HL Deb 22 February 1933 vol 86 cc827-32

VISCOUNT BERTIE OF THAME had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government if Argentine meat importers have been sending prime joints of beef marked as "bagged meat," "offal," or by any other designation in order to evade the meat quota, and, if so, what steps they intend to take to put a stop to the practice; and move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, serious allegations have lately been made in the Daily Express with regard to the evasion of the meat quota by Argentine meat importers and, indeed, as to the "blind eye" attitude of His Majesty's Government towards this nefarious practice. I put the Question on the Paper for the purpose of ascertaining whether any or all of these charges are substantially correct. I cannot myself believe that they are without foundation, because I shall presently quote to your Lordships figures, as few as possible, from the Meat Trades Journal which, on the face of them, appear to require some explanation. It is asserted that for some time past large quantities of prime joints of beef have been sent here from the Argentine under the designation of "offal" or "bagged meat" for which there is no quota, and have been sold, not as bagged meat, but as prime joints, and by this subterfuge the market has been flooded and the British product undersold.

I have no figures as to the quantity of offal which has been imported; but according to the Meat Trades Journal of February 4, 1932, there were imported during the previous week 8,574 bags of meat, and in the corresponding week of this year the figures were 13,890. In the following week of last year the figures were 9,737, and this year 15,815. The figures for what were avowedly quarters of meat for the same weeks in 1932 were 32,191 and 44,687 and for this year 29,025 and 33,248, so that the quantity of meat which must of necessity come within the quota has decreased, but what may be termed "disguised imports," which are not subject to the quota, have increased by a very large percentage. As I understand the position the Customs authorities are powerless to act, since under the inadequate system of the quota there is no infringement of Customs Duties. If only the Government would seriously face the situation and put a duty of 2d. or 3d. a pound on Argentine meat, which I am told it could easily stand, then perhaps our farmers would have some opportunity of competing successfully.

I think that under the quota system what are termed "gentlemen's agreements" are entered into, but if it is true that these agreements are evaded surely that is a euphemism. The only punishment meted out to the offenders appears to be a talking-to, and they are warned by the inspectors—I suppose on the instructions of the Government—that if they keep this sharp practice within reasonable limits, whatever that may mean, no further steps will be taken. Surely, if there is even a substratum of truth in these allegations, His Majesty's Government cannot be said to be doing all they can to help agriculture? I do appeal to them to insist on these agreements being honourably carried out so that British interests may be safeguarded at any rate to some extent. There is no reason why these offenders should be tenderly treated, for they do not pay any taxes. In fact, they removed their business quarters from this country for the purpose of getting out of our taxation, so they not only grow rich at the expense of the Government but by their artful manœuvres are importing prime joints disguised under other designations and therefore helping to bring nearer to ruin our farming industry. There is a danger in bagged meat, because bagged meat is meat from which the bones and the lymphatic glands have been removed, so that it is difficult to tell at sight whether this meat is diseased or not, and I hope that may be taken into consideration, perhaps, by the Minister of Health. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name and to move for Papers.


My Lords, my noble friend behind me has raised a very important Question, and I am afraid in answering him I must trouble your Lordships with a certain number of details. I do so because, unless these details are given and I occupy you for a little time, I cannot adequately answer the Question he has asked.

The Ottawa Agreements provide for the regulation of imports from foreign countries of the following descriptions of beef: chilled beef and frozen beef (carcases and boned beef). The full descriptions in the Import and Export List covering the kinds of frozen beef subject to regulation are: "Beef, in quarters and sides" and "Boned beef, including cheeks and skirts." There is another category of frozen beef in the Import and Export List which is not subject to regulation—namely, "Other descriptions, (including tongues, hearts, livers, kidneys, etc.)," comprising the parts of beef known in the trade as "offals" and such parts as do not fall under the other categories. Offals are removed from beef carcases and shipped separately in a frozen condition.

The quantity of offals available for shipment depends, of course, on the number of cattle killed, and the reason why this category was not dealt, with under the Ottawa Agreements was no doubt related to the fact that control over the number of carcases shipped might be expected to regulate automatically in a large measure the shipment of offals and the like. It is, however, the intention of the responsible Departments, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture, to see-that such shipments do not assume abnormal proportions during the period of the Ottawa Agreements.

A short time ago the attention of the Board of Trade was called to the possibility that cuts of beef (other than boned beef) might be imported in substantial quantities from South America under the Customs heading "Other descriptions" and that the effectiveness of the arrangements for the regulation of meat imports might thus be prejudiced. The. Board accordingly communicated with the importers on the subject and inquired what assurance they could give on the point. The following reply was received from the South American Meat Importers' Freight Committee representing the great majority of the South American trade:

"In order to carry out the spirit of the existing arrangements, the shippers from South America have purposely refrained from taking advantage of the fact that offal and beef cuts are outside the scope of the. Ottawa Agreements. The point has, from the outset, had their very careful attention, and all shipment; under the heading other descriptions' have been and are being strictly controlled.

"It occurs to the Committee that possibly those who do not themselves ship chilled beef do not realize when they see chilled cuts on Smithfield that these chilled cuts count in the Customs classification against the chilled beef total, and are thus controlled by the Ottawa Agreements. It is only cuts of frozen beef which are free, and they are shipped in very trivial quantities. The Committee readily gives you an assurance that although such shipments are 'outside the quota,' they will in the general interest be strictly regulated by the shippers themselves. The Board of Trade have also communicated with the agents of the South American interests not represented on this Committee and have been informed that the matter is being brought to the notice of their principals. As regards the reference in the Motion to "prime joints" of beef, it should be pointed out that all chilled beef is subject to regulation and the terms of the letter from the Freight Committee show that they are fully aware of their obligations in this respect.

My noble friend has quoted certain figures from the Meat Trades Journal informing the House, I think, of how many bags of meat have been received. I cannot actually dispute those figures because I have not had them, but I will give him certain other figures which show that the amount of offals and "other descriptions" of beef is a very small proportion of the whole. I am informed that the total imports of "other descriptions" of beef from South America in January amounted to about 3,200 tons out of a total of about 36,000 tons of chilled and frozen beef imported from South America in the month. Such imports thus formed under 10 per cent. of the total imports of chilled and frozen beef from South America and of course a far smaller proportion of the total supplies of meat coming on to the home market during that month.


Is that the figure for offals and bagged meat put together?


"Other descriptions" include offals.


And bagged meat?


I think that is included; yes, a noble friend informs me it is. This quantity of 3,200 tons included a certain proportion of frozen cuts of beef which could not properly be classified either as quarters or sides or boned beef. For instance, when shin of beef is imported with the bone it is classified with "other descriptions"; when it is imported without bone it is regarded as "boned beef" and classified accordingly. I am afraid all this is very technical and complicated, but there it is. The quantity of beef cuts included in this total was rather under 1,000 tons and formed under 30 per cent. of the total.

In conclusion I can only say that the correspondence which has passed between the Board of Trade and the South American meat importers shows that the Government are anxious that the Ottawa Agreements shall he observed in the spirit as well as in the letter and that they do not intend to "wink" at any evasion of the arrangements. I am authorised to say that my right honourable friends the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Agriculture and my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary will continue to watch very carefully the importation of beef which is not subject to regulation under the Ottawa Agreements. They have no reason to suppose that such imports will not be regulated strictly in accordance with the assurances given by the trade, but they will not fail to take any further steps in the matter which may prove to be necessary to safeguard the interests of the home market and to fulfil their obligations to the Dominions in the spirit in which they were undertaken. I fear I have no Papers I can lay, but I think I have said enough to assure my noble friend that my right honourable friend the Minister and His Majesty's Government are quite alive to the dangers existing in this system and they are taking and will take every step to safeguard the Government, the country and the farmer against any possible infringements of the regulations which might be expected to arise.


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble and gallant friend for the assurance he has given me that the Government will not "wink" in future even if they have in the past. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past six o'clock.