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Eire Food (Imports)

Volume 440: debated on Friday 25 July 1947

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Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn"—[ Mr. Hannan.]

4.0 p.m.

We have recently heard a great deal about the affairs of Northern Ireland in this Assembly. On this occasion, I want to direct the attention of the House to Eire, with special reference to the question of food imports from that country I do this in no partisan or controversial spirit. Indeed, I hope that what I say this afternoon may help to improve our relations with the South of Ireland, and, I might add, that it will not in any way incite the Ulster Members who are sitting opposite.

I have felt for a long time that there is a larder on our doorstep which we have been perhaps not actually ignoring, but about which we do not seem to have done very much. The political issues involved in our relations with Ireland, while now dormant—and I hope that as far as the bitter ones are concerned, they are absolutely dead—seem somehow to have cast a shadow over our official contacts with that country. As I see it, we should take the initiative in restoring a better relationship with Eire, and to do that, we must face certain facts. Suspicion and hostile memories should, as far as possible on both sides, be completely eliminated. The Irish problem of today—and there always seems to be an Irish problem of one sort or another—is so to integrate the economies of Eire and Britain as to turn obvious interdependence into mutually beneficial and smoothly working agreement. That, surely, is merely to advocate the development and conclusion of what is nothing more or less than a straightforward business deal.

Before I come to the practical proposition and the suggestions which I want to make to the hon. Lady who has come to reply to this Debate, it may be helpful to cite a few background facts of the situation. Eire is predominantly agricultural. Only 15 per cent. of Ireland's workers are engaged in industry, compared with 48 per cent, in agriculture. The economic war between our two countries in the '30's, plus the need for Eire, during Hitler's war, to become as self-supporting as possible, led to a rapidly falling volume of livestock products and to an expansion of area under cereals and sugar beet. This policy considerably restricted the growing of feedingstuffs for cattle.

To illustrate my point, I will give the House some figures. In the 1914–18 war, 400,000 acres more of oats, and 500,000 acres less of wheat were grown than during the last war. It is not surprising that, in the light of this trend towards giving Eire a more independent and more balanced internal economy, the fall in our imports of fat cattle alone has been quite startling. I admit that other factors, which I have not time to touch upon in the short period of time I wish to take up, also account for this situation. Here is the evidence of what I am saying. In 1939, we imported 138,738 head of fat cattle, valued at £2,500,000. In 1945, we took in only 17,267 head of cattle, worth a mere £400,000. This is indicative of a swing in Eire away from livestock production, and Government compulsion there has, I know, had something to do with it. But a diversified production is what the Irish farmer both likes and really wants. His reason for liking and wanting it is because on it depends an improved standard of living for himself and his family.

Less than 10 per cent. of Irish farms, of five acres or more, exceed 100 acres, and only 2½ per cent. exceed 200 acres. What is wanted is some form of encouragement and practical action which will eventually lead to a switch in Irish agriculture from the main trend of its present policy to the production of foodstuffs of high nutritive value, which are urgently needed by the British market. How is this to be brought about? How are exports from Ireland to climb back to what they once were, and how is the mere 20 per cent. of total production exported in 1945 to be restored once again to the 50 per cent. that it was in the years 1926 and 1927?

The answer to those questions, as I see it, lies chiefly in the need for that great expansion in the total output of Irish agriculture, which we in this country have it in our power to bring about. It lies partly in making it crystal clear to the South of Ireland that we really mean to offer them a quid pro quo for any change in Irish agricultural policy which may ultimately benefit us. As a long-term policy, we should seriously consider extending to the Irish farmer some part of the benefits of guaranteed prices and assured markets given to the British farmer under the Government's splendid and great Agricultural Bill. I know that there are difficulties, but I would ask my hon. Friend who is going to reply to use her influence to bring about this desirable arrangement.

Another suggestion I have to make to her is this. Why cannot we fix up a bargain in food from Eire in return for the comparatively small quantity of certain raw materials that Eire desperately needs from this country? I want to warn my hon. Friend to stand up to those interests in this country which are definitely hostile to the Irish meat trade, and which are unwilling to adapt themselves to the acceptation of increased supplies of meat from Ireland. We should take all the fat cattle we can get, and, if necessary, we should pay more than we are paying for them at present. Let "stores" be fed to fatness in Ireland, even, if need be, on feedingstuffs supplied by us, rather than have them shipped here to use the self-same feedingstuffs for fattening them, with the sole object of profiting certain people in this country who are anxious for a rake-off. The policy of importing store cattle instead of fat cattle should be definitely discouraged. It is important that where we do take "stores" from Eire, we should revert to our prewar practice of taking two-year-olds rather than three-year-olds. The average Irish farmer cannot carry cattle for that extra year on which we are at present insisting, least of all when the farmer gets no real advantage from that policy.

The result of our present attitude is to increase the slaughter of calves in Eire, many of which, by proper arrangement, could be imported here as veal for human consumption; that is, as long as this undesirable practice continues. As it is, a very large number of calves are being used to feed racing greyhounds in Eire which are later sent to this country to take part in the anti-social, parasitical racket which I consider greyhound racing to be. Our contractual relationship with Eire on eggs should be extended to other products. On 4th July, Mr. Aiken, the Eire Minister of Finance, told the Dail that in addition to large quantities of meat and cattle, Eire was shipping bacon to Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Recently—and this is within the memory of every Member now present—the Minister of Food told us that we were to import bacon and other foodstuffs from Hungary. Such an arrangement does not seem to me to make sense. If price is the determining factor, then, surely, it might even be wise to pay a little more to Irish producers and have a steady and reliable source of supply a few miles away, easily available to us, whatever might be happening in the rest of the world.

Again, the phenomenal trek of turkeys from Eire to Ulster last Christmas, just because we saw fit to pay more per pound for turkeys in the North than we did for those from the South, seemed to me not only an unnecessary expenditure of energy and a strain on transport, but also a great deal of bother for those watching what is surely the most farcical and fantastic Border in history. For myself, I would like to see fertilisers, feedingstuffs and tractors sent to Eire under a plan which could, I feel certain, bring us the reward of a huge increase in nutritive food supplies. But let us be done with any form of long-range negotiations. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to persuade the Minister of Food to go to Dublin at the earliest possible moment, for there I think that he would find that the benevolence in excelsis bestowed on this country by Eire in the war was a really firm basis on which he would be able to build an agreement which would assist both our countries for many years ahead.

4.16 p.m.

I was astonished at the speech of the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge), in which he propounds the proposition, apparently, that Eire should be given the same guaranteed prices as we have here. In Eire, the agricultural labourer has a most miserable pittance; there would be no guarantee of economic competition on a fair basis; the cost of living of the labourer in Eire is far higher than that in the United Kingdom, and Eire would have underpaid labour producing in competition with the farmers of the United Kingdom. As regards finishing cattle, the farmers of England and Scotland can finish and produce fat cattle just as well as those in Eire, though I agree they can do it very well in Eire. I can see no objection to their importing stores from Eire if they wish to for that purpose. As to giving feedingstuffs—of which we have all too few—to a country which is some-what nebulously associated with the British Commonwealth, instead of giving it to our own farmers who are in bitter need of it, that is a most preposterous suggestion.

Sensible? Then heaven protect us from the sense of the hon. Member. The feedingstuff position is serious enough, and we certainly have not enough to spare to give it away.

I hope the hon. Member will extend to me the same courtesy and patience which I extended to him. Thee are various factors which go to determine why meat is not exported from Eire to this country, but I noticed that the hon. Member omitted the fact that there is no meat rationing in Eire. It is a rich man's paradise; one can go to restaurants in Dublin and have steak, loin of mutton, and anything one fancies. If they were to ration themselves like the rest of Europe, I am sure they would have a good deal more to export. In general, I am all for friendly relations with Eire, carrying on our commerce with that country, and getting all the food she will sell us. But I do not and cannot think that the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bedford would commend itself to any sensible community.

4.19 p.m.

I welcome this opportunity afforded by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) of reviewing our trading relations with Eire. I need not emphasise that we require no urging to take all the food that we can get. We are most anxious to receive exports from Eire, and I assure my hon. Friend that we take everything we are offered. If he can give me any specific case in which it can be proved that we have refused anything, I shall be only too happy to inquire into it. He said, quite rightly, that the substantial reduction in supplies is due to the fact that during the war Eire, like ourselves, had to concentrate on producing food for human consumption. The result was that her wheat acreage increased from 235,000 acres prewar to 643,000 acres in 1946, while her pig population dropped by half and her poultry dropped by over 40 per cent. As the result the exports to this country have been very much reduced. For example, our bacon and butter imports which were 25,000 tons and 21,000 tons per annum have now disappeared entirely. Eggs are down by 25 per cent. and store cattle by 20 per cent. I think my hon. Friend would agree that the first essential is to increase feedingstuffs and cereals in Eire. I am glad to tell the House that she has been able to buy this year a quarter of a million tons of maize, which will help her considerably.

My hon. Friend mentioned, and I think he was right, that he was a little apprehensive about the policy which has been followed by the Government of Eire. Her wheat acreage should be decreased in order that more animal fodder should be produced; but before the war the Government of Eire made it clear that she was anxious to be self-sufficient in food. Now she is pursuing the same policy with regard to wheat. Therefore, we are cone fronted with a little uncertainty about the production of animal fodder. It seems to me that it will be a very long time before we can enjoy the exports that we had from Eire during the 1929–30 period, if that policy is pursued. My hon. Friend also mentioned prices. We are satisfied that no increase of price would have led to additional exports but only an increase in feedingstuffs can give that very desirable result.

I want to say a word about the whole question of fat cattle versus store cattle. Every point that my hon. Friend raised is familiar to me and to my right hon. Friend. I realise that there is some controversy as to whether it is desirable to reverse our policy in Eire. I would emphasise that it would be a complete reversal of our policy. The import of fat cattle today conforms to the pattern of trade which we followed in prewar days. In our view it would injure our own cattle industry to reverse that policy. Before the war, exports of store cattle from Eire were about 500,000 per annum compared with 100,000 fat cattle. At present there is a shortage of store cattle in this country. 'I o adopt the policy which my hon. Friend suggests would worsen the position. It would result in considerable wastage of good grass and fodder crops in this country.

I am sure that my hon. Friend desires to integrate our economy. He must find a difficulty in reconciling the suggestion that we should send feedingstuffs to feed cattle there and then that we should bring the cattle here instead of keeping the feedingstuffs here. Surely that cannot be integration.

If the hon. Lady has the statistics for store cattle, can she say whether the statement is correct that there is a considerable number of three-year-old store cattle held in Ireland for shipment?

No, I could not, but I would remind my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Food have not framed regulations which prevent farmers from importing two-year-old animals. That has nothing to do with us at all. Farmers import the animals and then, having fed them, the Ministry come into the picture as the buyer. One reason why the export of fat cattle has fallen is because the consumption of beef in Eire has increased considerably. As the hon. Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ross) pointed out, there is no meat rationing in Eire. We are prepared to buy as many fat cattle as Eire wishes to offer.

Finally, we hope that no ill-feeling arise from this Debate. We are only too anxious to cement the bonds between Eire and this country. Fairly recently, when we realised that the quantity of feedingstuffs and fertilisers in the world was increasing, we felt that we should send a mission to Eire to investigate the possibilities of increasing exports. In conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, we sent two agricultural economists to Eire. They have returned, and made a report to the Ministry, which we are examining very carefully, and I hope that in the very near future we may be in a position to ask the Government of Eire to consider certain specific proposals. I know that my hon. Friend would not wish me to go into details now, but I can assure him that we are only too anxious to come to an arrangement with Eire whereby her food exports will be increased and which, as a result, will increase food supplies to this country.

4.27 p.m.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge), when he spoke about the different prices given for turkeys in Northern Ireland and in Southern Ireland, and about exports, seemed to forget that we in Northern Ireland are paying 9s. in the £ Income Tax, that we are paying for the war and for the National Debt, whereas Income Tax in Eire is only 6s. 6d., because she did not contribute a penny towards the cost of the war. Eire's overhead charges, therefore, are much less than ours.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Border, which he described as being "fantastic." Does he not recollect that in 7925 a Boundary Commission was set up, and drew up a report? Unfortunately there was a leakage, and a map was published in the "Morning Post," with the result that the Government of Southern Ireland went to London and begged that the existing boundary might be preserved. They asked that the boundary, as sketched in this map, which was a rectification of the frontier should not be brought into operation because it proposed that certain portions of East Donegal should be handed over to Northern Ireland. Under Article of the Tripartite Agreement of 1925 the existing boundary as laid down in 1920 was guaranteed as a definite boundary between Northern and Southern Ireland.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.