HC Deb 16 April 1959 vol 603 cc1252-65

9.13 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan)

I beg to move, That the Import Duties (General) (No. 2) Order, 1959 (S.I., 1959, No. 391), dated 11th March, 1959, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th March, be approved. This Order, made under the new Import Duties Act, 1958, increases the import duties on certain cut flowers and implements the Government's decision on an application by the United Kingdom growers for higher protection against non-preferential imports. It amends the Import Duties (General) Order, 1958, which introduced the present form of the tariff based on the Brussels nomenclature. I do not think that the House will want me to go into all the details of the changes, but I should be willing to do so.

We have frequently said, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reaffirmed it when he announced the £71 million scheme of assistance for horticulture in January, that the tariff is the main method of protection for horticulture. This does not mean that higher tariffs than those already in force are necessarily the remedy for all difficulties and in all circumstances. But, in the case of the flowers covered by the Order, the Government reached the conclusion that an increase was desirable.

I would like to outline some of the main considerations affecting each class of flower which led them to this decision. I shall deal, first, with anemones. Imports of this flower from dutiable sources have recently increased sharply. During 1957 and 1958 they were more than twice the level in the two preceding years. The main producing area in this country is West Cornwall which, as hon. Members will recall, is one of the areas of relatively high unemployment, eligible for help under the Distribution of Industry (Industrial Finance) Act, 1958.

The same is true of the Scilly Isles, where virtually all our polyanthus narcissi are grown. This crop, together with daffodils, which are not affected by the changes, provide the main basis of the economy of the islands, and the incidence of the previous duty on the imports of this flower was low.

Carnations and roses are both glasshouse products. Imports of carnations come mainly from the Netherlands. and there was a substantial increase in supplies from this source in 1957, and a further but smaller increase in 1958. The impact of these increases was reflected in the trend in the glasshouse acreage under carnations in this country which, after rising steadily since 1954. was reduced in 1958.

Imports of roses, which are also supplied mainly by the Netherlands, do not appear to have shown any tendency to increase in recent years, but the incidence of the previous duty was low. and not to have raised it at the same time as the duty on carnations was increased would obviously have invited importers to switch from carnations 13 roses.

Other flowers affected by the Order cover a wide range of varieties including. inter alia, chrysanthemums, cyclamen, euphorbia, gladioli, sweet peas, lilies, orchids, prunus, pyrethrums, dahlias. violets, calendulas and antirrhinums. We have done this to preserve the balance of the flowers tariff as a whole. The extra duties will not significantly raise the prices to the consumer.

The considerations which I have just outlined were among the main factors which led the Government to increase he duties. I hope that these increases have gone some way to convince growers that we still regard the tariff as the main means of protection for horticulture.

9.18 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I am sure that the House will understand that at first glance 1 was rather distressed when I read the Order. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Please. I am the only hon. Lady present—I see that one hon. Lady has joined me, so I shall have some support—and I am sure that hon. Members will allow me to point out that women like to receive flowers from their friends.

At first sight it was a little distressing to feel that our men friends will now have to pay a little more for the flowers which they give us from time to time. Even at political meetings it is still a gracious custom to present a lady speaker with a bouquet. It is a little regrettable to think that the people who like to show their appreciation in that pleasant manner may have to pay a little more for it. As someone who takes some pride and pleasure in the appearance of her house, I am sorry to think that the cost of flowers may increase. At certain times of the year they seem to he expensive enough as it is.

But, having looked into the matter a little more carefully, I find that I can appreciate the argument put forward by the Minister. Probably we all feel particular sympathy with the flower growers in the West Country and in the Scilly Isles, where flower growing is one of the main sources of livelihood, and where the growers have the difficulty of distance to contend with in getting their flowers to the larger centres of population. One would not wish to do anything which would make it more difficult for people, particularly in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, to make their livelihood.

Therefore, where anemones and narcissi are concerned, there is a very good case, because these are flowers on which the people in that part of the country largely depend. We should not have very strong views about the very slight increase in price. I have made inquiries as to what the effect on the price would be of the somewhat more sharp increase for carnations and roses, sharper than for narcissi. I asked a grower how many flowers there were to the pound weight. Personally, I never buy flowers by the pound, and half-a-crown a pound seemed to be a very odd way of doing it. I can see that it has a practical advantage. I was told that, on the average, for Dutch carnations grown under glass we get about 27 to the pound and that for the Spanish carnations, out-door grown and slightly smaller, about 32 to the pound. Roughly, what we are doing now is to increase the cost by about a penny on each bloom.

We should not, without question at all, accept protection for any class of goods. One hopes very much that our growers, especially those who do not have to contend with transport costs over a great distance I am thinking of growers of flowers under glass in the Lea Valley and the Thames Valley, and so on—will do their utmost to keep their costs of production as low as they can. After all, we are competing here not with places that have great advantages in climate but with the Netherlands, where the climate is very little better, if at all, than our own. In any case, for glass production climate is neither here nor there.

The position of the consumer should be brought to the attention of growers. Flowers are expensive. I hope very much that, in return for the increased protection offered to them by the Order, growers will realise that consumers have an interest in this matter and will do their best to keep their costs as low as they possibly can.

With that proviso we feel, on balance, that the proposed additional protection given in the Order is justified, and we would not wish to oppose it.

9.24 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

In following the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White), I can at least say that I am. extremely glad to hear that she likes flowers and agrees with the custom of sending flowers. We rather felt, while she was speaking, that she was giving this Order a half-hearted blessing. I am sorry about that because I think the Order is not only an extremely im- portant one, but one that was necessary to keep our flower growers in the health which I think all hon. Members—perhaps with the exception of the Liberal Party, which is absent as usual and wants 50 per cent. reduction of the tariff—would like to see.

I was surprised at the calculation the hon. Lady made. I think that it must have come from an importer who rather wanted to persuade her on the subject of importing carnations, because the arithmetic seemed to work out more like 5d. a dozen than ld. a carnation, which I think she suggested might be the increase to production.

Mrs. White

Not the increase, but the total.

Mr. Marshall

Fivepence a dozen increase, the hon. Lady agrees, and, as that is the case, there is no quarrel between us.

I was also glad that the hon. Lady mentioned that this Order applies to anemones, as they form a very important part of horticultural production in Cornwall. The Minister of State mentioned the effect on West Cornwall. Possibly he was thinking of the fact that Cornwall lies in the West, but anemones grow in the Tamar Valley as well as in the extreme West. In fact, there is considerable production in the eastern part of Cornwall.

I do not wish to take up the time of the House for long, but I wish to say how glad I was to hear the words used by the Minister of State in bringing forward the Order. It reaffirms the policy of the Minister of Agriculture, the policy of this Government and the policy of the Board of Trade that the main protection for horticulture in the programme of the Government is that of tariff.

9.26 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) made rather heavy weather of the acceptance and welcome of this Order by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White). The Order will mean a considerable advantage to Cornish flower growers, particularly those in West Cornwall and, perhaps, especially in the St. Ives division.

I feel that the House ought very carefully to scrutinise any tariff proposals brought forward by any Government, but in the circumstances these particular increases are justified, all the more so because under this Government there has been a considerable decline in recent years in other horticultural products from Cornwall, such as broccoli and new potatoes. Therefore, there is all the more reason for encouragement to be given to the flower growers. It has been made clear that the flowers mainly concerned are anemones, polyanthus and narcissii which are grown in the open and have no protection. Even in Cornwall, with our wonderful climate, we suffer from gales and other vicissitudes of nature.

9.25 p.m.

Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

I wish to add a note of welcome to this Order. It would be wrong to take too parochial a view of a matter such as this, although it would be idle to deny that the increased duties this Order will bring will not be of over-riding benefit to the particular type of horticulture which is prevalent in my constituency in the Vale of Evesham.

Nevertheless, I welcome the Order as a token of the policy of Her Majesty's Government to continue to use horticultural duties as the main means of giving assisttance where they think it is needed to the horticultural industry. I shall not disguise the fact that when applications were put in by the industry for increased duties on some vegetables, and were turned down, many began to fear that it was no longer the policy of Her Majesty's Government to use such duties. I shall not, of course, dwell upon that, but I mention it to compare it with the favourable reception that this Order should have, limited though it is in its effect.

The horticultural industry has not been having, and is not having today, an easy time. In the Price Review only one short statistical line is devoted to giving the figures for the sales of horticultural produce, including those which arise from the sale of flowers. Whereas, in 1957–58, those figures were £141 million, they were forecast in the recent Price Review as falling by the substantial sum of £131 million for the year 1958–59.

I trust that the coming into force of this Order will do something to remedy that and bring about a trend in the opposite direction. I also hope that, when further applications for Orders are re- ceived Her Majesty's Government will be emboldened by the reception which this Order has had from both sides of the House tonight to treat those applications strictly on their merits and without too great a regard for what other countries may feel if their wishes are not adhered to. I welcome the Order.

9.32 p.m.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I certainly join with my hon. Friends who have so far spoken in the debate in welcoming the Order. In doing so, I should like particularly to pay a tribute to the Prime Minister for the personal interest he took in this matter at a time when everybody knows that he was extremely busy and had many far-reaching problems to contend with. I feel that his personal intervention has been of immense assistance and will be very greatly appreciated by growers.

In presenting the Order the Board of Trade is—I hope that it will not take this as any reflection upon its efficiency—acting as an agent for the Minister of Agriculture, who is responsible for policy on horticultural matters. This Order is an honest endeavour by the party now in power to honour the pledges which it made to the electorate. We were pledged to protect horticultural growers at all times by means of tariffs. That is what this Order is an honest endeavour to do, because we think that there is a good case for doing it.

It should be made clear that these questions concerning all the vegetable tariffs as well as the flower tariffs have been examined strictly on their economic merit. It is on economic merit that the Order is justified, as I understand it. I hope that it will always be done on that basis, because it would be a tragedy if we were to allow the various political factors. especially European politics, to weigh too heavily when considering these matters.

We have to bear in mind who the main competitors are. The Minister of State mentioned carnations. Dutch production is rocketing upwards. The Dutch acreage under glass is also rocketing upwards. Since 1948, the Dutch acreage under glass has increased by about 50 per cent., and 10 per cent. of that is estimated to be concerned with flower growing. Many of these flowers are carnations.

It is well worth bearing in mind that despite their disappointment about the vegetable tariff increases not being granted, many of the growers have been somewhat relieved by this Order, because some vegetable growers have been allocating part of their acreage under glass to flower growing, and carnations, in particular, lend themselves to that type of production. If we had to single out one set of commodities which we hoped in one step would help the greatest possible number, there is little doubt that we were right to pick flowers.

Although the total value of the production of flowers may he smaller than that of tomatoes, for example, I believe that the number of people involved in the production of flowers is probably far greater than in any other single horticultural product. One need only travel around the countryside in spring and summer and see the number of little wayside halts where flowers are being sold to realise that by introducing this tariff we are helping not only the big commercial growers, but also the small men. It is encouraging that that is so.

This Order has to be read in conjuction with a massive Order No. 973, of 1958, which sets out the various tariff headings which arose after the passing of the Act of that year. We have changed the category of certain of these flowers by moving narcissi of the polyanthus type into the same category as lilac, thus increasing the tariff by 2½ a lb. That may not sound very much in the light of modern costs, but even that small increase will help. The tariff on some other flowers mentioned in the Order—anemones, carnations and roses—is being raised to 2s. 6d. a lb., having, presumably, been at 1s. 8d. a 1b. hitherto.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

indicated assent.

Major Legge-Bourke

In addition, we have created a new class altogether of other flowers and have raised the tariff on that class from ls. 8d. to 2s. a lb., which is an increase of 4d. a lb. on a very long list. These may sound very small sums, and we have to bear in mind that the tariff policy to which the Conservative Party has rightly been dedicated in the past and which this Order endeavours honestly to implement has to be viewed in the light of the circumstances of the time. Tariffs are essential—no one would dispute that —but the industry must face the fact that other things are necessary, too. I regret that there has not been more constructive thinking recently as to what, in addition to the tariff, will give the growers what they want.

It is easy to talk glibly about tariffs and to say that a tariff policy will do all we want, but when we consider a tariff policy we must decide what the level is to be, what the consequences will be on other countries and what we can do if they begin to retaliate against us. We must face the fact that in introducing this Order we have been able to sugar the pill a little for the Dutch, because while we have obtained this increased tariff against Dutch flowers, we have been able to offer the Dutch a £300,000 increase in the quota of Dutch bulbs imported into this country every year. I am not suggesting that the two were deliberately linked, but it is very convenient that these things should happen together at this moment, when, obviously, we are anxious not to annoy the Dutch more than is necessary.

We have to face the fact that we are trying to protect the horticultural industry in a way from which, in other trades, we are moving away. While welcoming this Order, I think that it is very important that the whole of the industry should get down to some serious thinking to find ways and means in future of giving additional protection, over and above tariffs, so as to enable it to compete on fairer terms with its competitors.

Certain features of the flower industry raise immense complications for growers, and, indeed, for the distributors. A series of letters appeared in The Times in February. The first was written by Mr. Eric Gardner, chairman of the Horticultural Committee of the National Farmers' Union. He pointed out that present tariff levels do not give the same protection as was given by the pre-war tariffs—entirely as a result of inflation.

That point was taken up by Mr. Pilling, chairman of our fruit growers' organisation, who suggested that an increase in the imposition of tariffs for British growers today was simply removing the spur to greater efficiency. That letter was never replied to publicly, but a reply to it was made—and I have a copy of it here. It mentions a matter of extreme importance in seeing that the Order is satisfactorily carried out. It states: By a 'Gentlemen's Agreement ' dating back to pre-First World War days the salesman pays both freight and duty on receipt of the foreign flowers, and stands to lose a conisiderable amount in addition to the commission if the flowers are not sold. He would hardly be human if he did not ensure that these imported flowers were sold! The foreign exporting organisations know this, and when any particular market is strong, consign large quantities of cases to the salesmen in that market. These cases just arrive, unheralded and unsolicited, often during our own peak periods. Thus the unfortunate home grower suddenly finds that he is unable to sell his own produce in his own market at an economic price. What we have to face is that, quite as important as the level of the tariff, is the timing of its incidence. As far as I can see, these tariffs will operate throughout the season, except in the case of hyacinths and the narcissus of other than the polyanthus type, which are not affected. If hon. Members will refer to Statutory Instrument No. 973, of 1958, they will see that the incidence of some of the tariffs varies according to the time of year, though, in the present Order, the tariffs are constant throughout the season.

I believe that Her Majesty's Government are making an honest attempt to honour our party pledges, but I ask them to do everything to encourage our growers themselves to put forward what they think is necessary to make the Order effective. I believe that the most effective thing that the growers can possibly have is a Government ready to operate, at any time, a direct embargo when it is seen that too much is coming in. That, however, is a direct physical control that requires very adequate machinery to operate it. There have been times when embargoes put on horticultural imports have not always worked effectively, for the simple reason that Governments cannot act quickly enough.

I merely trot out that suggestion as one logical and theoretically possible method, because I believe that it is important that the industry should begin to think for itself; and try to put up some coherent views to supplement—and I emphasise the word " supplement "—the tariff policy. I do not believe that, in the modern world, tariff policy by itself can be relied upon very much longer to do all that is necessary to ensure that the British grower is able to thrive as he should.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) mentioned East Cornwall. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Cam-borne (Mr. Hayman) referred to the St. Ives division of West Cornwall. I should like to put it on record that central Cornwall is interested in this matter.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) is quite right. Flower growing as distinct from other forms of horticulture employs very many people and in central Cornwall, at any rate, they are very often people who are interested also in other forms of agriculture or horticulture. I feel that this Measure will benefit a large number of people who are not normally regarded as horticulturists, and I am sure that they will all be very grateful for it.

9.47 p.m.

Colonel Richard H. Glyn (Dorset, North)

I join in the general welcome to this Order which has come from both sides of the House, and I am glad to hear that the effect of the tariff, which will bring welcome relief to many growers, will not be to raise costs against the consumer. That is an important point. It should be noted that, if it were not for the extraordinary efficiency of our growers and throughout our horticultural industry, prices would already have been increased substantially more than has been found necessary, because production costs have gone up very much. In this respect, we are at a disadvantage compared with some of our foreign rivals.

The horticultural grower in this country. to give one example, is governed by the same laws regarding the employment of labour as apply to farmers. He cannot adopt the convenient expedient used in many foreign countries by which workers in horticulture work, by agreement, short hours in the winter when there is very little to be done and long hours in the summer without charging overtime. Such an arrangement, which is adopted by many of our rivals, would be quite illegal here. That is one example of the disadvantages under which our growers work.

I am glad that the Order has been welcomed from both sides, but I regret that we seem likely to remain uninformed about the view of the Liberal Party, which would, I think, be of some interest because I believe that this is the first increase of tariffs since it was stated that it was official Liberal policy to effect a 50 per cent. cut in all tariffs immediately. In the circumstances, I had thought that the Liberals might be here to oppose the Order or, at least, that they might be here to explain why they were not opposing it. Perhaps it is not too late for a Liberal Member to come and do so. Failing this, we shall never know whether the Liberal Party was absent by design or inadvertence, or what its policy on the matter is.

There have been other proposals put forward by horticulturists which the Government have not been able to accept. I particularly welcome this one because I know that cut flowers are an alternative crop to tomatoes. I know that this proposal has been considered and allowed on its merits, and I hope that if, or when, the time comes for further applications to be made for other crops, those will be treated in precisely the same way.

9.49 p.m.

Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)

I want to make sure that an omission is not made. We have heard a great deal about flower growing in Cornwall, and I wish it to be noted that in the next county of Devon also we are noted for flower growing. We welcome the Order. I was a little concerned to hear the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) suggest that she was a little worried because the extra price would probably mean less flowers. I can definitely assure her that it would need quite a rise in price to prevent people sending their flowers.

There is something else which anyone who represents flower growers must be thankful for. I refer to the change in custom which has come about. A few years ago, the tendency was very often for a young man to give his girl friend chocolates. Nowadays, with the diet craze, some young women would feel considerably annoyed to receive chocolates, and I believe that the flower trade has benefited from that change in practice. I welcome the Order.

9.50 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

Perhaps I might respond briefly to the comments that have been made by hon. Members. I am grateful for the way in which ✠he Order has been received with general commendation from both sides of the House.

The hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) seemed a little disturbed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) said, about what she felt was something of a tax on gallantry, if I may so put it, but I am sure that after the reassurance of my hon. Friend she will feel happier on that score. Knowing that her gentlemen friends would think of giving her nothing else but orchids, I assure her that the increase involved is only from ls. 8d. to 2s. per lb. and, therefore, I am sure that her gentlemen friends will not be inhibited from indulging their fancy in this way. I hope that that reassures her and gives her some comfort.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) took up the hon. Lady's point about the amount involved, and I gather that it is now clear that the increase for roses and carnations is assessed to be on average at not more than 5d. a dozen, which, I am sure hon. Members will agree, is a fairly small figure.

Two of my hon. Friends have made a point about the strange absence of any representative from the Liberal Party. I would only add my own surprise in view of the statements which that party has made. It is, I think, regrettable that there is no one here to state clearly where the Liberals stand in this matter.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman), I think with general approval, managed to bring in a point about broccoli and new potatoes. Since the Government have been in power, they have substantially increased the tariffs on broccoli and new potatoes with benefit to the people of Cornwall.

Mr. Hayman

I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will agree that the production of both new potatoes and broccoli has fallen considerably since his party has been in power.

Mr. Godber

There has been a certain amount of flexibility. There is never rigidity in the growing of horticultural crops. There is change from time to time. The growers of Cornwall are well aware what crops are best suitable to them. We on this side do not farm from Whitehall.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) made a most interesting speech. I listened with great care to what he had to say. I am sure that he is happy about the assurance given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State that this increase was given on its economic merits and was justified on the basis of the facts put before us. He also suggested that those in the industry should think about what, in addition to tariffs, can be done to help.

I welcome my hon. and gallant Friend's thoughts. We are always ready to hear the views of members of the industry and of the leaders of the N.F.U. at any time on this subject. I am sure that he does not need reminding that we ourselves have taken a positive step in recent months by the proposed introduction of the new scheme to help horticulture through a series of grants which we are at present discussing with the N.F.U. The object is to help growers to keep down production costs, which I am sure will be a real help to them. We would welcome any other suggestion.

I do not think that there is need for me to dwell further on the matter as there has been general acceptance of the Order. I am grateful to the House for accepting the Order in this way and I am sure that it will be warmly welcomed by horticulturists at large.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved, That the Import Duties (General) (No. 2) Order, 1959 (S.I., 1959, No. 391), dated 11th March, 1959, a copy of which was laid before this I-louse on 16th March, be approved.