HL Deb 03 July 1918 vol 30 cc591-606

LORD HINDLIP had the following Notice on the Paper—

To call attention to the unsatisfactory prices fixed by the Ministry of Food for certain soft fruits—

  1. 1. To ask that in any future fixing of prices for the plum and apple crop an adequate remuneration shall be allowed to the producer, having regard to the high cost of production and collection and the unprecedented shortness of the crops.
  2. 2. What price has been paid by the Government for Dutch black currants delivered in England.
  3. 3. What price has been paid for the orange crop in Spain delivered in England; and at what price have these oranges been resold to licensed jam makers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as I have to criticise the Department over which the late Lord Rhondda presided so ably. I should like to be allowed to associate myself with the words which fell from the noble Earl the Leader of the House and from the noble Viscount, Lord Haldane, at the beginning of business this afternoon. Under ordinary conditions I would postpone my Question, but owing to circumstances over which I have no control I cannot do so, and I understand it is the wish of the Ministry of Food that a statement should be made this afternoon.

The story I have to try to unfold to you is not a new one, and I am afraid I shall have to trouble your Lordships with a good deal of detail. It is again, in my opinion, a story of how the Ministry of Food has gone on the evil path of ignoring the interests of the producer and taking no notice of his side of the case. The prices complained of, fixed for small fruits, are for raspberries, strawberries, and black currants. The prices fixed by the Ministry of Food for red currants and gooseberries have not, I believe, given the same dissatisfaction. Let me try and describe what has happened. When the Fruit Prices Fixing Committee met the Food Production Department's representatives, who are supposed to look after the interests of the producer, they made up their minds to ask the Ministry of Food to fix certain prices. In all cases the growers produced estimates of the crops in various parts of the country, and their cost of production. In each case the representative of the Food Production Department agreed with the estimates of the growers, both as to the probable volume of crop and the cost of production in the various localities.

Not only did the Food Production Department agree with the estimates, but the Ministry of Food sent down their own chartered accountant to Wisbech, to go into the cost of production with the Wisbech growers. I understand that the chartered accountant was perfectly satisfied with the estimate of the cost of production by the growers in Wisbech, and could not pick a single hole in it. You would have thought the Ministry of Food would have been content to take the estimate that had been presented to them. Not a bit of it. What did the Ministry of Food then propose to do? They entered, as far as I can make out, into an unholy alliance with the jam makers, and they said, "We will appoint an independent person to make our own estimate."

To make perfectly certain that the dice was loaded against the food producers, whom do you think they appointed to draw up the estimate for them? They appointed a gentleman who, in ordinary years, is a buyer for jam-makers. I very much doubt whether he has ever grown any fruit. His profession is that of a buyer of fruit for certain jam-makers. I think your Lordships will agree that this is hardly a fair way of getting an estimate of the crop. This gentleman estimated the crops, certainly in the Wisbech part of the country, as well over the average, and the Ministry of Food was apparently satisfied with his statements, and based the price which they fixed for the fruit on the estimates given them by this representative of a firm of jam-makers.


Does the noble Lord say that the fruit prices have been based upon an estimate of well over the average crop?


I understand that is the case. The Food Controller has always made a case out for putting the price of produce down in order that he may benefit the consumer. I have a case, given me the other day, of the profits of a certain jam-maker in which I do not see quite how the consumer benefited, because last year the jam-maker succeeded in making a net profit of over 90 per cent. I fail to see why the favoured jam-makers should have all the sugar and all the fruit, and have so great a pull over the producer.

Unless the Ministry of Food shows some inclination to treat the producer a little more fairly in the matter of fruit, I think we shall have later on to consider whether the profits of the licensed jam-maker will not have to be investigated. There is no doubt that we shall be told by the Minstry of Food that these prices were fixed, as we were told in the case of the meat prices, in agreement with the Board of Agriculture. When the fruit-growers' representatives on the Fixing Prices Committee met the representatives of the Food Production Department they were asked the prices that they wanted for jams, and they based the prices that they asked on the assumption that the whole crop would be an average one, and would not be commandeered. Your Lordships may remember that last year there was a fixed price for fruit going to jam-makers, and fruit that did not go to the jam-makers was sold on the open market, and was subject to the ordinary laws governing supply and demand. They also assumed that they would be allowed to sell in the open market two or three days a week. As far as raspberries are concerned, they asked £50 a ton, or 5d. per lb., based on the estimated cost of production of £49 an acre and a yield of 23 cwt. an acre. For strawberries they asked the same price, with an estimated yield of 25 cwt. an acre, and for black currants £65 with an estimated yield of half a ton per acre.


Whose figures are these?


These are figures supplied to me by the growers.


They are not the official figures of the Board of Agriculture.


No, these are the prices that the fruit-growers' representatives asked when they met the repesentatives of the Food Production Department, and I understand that the Food Production Department did not disagree with those figures, and asked the growers to allow them to negotiate with the Ministry of Food on the basis of those figures. The Food Production Department's representatives apparently went to the Ministry of Food, and tried to get these prices, or as near to them as they could. The next thing the growers heard was that the Ministry of Food had turned round and commandeered the whole of the crop—not a portion of it, but the whole—and that they had fixed the price of raspberries at £37 a ton, 4d. a lb., or only £2 per ton higher than the jam prices for last year when only part of the crop was commandeered. The figures that have been given to me show that the cost of picking raspberries and strawberries last year, when it was a fair crop, was £9 a ton, and the cost of picking this year, when it is a bad crop, is £18 a ton. The strawberries were fixed at the price of £40 on the stalk, and £44 off the stalk. I believe this is the first case in the history of the fruit trade in which the price of strawberries has been higher than that of raspberries owing to the greater cost of picking.

The concession to the consumer or retailer—Mr. Clynes the other day made a eulogy upon it—comes to this, "Well, you may sell fruit in the open markets (only strawberries, not raspberries or black currants) on a Saturday, but you may not charge more than the jam price. You may sell your strawberries at 4½d. per lb. but the retailer may sell them to the public at 9d." He gets 90 per cent. out of it. Raspberries and black currants can be sold, I find, this year by people who have less than half an acre of fruit, but that does not affect the fruit-growers very much. I am told that owing to the very dry weather the raspberry crop is not more than half a ton to the acre, straw berries only three-quarters of a ton, and black currants a quarter of a ton. After the figures which I have endeavoured to give to your Lordships it will not be difficult to realise how very serious the loss is to the growers owing to the fixing of the prices so low. This is very unfortunate for fruit growers in various parts of the country, a large proportion of whom are small men having two or three acres of land. It is very dis-heartening to them.

Let me, if I may, very shortly give your Lordships a few instances of the prices that people were quite willing to pay, and did pay, in the open market before prices were fixed. A commission agent in Birmingham was bid by a shopkeeper £280 a ton for black currants. Certain growers in the South West of England, where the fruit was early and where they were able to get it to the market before the prices were fixed, sold their strawberries at the rate of £175 and even £600 a ton, and the first strawberries that were sold in Birmingham market this year made 8s. 3d. per lb. which is at the rate of £900 a ton. I do not think that any grower has ever asked or dreamt of asking for such prices to be fixed, but surely there was some figure considerably below those prices yet higher than the prices which have been fixed by the Ministry of Food which could have been adopted, and which would have given fruit-growers a moderate return for their money without making it inevitable that they should be faced with a very heavy loss. I hope that we shall not be told that these prices were fixed in agreement with the Board of Agriculture, because it sounds an almost impossible thing to believe.

As regards the Questions that I have on the Paper asking for the price of black currants coming from Holland, and of oranges coming from Spain, my reason for asking that these prices should be given is that there is a considerable feeling that the Government are subsidising the favoured jam-makers at the expense of the English fruit-grower, and are providing the jam-makers with fruit which they get out of the country instead of letting the English growers have a fair price. The price paid for black currants in Holland may not be very high, but unless I am much mistaken the cost of picking on the Continent is considerably lower than the cost of picking now in this country.

I have done with the small fruits and the past, and I come to the part of my Question where I ask that sufficient and due consideration should be paid to the interests of the growers in the future. There are no prices fixed at the moment for the plum and the apple crop, but I understand that they are to be fixed, possibly this week. The Evesham and Pershore districts in Worcestershire are about the only part of England where there are any plums, and the only plums which are to be found in the orchards there this year are what are known as Pershore or yellow plums. They have a very small crop of these, and the coloured plum—the more expensive plum—literally does not exist in England this year. The prices as far as growers are concerned are very moderate. They were told not long ago by a big commission buyer that for yellow plums they could get in the market between 25s. and 30s. a pot of 72 lbs. They are only asking to be allowed to charge £1 per pot, which works out at about 3½d. per lb. and I do not think even the Ministry of Food would consider that a very excessive price for this year. This is the worst year for fruit since 1903. It would be quite impossible to fix a price for the plum crop of Worcestershire which would prevent these people from losing money, the crop is so bad. And may I ask that, as the crop of the coloured plum, the superior class of plum, is practically non-existent, the Ministry of Food might, as an act of grace, let it alone and not fix prices for that at all.

There is only one other question as regards the fruit crop, and that refers to the damson and damascene crop. It is a small crop in England, and I understand that in Ireland there is a very good crop. I sincerely hope that His Majesty's Government will not differentiate, as they often do, between the interests of the people of this country and the interests of the people in Ireland, and I hope that the price for the damson and damascene crop in this country will not be lower than the price fixed for that crop in Ireland.

As the result of the treatment meted out to the growers of small fruits I heard yesterday that in all parts of the country where these small fruits are grown—in Worcestershire, Cambridgeshire, Kent, Middlesex—a great many really representative growers are so disgusted with the treatment they have received by the Ministry of Food that they are already beginning to plough up their strawberry plants and raspberry canes and cut down their currant bushes, and they are trying to plant some kind of vegetable crops, which the Ministry of Food has not yet and probably will not commandeer. The producer is so continually harassed by the fixing of prices far too low that a considerable amount of damage is done, and much harm is to be apprehended another year. I sincerely hope that we shall get some satisfactory answer from the Government, and that the interests of the producer will be better looked after in the future than they have been in the past.


My Lords, my noble friend has made a speech covering a good deal of ground, and perhaps your Lordships will allow me to make a somewhat general statement upon this subject which, I think, may be a convenience to those interested in the fruit crop. I may preface my reply by a short statement of the policy adopted by the Ministry of Food in relation to soft fruit and jam, and the causes which have led to the adoption of that policy.

The fruit crop this season is one of the worst that has ever been experienced, and, after full allowance has been made for the importation of such foreign fruit as can be secured, it appears that the total quantity of fruit available will not admit of more than half the quantity of jam being manufactured that was made last year. Navy and Army demands, which absorbed nearly half of last year's jam output, are as heavy as usual, and when they have been met there will remain less than 1 oz. of jam per head per week for the civilian population, as against an average allowance of 4 oz. per head per week during the season 1917–18. That has a large bearing upon every- thing that my noble friend has said. These calculations are based on the assumption that the whole of the crop grown for commercial purposes be converted into jam, and that no fresh fruit is made available for direct consumption by the public. My noble friend spoke of strawberries being sold at £600 a ton.


At the rate of £600 a ton. It was early in the season.


And it was stopped. I am very glad it was stopped. Those strawberries, commanding that price, were going to people who did not require them nearly so much as some poor persons who want jam. I think that £600 is a truly indefensible price.


I was not defending the price.


No, of course not. But the prices were stopped. I am defending the prices being stopped, and I think on the necessity that I can show for jam there is a very strong case for the fixing of prices. The fact is that there can be no question that jam is of far greater importance to the population as a whole than fresh fruit, and the Consumers' Council are fully in agreement with medical and scientific opinion in endorsing the view that under existing conditions the fruit crops of 1918 must be reserved for jam.

The adoption of this policy involved the fixing of fruit prices for the current season on the basis that the whole of the fruit would be taken for jam, instead of, as is ordinarily the case, only that portion of the crop which does not fetch good prices as table fruit. The average price paid for fruit by the jam manufacturer during previous years was therefore ignored. It was decided that maximum prices should be fixed on the basis of estimated yield and cost of production. Detailed costs submitted by growers from all parts of the country to the Board of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food separately showed that the average cost of production per acre of strawberries this season has worked out at £32 7s. 9d., and that of bush fruit, including raspberries, at £30 2s. 9d. These figures are exclusive of cost of picking and of profit.


Is that all over the country?


Yes; it is only an average figure; and these figures exclude the cost of picking, and the profit. The average yield per acre, to which Lord Hindlip referred, of the soft fruits was estimated by the Board of Agriculture to be as follows:—

Strawberries 1 ton 3 cwt. per acre.
Black Currants 1 ton 15 cwt. per acre.
Raspberries 1 ton 10 cwt. per acre.
Red Currants 1 ton 10 cwt. per acre.
Gooseberries Slightly over 1 ton 10 cwt. per acre.

The maximum prices fixed by the Gooseberries (Sales) Order and the Soft Fruits (Sales) Order are as follows:—

Per Ton.
Strawberries (Sterling Castle and Scarlet) £44
Strawberries of other varieties £40
Black Currants £60
Raspberries £37
Red Currants £32
Gooseberries £27

When the cost of picking has been allowed for, the grower whose crop is up to this season's average will derive from these prices a clear profit of nearly £10 per acre.

The law of averages necessarily involves some inequality of treatment and there will be growers who derive considerably less profit than the average, just as there will be growers who will obtain considerably more, but the margin allowed is so liberal in the circumstances that it is hardly possible to credit the statements which have been made to the effect that many growers would rather leave their fruit to rot than pick it for the jam manufacturers at the prices offered. I gathered from Lord Hindlip that raspberry canes, actually before the crop is mature, are being destroyed with a view to planting other crops.


I certainly gathered that.


That is, of course, a criminal offence; and if my noble friend will give me the particulars I can answer for it that steps will be taken to prevent that; and, what is more, I think I can guarantee that the fruit now in danger of being destroyed shall be gathered. So far the Ministry of Food have been unable to secure the names and addresses of any growers who are de- liberately withholding their fruits in this way, and they will be prepared to take immediate action in such cases on receipt of the necessary information.

Some feeling has been aroused among growers in other districts of England and Wales and in Scotland by the fact that growers of the earliest crops of strawberries, particularly in the Southampton district, were permitted to sell their fruit without restriction as to price or destination before the Soft Fruit (Sales) Order came into operation. The delay in issuing this Order was due solely to the difficulty experienced, during a spell of unusually dry, hot weather, in arriving at an accurate estimate of the average yield of the crops. It will be some consolation to the growers of later strawberries to know that, if prices had been fixed a week earlier, they would undoubtedly have been considerably lower than those now in operation; because the later estimates of yields obtained showed decidedly worse results than the original estimate, owing to weather conditions.

The arrangements made for securing the commercially grown soft fruit for the jam factories are working well, and generally speaking the factories are being kept well supplied. Some difficulty was found in handling Saturday consignments of strawberries, and special arrangements were therefore made to release Saturday strawberries for public consumption. The collection of fruit from small growers and owners of private gardens is in the hands of the Food Production Department of the Board of Agriculture, which has set up county organisations, working in co-operation with the existing Horticultural Sub-Committees, to undertake the collection, transport, and marketing of such produce. The Royal Commission on the Sugar Supply have also made special issues of sugar to the Divisional Food Commissioners of the Ministry of Food in order to enable them to issue additional quantities of sugar at their discretion to private fruit-growers who have no means of sending their fruit to the jam factories, and who, under the general scheme of distribution of sugar for jam, have not received sufficient sugar to enable them to preserve their own fruit crops. These measure will, it is hoped, enable waste of fruit to be prevented, although much must still depend on the energy and good will of the growers themselves.

I will now deal with the specific Questions which my noble friend has placed on the Paper. With regard to fixing the prices for the plum and apple crop, the Food Controller has no intention of fixing these prices on any other basis than that adopted in the case of the soft fruit crops. The principle adopted in the case of these crops was identical with that suggested by the noble Lord—namely, to ascertain the average cost of production and collection this season, the average yield per acre, and to make an adequate allowance for profits after taking these facts into account. I pass to the second Question. I think the noble Lord is under a misapprehension in thinking that some favouritism was shown in favour of the Dutch. That is not the case. The Food Controller has purchased no Dutch black currants for delivery to this country.

In reply to the third Question, there, again, we have to buy abroad because we cannot grow the oranges ourselves. The bitter oranges required from Spain for the manufacture of marmalade for the Navy and Army and the civilian population last season were purchased by representatives of the jam manufacturers nominated by, and acting under, the instructions of the Ministry of Food. The oranges were issued as obtained to the manufacturers at a provisional price of 45s. per cwt. of sound fruit delivered free on rail at the port of arrival, on the understanding that the price would be subject to adjustment when the actual cost of delivery for the whole season had been ascertained. Owing to the high cost of freight and other causes the ultimate price will work out somewhat in excess of the figure quoted, and the jam manufacturers to whom the oranges purchased under this arrangement were allocated by the Ministry of Food will be required to pay their share of the additional cost. It is not anticipated that any charges in respect of these transactions will fall upon the Ministry of Food. I may add that the gentlemen who have assisted the Ministry by undertaking the purchase and delivery of these consignments have performed the whole of their work without remuneration, so that the charges borne by the manufacturers consist only of the actual cost of the oranges, with the necessary expenses for the freight and handling.


My Lords, the noble Earl, the Lord Privy Seal, in referring to the question of raspberries, said that £30 was considered the cost of production, not counting the picking; but in making that statement he left out a very important item. I do not know whether the noble Earl is aware of what the cost of picking is at the moment owing to the present price of labour. I am informed that the cost of picking is £18; so that you have to add that amount to the figure of £30, making a total of £48, which is very near the estimate given by my noble friend just now which the Lord Privy Seal disputed. It certainly seems rather curious, when the average production of raspberries is from 25 to 30 cwt. per acre and the price last year was, uncontrolled, £35, that now, when it is estimated that there is going to be a production of only 10 cwt. an acre, the increased price fixed by the Government should be only £2 more—that is, £37 per ton.

I should like to point out to the noble Earl that not only has the cost of labour enormously increased, but that the cost of manure has to be considered in producing this soft fruit. Before the war nitrate of soda could be bought at £12 10s. per ton by market gardeners, but they tell me that they have to pay £28 a ton for it at the present moment. All I can say is that they are very lucky to be able to get it even at £28 a ton, because the other day when I tried to buy some nitrate of soda, as my oats were looking bad, I found it impossible to obtain it anywhere. I am also informed that fish manure, which used to be bought at £6 a ton before the war, now costs £25 a ton. That is an enormous increase; and, as far as I can see, there has been no corresponding increase in the price of raspberries.

With regard to the other point, it seems to me very unfair if it is the case, as I am informed it is—perhaps by noble friend will tell me if it is so or not—that fruit which has to be sent up by the small growers and which is taken by the Ministry of Food has to be sent in what are called chips—that is, small baskets—holding a small number of lbs. of fruit in each. These chips have to be bought ahead, otherwise one cannot get them manufactured; and I am told on the best authority that, although the fruit-growers have to pay 25s. a dozen for these baskets, the Government allow them only 12s. 6d.

I would also like to ask a question with regard to small fruit. The noble Earl said that no black currants had been brought from Holland, but I noticed in the papers that the Government had bought 6,000 sieves of black currants from France, and that unfortunately in the delay of shipping them only 1,000 were any good in this country. I shall be glad if the noble Earl will tell me what was the cost of those currants and at what price it is intended to sell them in this country, if it is intended to put them on the market, although I rather gather that the Government do not intend to sell any fruit they buy but rather to turn it into jam for the use of the Army. I think my noble friend behind me was quite justified in saying that he thought there might be some difference between the price paid in Holland and what was paid in this country for black currants, for this reason, that when the Government bought butter in Holland they paid for it double the price at which they allowed the English producer to sell his produce. So there is reason to think the Government might follow the very bad precedent which they set in the case of butter. Further, I wish to know whether the Government are buying any other fruit from abroad, and, if so, whether they intend to use that fruit for making jam for the Army, or whether they intend to sell it to manufacturers, and, if so, at what price.

Then I would like to know how it came about that Mr. Keeble informed the fruit-growers on May 23 that he did not want any marrows at all, and then on June 10, when it was too late to do anything, he informed them that thousands of pounds would be wanted. I have heard myself from the Government Department interested in the question that they look forward to using marrows very extensively indeed for making jam for the Army. I venture to think that these questions ought to be cleared up, and I should also be glad if the Government would indicate what price they mean in the near future to put upon apples, if they intend to commandeer them, and also on plums and damsons, and further, if it is their intention to fix the price of vegetables, that growers should have notice of such intention well in advance.


My Lords, I am not prepared to question the general principle which my noble friend on behalf of the Food Control Department has laid down, but he is a very astute person, and he must have seen what was very obvious in the statement he made, that the whole working out of the scheme depends on the doctrine of averages. I quite admit that it may be necessary to act on the doctrine of averages. It would be a very difficult thing to make a calculation and give one price in Worcestershire, another in Cambridgeshire, and another in Kent; but even assuming that the average was accurately and fairly taken as regards the price of production and the crop over the kingdom as a whole, my noble friend Lord Hindlip, who is personally familiar with the conditions of fruit culture in the Worcestershire district, has proved that on soft fruit the Worcestershire growers have made a heavy loss. Nothing that my noble friend has said has really refuted that statement; and what I want to impress upon him, though I am sure it is unnecessary, and through him on the Food Control Department, is that when you are dealing with averages, if you want to avoid discouraging cultivation, which you must do if you inflict great loss on growers, you must fix a price such as will cover cases like Worcestershire, where the crop has been a comparative failure. Otherwise what is the result? You inflict an undeserved loss on men who have been doing their best to assist food production in time of crisis. But that is the very least of the evil you do. You do more to discourage food production by such a result than by any other method, and that is where the Food Control Department, I think, has more than once gone wrong. They have been so concerned to see that the grower did not get too great a price in cases of successful production that they have forgotten that the far greater responsibility lies upon them to encourage production irrespective of whether a particularly fortunate individual has a good year. That is the moral which I would venture to urge through my noble friend, and I am perfectly certain he entirely agrees with me.


May I make one remark to the Lord Privy Seal? I understand that no fruit has been destroyed, but I gather that what possibly will happen unless the Ministry of Food take steps is that plants and canes will be ploughed up, and I think that the more threats are directed against the growers probably the more canes will come up. I am sure the noble Earl does not expect fruit-growers to continue to grow at a loss. They are not subsidised; they are not bakers. I am afraid the fruit-growers will not be satisfied with the answer given on behalf of the Government this evening, and unless I am very much mistaken the Ministry of Food will have to alter the prices.


I am very much gratified by the statement just made by my noble friend. I misunderstood his earlier statement. I thought he said that the process of destruction was going on. Lord Strachie asked two Questions. One was a little complicated and my knowledge is not very complete, and I propose to study our Official Report to-morrow morning and put myself in communication with Lord Strachie. With regard to chip baskets and black currants from France, I think there may be some misapprehension in the noble Lord's mind as to the function of the Food Ministry. I gather he thought its function was buying fruit and sending it to London in small baskets—


These chips are small baskets which hold 6 lbs. of soft fruit. The price which Lord Strachie gave of 25s. a dozen ought, I think, to be 25s. a gross, but the Government collar 50 per cent. all the same. What happened is this. The price was fixed in a great hurry and no preparation was made and no baskets sent down to the fruit centres by anybody. Unless the fruit is to spoil, which the noble Earl would agree would be regrettable, it ought to be sold in the open market, which the Government would not allow to be done. The only things which these unfortunate people had in which to send their fruit to the jam people were these chips, which cost 25s. a gross, and the Government will only allow 12s. 6d. a gross. For small people that is a very considerable loss.


The noble Lord has made the case quite clear, and our official record will provide me with the text to make further inquiry. The only other point—perhaps I should not refer to it now that Lord Selborne has left the House—is the question of averages. It is always the unfortunate thing about averages that somebody gains by them and somebody loses by them. But it is impossible to fix prices according to the averages of a county. The ideal thing would be to fix an average for Evesham, one for Wisbech, one for Cornwall, and one for Lancashire.

That is clearly quite impossible, and the average therefore must be very much more widespread in its area. I am perfectly convinced of this, that those who are engaged in the Food Ministry in looking after the control of fruit are fully conscious of the plea that was put forward by Lord Selborne, that although it may be necessary to limit prices, none the less the process should not go so far as to discourage production.

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