HC Deb 21 March 1945 vol 409 cc950-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Beechman.]

10.15 p.m.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

I desire to raise the question of the development of bee keeping in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am well aware that this is not a very suitable subject to raise after 10 o'clock on a March night. It is a thing which one might debate or discuss more properly, perhaps, on a vernal morning in May. But I am not responsible for the lateness of the hour. What I want to do is to consider whether we are encouraging bee keeping in this country as it ought to be encouraged, and I am convinced that we are not. What position does the bee occupy in the economy of mankind? The bee gives us a most abundant supply of cheap, willing, not to say enthusiastic labour. There are no trade restrictive practices among bees, whether as monopolies, cartels or trade unions.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

And no private enterprise either.

Mr. Smith

Officially in this country the bee comes under the aegis of the Minister of Agriculture, and it is not perhaps to be wondered at that my right hon. Friend, who is charged with the care of the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, or the woods, and the fishes of the sea, has, perhaps, little leisure left over in which to consider the needs of apis mellifica, which has been thrust under his perhaps already over-extended wing. Every suitable year the bee makes honey, and the suitable years outnumber the unsuitable in the ratio of approximately five to one. But every year, suitable or unsuitable, we in these islands consume from 6,000 to 8,000 tons of honey, most of which we import, and we would consume even more if we got the chance, because the uses of honey, especially in the confectionery trade, are almost unlimited. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Food is very anxious to step up the home production of honey, and so am I, but we are both of us up against my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, whose interest in and knowledge of bee keeping seem to lie in direct relation to his love of answering supplementary questions. We are one of the most backward countries in Europe, even in the world, in this matter of bee keeping. We lag far behind Soviet Russia, far behind America, far behind some of our own Dominions. There is, of course, a war-time prohibition on the import of bees, but before the war we imported our high-grade and pedigree stocks from Italy, from America and elsewhere, and we imported our non-pedigree stocks and our bee diseases from Holland, but any export of British bees was something altogether unknown, and apart altogether from the admirable work which has been done at Rothamstead College, no research work of any kind which is worthy of mention has been carried on in this country.

I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture what were his estimates of the numbers of hives in these islands in the years 1938 and 1944. He did not know, but he gave me his figure for 1942, which was 450,000 hives. Then I bethought me I could get at the 1944 figure through my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food, because he issues permits for bee sugars and candy to bee keepers, and he might have the particulars, and as I suspected, he was very much better informed. He told me the 1944 figure is 385,000 hives. That is a decline of 65,000 hives on the 1942 figure. That is a lamentable state of affairs when we are in the middle of a war and need every ounce of extra sugar that we can get. These figures fall laughably below what we should and could support. Before the war it is estimated that Soviet Russia had 4,000,000 hives, and when the Germans overran the Ukraine and Russia lost all her sugar-beet growing territory and many of her factories she increased the honey industry ten-fold, and to-day it is estimated that she has no fewer than 40,000,000 hives.

What is preventing us from getting at all events a proportionate increase? There are two reasons. First we are not sufficiently bee conscious. Bees are the farmers' friends, particularly the fruit farmers, but one can go over a fruit farm in Kent without often finding a single hive of bees on it. The second reason is the widespread incidence of two bee diseases, foul brood disease and Isle of Wight disease. On 15th February I asked the Minister of Agriculture whether any regulation had been made by his Department for dealing with colonies infested with foul brood and Isle of Wight diseases and what methods obtain of enforcing such regulations. The right hon. Gentleman replied: The Foul Brood Diseases of Bees Order, 1942, empowers county war agricultural executive committees in England and Wales to take action to deal with colonies of bees infested with foul brood disease. I ask the House to pay attention to the wording of the Order. It empowers, it does not compel. I challenge the Minister to say how many county war agricultural executive committees have taken action to deal with colonies infested with foul brood disease. Is it one, is it 10? I strongly suspect that the answer is "None." How can they get their information without some very much more drastic Order? Some little old lady with a few bees in her bonnet may be infesting a whole neighbourhood. I did not read out the last sentence of the right hon. Gentleman's reply: No Regulations have been made in the case of Isle of Wight disease,"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1945; Vol. 408, c. 397.] Why have they not been made, because Isle of Wight disease is very much more serious than foul brood? There must be some such regulations and they should follow somewhat upon these lines. There should be a national register of bee- keepers and there should be compulsory notification of foul brood and Isle of Wight disease. There should be destruction of any infected stocks, hives, and appliances, and there should be periodical inspection by the Ministry's food inspectors. Though they may not all be experienced apiarists they are, or would quickly become, capable of telling a healthy brood from an infected brood.

Lastly, we come to a question which is of importance, that of compensation. Persons whose broods have to be destroyed should be compensated in the same way as owners are compensated for livestock which are destroyed because of foot-and-mouth disease. Compensation for bees and hives so destroyed would be a very small matter and a negligible sum compared with the advantages to these islands of having a full and thriving honey industry. We shall never have that in this country without taking these precautions, without having this limited amount of control and a peppercorn expenditure by way of compensation.

Strangely enough, the most valuable aspect of bees is not their honey, but their power of fertilisation. For every acre of orchard crops, one hive of bees is required to obtain the maximum benefit of pollination. That means 640 hives to one square mile, and it is customary in areas so fortunate as to have anything approaching that figure to move the bees to heather and other pastures after the fruit petals fall. My hon. Friend the junior Burgess for Cambridge University (Professor A. V. Hill), who happens to live in Highgate, and has one of those old-fashioned, delightful walled-in suburban orchards, was telling me only the other day of the great increase of fruit he had had since his next-door neighbour started keeping a hive of bees. No one will question the value of scientific evidence coming from him. We have in the industry of bee-keeping something we have never fully developed and something which, I am convinced we ought to develop and can develop. We have, under the providence of Nature, large stores of nectar which, year by year, go largely to waste, and to develop it would tread upon nobody's preserves, because at the moment it is nobody's preserves. Nevertheless, it would benefit our agriculture incalculably.

I want to examine this from the point of view of the disabled ex-Serviceman or woman for whom bee-keeping furnishes an ideal occupation, both in winter and summer, if only these reforms could be brought about. I would like to give a few rather illuminating figures. There are something like 98,000 square miles of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which are in rural occupation. Naturally, these areas vary. Some may profitably support 100 colonies of bees per square mile and the area round, and others much less, though a great deal could be done to improve them from the point of view of the bee and to the benefit of local agriculture. Let us take an average of 25 hives per square mile; on 98,000 square miles you get 2,500,000 hives. My target is a modest conservative one, as becomes a modest Conservative like myself; it is merely 1,500,000 hives. At present we have considerably fewer than 500,000. The average yield of 40 lb. of honey per colony per annum should be produced by first-class stocks. Taking the price of honey at 1s. 6d. per lb.—and the present controlled price is 2s. 9d.—that would produce £3,000,000 a year—the amount in which the wretched agriculturist is mulcted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in tithe rent charge. Now, one man can service 150 hives. That means, roughly, that 10,000 men, or men and women, can be employed as a field staff. Were each of them paid £250 a year, there would remain over no less a sum than £470,000 for working expenses, interest and loan capital.

As I said before, bee-keeping is an ideal occupation for ex-Servicemen in summer. In winter it would provide them with a light indoor occupation, like carpentry and so on, making the various simple appliances needed for summer. Of course, I realise that this does mean a Government-sponsored scheme. It does mean a small national organisation. These men and these women would have to be trained, because bee-keeping is not a job for an incompetent amateur. In this connection I am bound to say that experienced apiarists tell me that the pamphlets and the literature produced by the Ministry of Agriculture on the subject of bee-keeping would have been regarded as exceedingly up to date in the closing years of the last century. I feel I have not criticised the Ministry of Agriculture half severely enough, to judge by the benign expression on my right hon. Friend's face, so I am going to take advantage of my own moderation and ask him to do me a favour. Will he use his influence with his Department to set up a small expert committee to examine the whole question of bee-keeping in the light of modern knowledge, and with special reference to the cleaning-up of the hives, and, in particular, the possibility of making bee-keeping a career for the disabled ex-Serviceman or woman who happens to show the temperament and aptitude for it?

10.33 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. Tom Williams)

I am sure no one would declare that my hon. Friend has not covered a complete hive, including the queen bee, in his very short oration. He has gone from diseases to livings for ex-Servicemen, and from pollination to honey. I must thank him for having raised this question with such enthusiasm at this late hour. Perhaps it may be as well if I deal with the question of bee diseases first. Then, perhaps, I can say a word or two about the encouragement that is or ought to be given to the ordinary mortal and the ex-Serviceman.

My hon. Friend referred to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1941, which empowers the Minister to make orders for the purpose of preventing the spread of diseases amongst bees in England and Wales after consultation with an Advisory Committee. A similar Bill was passed last month in Northern Ireland; but in Scotland, I gather, these diseases are so rare that there is no general demand or necessity for legislation, It has only been within recent years that there has been sufficient unanimity among bee-keepers themselves for any action to be taken at all, at least in England and Wales. Under the Act of 1941, one order has been made, referred to by my hon. Friend, that to deal with the disease known as "foul brood disease." This empowers the county war agricultural executive committees to take action to control that disease. My hon. Friend asked me how many of our county war agricultural war executive committees were taking action. I can only disappoint him by telling him that so far as my information goes practically every county war agricultural executive committee in the country is taking action under the 1942 Order.

Mr. Smith

May I assure my right hon. Friend that he does not disappoint me by saying that? I am only too delighted to hear it.

Mr. Williams

I am only too pleased to have answered my hon. Friend in a manner which gives him joy. This Order is, of course, only the first step towards the control of bee diseases in England and Wales. The Order was approved by the Advisory Committee, and it is generally admitted, I think, all over the country that improvement has taken place and is taking place with regard to foul brood disease. The same advisory committee are opposed to compulsory notification of all outbreaks or suspected outbreaks of this disease. They reconsidered that question quite recently, and they reaffirmed their first decision, and the reason was that it is unreasonable to ask people to notify disease or suspected disease the existence of which can only be precisely determined by microscopic examination. My hon. Friend suggested that where bees have to be destroyed compensation ought to be paid by the State. I can only say that no powers exist to enable this to be done in Great Britain. The Northern Ireland Act establishes a compensation fund out of fees to be paid by the bee-keepers supplemented by a contribution by the Northern Ireland Ministry. In this country, however, we have voluntary insurance schemes among bee-keepers themselves against losses through bee diseases, and so far as I know the industry itself has not asked for the financial assistance suggested by my hon. Friend.

In regard to the Isle of Wight disease, the name which is commonly applied to several distinct maladies, the most widespread of which is the Acarine disease, thanks to Mr. Frow, an obscure station-master in Lincolnshire, this disease can be kept under effective control by chemical treatment, and it is a question of education and persuasion among the bee-keepers themselves to avoid Acarine disease in their hives. Here I should like to pay well-deserved tribute to Mr. Frow, whose researches have been invaluable not only to the bee-keepers of this country but, in fact, all over Europe. I think it is no exaggeration to say that he has been honoured by bee-keepers in every country in Europe and by several Governments in Europe: Unfortunately, he has not yet been honoured by the Government of this country. I cannot blame the Minister for this, because he will not know anything about it until he reads HANSARD to-morrow. None the less, it is a well-deserved tribute to a very obscure rural station-master.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

Not obscure.

Mr. Williams

I say he is a very obscure station-master, and he deserves well of the bee-keepers, both of this country and of bee-keepers all over Europe. As regards compulsory registration of bee-keepers, this matter has been before the Ministry for some considerable time; I know there is a lot of well-informed opinion in favour of it, and the Ministry itself is not out of sympathy with the proposal. But this is hardly the moment, when county war agricultural executive committees are so burdened with their duties of securing the maximum food production, to impose further duties upon them. It is admitted that a considerable improvement has been effected, through the administration of the Foul Brood Order. The names and addresses of the great majority of the bee-keepers are already known to the committees, through the Ministry of Food's arrangements for issuing sugar for winter and spring feeding. There are also other ways of obtaining information about the bee-keepers. It is felt therefore that compulsory registration, involving a good deal of work, would only disclose the whereabouts of a small number of very obscure bee-keepers, and this is scarcely the moment to justify the additional work involved being put upon the county war agricultural executive committees. But I will promise my hon. Friend that the moment the labour position becomes easier, if be again raises the question, it will be welcomed, and while I cannot promise that compulsory registration will take place on the morrow, I am quite certain that the Ministry will be very sympathetic towards the proposal.

Mr. Moelwyn Hughes (Carmarthen)

I am sorry to interrupt, but the hon. Member who raised this matter did emphasise its importance from the food point of view.

Mr. Williams

I am coming to that.

Mr. Hughes

My right hon. Friend says he is coming to, that, but with all respect to him "it is not his pigeon." If this matter is important from the point of view of food, there should have been here a representative of the Ministry of Food and not of the Ministry of Agriculture, and I want to ask why my right hon. Friend alone is answering when an important point concerning food has been, raised.

Mr. Williams

The simple reply is that I am quite capable of replying without the Minister of Food being here.

Mr. Hughes

But my right hon. Friend, is not responsible.

Mr. Williams

As regards expansion of bee-keeping I must point out that the Ministry's principal interest is in the pollination of fruit blossom. Now the Ministry of Food have not only encouraged beekeeping wherever they can, but every time the Ministry of Agriculture have made an approach to the Ministry of Food, following a bad season for beekeepers, they have been very ready and willing and even anxious to provide beekeepers with an additional supply of sugar. That has happened, as the hon. Member will know, during the past two years, so that quite the reverse of the Ministry of Agriculture being difficult we have in fact been the advocates of beekeepers. In certain areas—

Mr. Wootton-Davies (Heywood and Radcliffe)

Before the right hon. Gentleman finishes with sugar, may I ask has he any information whether diseases have increased since we went on to beet sugar against cane sugar?

Mr. Williams

I am afraid I could not discriminate on the value of beet and imported sugar. I was saying, while certain areas could support a larger population of bees, it is not thought that any particular efforts are called for to increase the population generally. The vast majority of beekeepers keep bees as a hobby in their cottage gardens. Those may increase after demobilisation when some of the men return who can handle bees much better than their wives, but we see no special need to encourage a campaign to increase bees.

Mr. Smith

We know that we consume in this country up to 8,000 tons of honey a year. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me that we produce the whole of this 8,000 tons?

Mr. Williams

My hon. Friend gave the figures himself and I do not need to repeat them. Last year's output of honey—that is the food question referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hughes)—was estimated to be 3,000 tons, but to secure the 3,000 tons of honey we used 3,50o tons of sugar, so that the question of food is insignificant compared with the value of pollination. I must, as I have only one more minute, make reference to his suggestion of beekeeping as a means of helping ex-service men. The Ministry have carefully considered this question. We have reluctantly come to the conclusion that because of risks through loss of stocks through disease it would be unwise to encourage ex-service men to anticipate a livelihood from beekeeping. There are fewer than 200 beekeepers with over 50 hives and far fewer than that who make a livelihood from keeping bees. The financial encouragement is there now. The pre-war price of honey was 1s. 9d. per lb; on the average the beekeeper got from 10d. to 1s. a lb. The wholesaler-retailer got the rest. To-day the price is from 2s. 9d. to 3s. 6d. a lb, and the beekeeper can sell direct to his next door neighbour and get the whole 9d. or 3s. 6d. a lb. The financial encouragement is, therefore, there already.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House) Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 30th November.

Adjourned at Sixteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.