HC Deb 06 July 1944 vol 401 cc1354-64

(a) The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries may by agreement with a local authority being a county council or a local authority within the meaning of the principal Act delegate to the council all or any of his functions under regulations made under this Act.

(b) Where in pursuance of this section functions are delegated to any council, the council shall in discharge of those functions act as agents for the Minister and in accordance with such conditions as he may attach to the delegation.

(c) Any delegation to a council under the foregoing provisions of this Act may be determined by a notice served on the council by the Minister or may be relinquished by a notice served on the Minister by a council so however that any such notice must be served before the first day of October in any year and the determination or relinquishment shall take effect as from the first day of April in the next following year.—[Mr. W. Roberts.]

Brought up, and read the First time,

Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, North)

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

At an earlier stage of this Bill the Minister said one of his difficulties in dealing with this problem was that of the various ways in which local authorities applied the standards which he wished to see laid down. That was given as one of the chief reasons why the administration of this matter should be taken from local authorities and given to a centrally organised staff under the Ministry. The object of this new Clause is to make it possible for the Minister to make use of the organisation of county councils where he considers that their administration in the past and their promise for the future will result in the new regulations and the new standards being carried out satisfactorily The Minister suggested to us that there had been great differences in the standards applied, that in some districts a high standard was set and in other districts a much lower standard. It seems to me that where the work has been done satisfactorily there is a strong case for still leaving it under the direction of the county or local authority. I have tried in this new Clause to make it clear that the county council would be acting only as agent for the Ministry; they would carry out the Regulations which the Minister lays down and, therefore, one would get the advantages of a central direction with some of the advantages of local control.

It may be said that this will make an inconvenient arrangement, that in some counties the officers will be directly under the Ministry and in others under the county council, and that that is an irregular arrangement. I wonder whether that matters very much. Some of the advantages of the suggestion being made here are that we shall get, not exactly a tribunal, but at least a local committee, watching the administration, and watching the interests of the persons concerned. This new Clause is no substitute for the appeal arrangements which the Minister is suggesting; it is not intended to be a substitute for that. It is dealing primarily with a rather different aspect of the problem, but it does incidentally provide that local people, some of whom would be elected—because I think the dairies committees of county councils have nominated persons as well as persons elected to the county council serving upon them—will be able to watch the administration of this Measure, and will give that local eye to the way it is being carried on which might very likely make it less necessary in many instances for the tribunal to be called in.

I would, therefore, like to make it abundantly clear that while I welcome the proposals the Minister is making for his tribunal I feel there is a case for this plan as well. It is only a permissive Clause. If the Minister found that it was not workable he need not use it, but in the transition period, in the early stages, I suggest it might be very useful. Where there are counties which can carry out this work effectively, where they have already got their staffs and organisations, it might assist the Minister in getting the Bill into working order more quickly than if he had to build up the whole of his organisation centrally from the very beginning. It is true that the county councils have up to now only been responsible for the special classes of milk—for tuberculin-tested milk—but it seems to me that it would be very much easier for the county councils to expand their organisation to cover all dairies than it will be for him to build up a completely new centralised organisation. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will consider this.

On the general issue the county councils are afraid that in one way or another many of their powers are being taken away from them. This does give an opportunity, where county councils have done this work well, where they have the staff available, and where they have the organisation, to ask their aid; and it being a permissive Clause, under which there is every opportunity for the Minister to withdraw this system if it is found to be cumbersome, I press it upon him as at any rate a power he might take in this Bill. It will assist him to get this scheme into working order quickly and will meet the widespread feeling that local authorities are having their responsibilities taken from them, and will further safeguard the individual farmer by giving him the local survey of democratically-elected local representatives.

Mr. Horabin (Cornwall, Northern)

I beg to second the Motion.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I should like very much to support the new Clause. I do so with the greater pleasure because it is in line with a suggestion I ventured to make on Second Reading. I am quite sure that if the Minister would accept it his action would be very welcome to local authorities. He is very well aware that they are concerned over the proposals to take away powers which they have hitherto exercised. The new Clause does give him an opportunity of retaining their good will, which, of course, he needs not only for the purposes of this Bill but for general administration. There is a precedent for the suggested procedure. The Minister of Transport follows this course with regard to trunk roads. The county councils are his agents in this matter, and in practice it has worked well. There is one further advantage. One danger which the local authorities see in this Bill is that when the Minister proposes to appoint his own officers to do this he will deprive them of some of the members of their staff whom they badly need, not only for this work but for other work also. If he will use the county councils as his agents these officials will be able to remain in the employ of the local authorities, and it will, therefore, remove the feeling of apprehension which they have on this matter. It seems to me that a Clause of this kind is sound commonsense and it is in the interests of friendly relations between local authorities and the Minister that he should accept it. If he can do so I am sure it will be a very wise step for him to take.

Mr. Price (Forest of Dean)

I hope the Minister will not see his way to accept this new Clause, because much as I appreciate the work which the local authorities have done in matters concerning milk and dairies and the working of the Acts hitherto, I think the time has come when there must be greater uniformity with regard to this whole matter. If the machinery which has hitherto proved to be not altogether satisfactory because it is not uniform is still further perpetuated by this new Clause, as I think it will be, we shall not really get abreast of the problem. The whole purpose of this Bill is to get a uniform system under central control, and I think it would be unwise for the Minister to deflect in any way from the general purpose which he has set forth in this Bill. This is no reflection upon the local authorities, none whatever. They are going to have plenty of work to do in other spheres. They will not have their functions taken away in a great many other spheres, as far as I can see. In view of the fact that milk and dairies are an absolutely fundamental matter from the point of view of public health and the future of agriculture, I hope the Minister will see his way not to accept this new Clause, much as I recognise the good intentions of the mover.

Sir Edward Grigg (Altrincham)

I can understand the hon. Member urging uniformity and central control, because he adopts principles foreign to those we adopt on this side of the House.

Mr. Price

The efficiency of agriculture is all I am concerned with.

Sir E. Grigg

The argument for efficiency is, I think, a wrong argument. It is the argument which has been used throughout to establish every totalitarian system. If it holds good for milk why not apply it to everything else? My hon. Friend's argument will serve to apply central control over the whole range of the nation's activities. That argument can always be used. I quite understand his advocating it, but I only hope he will realise that in advocating it he is leading the country towards totalitarianism, which is what we are determined to resist.

I did not rise to enter into controversy with my hon. Friend, but only very briefly to give my support to this admirable new Clause. After all, it is permissive. I agree that more uniformity—riot rigid uniformity under central control, but more uniformity—is required in regard to standards for milk, but this is a permissive Clause. Under it my right hon. Friend can use local authorities when he thinks they can do the job, and he need not use them when he thinks they would not do the work well. It is of the greatest importance at the present moment to put no slight on local authorities, or to suggest that this House is trying to arrogate to itself powers in regard to local government which in many cases, indeed in most cases, they have admirably discharged. I hope my right hon. Friend will therefore give this Clause his favourable consideration. It is permissive. He is not bound by it. He can take action under it when he thinks it is right to do so, and refuse to take action when he thinks the local authority is not properly effective. It can therefore have no effect whatever in causing any deterioration in the standards of clean milk, and it will undoubtedly give great satisfaction to members of local authorities who are hard working voluntary public servants in all parts of the country, and to whose services to the community we are liable not to give adequate recognition.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I should like to add my support for this Clause. I am speaking not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg) did, from the point of view of the local authorities, but in the interests of clean milk. The Minister's case throughout the whole of this Bill is that he has to wipe out the local authorities because there are black spots in some parts of England or Wales. That has always seemed to me harsh and unfair to local authorities who have done their duty in the past and have every intention of continuing to do their duty in future. This is a permissive Clause. It has another advantage. The Minister cannot bring his Bill into operation for a long time unless he adopts some such measure as this. The veterinary officers and the sanitary inspectors are not there. Here is a way of speeding up the effort for clean milk. The Minister could take over the powers of recalcitrant authorities, and leave the powers in the hand of authorities who are doing well. On the last stage of the Bill I mentioned authorities who were inspecting twice or three times a year, and were seeing that the neighbouring towns got clean milk—that was in the neighbourhood of York. Is it right that the Minister should lower the standard, as he will do in the early years, by giving that area fewer inspections than it has had hitherto?

This is a test of whether the Minister is really in earnest about getting clean milk, and of whether he is going to level up the standard, or to level it down. I have a fear, when I read of the National Farmers' Union supporting the Minister in this matter, whether the end will not be less close control over milk production, and a levelling down of the best areas to a less satisfactory position. I am as keen as anyone to get clean milk, but we have seen that, when the Minister has taken over the powers of local authorities, the standard has not gone up, but has gone down. I refer to powers in respect of diseases of animals, for which we had more rigid inspection before the powers were taken over than we have had since. In my own county sheep scab has increased since the Minister took over veterinary inspection. I am prepared to support the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) in the Division Lobby, in order to have this Clause added to the Bill.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

I apologise for intervening in this Debate. I intervene because of the speech which was made by the hon. Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg). I listen to him on many subjects with great respect, though I often disagree with him. I am sure that, on reflection, he will agree that there is no totalitarianism in the attitude of my hon. Friend. The essence of totalitarianism is that there is no Parliament, no public representatives to criticise. It comes ill, indeed, to charge hon. Members on this side with not being fully aware of the importance of local government. In the last 20 years the party to which I belong has given new life and functions to local government in this country. The time will come when the whole problem of local government will have to be reconsidered. Almost every week, in this House, we add enormous new functions to local government, and in the next in or 20 years those functions will be enormously extended, beyond anything that local government ever had before. The way to weaken local government is to give it functions that it cannot carry on.

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

Or any other form of government.

Mr. Griffiths

Yes. We have to be sure that the people of this country are provided with clean milk. To do that, we must get uniform standards, applied uniformly all over the country. Can the existing local government structure secure that end? We have as much care and admiration for local government as anyone, and we are satisfied that the way provided in the Bill, and not the other way, is best. It is not because we are totalitarian. We shall resist any attempt at totalitarianism or at over-centralisation, but we must not give local government powers that it cannot carry on.

Sir E. Grigg

I welcome the statement that my hon. Friend has made in regard to totalitarianism. I hope that he will live up to it in years to come. I am sure that he must admit that, not merely uniform standards, but high uniform standards, are what we want. It is because we believe that the local authorities can assist in making the standards not only uniform, but high, that we support this Clause.

Mr. Griffiths

That is what we want.

Sir William Wayland (Canterbury)

I support the Clause. I cannot see how the Minister can refuse it. He has the power in his own hands, and can offer it or not to the local authorities. Surely the local authorities are more anxious to see things properly carried out than is an important official in London. I really hope that the Minister will see that he cannot lose anything by accepting the Clause, and that he will accept it without further demur.

Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

May I add one word of appeal to the Minister to accept, at any rate, the principle of this new Clause? There is not the least doubt that he, as much as any of us, is anxious to do all that is possible to strengthen and encourage the local authorities to do their work efficiently. Throughout the discussions on this Bill it has appeared to me entirely wrong to take away the powers of local authorities in respect of the production of clean milk because of difficulties which have been experienced in the past in the effective carrying out of those powers. Surely the right way is to strengthen and encourage the local authorities. One of the difficulties has been the absence of a standard, and of compulsory powers to enforce that standard. The right hon. Gentleman has now got into a position where he can issue the necessary standards, and see that they are compulsorily enforced. I am quite sure that, from the point of view of the consumers and the farmers, quite apart from that of the local authorities, a provision of this kind would assist the working of a Bill which I am sure we all want, and would go a long way towards getting clean milk.

Mr. Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)

I am very much disappointed at the attitude of Members of the Labour Party. On the Second Reading, eight of them spoke strongly against the transference of the powers of the local authorities to the central Government. Now, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), after a volte face between the Second Reading and the Committee stage, is advocating complete uniformity in the hands of Whitehall as regards the administration of this Bill, as opposed to leaving it in the hands of local authorities. I find it difficult to discover why the change of heart has occurred. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg) never suggested for one instant that hon. Members of the Labour Party are not in favour of the continuance of local government functions; but, unfortunately, the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly did not indicate that they intended to practise, so far as this Bill is concerned, what they are preaching. I think my hon. Friend the Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) has done a real service in drafting this very good Clause, which, so far I can see, could easily be accepted by the Minister without doing any harm whatever even to his ideas of how the Bill should be carried out if it becomes an Act.

I firmly believe, as I believed when the Bill was first introduced, that it is unwise to transfer functions in respect of milk from the local authorities to the central Government without a very careful inquiry, conducted in peace-time. We registered our protest, and now we are faced with this position. It seems to me that there is no particular reason to foresee that the officers of the central Government will be any more efficient than the servants of the local authorities—certainly those of the best local authorities. They have to be recruited, and I presume that there will be great difficulty in recruitment. But the best local authorities already have sanitary inspectors and veterinary officers in their employment, who are carrying out their tasks, so far as they can, with the handicaps of lack of money and lack of general regulation—and they are doing it well. Therefore, it seems to me that, when this Act becomes fully operative, it will be wise to leave these powers in the hands of those local authorities, at any rate, which are carrying out their tasks in such a way. I believe it would make the Bill work very much better, from the administrative point of view, and it would, at least, allay the alarm of some local authorities concerned, and their annoyance at having their functions taken away when they know that they have been carrying them out as well as they could with the two handicaps I have mentioned. I hope my right hon. Friend will see his way to agree that this Clause does not, in the least, undermine the principle of the Bill, and to accept it.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

I rise to say a word to support the point made by my hon. Friend below me. If the object is to produce clean milk as soon as possible, I think the Clause brought forward is far more efficient than the Bill as it stands, from that point of view. It is perfectly clear that for a very long period of time the Minister cannot possibly have trained inspectors to inspect dairy farms, and I think that, in the meantime, it is desirable that the local authorities should continue to do this important work. It is very important work and that should be emphasised in this House.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. R. S. Hudson)

I am afraid the Government cannot accept this new Clause. I promised, during the course of the Second Reading, that I would look into the question to see if we could do anything towards delegation, but the practical difficulties are, in our view, overwhelming. I have gone a long way to meet the object which the mover professed to have in mind in his speech, when he said that he wanted local authorities in the counties to have a sound general administration under this Bill. My hon. Friend will see that I have an Amendment to Clause 4 to set up this Committee, whose job will be to keep a general eye on it and carry out the precise purpose he has in mind. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) asked if I would accept the Clause in the interests of good relations between central and local government. I suggest to the Committee that we should reject this Clause for that very reason. Nothing could be more disastrous for good relations between central and local government than that I should interfere, and should have mandatory powers to interfere, in their day-to-day activities. It is recognised that certain local authorities have carried out their work very well, but others have not. Conceive the difficulties of a Minister in my position who, having to decide between Authority A and Authority B, might have to say to Authority A: "You have been a good Authority and I delegate my powers to you," and, to Authority B, "You have been a bad Authority and I will not."

Regarding the inspectors, they are the servants of the local authority, and they are responsible to the ratepayers of the local authority and not to me. How am I going to see that they carry out the duties which I consider they should carry out? It would be necessary for me to appoint inspectors over their inspectors to make sure that they are carrying out my views. Imagine the kind of friction that would develop in every locality every day. It is because I have at heart the interest of good relations between central and local authority and because I am sure that this Clause would result in a complete breakdown of the whole scheme, that I ask the House to reject it.

Mr. Lipson

Local authorities are already the agents of the Ministry in regard to trunk roads, and the arrangements work extremely well.

Mr. Hudson

That has no relation to this.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.