure an Amendment was introduced to deal with the special conditions of the Northern Ireland trade in bread. Requests to extend that concession to other products of manufactured flour, including the very product we are discussing now, namely, ships' biscuits, were considered and refused.

Representations have been made since the passing of the Act that manufacturers of ships' biscuits in Liverpool have been affected adversely by the limitation of the drawback provisions, and it is affirmed that, in particular, the trade with West Africa has been adversely affected. That, of course, is a pure question of fact. We must ascertain what the exports of this cabin bread amount to, the countries to which those exports are consigned, and find out whether, in point of fact, that trade has been reduced or has increased, and, if it has been reduced, whether it is due to foreign competition or not. It will be appreciated at once that to alter the definition of flour in respect of which a drawback of a quota payment could be obtained might open a floodgate of exemptions to all produce of manufactured flour, and I was not surprised to find in the proposal brought forward by the hon. Member with such charm this afternoon, that the definition of what is to be cabin bread was to be left to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. I am not sure, when the promoters of the Measure themselves find a little difficulty about selecting a definition, that it does not mean it is extremely difficult. First, one has to distinguish cabin bread from ordinary bread, and if you call cabin bread a type of biscuit, you have to distinguish the cabin bread from an ordinary biscuit as well, and there is very considerable administrative difficulty about finding a definition which would admit the point of view for which the hon. Member asks, and not admit a great deal else besides.

The West African natives, who sometimes have strange likings, have developed a liking for this cabin bread, and that, of course, is the reason for the Bill being brought in, but the information at the disposal of the Ministry of Agriculture rather tends to show that the import of foreign Chips' biscuits into the colonies has not increased at the expense of the British exporter. That is a matter of fact to which the promoters of the Measure will no doubt direct attention. The attitude of the Government must be that the case for special treatment of this particular trade has not been made out, but that the Government have no wish to oppose the Second Reading, though no undertaking can be given that facilities can be provided. With regard to the points mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Louth (Lieut.-Colonel Heneage), the total sum in dispute is approximately £1,000, so that the making up of the quota payments from other sources need not unduly disturb him.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3.

Adjourned at Twenty-two Minutes after Two o'Clock, until Monday next, 5th December.