HC Deb 14 June 1951 vol 488 cc2531-42

(1) For the entry in the Schedule to the Customs Tariff Act, 1876, relating to figs (under which there is charged a duty of seven shillings a hundredweight) there shall be substituted the following entry:—

Per cwt.
"Figs— s. d.
dried 6 0
drained or crystallized 7 0."

(2) In section twenty-one of the Finance Act, 1916 (which provides for drawback of certain of the duties under the said Act of 1876), after the words "dried figs" there shall be inserted the words "drained or crystallized figs."

(3) This section shall come into force on the first day of September, nineteen hundred and fifty-one.—[Mr. Bottomley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. Bottomley)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause gives effect to the Torquay agreement. Normally this change of duty would be carried out by means of Treasury order, but because it is a Revenue duty it is necessary to bring it forward in the Finance Bill. The reduction in duty arose as a result of talks with Turkey, in particular, where we were able to get satisfactory concessions in return for the concession we made. There is not a large Commonwealth interest in this subject, but consultation did take place before this agreement was reached.

Mr. Eccles (Chippenham)

It seems to me to be an open question whether there ought to be a tariff on figs at all. Here is a wholesome, appetising foodstuff beneficial to children and adults alike, and in maintaining the tariff on it one wonders what is the Government's view of our food supply and the cost of living. We do not grow the figs here in competition with those which are imported. The figs we grow here are luxurious. Beneath his ample leaf the luscious Fig… the poet says. We cannot get hold of those; they are too expensive.

On the other hand, I understand, the great bulk of the import of dried figs comes from Greece and Turkey, so there is no need for Imperial Preference here. This is a question of whether we should have a Revenue tariff on a foodstuff, and the effect of the tariff is to limit the supply and put up the price. During the war Lord Woolton turned to Portugal for figs and bought quite a fair quantity of figs from that country, because the noble Lord realised it was a very attractive supplement to a hard diet. But, since the war, the Ministry of Food have not bought any figs from Portugal and the figures, I have been told, show a steady decline in the total import of dried figs. In 1948 the import was 286,000 cwt.; in 1949, 124,000 cwt., and in 1950, 84,000 cwt. Now figs are de-controlled and perhaps private enterprise may be able to do better.

4.15 p.m.

I ask the Secretary for Overseas Trade whether this tariff, in his view, is a handicap or not to the purchase of figs. I would especially like him to consider the fact that the Germans are back in the market for this sort of goods. The situation is made more difficult for our people because of the failure of the Australian crop of dried fruit, and therefore we shall not get so much of this kind of fruit as in normal years.

The fig is a tasty supplement which the housewife can use to eke out the very miserable rations we have for the main course meal. She is at her wits' end to provide the main course for her family and if she is to stifle their complaints at the resistant and stringy bit of meat she has to serve up in the first course, she needs something for "afters." Can she get a sufficient supply of sugar to make puddings and cakes? No, Sir, she cannot. Can she get tinned fruit? Tinned fruit is very scare, due to the muddle and incompetence of His Majesty's Ministers.

Here is a chance to do away with a tariff which I see was put on in 1876. I should have thought that the Labour Party would rejoice to say they have been able to clear away something put on in 1876. But not at all. The tariff was brought up by Turkey, and they decided to reimpose it with a one shilling reduction. I take the view that it lights up the hypocrisy of the Government in talking about reducing the cost of living. They blame wholesalers and middlemen and say that they take too much out of the final price of food before it gets into the housewife's basket, yet here they are taking the first rake-off on figs, which we cannot grow at home. The Minister says he must have a tariff on figs. Our answer is, a fig for his tariff.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)

While associating myself fully with my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) and fully understanding the value of the importation of dried fruit, I cannot see the point of the addition "drained or crystallised." because the sale of figs in this country is virtually all of dried figs. While there might be a certain reasonable allowance for drained figs, I cannot see the need for permitting crystallised figs to come in on this basis. Why should we go to the exorbitant cost of importing crystallised figs when obviously we can do the crystallising in this country for the limited amount for which there would be a demand?

I ask the Minister to enlarge on this, because I should like to know the purpose of adding these words. I can fully understand the reference to dried figs, for which naturally there is a very ready market. There could not be anything better to import in a concentrated form into this country. While agreeing in every way with my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham, I cannot see who has been behind the scenes in suggesting the addition of "drained or crystallised" figs and why they should come in at all. I would particularly remark, in regard to crystallised figs, that I cannot see what real need there can possibly be for that classification. I do not know what the real purpose is, and why it should have been raised in this instance. I should like to know something about it.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

I ask the hon. Gentleman to clear up one question, namely, the matter of Imperial Preference. What is the exact extent of it, and to what extent do we import figs from the Colonies and Dominions? What is the value of the Preference? Could the hon. Gentleman give us some information on that point?

Mr. Bottomley

The figures are not substantial but the Commonwealth countries nevertheless put great store or value on any tariff which is imposed for preferential reasons. Although I said that this is a Revenue duty, it is now primarily imposed for preferential purposes. I do not think we should to lightly dismiss it in order to meet our own domestic requirements. When we negotiate with another country we do not want to do away with duties that we impose without getting some return. We feel that in this case we have made a bargain with Turkey which gives benefits to both sides. If the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) suggests that we should lower the duty, and encourages us further, in the next round of tariff negotiations we shall bear that in mind and try to get further concessions for the reductions which we make.

The hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Frederic Harris) asked a question about the expression "drained or crystallised." "Crystallised" is contained in the 1876 Act under which these duties were first introduced under the general heading of "Dried." What happens as a result of this change is the establishment of a differentiation in the duty now applying to both classes of this commodity.

Mr. Eccles

It is suggested that a big Imperial question is involved here. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what proportion of our imports of figs has ever come from areas covered by Imperial Preference?

Mr. Bottomley

I said that the proportion is small, if there are any such imports at all. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth countries concerned feel it is of advantage to them to have this amount of Preference. We are all hoping to have increased and new production of all kinds in the Commonwealth, and to refrain from doing something which will in a way encourage that development would, I should have thought, be the last thing which the hon. Member for Chippenham wanted.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

We have considerable difficulty, which we have experienced in past years, in finding Turkish products that we can buy in exchange for what we try to export to Turkey. That has been a matter which has called for the exercise of a great deal of ingenuity. We have attempted to increase the import of Turkish tobacco. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) has said, it is patent that there has been a continuous decline in the import of figs for a certain number of years. That is not because people in this country have not been anxious to buy figs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will indicate what is the reason for this decline, and will say whether the purpose of this concession is in part to stimulate the import of figs.

If the measure of the attempts to stimulate trade, and trade with Turkey at present, is a concession of one-seventh of the Import Duty on figs, it does not look as if the Government have got very far with Turkey at Torquay. I hope they will have another look at this matter and see whether more strenuous attempts cannot be made to increase our trade with that country. Can the hon. Gentleman give any other indication of what steps along these lines were taken, and what emerged by way of concessions on Turkey's side as a result of this concession?

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is treating the Committee very well today. Even if he thought that because the subject matter was rather a small one which he could get through the Committee very easily, he does not seem to have come adequately armed with the figures and information which I feel sure every Member would like to have before finally making up his or her mind on this subject.

I listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman expounding his case. He pointed out that it fell to him to bring this matter before the Committee because it was a trade matter, but that as it was a Revenue duty it had to come within the Finance Bill. That is why we are discussing it at all; otherwise, other procedure would have had to be followed. That being so, it is all the more reasonable that in a debate which is a financial debate we should know the full implications of what is being done.

Unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman—and I do not think I did—he said nothing about what the volume of this trade was on the Imperial or Turkish side. All I understood him to say was that this proposal was the result of the conference at Torquay, a good many of the activities of which are still shrouded in considerable mystery, and have certainly not yet had the full consideration of the House, which some day it will probably require to give.

I understood that some arrangements had been come to with Turkey and that this concession was our part of the bargain. If a bargain has been made in our name, we shall of course have to be very chary before doing anything to overthrow a bargain honourably entered into; but when we are discussing a new bargain it would have been quite reasonable to tell us what was the other side of the picture. What are the concessions which have come in from either Turkey or Greece? I did not understand that Greece was making any concessions. The hon. Gentleman mentioned only Turkey in that regard but he had in the course of his short remarks referred to both countries. If, as I gather, it is only Turkey, it is, presumably, comparatively easy to tell us what benefit we can hope to derive from this proposal.

We are dealing with a foodstuff or a medicine—I do not know for which purpose it is in volume, mostly used—but it is something which enters into consumption pretty widely in this country. Most people enjoy figs. I do not know whether they enjoy drained figs as much as other kinds; I am quite at a loss to know what a drained fig is. Assuming that it is the same sort of thing and tastes the same, I suppose it would be equally agreeable to consumers. [An HON. MEMBER: "Syrup."] If it is syrup, why does not the new Clause say so? That is a word which is understood by the people, whereas I am certain that "drained fig" is not understood by most people, certainly the majority of the humble housewives of the country.

Before we leave this new Clause, which may or may not be a good one, and which we may or may not be forced to accept because it is part of a bargain, I ask the hon. Gentleman to amplify what he has told us and let us have the picture before us. He made some reference to Imperial Preference but he did not tell us what the proportion of trade was. If he can tell us, without inconvenience, I should like to know, first, what are our total imports of figs, and what proportion of that total comes from Imperial sources and benefits from Imperial Preference, and what proportion comes from Turkey? Having told us that, would the hon. Member add what benefits we are to receive from Turkey in respect of what is, presumably, a concession, largely to them?

I hope that this may be, I will not say a lesson but an occasion as the result of which the hon. Gentleman will remind himself on future occasions that when a discussion on a change of Revenue duties is opened in the debate on the Finance Bill, it is important that the Committee should be put in possession, as early as possible in the debate, of the full facts, because debates tend to be prolonged if the information has to be drawn seriatim from the Minister.

4.30 p.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

There could be only two reasons for not doing away with this duty altogether. The first reason would be if Turkey gave us no reciprocity at all or gave us an inadequate advantage in their own market, and the second would be if the Dominions and Colonies had made substantial representations and they had a fig project which they wished to expand with a view to finding an entrance into the British market.

On the point about Turkey, the hon. Gentleman said absolutely nothing. What are we trying to get into Turkey in increasing quantities which the Turks have been reluctant to concede so that this duty is reduced by only 1s. instead of 7s.? Will the hon. Gentleman not explain in more detail what he said about the Imperial Preference aspect? Is there a fig project or is it just a figment of the hon. Gentleman's imagination?

When the hon. Gentleman spoke of being under pressure from a negligible agricultural unit in the Dominions, did he mean that there is, in fact, nothing at all, that they are not growing figs and that they do not intend to do so, or that there is a little organisation starting up in some distant quarter of the world where high hopes are entertained that one fine day it may be able to satisfy the requirements of the British market? Unless the hon. Gentleman can satisfy us on those two distinct points about our exports to Turkey and about this unit of production in the Dominions, we ought to refuse the Clause.

Mr. Marlowe (Hove)

I wish to protest against the manner in which the Minister put the matter before the Committee. The hon. Gentleman merely said "This is something that was decided at Torquay and, therefore, I want the Committee to pass it." Parliament does not exist for putting a rubber stamp on what the hon. Gentleman does at Torquay. It is characteristic of the way in which this Government treats Parliament, by making decisions elsewhere and expecting us to endorse them. The hon. Gentleman has given us no information why we should endorse the action which he took at Torquay; indeed, we are very suspicious of a great deal that took place at Torquay. We should like more information about it.

The hon. Gentleman further said that this duty was necessary as a result of a bargain made with Turkey. That is all the hon. Gentleman had to say about it. What was the bargain made with Turkey? Are we not entitled to know what was the bargain which we are being asked to implement? Does he think it is enough to come here and say, "I have made a bargain and you have got to follow it up"?

I protest at this manner in which the Committee is being treated. It is an attitude which has become all too common with hon. Members opposite, who have no real understanding of democracy—[Interruption.] Oh, yes; hon. Members opposite think that Parliament merely exists for carrying out their executive decisions. It is time we took a stand against that attitude and insisted on hon. Members making their case before we endorse their actions.

I have noticed that since these questions have been raised by my hon. Friends, papers have been going backwards and forwards between the Secretary for Overseas Trade and those instructing him, making it abundantly clear that when he came here to make his case he did not even know what his case was. He has since been very busy finding out. Now that the hon. Gentleman has had time—and I hope he is grateful to us for giving him time—I hope he will take the Committee into his confidence and tell us what his case is.

Mr. Alport (Colchester)

It strikes us on this side of the Committee as interesting that this new Clause should relate to the Act of 1876. It will be remembered that that was perhaps the climax of the Disraeli Government which laid the foundation not only of the progress but also of the reinforcement of the loyalties and unities of the Empire. One of the ways in which this was done was to create a system of tariffs which enabled us eventually, after some time, to give preference to the Commonwealth and Empire to enable them to develop their economic resources.

It is interesting, therefore, that the year 1876 should be referred to in this Clause which, following the decisions at Torquay, breaks down the basis of that unity by reducing the preferential agreements which exist between ourselves and the Commonwealth and Colonies. I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman is certain that the fig industry in Cyprus, for instance, is unaffected by this reduction in preference. As he will know, that island is not by any means on a very stable economic basis, and anything which would harm it economically at the present time of political tension there would be greatly contrary to the interests of the Cypriots and ourselves.

While we on this side of the Committee wish to do everything to encourage our trade and commercial relations with Turkey—a very gallant country which has always had the affections of the people of this country—perhaps the hon. Gentleman would make quite certain that no detriment is suffered by a country like Cyprus with which we are greatly concerned from the Imperial Preference point of view.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

I am not certain whether the Minister is ready to go to press. I think this is an example of how often in the House of Commons an innocuous-looking Amendment or Clause leads to a discussion of great interest and of some complication.

Mr. Mellish (Bermondsey)

We know that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is only wasting time to let his colleagues come back from Ascot.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

I hope the hon. Gentleman will take his duties seriously. No reference to Ascot has been made on this side of the Committee during the discussion of this Clause. While I feel it would probably be wide of the Clause to embark upon a discussion of the merits of Imperial Preference or the ramifications of the Torquay Conference, I would endorse the remarks of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) that we should really like more information.

May I say to the Secretary for Overseas Trade that I thought he somewhat overestimated the memories of some of us when he said "All we are doing is to put in a definition of the Customs Tariff Act, 1876"—for all the world as though hon. Members were present when that Act went through. I have been doing a little rapid historical calculation, without leaving my place, and may I assure the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) that I once won a prize for history. I have to rely upon my memory now. In 1876 my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was 12 months old, and Karl Marx died. So that it really is rather a long time ago.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has correctly figured it out.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

I think we might be reminded of the meaning of the definition of "drained figs" which appeared in that Act, because it appears in the new Clause in specific terms. I wonder whether it means "dehydrated"—figs from which the water has been extracted. Can we know what reciprocal arrangements there have been with Turkey?

Mr. Mellish

If the hon. and gallant Member would shut up, my hon. Friend would get up and tell him.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

I am not clear whether the phrase, "shut up" is a Parliamentary term, but I think that what the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) means is that if I would draw my remarks to a conclusion and resume my seat, the Minister might be prepared to utter an explanation. One would like to know a great deal more about what happened about Turkey at Torquay. I will not go so far as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport), who said that the people of Turkey had always held our affection. Having myself taken part in the Dardanelles campaign, I may say that I did not hold that view at that time.

I feel that the debate has now come to the point where we might hear from the Minister. I hope also that we might have an intervention from the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) who has a photographic memory of these matters. Even though he is seeking repose in the House of Lords at an early date, I hope that before he leaves us he may make a contribution. I believe that now the Minister is fully briefed and I may conclude this form of public duty, and we may now have a 4.30 edition which will contain the latest releases from both Torquay and Ascot.

Mr. Bottomley

Although we have been discussing things which are common to the Clause, the discussion has been rather wide. Indeed I am left wondering whether hon. Members opposite really know what they want. The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Eccles) asked why we could not do away with this duty altogether. The right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) asked what are the bargains and whether we have benefited as a result of them. I did say that the Torquay Protocol and schedules thereto had been laid before the House; I presumed that hon. Members opposite had read them, but apparently not. Let me therefore quote from paragraph 16 of the White Paper. As a result of these negotiations: direct and indirect concessions obtained affect a wide range of manufactured goods including light motor cars and cover imports into Turkey from the United Kingdom valued in terms of 1949 trade at £7 million. Rates were bound on whisky and gin—that will be of interest to Scottish Members who missed their Questions—certain chemicals and plastics and certain textiles and other goods. So I think it shows that we have secured a very wide range of concessions on goods we want to export to that country.

I cannot give any idea of the amount of figs we shall import for the current year. All I can say is that our trade figures show that last year about 53,000 cwt. of figs were imported into this country. One hon. Member asked what we were getting out of the agreement. It is to stimulate the import of figs to meet the wish of those who say that figs are a good food, and also in order to send to Turkey the kind of goods our manufacturers are anxious to sell to them.

Captain Crookshank

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us that information at last? We are grateful to him and I do not think we need spend further time on this matter. Perhaps it will be a lesson to him and his colleagues that when they want to hurry on business, the worst way to facilitate it is by not giving full information.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.