HL Deb 27 November 1963 vol 253 cc683-7

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to make a statement about horticulture similar to that which my right honourable friend has made in another place. If I may, I shall use his own words:

"It is the continuing policy of Her Majesty's Government, as it has been for many years, to promote the wellbeing of the horticultural industry, as it is for agriculture. To this end the Government consider that all practical steps should be taken to bring our horticultural production and marketing to a higher state of competitive efficiency; and we propose to offer substantial aid to the industry to reduce costs of production and improve marketing. The effect of this should be to strengthen the competitive position of the industry and thereby to reduce its dependence on the tariff, which has been the principal means of support. It should thus create conditions in which reconsideration of the tariff would be possible.

"Our proposals, which are embodied in the Agriculture and Horticulture Bill presented yesterday, include grants towards the cost of a wide range of production equipment (including replacement of glasshouses) for existing viable holdings, towards the reorganisation of such holdings, and towards the establishment of marketing co-operatives. Arrangements are also proposed to provide guaranteed credit facilities for horticultural producers.

"In addition to the grant-aid already available to growers and co-operatives towards equipment for the better marketing of horticultural produce, we propose to offer grants towards the cost of redevelopment of a number of wholesale horticultural markets throughout the country. We are also seeking powers to require the grading to prescribed standards of certain horticultural produce passing through wholesale channels of trade.

"Introduction of these substantial forms of assistance will enable the Government to consider making changes in the tariff on horticultural items, where these would be in the national interest. The timing of any such changes would, however, be of great importance.

"Some products are in a favourable position to withstand competition from imports because, for example, their perishability, or their bulk in relation to their value, afford a high degree of natural protection. For these, early reductions in import duties could be made without damage to the industry.

"Other products are at present more sensitive to overseas competition and enjoy a significant level of tariff protection during the home season. For these, we shall feel free to bind the duties at their current levels if we consider this to be in the national interest. There will, however, have to be a period of some four years before any reduction in the tariff on these sensitive items could be considered. This should give the industry time to benefit from the assistance offered, and thereby enable it the better to withstand any normal competition from imports. After this standstill period the Government will be free to make reductions in the duties on sensitive items if they consider this to be in the national interest.

"We recognise that the specific duties on a number of horticultural products have not only offered protection against normal competition from imports, but have also been a safeguard against abnormal competition from imports at unrealistically low prices arising from surpluses of varying degrees, It is likely that such surpluses will reappear from time to time, so means to prevent them from undermining our market will continue to be necessary. We consider that such means would best be devised in consultation with other countries.

"In considering possible tariff reductions and safeguards against abnormal competition, the Government will, of course, take the views of the industry fully into account. It is also our intention that there should be periodic examinations, in consultation with the Farmers' Unions, of developments within the industry, including the evidence available on such matters as costs of production and the trends in prices and imports, and the progress made towards achieving a higher degree of competitive efficiency."

My Lords, that is the statement.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to delay your Lordships from the main debate for more than a moment. This is another important statement, and it seems to me to be a forerunner of the Agriculture and Horticulture Bill introduced in another place yesterday. The statement will be welcomed by the whole of the horticultural industry. Horticulture has had a rather bad time in the years which have passed, and it is high time that some action should be taken. We approve of the action which the Government are now taking in order to put that industry on a good footing. There are four important proposals half way through the statement, but I will not comment on those at the present time. At the end of the statement, in regard to the sensitive items, the period of four years was mentioned. Is that a fixed time, or is it simply an estimate of what may happen? I welcome the consultation with the National Farmers' Union, but I hope that consultation will also take place with other interests in connection with horticulture. Generally, we welcome the fact that the Government are now taking steps to put the industry on a proper footing.


My Lords, we, too, from these Benches would like to welcome this statement as an earnest of the Government's good intentions. Agriculture is a difficult enough problem, but horticulture is even more so, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said, it has had a bad time recently. It seems to me, looking at what is in the statement, that the emphasis the Government have put is on the right lines. There are three points that I should like to emphasise, and the first is in connection with the grading of prescribed standards to conform. Here I hope that the Government will look towards the E.E.C, standards, because it seems to me that this is important. The next point is that I hope the Government will remember that the key to full agricultural and horticultural production is to make a long-term plan as to what exactly we want to grow in this country and what we want to import.

I notice that the statement says: We consider that such means would best be devised in consultation with other countries. That seems to me to be very encouraging, and I welcome it very much. As your Lordships know, on these Benches we also feel strongly that some kind or Horticulture Commission should be set up to look at this matter from an overall point of view. We consider this should be done so far as meat, cereals and agriculture are concerned. Nevertheless, this is a most welcome statement to us on these Benches, as well as to noble Lords on my left.


My Lords, I will not delay your Lordships for more than a minute. I am sorry to butt in, but I feel rather strongly about this subject. I approve entirely the statement made by the noble Lord, but he has talked of grading. I do not object to grading—it is very nice to see tomatoes and cucumbers looking all the same shape and size—but what is much more important is whether the tomatoes taste right. My late lamented father, who was no fool—if he will forgive my speaking so—when he judged flower shows and vegetable shows in Scotland always said, "Anybody can judge a chrysanthemum, or whatever it may he. You have just to look at the thing. But what matters with carrots and things like that is whether they taste right. The judges ought to taste the things. "I wish that, in grading, those who grade would also pay some attention to the soil and manures used, whether genuine manures or fertilisers, which are responsible for making these beautiful things grow.


My Lords, I am most grateful for the welcome that this statement has been given. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, asked me precisely what the four years' period meant. All it means, as the statement said, is that at the end of four years we shall consider ourselves free to review tariffs. But before the four years, those tariffs on sensitive products will not be altered, and foreign suppliers will be awars of that. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who asked that grading standards should conform as far as possible to the E.E.C. standards. I am not sure that we think that is absolutely necessary. We must find our own system of grading, one which suits this country, and we hope that it would be a high standard and also a dependable standard. My own fear, from what I have seen of the grading that goes on—the rather haphazard grading that is sometimes called grading in some parts of this country—is that a given grade can vary from one month to another according to what the supply of that product is. But, of course, that is not true grading in our sense.

I have also hoisted in the thought of my noble friend Lord Stuart of Findhorn, and we will naturally take into account his views. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, also said that he hoped that these proposals were made with a view to the long-term interests of the horticultural industry, and I can assure him that that is exactly what is in our minds. We are looking to see how we can best serve the long-term interests and competitiveness of the horticultural industry.


My Lords, this is an industry which has shown a remarkable inability to help itself in the matter of marketing. We have seen the Tomato Marketing Board fold up after the expenditure of quite a lot of public money in order to establish it. That was a self-help organisation. All I would say, while welcoming this attempt to give the horticultural industry further aid, is that the Government should always remember that perhaps if the industry will not help itself it ought to be subject to some of the winds of competition.