HC Deb 05 December 1958 vol 596 cc1597-604

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade for being here to reply to this Adjournment debate, and I would take the opportunity of congratulating him on his appointment to his present office, an appointment which gives great pleasure in all parts of the House. I do not think that he will be wasting his time in coming here while I explain the chinchilla racket and recommend to him the action which I think he should take to protect the good name of the genuine chinchilla breeder while preventing many innocent people from being swindled.

I know that interested parties resent the use of the word "rabbit" in this connection, but really the distinction between chinchilla and rabbit is a distinction without a difference.

The racket is that many current advertisements, and the literature supplied to the people who reply to the advertisements, are calculated to deceive. They suggest, even to the reasonably prudent mind, that investment of about £200 in breeding chinchilla will show a rapid and a large return. They place emphasis on the idea that these animals are extremely easy to breed and to keep. The advertisers suggest that when they have multiplied five-fold the investor will have stock worth £1,000 and that he will easily be able to realise this value in cash if he wants to. They suggest that in any case he will be able to sell the pelts of his rabbits for about £20 a time.

An optimist might calculate that for about £200 down, the investor can expect to be making an income in five years' time of about £2,000 a year, and that, even though that might last for only a further five years or so, at the end of the 10-year period he might reasonably expect an income of between £400 and £500 a year for life. Those are the sort of dreams that these operators are peddling with the rabbits they sell. The dreams are vain and the suggestions are misleading.

They are misleading because the advertisers do not undertake to buy back the rabbits and sell them to other breeders. The very cunningly-phrased guarantees that I have studied in reality guarantee only this: that rabbits breed. The so-called marketing schemes which are so cunningly described are put in such a way that their uselessness to the breeder is not easily discerned.

These advertisements are misleading, because they conceal what was revealed in the United States of America, where this racket has been tried and worked out.

It was revealed that there is no public demand for chinchilla rabbit fur, certainly not to the extent that will be required to support a breeding industry of the size envisaged by these advertisers. It was revealed, also, that pelts bred by small backroom breeders had a negligible value to the trade when they were offered in the market. It was revealed that whatever might be the grade of the fur of the original breeding pairs, the grade of the fur of the resulting herd which has to be sold as pelts cannot be guaranteed. It depends, as with mink, upon the experience and skill of the breeder more than upon the heredity of the stock of the original breeding parents.

These advertisements are further misleading because there is no indication at all that there will be any public demand in the United Kingdom, any more than there was in the United States of America, for chinchilla rabbit fur. Even if the demand were to be stimulated, a supply on the scale advocated by these advertisers would so reduce the price of pelts as to make the industry totally un-remunerative. In the past year, so far as I can make out, about 500 pelts were sold on the market in this country and, even with that comparatively low supply, the best pelts were fetching only between £15 and £20 each.

These advertisements are also misleading because there is no national marketing organisation for chinchilla rabbit fur, and no universally accepted grading system. Therefore, the small, backroom breeder would be under a crippling handicap in trying to market his pelts. The truth is that the only people who are going to make money out of chinchilla rabbits are those advertisers now purporting to sell them as breeding stock. They will go on making money for as long as there are innocent people who are taken in by their advertisements, which are so ingeniously devised. They will go on doing it unless and until they are exposed and stopped.

It is only fair that I should say what action I recommend my hon. Friend to take. I ask him quite simply to institute an inquiry to investigate the allegations I am making, with special reference to the advertisers who are importing American rabbits and selling them in this country on commission. Secondly, I ask him to publish the findings of such an inquiry. Thirdly, I ask him to prosecute apparent frauds. Fourthly, and more constructively, to assess and make known to the general public the genuine potentialities of trade in chinchilla rabbit fur. Finally, I think it reasonable to suggest that he should set up statutory associations to protect the interests of the bona fide chinchilla breeder and of the fur trade respectively.

I have had many pathetic letters since I first publicly interested myself in this question. It is frequently said that a really honest person cannot fall a victim to a confidence trick, but the sort of person who is tempted by these advertisements is not tainted by any kind of dishonesty. My letters come from thoroughly decent people, retired people, old people, professional people, young and ambitious people, and sometimes children whose parents are prepared to back them with a couple of hundred pounds of their savings.

I am all for the principle of caveat emptor. I realise that there is a point beyond which it would be quite wrong and stupid for the Government, or even the House, to attempt to protect the fool from the results of his folly. Nevertheless, I think that there is here a trap which is so cunningly devised that it would take more than common shrewdness to avoid falling into it. I should hate to think that these people were going to get their fingers burned, as I fear some of them may be, and I hope that by discussing the matter this afternoon the House and my hon. Friend will at least be able to give them some warning and sound advice.

4.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)

I have listened with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford. North (Mr. Iremonger) and I should like to take his three suggestions—that we should institute an inquiry and publish the findings, that we should prosecute any frauds and that we should assess the potentiality of the market for chinchilla—a little later. I want, first, to thank him very much for having given me notice of the points which he intended to raise in the course of his Adjournment debate.

May I tell the House a little about the chinchilla fur industry? The chinchilla is a land rodent and not a rabbit. I should not like to be asked what is the distinction between a chinchilla and a rabbit, but I am sure that there is a distinction. The chinchilla is a native of the Andes, which has been bred on a large scale only in captivity, chiefly the the United States and Canada during the last thirty to thirty-five years. The fur is used mainly for trimming and for wraps; it has not, in general, the characteristics which make it suitable for use in full-length coats. The fur of the chinchilla is very light in colour and not very warm and it cannot be stranded in a way which makes the appearance and feel of a mink coat so attractive. For this reason, the chinchilla is used almost wholly for trimmings and for wraps.

The effect of this is that the demand for the fur has so far been very limited in this country, and during the past year purchases on the London market of pelts from North America, the principal source, have been almost wholly for re-export. Unless, therefore, the market expanded very considerably, the effect of producing large quantities of chinchilla pelts would be to reduce the value of the article very considerably. Those who seek to establish breeding on a large scale in this country expect to be able to popularise the fur for the very limited use to which it can be put, but the effect of this might well be to lower the market value of pelts even if they were of good quality.

The breeding of chinchilla in captivity is a new trade in this country. At present, there is a lively trade in breeding stock, as the hon. Member said, but not much trade—some would say none—in the U.K.-bred pelts out of which wraps and stoles will, some hope, be made. We cannot tell what the future holds in store for the industry of breeding chinchilla for their fur in this country. My hon. Friend has explained that in his view buyers of breeding chinchilla are gravely misled by the over-optimistic claims made by certain people for the opportunity open to the chinchilla breeder. I am assured that there are many reputable people in this business who are anxious to sell the chinchilla which they are raising at a fair price and on honest terms, and I must repudiate distinctly any charge which may be levelled against breeders of chinchilla as a class in this country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree.

I am sure that prospective buyers and sellers will read my hon. Friend's remarks with interest. In any new and speculative business some fingers must be burned, and I do not think that the fact that risk is involved, as well as patience, hard work, knowledge of the trade and skill, as well as a little luck—the constituents of any business—would justify any judgment by me on the morality of the trade as a whole.

One thought which occurs to me is that if the hopes of breeders are to be realised, the number of chinchilla in this country will grow rapidly, and anyone would be able to ask himself whether, in the event of that happening, the present remarkable prices for breeding animals will be maintained, and, indeed, whether the price of pelts themselves may not be affected.

The information given in this debate will no doubt be very useful to prospective buyers and sellers. My hon. Friend is to be commended on his public spirit in drawing attention to the risks involved for those who have no experience in buying and breeding these animals. The best way of countering publicity which may be thought to give an over-optimistic picture of the prospects of investment is by bringing the light of public opinion on the subject, as is already being done in this short debate.

I think that, in his speech, my hon. Friend recognised that I would not wish to make any judgment on the questions that he has raised. He merely asks for an inquiry to be made. I should like to examine what an inquiry might do. It might, on the one hand, find that the allegations made are false. No doubt this would be a satisfactory result, but I do not think that public concern over this matter is sufficiently great to justify instituting an inquiry for this reason only.

On the other hand, an inquiry might conceivably find that the allegations have substance, and recommend action by the trade or by the Government to correct them. Let me say at once that I do not consider that there is a problem here that the Government would consider introducing legislation to deal with. Although it is outside the scope of this debate, I may say that it would require legislation if statutory bodies were to be set up. But it would be out of order for me to discuss that in any detail.

Action taken by the industry to deal with its own problems is something that the Government feel would best be left to the industry itself, which knows far better than anyone else what the problems are, and what the remedies might be. I understand that there is a good deal of support in this country for the idea of a single system of grading of live chinchilla, which might be operated by the Fur Breeders' Association of the United Kingdom, or by some other body commanding the confidence of all parties. This is a matter for the industry itself—and I should like to stress that. I can, with all respect to my hon. Friend, see no case for a Government inquiry.

The Board of Trade does, however, already possess the power to prosecute, under the Merchandise Marks Acts, in cases where there is prima facie evidence that false or misleading advertisements are applied as trade descriptions to the sale of goods. I can assure my hon. Friend that if the Board considered that such evidence existed, consideration would be given to the possibility of prosecuting under these Acts. The general run of the advertisements that the Board has so far examined offer no such grounds. I have studied them myself and, indeed, have brought a selection with me, in case they were referred to.

It is true that a number display a breezy optimism about the ease of raising a herd of chinchilla, and I have noticed that one, in particular, refers to the progeny of a 1958 world champion. Some authorities whom we have consulted deny that there has ever been a world championship. We have certainly not been able to find any account of such a championship, but I can assure my hon. Friend that further inquiries are being made on this point.

For the rest, the advertisements often imply that a great deal of money may be made easily and quickly, but, as I say, I hope that the debate, and my hon. Friend's initiative in raising the matter, will itself serve to draw the attention of potential buyers to the danger of accepting what these advertisements say without the most careful inquiry and scrutiny. I am sure that traders and breeders alike will be grateful to my hon. Friend for his part in raising the subject on the Floor of the House, and I hope that this short debate may be given adequate publicity so that breeders and public may be aware of the true situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Four o'clock.