§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]
§ 10.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Percy Browne (Torrington)
This adjournment debate is a direct result of a Question which I asked the Minister of Agriculture on 9th May. I asked him whether he would take steps to prevent the import of meat from our non-traditional suppliers at a time of peak home killing. The answer was a categorical "No," with a certain amount of verbiage in between.
I think that the time has come when the Government should consider taking action rather than expressing pious hopes and writing letters to foreign Governments asking them not to export more meat to this country. We had a large Supplementary Estimate of £78 million last year, and the trends for this year, about which I will speak, are again not particularly encouraging. It is always the case that when more meat is brought into the country than we can consume without a great reduction in price two people carry the can—first, the taxpayer and, secondly, the producer. Surely we do not want the same thing to happen this year as happened last year.
I want, first, to consider the three main supplies which come into this country—beef, sheep and pig meat. Home killing of beef has risen by 15,000 tons in the first three months of this year. The figure must have risen considerably more in the first few weeks of April by the look of the subsidy bill, but I have not the figures. Imports were up marginally—in the first four months to the end of April by 382 tons; but if hon. Members look at the breakdown of imports they will see an interesting picture. Yugoslavia has increased her imports to this country by over 8,250 tons. The Commonwealth have increased their imports by over 3,000 tons, while in the case of the Argentine the figure has dropped by 6,000 tons.
What are the trends for the future? The result of the imports so far this year has been that at one time the 618 subsidy was running at 7s. per live cwt. more than last year.
Less beef is now coming on the market and the price has hardened and the subsidy has dropped, but there is no doubt that with the late spring and the shortage of grass many animals have been held off the market and will be coming on to the market in increasing numbers later in the year. Thanks to the policy enunciated in the Price Review this year—encouraging younger beef and the trend to producing baby beef—there will be an increased turnover of animals coming to the market which will be greater than is shown by the census figures. So much for the home market. I now come to imports.
The increase in imports from Yugo-salvia is such that in the first four months of this year we have already imported nearly half as much as in the whole of 1961. In the slightly longer term, Mr. Juni, of the Argentine, has said that he hopes to increase the export of beef from the Argentine to this country to the 1958 level, and that was 300,000 tons compared with only 220,000 tons last year. With the increase in stores coming from Southern Ireland to the tune of 20,000 tons already this year, one gets a clear picture of the way in which the taxpayers' money is to be used to subsidise home-produced beef later this year.
Home killing of sheep was down in the first three months of this year by 4,000 tons and imports rose in compensation by only 3,400 tons. Again the weather has affected home killing. Thanks to the 10 per cent. increase in the breeding flock, although we have not had a bumper lamb crop this year, there will be the usual influx of home-produced mutton and lamb on to the market in the autumn. There is no reason to suppose that less mutton and lamb will come on to the market from abroad than there was last year.
Taking these two commodities which are affected by the weather, in his reply to me the Minister said that the normal trend was that meat imports dropped during the second half of the year. That may be so, but it is a very small trend. The Navigational and Trade Returns for last year and the year before show that, taking April as the yardstick, the increase up to the end of June was 46,000 tons, taking one year with another, with 619 a drop of only just over 2,000 tons to the end of September, so that the drop is marginal.
We get a clear picture of the bacon and pig situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd) asked a Question on this subject on Monday and was told that the increase in total market supplies of bacon and ham was 5.8 per cent. in the first four months of this year compared with 1961 while pork supplies increased by 11.6 per cent. The home price of bacon is now down to 212s. a hundredweight and the subsidy in week 11 of this year was running at 16s. 4d. per score as compared with 5s. 5d. at the same time last year. This is pre-peak, and the subsidy for bacon pigs is higher still.
Again, according to the answer given to my hon. Friend, bacon imports increased by 7.1 per cent. in the first four months of this year compared with 1961. We know that the numbers of the Danish herd have increased and that it is estimated that there will be greater pressure from foreign countries for us to import more bacon and pork, particularly bacon, later this year. It is highly likely that there will be a reduction in the guaranteed price in August because we will go over the limit of 11¼ million at the end of June. Here again, there is a trend for an increase in home killing. Five economists writing for P.I.D.A. have said that home killing will be up by 12 per cent. in the first four months of this year with increased pressure from abroad, although the Danes are looking for other markets.
Taking the three commodities as a whole, although one hopes that it will not happen, it looks as though we shall have the same sort of pattern with beef in the autumn of this year that we had in the spring of last and that we are likely to have the same pressure on the market for mutton and lamb which we had in 1959 and again last year and that the pig subsidy will run at a very high level throughout the year. I make no apology for repeating one or two suggestions which I made in the debate on the Supplementary Estimate in February and to which I got no answer, but which I hope will be answered tonight.
I hope that in answering this debate the Minister will not hide behind pious 620 hopes about our general trading policy and the fact that we may shortly enter the Common Market. We have to consider the problem as it is, irrespective of these factors. It is the marginal supply coming into the country which matters more than anything else to ourselves as taxpayers and producers and to our traditional suppliers.
The first step we should take is to set up a committee consisting of members of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Board of Trade and the N.F.U. Its job would be to co-ordinate home production and imports of meat, not an easy task. It should have up-to-date antidumping legislation to enable it to shut the stable door before the horse has gone. We so rarely seem able with present legislation, which is slow and cumbersome, to be able to do that, and speed is essential. There are three things which this committee would have to do. It would have to have up-to-date information from the census, from the market and so on as to the trends of home production. It would know that the pattern was set already as to the home peak killing periods, spring and autumn, which we have as a result of our climate, and it would then be in a position to warn our traditional suppliers in reasonable time that at certain times they must hold off from our market, and that if they do not do so the meat must come in frozen and certainly neither fresh nor chilled. In referring to beef this evening I have been speaking of beef frozen, chilled or fresh, but not processed.
Secondly, so far as non-traditional suppliers axe concerned, at times we could invoke the anti-dumping legislation, which I hope will be brought up to date in any case, and at times we could introduce quotas or stop imports altogether. When this is suggested we are usually told, "What about G.A.T.T.? We are in a vulnerable position". We are in a particularly vulnerable position, the taxpayers especially, and when we give the Government expenditure we are told to cut down. As an example we imported 5 million tons of beef from Yugoslavia and exported about the same value of goods in return last year. In the quota imports that is marginal, but it is the marginal amounts of meat or dairy products which 621 upsets the market, and that is what we have to stop.
I believe that the trend in the next nine months may be that we shall find ourselves in the same sort of position as last year. All that the Government have done since then has been to write to the countries from which we import meat and ask them to hold off the market. I do not think that is sufficient. I want to see the taxpayer safeguarded and the interests of the producer safeguarded so that he will not once again be told when the Supplementary Estimate appears, "The farmers have never had it so good".
§ 10.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) on raising this very important subject. It is one which affects the producer and, as he rightly said, it could well affect the taxpayer. I should like to know what is Government policy on this matter. I have some figures which have been taken from the Trade and Navigation Returns showing bacon imports from Denmark. The value of our imports of bacon are worth £2½ million more for the first 4 months of this year than in the same period last year, and total imports in April, 1961, amounted to 561,682 cwt. compared with 687, 606 cwt. in April, 1962. Imports of pork from the Irish Republic rose by £ ½ million for the first 4 months of this year. This pattern is repeated in other commodities, and, as the hon. Member has said, it might well create a situation such as that of last year. We know the results. In the end, we had a growth of subsidy and an outcry from the taxpayer, and confidence in the industry was affected. I should like to know what the Government are doing about this. I am not suggesting the solution is what was suggested by the hon. Member is the right one. He spoke first of a committee and then of a board. I detected some split thinking.
§ Mr. P. Browne
I meant to stick to the word "committee" and did not realise that I had used the word "board".
§ Mr. Peart
He was talking in terms of a board, and it may be that the logic of his thinking is that inevitably one 622 day there will have to be a public authority to control imports or to make a decision. I agree that the Government must make up their mind on the antidumping legislation. Representations have been made by various farming organisations. Has the Minister had full consultation with the Board of Trade, or is there difficulty there? Is the Board of Trade representing a point of view which is anti-agriculture? I know that that can happen and that often there is a tug-of-war on these vital issues of import and export policy. I should like to know if the Minister has made the necessary representations.
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)
My hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) has put his finger on most of the important points which affect not only the livestock side of the guarantees but also the crop side as well. I understand that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is anxious to reply. Therefore, I will not proceed with the very short speech which otherwise I would have made but will be interested to hear what he has to say.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)
It is not inappropriate that my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) should have raised this matter tonight as an epilogue, as it were, to the agricultural tenor of the larger debate which has preceded it. In a sense, the earlier debate shows some of the difficulties of the problem which we are considering here, and the speeches which we have just heard make one sympathise with the agricultural Ministers of the Six who are trying to deal with problems many times more complicated than the one about which my hon. Friends have shown anxiety on behalf of this country alone.
I can say to my hen. Friend that to a large extent we are on common ground. We are both anxious to ensure a reasonable return for the farmer and fair prices for the consumer, and we do not want to see an unreasonable burden being placed on the taxpayer and on the Exchequer. The Fatstock Guarantee Scheme protects the farmer's interests, and the point now at issue is whether we would be justified in taking action 623 against imports largely in order to reduce the cost to the Exchequer of maintaining the guarantees.
I do not want to avoid the questions asked in any way. This may seem a simple thing if one puts all the weight of one's case against marginal imports, but, apart from the present difficulties, it implies major changes in our general commercial policy. I assure the House that no one is more concerned than my right hon. Friend to find means of limiting the cost to the Exchequer of maintaining the guarantees while preserving proper opportunities for the British farmer, but I do not think that action on the lines suggested by my hon. Friend would be practicable, and I hope to show him why.
If the hon. Member will allow me to take advantage of the remaining minutes, I will do my best to tell him.
There are many difficulties, and it is no good anyone pretending that there are not, in the suggestion that we should restrain imports during the period of peak home production. It sounds simple enough, but it would raise not only practical issues but major issues of commercial policy. I should like to deal first with the practical issues. Let us take mutton and lamb. For some time we have imported about 60 per cent. of this commodity, and almost entirely from the Commonwealth. All these imports are frozen, which means that the meat can either be sold immediately or stored for months until the best moment to sell. Quite clearly—although proper weight is not always given to this in debate—it is in the interests of the importers to take advantage of this flexibility to sell when they can get the best return, and this is when there is less home-produced meat on the market.
The figures show that significantly more imported supplies are sold during the first half of the year than in the second half, which is normally the period of greatest home production. I should have thought, therefore, that it would be difficult to justify Government intervention just on that score.
As for beef, we import about 25 per cent. of our total supplies. Just over 624 one-half of these imports come from the Argentine, mainly in chilled form. About a quarter of our beef imports come from the Commonwealth and is mainly frozen. Less than 3 per cent. of our total supplies come from nontraditional supplies, mainly from Yugoslavia, and we have heard from the Government of that country that it is not their intention to increase supplies this year. This is on the lines my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington suggested.
§ Mr. P. Browne
Does that mean that they will not increase them above the supplies which they sent last year?
The figures which have been mentioned are something comparable with those for last year.
Chilled beef presents a more difficult problem since this has to be disposed of very soon after arrival and the timing of arrivals must to some extent be dictated by such factors as shipping schedules and seasonal conditions in exporting countries. Nevertheless the commercial incentive of avoiding periods of market weakness is obvious. It is wrong to suppose that those concerned do anything other than try to take advantage of this.
The figures also indicated that more imports of beef and mutton do tend to be sold during the earlier part of the year. The seasonal nature of home beef production—and this is the commodity with Which my hon. Friend was particularly concerned—is not nearly so marked as in the case of lamb and mutton, and with advances in production techniques is likely to be even less marked.
What is important is that it is not always possible to anticipate with accuracy—and the hon. Member has given us an illustration of this already —when the peak of home production will occur. Excessive rain or the lack of it and other differences in one area compared with another can play havoc with marketings, and I should not like to suggest that Ministers, would be able to anticipate these sorts of changes in the market with that sort of precision which would be necessary if we were to have short-term restrictions on imports reaching our market. Of course, the 625 difficulty with chilled beef is that it cannot really be stored, so the question which concerns us is not just the meat reaching this country but also the frozen meat which comes out of cold store.
When we speak of restricting the small amounts which come from our nontraditional suppliers we must remember that the larger amount of our imported meat, particularly that from Australia and New Zealand, can be imported without quantitative restriction under our treaty obligations, for a number of years. Therefore, I would not think that we ought to attach too much importance to what might be achieved if we concerned ourselves simply with certain smaller quantities from non-traditional suppliers and found ourselves allowing the main flow to follow its traditional pattern. Incidentally, it is worth noting that beef imports have declined since 1957. Last year they were 20 per cent. below what they were in 1960 and 40 per cent. below what they were in 1957.
My hon. Friend raised the question of supplies from the Argentine and suggested it was the Argentines' intention this year to restore the figures of imports to this country to what they were in 1960. I think this is a misunderstanding. Of course, an exporting country naturally likes to keep its markets, but the expression used by one of the Argentine's delegates was intended, I think, as much more a general expression for the long-term—
I am sorry if I misunderstood my hon. Friend. I did not want to misquote him. This was not I understood intended to be a great effort by the Argentine to get back to their original figures in the short-term.
As to anti-dumping legislation, which the hon. Member for Workington mentioned, and our general commercial policy. Apart from the difficulties I have mentioned, which are real, practical difficulties, there is the question of our general commercial policy. It is to the advantage of all of us that we remain a great trading nation, and further, we must not forget our treaty obligations, as I have said, particularly those with our main Commonwealth suppliers, Australia and New Zealand. 626 I appreciate that my hon. Friend is mainly concerned with non-Commonwealth supplies. None the less, we cannot suppose that the problem is helped just by concentrating our efforts to them. It would he ineffective in practice to ban imports and sales of foreign meat while meat from the Commonwealth was sold in unlimited quantities.
As to anti-dumping legislation, that is directed to seeing that meat is sold in this country under conditions which satisfy us. Here may I say, when the hon. Gentleman criticises the antidumping legislation, that there was none at all a short time ago. Only in 1957 did this Government introduce antidumping legislation, and although it is not perfect, I do not think it deserves the criticism which is sometimes voiced against it in this House. It is possible to take rapid action when conditions in the Act are satisfied. I am not sure what my hon. friend the Member for Torrington means exactly by bringing it up to date. There is a number of cases which illustrate how successfully it can be operated—not least a year ago when we were dealing with the problem of dumped barley.
My hon. Friend will remember, too, that my right hon. Friend said in the House that the Governments of our major suppliers, both in the Commonwealth and outside, had been made aware of the circumstances of the United Kingdom meat market, and in fact he wrote them letters, which I think should be given greater weight than my hon. Friend suggested. I am sure that the correspondence which my right hon. Friend has had with the Governments of the meat exporting countries has done good. They all recognise that it is in their own interests as much as ours to maintain stability in this market of ours which is probably the most important market in the world for meat. They appreciate as much as we do that oversupplying the market either by not planning the arrival of their supplies, or for one reason or another, works as much to their disadvantage as to the disadvantage of anyone else.
My hon. Friend mentioned the need for a committee to consider the whole question of meat supplies. I cannot agree that a committee such as he suggested would achieve the object that he 627 has in mind. The Government keep a close watch on the pattern of imports, and they must always remain ultimately responsible for our import policy. We do what we can to reduce potential difficulties in the fatstock and carcase meat market, and our fatstock guarantees system provides for a seasonal scale of guarantees to encourage a more even flow of marketings, it is not as easy as some would have it to ensure that this flow is always even. There are the processes of nature to contend with, particularly in relation to pigs, where the fluctuations are notorious. Also although one does not want to call in aid the weather, my hon. Friend did mention it in this debate. Therefore, to suggest that one can control the meat market in the way in which one controls other markets is over simplifying a very difficult problem.
An inquiry is being undertaken by a committee recently appointed by my right hon. Friend. It is under the Chairmanship of Sir Reginald Verdon Smith. Therefore, apart from the merits of the suggestion made by my hon. Friend, which I do not think would achieve what he wants it to achieve, I do not think that it would be timely to appoint 628 another committee, even though the main function of the committee which my hon. Friend has in mind would be to inquire into imports from overseas.
I believe it is thought in some quarters that the imported product is gaining an ever-increasing share of the British market. In fact the figures show the opposite.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am not depressed by the figures, as some people seem to be when we discuss them. Since I first became interested in agriculture, the home producers' share of the United Kingdom market has increased tremendously. Since 1957, apart from a small drop in the amount of pig meat, which is the most liable to fluctuations, it has increased by 12 per cent. for beef and veal, and 6 per cent. for mutton and lamb.
§ The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.