HC Deb 18 December 1958 vol 597 cc1388-96

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Maitland (Lanark)

I wish to draw attention to the state of horticulture in Scotland, in which there is a mood of frustration and a certain sense of neglect.

When one gives figures for the situation in the industry it is easy to complain that any set of figures is distorted because it refers to a bad year or to a good year and does not give a complete picture. If, however, we look over the figures for four or five years—and I have here the figures for 1954–57—we find a picture which is not healthy and which cries out for some help.

The pickings of raspberries were up by about 10 per cent. in the period 1954–57, but the acreage had gone up by 15 per cent., and it can hardly be said, therefore, that there was a general improvement in the industry. Strawberries do not even appear to flourish. Over the same period the area under cultivation of strawberries in Scotland has fallen by 12 per cent. arid the pickings have fallen by 30 per cent. For gooseberries and currants the position is little better; the area under cultivation is down by 12 per cent. and pickings by 30 per cent.

Tomatoes, which are probably the most important single crop, do not appear, comparatively, to have done so badly. The area is almost constant but the trend in pickings is downwards. My main concern this afternoon is with tomatoes because the Clyde Valley, a great part of which is in the constituency which I have the honour to represent, has almost half of the 13 million square feet of Scottish glasshouses. Although the area is roughly constant and pickings are not very much down over a period of several years, there has been a considerable decrease in earnings. When we consider the inflation of recent years, these figures tell a sorry tale.

In 1953, the Scottish tomato growers' total earnings were about £1,734,000. In the past year they are about £1,400,000, a decline of 18 per cent. over five years, and this is without regard to the decline in value that inflation reflects. Moreover, in the horticultural industry costs are largely fixed by what I might call monopoly factors, such as wages, which are fixed on a collective basis, or fuel, which is in monopoly supply, whereas the rewards of horticulture are determined in a free market largely by the whims of the weather and the most important earnings, at any rate in tomatoes, are in a period of chronic glut in the summer.

The change in the cost element of tomato growing is very serious. Fixed minimum wages in 1953 were about £5 16s. a week, in 1958, £7 5s., and any time now they will be about £7 11 s. 6d. That means that there has been a rise of not less than 35 to 40 per cent. in wages alone over a period of four or five years. The rise in the cost of fuel is even more startling. A ton of anthracite in 1954 cost £6. The price is now about £9, a rise of almost 50 per cent. A ton of dross, which is used by mechanical stokers, was £3 a ton. Now it is £4 10s., again, a 50 per cent. rise.

The consequence of these dramatic rises in cost, unmatched by anything like a corresponding increase in earnings—indeed, overall, there has been a decrease in earnings—was, not surprisingly, summed up by the Agricultural Directory of Scotland in 1955 as follows; Quite a number of holdings were put up for sale recently at prices below the cost of building new glasshouses. Since then the position has become worse.

The main reason why smallholders who grow tomatoes or other horticultural products stick to horticulture is that they work as family units so far as they can. They have a tenacious attachment to the occupation and are tremendous individualists. Many of them own the small plots which they work and it would take almost an atom bomb to drive them away.

I believe that there are two broad lines of approach to the problem. One is to raise the tariff on imported competing horticultural produce in the summer. Everybody knows that application was made a long time ago to raise the tariff on imported tomatoes during June and July from 4d. to 6d. per 1b. That application is under consideration, but it has been under consideration for far too long to give us much comfort. It is not my purpose, however, to press that aspect very strongly.

The second line of approach must be direct aid. I am not asking for further coal subsidies, though it is very common among the tomato growers to say that coal should be subsidised. The Coal Board tell us, in effect, that much of the coal which they have been selling is already subsidised; in fact, it is sold at a considerable loss.

The approach which has to be made is primarily that of direct aid if we cannot get any significant improvement in the tariff at an early date. There is some case for applying to horticulture the principle enshrined in the Government's aid plan to small farmers, the principle that the country has an interest in securing the most economic production of food, which involves a policy of giving various kinds of direct help to small farmers.

I should like to see the farm improvement scheme which is already enshrined in Part II of the 1957 Act extended in its application. If we could have it applied to the provision of such aids to efficient production as mechanical stokers, drip systems for watering, high-pressure lamps and other equipment, I think that we should stimulate some of our growers to more economic production to help in the battle of rising costs.

There is a strong case for the Government to give their mind to a scheme to assist all growers with less than 20 acres. That is the acreage limit at which the small farm scheme is going to stop, and we know that only a very few horticultural producers will come within it, probably a certain number of people growing raspberries.

I should like to say one further word about the tariff position. The industry as a whole looks for tariff protection. It has been concerned in recent years by the influx of Dutch tomatoes. The British market is the only open free market for tomatoes in Europe, and now it is being faced with a very serious threat of new tomato supplies from Spain. I was a little distressed, a short time ago, to learn that in some quarters this threat was not taken so seriously as some of our tomato experts believe it should be taken. I should like to remind my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State, and through him the Government, that the outdoor growing of tomatoes in Alicante will confront the whole British market with a very considerable threat.

In the United Kingdom the total acreage of glasshouses used for growing tomatoes has declined by about 5 per cent. over the last two and a half years, but in Holland the acreage of glasshouses is rising and has been doing so for several years. These are the broad facts of the tomato growers' plight. They are not unknown; they have been stated before. The simple position is that earnings have shrunk while costs, whether of wages or fuel, have risen every four or five years by the best part of 50 per cent. This speaks for itself.

These people are tenacious, individualistic, resolute, and determined to cling to their homes; and on their behalf, I appeal to the Government to give this matter very serious consideration.

4.0 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

The time limit for this debate is so exceedingly short that it would be wrong of me to take up very much time in commenting on the speech of the hon. Member for Lanark (Mr. Patrick Maitland). He deployed his case with some skill, and I thought that he might have had something to say about other aspects of the produce of Scottish horticulture besides tomatoes. I appreciate that the difficulties and problems of the tomato growers in Scotland are very grave indeed, and perhaps the hon. Member concentrated on that section of the industry which is most in need of organisation, control and some kind of assistance by State action.

It will be exactly two years next Saturday since the Runciman Committee's Report was presented to this House. We have never had an opportunity of debating that Report. If, as a result of this short debate, we have before long an opportunity of discussing the whole problem of horticultural marketing, the hon. Member will have done a valuable service to the industry.

I content myself with those remarks in the hope that we shall have such a debate and be able to develop this discussion further. I am sure that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland would welcome such a debate, because it was his father who was chairman of an earlier committee of inquiry into this subject, which made certain recommendations, some of which were adopted and others not. The Runciman Committee's Report contains many valuable suggestions, but most of them require some organisation and Government co-operation in this industry. Speaking from this side of the House, I would welcome the adoption of many of those recommendations.

4.3 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mr. P. Maitland) has told me something of his constituents' problems in tomato growing, and has mentioned that there were similar problems in connection with raspberries and gooseberries. I think that the root problem was disclosed when my hon. Friend ferred to chronic gluts.

I believe that the industry is failing to preserve tomatoes which should be preserved at a time of glut, so that they can be eked out and sold at a time when there are no Scottish tomatoes, which, I think, are the finest tomatoes that there are.

The horticultural industry, since before the war, has made great strides. A transformation has come over the scene. We never hear nowadays of the gluts which used to overwhelm Covent Garden and other great markets in midsummer. Surpluses are frozen and cold-stored.

I must declare my interest as the managing director of a cold storage company in London and North Lincolnshire which meets a demand for low temperature facilities and cold storage. Forty years ago, when I was in the fishing industry and looked on the great gluts of fish, I said, "Why not freeze it?" The wise men said that it could not be done. Now we freeze thousands of tons of fish every month, not only in this country but in other countries.

We are now freezing strawberries, which have a high fluid content similar to tomatoes, not only here but in the United States, where they have been doing it for many years. We find in Florida, at the height of the tourist season, great train loads of frozen strawberries going to West Virginia and elsewhere. Something can be done with tomatoes at a time of glut.

I do not accept for one moment that this is an impossibility. So I ask my hon. Friend to take heart, and consult the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Agricultural Research Institute and the Canning and Low Temperature Research Association. I feel that even if all the information needed to overcome the problem is not available, it can still be conquered. I am quite convinced it is not insoluble.

4.6 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord John Hope)

I am very glad we have had this debate through the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mr. Patrick Maitland). It has come at an important time for an important industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) and the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) made important contributions in their short but constructive speeches.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark in opening the debate made quite clear what the nature of horticulture as a business is. We know it is liable to extreme fluctuations in output and demand. We know it is very sensitive to departures from the normal, especially in the weather. And in Britain in particular it has to meet—we have to face this fact—keen competition from growers in other countries. All in all, this does add up to quite a list of problems for horticulturists to handle. Our horticulturists in Scotland have their full share of these. I make that observation because I think it is a tribute to the vigour and efficency of our horticulturists north of the Border that they have succeeded in building up a sound and solidly founded Scottish industry.

In terms of numbers of full-time producers or acres devoted to horticultural production the industry may appear to be small. There are in fact fewer than 1,000 specialised full-time producers among some 32,000 full-time farmers, and some 21,000 acres of horticultural crops out of nearly 4 million acres of crops and grass, but horticultural output in 1957 to 1958 was valued at £5 million, that is, about 3 per cent, of the total value of Scottish agricultural output.

So much for the background. My hon. Friend has painted today rather a gloomy picture of the present state of the industry. I must be prepared to go with him to a certain extent, and certainly to the extent of recognising that the weather of the last two summers has been very discouraging to growers and that 1958, which, of course, had an exceptionally bad summer, has shown less favourable results both as to output and returns for tomatoes and strawberries. Because of this there may be a decrease this year in the total value of our horticultural output.

This only illustrates the extent to which the industry has to cope with hazards beyond its control. I do agree also that the industry has other difficulties with which to contend, about which I shall say more in a minute, although I shall be only a few minutes as I know that there are other hon. Members awaiting their turn to speak.

The picture as a whole is, of course, not one of unmixed gloom. My hon. Friend will acquit me of any complacency about this industry, but there are some bright spots. For example, among the vegetable crops there has been a steady increase in the production of canning peas in response to rising prices. This year the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute at Mylnefield, near Dundee, which has developed the technique of heat treatment of raspberry and strawberry stocks for the elimination of viruses, is issuing some 25,000 raspberry canes and 20,000 strawberry plants which have been successfully treated and will, I think, prove of great assistance to the industry. In passing, I should like to pay tribute to the director and staff of the Mylnefield Institute who, in the very short time that the institute has been in existence, have done some very wonderful work.

The glasshouse section of the industry has its own particular and peculiar problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark has in his constituency in the Clyde Valley the largest concentration of glasshouse production in Scotland, and understandably he is very interested in that aspect. He has given us figures to show that over recent years, while the total glasshouse area has remained roughly unchanged, the production by tomato growers and their returns have shown a downward trend, while fuel and labour costs have gone up. I believe that that is a fair summary of what he said.

It is always a little difficult to assess the economics of glasshouse production. Growing tomatoes is often combined with the production of other crops and it is difficult to obtain reliable figures covering the different features. Changes in unit costs, such as of labour and fuel, are not wholly a reliable guide to changes in the profitability of the industry. I do not want, however, to be taken as in any way lightly brushing aside the points which my hon. Friend has made. Whereas his figures are different from those that are available to me, I agree that it is inescapable that there has been a downward trend in production and returns in the past few years.

Mr. Patrick Maitland

I am sure that my noble Friend will bear in mind that the figures that I gave surveyed four to five years and took account of the good years as well as the bad.

Lord John Hope

Yes, indeed. I think that the argument, as it came out in debate, is broadly that the returns available to this class of grower are affected by foreign competition and that something should be done about that by us. As to foreign production, my hon. Friend has recalled the applications made at various times for help on the tariff front, but I know that he realises that I cannot go into that question at this moment.

As to capital equipment, I should stress that horticultural holdings are not necessarily excluded from the Farm Improvement Scheme. The provision of storage and other general purpose buildings on horticultural holdings can be aided under the scheme provided—and this is the limiting factor—that the buildings are of a type suitable for an agricultural holding. I agree, however, that some improvements which might be most useful on specialised horticultural holdings may well fail to qualify under the Farm Improvement Scheme.

A scheme to help small farmers is now before the House. While under it some small farmers who produce horticultural crops may be eligible for assistance, the scheme does not cover all full-time specialist horticultural producers. I know that my hon. Friend realises that we as a Government spend a considerable amount of money as it is on this industry. We have the Horticultural Advisory Service, the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute, the administration of fruit stock certification schemes, and fruit and vegetable grading schemes. All these play a considerable part in maintaining the efficiency of the industry and that, after all, is as important a factor as any in securing the well-being of this industry as of any other.

Efficiency does not stop short with the use of modern techniques in production. It is needed as much in the preparation of products for market in a way that will please the customer and stimulate demand. I think that the industry will recognise that, despite the difficulties which it cannot help, there is considerable room for self-help still on its part. I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive way in which he and other hon. Members raised this matter today. I shall, of course, take very careful note of the points and suggestions that have been made. They are not new; he recognised that. However, the strength of the points he has made, and the suggestions given, is by no means diminished by repetition and my hon. Friend has rendered a service to the industry and to his constituency by raising this matter with such force.

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