HC Deb 23 April 1951 vol 487 cc171-82

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

10.57 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn, East)

My intention in raising the question of fruit and vegetable marketing schemes is to draw attention to the further step now being taken in the direction of establishing producers marketing boards for fruit and vegetables, all of vital importance to the healthy diet of our people.

The House will remember that last July, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture brought before it for approval the Tomato and Cucumber Marketing Scheme (Approval) Order, 1950, which caused a good deal of criticism and protest on this side of the House. It was objected to on two grounds—first, because it gave to a Board, consisting overwhelmingly of producers, far-reaching powers over the sale of tomatoes and cucumbers, including the power of price fixing; and secondly, although it was called a marketing board, it did nothing to improve marketing, but merely aimed to improve production by giving the Board power to determine the kinds of tomatoes and cucumbers which might be grown, and to determine the prices at which they might be sold by producers to encourage grading, packaging and processing, and generally to improve standards.

Many on this side of the House felt that even the producers' problems, let alone those of the housewives, could not be solved by marketing schemes which took no real interest in the consumer, but which went to great pains to improve the product merely to hand it over to an unreformed and anarchic system of distribution at the end of that process. Anxiety was expressed by hon. Members on this side of the House that such powers of regulation and distribution were to be given to a Board on which there sat only four Ministry nominees out of a total membership of 24.

I would agree that of the four nominees that the Minister has since appointed to the Tomato and Cucumber Board, two at any rate are well equipped to represent the consumers. I am very glad he has appointed Mrs. Wills, who was in the last Parliament and whom we all remember as being very active on behalf of the housewife. Also, he has a very excellent trade union member in the person of Mr. Shingfield of the Transport and General Workers' Union, but even these two nominees were not sufficient to offset the objections of many of us on this side of the House to this kind of producers' marketing board.

This Order was approved last July and action under it has perforce been very small. There has been no time to do more than elect the Board, appoint a secretary and a couple of typists. The Board has not really started functioning yet because the tomato season in this country has not started and there has been no time for us to see whether our fears about the nature of the Board's activities are justified. Yet, despite the fact that these objections to the former scheme were expressed in this House and the time has not yet been sufficient to see whether these objections are valid, we are already half way through the procedure for introducing another Order involving a similar marketing scheme—this time a scheme for apples and pears.

The National Farmers' Union has drawn up and publicised this new scheme in draft form, and has submitted it to the Minister. The Minister has presented it and today is the last day for the hearing of objections to that scheme. What I am anxious to do, therefore, is to point out to the Minister that the criticisms in this House of the tomato and cucumber scheme apply equally to the scheme for apples and pears. I believe that the draft scheme drawn up by the National Farmers' Union does differ slightly in some details from the tomato and cucumber scheme. For example, it does not appear to give producers the same power to control prices.

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

May I raise a very brief point of order? I should like to have your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The hon. Lady is now proceeding to deal with the apples and pears scheme, about which my right hon. Friend and myself will have certain clear judicial duties in due course, if the scheme proceeds. It will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for me tonight to deal with that scheme if she proceeds to discuss it on the Motion tonight, as the scheme will involve an Order before the House.

Mrs. Castle

May I point out that this is the only opportunity in this House of expressing a point of view about this scheme before the final stages are reached. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I wish to give him advice in considering all the representations made to him about the scheme. After all, he is having representations made to him from other quarters—why not from this House, in helping him to reach a decision?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles Mac Andrew)

Generally speaking, I was under the impression that on the Adjournment, as long as legislation is not suggested, anything else can be discussed. This can be done without legislation.

Mr. Brown

The scheme cannot be a scheme until it comes before the House in the form of an Order from my right hon. Friend. Therefore, it clearly does involve legislation.

Mrs. Castle

This action I am discussing is action taken under the Marketing Acts of 1931, 1933 and 1949. I am not questioning these Acts, I am merely questioning the action under those Acts.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think the hon. Lady is quite in order. This Order does not mean legislation.

Mrs. Castle

Thank you. I had considered this before raising the matter so that I should not be wasting your time, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, or the time of the House. One section of the apples and pears draft scheme, which the National Farmers' Union have submitted to the Minister, enables the board only to fix the minimum prices for the present. I admit that this is some improvement because there does not seem to be the same power to control the price of the product.

None the less, in its broad outline the new scheme does follow the pattern of the existing scheme for tomatoes and cucumbers, and in view of the anxiety expressed by many hon. Gentlemen over the provisions of the former scheme, I believe that more time should have been allowed to elapse before we extended this process to other products, particularly products of such vital interest to the health of the community as apples and pears. We should have been given more time to judge whether our anxieties about this kind of producer-marketing scheme were justified or not.

This is all the more important in view of the emphasis given in the National Farmers' Union draft scheme for apples and pears to the need to control imports. That emphasis is seen over and over again in the draft scheme which I have here. Under the heading of "What the board will do," the item given priority above all others is: An adequate regulation of imports by means of quantitative importation based on home supplies. This is a matter of very serious importance to the housewife who, while she has no desire to deny the producer a decent livelihood, is also justifiably anxious that she should not be denied adequate supplies of apples at reasonable prices. She is not convinced that the object which the home producer regards as overwhelmingly predominant will be the right one. She remembers last Christmas when, apart from a few Canadian and American apples brought in by the Ministry of Food, the apple producers in the country obtained a complete monopoly of the home market, with the result that prices of apples during Christmas week soared to a fantastic height. Cox's Orange Pippins ranged from 2s. to 2s. 6d. a pound and the possibility of mothers putting a choice apple in the children's stocking became quite uneconomical.

Sometimes when producers have been complaining, often through the medium of hon. Gentlemen opposite, of a glut of English apples, and therefore asking for the exclusion of all foreign apples, the glut has not been of eating apples at all, but of cookers. This pressure for the restriction of foreign imports has been brought at a time when the housewife would have been willing to buy English dessert apples in the shops but could not get them, and, with no imports coming in, she has been denied eating apples altogether.

The position with regard to apples in this country is that the production of dessert and cooking apples at home is more than twice what it was before the war. The figure for 1949–50 was 537,000 tons against an average of 196,000 tons from 1937 to 1939. The imports of apples are now less than one-third of what they were before the war. They have fallen from 303,000 tons to 88,000 tons in 1949–50.

I am glad there has been an increase in home production, because I quite agree that the flavour of the best English apple, whether eating or cooker, is unbeatable anywhere in the world. I agree that in times of heavy supply the home market has a right to a fair share of the market, but none the less there is a point beyond which the housewife should not be denied a fair choice of variety by the introduction of a home producers' monopoly in the home market. There is a point beyond which prices at home should not go, as they did last Christmas.

My plea to the Parliamentary Secretary is that if we are to have this question dealt with fairly, as between housewife and producer, between the real national interest and the sectional interest, we must set up a marketing authority which will represent all interests equally, and we shall never bring the prices of this very important fruit within the reach of the housewife, while at the same time giving the producer an economic return for his work, unless we tackle the whole process of marketing right from the auction to the shop. Partial schemes of this kind, dealing not with marketing but with production only and leaving the chaotic distribution scheme untouched, will not bring prices down—certainly not if it is a marketing scheme under the control of a board overwhelmingly representative of the producers' interest, on which, as we complained last July, other sections of the trade are not represented except by four Ministry nominees.

I appreciate that I should be out of order if I were to elaborate my idea of what a real marketing authority is, because that is not provided for under the terms of the present Marketing Acts; but I am in order in asking the Parliamentary Secretary to delay approval of this new scheme of producer-controlled marketing until we have had a chance to see that the tomato and cucumber scheme really works, until we see how it deals with imports, what sort of pressure it brings on the Ministry, and whether it is really necessary to our needs. It is a very great power we give to these boards over items of food of great importance to the housewife. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary not to proceed with this scheme until we have had a chance of assessing the value of the first one more accurately.

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

May I put one point to the hon. Lady? She has made much of the fact that she is concerned with the consumers' interest, but she must know well that the horticultural industry has been going through a very rough time for many months. Would she not agree that the grower is entitled to a fair return for money and labour?

Mrs. Castle

I repeated that three times. But clearly the interests of the housewife and the producer must go hand in hand. I say that this scheme will not solve the producers' problem, because it will not allow the actual marketing process to be dealt with. It deals with only part of it, and then hands the matter back to the chaotic distributive scheme we have at present.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Deedes (Ashford)

I confess that I had a little trouble in understanding what was the real nature of the hon. Lady's complaint. I understand she wants the consumers' interest watched as well as that of the producer, and in that we are in sympathy with her; but delay in introducing a marketing scheme for apples and pears will help neither the consumer nor the producer. There could be no possible reason for holding up a scheme required in the industry for the orderly marketing, sale and distribution of this fruit, which will in every way improve the situation. If we are to wait year by year while first a tomato and then an apple scheme is tried out, we shall never get fruit and vegetables marketed in an orderly way. If, as she says, she wants to see in the end a big marketing scheme embracing the whole of the fruit and horticultural industry, what could be better than pilot schemes whereby we learn as we go along?

Mrs. Castle

There is already the tomato scheme. We can learn from that.

Mr. Deedes

Let us have an apple and pear scheme as well, for apple and pear growing is a different matter and covers many different problems. The hon. Lady spoke of a home producers' monopoly. It will be news to the producers of apples and pears that they enjoy a monopoly.

Mrs. Castle

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that the open general licence for the import of apples, apart from very few Canadian apples, was not granted until after Christmas last year, and that there was an actual monopoly for the home apples in the home market during Christmas week?

Mr. Deedes

If the hon. Lady lived in a fruit-growing area she would know of the endless anxiety endured throughout the summer as to what would come in and what would not. She can take it from me that throughout the summer the fruit growers were in considerable anxiety as to what was to happen. The fact that we had a good fruit year had nothing to do with it. There is not such a thing as a home producers' monopoly in apples and pears. Many things may be said against the apple and pear scheme when we come to discuss it, but it contains the seeds of an orderly scheme for the marketing of produce which will benefit the consumers, for whom the hon. Lady speaks, as well as the producers. The House should support a scheme which will improve the marketing of our fruit; there is a chance that in the long run we shall get what the hon. Lady wants.

11.17 p.m.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle), has raised a very important matter, one of great importance to the producers and to the consumers; but if the marketing Act is not allowed to operate for fruit, it is no use the fruit growers continuing to grow fruit at the present time. Anyone with fruit growing in his constituency knows of the chaos in the marketing of fruit. It is high time that something was done in the interests of both producers and consumers. From the point of view of the producer, there is a continuous glut at a certain time of the year which is disastrous for him, and at other times there is a scarcity which is certainly of no use to him and is very disastrous for the consumer.

My hon. Friend said that she could not buy Cox's Orange at Christmas, except at ruinous prices. Cox's Orange are a very special class of fruit and fetch very high prices at all times, particularly at Christmas, but if marketing were more orderly, it would be possible to get other varieties besides Cox's Orange, such as Laxton's Superb and Ellison's Orange, which were selling at from 10d. to Is., and 1s. 2d. at the outside, at that time in the markets of the West of England. Our hope is that it will be possible to get all of these varieties over England when we have a marketing scheme which is working properly, and shall not be dependent upon Cox's Orange alone, for although they are extremely popular they are by no means the only apple which come on the market at that season.

What we really want is to see that the marketing scheme comes into operation as soon as possible. It will enable imports to be controlled in such a way as not to injure the producer and imports to be admitted at times when the home market is getting scarce of fruit, so that the consumer will be able to get what he wants. As things are at present, it is impossible to secure an orderly regulated marketing, and only by putting into force the Marketing Act, 1930, is there any hope of remedying the situation.

11.20 p.m.

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

I am in some difficulty, as I indicated to you earlier, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, in that the apple and pear draft scheme, as submitted by the producers as they have a perfect right to do under the Act is at the moment only a draft. The Ministry of Agriculture have a definite obligation to follow a procedure laid down by the Act, which involves referring the scheme to a public inquiry if any objections are made. That has not yet begun. It will then involve my right hon. Friend in considering the recommendations of the Commissioner who holds the inquiry, making certain decisions about them, referring them back to the producers, if necessary, and in due course bringing the scheme before the House. Then the House will have an opportunity to discuss it, and my right hon. Friend or myself will be in a position to explain it before the House.

Therefore, I am sure that hon. Members will understand why I cannot tonight discuss the points made by my hon. Friend about the draft scheme which is so far off, and on which we shall have to exercise something in the nature of a quasi-judicial function. Therefore, I hope nobody will think I am being discourteous if I do not deal with the provisions of that draft scheme. There are, however, one or two general points in the remarks of my hon. Friend with which I might deal.

So far as the Tomato and Cucumber Marketing Scheme is concerned, the Board is already set up following the passage of the scheme through this House last year. There are not only two Ministerial nominees, as my hon. Friend suggested. In addition to Mrs. Wills and Mr. Shingfield, whom she mentioned, there is also Mr. Latimer, who is a chartered accountant, and Mr. Cunningham, who is a business man from Scotland, forming a strong team of Ministerial representatives on that Board.

The whole point about these boards is that the consumer safeguards are not limited to the three or four Ministerial nominees on the board. There are the powers given under Sections 2 and 4 of the Act, which my hon. Friend did not mention, giving the Minister very firm powers if the board were to do things which seemed to be against the consumer interest. There is the provision for a consumers' committee to be set up specially to look after the interests of consumers. There is the provision for the advisory committee of the trade to be set up to look after trade interests, and there is the committee of investigation for England and another for Scotland covering all schemes under the Marketing Acts—and a powerful committee it is—to which complaints can be referred by anybody who thinks something is being done by any one of the marketing boards which offends the interests of somebody else.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

No workers?

Mr. Brown

Oh yes, there is a workers' representative on each one of the marketing boards, and there is a trade union representative on the standing committee of investigation. So there are considerable consumer safeguards, which my hon. Friend did not mention. She said that the Tomato Board has not yet started to function. That is quite true, but it has been busy doing the preliminary organising background work so that it will be in a position to deal with the crop when it comes along.

My hon. Friend went on to argue that because that is so we ought not to be considering the setting up of a new scheme for some other commodity. The point is that, having passed the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1949—for which I believe she voted—which amended the earlier Acts, we have no alternative. The Marketing Act gave the producers the power to submit schemes. If the producers choose to exercise their power, then my right hon. Friend must take certain action and, therefore, all that we are proposing to do is exactly what the Act of Parliament requires.

Mrs. Castle

Surely part of the power of the Minister to make modifications to the scheme would be to delay it?

Mr. Brown

No. If the Minister receives a scheme submitted by the producers, then the Minister must observe the rest of the procedure of the Act which requires him to allow time for objections, hold a public inquiry if objections are received and go through all the other things culminating in laying the scheme before the House.

Nor do I accept the suggestion that what happens in regard to tomatoes is in any way to be regarded as the pilot line for apples and pears. The Marketing Act specifically permits schemes for all those crops for which producers wish to submit schemes. Having seen a good deal of the horticultural industry at first hand, I believe there is a lot to be said for a marketing scheme for apples and pears being established at the earliest possible moment. At the end of this week I am going to Wisbech to meet horticulturalists there, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) would find the other side of the story put before her if she were to undertake similar approaches to horticulturalists.

We shall go through with the scheme. We shall consider fairly the proposals put forward and my right hon. Friend will take care that what is ultimately done will be in a form defensive of the interests of everybody. The consumer will be protected, not only by the Ministerial nominees on the Board, but by the other powers to which I have referred. Because in this way we shall put right the marketing problems at the producer's end, I believe we shall necessarily confer a benefit on the consumer and make it correspondingly easier to deal with the retail distribution when the Government are ready to do so.

I believe that what we have done already in the marketing field has been of considerable advantage to the consumer. We went into the whole argument when discussing the 1949 Act and the Tomato and Cucumber Scheme. There is no reason to think that the scheme now being drafted will be in any way different from previous schemes. I would ask my hon. Friend in the meantime not to queer the pitch by overstating the case, as she did so clearly tonight about the price of apples about Christmas time.

The Question having been proposed after 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 Twenty-Seven Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.