HC Deb 25 June 1934 vol 291 cc920-9

Amendments made: In page 15, line 10, after "month," insert "as aforesaid.

"In line 27, leave out "the said."

In line 27, after "nine," insert "of this Act."—[Mr. Elliot.]

10.37 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 16, line 2, to leave out "classes of persons to whom, or."

This Amendment is moved because it was brought to my notice that the inclusion of the words now proposed to be deleted might enable the boards to differentiate as to price between different buyers in different classes of trade. That was not, of course, intended. The Subsection will now permit what was required to be done, and the words "classes of persons" etc., are not necessary. The next Amendment is a drafting Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 16, line 3, at the end, insert "or used."—[Mr. Elliot.]


I beg to move, in page 16, line 4, to leave out Sub-section (3).

The Sub-section seems to contain very wide powers which are to be wielded by boards, constituted as these are. If the Sub-section were passed into law, it is possible that a board would be able to direct the supply to distributing units without regard to the efficiency of the organisation now functioning in that respect, and without regard to the dislocation caused to parties who previously supplied the milk. I will illustrate that by what has taken place in Scotland under the Scottish Milk Marketing Board, who have already—I presume they have the powers—acted within the terms of this Sub-section. The Scottish Co-operative Society has had its business interrupted by the board, who found that two great societies which go to the make up of the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society, the Kinning Park Society in Glasgow, and the St. Cuthbert's Society in Edinburgh, have received, in the past, their supplies from the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, in order to level out their requirements.

Those two large units of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society have been interrupted from receiving their supplies from the Society, and have been directed to other sources for the milk which they require. They have sunk capital into their own supply organisation, but the right to use it has been denied them. They have been directed to farms which, I presume, are closer to them. The mistake which has been made in this respect in Scotland might be made elsewhere. I am aware that the intention of the Subsection is the elimination of waste. I abhor all types of waste, but the cooperative arrangement to which I have referred endeavoured to eliminate the waste arising from what the Minister has called the geographical journeyings of milk. I presume that other co-operative societies and other organisations of milk distribution have also endeavoured to eliminate waste. It is a laudable desire to eliminate waste as far as possible, and that has been done in Scotland, where milk transport in the past has been of the most effective and economical character.

Furthermore, I would point out that at present, especially in Scotland, there are regional arrangements. There are three, and I think there will be four boards functioning in Scotland. I am not sure whether these regional arrangements will last very long, and whether they will not assume in the near future a more national character, so that the national requirements may be catered for by a smaller number of boards than four. In that case there is the possibility of Scotland returning to the national aspect which has been catered for by the co-operative organisation, which has endeavoured so to plan out its duties as to meet the Scottish requirements for milk to the best advantage from the national point of view. I think that a mistake has been made in Scotland. But these boards will now come to England, and the Co-operative Wholesale Society has a number of creameries already functioning in England. If action is taken in the South similar to that which has been taken under the Scottish boards, that again will interrupt the efficient machinery of the co-operative organisation for the distribution of milk to their own members. They will be prevented from using their own plant, and it seems to me that there is a possibility of duplication of plant under the proposals of this Sub-section. I repeat that this has been eliminated considerably by the conscious efforts of the societies to which I have referred, and they have attained a considerable degree of efficiency which I should not like to see interrupted.

I am mindful that the Minister in Committee made a statement regarding the possibilities of meeting any complaint that might be put before him, but, as far as I can see, while he has certainly taken the matter into consideration, the first part of his proposal really widens the field within which further penalties may be imposed, and, while I readily admit that the right of consultation given in this Clause is a commendable departure, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that full power to act still remains with the board, and we fear that it will act in a manner that will not redound to good organisation as we see it at present. I think, therefore, that it is a mistake to endeavour to interrupt the units of distribution which are already functioning successfully at the present time, and that it would be better to find ways and means of rationalisation where that is necessary in sections of the industry which are not rationalised at present; and I think that that could be secured without interfering as is being done at present. Therefore, I should like, notwithstanding what has been done by the Minister, to get assurances from him that the efficient machinery which is already functioning will not be interrupted. The co-operative milk handling organisation reacts to the requirements of millions of people in this country, and it is because of the dislocation which has been brought about in the North by that organisation being interfered with by the Milk Board that I fear that the extension of this right to England will result in damage such as I have referred to taking place further South.


I beg to second the Amendment.

10.45 p.m.


We had some discussion on this matter in Committee, and I certainly hope I shall be able to meet hon. Members opposite by the Amendment that I have on the Paper. I think it is agreed in all parts of the House that rationalisation of long journeys of agricultural produce is desirable, but the Committee desired to be assured that this would not be wantonly used so as to interrupt the long-established channels of distribution. It is a fact that agricultural produce tends to be shunted about the country in a way that is injurious to the product and expensive to the consumer. Let me give one single example. In April, while about 6,500,000 gallons were brought into London from the Northern, North-Western, Mid-Western and South Wales regions, in the same month in regions nearer to London no less than 2,250,000 gallons of milk were being processed and manufactured. The liquid product was being brought long distances and the liquid product close at hand was being worked up into manufactured milk which might have come equally well from the ends of the earth. For instance, the Marketing Board; had to grant facilities to buyers in London to manufacture milk from Essex, and at the same time 20,000 gallons was coming here from Carlisle.

Clearly, these are stages in the distribution of milk which should, if possible, be eliminated, and I think the power here proposed is a reasonable power to give. The co-operatives, who have themselves done a great deal towards the reorganisation of supply, will not. I think, object if that process is carried a step further. In general, the product should be consumed as near as possible to the area in which it is produced and should not travel unnecessarily about the country. When we come to my Amendment, I shall be prepared to defend the steps that I am taking to see that the power is not wantonly used and that the desires expressed in Committee are met. I would ask the House not to accept the contention that power to rationalise the distribution of milk in this way should be withheld from the board, but to allow the Sub-section to remain as part of the Statute.

10.48 p.m.


The right hon. Gentleman has at least recognised the point which has been submitted by my hon. Friend, and which was submitted to the Committee, to the extent of having put an Amendment on the Paper. We recognise the advance that he has made but we doubt if it is all that is necessary. We certainly want sane marketing for all agricultural produce, but we do not want marketing at any price. We have already had some little experience of how it has worked out in Scotland, and we have heard that the largest retail societies have been denied the right to receive from the Scottish Wholesale Society, their parent and child as it were, their supplies of milk. The Co-operative Wholesale Society is utterly different from the average distributor. The big society is owned by the small societies. They run on capital provided by the small societies, and they have built up a huge business all over the country, simply serving the needs of their members. I fully appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's point that to transfer milk from Carlisle to London in liquid form and then to send milk produced within the immediate neighbourhood of London for manufacture is absurd, and ought not to be continued.

I raised that point with the right hon. Gentleman, I believe, several months since. I then pointed out that Scottish farmers had their scouts out to see what price was fixed for milk in London, and, having secured that knowledge, fixed their prcie below it, so that they could transfer milk to London and undercut the producers in the south. We do not want to see that happen here. There is a parallel to Sub-section (3) in the sugar-beet development, where after a period of years, we see factories growing up manufacturing sugar out of home-grown beet. The Government, through the agency of the Minister, has established some machine whereby importers of sugar, refiners and home producers get together, the consumer paying for the rationalising of the factories, though during this time the Government have been paying a £40,000,000 subsidy. We do not want, during the period of subsidising the industry, one creamery or one piece of machinery to be thrown out of gear and another piece of machinery to be built up at the same time, which ultimately will have to be rationalised at the expense of the State. Therefore, the experience gained in the Scottish incident is one which the right hon. Gentleman should note. The same possibility is present here with the Milk Board. When you think of the co-operative societies, with the massive organisation built up in the absence of similar organisation, we are apprehensive of what might happen. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make a fuller statement, we shall listen with great interest to what he says. In the meantime, we think that Sub-section (3) constitutes a grave danger.

10.53 p.m.


I hope that this Amendment will not be pressed. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has made out his case for better organisation and the riddance of duplication of waste and of taking milk on long journeys. If there is any justification for this Bill, it is this effort to plan. I sometimes think that the hon. Gentleman is the best Socialist in this House, because he is the Socialist who wants to put into practice some form of Socialism in our time. We all remember in our early days the classic Socialist example of 12 milk carts going down one street when one milk cart would do the job. For that reason, to leave out these words completely would defeat one of the best purposes of the Bill, bringing milk to the consumer so that one day we may reduce its price. I am glad that the Minister is going to add some words. When he reaches those words, I will try to help him, and will reserve what I have to say until then.

Amendment negatived.


I beg to move, in page 16, line 9, at the end, to insert: and the provisions of the scheme which relate to penalties shall apply with respect to any determination of the board under this sub-section as they apply with respect to determinations of the board under the scheme which regulate sales of milk: Provided that no determination shall be made under this sub-section by any board except after consultation with such a committee as the Minister may have approved for the purpose as representing the interests of purchasers of milk by wholesale. I accept the support of the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) gladly. As it is only on infrequent occasions that I have received such support, I am the more willing to move the Amendment as briefly as possible, so as to be in possession of that support as soon as possible. The Amendment is explanatory. Unlike many Amendments moved in this House, even, I regret to say, from the Front Bench, the Amendment is quite simple and means exactly what it says. There was a fear that the board might work rashly and without proper consultation with those who have had long experience in the trade which alone enables them to speak with authority. We have dealt with that matter by saying that the board shall consult the committee. The distributive trade was afraid that this committee might not be fully representative of that trade, and might be chosen by the Milk Board simply pro forma, and not with a genuine desire for consultation. To remove that fear we have said that the committee shall be approved by the Minister, which is to say that it shall be thoroughly representative of interests affected in this manner. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green wishes to strengthen it further and to say that even after this consultation no determination should be made by any board unless it were approved by the Minister.


Failing agreement.


I would beg of the hon. Gentleman to consider the further stages which might come to such a determination. He will see that his proposed words are inappropriate, because it is most desirable that we should not infringe the right of any aggrieved party to bring the matter before the committee of investigation. If the matter comes before the committee of investigation, the Minister stands in the peculiar position of a judge, and might have to take action on a report of the committee of investigation. To bring in the Minister at an earlier stage would not increase the rights of the subject, but diminish them. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green will not find it necessary to press his Amendment with the object of bringing the Minister further into the matter. The Amendment says that there shall be consultation with responsible persons who are to be approved for the purpose as representing the interests of purchasers of milk by wholesale.

The Amendment meets the undertaking which I gave on the Committee stage of the Bill.

11 p.m.


I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, at the end, to add: and failing agreement between the Board and such Committee no determination under the Sub-section shall be made by any Board unless approved by the Minister after hearing the views of the Board and such Committee. I appreciate the spirit of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. We are both aiming at the same purpose. I agree that he has made a gallant attempt to meet the views of the interests who feel that they are in serious jeopardy of having an interference with their rights. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, perhaps better than anyone else, advice is cheap. He has had plenty of it during the last 12 months in his position at the Board of Agriculture, but advice does not carry one very far. The board represents the interests of the producers. That is a fundamental weakness of this scheme. Naturally, the board is responsible to the people who elect it and for whom it acts, and it will always approach these problems from the producers' point of view. Rightly or wrongly, there are the interests of the wholesale distributors to be considered, and it will be found very often that the interests of the distributors and the producers do not coincide. The words which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to insert are that the committee shall be consulted, but if there is a deadlock the board will win every time, because it is supreme. It will always have the last word. Advice will be given, but the board may not choose, in the interests of the producers, to take the advice given. I am paying a compliment to the right hon. Gentleman and appealing to his very sympathetic nature, as representing the whole of the country, when I seek to provide that he should reconcile the two points of view by accepting my Amendment. It will strengthen the words which he proposes to insert in the Clause. If he cannot accept my words, perhaps he will add something of the kind in another place.


I beg to second the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.


I do not wish to be discourteous to my hon. Friend, but I would beg him to consider the point that I put in moving my Amendment, that the position of the Minister as the judge after the committee of investigation has considered any special grievance would make it very difficult for me to accept his Amendment. The hon. Member for St. Rollox (Mr. Leonard) knows that disputes under conditions which are similar to the conditions in this Sub-section are already before a committee of investigation. Clearly, if the Minister has already been concerned in a dispute at an earlier stage it would prejudice him very much to act as judge in the final determination. With every desire to meet my hon. Friend, I cannot accept the Amendment.


It was suggested to me that another Minister might be approached. If my right hon. Friend would promise to do something in another place to strengthen his words, I should be glad to withdraw my Amendment.


To bring in another Minister would mean raising the whole question of bringing in Ministers to act in an executive and judicial capacity, which would be constitutionally unwise.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question again proposed, "That those words be there inserted in the Bill."

11.5 p.m.


I appreciate the attitude of the Minister in presenting his Amendments and also the difficulty of endeavouring to cater for one organisa- tion in the framework of a general scheme, but I hope that the board will exercise their powers in the same manner and spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman has proposed his modifications. The way in which co-operators have treated the farmers of the country and most industries with which they have come in contact is known; but our fears have foundation in the past. When a plea was made to a board already functioning that a consultant should be brought in it received a very short reply. That attitude is not hopeful for the future and I hope it will not be persisted in, and I hope that the modifications proposed by the right hon. Gentleman will be acted upon in the manner and spirit in which they have been put forward.

Amendment agreed to.

Bill to be read the Third time Tomorrow.