HC Deb 07 December 1959 vol 615 cc32-8

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

96. Mr. A. HURD

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will now make a statement on Government policy for the British pig industry and particularly bacon production, following his consultations with the various interests concerned.

97. Colonel R. H. GLYN

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is yet in a position to make a statement on the future of the British pig industry.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Hare)

With permission, Sir, I will now answer Questions Nos. 96 and 97 together.

The recent difficulties have been caused by the decline in pig numbers which has affected all sections of the industry. Bacon curers are still getting a reasonable share of the pigs available, but they have been unable to maintain their output of bacon.

At the same time, because of the greater strength of the other markets for pigs the return to bacon pig producers has been less than the standard price in recent weeks. The present guarantee system permits limited fluctuations in the returns to the producers for pigs used for different purposes so as to encourage the marketing of pigs to the best advantage. Over the fatstock year from 1st April so far the bacon pig producer has received, on average, more than the standard price.

I am quite satisfied that any attempt to prevent fluctuations by isolating the markets for bacon pigs and other pigs, for example, by fixing separate standard prices, would fail as it did before the war. At the same time, I appreciate the desire of specialist producers and curers for stability and, of course, it is my desire to do what is possible to safeguard the position of an efficient bacon industry.

At the last Annual Review the Government introduced separate stabilising arrangements for bacon pigs and other pigs. This should have facilitated the making of voluntary long-term contracts, but little has yet been done. If curers are prepared to take positive steps in this direction, I am willing to consider at the next Annual Review what further the Government can do to facilitate such contracts.

All sections of the trade have emphasised to me the difficulties arising from the present shortage of pigs. The latest returns indicate that the decline in the pig breeding herd has been arrested, and I see no reason why an increase should not now take place although it must be some months before this could be reflected in increased marketings.

The Government have also had under consideration the question of imports. We have been pressed by the Canadian Government to free the import of pig-meat. As an earnest of our intentions, and to help the domestic trade in its current difficulties, we propose to authorise immediately imports of up to 25,000 tons of North American frozen pork. This will, in practice, come chiefly from Canada, a traditional supplier of pigmeat to the United Kingdom.

The whole question of pigmeat imports will have to be further reviewed later next year. In the meantime, account will have to be taken in our present trade negotiations with Poland of this increase in our pigmeat supplies.

Sir A. Hurd

While appreciating what my right hon. Friend is now trying to do to restore confidence in the British bacon industry, may I ask whether it is the Government's view that we have allowed pig numbers to run down too fast—a drop of 12 per cent. in the past year—and whether my right hon. Friend will make it quite clear, in any further discussions on trade liberalisation with the Danes and the Poles, and anybody else sending bacon here, that we are determined to hold a full share of the whole market for a progressive bacon industry here? Furthermore, would my right hon. Friend say how the Canadian supplies will fit into this general picture?

Mr. Hare

I think that my hon. Friend has asked two questions. If I may deal with my hon. Friend's first point, about Poland, I think that hon. Members can really make their own deductions from what I have said. It would be impolite for me to go further, as we are discussing these matters with Polish representatives who are now in London.

On the second point, my hon. Friend must realise that this is a question for the Annual Price Review. I think that it would be wrong for me to comment very much more at this stage on what he has said.

Colonel Glyn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some observers fear that the continuation of the present policy may lead to the eclipse of the British bacon industry whose share in the national bacon market has already fallen by 20 per cent. in the last twelve months? Does my right hon. Friend feel that long-term contracts between pig producers and bacon factories can succeed in the present circumstances whereas they failed before the war?

Mr. Hare

I think that we must be very careful not to exaggerate the effects of recent conditions on the British bacon industry, because during the eleven months from January to November this year bacon production in Great Britain was only 5 per cent. less and, taking the United Kingdom as a whole, which includes Northern Ireland, was only 2.5 per cent. less than for the same period last year.

On the question whether long-term contracts may be more successful now than they were before the war, there is now a guaranteed price for pigs and a stabilising arrangement setting a floor of 3s. below the standard price. If producers are prepared to accept a little less and curers to give a little more for stability, there might be strong arguments for long-term contracts.

Mr. Willey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement that he is not to make a statement is a bitter disappointment to the pig industry, which expected some action from the Government? Does he not recognise that this sharp fall in pig production is entirely due to Government policy and that the men from Whitehall never did worse?

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the figures for the last eleven months, why does he not give the figure for the past two months, when prices have fallen by 8s. 6d. a score and the housewife has had no compensating advantage in retail prices? Why not face this difficulty and let us have action before the Price Review? Why not pay some heed to the warning given to the right hon. Gentleman by everyone in the pig industry?

Mr. Hare

The hon. Member knows far more than he pretends. To say, when one is engaged in agriculture production, that one should merely pay attention to the last two months, without taking a period of time in a market as fluctuating as the pig market, is folly and not worthy of the hon. Member.

Hon. Members

Answer the question.

Mr. Hare

The hon. Gentleman knows that if we chopped and changed between Price Reviews we would cause great instability in the industry and would be doing no service to it.

Mr. Turton

Is the Minister aware that it has been suggested in speeches in the country that he has been prevented from giving adequate support to the bacon pig industry through a clause that was inserted secretly in the Anglo-Danish Agreement at the time of the negotiations? Could my right hon. Friend either confirm or deny that report?

Mr. Hare

Most certainly I deny it; there is absolutely no truth in it. We retain our complete independence of action as far as our home producers are concerned, as long as we do not defeat the object of the Agreement.

Mr. Peart

The Minister has made a rather interesting statement, namely, that he has arrested the decline in pig breeding, but is he aware that the latest returns for last month show a total drop in the pig population of over 700,000 compared with the previous year, and in the number of sows for breeding there has been a drop of 58,000, compared with last year? How does he explain that?

Mr. Hare

The hon. Gentleman, also, is well aware that since last June the figures for pig breeding here have remained stationary; in fact, the decline started in June last year. I have said before in the House that I believe there will be an increase in breeding here at any moment. It has remained stationary now since last June.

Major Legge-Bourke

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind in the discussions he is to have with the industry that the fact that there has only been a small fall in the total number of pigs going to bacon factories does not mean that anything like the same amount of bacon is being cured? Would he also bear in mind that if he is to allow further imports on to the pork market it may give the home producer no outlet whatsoever? While we are all ready to give preference to the Commonwealth, we are not so keen to give it to the Danes.

Mr. Hare

My hon. and gallant Friend must be aware that the proposed imports of Canadian frozen pork should help the bacon side of the industry, because they will make available for the pork market the extra imports that are coming from Canada, which should relieve the pressure on the pork market and, therefore, should make more pigs available for bacon curing.

Mr. Dodds

In view of the intensely disappointing statement by the Minister, and the fact that he is obviously unaware of the serious position of bacon pig producers in Kent, will he be prepared to meet a deputation so that he will be aware of its seriousness, which will indicate that the February Price Review will be much too late for some producers?

Mr. Hare

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have received a series of delegations, all of whom have given me mostly conflicting advice on this difficult subject.

Sir P. Agnew

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many pig producers and bacon curers will regard his statement with apprehension? Will my right hon. Friend say particularly how the addition of 25,000 tons of pork, from whatever source, to the existing market can possibly have the effect of hardening prices and helping the industry, however the pigmeat is to be used?

Mr. Hare

My hon. Friend may not have caught my words. It is frozen pork which is coming in. It will help in two ways: for the bacon side directly, in so far as this frozen pork is suitable for curing, and indirectly in so far as the frozen pork will be absorbed in the pork manufacturing markets, thereby releasing some home-produced pigs for curing.

Mr. Lawson

Would the Minister not forget the consumer in all this? Would he not consider injecting a little more competition into the business to ensure that we get cheaper pigmeat and bacon?

Mr. Hare

The hon. Gentleman has put a very fair question. In all this one has to try to keep a fair balance between various sections of the industry and the consumer. I am anxious not to do anything for the short term which might do damage to the pig industry and to the consumer.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the Minister tell us whether he is authorised to speak for the pigs of Scotland?

Mr. Hare

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has been good enough to entrust that great responsibility to me on this occasion.

Mr. Shinwell

Would it not be a terrible humiliation if the Government came a cropper on the subject of pigs?

Mr. Hare

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government have no intention of coming a cropper on this subject.

Mr. Chetwynd

It is becoming a bore.