HC Deb 08 March 1933 vol 275 cc1307-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.8 p.m.


I make no apology for raising, briefly, the question of the price of oats in so far as it applies to Scotland. Before I say anything else, perhaps I may be permitted to comment upon the somewhat remarkable fact that the official Labour opposition have just thought fit to record a vote against the desirability of raising the price of wholesale commodities for the benefit of the primary producers of this country.


And did so deliberately.


My hon. Friend may have done so deliberately, but I do not think he will get many of the farmers in Scotland to share his views. The reason I am raising this question to-night is that the other day the President of the Board of Trade admitted, in answer to a question, that the wholesale price of German oats as quoted in this country was very nearly half the wholesale price of oats marketed in Germany itself. When I put a further question to him upon that, his answer was: I have no power to prohibit or control the importation of oats into this country. As regards the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, East (Mr. Boothby), he was informed in answer to a question on the 22nd February that the oats imported in 1932, showed as consigned from Germany, were not of German origin." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1933; col. 161, Vol. 275.] I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what difference it makes to the Scottish farmer whether the oats sent from Germany to this country and marketed at a wholesale price of something like half the price of those oats in Germany, were actually grown in Germany or not. I would further like to ask him for the details of the treaty which prohibits or prevents him and the Government from taking steps to control or to regulate the importation of oats into this country. We have just been presented with a Bill by the Minister of Agriculture, and under the terms of that Bill the Minister takes power to control or regulate the importation of foodstuffs and of agricultural products into this country except in so far as he is prevented from doing so by existing commercial treaties with foreign countries. I ask the right hon. Gentleman what good he thinks that Bill of the Minister of Agriculture will do to Scottish farmers if it can be plausibly represented by the Government that we are prevented, by those very foreign treaties to which the Bill specifically refers, from putting the Clauses of the Bill into operation in the one or two pressing cases which, we all know, are the only cases in which substantial benefit can be derived by the Scottish agricultural community? The export of oat products to this country is known and admitted by the Government to be State-aided by foreign countries.

The first question that I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman is, what steps have the Government taken to counteract that known and admitted fact that oat products are actually State-aided by the Governments of Europe, and are imported into this country under those conditions? In regard to the export of oats, I have obtained an admission from the Government that the wholesale price in this country is only about half the wholesale price in Germany. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if his attention has been drawn to a statement in the market news of Hamburg that it is the intention of the German Government deliberately to subsidise the export of oats as well as of oat products at the end of this month? I do not know whether there is anything in that, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he knows anything about it, and if so, if he proposes to take particular action in the matter? All we know is that during last January, 18,000 cwts. of oats were imported from Germany, as against none in January of last year.

The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State know perfectly well the position of the Scottish farmer at the present. Taking it all over, he is an arable stock farmer who depends for his existence upon beef and oats. Unless he can get a reasonable price for those two commodities, he will be gradually, steadily and remorsely forced out of existence. Those two commodities are the basis of Scottish agriculture. This House has brought particular and special assistance to the English farmer in respect of wheat and beet. In the North of Scotland, at any rate, neither of these products can be produced with any reasonable expectation of a profit. We got in at the last election on pledges to do something to assist the Scottish farmer as such. My right hon. Friend knows as well as we all know that these two commodities are the basis of Scottish agriculture. What steps does he propose to take to implement the pledges that we gave at the last election so far as Scotland is concerned?

It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of the North of Scotland is seething with indignation, especially as a result of the very cavalier replies which have been given on this subject by the President of the Board of Trade, who certainly gave the House the impression that he not only proposed to do nothing, but did not want to do anything in regard to this vital question. I do not wonder at the feeling of Scottish farmers on the matter. The Government have been in supreme power for 15 months. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman what has been done during that time for Scottish agriculture as such? I have not been able to see any results—




We heard a great deal at the last election, and we have heard a great deal ever since, about these foreign trade agreements which were to be so beneficial to agriculture and all other industries in this country, especially as regards Europe. We were to use the new weapon of the tariff to force our way into these European markets; we were to use it as a bargaining weapon to obtain reductions in our favour, and also to obtain reciprocal trading agreements which would be of advantage to both sides. Precious few of those agreements have been arrived at up to date. The patience of Scotland is not unlimited, and, unless something is done for Scottish agriculture—which means oats and livestock—and done fairly soon, Scottish agriculture will enter into a decline, and no one can say when it will begin to fall out of that decline. If that is the case, then the prognostication of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we shall have at least 10 years of the existing unemployment will prove to be true indeed.

11.18 p.m.


I desire to support the plea that my hon. Friend has put forward, particularly in relation to oats. There are other pressing questions, but I desire to press this question particularly. I agree with my hon. Friend that the feeling at the present time in the North of Scotland is very strong, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman either to say that he will definitely do something towards restricting or prohibiting foreign imports, or to give us the reason why it is impossible to take such steps. The present position is most unsatisfactory, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that not only the Northern Members of the House, but farmers in Scotland, are extremely dissatisfied with the answers to questions which have been received in this House from the Government. I. would also assure him that I, at any rate, and Scottish farmers, will not be content with being put off in the sort of way in which we have been put off. The Under-Secretary just now, in an interjection, mentioned potatoes. It is true that a duty has been placed upon potatoes, but there again the price is not a remunerative one. It is a well known fact that we can produce in a normal year all the potatoes that we require, and we can also produce the oats that we require. I am now referring especially to oats, and, in view of that fact, it seems to me to be an astounding state of affairs that we should tolerate the importation of oats into this country by means of veiled subsidies. We are throwing people out of employment when we know that the main object of the Government is to endeavour to keep people in employment. I trust that the Secretary of State will give us a satisfactory answer, and that the Government will endeavour to do something about the matter.

11.20 p.m.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir Godfrey Collins)

The two hon. Members who have spoken have very properly raised a, matter affecting their constituents—the tragic situation in which so many farmers find themselves through the low price of oats. If I am unable to give them the satisfaction that they desire it is not through any lack of sympathy with their cause. The House of Commons last year decided to set up an Import Duties Advisory Committee for the express purpose of considering such cases as my hon. Friends have put to me this evening. The Committee was set up by a large majority, said that its members could hear the case and receive written representations from different associations and bodies that are represented here and elsewhere: Their case has been before this committee for three months. It would be highly improper for me to make any comment upon whatever decision the committee may decide in its wisdom to bring into effect. I am sure that if my hon. Friends found themselves in my position they would fall back upon the very proper Parliamentary statement that this committee is to perform the very purpose which my hon. Friends want me to perform; to inquire into the case of the present price of oats and oat products. That must be my answer to them. The hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) thought fit to make, as I thought, some unfair comments upon the administrative action of the President of the Board of Trade. Since my right hon. Friend held that office, he has not been backward—I might put it much more strongly. He has used his knowledge and business experience to safeguard the interests, not only of farmers but manufacturers, and on the Floor of the House and in the rooms of the Board of Trade and at Ottawa for many weeks, he worked to safeguard the interests of this country. During the last few months, as my hon. Friend must know, he has been occupied weekly and daily and nightly in carrying through, we hope to success, these trade negotiations with other countries. It takes time for these negotiations to be carried to a successful conclusion.

My hon. Friend asked me whether it made any difference to Scottish farmers whether oats came here from Germany or elsewhere if they came at a low price. It makes no difference whatever from what country they come if they come at too low a, price. He went on to speak of the German export subsidy. The system at present in vogue in Germany differs in some degree from that which was in force a year or two ago. I understand that the system is that an exporter in Germany exporting, say, one cwt. of oat products is given a certificate entitling him to import an equivalent quantity of oats duty free. The certificate may be sold, and the probability is that if oats are being imported in quantities equivalent to the oat products exported, the certificate would have a value approximating to the amount of the duty on the cwt. of oats. I think, therefore, that the hon. Member will agree that the system presently in vogue is in the nature of a drawback. I say nothing of the new system to which the hon. Member referred, with regard to which I will have inquiries made at once in view of his having drawn my attention to it. Let me remind him, not on oats, but on some other products in which he has taken a very active and powerful interest, that the advantages of a drawback have been pressed by him upon the Government and upon successive Governments.


Does the right hon. Gentleman really think the Scottish farmer is interested in the German method of subsidising oats?


If it was a bounty a new question would arise. I suggest to my hon. Friend that the present system is in fact not a bounty, but a drawback.


We do not mind what you call it.


In negotiating these matters with other countries we must come down to the actual facts of the case. Let me remind my hon. Friend of the amount of oat products which have come to the shores of Great Britain frail Germany during the last two years. In 1931 the total quantity was 26,000 cwts. In 1932—the latest figures available to me, although the hon. Member mentioned the figures for January of this year, which are not yet in my possession—the figure was 87,000 cwts. Having regard to the vast consumption in this country—although I readily admit that a. certain quantity thrown on to the market at a particular place and at a particular moment does affect the price—we have to take the broad view as to the total quantity of oats coming into this country and must not be unduly influenced, however much we may sympathise with those who suffer at a particular moment, but must have regard to the total quantity coming in and shape our policy accordingly.

The request for an increased duty is presently before the Import Duties Advisory Committee, and if and when that committee comes to a decision a new situation arises, it will be highly improper for me to ask this Committee to act in one way or another, or even to act quickly. When this House entrusts these very arduous duties, these very difficult duties, to a body of men, the least this House can do is to extend to them that confidence which the House has always extended to those who take up a very unpleasant task and carry it out.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'Clock.