Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th October 1959.

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Photo of Mr John Mackie Mr John Mackie , Enfield East 12:00 am, 30th October 1959

Never has my name sounded so ominous, Mr. Speaker. I doubt whether I have ever been so nervous or spent such a nervous morning since my wedding day over twenty-five years ago. The occasions are not dissimilar. The church I was married in placed my wife's friends and relations on one side and mine on the other, and any disapproval was silent. I understand, Mr. Speaker, that today disapproval will be silent, for which I thank you very much. There I am afraid the similarity ends, because on that occasion the "opposition" stood me a very good lunch and spoke afterwards. I have to speak of my own volition on this occasion, and so far I have had no offer of lunch from the other side.

It may be unnecessary for me to say that I am a Scot and a farmer. I farm extensively, although I stand for the English industrial constituency of Enfield, East. I am proud to do that, because I am representing the people who consume most of my produce. Like the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers), I did not know—and I am sorry that I did not know—that this was to be mainly a debate on youth, but, unlike her, I have not the experience to alter my speech at so short notice, so I am afraid I shall not be able to talk on youth, not that I am not interested in the subject, because I have five of them and I know the problem.

Few people realise that all that people eat and wear, right down to their shoes, comes off the land, and more than half of it off the land of Great Britain. Far too many people believe that things come off the shelves in shops and do not stop to think about where they came from originally, and that is what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about what happens to produce after it leaves the farms of Great Britain until it gets into the housewife's shopping bag.

I was prompted to choose this subject because of questions I was asked during the election campaign. When people discovered that I was a farmer, they immediately shot at me: Why are eggs so expensive? Why is milk so expensive? Why is bacon so expensive? and so on. I found it very difficult to answer their questions knowing the prices that we were getting.

One of the reasons why I sit on this side of the House is because when I went to my farm in Scotland in 1930 I had to cast 30 acres of my predecessor's potatoes into a quarry hole, and at the same time farmers were having to pour milk down the drains in the West of Scotland. At that time there were thousands of unemployed in the industrial belt of Scotland who could well have done with those potatoes and that milk. That is one of the reasons why I began to think about things and why I am on this side of the House.

Having mentioned potatoes. I should like to speak about them first. I was on my farm this morning. I try to be there every morning before coming to the House so that I can keep my feet on the ground. I think that it is essential to do that, because one can quite easily get one's head in the clouds if one stays too much in the House of Commons.

On Wednesday morning, we were digging potatoes on my farm. We had a squad of men and women picking, sorting and so on. I saw them having tea under the rather inadequate shelter of a hedge. It was a very cold, windy and rainy morning. Then while driving to the House of Commons, I passed one of the factories in my constituency—the Ferguson factory—where I saw through the windows people sitting in the canteen enjoying their coffee in tremendous comfort compared with that of my workers a couple of hours earlier. That led me to think of just what I got for producing an acre of potatoes and how long it took me to produce that acre.

In the field over the hedge from the one where we were picking we were starting preparing for next year's crop, putting on dung, and shortly we shall be ploughing. When I go back to Scotland I shall arrange to send more seed down. We buy the fertilisers in December. We shall have to chit the seed and then comes the planting and spreading and the summer cultivations, for a whole year until we lift and dress the potatoes. For all this, I receive today between £11 and £12 per ton. We have had a bad crop in Essex this year because of a bad spring and other reasons, and for us the return works out at about £66 or £70 per acre. This is just under 1¼d. per 1b. For the sake of argument, I will call it 1¼d. per 1b.

On my way here, I looked into the shops in North London and saw that potatoes are selling there at 3d. per 1b. for the rough, big potatoes, up to 5d. a 1b. for good reds. Let us take 3¾d. as the average price. This means that, between the time the potatoes leave my farm and the time they reach the housewife's shopping basket, somebody adds £22 a ton. They add that in one week. It took me a year to put the potatoes there. I simply do not think anyone can justify that kind of thing.

We have had a splendid crop of lambs this year—first class, the best for a generation. Unfortunately, we had a very dry summer and all those lambs had to come on the market very cheap. I will give the House an example within my own experience. A brother-in-law of mine bought a lamb for his own use and paid 73s. for it. He took it to the killing house, had it killed, selling the skin and inedible offal for 20s. The lamb, 60 1bs. of it, cost him 53s. I see from The Times today that a Scottish firm is advertising lamb at 2s. 6d. per 1b. At 2s. 6d. a 1b. the animal will cost £7 10s. My brother-in-law got it for 53s. If one buys over the counter at an average price of 3s. or 4s. 6d. a 1b. in the shops, which I again checked today, it will cost over £10. The situation seems ridiculous.

I will give an example now from the marketing of eggs. I do not intend to talk about everything, but I wish to give several examples to make my point. We are producing more eggs than people are buying. A large surplus is left. The surplus this year is likely to be greater, but last year the surplus was such that the Egg Marketing Board had to break and sell to the bakers 360 million eggs. Egg prices to the consumer have never come down sufficiently. If those 360 million eggs had been consumed by the public generally, it would, after all, have meant only about 7 eggs per person per year or, putting it in another way, an egg and a half extra per week for the 5 million old-age pensioners, who, I am sure, could well do with them. It is a curious situation that the more the Egg Marketing Board breaks eggs and puts up the price to the consumer, the less the farmer receives. That is an anomaly which the Government should look into; the Egg Marketing Board should not have temptations like that put before it. The surplus is not really large. It amounts to only one million cases out of a total of 23 million, although, as I say, the figure this year will be larger.

Various suggestions have been made of ways to overcome the difficulty in egg prices. I have heard it said that it would really be cheaper in the long run to dump the eggs into the sea rather than have the cost of breaking them, freezing them, and so forth, for the bakeries. I hope that that will not be resorted to.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dept-ford (Sir L. Plummer) has dealt with the subject of bacon, but I wish to emphasise that we have another crisis in the pig industry. We have not enough pigs. Not many years ago we had too many. The reason is not difficult to find. It is that the Government have put extraordinary variations of policy to the farmers—they want more pigs, they want less, they want them cheaper, they will give us more for them next year, and so on. Since 23rd August until today the price of pigs to the farmer has dropped £3 a pig. Bacon is a little cheaper, but, if one works the figures out, the price should come down by nearly 6d. a lb. It has not dropped anything like that, and, again, the consumer is not receiving the benefit.

Turning now to milk, we have a butter crisis. Not very long ago, I had a letter on my desk from the Milk Marketing Board asking me for goodness sake to reduce production because there was far too much milk in the country today. There are reasons given for this situation, and, of course, the weather is always blamed. But now we are in the winter. If farmers had plenty of animals to keep their stocks going and dairy herds were maintained at the same level as last year, they should be producing the same amount of milk, but, nevertheless, whether as a result of the weather or because farmers have cut down in answer to that letter from the Milk Marketing Board, milk is scarce, and butter, according to the Daily Express anyway, is to be 6s. per 1b. this weekend. Again, the consumer suffers.

Horticulture has had to be subsidised. I think that £7 million has been spent on the industry. I understand that tomato growers have never had a worse year. Yet tomatoes have not been cheap in the shops, and neither has lettuce. If I may digress for a moment—I think it is a pertinent digression—I will refer to what was said a day or so ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) when he spoke of the need for preventive medicine. I have been watching the habits of right hon. and hon. Members, and I have noticed that, in the excellent cafeterias provided in this building, the practice is to take a tray and have put upon it a cup or pot of tea, saturated with white sugar, flanked by a couple of chocolate biscuits. This seems to be the main diet. After that, apparently, hon. Members then go to sit on the very comfortable chairs in the various public rooms. I feel that this is a very bad habit. If only hon. Members would buy a glass of milk, a slice of brown bread, with some tomato or lettuce, afterwards going down to the gymnasium to take some exercise, not only would they set a good example in the application of the principles of preventive medicine, but the doctors would soon be put out of business. We should here set an example which the country might follow, and horticulture and the milk industry would benefit.

I will give another example from my own experience. I have an interest in a fruit growing business in Lincolnshire. This year we had an excellent crop of beautiful greengages. We had a struggle to sell them at 3d. a 1b., and we gave 1¼d. a 1b. to pick them. Hon. Members can see how much we received for them. In Aberdeen, my home town, there were greengages for sale in the shops at 1s. 3d. a 1b. It seems to me ridiculous that it should need the addition of 1s. a 1b. to put greengages into the shopper's basket.

Now cereals, particularly barley. The Minister of Agriculture, about a year ago, spoke to the Millers' Association of this country deploring the fact that we were spending an increasing number of dollars, up to £140 million worth, on importing feed grains. He thought that we should produce more at home. In the same speech, he said that he could do nothing about it. Of course, he can do nothing about it. The Government abolished—I am merely stating the fact, not trying to be controversial—the controls with which they could have done something about it. This year, we had an excellent harvest, the best I have ever known. Are we taking advantage of this to save dollars? The barley—indeed, any cereal this year—has been in beautiful condition, dry and capable of storage for long enough. Are we doing anything about it?

I had a surplus over my storage capacity of about 110 tons of barley. I tried to sell it immediately after harvest and I could not because, at that time and during all the summer, Australian and Canadian barley was coming into the West Coast ports, imported by the importing companies who had brought it over in ships, and it was being taken in lorries to fill the stores of the distilleries on the Spey right up in Scotland, where it is used to make whisky. People were just not buying barley. A month ago, exporters on this side of the country bought barley up and down the East Coast, loaded it on to lorries, shipping it from East Coast ports to the Continent. No doubt, both these operations were carried out with great efficiency, one on one side of the country and one on the other. But, putting the two together, it seems that a state of anarchy exists when things like that go on.

I simply give the House those examples to show that the part of the Gracious Speech which deals with agriculture and horticulture—I shall quote it: My Government will encourage the more economic marketing of produce"— applies only to horticultural produce, but I submit to the Government that it must apply to all agricultural produce because the situation is becoming quite chaotic.

I think that it was Napoleon who said that we were a nation of shopkeepers. We are now becoming a nation of middlemen. I do not blame the middle-men. Many of them are my friends who handle my produce. They are simply working in a system, and they work very hard and well. They have to, because there are so many of them to get a living, but our system for marketing produce is rotten. We should take a look at how the Dutch and the Danes do it. They encourage co-operation, and I want to see much more co-operative marketing which I should like the Government to encourage so that the hard-won food of ours—and, believe me, Mr. Speaker, it is hard-won food—gets into consumers' shopping bags cheaper than it does today.