HC Deb 11 March 1971 vol 813 cc742-55

11.0 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)

I beg to move, That the Apple and Pear Development Council (Amendment) Order 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th February, be approved. This amending Order is presented for approval in accordance with the requirements of the Industrial Organisation and Development Act, 1947, under which the principal Order was made in December, 1966. I am pleased to put forward this amendment because, while it represents a very limited extension of powers, it is a change which will give further backing to an organisation doing, and recognised as doing, good and useful work for this industry.

The amendment has a simple purpose. At present growers in business in the industry with five or more acres of apples and pears must register with the Apple and Pear Development Council, but only then do they become liable to its annual charge made on an acreage basis. The amendment before the House will place the liability to the annual charge on a grower, as defined, whether or not he has completed registration with the council, and the council will not have to lose money to which it is entitled if someone delays his registration. When I say "a grower as defined", hon. Gentlemen will notice that the definition of a grower is changed slightly by the amending Order.

The House will wish to know how the industry regards the amendment. The Act of 1947 requires of me, before I amend a Development Council Order, to consult the council and those organisations which I consider to be representative of substantial numbers of persons engaged in the industry. I am able to report that the various bodies—the council itself, the National Farmers Union, the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers and the Transport and General Workers Union—all support the change. In doing so they will have had in mind, as will the House, the work of the council and the way it has been carrying it out.

Its main task is to promote the sale of home-grown apples and pears, but it also carries out research and other subsidiary tasks useful to the organisation and development of an effective industry. Many factors determine what returns growers earn, and there is no simple yardstick by which one can say that such and such an improvement is due to the council, but I believe there are few in the industry who grudge it recognition. Where market research has tested the results of the council's special sales weeks which it has had, and special demonstrations, very striking increases in sales have been measured. The council's entry into television publicity in the north has been similarly encouraging.

The council keeps its administrative costs well down, without any loss of quality, and provides all the publicity for the industry's products that it can within what is still a very modest budget. Once the annual charge has been settled in any one year within the statutory limit, and with my approval, it is only right that the council should be enabled to gather in all the money to which it is entitled, and without having to spend heavily to do so.

The great majority of growers readily fulfil their obligation under the principal Order to register and pay the annual charge. On the experience of four years since the council's establishment, however, there are a few growers who evade or delay registration, thereby evading or delaying payment of the annual charge, and it is unacceptable that a selfish few should be able to avoid liability for their own contribution.

The amendment will make precisely the same growers liable for the annual charge as, of course, are liable under the principal Order provided they carry out their obligations to register. In this respect the draft Order makes no change. Nor would it have any retrospective effect on those growers who are still not on the register for one reason or another. However, if they fail to register after the date the amending Order comes into operation they will be liable to the annual charge as from that date. The grower who enters the industry on a date after the Order comes into operation will be liable to pay the annual charge as from that date, whatever may be the date on which he becomes registered.

This measure will assist the council and is fair to those, the great majority of commercial growers, who already support the council. I would like to take this opportunity to wish the council further success. I am extremely grateful —and I think all those who know anything about the apple and pear industry are extremely grateful, too—for the unstinted work of the chairman, Sir Richard Boughey, and the other members of the council, and of its staff, who do an extremely good job.

The draft Order has the support of the council and representative organisations in the industry, and I am glad to commend it to the House.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Michael Barnes (Brentford and Chiswick)

The purpose of the amendment Order, as the Minister has pointed out, is to place the liability for paying the annual charges on the growers who come within the qualification, whether or not they are registered. That is a very sensible amendment, to ensure that the council gets all the funds to which it is entitled.

I take this opportunity to compliment the Apple and Pear Development Council on the job that it is doing, but I wish that it were possible for the council to operate on a bigger budget than at the moment. Although the council can charge up to £3 per acre to growers, at the moment it is charging only £2.25, which on about 70,000 acres produces about £150,000. Since the council aims most of its publicity activity at the consumer, one cannot help feeling that a budget of that order is not enough to make much impression on consumers, bearing in mind the sort of publicity budgets that food manufacturers generally have at their disposal.

There can be no doubt of the need for greater publicity for apples and pears grown in this country, and for more support for the industry. I cannot help feeling that many housewives are sometimes not aware when English apples start to come on the market, in September and October. This is a great pity, because the quality of these English apples is much superior to many imported apples, for which housewives have to pay considerably more in the summer—in July and August—until English apples come on the market in quantity in September and October.

The council also directs much of its work at growers. I am sure that the need is to encourage growers to concentrate on producing a limited number of varieties, because there are so many varieties of English apple grown in this country—some of which are no longer a very good commercial proposition. But there is a need, therefore, for some good coloured varieties that will keep well and can be sold alongside Cox's, right through the period when English apples are available in the shops, until April.

The ability of our own industry to offer this kind of continuity, and to offer the consumer a choice of home-grown apples right through to April, will be especially important if we obtain entry into the European Economic Community and have to face even stiffer competition than at present from Continental apples, such as French Golden Delicious. The council is obviously well aware of these problems, and has carried out a number of surveys into refrigeration capacity, the future production of apples, sales patterns and price levels if we enter the European Economic Community.

The only other aspect of the council's work to which I want to refer is its contribution to dental health. It contributes, through the Fruit Producers' Council, to the work and the publicity that that body does, and the council has its own apples-for-schools schemes. I am not sure what the division of responsibility is between the Apple and Pear Development Council and the work that it may do in connection with promoting dental health from apple eating, as opposed to the work for dental health that the Health Education Council may do. The promotion of apple eating among children is a means of improving dental health and bringing the sales of homegrown apples to a higher level.

We welcome the Order, which is a very sensible one because it will enable the council to get in all the money to which it is entitled. We compliment the council on the work it is doing, but we should like to see it operating on a larger budget, particularly in view of the problems which the industry will face if we go into the European Economic Community. Will the Minister say what prospect there is of the council being able to operate on a considerably larger budget in the foreseeable future?

11.10 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I, too, would like to congratulate the council on the extremely good work it has done. I am delighted that the Minister has seen fit to come along at this late hour rather than send the Parliamentary Secretary. It shows the importance which he attaches to this matter. I am delighted that the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers, of which I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) have the honour to be members, recently gave the Apple and Pear Development Council a little token of our appreciation of what it has done, and that the Minister was present at that ceremony.

The hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) made one fundamental mistake in his interesting speech in suggesting that there should be coloured varieties to market alongside Cox's. What is needed above all else is fewer varieties. The one exception to the generality is the technical need for adequate pollinators for Cox's. The hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree when he screams for new varieties. Fewer varieties would enable the council to market much more efficiently.

As the hon. Gentleman said in his main remarks, the council is operating on a shoe-string. Sir Richard, his vice-chairman and all his officials deserve to be congratulated—

Mr. Barnes

I was not intending to, and I do not think I did, advocate that there should be more varieties. I was trying to make the point that there were too many varieties, some of them no longer a commercial proposition. What is needed—and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree—is continuity of supply in the shops through as long a period as possible. Supermarkets and multiples, which are expanding fast, want to offer the consumer a choice, so it is necessary to concentrate on a few coloured varieties, but there needs to be more concentration on them so that there is choice for the consumer.

Mr. Wells

No, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for choice for the consumer. What is needed is a single homogeneous product that can be easily advertised. Let us go for the single product. A person selling "Daz" wants to sell "Daz" and does not want to sell "Floggit" as well. I know the hon. Member is a soap vendor, and I do not want to get out of order.

Let us get back to the Order. I want to propound one fundamental new thought to my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right to stress the need to bring the selfish few into line, but the item in the Order about which I have a small doubt is the definition, which remains at five acres. The definition of a grower under the Horticultural Improvement Scheme, is a man who has four acres, or four adjusted acres making allowance for glass and other structures.

I believe that there would be a good argument for the Order defining an apple grower as a man with four acres. This would immediately bring a great many more rather incompetent growers within the orbit of the scheme. They would then have to pay the levy; they would cut up, and because they cut up they would be prosecuted and chivvied and, in due course, they would grub out their apples. It is in this sector that we get the old, run-down vicarage orchard, for example. I was a proprietor in that sector myself at one time, and I am delighted to say that I grubbed out mine many years ago. It is the people with this kind of orchard who put up a bumper crop in the sort of season we have just had and who should be put out of business. If the Order were fixed at four acres, they would have this disciplinary action. This may be rather an unpopular line to take, but it is truthful. They are the producers of very indifferent fruit, and they are doing irreparable harm to the industry. If the acreage were dropped to four, we would have a single homogeneous definition of a grower, both for the Horticultural Improvement Scheme and for this levy.

My right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman both laid stress on the necessary disciplinary nature of the Order. We are not forcing discipline upon unwilling victims; we are assisting an extremely willing trade to help itself. I believe that if the further discipline I have suggested could have been carried out, my right hon. Friend's present difficulties about announcing an adequate grubbing out grant to reduce the existing quantity of indifferent apples that come forward in September and October would have been obviated, because the people who are producing these apples that we do not want on the market would have been put out of business quite voluntarily if they had been faced with paying a levy.

When we have another Order in future, I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider what I have said. It is too late to ask him to amend the Order, I do not think that it could be done anyway. But if we could have a single definition it would strengthen the entire horticultural position. It seems that we have an opportunity to discuss this subject only every three or four years, or even longer. I hope that this time we shall have an opportunity rather sooner than that. Perhaps when my right hon. Friend comes to announce his grubbing out grant, he might think of altering the definition at that stage.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow, West)

I, too, support the Order, not only for what it contains but for the opportunity it provides to discuss for a few minutes, even at this late hour, the problems, present and future, of the apple and pear growers, which, in themselves, are part of the general problem of horticulture and, indeed, of agricultural marketing.

Since this may be the only debate we shall have, as the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) said, for several years, we should pay some attention to the latest report of the Apple and Pear Development Council, the third annual report. There appear to be two problems involved. The first, as outlined by the Order, is that of getting more registered growers who have not bothered to pay, and others who have not bothered to register, to pay the annual levy.

According to the report, up to 31st March, 1970, about 161 out of 1,800 growers had not paid the necessary levy. That is about 9 per cent., which is a significant minority and suggests that all is not well. Anything the Order can do to alleviate and improve the position will be welcomed by both sides of the House. That, however, was only one of the problems to be faced by the Apple and Pear Development Council. The other problem was that of its income. During the year 1969–70, its income was much less. It overspent by something like £25,000, because the—

Mr. John Wells

The hon. Member is slightly mistaken in saying that the council overspent. By its extremely careful administration in early years, the council had been able to build up a reserve and to carry money forward. This was an important feature of its good administration in its first years.

Mr. Deakins

I certainly would not want to give a false impression. What the hon. Member says is correct, but the council dug into reserves and it overspent on current income. Since its reserves had been run down for the past few years, understandably and wisely, it now has to seek ways of building them up.

Last year there was another amending Order to the 1966 Scheme allowing the council to double the acreage levy to 60s. Even if it takes full advantage of that, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) said, it has not yet done, it is likely that in the coming year it will be called upon to spend as much of its income, if not more, and it will be faced with serious problems.

I want to draw attention to the way in which the major part of the council's income in the year 1969–70 was spent. It was spent almost entirely on publicity for home-grown fruit to get rid of seasonal surpluses. That is a worthy aim, but if the vast majority of the council's expenditure is on that one item, it is a very short-term policy. Nothing is being put by for the future, either in building up a reserve or in terms of undertaking into research into different varieties, different methods of marketing, further standardisation, quality standards or other matters. Those are the kind of problems which face all sections of agriculture, and not merely horticulture.

When my hon. Friend speaks of £120,000 as being not a large sum, I agree with him in the context of food manufacture generally; it is not very much for a year's advertising. I remind the House, however, that a much larger industry—the bacon industry—is spending only about £100,000 during the current year on advertising British bacon, for which there is a much bigger sale in cash terms. It is a much bigger part of agricultural sales. If, therefore, £120,000 is the current level of expenditure on advertising and is wisely spent, it can go a long way.

Where I would query the spending of this money is on the fact that it is such short-term expenditure. Once one season's surplus has been disposed of, there is no money left and the levy income must be built up again to deal with the next season's surplus. Nothing is left to deal with the longer-term problem, which the council also mentions in its report, of entry into the European Economic Community. If I may be permitted to read a few extracts from the council's most recent report on this subject—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I hope that the hon. Member will not stray too far into matters concerning the possibility of joining the European Economic Community.

Mr. Deakins

No, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely taking up a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick. I had thought that since he had alluded to this, I would be in order in at least mentioning that the council—I will not bother to quote; hon. Members can read the report for themselves—is extremely worried about the prospect of entry into the Common Market, not only in the short term in the sense that large surpluses from the Community will be dumped on our market, with no means of protection once the transitional arrangements are out of the way, but also concerning the longer-term marketing of agricultural produce, particularly apples and pears, in this country.

The council suggests that there should be a form of central organisation, perhaps sponsored, even paid for, by the Government, which could look into the marketing of home-produced food. I know that we have a British Farm Produce Council, but it has limited funds at its disposal. What the Apple and Pear Development Council suggests in its most recent annual report is that with the Common Market in view, if and when we go in, there should be a central Government body, including, perhaps, producer representation, designed specifically to advance the interests of home-grown fruit against the huge surpluses that we are likely to have.

If, however, I may give a personal opinion, no matter how much money is spent, if and when we go into the Corn-men Market I fear that, with the best will in the world, the Apple and Pear Development Council will not be able to safeguard the future of home-grown fruit growers, for a variety of reasons, which I certainly do not want to go into now. The council in its most recent report is extremely pessimistic. I refer to paragraphs 7 and 10 and say no more about it.

Have the Government any longer-term plan for both the Apple and Pear Development Council and the horticulture industry generally after the transition period for the Common Market is finished? What are the Government pro- posing to do? Are we to end the Apple and Pear Development Council?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have drawn the hon. Gentleman's attention to the limitation of the Order. I hope that he will stick to the terms of the Order.

Mr. Deakins

Yes. I take it that I am in order in referring to the report. I want to stress that the report is extremely pessimistic about future prospects of the apple and pear industry should we enter the E.E.C. Since this is the only opportunity which we shall have of mentioning this subject in the House before we go in, if we go in, because we shall be in the transition period in 1973—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to take cognisance of what the Chair has said. I hope he will not continue along this line again.

Mr. Deakins

I apologise. It is a pity, because I cannot now refer to what the Apple and Pear Development Council has said. However, I shall come back to the Order.

The Order deals only with one aspect of the problems facing the industry. It is important, and at the same time, for the short term, even if we go into the Common Market, it will be of great assistance to the apple and pear industry. I hope that it will be an example of the Government's attitude to marketing generally. I hope that they will allow producer sponsoring bodies where there are not any now and bring forward Orders like this to make levies to promote sales of all home-grown produce, not just apples and pears. This is one way in which the Government could help the horticulture industry, which will need help in the next few years. I endorse everything which my hon. Friend has said in support of the Order.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Prior

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

I should like to thank hon. Members for staying on at this late hour to take part in this short debate. I thank not only those hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, but right hon. the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King), and the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke), who have stayed on to listen to the debate.

I take, first, the point raised by the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) about cash and the requirements of the council. The levy at its present level of £2.25 will raise about £160,000 a year, which is quite an increase on what it has levied in past years. The council has been spending not quite up to that amount in the last couple of years, although it has not had a levy of more than £1.5. The reason was that it had a reserve, which it has pretty well used up now. In the last annual accounts there was about £18,000 left on accumulated fund.

The council has power to go up to a levy of £3, if required, and I have no doubt that it would do so. As with all these concerns, it is important that the council should carry the industry with it in any steps which it takes. Too often in the past we have seen very ambitious commissions and councils of different kinds taking it into their heads to raise a tremendous amount of money before having any idea how properly to spend it.

Great credit is due to the chairman and officers of the council. They have gone about this business in an extraordinarily capable manner. They have built up the reputation of the council and kept its expenses down. I am certain that when the council asks the industry for an additional levy, if it does, it will have a good case to put forward and the industry will respond accordingly. I am happy to leave any decision about future cash requirements in the hands of the Council. It has another £0.75 to go up before it needs to come back to Parliament for more money.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need for good keeping coloured varieties and was at odds with my hon. Friend on that score. The difficulty is that we market such a large proportion of our apples for such a short period. This year, for example, the total crop of dessert apples is estimated at about 300,000 tons. With the exception of about 52,000 tons, all are marketed in the last week or so of August and in the period up to Christmas. It is in that period that a large quantity of very poor apples are marketed. This is the great problem that the council has found in trying to push sales of British apples.

The council is about to publish what I consider to be excellent work on the future size and shape of the apple industry, and what it would anticipate if we went into the Common Market. This will come out towards the end of next month, I think. It will be very valuable and will meet some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. The council is not operating on a large budget, and, therefore, its work is limited. But I am most impressed with its coming report, as I think hon. Gentlemen will be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) asked whether we should not have reduced the acreage from five to four. He wanted to get out of production those orchards under five acres, which he thought were not properly kept and produced low quality apples. But this proposal would only affect orchards of between four and five acres. Although I am prepared to consider it, the extra trouble to which we should have had to go on this occasion would not have been worth while. By far the best answer will be an expanded and more generous grubbing-up grant. I am sorry I cannot announce that now, but I am hoping to do so before long.

I am delighted that hon. Members have paid tribute to the council's work. I have come under severe attack on occasion from some apple growers for telling them what they consider unpleasant news, but the industry can have a successful future. This year, since Christmas, Cox's apples are making more money than last year. When Golden Delicious are allowed to come into this country in some numbers as in the post-Christmas period, their scarcity value in the pre-Christmas period is not carried forward, and they make less money than Cox's. We can take some comfort from that fact.

I believe that there are many good growers of British apples who have little or nothing to fear whether Britain is in or out of the Common Market, and for those growers who are prepared to run their businesses properly and who will give the council their full support, as I know they do, the future is reasonably assured. It is on that rather more optimistic note that I am sometimes able to strike about the apple and pear industry that I commend the Order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Apple and Pear Development Council (Amendment) Order 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 16th February, be approved.