HL Deb 17 January 1974 vol 348 cc1076-81

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Horticulture (Special Payments) Bill, which we are considering to-day, received all-Party support in another place as being of potential importance to the horticulture industry. I stress the words "potential importance" because the Government are much encouraged by the confidence in the future which has been shown by horticulturists in all sectors of the industry, and we shall be delighted if the powers which we seek in this Bill are little used.

Our entry to the European Economic Community involved some changes for our horticultural industry, particularly in our traditional system of support through market protection. The Government have always acknowledged that this might result in problems to some sectors of the industry. We are meeting this with the Bill before us which enables Ministers to make schemes to help growers in specific circumstances. The various sectors of the horticulture industry which may prove to be particularly adversely affected following our entry into the European Economic Community could be helped under this Bill. Climatic conditions vary widely within the Community; some areas have conditions which are more favourable than ours to the production of certain varieties of fruits and vegetables. The relaxation of our protective measures against other Member States will increasingly expose growers in the United Kingdom to competition from producers in other parts of the Community. Weather conditions are not, of course, the only consideration, and some United Kingdom growers have got advantages. For some horticultural crops, for example, the costs of transporting produce from other parts of the Community could prove to be a disincentive to imports.

British growers are producing goods of high quality and we are confident that the great majority will be able to compete efficiently. Indeed, some sectors foresee increased export opportunities as a result of our entry into the Community. But, my Lords, we are concerned in the Bill with a minority of growers who may find it difficult to produce profitably in the changing conditions of competition. For example, growers of dessert and culinary apples and pears have for a long time been regarded as being at a disadvantage compared with the French and Italian growers who have the climatic advantages to which I have referred.

Following our entry, the import quotas on apples and pears, which used to form part of our protection, have in fact been replaced by compensatory amounts which are being gradually phased out. This will increase the competition for our own growers. We have therefore already introduced, under the authority of the Appropriation Act, a scheme of special payments to compensate apple and pear growers who feel, during the period for adjustment which is provided by the phasing out of protection, that they cannot compete in the gradually changing conditions. If the legislation before us is enacted, the earliest opportunity will be taken to make a scheme, under the powers in this Bill, to put the present apple and pear scheme on to a proper footing. My Lords, it is our view that at present there is no other sector of horticulture which is likely to be affected to the same extent. Other cases may, however, emerge in the passage of time, and if they do this Bill will give us the power to take some action.

The main aim of the Bill, which is an enabling Bill, is to provide powers to make schemes under which financial assistance may be given to growers to stop growing specified horticultural produce. This assistance may include a contribution towards the cost of operations necessary to make the land available for other agricultural use. The powers will enable Agricultural Ministers to determine those categories of horticultural produce whose producers face special difficulties, the level of payment to be offered, and the conditions of payment, including the restrictions on the future use of any land which may be released from a particular production. Schemes made under this Bill would be made by Statutory Instrument and would be subject to Affirmative Resolution in each House. My Lords, I hope that I have said enough for your Lordships to consider that this Bill merits support. I should be pleased personally if it turns out that in the end little use needs to be made of its powers, but I think it right that this provision should be made. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Ferrers.)

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for explaining the contents of this Bill. It may well be that I shall have to leave before this debate concludes. As the noble Earl knows, I am expected in Edinburgh later in the evening—or, if he does not know, may I tell him that I am? This is a most unusual Bill because Clause 1 makes a provision which I have never seen before. It says, in effect, "We are going to make financial provisions to an industry provided it does not work." I do not think anybody in your Lordships' House can ever remember a Bill being introduced to compensate people for not working, but this is in fact what Clause 1 of this Bill does. It deals with certain decisions reached in Europe which will make it rather uneconomic for parts of our horticultural industry to produce in their own right, and as a consequence of that they will be compensated for not doing it. But part of the compensation, as I understand it, will have to be paid so that they may go on and produce something else. I think that that is putting the situation in a nutshell, but it is a little difficult to understand.

Secondly, do not let us misunderstand what this Bill is all about. In Europe they are in fact saying that they can produce these commodities at a cheaper and better rate than we can in this country; as a consequence this money must be provided to compensate the industry. But I then looked at Clause 2 of the Bill, which I also found a little difficult to understand. It says that, having reached this decision, we had better give the Minister power to take the money back again. As I say, I find this procedure difficult to understand. It is said that the appropriate Minister is given power to revoke payment, an Order having been made. I assume, I hope correctly, that what the Minister is saying through this Bill is that somebody may have given evidence in support of his case which turns out not to be quite correct. The Government are saying to the Minister, "We are going to give you the right to take the money back again." I think that that is all that this provision means. Thirdly, under Clause 3, as I see it, what the Minister is saying is that there may well be people in the horticulture industry who supply information which is not correct, and as a consequence of that they may be fined up to £400 for so doing.

Clause 4 is very simple but it is a provision which caused great trouble not so many years ago when the Government at that time were taking powers to allow Government servants to enter either horticultural or agricultural establishments to make sure that what the occupier was doing and the information he was giving were absolutely correct. There used to be a great cry about this, about "snoopers" and so on who apparently appeared under a Labour Government. But I notice that the present Government are taking power to do exactly the same thing. I am not objecting: I think it is the correct thing to do. But I hope that in future, when others have to make Orders of this kind, this criticism will not materialise. On the whole, I would not object to this Bill, because I should not like to see people lose their livelihood by order of Government, without being compensated for it.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that I may be excused if I intervene for a very short period in this debate. I should immediately declare that I am a horticulturist, and as a grower of apples and pears I take a close interest in this Bill. Perhaps the opportunity might be taken to assure your Lordships that apple growers and pear growers in this country do not consider themselves to have lost their future. I think that when we entered the Common Market those of us involved in this branch of horticulture were well aware that for a number of years—about 10 years, or even 15 years—there had been chronic structural surpluses of apples in France and pears in Italy arising from irresponsible planning of these commodities in these two countries. It is for this reason, I would suggest, and not because of the climatic conditions—which, if anything thing, for apples and pears lie to our advantage—and because surpluses still obtain on the Continent, that the prices within the Common Market have been deplorably low.

Of course, these measures will afford some support to growers in this country who may be of only marginal significance in the industry. My noble friend Lord Ferrers indicated that he will be well satisfied if the allowance in this Bill is not fully taken up. This may well be the case because there is great optimism within the industry that so far as apples are concerned we can grow a commodity which is second to none, both of the dessert variety, such as Cox, and the culinary variety, such as Bramley, which those on the Continent know nothing about at all. I would therefore assure your Lordships that there is nothing to worry about, in that the apple and pear industry will be able to provide what the housewife wishes at a price that will be competitive.

Therefore, while welcoming the provisions of this Bill I would say that they go some way, perhaps, to redressing the damage done by the French and Italian growers some 10 years ago in planting irresponsibly, well beyond the requirements of their own markets. The longterm solution lies not in our powers but in the hands of the French Government and the Italian Government to try to bring their own production some way into line with their own consumption.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, really welcomed this Bill but found it difficult to understand because it was unusual. I suppose it can be said to be unusual, in so far as it is dealing with an unusual set of circumstances, but one which was always recognised to exist. When we were considering going into the Common Market one of the sectors which gave rise to concern was the sector of the horticulturists; and it has always been considered, for the reasons I gave in my opening remarks, that some parts of the industry could be subject to such competition as to make their present livelihood very difficult. That is the reason why this Bill has been brought forward.

The noble Lord said he had difficulty in understanding Clause 2, because Clause 1 enabled the Minister to pay money out while Clause 2 permitted him to take it back again. If the noble Lord reads the provisions carefully he will see that they are not quite so stupid as that. Clause 2 says that if at any time the appropriate Minister has approved any proposals under the scheme and it appears to him, that any condition subject to which the approval was given or any payment has been made has not been complied with", he may then take back any money which he has given to the person who made the application and who then did not carry out the terms of the application. That is really the only point about Clause 2.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for what he said. It is perfectly true that large sectors of the horticulture industry, and indeed of the apple growers and pear growers, will do perfectly well in the present circumstances. It is only certain people, those who happen to grow certain varieties, who may come unstuck. My noble friend said that the Cox and Bramley are particularly good varieties which will have a great future. I would confirm that. Indeed, to give my noble friend evidence of that, I would tell him that my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry in another place only yesterday went down and officially planted a Cox, to show at least her conviction that Coxes will have a reasonable future. I am quite sure that that Cox, at any rate, will not be one that is grubbed up under the Apple and Pear Scheme. My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, and my noble friend Lord Selborne. I ask your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.