§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I am inviting the House today to give a Second Reading to a comparatively modest Bill to amend the Agricultural Marketing Acts and to bring them into line with modern conditions. It is now 17 years since the original Act was placed on the Statute Book. Much has happened during those 17 years. In particular, in the last few years we have seen some major changes in the economic and agricultural structure of this country. It was, therefore, right and, I believe, necessary that the Government should re-examine these Agricultural Marketing Acts and lay before Parliament proposals for either modifying or modernising this important part of the agricultural structure so that it should harmonise with modern developments.
I would remind the House that the original Act of 1931 was conceived and piloted through the House by the Lord Privy Seal, to whom, I think, the agricultural community owes an eternal debt for the work he did on that occasion. That Act was passed in a period when the position of agriculture was very different from the position of agriculture today. It was then a very much depressed industry, suffering from years of neglect by successive Tory Administrations. The Labour Government made the first real attempt to provide some methods of improvements and decided that it was best perhaps to tackle marketing first. I think that we can claim with due modesty that in general principle and for the purpose then intended, the 1931 Act was well-conceived.
As may be expected after 17 years, some amendments have now become necessary and particular account has to be taken of two new elements, namely, modern developments in our food policy and in our agricultural policy. It was in the light of these two new elements that the Government invited the committee 186 under the chairmanship of Lord Lucas to re-examine the Agricultural Marketing Acts. Their report, as hon. Members will be aware, was published 12 months ago. It provoked much thought, some argument and occasional hysteria, but Parliament was informed during last May that the report raised issues of far-reaching importance and that the major proposals of the committee needed further examination in the light of the wider problems of procurement, marketing and distribution. Although a good deal of thought has been and still is being given to those recommendations, the situation remains the same at the moment.
I want to emphasise particularly to those Members who feel that this particular Bill does not go so far as it might, that it in no way prejudices any decision that the Government may make either on the Lucas report or the Williams report on milk distribution. Our present purpose is much more limited in scope. It is not a good idea never to do anything until one can do everything; on the other hand, it is probably not wise to try to do everything at once. It is still open to producers, if they so desire, to prepare new marketing schemes under the 1931 and 1933 Acts. Times have changed since those Acts were passed, and before any new schemes are approved—one scheme for tomatoes and cucumbers has already been submitted to me—it is desirable that the Acts on which the marketing schemes are based should be amended to accord with the requirements of the modern post-war age.
The Lucas report focused attention on many of the problems of agricultural marketing and also on the relationship between the producers' marketing boards and the public. The Bill now before the House owes much in its more important provisions to the penetrating analysis and constructive recommendations of that committee. It is for that reason that the Government decided to introduce the present Bill, so that the existing marketing schemes or, indeed, any new ones that may emerge should conform to the new conditions under which we live; and that is the major reason for this Measure.
We have a coherent plan for agriculture enshrined in the Act of 1947, and the Agricultural Marketing Acts should be 187 regarded as complementary to Part I, which guarantees prices and assures markets, and also to Part II which sets out to promote good estate management and good husbandry. Under the appropriate Acts, these marketing schemes can provide the machinery with which to carry out the purpose of Part I of the Agriculture Act of 1947. There are certain principles, however, by which we should always be guided in our approach to agricultural marketing problems. First and foremost is, of course, the fact that agriculture is not one industry; it is a whole range of industries and cannot easily be fitted into the strait jacket of uniformity of method. It requires a wide choice of machinery—Marketing Board, Co-operative Society, Development Council and, perhaps, the Independent Commission—to achieve its varied purposes, and sometimes the functional objectives may require two types to operate simultaneously.
Secondly, we must remember that the pace of agriculture is necessarily governed by the forces and processes of nature which are necessarily slow. This does not mean that the industry is incapable of rapid reaction to a sudden stimulus; the response of farmers of this country in two world wars and the recent response to our expansion programme would disprove that argument. Neither does it mean that agriculture is not receptive of new ideas. Our modern horticultural industry would disprove that, too. It means, however, that agriculture cannot lightly undertake changes in its structure or its rotational methods. These have to be slowly done to enable these schemes to mature steadily.
Thirdly, agriculture is an industry largely made up of small producing units, by nature individualistic, certainly so when approaching problems which attack the livelihood of each individual. If the full weight of the agricultural industry is to pull with and not against the stream of national policy, we must always aim at consulting and retaining their good will and confidence. Fourthly, we must accept that an intelligent marketing policy must have the end product and the ultimate market in view. The Lucas Committee summed this up very well in the single sentence that:The producer retains an interest in the marketing of farm produce up to the point at 188 which it reaches the producer … but … in the vast majority of cases the producer's interest is not an exclusive one.The Agricultural Marketing Acts certainly observed these four principles. They are more suitable to apply to some products than to others, and they contain a wide variety of powers from which those appropriate to any particular commodity or group of commodities can be selected. They provide a basic form of organisation which permits schemes to come into force and to remain in operation only so long as producer members wish, and also enable producers to retain an interest in their product until it finally reaches the consumer. Having said that, I do not want to suggest that the marketing boards provide the best solution for the marketing of all agricultural commodities. They certainly provide one method and, in certain cases, a very suitable method of effecting improvements in our marketing structure. The extent to which the Marketing Acts will be used will depend, as it always has depended, upon the desires of the producers themselves and, of course, on the Government's decision on the main recommendations of the Lucas report.
The powers contained in the Act are not only wide in choice but are very strong in substance, and Parliament in 1931 and 1933 also provided safeguards of considerable weight. That these were seldom used in pre-war days is itself a striking testimony to the sense of responsibility with which the marketing boards have approached their tasks; but with changing conditions, especially in view of guaranteed prices and assured markets for all the main agricultural commodities, we are now satisfied that further powers of control are necessary in the public interest.
These further controls are contained in the first four Clauses of the Bill. Since the war, there has been another development which is important if only for its indirect bearing, namely, the Monopoly and Restrictive Practices Act, 1948. That Act provides for the investigation of monopolies and restrictive arrangements in industry and trade and for taking action against those which are found to work against the public interest. The procedure is designed to deal with possible abuse by non-statutory monopolies or organisations of producers and traders, but, does not apply to the 189 agricultural marketing boards' powers derived from statutes which provide their own safeguards. Nevertheless, where Parliament gives special powers and privileges to boards which represent private interests, I think it is quite proper to see that they are subject to the same sort of scrutiny and control as are applied to industry and trade.
The Agricultural Marketing Acts contain a number of safeguards, such as the power of the Minister in certain circumstances to modify schemes before they come into force or to amend or revoke them, or to give directions to boards. Of course, the last and final arbiter is that a scheme must receive the approval of both Houses of Parliament before it comes into force or is amended. The exercise by the Minister of his powers is certainly no formality should the necessity arise. Under the present Government, however, all proposals involving a grant of new or amended restrictive powers are subject to thorough examination by the Board of Trade, the Department wholly responsible for policy towards monopolies and for ensuring that the public interest is properly safeguarded.
Where a marketing board is set up the Marketing Acts provide statutory safeguards, including a consumers' committee and a committee of investigation to advise the Minister, and Clauses 2 and 4 of this Bill extend the matters that may be referred to the committee of investigation. Many questions which the committee of investigation will have to consider will be similar to the questions dealt with by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission. I think, therefore, that it will be necessary to have an overlap of membership so that they may pursue a common policy, and in order to form this link the appropriate agricultural Minister or Secretary of State will appoint one member of each committee of investigation, after consultation with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who most likely will recommend a member of his Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission.
Section 14 of the 1933 Act, which amended Section 2 (1) of the 1931 Act, provided that the Minister, after consultation with the promoters of an agricultural marketing scheme should appoint two members to the original board. When, 190 however, the first elected board came into office they were then to co-opt, after consultation with the Marketing Supply Committee, two persons specially qualified by reason of their commercial or financial knowledge. In practice the boards have normally co-opted the Minister's two nominees, and experience has shown the value of such a provision, combining commercial and financial knowledge with the practical knowledge of the elected member. This Bill only extends that principle. Accordingly, Clause I enables the Minister to appoint a certain number of members, up to one-fifth of each marketing board, from persons with experience of commerce, finance, administration or the organisation of workers, By a later provision the Minister can modify an existing scheme to bring it into line with this Bill.
The principle of producer representation, on which the original Act was based, is not affected by this new provision. Producers may select whom they like, but once members are elected it is their plain duty to carry out the scheme in the primary interest of producers. The Minister's nominees will be expected to use their knowledge and influence to harmonise the well-being of the producers and the public interest at the same time. I do not think that these dual interests are either incompatible or necessarily antagonistic.
Clauses 2, 3 and 4 are an extension of the principle contained in Section 9 of the 1931 Act. Under that Section it was competent for a consumers' committee, or indeed for any person or number of persons, to complain to the Minister about any provision of the scheme or of any act or omission of the board. That complaint could be referred to an independent body called a committee of investigation, and if the committee found the complaint justified and the public interest really prejudiced, then the Minister was empowered by order either to revoke or amend the scheme, or to ask the Board to rectify the matter complained of. These arrangements proved very satisfactory before the war. There was a strong committee, with an eminent lawyer as chairman, which dealt, I believe fairly, with every complaint that came before it. Fortunately, however, over the years there were very few complaints.
191 The new Clauses go slightly further than that. Under the old procedure the Minister could not act entirely on his own initiative, except of course by the extreme method of completely revoking the scheme. In other words, he had no power of initiative. Now, it may be argued that if there is a serious injury, surely somebody will make a complaint. That may be so, but Parliament is responsible for the public interest and the Minister is responsible to Parliament, and if the Minister is to discharge his responsibilities fairly and squarely he must have the powers to enable him to do so. If the Minister does step in himself he takes full responsibility when submitting a case to the marketing board or the committee of investigation.
These boards are democratic bodies. They are elected by producers to carry out marketing schemes in the interest of efficiency, and of course at the expense of the producers themselves. No Government would wish to interfere with the boards in the daily exercise of their functions. Clause 2, therefore, defines the undesirable consequences which may flow from the misuse of any one of those four powers, and it is only in those defined circumstances that the Minister may initiate action without waiting for a complaint. If the Minister thinks that those circumstances have arisen or are likely to arise he can notify the board that he proposes to take certain action; but in view of the effect on the board's other activities or their finances they are entitled, if they so desire, to have the matter referred to a committee of investigation for adjudgment of the facts. This may take time—in some cases a considerable amount of time—and the public injury may continue meanwhile. Therefore, as will be observed, under Clause 4 the Minister is empowered to give a temporary direction to hold the situation while the committee are conducting their inquiry.
It may be argued that the committee of investigation may conceivably find against the Minister, and that the board and producers will have suffered undue injury due to the Minister's action. But no Minister—certainly not "yours truly"—would fail to feel a sense of deep responsibility in exercising those powers, and a Minister would be reluctant to use them without the strongest possible justification, 192 knowing that, quite properly, he would be called to account, not only by the general public but also by Parliament itself. That broadly is the new public safeguard contained in Clauses 2, 3 and 4. I have read many speeches and have heard many arguments about Clause 4. It is said, for instance, that these powers are not necessary and, therefore, why have them in the Bill; they were not necessary before the war and will not be necessary after the war. That is a question which answers itself. If the powers are not necessary it implies that no infringement will take place, and in that case Clause 4 will never be used.
Clauses 5 to 8 contain a group of amendments arising out of an inquiry held by the Falmouth Committee just before the war into the imposition and recovery of penalties for contravention by registered producers of schemes established under the Statute. The Committee reached the general conclusion that offences under the schemes should continue to be dealt with by domestic tribunals rather than by the ordinary courts, but they made a number of recommendations, most of which are adopted in this Bill. In particular, they recommended that the responsibility for hearing cases of infringement should rest not with the whole of the marketing board, but with a disciplinary committee of the board, and that the disciplinary committee should have full responsibility for naming the date, notifying the person and providing him with all information. This disciplinary committee is to have a chairman with legal experience who is approved by the Minister.
Of the remaining Clauses attention might be called briefly to Clauses 9, 16 and 19. Clause 9 widens the powers which boards may take, but in a new direction. The original Act was concerned solely with marketing, but it is becoming increasingly evident that good marketing starts on the farm with good production. Good marketing can do little with poor quality produce. It is a waste of time and money to attempt to grade low quality apples. A pig of bad conformation will never make a good side of bacon. Therefore, Clause 9 gives to marketing boards enabling powers to help farmers to "grow the grade."
The Lucas Committee in paragraph 271 expressed the view that no agency is 193 so well fitted as is a producer board for the task of raising production efficiency. Particularly is that so in the case of products for which prices have been guaranteed and markets assured. This Clause enables boards to produce, either themselves or in co-operation with existing trade interests, anything which producers may require not only for better marketing but also for better production. It is just conceivable for instance, that a new milk churn may be invented. It may he that manufacturers will be invited to produce that churn, but because of existing interests they would prefer to preserve the old churns even though the new ones would be easier to handle and more economic to transport. This Clause gives the board some bargaining power at all events to insist that the new piece of equipment should be made available to the farmers. It also enables the board to perform services to farmers such as the erection and operation of grass drying plants, and the establishment and conduct of artificial insemination centres.
Fears have already been expressed by certain large manufacturers that these small marketing boards may enter into competition with industry and start producing motorcars or tractors. Does any hon. Member conceive any marketing board contemplating for one moment entering into competition with Fords of Dagenham, Fergusons of Coventry or indeed anyone else for the production of the larger implements that are used on farms? The safeguards in the Bill are so complete that it seems to me that those fears are very ill-founded. When a scheme has been prepared it has to be advertised and opportunities given for objections. That may be followed by a public inquiry. The Minister has an opportunity of looking at the objection after the inquiry, and, finally the scheme must be approved by affirmative Resolution of this House. All those industrial interests which have expressed fear and doubt can rest assured that that position is completely safeguarded.
Clause 16 does two things. Subsection (1) requires the Minister by Order to amend existing schemes in order to bring them into line with this Bill, while Subsection (3) deals with a different problem. A number of the existing schemes were suspended at the beginning 194 of the war under the Defence Regulations. Sooner or later some of those schemes can be revised, but after the lapse of nine years some of the provisions regarding such matters as the election of a board have become unworkable, and the Minister may have to modify them in order that the machine may agar commence to run. His authority to do this is given in Subsection (3). In Clause 19. Northern Ireland for the first time is brought within the orbit of the Act.
§ Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)
The right hon. Gentleman has skipped a very important Clause which has to do with Scotland. I notice that not one Minister from the Scottish office is on the Front Bench. Perhaps he would give us an explanation.
§ Mr. Williams
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who has largely to do with agricultural matters, has been attending another meeting, but already he is on his way to the House. Since Scotch Members are so sniffy about British Members entering into Scottish politics I thought it would be far better that, if there should be any Scottish questions on Clause 18, the Under-Secretary should make the appropriate reply.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)
Could the right hon. Gentleman explain his statement that Scottish—or "Scotch" as he called them, which is very bad English—get sniffy when British Members enter into a discussion on Scottish affairs? What are Scottish Members if they are not British Members? Surely it should be English Members?
§ Mr. Williams
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman is really anxious to give me a lesson on the English language I shall be very happy to become his pupil immediately the Debate is over.
As I said, Northern Ireland has been brought into the four corners of such a marketing Act as this for the first time. It may be that action involving the whole of the United Kingdom may occur, as, Pr example, when wool is being considered, but the Parliament of Northern Ireland is responsible for its own domestic agricultural policy, and, therefore, Clause 19 provides that a scheme under these Acts may be brought into being for any part of Great Britain 195 and Northern Ireland but not for Northern Ireland alone. In Subsections (3) and (4) it states that before a scheme comprising Northern Ireland comes before this Parliament, the Parliament of Northern Ireland shall say whether it shall apply to Northern Ireland or not. If they agree, the scheme comes before both Houses of Parliament here, and if they approve it becomes the business of the United Kingdom. If, however, the Northern Ireland Parliament resolve otherwise, then the Ministers concerned in Great Britain, with the assent of the promoters of the scheme, are authorised to make the necessary amendments and confine the scheme to Great Britain.
Finally, while I make no extravagant claim for this extremely modest Bill, we must bear in mind that we have set our agricultural industry a gigantic task if it is to achieve the target of an additional £100 millions worth of food per annum by 1952. It has made an encouraging start, and is entitled to every aid of organised production and marketing that Parliament can give. Those two go together. It is for that reason that we have introduced this Bill. The extended powers under Clause 9 will enable the marketing board to provide additional services to registered producers, apart from those I have mentioned, such as grading, packing, storage and transport at all stages before the product finally reaches the main channel of wholesale and retail distribution.
Secondly, the appointment of a certain number of members of the board with special qualifications, and certain powers of direction given to the Minister, will help to steer the activities of the board in such a way as to avoid conflict between producers and the national interest. Where the State guarantees both price and market I believe there is every justification for expecting a high standard of efficient marketing. Where no such guarantees exist, for example, in the horticultural industry to which the guarantee system was inappropriate, facilities for efficient marketing are more important than ever.
As I said in my opening remarks, the Bill in no way prejudices any decision the Government may make upon the major recommendations of the Lucas Committee. With that reservation I believe 196 that the Bill will make a valuable contribution towards marketing efficiency and towards maximum production in our oldest industry. For those reasons I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond)
The Minister has, as is his custom, given us a very clear exposition of the Bill, the purpose of which is to amend the Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933. I thought he was unconvincing in his opening remarks about the reasons for the introduction of the Bill. He left the House very much in doubt about the way his mind was working. He told us, and he said it again in his final sentence, that the Bill in no way prejudices the future action of the Government in regard to such reports as the Lucas and the Williams Reports. In other words, the Minister still leaves the garage door open. Whether it is his intention one day to occupy that garage with some broken down vehicle remains to be seen. I am certain that the House and the country, and particularly the producers of the country, will be very interested to know what the Minister has in mind on that important question.
On this side of the House we are very relieved that the Bill does not give effect to the recommendations of the Lucas Report. After very careful consideration of the report we think that the commodity commissions envisaged in that report would not result in shorter or more direct marketing channels but would rather introduce additional bottlenecks and frustrations. It would be out of Order for me to argue upon the provisions of the Lucas Report this afternoon, but I should like to make it clear on behalf of Members on this side of the House that the remarks I now propose to make deal entirely with the Measure before us and in no way concern any future Measures that may be introduced by the Government in course of time.
Hon. Members on this side of the House have consistently held the view that efficient marketing must be the essential complement to efficient production, with producers taking the primary responsibility and deciding on the best form of marketing systems for the future. We have considered most carefully the pre-war and the war-time experience and 197 also recent agricultural developments to which the Minister referred in his speech, both at home and abroad, for instance the 1947 Marketing Act, the International Trade Organisation Charter and the Lucas Report. We are still firmly convinced that the most economical means of handling and marketing home produce is through the medium of producers' marketing hoards and that the basic principles of the Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933 should be maintained for this purpose.
The Minister referred to his right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal. I remember—and this is going back a long way—the Debates upon the original Agricultural Marketing Act of 1931. Hon. Members on this side have always argued that it was no use at all without its corollary the Act of 1933, which gave power to limit imports and which was introduced by a Government of Members on this side of the House. On the general principle of the Bill we support the objects which it would appear from the Minister's speech—apart from the trimmings at the beginning and the end—are in the Government's mind, anyhow at this moment, of continuing to adhere to the principle of the promotion of marketing boards by producers, with powers to market their own produce.
Marketing boards, during this last period of years and with the exception of the Milk Marketing Board which has been an agent of the Ministry of Food, have been in abeyance. I take it that the Minister's main object in introducing the Bill is to enable reconstructed boards and new boards to take up marketing functions to meet the new conditions which have arisen as a result of and since the war. I would ask the Minister who replies to tell us when the Government hope to get the new marketing boards into operation or to bring boards out of cold storage where they have rested for such a long time. When the boards do come into being, to whom will they be responsible on the ministerial level? We feel that it is important that the House should be assured that the hoards will not be mere satellites of the Ministry of Food. If they are, I fear the worst for producers and for the national interest.
I have indicated our general approach in principle to the Bill. I would say now that we are not happy about certain of 198 its provisions. We can see no reason for the greatly increased supervisory powers of the Ministry of Agriculture. I refer especially to Clause 4. Before I deal in detail with that Clause I should like to say a word about Clause 1, which relates to the composition of the boards. As I read Clause 1, there is no provision for consultation with producers before the Minister appoints his nominees to a board. I think that the House would like an assurance that nothing in this Clause will prejudice the right of a producer to be consulted, in accordance with Section 2 of the Act of 1931, before such appointments are made.
I am sure the Minister will agree that fundamentally what is really important in regard to the selection of personnel for the boards by the Minister is that the services of the best men available shall be obtained and that on no account shall any political considerations be allowed to influence the Minister in his choice.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I meant that the best individuals should be chosen. I hope the Minister will be able to give us an assurance on that point for I am satisfied that in his case there would not be any political consideration in any appointments he might make. I have another small point about Clause 1. Subsection (1, a) provides that the Minister may, if he thinks fit, increase the number to an unspecified extent beyond a normal maximum of 24. May we be told if there is a reason for it? What has the Minister in mind? If there are to be limits at all, why suddenly say that the Minister may increase to any number? The House would like to know exactly what the Minister's intention is there.
The powers of the Minister to give directions to the boards were explained in detail by the right hon. Gentleman. Broadly speaking, we accept the provisions of Clause 2 in view of the safeguards in Subsections (3) and (4) under which the board may require a matter to be referred to a committee of investigation and the Minister may only make his order with regard to commodities not covered by the First Schedule of the 1947 Act if the investigating committee find that the board's action or omission is contrary to the public interest. Having said that, I must 199 say that my right hon. and hon. Friends take the very gravest objections to the powers conferred on the Minister in Clause 4, which empowers him to give a temporary direction during the time that the matter under review is subjected to the investigation of the committee. If the committee find the action or omission of the board not contrary to the public interest, it is true that the temporary order is withdrawn, but what happens in the meantime? There is no provision for compensation to the producers for loss they may have suffered, and one can equally say that if it went the other way, there is no provision to meet the loss suffered by the consumers. One can take it either way, though if the consumers suffer loss, the loss is spread over many millions of people and may not amount to more than a few shillings each, whereas if the producers suffer loss, some hard-working producers may be made bankrupt through no fault of their own. That is a very substantial difference.
Suppose that in the case of a perishable commodity like strawberries a strawberry marketing board fixed a certain price. The Minister might consider the price too high and give the board notice that he proposes to issue an order to reduce the price under Clause 2. The board could demand that the matter be referred to the committee of investigation. Under Clause 4 the Minister could make a temporary order which might remain in force for two months after the publication of the committee's report, depending on how long it takes to consider the matter. Suppose the committee found the price provisionally fixed by the board to be reasonable. The Minister would then withdraw his order, but in the meantime the entire strawberry crop might have been sold at a loss. What would the Minister's position be and what could he do in such a case? His precipitate action would have caused an important section of the industry to lose thousands of pounds and some of them might have gone bankrupt, and yet he would have no power to compensate them for their loss.
On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent a board, in order to safeguard itself, inserting a clause in all contracts that in the event of the contracts being 200 varied as the result of a temporary order under Clause 4, the original terms of contract will be applied retrospectively if the investigating committee give judgment in favour of the board. The Clause does not make sense. The Minister rather indicated in his speech that it was very doubtful whether he would use it. I hope that before we finish discussing the Measure we shall persuade the Minister and the Government to delete the Clause. I cannot see how it will operate, and if it cannot operate, what is the good of including it in the Bill?
There is a further point which bears upon the example I have just given. Clause 3 states that the provisions of Clause 2 are in amplification of and not in substitution for Section 9 of the 1931 Act. Under the existing powers the Minister can revoke a marketing scheme, which means the closing down of a board, where the board acts in a manner contrary to the public interest. I should have thought that was an entirely adequate safeguard for both the House and the public at large. That is an additional reason for deleting Clause 4.
I shall not discuss the Clauses dealing with penalties. The Minister said that they follow certain recommendations of the Falmouth Committee which reported in 1938, and we have no general criticisms to make upon them. Clause 9 would appear to bring Section 5 of the 1931 Act up to date, and it will be generally welcomed by producers in so far as it increases the opportunity of marketing boards to promote more efficient production of the regulated product. The Minister instanced milk churns. Such things as the milk recording societies and various other activities would come under the provisions of the Clause.
However, I was amazed that the Minister made no reference to Clause 13 which abolishes the Market Supply Committee. The Opposition are very suspicious of this proposal because it would appear to be a forerunner of a further Measure to establish the Ministry of Food as a permanent Department of the State. The powers to set up the committee were given in Section 3 of the 1933 Act, and the function of the committee was to review the supply position of agricultural products in the United Kingdom and to 201 make recommendations as to their regulation and production and the control of imports. I hold the view that there is a strong case to be made for the retention of an advisory body such as the Market Supply Committee, both now and in the future, as there is no lack of evidence to show that the co-ordination of the production policy of the Minister of Agriculture and the import policy of the Ministry of Food leaves much to be desired.
When the Minister was abroad—and I expect he has heard about it since his return—we had quite a lot of trouble about onions. When the Minister was away the Parliamentary Secretary had to deal with questions and answers about onions. Great difficulty has been encountered by onion growers in the disposal of their last year's crop. An expanded acreage in response to appeals by the Ministry of Agriculture, followed by a good growing season, yielded a record crop. Yet the Minister of Food refused for a very considerable time to alter his import policy. Eventually he did take action, but by the time he had taken action the damage had been done. The price slumped and the reward for many growers for all their hard work to feed the nation was an overdraft at the bank. That was the result of their special efforts encouraged by the Minister of Agriculture. Even now I am informed that in certain parts of the country thousands of tons of home grown onions have not found a market. Some are still in the fields and others are being ploughed in. That is the position today. Surely an independent advisory committee would have been helpful to the Ministry of Agriculture over that question.
Then again, when the Minister of Agriculture was away another question was asked in this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) asked about vegetables, and on 6th December the Parliamentary Secretary informed the House that further expansion of the vegetable acreage would not be advisable. The advice which he gave to the House may or may not have been right. It was probably perfectly right, but I am certain that he would have been much happier, especially in view of the absence of the Minister of Agriculture, if he had had an independent advisory committee which he could have 202 consulted on this question. Again, as recently as yesterday in this House we had an interchange of views with the President of the Board of Trade on the Anglo-Polish Agreement. I do not know whether the Minister of Agriculture was consulted about this agreement, but even in that instance I should have thought that an independent advisory committee would have been of help to him.
Looking forward to the next two or three weeks or so, the broccoli crop from the west country is likely to come upon the market, and it has been reported that licences might be given for the importation of 4,000 tons of Italian cauliflower.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
My hon. and learned Friend says that licences have, in fact, been given for the importation of 4,000 tons of Italian cauliflower. This is a very serious matter for our West Country horticulturists. Surely, an independent advisory body with a clear appreciation of our food requirements and of our production policy at home, such as a strengthened Market Supply Committee, would be invaluable to the Minister at present. I ask him to think very seriously over that position.
Looking to the future, my hon. Friends and I, when dealing with marketing in our Agricultural Charter last year, used these words:When food rationing ends"—I admit that may be a very long time off—many of the present powers of the Ministry of Food should end with it. There is no case for perpetuating the commercial functions of the Ministry as a trader in foodstuffs.We go on to argue that the Ministry and its civil servants are precluded by their very nature from showing initiative and willingness to take risks which are the essence of every commercial enterprise, but at the same time we recognise that the maintenance of an adequate level of nutrition among all classes of the community must remain the responsibility of any Government in the future.
What is the position with regard to the future? We are not at all satisfied with it, and we are often driven to the sorry 203 conclusion that the Minister of Agriculture on many occasions hears about the activities of his colleague the Minister of Food for the first time when he sees announcements in the Press or hears them broadcast on the wireless in the evening news. That could not be more unsatisfactory.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
What has happened would appear to bring us to those conclusions. We believe that in the future there must be much closer working contacts between the Government departments most concerned with food production and nutrition. The Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland, as responsible for the level of home production, must take their rightful place in the balanced partnership with the departments concerned with the consumer, the distributor and our overseas trade. I hope the Minister will give very careful consideration to these problems, as I am certain that he cannot be satisfied with the position as it exists today.
I do not think there are any further Clauses in the Bill to which I need make reference at this moment. I am glad the Minister explained the provisions concerning Northern Ireland, and I hope they will be satisfactory to that part of the country. We shall assist the Minister to make a workmanlike Measure of this small but important Bill, and we shall do our utmost during the further stages to persuade him to drop Clause 4 and also retain the Market Supply Committee in some form. When the time comes for Members on this side of the House to resume the responsibility of government—and that time will come—we shall continue to encourage producers to use the facilities of the Agricultural Marketing Acts for the efficient production and marketing of their products.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, Northern)
I should like to congratulate the Minister on his combination of good luck and good management in introducing into this House another Bill which does not arouse heat, which is mainly accepted by all parties and which reflects the very considerable amount of agree 204 ment which he has been able to maintain in our policy towards agriculture. He himself said that it is not a very important Bill, but it deals with a very important subject. My criticism would be that it is not a sufficiently important Bill and does not deal in a sufficiently comprehensive way with the question of marketing. However, so far as it goes, as the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) has pointed out, by implication it shows that the Minister and the Government see some place for producer-controlled marketing schemes in the marketing organisation of agricultural products.
That is good, but what does it in fact amount to at present? I was trying to remind myself of what marketing schemes there are nowadays under the 1931 and 1933 Acts. There is the outstanding example of the Milk Marketing Board of England and Wales, and there are two, or possibly three, milk marketing boards in Scotland. Then there is the Hop Marketing Board, and that is all as far as England, Wales and Scotland are concerned; I regret that I am not familiar with the position in the North of Ireland. So, in fact, we are dealing with only milk and hops at the present time. Milk is an important product; hops are a limited product, important to a few farmers but not of general importance to the agricultural industry. The other boards which are in cold storage deal with potatoes, pigs and bacon.
What is the real meaning of this Bill? Do the Government want to alter the Marketing Acts in order to do something about milk, or in order that the Potato Marketing Board may be started up again? Are they going to do anything about pigs, or is it to encourage the producers, from whom the initiative has to come, to organise and submit new schemes? We have heard about tomatoes and cucumbers. It is desirable that in some of these vegetable and fruit crops there should be marketing schemes. Although the Minister mentioned those, he gave no general encouragement. He did not say, "Now we have altered the Marketing Acts and made some improvements we, the Government, and I, the Minister of Agriculture, hope that producers will submit schemes." We can only infer, by the fact that he has introduced this Bill, that if the producers give 205 consideration to this matter, he might approve a scheme. There is this big doubt hanging over the situation of what he will do about the Lucas Report. I would press for some decision on that. It came out sometime in 1947, we are now in 1949, and it is still under consideration.
This is the time to be getting our marketing arrangements for agricultural produce into order, for they are higgledy-piggledy at present. They were built up under the necessity of war time urgency. They are a combination of State trading, private enterprise, boards, suspended boards and subsidies, and there is no rhyme or reason in them. Of course, the subsidies affect the situation greatly, but those subsidies were created on no logical basis during the war. As far as I can understand, their principal object was to prevent the cost of living rising, and those commodities which were heavily weighted in the cost-of-living index established 50 years ago, often received the highest subsidies. That is alright for a war time makeshift, but it does not encourage the production of what we most need in this country, nor does it give any encouragement to quality production. Therefore the subsidies need review as a means of encouraging high class production of the commodities we most need. That is only an example. As I see it, our marketing arrangements for agricultural produce desperately need serious consideration, and must have it soon.
I do not take quite the same view as the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) about the Ministry of Food. I am sorry that the name of the Minister of Food is not on this Bill. As a long-term policy it would be much better to have the Ministries of Food and Agriculture combined, because they are two functions which should be combined. I want to see a prosperous agriculture—prosperous farmers and farm workers—but the object of producing food is that people should eat it and be well fed. It would be much better to have the conflict within one Ministry than between two Ministries, with all the departmentalism which that can involve. That is another big issue involving marketing, and I do not know why there is no representative of the Ministry of Food here today. If the law with regard to marketing agricultural produce is not a matter which interests the Ministry of Food, 206 what does? Surely they ought to be interested in it, and I wish they were here taking some responsibility for this Bill and hearing what hon. Members have to say on the subject.
I, therefore, press the Government to think out a policy, if not for the whole range of agricultural products at least for some of the outstanding ones. We hear a good deal about market garden products, and about the supply of onions this Autumn and Winter. The Conservative Party always sees the problem of imports as the biggest problem, but those of us who were keen about the better marketing of British produce even when it was not so popular in the early 'thirties have always said that while imports may be a problem, and are, we will not solve that problem of competing with imports unless the marketing is right. The conclusion of what the hon. and gallant Gentleman was saying about onions is that the sooner we have a proper system of marketing onions within this country the better.
There are two outstanding classes of products which need urgent consideration. One is the market garden products and the other is that big class of products, meat and livestock. Probably they need quite different treatment. I would not like to lay down anything definitely, and perhaps I should be straying too far from this Bill in going into that in any detail. We have so many agricultural schemes in cold storage today. We had a Livestock Marketing Commission before the war, established about 1937 to reorganise the markets of Great Britain. That was put on the shelf at the beginning of the war, but we still carry the weight of compensation to auctioneers and butchers and others in the trade who are still receiving compensation for having been put out of business by the Ministry of Food. Surely that is a matter of importance. When we talk in these astronomical figures of food subsidies, it may not seem such a big thing, but something ought to be done about it. Surely they ought to be paid off or dealt with in some way? I press the Government to think these matters out, because this time of prosperity, when food is scarce and is in great demand, is a time when we should get the organisation straightened out.
Coming to the Bill itself, on what may be the only vexed question in it, Clause 4, I did not think that the Minister was 207 in his most convincing form today. It is my experience, from Committee stages and Second Readings, that when a Minister says, "You can trust me to use these powers reasonably," or, "I am not an unreasonable man," Members may always become suspicious that there is something too broad, too ill-defined, in the Bill, which can be defended only by relying on the good sense of the Minister. It is a cardinal principle of legislation that it is a bad offence to put into a Bill a Clause which is insufficient. I hope, therefore, that we shall hear something more about this.
Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies, can give us a little more of the history of what has happened in the past under this type of Clause. I have tried to follow agricultural affairs fairly closely, but I should like to know what the history of investigations of the Marketing Acts has been. I do not know when the Minister has used these powers, or when complaints have been made under the old Marketing Acts. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us what sort of case, which could not but ought to have been dealt with, could not be dealt with because such a Clause as Clause 4 did not exist? I do not recollect any situation of that sort.
It seems that the powers proposed in Clause 2 are rather strong, and that the Minister has the very great overriding power, if the tomatoes and cucumber board, for example, or some other board of that sort, raises prices too highly and a committee of investigation finds that to be so, of dissolving the board altogether. All this, together with the increased number on the board itself of his representatives who can give warning of what the Minister is doing, ought to be sufficient without the Minister's having to issue his peremptory orders at short notice.
§ Mr. Paget (Northampton)
What is the point of having power to issue an order about a crop if that order can operate—or, indeed, the board be dissolved—only after the crop has been sold?
§ Mr. Roberts
That is exactly what I was asking. There may be a case for it, but when has such an instance arisen? 208 Can the Parliamentary Secretary mention a case in which such powers ought to have been used?
§ Mr. Roberts
No; but since 1931 we have had experience and evidence over a substantial number of years, and never has there been a case in which the Ministry has felt the need for this power. The case for the Government is not very strong but if the Parliamentary Secretary can give concrete examples, and not hypothetical possibilities, that on some future occasion a situation might arise I, for one, might be more satisfied.
§ Mrs. Manning
Does not the hon. Member realise that up to the present we have not had this kind of board for perishable goods such as tomatoes, strawberries and that sort of thing? We have had boards for pigs, hops and milk, which are not the kind of things which would need to be dealt with in the way the Minister has suggested. The great difference is that this is a new power, and not an old one.
§ Mr. Roberts
That may be a good argument, but I remember that at one time, there was whether rightly or wrongly, strong feeling about the price of hops. I was asking for particulars of such questions if they had arisen in the past. If this power is required because of perishable, seasonable crops, I think that the Government are trying to do two things: to have a marketing board which will be responsible and yet retain in the hands of the Ministry the ultimate responsibility for fixing the price. I doubt whether a board will function very well if it is to be over-ruled in that way, because it will not have a sense of responsibility.
Clause 10 limits the powers of boards to lend money to producers. What money have boards lent to producers in the past? The question of finding capital for the increased programme of agriculture is very important. I think that under the European Recovery Programme we are expected to invest another £400 million in agriculture over the next few years. I do not know who is to invest that money or where it is to come from. To give one brief example, the Milk Marketing Board would be an excellent 209 organisation to lend money to milk producers to improve their production. It knows that milk producers have security for the milk which they supply to it. This limitation of the Act may not be very serious, but I would like some information of the history of this lending in the past. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary can say something about future intentions, and what the Government envisage will happen.
I press the Government to proceed with this question of marketing. The agricultural community is now enjoying very much better times than it did before the war. They may not last indefinitely. Now is the time to get something done. As world food becomes more plentiful, as we hope soon it will, there will be more competition and greater emphasis on quality rather than merely on quantity. For these and other reasons I ask the Government to make a real effort to make up their mind. These questions are difficult, but the fact that they are difficult does not prove they are not important and that a decision is not urgently required.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)
Had it not been for a small contretemps about prices, I think I would have been in entire agreement with everything which the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) said. The hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale), who opened for the Opposition, stressed a matter which, we know, exists to some extent but which we all feel is rather painful. We should hate to feel that there is a real dichotomy between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food. Nothing could be worse for the general position than the feeling that the Minister of Food was supporting the consumer and the Minister of Agriculture was supporting the producer as against the consumer. I know this point will be raised by hon. Members, probably from this side, but in these days I take the view very strongly, that the producer-consumer conflict does not exist in anything like the strength which it did at one time.
I remember the days when it was felt that the man in the town wanted to get everything as cheaply as he possibly could. He forgot that to obtain produce somebody had to put his work and his capital into the business, and had to be 210 paid for producing it, and that workers had a right to be paid decent wages. There is a much greater understanding now, between people who live in urban areas and those in rural districts about the cost of food. It would be a bad thing, therefore, to have a conflict on this small Bill about the position of the consumer and to say that, because we have a producer-controlled board, the position of the consumer, therefore, will be entirely overlooked. I think that is a mistake and need not happen.
I could not agree with the hon. Member for North Cumberland nor with the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond on the question of the new powers the Minister is to have under Clause 4. If we are to protect the consumer we need powers of that kind. The hon. and gallant Member chose the very poor example of strawberries, which are a most fragile crop. Suppose the price of strawberries went up to ls. a pound—I am speaking of normal times—that would obviously be too high, and the Minister should have the right, whilst the matter is still before the committee of investigation, to say that it is too high and to bring it down to 10d.; they could fight it out afterwards. I wish there was more buyers' resistance in this country because in that case they would stop buying highly priced perishable commodities altogether. I think the hon. Member for North Cumberland now realises that many of these perishable crops did not have marketing boards before but as we get more and more marketing boards it will be necessary for the Minister to have power to intervene in the case of perishable crops, rather than wait until the season is over.
When I read the Bill I felt a slight conflict. When there is a producer-controlled board, one always wonders, whether the consumer will suffer. I feel, nevertheless, that it is absolutely vital in these days to persuade people to set up marketing boards on their own initiative. Then we shall have much less chaos in marketing and distribution. On the whole, I welcome this Measure, amending the old Act; giving new powers to the Minister and encouraging various kinds of producers to set up producer controlled boards. It is of great interest to me, as I represent a division in a county where horticulture is playing a great part. Before the war, in the County of Essex 211 there were 23,000 acres under vegetables, today there are 41,000 acres. In spite of restrictions, the acreage under glass has increased. It is one of the few counties where soft fruit production has increased; the acreage has gone up to something like 2,000 acres for those crops. Horticultural interests, especially in the Lea Valley are anxious to play their part in the four-year programme of development. This Measure gives them some kind of stability which was not afforded them in the great Agriculture Act brought in by the Government.
They have not been slow to take advantage of this chance of stability. Something has been said about the tomato and cucumber board. The scheme is already in the hands of the Minister, and our growers are registered. They have had their committee of inquiry, and put their scheme in the hands of the Minister. I do not consider it an altogether satisfactory scheme, and I hope some amendments will be made. Small growers are very anxious about their position because their powers of representation on the board are on the basis of units of production. Naturally, a small grower feels he will be tied to the chariot of the big grower. I read their trade papers assiduously, and I know there has been considerable argument on that point. However, if the small growers put up a case the Minister will no doubt be able to do something about it.
Now with regard to the Bill itself. On Clause 1, if the Minister has power to put on the boards people who are capable of giving directions to other members he should not only include people who represent financial and business interests. I was not joking when I said I hoped there would not be discrimination on the grounds of sex, for there is continually in this House discrimination on grounds of sex. One would imagine that the Convention on Human Rights had not been signed by this Government recently in Paris. The Minister could not find anyone more competent or suitable to advise a producer-controlled board than a good housewife, and I say that in all seriousness, Clause 4 strengthens the Minister's powers and, I hope, does away with some of the fears which exist in the minds of many hon. Members on this side of the House that 212 the position of the consumer is to be entirely overlooked. I hope we shall have good consumer advisory committees which will not be afraid to put before the committee of investigation anything they feel is wrong in connection with the producer-controlled boards. We have had experience of very good boards which have done magnificent work, the consumer has not suffered in the least.
The Milk Marketing Board was spoken of as a satellite of the Ministry of Food. It was not always a satellite of the Ministry of Food as it existed before the Ministry, and it brought order out of complete chaos in the production, distribution and consumption of milk. When that Board was set up, milk was being fed to pigs and thrown down the drain, while children are literally starving for milk. For hon. Members who think that the consumer is bound to suffer there is an example of a board, entirely controlled, managed and worked by the producers, which has done fine and effective work for every class of the community, for producer, distributor and consumer alike.
On Clause 9, the hon. Member for North Cumberland raised the question of good marketing in other countries. Denmark was a country which, at one time, was absolutely at the ebb of production. It is a small country and its soil was as bad as it could be, consisting of peat and bog and other poor quality land. What made it possible for Denmark to become one of the finest countries in the world for the export of dairy produce? Nothing so much as their marketing methods. Why were they able, before the war, to more than stand against this country's native production in the sale of their dairy products? Perhaps I ought to be ashamed of it, but I was certainly not alone among British housewives in choosing Danish bacon before the war. It looked well, and was very well prepared. Their bacon and eggs were well marketed, and it was the same with everything that came from Denmark. If we are to hold our position in our own markets with goods from abroad, we must present and market our goods as well as our competitors do. That we can best do through the new producer-controlled boards which are being set up.
213 I am glad the new boards will have more power to do things than they have had up to the present, particularly in the case of horticulture. There is much to be said for the possibility of storing, by "quick freeze" and other methods, soft fruits and vegetables of various kinds. I hope that the producer boards will have enough money at their disposal to be able to do that kind of thing. I hope that out of the great sum of money which is being put aside by the Government for the four year agricultural programme some will be available for the producer boards to be devoted to storage, to provide us in a small kind of way with a "Joseph scheme" by means of which we can store in times of glut against the times when things are out of season, or when we have a poor season. These are all matters which are of great value from the point of view of stability in horticulture, and which will give that great industry a stability which was not afforded it by the 1947 Agriculture Act. For that reason, and on behalf of many of my constituents, I welcome the Bill.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Mr. York (Ripon)
I think I shall pick up most of the points which the hon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) made, but I would say, as my general impression of her speech, that she has tried to show a balanced judgment as between the consumer and the producer in this matter of marketing, which is not always the approach of some of her colleagues.
I wish to talk much more about the fundamental principles of marketing than about the details of the Bill. I would first say that unlike the hon. Member for Northumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), I believe that the first essential condition under which agricultural marketing can flourish, under which agricultural marketing boards can either come into existence or remain in existence, is that the commodity is protected against over-importation of foreign surpluses. I am convinced that this is the first and most important condition for agricultural marketing. That condition is fulfilled today, at least so far as the commodities contained in the First Schedule of the Measure are concerned, but it is not fulfilled in the case of those commodities which are not in the First Schedule. That 214 is a great danger, and one to which I shall return in a moment.
The second condition is that the producers, the people who actually grow the products, should understand the purpose of the scheme and should also accept the need for a marketing board. I believe that condition is fulfilled today in the great majority of cases. I am not as yet convinced that it is fulfilled in the case of small growers of horticultural produce. I have made some inquiries about this point, and there is a great deal of nervousness upon it, but, by and large, the psychological battle of getting the producers to accept co-operative marketing is over. They are willing and anxious to get on with the job of organising the boards.
The third condition, which may be more controversial, is that these boards cannot flourish where there is Government price control, and this applies in particular to commodities which are not in the First Schedule, especially soft fruit and vegetables. Today, we have a hopeful picture of the producer's outlook. We have had 16 years of continuous progress on the part of marketing boards—the giving of more and better services to their members. To follow up that progress the Government produce this Bill. So far as I can see it is a hotch-potch of the recommendations of the Falmouth Committee, some of the less objectionable recommendations of the Lucas Report, and the usual Socialist admixture, which is that no one can do anything without a strong admixture of Government interference.
I was surprised when I heard the Minister say "We are satisfied that further powers of control are necessary." I am indeed sorry to find the Minister of Agriculture setting himself up as one of the exponents of more controls for the agricultural industry. We had been hoping that he would perhaps be inclined the other way. Apart from that, I will at once accept that this Bill, so far as it goes, is a return to the principles of the Marketing Acts. But we have a very unpleasant background, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) mentioned—the Lucas Committee Report—which opposes a return to agricultural marketing, and seeks to set up in its place the vast bureaucracy of what it calls an independent body or 215 commodity commission. No one except the Government knows what their long-term policy is; I am not altogether sure that they know. But if the Government have decided that policy it is only right and fair that they should tell the industry what that policy is before this Bill is put on the Statute Book.
As I see the position the Government appear to be hiding their policy at the moment, to keep, I presume, the National Farmers' Union quiet with the small, and so far as I can see, not very fundamental Measure which is before the House. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to make clear at least the point whether it is the Government's long-term policy to return to the Marketing Acts, leaving the producers in control of agricultural marketing or whether it is not. When we are discussing agricultural marketing the House and the industry are entitled to have an answer to that plain question. I realise that in answering it the Parliamentary Secretary might have to be bold enough to say that he rejects the Lucas Committee idea of a commission—but perhaps that would be impolitic at present.
As the Bill is drafted it leaves the door wide open, as I was glad to see the Minister admitting, for the Lucas Commodity Commission to be brought into agricultural marketing, and for producers' control of their own board to be taken away, at least after the wholesale stage. The Minister was most open about what his views were upon this matter, when he said in his peroration, that the Bill does not prejudice any decision of the Government upon this matter. I can only presume that this policy is being kept in cold storage for the General Election. If that is the case I urge the National Farmers' Union not to go to sleep over this Measure but to regard it with as much suspicion as I do.
I wish to state a proposition with which we all agree, and perhaps to go a little further than the Minister in what he said about the right policy for agricultural marketing. I would agree entirely with the Minister when he said that the producer has the exclusive right to market his produce up to the wholesale stage, and that after that stage he has a continuing but not exclusive interest. I would go further and say 216 that where producers combine together to set up a co-operative marketing scheme and acquire monopoly rights under the Marketing Act, then they also and at the same time acquire a duty to give a fair deal both to the consumer and to the distributor. I think that rather completes the proposition which the Minister made.
As against that we have the suspicion engendered by the Lucas Committee's Report, because they say that neither producers nor distributors, nor the Minister of Food for that matter, should have anything whatever to do with marketing, but, instead, that marketing should be run by State corporations, independent bodies. The point I now wish to argue is that agricultural marketing can only be run by a vast commercial undertaking, and that whatever else one may say about these independent bodies set up by the Government it cannot be said that they are very successful as vast commercial undertakings. The Lucas Committee suggest that marketing should be run by another sort of Coal Board, or worse still, a whole series of coal boards I cannot imagine anything more obnoxous than that. The reason why they do not work is the reason why marketing boards will work, and do work.
In the first instance the independent State-controlled bodies are, so far as the members of the body is concerned, much more concerned with the political and Treasury criticism than with anything else; they are certainly deaf to consumer criticisms. Similarly, the workers under those boards, the workers in the industries, are concerned far too much with better wages, conditions and so on. As a consequence the boards cease to become vast commercial undertakings. As the alternative to this we claim that agricultural marketing boards must work in the public interest and also must remain large commercial undertakings although, at the same time, they also remain, and must remain, subject to Parliamentary control.
The reasons for this are quite plain. First, the elected members of the boards have themselves a deep personal interest in the success of the commercial venture. Second, the workers in that industry, in this case the producers, are vitally concerned that the board should remain a 217 successful and a highly efficient commercial organisation. These remarks remain true whether the commodities fall within the First Schedule to the Agriculture Act or not, because the House will recollect that the assurances and guarantees given in that Act apply only to that quantity of production which, in the opinion of the Government, it is in the interests of the nation to have produced. That is a very important point.
The main incentive of the producers is to maintain and increase the need, that is to say, the demand; and that can only be done by the wholehearted commercial drive of a sectional interest. I believe that that was the underlying cause of the success of these boards where they were successful in the past. I would also say, in passing, that these remarks remain true whether the market is a sellers' market or a buyers' market, because the producers' incentive remains the same, to increase demand. Therefore, I support the main principle of the Marketing Acts and, so far as we can see it, of this Bill, if it is the long-term policy of the Government. But if, as I now think, and, as I believe, all my hon. Friends now think, it is not the long-term policy, but only a minor part then all I can say is that it carefully guards the, door against encroachment by producers into the real producer control of marketing.
Under Clause 16 of this Bill the Minister of Agriculture is perfectly capable—or, rather, is able, I should not say capable—to keep all marketing boards on ice until the Government secret policy is announced. As to new schemes, he can so amend any schemes presented to him that they do not conflict with this secret policy. I think we have the right to say that if the Government has not these evil intentions then the massive new armoury of powers which it has taken, the suspicions of the Lucas Report, and indeed much of the talkings and writings of Left-Wing propagandists leave very fertile ground on which these suspicions could grow.
I wish also to refer to the mistrust which the hon. Lady the Member for Epping dealt with, the mistrust of the public to producer control of marketing. She is quite right, up to a point, that there was a vast amount of distrust, but only up to a point. That distrust was not so much in the mind of the public, 218 but in the minds of distributors. It was perhaps the distributors' voice that was heard rather than the consumers'. These distributor interests and others have for years fostered the belief that agricultural marketing boards acted against the public interest. I believe they have done it deliberately in the past, and I hope that they will not do it again. The Minister of Agriculture knows perfectly well—he has all the facts at his disposal—that this is a complete fallacy. No proof is ever offered, and, indeed, no proof can be offered because no evidence whatever exists. If there had been any evidence of it it would have been produced in the Lucas Committee's Report, for that Committee was undoubtedly prejudiced against producer control of marketing. I state categorically that these agricultural marketing boards must act in the public interest, because if they did not so act they would very quickly become unpopular, both with the electors and, perhaps for our purpose more important, with the Press, and that an immediate move would be made to revoke the scheme under the 1931 Act.
Therefore, why does the Minister of Agriculture lend his support to this contention by bringing forward the savage powers of Clause 4? As my hon. Friend has said, in the case of soft fruits they would cause, if they were used, a fantastic amount of loss to the producers and there is no time whatever for the board to make an appeal, as the Clause now stands, against an order made by the Minister. It is quite unjust and unfair, and I hope that at a later stage we shall voice our very strong criticism, and bring this Clause to an end. I will not say anything further than my hon. Friend has said about the abolition of the market supply committee, because I think he dealt adequately with it. I believe it was a very great mistake to do away with this committee. In addition to the arguments he raised, I would stress that we do not on this side of the House accept that the continuance of the Ministry of Food is essential for the wellbeing of the country.
My final point is about the setting up of marketing schemes for the more difficult commodities such as soft fruits and vegetables. Until a short time ago, I was under the strong impression that the setting up of these boards would not be 219 practical. However, I have been able to obtain some very good advice which leads me to the conclusion that there are possibilities for marketing boards in this respect. But they should be of an entirely different type to any which now exist or which existed in the pass. First, they must be extremely local. The only need for a central body is for market intelligence. There is one point which, as far as I know, has not been widely canvassed. One of the powers which I believe it will be essential for these boards to possess will be the power to set up market halls in the towns.
I understand that under the local charters and by-laws it is impossible to set up market halls in certain towns without the consent of the local authority. As local authorities may not wish an outside body to take marketing space within their towns, there will have to be, in the legislation—or possibly it may be allowed within the schemes—powers for the boards to go into the towns and set up marketing halls of their own. We want to see these schemes extended. We want to see producer controlled marketing continued. I hope that the long-term policy of the Government—even though we turn a blind eye to it during our consideration of this Bill—will not uproot what I believe to be the essentials of agricultural marketing.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Royle (Salford, West)
It is inevitable that in a Debate of this kind the majority of those who seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, will be representatives of agricultural constituencies or Members who have agricultural interests. Since I have the honour to represent a constituency which has not one farm in the whole of its area, which has probably very few blades of grass and certainly no cows to milk, it is likely that my point of view about this Bill will be very different from that expressed by the hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York). I know that his interests are in the agricultural community. Therefore, he and I will not see eye to eye on the future of agricultural marketing. I suppose again that it is inevitable in a discussion of this nature that we must talk to some degree about the Lucas Report. That report is so closely bound up with this Bill that we cannot ignore it. There have been a lot 220 of speculations about the intentions of the Government on the Lucas Report. Frankly, I am disappointed that today we are discussing a Bill which does not go deeper into the terms of the Lucas Report than this one does.
It appears to me that the report is divided into two parts. There is the part which is covered by the terms of reference and the part on which the committee appointed their own terms of reference. Therefore, we find ourselves today discussing a Measure which is taken very largely from that part of the terms of reference dictated by the Ministry of Agriculture. The other part is ignored completely at this stage. I do not complain that the Lucas Committee went deeper into the subject than their terms of reference prescribed. I am convinced that there are strong arguments for having the whole gamut of agricultural marketing and distribution thoroughly examined and overhauled. Therefore, my disappointment is most keen that now we only have the opportunity of considering what were the obvious matters for immediate attention arising from the Lucas Report.
As far as it goes in a general sense, this Bill does a good job of work. I have, however, one very big concern. It is one which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning), though my approach is rather different. My concern is in the fact that the National Farmers' Union are, within the terms of this Bill, to be the sole arbiters with regard to these boards. I do not want to say anything derogatory of the farming interests under the National Farmers' Union. I know the important part they are now playing and the more important part they will be expected to play in the nation's economy in the days ahead. I am conscious of the necessity for encouragement, incentive and assistance to be given to the farmers in the great endeavours we are asking them to make. But I say definitely that there is a great tendency on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture, and on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite particularly, to pander too much to the National Farmers' Union. As a representative of an industrial constituency, I feel this very deeply. It needs some courage to make these comments, but it appears to me that there is room for them to be be made.
221 In Clause 1 the composition of the boards is suggested. We can appreciate that it is possible for 24 members, as a total maximum, to be on a marketing board and that of that number the Minister has the right to nominate four. From where does the Minister get those members? He gets them from persons experienced in commerce, finance, administration, public affairs and the organisation of workers. That is a large field from which to find four people out of the 24 who are to sit on an agricultural committee. The hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) indicated that that might be too much, and that the Minister in asking for four out of 24 was demanding more than the agricultural community thought right. The Opposition appear to think that that is too much. Are the members of the National Farmers' Union the only people who know anything about marketing? Does nobody else know anything at all about it? What about the consumer?
Reference has been made to the Milk Marketing Board and its great success. When the Milk Marketing Board was set up, did they go to the producer to find the general manager? They went to a distributing organisation. I suggest one of the reasons for the success of the Milk Marketing Board has been that appointment, and the producer experience that resulted. What about the great distributive sections of the food industry? In the realms of the private retailers, the Co-operative societies and the multiple firms, and even, in some cases, in the experience of the wholesaler, there is a great wealth of knowledge and experience that ought to be used, not only to assist the producer, but to assist the Ministry and the country as a whole. Therefore, I am pressing for very much wider representation on the producer boards than is indicated by the terms of the Bill.
I feel that two mistakes are being made. Firstly, we are failing to take advantage of knowledge and experience which is there to be tapped, and, secondly, we are placing too much privilege and power in the hands of one organisation, because that is what it means. There is no guarantee that the farm workers are going to be members of the consumer board. Nominations will be from the National Farmers' Union, and the agricultural workers' organisations will have a very small chance of being represented 222 on the board, yet those are the very people upon whom we are calling for further efforts, without any guarantee that their representatives will be nominated to the boards when they are set up. So I believe that, because of the fact that these are producer boards, there should be first and foremost the consumer consideration.
When the N.F.U. indicates, as it has done, that if the other parts of the Lucas Report were in any way implemented. they would want representation down to the retail level, then the consumer and the distributor has an equal right to say that they desire representation upon the boards. I would say to the N.F.U. and their supporters that they cannot have it both ways, and that, if they want representation down to the retail level in any future schemes to come before the country, they must also admit the right to representation on the producer boards of the distributors and the consumers. Appreciating that this Bill at this time does not seek to go as far as many of us would have desired it to go, I hope that, before the Committee stage, my right hon. Friend will consider the possibility of wider representation.
The farmers of Britain today are, as always, one of the most important communities in our national life, but that does not, in my estimation, give them the right to be the sole controllers, not only of production, but of marketing and distribution. I believe that there will have to be a closer co-operation between all sections of the food industries and the general public, and I hope that opportunity will be given, either in this Bill or in one to follow it very quickly, to bring about that co-operation.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)
I think there has been a great deal of unfair criticism of the work of our Marketing Boards in the past. The hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) paid a compliment to the Milk Marketing Board, but it was quite obvious from what he said that his interest was much more on the distributor side than on the consumer side. I think we should recognise that these boards, launched out many years ago on uncharted seas, did much pioneering work that had to be done at that time. Not only has the Milk Marketing Board done wonderful work in the interests of the 223 whole country, but the Potato Marketing Board has done a grand job. I have no personal knowledge of the English Milk Marketing Board's work, but if it was as good as that of the Scottish Board I think we can be proud of the work it has done. I think we should admit that their work was pioneering work, and that a great deal of unfair criticism has been levelled against them, particularly in the Lucas Report. Had the war not intervened, these boards would now have become firmly established, and be giving a very good service to the community. For that reason, I was glad to hear the hon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) pay a compliment to the work done by the Milk Marketing Boards.
Coming to this Bill, I am inclined to think it is rather a dishonest Bill, although I know my friends in Scotland, for whom I speak, came to the conclusion that there was nothing very dangerous about it. We all know that there is a real need today to tidy up our marketing system, and restore the confidence of our producers in their marketing organisation. It has been suggested to me that there was to be no drastic change in the shape or form of our marketing system in future, and, for that reason, there was considerable relief in Scotland on the part of producers and the Milk Marketing Board that the Government had apparently been persuaded against legislating on the lines of the extremely controversial Lucas and other reports.
When I listened to the Minister, and heard his admissions, I felt that this business of uncertainty about the Lucas Report will be the major factor arising out of this Measure. I feel that the Minister has shaken the confidence of the agricultural producers of this country by threatening to hold this great sword over their heads at some later date. My hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Mr. York) has suggested that the whole scheme is ready for the final Act when it comes along, and it looks to me as if another Measure which is 100 per cent. Lucas Report will follow upon this Bill. Some may like it, and some may not, but I think it would be very much more courageous if the Minister had come out into the open and told us precisely what we are to get, instead of giving us a "hotch-potch," as the Bill has been 224 described by my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon.
Not enough was said about this question of consultation, and, if I heard the speech of my right hon. and gallant Friend correctly, he seemed to suggest that possibly this question of consultation could be dealt with under Section 2 of the 1931 Act. I am talking about the Minister's appointees. When I look at the Bill, I find that Section 2 of the 1931 Act was repealed. That Section does not exist, having been repealed by the 1933 Act in Section 14, which, in its turn, is being repealed in this Bill. If that is so, it is correct to say that there is, in fact, no provision at all for any consultation by the Minister with the producers concerned, and, if that be the case, it may possibly lead to discord. Of course, I am sure that the Minister will answer and say, "I shall consult the various organisations of producers concerned." If that is to be the case, why should he not say so in this Bill, just as it was stated in the previous Act?
The second point to which we in Scotland are objecting is one which has already been made several times today. We have heard about the increase of power given under Clauses 2 and 4, whereby the Minister can serve directions with provision for an appeal by the Board to the committee of investigation, though, meanwhile, the Minister is able to give temporary directions. That is the whole point. It is quite true that under the Act of 1947—which contains the Schedule of guaranteed commodities—the Minister provides himself with a reason for serving a direction in respect of a guaranteed commodity. He may have the matter referred to the investigation committee, but, of course, when that committee reports, he does not necessarily have to accept their report. That is a very great power. I concede that it may be necessary to have that power because of the fact that the Government take the whole responsibility in respect of prices guaranteed under the Schedule of the Act of 1947. But a very different position exists when we turn to the non-guaranteed commodities. We have heard about strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
There are other commodities which are not guaranteed in the First Schedule. 225 Wool, for example, is not guaranteed; the Government ran away from wool, and failed to put it into the Act. It does not only apply to strawberries. We have the position that while, in the end, the Minister has to abide by the final decision of the investigation committee, great financial hardship may be placed upon the producers in the interval. I do not propose to go into detail; a simple example is tomatoes. If the price fixed by the Board were 2s. 6d., and the Minister decided it was to be 2s., I am informed that, by the time the committee reported, something like three months would have elapsed. What is to happen to the tomatoes in the meantime? When the report is received and the Minister is proved to have been wrong, what is to happen then? Is it a case of "Heads I win and tails you lose" every time? What about the loss suffered by the producer?
As the Government take no responsibility, through their price fixing arrangement, for ensuring tomato producers a reasonable price, I cannot see any possible argument in favour of the Minister serving directions in respect of a commodity for which he has no responsibility whatever. This is a thing which really must be cleared up. The Minister certainly has adequate reason in respect of the guaranteed commodities, but we in Scotland take serious exception to the Minister taking this power in respect of a commodity for which he has no possible responsibility. For that reason, I support what was said earlier in the Debate by my hon. Friend. Surely, the people on the Board dealing with tomatoes and cucumbers will have expert knowledge of all the problems of production. They are not going to do anything from a political or ulterior point of view which will be prejudicial to the national interest. It seems to me that this is a Clause which should be either amended or deleted, or upon which some assurance should be given that the Government would undertake to meet the compensation payable to the producer because of the loss he sustained owing to the Minister giving a wrong direction. It could only be a wrong direction if it were not upheld by the investigation committee.
Very little has been said about Clause 5. It may be that I am taking a minority view about the terms of this Clause in regard to the imposition of penalties. 226 These penalties are to be decided by disciplinary committees. The independent chairman presiding over these committees will have special legal knowledge. I am aware that the Falmouth Committee recommended that this should be so, but it does not seem to me to be fair that, even though there is a neutral chairman, the rest of the committee should all be members of the board, and, therefore, both judge and plaintiff in their own case. When a producer on whom a penalty has been placed comes before these people, he is coming before people who are prejudiced because of the fact that they are all members of the board and can override the neutral chairman, even though he has legal knowledge. That does not seem to me to be British justice. We should either say, quite frankly, that the board shall be the disciplinary committee with a right of appeal to a higher tribunal or that there shall be a completely independent and impartial tribunal to settle these matters.
There is one other matter which has a specific bearing on the Scottish Clause, and I would like the Scottish Minister to have a look at a suggestion I propose to make. Clause 8 (2) provides for stated cases on points of law being laid before the Court of Session. Why the Court of Session? To Scotsmen this seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily expensive. Why not the sheriff's court? At the moment the sheriff's court is functioning—and has been for a considerable time—very satisfactorily in similar circumstances. It deals with arbitration on agricultural matters in which far greater sums are involved than will ever be involved in regard to a trivial penalty imposed upon a producer. It does not seem to me that this is any real redress at all, because the producer will not involve himself in all the expense in appearing before the Supreme Court of Scotland over a question of this sort. It seems ridiculous to involve superior courts in such matters, with all the additional expense to the disciplinary committee, the boards, and the producers. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should consult his superior, the Secretary of State for Scotland, on this particular point. There is objection to it from legal quarters in Scotland.
The only other Scottish point I wish to put forward is in relation to Clause 12. I make this point because representations 227 have been made to me about the definition of agricultural products in that Clause. The Skinners' Association of Scotland have disagreed in respect of the definition there, and if the hon. Gentleman has received any representations from them to the effect that they wish skin-wool to be left out because this is a special kind of production, I hope he will be prepared to discuss this matter on the Committee stage. Those are some of the criticisms from the Scottish point of view.
I will end by saying that I cannot think of anything of more importance to the agricultural industry than the question of marketing. Last year, I had the privilege of going to Sweden where I saw what I consider to be the most effective form of marketing now in existence. The Swedish marketing system came into being, I understand, because of the fear of State control. An inquiry into the marketing system of Sweden produced what is, in effect, a most efficient organisation. It is controlled by the producers, and seems to serve both producer and consumer alike to the satisfaction of both.
I hope these boards will continue and that they will take into account the lessons of the past, and of the war, in, for example, the sphere of marketing about which I know most, the marketing of livestock. The collecting centres set up by the Coalition Government when war broke out should certainly not be swept away. We have made great advances in that sphere, and I hope the lessons will be taken into account. If they are, I am sure the producers will give a service within the ambit of the Marketing Acts far superior to any system of State control, with its army of bureaucrats and its vast extravagance. If we get decent co-operation, we shall be able to give the country a first-class service provided we do not get the Lucas report at a later date. Again, I stress the uncertainty that will arise over this.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Mrs. Ganley (Battersea, South)
I agree that it is essential that the marketing boards shall be brought into being. When we look at the Bill we find it has certainly considered the interests of the producers very carefully indeed. All of us would say it is essential that some regular form of marketing should be offered to the 228 producers but, as has already been said, the necessity for allowing distributors and consumers to have some voice and some opportunity of co-operation in the development of this most essential service is also important. When we look at the situation in 1931 and 1933, when the original Agricultural Marketing Acts were brought into operation, we remember very well that at that time the suggestion was made that there should be producers' boards and distributors' boards and that consumers should also have representation and opportunity of consultation. Had that been done it would have created a feeling of satisfaction that the whole of the people who needed to use agricultural produce were being given an opportunity of real consultation.
The Milk Marketing Board has been mentioned this evening and I want to emphasise that this has been the most successful marketing board in all the work which has been done. The hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) has referred to the manager who was chosen for that board. He was not a producer but was a man who had close associations with and very deep knowledge of distribution, and as a result of his associations with the situation before the Milk Marketing Board came into existence he was a person appreciated by them and he was offered the post. He has described that organisation as the greatest co-operative effort ever undertaken in this country. It was a board which had to deal sometimes with people who were not fully appreciative of the work which was being done for the ultimate service of the whole of the nation. The work was not always perhaps well received. It was of inestimable benefit.
I should like to draw attention to the fact that most of us feel some disappointment in that, while we recognise the necessity for marketing boards, we hoped that when they were brought into being they, too, would be a great co-operative effort. Producers obviously are essentially interested in the particular commodities with which they are dealing, but we also hoped that the distributors and consumers would be able to have consultation, bringing the best ultimate service to the whole of the population.
229 Attention has already been drawn to the fact that the first Clause says that unless there are special reasons, the Minister shall appoint not less than two and not more than one-fifth of the total number of the members and that the Minister's selection shall be from those who haveshown capacity in commerce, finance, administration, public affairs or the organisation of workers.Following comments which have been made in this House on a number of occasions, I want to ask that the Minister should carefully consider organisations of consumers because quite often comments which are made here mean that the great organisations of consumers in this country, some ten million strong, are not always considered as coming withincommerce, finance, administration, public affairs or the organisation of workers.In view of the fact that experience has been very widely gathered in the consumers' organisations I hope it will be possible for the Minister to look at the situation again and to consider either that there is a special reason for enlarging the board to more than 24 members or to include in the sphere of selection organisations of consumers. One particular organisation of consumers with which I have no association at the present time—although I have had some association with it—had, for its own protection, to institute grading plant in order that certain commodities which were coming from the producer could be graded and presented to the consumer in the best possible manner.
A Bill of this kind will give to the boards the power of introducing all the necessary equipment which will be useful to the producer such as grading plant and packing arrangements. All of us entirely agree that it will be of benefit to the particular commodity, presenting it in a very much better way, preserving it, and helping in every way. With the increased powers which the board will have in this direction I want to ask what is to be the determining factor in deciding what is public interest. An hon. Member said it should be possible for the marketing boards to introduce marketing halls. If marketing halls are introduced—and it is the sort of thing one could very well visualise as arising out of the com 230 plete powers which are given in this Bill—would it be possible for the existing distributors to be taken into consultation? Could we have the co-operative effort that it is possible to visualise, with the producer producing goods and the distributor and the representatives of the consumer knowing what the demand was and knowing how consistent it is today? If the producer is to be helped, he must know what is the demand, where it exists and where it is most strongly felt; he must know where to send goods in order to meet the demand. Is it to be a question of conflicting interests being developed in that way? It is possible for the conflicting interests which might occur in the future to be brought together in the beginning and that might ease the situation very much indeed.
In his speech the Minister spoke of the advisory bodies to be brought into existence and I was very glad to hear his reference to that fact. As the Bill itself tells us, "if it appears to the Minister that the result, or one of the results" is contrary to the public interest, then the Minister may act. I think we may wonder whether the monopoly powers that are being given through this Bill may not at some time cut across the interests of consumers. We may wonder if there may not be some of the difficulties that have arisen in the past, and which we, as consumers, have known very well indeed. For instance, producers have desired to follow their products through all the stages to that at which they reached the consumers, and there has been the question of producers fixing the amount of distribution, and the avenues of distribution, and prices. I wonder whether that may not at some time be contrary to public interest. The only person who could raise questions of that kind would be the consumer. Therefore, when the Minister said that consumers would have the opportunity of drawing his attention to anything that was not in the public interest I was very comforted.
I hope, therefore, that the situation will be considered. I hope, comforted by what the Minister said to us—that this is not intended to be such a great monopoly power for the marketing boards—that there may be a very much wider co-operative effort. The Lucas Committee, the Williams Committee, and the various different suggestions that have been made, 231 have been mentioned. I should like to see a co-operative effort by which consumers' needs may be known from the beginning, so that efforts may be made to meet those needs, and to avoid a great deal of conflict that may arise, or, at any rate, that appears to be feared by hon. Members opposite. The Measures relating to agriculture that have been passed by this Government have been passed for the encouragement of the producer in agriculture, certainly; and the Minister is the Minister of Agriculture; but one certainly cannot visualise that division of interests that is feared. That division of interests could not come so much from the Minister as from the persons who might fear they were not, perhaps, getting the fairest deal they might have expected from the help that is being given by the country to the producers today.
So I would ask that some greater power of co-operation be given to the consumers under the Bill. I would ask that the organised consumers should be considered by the Minister and by the boards. I would ask it for the reason that I feel quite sure that prevention is better than cure. If we can get the whole of the people working together to make the best possible use of the land and for the greatest possible measure of production for the use and satisfaction of the public, then I am quite sure that this Bill will be a very useful one, but I hope that the consumers will have the opportunity of consultation so that the best use may be made of the marketing boards.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Beechman (St. Ives)
I am very glad that we have had speeches today from people on the other side of the House who primarily take an interest in industrial centres. I am glad of that, because one of the most important things is that the cities and large towns should understand the value of agriculture. As the Minister of Agriculture has rightly said, agriculture is not one industry; it is a series of industries. I must say, however, that although I had some sympathy with what the hon. Lady the Member for South Battersea (Mrs. Ganley) said about consumers' representations and the possibilities of co-operation, to which I shall refer later, I disagree with the hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) who thought that the National 232 Farmers' Union was showing too much favour to agricultural interests and not considering the cities. I think that probably the National Farmers' Union has done its best to keep an even balance between the two interests. However, I wish to speak perfectly plainly today—as, indeed, I hope we all always do—and say that it has not over-emphasised the needs and the potentialities of the agricultural industry as a whole. It has not emphasised the character of the industry as well as the importance of nutrition.
I find in the Bill much that is good, much that is uncertain, and much that may be very bad indeed. In so far as there is, undoubtedly, a great deal in the Bill that is good, we of the Opposition are not dividing against the Bill. In so far, however, as there are uncertainties, and in so far as this Bill does make possible what I would regard as a disaster to the industry, I think that it is our duty in this House to make that clear to those who follow these Debates. Coming, as I do, from West Cornwall and the Isles, I am particularly concerned with horticulture. Here, I must say that we must make up our minds on this question: are we to have a horticultural industry, are we to have an agricultural industry, or are we not? That is the thought I would put to those responsible for this Bill and, perhaps, other Measures of the sort.
We must make up our minds about this question. If we think it right to have a horticultural and agricultural industry in this country, then we must have special Measures to support that industry. It seems to me that we dither around with one expedient here—that, in itself, may be necessary—and other expedients there, and never make up our minds whether we are really determined that this country shall be, as to part of its character, a horticultural and agricultural land, with a flourishing community of farm workers, farmers, smallholders and landlords. By the way, I am not al all unsympathetic to the proposal that farm workers should find places on the boards. What I want to see is a definite policy for agriculture as a whole, and not only a policy but a determination in this House—I think there is on this side of the House—that agriculture really matters very much inded to this country, and that it shall—as it will—matter more 233 in the future than it has mattered for many years past.
Clause 2 of the Bill gives power to the board to deal with "regulated products." I have searched the Bill, and I am not at all sure what the word "regulated" means. It may mean nothing. It may mean regulated at home; it may mean regulated in regard to foreign imports. All I do know is that, as the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) pointed out, in his most helpful speech, under Section 3 of the 1933 Act, the Marketing Supply Committee, which was set up to regulate imports, has been abolished. Therefore, I ask myself—and we really must have a plain answer to this question—what does the word "regulated" now imply? Does it merely mean that we are to regulate marketing to certain forms of produce, or does it mean that we arc to face the fact that we must regulate imports, certainly horticultural and agricultural imports, if the industry is to survive?
I do not see this matter at all as the old-fashioned war between tariffs and free trade. I think it is really a question of planning—although I hate the word—according to what is really happening. Let us see what is really happening. My right hon. Friend referred to broccoli and cauliflowers, and he spoke of a licence being granted. I am speaking on a subject which I happen to know something about. The situation is that Italian broccoli is now in our shops. Hon. Members opposite may think that is a jolly good thing for the people of this country, but I will tell them that it is not. I do not look at this matter from a narrow horticultural point of view. I have a small holding, but I do not think I shall be producing broccoli. The point is that Italian broccoli and cauliflower are far more expensive in the shops than our own. Our own are being thrown away.
We have been officially encouraged to grow cauliflower in the West. It will be there in the coming months. It is our great season, and yet, for reasons which have nothing to do with agriculture at all, the Italians have been encouraged to introduce into this country cauliflower which is excessively expensive to the consumer, and which is helping to ruin the producer. It must be remembered that the Italians have certain advantages 234 which we have not, but some of those advantages could be made good. Their seed is better than ours. They have a chance to cultivate their seed. We have a scheme for cultivating seed for broccoli, but the onus of it has been put upon the farmers. I am not saying that seed will not play a part in time, but I think we shall have to think again if the seed which we have in this country is to be as good as the Italian seed. We have plenty of places in this country where we can grow and develop seed. We certainly have plenty of places in our own Empire where we can do the like. That is one of the most important things to be done.
Then there are the questions of packing and grading. We are developing schemes of our own—it is our duty to pack and to grade properly—but I think we may rely too much on the rather more easy going system which existed during the war. It must be remembered that many countries have actually subsidised the imports which they bring here. What the Italians do—and I give this simply as an example of many other imports; indeed, it is a lesson in the whole field of economics—is to pick out the very best of their cauliflower and send it to this country. It looks most appetising, it is packed in a way in which we are unable to pack our own produce, and, naturally, tempts the housewife who wants to find something tempting for the family to eat in these days. I do not know why the Minister looks so aggrieved.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)
I was so shocked at what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said—that we cannot pack our stuff in that way. Will he say, in defence of his own constituents, why we cannot?
§ Mr. Beechman
I was about to say that the obtaining of containers, after a lot of pushing, is now easier. I know the position perfectly well. The Italians have had, and still have, advantages—and if the Minister can answer this it will help us all—over us which we very greatly need in regard to packing. I think the Minister and I agree that what has to be done in this country is that there should be proper packing, and that the materials for proper packing should be available.
I was saying that the Italians—and I take them only as an example because 235 this is happening in the whole economic field—send to this country the very best and finest looking cauliflower they can get hold of, and put it into our shops. That is what is happening in the world at the moment to a very large extent. People are sending away from their own countries the very best things they can produce. In short, we are taking in each other's washing to that extent. That may be necessary; I think it is necessary in the situation in which we have got, but I think that if we go on too long, we shall wash out each other's takings. In this Bill there is mention of research. A great deal of research is going on, and we are grateful for it, but I am told that because of the shortage of paper it is impossible for people to be informed of the conclusions come to and the experiments made. I hear this in many quarters, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will see that where valuable researches can be undertaken, as they have been, the results are made known to those who can benefit from them.
This Bill may be said to do nothing in particular. Whether it does it well or not we do not know. What matters is how the Bill is worked, whether it is worked well or ill. It is a Bill which, to some extent, any party might have introduced, and we hope it will be worked well. I am sure that the intention of everyone is that it should be worked well. I am not a believer in nationalisation, except in certain instances, which have been impressed upon me—I make that perfectly plain—but I see in this Bill that under Clause 2 (2d) and Clause 9 it is possible to nationalise the whole industry. It can be decided what shall be produced and to whom the produce shall go; under Clause 9 the State has power to take over anything it likes.
§ Mr. Beechman
I was referring first of all to Clause 2, and then to Clause 9. Clause 2 limitsthe classes of persons to whom or through the agency of whom the regulated product"—whatever that means—or any description or quantity thereof, or any commodity produced therefrom, is sold, whether by registered producers or by other persons.Then under Clause 9—
§ Mr. Beechman
There has to be a committee of investigation, although exactly how it investigates, how long it takes or who it is I am not too clear. If the Parliamentary Secretary then refers to Clause 9, since he likes to be particular in these matters, he will see under Subsection (1, a) that the board may be empoweredto manufacture or acquire, and to sell or let for hire to registered producers and other persons, anything required for the production, grading, packing, storing, adaptation for sale, transport or sale of the regulated product.Enormous power is there given. Hon. Members may think it quite right, but it should be understood that the State is there given an enormous power.
§ Mr. Beechman
Well, the producers' board is given it, yes; but this enormous power is given to do these things. I am in favour of producers' boards—and the Parliamentary Secretary's intervention has helped me—but at the same time we must make sure that under the Minister's directions in the future—I have no immediate fears in the matter—sweeping directions are not given which will mean that everything is controlled by the State, because the only people who can really manage agriculture are the people who know their own fields and their own soil in their own way. I do not say that they should not co-operate. There is a great deal of room for co-operation provided the co-operation is not imposed. People can do threshing and all sorts of things together in helping to do the work in the fields, but if the co-operation is imposed, then to my mind it ceases to be co-operation.
At present we are suffering very much because we have so few pigs in this country, because that is bad for the soil and does real injury to the agricultural industry. I quite understand that in present circumstances the State should say what should happen to the pig after it has been killed, but I do not understand why people who can keep pigs should not be allowed to. At the moment it all depends upon the ration, and the absurdity is that in a certain locality there may be plenty of feedingstuffs which could be used but the ration allowed is not sufficient to keep the pigs alive. People who could feed 237 pigs do not do so because although the feedingstuffs are only a mile or two away, or perhaps in the next field, they cannot use those feedingstuffs because of the restrictions. It is very right that we should import feedingstuffs, but we must put an end to this completely senseless form of restriction which forbids people to use available feedingstuffs for the purpose of keeping pigs. The use of those feeding-stuffs for keeping pigs would improve the fields, would improve the table of the farmhouse, and if properly used would make no adverse difference to the general well-being of the people as a whole, which I well know has to be remembered.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Alpass (Thornbury)
Although I regard this as a stop-gap Measure, I feel that it is very necessary pending the introduction of a broader and comprehensive scheme for dealing with the whole question of marketing agricultural products. Anyone who knows anything about this question will agree that the present, I will not say arrangements but want of arrangements, or the present system—although it could not really be termed a system—for the marketing of home-grown food, especially of horticultural and fruit products, is chaotic, wasteful and unnecessarily expensive to the consumer. Every commission that has inquired into the problem has reported that a complete reorganization is necessary. As long ago as 1922 the Linlithgow Committee stated:Our investigations have led us to the conclusion that the spread between producers' and consumers' prices is unjustifiably wide.They went on to say:The public interest demands a far more determined effort on the part of all concerned to bring about reform and to increase the efficiency of the marketing and distributive machinery as a whole.I was very pleased to hear the Minister state in introducing the Bill that this Measure would in no way prejudice the introduction of a greater and more comprehensive Bill which many of us are anxious to see brought into this House. I should like to assure the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) that when that Bill is introduced it is not going to be a ramshackle vehicle, but an up-to-date, modern streamlined car, in which not only the driver but all the passengers will ride with very great comfort and pleasure.
238 The hon. and gallant Member for Richmond and the hon. and learned Member for St. Ives (Mr. Beechman) referred to the question of the marketing of cauliflowers. I should like to give the House the facts about one transaction of that vegetable. A reporter from the "The People"—that very great weekly newspaper—[Interruption]. Yes, it is a very great weekly newspaper. He was sent down to inquire into the methods of marketing cauliflowers. He went to where the cauliflowers were being cut, and he tied a piece of ribbon round one of them. He followed it to London, where he went into a shop which had cauliflowers on sale. He identified this cauliflower in the shop and he bought it. He paid 8d. for it, and then he had sent to him the account which the grower received. If the House does not know this already it will astonish them. In that particular consignment there were 144 cauliflowers and the grower received 3s. 10d. for them, or just over a farthing each. There is no disgrace to the grower there, but it shows there is something radically wrong with the system of distribution. Therefore, we are looking forward to the other Bill which will be bolder than this one, because it will improve that situation.
There are other instances in regard to marketing. A friend of mine in the northern part of Gloucestershire literally had to plough back his lettuces because he could not get sufficient for them to cover the cost of marketing. Yet in my own city of Bristol people who wanted lettuces had to pay threepence or fourpence each for them. For further evidence other inquiries should be made, but in my view there is abundant evidence now to show that some radical re-organisation of the system of marketing is required.
I do not want to say anything of a disparaging nature about the marketing boards. I know that with milk they have effected tremendous improvements. I may say with due modesty I was the first person in my part of the country to organise the collection of milk from the farms. The milk used to be sent from each individual farm to the creameries, and then one of the big firms was introduced to the farmers by myself and we organised a collection. From that point of view the Milk Marketing Board is 239 doing great work. However, that is not the whole of the story. In commenting on the work of the Milk Marketing Board, the Lucas Committee Report made this rather significant statement:In general, the marketing boards in the pre-war period succeeded in doing comparatively little to implement what the Linlithgow Report laid down as a basic requirement, namely, to secure a more efficient performance of marketing services and diminish the gap between the prices the consumer paid and those the producers received.In referring to the work of the Milk Marketing Board, although the Committee stated that it gave farmers an assured market, it said that the actual result to the consumer was an increase price.
I do not want unduly to criticise the work of the Milk Marketing Board, because I think it is a wonderful organisation, and its operation is, in my opinion, a wonderful testimony to the national organisation of an industry. Some of my hon. Friends visited the Milk Marketing Board, and were told something about the marvellous organisation which handles the whole of the milk produced in this country. Not only does it buy the hundreds of millions of gallons of milk produced, but it is responsible for its distribution. We were told that we could be informed about the milk of a certain farmer—how much the farmer had sent, how much was paid for it, where it was sent to, and how much was received by the Board for it. The whole of the work was done for the expenditure of one-eighth of a penny per gallon. That is a testimony to the beneficient results of organising an industry on a national scale.
I want to see the producer get a fair price. Hon. Members on the other side of the House always profess to be very good friends of the agriculturists of this country, but they had to wait for the advent of a Labour Government before they got anything like security and guaranteed prices. We have always been concerned about giving producers a fair price for the expenditure of their labour and energy. But we are equally concerned about consumers being able to purchase these goods at a fair price, and not at an excessive price compared with the cost of production.
240 I do not intend to occupy the time of the House very long. Mr. Speaker is always very kind to me, and possibly he calls me sometimes for the reason that I do not speak at great length. I want to refer briefly to two points of criticism made by the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond. He suggested that the Minister should consult the representatives of the producers in appointing the four members which it is his duty to appoint to serve on the Producers' Board. I strongly dissent from that view. If the Minister is to consult the producer it would become in essence a producers' monopoly board.
§ Mr. Alpass
Not only are we facing the future but we are living in the present and going forward. My criticism of the Clause is that if anything there are not enough members representing the consumer interest on the board. I should like to see the number increased, and perhaps during the Committee Stage the Minister will see the wisdom of that and increase the representation for the consumers.
The other criticism which was made was with reference to Clause 4. The hon. and gallant Gentleman, like the National Farmers' Union, suggested that the Clause should be dropped out of the Bill. I regard this as the most vital Clause in the Bill. It is a necessary and essential safeguard of the consumers' interest, and assuming it were not there what would be the position? The producers would have it practically in their hands to determine without due consultation what price should be charged for their produce. I do not think the country would stand for that.
It is true that to say that the agriculturists of the country today have the interests and sympathy of the great industrial population of this country. It was never true to say that the Labour Party were not interested in agriculture, because we have always had a programme. If the producers persist with this disposition to give them a monopoly power to charge 241 what they think right without regard to the consumers' interest, they will be doing themselves and their industry a great disservice. I support the Bill, and, if in Committee we get some of these minor points improved, I shall be more satisfied. I hope it will not be long before that implied promise from my right hon. Friend is redeemed, and he will be introducing a bolder and more comprehensive Measure, which will eliminate this absolutely unjustifiable gap between what the producer gets and what the consumer has to pay.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)
I am glad that I am following the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass), because he and I have crossed swords on other occasions. I want to deal with his criticism regarding the margin between the producer and the consumer. He quoted from the Linlithgow Report, but I would remind him that both the Linlithgow Committee and the Lucas Committee left the matter in the air. They emphasised the margin but neither of them said how that margin was to be eliminated.
§ Mr. Alpass
Will the hon. Gentleman excuse me? I suggest that if he were to read those reports more thoroughly he would see that they made definite and concrete proposals.
§ Mr. Baldwin
I have read the reports closely. The Linlithgow Report said:Our investigations have led us to the conclusion that the spread between producers' and consumers' prices is unjustifiably wide. Taken as a whole, distributive costs are a far heavier burden than society will permanently consent to bear.They leave off there without telling us how to close the gap. That is what we want to know. We all agree that there is far too big a margin and we want to know how to do away with it. The Lucas Committee slid away from the problem by saying:We were not charged with inquiring into wholesale and retail distribution; in fact, activities from the wholesaler to the consumer were outside the scope of our inquiry.That is the inquiry that I would like to see some committee set about, in order to suggest in detail how commodities could go from producer to consumer with the cutting down of redundant costs. Nobody has ever told us that, so we are all talking in the air.
242 The complaint by many hon. Members on the other side usually is that the consumer is not properly protected. I have every sympathy with that complaint. The consumer should be protected, but complaints made on that side of the House generally come when the producer has had a bad season, there is a shortage of commodities and prices go sky high. I never heard any complaints when we as producers were hardly getting a price that paid the cost of picking. Hon. Members opposite are prepared to accept that. As a producer, I say that a board or a commission appointed to look after consumers' interests when commodities are scarce and prices high should also look after the producers when there is a big supply and when we get dumped with foreign produce. I am not particularly interested in the price of a commodity when I have a very short supply but I am interested when I have had a good crop. I am prepared to take a poor price for a short supply if I can get a reasonable price for a good crop. Let me instance plums last year. There was no outcry from the consumers when we were selling our plums at a little bit less than it cost to have them picked, but if the plums had been scarce and gone up to 7d. or 8d. a pound any number of hon. Members would have made a fuss about it.
I want to emphasise the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) about Clauses 4 and 13. Farmers are absolutely up against Clause 4 for reasons which have been admirably pointed out. No investigating committee can act sufficiently quickly to deal with the majority of horticultural products. I think the National Farmers' Union has suggested that there should be compensation, but I think that would be too chaotic and would be impossible.
I suggest that in order that the consumer should be protected, the producers' board—which is not entirely composed of producers because there will be nominees from the Minister—before they decide upon a price, should consult someone, appointed if you like by the Minister. That person or persons would agree upon the price before it was decided. In that way we could avoid the chaos which will result if prices have to be altered afterwards. If the Minister is to have power to put on a "stop" order after deciding 243 that a price is too high, somebody will have had to advise the Minister, who will not take action on his own account. I suggest that the persons whom the Minister consults might well be consulted by the board before they fix their price. In that way consumers would be protected.
§ Major Wise (King's Lynn)
Would the hon. Member agree that it would be good to have that individual on the board as one of the members?
§ Mr. Baldwin
I see no objection to that suggestion. At least one-fifth of the board would be nominated by the Minister and would include representatives of the Minister. I see no reason why the individual should not be a consultative member of the board.
§ Major Wise
In that circumstance, the hon. Member would not object to Clause 4 remaining in the Bill?
§ Mr. Baldwin
Absolutely. What is the good of having a consumer consultant on the board if, after the board have fixed a price the Minister can come along and upset that price? We want the prices to be fixed before we put our stuff on the market. There should not be any difficulty about that. At the present moment the merchants agree, to a very large extent, to a contract price. In the case of plums, last year the contract was something like l½d. per lb., which hardly paid for the picking. We feel that there must be some definite price which is fair to the producers and to the consumers. It should be a definite price and should not be arranged as proposed in Clause 4. That is a suggestion which will not get the confidence of the producers. It will prevent them from forming marketing boards if they feel that prices they arrange are subject to being upset after they have negotiated the price and sold half their crop.
In my opinion, Clause 13 is the most important one in the Bill. I cannot say that I was tremendously surprised that the Minister skated over it without saying anything about it. If there is one protection and one necessary committee it is the Marketing Supply Committee because it can act as liaison between the 244 various Ministries concerned with the handling of food. The complaint that producers have against the Government at this time is that there seems to be an entire lack of co-operation between the Ministries. The Marketing Supply Committee could co-ordinate the Ministries. To show the lack of co-ordination I want to draw the attention of the House to certain facts.
When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond mentioned that the biggest enemy of the farmer was the Ministry of Food there were two or three outbursts from the other side. It is true. We have more fear of the Minister of Food than of any other Minister sitting on that side of the House. I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food the definite question whether the Minister of Agriculture was consulted when the contract with Holland was made by which we sent coal and steel to Holland to bring back, among other things, £28 million worth of agricultural produce. The answer was that that was another Question, but I could see by the face of the Minister of Agriculture sitting beside the right hon. Lady that there had been no consultation.
If the Minister of Food had consulted the Minister of Agriculture, is it likely that he would have agreed that it was necessary to import 60,000 tons of onions. He had been going round the country encouraging the growers of onions to increase their acreage. Would he have agreed that it was necessary to buy £200,000 worth of dehydrated vegetables and 5,000 tons of tinned vegetables, and also 13,000 tons of fruit pulp when the jam manufacturers in this country could not get rid of the pulp from the previous season because they had not got the tins in which to put it? Is not that lack of consultation between the Ministries enough to make farmers nervous about their long-term prospects? Has the Minister of Agriculture been consulted about the Polish Agreement which has just been made? That brings me back to the point that the Market Supply Committee should be the committee to co-ordinate matters and decide what figures are necessary before such agreements are made.
I want to reply to criticisms that the farmers have not taken advantage of the various marketing Acts. The Lucas Report says that the farmers have not 245 made much use of those Acts. Almost in the same breath, in paragraph 5 the Report says:We feel, however, bound to express our strong opinion that no plan for orderly marketing of home produce will stand the strain of unregulated and unco-ordinated imports.The Government must keep in mind that no marketing scheme can operate unless imports are regulated. When the first marketing Act was passed, the Lord Privy Seal came to my district and expounded the value of the Measure saying what a grand thing it was that marketing schemes were to be adopted which would prevent farmers under-selling each other. I asked if steps were being taken to stop foreign countries under-selling our farmers, but that was another question. However, that is the secret of the matter, and unless we have some co-operation and regulation of imported foods, the farmers will not produce what they can produce.
A big target has been set for them for 1952. They can respond, but the one thing which they want is confidence that they will be looked after by the Government as a whole and not only by the Minister of Agriculture. I believe that the Minister of Agriculture is sincere in his desire to help the farmers but he plays in a team which does not cooperate and he is playing on a very sticky wicket. I hope he will keep his end up by insisting that before these agreements are made, the farmers shall have a fair deal. If not, and if imported cauliflowers and other things are allowed to be dumped on these shores, the farmers will soon put down to grass the land which is at present growing a very valuable vegetable crop, and the country will suffer.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle), I wish to speak on the Bill not because I represent an agricultural constituency but because I do not. I have been rather interested to discover, during the Debate, that although the Bill deals with the regulation of the quantity, quality and price of some of our staple foodstuffs, right hon. Gentlemen opposite, self-styled champions of the housewife, defenders of the cost of living and the antagonists of rising prices, have not put up anyone to state the point of view 246 of those at the receiving end of this very important Measure.
Although I agree that agriculture is an outstandingly important industry in this country, like other industries which are also important, it is the servant, or it should be, of the community and not its master. Those of us who represent industrial areas are concerned that there shall be some balance in the approach to this problem, not so that there shall be the old antagonism and conflict between our agricultural and industrial resources, but at any rate so that one shall not exploit the other. Every speech I have heard from the Opposition, listening as objectively as I could, has confirmed me in the belief that the producers are the last people to be trusted to deal single-handedly with the problem, a plea which has been made by one speaker opposite after another. Yet we are held by the Opposition that even the mild dose of ministerial representation sought under the Measure has "shaken the confidence of the agricultural community."
The hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York) as far as I could follow him, seemed to be advocating that all the responsibility for and control of the marketing process from the grower right to the home should be the prerogative of the producers only; he said that if it were left to them everything in the garden would be lovely and the interests of all consumers in crowded areas throughout the country would be safeguarded, as if by a kind of miraculous insight, from the agricultural areas. I do not share that confidence, and many of us, while accepting the Measure as an essential step towards dealing on a proper scale with a very wide problem, are concerned to have to-night from the Minister, or the Parliamentary Secretary, a rather stronger assurance than we have had yet that the Measure will be followed in not too long a time by a more root and branch tackling of the problem of getting our agricultural resources functioning in such a way that goods of high quality and reasonable cost will be distributed to our people, a problem which we have not yet solved and which will not be solved by this Bill alone.
What is the answer of the Opposition to this problem? All we have had is a sustained, malicious hostility to the Lucas Report. Yet I think I am right in 247 saying that the Lucas Committee was far from being a substantially Socialist Committee. It was not a party political committee, nor was it a party political report. The interests of all political points of view were represented on the committee and its Report was unanimous. Yet when it is suggested to the producing interests in agriculture that something should be done, on the lines of the Report, which is a little off the beaten track of their monopoly, they at once "gang up" in suspicion. They say that the agricultural community will lose confidence in the Government and in this Measure if it is suggested for a moment that there should be any action on the lines of the Lucas Committee's Report. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) is really off the party line, and had better be careful, when he says naïvely that he is in favour of any board or commission which would look into the question of distribution, because that is the Lucas Committee's recommendation and is what we are asking for here.
§ Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
Would the hon. Lady refer to the paragraph in the Lucas Report which says that?
§ Mrs. Castle
I am referring particularly at this moment to the question of horticulture and if the hon. Gentleman will turn to pages 67 and 68 of the Report he will find that they urgently recommend the setting up of an independent Commodity Commission. The report says, in so many words, thatthe reorganisation of horticultural marketing upon a satisfactory basis cannot be done by producer marketing boards alone.They recommend, with very great emphasis, that it is a most urgent matter.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) said, this question has been discussed for many years—since 1922. We have had the ventilation by committee after committee of the seriousness of the inadequacy of our distributive system. It does not apply to food alone. There are many other of our commodities involved. The Cotton Working Party Report was another one which referred to the need for a thoroughgoing inquiry into distributive costs and the distributive organisation inside the cotton industry. So far as food is concerned it has been widely agreed on a 248 non-party basis that in the near future there ought to be a root and branch inquiry. Until we get that inquiry, until we get a commission which is capable of surveying our marketing and distributive resources and making recommendations, we shall not have the information which we need. There is a dark cloud of mystery over the distributive system in our country which hon. Members opposite do everything possible to prevent us lifting. If there is any census of distribution suggested, they are up in arms to protect the rule of darkness and of ignorance in this sphere. I hope to see hon. Members opposite welcome the collection of information in these fields in which knowledge is quite inadequate, for the solution of problems which are very real and which are particularly urgent to the housewife whose interests we on this side of the House genuinely and continuously support.
The housewife, I agree, is also interested in the question of quality, and I welcome this Bill if it means that the housewife is to have, particularly on the horticultural side, a graded and reliable product. If the housewife is to have quality and security in her purchases I welcome the Bill. But it is very important that we should not lose sight of the price factor. It is true that before the war the chaos of our marketing arrangements sometimes meant cheapness at the consumer end. The consumer at least did get that. Is the consumer now to get quality only at the expense of losing that vitally important factor of cheapness?
Hon. Members opposite time and again have said that the grower is not getting a square deal, and I accept that. All the evidence that one can get indicates that the grower has not had the benefit of the high prices which have been charged in the shops; neither has the consumer. The benefit has been lost somewhere in between. It is vitally important, when we are introducing a Measure whose purpose is deliberately to increase the return to the grower, to ensure that if prices are not to go rocketing to high, something is done urgently to mop up that distributive loss between the consumer and the grower. Otherwise, the burden will be shifted from the grower on to the consumer—and I thought hon. Members opposite were already gravely concerned about the level of the cost of living.
249 There is one point to which I wish to refer quite briefly and it relates to a question which has been raised by hon. Members opposite several times today—the question of imports. Here, again, there has been from hon. Members opposite a very one-sided view. What kind of security do hon. Members opposite visualise that consumers shall have against quite unfair restrictive practices? I am prepared to rely upon the Ministry of Food to safeguard the consumers' interests, in ensuring the entry into this country of sufficient food imports to prevent the consumer from being held unfairly to ransom by a monopoly industry at home. I think the Minister of Food has done a good job in that direction, but hon. Members opposite do not think so.
§ Mr. Baldwin
The Ministry of Food are now giving the Irish 225s. a cwt. for bacon, and the home producer 175s. Wages here are £4 10s.—with which we agree, of course. The Irish rate is £2 or 50s. That is what we object to, as producers.
§ Mrs. Castle
I am afraid I should be a little out of Order if I followed the hon. Gentleman too far in that direction. I intend to take one example which has been raised, and which is linked up with the question which I am discussing. I refer to the very vexed question of onions, which has been raised several times in this House. We have been led to believe that the Ministry of Food have been ignoring the interests of the country as a whole by permitting a flood of unneeded and unwanted onions to come into the country when we can supply the home need adequately from our own resources. I was interested to hear one hon. Member opposite complain not at the dumping of cheap food here, but at the import of expensive food, and that the competition which our own growers are fearing is from cauliflowers which, he said, were much more expensive than our home produced variety. It is a curious new kind of economic theory which seems to have got turned upside down.
The other day a wholesaler came to see me and I discussed with him the problem of onions. He told me an interesting fact, on which I have since been checking up. When Dutch onions 250 first came in he assumed that as they were so much cheaper than the Spanish onions he was on a good thing by obtaining stocks of the Dutch variety. He therefore built up stocks of Dutch onions, which he passed on to his retailers. The retailers reported back that although the price of the Dutch onions was well below that of the Spanish onions, the public preference for the Spanish onions was such that they were selling like wildfire, and the Dutch onions were left on their hands.
At Covent Garden yesterday these were the figures at which apparently the onions were selling: English, 10s. a cwt.; Dutch, 14s. a cwt.; Spanish, 35s. a cwt. Yet despite that very great disparity in price it is the Spanish onions which have the overwhelming public preference at this moment. Why? It is partly because of flavour and partly because they are large, can be baked and are easily handled. The housewife, in short, would rather have them. Do hon. Members opposite suggest that although our own growers are not up against any unfair competition as to price, we should deny and stifle that public preference? Is this the great maxim of "setting the people free"—to choose their onions? I want to suggest that there is one intention behind this sustained attack upon fruit and vegetable imports, and that is to give an unfair restriction of choice to the British housewife at a time when, heaven knows, the Government are doing their best to bring variety and colour into her life. Unfortunately, we are not helped by hon. Members opposite in the noteworthy course which we are trying to pursue.
If there is any intention, under this Bill, of giving to the producers' boards an unfair influence in the restriction of our imports of fruit and vegetables, we shall be taking a retrograde step. I want to ask the Minister whether it is true that the draft schemes which have been put up to him by the N.F.U. officials suggest that the producers' boards should have almost exclusively the ear of the Minister in the regulation of the imports of vegetables? That is no true principle for a free society. Here is where the commodity commissions recommended by the Lucas Report would come into their legitimate sphere, because it is suggested in that Report that those commissions, surveying 251 the marketing and distributive field as a whole, would be the appropriate bodies to watch the imports and, having no vested interest in either end of the distributive scale, would be able to make representations to the Minister which would be disinterested ones, and which should be listened to, as to what was a fair allowance of imports and what was unfair. The views of the two sides of the House on that might differ, because in this matter there is a danger that hon. Members opposite will sacrifice the wider interests of the community to the narrower interests of the producer. I therefore ask the Minister to give us an assurance that this Measure is merely a first stage, and that we shall not be sacrificing the long-term interests of the great consuming British public to a narrower producer case.
§ 53 p.m.
§ Mr. Gerald Williams (Ton bridge)
The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) has had a good fling at us for not supporting the consumers and only taking the view of the producers, but hon. Member after hon. Member has got up on this side of the House in support of this Bill, which after all, has been brought before this House to prevent the exploitation of consumers. They have certainly criticised where they think it right to criticise. If we have said that the producer must also be protected, it is a perfectly fair criticism, and that does not mean that we do not support the consumer as well. However, when the hon. Lady declares quite blatantly that she does not care a hoot or a cuss for the producer, I hope that will be reported in some of the agricultural and country papers, which will not do her any good when she has to defend herself at the next Election. I for my part have said before in this House that agriculture should, as far as possible, be removed from party politics, and for that reason during the three years that this Parliament has been running we have on most occasions done all we can to see eye to eye with the Minister of Agriculture, but we must criticise where criticism is called for.
We are keen that organised marketing should be encouraged and under this Bill we hoped that we were to get a lead and know the intention of the Minister towards organised marketing. Instead of 252 that, he has merely let us realise that we have not yet heard the worst, he has left an uncertain attitude hanging over the producer, and I believe he has done the farming community no good by not letting us know what are his real intentions towards marketing. If these organised boards are to be any good we believe that they should be producer boards. However, there will be great temptation at the present time for the producer to exploit the consumer because the latter will take almost anything that is offered to him or her because of the shortage.
So we must beware that these boards, starting as they are probably in the next year or so, are careful to realise that times are not normal and that their duty is the same as that of private enterprise, that the customer is always right and they must produce what the housewife wants and put the consumer first and foremost. I can remember in the bad old days that I used to pray for a bad year for apples because that was the only time when I could sell them. We hope these things will be put right under boards which we hope will cover cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, and many other subjects of horticultural produce, and that is why we are supporting this Bill tonight.
I want to draw attention to Clause 5 concerning the disciplinary committees. These disciplinary committees, which have to decide what shall be done to offending producers, have always had a difficult job. They have been accused of being judges in their own case and it has been a continuous source of grievance. I welcome the fact that we have at last got somebody presiding over them with legal experience. That is a great step forward although I believe that when we come to the Committee stage we might improve upon that by taking it a little more out of the hands of the producers. Also in Subsection (3) of Clause 5 there is reference to meetings of the disciplinary committee which may not be held in public. I hope the Minister will tell us just when meetings are not to be held in public and why, because we English have always believed that all grievances should be aired in public unless there is some special reason for not doing so.
One other small point in Clause 5 deals with penalties that can be imposed for infringement of up to six years after the offence. That is a long time, and I 253 would throw out as a suggestion to the Minister that perhaps he had better limit it to three or four instead of six years.
§ Mr. T. Williams
It would be permissible for the board itself to reduce the six years if it so desired.
§ Mr. G. Williams
Well that is something in the right direction. Now I want to refer to the controversial Clause 4. If the Minister reduces the price after the board has fixed it, that price reduction is subject to appeal to the committee of investigation. It has been pointed out that that committee may not report for a long time and, in the meantime, ruin may have been brought upon consumers, especially those whose crop is harvested in three or four weeks, such as the strawberry and raspberry crops. It may be their entire livelihood, and "ruin" is perhaps not an unfair word to apply. It may take many months to get the result of this appeal, because I can cast my mind back to 1938, when the Milk Marketing Board had a complaint from the milk manufacturers about the price they were charging for skimmed milk. It went before the Committee of Investigation for consideration. The Committee decided eventually that although the price might be injuring the manufacturers of dried milk it was not injurious to the public interest. They upheld the price which the Board had originally suggested. It took exactly seven months for that appeal to get through.
Than kind of thing may well happen under this Bill and the producers suffer hardship in the meantime. Clause 4, therefore, must be taken out. Now that the Minister has heard hon. Members speaking, quite sincerely and very strongly, against this Clause I hope he will do something about it and that, as he is always ready to come to some compromise, he will listen to what the other side has to say. What will happen when we discuss the Clause in Committee? Some of us may suggest the payment of compensation for any loss incurred by the producers under this Clause. The Chairman of the Committee will rule any discussion of that as out of Order because no financial arrangement has been made for compensation.
I ask the Minister, therefore, when we come to the Committee stage of the Financial Resolution, to see that a certain sum is put aside to compensate people 254 who may have suffered hardship under the Clause. If he does that tonight it will at least give him a chance of hearing our arguments in the Committee stage and of agreeing, perhaps, even if he cannot take out Clause 4, to give compensation to people who bear these hardships.
Unless something of this nature is done the grower may even refuse to grow his crop if he is told before growing his crops what price he is to be paid for them. If he has started to grow his crops he may neglect to fertilise and cultivate them. That would be to the detriment of the consumer as well as of the producer, because the consumer will not get the crop for which he is waiting. I hope, therefore, that all Members on the other side of the House will realise the damaging and dangerous effects of Clause 4. If the Minister is not prepared to take out the Clause I ask him, when he deals with the Financial Resolution tonight, to vote a sum of money which will enable him to compensate should we raise this issue during the Committee stage.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-Western)
I cannot help noticing that for the second time in this Debate the benches opposite were occupied by only six—and, now, by seven—hon. Members. In view of the long-professed interest of the party opposite in agriculture, that seems a reflection of the interest which they are taking in it today.
§ Mr. Turton
I think the hon. Member will find that the proportion on his own benches is very much less.
§ Mr. Dye
I am quite prepared to let the hon. Member work it out. The figure is three to one, which I do not think is quite equal representation. We on this side, at any rate, can show that our benches are reasonably well filled, and that the interest taken in this particular Measure has been quite keen. Speaking as one who is actively engaged in agricultural production I welcome the Bill. The marketing of our produce is our age-long problem. In the early days, when the man who reared his own chickens and so forth, sold them direct to the consumer he argued out his price, but immediately the problem became too big for that method both sides thought that the middle people were getting an unfair share of the final price. Our problem today, therefore. 255 is how to get an efficient service of marketing our produce. It is becoming more and more urgent, because in some respects the difference between the prices of producers and consumers is getting wider.
There has been criticism from the benches opposite of the very necessary work being done by the Ministry of Food and by the Board of Trade in making long-term arrangements with European countries for the supply of agricultural produce to this country. That is an inevitable procedure, for we are not in a position to produce all the food we want and, in addition, our consumers want a continuous supply of those foods and of the quality they desire. Therefore, when arrangements are made with other countries for the supply of agricultural produce, stipulation can be made about quality, quantity and the like. If British agriculture is to have its fair share in the home market our produce must be of the quality desired by consumers. It must be packed, graded and marketed in such an orderly manner that there is a continuous supply to meet the daily requirements of the British consumer.
That cannot be done in the old disorderly fashion. It must be planned, right from the farm, over a period of years so that the balanced acreages of the different crops and stock will bring a continuous supply to meet the demands of consumers. This requires the rapid extension of marketing schemes under existing Acts and also under the Bill we are now discussing. It has already been pointed out that a number of pre-war marketing schemes have been put into cold storage. The time is urgently ripe for new schemes to be brought into operation as quickly as possible.
Hon. Members on both sides have referred to the rather warm question of onions. We have had a glut of home produced onions. It has taught us the lesson, I hope, that the variety which we grow should not necessarily be that which produces the greatest weight per acre, but should be the type which the consumer will readily purchase. Furthermore, they must be harvested, dried and stored in such a way that they will compare with those grown elsewhere. Producers of onions in this country have not 256 gone thoroughly into these questions. Certainly, they have not organised the marketing of their produce. Thus, with an abundant crop this year they have come very badly unstuck. I hope that that will be a lesson, and not only to the producers of onions, with whom I have the greatest sympathy, many of whom were able to charge high prices and make big profits during the war.
Now that the world's markets and supplies are freer we have to face up to the question of supplying consumers regularly with the quality and quantity of the food they need. In the case of vegetables in particular, where there might be varying seasons, there must be some control and some organisation of acreages, whether it be onions, cauliflowers or carrots, so as to avoid gluts at certain periods of the year if not through the whole season. There is an urgent need among the vegetable growers of this country to have an organisation which will provide that necessary control over acreages and varieties, and enable produce to be got to the markets as and when needed.
It was alleged that the Italians were able to market their cauliflowers and pack them better than growers in, for instance, Cornwall. There have been complaints in London about the way in which Cornish growers were sending cauliflowers to market last year. Recently, in a market place in Norfolk, I watched the sale of Italian cauliflowers. They were not packed in an attractive way, for if a cauliflower is to travel a long distance to market it must have its leaves with it covering the heart of the cauliflower keeping its colour and protecting it from damage. Then it is the job of the salesman to trim and exhibit it in such a way that it will attract the attention of the housewife. I do not believe that the Italians have an advantage in the way in which they pack their cauliflowers. But there has been a tendency amongst British people, when getting enough for what they are producing, to become a little lackadaisical in the preparation of their produce for the market.
Not only is there an urgent need for marketing schemes for vegetables, but they are needed for other produce, too. Growers of barley throughout the Eastern Counties, if they are not concerned now, will soon have to be concerned about the system of marketing 257 barley. I remember that 10 years ago, when there was an abundant crop of barley in the Eastern Counties, merchants and maltsters said they did not want it and the price went down from 22s. to 13s. for two cwts. The price was below cost of production. That happened in the 1938 season, and in the early part of 1939 hundreds of farmers were unable to get a fair price for barley to cover cost of production. As a result of last year's harvest there is now an abundance of barley in the Eastern Counties. Everywhere on the farms there are unthreshed stacks, and the granaries are full. How is the price being maintained? Only by the Ministry of Food buying the crop. There is a floor beneath which the price cannot fall today. When hon. Members opposite criticise the action of the Ministry of Food in dealing with the farmers of this country they cannot understand what is happening in the Eastern Counties. The Ministry of Food are upholding the price of barley and performing a function which ought to be performed by the organised growers in co-operation with the brewers. It should be possible to produce an ample supply of malting barley and an abundance for feedingstuffs.
A little time ago I was in Ireland, and I learned of a scheme which the great brewers there have for getting farmers to grow barley under contract, acreage and payment both to be defined. We should have a similar system in this country. Production is not something isolated from marketing. Prices would obviously have an effect on the amounts of different foods grown in this country. The Government's policy is to extend agricultural production to the fullest possible extent and place in the hands of the farming community legislation under which they can organise the sale of their produce to the fullest advantage of producers and the best advantage of consumers. In so far as this Bill helps that purpose we want to encourage the farming community to make full use of the schemes. It is a question of urgency there is no time to lose. We must have more schemes. I wish the Bill well, and hope that not only will it be given a Second Reading but that we shall in Committee get down to the few problems on which there is a difference of opinion.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)
The hon. Member for 258 South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) made an interesting speech after a rather lamentable start. The cat is asleep again, I am sorry to see. In my short experience of the House I have always thought it unwise to criticise attendance during the dinner interval and to say much about how many hon. Members are present on one side or the other. They may be working on Committees, or at dinner.
There is a remarkable degree of unanimity on this Bill. We all want efficient marketing for agricultural produce in Great Britain. We are all agreed that the producer must consider the consumer and give him good quality if he expects a good price. Those are two large foundation stones of agreement on the Bill between both sides of the House. The hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), who I am sorry has now left the House, had a rollicking time and enjoyed herself speaking about the wicked Tories. It was such fun, but she was radically wrong in most of the things she said. But it has become apparent in this Debate that the recommendations of the Lucas Committee are well on their way. The door has been left wide open, as we have been told, and it is perfectly clear that these recommendations are coming along. That will be a much more controversial matter, as everyone here knows. I hope it will be long delayed, and that the inevitable result of the General Election will prevent it from ever being brought into operation.
One great mistake is frequently made when reference is being made to the gap between the producer and the consumer, which we all agree seems to be extremely wide. But there is no proof that direct supply from the producer to the consumer will decrease that gap and will reduce prices. If we look at the various nationalised industries which have just come into the Government's hands we can see exactly the opposite. Do not let us think that because we cut out the distributor, who plays an important part, that we shall necessarily get a reduction in price to the consumer. I agree that the question needs to be examined in an open-minded way.
I am glad to see the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland present because I intend to express a little concern. Clauses 1, 2, 4 and 5, etc. of the Bill all refer to Ministers setting up boards, directing 259 people, temporarily directing them under the terms of Clause 4, etc. There should be a clearer statement from the Government, and it should appear in the Bill, as to who is to do all this appointing and directing in regard to Scotland. That is not clear from Clause 18, which applies the Bill to Scotland. We should have some assurance that it will be the Secretary of State for Scotland who will make these appointments where the Bill states that a Minister is entitled to do so. Also, the penal committees, or whatever they are called, those which can exercise discipline, should be carefully selected so that Scottish interests are not overwhelmed by those of England.
One disturbing point—it occurs in practically every Bill which this Government bring forward—is the poisonous theory or practice of inserting tremendous powers in a Measure, and mildly saying, "We do not intend to use them. We want to have them but if these chaps behave these provisions will never be required." That is the method of the dictator wherever there has been one. It is unfortunate that the Minister of Agriculture, for whom I have the greatest regard, and who has endeavoured to do a good job for English agriculture, should have lent himself to that poisonous theory.
It is of immense importance to Scotland that something like the market supply committee should be retained, because I wish to be frank with the House. I am not being anti-English, and I hope that because I stand up for Scottish rights and because other hon. Members from Scotland do the same, we shall not thereby be accused of being anti-English. We are nothing of the kind. It has to be realised that in this matter of horticultural produce, England and Scotland together are alarmed at the imports from France, Holland and Belgium as they affect home produce. Inevitably that is alarming but there is the added alarm in Scotland that imports of horticultural produce from England are on an even greater scale than those from the Continent, and therefore affect us much more than those from the Continent.
I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will not lose sight of this matter because there is an opening for Scottish horticulture which must not be lost. I 260 hope that the Secretary of State will throw his weight about in this matter and ensure that we get a fair share of the trade of the country, and also that we do not suffer by reason of the enormous imports which come across the Border, often in a stale condition, when the product should be produced fresh at home. If hon. Members could go to the big markets in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee and see the stuff which arrives from the South when local growers are unable to sell fresh first-class produce, they would see the menace of English horticultural produce in Scotland. I say that in a friendly way, but it is a vital problem in Scotland, and I hope that the Secretary of State will give his attention to it.
I turn to the question of compensation in the event of the Minister's decision having been proved to be wrong as a result of a committee of investigation. My hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) put the matter very well indeed as did my hon. and gallant Friend who spoke first from these Benches. The farmers of Scotland have no objection whatever, they do not think they can reasonably object, to the Minister taking charge, as it were, in the case of a product the price and market for which he has guaranteed. But where he is not doing that they think it is most unreasonable—and they oppose it tooth and nail—that he should have the opportunity of making a mistaken decision and on that decision issuing a temporary direction which is afterwards proved to be wrong by the committee of investigation, and that at the same time no compensation should be provided to deal with the result of his error. I hope that position will be altered when the Bill reaches the Committee stage. I emphasise once again my hope that before that stage the Secretary of State for Scotland will have some protection for Scottish interests inserted quite clearly in the Bill. I welcome the Bill, as I think everybody in the House does. I hope that it will have a fair passage, though not necessarily an entirely quiet one.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, Northern)
I desire to make a short contribution to this Debate from the standpoint of one who represents a rural constituency. I also wish to ventilate a matter connected with this Bill in which the actual producers, the farm workers, are greatly interested. 261 I am glad that there is such a large measure of agreement about the main features of the Bill. I would emphasise that such has been the case in regard to nearly all the agricultural Measures which have been put forward by the present Government. That is a tribute to the fact that in our party and on our benches we have people taking the lead who know the agricultural position and are prepared from time to time to advance measures in its interest. It was so in regard to the great Agriculture Act of 1947. There was a tremendous measure of agreement about the main provisions of that Measure. We said at the time that its effect would be to stimulate production. That has taken place. At the same time we did appreciate that the one great weakness in connection with agricultural and horticultural production was on the marketing and distribution side. I regard this Bill as a natural corollary to the Agriculture Act, 1947.
It is a tragedy that there should ever be what are termed gluts and surpluses of food. In the past these have not only meant losses to the producers but at the same time have meant serious loss to the public. I would refer to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) that we on this side of the House were not really concerned about the position of the producer. I say plainly that we are tremendously concerned about the producer. It is because of our concern with his fate and with what he gets for what he produces we are giving our wholehearted support to this Bill.
We have heard a great deal about the various commodities produced on the farms and horticultural holdings. I wish to refer to the question of onions. It has already been suggested that more British-produced onions would be sold if they were presented in a better way. That may be so, but I had a letter from a constituent only a few days ago in which he complained that he still has on his farm about 25 tons of onions. He had tried to dispose of them by retail and wholesale, but he had not got rid of a single ton, or even a half-ton. I cannot accept the theory that he could not get rid of his onions because they were not dished up in a presentable form. If we had had the main provisions of this Bill in operation I think my friend would never have had to write to me about the 262 fact that he had tons of onions, which in a month will be inclined to go wrong, and that he could not get them on the market. We have mastered our production problems to a very large extent, but we have not mastered the art of marketing and distribution.
I regard this Bill as a genuine attempt on the part of the Minister to deal with this vexed question. I wish he could have gone further. References have been made to the recommendations of the Lucas Committee. While I welcome this Bill I suggest it could have gone much further than it does. It could usefully have incorporated some of the main provisions that were put before the country by the Lucas Committee. The hon. and gallant Member for Perth and Kinross (Colonel Gomme - Duncan) said he thought the Lucas Committee's recommendations were well on their way. I hope they are. I hope that what we are doing tonight will be followed by a really wholehearted attempt to put into operation the main recommendations of the Lucas Committee.
I do not regard the boards established under this legislation as being mere producer boards. The interests of the producers have to be safeguarded, but there would be very strong objection, both in this House and outside to what might be termed monopolistic control of food, and the Minister does well to have a Clause in the Bill which enables him to take a certain line of action if he thinks a board is acting contrary to public opinion. The need for a drastic change in vegetable marketing is overwhelming. The margin is too big, and has to be bridged in some way.
The main provisions of this Bill will go a long way towards bridging the gap that exists at the present time. May I quote a sentence or two from the agricultural correspondent of the daily newspaper in my own county, "The Eastern Daily Press"? In an article on the need for drastic changes in vegetable marketing he states:Can anyone seriously suggest that the people of this country would not eat more vegetables if prices were lower?I consider that prices can be advanced to the producer and lowered to the consumer without anyone taking any serious harm, unless it be a few middle-men. The writer of this article continues: 263It is a sad reflection on the system that in Norfolk alone hundreds of tons of cauliflowers and cabbages have run to seed this Autumn because the growers would have lost even more money if they had sent them to market.That is a deplorable situation, and I hope that that aspect of the question is one that will be overcome for good by the operation of this Bill when it becomes an Act.
I wish to make one criticism, and I think the Minister would be disappointed if I did not make it. All the time I have been a Member of this House I have been urging that the farm worker, the man who actually produces the food, should come more into the picture on the managerial side. I do not mean that the employer should be displaced and the farm worker put in his place, although it might be a good thing on some farms if we did so. I am not suggesting that, but I am suggesting that in operating a scheme of this kind, and setting up of these boards, there is an opportunity for the Minister to play the game by the farm worker by allowing him to come into the picture and take part in the operation of the scheme.
The Clause dealing with the composition of the boards says:…. members shall be persons appointed by the Minister as being persons who in his opinion are qualified for appointment as having had experience and shown capacity in commerce, finance, administration, public affairs or the organisation of workers.I wish to emphasise that little word "or." The Bill does not even say "and." It says "or," and it may mean that on many boards that may be set up under this Bill there will not be a single workers' representative. We had a lot to say with regard to the paucity of representation of workers on the county agricultural committees, and I put myself seriously wrong with the Minister over that business. I tried to deal with it in a very kindly way, and I wish to continue that very kindly action. I suggest to the Minister that he should have another look at this and see if he cannot re-draft this Clause, or put in a new Clause, that will give to the food producer—the fellow who does the growing, the sowing, the reaping and the mowing—an opportunity of taking his full share in the running of this industry. Provision should be made for the adequate representation of the workers on 264 all bodies dealing with agricultural matters, and certainly on the boards set up by this Bill. They should not be there on sufferance. They should be there by right. They are often referred to as the junior partners in the industry, and that is quite true. They are there when hard work is to be done, but they are not to be found when there are jobs to be given to them that will elevate them a bit above their fellows. I make this further appeal to the Minister, that he should not regard this as being the last word on representation, but that he will, for the first time, give me what I want—fair representation of the farm workers on all the boards established under this Bill.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
I found the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Gooch) rather hard to understand. At one point he was arguing that Clause 1 of this Bill was not creating a producer marketing board and at another point he was saying that he wanted to have something of a monopoly as recommended by the Lucas Report. My only criticism of the Lucas Report is the proposed establishment of a distributive monopoly, where the consumer would have no effective representation at all.
I have an even more elementary criticism of this Bill. I feel that most of this Debate has been very unreal. This Bill was introduced by the Minister of Agriculture supported by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland. But, of course, the Minister secured his divorce from marketing some time ago, and the custody of his marketing children has been given to the Minister of Food. I looked along the Government Front Bench, but I never saw the Minister of Food or his Parliamentary Secretary there at any time. After all, this Measure, described by its most ardent enthusiasts as a stop-gap Measure, cannot really operate until the problem of how to disentangle those marketing schemes from the Minister of Food has been solved. I listened with care to what the Minister of Agriculture had to say on that subject. He said, eventually, that Clause 16, Subsection (3) was dealing with the difficulty. I looked at that, and I found that it is quite true that in that Subsection, where any part of the marketing scheme has been put into cold storage: 265… the Minister may by order make such transitional provision as he may think necessary or expedient for removing any difficulty ….I suppose the Minister of Food is the difficulty in this case, and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will try, under this Subsection, to remove him. I give him my good wishes. The right way to get this marketing into operation is for the Minister of Agriculture again to assume control of agricultural marketing schemes. The sooner he does that the better.
The Lucas Committee made it clear that what was inefficient or incompetent in marketing was the control by the Ministry of Food. They also condemned the producer-controlled marketing boards. I regretted that decision very much. I am referring to page 53 of the Lucas Report where it is said that there were four possible alternatives in the field of policy. The first was to go back to before 1931; the second was to revert to the pre-war system of producer controlled marketing boards; the third was the existing comprehensive system of control by the Ministry of Food; and the fourth was a public utility corporation. They condemned these producer controlled marketing boards. They condemned the Ministry of Food. I find it very hard for the Minister to say that, without prejudice to his decision on the Lucas Report, he is introducing this Bill. I hoped that this Bill meant that the Minister had reached one decision which was that the Lucas Committee were wrong in condemning producer controlled marketing boards, and choosing this public utility monopoly. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will enlighten us on that point. What is the position? Are we to have producer-controlled marketing boards, or may it happen at some future date that the Minister will go back to this public utility monopoly?
Clearly, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir. T. Dug-dale) said, there must be some better link between imported commodities and these marketing boards, if they are set up, especially if the control of the boards is vested in the Ministry of Food. I hope we shall be told, if the market supply committee is to be abolished, what alternatives the Government will put in its place. I consider that there is a case for a stronger and more comprehensive 266 committee, as my hon. and gallant Friend suggested. We must have some link, otherwise we shall have the same trouble as we have had this year in connection with nearly every product of the horticultural industry and some products of the agricultural industry. It is because there is that complete lack of co-ordination between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food—between the marketing boards and the foreign importer—that we find the home producer in this great difficulty.
I turn to another point which concerns the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices (Inquiry and Control) Act. When we were considering that Measure in Committee I made the point, which I am glad to see was also made by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), that consumers should be properly protected against all monopolies whether they are agricultural marketing boards or whatever their nature may be. I regretted at that time that these marketing boards were not brought within the scope of that Act. There we have the proper tribunal to hear complaints by consumers. There we have the Monopolies Commission which must make a published report to Parliament.
The Minister today stated his alternative. Let us see what it is. It is not a very simple alternative. It is to have a two-way channel into this committee of investigation. It may be initiated by the Minister or by the consumers' committees—not, of course, by anybody else in the body politic. When the investigation committee are considering a problem which is submitted to it, the Minister suddenly has an over-riding power to take action. That is something quite foreign to the Monopolies Act. The Minister has kept agricultural marketing schemes out of the scope of the Monopolies Act where they would have had a proper judicial hearing under a simple procedure. Instead, he has made them liable to this rather hole in the corner procedure where the Minister can pre-judge the issue while the committee of investigation are deliberating. That appears to be a most improper way of dealing with this problem.
If this Bill is, as its adherents suggest, merely a stop-gap Measure, it is vital that the framework should be something to which additions can be made in order to erect a reasonably good judicial 267 building at the end of it. If the Government are opposed to the suggestion that the Monopolies Commission should be allowed to consider these questions—and I cannot see why they should be opposed when they have one member of the Commission on the committee of investigation—let them construct a proper judicial tribunal so that not only the Minister and the consumers' committee but anybody aggrieved shall be able to complain about prices or other restrictive practices. Let such a tribunal present reports to Parliament in the same way as reports of the Monopolies Commission must be presented. I should like to see that method extended further than the marketing schemes to include complaints about excessive margins on distribution.
We have been told a grand story by the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) about the broccoli which was tied up with a bit of ribbon. The ribbon extended from Cornwall up to Covent Garden. At the Cornish end it was worth one farthing and at Covent Garden it was worth eightpence. It was a very long ribbon, which must have cost more than eightpence; how he got it in these days I do not know. The proper way to deal with these problems is to bring them before the appropriate tribunal into the light of day. In this Bill the Government have a great opportunity to construct a fact-finding tribunal which will bring its deliberations to Parliament. Instead, the Government think they are protecting consumers by giving a Minister dictatorial powers to interfere while a tribunal is deliberating. I hope the Government will have second thoughts about this provision, which is a great mistake. The Government have missed an opportunity.
I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to explain why the Government have cut out from the provisions of the Agricultural Marketing Acts the power of forming boards to deal with secondary products. I refer to Clause 14 of this measure. I know that the bacon marketing scheme was not a great success. In the Parliament of those days I had a great deal to do with the working of that scheme. I know many of the reasons why it failed. There was, before the war, a proposal to set up a marketing board for cream. All that type of product will 268 be excluded by this Clause. I cannot think why it is necessary to cut out all secondary products from the marketing schemes. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will give us the reasons, which the Minister himself did not do.
In conclusion, I do not think enough credit has been given in this Debate to those men who, in the past, and ever since 1931, have devoted their time to organising the marketing of agricultural produce as members of the marketing boards. Thinking back for 17 years I can say that they are men who gave up their time, at very great personal sacrifice, to make these boards a great success. It is the co-operation of these great farmer-politicians—though they are not politicians in the sense that we are politicians—these farmer-administrators, which has built up the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, during the war, their opportunities for securing efficiency in distribution were not very great, because all their powers of distribution were taken away by the Minister of Food. If we can hand back those powers to the farmer-administrators at the earliest opportunity we shall find, in agriculture, the same efficiency in distribution as we now find in production. I beg the Minister of Agriculture to clear the decks for action, and get something rather better than this Bill by taking the powers of the Minister of Food as soon as possible.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), like many other hon. Members on the other side of the House, does not seem to have much use for the Ministry of Food. I must admit that when I hear the Minister of Food or the Parliamentary Secretary speaking upon agricultural questions, cold shivers run down my back, but, as this is not a food Debate, I will not proceed any further, although some day I may have the opportunity of dealing with the Minister of Food when he speaks about agricultural affairs.
It has been said that this is a minor Bill. That is so, but it is a very important one. It is a Bill which will deal, or will give the opportunity for the boards to deal, with the most precarious side of the agricultural industry, a side which, at present, is not catered for by other boards. I think the agricultural industry, 269 and especially the horticultural section, will recognise in this Bill an opportunity to set itself on the stable and constructive road from production through distribution to consumption. Nothing has given the agricultural industry of this country greater satisfaction than the success of the schemes which were set up under the Agricultural Marketing Act—the Milk Board, the Potato Board, and so on. The effect of the Milk Board in setting the milk industry of the country on its feet after its most appalling experience will stand out in agricultural history in a very remarkable way. These boards have given a stability and a confidence to the industry by removing the uncertainty caused by erratic and very often chaotic marketing. Under them, the producer has the knowledge that his work will be properly rewarded, and he can plan accordingly with safety.
The position of growers of vegetables and fruit is among the most precarious of all engaged in agricultural production. The ordinary consumer does not recognise how precarious this work is. Just when the fruit is on the point of setting, strong winds, heavy rain or keen frosts will completely destroy the work of 12 months. Similarly, just when vegetables are in the most delicate stage keen east winds or prolonged drought will also cause disaster. So we find that this section of the industry has to recoup itself when there is a good season, during which the prices of products are increased to recoup the growers for their previous losses. When imports come into the country in a good season, as they often do, the producer is unable to recoup himself for his previous losses, and I think this is where the boards will be able to level out and to stabilise the prices and the market for the producer.
The schemes will deal with the most difficult aspect of the produce, because it is the most perishable. In pre-war days, from the Manchester area—what is called the Manchester Mosses, where a tremendous amount of lettuce and vegetables is grown—two trains of 40 wagons each left every week for Convent Garden, loaded mainly with lettuce. The experience of the growers in that area was this: if, when the lettuce was ready for sending, a spell of cold weather came over the country nobody wanted the lettuce; the result was that through no fall in price, or 270 anything which the producer, the distributor or the retailer could control, but purely through a freak in the weather, tremendous losses were very often incurred. I have seen millions of lettuce ploughed into the ground simply and solely because of freak weather. Here is where the boards can come in and set up what some hon. Members have described as the "quick freeze" system, by which these products can be safeguarded against both the weather and falls in prices. I hope these growers will be able to take advantage of that provision.
Another thing which is not generally recognised in the competition from imports from abroad is that the exporting countries send to us the best of their produce. Nobody can grow an entirely perfect crop; there is always the best, the second best, and the poor. But the farmer tries to market the lot. The exporting countries abroad market the lot, but save the worst for their own consumers. Here, we have to sell both the best and the worst to our own consumers. That is where the marketing boards will have to grade crops so that, in competition with imports from abroad, the best compete with the best, and not the second best or the worst with the imported best. The marketing boards will have a tremendous amount of work to do in guiding the produce on to the market and into different markets so that that may take place.
I once heard an hon. Member, a medical man—I do not see him here tonight—say that onions consisted of 97 per cent. water and 3 per cent. stink. That may be the case, but they are much liked by the housewives of this country. The onions grown here this year and last, with those which we imported, did not meet the requirements of the housewives of the country. They all arrived on the market together, and we shall have to wait something like six to nine months before the next crop is available. Had those onions been brought on to the market gradually, the most perishable first, the situation would have been completely different. This is an example of how the marketing board can gradually ease the import and home production position.
Some of my hon. Friends have criticised the Bill because it does not take into account the interest of the consumers 271 as, they say, it should. These are to be producers' boards. Nothing helps production more, or gives the producer greater confidence, than the knowledge that he will receive a proper and reasonable return for his produce. The people comprising these boards will be experienced people; they will know all about production, they will know the trade, and they will have the industry at heart. Nothing would destroy the confidence of the producer more than to know, if consumers were members of the board, that the marketing board was haggling and quibbling between producer and consumer over prices. It is far better that the consumers' interest should be watched from outside the board than from within it. The greatest safeguard for the consumer in the matter of price, or against abuse by the boards of their powers, is public opinion. The consumer has the safeguard of this House itself, and if the boards abuse their position, either with regard to conditions or prices, or in any other way, it would not be very long before attention was called to the fact in this House and action taken.
I now wish to deal with the question which has been raised on Clause 4. Hon. Member's opposite seem to be rather afraid of this Clause. The hon. Baronet who first raised the question admitted that it acted both in favour of the producer and the consumer, and vice versa. I may be entirely wrong, but I look at this Clause in a different way; I think it concerns far more important things than price. Under Clause 2, the boards have the power to limit production in a certain respect. They follow the lines of the potato marketing board which can fix the basic acreage of a farmer, who, if he goes beyond that acreage, is fined. I feel that a similar position may arise in this matter. A board may come along and limit the acreage of a certain produce, but the Minister may feel that the limitation is wrong, and that the acreage ought to be larger. If that question has to go to a committee of investigation, and if it takes six months before a decision is reached, then the sowing season and the growing season will have passed. That is a position which may arise, and which may be covered by this Clause. Again, I may be entirely wrong, but I feel that is one of the main reasons why it has been put in.
272 I wish to touch upon one other point before I conclude. I am glad to see some change in the disciplinary committee. For a long time I have felt that the present method of dealing with delinquents under these Acts is not in the best tradition of British justice. It does not give confidence or a feeling that one is being justly dealt with when those who form the board are the same people who prosecute a man under the powers of the board, and finally judge him. I had the opportunity, before the war, of being present when the Potato Marketing Board had before it farmers who were charged with offences against it. I know just how those farmers felt after they had been fined by this board. They felt it was absolutely unjust. They would have been far more satisfied had they been fined in the civil courts. I think it would be far better if the civil courts dealt with offenders rather than that they should be dealt with by the boards themselves.
I welcome this Bill because I feel it will put upon sound foundations what hitherto has been a precarious industry. I think the balancing of the industry is a good thing—the levelling out of inequalities which develop from prices, markets and from the weather by establishing "quick freeze" departments where the glut can be accepted to be passed to the market when a shortage occurs. I believe this Bill will bring the same stability into the industry of fruit and vegetable production that the Milk Marketing Board brought into the milk industry when it was in an appalling and chaotic condition.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Hurd (Newbury)
I would like straightaway to congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) on talking more good, hard common-sense from the Benches opposite than we have heard in any other speech from those Benches today. The Minister gave nothing more than a tepid commendation of this Bill. Perhaps that is why hon. Members behind him have blown hot and cold as one speech has followed another. From this side of the House we give our qualified blessing to the Bill, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) said in his speech. Frankly, it worries me that running through this Bill there is a thread of distrust of producers. It has been expressed openly by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) and it has also 273 been expressed openly by Lord Lucas, who is a Government colleague of the Minister. In the report of the Lucas Committee, of which he was chairman, proposals were put forward for imposing state control of agricultural marketing, proposals which we regard as fantastic Socialist nonsense. We have to look only one stage further, in another "Let Us Face the Future," to see the farmer as tenant of the State bound to sell his produce to the State. As I have said, we think that is fantastic Socialist nonsense.
The Minister was careful to say that this Bill does not prejudice any action which the Government may feel it desirable to take upon the Lucas Committee proposals. It is perhaps something that the Minister has not himself espoused that cause today, but he has shown himself a good enough Socialist to want the State to have a finger in every pie concerned with agricultural marketing. In Clause 1 of the Bill he has taken power to appoint not less than two and not more than one-fifth of the members of every board. His nominees are to be persons:who in his opinion are qualified for appointment as having had experience and shown capacity in commerce, finance, administration, public affairs or the organisation of workers.Why trade union experience should be considered a qualification for organising economically the marketing of milk, eggs, tomatoes or cucumbers I do not know, but I do know this: it would be a terribly mixed party if the suggestions which have been made from some of the back benches opposite were adopted and if consumers, including co-operative societies, and distributors also had seats on these marketing boards. It is surely essential to get a team, to get people—I would agree with the bon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) that there might very well be some women among them—who have much the same background and who can work together.
One of the obvious defects of most of the boards running the nationalised industries is, that the members of the hoards have been picked from here, there and everywhere. In the agricultural marketing boards we have been fortunate so far in getting men who have had the same background, and who can and will work together. I think it is most important to preserve this for the sake of the smooth working of the schemes.
274 On this question of the Minister's nominees, I should like to say to the Minister that I do not think he has always chosen his men wisely. I am thinking particularly of some of his recent nominees to the county agricultural executive committees. I do not think they are proving very happy choices. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies, to give the House a definite assurance that political considerations will not enter in any way into the appointment of the Minister's nominees on these marketing hoards. It is essential that the members of the boards should be able to work as a team if these marketing schemes are to go ahead successfully.
Clauses 2 and 3, I agree, as my hon. Friends have already done, are desirable for safeguarding the public interest. which might be damaged by some action of a marketing board. The Minister in those Clauses takes power to give a direction to a board to prevent such damage. and the board can ask for a committee of investigation; and on this the Minister makes his decision—no doubt, if it is a sensible board and the Minister is sensible, this will be with the full concurrence of the board. That is what we want. We do not want the Minister to interfere from the outside not fully understanding the board's difficulties, while the board does not understand the Minister's point of view. I am pretty certain that in most of these cases the Minister's decision can be taken and put into effect with the concurrence of the board. That is what I hope to see.
However, I do feel, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond has already said, that Clause 4 goes much too far. It does, I think, indicate clearly the Minister's distrust of the producers' marketing boards. What he is doing by this Clause is to take power to give the boards immediate directions, overriding their authority, before there has been any investigation. It has been suggested by the hon. Member for Chorley that this may very well be reasonable, and would not cause any great inconvenience if the subject of the direction was, say, concerned with the limitation of acreage, or something of that kind. If that is what the Minister intends, and if that is how the Minister intends to use this Clause, then the Clause should be drawn clearly in that sense. What is worrying my hon. 275 Friends is that if this immediate direction, before any inquiry were applied, say, to the price of a perishable product—it might be broccoli, or plums, or cucumbers, or tomatoes—it could cause serious loss to the growers of the product, who, whether the Minister's action was justified or not, would not be able to recoup themselves afterwards from the Minister. That Clause will need looking into very carefully. I should vote against it in Committee as it stands, because I think it is drawn much too widely.
On this side of the House we want farmers to take seriously their responsibilities in this sphere of marketing. They will not do that if the Minister is to dog their footsteps at every turn. The members of marketing boards are not a set of cut-throats. We in the farming community have put up some of our most able men ever since 1933, when the Milk Marketing Board was formed, to go on to these boards. Yet they have not been content to rely on their own judgment and business experience but have employed first-class men. Mention has been made of Mr. Sidney Foster as general manager, who had already gained wide experience of milk distribution through co-operative societies. The Board picked the best man they could and paid him a good salary. He has been a first-class servant, not only to the Board but to the producers and distributors of milk in this country.
That is an instance of the producers' marketing boards showing that they have enough business acumen to know when they should employ someone with experience wider than or in a different sphere to their own. I think that the Milk Marketing Board made a very good start before the war in serving not only producers but consumers. Their first concern was to safeguard the prices the producers were getting. In the West country, we well remember when milk was going into the chocolate factories at 5d. or 6d. a gallon. There was complete chaos in the milk industry. The first job which the Board had to do was to get the price structure right. They did that, and they were just coming on to constructive work for the benefit of consumers as well as producers when the war came. I need only recall to the House the initiative which the producers' 276 marketing boards took in the milk in schools scheme and in providing milk for factory workers. They showed great vision in developing the market for liquid milk which was to the benefit of producers certainly, but also to the benefit of consumers and the general health of the people.
Then the work which they have done in eliminating cross-country journeys in the collection of milk has saved money and helped to reduce the gap between the price the producer gets and the price the consumer pays for milk. They have established new depots in areas where milk production was increasing and there was need to have a pool through which the milk could best be directed to whichever centre of consumption needed it most at the moment. That is all to the credit of the Milk Marketing Board. They have also, more recently, carried into effect a cooperative scheme for grass drying for small farmers, and the running of cattle breeding stations using artificial insemination which will help to raise the milk yield of the cows. That is good constructive work and not the work of cut-throats holding the community up to ransom.
The Potato Marketing Board have also realised their responsibility to the public as well as to the growers of potatoes. I would remind the Minister of the scheme which the Board carried out at Bishop Auckland. In a year when there were heavy supplies of potatoes, they sought to discover how far, by reducing the price of potatoes, they could stimulate their consumption in areas suffering severe unemployment, where the income of consumers was low. That was a very useful experiment and showed that the board had the interests of the public as well as the narrower interests of the growers at heart. When the war came, the Potato Marketing Board was put into cold storage. The Milk Board has become little better than an accounting office of the Minister of Food. It has been allowed to do a little bit with cattle breeding centres and grass drying, but it cannot now tackle at all seriously the gap between producers' prices and consumers' prices.
I ask the Government to say frankly that the introduction of this Bill means that the Government are now going to 277 give the farmers an opportunity to show what they can do by the organisation of marketing to give better service to consumers. That is what we are interested in. We have now prices more or less right. We have a system of price-fixing which is agreed between the political parties as being common sense, and which is working smoothly. Now we want to see the producers' marketing boards not worrying themselves so much about prices but worrying themselves about their proper job of the economic marketing of home produce and the service which the producers should give to the consumers.
If we are to give a fair run to any such organised efforts by producers the Government must hold a fair balance between imports and home supplies, especially at seasons when there are peak supplies coming in from home sources—whether it be lettuces, broccoli or onions. This will require close working between the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Food and the Board of Trade. That is why we think that the Market Supply Committee should be retained. The Minister may assure us that he is such a close "buddy" of the Minister of Food that it is quite unnecessary to have a market supply committee; but Ministers change, and his next "buddy" might not be so congenial. Why take away this useful little committee which may be needed? I myself should like to see that committee kept in being, because, as many hon. Members have shown, there is a vital need for the closest understanding and working between these three Departments. Sometimes indeed I wonder whether it is as close as the Minister would have us believe. There have been instances which made us doubtful.
If, after listening to the speeches from this side of the House, the Minister still has any doubts about trusting producers to tackle this job of marketing organisation, I would remind him of what he and I saw in Sweden three years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) has already mentioned the example of the Swedish farmers, working in a country which is largely industrial, like our own, and not catering for the export market, who have shown what a producers' organisation can do in marketing, serving the interests of consumers as well as producers. Ask the housewives in Stockholm today if they are satisfied with the system of milk distribution in 278 that city and a very favourable answer will be given—favourable because the producers have tackled that job, having been allowed to do so by the Government in Sweden. The Minister knows that very well, because he and I saw that organisation when we were over there.
I commend to the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, who evidently has not studied closely what producers can do in other countries, a book which has just appeared called "Farmers' Co-operation in Sweden," by Mr. Ake Gullander. It is easy English to read, very straightforward; I am sure she would enjoy it, and she might learn something from it. The farmers of Sweden have not shown themselves to be thugs and cut-throats; nor indeed are the British farmers, certainly not when judged by what they have done with their marketing schemes since they started in 1933.
If farmers here are to go ahead with that kind of organisation, on the path trodden so successfully by the farmers of Sweden, the existing marketing boards must now be taken out of cold storage. We want an assurance from this Government—it would not be necessary if there were a Conservative Government in power, but it must be given by a Socialist Government—that if the producers of this country go ahead with marketing organisation to close the gap between the producer and the consumer they will not at the next General Election be faced with a threat of commodity commissions, and all that nonsense set out in the Lucas Report, thrust on to their organisation. There are today grave doubts about the Government's intentions, and what the Minister said earlier on did not clear our minds and will not clear the minds of farmers as to how genuine the Government are in backing farmers in taking any action under what the Minister has called "a little modest Bill." True it is, but it can be turned to good account for both producers and consumers.
The state of our country today, from the speeches we hear from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, does not allow any more conflicts to arise between the interests of town and country. I have sought in my speech to show that those who live by the land can serve the interests of the whole community and we can do it in a public-spirited way. If 279 we need checking by the Minister, he is taking full powers to do this in Clauses 2 and 3, and we recognise the need for that. But let us get out of our heads that today in our industrialised island there is scope for the old conflicts between the town and country. I was sorry to hear the hon. Member for Blackburn talk as she did. We could talk just the same kind of stuff about the people of Blackburn, but it would not do anyone any good. We have to recognise in this country that we must use our land to full advantage, we must be sure that what is produced on our land is taken to the consumer in good order, and in the most economical way.
It is our view on this side that, given the opportunity, the farmers of this country can do this job of marketing most economically and efficiently for the benefit of the public as a whole, and without the need for either big salaries, commodity commissions, subsidies, and all the paraphernalia that we find in the Socialist State. We think that if farmers are allowed to use this Bill and are given support and encouragement by this Government, and they certainly would be by a Conservative Government, they can make a success of this job.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)
It is not surprising that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) should try to wind up with a little vigorous party feeling for his side. On the whole, on agricultural things generally and on agricultural marketing in particular, he has rather a sticky wicket on which to bat. I was interested to hear the beginning of his remarks and to compare them with the beginning of the hon. and gallant Baronet the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale), who was wholeheartedly in favour of marketing boards while the hon. Gentleman who wound up—I took down his words— "gave qualified support to the Bill." I am not really surprised. That is historically much more the correct Tory line. In 1931, and again now, it was this party and this Government—for the Government of that day was of this party—which unfurled the flag of marketing boards and are now keeping it flying.
280 The hon. Gentleman referred to suspicions of marketing boards which he said he thought he detected running through this Bill. The interesting thing is that we have been attacked from elsewhere on exactly the opposite count, that we are too wholehearted in our acceptance in this Bill of the principle of producers' marketing boards. If we are facing fire from both sides at once on the same thing, it is probable that we are just about right. He asked me one question which I would like to deal with because I was rather amused at what he went on to say. He hoped there would be no political considerations applying in the appointments which the Minister made, and he made some unfortunate remarks about Socialist appointments on county agricultural executive committees. Let us nail this now: there never have been any political considerations that have applied in any of the appointments my right hon. Friend has made to any of those committees. If the hon. Gentleman has in mind any men or women who he thinks are not up to the job that is a different issue—I would be glad to know privately who they are so I could look into the matter—but it is not the same thing.
The hon. Gentleman went on to defend and to praise the far-sightedness of the Milk Marketing Board in taking Mr. Sidney Foster. What would have been said if it had been my right hon. Friend who had taken Mr. Sidney Foster from the Co-operative Society and given him a job? It would have been "Jobs for the boys" and "Political considerations." When the hon. Member went on to talk about no big salaries being needed by the marketing boards, since he had just made that comparison, I was surprised. On the whole, I was in agreement with him in one general point which he made. The Bill is a good Bill. My right hon. Friend modestly called it a little Bill, but he is as modest in that as in everything he does. This is a very important step forward. Perhaps it is easier for me than for my right hon. Friend to declare that, since it is so much his personal responsibility.
The hon. Member for Newbury said there had been some tendency today for there to creep into our Debate something that really ought to be out-dated. While I accept the general line of the hon. Gentleman I do not accept his allocation of the reasons, and I will show why. He 281 said we have got back to the town versus country atmosphere. That, however, is now dead.
I was very much in agreement with what was said by the hon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) and the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass). It is important for producers to remember that the whole is at all times greater than the part, and that if they seem to be claiming powers, rights and freedoms from what the hon. Gentleman called, if I may use his own word—I cannot at the moment think of one better —"checking" in the public interest, then they will create the very kind of suspicions which he and all of us deprecate and will give rise to the town versus country atmosphere.
§ Mr. Brown
If unconsciously or unintentionally, perhaps, they react to reasonable protections for what is called the public interest, then that will be the result. Hon. Gentlemen on the other side have today been tempted to regard the part as greater than the whole.
I hope to deal with one or two of the remarks made from this side, in particular by the hon. Lady the Member for South Battersea (Mrs. Ganley), whose constituent I am, or used to be, in a different co-operative connection. I was sorry that the tendency seemed to arise to talk of producers and producers' marketing boards as being a priori anti-consumer in outlook and policy. We must be careful to keep such trends out of what we are both saying and doing, otherwise we shall do the greatest harm to the industry and the interests of the country as a whole, since agriculture is so vital a part of our economy, not only today, temporarily, but, as most of us believe, permanently.
The main issues arising today have been Clauses 4 and 13, about both of which I hope to speak. I have also been asked certain other things. The Lucas Report has tended to obtrude into our discussions. So that there shall be no misunderstanding let me make it quite clear what my right hon. Friend did say, which is in contradistinction to the statement of the hon. and gallant Baronet the Member for Richmond. He said that the Bill, which stands on its merits, is not a stopgap, as somebody rather unfortunately described it, and is an important 282 step forward in the field of agricultural marketing. The Bill, said my right hon. Friend, does not prejudice the consideration which the Government have already said they are giving and must give, as any Government would have to do, to the complicated question of distribution and marketing in the much wider field; clearly we have to consider the recommendations made by the Lucas and Williams Committees and other people. The hon. and gallant Baronet, however, said that he wholeheartedly rejected and threw behind him the Lucas Report and everything else. That is all right if one has not got the responsibility and can be as enthusiastic and—if I may use the word kindly—as juvenile as that.
§ Mr. Brown
But my right hon. Friend and the Government have the responsibility for this job. We have to look at the obvious problems which exist in the field of distribution at all its stages. The attitude of my right hon. Friend in considering these questions and giving a careful thought as to what shall be the next step, and taking into account the Lucas Report and all the other things, is a much more proper way of approaching the problem. I rather gathered that the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) felt that also, when he talked of the need carefully to consider the whole range of food policy.
The hon. Baronet asked when a start would be made on reviving boards which, at the moment, are in suspension, and various other hon. Members have asked what is the meaning of the Bill. Although I cannot say when a start will be made on reviving suspended boards the point can best be dealt with if I first answer the related questions. New schemes are coming forward, and are also on the stocks, and with the possibility that producers will themselves ask for the revival of suspended boards, and will talk and move towards new boards, it seems to us that this is the time to clear the field legislatively. Then new schemes as they come forward and old schemes, if they are asked for, can go forward on an up-to-date basis.
We should not delay in getting the picture right. That is the meaning of the Bill, and our approach and the 283 answer to the hon. Baronet's question is in that. We certainly believe in this form of agricultural marketing to meet this particular question; that is the reason for bringing the Bill forward.
§ Mr. Brown
I am sorry the hon. and gallant Gentleman says that it does not mean anything at all, but he had better read it tomorrow and try again. It means that as new schemes come forward we want them to be in accord with present day thought on this matter and to be in a position to put them into operation.
§ Mr. Brown
There is nothing to prevent them. I cannot be expected to say, at this stage, what will happen to a certain proposal before it is formulated, before it has gone through the processes laid down in the Bill. The other King Charles's head is the by now rather fashionable suspicion of the Ministry of Food, the dangers and so forth. [An HON. MEMBER: "Be careful."] The hon. Baronet began by asking to whom would the boards be responsible Ministerially; would they be under the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture? The answer is that they will. I think it a little silly, if I may say so without offence, to keep on raising this hoary point of supposed confusion and disagreements and of overriding one another between my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food. This is the sort of team that acts co-operatively and takes general responsibility for decisions reached; in fact, they consult each other. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite would do better to stop thinking that we behave as previous Conservative Governments did, because we do not.
The hon. Baronet also asked what consideration would govern the choice of the Minister's five nominees. The answer is that the considerations are set out in the Bill in Clause 1. Those will be the sort of considerations taken into account by the Minister, who will choose the very best people he can find. Then the hon. Baronet came to the question of Clause 4. 284 This has been picked up again and again from the other side of the House. I think we all agree that, if it were always possible, if time always permitted and the nature of the crop always permitted, the ideal way to deal with this would be to proceed under Clause 2. I suspect that will nearly always happen. Indeed, for the most part it will be in the hands of the marketing board itself to determine whether the matter goes under that procedure.
I would interpolate that I think that a number of hon. Members have overlooked the words which occur in Clause 4, on page 5, line 32, to the effect that the Minister will give a temporary direction under the Clause if there is a change to be introduced or about to be introduced by the marketing board in the existing situation. So, if there is always adequate notice of a proposed change, and if, in the event of the matter being referred to the Minister and his notifying the board that he proposes to make an order, and the board ask for the matter to be referred to the committee of investigation, if the board is willing to suspend the operation of the change until the committee has reported, Clause 2 procedure can always operate. The operation of the provisions of Clause 4 arise only when something is about to be done which is a change in the situation. That answers the hon. Member who said "Supposing the Minister gives a direction under Clause 4 and tells a board to reduce say the price of tomatoes from 10d. to 8d." It arises only if something is to be done by the board which changes the existing situation and which meets the considerations set down in Clause 2, which the Minister feels to be against the public interest, and which, if it were allowed to continue until the committee had reported, would mean that any public mischief entailed thereby would have been done by that time. Those are the only circumstances in which Clause 4 powers can be used.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
How would what the Parliamentary Secretary has said answer the soft fruit problem? I gave the example of strawberries.
§ Mr. Brown
If the hon. and gallant Gentlemen will allow me to proceed I intend to deal with the points they raise.
Let us bear in mind that any orders made under Clause 4, like those under Clause 2, are subject to negative Resolution procedure in this House when they are made, so that there will be quick and ready provision for dealing with them. A further consideration is that it is not always the price which one envisages as being the compelling reason for anticipating damage to the public interest in this field. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) referred to one consideration. There are obviously any number of things which might happen—the limitation of the class of persons to whom the soft fruit crop is to be sold, a decision to sell too much of such a crop for processing, with the result that the supply of fresh fruit for the consumer is too small. Matters of that kind, other than the matter of price, might seem to be against the public interest. Those are the circumstances in which the procedure might have to be used. They are the only circumstances. In almost all cases it would be within the power of the marketing board itself to decide whether that procedure was used or whether we should proceed under Clause 2, by giving sufficient notice, not deciding in April to do something in May; or, if adequate notice was impossible, for the board to say "Since you take that view we will await the outcome of the committee of investigation procedure."
There is a matter of principle involved. The Minister would be open to the most grave accusations from almost every other interest in the community, and I suspect from most producers privately also, if he had failed to provide means of dealing with a threat to the public interest, if it looked like occurring, and if it could be carried through in the time in which some committee was discussing whether it was or Was not something against the public interest. It would be said, after that had happened, that the Government, who are the Government not of a section for a section but of the people as a whole, had failed in their duty to see that something was not done by a section of the community which would harm the community. The fact that we suspect that the procedure will hardly ever, if 286 at all, be used does not invalidate that consideration. It is one of those things that a prudent Government, having got to the point of Clause 2—and there is no disagreement about the desirability of Clause 2—must go on to do.
The hon. Member for North Cumberland and the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) asked if there were any precedents. I have not had very much time for research since the point was raised, but I am advised that in 1935 there was a milk dispute which went to the committee, and was with the committee from September to April, and on which the Minister was able, and had, to take retrospective action. It would not always be possible to take successful retrospective action, particularly with regard to soft fruit, and the very fact that it had to be done is an example of the kind of thing which might very well happen again, and for which these particular powers are wanted.
I come now to Clause 13, which has been the subject of major consideration. Right hon. and hon. Members opposite are investing this particular Clause with much more significance than it really deserves. This again is connected with their "King Charles's head." The situation is that there has been a change in the general situation, in Government organisation and the general outlook on this matter, since that body was first provided for. There is a Ministry of Food and there is a national policy, on nutrition and otherwise, operated through the Ministry. The question of co-ordination of home production and imports and the general food policy is one for which there is now clear Government responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is clearly concerned with all these things from a producer point of view, and we feel that in the new situation, and having regard also to the 1947 Agriculture Act the market supply committee has no longer any valid reason for existing.
As to its being a brake on the Minister of Food, if that is the idea I would point out that quite obviously it could also be the opposite. On whom it would be a brake depends on the composition of the Committee. If the personnel leaned one way or the other the committee would change its support from one Minister to the other. It might 287 well be that in certain circumstances producers would be very sorry that the committee did, in fact, exist.
The hon. Member for North Cumberland talked about the need for incentives to get farmers to produce. His speech was much more to my liking than the speech of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), who said that farmers could do the job if only they have confidence. The answer is that they are doing the job, if only hon. Members would give them the credit for it; that must mean that they have that confidence. The answer to the hon. Member is that the advisory services are doing a good job in providing encouragement and assistance in building up standards of work, and so on. Do not let us forget the importance of the producers themselves taking the lead in this matter.
I interposed, during the speech of the hon. and learned Member for St. Ives (Mr. Beechman), on the question of grading and packing. I do not believe that we cannot do as well as other people. I believe that it is most important and as the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) said, there is very great need for producers to be encouraged to take the lead themselves in bringing up to standard the grading and packing of their products. Various other matters were raised by the hon. Member for North Cumberland—
§ Mr. Brown
I cannot give way, as I have not much time. Various other matters were raised with which I think I might deal by writing to the hon. Member.
There was one question as to why we do not rely on powers of revocation. I think the answer is that that would be taking a steamroller to crack a nut. To revoke a whole scheme for a matter of this kind would be much too drastic. Such an action would do untold harm. Indeed, we think the reverse is much the better way. The hon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) asked a question about the representation of small producers on the boards. She appeared to fear that they might be pushed out by the larger growers. The answer is that the producer representatives on the 288 boards are the responsibility of the producers. The number of small men in the horticultural industry is so great that, on the whole, I would have thought that if they chose to do it they could take care of this matter pretty well. They must be left to do so. There is no way by which we can do it.
The hon. Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) and the hon. Member for South Battersea (Mrs. Ganley) made speeches in which there appeared to be a fallacy. The point is that these are producer boards. They are producer cooperatives. They are co-operative undertakings voluntarily entered into; nothing we can do can turn them into anything else. An important point about any cooperative undertaking is that the members must appoint the committee. The co-operative society to which the hon. Lady and I both belong would take a very dim view if the farmers came along, and said that they wished to put a member on our management committee. We would tell them to join the society and, as members, they could take part in the election and could put up to be elected. The same applies to these producer boards. They are members in the sense that they are registered producers. It is their board—their voluntary undertaking. They can vote it out of existence just as they can set it up. We could say, "You shall have distributors and co-operators on your board," but we would not get very many marketing schemes in that case and those that we did get would be voted out of existence. We must bear that in mind.
We may feel that other matters ought to be tackled. We may feel that something wider ought to be done about distribution. There are ample safeguards for the public interest and for the consumer interest in the scheme for the consumer committees which can get the accounts and other information. Other safeguards include the committee of investigation; the Minister's powers; the Minister's representatives on the board; the Minister's powers of direction under Clauses 2 and 4. There are ample safeguards there, but we cannot turn this into something which it is not. It is a producers' board, a co-operative undertaking voluntarily entered into and, as such, the right to appoint the members must remain with the registered producers who. 289 I submit, are analogous to the members of a co-operative society in a different field.
I should like to deal, very quickly, with one point mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for St. Ives, that this might lead to nationalisation. I hope that by now he has realised that Clause 2 (2, d) involves things which, if done, would be a reason for the Minister to give a direction. In other words, we would want to stop it. In addition, Clause 9 is not a power given to the State, but a power to be given to the producers' boards. We do not nationalise industries by handing them over to boards of this nature. It is rather fantastic to try to frighten anybody with the idea that there can be any possibility of nationalisation arising out of this scheme.
There were a number of other points to which I should have liked to refer, but I have not got sufficient time. I ask hon. Members to allow me to write to them on certain matters. Finally, I say that this Bill has been generally welcomed all round the House. It is a great step forward. When my .right hon. Friend made his announcement after the Report of the Lucas Committee he said that he would do certain things. As is quite usual—as the agricultural industry now understands is quite usual, almost for the first time in its life—when the Minister says that he will do something, he does it. He has now brought forward this Bill in accordance with what he said he would do.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan
Is not the hon. Gentleman going to pay the slightest attention to any of the matters which have been raised on behalf of Scotland?
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. William Whiteley) rose in his place, and claimed to move. "That the Question be now put."
§ Question, "That the Question be now put," put, and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.