HC Deb 25 April 1947 vol 436 cc1494-504

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Michael Stewart.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Collins (Taunton)

I wish to raise the question of the present position and future development of British horticulture, which, apart from its economic aspect, is so vitally important to the health of the people of this country. I think it can be claimed that no other single factor within our control could, if properly developed, contribute so much improvement to the health of our people. No doubt the House will be aware of the assurance given by the Minister of Agriculture on 27th January that, although it was not possible to deal with horticultural produce by means of guaranteed minimum prices in the same way as the main agricultural products mentioned in the First Schedule to the Agriculture Bill, steps would be taken to give the growers of fruit and vegetables the same general advantages of assured markets at prices which would ensure a reasonable return to the producer. That was very warmly welcomed.

It is vitally necessary for horticulturists to have the same confidence in the future as is shared by the producers of main agricultural crops. At the moment, the industry is suffering from a lack of confidence due to the lack of any concrete proposals by the Government, and also to the fact that there are signs, such as the differentiation of treatment in the Town and Country Planning Bill, that sections of the horticultural industry are to be sacrificed to other interests. This lack of confidence should be very quickly dispelled, and I hope that when my hon. Friend replies he will give an indication of the steps he proposes to take in order to implement the assurance given on 27th January, and at the same time give a clear indication that he fully appreciates the importance of this branch of agriculture. 'In my view, its importance is not generally appreciated. In 1939 the value of horticultural output was n3 million, 15 per cent. of the total agricultural output. Last year it was£120 million, or 20 per cent. of our total production of home grown food. The prewar acreage was 600,000 devoted to horticulture, and last year it was 858,000 acres. Within that increase there was an increase in the acreage under vegetables from 250,000 to 500,000 acres. Glasshouse acreage has increased from 3,200 to 4,200. While top fruit acreage has remained stationary, soft fruit has, unfortunately, decreased from 4,000 to 2,000 acres. The prewar flower acreage was 13,000 and is now about half that amount.

Those last two categories require very special and urgent consideration. I feel in regard to flowers, particularly, that the present position of controlled and limited production at home, although it is unavoidable, should not have to compete with free importation of flowers from places which are not suffering the disabilities the home producer has to suffer. The total numbers employed in the industry today amount to 200,000 and besides forming a most important link between town and country, and industry and agriculture, they produce a far higher output per man than in any other branch of agriculture.

We must, therefore, do everything possible to maintain, and, as soon as possible, expand this production, for it is certain that it will play a far greater part in the future than it has done in the past. We have to devise a system which is flexible enough to ensure a reasonable return to an expanding industry without excluding or penalising the foreign producer to such an extent that the consumer is at any time left without sufficient supplies. That is the objective at which we should aim. We have also to keep a close watch on the costs of distribution so as to ensure that as much as possible of the price paid by the consumer gets back to the producer.

In achieving this objective we should divide the various types of produce into two main categories. The first consists of those products of which the home producer can supply the full demand. This applies to all the main crop vegetables, with the possible exception of onions. It is in the national interest that conditions should be created which will enable the home producer to supply that demand. Given the right sort of encouragement and the requisite information as to the probable short-term and long-term requirements, I am convinced that the horticultural industry can provide the extra 100,000 to 150,000 acres of vegetables which will be needed. Cornwall has, in a few years, increased its horticultural production to an annual value of£5 million. It could probably double that figure and could utilise land which, in my view, is at present seriously under-farmed. It could easily step-up production in this department and avoid the necessity for the largescale imports of vegetables which at the present time are selling at such exhorbitant prices. British horticulture has never been subsidised as an industry, and the consumer has never been subsidised to eat horticultural produce. I am not suggesting that there should be subsidies, but the industry needs to be told what is required of it, where it is going, and how it is to get there.

The second category we must consider includes the types of produce such as lettuce, tomatoes and fruits, where the whole or main part of the demand can be supplied during what we know as the season, and where the demand could also be supplied, in part, during out-of-season periods. An effort should be made to provide an assured market during the season, and to lengthen the out-of-season period, as far as possible, by various means. That will help during times of glut. The development of quick-freeze and the provision of additional gas and cold storage accommodation is a vital necessity, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what proposals the Government have under these heads, in particular, whether any priority can be given to at least a limited construction programme now. There is also an urgent need for consideration to be given to the requirements of the glasshouse industry which is capable of considerable expansion, but which cannot be maintained, even at its present size, because of the large amount of equipment, timber and glass, particularly glass, which is needed, and of which there has been no replacement during the war. Is the Minister aware of this need? Is he aware also that the need for machinery such as tractors, lorries, cultivation and irrigation equipment and boilers is as great in horticulture as in the rest of agriculture?

It is quite impossible for the necessary expansion to take place, and for our people to compete with foreigners, unless this equipment is available, and unless the present stringency in the supply of materials for packing is relaxed. The most important question, and the one on which I hope we shall receive some reassurance, is the steps which the Government propose to take to provide assured markets. We are all aware that discussions are taking place at Geneva on the tariff question. Therefore, though it may be impossible to give any kind of detailed reply. I hope, however, that it will be possible for the Minister to give a general indication of the intention. Will the present tariffs be retained and, if so, will they be adjusted upwards to allow for the changed value of sterling? Is it proposed to apply the quota system to imported produce at certain periods of the year? What action will be taken in the event of a particularly heavy crop, for instance, of plums? Is it proposed to have a combination of these methods or is some totally different method to be introduced? I accept the position that it is impossible to have guaranteed minimum prices for perishable produce where the date and quantity of the supply alike are uncertain. I hope that we shall get an indication of the main plan which has been decided upon.

Can the Minister also give an interim assurance that in order to avoid recurrences of such things as the lettuce disaster of last year, and similar happenings, no absolute reliance will be placed on a limited field of advice such as was the case last year, but that there will be the widest possible consultation on all occasions when dates have to be fixed for cessation or resumption of imports? Can we have an assurance in respect of flower imports? I hope that the Minister will tell us something of his views on the costs and methods of distribution, which is one of the most vital factors in the future of the industry. We all know that every year lettuce and green-stuff is ploughed in by the grower because it is producing nil returns at a time when prices are still high in the shops. The only way to cure this is to-find a means of fixing a maximum retail profit margin which the retailer must not be permitted to exceed. If larger supplies come on the market, then he would be bound to purchase larger quantities and pass on the benefit of lower prices to the public This would permit markets to clear and give a better average price to the grower.

I made a comparison, over the last three months, of wholesale and retail prices in London, from the books of my own firm, and the results were startling. For example, savoy cabbage, which was 9d. a lb. on 8th March, was retailed at Is. a lb. On 15th March the wholesale price had dropped to 4d. but the retail price was still 1s. a lb. The wholesale price of cabbage throughout February varied between 2½d. and 4¾d. per lb., but the price in shops remained steady at is. a lb., showing a profit of between 200 and 350 per cent. Swedes cost 2d. a lb. in late February and were sold in the shops cheaply at 4d. a lb. They were very dear on 27th March at 4d. a lb. in the shops when they cost a lb. in the market.

That is an intolerable situation which must be remedied. Whilst the Minister is looking at it I hope he will have a word with his colleague the Minister of Food, on the iniquitous and quite unnecessary practice of permitting two wholesale margins on all controlled im- ported and home-grown fruit and vegetables. It is time that this mess was tackled, and dealt with effectively. It is utterly wrong that I, as a wholesaler, should be able to make three profits as an importer, a first-hand salesman and a wholesaler. This problem has existed for about 20 years and it is time that it was dealt with.

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Eastern)

Is there not something to be said for removing all controls and freeing the market?

Mr. Collins

Yes, I agree, provided that supplies are adequate. At the moment, I would rather not go into that question. I would also like to ask the Minister what positive help and encouragement is to be given to growers in the setting up of marketing associations and grading and packing stations? I believe that the industry could, and should, do a great deal in this matter of its own volition. A very great deal more could be done if a definite policy was announced. In no field would this be more helpful than in fruit growing. Fruit is a long-term crop. The grower must be able to look ahead. He must be able to plan ahead with the knowledge that the results will come. Meanwhile, he must keep his fruit trees sprayed, pest-free, and pruned. He must be given an indication that marketing conditions and prices will be fair and will repay outlay. The grower cannot plant fruit trees unless he knows what the future will be. I submit that this is a vitally important matter concerning 200,000 men in an industry which has an annual- output value of£120 million, which may be increased substantially.

It concerns the health of our people. They badly need more green vegetables. In order to expand, this industry needs guidance, leadership, the stimulation of a real plan, and confidence on the part of the growers. We have in the horticultural industry a vital and vastly important part of the food producing machinery of the country. It can play an ever increasing part in providing food, health, happiness and prosperity for our people. It needs to plan ahead, and at present that calls for some equipment, a little help, and concrete assurances for the future, and it needs them now. I hope we shall get an assurance about these things this after-noon.

4.16 p.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) has done good service to a fine and rapidly growing industry by the speech he has delivered. On behalf of hon. Members who are not present—although present in spirit—except for my doughty champion below the Gangway the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby), I wish to support the pleas the hon. Member has made. I have a number of growers in my own constituency and in the neighbourhood where I live. For the information of hon. Members who are not familiar with the industry, I would like to say that every word of the hon. Member can be substantiated.

We have in the horticultural industry what may be called "factory farms". We have a highly intelligent type of employer making in some cases a very large turnover. A friend of mine told me that two years age he had to pay£67,000 in E.P.T., and that shows the size of his work. We have also a very intelligent type of worker on very good terms with his employer, and an industry which can hold its own—I am talking of the Scottish, Welsh and English industry—with similar industries anywhere in the world. What we need—and the hon. Member brought it out well—from this Government or any other Government in office is the assurance, as far as it can be given, that the industry will be given as reasonable a chance in the future as it has had, it is true, during the last few years but as it did not have before the war.

Another favourable thing about this industry, with its large employment, is that on the whole relationships between employers and employed are excellent. The other day I had the pleasure of attending, partly at my own suggestion, with another colleague representing the county of Sussex, a private conference consisting not only of the N.F.U. but of members of the agricultural workers' unions, particularly of the horticultural branch. We had a most friendly discussion about the present and future of the industry, and decided to resume these conferences at half-yearly intervals. I mentioned on that occasion that if I had an opportunity to do so I would rise in this House and ask for exactly the assurances which the hon. Member has requested should be given. I hope we shall have from the Minister a very friendly response to the appeal which has been made from both sides of the House.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. Collick)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) for raising this very interesting discussion on the future of the horticultural industry. As the House is aware, the Government in its Agriculture Bill, which has just passed through the Standing Committee upstairs, has made provision so far as the main agricultural products are concerned for guaranteed prices and an assured market. The proportion of the products which are covered by the Agriculture Bill represents something like 75 per cent. of the total value of the whole of our agricultural production. It is perfectly true, of course, that guaranteed prices and an assured market do not cover horticultural products under that Bill. The reason for that is the fact that the price-fixing machinery which is suitable for the main agricultural products is quite unsuitable for horticultural products which vary so much, which are seasonal and which are highly perishable, and, quite clearly, the Agriculture Bill itself is not suited to that purpose. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister has given an assurance that the Government are equally concerned to see that on the horticultural side of the industry there is stability and, as far as they can be obtained, fixed prices of some kind. The problem is how these are to be obtained. Anybody who knows the industry will realise the difficulty of the task. As I see it, it is practically certain that an important part of this matter must be the development of the marketing of home produce, with provisions for packing stations and such like, as has been suggested. But, let us be quite clear about this; I am sure the industry itself has a fair amount of thinking to do on this problem. We are not yet in the state where anybody has produced a perfect plan for the marketing of horticultural produce.

It is true that the producers' organisations have now completed a marketing scheme for tomatoes, and I understand that there is a scheme for marketing apples which is getting to the stage when it may be possible for it to be submitted to the Government for consideration. In so far as the industry is able to formulate its own marketing proposals, the Government will give them careful consideration. In addition to that, however, the Government have under consideration their own proposals for assisting the development of an improved marketing scheme for horticultural produce, but it is too early yet for me to say anything precisely about what that scheme will be. However, it is a matter to which we attach importance and it is one which will have the fullest consideration.

Then, as the House will know, there is another Committee sitting. It will be remembered that a little while ago the Government appointed an independent Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Lucas, and I understand that the producers' organisations have made submissions to that Committee. We shall have the advantage of that Committee's Report, but no one can anticipate its nature and whether it will deal with this problem or not. It certainly has under consideration the Marketing Acts generally, and I think the producers' organisations will be interested and waiting to see what emerges.

I want to give the House the assurance that the Government are fully aware of the importance of this matter and I agree with many of the things that my hon. Friend said. He also mentioned the question of quick-freeze. There again anybody who is in touch with scientific development knows the prospects for quick-freeze. Inevitably, by virtue of the war, we are relatively behind in this matter, for we have not been able to devote time and study to it to the same extent as have certain other countries. Nevertheless, we are endeavouring to give the matter attention, as my hon. Friend probably knows, because the Minister of Food made a statement in the House recently on the Adjournment Debate, when he indicated some of the things that are being done, as well as the plans for 1947 which private industry has in this regard. He also indicated the volume of fruit, and so on, which it might be possible to handle by quick-freeze.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the tariff position, and referred to the present conference going on at Geneva. I am certain that neither he nor the House would expect me to refer to that matter now. Sufficient to say that the Govern- ment are, naturally, very well aware of the importance of this matter to horticulture, and we shall not overlook these considerations when the Government are deciding on the matters arising at Geneva. But I do think we ought to make it quite clear that, so far as the vegetable producer in this country is concerned, in this matter of tariffs he is in no worse a position than he was before the war. As my hon. Friend will know, the import programme is decided as a whole, and it is true that, in the case of vegetable production, the position is not worse than it was before the war. There is, of course, this great difference. We in this country have suffered such a prolonged and severe winter, and inevitably it has reacted on the vegetable crops. Last Friday in the House I was talking about the effects of the winter on hill sheep and cattle, and so on, and the effect was equally severe on vegetable crops. We lost more than half of our broccoli crops. It has interfered considerably with vegetable production, and even the hardiest of our cabbages, the savoy, has gone down under the severity of the weather this year. It is against the background of that situation that the open general licence has allowed a greater freedom of importation than otherwise would be the case.

Mr. Collins

Would my hon. Friend allow me to make a small interruption? I am sure horticulturists appreciate that the present conditions have required ab-normal remedies, but they are concerned to see that as soon as more normal weather conditions come about, the position will certainly not be worse than before the war and that there should be an adjustment in the tariffs to cover the differences in stetling value.

Mr. Colliek

I am not unappreciative of that point and, naturally, that will be taken into consideration. My hon. Friend touched on the subject of flowers. He will know that the position was that there was no flower importation until this winter, and even then arrangements were made only for those sorts of flowers which were not capable of being produced in this country at that time.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge): rose

Mr. Collick

I am sorry, I cannot give way now, in view of the time. I am certain there is great scope in this country for the horticultural industry. I agree with the noble Lord that the industry has made extraordinary headway. But there is the opposite end of the pole. Horticulture varies enormously. We have a highly concentrated modern production in horticulture, but there is also a very large section of the industry which is in the hands of small producers. As my hon. Friend said, the acreage under horticultural production in this country today is much greater than it was before the war.

Earl Winterton

It is one of our new industries.

Mr. Collick

Yes, it is one of our newer industries. Even in Cornwall, I think, the prewar figures were about 4,000 acres, and I believe that today Cornwall has something like 11,000 acres under horticultural production. From my conversations with numbers of horticulturists, I am sure they have thought they have been very neglected in the past. But I think I will be doing them justice when I say that today horticulturists do realise the Government are, at least, doing something in this matter. The relationship between the horticultural industry and the Ministry today, I think I can say, is certainly not less harmonious, to say the least, than it has been hitherto, and I look forward to seeing in years to come horticulture playing its proper part in this country. Do not let us forget that we are moving towards conditions of full employment, and, therefore, full earning power; and, to the degree that we have full earning power in industrial towns and cities, so obviously there is a greater market for our horticultural products. Therefore, I say that the horticulturist has no reason to be discouraged, but he can look forward to continued progress.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTYSPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November, as applied by the Order made upon 12th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.