HL Deb 06 June 1939 vol 113 cc297-302

6.54 p.m.

LORD ADDISON asked His Majesty's Government whether in the event of there being a surplus of plums this year they will promote arrangements for extra canning or other form of preservation. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I promise not to delay your Lordships long over the very modest Question which stands in my name on the Paper. None the less, although it may appear small by comparison with the vast topic we have just been discussing, it is extremely important. We all remember that two or three years ago providence blessed us with an abundant harvest of plums. The next year a good friend of mine, a very experienced fruit grower, wrote to me a letter in which he said: "Pray the Lord we may have a frost or two this year, because if we have an abundant harvest we shall be ruined." And that was true. As we know, there were so many plums two or three years ago that they were not worth picking up. If there had been half as many or a quarter as many, it would have been more profitable to the fruit growers. As it was, they lost a great deal of their money.

I am informed by people who I think are likely to know that, other things being equal, and the vicissitudes of the weather not being more hazardous than usual, there may be an exceptionally big crop this year. I hope there will be, but if there is I suggest that it is incumbent on the Minister of Agriculture to try to do something to avoid the occurrence of an abundance that would occasion a calamity, and to exercise a little foresight and make provision to guard against the position that may then arise. Notwithstanding the fact that there was an abundance of plums two or three years ago, such an abundance that people were sometimes asked to go and pick them up for nothing, there were still hundreds of thousands of houses in which people would have been glad of some plums to cook. That will be the case again unless there is provision for making some use of this golden opportunity. Therefore I put this Question on the Paper, not in order to censure the Ministry of Agriculture but to exhort them to good work.

It is quite possible, as I have indicated in my Question, to make provision beforehand to put to better use an abundant crop, if we are so fortunate as to have one, by preserving and canning and in other ways. There is, I believe, a limit to what can be done in the way of cold storage of plums. We have learned a great deal about the storage of apples, which can be kept for many months, but so far the time that soft fruit can be stored seems to be very limited. Nevertheless, there is a great deal that can be done by improving marketing information, and by getting better distribution of fruit to consuming centres from the areas which produce a surplus, It will not be the slightest use the noble Earl hoping to convince me by saying that he will be satisfied when the time comes to leave it to the existing marketing and distribution channels, because they have failed us very badly time after time. Therefore I hope he will propose some new and improved methods of distribution. I hope at any rate that he will be able to promise that the Ministry will take the matter into their consideration and see that the country derives, as it ought to do, an advantage from an abundance.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord has very rightly pointed out that the size of the plum crop fluctuates very greatly from year to year, and perhaps it will be of interest if I give the figures of the plum crop for the last three years. In 1936 it was 2,380,000 cwts., and in 1937 it was 2,310,000 cwts.


Does the noble Earl mean the weight of plums sold in the market?


Yes, the weight of plums sold was 2,310,000 cwts. in 1937, and that, following on the heavy yield of 1936, led to the disastrous consequences to which the noble Lord, Lord Addison, has referred. In the year 1938, owing to weather conditions, the quantity put on the market was only 711,000 cwts. The result is that plum manufacturers and the canning firms are depleted of their usual reserve stocks. I am informed that it is highly probable that both stocks of jam and canned plums are very small indeed at the present time and that the reserves of pulped plums have been almost completely exhausted. Therefore, in spite of the noble Lord saying he will not be satisfied with any answer I give in respect of the ordinary marketing channels and distributing trade, I hope, with this explanation, he will be convinced that this year there is likely to be a very strong demand which will react with considerable effect on the demand for the plum crop generally.

My noble friend will know that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture is not able to exercise any control over the programme of the canning factories. If the crop should prove to be a very large one, it would of course be possible for the Department I represent, by propaganda, to suggest to the public that a considerable quantity of plums should be home-canned or bottled for the winter supply. Lord Addison in his Question suggested that one of the uses that could be made of any excess over and above the normal market demand for plums should be storage under the Food (Defence Plans) Department to provide for an emergency. It is true that the Essential Commodities Reserves Act gives the Food (Defence Plans) Department all the powers necessary to enable that Department to purchase and store plums for emergency purposes, should it be thought desirable to do so. But in purchasing commodities for Government reserves, it is obviously necessary to obtain the best food value possible for the money expended, as funds are not, of course, unlimited. In accordance with this policy, the Food (Defence Plans) Department has not, to any marked degree, stored either fruit or vegetables. It is considered that commodities such as wheat, whale oil, canned meat, and raw sugar are more suitable for inclusion in the Government reserves. To use a colloquial phrase which appears appropriate in this context, it is not as easy as jam to preserve in the desired quantities these commodities which I have listed should the necessity arise. Having regard to the normal commercial stocks of jam and plums held in the United Kingdom, and having regard also to the Government reserves of sugar, it is not proposed to acquire a Government reserve of jam.

I take it from the noble Lord's remarks, that he is concerned less with plums as suitable articles for food storage than with the remuneration to be received by the plum producers of the country. If the crop is as good as we hope and anticipate, the disastrous price levels ruling in 1937 will not be repeated owing to the fact that last year the crop was so small and all the reserves both for canning and pulp have been utilised, so that the first consideration of those engaged in the industry will be to make good their reserves and recuperate in a good year so as to be well provided for any lean year such as was experienced in 1938.

7.7 p.m.


My Lords, may I say how grateful many of us will be, especially those engaged in agriculture, to Lord Addison for raising this matter, both from the point of view of the fruit grower and the consumer? While thanking the Minister for his reply, may I urge him to take every possible step, do whatever may appear practicable, to put a bottom into the fruit market? Whatever methods may be found desirable, the essential point is to enable the producer to find a market for his produce and to do so at a reasonably remunerative price.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Earl for his reply, let me say I hope he will bear in mind the great possibilities which really are open to the Ministry, as I know from experience, to bring together the industries associated with fruit preservation in various forms, and get them to co-operate collectively in regard to this probable forthcoming abundance. A great deal can be done by the Ministry itself in promoting schemes for large-scale preservation as well as for a better system of distribution. I believe, too, with regard to the storage of food, that a shortage of food would certainly very soon occur in the event of an emergency, and the storage of fruit together with the sugar which would necessarily accompany it would be a very excellent way of easing the situation. I hope that the Food Department concerned will not rule this out. It seems to me a sensible thing to do if you are to be presented with a surplus of any useful crop in this country. I thank the Minister for his reply, and I hope that by raising the Question I will have promoted his good works.

House adjourned at ten minutes past seven o'clock.