HL Deb 18 May 1976 vol 370 cc1299-303

4.36 p.m.

Lord STRABOLGI rose to move, That the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order 1976, laid before the House on 26th April, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order takes effect from 1st May 1976. The order amends the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) Order 1955 which contained arrangements for providing guaranteed prices for wool to be set in the United Kingdom. However it only allowed prices to he determined in pence per pound.

Prices were determined this year following the Annual Review which itself was conducted in metric terms. This order would now make it possible for the guaranteed price for wool to be effected in pence per kilogramme instead of pence per pound avoirdupois. It does this very simply by substituting the word "kilogramme" for the words "pound avoirdupois" wherever they appear in the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) Order 1955. The order has no other effects or implications for the actual level of the guaranteed price. This followed the farming organisations' request for the Government to support their proposals to adopt metric units. The Annual Review White Paper, published recently, quoted both metric and imperial units.

Prices for international trade in wool are declared in metric terms, and the British Wool Marketing Board have also been trading in these terms. Approval of the order will therefore help to rationalise pricing and to simplify the accounting procedure of the Wool Marketing Board. I have described briefly the purposes of the order and the background to it. I hope that, with this brief explanation, your Lordships will agree and approve this order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) (Amendment) Order 1976, laid before the House on 26th April, be approved.—(Lord Strabolgi.)


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for introducing this order and explaining it. It is of course yet another move towards metrication which has the approval of the industry. This is one of the orders we are getting used to seeing. One cannot help feeling a twinge of nostalgia in seeing the good old English word "avoirdupois" giving way to the more European word "kilogramme". But, apart from that, needless to say we are happy to see this order go through. Reading through the order, I could not help feeling that the Explanatory Note looked a little odd where it pointed out that where the word "avoirdupois" is used, the word "kilogramme" should now be substituted. As this is a guaranteed prices order, one's first reaction was that the guaranteed price for a pound avoirdupois of wool was now to be the same as one kilogramme of wool. I cannot believe that is so and I assume the alteration is merely to the wording of the instrument and not to the price paid.


My Lords, having been associated with this exercise since its inception, I take this opportunity to express a few words of admiration for the way in which this has been carried out by those responsible for its administration, and to extend congratulations to those who have contributed to all the services connected with it. It is true that the moment seems particularly opportune, as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has explained, to move from the historical avoirdupois area to the metric area. This is just one small matter, but it brings us into line with what is being done in other areas.

I think this is an interesting example of how successful this kind of board has been, not only in its administration but also in what has been achieved by the civilian firms which have been employed by the board to meet its objective of securing the whole of the clip. It has been cleverly arranged so that the outcome brings reasonable satisfaction to the farmers and the wool growers. However, it may well be that some might criticise the fact that the cost of the execution of this aim has proved greater than it would have been when done completely by private enterprise. But a more particular point of interest is that the price received by the wool growers, while it may not have satisfied them entirely, has at least served as an illustration of how, since the price was settled, the cost of wool has gone up. The reason, of course, is that world markets have been affected by the fall in sterling; so the very fall in sterling draws up the price of wool and therefore the cost of internal consumption and the cost of living.

The board, when instituted, was a 15-year organisation, with this period divided into three periods of five years. For some years it was affected by the general price level up or down, which of course resulted in a minus or a plus—I believe the worst minus was £3 million. The board is in the happy position in this, its first year of the third five-year period, of being able to repay the Government £1 million sterling. That is to its credit and it may possibly succeed in repeating the performance, or something very like it, in future years. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for the clear way in which he explained why this order came before the House, and I naturally support my noble friend, who has already given his approval.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to commend the order and, in doing so, seek to clear up one or two misconceptions that seem to have arisen on the Benches opposite. I would point out to the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, that the wool growers not only receive no increase but they get no money. They get "shorn", sometimes twice a year, but always once a year, and finally end up dead. What the noble Lord means by "the wool growers" are those who put the wool which is grown by the growers to commercial profit and advantage.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made a point which did not seem to me to be worth making. He said he did not understand why we now speak in pence per kilogramme. He asked whether that meant the same as pence per pound avoirdupois. My Lords, obviously not; since a kilogramme is approximately 2¼ lbs., one will presumably receive 2¼p for that amount of wool that makes up 2¼ lbs.

Finally, may I say to a House whose presiding officer sits on the Woolsack and since we are basically the outcome of a Hanseatic trade, that the reason we ever invented, or at least imported, the word "avoirdupois" was because we knew we could not sell our wool in lbs. and therefore adopted a continental term to make the British wool trade acceptable in the Hanseatic areas across the sea. It seems to me that all we are doing—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—is to simplify the language by expressing it in much easier terms and talking of "pence per kilogramme", or per 2¼ lbs. or thereabouts, and we are getting rid of this ridiculous thing called "avoirdupois". Please, would the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, never again say that the wool growers get either rich or poor. The poor wretched wool growers just die in the end.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords for what they have said and also to the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, for his intervention. I admit that the phrase "pound avoirdupois" is an early example of "Franglais", as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, implied. It is taken straight from the previous order, the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) Order 1955, which was introduced by a Conservative Government. As the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, said, there is very little in this: it is really a question of mechanics.

I am also very grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, said from his great wealth of experience. Of course, the United Kingdom production of wool has remained fairly static for some years now at between 33 million and 35 million kilogrammes. Wool production in the United Kingdom is subsidiary to the production of mutton and lamb. World wool prices, having reached a peak in 1973, fell steadily over the next 18 months, and by the end of 1974 had reached a level of some 40 to 50 per cent. lower than that peak. But I am glad to say that over the last 12 months world demand for wool has improved and prices have increased considerably, especially those for middle and lower grade wools which now fetch 60 to 75 per cent. more than a year ago. In the United Kingdom, auction prices for wool have also improved and average prices are now some 120 per cent. higher than in January 1975. That is for the most common grade, which was 65p per kilo in May 1975 and is now 110p per kilo. With a continuing improvement in economic conditions in the major wool consuming countries, and with industrial production also on the increase, it seems likely that demand will continue to improve and prices will be maintained, if not increased, both in the United Kingdom and on the world market.

On Question, Motion agreed to.