HC Deb 09 August 1920 vol 133 cc167-72

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill seeks to make permanent an important change which took place during the War, under the Defence of the Realm Act Regulations, and which really introduced what was of great advantage from the agricultural point of view. Under those Regulations a Seed Testing Station was set up in this country, and Regulations were made compelling the powers of agricultural seeds to disclose the varieties of the seeds and their purity and percentage of germination. Very great beneficial results ensued. There can be no doubt that before this was done a great deal of impure seed, containing weeds, and so on, was sold in this country to the great disadvantage of farmers, allotment-holders, and others. Following up what was done, we propose to make this plan permanent. In doing so we have the support not only of the entire agricultural interest, but also of the members of the seed trade, who have played an exceedingly patriotic and public-spirited part in this matter. England in this particular question has lagged behind the rest of the world. Other countries have had seed testing stations for many years. Denmark was the first, and there they set up a seed testing station fifty years ago, and they have also been set up in Germany, Switzerland, France, and other countries. Ireland, in the United Kingdom, set up a seed testing station twenty years ago with compulsory regulations, and Scotland followed suit shortly before the War, though there were no compulsory regulations, as they trusted the good sense of the Scottish farmer. During the War we set up a seed testing station under the Regulations.

Let me give the House one example of the good of that station. During the acute crisis of the submarine campaign the Food Production Department imported cargoes of seed oats from Ireland. In one case, owing to the difficulty of shipping, time was not allowed for a test to be taken in Ireland. It was tested on arrival here, and it was found that only 30 per cent. of the whole consignment would germinate. The result was that that particular cargo was sold for forage, and the House will realise what damage would have been done if that seed had not been tested. This seed-testing station has been in operation for three years. Our present powers terminate with the conclusion of peace, and we think it wise to have permanent powers. We propose that every seller of seeds shall give a certificate containing particulars of purity and germination, and there are penalties if that is not done or if it is improperly done. We also make it illegal for any seed to be sold which has more than a prescribed percentage of injurious weeds. We take powers for inspection and testing. Some hon. Members may say, "Here you are once again proposing a large staff of inspectors and bureaucrats." I may say this work has been done, and satisfactorily done, during the last three years by five inspectors, and I do not think it will be necessary to increase that number, or, at all events, only very slightly. We take powers to set up in England what they already have in Scotland and Ireland and most foreign countries—a seed-testing station. When we compel the issue of certificates of purity there must be an official place where the seeds can be tested. We have got a temporary seed testing station now, and we propose to make it permanent. We do not propose to interfere in any way with the existing seed-testing station in Scotland or Ireland. At the same time we take powers to enable the English and Welsh Department, and the Scottish Department, or the English and Irish Departments, or all three, if they are willing to do so, to set up one great seed-testing station for the whole of the United Kingdom.

I very much hope that may be carried out. At the present time we are in the ridiculous position that if English seeds-men wish to export their seed they send their samples to Zurich and get the Zurich test for their seed. If we can only have one central seed-testing station with the reputation that Zurich has in this country, I am sure it would be of great advantage to the trade of the United Kingdom. We hope that this may possibly happen at Cambridge. There has lately been set up at Cambridge a great institution called the National Institution of Agricultural Botany. It has been started largely by private funds, by the munificence of people who recognise the importance of the application of science to agriculture and wish to assist the elevation of the general standard of agriculture in this country. It has been started recently, and to that body we pro pose to delegate the seed testing under this Bill. If that is done and the institution flourishes, as we hope it will—it commands already some of the greatest scientists in this country, such as Prof. Biffen—we can establish here a seed-testing station which will be worthy of the station at Zurich or other well-known stations on the Continent.

This is practically an agreed Bill. Its sole object is to improve the cultivation of this country to ensure that not only the farmer, but also the small man, the smallholder, and cultivator of an allotment garden gets really good seed when he purchases. At the present time they are liable, especially the smaller man who cultivates an allotment, to be fobbed off with exceedingly indifferent seed. The Bill is supported by the agricultural community. It is supported by the Seeds Advisory Committee of the Ministry on which the trade is largely represented. It is supported by the great seeds trade association, and, lastly, it is supported strongly by the Consumers' Council at the Ministry of Food, who are particularly interested in the work of allotment holders; and inasmuch as it is a Bill which will cost a very small sum of money, and that it is merely carrying out what has successfully been done in the last three years, and will make for better cultivation, especially in giving the smaller man a chance, I hope the House will give it a Second Reading as quickly as possible.


I do not rise in any way to criticise the Bill which the right hon. Gentleman has put before the House for the Second Reading this evening because I am one of those who for over 12 years have been asking for this very Bill. We ought to know a little more as to what the cost of this seed station will be and whether it will be limited to the Financial Resolution, because at the present moment I am very deeply interested in this Ministry of Agriculture in trying to find out if we can economise a little. I find that in the Ministry the number of typewriters and the number of second-class clerks and other people is increasing by leaps and bounds. The right hon. Gentleman has told us we shall want five inspectors, but he did not tell us of the innumerable clerks and other people who will be wanted to count the seeds and analyse them.


My hon. Friend does not realise that this work is going on now, and that we are merely asking to make permanent what is now being done.


I am perfectly aware of what is going on now, but what I want to know is what is going to be the increase in this Department. The right hon. Gentleman proposes that the present arrangement should go to Cambridge, and therefore there will be a new station created and a large staff to carry out that work. We want the work done, but we want to know how much it will cost. At Cambridge will it be a station isolated by itself under the control of the Ministry, or will it be under the control of the University? I know that the seed that is being used, not only by the allotment holder, but also by the farmer, has been very badly adulterated in many cases. I have had seed myself badly adulterated, and I know we want this station and am glad to see the Bill brought forward, but I think we ought to have full information about it.


Whilst quite agreeing with the last speaker that this Bill is very much wanted, there is one point arising on Sub-section 7 of Clause 4 which requires mentioning. Under that Sub-section very wide powers are given to the Minister in connection with the black list to be formed under this Bill. He can apparently put anyone on to it without the need of conviction. I was disappointed that my right hon. Friend did not refer to this question and explain the Clause, but I hope he will be able to consider favourably an Amendment when the Bill goes to Committee.


I cannot say I will consider favourably, but I will consider any Amendment that is put down by my hon. Friend or any other hon. Member. In regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Sir B. Stanier), I propose to-morrow to bring forward a financial resolution, when I hope to be able to give a complete answer to his question.


This Bill has been welcomed so much by people engaged in agriculture that I am not going to discuss that side of the question, but it seems to me that this is just exactly one of those apparently beneficent undertakings being started by the Government which ought to be paid for by those who are going to get the benefit of it. I see nothing in this Bill which provides for any fees being charged for the work that is going to be done by these testing stations, and it seems to me that this is eminently a case where a charge should be made.


Hon. and right hon. Members are very apt to be misled as to the technical difficulties of testing seeds. As a matter of fact, it is a very simple operation, and is done every day by those who are used to it, and are not scientific or highly instructed persons. There is no mystification about it, and there need be no very great cost. I want to press upon the right hon. Gentleman who brought in the Bill to look more closely into the work, and see whether it is possible to keep down the cost to the public. There is no reason for a great expenditure in a matter of this kind. The Bill should be of great benefit.


How is it that they can do this sort of thing in Scotland without an Act of Parliament, whereas in England they require an Act of Parliament for it? That point has not been sufficiently explained.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Sir A. Boscawen.]