HC Deb 17 December 1959 vol 615 cc1665-76

12.29 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

I am in a difficulty, Mr. Speaker, in that my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) has raised the question of the personal liberty of certain subjects, and the personal liberty of our fellow-citizens transcends in importance all other subjects that could come before the House today. In those circumstances, if you thought it fit, and the House agreed, I should be prepared to relinquish the subject which I was proposing to discuss and allow a discussion on the question of the liberty of the six people who are now in prison. However, if we are to get no reply from the Home Secretary, or if he is to say that under the circumstances there is nothing he can do, and if you so advise, I will continue with the subject which you kindly put on the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker

For obvious reasons, I shall not play any part in this process. It would not be right. I am a servant of the House in the matter. At present, I have selected the hon. Member's Adjournment debate, and there it stands. The difficulty about making last-minute changes of subject is that, of course, one does not know what other hon. Members are interested, or what hon. Members are interested in some other topic, having been notified by the notification of Christmas Adjournment debates. As the matter stands, I say nothing at all to persuade the hon. Member.

Sir L. Plummer

I am aware that there are several hon. Members, on this and on the other side of the House, who are interested in the subject which I wish to discuss. In those circumstances, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) will forgive me if I go on to discuss the subject which you have chosen for this debate, Mr. Speaker.

I have no hesitation in returning to the subject of the future prospects of the pig industry and asking the Minister of Agriculture to answer some questions which are germane to the problem and which the whole industry is asking and to which hitherto he has not given any satisfactory reply.

It will be within the recollection of the House that I first raised the subject of the present position of the industry in a speech in the debate on the Gracious Speech at the end of October. It was raised again by the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Ramsden) in an Adjournment debate on 4th November and it was referred to again by the Minister on 7th December when he announced that it was his plan to do nothing until the coming February Price Review.

It is not right—and I hope that this debate will give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity to put it right—for him to go away with the situation as unresolved and as chaotic as it is at present. However, I must say that I am not under any illusions that anything which the Minister of Agriculture will say will do anything to allay the alarm, despondency and concern of the pig industry. All he has said, after all the pressure which has been put upon him by my hon. and right hon. Friends and by hon. Gentlemen opposite, has been that he will do nothing until the Price Review. In the meantime, he has given some advice to both curers and producers, advice which has resulted in the situation getting even worse than it was.

He has had a very unfavourable Press. The Farmers' Weekly, which is normally almost hysterical in its sycophancy towards the Government, dealt with the right. hon. Gentleman's proposal this week in a leading article headed "Unhelpful." That is very severe criticism from the Farmers' Weekly. It is the dirtiest word which that journal can use about the Government, and it shows the extent of the slump in the popularity of the Minister more clearly than anything else.

I have also to refer to the headline on one of the news pages which describes how the Smithfield Show heard the news that£25,000 worth of Canadian pork was to be imported. These are the cruel words of the Farmers' Weekly: 'Sold' say pig farmers—but Canadian visitors are jubilant. After all the efforts made from this and the other side of the House we have been told by the Minister that nothing is to be done and that 25,000 tons of pig meat is to come to the country, chiefly from Canada, in an attempt to ease the pressure on the bacon factories and that the whole question of pig meat imports will have to be further reviewed later next year.

That is a rather significant phrase which the right hon. Gentleman used in his statement of 7th December and with which nobody dealt at the time. What did he mean by "later next year"? Did he mean the autumn of next year? There is already some dubiety about whether it is the intention of the right hon. Gentleman to make any significant and material alterations in the present pig system at the February Price Review. By the word "later," did he mean to cover consideration over the whole of 1960 instead of in February or March?

His advice that producers should be prepared to accept a little less and curers to give a little more ignores two prime factors in the market today. One is that because the producers are already accepting a great deal less that there is a marked diminution in the country's pig population. I hate to intrude my own personal experience in a matter like this, but this week I brought up the records of three batches of bacon pigs which I sent to market on 30th October, 13th November and 19th November. The situation has worsened since then.

I found that on 30th October I sent in six pigs, all of them AA and all of them paid for at the top rate, one of them 850 mm. in length. The average price I received was£16 8s. 7d. In the next batch which I sent I received an average of£15 6s. 3d. and again they were all AA, the highest grade of pigs. The rate for the last batch was£17 4s. 3d. and one of the pigs was 860 mm. in length.

That is the experience of a pig farmer who has done exactly what the Government have asked and who has bred long pigs for the Wiltshire market and who has gone in for the sort of pig which the Government wanted. The return that I got made it clear that, like other specialist producers, we are losing much money on each specialist pig which we send to market. We have also to accept the curers' statements that over the last few months they have had to pay more than£750,000 above the rate to maintain the throughput in the factories.

There is no question but that we have this anomalous position, that bacon curers and specialist pig producers are running at a loss and that, on the whole, the housewife is not benefiting to the extent that she should. The situation in the bacon factories is very serious, and I cannot exaggerate it. This morning I received a letter from the secretary of the British Bacon Curers' Federation saying that for the first time in his memory one factory in the five of the group with which he is concerned will not be making any bacon this week or next because its allocation of pigs is so small that it can only just meet the pork trade. He asked me also to draw attention to the editorial written by the Farmers' Weekly, which I have already done.

I have heard a rumour, and it is no more than a rumour, that a very important bacon factory in the south-east of England, not all that far from the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, is to close. It is perfectly true that there are only some 4,000 or 5,000 people engaged in the curing industry and that, compared with the total working population, the number is not all that important. But what is important is that there are 50,000 to 100,000 people engaged in the productive side of the industry. To those people the Minister has no surety of any kind to offer.

It is true that the right hon. Gentleman has been embarrassed by criticism. I read in one newspaper, which apparently had access to the meetings which he attended, that he turned crimson with embarrassment. It now seems to me that we have a new, agricultural Pink Zone, but, unlike the other Pink Zone, it seems to be almost permanently with us.

I see that hon. and right hon. Members opposite have formed a sub-committee to try to sort out the mess which the right hon. Gentleman himself has created. This is government by delegation. Is the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture to be vested in a sub-committee of Members of his party? Is this the way that he is going to run it? I warn him that he is following in the footsteps of previous Conservative Ministers of Agriculture, who found that the Ministry of Agriculture had been the grave of their political hopes. The right hon. Gentleman laughs, but quite a number of notable figures who preceded him in his office are now practically unheard of. The right lion. Gentleman is giving every indication now that he is returning to the old laissez faire free trade policy in regard to bacon, a policy which brought the industry absolutely to disaster after the First World War.

I want to remind the right hon. Gentleman of a phrase which was used by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Mallon (Mr. Turton), who said: Let us not have the wool pulled over our eyes on this matter."— he was referring to the Danish Agreement— If the Chancellor says that we must get this Agreement to help the Danes, or to help the Swedes, that we are to take more of their pigs, more of their timber, or more of their pulp, it must mean fewer pigs, less timber and pulp produced in this country. We must get away from the delusion about the Price Review."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1959; Vol. 615, c. 1099.] Those are formidable words coming from so notable a Member of the Government benches.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot go away for the Christmas Recess saying absolutely nothing to the farmers, the pig producers and the curers of this country other than that the matter will be dealt with when we come to the Price Review. It is not a question now of waiting three months. I seriously believe that what the Minister has to say this morning will decide whether this industry goes through another period of decline and decay or whether there will be a revival of confidence in it.

I do not want to speak too long because I want to give an opportunity to hon. Members opposite to say quite publicly what, presumably, they said in a private meeting upstairs.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

If they have the courage.

Sir L. Plummer

I am certain that they will have the courage. I am certain that many hon. Members opposite, particularly those on the back benches, are with me in this criticism.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman tc make it clear to the industry whether he wants bacon pigs or not, or has he made up his mind at the Treasury's instigation that we had better hand this business over to the Danes altogether? If that is his policy, I have no doubt that the industry, which has been badly hit, will be able to reorganise itself somehow. It will have to cut out breeding the specialised breeds of pigs—Large Whites, Landrace and Wessex will have to go. There will have to be much more casual feeding, and the high standards which the specialist bacon producer is observing will have to be surrendered because they will be a luxury. All that we are asking at the moment is that the Minister shall make the position clear and not leave it as obscure as it has been left by the speeches of his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and his own.

Are the Government proposing to return to pre-war marketing conditions? What does the Minister think will happen when the 10 per cent. Danish tariff comes off? What will happen then to the British pig producer? Why do we have to wait until March? Why is it not possible for the Minister to say, "I am prepared to alter the guarantee by separating the pig guarantee from the bacon guarantee" or "I will subtract the quality premium out of the general pool subsidy and treat that as a separate payment altogether?

Is the Minister prepared to answer the British Bacon Curers Federation statement that what this country needs is another one million pigs over the next year? It is not a pleasant thought that many of our bacon factories are running at 25 to 30 per cent. of capacity, a capacity that was increased, let us remember, as a result of the exhortations of the Government. The Government said to the bacon industry, "Expand, develop, put in better plant." The curers did this. They believed that they were doing so on the understanding that they would be able to have an economic throughput.

I want to ask the Minister questions raised by the bacon curers themselves. We have now the situation in which from 14th November to 12th December the weekly tonnage of bacon coming into the British factories went up from 3,580 to 3,600, an increase of 20 tons for the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Over the same period the importation of Danish bacon went up by 830 tons. Is the Minister satisfied with that situation? Is he satisfied with the situation that since December, 1958, the figure of 3,000 tons of British pigs going into the bacon factories has now fallen to about 2,400 tons?

While wishing the right hon. Gentleman all the Christmas and seasonal good will that I can, I really cannot let him go away to his farm in Suffolk, where no doubt he will have to barricade himself in over Christmas from his neighbours. without answering those questions. I beg him to realise that this is the last opportunity that he will have of expressing in the House, to the farmers and to curers exactly what his policy is. what he wants, and what he proposes to do for the industry.

12.47 p.m.

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

I very much regret that, owing to circumstances not within the control of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) and myself, we have had to cut short the time of the debate, because I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would probably have liked to speak. I am anxious to give as full a reply as I can to the speech to which we have just listened from the hon. Gentleman, so I hope that hon. Members will understand why I have to intervene at this stage.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his solicitude about my political and physical welfare and a number of other things, but I can assure him that I take full responsibility for what I have said up to now. I have the advantage of having a great deal of advice, including the advice from quite a number of my hon. Friends on this side of the House; and I thought that it was right for a Minister to be prepared to listen to suggestions from his colleagues when those suggestions were designed to be constructive and helpful.

I would say to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Deptford that there is one thing which, I think, we have in common. I can assure him that I am no less anxious than he to see a stable and efficient British pig industry. But I now part company with the hon. Gentleman. I think that we must be careful not to allow our consideration of this subject to get out of perspective. If one listened to the hon. Gentleman carefully, as I did and, I think, other hon. Members did, one would realise that the remarks which he made, and other remarks made in the House, would imply that the pig industry is in the doldrums. This is not true. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, the British pig industry at present has a strong market for pork and a high level of prices. He knows. just as well as I do, that two-thirds of our pigs normally go for pork and manufacturing processes. At present the proportion is even higher. That is one of the difficulties. The producers who sell for these outlets, which are now accounting for about three-quarters of our total pig production. are not complaining.

Having said that, I hope that the hon. Member will not think that I am unmindful of the present anxieties of the specialist bacon pig producers. He spoke as a specialist bacon pig producer for that class of producer. But the Government have to consider their responsibilities towards our pig industry in the wider context of their responsibilities to both taxpayer and consumer. As hon. Members know, only last year our breeding herd reached a peak level, with a subsidy bill running at over£40 million a year. Steps had to be taken—and there was no opposition to them in the House—to protect the taxpayer. I shall say something about the consumer later.

I do not deny that the decline in our breeding herd has proceeded somewhat further than we should have liked. The quarterly census returns, which are the most reliable figures we have, show that the breeding herd in Great Britain reached its peak in March of last year, when it stood at 743,000. By June of this year it had fallen to 601,000 and the last quarterly census return, for September, showed that it stayed at about the same figure—600,000. From the spot checks which the Ministry has taken it would seem that this level has remained fairly constant since last June. All experience shows that we can expect an increase in the near future.

Sir L. Plummer

The right hon. Gentleman says that all the experience shows this. What does he mean? We have not previously experienced a situation such as this. He said that the decline in the pig population is flattening out. What evidence has he of that?

Mr. Hare

I have given the evidence of the census returns and the spot checks that we have taken. Perhaps the hon. Member has not been farming as long as I thought, but if he studies the history of pigs he will see that the graph of the breeding herd has gone up and down for very many years. I should have thought that we could benefit from the experience available to us of the past behaviour of the pig.

I have already told the House that it is, in my opinion, most undesirable to chop and change prices between Price Reviews. It would create additional uncertainties within the agricultural industry and would set an undesirable precedent. I would have thought that the undertaking I gave a few months ago, that there would be no reduction in the standard price after the next Review, implied that the Government would like to see a moderate increase in the breeding herd, although—I say this with emphasis—none of us would wish to see an increase to a level which would impose an unreasonable burden on the taxpayer and put us back in the embarrassing position of early 1958.

I can assure the hon. Member that we shall he considering the pig industry at the Annual Review, and I shall consider its future most carefully in the light of the position then disclosed in our consultations with the producers, and of the welter of different opinions and forms of advice that have come to me over the last few months from various sectors of the pig trade. I cannot anticipate the decisions following the Review, but I want to make it clear again that the Government do not feel that separate standard prices for bacon pigs and pork pigs is the answer to present difficulties.

A number of sound economic arguments against separate guarantees have been set out in the Bosanquet Report. But what would the immediate practical difficulties be? The Government would have to fix the separate prices. It is, however, almost impossible to predict the strength of demand for pigs for different purposes. Much depends upon the weather, on consumer preference and on the availability of competing foods, such as Argentine beef.

We must not forget the housewife in all this. We could find ourselves in a position of having too few pigs for pork and too many for bacon, in which case the housewife might be paying a high price for pork while the taxpayer was paying a heavy subsidy on bacon pigs. Separate standard prices would also have to be kept under constant review, and this would mean continual Government interference in the industry, and a perpetual state of uncertainty among producers and users of pigs.

It is quite clear that the difficulties referred to by the hon. Member chiefly affect the specialist bacon pig producer and curer, and the hon. Member concentrated on the Wiltshire curer, whom he supplies. The instability about which the curers are complaining could be considerably reduced by voluntary longterm contracts with the producers, either individually or collectively—for the F.M.C. comes into this. The curers have stated that they intend to re-examine this suggestion. But I would repeat that those who are anxious to have an assurance about stability, whether they are curers or specialist bacon pig producers, should be prepared to pay a premium. That is why I said that there should he some give and take on both sides.

The separate stabilisation arrangements introduced this year put a floor on bacon pig prices and should have facilitated the making of long-term contracts. In this connection, it is interesting to see how the average return on pigs sold by grade and dead weight to bacon factories has compared with the standard price. In 1955–56, it was ld. higher than the standard price; in 1956–57, it was 81d. higher; in 1957–58 it was 9id. lower; and in 1958–59, it was 31d. higher. From 30th March this year to 29th November bacon pigs have been Id. higher than the standard price, although it is quite true that in the last two months the pendulum has been swinging in the opposite direction.

In three of the last four full years, then, the average returns on pigs sold by grade and dead weight to bacon factories has exceeded the standard price. This would suggest that the producers of pigs could make long-term contracts at an average price very near the standard price. I repeat that I am very ready to do what I can to help, but I must have evidence of a real interest in the possibilities of long-term contracts.

On their own, long-term contracts quite clearly will not solve the immediate problems arising from the shortage of pigs for curing. Although I do not share the forebodings of the hon. Member—and I think that what he has said will add to the alarm—I should not expect to see an increase in the number of slaughterings much before the end of 1960. For this reason, as well as in the light of our international obligations, the Government have agreed to an importation of 25,000 tons of pork from North America. Most of this will be coming from Canada, which is a traditional supplier of pig meat for the United Kingdom market. To all intents and purposes, Canada was our only overseas supplier during the war. Supplies have had to be prohibited in recent years, because we did not have the dollars to pay for them, but that position no longer obtains and the Government felt that some relaxation was right.

At the same time, we decided that our increase in pig meat supplies must be taken into account in trade negotiations with the Poles. The Poles have been informed that the Government cannot renew the bacon quota at the current figure, and they have been offered a quota at a reduced rate for the first six months of 1960. The arrangements for the second half of the year have been left for discussions later in the light of the situation then obtaining.

Imports of pork from Canada will help the immediate situation. If this pork is suitable for curing into bacon it will help our curers directly; and in so far as it is absorbed by the pork and manufacturing trades it should help them indirectly, by releasing more of our own pigs for curing. The producers, of course, have the security offered under the Fatstock Guarantee Scheme. I hope that they will concentrate on the job in hand and not be put off by a good deal of the scare talk that we have heard in the last few months. We shall be looking at the state of the pig industry at the Annual Review. Our talks start in less than two months' time, and I can assure the House that the Government's decisions following on that Review will reflect our concern to see a stable and efficient pig industry in the United Kingdom. I have every confidence in the future of the British pig industry, and see no reason why our producers should not plan ahead and produce the pigs which the trade is clearly demanding.

Sir L. Plummer

The right hon. Gentleman's speech was less than I expected. He accused me of causing alarm in the trade by speeches such as I have just made. Does he not understand the position? Has he no conception of the fact that there is great despondency in the trade? Does he not read market reports? This despondency occurred before I said a word about it in the House. It is a bit much for the right hon. Gentleman to blame hon. Members on this side of the House for a situation which he himself has created. We have done no more than ventilate that situation.

In other respects, I received the reply that I expected. The Minister will do nothing. For the next three months the industry has to go on like this.

Mr. Speaker

I thought that the hon. Member was rising to correct something before the Minister sat down. He can only make a second speech with leave.

Sir L. Plummer

I have nothing more to say, Mr. Speaker. I go away for Christmas with a heavy heart.