HC Deb 23 March 1955 vol 538 cc2228-38

11.21 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I beg to move, That the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) Order, 1955, dated 8th March, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th March, be approved. This Order is made under Section 4 of the Agriculture Act, 1947, and its effect is to replace the Order which expires at the end of April of this year. The new Order makes two small changes from the existing Order. One of them has the effect of making the guaranteed prices for wool payable to the British Wool Marketing Board instead of to the individual producer and the other change has the effect of consolidating the marketing allowance in the global price guarantee.

Other than that, the Order continues with a profit sharing arrangement similar in principle to the one we have had in the current five years and in detail according to the new financial arrangements which were announced on the 10th of this month, in answer to a Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd). The principal effect of the Order is to carry on the general principle of the arrangement we have had in the past five years. There have been long and detailed discussions with the Wool Board and with the three National Farmers' Unions, who are in agreement with these arrangements. I think that they will effectively carry out the will of Parliament in providing a price guarantee for wool.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I rise only to thank the hon. Gentleman for the concise and clear explanation he has given and to say that we on this side of the House have no opposition to the Order. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the British Wool Marketing Board for the excellent work it has done over the past few years.

As I said one or two controversial things earlier in the day, I should now like to say that it is a good thing that both sides of the House can agree that this is an orderly marketing arrangement.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. H. Rhodes (Ashton-under-Lyne)

Ihave no objection to the Order, but I have something to say about its implications and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us his views on what Ihave to say. The British Wool Marketing Board has done a good job of work and the country can view with satisfaction the arrangements that have been made for marketing. What I have to say has to do with a section of the marketing which affects the quality of the wool.

As the House knows, there is a penalty of 4d. per lb. on wool which is found to be contaminated with tar. Under the present arrangements, farmers with wool to sell get in touch with a grader who receives the wool into his warehouse for appraisement. The price the grader puts on the wool is the price which is paid to the producer.

If, during his examination, the grader sees tar or pitch on the fleece he ensures, or should ensure, that 4d. per lb. is knocked off the price that would otherwise be paid. The method employed is that the fleeces are sent to a grader and it might be that out of 600 fleeces only one is taken from the pile for examination. The effect of this can cut both ways. It might be that a farmer, perhaps accidentally, has got a little tar or pitch on one fleece and that that is the one which is examined. As a result he can be penalised under the financial provisions of the Order on the whole of his weight of wool to the extent of 4d. per lb.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) if he wishes, for I know that my facts are right.

Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)

I am listening attentively.

Mr. Rhodes

On the other hand, it might be that the producer has pitch or tar on his wool and that it might not be seen by the grader. In that event, 4d. per lb. is paid to the producer to which he is not entitled.

This is an international as well as a local problem. The countries of the world have been considering it very seriously for many years; in fact, they have been considering it for many hundreds of years. There was a Proclamation issued by Charles II against the use of pitch, tar or paint on wool, and there were very severe penalties for infringement. Through the ages this problem has been considered a scourge by the manufacturers.

I am a manufacturer. It is a serious matter to me and to my workers. It is a serious matter to the industry and to the country. If the raw material is not looked after properly and presented to the people who can turn it into articles to sell abroad then, to that extent, the country is failing in its duty and its obligation to those who have to apply their craftsmanship. We are definitely being handicapped in the Canadian and American markets because of the presence of pitch and tar in wool.

I should like to outline what has been done during the last year or two to try to tackle the problem. Last year, there was an international wool textile conference in Brussels. It embraced most of the wool manufacturing countries of the world and also the producers. One of the principal subjects discussed at that conference was that of the marking of sheep with tar and pitch. The wool growers were asked to comment on the following suggestions for dealing with the branding problem: first, refraining from branding altogether, or, alternatively, using some method of branding not injurious to the fleece; secondly, instituting official testing and approval of branding fluids for legibility, permanence, scourability, etc.; thirdly, forbidding, by legislation, or by other means, the use of branding fluids which have not been approved; fourthly, brand markings to be made as small as practicably possible and splash marks to be avoided; fifthly, brands to be cut out of the fleece and sold separately; sixthly, wool free from brands should be baled separately and labelled as such, since it is expected that it would fetch higher prices.

I do not wish to deal with all these matters in sequence, as other hon. Members wish to speak; but I will deal first with refraining from branding altogether. The only country which does not brand is Italy, where they have a very small number of sheep. They pierce the ear and mark in that way. But that method would not work in countries where there are large ranges, as they wish to be able to identify sheep at a distance On the second and third suggestions, the testing of fluids for this purpose is very necessary, because, of the rigours of climate in this and other countries. Until recently it has always been said that there is no branding fluid available which would stay put until the time of shearing in all weathers. That argument was advanced as late as June of this year by the Australians, who know what they are talking about in this respect.

In their comments at the conference they said that the fluids at present available were not yet of sufficiently wide application to merit official approval. They are moving rapidly in Australia in this matter. I am informed that at a meeting in Australia in January this year representatives of the Australian Wool Bureau, wool growers, brokers, manufacturers and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, discussed this matter. The Chairman, Mr. C. P. Ball—after a statement that the estimated loss to woollen manufacturers was £3 million per annum on account of the use of tar and pitch—said that they accepted the report of Dr. M. Lipson of the Research Organisation on more than twelve months of proving tests on the new fluid. He continued: The committee is satisfied that the fluid is the answer to unscourable brands which cost the industry so much each year. The fluid will be prepared in reds, blues, and greens so that all black markings on wool will be suspect.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

On a point of order. Are we allowed to discuss imported wool under this Order? It is my impression that the Order applies only to British produced wool. Is it not therefore completely out of order to discuss Australian wool?

Mr. Speaker

I took it that the hon. Member who is addressing the House was telling us of something that had been discovered in Australia which might be of advantage to British wool. Certainly as far as I can make out, this Order deals with British wool. I thought that was the tenor of the hon. Member's remarks. I cannot allow him to go into wool all over the world.

Mr. Rhodes

You have got it quite right, Mr. Speaker. That is just what I was arguing. Having been round the world to seek justification and corroboration for the argument which 1was using for the benefit of the industry in this country, may I now say that this fluid which is available for the marking of British sheep, which are affected by the Order, is made in this country and is being marketed by the Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd.

If an organisation like I.C.I, is taking it up, it is surely seriously worth considering at this juncture. In view of the small number of farmers in this country who are marking their wool with pitch and tar, thus doing damage to the reputation of the whole farming community, cannot we apply our minds to introducing legislation to take care of that very small minority who are doing damage not only to themselves, but to the reputation of the farming community and to manufacturers who have to use the wool?

This is a very serious subject, as can be seen by anyone who goes into a textile factory which has received a delivery of wool that is affected by tar. One has only to consult the workpeople on the subject to hear their opinion about it. I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will have something encouraging to say on the subject, because it is a very deserving case.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I am sorry to take up the time of the House at this very late hour, but we are dealing with a Board which is handling £18 million to £20 million worth of wool a year. It is a matter for regret that this debate is not taking place at a more reasonable time of day, when we could go into the whole operations of the Board.

I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) on the question of this tar marking, which has a very serious effect. But the hon. Gentleman will not get what he wants in the way of penalising a user of tar unless there is an entirely different method of grading in operation. The grading is not done exactly in the way he mentioned.

When I had my wool graded into 11different categories, I thought, in my innocence, that each of my fleeces had been opened and that different portions of the fleece had been put into their right heaps and weighed at the end of the grading in accordance with the quality of my wool, for which I received a price ranging from 4s. 6d. to 8s. 6d. per lb.

After the protest made by the hon. Gentleman in the agricultural debate on the same subject, I took the matter up with my merchants and found out that it was nothing like that. The vendor's wool arrives, and it is then the duty of the merchant who receives it to go through a few fleeces in each sheet to see whether it is tar branded or not, and it is a matter of luck whether or not tar is found. After that, the Board's grader comes along, and, instead of opening the fleece and grading it, he does what is called fleece grading. He picks up each fleece and throws it into what he considers the appropriate grade. He must be a clever man if he can grade it in that way.

Mine went into eleven different heaps. Why that should be so, I do not know, but that is what happened to my 250 fleeces. I suggest that the Wool Marketing Board wants a system of real grading because after the woolgets to the manufacturer it has to be properly graded and I should have thought that it would be best to do this in the first stage. That would enable us to penalise the pitch marker.

I should like to say something about the original scheme. I have here a copy of the first annual report and statement of accounts of the Board, and in that there is this statement: The ultimate disposal of any quinquennial surplus not required for the operation of the Scheme will be decided by the producers in Annual General Meeting in the light of conditions obtaining in four years' time when the amount of the surplus is known. I should like to ask the Minister whether that annual general meeting has taken place and, if so, whether the producers have decided what shall be done with the surplus now existing which, I believe, is something between £2 million and £3 million. If they have not made a decision, I suggest that this Order should be taken back, since it is not in order for a bargain to be made by the Board when it has not undertaken to do what it said; and that is, what the producers wanted done with this money.

In the five years which have gone by—and here I must declare an interest—I have helped to pile up this surplus; and probably many producers like myself want to know what is to happen to this bit of money. Will it, for instance, be handed on to the next Board, or will it be distributed? I think that some of the Scottish hon. Members would be interested to hear something about this surplus. Many of the producers in Scotland have worked under terrible conditions this winter, and might be glad of their share. We should not lightly agree to the passing of this Order.

I have also a copy of the minutes of the first annual general meeting of registered producers, held in August, 1951, at which the chairman assured the meeting that, subject to any necessary provision which the Board would have to make, the remainder of the reserve would be put at the discretion of producers at the end of the five-year period. One member, Mr. Ivor Smith, of Devon, asked for an assurance that, as the reserve fund was provided by the 1950 producers, they should have special consideration in any future distribution. If the Board has come to a bargain with the Minister as to what should be done with that surplus, then this Order should not be accepted.

I have just one more question which I should like to put. In the Annual Review and Determination of Guarantees, 1955, Cmd. 9406, under the heading, "Wool," it is stated: The Government have agreed, for one more year, to request the British Wool Marketing Board to continue the payment, within the guaranteed price, of a special bonus of 3d. per lb. on the wool of certain breeds of hill sheep. My question is this. Where does that 3d. come from? Is it from the Ministry, the Treasury, or is it 3d. from the lowland farmers? I do not know if the lowland farmers would have any objection to helping out their hill colleagues, but if this is paid by the Board, I do not know why the Government have requested, for one more year, that this should be paid. Is it paid by the Board, or by the lowland farmers?

I have an objection to this Order. Paragraph 5 (2) says: If for any wool year the Board's outgoings are greater than the Board's receipts, the Ministers or the appropriate Minister shall pay the difference to the Board subject to and in accordance with the provisions of any arrangements in that behalf made between the Ministers and the Board"— this is the important part— or if no such arrangement has been made, in such manner and subject to such conditions as the Ministers may determine. I am not afraid of the actions of my right hon. Friend or my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, but I am thinking of future Ministers of Agriculture. It might be that one would be the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who is now a keen farmer. I wonder whether this Order will hand over to such a future Minister the power to do something even if he has not come to some arrangement with the Board. He could easily not come to any such arrangement—and he can then take into his own hands dictatorial powers.

The Minister should look at the Order again. The same provision is made in the following sub-paragraph. As a Conservative Party we should watch these Socialist measures which we are now operating. It is a great mistake that we should be handing over dictatorial powers to Ministries in London. I am still a Right-wing Conservative and a democrat, and I believe that in all these matters we should consult the people who are financially interested in these schemes and not let the decisions be made in London, among the various bodies who happen to be operating.

11.46 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the points made by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes). The House has had the benefit on previous occasions of listening to him upon this subject of fleeces spoilt by tar marks, and we all recognise his authority in the matter and the interest with which he speaks. His plea is that the Government should legislate to make it a criminal offence for farmers to use these tar marks, but I feel that he has to some extent replied to his own argument by his explanation that the Australians—who have as great an interest as anyone in wool production—have not yet discovered a mark, other than tar, which can in all circumstances be regarded as suitable. That is precisely what the hon. Gentleman said. Though much progress has been made with soluble marks, nothing has been found that is completely certain in all weathers.

Mr. Rhodes

The hon. Gentleman has it completely wrong. I first quoted from the report of the International Wool Textile Organisation, which had its conference in Brussels last June. I said that at that time the Australians objected to the bringing in of legislation to stop tar marking, but the cable which I received in January this year said that the committee which was then sitting—and which embraced brokers, farmers and every other interested body in Australia—had now agreed that there was a suitable marking fluid. I want to make that quite clear to the hon. Gentleman. They now agree that there is a suitable fluid.

Mr. Nugent

The hon. Member has added something to what he said before, but we are not yet satisfied that there is a fluid which can be used entirely satisfactorily in all circumstances in the climate of this country.

If Parliament decided to make it a criminal offence to use these tar marks it would mean policing large numbers of small flocks all over the country. Inspectors would have to go on to the farms. We must hesitate before introducing Measures of that kind. I recognise the gravity of this matter when the wool reaches the mill, but let us look at it from the other end. The percentage of fleeces reported as spoilt in this way in 1953 was .7 per cent. and in the 1954 clip it was .4 per cent. It may be that that does not cover every fleece that is marked, but it is enough to indicate that the percentage of spoilt fleeces is really very small.

My right hon. Friend takes the view that this is essentially a matter to be dealt with by co-operation. Progress should continue to be made and is being made with alternative marking fluids. Obviously, sometime something will be found. In the meantime, it is a matter for the Wool Board, representing producers, and merchants and manufacturers to try to work out through the price structure penalties and incentives which will persuade those who still use these tar marks not to use them. I am able to say tonight that the Wool Board, pursuing this general line, has decided to increase the penalty for tar from 4d. per lb., to 6d. per lb. to give a further prod in the direction we wishproducers to go. I do hope the hon. Member will not think we are not taking this matter seriously when I say that we really do not think legislation would be the right way of curing it.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), his first point was a reference to a Report from the Wool Board, the 1951 Report I think, in which he informed the House that the intention of the Board was to refer to an annual general meeting the question of how the surplus should be disposed of. That is on the matter of the new agreement I imagine. As far as we are concerned as the Government, we have made the new financial agreement with the Board as representing producers and agreed it with the three National Farmers' Unions. The Wool Board is elected by the wool producers triennially and is responsible to the producers.

As my hon. Friend said, there is a surplus of about £1½ million to £2 million. It is impossible to say precisely what it is until we get to the end of the current year. That money is kept at the disposal of the Board and the Board has decided that it will be in the best interests of wool producers to carry it forward in its funds and not pay it out. It is not for us, as the Government, to tell the Board what itshould do with the surplus. It is the Board's money and it is elected by the producers to dispose of it as it thinks best. There is no question whatsoever that that is proper constitutional practice. If my hon. Friend is not satisfied with the arrangement he, as a wool producer, has the remedy to address himself to the Board which he has taken a part in electing, and to complain to them if he is not satisfied it is handling the matter in the right way.

My hon. Friend's second point was the question of how the 3d. bonus was paid to the hill sheep farmers. It is paid out of the general funds of the Board and, therefore, the cost is spread over the wool producers of the country. His third point was his complaint that the Minister had a residual power of control. My right hon. Friend is, of course, making the Order which I am proposing to the House and all it provides is that if a financial agreement has not been made—one was made about a fortnight ago—between the Minister and the Board, it is for the Minister to decide how the funds should be disposed of.

As it is the Minister who decides what the guaranteed price is to be and then on behalf of the Government undertakes to pay whatever moneys are needed to implement the guaranteed price, it seems perfectly reasonable that it should be the Minister who decides how to dispose of the money if no agreement is made. After all, he is a Minister responsible to Parliament, and if the House was not satisfied I am sure that it would say so very soon and that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster would be among the first to raise his voice. Surely this is a constitutional way of dealing with the matter.

The Board has done a really good job for wool producers and has won the congratulations of the whole farming community, and it would be most unfortunate to leave any impression that it has done other than serve well the interests of wool producers throughout the country.

11.56 p.m.

Sir John Barlow (Middleton and Prestwich)

I have listened with the greatest care to the explanation given by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin). I am not satisfied that the Wool Board was competent to make this arrangement with the N.F.U. and the Minister. It has been laid down that this arrangement should be changed only by members at annual meetings. I understand that the arrangement has been changed by the Board without reference to producer members or members in annual meeting and for that reason I am certainly not satisfied with the explanation to which we have just listened.

I remember also that very large sums of money were left with the Ministry of Agriculture by the Wool Board. When I looked at the accounts, it was not clear to me whether any interest was received from the Ministry. I should be glad if the Minister would answer that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the British Wool (Guaranteed Prices) Order, 1955, dated 8th March, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th March, be approved.