HC Deb 16 November 1973 vol 864 cc851-81

Order for Second Reading read.

11.4 a.m.

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill is commendably short, and it has the merit of combining brevity with considerable potential importance to the horticultural industry. I stress the word "potential", because I am much encouraged by the confidence in the future which has been shown by horticulturists in all sectors of the industry, and I shall be delighted if it transpires that the powers sought in this Bill are not needed to any great extent.

The Bill should be looked at as part of the view taken of horticulture by successive Governments—that is, as a specialised branch of agriculture with problems of its own that justify different treatment from the rest of the industry in some respects.

Thus, to give one example, because horticultural crops are perishable it has not been thought practicable to extend to them the same system of price support which has applied to the main agricultural products. Instead, import duties and, for apples and pears, quantitative restrictions have been used to give our growers protection, but we have also had capital grants to encourage investment to improve their competitive efficiency.

Today the horticulture industry is in far better shape to meet the challenge of increased competition resulting from our membership of the European Economic Community than would have been thought possible a few years ago. Moreover, the special transitional arrangements negotiated for horticultural products ensure that the move to a completely free market within the enlarged Community will be made in a gradual and orderly fashion. All the same, we have never sought to deny that there may be some problems, and, as long ago as 10th May 1967, my right hon. Friend urged in this House from the Opposition Front Bench that the Government had a responsibility to growers, who must not be sacrificed in the wider national interest.

The Community, as we all know, covers a wide geographical area, and climatic conditions vary widely. Some parts of it are better blessed than we are with a climate which favours the production of particular kinds of fruit and vegetables.

The relaxation of our protective measures against other member States will increasingly expose producers here to competition from those in other parts of the Community. This is not, of course, to say that the advantages lie all one way.

For instance, many green vegetable crops grown in the open here are unlikely to suffer much increase in competition. They are pretty bulky and their value is relatively low, so that to transport them from the Mediterranean would add considerably to the costs of growing them. British growers are producing goods of high quality that are designed primarily to suit British tastes, and they have their markets nearer at hand. So I am pretty confident that the great majority will be able to compete effectively.

What is tremendously encouraging is the way in which various groups of growers are realising that there is a market for them in Europe. Cox's and Bramleys are making their mark, and flowers are going across the Channel from Cornwall.

But this Bill is concerned with the minority of growers who have been able to keep going in the past but may find it difficult to do so at the lower prices that are to be expected when the full weight of greater competition is felt. I should like to give an example of the use that will be made of it.

As many hon. Members will know, some growers of dessert and cooking apples and pears have for a long time been regarded as being particularly susceptible to competition from French and Italian growers.

The quotas on apples and pears which formed part of our import régime for horticultural products have been replaced by compensatory amounts, operating as levies on imports, which will be phased out by 1978. The levies are not, of course, as restrictive on imports as a strict quota. At the same time, the compensatory amounts operate as subsidies on exports, and they can contribute a great deal to the export potential of our own growers.

It would be just as wrong to underestimate the scope for popularising our own varieties abroad as to underestimate the demand at home for some of our best varieties. Nevertheless, those varieties can be produced at too high a cost, and the purpose of the Apple and Pear Growers (Special Payments) Scheme which we have already introduced—it came into operation on 1st August—under the authority of the Appropriation Act is to compensate those growers who decide that it would not be profitable to go on growing apples or pears.

If the Bill is enacted we shall take the earliest opportunity of making a scheme under its powers to put the present apple and pear scheme on a regular footing. The Government's present view is that no other sector of horticulture is likely to be affected to the extent of apple and pear growers. However, other cases might emerge with the passage of time, and, if they do, the Bill will provide us with the power to take action.

I come now to the detailed provisions of the Bill.

Clause 1 provides powers to make schemes under which financial assistance may be given to growers to stop growing specified horticultural produce, including a contribution towards the cost of operations necessary to make the land available for other agricultural use. These powers would enable agriculture Ministers to decide on those categories of horticultural produce where growers face special difficulties, the level of payment to be offered and the conditions of payment, including restrictions on the future use of the land released from the particular production. Schemes would be made by statutory instrument subject to affirmative resolution of each House.

Clause 2 provides for withholding and recovery of payments where necessary. Clause 3 provides for a maximum fine for making false statements in order to obtain payments. Clause 4 provides for powers of entry on land for purposes of inspection and for a maximum fine for obstructing an authorised officer who is making an inspection. Clauses 5 and 6 are formal and deal with expenditure, receipts, the short title of the Bill and definitions.

I hope I have said enough for the House to support my view that this Bill will enable the Government to discharge the country's responsibility to the horticulture industry.

I have more than once stressed that we are making provision for a minority, and I make no apology for that, because it is one of the traditions that catch the ear of the House that the rights and difficulties of minorities are respected and understood and their special needs are met as far as possible. Should it turn out in the end that little use needs to be made of the powers conferred by the Bill none will be happier than I, but it is right that this provision should be made.

Some hon. Members may be surprised that in introducing this horticulture Bill I have not referred to a matter which caused understandable consternation and a good deal of correspondence a few months ago; namely, the ending so much earlier than was expected of applications under the Horticulture Improvement Scheme.

I have not done so because I would have found it difficult, in moving the Second Reading of a Bill which deals with something entirely new, to marry this completely new approach to horticulture to a subject which, although of great importance to horticulture as a whole, has nothing to do with this particular aspect of it. If, however, Mr. Speaker, you feel it to be in order and if hon. Members want to raise the subject, then, of course, in winding up the debate my hon. Friend will deal with the questions that she is asked and the comments that may be made.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Does that mean that my hon. Friend will be able to compensate in other ways some of the growers who have lost through horticulture improvement grants?

Mr. Stodart

That matter will more suitably come up when the new schemes come to be debated in the House, which I assure my hon. Friend will not be too far ahead from now.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)

It is pleasant to participate in a debate on agriculture during the hours of daylight. We usually debate these matters in the middle of the night.

As the Minister said, the Bill deals with problems which both sides of the House agree exist. It is ironic that after so many late night debates on bacon and sugar subsidies when we tried to spell out the implications of our entry into the European Economic Community and convince the Government that they were wrong we are today at one with the Government in the sense of admitting that the Common Market creates special problems for certain sections of the horticulture industry.

I am again at one with the Minister when he talks about the quality of British apples and pears. As he said, other countries may have certain climatic advantages, but quality still sells apples.

It is amusing that we are talking about the European Economic Community problem in this context. This is one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the common agricultural policy as it affects certain aspects of our industry, and perhaps the Bill could be regarded as the cosmetic on that ugly face. The Bill sets out to help the producer, but I propose to raise one or two matters from the consumers' point of view.

Before doing that, however, I should like to mention only briefly the Horticultural Improvement Scheme. To do so at any length would probably be out of order. As the Minister said, this has caused great difficulties and consternation, and we feel that some action should be taken to put matters right.

The Bill deals primarily with apples and pears, but it could be extended to other fruits, and I was glad to hear the Minister say so. Apples and pears are two of the few items of food which are good value for money. The other day the Parliamentary Secretary said in an answer that the price of apples had increased by less than 10 per cent. since 1970, which is well below the increase in the cost of living. Pears had not done quite so well, their price having increased by 23 per cent., but they are still good value for money. The situation has been helped by a good harvest this year.

One object of the Bill is to help rationalise the apple and pear industry. That will obviously have some effect on the supply of apples. Some of our older orchards produce good crops in good years, but in poorer years they do not sustain the crops and that has an effect on the consumer.

Does the Parliamentary Secretary envisage a shortage being created by these new provisions? Will she comment on the report by the National Farmers Union on 10th November in New Insight that tens of thousands of apples and pears are unlikely to reach the housewife because of a shortage of packaging? Can anything be done to deal with that problem?

Two days ago the Minister announced that from 1974 onwards the compensatory payments for apples and pears would be cut by 20 per cent. That means an increase in the import levies on apples and pears from third countries. Bearing in mind the shortage situation, will our supplies from Canada, New Zealand and Australia be cut off? Shall we find that not only British apples but our traditional supplies are cut off from the market and French and other European apples replace them?

The Minister rightly spoke about the quality of apples. I like a good apple, as I am sure the Minister does. However, it is not only quality that sells apples. If apples are priced too high many families feel that they cannot afford them. Even at the reasonable prices which now obtain, I hear people saying that apples are becoming expensive. My worry is that there are many families, possibly in the lower income group, who need, want and like apples but cannot buy just on quality and must look at the price. Does the Minister envisage that the price will rise, not only as a result of our entry into the Community but as a direct result of the Bill?

With those general provisos, the Opposition welcome the Bill. We think that it is necessary, because this is a minority but important interest which produces high quality products. The industry needs help and protection from the Common Market agricultural policy and the climatic conditions which aid other producers.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (King's Lynn)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State rightly referred to the widespread confidence in the horticulture industry at present. Despite that overall confidence, there are many problems in horticulture, many of which relate to the prospect of horticulturists being competitive in the European Economic Community. We must consider the Bill in that context.

One of the problems facing growers, as it faces the rest of industry, is the prospect of fuel shortages. I should welcome an assurance from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that she is, in this situation of potential fuel shortage, keeping a careful eye to ensure that our fellow members of the Community are not finding ways of subsidising the supply of fuel to the horticultural industry in the rest of Europe, to the detriment of our growers' ability to compete.

Another problem, to which the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) referred, is the shortage of packaging materials brought about by the worldwide shortage of commodities. I hope that the Ministry will review the situation constantly and do all it can to ensure that the shortage of packaging will not prevent our growers from getting their products to the market and thus contributing towards stabilising the cost of living for the housewife.

It is also desperately important, if British horticulture is to flourish and to compete in Europe, that our marketing arrangements become much more efficient. Over the last 10 years Britain has seen a tremendous improvement in the efficiency of the industry. In one aspect of the marketing problem we are likely, unless we are careful, to fall behind our competitors in Europe. This is in the supply of market information. I was very disturbed to read recently that there is widespread concern amongst growers that the information which they have on which to base their decisions as to where they can most profitably and usefully send their produce places them at a disadvantage compared with European growers. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the Ministry is examining this problem and that Britain can have a computerised system to compare with those in France, Holland and Germany, where they are very efficient.

Another major problem facing us in the situation of competing in Europe and which has a great effect on the prospect of our exporting soft fruit is the shortage of labour for picking it. This is a major problem in my constituency, and I believe that the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) will back me up. There is a great problem in finding labour to pick soft fruit like strawberries and raspberries. All too often only the best of the crop is picked and far too much of the fruit is left behind on the ground. It is vital that urgent steps are taken to promote research into soft fruit picking machinery. Only if we can pick our fruit at an acceptable cost and efficiently shall we have the opportunity of taking up the export market potential to which my hon, Friend referred in commending the Bill to the House.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley referred to the widespread disappointment that followed the decision to terminate the Horticulture Improvement Scheme earlier than had been expected. This was a severe knock to the confidence of the industry. There can be no doubt that the industry, having planned its investment on a long scale as requested, received a substantial setback by the early withdrawal of the scheme, although I am the first to admit that it was withdrawn because it had been too successful. It was one of "the problems of success".

I am sure that the whole House, particularly those of us who represent horticultural constituencies, will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement the other day in answer to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Tom King) in which my right hon. Friend spelled out the way in which the Government proposed to implement EEC directive 159/72 on new grant aid.

I welcome the Bill in the context of the need for changes to enable our industry to compete in Europe. We have the technology and the will here. With a little assistance from the Government on these sorts of problems I have no doubt that there are real opportunities for British horticulturists to export substantial quantities of crops.

I am pleased to welcome the Bill in that context, for three reasons. First, it is undoubtedly the fulfilment of various ministerial promises given at the time of our negotiations to join the EEC. Some start had already been made in fulfilling the assurances which were given to horticulturists at that time, first by the grubbing grant and, secondly, by the special payments scheme introduced in August this year for which we are grateful.

Secondly, the Bill enables me to claim to have discharged the undertakings which I gave to my constituents during the period of the negotiations leading up to our joining the Community, when at no fewer than 71 public meetings in my constituency many of my horticulturists expressed grave fears about their future in the Community.

Thirdly, the Bill makes flexible provision for appropriate statutory instruments authorising payments to growers in connection with the changing use of land and it reserves to the Minister the right to decide in which circumstances it would be appropriate to make such payments.

I must enter a caveat. I am growing a little concerned, as perhaps other hon. Members are, at the enormous growth in the number of statutory instruments in recent years. The Kilbrandon Report has recently shown that over 2,000 statutory instruments come into operation each year. The discretion the House gives to Ministers is considerable.

I should like my right hon. and hon. Friends to know in this connection that those of us who represent horticultural constituencies will press them whenever we detect need and hardship arising as the result of our joining the EEC. We shall press them unmercifully to ensure that they fulfil the obligations, which I am sure they mean to fulfil, in respect of the Bill and the compensation to be given to the people who suffer by reason of our joining the EEC.

In conclusion, although there are various problems in the industry, there is nevertheless widespread confidence in it. I make that bold assertion in the light of the editorial in this weeks Grower, in which, although a noted Cambridge agricultural economist, Mr. Hinton, advised my constituents to pack up and sell their trees for firewood, I am delighted to say that the Grower took the opposite view. The editorial noted that only seventeen growers in the country have taken up the Government's offer of compensation for those who wish to give up growing top fruit indicating that confidence generally is high … Recent years have brought increasing sales expertise and research to the industry and the falling value of the £ has given a tariff barrier which with the existing transitional levy is a big obstacle to imports. Sharpened awareness by every grower, dramatic changes in the marketing and promotion of home fruit even down to brand advertising have produced a revolution. We support the Minister's view. Our top fruit industry is operating on a firm base for its future prosperity and will surmount the difficulties it faces. In view of that confidence and my judgment that the Bill can do nothing but back up that confidence and reassure the industry still further. I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.

11.32 a.m.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

On Wednesday night the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mrs. Lena Jeger) announced in the House that she was distressed at the total absence of Liberal representation. She said that this showed the lack of concern that Liberals had for people in general and she deplored the fact that a political party which set out to represent individuals should not be represented in the House on that occasion. Had I not been sitting in the Public Gallery I would have said that it was the opinion of many that Liberals do more for people than do the six Conservative Members and five Labour Members who were present at the time. Whereas today we are admittedly 10 short of our full strength, the Labour Party is 283 short and the Conservative Party 313 short. So we are proportionately well represented, and it is time that someone pointed out the consistently high percentage of Liberals in the House.

I support the Bill, which is an excellent one. According to the Fruit Trades Journal of 9th November the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that the absence of marked response to the apple and pear payment scheme indicated that confidence was generally high. I should like to discuss that for a moment. Although I support the Bill, two things should be generally understood. First, the Bill is difficult for the average horticulturist to understand. Secondly, to say that confidence is shown by the fact that only 17 applications have been received—I am quoting the figure given by the hon. Member for Kings Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), but my information is that the number of 15—

Mr. Stodart

It may help the hon. Gentleman if I tell him that the figure to date is 18.

Mr. Freud

I am obliged. I see that applications are galloping in. It is totally irrelevant at this moment to take account of the number of applications because there is a levy on apples and pears coming from the Continent. The only time that it will matter is when the levy is off and other people can compete with us. As this country has always had produce of higher quality, usually produced with greater efficiency, the only growers who will apply are the inefficient ones. In my constituency, which is noted for the high quality of its apples and pears, few growers will apply.

I am concerned that the Bill does not cover all growers. There is a five-acre minimum. I am well aware that five acres is not a large holding, but there are some growers with a total holding of under five acres and I and my party would be much happier if the second part of the conditional size, which is the percentage that that amount of land represents in an individual farm, were kept. A grower who grows on 4¾ acres, even if that is the entire size of his apple orchard and horticultural holding, is not eligible.

I am also concerned that the payments provisions are difficult to understand. It is provided that the girth shall be measured half-way between the ground and the point at which the lowest branch occurs. Where the tree forks from the ground the largest branch shall be used for measurement. That is what I meant when I said that the Bill was unnecessarily complicated. It is an open invitation to horticulturists to confuse the evidence, which they could do simply by digging down into the ground so that the girth, which is obviously greater towards the bottom of the tree, will qualify for the larger amount. A Bill that openly invites this sort of practice should be looked at more carefully.

I support the Bill on behalf of my constituents who, where they understand it, believe in it. In speaking in this depleted House in which there is a high percentage of Liberal representation I have discharged the promises which I made to my electorate on the occasion of my election. My constituents, and I on their behalf, approve the Bill and would like it to be extended so that all people who derive their major interest from apples and pears are eligible.

11.40 a.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I have no wish to take up the party political point raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). I thought that one of the claims of the Liberal Party was that it did not wish to make party political points.

Mr. Freud

The Liberal Party does not necessarily wish to make party political points in front of a large audience.

Mr. Ridsdale

I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would notice that there were at least three hon. Members from East Anglia in the House. It is much more important that we should be speaking for the interests of East Anglia rather than making party political points. In East Anglia we are a horticultural community and are affected by relations with Europe. We welcome the Bill, and I thank my hon. Friend for introducing it.

I agree with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely that it is difficult to understand, but I wish to raise a point concerning the Horticulture Improvement Scheme. Unfortunately, in the summer I disturbed the Minister in the middle of his harvesting to try to tell him of the anxiety of one of my smaller horticulturists who was being affected by the scheme. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Isle of Ely is no longer present to listen to the pleas which I am making on behalf of some small growers in my constituency.

I am concerned about the workings of the Horticulture Improvement Scheme and the effect it is having on some small growers in my constituency. This does not involve a large sum but the horticulturists in my constituency are people who take care in filling in forms. The forms are difficult to fill in but they have taken the greatest care in completing them and in submitting applications under the scheme. The reason they were not in time with the applications was that they were so assiduous in filling them in.

I hope the Minister will look into this, because the Bill is designed to help us in our membership of the European Economic Community. I am told that people on the Continent filled in the forms without completing all the details, and this is one reason why there was a great rush of money and why the Minister has not been able to help my constituents. If this charge is correct—and it has been made by a number of well-informed horticulturists—it is likely that horticulturists will be seriously affected. I should welcome any denial of this charge.

Apart from this, I welcome the Bill and I hope that the Minister will be able to honour the obligation to the horticulture industry, particularly at present when Bank Rate and the cost of loans have gone so high. If we wish to help our horticulture industry, now that we have joined the EEC, we should consider the Horticulture Improvement Scheme. As the Minister has said, the scheme so far includes only 18 people, but I assure him that the feeling in the industry is in favour of it.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider correspondence which I have sent to him relating to growers whom I think should be helped. The best way to help them is through the scheme rather than through the Bill.

11.44 a.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

I am sure that all hon. Members welcome this Bill. The Liberal Party does not understand that this is the kind of day when both parties are agreed upon the business. Friday is a day when Members can visit their constituencies, seeing members of local authorities and constituents. They do not always have the chance to see these people during the week. It is an opportunity for hon. Members to get away from this place because we are all agreed about the business. It is good for hon. Members to have this opportunity of seeing what is going on in the country.

The hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) made a valuable point when talking about packaging. Fruit is one of the few commodities for which we get value for money. Often the packaging on food costs more than the commodity. The same is sometimes true of fruit. I would not want increased expenditure on packaging to put up the cost of fruit. The amount of packaging on such fruits as apples and pears and soft fruits is limited, and this keeps the price down.

The crop of Cox's Orange pippins has been a record this year. We should be thankful that we can buy these at local markets for 8p and 10p per pound. I warn the Government not to insist on food being packaged to the extent that it will increase in cost. I would rather buy two pounds of apples in a market where I can see what I am getting than two pounds in Marks and Spencer or some other store when the fruit may be so heavily packaged that I cannot see what I am buying.

I ask the Minister to consider the question of excessive packaging. Farmers are throwing open their fields to the public and allowing them to pick their fruit. They pay for what they pick. This has developed in the South of England and should be encouraged. There is a shortage of labour to harvest this type of produce. It must be galling for a producer to see a fine crop of say, blackcurrants or redcurrants, but be unable to get the labour to pick it. We fully support this measure and will support it in the Lobby if necessary.

11.48 a.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I, too, welcome this Bill, which is first class. One or two amendments may be necessary. I am sorry my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) has left the Chamber. He quoted the famous distinguished Cambridge economist who spoke in his constituency recently about growers being tempted to chop down their timber for firewood. My hon. Friend should remember that there is a growing fuel crisis. Despite such feelings he should bear in mind that there may have to be a re-assessment of the value of fruit trees.

The Minister of State referred to conditions laid down in Clause 1 relating to improvement schemes. Will a grower qualify for a grant if the grubbing-up of unsuitable types of fruit trees leads to replacement by a more suitable type? I understand that the intention is to get rid of some of the species of apples and pears which are not very competitive with foreign varieties that are coming in, and I welcome this. But I should like to ask whether there will be a grant available for, say, an orchard owner who has an acreage down to one variety of out-dated apples or pears, which he wants to grub up and replace with a new and more sophisticated variety of fruit.

Of course, the Bill has yet to be considered in Committee, but it appears to me that the intention of the Government is that a grower must release his land entirely from all tree fruit growing before he qualifies for the grant. If that is the case, and if the Bill is not amended in Committee, how will this scheme be operated? Is it envisaged that the land in question will have a permanent embargo placed upon it to forbid the planting thereon of all forms of tree fruit? If that is the case, and if, for climatic or economic reasons, it is found over a fairly short period that one variety of tree fruit or another would be viable, will the embargo on the land be rescinded and will the orchard owner be allowed to plant a new and more profitable variety?

I am most grateful to the Minister for saying that he will listen to representations in relation to the old Horticulture Improvement Scheme which terminates at the end of this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) made one or two points in this connection. As my right hon. Friend knows, he and I have been in correspondence for some time about this scheme, the money for which ran out in July. I should like to ask how the provisions in this Bill will tie in with the recently announced Farm and Horticulture Development Scheme and with the scheme to cover horticulture capital grant. The old scheme did a very good job, but it was unfortunate, and it has caused a good deal of concern in the industry, that the money to operate it ran out in July this year.

I have received very satisfactory reassurances from my right hon. Friend, as a result of correspondence which he and I have entered into, about a large mushroom growing firm in my constituency—Country Kitchen Foods Limited—and the difficulty in which it thought it was placed by the expiration of funds under the old Horticulture Improvement Scheme. Can my right hon. Friend say whether this Bill is quite separate from the two new schemes which have been announced to replace the older scheme? Can he also say whether the two new schemes can be varied when this House is asked to approve them, in order to meet criticisms which may be raised?

I think my right hon. Friend said the other day that, within a couple of weeks or so, these two new schemes will be considered by the House. I take it that, as they will be debated in the form which takes place when a statutory instrument is tabled, we shall not have the power of variation. Moreover, I assume that as these schemes derive from an EEC directive our power of variation will be very limited. I therefore take this opportunity of calling my right hon. Friend's attention to one or two criticisms which have already been made about these two schemes. I hope that these criticisms can be noted and, if possible, corrected before the relevant orders are placed before the House for debate.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the EEC directive—which I believe is No. 159—was drawn up by the Community before this country became a member. Therefore, there may be characteristics in the two schemes which are not in the best interests of some farm and horticulture producers in this country, which might not have been included if Directive No. 159 had been drawn up after we became a member. For example, the Country Landowners' Association is very concerned, because it appears that a large number of farms will be excluded from these two schemes for various reasons, such as profitability per labour unit and whether or not a farmer has interests outside agriculture which occupy more than 50 per cent. of his time.

The National Farmers' Union also has criticisms about the position in which egg, poultry and pig producers will find themselves. I am quite sure that before these two schemes are debated in the House my right hon. Friend will receive representations direct from the bodies concerned. All I would ask him to do, knowing that the House cannot amend the orders and can only accept or reject them, is to meet the organisations concerned, listen to their fears and do his best, within the bounds of EEC Directive No. 159, to meet their justified complaints.

Finally, I welcome what the Minister said about the export of our horticultural produce. He mentioned Cox's and Bramleys being exported to the EEC, and hoped that that trade would continue after the compensatory levies had been phased out by 1978. I call his attention to one aspect of horticultural exports which serves the country very well, which, so far as I am aware, has never been mentioned in this House, and which is engaged in many strong land parts of the country; namely, the export of different types of nursery plants, especially roses. It is a not insignificant trade. A number of rose growers in the Midlands have found a great potential on the continent for our roses and rose plants. It is a remunerative trade for the Exchequer, and I hope that the problems which these rose growers meet will be viewed sympathetically by his Department.

The problems which have been put to me by rose growers in my constituency often relate to transport difficulties, and getting their roses from Britain to the continent in a reasonably fresh condition. Their fears for the future relate to how some out-of-date EEC regulations relating to plant health will affect their exports. That is a cloud on the horizon which rose growers and others engaged in nursery produce in this country can see. Before that cloud prevents the continued export of British nursery produce, I hope that my right hon. Friend will do his best to help growers meet the necessary regulations. Having said those few words, I once again warmly welcome the Bill.

12 noon.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

On this fairly unique occasion of a Liberal intervention on a Friday, it would be ungenerous not to pay tribute to the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) for the transformation which has occurred in the Liberal Party since his arrival. This is not just because on a Friday we are witnessing the presence of two Liberal Members—that is unique not just for a Friday, but, indeed, for any day, although we were disappointed to see the mass exodus of the party at one moment—but because we can welcome the implication of his remark that on every Friday henceforth we shall welcome the Liberals to our debates. We shall be appreciative of their presence.

I welcome the Bill because it is commendably brief and commendably frank. It states clearly that we are discussing the possibility of people losing their livelihood not because they are inefficient but simply because of British entry into the European Economic Community. It is also commendable because it implements a very clear pledge. A promise was made and has been kept. We should be appreciative of that fact. Such a promise was not lightly given or easily obtained.

We should pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who had to work hard to obtain a promise of this nature to compensate horticulturists, particularly, our apple and pear growers. Before the 1970 General Election, when I was a candidate, I had talks with my right hon. Friend on this point, and early in 1970 I received a letter from him which I am sure he will not mind my quoting. Referring to British entry, he said: It was for this reason that I got my colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet to agree to the promise of compensation if it should prove necessary for any section of British horticulture. The Bill is a complete implementation of that promise, not just for apple and pear growers but for other sections of British horticulture if, ultimately, they should be seen to suffer. I thank my right hon. Friend particularly for that.

Although I disagree strongly with the general policy of British entry, I believe we have in my right hon. Friend a man who stands up for British interests, albeit in the context of a wrong policy. Within that context, however, I am sure that he will continue to fight hard for the interests of British agriculture and for the British housewife.

My next point is a complaint arising from the position of the British housewife and the British taxpayer. It is right to compensate growers if they lose their livelihood directly as a result of entry, but I do complain if the British taxpayer should have to pay for this and should not get something back for the purpose, from the massive contribution we shall be making to the common agricultural policy. Over the seven years or so in which this scheme will be in operation, we shall be paying—it is speculation but I calculate it on the basis of the White Paper—£1,300 million to £1,400 million as our contribution to the common agricultural fund. Surely in this case we could say that we are entitled to claw back the £5 million compensation which we shall be paying out if growers lose their livelihood as a result of British membership of the EEC.

That is not an anti-Common Market point. I am sure that everyone here wants to get as much back out of the CAP as we can. We should make representations to the EEC in order to claw back this £5 million of compensation. Have representations been made, albeit unsuccessfully apparently, asking whether there is opportunity for a refund? Have any of the other Community members schemes for grubbing grants and so on by which they can get restitution from the central funds? If none of these things has been done, is there some way of getting compensation for the British taxpayer for this compensatory payment?

In dealing with the number of applications received so far, I share the view that the British industry has a right to be confident about the products it is growing, but we would be mistaken if we were lulled into a false sense of security because of the general feeling in the industry at present. As the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely said, it is not now that matters; it is when the compensatory levy is removed from the scene, for that is when the British grower will be exposed to the full blasts of competition, which to a large extent could be unfair competition.

For example, I believe that our Cox's and Bramleys are quality products which should always command a premium on the British market if they are well marketed and well packaged—although not too expensively—because good packaging helps to sell the products. But quantity can drive out quality, and if we reach a time when there is no compensatory levy, when perhaps the temporary advantages of a devalued currency have disappeared, we could find ourselves in a situation where, with the best marketing arrangements and with the best will in the world, we could be swamped by surpluses from the EEC.

I demonstrate this by quoting some figures I received from my right hon. Friend in reply to a Question I asked about pears. He told me that the total British production of pears is estimated for 1973–74 as 40,000 tons. In the EEC the total amount of withdrawals from the market by FEOGA—that is effectively the surplus—for 1971–72 was 378,000 tons provisionally.

One can envisage a situation five years hence, without any compensatory levies, when the EEC will endeavour to market a large proportion of that sort of surplus in the United Kingdom. We all know how sensitive are the marketing arrangements for all horticultural products. It needs only a small amount of surplus at any moment to disrupt the market entirely, and a grower can quickly lose almost his annual profit because of the disruption.

I would like to have seen much longer transitional arrangements for horticulture. I would like to have seen the Community take steps to correct its structural surpluses, because they are inbuilt, before we exposed the British industry to this type of surplus disposal problem. We did not get it, but I would like to have had at least a 12-year transitional period, as with fishery interests. Instead, we have a short, five-year, period. Well, that is now a fact of life.

This scheme goes forward until 1978. I understand that applications have to be in by 1976, but perhaps I have misunderstood. If when we get to 1978 and find that the full blasts of competition are disrupting our growers and causing hardship to certain people, is there scope to extend the scheme into 1979 or 1980, because surely the intention will be to compensate growers if that is the time they really begin to suffer?

Nevertheless, I am grateful for the Bill, which implements an important promise. I suspect that it will be used more extensively than the Government would like to think. Many growers will find it difficult, for many of them are more marginal economically than one would like to think. It is no pleasure to me that this important Bill is going to help in the process of taking away more orchards from Kent and transforming more of our countryside from the beauty of the orchards we have been proud of to the planting of more vast fields of barley and other cereals. There is no aesthetic pleasure in contemplating these changes, but, nevertheless, it is important that these growers are compensated.

I now turn to the changes in the horticulture improvement grant. In the past when a deadline has been set by which persons must apply for grants the Ministry has been relatively flexible. For example, on deficiency payments for cereals farmers are supposed to get their applications in by a certain date. Sometimes they do not do so, but the Ministry has been able, nevertheless, to make payments. I can think of certain instances in recent years concerning my constituents where this has happened. With this scheme, for some reason, the deadline was imposed contrary to expectations, and many applications that were in the pipeline were rejected. In the interests of equity I should like this matter to be re-examined.

I referred the case of a constituent to my hon. Friend the Minister. My constituent discussed the proposals with the officials of the Ministry. The plans had been discussed and everything had been done in substance. However, the form had not been completed; my constituent had proceeded in good faith to apply for a grant for a major scheme but had not actually signed on the dotted line. It may be that others had signed on the dotted line and went ahead in form but not in substance and were able to obtain the grant. In the interests of equity and justice, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to look once more at the problem. I feel that a great deal of good will could be restored if applications that were genuinely in the pipeline were accepted.

There is disappointment that the amount of grants under the new scheme will be somewhat reduced. I understand that the level will fall from roughly 40 per cent. to 20 per cent. on capital schemes. That leads me back to the Bill. The effect of the Common Market on our apple and pear growers cannot be separated from the general confidence of the industry and its general economic conditions. If it is to continue to compete, as we all hope and believe it will, we must ensure that it has all possible assistance from the Government. I should like a generous horticulture improvement scheme to continue and also early relief on mortgage costs. The industry is faced with high interest rates on holdings that could be only marginally profitable.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider these other points and generally try to maintain a healthy and confident horticulture. I thank the Government for introducing the Bill, which has my wholehearted support. In conclusion, may I repeat my question: is there any possibility of its being extended to cover a later period when the full impact of the large Community surpluses might be felt?

12.14 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

My welcome to the Bill is more restrained and more heavy-hearted than that given by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), with whom I agree on so many matters. The southern part of my constituency lies in the Thames Valley and is one of the more considerable areas of horticulture using the splendid soil of the alluvial valley for that purpose. So I cannot approach with any enthusiasm a Bill which is to arrange for the abandonment of horticulture in this country in some degree in aid of the consumers here being supplied from the continent.

Of course, if it is inevitable that horticulturists should be put out of business because of the Common Market arrangements it is desirable they should be compensated in some way for that. I cannot feel any enthusiasm, however, for a policy which does that. Again, slightly disagreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham, I almost hope that we do not make any attempt to claw back any money from the Community because that would blur the outline of the total disaster that this Common Market policy has been. At least at the moment we may say that we contribute very much and we get absolutely nothing, and it would be a pity if confusion were introduced into that picture.

Mr. Moate

I, too, would prefer that we ceased to give our contributions to the Community budget.

Mr. Bell

I knew quite well that my hon. Friend shared my general views on this. I thought he had just, as it were, slipped for a moment in suggesting that by pressure and other means some infinitesimal apparent advantage might be obtained from membership of the Common Market. I merely wanted to correct that.

I particularly want to take part in the debate, because I fear that the policy may go too far. Those who are inevitably damaged must by all means be compensated, but I hope that we shall not get into a fatalistic attitude about the future of British horticulture. It is no real solution that someone is compensated and that the land does not actually go out of cultivation. Horticulture is an intensive use of land, a labour-intensive use of land. To think that some of these immensely fertile areas—in some cases the immense fertility of the soil in question is an artefact built up by heavy capital investment over a period of years and with great care—should be abandoned, perhaps to beef rearing, is a very sad thought. It will certainly result in a good many people being put out of agricultural employment.

We should not accept that the Continent of Europe has any great climatic advantage over us in the matter of horticultural produce. On the whole I think it is true—one cannot but be subjective in these matters—that temperate or cool-climate produce is usually better in quality than that from hotter countries. After all, we get our rice not from the tropical regions, where it mainly grows, but from America, where it grows in a cool climate. We buy our dates increasingly from California rather than North Africa. British produce, certainly apples and salad foods, is much superior in quality to the produce which comes from Europe.

I do not say that about pears. I repeat that one is inclined to be subjective about this. I do not think that I have any pear growers in my constituency. I do not think that we produce as good pears as come from the warmer countries. [Interruption.] If my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham has any pear growers in his constituency they must be exceptional.

Mr. Moate

The pears are exceptional, too.

Mr. Bell

Yes, but there are two ways in which pears can be exceptional. I always thought it was a peculiarly felicitous disposition of fate that the Italians have two words to describe pears, mezzo, pronounced "medzo" and mezzo, pronounced "metzo". The first means "half" and the second means "overripe"—in other words, an overripe pear. Many people in this country describe sopranos as "metzo", which is often an apt description but not quite the one they mean.

I am afraid that we shall now enter a period when there will be both on the part of those engaged in it and also on the part of the Government a slightly fatalistic attitude to the future of some parts of British horticulture. British horticulture, at any rate in my kind of area, is going through a particularly difficult time, for reasons which I believe are not altogether connected with the European Community. One is the extreme difficulty of obtaining labour and its high cost when it is obtained.

As it happens, I received in my post this morning details of a case, which I am sending to my hon. Friend the Minister. I hope that he will consider it. It is characteristic of the problems faced in a condition of labour famine in the South-East of England. How is labour to be obtained? It is not possible to get labour to run the Underground, the buses or even the main line railway services. There is a shortage of labour even in the light manufacturing industries of the South-East, in places such as Slough, where apparently firms can afford to pay the earth for the production of nonessential articles. The horticulturist has to compete in that market.

I hope that that situation will not be a permanent feature of life in this country. But let us accept that for the next 12 or perhaps 24 months the horticulturist in the South-East of England is competing in a crazy labour market, that his competitive position is affected by the cost of labour and his production is affected by the sheer difficulty of obtaining it. In some cases a fall in production of up to a half or even three quarters may be forced upon people who have intensive horticulture—glasshouses, and so on—by conditions which are the result of economic policy, indeed, but not the result of membership of the European Economic Community.

I hope that my hon. Friend will bear that in mind very carefully and see what he and his colleagues can do to help the people concerned. Help may have to be given by licensing seasonal labour from outside, perhaps from Spain. But let us not, for heaven's sake, use the Bill as an excuse for letting people go out of production because they cannot obtain labour to run their horticulture units, and then just pay them the money provided for in the Bill and turn the land over to beef production. That is the major danger.

I know that the only scheme at present proposed is for apples and pears, but the Bill is general, and there can be schemes for all sorts of things—tomatoes, flowers and all the rest. It will be a tragedy if we make ourselves dependent on imports from the Continent. If we do that, we shall run down our horticulture altogether, because already the amount we produce is rather small in relation to what is produced on the Continent. When there is a surplus on the Continent, its size is very large in relation to our production. Our growers could be disadvantaged by tidal movements in seasonal surpluses.

It is all very well to say that the Treaty of Rome prevents distortion of competition, and all that kind of thing. We know how much that is worth. The regulations, directives and all the rest of the Treaty of Rome will be taken very seriously in Britain, because we are a country in which, on the whole, there is a fairly moderate law, and we take it seriously. People on the Continent are used to immensely fussy, impertinent, all-pervasive laws, and they treat them appropriately in a very cavalier manner. Evasion is the normal practice. It is the only way they can live with their bureaucracy, treating the whole thing with a certain amount of contempt. But we are very law-abiding. If we are not very careful we shall be over-reached all the time in this horticulture business.

Therefore, whilst I support the Second-Reading of the Bill I regard it as embodying certain dangers which can be avoided only if the Government approach the problems of the industry with their eyes wide open, if they are very helpful, for the present about the labour situation, and are watchful for the future over the tidal movements and surpluses which can so easily damage our interests here.

12.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am grateful for the welcome given to the Bill from both sides of the House. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, we have over the years made it absolutely clear that we would honour our responsibilities to horticulturists, and I am pleased to be associated with today's debate, which marks the first steps along the path leading to the enactment of the Bill.

As one would expect during a debate on a subject as important as horticulture, a number of my hon. Friends and Labour hon. Members have raised points with which I should like to deal.

There has been a great deal of concern about the exhaustion of the funds for the Horticulture Improvement Scheme in July this year. We appreciate, of course, the disappointment felt by horticulturists whose applications for grant were received too late to be considered, but the considerable rush of applications in the early summer left us with no alternative, given that there was a maximum sum, when those applications had exhausted the amount provided for in the legislation. But my hon. Friend has pledged that outstanding applications under the Horticulture Improvement Scheme will receive priority treatment immediately under the new schemes.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) referred to the quality of apples. Coming from another of the great fruit-growing counties, a privilege that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), I know perfectly well that, in view of the quality of our apples—of the great British apple—the British grower has nothing to fear. But we realise—my hon. and learned Friend for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) had to say this, too—that our climatic conditions for the growth of pears are not always perfect. However, our growers have very good quality standards in apples.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the compensatory amounts. We recognise that the applications so far for the apple and pear scheme in a measure reflect the fact that the tariff situation is as it is. But the cut in the import levy means that there will be a smaller total on apples, whether from the European Economic Community or from third countries. Apples from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have not, in practice, been subject to the levy, as it operates only from August to March. For those countries there will be a small tariff next year instead of duty-free entry, as we move towards the common customs tariff. It varies according to the time of year, increasing to 8 per cent. as the home crop is marketed, and it is moving towards that figure now.

As the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) said, many hon. Members would have liked to take part in the debate, but, as the measure is welcome and they have constituency demands, we understand their absence.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) has had to return to his constituency. He raised the problem of fuel. We are aware that the industry, like other parts of the economy, will need to reconsider its use of fuel, and make such arrangements as it can to effect the maximum economies with the minimum disruption of food production. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service has been giving the question a great deal of thought and is, as usual, available to advise growers who seek its help.

My hon. Friend also mentioned market intelligence. In the United Kingdom the Ministry publishes weekly wholesale prices on a wide range of home-produced and imported produce. Crop reports are published bi-monthly during the main home-grown season, February to November, and monthly in December, January and February. We are not convinced that the usefulness of a widely extended formal system will repay the cost involved, but we are prepared to consider any specific proposals on market intelligence which are put to us.

My hon. Friend then referred to packaging, as did the hon. Member for Battersea, South. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham that packaging is an added attraction to the consumer, although he will be well aware that consumer organisations and other consumer bodies generally watch this point very carefully in terms of what they may regard as excessive packing. However, much of this packaging is an added attraction to marketing, as I am sure we would all agree.

Mr. David Clark

May I press the hon. Lady on this matter. Can she confirm reports that tens of thousands of apples may not reach housewives this year because of the shortage of wooden packaging?

Mrs. Fenner

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that packaging in general is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. There is currently a worldwide shortage of packaging material. This affects the whole range of goods which have to be packaged.

Several hon. Members referred to the shortage of labour. The hon. Member for Battersea, South referred to the system of "pick your own" which has been used quite extensively by fruit growers, and this certainly applies to my own county. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn asked about research and development projects into harvesting machinery. A great deal of research has been done on this question. New mechanical harvesting systems are in commercial use for blackcurrants and are very successful. A prototype harvesting system for strawberries is now ready for commercial development, and mechanical means of picking raspberries are now being developed.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) referred to the number of applications. The scheme has been operating since 1st August. To date we have had about 18 applications, of which about seven were not eligible. About a dozen eligible applications have so far been received. I accept the comments by the hon. Member and other Members that this is a reflection of the situation as at present. Nevertheless, it is clear that apple and pear growers are not unduly perturbed about their ability to compete, at least in the immediate future. I say this despite the generally lower prices from which the consumer has been benefiting.

Mr. Freud

The Parliamentary Secretary referred to "hon. Members and other Members". Is she implying that there are dishonourable Members in this House?

Mrs. Fenner

I apologise for that slip of the tongue. I meant hon. Members and my hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely also referred to what he felt might be a system of arranging payment by re-digging ground levels. There are ample provisions for the prevention of such incorrect use of public money. He raised the point about a five-acre minimum and the special grant-aided orchard grouping system which operated from 1st September 1971 until 31st March 1973 in an effort to help the "little man". The scheme was aimed primarily at the smaller orchard with uncommercial production. The point is that the scheme was not intended to cover an inefficient producer, as I think the hon. Gentleman recognises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) mentioned, as did others, the Horticulture Improvement Scheme and asserted that he had received information that there had been pressure from Community growers on this scheme which had resulted in pressure earlier in the year which had exhausted funds. I cannot comment on this matter, but I have noted his comments and I will look into this matter. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich has had to leave the House to attend an engagement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) referred to some detailed points in the scheme and asked whether people could replace or switch the type of variety. It is undesirable to switch varieties within broad categories in the scheme since it is designed for people who want to get out altogether. If they replant within five years, they have to repay the money. But grants for grubbing to permit switching will be available under the new scheme.

Reference has been made by several hon. Members to the new schemes under EEC Directive 72/159. I will not go over that matter since it has been the subject of a statement and a Press release by my right hon. Friend. The Horticulture Capital Grant Scheme will offer grants at five percentage points lower than for horticultural investment under the Farm and Horticulture Development Scheme, except that improvements grant-aided under the latter scheme at 10 per cent. will not be grant-aided under the capital grant scheme. I am sure that the House will understand it if I do not go into the two major schemes.

My hon. Friend said that if the grower were excluded from the Farm and Horticulture Development Scheme because of too high a net income per labour unit he might be eligible for the other scheme—namely, the Horticulture Capital Grant Scheme—provided that he met the minimum requirements of that scheme. In other words, he should have four acres or an equivalent intensified area for use in this project within the immediately preceding two years—exactly the same as in the Horticulture Improvement Scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham raised several points on Community schemes and funds. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the comments he made about my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture maintaining his pledge. It was a pledge made by the Minister in one of his speeches as early as 1967. He has brought that pledge to fruition today in the provisions of the Bill. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments.

My hon. Friend referred to EEC funds. The apple and pear scheme, which is now being regularised by the Bill, is a national scheme, but if a comparable EEC scheme is introduced it could replace our national scheme. Its financing will be discussed at that time and we shall bear in mind the possibility of a FEOGA contribution.

My hon. Friend asked about the final date for applications in this scheme. The date is 31st July 1976, unless closed earlier through the introduction of an EEC scheme. A reasonable time will be allowed for completion, but a further scheme can be brought in for a further five years if this is thought necessary.

I hope that I have covered all the points which have been raised on both sides of the House. Therefore, I trust that in the light of my remarks, and in view of the fulfilment of my right hon. Friend's pledge to the horticulture industry, the House will agree to give this Bill a Second Reading, which will provide help to the industry.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).