HC Deb 04 April 1955 vol 539 cc959-70

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

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

I want to take this chance of putting in a plea for the horticulturists. They are of great value to this country, and at present they are going through what may be described as lean times, and certainly difficult times.

We have been reminded very recently, since we had the February Price Review before us not very long ago, that under the Agriculture Act, 1947, guaranteed prices were given for the main sections of agricultural products. The guaranteed prices have worked very well. When costs have risen to agriculturists, the prices which they receive have risen in return to recoup them for any additional costs which they have had during the preceding year. However, hon. Members will remember that horticultural products are not covered by guaranteed prices under the 1947 Act.

Nevertheless, various Governments have urged the horticulturists to grow more, to plant, to plough, and to get ahead with the job of feeding the nation. As a result of their efforts, the horticulturists have had something of a raw deal. However, I must give the Government full credit for coming to the rescue about 18 months ago. The Government then provided some good, substantial tariffs which helped the horticultural industry from Cornwall to the East Coast. The Government kept their election pledge to do something to help the horticulturists, and the horticulturists have been grateful for what the Government did about 18 months ago. They recognise that this competition from abroad is sometimes unfair in that nations competing with us do not have the same standard of living that we have in this country.

I want to ask the Government if they are not prepared to help a little more. Eighteen months have gone by and the horticulturists' position has not improved. Wages have steadily gone up and other costs have increased, but there is still competition from abroad.

It is essential that horticulture should live for two reasons; we must have a thriving and flourishing horticultural industry in case of another war, and we must also have our horticultural industry thriving because we have the capital sunk in the land, we have the glasshouses, the cloches, the frames, the trees and the fruit bushes. They have all to be maintained and not allowed to go to rack and ruin, which may happen if horticulture is not helped a little more than it is at present.

More important is the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is at present very worried about the import-export position—our balance of payments. It must be remembered that every ton we can produce at home means that we can save buying a ton of food from abroad. What are the Government doing at the moment to help the horticulturists? I know that they have set up a committee of inquiry to study the marketing of horticultural produce, and I congratulate the Minister of Agriculture on having set up that committee.

It may well help, but I do not think that any thing very spectacular will come from it, and we shall have to wait for its report. However, we hope that it may make some useful suggestions and provide some ideas. In the meantime, industry is booming throughout the whole country, and agriculture is secure and on sound foundations and doing fairly well, to say the least of it.

What has happened to the horticultural industry? If we look back to 1947 and compare it with the present, we find that in 1947 coke delivered to horticulturists cost as little as 67s. a ton. In 1951 it cost 86s. 6d., in 1954 it cost as much as 113s. 6d. per ton. Wages have shown a similar sort of rise, from approximately £4 in 1947 to £6 10s.

What have wholesale market prices done? They have gone in the reverse direction. Taking the equivalent figure of 100 for 1937, by 1947 the figure was 302 and by 1951 it was back to 254, for 1953 it was 275. I have not the figure for 1954, but it was certainly no higher than 1953. So we can see that the prices of coke and wages, to take only two items, have considerably increased since 1947, but the prices of horticultural products are still below the prices which those products were fetching in that year.

There has been no compensation to the group concerned with horticultural products, as there would have been for the ordinary farmer growing products which come under the Agriculture Act. The trouble is that horticultural products, as no doubt the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will tell us, do not lend themselves to a system of guaranteed prices. That may be true, but what can the Government do?

Can the Government give us more subsidies for fertilisers? Can they subsidise coke? They have been generous enough to subsidise fertilisers still further only a short time ago, but if they intend to do more for horticulturists, they will have to do something over the whole range of agriculture. However, coke is used more in horticulture than by the ordinary farmer, and the Government may well feel disposed to subsidise coke.

There is one way in which the Government really can help, but it will take a great effort by the Minister of Agriculture, who must tackle the Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to prevail upon him to reduce that iniquitous petrol tax of 2s. 6d. a gallon from which we now suffer. Horticulturists, unlike the farmers who use larger tractors, almost always use petrol for their small machines. If some relief by way of a reduction of the duty on petrol could be given, that would help the horticulturists to a considerable extent.

Something may well be done in the Budget to lower the tax on petrol all round, but I ask the Minister of Agriculture whether he will try to prevail upon the Chancellor to take off the tax entirely for petrol used in this industry. It has been done before and it could be done again. On the last occasion the concession did not last for long but the system worked satisfactorily when it was tried.

If it was done we should immediately see relief and encouragement given to the grower of horticultural products. Possibly there would be a reduction in the price because of the more favourable conditions for the growing of these products. It would encourage mechanisation, efficiency and production. There is no reason why we should not look after our own horticulturists, especially when we remember that nearly all our competitors get tax-free petrol—not only those in Europe but also those in Canada and the United States.

What would it cost if the Chancellor removed the tax? From the estimates which I have been given, 40 million gallons of petrol are used in the industry every year. That is merely a guess, but it may be nearly correct. If it is correct, it would mean that there would be a loss to the Revenue of about £5 million. In his present fortunate position, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can well afford to give away £5 million, and this step would put the horticulturist back on his feet.

Incidentally, such an action would also help agriculture. It is far more efficient to run tractors on petrol rather than on oil. Many farmers have turned from petrol to oil simply to avoid taxation. The result is that their tractors are often left running all through the lunch hour, because they take a long time to warm up. They are not nearly so economic as when they are run on petrol. If the tax was taken off, I can imagine that the ordinary farmer would return to the petrol-driven tractor, which is a much more economic machine, and the result would be of benefit to the country as a whole.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary may well say that it is administratively difficult to give tax-free petrol to the horticulturist, but it is only a matter of them putting in returns and making a claim for petrol used. There is no reason why unreasonable advantage should be taken of such a system. A similar system is operated already for inshore fishing vessels. It is easy to check approximately the amount of petrol which should be used on a smallholding. This is done in New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

I make a serious appeal to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I know that it does not lie in his hands to take off the tax, but it is his duty to protect the horticultural industry, and he and the Minister of Agriculture could have a talk with the Chancellor to see if he can help. This would be the best way in which to help the industry. I hope that my words will not be lost, and that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will see the Chancellor without fail within a short time.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) for raising this subject, for one fact is obvious and that is that successive Governments have failed to cope with the problem of the British horticultural industry. However, I am very doubtful whether the plea which he has made is of special reference to the costs of production of the individual horticulturist. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman got the information that most of the competitors of the British grower enjoy tax-free fuel. That is certainly not true of Holland and Belgium.

Mr. G. Williams


Mr. Snow

It may well be true of Denmark, but it is not true of those two countries, which are major exporters of horticultural produce.

I think that we in this country have failed to encourage the co-operative effort which is certainly apparent in Denmark and Belgium, if not in France. A reduction in the cost of collection, grading and packing would prove a substantial factor in reducing the overall cost. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point, because I think that we are backward in encouraging the sort of co-operative effort which may help to solve some of the difficulties facing our horticulturists.

The hon. Member for Tonbridge referred to the cost of fuel, and mentioned coke. I know of horticulturists who are not so much bothered about the cost of coke as by the fact that they cannot get any. I should have thought that the provision and availability of this fuel was a matter about which the Ministry of Agriculture would have made better arrangements with the Ministry of Fuel and Power before the season began. I do not wish to take up more of the Minister's time, but I would ask him to consider encouraging co-operative production.

10.22 p.m.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) on raising this matter, which is of great interest to West Cornwall. It is said that tariffs must have a fair trial, but if they have to have a fair trial I beg the Government not to commit us too far in advance with any fresh measures. I appreciate that at the moment it is all in the air, and that, in due course, representations will be made which will be carefully considered by my right hon. Friend, and by the Board of Trade.

I would ask for an assurance on three points. First, that the Minister will help the industry as much as possible with the troubles which horticulturists are experiencing from exports. Secondly, that he will help horticulturists about transport matters; assist in regard to railway freight rates, and ensure that consignments of horticultural produce reach the market at the right time. Thirdly, that he will assist in devising new methods of producing non-returnable boxes.

The attractive presentation of horticultural produce is a help in the selling of that produce. It is often said that the produce from abroad, from Italy and France, is more attractively presented, and that our horticulturists should follow that example.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

We know that this is a difficult subject, but, at the same time, this means that we appreciate the difficulties facing our horticulturists. I wish to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) about an inquiry into the possibility of making nonreturnable crates and boxes. That would, indeed, be a help to the industry. It needs a non-returnable crate, priced at 1 s. 6d. a crate. I hope that any sort of negotiations between the Ministry of Transport and the horticultural industry will take into consideration the geographical difference between the areas in which horticulture is produced.

The horticultural industry is, and must be, based on quality. Provided that quality against quality is equal it is only reasonable to ensure, both from the point of view of defence and of the health of our own country, that the quality of horticultural produce in this country should equal that from abroad. While the quality of the home produce may equal that coming from abroad, there will not be fair competition if our horticultural industry is handicapped by a higher standard of wage rates, higher transport rates and a higher cost of returnable crates. I feel sure that the Minister would be the first to agree that unless there is flexibility within G.A.T.T. to safeguard against that form of competition by a tariff arrangement, horticulture has a very poor future. I feel equally sure that the Minister does not wish that position to arise.

10.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I should like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) on his good fortune in securing the Adjournment tonight on this important subject of our horticultural industry. Before I reply to the points that he raised, I should like to assure my hon.

Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) and for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) that the points they have mentioned are already very much in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has already heard them personally. We are already studying in the Department what we can do to meet them.

I understand how deeply my hon. Friends feel in this matter, and how very worried many of the small growers are in Cornwall. The fact is that some parts of England have had two years of singular difficulty. Nineteen fifty-three was a year of exceptional bounty, and a bounteous year for growing is often an embarrassment to the professional grower because prices are very low. The next year was one of exceptional difficulty in growing, and of shortage. Normally, horticultural growers who are in the business professionally expect to do well in a year of difficult growing, because prices are high and the expert is able to continue to produce and, therfore, to make a good living.

Unfortunately, however, during last season—1954—the western half of the country had a tremendously heavy rainfall and a most difficult growing season. Although the eastern part of England did not have too bad a time and still continued to produce, there is no doubt whatever that the West, and especially the far West, had a most difficult time. Growers lost their crops time after time and had to re-sow. They had all the expense and difficulty, but very little to show at the end of it.

I express my deepest sympathies about the difficulties which I know growers have had, and I appreciate what my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives and for Bodmin have said. Growers have been in real difficulties, and we are doing what we can to help them on those three points.

This industry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge referred, has had particular difficulties and has felt particularly hardly its problem of meeting increased costs with no immediate relief from the Government in the form of increased price guarantees which the rest of agriculture gets. I sympathise with the plea which my hon. Friend has made tonight to see whether we can do something to help.

It is, of course, an industry with a large number of small growers. Some 75 per cent. of the total number of growers are reckoned to be people with less than 20 acres. There is a total of about 70,000 holdings interested in horticulture. About half of them are almost entirely horticultural, and nearly another quarter are mainly horticultural. The picture is of an industry with a large number of small growers, about 45 per cent. of whom are interested in vegetable growing. They supply the greater part—about 75 to 80 per cent.—of the vegetable needs of this country, the remainder being filled by imports.

For a great part of our vegetables, we are entirely dependent upon home production. The imported section is mainly in respect of tomatoes and in dry bulb onions and in broccoli, which comes in at this time of year from Western European countries to supplement the home supply.

We produce about 45 per cent. by weight of the fruit we require, and about 55 per cent. by weight is imported. That includes a very large quantity of citrus fruits and bananas, amounting altogether to about two-thirds of the total import. Except for apples and pears, we do not have much direct competition from imported fruit. About 15 or 20 per cent. of the apples are imported, and a little over half the pears. But, of course, there is a great deal of indirect competition in fruit, because naturally an orange or a banana may be preferred to an apple from time to time. In fruit production, therefore, there is a serious element of competition from imports.

As for flowers, we produce the greater part of our needs. It is an industry worth about £20 million per annum, and about £1 million worth of flowers are imported. A summary of the picture is that we produce the greater part of our needs for vegetables and flowers, and something under half of what we need of fruit.

We have felt that our general policy as a Government must be to ensure that there is a sufficient imported supply to supplement the home production to ensure that consumers in this country have enough and the choice of what they wish to have. At the same time, we feel that we should assure the home producer first place in our own market. To that end, as my hon. Friends have acknowledged, we did revise the tariff about 15 months ago, first for fruit and vegetables, and for a further range about a year ago, including cut flowers. I think that the revision was generally regarded as fair at the time. It increased the tariff incidence on specific tariffs by about twice the original rate, and on nursery stocks by about 2½ times.

There were certain bound items, notably apples and pears, on which no revision was made but on which there are quantitative regulations. The general principle with regard to revision is that we are agreeable in principle to revision when a case is made out, but naturally there must be sufficient time to gain experience, and the figures of imports and the general position must be such that it has substantiated such a case.

I would agree that on the bound items there is a rather different case from that of the items which are not bound. Naturally, it is up to the producers to bring forward a case for revision when they think that the facts justify it, and we as a Government will be willing to consider such a case sympathetically and objectively whenever it is brought before us.

In the meantime, we do what we can to help the industry, and although I cannot say anything to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge tonight on the question of a rebate in petrol duty—it is entirely in the hands of the Chancellor. and my hon. Friend will not be surprised if I tell him that at this time of the year the Chancellor is very discreet about his intentions in such matters—I am sure that my right hon. Friend will give this matter the most careful and sympathetic consideration.

In the meantime, we are able to do something to help the industry, in particular with production grants which are assessed at a value of about £3 million a year to the horticultural industry. In the lifetime of this Government we restored the fertiliser subsidy, which has a particular value to horticulture. We also restored the ploughing subsidy, which has some value to horticulture, and particularly to the fruit grower. In those ways we have been able to do something to help, and very glad I am that we have.

We have between 30 and 40 research institutes behind the industry, and through our advisory services we give a range of advice upon technical matters connected with growing. I would mention particularly to the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) that a good deal of work has been done both upon marketing research and in the advisory field in the last few years. During the last year we have had a particularly helpful development, called the grade assessment scheme, by which our market officers go into the markets, inspect the consignments of different growers, and then send them confidential reports. They have already sent out about 4,000 reports, unasked for but almost invariably welcomed, giving an objective review of what the stock in question was like.

This is proving to be a most valuable service. It was started initially with United States funds, and it is having a good influence in helping growers to grade up their presentation in a fashion which will meet the demands of the market and help them to get better prices. I have not time to enumerate the various methods which we are using to assist marketing, but we do all we can to encourage co-operation. Some growers are willing to co-operate and some are not. The system does not go so far here as it does in Denmark, I agree, but among progressive growers there has been a real advance in presentation, notably in Kent. There the growers have proved most co-operative in instituting improved methods of marketing.

The high road to getting better prices for themselves and meeting the consumer demand more adequately is by trying to put on standard grades, and high-grade stuff, and studying the possibilities of pre-packaging, all of which will attract the customers and the multiples which are anxious to serve a large body of our housewives. The progressive horticulturists are certainly taking advantage of these techniques.

This industry continually faces big risks in growing and marketing. That is its tradition. We, as a Government, have done quite a bit to help it, and we shall be glad to do more if we can see ways in which we can help it further.

The Question haying 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-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.