HC Deb 31 July 1952 vol 504 cc1841-52

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

11.0 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn, East)

For two days this week the House has been discussing the economic situation, and the subject I want to raise tonight has a great deal of relevance to those discussions, because it is part of the problem of how we are to balance our national economy and what part our agricultural and market gardening industry is to play in our economic life. It is against that background that I raise this question of horticultural tariffs, with the intention of asking the House to consider quite seriously and objectively what part we ought to ask British horticulture to play in our national economy and what is the best way to help it to play that part.

In being critical this evening, as I intend to be, of the proposals which the N.F.U. is now pressing on the Government for higher tariffs on imported food and vegetables, I am not being critical in any spirit of under-estimating the importance of our home production. I am not coming along here, as the representative of an urban constituency, lightheartedly to call for the ruin of British horticulture in the interests of cheap food. The times are too serious for any of us to press merely sectional interests. It is not my intention to press a sectional interest, but I ask the Government, in examining this problem and in considering the proposals of the N.F.U., to do so with the national interest in mind and to refuse to submit to sectional pressure from any section of industry or any part of this House.

What is the present position? The Board of Trade have set up a private inter-Departmental Committee, which, behind closed doors, is considering an application by the N.F.U. for sweeping increases in tariffs on imported fruit and vegetables. As I understand, the N.F.U. is asking that the existing specific duties on certain imports—i.e., the duties of so much a 1b.—shall be increased by no less than 100 per cent., and that certain ad valorem duties shall give way to specific duties, where ad valorem duties at present operate.

It may be that I am wrong in my estimate of the N.F.U. proposals, because they have never been placed before the House and it is practically impossible for an hon. Member to obtain a copy. I approached the N.F.U. and asked them to let me see a copy of their proposals, but I was told that was impossible, because the matter was sub judice. What the Board of Trade have done is to send copies of the proposals, under confidential cover, to certain recognised objectors to the scheme, among whom, apparently, Members of the House are not included. Therefore, the House is unaware of what is being asked and pressed upon the Government, what objections have been made, and what representations in opposition to the proposals have been made.

The discussions are secret and the first we shall know about it is when the Government, having taken a decision, tables a Motion before this House to put increased tariffs into effect—if that is what they decide to do. But it will then be too late, because higher tariffs will already be operating, and the possibility of discussing the need for them in a balanced way, from the point of view of the whole national economy, will have gone, and the possibility of modifications being pressed will have gone.

That is why the first thing I want to do is to urge the Secretary for Overseas Trade most seriously to press once again on the President of the Board of Trade a request I have made several times before—that before any decision is taken by the Government to carry this form of protection one step further, and thus put an additional burden on the housewife through an increase in the cost of living, we shall have a full debate in the House on the whole question of the horticultural industry and how far these tariffs are essential to its survival.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

Is it not the fact that before any sweeping changes can be made in horticultural import tariffs, the escape clause in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade must be invoked?

Mrs. Castle

I hope the hon. Member is right in his interpretation of the situation, but whenever I have raised this matter previously with the President of the Board of Trade I have merely been referred to the normal procedure under the Import Duties Acts, whereby certain orders [Interruption]—I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, but I still say that the time is ripe for a full discussion in the House of the problems of the horticultural industry and how far we are being misled by some of the demands which are constantly being pressed by hon. Members opposite for further restrictions and further protection. I am very glad that some of the voices which are typically representative of their very short-sighted attitude are being so vocal tonight.

What is the basis of these demands for more protection and higher tariffs? I am prepared to agree that market gardening must be a highly precarious occupation and I am anxious to see it placed on a prosperous and stable basis; but I do ask the House to face objective facts and not to be misled by the quite false propaganda put forward both by the N.F.U. and by many hon. Members opposite—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is not false"]—about the present position. If hon. Members will try to listen to the facts instead of calling out they will realise I am justified in my statements that absurd and misleading propaganda about fruit imports is put forward by hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Nabarro

Thoroughly mischievous.

Mrs. Castle

The hon. Member's interruptions are thoroughly silly and completely prove that he is incapable of thought on the subject.

I do not intend to be diverted by the ignorance of any hon. Member opposite, because the fact is that it is utter nonsense to talk as hon. Members opposite do, and as the N.F.U. argue, that the horticultural industry is in a precarious condition today because of the "flood" of imports of foreign fruit and vegetables.

Mr. Nabarro

It is being ruined.

Mrs. Castle

I can answer the hon. Member out of the mouth of one of his own Ministers, because a typical question was asked on this point by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) on 2nd July as follows: Is my hon. Friend aware that this year, so far, in spite of the import cuts intended, enormous quantities of foreign fruit and vegetables have been dumped here, to the detriment of our home growers? The answer came from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, that radio personality whose word, of course, is law to hon. Members opposite: The position is that, strawberries apart, imports of fruit for this year will amount to about one-quarter of the imports of fruit last year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July 1952; Vol 503, c. 426.]

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

I was referring to imports of foreign fruit in the first six months of this year in the part of the supplementary question which the hon. Lady has quoted. Is she aware that during these six months so much plum pulp was imported as completely to prevent home growers from selling their plums to the manufacturers who are now offering so ridiculous prices that it is not worth while picking the fruit? That was the result of importing so much in the first six months of the year.

Mrs. Castle

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the imports of pulp have been regulated, as have the imports of every other type of fruit, and I am coming to the quantative figures in a moment.

Despite all this propaganda the fact is that the imports of fruit since the war have been one-third less than they were before the war. When the N.F.U. comes along with this claim for higher tariffs on the grounds that home produce cannot stand the strain of ill-regulated and unco-ordinated import it is, of course, talking nonsense because imports have been regulated in the country ever since the end of the war. [Interruption.] May I point out to hon. Gentlemen opposite that, after all, I did win the Ballot for the Adjournment, and in the limited time available I do ask to be allowed to develop my theme, which I have been waiting patiently some time to ventilate.

It is nonsense to say that imports have been irregular and unco-ordinated, because there has been a sustained regulation of imports of fruits and vegetables ever since the end of the war, and even since G.A.T.T. that regulation has continued in the form of quotas on the quantities that may be imported at certain periods, and also in the form of the operation of stock dates, a period during which no imports have been allowed of certain vegetables and fruits.

Hon. Gentlemen know that is so. I have the list. They know the dates, the fruits and vegetables, and how this quota and restriction scheme operates. Last year the N.F.0 was congratulating itself, as a result of its sustained representations, on having managed to obtain longer closed period concessions during which no kind of competitive imports came in, and smaller quantities in the period when they were allowed.

The House must also realise there are other forms of restrictions that help to give this protective cover. Ministry of Agriculture Orders are issued because of the danger of disease to fruit, or the danger from the Colorado beetle. It is fantastic sometimes to read in the Press, or hear in the House, statements as to how the grower has been ruined by imports when one knows that no imports of that particular commodity have been coming in. All of us have read in the Press recently how the cherry crop was so abundant it was not worth the growers' while to pick the crop.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

It is quite true.

Mrs. Castle

I am not denying it. The hon. Gentleman is an expert and he will be perfectly well aware that to meet this the Ministry of Agriculture issued the Cherry Fly Order, by which imports were virtually prohibited from 31st May, and we do not start picking the home crop until after 31st May. Whatever was the cause of the growers' difficulties it was not imports because cherries were not being imported.

I am asking the House to look at this matter in a sensible and objective fashion instead of rushing for those easy remedies. I am not disputing that the growers are in difficulties, but we must look elsewhere than to imports for their explanation. The industry must look at its own organisation and its highly unsatisfactory marketing arrangements. It does not matter what protection is given the grower in this country. It does not matter how we pile on the tariffs or put on the stock dates or cut down the quotas. We shall always have, as we had in the war when there were no imports coming in, periodical complaints of disaster, of glut, of failure to find an economic price for the products.

It is, therefore, inside the industry that we must look first and foremost for the answer to our problems. Indeed, if we stop to give a moment's thought to it, we shall realise that it is not an economic proposition at the time of a glut in this country for imports to come in. After all, an importer is not running a philanthropic organisation on behalf of the British housewife. He is in business to make a profit and he has to sell on the British market at a time of good supplies and low prices produce which is carrying a heavy overhead of freight charges and duty and packing charges and cartage.

I am informed that it costs between 4d. and 5d. for an Italian cauliflower to be brought into this country. That is a sufficiently protective tariff in itself, and one that has increased in price like everything else because the cost of freight has gone up. But the Italian cauliflower comes in and sells because it comes at a time of scarcity, of winter vegetables, and it comes in quality and in an attractive package which means that the British housewife buys it even though it is dearer than the home broccoli.

To suggest that we should keep all that out, or put a prohibitive tariff on it, is not to protect the home market in a time of glut but to put a tax on scarcity which the long-suffering housewife has once again to carry because the industry is not prepared to get round to a radical solution of its difficulties.

And, of course, the result of this simple economic fact is that the imports of vegetables into this country have been negligible and are negligible. Indeed, in 1950–1951, at a time when, apart from potatoes and tomatoes and the glasshouse products, we produced at home 2¼ million tons of vegetables, we were only importing just over a quarter of a million tons. That will always be so because we can adequately supply our needs of main crop vegetables here at home. They are bulky things. They are not imported without a heavy cost of transport, and it is uneconomic to do it at a time when we have adequate home supplies. In the same way, soft fruits such as strawberries, gooseberries, and currents are regulated. The imports are regulated by quotas of stock dates to which I have referred, and this demand for a higher tariff is not a demand to protect the home grower at a time when home demand is adequately satisfied here.

It is merely an attempt to raise the price of the early foreign supplies that come in when our own home crop is not ready and is merely a way of putting up the cost of living at a time when, if the grower as well as the housewife is to be benefitted we should all be giving our minds to the problem of how we are to reduce the cost of living and how we can make our organisation more economic and less wasteful and cut the price of the marketing costs that are so crippling. And at this moment, when, as a result of financial stringency, the Government have had once again heavily to cut imports of fruits from abroad, it is outrageous that a demand for higher tariffs should be made.

What has happened? The Government have, in effect, already looked at these imports this year and have already said they must be cut. So that what is coming in now is coming in because the Government believe that it is the minimum we need. To put a tariff on it at a time when the cost of everything else is going up, so that it becomes not only less in quantity but dearer, artificially raised in price by a tariff, is to carry the betrayal of the housewife to lengths that would make Judas look like a faithful friend.

The Government's conscience is already heavy with the guilt of that betrayal of the British housewife, and we are now in danger of not even being able to afford to become a nation of vegetarians. Not only has our red meat gone down the drain, but soon the second vegetable and the stewed fruit will follow it and we shall be living on bread and margarine.

Therefore, I ask the Government to tell us what they are doing about these proposals, to publish the proposals, to give the House a chance to discuss them in the broader light of the national need to bring sanity and common sense to bear on this problem, and to recognise that we cannot help the grower at the expense of ruining the housewife. Her purse is not bottomless, and our job today should be to make this industry efficient and not merely to put up another protective wall behind which it can continue to ramble along in the old, unorganised way.

Mr. Baldwin

Is the hon. Lady in favour of a tariff on woollen goods?

11.21 p.m.

Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) has put up a very gallant show this evening, so much so that I feel like calling her the "hon and gallant Lady." I am reminded somewhat of an old film I once saw—I think it was called "A Thousand Men and a Girl."

Before the Minister replies, I should like to make a brief comment. I could not help asking myself whether the hon. Lady would apply the same principles to protection against the import of foreign woollen goods and textiles, coming, as she does, from Blackburn, as she would have applied to the importation of horticultural produce. I agreed with her very much when she said that she was in favour of a full discussion on this question, and I hope that when we come back in the autumn there will be an opportunity for a full debate.

It seems to me, representing, as I do, a constituency which grows horticultural produce of the highest quality, that there are only two ways in which it can be provided with what I regard as proper protection: the quota system or the tariff system, or, perhaps, a combination of both.

Mr. William Paling (Dewsbury)

And a marketing system?

Major Beamish

It also seems to me, however, that the quota system is too inelastic to provide the horticulture industry at home with the protection which undoubtedly it needs, because it takes far too long when the quota has been reached before a stop can be put upon imports. That is why I very much favour a turnover towards a tariff system.

Mrs. Castle

In place of a quota, or does the hon. and gallant Member want that in addition?

Major Beamish

Very likely, in combination with it. The details, of course, have to be worked out. It is true that this year we have had a heavy reduction in imports of horticultural produce, although the main reason for that has been the very grave balance of payments problem which we inherited from the last Government.

I regard the horticulture industry as of vital importance to the economy of the country, both as regards fruit and flowers, and vegetables also. We certainly must not forget flowers, although sometimes they are forgotten even by some of my hon. Friends. The industry, if not properly protected, will go bankrupt. It has been steadily bankrupted for the last five or six years. It must not remain any longer the Cinderella of the agricultural industry. I very much hope that in the months ahead—perhaps, when we come back in the autumn—my right hon. Friend will be able to come to the House to tell us of a new Government policy for horticulture.

11.24 p.m.

The Secretary for Overseas Trade (Mr. H. R. Mackeson)

Let us face the fact that it is no easy problem which the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) has raised, and there is no easy or simple remedy for it. Anybody who knows the industry as well as I do, living in Kent, realises that Mother Nature interferes in these matters, and that the problem is extremely complicated. But it is a vital and very serious one, and I assure the hon. Lady that the Government will be absolutely impartial and fair in considering this matter. Therefore, hon. Members will realise that I cannot tonight make a statement which in any way commits the Government.

It is fair to say to the hon. Lady, as she has some influence in certain sections of her party, that the Opposition have had a very large number of Supply Days, and that to ask us to give a guarantee before we make our decision to provide a full day's debate, for which also my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish) asked, is an undertaking which I cannot give. I do not think that either the hon. Lady or my hon. and gallant Friend, or my other hon. Friends who so greatly out-number the Opposition on this occasion need feel anxious. It is unlikely and, indeed, im- probable that we shall be able to make any decision on this highly complex issue before the House re-assembles.

Of course, the Government, like previous Governments, have the right to make an Order which would be subject to approval by the House within 28 days. Having been a former P.P.S. to a Minister, the hon. Lady will know how fair is the consideration given to these matters. It is a matter about which we must be very careful before we start barging in, There are 130,000 people in this industry and it is producing goods to the value of£100 million. If we do great damage to the horticultural industry we shall do untold harm to the British housewife. She would be at the mercy of foreign exporters. Neither I nor any hon. Member would tolerate that sort of action for a moment.

Due to our financial restrictions we have had to impose some savage quotas. If the hon. Lady could meet some of the people I have had to deal with at the foreign embassies recently, she would know that we are not exactly earning popularity on this issue. The whole question of essential consumer goods, and textiles particularly, is prejudiced because we cannot solve our balance of payments problem in Europe. We have had a glut this year and we have this tremendous problem of whether for example we put a quota on tomatoes, whether we bring in Dutch tomatoes or not—it changes from day to day. It would be wrong if I made a statement which would in any way pre-judge the decision which will have to be taken on this matter.

Mr. Nabarro

I appreciate the position, but my hon. Friend would not depart in any way from the principle to which hon. Members on this side of the House are committed, that the home grower gets the first place in our domestic markets, the Empire producer the second and the foreigner third and last.

Mr. Mackeson

My hon. Friend may have committed himself to his constituents but the position is that the N.F.U. have put in their application and it deserves fair examination. No Minister should pre-judge that, and certainly I refuse to do so.

I think that in this country we realise the difficulty of the problem. We had to cut imports. We want to see this industry efficient and protected, but I do not know of a more desperately difficult political and administrative problem.

It would be wrong for me to go beyond what I have said. We must maintain a tremendous amount of horticultural production in this country. I may have made remarks about this problem myself before I sat on the Front Bench, but it would be wrong for me in any way to commit Her Majesty's Government. I am grateful to he hon. Member for raising the matter and for—

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

Adjourned at Half-past Eleven o'Clock.

Back to