HC Deb 24 May 1962 vol 660 cc817-25

10.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

I beg to move, That the Import Duties (General) (No. 6) Order, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 885), dated 30th April, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th May, be approved. This is a short but slightly complicated Order, and perhaps I may be allowed to explain it to the House, although it is highly technical. On 17th May, 1960, the House approved an Order introduced by my right hon. Friend—S.I., 1960, No. 811—which raised the duty on tomatoes exceeding 1s. 3d. per pound c.i.f. in value from 4d. to 6d. from 16th May to 31st May. The intention of that Order was to subject Dutch glasshouse tomatoes to this higher rate of duty during that period while allowing entry of Canary Island tomatoes grown in the open at the ad valorem duty of 10 per cent. I remind the House that from 1st November to 30th April the duty on tomatoes is ad valorem, from 1st June to 31st October specific, and in May it is both, depending on the c.i.f. value of the goods. The intention of that Order has not been fulfilled. Imports of Dutch tomatoes in the second half of May, 1961, were nearly 60 per cent. higher than in the same period of 1960, and 45 per cent. of that much higher total qualified for the lower rate of duty, compared with 29 per cent. in 1960.

To make the purpose of the Order clear, it is necessary to understand that most Dutch tomatoes are sent here on consignment, and it is not until the tomatoes are sold that the residual c.i.f. price, after deduction of selling costs and duty, is known. Last year, if the price realised on the market were 1s. 6⅓d. per lb. or less, the duty payable was at the rate of 10 per cent. on the c.i.f. price. If it were more, the duty was at the 6d. per lb. rate. But that meant that as soon as the market price was in danger of falling below 1s. 11d. the importers of Dutch tomatoes preferred to reduce the price to 1s. 6⅓d. per lb. and to obtain the same c.i.f. return.

Not unnaturally, this had a serious effect on the return which British growers could obtain. Last year, as supplies built up, the price fell from a minimum of 3s. per lb. on 18th May to a minimum of 1s. 6⅓d. per lb. on 25th May. As soon as the ad valorem duty came to an end on 31st May, prices rose again substantially to almost 2s. Both in 1960 and in 1961, imports from Holland chargeable at 10 per cent. were confined to the last seven working days in May. It is quite clear that with the tariff as it was up to 16th May British growers were not getting the protection which the 1960 Order was intended to provide and which the House approved without a Division. They were getting only 9d. per lb. at this time last year against 3s. a week earlier and 1s. 9d. to 2s. early in June.

To rectify the position, the present Order was laid before the House on 4th May and came into effect on 16th May. All it does is to make from 16th to 31st May the specific duty of 6d. per lb. applicable to tomatoes the c.i.f. price of which exceeds 1s. per lb. instead of 1s. 3d. per lb. as was the case in the last two years.

The proposed change was discussed with the Dutch Government. The Dutch recognised that the circumstances were unusual and that the change was not designed to provide increased protection against Dutch supplies in the normal sense. We believe that it is unlikely appreciably to affect the quantity of tomatoes imported from Holland or the returns to the Dutch growers. What it will do is to help British growers to get the kind of return which the original Order was meant to secure.

I hope that with this explanation of this simple Order with a somewhat complicated background the House will agree to approve it.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for his explanation of this Order. Although its purpose is to vary the import duty on tomatoes for a very limited period, in fact it leaves the tariff of 6d. per lb. on the main bulk of imported tomatoes.

We on these benches are not opposed to import controls, but we say that import controls, whatever form they take —in this case the tariff—ought to be imposed for a constructive purpose and not merely to give protection if protection will not lead, as in the case of tomatoes, to better marketing, packing, grading, transportation and growing. I am not suggesting that our tomato growers are inefficient, but if this tariff, whatever form it takes over the next four months—and there are opportunities for further variations during the summer period—will merely shelter our present marketing arrangements in this country, then it will not serve the purpose which the hon. Member mentioned.

It is not so much the protection of a tariff in regard to price that the home grower wants, because, as the hon. Member said, the Order will not make a great deal of difference to price. If the hon. Member looks at the wholesale price returns in the trade journals, he will see that there are enormous variations of price throughout the provincial wholesale markets of this country for the same grades of tomato. To put a 6d. tariff on Dutch tomatoes will not make a great deal of difference to the overall average price, because already Dutch tomatoes are being sold at quite different prices all over the country in the wholesale market.

We are concerned about the fact that at the moment English tomatoes are scarce. That is the report which is received from all the wholesale markets. The English growers are having a pretty rough time, and this awful weather is not helping them. All I think this Order will do during the present summer is to shelter our present inefficient methods of marketing.

We shall not oppose the Order. We did not oppose the previous import duty arrangement. But since the original Order of which the hon. Member has spoken came into operation two years ago, we have had the Horticultural Marketing Council set up, and the Government have spent a considerable amount of money in trying to finance the work of that Council. We have had the Cucumber Marketing Board, which is still in existence and is supposed to be working.

Yet we still have in this country for marketing horticultural produce probably the most inefficient system of any country in Europe. We have no cooperative arrangements with growers, we have regional markets situated in the wrong places, and we have expensive transport arrangements which ought to be cut out. If the effect of the Order is to shelter that system without encouraging improvements, I do not think the growers will get any benefit out of it, and certainly the housewives, the customers, are not going to get any benefit out of it.

I would ask the hon. Gentleman, therefore, to answer two or three questions. Is this the last alteration we are to have in the basic Order? Are we to have alterations in the fortnightly periods during June, and then monthly in July and August, when the tariff already varies from 4d. to 6d. and back to 5d., 4d., to 2d? Are these tariff arrangements to continue? Could he tell us what the supply position is going to be? If the effect is to cut out imports, when, perhaps, we may have insufficient English and Scottish supplies of tomatoes, as in previous seasons, the consumers will suffer a great deal. Have these questions been taken into consideration to make sure that, whatever the Government do now about these tariff arrangements, the consumers will be guaranteed adequate supplies of tomatoes, preferably from the home growers, but certainly from abroad if we have to rely on imported tomatoes, and at reasonable prices?

10.32 p.m.

Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

The Opposition should keep a sense of proportion as to the effects of this Order. Whatever may be the condition as to modernity or otherwise of the present marketing arrangements of our horticultural industry, it is, quite certain that this Order, the scope of which is to end in fifteen days, will have no effect one way or the other on the marketing arrangements. At a time when the Common Market negotiations are in process, it would be idle to deny that the tomato industry, particularly the glasshouse industry, is in a state of apprehension as to its future if we enter the Common Market. The horticultural industry is taking great steps, steps which it is able to take as a result of the schemes of encouragement which the Government have given, very limited and modest as they are, to improve its marketing arrangements, particularly in the form of increasing associations of producers to market their produce cooperatively. Therefore I think the right attitude for this House to take to this Order is to express a very moderate fifteen days' worth of gratitude on behalf of the industry that at any rate during that time there is to be an increased duty on the imported tomatoes, which must reflect itself to some extent in the returns which accrue to our producers. To that extent, I welcome the Order.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

I wish to join my hon. Friend in extending thanks to the Board of Trade for introducing this Order tonight. Most of these tomatoes are landed either at Great Yarmouth or Boston, and thus the growers in those areas feel rather more strongly on the subject as they see it rather closer at hand than do other growers in the country. They have been pressing for the last year to have this slight alteration made. I know that they are grateful, as we are tonight.

The future of the tomato industry is not really under discussion at this moment, but this Order will certainly help to keep the tomato industry going for another year or so. I thank my hon. Friend for introducing the Order tonight.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I wish to raise another paint, though not on the merits of the matter, because from the debate which we have so far had it looks to me as if the House will wish to approve the Order. I am rather concerned about the timing of the Motion tonight. The Order seeks to increase the rate of import duty for the limited period of fifteen days from 16th May to 31st May. The Order was made on 30th April and was laid before the House on 4th May. It was made to come into operation on 16th May and to operate, as I have said, for fifteen days until 31st May.

Today is 24th May. It may have been that the House would have wished to disapprove of the Order, in which event, it seems to me, it would have been stultified in so doing by the fact that the Motion to approve the Order was not moved until today, the 24th May. I want to ask the Minister, and particularly the Leader of the House, as it is a matter which affects the rights of the House, why the Motion to approve the Order has been delayed until 24th May. Why was the Order not brought before the House either on 16th May or earlier? Does it not make rather nonsense of our procedure it an Order laid on 4th May seeking Parliamentary approval for something which is to operate between 16th May and 31st May is only brought before the House for approval on 24th May, half way through the period during which the Order is to operate and after, presumably, it has been in operation for a week?

It so happens that we shall approve the Order, but it might have been the case that the House would wish to disapprove of it. It seems to put the House in a ridiculous position, if by having postponed the moving of the Motion until today the House is deprived of its ordinary right of disapproving of the Order. I ask the Leader of the House to give the matter his attention, because it seems to me that if Motions of this kind—trivial perhaps though they may be or meritorious though they may be—are delayed in being brought before the House it makes a nonsense of our procedure.

I hope that the Minister or the Leader of the House will explain why the House has been put in this rather ridiculous position of not having had an opportunity of discussing the matter before today.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. N. Macpherson

With the leave of the House, I will deal first with the question of timing. Although this is not, as the hon. Gentleman knows, entirely a matter which is in my hands or those of my Department, I would say that it is by no means without precedent for it to be dealt with in this way. As I have said, when the last tomato Order came before the House it was also after it had come into operation. There was certainly no discourtesy meant. It is by no means unprecedented.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) wanted to be assured that it was not the case that all the Order would do would be to shelter inefficient methods of marketing. I can tell him that competition is extremely keen. What happens is that during May supplies from the Canary Isles are tailing off and more or less finish during that month—possibly running over a little into June. I believe that supplies are about a week later in this current season—for all too obvious reasons.

Home-produced supplies last year were roughly the same as those coming from Holland, and, again, there were about equal supplies coming from the Channel Islands. There was, therefore, pretty acute competition. Last year, the supplies from the Canary Isles tailed off rather more quickly, possibly due to the operation of this duty, but they, too, are at about the same level. So far, the Dutch supplies have been about a quarter of the total during May, after which they rise, and so also do the supplies from home production and from the Channel Islands.

The hon. Member asked whether this was the last alteration in the basic Order. I would not for one instant say that it was necessarily the last, but at any rate no other alterations are contemplated at the present time. We have no applications to do so at the moment. He also asked for an assurance about supplies. We have no reason to believe that the hothouse supplies will be any other than adequate.

The hon. Member finally asked whether the customer would be guaranteed adequate supplies at reasonable prices. The purpose of the Order is to secure a rather better return for the home grower in this limited period of two weeks before the specific duty comes wholly into operation, and all tomatoes are chargeable at 6d. It makes very little difference to the consumer, it will give the grower a rather better return during the last period of two weeks, and in particular during the last week of May.

That was the time last year when the break came and when the importers of Dutch tomatoes found it expedient to reduce their prices sharply in order to take advantage of the 10 per cent. duty. The price of British-grown tomatoes followed suit, and the growers secured a much lower return than it was reasonable to expect. That is the sole purpose of the Order. I do not think that it will affect the consumer adversely, but it will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir Peter Agnew) said, benefit the British grower —or, rather, those British growers who have to bring their tomatoes forward at this time.

Mr. Fletcher

I can only intervene again with the leave of the House, but I was disappointed with what the hon. Gentleman said on my procedural point. He said that there was a precedent for this procedure, but that does not justify the method by which this Order has been brought forward. Perhaps the Leader of the House will say that he feels that it is not really treating the House with courtesy to delay bringing forward an Order like this long after the start of the very limited time in which it is to be in operation.

10.44 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)

Of course there is no discourtesy to the House. The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) is very experienced in the ways of the House and knows that there is not only an immediate precedent in this case but that there are a considerable number of precedents. It may be that, as he said, it is a bad precedent, but there can be no doubt that it has happened on many occasions before.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will also realise the difficulty there is in trying to meet the convenience of the House, particularly, I may say, at this time of year, when the Finance Bill —and I think that this is, perhaps, the main reason—occupies so much of our time. Naturally, the Finance Bill being exempted business and one never being able to say whether or not the House will go on all night, perhaps till breakfast time, we would not wish to put down an Order of this nature for approval by the House. I hope that these special circumstances will explain the position. I can assure the House that no discourtesy was intended.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that whether or not it is a good precedent, the tomato producers wanted swift action? The Order has provided that action. Although retrospective, it has been swift action and it will be very much appreciated by the industry.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Import Duties (General) (No. 6) Order, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 885), dated 30th April, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th May, be approved.