HC Deb 13 November 1967 vol 754 cc166-76

10.0 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Grading of Produce (Pears) Regulations 1967, dated 3rd July 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

If there is no objection from either side, I suggest that, with this Prayer, we take the following one standing in the hon. Gentleman's name: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Grading of Produce (Apples) Regulations 1967, dated 3rd July 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

Mr. Wells

That is convenient, Mr. Speaker.

My hon. Friends and I fundamentally welcome these Regulations to establish grades for apples and pears, but we feel that they should not become law until the House has had an opportunity of debating them. They represent a completely new step forward in horticultural marketing. Horticulture has all the rising costs of general agriculture, although it does not have the advantages of a yearly Price Review. Therefore, any new steps forward in marketing such as these are the best help that can be given to horticulture, so long as they are effective.

The horticulture industry in general welcomes these Regulations—which is more than can be said for the cauliflower grading provision, which is the next proposal to arise under the parent Act. However, some wholesalers may not like having inspectors working in their stands in the rather limited space that is available in the early hours of the morning; although if one is to inspect, then the inspection must be done when the fruit is being sold, and this is appreciated.

The question of whether the grades should be carried right through to the retail outlets is still being warmly debated by the industry, and by growers in particular. Many growers feel that these Regulations will be virtually useless without such inspection. However, if the Regulations were extended, the cost of inspection would be out of all proportion to the economic gain.

Everyone knows that many retailers mix their grades. If they were stopped from doing this, the cost of the new army of inspectors to stop them would outstrip any advantage. For example, the apples on sale this evening in the tearoom and cafeteria of the House of Commons were certainly not in the "extra" class, despite the price, which seemed to be very much in the "extra" class. One would, therefore, have to think very deeply before having inspection right through the whole range of commerce.

I hope that we will be given an assurance by the Minister about its being a real help to growers to be given a more detailed assessment of their samples when they are inspected in the market. Last year, during the trial period, the Ministry was helpful in sending detailed assessments back to growers. This year, and in future, the Ministry will state only that samples are out of grade, without ascribing any reason for it. It is surely not too much to ask for some sort of score card to be kept, with a carbon copy being sent to the grower via the wholesaler. After all, a detailed assessment must be made of each sample taken by the inspector, so why not help growers by letting them see it?

There is, of course, the problem of the progressive deterioration of fruit after leaving the pack house. During the pilot scheme last year growers sometimes had reports from commercial centres—some of which they had never even heard of—three or more weeks after sending their fruit to market. A great deal of bruising and other deterioration could take place in that time and while I realise that the financial onus theoretically rests on the wholesaler, down grading of a sample is detrimental to a grower's reputation and it is doubly frustrating when he knows that the sample left his pack house or farm in good condition, maybe some weeks before.

The grades as set out in the Regulations, and as the trial period has shown, seem to be reasonably satisfactory in this year of shortage. Whether they will be helpful in a glut year by reducing the amount of sub-quality fruit is doubtful, but we must wait and see before drawing firm conclusions. The fruit industry is now in a particularly difficult season, and in introducing these Regulations at present we must realise that we are in special circumstances.

Hon. Members will have seen the recent remarks of Mr. Jack French, Chairman of the N.F.U. Fruit Committee, when he mentioned three criteria for growers if we join the E.E.C. I shall be in order in this debate if I touch only on the criterion dealing with fruit grades. As I understand that, it is essential that we adhere to the European grades, which allow for russetting of certain English varieties. These European grades are in contrast to the O.E.C.D. grades, which give an unfair preference to the higher-coloured tasteless American varieties. The grades laid down in these present Regulations follow the European rather than the O.E.C.D. pattern and are therefore doubly welcome, but I hope that in future the Government will continue to adhere to such a scheme.

This is a difficult year in which to introduce this new system, and the fact that import quotas have been widened because the home crop was poor in parts does not give growers great confidence that the Ministry has been entirely on their side. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that the tariff division of the Board of Trade is never on their side. In this first year of the Regulations we must look at the peculiar situation of the apple crop and its handling.

In recent years large cold stores have been put up, with Ministry aid, in all fruit-growing areas to enable high-grade fruit to enter the market at the most profitable time. I understand that extra profitability for high-grade fruit is one of the purposes of these Regulations, yet the Government, by their action in widening the quotas, are both undermining the purpose of the Regulations and the profitability of the cold stores that have gone up with Government money.

As the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knows, these stores have been filled up this autumn with Worcesters with a view to replacing the expected shortfall in Cox's supplies. This widening of quotas has largely spoilt that prospect, yet in years of glut we never had import quotas tightened up against other countries sending to us.

Quite apart from this quota matter most growers feel that there should be a flexible minimum grade. I realise that the Ministry has continually said that this is unworkable, yet the Ministry must have very close knowledge of the fact that the Potato Marketing Board seems to be able to alter its riddle two or three times in a season without any very great difficulty. I do not suggest that the bruise and blemish requirements should be altered—they are perfectly reasonable—but flexibility of minimum size for the bottom grade would please the great majority of growers.

I realise that there are exceptions to this, as to any other proposition one puts forward. This is one of the fundamental difficulties we face in seeking to get the unanimity of agreement throughout the industry which the Minister has gone a long way to achieving in these Regulations. I hope, however, that he will look specifically at this question of minimum grade.

Successful publicity depends on having a uniform article to advertise. Consequently, the good work on publicity begun by the Apple and Pear Development Council will be furthered by these grading Regulations.

I hope that tonight the Minister will give the assurances that I look for, both on thinking again about the flexible minimum grades and on giving growers some reason for down grading fruit when this happens because it is extremely disheartening to a grower who has sent a good sample to market to have it down graded without reason and that, sometimes, weeks after it has been presented.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells), who is extremely knowledgeable in these affairs, has given a general welcome to these Regulations. I understand that they are two of a series of Regulations on grading fruit and vegetables. I am a little surprised that there are only half-a-dozen hon. Members present to listen to the Minister, because in the Summer Recess I had questions from constituents about Regulations of this kind. It may be, as the hon. Member said, that these Regulations are welcomed by growers and those in the industry, but by ordinary housewives and some retailers that enthusiasm is not exactly shared. I do not think the Regulations should be approved—as no doubt they will be tonight—without one or two questions being asked.

I am slightly surprised by the Regulation referring to the grading of pears. Some of the definitions seem to be extremely vague. I should like to know how they will be applied. For example, in determining pears of grade quality Class 3, what exactly is meant by: No pear … shall be seriously distorted"? I have eaten pears of very perculiar shapes and found them very pleasant to eat. Are they to be cast aside because in shape they divert from the normal? Also, what is "reasonably clean" in determining whether a pear should come within this class or not?

What boggles my imagination is how one determines: Damage and blemish other than bruising shall not exceed 1,280 square millimetres in area on any pear. Additionally bruises may be present if collectively they do not exceed 1,280 square millimetres in area on any pear, whether or not any other damage or blemish is present. I am curious to know how this is measured.

How does one tell whether it is 1,279 square millimetres or 1,281 square millimetres? I ask in all seriousness because from my elementary geometry one can measure the square area of the earth by what is known as Mercator's Projection, but how one flattens a pear to determine the square millimetre area and what is used for the measurement, I do not know. I should like to know how it is done.

When they read this sort of thing, the ordinary public should know how many civil servants are involved. I hope that the Minister will tell us that. Since the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is present, and we know that he takes his duties seriously, we should like to know from him how many civil servants in the Scottish Office will be involved in administering these Regulations. What is the cost to the public of these two sets of Regulations? I ask these questions for the reason that while the Regulations may be well justified and right in the interests of the community and the industry, there is a suspicion among ordinary people that we are more and more paying sections of the community for doing jobs which are not wholly necessary.

If this is wholly necessary, we want to know the cost and the amount of benefit to the consumer at the end of the day. The consumer wants to be sure that the burden which this will cause to fall on public taxation will be worth while.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)

It must have been a very intelligent wife who, having read these Regulations, wanted the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) to tell her how millimetres of damage were measured. If that was the only thing that perturbed the housewife the hon. Gentleman met, she was not in a great deal of trouble.

"Reasonably clean" means "reasonably clean". Anybody interested in horticulture—there are such people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—could tell the hon. Gentleman what is meant by "reasonably clean", and pears which are not reasonably clean will not come into any of these categories.

I agree that even pears which become distorted eat quite well, as do apples, but we are grading them. We must not make too much of this. One of the reasons for the great success of growers in other countries, especially in Continental countries, is that they have been grading for a long time. We want to make those in our industry who produce the best fruit equally competitive. If fruit is to sell, it must have an appearance equal to, if not superior to, that of the competitor's. This is the reason for these Regulations.

I shall return later to the question of the number of people involved. Neither we, nor the public, nor the industry, can ask for these guarantees unless it is accepted that people must be employed to ensure that it is done. There is not much use in complaining that we are engaging more civil servants when we are meeting the requests of the industry and of the general public, which wants certain assurances.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) for raising this matter tonight, because the introduction of statutory grading is a landmark in the history of horticultural marketing in Britain. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would not be fitting to let an occasion like this pass without saying something about it.

These Regulations have been made under the Agriculture and Horticulture Act, 1964, introduced by the last Conservative Minister of Agricuture, Fisheries and Food. When Labour came to power in October, 1964, we welcomed the opportunity to take over responsibility for the implementation of Part III of the 1964 Act. We knew that two major tasks faced us before statutory grading could be got under way—the recruitment and training of an inspectorate—these are the civil servants mentioned by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles—and the settling and publicising of the grades to be used.

Perhaps I should say a few words about the work which has been done over the past three years. In 1964 the Agricultural Departments had about two dozen marketing officers employed wholly or partly on horticultural work. They had a miscellaneous collection of duties, ranging from liaison with the British Standards Institution to experimental work on new containers. In Scotland they were, and still are, responsible for some aspects of horticultural advisory work which, in England and Wales, are dealt with by the N.A.A.S.

There are now 92 inspectors in the field. In case the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles wants a division of these, there are 72 inspectors in England and Wales and 20 in Scotland. So the whole of Great Britain is covered. No wholesale premises will be left unvisited. These have all had the benefit of a nine-month course which is based on the special training centres opened in Kingsway, London, and in Sighthill, Edinburgh early in 1965. The course also includes visits to packing stations and wholesale markets. A further 48 inspectors are at the centres now, nearly half of whom are due to complete their course in two months' time.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to all those growers, members of the horticultural distributive trades, and others connected with the industry, who have given us so much valuable assistance. Apart from co-operation in the visits I have just mentioned, a number of leading figures have been good enough to spare the time to come along to the training centres—not just once but for each successive intake of recruits—to talk about some specific aspect of production or marketing or imports and to give the trainee inspectors the benefit of their knowledge and experience. We are, indeed, grateful because we have always taken the view that inspectors must not only be thoroughly versed in the assessment of produce but must also be well-informed about horticultural matters generally.

I think that the ready acceptance of our inspectors by the trade—this will deal with a point which has been raised from the benches opposite; I know that the time of inspection can be a difficulty—is evidence that we have selected them carefully and trained them wisely. I have, however, been sorry to see some ill-informed statements in one particular group of newspapers about the salaries paid to the inspectors. The suggestion was made that they were paid up to £3,520 a year. To prevent any quarrels at home with their wives, let me tell the House that the salary scale for the basic grade is £1,243 to £1,457. Only the chief inspector in England and Wales receives approximately £3,500. He is the only one of his kind.

The total cost to the Exchequer of the statutory grading scheme—this is in reply to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles—is now running at about £450,000 a year. Indeed, it will rise to about £650,000 when all the training is completed, and that ought to be when we are at full strength in 1969. That is the total liability so far as the Exchequer is concerned.

In formulating the grades themselves, about which I was asked by the hon. Member for Maidstone—I believe he paid tribute to the way that we were doing this—we naturally took as our basis the standards already drawn up by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and adopted by the O.E.C.D. for its Scheme for the Application of International Standards for Fruit and Vegetables. But these standards were intended only for produce entering into international trade and could not be applied to the domestic market. Account also had to be taken of the fact that our circumstances required us to apply the standards at the wholesale stage and not, as in Europe, at the packing stage. So lengthy and detailed consultations were necessary with the representatives of growers and distributors in this country before the early drafts were converted into proposed grades and given general circulation early in 1966.

At about the same time, my right hon. Friend announced that the starting date for apples and pears would be 17th July, 1967. Some modifications to our proposals were made in February of this year to take account of the practical experience we had gained and of the further representations we had received. Indeed, I would say to the hon. Member for Maidstone that it was as a result of this experience that these modifications were made to meet what we felt were the requirements of the industry. Although I would not claim that we were able to reach full agreement with every interested organisation on every detail, I can fairly say that the Regulations now in operation command a very wide measure of general acceptance.

What has been our experience of statutory grading so far? The hon. Gentleman said that perhaps we ought not to be making too many comments, and I will not make too many, but, at the risk of labouring the obvious to the well-informed hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in this debate, I must point out that it has been in operation for too short a time to make any firm judgment at all. The middle of July was chosen as the starting date because the new home crop would not yet have begun to come on to the market and imported supplies would be only moderate in quantity.

The majority of our own growers have, therefore, been affected for considerably less than three months, so I shall draw only a few tentative conclusions. Before doing so, however, may I say a word to the hon. Gentleman about the imports. They are not tremendous in quantity. The quota increase was an extra 7,600 tons. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the home crop, for reasons not within the control of the grower but because of the vagaries of the weather, will not be so good as we had hoped. We have a duty to our growers, and we have a duty to our consumers as well. We allowed this fairly moderate increase in imports to meet what we thought would be the market needs of the housewife.

Now, the conclusions I have reached. First, most growers are not only aware of the statutory requirements but they are doing their best to meet them. There has been some tendency for growers to play safe and label their apples and pears Class 2 when a Class 1 claim could justifiably have been made. But this is not really surprising, as this is the first season of statutory grading.

Second, the wholesalers, on whose premises our staff have to carry out the work of check inspections, have continued the co-operation which they extended when experience was being gained before the grades became statutory.

Third—this will interest the hon. Gentleman—the grades have already established themselves to the extent that marked price differentials now exist between the different classes.

Further than that I would not care to go at present. I have always taken the view that we shall need to have, say, about three full seasons' experience before we begin to see the full effect of this revolution in horticultural marketing. But I believe that we are on the right lines and we have made a very useful start. It was on this account, too, that I welcomed the Prayer tonight. Once again, I express my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that we may now have the Order.

Mr. John Wells

Will the hon. Gentleman say a word about the minimum standard?

Mr. Hoy

Certainly. As I said at the beginning, we did deal with this and we met the organisations. As a result of that, we altered the gradings considerably. I do not want to go over them all, but we had a relaxation of Class 2 requirements even for partially coloured apples. We had a reclassification of certain other groups. We had some reduction in minimum size. We did all that to meet the needs of the trade, and, if we give it a little chance to operate, we can have a further look at the scheme to see whether any more requires to be done.

Mr. Wells

I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that he is prepared to look again, in the light of experience in a year or two, at the question of flexible minimum grades. He omitted the one word "flexibility" from his speech, but, if I understand his remark aright, he assures me that he, or his successors, will look at the matter again in two years with a view to giving us flexibility.

Mr. Hoy

At the very beginning, we wanted to avoid too much flexibility. Otherwise, we should not have had grades at all. If one starts by making them so flexible that they do not mean very much, one defeats the whole purpose. Obviously, in the course of working the scheme, we shall watch how matters proceed. This is the first of its kind. It would be foolish not to say that we would look at it to see how it was going, and, if any adjustments have to be made, we shall certainly consider them.

Mr. Wells

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.