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Tomato And Cucumber Marketing Board

Volume 649: debated on Monday 13 November 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

9.57 p.m.

; In the Report of a Departmental Committee submitted to the House, the following words occur:

"The increasing penetration of attractive high-class and well-graded produce from abroad into the very heart of the countryside points to the standardisation of produce as the one essential preliminary to successful competitive trading under modern conditions."
Those words occurred in the Linlithgow Report on the Distribution and Prices of Agricultural Produce, published as long ago as 1924.

It was in the spirit of that observation that the Government of 1945–50 introduced into the House a scheme for the marketing of tomatoes and cucumbers. That was debated in the House on 20th July, 1950, and before that a scheme had been presented to the Minister in April, 1948, which was then the subject of a public inquiry in November, 1948. In July, 1950, when we debated the matter in the House, except for some observations from certain hon. Members representing co-operative interests who had some doubts about consumer interests in the matter, and a most notable speech from the present Foreign Secretary, then as Lord Dunglass representing Lanark, who raised import policy as absolutely vital to the future of British growers, the House as a whole approved the scheme and it is still in force today.

I do not propose to read out the powers of the scheme. Anyone who wants to check them can do so quite easily by referring to Part VII which set up the powers of the Board. The main point that I want to make on them is that there is a certain group of powers which can be exercised by the Board only after a poll has taken place. In that poll there must be a majority of two-thirds of those voting, and even then the Minister has to approve that some of these powers shall be exercised.

The particular power to which I wish to refer is the power under Schedule 70 (1, c), a power which if it were granted to the Board would enable it to buy and sell and grade and go into the whole question of the transportation and movement of the tomatoes which it was buying or and the whole question of processing into by-products of various sorts. As it was constituted, the Board originally exercised only the permissive powers that it was given.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Up to now, the Board has not applied for the extra powers.

There have been three polls since the Board was set up. In fact, the history of the Board has been far from happy. I suspect that one of the biggest reasons why the Board has not been happier is that it was given considerable responsibilities without effective power to insist upon all growers co-operating. The great difficulty with marketing boards is that if they are to work effectively there ought to be full co-operation from all their registered growers. Yet, if one is to get that full co-operation, one has to leave a great deal to the voluntary spirit, and if one does that, it is inevitable that a considerable number of growers will not wish to co-operate. The result is that one gets an instability in the market which could otherwise have been avoided.

Here is the great battle which is raging in the minds of growers, and to some extent in the minds of many hon. Members, on whichever side of the House they sit. It is the whole question of how in an ever-more competitive world we are to ensure that there is same stability in the market, some self-discipline which is not oppressive but is effective. It is in this respect that the Board has so far found the greatest difficulties.

Until very recently the National Farmers' Union was very much behind the whole idea of the Board. The late president of the N.F.U. and the present chairman of the Central Horticultural Committee of the N.F.U. were original members of the Board, the N.F.U. having acted very much as a sponsor of the Board in the early days. Very soon it became apparent that all was not working very well, and after the Board had been in existence for about six months, those N.F.U. officers left it. Subsequent to that there has been, I am afraid, a steady deterioration.

In 1953 the chairman of the Central Horticultural Committee of the N.F.U. led a delegation to the Board and urged upon, I think, the vice-chairman of the Board at that time, that certain points of dissatisfaction had arisen. Some of them were so grave that it led the vice-chairman of the Board to tell the chairman of the Central Horticultural Committee of the N.F.U. that if the N.F.U. felt that way about it, it should go to the Minister and say that it had made a mistake in sponsoring the Board and wished to change its mind about it.

So far from doing that, the N.F.U. later pressed the Board to seek stronger powers, although the majority of the Board at that time felt that to attempt to seek additional powers then would open up the risk of the Board being voted out. It is probably true to say that that would have happened, but that is, of course, a matter of judgment.

Having studied the matter from day to day, week to week and month to month, my feeling was that at that time the average grower was not in the mood to accept additional compulsory powers, and I think the Board was probably right not to seek them. There is a procedure under the scheme that we are discussing whereby fifty or more growers may ask for a poll to abolish the Board. The present poll ended on 7th November. There are two propositions now before growers. First, should or should not the Board continue? Secondly, if the Board does continue should more power be given to it to operate Schedule 70 (1, c)—in other words power to buy and sell, with growers coming forward on a voluntary basis to sell to the Board?

In the middle of this summer, a marked deterioration set in in the relations between the N.F.U. and the Board. I must be careful in what I say, because I think that there is almost certain to be a libel suit between the general secretary and manager of the Board and one of the trade newspapers. I am not asking my hon. Friend in any way to comment upon that, but we must realise that it is pending. It is some indication of the fact that there has been a great deal of unhappiness between the union and the Board.

An article published in the Board's Journal in September urged growers to rally to the Board in order that it might help to protect their interests during the Common Market negotiations. A phrase was used in the article which indicated that growers had better look out if they thought that, by putting their trust in the N.F.U. to negotiate on behalf of tomato growers, all would be well. The argument used was that too many members of the N.F.U. are farmers who get the benefit of the First Schedule of the Agriculture Act by way of protection, and that too many of them are really not interested in what happens to growers.

I have heard the view, expressed by a number of farmers, that growers have many complaints but do not do too badly, so why should farmers bother about them? I know that that is an opinion held in some county branches of the N.F.U. That is not to say that I would subscribe to the view that the N.F.U.'s Central Horticultural Committee has not done its best to look after growers' interests. I am sure that it has, but I think that the Board has a case in saying that tomato growing is not only an important part of British horticultural production but is also a very technical one, and that there should be one body at least dealing with the questions of how to look after growers' interests in the future. The Board has a case there.

The wording in the article in the September Journal was tactless, It naturally produced an immediate reaction in the N.F.U. Reaction was so strong that it eventually resulted in the union's official spokesman giving out a statement designed to abolish the Board—in other words to persuade those taking part in the poll to vote against the continuation of the Board.

At that time I did my best, in so far as it lay within my power, to try to ask growers to think very seriously on this matter, but I was but one voice and I do not expect that many people heard. I believe that there is a basis for the Board, and I agree with the views which the union used to hold, and held for many years both before and since the Board began, that there is a place for both union and Board in this matter. But I must confess that, whatever the outcome of the poll, I am certain that the relations between the union and the Board members have become so critical that I do not see any real hope of getting true co-operation between them. If the Board is voted out, then the question of the other part of the poll does not arise, That is the end of the Board and we shall have to think of something else.

This debate is a friendly one for my hon. Friend. It was not the result of an unsatisfactory Answer to a Parliamentary Question. I raise this matter because it is too complicated to handle by Question and Answer, and is sufficiently important to justify a short debate. I ask my hon. Friend whether the Government will give an assurance that they will be prepared at a very early date, assuming the Board to be voted out of existence by the poll, to take action to ensure that the tomato industry is not thrown into complete chaos as a result. It is very important that action is taken promptly after the declaration of the poll, should it go that way.

I am to some extent expecting that the outcome of the poll will be that, perhaps only just by the necessary minimum majority, the Board's existence will be continued, but that the additional power which it seeks will not be granted. If that happens, we shall be back to the situation which existed before the poll, a situation which I regard as having been so critical that there was not the slightest hope of the present members of the Board being able any longer to co-operate with the National Farmers' Union in this matter.

It is, therefore, vital that the Government now consider, if the Board is returned by the necessary minimum majority but does not get its extra powers, or even if it does, appointing to the Board as the four nominees whom the Minister is entitled to appoint men who are highly experienced businessmen rather than growers.

The members now serving as the Minister's nominees have been through a very gruelling term of office which has not encouraged them to want to continue to serve on the Board. I should like to thank them for what they have done. They have had an exteremely difficult job to do. I shall not be in the least surprised if they do not want to continue, if the growers vote for the continuation of the Board. I hope that my right hon. Friend is already considering the appointments which he will make as his nominees. I am not asking for the names tonight, but I hope that we shall have some high-class business men.

The former vice-chairman of the Board, to whom I referred and who has now passed away, was regarded by all who knew him as one of the most able ever to have served the Board. It would be a very pod thing if we could get men of his calibre to serve as the Minister's nominees. What happens between the National Farmers' Union and the Board is a matter not for the Minister, but for the National Farmers' Union and the Board. I do not believe that there is the slightest hope of getting a reconciliation between those who have so far represented the National Farmers' Union in these negotiations and the present members of the Board.

In the few minutes remaining to me I want slightly to elaborate my reason for believing that the Board is essential. Even if the Board is voted out of existence by the present poll, I hope that we shall have another shot later on at setting up a Board like this. I know—and I use that verb on purpose—some of the work which has been done by the Board. Unfortunately, not nearly enough growers know it. Its work could not have been done if great publicity had been given to it while it was being done. It is the sort of work which has to go on behind the scenes and which can be done, in Army parlance, only on the "old-boy network". If its full nature had ever been disclosed, the network might have broken down. For that reason, perfectly understandably, being ignorant of that, the growers have not been nearly enough appreciative of the Board's work.

There are differing opinions about the marketing bulletin which is prepared by the Board. Some find it useful and others consider it immaterial, but that is a matter of opinion. Perhaps the poll may indicate the opinion of the majority of growers on that matter.

Occasionally the Board has had to fight on behalf of growers who have had their crops damaged as a result of hormone spray drifting from land farmed by other members of the National Farmers' Union. There is something to be said for having a separate body other than the N.F.U. to put the point of view of growers as forcibly as possible in such circumstances. There is also the whole question of the set-up, the sort of machinery which the Board has at the moment.

I do not think that the National Farmers' Union has gone into the question of finance or the mechanics of this. The union would find that a great deal more expensive than it might expect. The Board has been able to do this by operating on a shoe-string. I think that £40,000 is the total income. Considering the amount of publicity given to tomatoes in women's journals and other such publications, free gratis and for nothing, the person responsible for arranging this—probably it was the general manager—is to be highly congratulated on having achieved so much at so little cost.

I know that some growers think that they have not had value for money even in respect of the £40,000, and some have the right to argue in that way. But from my own experience, and after having studied this matter in detail over the years, I think that growers would be ill-advised to forget how much the Board has done. The National Farmers' Union would be ill-advised to forget how much all this would cost to replace. Let us remember that the union does not do this sort of work for the growers of any other commodities. Although the union may be sincere in thinking that it can set up comparable machinery to do all that the Board has ever done, I am doubtful whether it could. The union would have to take on additional staff and have certain people for this work and for nothing else, because it is such a complicated business. The union would have to be prepared to send people abroad to try to persuade shippers to divert cargoes which otherwise would wreck the whole market.

There is also the whole question of the Common Market. Article 40 in Part II of the Rome Treaty visualises eventually a market organisation of the member States. It may be that we are a long way yet from achieving that, but I think that the tomato growers would be well advised to see that they have a specialist body to represent them in such a matter.

These are a few reasons why I believe the Board to be absolutely essential. I say to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that I very much appreciate the trouble he has taken over this matter. I can assure him that I am only too anxious to see a reconciliation between the union and the members of the Board, but I think that that is asking for the impossible. I believe that we have to think again about the representation on the Board, however well people who are members of the Board may have done. I know that many are experienced growers. We shall not succeed in getting a new dynamism into the whole matter in that way. We shall not do so unless we can have first-class trained businessmen on the Board.

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

No one who has the interests of the glasshouse industry at heart can fail to be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) for having initiated this debate, which comes at a particularly important time for tomato and cucumber producers.

My hon. Friend spoke about the background and history and powers of the Board. Many of the questions he raised are domestic matters for the Board. As he knows, it is a critical time. This is the time between the producers casting their votes on two separate issues and the counting and publication of the results of the poll. Hence I must explain straight away that there are matters on which the Minister not only cannot intervene, but where it would be unwise for him at this time to do so because there are circumstances in which a Minister is called on to act in a judicial rôle. At the same time I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain the Government's position and responsibilities in relation to recent events and to say emphatically to tomato and cucumber producers that we are keenly interested in the welfare of their industry.

My hon. Friend has been speaking about the rather stony road the Tomato and Cucumber Board has had to travel. It is now just over eleven years since it was launched. I should like to say a word of explanation about the statutory provisions which made its launching possible.

The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1958, which consolidated the previous Marketing Acts, gives producers of agricultural products certain rights. Although the Act might seem complex, its purposes can be summarised quite shortly. It gives producers the right to come to the Government of the day and ask to be provided with a scheme, backed by statutory powers, to help them to improve the marketing of the produce in which they are interested. Once producers have done this, the Act lays down clearly defined procedure for the Government to follow. If after hearing the views of all sides the responsible Minister is satisfied there is a sound case for the scheme, he brings it to Parliament for approval.

When a scheme has been approved and launched the Minister is responsible for exercising certain safeguards to protect the public interest and the interests of those affected by the Scheme, but I must make clear that his functions are limited. For the rest, the Scheme is the industry's and the Minister is not responsible for day-to-day matters. I am sure my hon. Friend is fully aware of that. The point I want to stress is that this Act is so designed that the initiative both in promoting a new scheme and in bringing a scheme to a close is not with the Government, nor indeed with Parliament, but with producers themselves. Only in the unlikely event of the Board acting in a way which is quite contrary to the public interest can a Minister make the first move. This leaving of the initiative to producers is an important principle.

What the Agricultural Marketing Act does is to provide a framework and a procedure which can be used by a section, or sections, of the agricultural industry with the concurrence of Parliament to organise the better marketing of its produce, and probably this has never been more important than at the present time—more important than at the time which my hon. Friend mentioned when the Linlithgow Report was published.

There is no need for me to remind you, Sir, of the valuable work done by marketing boards both before and since the war. There can be no set pattern for all marketing boards. Each has to have its own individuality because of different types of produce and methods of marketing. The Tomato and Cucumber Marketing Board was one of the post-war starters. From the beginning it has been in a different position from the other boards. Its powers have been much more limited and it has not been in a position to undertake the far-reaching functions which we are accustomed to see other boards carry out. My hon. Friend mentioned that and explained how there are certain powers in reserve.

Producers have now had experience of eleven years of this Board's functioning. They have not been easy years. The Board has lived in a contentious atmosphere, and it is undoubtedly true that a number of producers have remained unconvinced of the value to them of their board. I do not want to take sides, but it would be wrong to criticise the Board for not doing certain things which it was not even empowered to do. Producers should ask themselves how far the Board has been limited by their own reluctance to extend its functions and bring them into line with the powers available to other marketing boards.

Much of the controversy about the Tomato and Cucumber Marketing Board has been stimulated by those who are against marketing boards in principle. We are all familiar with their views and they are entitled to their views. They are views which are in conflict with the decision of Parliament to pass the Agricultural Marketing Act, and the Government have repeatedly expressed their acceptance of the intention behind that Act and their continued desire that where a marketing scheme can serve a useful purpose producers shall have the chance to promote one. Even among those who agree that marketing schemes have a part to play there was some disagreement about this scheme. What is important is that the tomato and cucumber industry should make up its mind whether a marketing scheme and a marketing board are what is wanted for this industry.

My right hon. Friend and his predecessors have been fully aware of the need to nominate men of high calibre to the Board. An old colleague of ours, Mr. Baker-White, whom many hon. Members remember and I know all would respect, is vice-chairman of the Board and one of my right hon. Friend's nominees. Producers have cast their votes about the future of the Board, and we are awaiting the result. I cannot say more on that. But I am sure that our glasshouse industry can do a great deal to help itself. It is day-to-day interest and effort in marketing which is today's biggest problem. It is not for me to tell the industry whether it needs a board to help it, but here perhaps I may declare my own interest in that I am a small grower of tomatoes.

The hon. Member and I have that in common. But I am not a grower of sufficient size to be required to be a registered producer. I hope that the hon. Member's tomatoes are as good as mine.

Whether the industry needs a board to assure its future is something which the producers must decide for themselves, but whatever the outcome of the present poll, I hope that producers will keep in the forefront of their minds the paramount need for improved marketing, for that is the way to achieve better returns and much-needed stability. I think that the smaller the grower, the more important the question of better marketing is to him.

I share with my hon. and gallant Friend regret that the industry finds itself at loggerheads and I hope that, in particular, the leaders of the industry will take heart from the fact that we have spent time this evening in discussing their problems. Constant expression of differences about the type of organisation which can help the industry can go on too long and can leave untouched the real problem, which is the marketing of tomatoes, not only today and tomorrow but in the years which lie ahead and in the conditions to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred, particularly in the closing passages of his speech.

We all know some of the work which the Board has done, including the promotion of publicity, advice to growers, the running of a market intelligence service, the development of recommended grades for tomatoes and cucumbers and the encouragement of research, as well as the reserve powers which my hon. and gallant Friend mentioned, some of which the Board has asked growers to approve. We do not know what will be the result of the poll. Whatsoever the result I hope that these differences between different sections of the industry will soon be resolved and that all concerned will work together. Surely that is not only the best road but the only road to the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.