HC Deb 06 March 1940 vol 358 cc529-34

11.11 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. W. S. Morrison)

I beg to move, That the Potato (1939 Crop) (Charges) Order, 1940, dated 10th February, 1940, made by the Treasury under Section two of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, a copy of which was presented to this House on 20th February, be approved. This is an Order by the Treasury to give effect to a scheme dealing with potatoes of the 1939 crop, following the announcement that I made in the House on 13th December last. There was at that time an anticipated surplus of the 1939 crop. In peace-time the potato producer had the protection of the Potato Marketing Board. Such a restrictive policy would be inadequate in war-time, and consequently that scheme has been put in abeyance for the moment. The scheme which has taken its place, and which this Order embodies, is to raise a levy on the sale of potatoes. The proceeds of the levy are to form an insurance fund to be used to secure remunerative prices. The levy is to be taken into account in fixing potato prices, so that the actual cost of the levy is ultimately borne by the consumer. That need not alarm the House, because, if you take 5s. a ton as the standard it amounts to 1\\37 of a penny per lb. of potatoes. I believe it to be an economic and workable scheme. The staff used by the Department in controlling potatoes is less in numbers and in cost than that of the Potato Marketing Board, and every effort is being made to ensure that the costs of administration are as low as possible.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams (Don Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why a large retailer who makes a purchase direct from the grower and pays the appropriate prices fixed by the Order should be charged 7s. 6d. a ton, compared with a wholesaler who only pays 5s. a ton? We have frequently argued on these benches, in the interest of the farmer himself, that if we can only dispose of some of the intermediaries from agriculture, we may help both the producer and the consumer of agricultural commodities. But judging from the right hon. Gentleman's whole action since the Ministry of Food was established, it seems that, wherever they have been able to do so, they have preserved every known interest between the producer and the consumer. They have either made them controllers, giving them certain financial inducements to take over the job, or have employed everybody they could at a salary; and this is a continuation of that policy.

The right hon. Gentleman may have very sound reasons for wanting to prevent retailers from buying direct from the farmer, and thereby helping the grower—that is, the person who in some cases does render a contribution, but in other cases does not. Yet here we have 7s. 6d. a ton imposed on the large retailer, compared with 5s. imposed on the wholesaler. That seems to be for the purpose of discouraging those who buy for retail purposes in large quantities, and who are often willing to pay the growers better prices than the wholesalers do. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us why he discourages direct purchases from the farmer by imposing this extra duty?

11.17 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts (Cumberland, North)

Might I supplement that question by asking which of the trade organisations have been consulted with regard to this scheme? I am a little confused as to the effect of these schemes in regard to potatoes at present. There have been a number of orders made, under several schemes, and I would ask whether the wholesalers' organisations and the organisations representing the retailers, have been consulted, and whether they have agreed to this scheme. There has been a great deal of changing about with regard to the potato trade, and it seems important that the good will of the trade should now be retained.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson (Farnworth)

Might I refer to the Minister one or two questions which have been put to me during the week-end? I do not profess to know anything about the subject; but the right hon. Gentleman suggested that the cost would ultimately fall on the consumer, and I have always held that opinion, but a potato merchant said to me last week that there was a revolt among the merchants because they were being called upon to pay a 5s. levy and the price was not being adjusted in order to cover that 5s. He also put this point to me, which I pass on to the Minister. I can understand some change being necessary in war-time, but this merchant suggested that under the old Potato Marketing Board 7½d. an acre had been considered sufficient to find the finance for that particular aspect of the work, and that eight tons per acre would not be too big a crop to expect. At 5s. a ton, that works out at £2 per acre. Like the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), I want to know whether anyone has been consulted; or is this likely to lead to a revolt among the people who are being called upon to pay this 5s.?

11.20 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I am sure the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) will not expect me at this late hour to launch into the general question he has raised as to how far it is possible to prevent schemes of this sort from displacing from their normal employment those who are engaged in the distributive trades. The answer to his question with regard to retailers is that the present control scheme carries on one feature of the Potato Marketing Board's scheme, which was that those who deal in potatoes are to be licensed so to do. Those who were granted licences by the Potato Marketing Board were most of them wholesale merchants. Others were the large retailers to whom the hon. Member has referred. I may usefully answer what the hon. Member asked about consultation. Practically all the parties concerned with the proposal now before the House have been consulted, and the representatives of the large retailers agreed that in their case the 7s. 6d. rate was reasonable in view of the fact that their costs are lower than those of the wholesalers. Their costs are lower, and therefore the total cost to the consumer as between the two classes is not any greater. The prices which are fixed take into account this levy, and consequently when you compare the finance of this scheme with that under the Potato Marketing Board—the hon. Member mentioned the figure, and I accept it, of 7½d. an acre—it will be recalled that under the Marketing Board's scheme the main protection to the potato grower was restriction of output secured by a levy on excess acreage and the use of the riddle which excluded from consumption a certain size of potato. That restriction has gone by the board, and this scheme is put forward as a better alternative for securing a remunerative price for the potato crop as a whole.

Sir Joseph Nall (Manchester, Hulme)

My right hon. Friend has not answered the point raised by the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson). If a larger proportion of the potatoes grown are to be sold than was the case in the days of the riddle why should 5s. or 7s. 6d. be levied to cover the cost of administration when 7½d. an acre was the figure to which the Potato Marketing Board worked?

Mr. Morrison

This is not merely to cover the cost of administration but to provide a fund so that if there should be a surplus growers will be assisted in dis- posing of the potatoes by means of the fund.

Mr. A. V. Alexander (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

May we have an asssurance from the Minister of Food that the prices now set out by the sale of the balance of the 1939 crop will not be exceeded? Is it intended that this Order or this part of it shall be final?

Mr. Morrison

The Order before the House imposing the charges is regarded as the final solution of this problem.


"That the Potato (1939 Crop) (Charges) Order, 1940, dated 10th February, 1940, made by the Treasury under Section two of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, a copy of which was presented to this House on 20th February, be approved."

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.


Resolved, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. James Stuart.]

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.