HL Deb 02 March 1916 vol 21 cc256-66

LORD STRACHIE rose to ask the Paymaster-General whether the Board of Trade have considered the desirability of restricting the importation of hops so that more space in ships may be available for the importation of food stuffs.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not profess to be an expert upon hops, but I bring this question forward in order that we may get some statement from the representative of the Board of Trade in this House as to the position and attitude of the Government upon this subject, which it cannot be denied is one of very great importance. The Central Chamber of Agriculture some ten days ago, at a large and influential meeting, unanimously expressed the view that there ought to be a very great restriction of the importation of hops in the interests not only of agriculture generally, but also of the consumer. Hops are a bulky freight and prevent goods that are much more required from being brought in because of the want of shipping space. The absence of any restriction upon hops has the further effect of raising the prices of other commodities which cannot come into the country in larger quantities owing to there not being sufficient ships to carry them. The Central Chamber of Agriculture sent a copy of their Resolution to the Board of Trade, and, no doubt, to the Board of Agriculture and the other Government Departments to which they usually send their resolutions, but up to the present they have had merely acknowledgments and have received no information as to whether the Government are considering the matter.

I should not be surprised if, when the Government eventually decide to act with regard to hops, it may not be said of their action, in the words of the Minister of Munitions, that it was "too late." The Minister of Munitions said that what the Government always does in these matters is to act too late; and that is why I am venturing to ask the Paymaster-General to-day whether he will not prevail upon the Government—and still more I ask the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture—to do something at once to restrict the importation of hops into this country. There is the other question to be considered—namely, whether it is right only to restrict the importation of hops, or whether it might not be also desirable, in conjunction with restriction, to impose a heavy duty. In old days this would have been a rather thorny and difficult question to deal with, and I can imagine my noble friend, who I suppose is a Tariff Reformer, saving to me, "Why do you, as a Free Trader, make any suggestion of this sort?" We know that during the continuation of the war we must not be hidebound in regard to our views on any of these questions. It is clear that the unrestricted importation of hops is having a very bad effect. It is one of the causes for the present exorbitant price of meat and of feeding stuffs and artificial manures. Prices are high, not because there is a shortage of these articles, but because there is a shortage of freightage. Excessive shipping charges are caused by this very fact, so that the agriculturist and the consumer suffer in both directions, in the dearness of the article and in the large decrease in the supply.

I was struck by a reply which was given by the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture to a deputation on the subject of artificial manures. The noble Earl said that the Government were the owners of some 50,000 tons of nitrate of soda which had been bought in Chili many months ago, and that he could have put it on the market at something under £13 a ton but in the present condition of things was unable to have it brought over from Chili. From an agricultural point of view that is a very serious matter. In the same way there is a difficulty in regard to sulphate of ammonia. There is a "corner" in that article, and from £17 to £18 a ton is being asked for it. I know that I may be met with the suggestion that it is too late now to raise this question because it is a seasonal matter. I will not deal with that argument if my noble friend is not going to put it forward, but I know that it is one of the stock arguments that during the next few months we shall not be importing any hops and that therefore the restrictions are unnecessary. I understand my noble friend to indicate that he is not going to put forward that argument. Consequently I need not trouble the House with the figures which I have in my hand, which show that imports are spread over all the months of the year, and if we continue to import at the same rate this year we shall receive very large quantities of hops in the ensuing six months.

Again, I hope that my noble friend does not intend to take his figures from the year 1914, during which a comparatively small amount of hops was imported. But during 1915 rather more hops were imported than in an average year. In that year—1915—the 200,337 cwts. of hops which we imported required at least 2,500,000 cubic feet of shipping accommodation—certainly a startling figure. This is calculated at 253 cubic feet to the ton of hops, the average room required by the most conveniently packed bales. In this space there could have been carried approximately 1,500,000 cwts. of nitrate of soda, or 1,054,000 cwts. of sugar, or 1,100,000 cwts. of oilcake, or 1,082,000 cwts. of wheat, or, 1,001,000 cwts. of maize. Thus the unchecked importation of hops has a bad effect not only on the farmer but on the consumer as well, because the farmer is obliged, when he has to pay such high prices as obtain at the present moment, to put up the price of milk and of every other kind of produce.

I may be told that the Government have attempted to do something as regards this question. I will read a letter which was written by Mr. Rew, Assistant Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, at the direction of the noble Earl (Lord Selborne), to the Hop Trade Association in January last. The letter was worded as follows— I am directed by the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to say that his attention has been called to the continuous importation of hops from abroad; and having regard to the desirability of restricting imports, he desires me to invite your Association to consider whether any steps can be Taken with a view to inducing members engaged in this trade to refrain as far as possible from purchasing foreign hops during the continuance of the war. The exigencies of the financial situation make it extremely desirable to restrict imports from abroad, more especially from America, to absolute necessities, and Lord Selborne is disposed to doubt whether there is any evidence to show that the requirements of brewers in regard to hops cannot he economically and sufficiently met from the home-grown supply. In these circumstances he would be glad to learn that your Association is prepared to appeal to its members to discountenance generally on national grounds transactions involving the importation of foreign hops into this country. The Association considered this letter on two occasions, and sent an appropriate reply showing the methods by which the desires of the Government could easily be carried out, and stating that it was not the Association's business to tell brewers and other people what they were to do or what importations they ought to restrict. Surely it is the duty of the President of the Board of Agriculture—who, from the letter I have read, appears to be fully convinced of the absolute necessity of restricting the importation of foreign hops—to remonstrate with his colleagues in this matter end urge upon them the desirability of restriction. I submit that it is a weak policy for the Government to appeal to private traders. The Government are restricting the importation of pulp, of sugar, and of tobacco. Why should they not take their courage in both hands and restrict, also the importation of hops?

It may be said that the Government are afraid that the brewers and public opinion—certainly those who believe in Free Trade—would be against restriction. But we have such a strong supporter of the Government and of Free Trade as the Daily Chronicle remonstrating with the Government for "holding their hand about the privilege of the beer industry to use as much shipping tonnage as it likes." I submit that this is one of these questions which want taking up and dealing with immediately. It may be that my noble friend is going to tell me that the Government intend to do this. I hope that we may hear that this is the case. It cannot be said that the brewing trade is a dying industry. I saw in the Press a report of the year's results of the brewery company of Style and Winch, of Maidstone. Their net profit, after meeting all charges and preference dividend, is £47,900, against £42,660 last Year; and not only is the ordinary dividend, which is paid free of Income Tax, raised from 8 to 10 per cent., but £10,000 is again placed to reserve, and the amount carried forward is increased from £26,050 to £34,000. What is also interesting is that this particular brewery, I am told, deals almost entirely with English hops, which is plain proof that it pays to support the home industry and that foreign hops are not necessary in order to obtain good results. Brewers cannot say that if there is a restriction on the importation of hops they will not be able to pay dividends and the heavy taxation which is placed upon them, for brewers are doing very well during the war, there being a very large consumption of beer in the country. I hope that the Board of Trade have some intention of themselves acting in the matter instead of asking private associations, as the President of the Board of Agriculture has done, to induce their members to refrain from purchasing foreign hops. I trust that they will take up the question and at once restrict the large importation of hops, which is filling shipping space which could be much better used in bringing into the country food for our people and feeding stuffs for our flecks and herds.


My Lords, during the course of the noble Lord's speech I could not help being reminded of a historical observation by the late Lord Salisbury, who once remarked that there was "a great deal to be said for hops." My noble friend has said a good deal about hops and about many other things as to which I am afraid I am unable to give him such information as he would be contented with. But I am certainly not going to begin by reproaching him for a reversal of his fiscal theories. The action of His Majesty's Government with regard to the restriction of imports has hitherto been based upon the restriction of a few commodities which have been imported in very large quantities—quantities so large that even when a few commoditiesonly are affected a very large amount of tonnage is thereby released. I do not think that it can be fairly contended that this applies to hops. We have heard a good deal from my noble friend with regard to the importation of hops, but I do not think he will dispute the fact that for the last five years the annual average was 9,500 tons, and in 1915 the imports were just over 10,000 tons. I observed that my noble friend, no doubt with the intention of impressing the House, gave his figures in cubic feet. Let me point out that a ton weight of hops is equivalent to about six measurement tons—roughly speaking, 40 cubic feet; so that an absolute and complete prohibition of the importation of hops would result in the saving of only 60,000 measurement tons. That is not a very important figure, all things considered. In fact, some people might say it was even insignificant. At all events, it is clear that the importation of hops is not in any way comparable to sonic of the other commodities to which prohibition has been extended. But I can reassure my noble friend, I think, by informing him that there is an extreme probability that the prohibited list will be very largely extended. These points are under the consideration of the Committee which is presided over by my noble friend Lord Curzon, and the advisability of including hops in any such enlarged list will, of course, be considered. I am afraid I cannot make any definite statement as to whether or not hops will eventually be prohibited, but I think my noble friend may take it as absolutely certain that if the war lasts long enough hops will in all probability suffer the same fate as many other commodities.


My Lords, one cannot help feeling disappointed at the reply of my noble friend opposite. One had hoped to hear that Government were endeavouring to get out of their present extremely inconsistent attitude. The noble Earl at the head of the Board of Agriculture implored hop merchants to use less foreign hops, but as far as I can see, from the figures which have been supplied to me, the hop merchants have replied by importing more hops than usual. It is suggested to the Government that to be consistent they ought to discourage the importation of extremely bulky packages like pockets of hops. But, no; they cannot make any response which is the least satisfactory so far as their own consistency is concerned. Therefore one us left under the impression that they prefer to remain in the extremely inconsistent position in which they have been for some time past.

I have studiously avoided attacking His Majesty's Government on any subject—though there are plenty of them—except upon this one subject of the importation of hops; and some months ago I begged my noble friend at the head of the Board of Agriculture to go into this question and see whether he could not help an industry which is failing. I have asked fur information from my own county, and I am told that the reduction of the hop area in East Kent, which is supposed to and does, I believe, produce as fine an article in the way of hops as any part of England, amounts to something like 10 per cent. My noble friend is not going to be thanked for that by the poor people in the villages who are going to be deprived of their industry next summer, or by the poor people from the towns who go down there for their summer's outing, or by the poor children in the hop districts who will have to go without new boots and shoes because there is no hop money coming in. I have informed your Lordships that the "grubbing" that has taken place in East Kent amounts to something like 10 per cent., and it is as great, no doubt, in other parts of the county. One of the causes is unquestionably the importation of foreign hops. We are killed by the price at which Oregons are put upon the market before we can get any offer for ours. When I spoke last there was some suspicion that hops had been coming in through neutral countries from Germany, and my noble friend said he would undertake to look into the origin of one particular importation of hops from Norway. We have never had any reply with regard to that.


They came from Russia.


That was the information I obtained myself to-day. There are no hops grown in Norway, and the question was where the hops in question came from. My noble friend thought the case very suspicious and said he would make inquiry, and I am glad to hear that those hops did not come front the enemy. In the begging letter which was written by Mr. Rew, on behalf of my noble friend, it was suggested that the hop merchants should endeavour to do without foreign hops as far as they could. It is obvious that they have not taken that advice, because the importation of foreign hops is about double what it was. I am taking the calendar year. I am told that recently there has been issued from the Government Department concerned figures based upon some other year which has been invented, and which is called, I believe, a seasonal year.


No; a cereal year. I will explain later.


This has been done in order to bring the months of September, October, November, and December in with the eight months of the year following. Heaven knows why. There is no particular reason why these four months should be looked upon as particularly important to the importation of hope, because haps are imported all the year round, and the importation is going up. For January the importation of hops was over 26,000 cwts., a larger amount than in any month last year except July. The figures for February are not yet completed, but for the first eight weeks in this year there were imported over 39,000 cwts. My noble friend's prayer to the hop trade has been treated with the most profound contempt; he has had no response at all to his appeal. Is it not natural, therefore, that we should make a point now of the fact that the Government are so inconsistent as to allow to come in these extremely bulky pockets of hops instead of permitting the many other articles, far more wanted, a great many of them, to come in in their place?

I will not comment upon the points that were dealt with by my noble friend Lord Strachie with regard to the amount of space taken up on board ship by hops, but your Lordships may take it from me that the space occupied by hops owing to their bulk is enormously in excess of that of a number of other articles which are seriously wanted, some of them particularly by agriculturists. I have in my hand a letter which shows that a farmer keeping a very large herd of cattle and a very large flock of sheep is unable to get the cake that he wants because of the lack of shipping space. This matter would be really laughable were it not serious. The two States in America which threaten us more than any other are Oregon and Washington. Both have adopted total abolition; they go on growing hops all the same, but take care that they shall not be used in those States but in England, and that is being encouraged by my noble friend opposite in the attitude he is adopting to the whole industry.

I cannot congratulate the Government upon the result of their policy as regards Excise in reference to drink generally. Some figures were presented to the House of Commons the other day at the request of Mr. Laurence Hardy which show that whereas there has been a reduction in homemade beer from 35,000,000 to 28,000,000 barrels—a reduction of 7,000,000 barrels a year in beer, which I take leave to think a very wholesome drink although I am not able to partake of it my self now—on the other hand the manufacture of spirits has gone up from 25,000,000 to 28,000,000 gallons. The result of the Government's policy as regards alcoholic drink is that beer is being consumed in a very largely reduced quantity, whilst the consumption of spirits has gone up. I recommend that to the notice of the advocates of total abolition.

I would once more impress upon my noble friend that he is doing the very worst possible service to an industry which he acknowledged, when he spoke last, is deserving of sympathy for many other reasons than any question touching Protection. The noble Earl said that it is an industry which employed more hand labour than any other connected with agriculture—I suppose 60 per cent. of the growing of hops is in hand labour; that it is an industry which is especially attractive to the poorest classes of our town population, because they are able to get into the country for perhaps their one holiday in the year and are able to earn something at the same time; that it is an industry which demands an enormous amount of capital—which, in the case of the percentage that has now had to be "grubbed," is all scrapped; and, lastly, the noble Earl acknowledged that this country was perfectly capable of growing every hop that was wanted by our brewers. On all these grounds I again urge upon my noble friend that he should induce his colleagues to look more favourably upon what I believe is his own view in regard to this industry, which is being to a very great extent, I will not say crushed, but seriously injured by the unrestricted introduction of foreign hops.


My Lords, when my noble friend speaks about hops, as he always does with great authority, he has a considerable advantage over me. He always knows from our conversations in past days what my opinions are, but I do not know in advance what line on the particular occasion he is going to take. He knows quite well that I should regard any permanent injury to the hop farmers of this country as a great calamity. He knows also that if we had been discussing this question before the war, in normal times, we should approach it from points of view which are closed to us now. This Government is a war Government, and can only deal with such questions from their war aspect. It is in its war aspect that this question is now being considered by the Board of Trade, and I am very glad that it is being so considered. For the first time we are going through the whole list of imports to see which can be prohibited without too much detriment to national consumption and national industries, from the point of view of saving tonnage space. As my noble friend told the noble Lord, the question of hops is being considered in that aspect and from that point of view; and I put it to him whether he does not admit that this is the only point of view from which this Government could have approached the question. He rather scoffed at what he called the "begging letter" which I sent to the brewers through Mr. Rew. I think that is rather ungrateful. I sent that letter because I was asked to do so by his friends the hop growers. I do not know what effect the letter has had, but I was so anxious, and am so anxious, to help them that when they asked me to make an appeal to users of foreign hops I did not think it right to decline to do so.

I have only one more aspect of the case to refer to this afternoon. The noble Lord cannot understand why, in the Board of Agriculture, we use a cereal and not a calendar year. Let me explain to my noble friend that the word is spelt c-e-r-e-a-l. It has always been the custom—I think a very natural and proper custom—to deal with questions of corn crops and of hops from harvest to harvest. It makes all the calculations much easier and much simpler. If you take the calendar year you are in every case dealing with the harvest of two different years, which upsets all possible bases of a useful comparison. Therefore I hope the noble Lord will reassure his correspondent that there is no sinister "hankey-pankey" on the part of the Board of Agriculture in this matter, that this use of the cereal year is not new, and that we have always calculated our figures on that principle. Although I know there has been this comparatively heavy importation of hops and should be glad to see it cease, the comparison with the year 1915 is not really a fair one, because—and I am taking now my noble friend's calendar year in order to show that I will meet him wherever I possibly can on a basis of calculation—the imports in the calendar years 1912 and 1913 were in both cases larger than in 1915; and the Year 1914 was an abnormally low year. If my noble friend makes his comparison with the years 1912 and 1913, he will find, as I have said, that the imports were much larger then than in 1915. No doubt what is in the mind of my noble friend and of many hop growers is the comparative magnitude of the imports during the last two or three months; but although they are larger than in the corresponding period of 1914 and 1915, they are much less than in 1913 and 1914. For the six months from September, 1915, to February, 1916, the total imports were just under 96,000 cwts., as compared with 214,000 cwts. in the corresponding period of 1913 and 1914 before the war.