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Import Duties (Lettuces And Endives)

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1962

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

10.28 p.m.

I beg to move,

That the Import Duties (General) (No. 3) Order, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 233), dated 6th February, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th February, be approved.
The purpose of this Order is to raise the Import Duty on lettuce and endives in the months of March and April from the present level of £1 per cwt. to 30s. per cwt. This has its origin in an application by the National Farmers' Union.

There are three facts which are relevant to this Order. Imports of lettuce in March, mainly from the Netherlands, have more than trebled since 1958. Although British production has remained much the same, and indeed increased slightly last year, its share of the market has fallen from over half to less than one-third. The market for lettuce in March has extended considerably. Indeed, consumption last March was twice as great as in March, 1958.

The second fact is that the major interest of the British glasshouse grower is in April. Imports in April have also increased. They have gone up by 50 per cent. since 1957, while British glasshouse production has remained about the same. Accordingly, the British glasshouse growers' share has fallen from over three-quarters in April, 1958, to under two-thirds in April, 1961.

The third point is that prices for British-grown lettuce in the past two years have been below the level of 1958 in both March and April.

My right hon. Friend has concluded that in these circumstances, and having in mind the Government's general policy of supporting horticulture by way of tariff protection, together with the fact that before the war the duty on lettuce in March and April was 10s. per cwt., it is not unreasonable to increase the duty in March and April to 30s. per cwt.

The tariff on lettuce is not bound under G.A.T.T., but we had to invoke the waiver of the "no new preference" rule to enable us to increase the mostfavoured-nation duty without imposing a duty on supplies to the Commonwealth. We had no difficulty in doing so since hardly any lettuce comes, or is likely to come, from the Commonwealth in March and April.

If the House agrees to the Motion, as I hope it will, the new rate of duty will come into force tomorrow.

10.31 p.m.

I hope the House will not approve the Order. I am aware that the trade has asked on two previous occasions for an increase in duty. An application was made in 1957 for the doubling of the tariff, and it was rejected by the Board of Trade. Another application was made in 1959, and it was again rejected The reason given on the last occasion was, I think, that the applicants were not able to show that their profits had been reduced—the Minister said nothing about that tonight—nor had foreign imports hurt them. In his figures, the Minister showed that foreign imports in March and April had increased, but in respect of April they had altered only to the extent that two years ago British production supplied four-fifths of the market and now it supplies only two-thirds. So there has been a change, but it is still only a small one.

The House ought to be aware of the background. Apart from those two months, during the main summer months our own requirements in lettuces are supplied largely by home producers. It was largely a major break-through in Dutch growing of winter lettuces under glass some six or seven years ago that caused the present change. The Dutch lettuce, I am advised, is an improvement on a lettuce developed under glass in Blackpool years ago. It has been greatly improved by the Dutch, and it is far more attractive than any of the other types of lettuce available at this time of the year.

I am also advised that the Dutch lettuce is higher in price. The difficulty is not that the Dutch lettuce coming here in March and April is undercutting the British. It is a better lettuce and is able to command a better price in the shops. I do not see how putting on a tariff at this stage in March and April will assist the British horticulturist growing that type of lettuce under glass as distinct from the lettuce grown and sold later in the year, which is, of course, produced in the open.

It is useful just to get that on the record. I should like to know what the Minister has to say about it. I am advised that the increase in the duty will put up the price of lettuce by between ½d. and Id. The price of lettuce at this time of the year is between 1s. 6d. and 1s. 9d., and an increase of ½d. or 1d. does not seem sufficient to afford much protection. It merely means that the price to the housewife will be increased.

During the Budget debate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to the desirability of cutting tariffs, and in the recent debate on the I.C.I.-Courtaulds merger and allied subjects hon. Members opposite expressed similar opinions. The right hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan said that it was the view of many hon. Members opposite that the high tariff protection for the British economy was one of the reasons for its flabbiness. It is no use expressing such opinions as that and then approving the introduction of such an Order as this, small though its effects may be. It is more important now than for many years that the actions of the Government shall be designed to reduce prices, otherwise the £ will be in great danger.

It is of the greatest importance that everything possible should be done to reduce prices, and it is a monstrous thing for the Government to make any proposal which would result in an increase in prices and, therefore, an increase in the cost of living. I do not believe that even to help that part of the horticulture industry interested in the growing of lettuce will this Order prove of any use. It will merely result in putting up the price to the housewife.

10.38 p.m.

I have tried to follow the argument of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt). But I find it difficult to see why lettuce coming from Holland rather than lettuce grown in this country should be something which is good for our economy. That type of economics may be all right for the people in the hon Member's constituency, but I do not think that in the country he would get much support for his argument.

It is not often that we have a debate devoted exclusively to horticulture, and when we have not only such a debate but also an opportunity to congratulate the Government, I do not think that the opportunity should be missed. This Order will be welcomed, and I thank the Government for introducing it.

10.39 p.m.

Speaking for the Opposition, I hope that this Order will be approved, although I recognise that it is necessary to scrutinise it carefully. I reject the view expressed by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt), but one expects that view from a member of the Liberal Party The Minister has made a case for the Order. I have in my hand a copy of the official Press handout of the National Farmers' Union, dated 9th February, which states:

"The Farmers' Unions of the United Kingdom welcome the Government's decision to increase by 50 per cent. the duty on imports of lettuce in March and April. The new duty of 30s. per cwt. should help to regulate supplies of imported lettuce on the market in those two months, and should benefit growers of lettuce under glass in this country who have suffered considerable hardship over the past few seasons as the result of the quantities of imported lettuce which have been pressed on their market."

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the lettuce growers have suffered hardship. How does he account for the fact that there is now more acreage of glass growing lettuce than there was three years ago?

I am suggesting this, and I believe that the evidence submitted by the growers themselves through their responsible union was correct evidence. I have no reason to doubt it. and I believe that they have a case.

If the Liberals are going to be so doctrinaire in their approach to our food producers as to suggest that the evidence which they submit to Government Departments is false, then I cannot understand their attitude. I believe that their case has been made out. I know that the hon. Member for Bolton, West has put a point of view which was expressed in a joint statement issued on 13th January, and I suspect that that is where he got part of his speech from. It is a Press hand-out issued by the Joint Import Trades Committee on behalf of the Importers' Standing Committees of the National Federation of Fruit and Potato Trades Limited, the London Fruit and Vegetable Trades Federation, the Fruit Importers Association and the Retail Fruit Trades Federation. If I am going to make a choice I make it on the side of the producers.

I believe that a policy of importation of cheap food at any price will not only harm horticulture from a long-term point of view but will, in the end, injure the consumers' interests. As hon. Members know only too well, when we have discussed these tariffs before in relation to tomatoes, I have always adhered to this point of view, and therefore I hope that this country will not adopt such a policy as has been suggested this evening. [Interruption.]s The hon. Member for Bolton, West has made his speech and I have given way to him in the course of mine. If one of his hon. Friends wishes to make another speech, I have no doubt that he will be afforded the opportunity of making a contribution to the debate. I am stating my case. I think it is the policy which will be approved by both sides of the House, especially by those hon. Members who are interested in agricultural production.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West mentioned the break-through in relation to this new Dutch devlopment, the special type of
"variety which will grow under glass in the poor light of northern latitudes in the winter."
If I may quote from the document which he has read and which has helped to brief him, it is quite true that the variety concerned originated in Blackpool, and I hope that our new Horticulture Council will have regard to it, but that is not an argument in favour of the tariff and for the case of the producers. The case of the producers has been made.

The Parliamentary Secretary quoted figures showing the relative decline in our home production in relation to other countries. He gave figures which I think confirm what has been put forward by the producers. I do not think that this will cause hardship. I believe that the British housewife and the British consumer would rather see the British industry built up even if it is necessary at certain times of the year to offer a measure of protection against foreign imports.

I know that this is a matter which can involve us in a major discussion about the future of markets and trade in Europe. I only say at this stage this tariff is essential and necessary to give a measure of protection to a product which is not covered by our normal agricultural legislation. We are not dealing with Review Commodities. For those reasons, we support this Order.

10.45 p.m.

I think that all of us have been pleased to be present tonight at this great rally of the Parliamentary Liberal Party. There have been few occasions when as many as half the party have been present. To see them tonight rallying to the old cries of Free Trade and Adam Smith has been most refreshing.

There have been many occasions when the whole Liberal Party in the House has been present. If the hon. Member had been here a few days ago he would have seen six Liberals speaking in one debate on a Bill.

I noted that only this evening at the crucial time of 8.45—which is so important for correspondence to The Times and so on—the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) was not present. It is an occasion after 10 o'clock to find one member of the Parliamentary Liberal Party present to plead the case not only of the producers but of those who are exporters from Holland.

I hope that those people, who will certainly welcome this Measure—the lettuce producers in this country, in those horticultural areas other than Bolton, West, where I gather that lettuce producers are not to be found in great profusion—will take careful note. Perhaps the lettuce producers of Devon will take note of the fact that the Parliamentary Liberal Party is so eager to attack this Measure which is so important to lettuce producers.

One thing we must take into considerais that a very small volume of imports can do a tremendous amount of damage to the market price. I believe that the increase in this tariff will assist in that matter. I therefore support this Order.

10.47 p.m.

I wish, first, to apologise to the House for not being here at the beginning of the debate, but, as a result of the statement made by the Colonial Secretary this afternoon, which we on these benches have been pressing him to make for the last year, I was actively engaged in matters relating to parts of our Colonial Territories.

Unlike the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), I represent an agricultural constituency, a purely agricultural constituency of 400 square miles. Among the producers there are growers of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and the like, much of which are under glass. If the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) would like to come to see the beauties of North Devon, he would have a very warm welcome and be conducted around. Of course, no one would ever suggest that any argument advanced by any hon. Member representing an agricultural constituency when tariffs are being discussed would ever have any relationship to the agricultural vote. The hon. Member for Worcester said that we on these benches were only concerned with foreign exporters. Foreign exporters happen to export for one reason—that in this country there are consumers who are anxious to purchase and to consume. There are some hon. Members in this House who, notwithstanding the fact that they represent agricultural constituencies and are returned by agricultural votes, are also interested in the fate of the consumers of this country.

Perhaps it would be a good thing if more hon. Members were able to take that particular line and were able to realise that very often not only the consumer but the farmer as well find that their costs are artificially increased and inflated by the operation of tariffs. Although the hon. Member for Sunderland—Workington (Mr. Peart), I beg his pardon, and I beg the pardon of Sunderland—is always prepared to take the propaganda of the National Farmers' Union, perhaps he will realise that the immediate past president of the National Farmers' Union is today a director of a company enjoying a tariff which is resulting in putting up the price of fertilisers so high to farmers that we have to vote between £20 million and £30 million a year—

Order. The hon. Member is going a little far on this Order, which merely seeks to increase the import duty chargeable on lettuce and endive.

The hon. Member has stated that I am always prepared to accept N.F.U. evidence. I hope that he will withdraw that allegation. I am prepared to examine N.F.U. evidence. At times I accept it. At times I do not accept it. On this occasion I accept it. I believe that the producers have a case. For the hon. Member to deliver his remarks in his usual offensive manner does no good to himself.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Workington for suggesting that I have at least established an image in my line of argument. Naturally I will withdraw the remark that he accepts everything put out by the N.F.U. For it I will substitute the suggestion that he is not to be regarded as its most ardent critic.

Sometimes a little more criticism would help. After all, we are discussing a tariff. To start with, a tariff is an extremely inefficient way of controlling the market. It has no relevance to the market conditions. It simply operates from one fixed date to another. It bears no relation to the production trends on our farms, particularly our horticultural farms. It has no relevance. If there is a glut, if there is a late crop in this country, the effect of a tariff is that we are prevented from—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member again, but we are not discussing the question of tariffs in principle. We are discussing this Order, which increases the Import Duty chargeable on lettuce and endive during the period 1st March to 30th April, etc. It would be out of order to discuss the whole principle and question of tariffs.

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. We are, therefore, discussing an Order the operation of which is bound to increase the cost of lettuce and endive to British housewives. There is no question about that. We are doing it at the very time when British agriculture should be trying to become more competitive, since we are shortly to enter the Common Market. I hope, when all these tariffs will be swept away in any case.

Will the hon. Member explain his attitude? Is it his view that this tariff should be abolished, together with all other tariffs? If that is his view, will he say so openly?

The answer to both questions is "Yes", and I have already done so, because I believe that a tariff is an extremely inefficient way of regulating the market. It gives no security to the producer and it increases the cost to the consumer. I am in favour of joining the Common Market, but I apprehend that I should be out of order if I went into that question further, although I should very much like to do so.

I am merely suggesting that perhaps there has been in the debate a little too much regard for the agricultural vote. We know that many agricultural constituencies are held on a very marginal basis, mine included. I can at least say that I have brought these matters out and the electorate has judged on the basis of that advocacy. If there were a little more regard for the consumer in this country and for the price to be paid by the consumer—I see the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) rubbing his hands; no doubt there will be an even more savage onslaught on Liberal candidates, and even on the Prime Minister, at the next election—and more regard to the need for a highly competitive and efficient agricultural industry, the cost of living would go down and agriculture would be placed on a far firmer economic foundation than it is today.

10.55 p.m.

I warmly support the Order, and I am sure that all my horticulturists—and particularly those who grow lettuce under glass in the winter—will feel that the increase in the duty is well earned and justified. I am rather sorry that the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Holt), who depends so much for his majority on the Bolton horticulturists, should have made his rude remarks, but I am glad that I have been called rather late in the debate because I should like to correct a strange idea that seems to exist in this part of the world that Lancashire is entirely industrial. The fact is that we have a greater acreage under glass than has any other English county. There is a "fiddle" in that, because the Lea Valley divides two counties. However, as a single county, Lancashire has a greater acreage under glass than any other in the country. That being so, Lancashire's voice should be heard on this occasion.

The hon. Member used the argument about the Common Market. As I think he knows, I am in favour of entering, but a great many things would happen in that event. One great disadvantage that our horticulturists face is that, for instance, the Dutch, who are their competitors, have a very sensible arrangement with the unions concerned for a lower rate of pay in the winter and a higher one in the summer. That means that in what I would call this off-season they can produce marginal crops more easily than we can, and until we can get some different arrangement with our workers than now exists our horticulturists are entitled to this increased protection of a crop which is very necessary if they are to break even over the year's activities.

The hon. Member will agree that when we go into the Common Market there will be no protection from those Dutch imports?

Order. We would be going out of order if we were to indulge in argument about the Common Market.

10.58 p.m.

The House may, perhaps, wish me to answer the case—if it can be called a case—made by the Liberal Party. That case is based entirely on one side, and that is the consumers' side. We must always have regard to the needs of the producer as well as those of the consumer. The fact is that the incidence of the present tariff on lettuce in March is about 8 per cent., and this proposed increase will raise it to 12 per cent. It is a very small tariff—probably smaller than any other in Europe—and I do not think that it will in any way be a burden on the consumer to give what must be called a normal protection to British horticulturists and increase the price per head of lettuce by one-third of a penny wholesale, which is all this would do.

Division No. 111.]


[11.0 p.m.

Agnew, Sir PeterHastings, StephenPercival, Ian
Aitken, W. T.Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir LionelPitt, Miss Edith
Allason, JamesHendry, ForbesPott, Percivall
Bennett, F. M. (Torquay)Hiley, JosephPowell, Rt. Hon. J. Enoch
Biffen, JohnHill, J. E. B. (S. Norfolk)Prior, J. M. L.
Bingham, R. M.Hocking, Philip N.Redmayne Rt. Hon. Martin
Blyton, WilliamHughes-Young, MichaelRoots, William
Box, DonaldIrvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)Ropner, Col. Sir Leonard
Brown, Alan (Tottenham)Jackson, JohnScott-Hopkins, James
Buck, AntonyJohnson Smith, GeoffreySeymour, Leslie
Bullard, DenysKershaw, AnthonyShaw, M.
Campbell, Cordon (Moray & Nairn)Kitson, TimothySkeet, T. H. H.
Channon, H. P. G.Langford-Holt, Sir JohnSmith, Dudley (Br'ntf'd & Chiswlck)
Chataway, ChristopherLegge-Bourke, Sir HarrySmithers, Peter
Chichester-Clark, R.Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Summers, Sir Spencer (Aylesbury)
Clarke, Brig. Terence (Portsmth, W.)Lilley, F. J. P.Talbot, John E.
Cleaver, LeonardLoveys, Walter H.Taylor, Frank (M'ch'st'r, Moss Side)
Corfield, F. V.Lucas-Tooth, Sir HughThomas, Peter (Conway)
Courtney, Cdr. AnthonyMcLaren, MartinVane, W. M. F.
Crowder, F. P.Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries)Wakefield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.)
Currie, G. B. H.Markham, Major Sir FrankWakefield, Sir waved (St. M'lebone)
Deedes, W. F.Mason, RoyWalder, David
du Cann, EdwardMatthews, Gordon (Meriden)Walker, Peter
Duncan, Sir JamesMawby, RayWells, John (Maidstone)
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carahalton)Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.Whitelaw, William
Elliott, R. W. (Nwcastle-upon-Tyne, N.)More, Jasper (Ludlow)Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)
Farr, JohnOsborn, John (Hallam)Woodnutt, Mark
Fraser, Ian (Plymouth, Sutton)Osborne, Sir Cyril (Louth)Worsley, Marcus
Gardner, EdwardPage, Graham (Crosby)
Glover, Sir DouglasPannell, Norman (Kirkdale)


Gower, RaymondPearson, Frank (Clitheroe)Mr. Graeme Finlay and
Griffiths, David (Rother Valley)Peart, FrederickMr. Brian Bats ford.
Hamilton, Michael (Wellingborough)Peel, John

Thorpe, JeremyMr. Donald Wade and
Mr. Arthur Holt.


That the Import Duties (General) (No. 3) Order, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 233), dated 6th February, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th February, be approved.