HC Deb 17 May 1950 vol 475 cc1349-60

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

9.58 p.m.

Captain Duncan (South Angus)

I make no apology for raising in the last half-hour of today's Business the question of the prospects facing the soft fruit industry in the coming season. In the time at my disposal I shall be able to deal with only two kinds of fruit, raspberries and strawberries. I will give the facts, I will warn the Government of what I believe to be the very serious situation affecting the industry, and I will offer suggestions by which the serious position which is arising can be remedied.

Before the war the acreage of strawberries was about 24,000 and of raspberries about 17,000. During the war, no planting was allowed because very considerable quantities of other crops were grown by orders from the agricultural executive committees and so the acreage went down. At the end of the war, the industry was encouraged to get back to its pre-war acreage. In 1947 the Minister of Agriculture said, in dealing with the Agriculture Act, that the Government fully recognised that there is a substantial range of products, particularly horticultural crops, which are not covered by the provisions of assured markets and guaranteed prices, although they are, in fact, subject to the efficiency test under Part II. I want to make it clear that it is the Government's intention that the general objective in Clause 1 shall apply to the industry as a whole, and they fully recognise that other means of obtaining this object for these other products must be devised."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 631.]

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Captain Duncan

In the issue of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland's Notes for Farmers, dated 1st January, 1947, it was stated that the Ministry of Food and the Department of Agriculture for Scotland hoped that growers would not only maintain the present acreage of soft fruits but would do everything in their power to increase it at the earliest possible moment. It went on to say that it would be a national asset if we could become self-supporting in soft fruits.

What has the industry done? As far as I can gather, the acreage this year for both fruits is up to the pre-war standard. The industry has thus done its bit, having gone on planting and increasing its acreage and having now got back to the pre-war acreage. However, the Government do not seem to have done anything to encourage the industry in the marketing of the crops. Price control came off some years ago. The Ministry of Food is now getting out of the business of buying and trading in pulp. Tariffs have been lowered and open general licences for pulp given and there is only limited control during certain periods of the year on the imports of fruit. The situation now is that the growers have done their stuff and there is a serious danger that they will not be able to market their crops at remunerative prices.

As regards tariffs in the case of fruit, the importation of raspberries is not controlled at all. That is not at the moment regarded as serious because raspberries do not normally carry very well. I would ask the Minister to watch the air importations from abroad which may have an effect on the price of imports which arrive. That is, however, not an important point.

Under the Ministry of Food Regulations an importation of 2,500 tons of strawberries is allowed between 1st June and 31st July. That was announced in the Ministry of Food Press notice dated 12th February this year. It has been said officially by Government spokesmen that there always has been a shortage of strawberries and that this will not affect the selling of the crop. Growers are not at all satisfied with that and they are not at all satisfied with the level of the tariff because the tariff rate has not been altered since before the war. It still is 1½d. a lb. or 10 per cent., whichever is the less, from 1st April to 15th June, and from 16th June to 30th June it is l½d. a lb., a specific duty only, and from 1st July to 31st July it is 3d. a lb. which is exactly the same as the pre-war rate. With the modern prices and the modern price level and costs of growers, that tariff rate is insufficient and I suggest that it should be raised to 4½d. a lb. so that the 2,500 tons to be imported should not undercut the price structure for the strawberry market this year.

The arrangements made under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is commonly called G.A.T.T., included provision for raising the tariff on imported strawberries to 4½d. a lb., which has never been carried out by the Government. That arrangement still exists in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The most dangerous thing from the point of view of price structure this year is the importation of pulp, the price of which really masters the price structure for the entire industry. Last year 3,280 tons of raspberry pulp and 4,000 tons of strawberry pulp were imported. I understand that the raspberry pulp has been absorbed into the channels of trade and that the Ministry of Food has not any of that on its hands. I understand also that the Ministry of Food has still 3,000 tons of strawberry pulp on its hands and has only been able to get rid of 1,000 tons of it by sending this back to the Dutch from whom it was bought. I would like confirmation of those figures from the Minister when he is replying.

Pulp, unlike fruit, can be imported at any time of the year, and if there is not a proper tariff structure to support our price structure there is a grave danger of undercutting the market price structure for this industry. The tariffs for pulp have been reduced. In 1932 when the original Tariff Act was passed, and when I first came into this House, the tariff was 25 per cent. ad valorem. It is now 9s. a cwt. or 15 per cent. for both strawberries and raspberries, whichever is the lower. We maintain that this is inadequate for the present price of growing and to maintain the price structure which we desire for these fruits.

On top of that there is a difficult situation with regard to the existing stocks of pulp in the hands of jam manufacturers and canners. I have no idea what those stocks are, and I hope the Minister will give me the facts when he replies as to the amount of jam and pulp in the pipe line because I have not been able to collect them. I know there is an enormous quantity of poor quality jam in the hands of the jam trade. Not only the jam manufacturers but the wholesalers and retailers are all stocked up with this 20 per cent. inferior war-time standard jam. Until that is cleared off, this heavy weight of jam on the market, on top of all the other things, will have the effect of depressing prices still more so that there is a serious situation for these growers.

I could say a lot about the canners, about tin plate and so on, but all I shall say is that it has been brought to my notice by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) that foreign canned raspberries, bilberries, cherries and strawberries from Holland, packed in 15-ounce and 30-ounce cans in 13 per cent. syrup, and in some cases 20 per cent. syrup, are being offered in competition with our canned fruits of a similar description which, by law, have to be packed in 40 per cent. syrup. That is an additional difficulty in view of the shortage of sugar and is also a further difficulty to the canners in taking the additional fruit.

I think that on the whole I have shown to the satisfaction of the House that a very serious prospect faces the industry. It employs more labour per acre than any other section of agriculture. One of the disturbing features is that if prices begin to drop below the economic level, there is no method of holding them until they become suicidal. It is my duty, therefore, to warn the Government of the serious outlook for the industry in the next three or four months and to urge them to do something to remedy the position which faces the industry.

I always try to be constructive, and I want to offer to the Government a few suggestions by which they could, at any rate, alleviate the situation, if not save it. The first is—and I have raised this matter by question and answer—to increase the fruit content of jam. The present fruit content is 20 per cent. Assuming that another 20 per cent. is sugar, the other 60 per cent. is goodness knows what—probably turnips. Before the war there were two standards for jam; the best contained 38 per cent. fruit. Let us try to get back to a higher standard of jam, which, at any rate, would give the housewife better value for her money.

Secondly, more attention should be paid to the quality of imported canned fruit, particularly its syrup content. My third suggestion is to raise the tariffs to levels which are more commensurate with present price levels, to ensure profitability in the industry. Fourthly—this suggestion is entirely my own, and I hope that it will be considered—the Import Duties Advisory Committee should be reinstated. This is an impartial body, above party, which would look into the right level of tariffs.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

Would not that require legislation?

Captain Duncan

No, Sir Charles. It is already provided for in the Import Duties Act, 1932, and, as I understand it, would not require any legislation. That Committee would be a body to which growers, wholesalers and everyone could go, in order to ensure a fair deal for the growers and that the right level of tariffs could be reached. This step would also provide some satisfaction to the housewife, who is complaining of the present high cost of fruit and vegetables. It would be some satisfaction also to hon. Members opposite, who, according to this evening's Press, have been discussing the matter at the Labour Party meeting this morning.

My last suggestion is that in dealing with the question of tariffs there need be no difficulty about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. There are a number of Articles which deal with the horticultural industry. I will read only one, Article XIX: If any product is being imported into the territory of a contracting party in such increased quantities or under such conditions as to cause or threaten serious injury to domestic consumers in that territory of like or directly competitive products, the contracting party shall be free in respect of such product…to suspend the obligation in whole or in part or to modify the concession. We all know that lowered tariffs in respect of fruit were a concession towards the liberalisation of Europe, but here we have a situation in which those concessions are likely to injure the prosperity and profitability of an important industry which employs a great amount of labour. I hope therefore that the Government will not hesitate, if they cannot do it straight away, at any rate to raise it as the next meeting which takes place at Torquay. Above all, I want to appeal most earnestly to the Government to act now. It is no good waiting until Torquay in September, when the damage will have been done. I appeal to the Government to take action, now to ensure the continued profitability; of this industry, which means so much, not only to my constituents, but to many constituents in England and Scotland as, a whole.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Baker White (Canterbury)

In the few minutes at my disposal I am very glad to support my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan) and to confirm, from the other end of Britain, the grave disquiet there is among soft fruit growers over the Government's import policy. If the statements which have been made by this Government and the previous Government mean anything at all, their desire is to see an expansion of soft fruit production in this country. I am sure that the Minister of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary want to see that happen, but it can only come about if the industry is given some sort of stability and some sort of certainty on what the future holds for it.

Planting of soft fruit is a very expensive task, more expensive than it has ever been and it is a long-term task with the grower getting little or no return for the first two or three years. On the long-term issue, we are committed to what is known as the liberalisation of trade and, so far, the effects of liberalisation on the soft fruit industry have been almost wholly unfavourable. Plums and tomatoes are examples. I think tomatoes are called fruit and not vegetables. Tomato growers had a sharp lesson, especially in the Channel Islands.

I have not time to go into the question of the periods of suspension on open and general licences, but, speaking generally, the criticism can be levelled against them that the periods of suspension are either too short, or are arranged in such a way as to allow the home market to be filled up with foreign produce, very often of attractive appearance but of inferior quality, in the days and weeks immediately preceding the arrival of the home product.

My hon. and gallant Friend has shown what can be done to meet the immediate situation, but the real long-term answer must lie in the conference at Torquay. The Government will then be given an opportunity to make revisions in the present scheme, revisions which can be based on experience over the last 12 months and what I expect will be the unpleasant experience of the next few months. Those revisions should have one major aim, to ensure fair supplies to the consumer and a proper standard of reasonable prosperity for the British agricultural industry.

10.17 p.m.

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

I must say that at one stage, perhaps at one or two stages, in this short and interesting Debate, I thought perhaps the object of the exercise was hastily to put the other side to some nonsense we had, on the other extreme, from an hon. Member yesterday afternoon. I would say to the hon. Members who have raised this question that we must be a little careful not to exaggerate the story, or, from the producer's point of view, we shall spoil such cases as there may be.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) rather suggested that the effect of liberalisation of trade proposals so far had been wholly unfavourable to the growers of soft fruit and that the periods of suspension allowed the market to be filled up with inferior foreign produce. Any examination, of the results with tomatoes if you like, or any other of the crops mentioned tonight, over the past two years, and over the last year in particular, would not support that assertion at all.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield. Heeley)

What about asparagus?

Mr. Brown

It is no good the hon. Member sitting there muttering. The facts are against him.

Mr. Roberts rose——

Mr. Brown

I am sorry, but time is too short to give way.

Mr. Roberts

The hon. Member did refer to me particularly.

Mr. Brown

I would be quite prepared to give the evidence if we had more time, but there is nothing to show that imports of these fruits have broken the home market or have seriously clashed with our own supplies. About some of them there was some argument, but for the most part the extra periods do not depart very much from the import arrangements made in 1946 after consultation with the industry. I seriously suggest that it is possible both to overstate and to understate in this respect. I have had some interesting documents from producers, merchants and preservers about the jam industry and the fruits concerned with it. They all make a point which has not been made here this evening, and that is the importance of our producers doing their own job. There is this comparison, for example, with the pulp that comes from Holland, the condition in which it is available, and the way in which it is much easier to boil so that it stays whole in the jam, with some of the stuff we have put on the market.

Instead of exaggerating whatever truth there may be in our case, we ought to go out of our way to say to our own producers that they themselves, first of all, by the quality of the stuff they put on the market and then, by their own processing and marketing arrangements, should take good care to see that there is no weapon in the hands of other sections of the trade for suggesting that our own home-grown produce is not as good as it ought to be. I think that everybody who is keen about the home-grown fruit industry will agree that there is considerable room for improvement there.

Let me now deal briefly with the points made by the hon. and gallant Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan). He quoted an assurance which my right hon. Friend has given, and which has been repeated many times, that it is our desire to see the same stability and the same security, and to have the same assurances, for the non-guaranteed product as for the guaranteed product. I repeat, that remains the aim of His Majesty's Government, and we accept that, in co-operation with the industry, other means of carrying it out must be found. Whatever there may be in the fear of the hon. and gallant Member that prices might change in the future, there is nothing in the history of our dealings with raspberries or these other crops in the last year or two to suggest that up to now we have not played our part.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that while the industry has played its part, hitherto the Government have not done anything. I would suggest that since we freed the market prices have been extremely good indeed, and that there is no evidence that we on our side have fallen down compared with what the industry themselves have done. I will not go through the prices; I gather the hon. and gallant Gentleman does not dissent.

I agree that the acreages have gone up since 1947, when we made the announcement, and for soft fruits generally we are at just about the pre-war figure. I think we shall be above next year. For strawberries we are above the pre-war figure; for raspberries not quite; generally speaking we are above the pre-war figure. I think that shows that producers have so far felt that the market was theirs if they entered it, looked after it, and took care to serve it.

Captain Duncan

I am facing the future.

Mr. Brown

The hon. and gallant Gentleman may be facing the future, but I have observed that the party opposite are never happy unless they can be miserable; and if they cannot be miserable about the present they have to get into the future.

What we must examine is whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman is being afraid with or without good reason. He mentioned the question of fruit pulp. I recognise that that is obviously a very big issue. There is no question that up to the middle of 1949 all the home and imported supplies we could get were not sufficient for the market, but since the middle of 1949 there has clearly been a change. The public demand for jam has fallen off somewhat. Last year we had a very big strawberry crop and there were big strawberry crops elsewhere. There was a change. We came to the conclusion some little time ago—all these things take time to come into effect—that we ought, therefore, to cease the arrangement of the Ministry being the importer of foreign pulp. So, as from June this year, we are discontinuing these arrangements, and the Ministry will not thereafter be the importer of pulp. It will come under open general licence arrangements and the general commercial arguments will apply.

On the question of tariffs in regard to this and other fruits we have had a case made out by the producers' unions in this country, as the hon. and gallant Member knows. We have said that we would consider the case if and when it came to us. It has now come and it is for us to consider the case made out and what, action could or should be taken about it. I do not think that the hon. and gallant Member would expect me to say anything more about it at this stage as we have so recently received the case which is now being considered.

On the question of pulp, in the light of the changes we have made in the arrangements and the somewhat limited stocks—I cannot give the hon. and gallant Member the exact figures for which he asks—the position is that we do not think the stocks now held are to any large extent a greater worry than the normal pre-war practice of a carry-over at the end of the year.

The hon. and gallant Member raised, in this connection, the question of the increase of the fruit standard of jam. The difficulty is that one is not quite sure what this year's crop will be; late frosts can make a considerable difference. Assuming that we do not get last minute frosts of a kind which considerably reduce the crop, I am happy to say that we propose to raise the fruit content of raspberry jam to 25 per cent., with effect from 20th July. We shall announce a decision as soon as we can once we are sure that frost trouble and worry is over. The fruit content of strawberry jam will be increased under similar conditions from 30 to 37½ per cent. from 25th June. The fruit content of blackcurrant jam will be increased from 20 to 22 per cent. from 20th July, with the same considerations applying, namely, that a decision must be reserved until we are quite sure that the crop will be as big as is needed for the purpose.

Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond, Yorks)

Is that a policy announcement which the Parliamentary Secretary is now making?

Mr. Brown

Yes, on the understanding that we do not make a final decision until we are advised by our advisers that the risk of frost has passed. I hope that that risk will be over in the next day or two. In that event the new jam content will be as I have stated from the dates I have given.

With the past record that is behind us and the very good record of this Indus- try in the last few years, the good prices it has been enjoying and the steps we have taken about pulp and jam, I see no reason whatever for either the hon. and gallant Gentleman or his constituents to face the future with anything but a tolerably cautious optimism. I see no reason for them to be unduly worried. We have obviously to watch the development of an industry like this; it can change in many ways. There is nothing inflexible about the arrangements we have made.

The tariff case will certainly be considered, and the effect on the industry of the other matters which the hon. and gallant Member has mentioned will be borne in mind. My own view is that this industry can on the whole be regarded as being well able to stand the increased acreage which it has provided in response to the Government's request.

Mr. Crouch (Dorset, North)

Is it the British farmer or the manufacturer who makes this pulp which is inferior to the foreign product?

Mr. Brown

I think to some extent it is in many cases the lack of attention by the growers, both as to the quality they put on the market and the way it is put up. [HON. MEMERS: "Oh."] It is no use hon. Members denying that. There are some producers to whom what I have said applies. Those who are better must see that the weaklings in the trade are not encouraged to continue——

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.