§ LORD HARRIS rose to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture what quantities of hops have been imported from Belgium in each of the last three years and in the present year; and whether he is satisfied that no portion of this year's importation has come from that part of Belgium temporarily occupied by enemy armies.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am afraid it will occur to your Lordships that the apparently insignificant subject which I am raising is inappropriate between the highly important one which has been discussed and the one to follow, but in this matter I represent a community with a real and substantial grievance, and therefore I feel that I am justified in bringing it publicly forward. In doing so I shall take advantage of the latitude which this House allows and diverge a little from the actual subject of the Question. Not only the hopgrowers, but the pickers who are dependent on the cultivation of hops, have this real grievance—that in consequence of our fiscal policy the cultivation of the plant in this country has decreased in a comparatively short period by 50 per cent., namely, from over 70,000 acres to rather over 30,000. Hops have plenty of enemies without those which are imposed by law. To quote an old Kentish dog-gerel—
First the flea and then the fly,
And then the lice, and then they die.
Added to this is the fact that, owing to the fiscal policy of this country, the English growth is practically swamped by foreign importation. And it is to be remembered, as regards this particular plant, that it would be perfectly possible for this country, if it had a free hand, to grow every hop that is required not only here but throughout the whole Empire.
§ The position of Government this year is extremely inconsistent. They have themselves implored us all—and the Press has supported them—to curtail our expenditure on foreign produce; yet a policy is 943 maintained which results in English money being sent out of the country for the purchase of foreign hops. That is hard enough, but we are, in addition, strongly suspicious that British gold is not only going to the United States for United States hops, but that it is going to the United States for hops grown in Europe, possibly behind the lines of the German armies, and that they are represented to be Belgian hops. I have only this moment had a Paper put in my hands which was moved for and presented to the House of Commons yesterday, and it is very significant as showing the justification of the question which I have asked. The importation of hops from Belgium between September, 1913, and August, 1914, was 23,000 cwts. Between the same months of 1914–15 that importation had increased to over 27,000 cwts. notwithstanding that Belgium had been during that period over-run by the German Armies, that a considerable area in it was in the occupation of the German Armies during a good part of that year, and that the ordinary agricultural operations of the country had been most seriously interrupted.
§ I should be only too glad to hear from my noble friend that he thought it possible to induce the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do what has been urged for so many years and is regarded by the growers as merely an act of justice—place a small duty on foreign hops. But if we have to put up with a continuance of what is, in our opinion, unfair competition from abroad, I hope the noble Earl will be able to impress upon his colleague who controls the Customs to use every possible vigilance to ascertain whether or not there is any ground for our suspicion that hops are coming into this country from behind the German lines and represented to be hops coming from behind our lines. I believe that this year there are only 1,500 acres under hops in that part of Belgium which is behind our lines, and, giving a liberal growth of ten cwts. per acre, that would be only 15,000 cwts. If that number is exceeded from Belgium, then I should say that our suspicions are, without question, justified.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF SELBORNE)
I can give the noble Lord the information for which he asks. The quantities of hops imported from Belgium in each of the last three years 944 and in the present year up to August 31 last have been, in round figures, as follows:—In 1912, 35,000 cwts.; 1913, 23,000 cwts.; 1914, 6,000 cwts.; 1915, up to August 31, 23,000 cwts. The exact quantity which may have been imported from that part of Belgium which is in the occupation of the enemy cannot be stated. I am not prepared to say that none has come from the part of Belgium which is occupied by the Germans, because a certain amount may possibly have come by way of Holland, but the amount must be only small, because the total importation from Holland in the twelve months from September, 1914, to August, 1915, was only 258 cwts. I regard it as quite impossible that hops could have been smuggled through the German and the British military lines from that part of Belgium which is occupied by Germany to that part which is occupied by the Allies.
I am afraid I cannot follow the noble Lord into that part of his speech which dealt with fiscal policy, because agreement on fiscal policy, I would remind him, was not the basis on which the present Government was formed. But I wish to take this opportunity of expressing my agreement with him in the importance which he attaches to hop-growing as part of our greatest national industry. I doubt if those who do not live in hop districts sufficiently realise what an extraordinarily valuable form of intensive culture this is to any country. The annual expenditure per acre of hops never falls below £20; it goes up in some cases to £60 an acre, and it is found generally to vary somewhere between £30 and £45 an acre every year; and of that cost of production over half is paid directly in wages for labour, and the remainder is almost all paid to labour indirectly. Certainly in England, there is no form of agriculture which supports so large a number of people or distributes such a great volume of wages comparative to the acreage involved. Therefore I have no hesitation in saying that it would be, in my opinion, a national calamity if the hop industry of this country was, from any cause whatever, permanently ruined.
In the Return which was made to the House of Commons and contained in the Paper which I have in my hand 22,918 cwts. is the figure given for 1913–14.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I will try and find out where the discrepancy is; possibly the two sets of figures do not cover the same period.
§ EARL ST. ALDWYN
Did my noble friend say that this year, up to August 31, 23,000 cwts. of hops came here from Belgium.