HC Deb 11 July 1938 vol 338 cc903-7
33. Mr. Mathers

asked the Minister of Agriculture whether he is in a position to make a statement with regard to the Government's policy for the poultry industry?

Mr. W. S. Morrison

With the hon. Member's permission I will make a statement at the end of Questions.


Mr. Morrison

The Government have given very careful consideration to the position of the poultry industry in all its aspects. They have had before them the reports of the Reorganisation Commissions for Eggs and Poultry, the report of the Poultry Technical Committee and the provisional proposals drawn up by the leading producers' organisations for a marketing scheme under the Agricultural Marketing Acts. They have also taken into consideration the results of recent consultations with representatives of organisations of producers and distributors.

Following a period of rapid expansion after the War, the industry has experienced an appreciable decline in the last three years. That decline appears to have been due to several factors, and the Government accept the view of the Poultry Technical Committee that one of the most vital factors affecting the prosperity of the industry in the whole of Great Britain at the present time is the high incidence of mortality in poultry flocks. The Government are impressed by the committee's views as to the very serious and urgent nature of the disease problem in the poultry industry, and they agree substantially with the recommendations of the committee as to the manner in which the problem should be tackled.

The Government accordingly propose that a Poultry Commission for Great Britain should be set up with power to control the distribution of breeding stock, hatching eggs and day-old chicks; and with the responsibility of conducting a stock improvement scheme on voluntary lines, assisted by premiums from the Exchequer on a diminishing scale. In addition, the Government are prepared to facilitate the establishment of a research station for the investigation of the major disease problems of the industry: to give sympathetic consideration to a scheme, which the Commission will be asked to prepare, for the establishment of a progeny-testing station with a view to the production of the highest quality foundation stock; and to co-operate in making increased provision for educational and advisory work among poultry producers. The proposal for a poultry research station is already under consideration by the Agricultural Research Council.

The Government are of the opinion that another factor contributing to the present difficulties of the industry is the lack of organisation in the marketing of Home produced eggs and poultry. This problem was dealt with in the reports of the Reorganisation Commissions appointed under the Agricultural Marketing Acts in 1933, and has since been discussed at length by the leading organisations of producers. The proposals provisionally submitted by the English organisations in December last envisaged the promotion of a statutory marketing scheme, the main object of which would be the regulation of the marketing of eggs by the standardisation of grading and packing.

There appears to be general agreement among the organisations representing both producers and distributors that some improvement in the present methods of marketing home-produced eggs is needed. Such a large proportion of individual poultry-keepers are in a small way of business, however, that the regulation of marketing under a producers' marketing scheme would present a very formidable task; moreover, it is doubtful whether a producers' marketing scheme would be the most effective, or indeed, the most appropriate, machinery for securing, for example, the standardisation of grades, since this is an object which necessarily involves the regulation of marketing practices in the wholesale and retail distributive trades. As an alternative to action by producers under the Agricultural Marketing Acts, therefore, the Government propose that the Poultry Commission should be given power to regulate the marketing of eggs, and also of dead poultry, by the standardisation of grades, etc., up to the point of final sale to the consumer.

In connection with this proposal for marketing reform, the Government are prepared to ask Parliament to provide a limited sum of money by way of loans to facilitate the establishment of producers' co-operative egg packing stations and by way of grants for the demonstration of efficient methods of packing dead poultry.

Careful consideration has been given to the claims of the industry that the existing tariff protection against imports from foreign sources should be supplemented by direct financial assistance in the form of an Exchequer subsidy, whether to off-set the present high cost of feeding stuffs or to provide in effect a guaranteed minimum price for eggs in the flush season. The Government are satisfied, however, that a subsidy for egg production would not only involve very serious administrative difficulties but would not be likely in the long run to be to the advantage of the industry as a whole. The Government do not propose therefore to invite Parliament to make provision for the payment of a subsidy.

On the other hand, the Government recognise that the quantitative regulation of imports of eggs and poultry may be necessary in certain circumstances. The Government are not prepared to restrict imports for the purpose of raising the normal levels of prices; only an increasingly drastic restriction of imports of eggs would effect and maintain (and then only for a limited period) any appreciable rise in prices. The Government feel, however, that if the task of establishing the poultry industry in Great Britain on a firm foundation is to be undertaken with energy and confidence, the industry should be safeguarded against possible dislocation of the market resulting from abnormal arrivals from overseas. They propose accordingly to seek power to regulate imports of eggs and other poultry products in the event of such a danger arising. Power will also be sought to, regulate imports, if necessary, in conjunction with, and in support of, any organised operations that may be undertaken by the industry, by storage during the spring flush, with a view to modifying the extreme seasonal variations of supplies and prices.

The Government commend these proposals as a policy which will materially assist the poultry industry by enabling effective steps to be taken to secure an all-round improvement in the quality of breeding stock and to reduce the heavy and increasing loss from disease, a loss which has been estimated at no less than £4,000,000 a year for adult laying-birds in England and Wales alone; and by facilitating reforms which should lead to greater efficiency and economy in the marketing field.

Legislation to give effect to these proposals will be introduced as soon as possible.

Mr. Mathers

I think we are entitled to thank the right hon. Gentleman, though much of his statement was what the Government are not going to do instead of what they are going to do. May I ask when we may expect this legislation; whether Scotland and England will be taken together under one general policy; and whether consideration will be given, as he has said it will be, to the position of the poultry farmer who is exclusively employed in raising poultry and eggs as contrasted with the general farmer with a mixed farm?

Mr. Macquisten

How much dearer does the Minister expect eggs to become? Will they not become altogether outside the pockets of the working class, just as in the case of milk and other commodities other marketing schemes have made everything dearer for the democracy?

Mr. Morrison

In reply to the hon. and learned Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) this is not a marketing scheme at all, and I do not anticipate that any increase in the price of eggs will necessarily follow these proposals. It would be very inadvisable to check the consumption of eggs by any policy.

Mr. Macquisten

Then who is going to pay for this huge body of officials?

Mr. Morrison

In reply to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers), the answer to his first question is that legislation will be introduced as soon as possible, but the course of Parliamentary business is not a matter which I can confidently predict. As to his second question, the legislation envisaged in this answer will be on a Great Britain basis. The answer to his third question is that consideration will be given to the different conditions which affect the specialist producer and the farmer who produces eggs as part of his ordinary business.

Mr. Macquisten

Who is to pay for the officials? Will the hens have a vote like the cows?