Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th July 1968.

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Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire 12:00 am, 11th July 1968

I endorse what many hon. Members have said about the serious problem this year for the growers of new potatoes. Many new potatoes are grown in South Ayrshire and it is my duty to convey to the Minister of Agriculture and to the House the disquiet which has been felt during recent weeks about the importation of new potatoes from France, Cyprus and Israel. When ships have arrived in Leith or Glasgow, the market has been upset and Ayrshire farmers have suffered the economic consequences.

This is not a new problem. It has been a problem ever since I became the Member for South Ayrshire, 22 years ago. At about this time of the year, representations are made by farmer constituents and the mode of the representations is an indication of the seriousness of the problem. If farmers write letters, they are exasperated; if they send telegrams, they are infuriated; but when a Scottish farmer has a long conversation over the telephone, the position is desperate.

This situation occurs entirely irrespective of party. Hon. Members who have been here long enough will know that I frequently questioned Conservative Ministers about this problem year after year and that I never got a satisfactory answer. During the troubles over Cyprus, there was a big importation of Cyprus potatoes in July because there had been a strike at Famagusta.

The Ayrshire farmers paid the penalty for the Government's policy which resulted in the Famagusta strike. Ayrshire potatoes had to compete with Cyprus potatoes, which arrived late. I do not know what the problem is this year, but foreign potatoes are arriving and causing concern among my constituents. It is very difficult for us to think of this problem without also thinking of those who have to buy the potatoes. It is the Government's business to be just and fair. The present Government are as fair as any other Government. I do not want to be too critical, but I would like some assurance that this problem is being looked at carefully, from week to week and day to day, so that the grower of new potatoes in Ayrshire may have a fair deal.

They do not want a great deal of priority, but they ask that their economy should be considered. The economy of that part of Scotland depends upon the new potatoes going to market at a certain time; other crops which follow are also affected. I hope that, under the Government's guidance, we will try to find a constructive solution which will be of help in preserving the new potato economy in this part of the country. It is a traditional one—it was there before Cyprus entered the Commonwealth. Will there be some hard thinking to develop a plan so that the farmer will have a clear idea of what he can expect to sell in the market in two or three years' time?

There has to be planning, and I hope that we will make another attempt to solve this problem. We will never do it unless we have international agreements on markets, and plan the whole of the agricultural production of Europe and North Africa as a whole. I know that that will be difficult. I do not expect to see it done in one year, but that is the direction in which we should be moving. Producers all over the world should know exactly what they can plan, in a world perspective.

One subject which is rarely mentioned in this type of debate, perhaps because it is a four letter word, is "rent". Because it has only four letters hon. Members opposite are always fighting shy of it. I have been looked at with reproach, as if I were mentioning something indecent, when I ask about the rent being paid by the small farmer. The small farmers are worried about this problem. Perhaps it has escaped the observation of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but in recent years in Scotland there has been a tendency for farm rents to rise. This is also the case in England, and I would welcome the appointment of a commission to inquire into the whole business.

I have suggested that this matter should be referred to the Prices and Incomes Board, and I do not know why this was turned down. It was said that this would be considered in fixing prices in the Annual Review. When one considers the obscurity of how this can be negotiated in the Price Review, the problem becomes baffling. People who know most about farming in Scotland, the writers to the Scottish Farmer, always return periodically, as do the branches of the National Farmers' Union, to the question whether rents are too high. They have produced a prima facie case for an inquiry into the rise of rents over the last five years.

Another question which I asked, and which was regarded as indecent, was whether, in view of the plight of the small farmer, both sides of the House could not agree to landlords fixing a moratorium in rents during the economic crisis. The silence that greeted my suggestion on that occasion was deafening.