HC Deb 11 April 1938 vol 334 cc744-6
27. Captain Arthur Evans

asked the Minister of Agriculture whether he is aware that the Potato Marketing Board has recently been using its power to buy surplus potatoes for the purpose of purchasing potatoes which were not of the lowest marketability, and therefor not genuinely surplus, in order to withhold them from the market in the hope of forcing up prices; and whether his approval has been sought for this purpose?

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. W. S. Morrison)

The Potato Marketing Board are empowered under their Scheme to buy surplus potatoes, which are defined so as to include any potatoes, irrespective of quality, that in the opinion of the Board are not likely to be required for human consumption. By virtue of these powers the board have in recent months bought a limited quantity of potatoes with the object of preventing market prices from falling to unduly low levels. The board have not sought, and are not required to seek, my approval of the exercise of their statutory powers in this connection.

Mr. Holdsworth

Is it not the fact that so many potatoes have been kept off the market that they have caused an artificial price, and that the question of supply and demand is not considered? Would it not be of benefit to the poor people of this country if they could get the potatoes that were available at the lowest possible price?

30. Mr. Rostron Duckworth

asked the Minister of Agriculture what is the quantity and variety of potatoes of the current season's crop purchased by the Potato Marketing Board; and what are the districts in which the purchases have been made?

Mr. Morrison

In reply to an earlier question by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cardiff South (Captain Evans) I have explained the circumstances in which the Potato Marketing Board have purchased a limited quantity of potatoes of the 1937 crop. The hon. Member will not expect me to ask the Board to furnish for publication particulars of the actual quantities purchased, since publication might prejudice the object which the Board have in view. I understand that the potatoes are of the Majestic and Doon Star varieties, but mainly the former; and that purchases have been made in Scotland and the Eastern district of England and, to a smaller extent, in the Northern, South-Eastern and Western districts of England.

Mr. T. Williams

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House who determines what is a reasonable price for potatoes?

Mr. Morrison

The board is exercised to try and keep prices from falling to unduly low levels. This year the price to producers was 40 per cent. lower than that of last year, and the retail price 20 per cent. lower.

Mr. Holdsworth

Is it not the fact that last year prices were absolutely exorbitant, and should not this House be given the information which is asked for in this question? How are we to judge whether these prices are fair if we are not to have the necessary particulars?

Mr. Morrison

I do not agree that prices last year were exorbitant.

Sir P. Harris

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that secrecy is a justifiable way of looking after public interests by a public board?

Mr. Morrison

Parliament gave this board power to transact these commercial transactions, and it would be unfair to interfere with their commercial transactions so as to destroy the very object for which the board was set up.

Mr. Holdsworth

On a point of Order. Are we not entitled to have these figures if we ask for them?

31. Mr. Duckworth

asked the Minister of Agriculture what are the present capital resources of the Potato Marketing Board; and what is the maximum sum that can be borrowed by the board to finance its operations, including the speculative purchase and sale of potatoes in the open market?

Mr. Morrison

The last published and audited balance sheet of the Potato Marketing Board, showing the position at 31st August, 1937, disclosed a surplus of assets over liabilities amounting to £121,376, against which there were certain contingent liabilities in respect of research and experimental expenses. Of this sum £109,908 represented the cost price of investments, the market value of which was £103,543. The remainder of the surplus was represented by land and buildings, furniture, etc., and liquid assets. With regard to the second part of the question, the board are empowered to borrow money for the purpose of exercising any of their functions under the scheme on such terms and such security as they may be able to arrange.

Mr. Alexander

May we take it that the board will be in a good financial position to meet any losses on the sale of the surplus stocks they are purchasing?

Mr. Morrison

I think they are in a good financial position, and that they are conducting their operations with great prudence.

Captain Ramsay

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these questions arise from the potato merchants, and would it not be better for them to co-operate with the board?

Mr. Holdsworth

Is not that an ex parte statement?