§ 10.22 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)
I beg to move,That the Potatoes (Guaranteed Prices) Order, 1959, dated 5th June, 1959, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th June, be approved.Perhaps it might be convenient, Mr. Speaker, if we were to discuss at the same time the next Order, the Potatoes (Protection of Guarantees) Order, 1959.
§ Mr. Godber
Both these Orders are made under the Agriculture Act, 1957, and relate to the new guarantee arrangements for potatoes which will apply for the 1959 and subsequent crops.
The main Order gives effect to the change which my right hon. Friend announced in the House on 30th June last year. Briefly, the new arrangements substitute for the purchase of surplus potatoes on Government account arrangements that assure a minimum return to the industry as a whole, related to the requirements of potatoes for human consumption. A guaranteed price for such potatoes will be determined each year in the light of the conclusions reached after the Annual Review. If in any year the average price received by producers for potatoes for human consumption is less than the guaranteed price, then the deficiency will be made good from Exchequer funds. In Great Britain the amount due will be paid to the Potato Marketing Board to use as it thinks fit for the benefit of producers.
The system we are replacing was, of course, originally designed to meet conditions in which the Government wanted a surplus of potatoes as an insurance against shortage of other foods. Farmers were directed to grow potatoes in areas and on land where potato growing would not normally be an economic proposition. It was a corollary of this system that the Government should undertake to buy any surplus for which the grower could not find a market.
176 The guarantee arrangements for many other commodities, for instance, livestock and cereals, were changed following decontrol to meet the changed conditions. But the basic features of the potato guarantee arrangements remained unaltered when the Potato Marketing Board was revived in 1955. The Government have come to the conclusion that they must now introduce a guarantee system for potatoes more suited to present-day conditions and the needs of a freer economy.
This new system will introduce greater flexibility in marketing and give growers more incentive to produce the type of potatoes demanded by the consumer, and to improve grading and standards generally. Moreover, we expect that the needs of the market rather than arbitrary regional and seasonal support prices will become the prime influence on the pattern of production. In addition, we are satisfied that the new system will greatly reduce the scope for fraud and other malpractices.
I realise that many growers are concerned about the abolition of the individual guarantee, but the policy of budgeting for large surpluses has ended and with it the prime justification for undertaking to buy from each individual grower all his surplus potatoes. Moreover, in the final analysis the individual guarantee is dependent on the continuation of State responsibility for trading in some form or other. On the other hand, there is no foundation for the criticism that the new guarantee is lacking in value.
While it is true that surplus potatoes not required for human consumption will no longer be covered by the guarantee, the Government have taken account of this by increasing the guaranteed price. The farmers' unions have agreed that the higher guaranteed price of £12 14s. per ton is equivalent to the lower price of £11 9s. per ton under the support price system. The income of the industry as a whole will be supported by the Government. The new system takes proper account of the existence of a producer marketing board in Great Britain. The Board has an important part to play in the operation of the guarantee and I am confident that it will rise to the challenge of its increased responsibilities.
177 I should now like to deal briefly with the details of the main features of the Guaranteed Prices Order. Article 3 provides for the determination each year of a guaranteed price per ton for potatoes sold for human consumption. The estimation of the quantity of potatoes sold for human consumption in each year and the average price received by producers for such potatoes is dealt with in Article 4 of the Order. The detailed arrangements for calculating what is referred to as the "annual quantity" and the average price have been worked out in consultation with the producers' representatives. I should mention that for the 1959 crop year only, while the new machinery is running in, the annual quantity will be estimated at 3,809,000 tons. This arrangement has been made following representations by the farmers' unions and the Potato Marketing Board and was announced in the White Paper on the last Annual Review.
The payment of any deficiency is provided for in Article 5 of the Order. Article 6 enables the Minister to make a contribution towards the Board's administrative expenses, while Article 8 deals with the special arrangements necessary for Northern Ireland.
The second Order is the Potatoes (Protection of Guarantees) Order, which comes into force on 1st August. This, as its title suggests, is intended to safeguard the new guarantee arrangements. It follows the general pattern of similar Orders for other commodities in making provision for records to be kept by traders and for other matters so that Ministers may satisfy themselves and the House that public money has been properly expended. We have discussed these provisions with the trade associations concerned, and I should like to take this opportunity of thanking them for their co-operation.
I have endeavoured briefly to give the House some indication of the reasons why the Government have found it necessary to make these changes. The two Orders under discussion provide the machinery for giving effect to the Government's decision, and I feel confident that they will commend themselves to the House.
§ 10.28 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
We are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for explaining the Orders and telling us, I think rightly, that there has been some tightening up here. We certainly welcome that. No one could be satisfied with the system that operated before under which there was, I gather, considerable opportunity for fraud.
There is a change from the system which operated under the 1955 Order. It is a change from guaranteed prices under the 1955 Order to a system of deficiency payments, as I understand it, now to be made to the Potato Marketing Board under the arrangements set out in Order No. 983. No hon. Member would pretend that the old system resulted in securing a desirable system, certainly not from the consumers' point of view.
In 1958–59, the shortage of potatoes was such that imports were licensed as early as October last year, and prices were, said the Ministry, under the 1955 Order, unduly high. In 1957–58 prices to the consumer reached the highest level recorded in our history. In 1956–57—a year of glut—prices rocketed at the end of the glut year. In 1955–56 prices of potatoes were double those of the previous control year. This was apparently a case of Tory freedom working. They had been released from control, and prices had doubled in the short space of a year. That is not too bad for Tory freedom working. I cannot say that the consumers were very happy about this aspect of its working.
I admit that the yield was below average in three of the four years I have mentioned. Potatoes had to be imported and shortage inevitably affected prices paid to the foreign exporter and by the home consumer. Not only have high prices been paid for imports during this period; Questions have been asked in the House, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), which pointed to the fact that some imported potatoes were badly diseased, but this was a slip-up on the part of the Ministries responsible for the importation of these potatoes.
The fact that all these things happened makes it clear that the system provided under the 1955 Order led to the production of less than adequate 179 quantities of home-grown potatoes at reasonable prices, which was something at which the Ministry must have been aiming. The question which the House must ask itself before approving these Orders is whether the system provided for by the Orders will operate any better. Certainly this question is being asked by one of the organised bodies of potato consumers, namely, the Federation of Fish Friers, which is now extremely anxious about the chip end of its delectable dish. It is anxious that the Orders should ensure a reasonable supply of potatoes which will not force the price of its product too high.
It seems to be asserting, first, that under this system of guarantees to the Potato Marketing Board it will be in the interests of the Board and the producers to plan for shortage; secondly, that this is being done by the quota system, which has been fixed by the Board on such a basis that if every grower plants his full quota and the yield per acre is equal to the average of the last few years, the total harvest will provide only just sufficient potatoes for home consumption.
The Federation figures it out that on the basis of the quota fixed by the Board at 685,000 acres, plus an estimated 50,000 acres for unregistered producers, the overall figure of 735,000 acres will yield a surplus to estimated requirements of 48,000 tons, but only if the yield averages 8 tons per acre. If the yield is below that by 0.1 tons per acre, instead of a surplus of 48,000 tons there will be a shortage of 25,500 tons. The average yield over the last seventeen years is 7.3 tons. On that figure there would be a deficiency of 319,500 tons, and that is considerable. I agree that we ought not to have that figure. We ought to have a higher figure per acre based on improved methods of production, but I doubt whether we shall get eight or more tons per acre over the next ten years or so, unless we are very lucky.
The third point made by this organisation is that it is certain that the full acreage quota will not be planted because of the fear of growers that they will be left with potatoes which they cannot dispose of in the event of an above the average year. It also believes that the overall effect will be to weight the scales in favour of a potato shortage, leading inevitably to an increased dependency 180 on imports at prices dictated by the demand in our home market. It is understandable that the foreign potato grower should reap a rich harvest in such conditions which will be produced by this system over the years. These are points put by an interested and knowledgeable body of consumers and I believe that they demand an answer.
I understand that the Board issued a statement to producers in which it states:In the interests of all producers the Board's constant aim must be to ensure, as far as we can, that the market price is reasonably remunerative to them and that the risks of producing this costly crop are reduced to a minimum. Even a small surplus may greatly depress prices. It is important to note that the biggest surpluses are not more than about a quarter of what the market needs and will pay reasonable prices for. If a buyer wants four tons and he is pressed to take five tons by an over anxious seller, price cutting will set in. The industry will find that it will get less for five tons than it would readily have got for four tons.That clear statement by the Potato Marketing Board supports the view of the Federation of Fish Friers, that shortage of the home product is the ideal to be aimed at by the Board and by the potato producers, and by the Government, as I understand it.
The greater the shortage the higher the price and the lower the guarantee payment by the Government to the Board. So the shortage suits three sets of people, but it does not suit the consumer, if the same thing is to happen to prices as happened under the 1955 Order in some of the years I mentioned.
I am a supporter of the marketing board idea, but I have grave doubts about a producers' marketing board operating within a deficiency payments scheme for a product such as potatoes, where the product per acre varies so greatly from season to season. I want to see the home producer get a fair price for his product, but also I want to see the housewife get a square deal, a good, well-marketed article, at a just price and free from the soil in which it was grown. In devising their schemes it is the duty of the Government always to have that ideal in mind, but I doubt whether these schemes will achieve it by a long chalk.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I hope that the House will not think that 181 I need to apologise for making very largely a constituency speech tonight. The Isle of Ely, my constituency, has about 4,500 holdings of which 4,000 are under 100 acres. I think it worth remembering that from these 4,500 holdings we get a very large potato acreage, between 38,000 to 40,000 acres a year. If one totals the whole potato acreage of the country that will be found to be about one-fifteenth of the total. Therefore, I think I am entitled to say a few words on this subject tonight.
I am rather surprised that there are only two hon. Members on the benches opposite in addition to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) with one hon. Member below the Gangway. If the concern registered among the growers is such as was expressed by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, one would have thought there would at least be a few in the ranks of Tuscany to share it.
When the change in the guarantee was announced it caused a great deal of concern in my constituency and many regretted the passing of the old individual guarantee. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made clear in his opening speech why the Government felt able to make that change. No longer is there the necessity of war to produce the extra filling which potatoes provided when there was shortage of meat. There have been certain cases involving fraud, but it is only fair to the growers to say that in those recent cases it was not growers who were prosecuted. Perhaps the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East does not realise quite what it costs to grow potatoes.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
The most conservative figure I have been able to arrive at in my constituency is £85 per acre. Let us look at what that means in the light of the Price Review and the 254s. a ton, which is the adjusted price per ton for the total tonnage of potatoes required for human consumption based on the guarantee which was paid when it was on an individual grower basis. On the average over the period 1946–56, at 7.4 tons per acre that makes a return of just over £93 per acre. It means a margin of just over £8. How long will the. Government wait before they invoke 182 Article 7 of Order No. 983, which reads as follows:Subject to such terms and conditions as the Minister, with the consent of the Treasury, may prescribe, the Minister may for the purposes of Articles 5 and 6 hereof make available by way of advance such sums as he may from time to time think fit.It is conceivable that in a surplus year the price of potatoes might fall as low as £8 a ton and not £12 14s.
How long has the price to run at that level before the Minister makes up his mind, "with the consent of the Treasury," that there a guarantee will be payable at the end of the year That is the crux of the working of this Order and of confidence in the industry. If he allows it to run for a considerable period that will involve producers in very considerable loss. Suppose prices fell to about £8 per ton. That would give them a return of just over £60 per acre, instead of £85 which it costs them to produce. If the Government delay too long in stepping in to make an advance on the eventual guarantee, the Board will be in considerable financial difficulties very quickly.
A yield of an extra ton an acre produces about 1 million tons of extra potatoes on the market. It could easily ruin the Board if we get, as it sometimes happens we do, a considerable increase in the average yield per acre. In the Isle of Ely, over the ten years from 1946 to 1956, the average yield has been 89 tons per acre, which is the highest in the country. There are few others which run into the eights. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir H. Butcher) sitting on my right. His constituency has a figure of 86, along with the Soke of Peterborough. The Isle of Wight, I think, comes between the Isle of Ely and those two counties with 8.8. The average for the country is 7.4. My demonstrating how high is the average yield in the Isle of Ely and the Fenland counties and some of the others—Shropshire is high, too—shows why some of my constituents are a little anxious about this matter. I should be doing less than my duty to them if I did not air some of their anxieties.
My belief is that the scheme is a great deal better than the one originally put up by the Ministry to the industry. If I understand the history of the matter 183 aright, what happened was that certain people in the Ministry thought that the right sort of scheme for going on to a basis of collective guarantee would be on an acreage payment basis. That met at once with a howl of opposition throughout all the potato-growing areas, because they know how the acreage payment system was abused during the war by some of the counties which were not so experienced as they in this matter. All too often during the exigencies of war the acreage payment was applied to the total acreage of potatoes grown without any regard to the number of potatoes or rows in each acre. Certainly, we do not want a repetition of that.
I think it is true of the whole of the Fenland, at least, that any suggestion of a return to that system was greeted with absolute horror. Therefore, the Board itself put up the essence of this scheme. There was, however, the one big difference between the Government and the Board that the Board wanted two accounting periods and the Government wanted only one. The reason why the Government wanted only one should, I suppose, please all the taxpayers, because if there were to be two accounting periods the Government could not possibly be assured that the charge on the Exchequer would not be greater than if there was only one; and the Board could not give that guarantee. It is, however, right to say—the Board has been a little reluctant to say it—that this scheme in essence is the Board's alternative to the acreage payment scheme. That should be known. The principal point of disagreement now, I understand, between the Government and the Board is simply the one matter of whether there should be one or two accounting periods.
I dare say the Government are quite right, after consultation with the Treasury, in saying that there should be only one accounting period. If they are right in saying that, however, they must be a little more ready than they have expressed themselves as likely to be to make an advance out of the guarantee if the Board starts getting into financial difficulties, which it may well do. The Board's reserves are about £1,500,000. This could be mopped up in a few weeks if it once had to start buying potatoes.
The growers will say that they are going to operate a riddle if there appears 184 to be a surplus, and I should like to know how high it is visualised that it will go. If it goes to two inches there will be uproar. I personally have always liked the small potato rather than the big one. Some of the housewives like the big potato, though I cannot understand why. It is a matter of personal choice, but a great many edible potatoes are produced at sizes below two inches in diameter, and my feeling is that a lot of very good potatoes will be wasted if the riddle goes as high as that.
The Board also says that it may start buying up, and may hold certain potatoes to see whether they will be needed for human consumption, and, if they are not, it will then dispose of them. I think this has got to work itself out, like the F.M.C. had to, but it will take a year or two, and maybe the Government will be lucky this year, when there will be a lightish crop. But I want to see the Board assured of finances to enable it to give the industry stability and to give growers long-term confidence.
I see that the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Ian Mikardo) has turned up, I suppose to represent the consumers of Reading, but I see him grinning at the thought of me trying to look after some producers for a change. I believe that potatoes are a rather special commodity, and that one cannot play ducks and drakes with them at the Annual Review as easily as one can with some other commodities. They are the next most important commodity to bread, and therefore we must enable the industry to assure us, as much as possible, of what is required.
This has been given as 3,800,000 tons. We had high tonnages in the past; they were up to over 8 million tons in 1948, or thereabouts, and recently they have been running around the 5 million mark. But there is going to be a surplus, and it would be nice to know a little more of what is in the Government's mind about the handling of that surplus in the future.
One or two other matters are also worth bearing in mind. The Minister came down to Cambridge in April, and at the request of one of my leading constituents gave an answer on this 185 matter. This is the agreed statement which was issued afterwards:Speaking at the Agricultural Conference arranged by the Eastern Province of the Conservative and Unionist Association on Saturday, 18th April, the Minister of Agriculture, the Rt. Hon. John Hare, O.B.E., M.P., said that as soon as it became clear in any year that there would definitely be a deficiency payment, he would be prepared to make an advance payment out of the guarantee to the Potato Marketing Board".It will not be easy for the Minister or the Board to decide when that is going to be, but I hope we shall hear something from my hon. Friend on that matter tonight. It is also worth bearing in mind that Order No. 984 keeps in being quite a number of the more bureaucratic features of the old guarantee system, but the guarantee is rather different. There is a good deal of sacrifice of liberty by the grower in agreeing to meet these various requirements in that Order. I am not saying it is wrong that he should have to do that, but it is worth remembering that he has not the individual guarantee in the future that he had before.
I hope that this Order will not be used in quite such a vigorous way as it had to be used often in the past to implement the individual guarantees. That is not to say that proper records should not be kept, but I draw attention to Article 6, which reads,Any authorised officer of the Minister may at all reasonable times enter upon land used for the production, storage, grading, packing or sale of potatoes and may require the production of books, accounts and records relating to the purchase and sale of any such potatoes and may inspect and take samples of any potatoes found upon land so used.That, on top of any rights which the Board may have, could be regarded as the sort of treatment to be expected if there were an individual guarantee, but it is not quite so necessary when it is a collective guarantee which in some years may not involve the Treasury in paying any of the taxpayers' money to implement the guarantee.
I detest subsidies and production grants, and what I should like to see much more is an adequate price at the end and a proper tariff policy for agriculture in this country. This is not the moment to debate that at great length. All I would say is that imports are of some relevance in this context. It is 186 asking a lot to ask the Potato Marketing Board to do its job properly if it has no say whatever about imports. There was a nasty slip-up three years ago when the Board was not properly consulted, everything was done in a panic, the market was thrown wide open, a lot of rubbish was brought into the country and certain merchants had their fingers burned. They thoroughly deserved to have them burned. The last time that imports were permitted it was done in consultation with the Board and eventually a sensible date and a sensible price was decided for the imports. I should like an assurance tonight that this kind of consultation will continue and if possible be improved.
I know that some of my hon. Friends will not agree with me, but I strongly take the view that in the long term it would be very much better to make those who have to control the home growers also responsible for importation. I know that the Government feel that this is a Government duty and that no one else could take this great decision, but if we expect certain bodies in this country to be responsible for supplying a basic commodity universally required by the citizens, it is hardly fair not to give them any responsibility at the same time for imports. If they know that there is a light home crop, how can they arrange adequate liaison to ensure that the foreign supplies available are regulated and brought into the country at the right time? There is always the danger that there will be a war between the Marketing Board and the Government over the matter. I know that I speak without unanimous support from this side of the House, but I feel that in the long term we must think out our importation policy all over again, because that policy can ruin any work which the Potato Marketing Board has been able to do under the Order.
The Government have thought out the Order carefully and in principle have accepted the Board's recommendations, but I feel that as the Board develops and becomes established—it may not be ready to do this yet—the Government may well find that it would be far better to make the Board responsible for imports, too. There would have to be certain regulations.
§ Mr. Ian Mikardo (Reading)
Since the hon. Member has been good enough to suggest that my presence is due to an interest in the consumer—and it is an interest in the 120,000 consumers in Reading—may I put a short question to him? If the Marketing Board controlled not only home production but also imports, who would look after the interests of the consumer?
§ Major Legge-Bourke
Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you have already suggested that I have, perhaps, said enough on import policy, but I think that we have to work out the whole of our importation policy again, and I believe that we will have to introduce further Orders, beyond this, to ensure proper importation. The Board is facing a difficult job. I hope that it will succeed in it. I believe that the growers want it to succeed, but I still say that the crux of Order-working is sound importation policy combined with a readiness on the part of the Government to step in to ensure that the Board is not broken by lack of funds in a surplus year.
§ 11.0 p.m.
Sir Herbert Batcher (Holland with Boston)
My constituency neighbour, my hon. and gallant Friend for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) has spoken so fully on the subject that I hardly think it necessary to trespass on the time of the House further than to say that I wish the Order well—as put forward by my other constituency neighbour, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.
I want to impress on the Government, however, the difficulty of the Board's task at the present time. The potato crop is always a worry and—let us face it—it always has been. During the war, we never knew whether there would be a slump or a glut, and the same situation is likely to arise in the future. There are two things that I regard as essential if the new scheme under the Order—which on the whole is a considerable improvement on the one it supersedes—is to succeed.
First, when the first sales of the new ware crop take place, they must take place at a fair figure. If the market is overloaded, the prices will become un- 188 duly depressed and will set the pattern for the rest of the season. It is at that moment that the Board must be able, and willing, and courageous enough to go in as a buyer at support prices. If that is not done, we shall run into intolerable trouble for the rest of the season.
It can be done without loss to the Board, and without any loss at all to Government funds, but the Ministry must have the courage, if the Treasury is unwilling to make proper advances to the Board, to let this House know, so that the Treasury can be livened up a bit, because of all reactionary bodies the Treasury is quite certainly the worst. It is dilatory, it is slow, it is mean, and we rely on my hon. Friend to make quite sure that it is kept up to the importance of moving quickly and of placing adequate funds at the disposal of the Board.
The second point is that it is no good expecting to do too much in the regulating of this crop by means of a riddle. I think that to operate a riddle with anything as high as 2 in. mesh would be a very great mistake, and that 1⅝ in. or 1¾ in. is as much as could properly be expected in this first year. And we must certainly not think, as we have done in earlier times, of taking from the top of the riddle the overweight potatoes.
There is nothing else for me to say except that the Board must be in a position, with sufficient funds, to operate the Order. If it does that, it will be able to assure a substantial and good price to the producer. It must be realised that the price paid to the producer is a comparatively small part of the price paid by the consumer, having regard to transport and marketing costs. I think that the Order may go very well ahead.
§ 11.5 p.m.
§ Sir James Duncan (South Angus)
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) has suggested that the system may plan a shortage. He was speaking from the point of view of the consumer. I am not at all certain—I have doubts, too—that the new system may not be planning a shortage from the producers' point of view.
Potato growing is a very uncertain occupation. First of all, there is the enormous variation in yield, ranging, as it 189 does, from 6½ tons to 8½ tons to the acre. Secondly, it is a very expensive crop to grow. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) mentioned £85 an acre as the cost of growing potatoes. In Scotland we cannot grow potatoes at that price. It is nearer £100, and even over. This may be because we have to boost up the crop with artificial fertilisers in our shorter growing seasons than exist in England. As I have said, it is a very expensive crop to grow, and if we are not going to get some certainty of a reasonable return, farmers will not grow them. There may well be a shortage of potatoes at the producers' end. Yet we should be able to produce enough for our own consumption. There is no reason why we should not provided that the system is right.
I know there were faults in the old system, but I should like to emphasise what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely said, that it was not the producer who was "doing down" the country. It was the dealer, and the individual guarantee worked in his interests. It has been said that there was a shortage in four out of the last five years, but that has not been the fault of the producer. It has been the fault of the weather. In the 1955 crop there was a considerable surplus; at the producer's end the price went down during that year, although at the end of the season the price to the consumer rose.
Now we have an entirely new system which does not guarantee the producer anything. If there is an Exchequer subvention at the end of the year it will not go to the producer. It will go to the Board. The object of that subvention is to keep the price high enough, bearing in mind the consumer, so that the producer can have a reasonable return. As has already been said, the difficulty is coming, not at the end of the season, but at the beginning. I do not see, under this system, any way in which the ascertained difference between the guaranteed price and the market price can be discovered until the end of the season.
There is a deficiency payment for oats, payable at the end of the season, after the difference between the guaranteed price and the actual price has been ascertained. It is only in years when 190 there is obviously going to be a large deficiency payment that the Government make an advance payment for part of the expected deficiency. That happened with oats. Here the Board want the money at the beginning of the season, but the Government will not be able to say in October that there will be a deficiency by the end of the potato year in July. I do not see how they can, because anything may happen.
That is one of the difficulties of this scheme that I do not like. First, there is no guarantee to the individual producer, and secondly I do not see how the Board can fulfil its duty to the producer in the early months of the season in enabling second earlies and the early main crop to be sold in such a way as to get proper marketing for the benefit of the consumer throughout the season. What will happen if there is no guarantee and the Government do not decide to give a subvention to the Board? Farmers will try to hold them up; they will keep them. They will try to hold on until the price is known. That is not what I call orderly marketing.
What I want to see is a system based on a fair price to the producer, and a fair supply at a fair price to the consumer throughout the season. I fear that, as a result of the new system, since there can be no knowledge before the end of the year of what the deficiency will be, it will not be possible for the Government or the Treasury to give an advance under the relevant Article of Order No. 983 in time to save those who may have to sell early because they want the cash from their crops.
I shall not vote against these Orders tonight, but I have considerable doubts about whether they provide the right answer to this extremely difficult problem. I am not at all sure that, in a year or two, we shall not have to return to the individual guarantee system, tied up as much as one likes to avoid fraud, because I feel that, to provide for a stable future, with confident production over the years to serve the consumer in an orderly market, the system of individual guarantee, sooner or later, will prove to be the only answer.
While being prepared to acquiesce in these Orders tonight, I am not sure that 191 they will work in the way the Government think they will or will give the producer, at all times of the year, a real chance to produce in an orderly manner and to market his produce in an orderly market for the benefit of producer and consumer alike.
§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
I shall not address my remarks to the merits of the Orders. I wish to call attention to what I regard as an extremely dangerous and loose piece of drafting in one of the Articles in the Potatoes (Protection of Guarantees) Order. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely, Major Legge-Bourke) referred to the encroachments on the liberty of the subject which are necessary at times in schemes of this kind, but it is important, I think, that the House should look at the matter carefully when such provisions are embodied in a Statutory Instrument.
The Article to which I wish to refer, and about which I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance, is Article 4 of Statutory Instrument No. 984, the Article which requires the grower-salesman, merchant, and so on, to provide certain information. He is to provide that information in accordance with notice served upon him saying what information is required. The information required, according to the Article, relatesto the purchase or sale of potatoes as may be specified in such notice".It is not restricted in any way to purchases or sales in which that person may be concerned. He may, under the wording of the Order, be called upon by the notice to give information about any purchase or sale of potatoes. In fact, he might be called upon to give information about what his neighbour had been doing, or something like that.
The Article is extremely loosely worded and unnecessarily wide I ask my hon. Friend to give an assurance that the notice which will be served under the Order will not require a grower-salesman, licensed merchant, registered grower-salesman or merchant to give information on any subject other than purchases and sales in which he himself is concerned. It has been a puzzle to me how this Article could have been so loosely drafted. If we have that 192 assurance from my hon. Friend, I think we might let it go through this time, with the hope that the Department will, on some future occasion, be a little more careful in the drafting.
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Godber
We have had a very full debate on this Order and I will do my best to reply to the main points which have been raised.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) raised a number of those points; among them were some which, at times, made me wonder whether his main concern was fear of shortage or of surplus. However, what he and other hon. Members have said does call attention to the difficulties, with a crop of this nature, in planning what production shall be. I think that there is little doubt that producers, in the main, are trying to get a fair balance, but weather beats them on a number of occasions. There is not much justification in the fears expressed by, I think he said, the fish fryers, that there has been a deliberate attempt to keep down production below what is required.
The fact is that the quota acreage which the Board has set is substantially above the figure which he quoted. I think that his figure was 685,000, but the correct figure is 740,000 acres, which is in excess of what planting was last year.
§ Mr. Champion
Does that include the 50,000 acres for the unregistered producers? If it does, then our figure is near.
§ Mr. Godber
No; I am not trying to deceive him. It is definitely a higher figure, and average production, which was given by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) as 7.4 tons per acre, gives a considerably higher figure than the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East has in mind. There should be adequate supplies. The weather has been abnormal in three out of four years and it has brought about freak circumstances; but it is the concern of the Board to see that adequate supplies do come forward.
Here, I should like to take up briefly the one contentious point which the hon. Member made. He said something about "Tory freedom working in 193 doubling potato prices in twelve months" but I suggest that it is not a very good line to take when the cost-of-living index is going down and not up.
§ Mr. Godber
I think that housewives are fairly satisfied with the position as it is, but I will not get drawn at this hour on to party points; in any event, they are a little wide of the Order which is under discussion.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely, in a thoughtful speech, put forward a number of points. I concede that the position warrants the anxiety which has been expressed; a very real anxiety it is, and it was right and proper that he should have expressed it. I can tell him that this has been a most difficult decision to take in the matter of potatoes and I think that it is evident from what has been said tonight that it was necessary if we really were to get the Potato Marketing Board working effectively and functioning properly as a marketing board, that we should have a different system from that under which we have operated in recent years.
The difficulty was to find a suitable alternative. As my hon. and gallant Friend says, the basis of this scheme was revised to meet the suggestions by the producers themselves and we are trying to operate a scheme which we think is fair and just; and, in doing this, we have to make provision for the problems which arise with this particular crop.
I have been asked by hon. Members about the provision of finance to the Board, especially in regard to the difficulties that might arise at the beginning of the season. It has been suggested that money should be made available to enable the Board to purchase stocks of potatoes at that time. This point was considered very carefully by my right hon. Friend, but it would be well-nigh impossible to give any indication or guarantee in advance that that could be done. What we must do is to relate any payment we make to the position that will obtain over the year as a whole and, as I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) 194 on a previous occasion, the Board has been assuredthat immediately it is clear that a deficiency payment will be due over the year as a whole, an advance payment will be made."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1959; Vol. 605, c. 195.]Beyond that I cannot go. I repeat that my right hon. Friend is always ready and willing to see the chairman of the Board at any time on any matter, and if the chairman wishes to discuss problems of this sort when the difficulty arises my right hon. Friend will be only too glad to listen to any representations made to him.
By and large, I think that the way to tackle the situation at the beginning of a season is, in the first place, to rely on the use of the riddle. I have taken note of what has been said on this point. The Board must feel its way in this matter, and I shall not dictate to it what size of riddle it should operate. The men on the Board are practical men, and they will do what they think is best. This is not something entirely new; it was operated before the war, when there was no guarantee arrangement, and it did not operate too badly then.
My hon. Friend called attention to the provisions in Order No. 984 and suggested particularly that Article 6 was taking away a good deal of the freedom of producers, and that they were giving up a good deal. To get this scheme they were having to subject themselves to a good deal of control. The Order is in very similar terms to that relating to other guaranteed price commodities, such as fatstock and cereals. This is no new departure, and I do not think that in operation farmers will find it at all onerous. The extent to which it will be utilised will, I hope, be small. But in cases of this sort there must be some such provision as this, so that we can see that there is no abuse.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir H. Butcher) was able to evoke cheers from all over the House with his statement, "Down with the Treasury." That is usually a fairly popular line to take. But he will not expect me to endorse wholeheartedly all he said. I can assure him that the Government as a whole are responsible in this matter and will take note of all the comments which have been made about the need to see that adequate funds are provided, as and 195 when we can see that there is justification for them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) raised a point which the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments took up. I am sorry if we incurred my hon. Friend's displeasure. In Article 4 the offending words to which he has referred were:such information relating to the purchase or sale of potatoes …My hon. Friend said that those words were too wide in their application, and might have no relation to the particular purchases of the person concerned. If my hon. Friend will continue to read that Article, he will see that it goes on to say:every such licensed grower-salesman, licensed merchant, registered grower-salesman and registered merchant shall produce on demand by any authorised officer of the Minister such books, accounts and records as may be necessary to verify the information.I suggest to my hon. Friend that it would be unrealistic to expect him to produce the books and records of someone else, so they must surely refer to the potatoes with which he is concerned. Therefore, while I take note of his strictures, and we will endeavour to comply with his wishes in the future, I think that if this is read as a whole, it ties up; certainly, there is a clear indication that it is only in relation to his own transactions that he is responsible so that I hope my hon. Friend will feel that the matter is not so serious as he suggested.
I apologise for taking up so much time. We have had a lengthy debate and I hope that after what I have said the House will be willing to pass these Orders.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Potatoes (Guaranteed Prices) Order, 1959, dated 5th June, 1959, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th June, be approved.
§ Potatoes (Protection of Guarantees) Order, 1959, dated 5th June, 1959 [copy laid before the House 10th June], approved.—[Mr. Godber.]