HC Deb 10 November 1969 vol 791 cc121-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. James Hamilton.]

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)

It is with some diffidence that I wish to raise on the Adjournment a matter concerning the Minister of Agriculture.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

Where is he?

Mr. Body

You will realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) has been suddenly struck down with sickness and is not able to initiate his Adjournment debate, but I have given notice to the Minister of Agriculture that I would wish to raise on the Adjournment the question of the quota on imports of apples.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. It is correct that any hon. Member who catches my eye on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House is entitled to be heard if he raises a proper subject and one which, of course, does not involve legislation. There is, however, a convention, which Mr. Speaker and his predecessors have mentioned and the breach of which they have deprecated, that an hon. Member ought not to raise a subject with notice and without having a Minister or someone else present to reply.

The convention proceeds from the idea that the House should be placed in possession of both sides of any grievance. There are, obviously, disadvantages in raising a new subject without securing the attendance of a Minister. That is the convention. I can only deprecate it if it is not observed on this occasion; I have no power under Standing Orders to prevent from speaking an hon. Member who has caught my eye. However, I must reiterate that it is a practice which the present and previous Speakers have very seriously deprecated.

Mr. Body

I realise that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I may be allowed to point out, although I was not here at the time, that on Friday the Minister who replied to the Adjournment debate did not arrive until the conclusion of the speech made by the hon. Member who had the Adjournment.

As I said at the outset, it is with very great diffidence that I raise this matter. I realise that the Minister of Agriculture could scarcely have had less notice. Indeed, it was only, I think, half an hour ago that I gave him notice of this, and I appreciate that it may be difficult for him to reply fully to a debate now. However, I feel that this matter is of very great seriousness to many hundreds of growers who may be crippled this season and be driven out of business unless something is done. Were it not for that fact I most certainly would not be on my feet now addressing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I repeat that it is of the utmost diffidence that I do this; I realise that the Minister, given half an hour's notice, is put in a most difficult position, but I wish to make the point that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture is fully seized of this problem. His colleague, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, was answering Questions on this subject on Wednesday, and he was present at Question Time and overheard the exchanges, and we know that tomorrow morning there is to be a discussion on this very subject and, moreover, the right hon. Gentleman himself will be present there. I am quite convinced that, as a conscientious Minister, he will by now have marshalled the arguments and considered the problems of the growers.

I am very grateful to see the Parliamentary Secretary here now. I repeat that I realise that I am thrusting upon him a difficult task. All growers will appreciate that at very short notice he has come forward to answer on this matter. It was he, of course, who dealt with the Questions raised on Wednesday, and he is, therefore, in a position to say something more about the problem tonight.

On Wednesday, the hon. Gentleman was able to say that the market quota for this year would be the same as that for last year, 15,200 tons. I know well enough that the Minister of Agriculture is not responsible for quotas, and I am not seeking to raise that point, but I hope that I shall have said enough to convince the Parliamentary Secretary of the need to persuade the Board of Trade that there are hundreds of growers who will be in a desperate situation in the coming months unless that quota is re-examined and cut.

I wonder to what extent the Government and their intelligence service are up to date with the present system of prices. I hope that since Wednesday, when certain figures were given here, the hon. Gentleman has been able to find out the kind of prices. He will, perhaps, have learned by now that there are growers —in Leith—who are receiving only 2d. a lb. for their apples. We on this side have been saying again and again—

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

Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to point out that it is not sufficient to say that growers are getting only 2d. a lb. for them. Perhaps he would like to give me some examples, so that I can look into them. I looked into the one given before.

Mr. Body

I appreciate that, and I am not saying for a moment that the hon. Gentleman does not look at the matters which are drawn to his attention. All of us who are consistently bringing up the problems of growers know that he examines these problems with some care, but the fact is that growers have received during these past weeks prices far below the cost of production. I gave the figure of 2d. a lb. I concede straight away that they may not be the best quality apples, but they are apples which are costing 6d. a lb. to produce. It is this figure which I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to bear in mind.

We on this side of the House have said so often that farm-gate prices are no better than they were 15 years ago, and they are not. Indeed, for many commodities they are going down, yet all the time costs are rising, and rising very considerably. What I ask the Parlia mentary Secretary to do is to examine the figures which we are able to provide for him and to confirm that it is a fact that market prices are woefully low this year.

We know the reason for it. He knows the reason. We have had a most splendid crop of apples, perhaps one of the best crops for very many years. It is, unfortunately, possible that many of these apples, although of good quality, may not have keeping quality as well. This is why it is all the more important that they should find a market quickly. This is not to say that the apples are not of good quality. On the contrary, they are first-class apples, but so often when there is a crop of this magnitude and in these conditions they may not have that lasting quality which is necessary when there is such a huge crop.

This is of enormous importance when one considers the quota, and this is why I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to consult his colleagues in the Board of Trade to make sure that the apple quota is realistic during the coming months. It should be drastically cut, for unless it is cut, so that our own growers are able to get fair prices, many of them will be in a very serious plight indeed. I do not think that one can exaggerate their position.

Many of the growers are specialists, but some of them are horticulturists on a wider front. Horticultural prices generally have been very poor in the past few years and they have not improved. Horticultural costs have mounted year by year. I cannot think of any commodity, any crop, grown by horticulturists, which is not far more expensive to grow than it was a few years ago. The Parliamentary Secretary knows how some of these costs have risen and he knows the figures. I hope that he knows, also, that the prices which our growers are getting are now no more than they were several years ago. This is serious. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will embark on the course of action I have urged on him lest some of these growers are driven out of business.

8.10 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

We are all grateful that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has come here to answer this debate at such short notice. We appreciate that he has come so soon after answering Questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) and me on the serious situation which apple growers face.

They have had a remarkable season. There was an exceptional summer and then an exceptional autumn. Figures I have seen show that the crop is 65,000 tons greater than it was last year. I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary will dispute that. It is not the sort of figure which can be swept under the carpet. It is true that prices reached at the farm gate are very low indeed. Best quality Cox's, which come from my part of the world are achieving a price better than 2d a lb. and are being sold for 6d. and 61d. a lb. I can quote evidence from a major co-operative in Canterbury, Home-Grown Fruits.

I was told that prices were "on the knuckle" for the best average quality for size and grade of Cox's at the moment. "On the knuckle" means a doubt whether there is any profit for the grower. We are not talking about growing as a sideline for a farmer. In my part of the world apple growing is the one interest of the farmer. There are farmers in my constituency who have 500 acres and more—sometimes 1,200—under apple crops. They depend for the sale of that crop on very heavy capital and intensive employment of labour. They need to be absolutely sure of getting the right price in the market.

In the country at the moment there is a system, which has been argued between the growers and the industry, whereby some imports are allowed in before Christmas. The amount is 15,200 tons. I do not believe we can ask the Minister at this time to recommend to the President of the Board of Trade alterations in that figure for quotas to be allowed in before Christmas. It is too late in the day to do that, and we accept the difficulties about licences which the Board of Trade has already granted.

After Christmas, I think I am right in saying, the amount of imports is to be 68,750 tons, which is the normal quota from January to the end of June. It is this figure which I hope will be reduced on the recommendation of the Minister of Agriculture, who is also the Minister of Food. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply to the debate is primarily responsible for horticultural matters. He has always taken these tasks very much to heart. He has taken his evidence from the growers in this country, and that has helped him to make his judgments and decisions.

I am speaking—as we all are—at short notice, but from a long experience, not as a grower but as one who lives among them and sees the sort of effort and investment which the grower has to make. I also witness the great amount of skilled work put into producing what I consider to be the best apples in the world, not only from my constituency for I am not speaking parochially. The English apple is in my opinion second to none in the world. The Apple and Pear Development Council, set up under the initiative of the Ministry, is doing a great job in proclaiming the advantages of British apples, both dessert and cooking, over foreign rivals.

The British grower is prepared to meet all comers. He is prepared to face the sophisticated task of promoting, publicising, packaging and presenting his product. He has to face very serious competition from abroad, particularly from France. The apple produced there, Golden Delicious, has much to make it attractive to the housewife. It is made especially attractive by its packaging, presentation and colour. At the moment in Marks and Spencer it is fetching a retail price of 2s. 6d. a lb. I maintain that for all its good looks and shining appeal it is greatly inferior once one bites it, for it has no flavour, to an apple which is selling in Marks and Spencers at Is. 6d. a lb.—the British Cox.

I am not seeking to raise the price for the British housewife at a time of severe increases in the price of foodstuffs. It would be irresponsible to suggest that, but I have a duty to be concerned not only with the price the consumer pays but that that price should be a fair one for the British farmer, a fair and reasonable price to keep the British grower in being producing apples which are second to none in the world.

There is no terriffic plea from growers but there is a belief among them that the Ministry will not let them down. All we are asking is just that. The figures are frightening. The crop is up by 65,000 tons. The Minister has an opportunity of making a recommendation. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary not to consider that in his replies to questions last week he provided the whole answer, although he was most reasonable. He said: Yes, we want to do all we can for the home producer. It is true, as I said in reply to an earlier Question, that the crop this year is much greater than last year, when, in fact, it was small.


am not very happy with that reference. He continued: But I also took the opportunity of pointing out that the import quota of 15,200 tons has not varied over a number of years and our own production is 18 times greater than that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th Nov., 1969; Vol. 790, c. 988.] After that first sentence, which encouraged me, I was a little worried about his provisos and suggestions that may—be there were other factors that the Minister responsible for production might have to take into account.

I do not want to be unfair to the Minister, but he has responsibility for horticulture, which is an industry that presents the country with a tremendous opportunity not only in the production and dis? tribution of apples and pears but all other top-class fruit and vegetables—to save money on imports. Let the Minister give encouragement to saving money in this way.

Let him make a decision tonight, or certainly this week, before it is too late, before the licences have been issued, before the Board of Trade say, "Sorry, it is too late to come to us. We have worked faster than you". Let the Parliamentary Secretary get off the mark and show that he is all for greater production, development and higher profitability on the part of our home growers. I accept that he would be one of the first to proclaim his belief in British farming.

Some people may regard this as a small matter, but it is not. Thousands of people in this country are engaged in growing apples. They cannot suddenly switch to growing something else. They cannot grub up an orchard and plant it with some other crop in a matter of months or even of years. The soil is fouled, it has to be treated for bacteria, and, even allowing for the Government grant for grubbing and reploughing, it is an expensive matter.

We should take the opportunity to encourage the British grower against the possibility of even greater competition if and when we enter the Common Market. Of course growers are worried, but the best growers are not disheartened even by the prospect of an unrestricted flow of foreign apples. We should see that when circumstances change the British grower gets some measure of protection. The circumstances in this instance have been caused by the exceptional weather which has produced an abundant crop.

I am concerned to see that the farmer and grower gets a fair price for his crop, and that the Minister is as good as his word when, last week, he said that he would have at heart the problems of the home producer. I ask him this evening to give an assurance that he will seek to persuade his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to reduce quotas of imported apples after Christmas.

8.24 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for being present this evening and for taking part in this debate at such short notice. This is an important matter and is part of the great problem which affects imports of food. Apples and pears are important products to our home industry, and surely, at a time when there is such a large crop of home-produced apples, it is unnecessary to import more to overload the market.

It is true that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but it is equally true that an apple a day from abroad is slowly killing the home producer. Surely the import quotas should not remain at their present level. In Kent and the South-West these heavy imports of apples are affecting the home producer. The country is acting like a man who has a garden that contains plenty of apple trees, which have produced well, who is too lazy to pick them and eat them himself, but who is prepared to go to a village some distance away to buy apples with money which does not belong to him. This is what we as a nation are doing. We are buying apples from abroad when we are producing them ourselves.

We are not even prepared to control imports of apples, and now is the time for this matter to be looked at carefully. I urge the Minister to consult the Board of Trade and see what can be done to bring about a more flexible approach. We do not want to see apples priced out of the reach of the consumer. We want reasonably fresh apples, but we do not want to see the home producer slowly being put out of business owing to the heavy importation of apples. One knows what will happen then. Once the home producer is on the decline, then those who are importing apples will be able to demand whatever price they like. Control of imports has occurred in many other industries and there should certainly be control of imports of apples and pears. This is essential for the grower and is in the interests of the whole country with its balance of payments problems.

Producers in this country have sought to put their own house in order by modernising their orchards. They have spent a great deal of money and have been encouraged by the present Government, as well as by the previous Conservative Government, by virtue of various schemes, which I welcome. But it is most disheartening to those producers that, having grubbed up their old orchards to grow the right sorts of varieties, all their efforts become dissipated because of large imports.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in a recent edition of the programme "Today", a B.B.C. correspondent visited shopkeepers and put this very question to them? Everyone interviewed said that our apples were not nearly as attractively presented as they could have been and that, as a result, many members of the public preferred to purchase Golden Delicious from France? I have had personal experience of seeing apples literally shovelled into boxes. Would he not agree that—

Hon. Members

Too long.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I was about to ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his intervention to a conclusion.

Mr. Dempsey

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that growers should present their apples in a more attractive manner?

Mr. Mills

While I always welcome interventions, that was rather long. When one reflects on what the hon. Gentleman said, it is a lot of nonsense to say—

Mr. Dempsey

The shopkeepers say it.

Mr. Mills

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am speaking to you and, through you, to the Minister. The English grower has made rapid progress in seeing that his apples are packed and presented in the right way. This Government has encouraged him, and rightly so.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)


Mr. Mills

When an hon. Member gets to his feet, one assumes that he intends to give way—

Mr. Morris

I have no intention of giving way. My intention in rising was to ask the hon. Gentleman if he would give way.

Would he agree that there is no criticism from this side of the House of the British grower? There is every admiration for what is being done by the British grower. Would he also agree, however, that the British consumer must be taken into account'? The hon. Gentleman's party is all for levies on food imports. Will he spell out what he intends in this connection?

Mr. Mills

I would like to spell it out. I could enlarge upon our agricultural policy for two or three hours, if necessary. However, other hon. Members wish to speak. In this debate, we are discussing the heavy importations of apples and pears and the effect that they have on the British grower.

Mr. Dempsey

What about the effect on prices?

Mr. Mills

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind sitting down for a moment.

We want to hear from the Minister what he intends doing about what has become a very serious problem. What consultations has he had with the Board of Trade with a view to arriving at a more flexible way of dealing with this heavy amount of home-produced apples? The British grower has done what he can to put his house in order. The Government have given him their encouragement, and it is up to them to continue that encouragement and to see that he is protected from further importations of apples. It is necessary in the interests of the consumer, the grower and the country to control imports. That is not only true of applies and pears but of many other commodities.

I do not believe that it is true that apples produced by British growers are not up to standard. When apples are produced and not exported, inevitably it becomes necessary to dispose of a lot of "seconds" and "thirds". The French export only their best quality applies. Inevitably, there will be a lot of apples on the market which are not up to the first-grade quality, and that accounts for the fact that some apples fetch only 2d. or 3d. per lb. But when the best quality Cox's fetch only 6d. per lb.—

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)


Mr. Mills

That is a serious point. Quite rightly, hon. Gentlemen opposite study the interests of the consumer. They should be asking the Minister why, when growers get only 6d. per lb., the same apples are selling for Is. 6d. and more in the shops. When there is a glut of apples, the consumer should benefit. Instead of attacking me, hon. Gentlemen opposite should be attacking the Government, to discover what is happening. I hope that their questions will be directed to the Minister and not to me.

In the South-West, we have seen not only heavy imports of dessert apples affecting home producers, but the importation of very cheap apples from France for cider-making. That produce may be heavily subsidised, as French cheese is. The effect on producers of cider apples in the South-West has been disastrous. Many have gone out of business. Firms like Whiteways, Bulmers and other big cider manufacturers have been getting a large proportion of their apples from France. I regret this, because cider apples fit into the pattern of farming in the South-West. I hope that the Minister will say something about this, because it will be interesting to know whether he wants to see apple production continuing in this country.

Mr. Hoy

The hon. Gentleman said that all the cider firms were going out of business. No doubt he will give me some examples.

Mr. Mills

I beg the Minister's pardon. I did not mean to refer to cider manufacturers, but to cider apple growers going out of business.

Mr. Hoy

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give me some proof of what he is saying. If I am to go into the matter, I am sure that he will send me the evidence on which his statement is based.

Mr. Mills

The right hon. Gentleman need not worry. He has only to look at the figures for the acreages of cider apples being grown to see what is happening. The growers are grubbing them up because of the heavy importation of cider apples. I am sorry if I made a mistake. I did not mean that cider manufacturers were going out of business. I meant to say that the growers were going out of business.—[HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Gentleman said that."] My hon. Friends confirm that that is what I said. That is what I meant, and I hope that the position is now clear.

I do not want to see the cider apple industry in the South-West, in Hereford, and in other places, disappearing, but it is disappearing because of the heavy importation of cider apples from France. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister wants the production of cider apples to continue in this country.

This is another instance in which the Government should take a far more serious look at the control of imports, and be far more flexible in their approach, so that not only the home producer is protected, but in the long run the consumer, too, is protected, which is just as important.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

I shall be brief, but I could not resist the temptation to take part in the debate when I realised how little attention was being paid to the consumer problem. There are many apple, pear and other fruit growers—indeed, on the Clydeside we have one of the finest fruit growing areas in the country—but, as against the number of fruit growers, there are many more consumers, and we are therefore duty bound to look at the problem from that point of view. It may be said that I do not represent any fruit growing industries. That may be true, but I represent 90,000 consumers, and they have a vested interest in the fruit growing activities of this country.

Who purchases the apples that are imported? The answer, of course, is the consumer. If she did not buy them, there would be no need to discuss the possibility of import quotas or controls. The reason why consumers buy these imported apples is fairly obvious to me. It is that they are much more attractively presented.

Mr. Peter Mills


Mr. Dempsey

The hon. Gentleman says "Rubbish". It is not rubbish. I have heard numerous shopkeepers being asked why their customers do not buy English apples. Time and again the answer is that the French Delicious is much more attractively placed before consumers. It is well packed and wrapped in paper. It is made to look attractive to consumers who pass by the shops.

Mr. Crouch

We on this side of ths. House have not been saying that we seek to raise the price of apples to the consumer. Golden Delicious are fetching 2s. 6d. a lb. at the moment, while Cox's are fetching only ls. 6d. I am quoting Marks and Spencer's prices. We are not saying that we should go above 2s. 6d., but we should get a fair return for the continuation of one of the best aspects of British farming.

Mr. Dempsey

The hon. Gentleman is justifying my argument. Customers prefer to pay 2s. 6d. for French apples rather than 1s. 6d. for English apples because the French Delicious is much more attractively presented to attract consumers as they pass by the shops.

I invite hon. Gentlemen opposite to visit some of the greengrocers' shops in their constituencies. Let them look at the display of fruit in the shop windows. In many cases the French apple is much more attractively laid out. I am very fond of an English apple. I have had experience both in consuming and in distributing it. In my day I have sold it. When English apples arrive at some shops they are in no way prepared. Even hygienically they are not up to the preparation of the French Delicious.

I am not arguing whether or not the French apples are subsidised; that has nothing to do with it. Shopkeepers are there to sell their wares to the consumers, and it is what the consumers want that determines what the shopkeepers sell. From what I understand, it is the unfortunate fact that British consumers are inclined to prefer the French apple to the English apples. I intend no criticism of our growers or consumers. I am is anxious to encourage the growers as are hon. Members opposite. I am sure that the Government are also anxious to do this. But, although the Government can encourage, promote, stimulate, if the consumer says "I want the French apple" there is nothing the Government can do about it.

We still seem to be behind the French in our presentation and salesmanship techniques. There is an onus upon our salesmen and on our own citizens to purchase our own goods and food. Unless that lesson is taken in, no action by the Government can be effective.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I am glad to have an opportunity of following the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) because most of his remarks about the packing and presentation of English apples are some years out of date. In my car outside I have an extremely attractive bag of English apples. The House has probably heard enough from me on the subject of apples for a year or two, but I shall be glad to arrange for the hon. Member for Coatbridge to be sent a sample, to show exactly how good English apples are.

The fundamental truth is that French apples which have been packed to travel from France to this country have been packed to a very high grade in order to attract only the highest prices. My hon. Friend was right when he quoted a great retail outlet, which has a well-known line in good quality apples. But it also buys the best of the English apples. The hon. Member for Coatbridge must be fair about this. He must remember that there are many poor people—some of them, alas, in his constituency—who wish to buy the cheapest apples available. Those apples may taste very nice, but they may not have quite the same beauty. It may not be worth packing them particularly well just to get a cheap apple in the shops for the hon. Member's constituents. He must not confuse what we are trying to get the Government to do tonight.

Some years ago a Conservative Government introduced the concept of grading apples, and this process has been strengthened and extended by the present Government. Apples are divided into three grades, and are sold, by law, in those grades in the wholesale markets. A greengrocer can buy Grade 1 apples, Grade 2 apples and Grade 3 apples, and he can then showel them all together and mix the up so that the customer is left with very little choice. The grading was done in the first place by growers in the constituencies of hon. Members present on this side of the House tonight, who all represent fruit-growing areas. We have all seen the packing sheds in our constituencies, and have seen that the quality of the apples is superb.

This summer soft fruit prices fell to the floor—especially in the case of blackcurrants. That was partly because of the substantial home crop, but another contributory cause, in the eyes of the growers, was the considerable increase in quotas…

Mr. Hoy

It is nothing.

Mr. Wells

The Minister says that it is nothing, but if we examine the quotas from behind the Iron Curtain—from countries such as Bulgaria and Rumania —we see that there have been increases in the permitted tonnage year by year.

Although, in the past, the quota system has stipulated that so much of the total amount of soft fruit imported must be of a certain variety and so much of another variety, everything now tends to be lumped together under a global total for soft fruit. This naturally enables exporting countries to send in just one variety. They can send all blackcurrants, or all raspberries.

What has happened in respect of poor soft fruit prices could happen in the case of the top fruit that we are primarily discussing tonight. If poor prices for soft fruit continue year by year the acreage will decline. The Minister must know that the acreage of soft fruit of all varieties is declining. He must be able to see this from his annual reports. I am delighted that we now have a biannual horticulture survey. Although the acreage of strawberries for the current year has increased, the acreage of other soft fruits has substantially declined.

In 10 or 15 years, the home grower may be so disgruntled with his prices that he will switch production, and then we will have the situation outlined by the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris). He was frightened lest the consumer had a raw deal. He is opposed to the Common Market. If this country entered, our fruit growers would be in a sorry situation—

Mr. Alfred Morris

indicated assent.

Mr. Wells

I am glad that he agrees. He cannot have his cake and eat it. If he wants the consumers to have cheap food, he should bring it all in from Bulgaria, Rumania and the other countries which send us their food at rock bottom prices to get our currency. If, on the other hand, he wants the British grower to have a fair deal—I hope he does—if he wants country dwellers to have as fair a deal as he would like his urban constituents to have, he must allow him reasonable prices so that he does not suffer unfair competition.

If they suffer unfair competition, the growers will ultimately go out of business. One of my hon. Friends said that a number of cider apple producers were going out of business. When, two years ago, we debated the Order setting up the Apple and Pear Development Council, there was a schedule of cider varieties which were exempt from the levy. A well-known variety called Jenkins Balls was to be exempt—[Laughter.] If the hon. Member doubts me, he can check this in the Library. There will undoubtedly be a decline in production if the sensible interests of the growers are not considered.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie reminded us of the greengrocers of his constituency, but this morning I received a letter from the leading greengrocer—not a producer—in my constituency. He has branch shops at 36, High Street, Canterbury, he has a branch at Queen's House, Folkestone, another in Dover and another in Ramsgate and two important corner shops in my constituency. He wrote to me: I am rather concerned regarding the possible influx of foreign apples in the new year, as all home-produced dessert apples are now being sold in the market at under the economic value to the British grower. I feel that should we be flooded with foreign apples, it will create financial disaster to many a British apple grower. Considering the British crop this year is not a bumper one, this situation must geatly perturb the industry. I am all for competition, but I do feel we should protect our own industry first. There could not be a fairer letter than that from a man who is selling apples rather than growing them.

I hope that the Minister will look very seriously at these quotas. I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary's right hon. Friend is to see the National Farmers' Union representatives tomorrow, so this debate is of particular importance. It will remind him that many hon. Members on both sides wish British growers well. I should like to remind the Parliamentary Secretary of a letter he wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) on 25th March 1968. I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman, incidentally, for the painstaking way in which he always answers our letters. Dealing with the increase in quota which had been allowed that year because of the remarkably light home crop, he referred to a 50 per cent. increase in the earlier part and a 331 per cent. in the latter six months.

This increase in quota always seems to work that way. There is never a decrease, when there is a heavy home crop or even when, as my correspondent said, there is an average for reasonable home crop. I hope that these quotas will be re-examined and that the Minister considers not only the dessert apple or the cider apple but also the most reasonable, profitable and consistent line in recent years, the culinary apple. If there were any excess realignment of the quota period, this could have a disastrous effect on the culinary apple.

I hope that the Minister will consider the quotas as a whole rather than a small juggling with the dates between one part of the season and another. In his letter to my hon. Friend, he wrote: … but you will realise that even if such a course were felt to be desirable it would be most difficult to pursue. The quota periods for apples and pears starts in July, well before any reliable forecasts of home crops are obtainable. I take issue with the Minister on that.

Mr. Hoy

What was the date of that letter?

Mr. Wells

It was dated 25th March, 1968.

As for the statement that one cannot alter the quota periods as late as July because reliable forecasts of home crops are not obtainable, a sub-committee of the Select Committee on Agriculture, which considered horticulture, and of which I was the chairman, had specific evidence from a number of experienced growers to the effect that they were well able to forecast the likelihood of their crops before July. The Minister rightly prides himself on how close he is in touch with leading growers. I urge him to look again at the possibility of making forecasts much earlier in the year.

The Minister has been kind enough to write a number of letters to me this autumn arising from complaints I have received from constituents who are growers, but I am not happy about his attitude over the importation of Yugoslav plums. Without wearying the House by reading the letter written to me by the Minister on 8th October, it falls within the general pattern of anxiety that we have about there being dumping or near-dumping.

The Minister wrote: Anti-dumping action cannot, of course, be taken on the basis of rumour". This we know, but the trouble is that by the time rumour has congealed and there is a substance of fact, the whole price for the season is lost. The implementation of the anti-dumping rules is difficult with highly perishable crops. Instead of relying on the last anti-dumping Act, which was an improvement on its predecessor, I hope that the Government will, in their consultations with the N.F.U. tomorrow, and in their subsequent deliberations, bear in mind the real and deep anxiety of the British fruit-growing industry.

8.58 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) is a superb advocate of the British apple. His very cheeks bear testimony to the depth of his sincerity in this important matter. Indeed, the whole House remembers his single-handed public relations exercise on behalf of the British grower, and we wish him well, for, like him, we value the British grower.

Other hon. Members have paid tribute to this industry. At short notice the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) made ready to initiate this debate. He, too, is deeply informed on this subject and his speeches are always notable for their relevance to the problems facing this industry. I am grateful to him for introducing the debate, even without much notice.

We also recognise the deep and abiding interest of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) in the welfare of the British grower. He has an important constituency interest in this matter, and all of us respect the way in which he attempts, without any question of public relations exercises, either single-handed or otherwise, to bring to the attention of the House the problems which face the industry.

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) made some hurtful remarks about the produce of our friends the French growers. I know that he is someone who has, as some would put it, pathological keenness, while others would call it enthusiasm, for closer relationships with the French. I warn him that he must not criticise the produce of our near neighbours in the way that some people will think he criticised them in certain of his remarks tonight.

It has been pointed out that the British housewife can buy foreign apples, including French, at 2s. 6d. a lb. and homegrown apples at ls. 6d. a lb. I am referring to Cox's and therefore to an apple which is of some quality. Hon. Members opposite are saying that the consumers should not have the privilege of deciding which apples they should buy. If that is their policy, they should make their point far more briefly than many of them have done in the debate. Certainly the interests of the consumers cannot be neglected by my right hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, who takes a close and continuous interest in this aspect of the Department's work and responsibility.

Mr. Crouch

Would not the hon. Gentleman consider it in the interests of the consumers that the Government should go in for a policy of import saving?

Mr. Morris

I must not extend the debate. Much can be said about the Government's import saving achievements. I have already said how I admire the way in which the hon. Member for Canterbury represents his constituents. I am certain he recognises that I have a considerable and personal interest in agriculture and can speak for a long time about the selective expansion programme and the way in which the Government have tried, against all the odds, to maximise import savings.

While the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must take account of the interests of the British grower, it must not ignore the claims of the British consumer. I recognise that there are problems for the British grower, but I am absolutely satisfied that my hon. Friend is as concerned for the interests of the British grower as he is for the interests of the British consumer.

I hope that in reply to the debate my hon. Friend will take serious note of all that hon. Members opposite said, but I emphasise that those who recognise the claims of the British grower and the claims of the British consumer should not be dismissed as they have been dismissed by some hon. Members opposite this evening. If the British housewife prefers a French apple at 2s. 6d. a lb. to a Cox's at ls. 6d. a lb., I regret that, but the choice must lie with the housewife and with the other consumers.

Naturally, we must see that our growers have a viable position. My hon. Friend is concerned for the British grower and for the viability and prosperity of the industry as much as is anyone on either side of the House, and I am certain that he will show it tonight in the way which we all admire.

Mr. Body

Will the hon. Gentleman overcome the point that the consumer does not always have the choice she ought to have? The difficulty arises in that 15,000 tons of applies come in from the non-sterling area, are brought in on contract at high prices, and have to be sold by the wholesalers, who are thus displacing the home-grown apple, to the disadvantage of the English consumer.

Mr. Morris

I am certain that my hon. Friend will deal with that point and will show his sympathy and support for the British industry.

9.5 p.m.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

I am grateful to have this opportunity, at somewhat short notice, to support my hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), in his plea for the prevention of the dumping of fruit and vegetables which we could well grow at home, often at a far better quality than some of the pulp and other matter dumped on us at, I believe, the instigation of the Board of Trade to further industrial exports.

I add my word of thanks to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for coming here this evening. He may reflect that he has probably never been and never will he be so popular on this side of the House. With his interest in the horticulture industry, I feel sure that he has full sympathy for it. But practical steps must be taken; it is action, not sympathy, that is required by the industry. I had hoped, as I stated in a letter to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, that the Department would set up a branch to look out for breaches of the dumping regulations, and not have to wait for a farmer or the N.F.U. to put forward a case.

One would have hoped that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would have been in close touch with the Board of Trade. It was obvious from the evidence given before us in the Select Committee that the sole objective of the Board of Trade is to further industrial exports; it has not the slightest regard for the saving of imports, which is such a necessary part of its job.

I do not understand the way in which dumping is carried on when the "Little Neddy", the Select Committee and even the Government have all accepted that we could and should grow more at home for many reasons, including the balance of payments, and the necessity for agriculture to expand. Nothing practical is being done. I may be accused of spreading despondency and alarm, but I do not say this lightly. Never since the 1930s has the agricultural industry been so perplexed and worried about where it is going.

In today's Eastern Daily Press there is an advertisement by a grower asking for people to come and collect Cox's Orange apples at 8s. for 30 lb. They may not be top quality but that works out at about 3½d. a lb. I am afraid that when we go into the Common Market—[Hon. MEMBERS: "When?"]—if we go into the Common Market, which is the Government's policy, and the farmers' policy, if we grub up a large acreage here we shall not be able to export to the Continent large quantities of Cox's Orange apples, as I have always thought we should. We were told in Brussels that these apples have a quality entirely of their own, and that there would be a ready demand for them if they were properly publicised.

I join issue with those who have raised the question of the consumer. Of course, we must think of the consumer. All growers are consumers. Everyone whom we represent is a consumer, whether we represent a town or country constituency. But unless we have a viable home industry we shall be at the mercy of importers. We need to protect the home industry against dumping. When we have a good crop, let the quotas be flexible. They are flexible when we have a bad crop. I am not trying to tell the Parliamentary Secretary anything that he does not already know. I wish merely to put a little power behind him so that he can fight off the Board of Trade.

I take up remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) about soft fruit. In my constituency we can and do grow some remarkable crops of blackcurrants. There are growers of excellent blackcurrants in the district around East Dereham, where a great deal of money has been invested in overhead irrigation for frost protection and grants have been paid by the Ministry which have helped to produce excellent crops. Yet the Board of Trade, which I repeat is the real enemy of home horticulture and agriculture, enters into trade agreements with countries like Rumania and Bulgaria to import blackcurrant pulp at cut rates and in greatly increased quantities over last year.

I have a letter from one of the main growers in my district, written in July this year, in which he quotes the purchaser of his crop as saying: I regret prices which I can offer but demand is poor and will get worse. Purchasers can offer only about £90 a ton, which is almost under the cost of production. even for growers who have gone in for modernisation, which has been done on a large scale in my area.

Many other crops in my area suffer from dumping, including chicory and carrots. I emphasise how important it is for this country to retain its fruit and vegetable industry so that the housewife and the consumer can always be certain of purchasing crops of good quality which I assure hon. Members opposite are being packed far better than they were and are extremely well presented in the shops and which should be given the support that is badly needed.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

I wish to intervene very briefly and to apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) for not being able to be present to hear him introduce this debate. It is an example of a very good House of Commons debate, arising from the spontaneous indignation of those Members who wish to present the complaints of their constituents.

In my constituency, this is a marginal form of production. We have cider apples, eating and cooking apples and soft fruit, which are of importance to a limited number of my constituents, but to them they are very important. In the main, we have been speaking on the side of the producer, although there have been interventions on the side of the consumer, notably by the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey). However, there has been one misconception running through all those speeches—that is, that apples should be bought by the housewife.

That is fundamentally wrong. Apples should never be bought by the housewife. They should always be bought by the husband. Apples should not be judged by their appearance. The right way to judge apples is by their grade and species. There ought to be selective buying by those who really know the difference, not between bright green, bright red and bright yellow apples, but between historic names such as Cox's Orange Pippin or James Grieve—the Minister might even call this a James Grieve debate—and about all Darcy Spice from the Eastern Counties.

I ought to pay tribute to the great work which has been initiated in this country by Sir Richard Boughey and his Apple and Pear Development Council. They have made a real contribution on the all-important question of types of produce and the way of presenting and selling it, and it is right that their work should be acknowledged. I hope that they may project their work into different fields and perhaps even in conjunction with what we have been doing here.

The House recently passed the Development of Tourism Bill, involving the granting of funds for the building or improvement of hotels in various parts of the country. I would like to hear it seriously suggested to those hotels which get public funds that on every hotel breakfast table there should be the different types of English apple which every Englishman should eat at least once each breakfast time, if only to keep the doctor away, and similarly with British Railways and all other publicly supported enterprises of that kind.

In addition to apples, quite a lot has been said in this debate about soft fruits, to which I wish briefly to refer, because the Minister may remember that I had some correspondence about this. He was good enough to send me at least two letters on the very difficult subject of blackcurrants and questions of import quotas. This has already been said ably and clearly by other hon. Members, and I wish only to emphasise how badly individual growers can be affected and the great damage that can be done, not only financially to the growers, but in the long term to consumers also. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) has pointed out the danger that growers will become discouraged to the extent of grubbing up their soft fruit acreages and finally leaving the country at the total mercy of the foreign producer. That is a very bad state for the housewife or even for the husband who might to do the buying.

As my hon. Friends have said, this all comes back to the Government in the two issues of import quotas and anti-dumping. As regards import quotas, which, I believe, are the responsibility of the Board of Trade—I think that we still have a Board of Trade, in spite of the recent changes—I appeal to the Minister constantly to represent to the Board of Trade that it should try all ways to look ahead in these matters. This applies not only to import quotas, but also to antidumping.

I know that the question of antidumping is much more difficult, because evidence has to be collected and it can be a great rigmarole. In both cases, however, a more forward-looking approach is needed. The message that we would like the Minister to convey to the Board of Trade, if we still have one, is to unharden the arteries and try to look ahead.

We now have a Minister whose title I do not recollect but who is without actual responsibility for any part of our trading activity, yet in some way supervises the whole concept. I mean the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). He is really in the position which the late Sir Winston Churchill once described as one of exalted brooding, and what could be a better occupation for a Minister in that position than to concentrate his brooding on this problem of quotas, anti-dumping duties, and the proper timing thereof? May I suggest that that message be conveyed to the Minister, and may we thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary again for coming to this debate.

9.25 p.m.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), who opened this debate, for not having been here then, but I was not aware that there was to be a debate on this subject. I hesitate to come in upon it, a subject heartfelt, as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) has indicated, but although we feel strongly about our growers and realise that their problems have got to be looked at when one thinks of antidumping duties and import quotas and so forth, we ought, too, to think about the consumers, the housewives.

We all agree that this year has been a quite abnormally good year for soft fruit growing, and probably for the first time we find ourselves with an absolute glut of what are popularly known as Cox's Orange Pippins and various other types of apple grown in this country. Would that we could have it every year.

I am sure hon. Gentlemen will agree that my right hon. Friend, while he has to consider import duties and quotas, has also to consider the housewife. She deserves some consideration, too. She really ought not to be expected to calculate for a good summer this year and a bad summer another year and so on, and my right hon. Friend has to consider —and this is extremely important—giving her a choice. At this time, particularly, we may think that from the point of view of the balance of payments the housewife is wrong, but it is extremely important that she should have a choice between paying half a crown, if she wishes, for Golden Delicious or ls. 6d. for Cox's Orange Pippins.

Hon. Members who represent constituencies where the growers are ought not to lose sight of the type of person I represent, the consumer, the housewife, who buys the products and who would like not only in a period of peak production but every year to pay reasonable prices. I do not think this is a hard thing to ask for. It is something which is negotiable and which the Government have got to take into consideration. It is not something which the Minister can write into an Act of Parliament or into a quota. It is a matter of the luck of a season, luck with the sun, luck with water, luck with rain. The Minister really has to consider the matter over a far wider period of time.

I know that my hon. Friend always tries to be fair on this. Whenever I have talked to him about import duties and quotas he has always tried to be fair, and I am sure that hon. Members opposite, if they search their hearts, will agree that he has always tried to be fair about these things—import quotas and the protection of the home growers. These are important considerations.

I have sought to make only a brief intervention on behalf of the housewives and to plead that we do not lose sight of them while we consider what is fair and proper for the home growers.

Mr. Alfred Morris

The point may be that all of us on either side of the House should be stressing the intrinsic value of home-produced goods. None of us has done enough to emphasise the quality of home production. The housewife may choose imported goods and we may think that she is wrong. The answer is to emphasise the quality of home production.

Mr. Bagier

My hon. Friend is exactly right; this is the point I am trying to make. By all means let us look after our home product and make sure that those who make their living in home produce get the best market available, but if they cannot always guarantee to fulfil the needs of that market to the advantage or satisfaction of the customer the customer must have some sort of thought in decisions reached by Government. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with the question as it affects not only the grower but also the consumer.

9.31 p.m.

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

I can hardly open by saying that I am grateful for the notice given me for this debate. I had better put on record how it happened. It was not until just after half past seven that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) spoke to me about it. I gave him an assurance that if he wanted to discuss imports he had better get in touch with the Board of Trade. I can only think that, despite the joint efforts of hon. Members opposite, it was not possible to get in touch with the Board of Trade, and so this was put on to me. I do not complain about that. I hope that I shall be able to put certain things in perspective.

I should remind the House of what the problem is. It is true that this year there has been a fairly substantial crop of apples, unlike last year. Last year the prices to the consumer were certainly much higher than they are this year. The housewife has no objection to getting apples at this price, although she objected last year about the price she had to pay then. The complaint last year was rather different from the one this year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier). He made a very balanced speech and spoke about how the Govern ment had to operate to ensure supplies for the people of this country. I> am grateful not only for his remarks about supplies but to my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) and Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) for reminding me that my Ministry is the Ministry not only of Agriculture and Fisheries but also of Food and that we have a responsibility to the consuming public. I try to be as fair as humanly possible to the producer and the consumer.

I am afraid that I shall have to repeat some figures which I gave last week, but if this matter is to be put into perspective that has to be done. It is true that we issue import licences for 15,200 tons and against that British production is 18 times greater. It is within that context that we have to think not only of what we can import but of what the home trade can do.

I have always felt that the home trade ought to do better. I think it is doing better now than it was doing a little time ago. I resent a little hon. Members opposite saying that we ought to encourage the home grower, for I remind the House that it was this Government that set up the Apple and Pear Development Council under Sir Richard Boughey. We were the first to do that. Some hon. Members opposite, although not all, had better remember the way in which they behaved when we took the Bill which became the Agriculture and Horticulture Act 1964 through Committee and were seeking to make provision for statutory grading of fruit and vegetables. They made a great deal of fun about some of the proposals. I hope that when we come to the House with Orders for certain other commodities they will receive the unanimous support of the House as helping to market British products.

Sir Richard Boughey and his council, with limited funds, have carried out a remarkable job in apple and pear production in this country. They have in their advertisements made an impact on consumers. If I may add a plug, which might be barred on B.B.C., I would say that if the housewife is wise she will buy British apples. Indeed, coxes pippins at ls. 6d. a lb., if that is what they are—and I will come back to this in a moment—are a very good buy indeed.

What we cannot do is to have an argument about prices and variations in them, or about quality. Last week it was said in the House by one hon. Gentleman that the best apples, well-graded, well-packed and of the highest quality, were selling for 2d. a lb. Not a single hon. Gentleman tonight repeated that figure. It does the industry no good to quote figures of that kind. Indeed, at the weekend I made certain inquiries, and I will not disclose what I discovered until I can verify them. If I were to say what I had heard it would not do the industry any good at all.

The prices given this evening by hon. Gentlemen opposite have all varied. Some say the growers get 3d., others that they get 31d., and the highest price mentioned was 62d. Surely there must be something wrong in the marketing and retailing system. The hon. Member for Canterbury said that it must be the Government's fault. The Government certainy get no money out of it. If somebody is buying apples at those prices and selling them for ls. 6d., then somebody in between is doing a little too well at the growers' and consumers' expense. Somebody who is interested in the matter might bend his energies to examining the problem in that respect.

I turn to whether we should restrict the sale of apples coming from other countries. One charge that cannot be made is that dumping is taking place—certainly not on the prices which have been quoted by hon. Gentlemen. One cannot in one breath talk about a price of 2s. 6d. a lb. and in the next talk about dumping. One can hardly say that the housewife is encouraging dumping by paying Is. a lb. more for foreign apples than she would have to pay for a very good product like cox's pippins.

Mr. John Wells

When the right hon. Gentleman reads the debate, he will find that hon. Members on this side when talking about dumping were referring to soft fruit, including plums. I do not think they were referring to apples.

Mr. Hoy

I associated their remarks with apples and pears. I picked up the point about soft fruit, plums, blackberries, blackcurrants, and so on. But this debate is about apples and pears, and that is what I am replying to.

The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) expressed his concern about imports of apples competing with home-produced cider apples. However, he is on difficult ground, because his constituency is boasting about its exports. I am told that there is a certain breed of cattle which is finding a very good market overseas. Apparently the hon. Gentleman does not mind selling overseas, but he objects to overseas producers selling to us. He must realise that business is a two-way traffic. I hope that he will keep that in mind. I would not like to see any reprisals affecting his constituency.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the presentation of home-produced apples. Under the guidance of th,:. Apple and Pear Council, the presentation of our produce has improved enormously. I defy anyone to say anything to the contrary. However, many people are prepared to pay more for produce which is well packed. I remember an hon. Member opposite complaining to me at Question Time about the importation of American carrots. He told me that they were so well-washed and packed that even his wife was buying them. My advice to him was to take up his complaint with his wife.

I intend to say nothing about the Common Market or about those who want us to go in and those who want us to stay out. I am told that this goes right across the board. I was surprised to hear an Opposition Whip asking, "Who wants to go in?" I understand that many of those who appointed him want to go in, and I am sure that he will forgive me if I do not reply to that part of the debate.

It is difficult for me to go much further about horticulture than I went at Question Time. No Government for a long time have given greater encouragement to those engaged in Britain's horticulture, and in a forthcoming Bill we plan to increase the sum which we can give in the form of grants. In the last three years, we have paid out over £9 million under the H.I.S. That is a considerable sum, and obviously we want the industry to earn its keep. We are just as interested as anyone else, if not more so.

Perhaps I should say officially that tomorrow we are meeting representatives of the industry to discuss this very problem. They have asked to see the Minister, and I assure hon. Members that I shall be there as well. We shall want to discuss with them what is best not only for the industry but for the country. Having said that, I hope that hon. Mem bers will accept that their points will not be overlooked and that they will be taken into consideration, together with many others that they have not raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourined accordingly at sixteen minutes to Ten o'clock.