HC Deb 21 December 1956 vol 562 cc227-9W
Mr. Wade

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the total amount paid to the Potato Marketing Board in respect of the 1955 potato crop in connection with contracts with producers for the purchase of potatoes by the Board under the guarantee arrangements; and what proportion of this amount related to potatoes allowed to go to waste.

Mr. Heathcoat Amory

Approximately £375,000 net. Of this about three quarters relates to potatoes for which no sale could be effected and which were accordingly allowed to go to waste. The quantity of potatoes involved was less than one per cent. of the crop.

Mr. du Cann

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he contemplates in preparation for the coming potato season, in view of the report of the Potato Marketing Board for the year ended 30th June, 1956, which states that the Government's decision to allow imports last year was premature, that it prevented the Board from making any headway in the campaign to popularise the small potatoes which would have helped with the shortage, and that the shortage was probably no more than about two weeks' requirements for old crop in June.

Mr. Heathcoat Amory

I regret that I cannot accept the accuracy of these statements.

As regards the timing of the decision on imports, the facts were as follows. The U.K. crop was about one million tons less than that of the previous crop year, at the end of which about 120,000 tons of imports had been admitted without fully satisfying the demand. There had been light crops in some important Continental countries, notably in Germany and Denmark. The Board's own census of stocks of potatoes on farms at 31st October showed a total of 600,000 tons less than at the same date in 1954. Retail prices in England and Wales were nearly twice as high as at the same date in the previous year—around 2s. for 7 lb. compared with 1s. 2d. in 1954.

In these circumstances, the Government was satisfied that its responsibilities to consumers would not allow the admission of imports to be further postponed. In the four months up to the end of March, 1956, although about 150,000 tons of main crop potatoes were imported from Europe, growers' prices and retail prices continued to rise. These facts confirm that the Government's decision was right.

As regards the small potatoes, the Government consulted the national associations of potato wholesalers, retailers and fish friers, who were, in the Government's view, in the best position to assess consumers' requirements. The unanimous advice of the distributive trades was that the housewife did not want and would not buy the small potatoes of between 1¼" and 1½ which the Potato Marketing Board was allowing to be sold for human consumption.

As regards the third part of the Question, the Board's census of 1st January, 1956, showed that the total stock of ware potatoes at that date was about 520,000 tons less than on 1st January, 1955. In the middle of February the Board estimated that, after allowing for imports of 240,000 tons of main crop potatoes (including those from Northern Ireland) and 250,000 tons of new potatoes, supplies would be about 335,000 tons short of requirements for human consumption up to the end of June. This figure was very close to the Government's own estimate of the probable shortage in the previous November. On 25th April the Board issued a Press notice in which it estimated that, after allowing for total imports of main crop potatoes over the whole season of about 250,000 tons from Europe and Northern Ireland, supplies of old crop potatoes in Great Britain would be about 120,000 tons short of requirements for human consumption, equivalent to about two weeks' demand for old potatoes at the end of the season in June. On the basis of the Board's own estimates at this date, therefore, the total Shortage of domestic supplies in Great Britain over the whole season would have been about 370,000 tons. By the end of July about 250,000 tons of main crop potatoes imported from Europe had been sold for human consumption, and about 160,000 tons from Northern Ireland.

The Board admits that the high prices ruling last April cut down the demand (growers' prices at the end of April had risen to about £35 a ton and retail prices were from 5d. to 6d. a lb.). Thus the shortage of domestic supplies in Great Britain must have been substantially over 400,000 tons. I find it impossible to reconcile these facts with the Board's statement that the shortage amounted to only about 120,000 tons.

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