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Vegetable Imports (Policy)

Volume 463: debated on Monday 28 March 1949

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45.

asked the Prime Minister what steps it is proposed to take to ensure co-ordination between the Ministers of Food and Agriculture regarding vegetable imports; and if he will indicate the policy of His Majesty's Government in relation to these foreign imports.

There is already full co-ordination between the two Departments. Our policy seeks to ensure that as far as possible there shall be a full supply of fresh vegetables at reasonable prices at all times of the year. Home production averages about 3 million tons a year and supplies the bulk of our needs, but has to be supplemented by some 400,000 tons of imported produce.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been considerable ploughing in of valuable horticultural crops due, it is thought, to foreign imports on a scale which is not justified; further, while the Government's general agricultural policy has not only given security but immense satisfaction, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the present undermining of the horticultural industry by foreign imports will be given the urgent attention that it calls for?

There is no undermining. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] There is no undermining. Any Government has to consider both the rights of the producers here and the demands of the consumers: It is always difficult to calculate exactly in advance what will be the supply. It depends upon the weather. Even right hon. Gentlemen opposite cannot plan entirely without having regard to the fact that the weather is not under the control either of this Government or of any other Government. If the Government do not take steps to see that there is an adequate supply, and there is a shortage, then at once the Government are condemned for not being foresighted enough in that direction. If, on the other hand, there is a surplus, the Government are hit from the other side. Inevitably, there is some overlapping.

Will the right hon. Gentleman consult his colleague the Minister of Agriculture, who will tell him that in the main case which has given rise to this Question—the Anglo-Netherlands Agreement—the accredited leaders of the horticultural industry, for whom his colleague often tries to speak, first heard of the terms of the agreement, the dates of imports, the volume of imports and the importing countries, from the public Press?

I should have thought that the hon. Member would have put that question to my right hon. Friend. I have been in full consultation with him on this matter.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some cases during the year 1949 the anticipated home crop plus anticipated imports already arranged for are in excess of maximum estimated consumption, and will he look into cases of that kind which seem to give evidence of lack of sufficient consideration?

My hon. Friend will remember that trade agreements have to be made for periods often in advance of when they will be implemented and sometimes, in order to get necessary things, we have to import certain other things which we do not want. It is quite impossible to bring the matter down to such a fine point.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Government's present policy of granting open licences for the importation of foreign broccoli is actually causing a decrease in the acreage of broccoli planted for next autumn and winter, and is that the result he desires to bring about?

Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member would put that question to the Minister of Agriculture. I am afraid that I cannot carry in my mind all the details about the broccoli crop.

Might I press the right hon. Gentleman about his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd)? Surely, there is nobody except the right hon. Gentleman who can give a decision as between these two Ministries? Is it not true that the fact remains that there is no co-ordination at all, and that the Minister of Agriculture encourages the horticulturists of this country to produce more vegetables throughout the land and, at the same time, without any knowledge at all, an agreement is signed which, to give one example, extends the importation of onions to more than the whole consumption of the United Kingdom?

The hon. and gallant Member is mistaken. There is, of course, full consultation between these Ministries. The hon. and gallant Member will remember that in the previous year there were violent complaints all over the country of the shortage of onions. Therefore, provision had to be made in advance for the importation of onions. It happened that the following year was an extraordinarily good year for root crops and onions, hence the other thing happened.

The right hon. Gentleman said that in these trade agreements we sometimes have to take things we do not want in order to get the things we do want. Are we to understand that these imports of vegetables are in fact things we do not want and that the unfortunate producer in this country is having to pay for the other things that we do want?

No, Sir. I was pointing out that in these trade agreements sometimes we make agreements ahead, and some things have to be bought. Naturally, this is in advance of any possible knowledge of what the crops may be. Therefore, we might at times get gluts.

Will not this problem be at least partly solved, in the interests of producers and consumers alike, when the marketing and distribution of home produce has been rationalised?

Is not the whole point of this policy to time imports so that they do not interfere with the best weeks of the home-grown crop, and will the right hon. Gentleman see that these trade agreements are not so firm as to take the discretion out of the hands of the people running the scheme, so that they can keep the timing right?