Skip to main content

Horticultural Containers (Shortage)

Volume 441: debated on Monday 28 July 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

12.56 a.m.

I apologise for raising this matter at such a late hour, and would not do so unless I felt it was one of vital importance. The matter on which I want to speak is the shortage of containers for horticultural products, because this shortage has begun to impede food production. Horticultural production in Britain is worth over £100,000,000 a year. The greater part of that production of fruit and vegetables is transported from the grower to the retailer in returnable containers—wooden boxes or wicker baskets. We import something like £50,000,000 worth of fruit and vegetables from abroad which comes in non-returnable containers of wood and paper board of good quality and appearance. This is, of course, a great change since prewar, and I will show how the change has affected one of our largest growers of fruit and vegetables in Kent and in the country. Before the war 66 per cent. of his crops were marketed in non-returnable wooden containers and the remainder in returnable wicker baskets belonging to the wholesaler. Today 100 per cent. of his crops are marketed in open heavy wood containers belonging to the wholesaler. For the future, what he would like to do, to move his products to the consumer in the best possible condition, would be to send up 75 per cent. of them in non-returnable containers made either of light wood or wood pulp.

What is the general position today of horticulture as a whole? There is a general shortage of the right types of containers. There is a growing shortage of chip baskets made of white lime, especially of one pound and two pound sizes. Containers of basket shape made of paper board are becoming increasingly difficult to get. The important thing is that it is just the time of year when they are wanted most for tomatoes. It is increasingly difficult to get timber for returnable boxes. The foreigner is not faced with any of these difficulties at all. In containers he has the advantage over our own people all along the line, but so have the Channel Islands who are sending tomatoes over here in well made non-returnable containers of Oregon pine. The Dutch send their lettuces in non-returnable wooden crates and melons and tomatoes in strong wooden crates made of Swedish pine covered with high quality brown paper. The melons are bedded down in wood wool. Italian plums and cherries come in boxes made of lime wood. South African plums and U.S. and Italian grapes and plums come in strong wooden boxes with plenty of packing. Some Belgian grapes even come in non-returnable wicker baskets. Our own growers are working under a heavy and growing shortage of packing materials while foreign importers have ample supplies of wood, paper, wood wool and cotton wool. I will explain in a moment why I raise this particular point.

It may be asked why the wooden returnable container is unsatisfactory. First, it is very heavy, weighing from ten to fourteen lbs. empty, and, with the best will in the world, it is impossible to pack fruit in these containers so that it reaches the consumer in perfect condition. Secondly, these containers mean an increased burden on the already overburdened railways and road transport. To give one example, in the week ending 19th July, Kent growers sent 3,400 tons of fruit to the Northern towns, nearly all of which went in these containers, and the whole lot had to be returned empty. What our own growers want is the materials to enable them to send their goods to market in good condition, but they lack paper, wood, and wood-wool. I fully appreciate the difficulties; all these goods are in short supply, but I am going to make what I hope is a constructive suggestion. In the food Debate this month, the Minister of Food said.
"The simple facts are that these fruits pineapples, for example, or the peaches or grapes we imported last autumn and which, I hope, we shall import again this autumn from France, came from countries which certainly have no feeding stuffs to send to us and which have nothing else to send. They are countries which owe us money and we get these very acceptable fruits, or we get nothing else. By taking these fruits, we aid considerably the reconstruction of these countries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1947; Vol. 439, c. 1186.]
Well and good in the past eighteen months we have taken nearly £7 million worth of fruit and vegetables from Holland, over £3 million worth from France, over £17 million worth from Spain and the Canaries, and nearly £20 million worth from Italy—all in non-returnable containers of good quality. We should say to these countries, "We will go on helping you by taking your fruit and vegetables on the condition that you send us the paper and containers of which you have such adequate supplies We will aid your reconstruction, but we insist that, in return, you aid British horticulture."

We should relate a definite quantity of fruit and vegetables to a definite quota of empty containers and paper. The containers could be sent collapsed and made up here. I cannot see that this would be any hardship to those countries who, as the Minister of Food has pointed out, owe us money If they can send us high quality paper wrapped round tomatoes and grapes, they can send it to us in the sheet. I do ask the Government to consider this suggestion; and I want to make another suggestion. It is for the Government to inquire into the use of homegrown bamboo from the West Country for making non-returnable containers. Before the war, split bamboo containers were used extensively for flowers, and I see no reason why they should not be used for lettuce and watercress, at any rate, and, of course, for flowers

Furthermore, I should like to ask what is happening to the off-cuts and short-ends of pine which come in with shipments of foreign timber. I suspect that they go to be used for firewood, but they are perfectly suitable for making containers. This shortage of containers is both a long-term and a short-term problem. The short-term problem is that, unless the Government take action quickly we may not have enough containers this year to get sufficient apples and pears to the market. The long-term problem is this. With the removal of controls, soft fruit production is increasing, especially the production of strawberries. With improved varieties, a greater acreage under production, and gas storage, we are within a measurable distance of supplying the whole of the home demand for apples. It will be realised that our own apple production is a matter of the greatest importance when I point out that in the last 18 months we have imported £6,785,000 worth of apples which included over £5 million worth paid for in dollars. But our growers must have adequate supplies of containers if they are to do their job properly. British horticulture is a great industry. It has 60,000 producers in it. We in Great Britain grow the best fruit and vegetables in the world, and it is right and proper that as soon as it is conceivably possible our growers should have the best possible containers.

1.6 a.m.

I have only a few remarks to add to those of my hon. Friend. I wish to endorse every word he has said. I represent a horticultural constituency, and I can assure the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that there is very grave concern in my constituency on this matter among the large number of horticulturists there. I do not often get up in this House without making some constructive suggestions, and although the suggestion I put forward may not meet the whole of the case, I would point out that there is a large number of non-returnable containers which are being imported from abroad and which are being broken up and sold in the metropolis as firewood. This is considered to be a tremendous waste by horticulturists. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to have inquiries made into this matter, to see whether these non-returnable containers cannot be re-fabricated into the sort of boxes and containers which are required by the horticultural industry so urgently.

There is another matter to which I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give urgent attention. There are certain people breaking the law in this country by putting foreign produce into containers marked "Empire Produce." The last question I wish to raise is in regard to split bamboos. In the whole of the Middle East both fruit and vegetables are crated in nothing else but split bamboos. If these things can be done, and there is a chance of thereby giving encouragement to. bamboo growing, I do suggest to the hon. Lady that she should be doing something about it.

1.9 a.m.

I wish briefly to associate myself with this matter tonight, more particularly from the Scottish angle. The development of the horticultural industry in Scotland is of the greatest possible importance. At the moment, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, the great bulk of vegetables and fruit consumed in Scotland today are brought from south of the Border or from the Continent. They arrive bedraggled and faded, and really when they reach us are not worth eating at all. There is a very great opportunity in Scotland for the development of horticulture. We grow soft fruit probably better than any other part of the United Kingdom. We can grow tomatoes and we can grow flowers and vegetables of all sorts, but we never do, except for our own consumption in private gardens. Everything else comes from south of the Border or the Continent, in enormous quantities.

The reason for this, at least since the war, is the hopeless lack of containers. It is impossible—I know this myself as a grower on a moderate scale—to get containers such as are necessary to send our vegetables any distance away from home, and although I realise that I am speaking to wholly English benches opposite, I hope that they will realise that the development of the horticultural trade in Scotland is a great opportunity to put into practice what the Government say they are out to do—to help Scottish industry generally.

From the health point of view it is most essential that this trade should be developed. The simple fact at present is that we cannot get any kind of containers for sending our fruit, vegetables or flowers about the country. I hope that when the hon. Lady replies, she will tell us that she is going to see her right hon. and charming Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and tell him that she is ready to help in every possible way this trade, not only in England but in Scotland.

1.12 a.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Baker White) on raising this question, which gives me an opportunity of explaining to the House some of the difficulties which are confronting us today, when we know that the growers are anticipating very large crops and are faced with this problem of providing containers. Some of the hon. Members who have spoken, and who are obviously authorities on the subject, might perhaps have been a little more generous in their recognition that we have in the past tried to do everything in our power to provide them with these containers, and I am right, I think, in saying that the hon. Gentlemen opposite could not tell me of any case where we have refused to supply containers. We have, I think, at least on every occasion as far as I am aware when application has been made to us, tried to supply the quantity asked for, because we recognise that we are dealing with a highly perishable commodity and it is in the interests of the people of the country that containers should be supplied.

I can assure the House that the shortage of containers cannot be attributed to any shortcomings in the Ministry of Food. It is a fact that there are shortages of raw materials and we have tried in every way possible to distribute the available supplies as equitably as we can. As hon. Gentlemen know, we release timber to the growers and to the wholesalers, and we leave it to them to make their own arrangements for containers.

The hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) looks to the time when containers will be non-returnable. During the war it was important that we should make certain regulations regarding the standardisation of containers and we did lay down certain specifications to which the manufacturers had to comply. At that time we made containers returnable and we also did insist upon a very large deposit for con- tainers. We only did this because the shortage of raw materials was so great that we were forced to do it.

The hon. Member has mentioned different kinds of woods. Well, I am fully aware that the growers and wholesalers like their containers to be made of soft woods. Owing to the shortage of soft woods, we have had to use hard woods recently, and although we are using hard woods we have had no serious complaints. It is surprising how few complaints we have had from growers and wholesalers. This year we are faced with a very heavy crop of apples and demands for bushel and half bushel boxes have increased considerably. Already in the present quarter, starting 1st July, timber for 1,043,786 bushel and half bushel boxes have been issued, which has made serious inroads on our quota of hard woods. This contrasts with the number of containers for which timber was issued in the third quarter—June to August—in the past: the average number in the last four years was 800,000.

I think hon. Members will agree that, although there is an apparent shortage, we have made a tremendous contribution to the needs of growers. Now I confess we are in a very difficult position, faced with a shortage of hard woods. We have already made application for 400,000 cu. ft That is another application to the Board of Trade and we are waiting now for them to consider whether we should have priority. Hard woods are in very short supply, and I am afraid I cannot promise the hon. Member who raised the subject that we can give him the kind of container he would like. It has been arranged that in order to make these bushel and half bushel boxes we shall use soft and hard woods. We are, going to make the containers 40 per cent. soft and 60 per cent. hard wood. I take this opportunity of appealing to all growers and wholesalers to make 100 per cent. returns of containers, if possible. I shall look into the point raised, but would like more evidence, as to whether they are being used for firewood. The hon. and gallant Member for Worthing said we must know about these things. I want to emphasise again, as I have done before, that rumours and hearsay are not enough. We must have specific evidence and then we can take action.

The hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned chip baskets. The manufacture of chip baskets is confined to a few firms only and they distribute them to the trade. The only container which is not in short supply is brussel sprouts nets. We have been able to supply a considerable quantity of those. With regard to the supply of cardboard, we have enough to make 7½ million 12-lb. tomato boxes a year. A small amount is used for packing soft fruit. Seventy-five per cent. of the cardboard is allocated to manufacturers who, in their turn, allocate it to their customers who have certain prewar usages. The other 25 per cent. is allocated to tomato growers in order to provide for any bumper crop which might occur, and I think that is fair.

All these containers are returnable, and I cannot promise the hon. Member who raised this subject when we can announce to the trade that they can keep their containers. In fact, I am afraid, I must strike a pessimistic note tonight. Until we have a more abundant supply of raw materials we cannot offer more containers to the growers and wholesalers. As far as I am aware I do not know of any case where we have had to refuse a grower. Some owners certainly ask us for a number of containers which seems to us excessive, but we do our best to supply a percentage of every demand. I want to assure hon. Members opposite that though supplies are limited, we are doing everything possible to satisfy the trade.

What proportion of these materials, for instance cardboard, is sent to Scotland, or is it all kept in England?

I suggest that one source of raw material available for cardboard boxes is the collection of waste paper. A great effort was made in this connection during the war, but I am afraid it is lacking at present. There is no system of waste paper collection at present operating generally throughout the country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two minutes past One o'Clock.