HC Deb 30 July 1956 vol 557 cc1112-20

11.58 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I wish to raise the question of new potatoes, a matter to which I have frequently drawn attention in recent weeks at Question Time. I do this because it is a question which vitally interests a very important section of my constituents in the agricultural part of South Ayrshire, and not only South Ayrshire but all areas in Scotland which grow new potatoes.

I am very anxious that the Government should give some indication of their policy for next year. It is too late to do anything about the blunders of this year, but it is already time to look ahead so that the Government may give the farmers some idea whether they can look forward to the calamities that occurred this year repeating themselves next year.

Two years ago I raised the question of imports from Cyprus and their effect upon the new potato crop in Ayrshire. The then Minister of Food, replying to me on 12th July, 1954, said: The Ayrshire fanners producing Ayrshire earlies have no reason to fear competition from imported potatoes from Cyprus—grown, incidentally, from Scottish seed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 19.] That was two years ago. We were told then that the farmers had nothing to fear. This promise having been given in 1954, after the calamity of 1956 one of the farmers in my constituency wrote to me to say that the prophecy of the Government in 1954 has proved to be an utterly irresponsible statement. It is galling and very disturbing to an ordinary citizen to think that a man holding a responsible position of Government should utter such short-sighted rubbish. That referred to the Minister of Food at the time—now the right hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill.) That criticism of the Minister comes from a Conservative farmer.

Again, I raised the question two years ago, and I was then informed by the then Joint Under Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Snadden—the Minister responsible for agriculture in Scotland—that the Ayrshire farmers were not in any way affected by the imported crops from Cyprus, as compared with others. Indeed, the warnings which the Ayrshire farmers gave two years ago went unheeded by the Government; members of the Government then said that these farmers had no need to worry about the Cyprus imports.

I indicate all this against a background of seething discontent in the agricultural areas of Scotland; discontent with the whole trend of Government policy, which was expressed last week at a National Farmers' Union meeting in South Ayrshire, when an influential member of the farming community there, Mr. R. H. U. Stevenson, of Corseclays, Ballantrae, said that the people feeding cattle for the spring had been caught; the people in the north had been "slaughtered" over oats, they had almost "caught it" over milk, and had "had it" with early potatoes. Mr. Stevenson is reported to have added: Unless we can be assured that the Government are going to take real cognisance of imports—and don't let them put you off with airy-fairy stuff that you are guaranteed this and guaranteed that—unless you get an assurance of this, you are wasting your time having these discussions. He concluded his criticism by saying about the Government's promise, These airy-fairy promises and guarantees are not worth a damn. This is very strong language, but it undoubtedly expresses the point of view of the farmers who have been completely let down by Government policy in relation to what happened with new potatoes this year. The farmers are concerned about these imports from Cyprus. If the imports from there had arrived according to schedule, there might not have been such ground for complaint; but just at the time when the Ayrshire new potatoes were ready, along came four boatloads of new potatoes from Cyprus, completely knocking the bottom out of the local farmers' market.

The Scottish Farmer, in a lengthy article in its issue of 30th June, under the heading, "Calamity Faces Early Potato Growers—Cyprus Imports Kill Market", states, We move from one potato crisis to another. Hardly has the din and fury over the marketing of the maincrop potatoes subsided than it swells again over the earlies. An uncontrolled flood of continental potatoes played ducks and drakes with what was left of the maincrop. A heavy influx of Cyprus potatoes—grown largely from Scottish seed of the Arran Banner and Up-to-Date varieties—is involving growers of early potatoes in the south-west and west of Scotland in heavy financial losses. The position is so bad that it has been described as the worst first week of digging in living memory". The article states that early potato growers had lost £500,000 in the first ten days of the season, and goes on to describe not only the direct effects of that, but the fact that it has completely upset the farmers' arrangements for the rest of the season. So I consider that I am justified in passing on these complaints and in asking the Minister for some assurance that that sort of thing is not likely to happen again.

I want the Minister also to give me an assurance that these farmers will be compensated for the loss they have sustained, due to no fault of theirs but because Government policy in Cyprus resulted in these potatoes coming into the market a month late. It is as a result of the holding up of the potatoes at the little harbours of Cyprus, by reason of curfews and so on, because of Government policy, that this dumping took place. It is not right to ask the farmers of Ayrshire to pay the collective fines for the people of Cyprus. That is precisely what is happening.

If it is not in any way the fault of the farmers but is the fault of Government policy, are the Government not prepared to make good some of the losses which are the direct result of their policy? In another editorial article in the Scottish Farmer of the following week, it was pointed out: Granted it was stated that the potato boats from Cyprus had been delayed owing to the unsettled conditions on the Island, and that had they arrived at intervals during the previous month last week's position would not have arisen. But it must have been known before these boats left the Island that they were far behind their schedule and that their unloading would coincide with the lifting of the early home-grown potatoes. It must have been equally apparent that their arrival could have only one result. I would not think it right to ask the people who grow the early potatoes, who are very skilled farmers, to bear the whole brunt of this, and I ask the Minister whether he cannot make a statement saying that this loss is not to be borne entirely by the farmers who have been involved in this calamity.

I know that it is too late to do anything this year, I know that I shall be told it is no good crying about spilled milk, but as we warned the Government two years ago about the inevitable results of this policy, and because this has been a large-scale calamity over a wide area, I am entitled to ask the Minister for an assurance that before history repeats itself in this way the Government will show that they have some positive, constructive policy to deal with what, I believe, is a major agricultural scandal.

12.8 a.m.

Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)

Nobody can complain that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has been speaking up for his constituents in Ayrshire, because there is no doubt that they have had a bit of a knock in the early potato trade. The early potato trade always is a bit tricky and a bit of a gamble. Those who get in right can charge a higher price and do very well, but in the years when they do not, as in this year and in the previous year, the gamble does not come off. Of course the farmers are complaining, because what happened this year was caused by a very peculiar and unusual and, I hope, unrepeatable set of circumstances.

As I understand it, the plan was that the four boats should leave Cyprus from 1st May one by one weekly and that all four boats should reach this country and discharge their cargoes before 1st June, but owing to a curfew in Cyprus and the disturbances there the boats were not loaded in time and all four of them not only came in at once, but arrived a month late. That is just too bad. That is just one of those vary unfortunate things that the Department of Agriculture could not possibly foresee, and I am afraid that Ayrshire farmers have suffered.

There is not much I can suggest to the hon. Gentleman or to the Ayrshire farmers or to the Government, but someone in the Government, the Colonial Secretary or the Foreign Secretary, I do not know which, must have known what was going on in Cyprus, and that shipments would be coming together and a month late; and if there had been co-ordination between Government Departments it would have been possible for them to have told the Potato Marketing Board what was going to happen, so that the Board could have made arrangements, at any rate to warn the farmers not to start digging because these four shiploads were going to spoil their market.

The Board could have advised them not to take on labour for early digging, but to let them grow, and sell them when they were bigger, as ware potatoes, because up to date Arran Banner potatoes are quite eatable if allowed to go on growing, and there is a guaranteed price. If there are to be troubles in Cyprus, if there are extraordinary circumstances, the Potato Marketing Board should be informed of what is likely to happen, and then it is up to the Board to inform the farmers, who can organise accordingly. The Board has no means of informing itself of what is going on in Cyprus. The Government must give it that information. If that is done, we can avoid these sort of things in the future.

12.12 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Niall Macpherson)

I should be the last to complain that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has raised this matter in the House since it obviously affects his own constituents and people of the neighbouring constituencies. I welcome very much the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman has given me to clear up some misconceptions which have been prevalent.

Early potatoes start coming into this country from the Channel Islands, from France and from Cyprus in May and those imports run on into June. About half of the early potatoes come from the Channel Islands and about a quarter come from Cyprus. The natural markets for the Channel Island and French potatoes are in the South of England, of course. Shipments from Cyprus come to Liverpool, London, Glasgow and Leith in that order of importance. There are no restrictions on imports of early potatoes. They come in on open general licence, and have done so since 1954. The protection is by way of a tariff of 1d. per 1b. from 16th May to 30th June. Cyprus, of course, being within the Commonwealth, enjoys duty-free entry under Imperial Preference, along with the Channel Islands.

Cyprus potatoes normally start arriving in Scotland well before the Ayrshire and Wigtownshire earlies are available. They fetch very good prices. If they did not come, no doubt potatoes from Cornwall or Cheshire or elsewhere would come to Scotland instead. Scottish potatoes are preferred and they seem to fetch better prices when they arrive in the market.

Let me now clear up the misconception. This year shipments from Cyprus were earlier than usual. It so happened that shipments to Glasgow arrived rather later than usual, but they have not been nearly so heavy as in previous years. In 1955, for example 3,990 tons came in May from Cyprus to Glasgow, and 4,205 in June, making a total of 8,195 tons.

In 1956, only 600 tons came to Glasgow in May and 4,642 tons in June, making a total of 5,242 tons. Shipments to Leith amounted to 2,060 tons. Arrivals in June were 437 tons more than in June last year, but total arrivals in Glasgow were about 3,000 tons less. To get the matter into perspective, it should be remembered that the consumption of potatoes and potato products in Glasgow alone is about 200 tons a day. Therefore, the amount of extra potatoes from Cyprus in June was a little more than two days' supply for Glasgow alone and much less than one day's supply for the industrial belt of Scotland. Total imports from Cyprus to Scotland amount to roughly one-tenth of the estimated Scottish output of early potatoes.

Most of these potatoes came in three ships which happened to reach Glasgow on 16th and 18th June, just as the Ayrshire potatoes were coming on the market. That was extremely unfortunate for the Ayrshire producers but there was nothing that the Government could do about it. The hon. Member for South Ayrshire suggested that this was the result of Government policy in Cyprus and he spoke of dumping from Cyprus. There is no question of dumping. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan) has also suggested that this trouble has been due to the operation of a curfew in Cyprus.

I am informed that these three ships were loaded at Famagusta and it is true that there was a curfew on 30th and 31st May. It affected only the Greek-Cypriot areas, which do not cover the port area or the old town, where most of the port workers reside—and most of the port workers are Turkish Cypriots. I doubt whether the curfew delayed shipments at all. If it did, the effect can only have been very slight.

Did the emergency restrictions in any way delay shipments? Could they have interfered in any way with lifting, loading or sailing? Emergency restrictions, as I understand, relate only to the road movement of vehicles while troops are operating on the roads concerned. I have inquired about this point. There is no evidence of any delay to these three shipments from this source.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus asked whether arrangements could be made for intelligence to be provided in any way. Talks are going on between the Potato Marketing Board and the High Commissioner for Cyprus with a view to providing the earliest possible information about shipments. Talks have also been going on with the Potato Marketing Board on the general subject of intelligence from abroad.

It is worth mentioning that ships take about eleven days to come from Cyprus to United Kingdom ports. During that time cargoes can be and are frequently switched from one port to another. Obviously, the earlier the information the more chance there is of potatoes being directed to those ports where they are most needed.

As to the condition of the market this year, I am informed that at the Girvan auctions, where potatoes are sold in the ground on an acreage basis, the acreage offered this year was 20 per cent. higher than that offered last year, and rather less than two-thirds of the lots offered were sold in the early stages, but the average price was £114 per acre as against £122 in 1955.

It is true that, following upon the arrival of these potatoes from Cyprus, the market price for potatoes declined very rapidly. First sales of Ayrshire potatoes and Wigtownshire potatoes were effected in the week ended 21st June, at 48s. per cwt., and at that time the retail price to the consumer was 6d. per 1b. The following week wholesale prices were down to 27s. for Ayrshire potatoes and 22s. for Cyprus potatoes, and the consumer price dropped to 4d. per 1b. or less. As the season goes on, prices always do tend to drop, and by 18th July they were reported at 17s. per cwt, with consumer prices around 2½d. per 1b. in Glasgow.

Growers' prices have fallen to a matter of £11–£12 per ton in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and I am informed that merchants consider that the bottom of the market has now been reached. Given a yield of some 9 tons per acre, it should be possible, even at that, for growers to cover their costs. I said "cover their costs"; they might even make a profit, though not a large one. If the yield is less than that, then they might not succeed in covering their costs. Admittedly, these prices look very small compared with the prices of £40 or £50 obtained in the early part of the season for imported potatoes, but I think we should remember that only one-third or so of the early Scottish potatoes are sold for consumption.

So, what has happened this year is that there were good crops in Cyprus and good crops in Great Britain. The Scottish production is undoubtedly higher this year than it was last year, perhaps by one-fifth. Imports of potatoes from Cyprus up to the end of June were about two-fifths higher than last year to the United Kingdom as a whole but about one-fifth less to Scotland.

The growing of early potatoes is, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said, a chancy affair. The growing of early potatoes has not been neglected in the arrangements that were made by the Potato Marketing Board under the guarantee system. As I said, protection is given by way of a tariff, and this year has undoubtedly not turned out too well for the growers in certain localities. One has to remember that this is the first year of the new arrangements that have been put into force through the Potato Marketing Board, and no doubt, as happens whenever there is a return from complete control, there are teething troubles to be faced.

With better market intelligence and renewed experience of marketing in this country and of the techniques of marketing in getting the goods to the right place at the right moment, there is no doubt whatever that that situation should improve in future. Every product is bound to have its teething troubles as freedom is returned to it.

I would certainly be the last to make any predictions for the future in this regard, but I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the likelihood is that in the future we shall not have the same concurrence of events as has happened this year, a concurrence of events which has resulted in a larger proportion of the Cyprus crop coming later to Glasgow than in previous years, when the shipments were very evenly spaced as between May and June.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Will there be any compensation?

Mr. Macpherson

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there is to be any compensation. Had this resulted from any action or omission on the part of the Government the situation might have been different, and that might be a proper question, but, as I have indicated, this has not resulted from any action or omission in Cyprus on the part of the Government or, indeed, from any change in the arrangements made for the marketing of early potatoes in this country. Therefore I am bound to say to the hon. Gentleman that I am afraid there is no case for any question of Government compensation. While I very much regret the fact that the market has undoubtedly been disturbed, that was by a situation quite outwith the control of the Government.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Twelve o'clock.