HC Deb 05 May 1952 vol 500 cc148-56

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

In 1947 the Government urged all horticulturists to produce more food for our people. They urged them especially to grow more soft fruit and apples—a very worthy thing to do. Following that, however, in the next few years they allowed more and more horticultural imports. In 1949, £90 million worth were imported; in 1950, £95 million; and in 1951 the figure went up to £112 million. The late Government asked horticulturists to grow more food; it was perhaps a bad policy to allow more imports, and to confuse the horticulturists just as they were getting their fruit farms going.

However, the Government gave us some hope by a quota system, under which they restricted the imports of foreign produce during the height of the English growing season. At the present time there is a widespread feeling amongst all horticulturists that these quotas are not being complied with, but are being exceeded. It is very difficult to prove this. I have some figures before me which I shall put to the Parliamentary Secretary, who I hope will be able either to refute them and say they are incorrect, or else to give us an assurance that these quotas which are allowed in will not be exceeded in the future.

Some weeks ago I asked the President of the Board of Trade a Question about the quota for cut flowers, and in his reply he told me that the quota for cut flowers, which ended on 5th April of this year, was £550,000. He also told me, in answer to the same Question, that the imports of cut flowers up to 31st December last were £743,000, and that is after deducting those that come from the Channel Isles, which of course do not count for quota purposes. The net result is that the quota was exceeded by 33 per cent. The Ministry may be able to quibble over that because the quota ended on 5th April and the year for which I have the imports ended on 31st December last. But it does not really matter very much whether we have three months at the end of the year or at the beginning; it seems quite clear from those figures that the quota was exceeded by at least 30 per cent.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will not wish to avoid meeting this case, especially as he was not responsible for most of the time when these imports were coming in. Last December alone the imports of flowers were up 30 per cent. on the year before, but the quota was hardly up at all. In fact, 422,000 lb. of flowers came into this country last December against 313,000 lb. in the year before. It is very difficult to assess the quota compared with the imports because it is given, in many cases, in tons and in some cases in pounds sterling, and there is also, of course, the question of the Channel Islands, in respect of which deductions have to be made.

At any rate, this matter of exceeding the quota can be traced right back to 1950. I have two concrete cases that happened in that year. In August of that year, the quota of tomatoes was 2,300 tons and the imports were actually 2,965 tons, which was nearly 30 per cent. more than they ought to have been. In June and July of that year, the quota of cherries was 6,000 tons, and the imports amounted to 8,621 tons, exceeding the quota by over 40 per cent. I will not bore the House by giving any more examples, but if hon. Members care to go into the figures, they will find that that sort of thing goes on all through the months, right up to the present time.

The trade are very perturbed about this. Horticulturists are exceedingly worried. They want to know whether it is going to get worse? They have uncertainty at the present time, and nothing kills trade more than uncertainty. If it is not as bad as we think, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us so; but it certainly is happening.To make quite sure that this is happening, I refer to the answer to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) about broccoli. The President of the Board of Trade answered the Question himself. In his answer he said: It is true the quota was exceeded. The method whereby this quota is applied is by no means perfect, but at the moment it appears to be the best of a number of rather unsatisfactory choices." —[OFFIctAL REPORT, 1st May, 1952; Vol. 499, c. 1650.] He went on to say that he was looking into the matter.

There is something very wrong here. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary: How are these quotas taken up? Does he give permits to foreign Governments telling them how much they can send into this country, or does he give permits to the importers in this country so they will not be able to exceed that quota, or does he just trust to luck?

The trade seem to think that there is no control at all at the moment. Surely these figures of imports could be looked at each week as they come in and, if they are exceeded, either be stopped or drastically cut the next week. At the moment, the position is completely unsatisfactory. If the horticulturists have been let down in the past, surely the Conservative Government could now put this right.

I think that the President of the Board of Trade, if he has time to go into this matter, will find that the Government can do something to see that these quotas are not exceeded. Supposing the horticulturist exceeds his fuel ration, the Government take very good care if he is given a ration of fuel to grow his cucumbers and tomatoes that he does not exceed it. The horticulturist, if he is looked after to that extent, expects some return from the Government in seeing that the import quotas, which help and protect him to some extent, are not exceeded.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance tonight that something will be done to see that these quotas are not exceeded. The whole quota system does not seem to be working at all at the moment. The more I think of it, the more I come to the conclusion that tariffs are the only thing adequately to protect horticulturists. I wonder whether the President of the Board of Trade has decided yet whether he can get over some of the terms of G.A.T.T., which prevent us from putting the necessary protection on horticultural imports. I know that the more free trade we can have in this country the better, but I make a big exception in the case of horticulture. We have the land and the men and the machines as well they are our capital and we must make use of this capital in the horticultural world. That is why horticulture must be protected, and I believe that the only way to do it is through tariffs.

I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture has given us a long-term policy for agriculture, or has, at any rate, shown his intention to do that in the very near future. I hope he will also give us a long-term policy for horticulture. I also rejoice in the fact that he has already taken steps to cut down quotas this year. The import quotas for gooseberries, strawberries, cherries and plums have all been drastically reduced, and that is an enormous help to the horticulturist.

Apples alone have been cut from £1,125,000 to £300,000 per annum, pears have been cut from £2,236,000 to £750,000. I congratulate the Government on that very fine effort. This is far better than letting our own fruit rot and letting the foreigner send his fruit to this country. However, the new quotas will be useless to us if they are not carried out to the letter. I say that most emphatically.

I would also remind the Parliamentary Secretary that another way of overcoming the quota system is to bring produce into the country and put it into cold storage until just before the quotas come into operation. I do not know that the Government can do very much about stopping that. Asparagus is an example, but I hope that when the Government are working out quotas in future they will remember that a great deal of produce can be brought into the country and put in cold storage beforehand.

It is absolutely necessary that we produce as much as ever we can at the present time. Greater horticultural production here is essential in future. We must produce more, and we can produce fruit and vegetables as good as any other country provided that we are given a fair market. If the President of the Board of Trade can help the horticulturists over the present uncertainty as to whether the quotas will be exceeded at any time, as they are being exceeded, the horticulturists will help him by producing more.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

The whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) for raising the very important subject of horticulture tonight. In view of the importance of the subject, it is amazing to see the benches opposite empty except for two Whips. Not a Liberal Member is present.

I suppose that the Minister is fully aware that no part of the United Kingdom is more interested in this subject and feels it more deeply than Cornwall.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Marshall

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) says "Hear, hear." He knows how deep the feeling about this matter is in that part of the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge said that, in reply to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard), the Minister mentioned that the quota had been exceeded. Horticulture is a vital interest not only to the horticulturist but also to the United Kingdom. From time to time when the country is in danger our horticultural production plays a very important part in the lives of our people, and especially broccoli in Cornwall.

There is also the important subject of bulbs. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to give us some idea of what the future policy about the importation of bulbs will be. The Isles of Scilly and parts of Cornwall are vitally interested in this matter and it is important to us to know what the future policy is to be.

I shall not develop my case any further tonight, particularly on the subject of horticulture generally. Her Majesty'? Government have inherited a ghastly system and they have already taken some steps to help the industry. I shall sit down in the hope that there will still be time for my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives to give us his support.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)

I am very glad to have a few minutes in which to emphasise our extreme difficulties in this case. We have heard that the quotas be- tween 16th February and 31st March were exceeded by some £2,000. The next quota period was from 1st April to 30th June, I asked the President of the Board of Trade, in a Question on 1st May, what the excess of the quota was to be and he said that he did not then know. The truth is that quotas are hopeless as a regulation for horticultural imports. I understand that the way in which the Board of Trade determines what quotas have been imported is by applying to the people who are actually importing these products, who then give the Board of Trade the figures. If that is the case it is not a very satisfactory state of affairs.

If there is a bulk quota it is quite obvious that it must be extremely bad for the industry in West Cornwall, causing chaos and disorganisation not only to the importer but to the markets of this country. If there is to be a quota I suggest it should be done on a weekly basis. It would be easier to check the figures and not so disastrous for our people in Cornwall. It would also give a chance to the Board of Trade to review the whole position.

The only answer to the problem must be a tariff. The Americans have recently made variations in their tariffs, and we have made representations to them on the subject. If they have varied their tariff why should not we? I do not see why we should not apply tariffs to the import of broccoli into this country. The answer to the problem may be a sliding tariff, and I hope my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will bear that in mind so that when the farmers of West Cornwall are growing broccoli the tariff should be raised to stop the imports of foreign broccoli. A tariff is the only efficient system of checking the actual imports into this country. Under the present system there is no check on what comes in and foreigners should pay for the right of using our markets.

If this question of a tariff is not yet acceptable to Her Majesty's Government, I hope we will be told what is to be the policy for next season. Is it to be a weekly quota or are the figures to be announced before the planting season so as to give the farmers in West Cornwall a chance of knowing what they are up against? I received a letter today in which a big broccoli grower said:

I enclose an account sale received this morning, which bears out what we have been saying. You will see that broccoli returned the princely sum of 2s. per crate "— of 24 heads. I do trust that before planting time "— which is approximately between now and mid-July— you will be able to get from the Government some plan as to what we are to do. If Cornish broccoli does not fit into the present economic set-up the sooner we are told the better, so that we can switch to alternative rotations. That is the situation. Do we want broccoli from Cornwall. If we do, we must tell the farmers of West Cornwall what they are to do. They are prepared and ready to produce it, but they must have some security if all the work and trouble to produce broccoli for next season is not to be in vain, and if they are not to have to do what they are doing at this moment—turning their cattle on to the crops or ploughing them in.

10.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Henry Strauss)

My hon. Friends, who speak with such experience of the industries they know so well, have left me very little time in which to reply to them. I make no complaint of this. I know that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish) has been unable to get in. If there are points with which I have not time to deal, perhaps I can have a word with my hon. Friends afterwards.

They have raised a very important point. As they said, a wide range of vegetables was included in the Open General Licence system in October, 1949. It has been the contention of Ministers at all times—I think that my hon. Friends will not differ here—that a tariff and not a licence is the proper method of protection. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the specific duties had lost value as a result of the rise in prices. While, therefore, the application of the National Farmers' Union for a revised tariff has been under consideration, it was thought reasonable to continue for the time being such protection as was afforded by import licensing.

Hence we have the system of Open General Licences, subject to suspension and to quotas during certain seasons when the home crop is being marketed. Those quotas are provisional and are determined by the estimates of what will be available from home production. I am now dealing solely with vegetables. The importers receive open individual licences, and they have to make weekly returns to the Ministry of Food of the imports in the past week and of their forecast of the imports in the following week. When the permissible quota has been reached, imports are suspended for the rest of the period. For this year, the Press notice was issued by the Ministry of Food on 19th January, giving the details, dates and quotas.

To take cauliflower and broccoli, the example given by my hon. Friend and the subject of various Parliamentary Questions, there were three different periods. In the period, 16th February, to 31st March, imports of 7,500 tons were to be allowed. In the second period, 1st April, to 30th June, the imports were to be 2,500 tons, and in the third period from 1st July, to 15th November, they were to be nil. With the exception of cucumbers, vegetables were not affected by the November and March import cuts.

The question raised by my hon. Friends is briefly this: Are the Government quick enough to ascertain when the quota has been fulfilled, and to stop imports promptly when they have so ascertained? The National Farmers' Union and my hon. Friends complain that quotas have sometimes been exceeded by the time the suspension of imports takes place. As my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has said, there is substance in that complaint. To take the example of cauliflower and broccoli, in the second period from 1st April to 30th June, when 2,500 tons were to be licensed for import, that total was covered in the first few days and imports were suspended on 9th April. Therefore I agree with them that by that time the quota had been exceeded.

In answer to a Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) on 10th April, my right hon. Friend stated that he would examine the existing arrangements with the other Departments, that is, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food, to see what improvements could he made. Discussions to that end are now in progress and Her Majesty's Government are as anxious as are my hon. Friends for a satisfactory outcome, but I cannot tell them more about the outcome now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge (Mr. G. Williams) mentioned cut flowers. In that case there are no Open General Licences, but imports are restricted to specific quantities by bi-lateral agreements. They are restricted to the pre-war level. In the brief time at my disposal I had better not weary the House with figures, but according to information in my possession there is no foundation for his fear that in the case of cut flowers the quotas have been exceeded. My hon. Friend gave some figures for 1950. I have not got them here but on the later figures I do not know of any justification for his fear that the import quotas of cut flowers have been exceeded. Nevertheless I will examine the figures he has put forward to see that no complaint of even an apparent excess goes unexamined.

Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

They are too high.

Mr. Strauss

I had better not embark on that now. Of course in fixing the quotas the estimated home production is taken into consideration. Briefly the position is that the system of import licensing is not a satisfactory alternative to tariffs, but while tariffs are under examination there is some ground for giving such protection as is possible. It is quite true that the quotas have sometimes been exceeded, but it is a difficult problem because the exceeding of the quota can take place in a matter of days.

Mr. Williams

Why not issue licences?

Mr. Strauss

All these possible alternatives are under examination. The mere substitution of a shorter period for the quota period would not solve the problem, but I have not time to deal with that now.

Mr. D. Marshall

Will the Minister look at the future of bulbs?

Mr. Strauss

I have nothing to say on that matter at the moment, but I will make inquiries into what my hon. Friend has said, and I will see that he gets a reply.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Ten o'Clock.