HC Deb 03 May 1955 vol 540 cc1637-44

9.34 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Draft Potato Marketing Scheme, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th April, be approved. The Scheme has been promoted by the Potato Marketing Board in co-operation with the National Farmers' Unions. I must say a brief word in explaining what the amendments to the old Scheme are. The Scheme revises the pre-war Scheme. It has the same objectives, which are the stabilisation of the market and the improvement of quality and marketing. Briefly, the marketing problem is one of a seasonal variation in yield. The inelastic demand for potatoes for human consumption when other foods are plentiful makes it impossible to expand human consumption when the price falls, so that in a year when there is a heavy yield the surplus has to go for stock feed at a low price.

Naturally, it is essential that we should have a system which will give fair returns to producers, especially with a crop which is so expensive—£80 to £90 an acre—to grow. We have devised a support price system which will be operated by this Board. The system will leave the market free to determine the price level at the normal price of potatoes and will operate over a support price which will not normally come into operation. The basic idea is that in a normal year the market will be sufficient to return a fair price to producers. In a year of high yield when there is an excess of production over requirements of consumers the surplus will be disposed of by the Board's selling it for stock feeding at the best price it can make. Producers will share in the loss at 5 per cent. to give an incentive to good management.

There will be a financial agreement working with the Scheme which will bring the support price system into operation. The need for the revision of the pre-war Scheme falls under the following reasons: first to give the Board power to implement the financial agreement, secondly to change in form, but not in principle, the system of acreage levy arrangements. In the pre-war Scheme there was a registered basic acreage. In the new Scheme there is to be a similar arrangement with basic acreage registered on the three years' production, 1951, 1952, and 1953.

The Board may prescribe annual quotas based on this basic acreage. Then the excess over that quota will be liable to a penalty of up to £10 an acre. This is a point on which there has been a good deal of discussion, and therefore I feel that I should mention it. In certain circumstances the Board will have the power to make free acreage increases in conditions where either for husbandry considerations or hardship it is considered necessary. An aggrieved producer who is made subject to this penalty has the right of appeal to arbitration, so he is safeguarded.

It is also necessary to provide for an extension of trading powers. In order to operate the new Scheme, it is necessary to have powers to fix a minimum sale price for growers, but not for resale price fixing. It is necessary that there should now be power to manufacture certain specified commodities from potatoes. Finally, it is necessary to give the Board power to provide services for its producers, but not to manufacture goods for production or marketing of potatoes. That is a point that came out rather strongly in the public inquiry.

There is the usual provision for the appointment of Minister's members up to a number of four and there is the safeguard requirement under the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1949, that the Board must inform the Minister of its intention to use its main marketing powers of price fixing, restriction of production or supplies, in order to ensure that they are used in the public interest. The procedure has been carried out according to the Marketing Acts. The promoters informed all registered producers of the proposals in the substitutional Scheme. There are over 100,000 registered producers and only 32 objections were received.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

All Liberals.

Mr. Nugent

As the Act requires that unless 1,000 or more object, no poll is taken, no poll was made. A formal submission was made to my right hon. Friends, and a public inquiry was duly held and a report received on 23rd February this year. My right hon. Friends very carefully considered this Report and in the light of it they have put forward this Scheme modified from its original form in the form now before the House. I commend it to the House as being in every way sound and able to serve the interests both of producers and consumers.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

Without committing myself to all the detailed provisions of it, which obviously we on this side of the House are not called upon to do, nevertheless I want to say how much we welcome this Scheme as being wholly in line and taken almost word for word from the provisions of our marketing document which the Minister earlier today described as one which would set up vast, Government-sponsored monopolies. He is now setting one up himself. It is one which we say he should have set up, and I am delighted to have the opportunity of congratulating him upon having been completely converted to our point of view within five hours. If the country comes along at the same rate, then by the end of three weeks we shall have made enormous progress.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) said, and so far as I can see, the only objectors seem to have been members of the Liberal Party or the Cheap Food League. I am very sorry that that means that we will not have all parties in the House behind the proposal for the orderly marketing of the potato crop and, therefore, the guarantee for our producers that they will not get into the difficulties which otherwise they might meet. I do not accept the provisions for paying what the Minister calls the guaranteed price—the support price—to the producers. I would have preferred the sort of scheme which we outlined earlier today, but the Minister is responsible for the details of this Scheme. I am not called upon to endorse them. I merely welcome the Minister's acceptance of Labour Party marketing policy.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary would have been disappointed if I had not registered my objection to this Scheme. If I had had any doubt a quarter of an hour ago whether or not my objection was a sound one, I should now be quite satisfied that I am on sound ground in view of the speech of welcome by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). I say at the outset that I am not speaking as a disgruntled grower. I have a small acreage which is registered, and therefore I have no personal interest in the Scheme.

My main objection is that a Scheme of this magnitude, dealing I suppose with 600,000 or 700,000 tons of potatoes a year, should be put through the House in this way. This is a document of 30 pages, and I am willing to bet that if anyone asked the first 100 farmers he met what they knew about the Scheme they would not have the foggiest idea what it means.

This Scheme should have been debated in this House as the original Scheme was debated in 1933. Then there was a three-hour debate at the end of which a vote was taken. I should like to refer to a speech by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson Stewart). Although he welcomed that Scheme, he damned it with faint praise and made one or two points which farmers should bear in mind. He quoted the case of two farms side by side. One farmer was a potato grower and the other did not grow potatoes because he did not like the job. He gave up the farm and his successor was prevented from growing potatoes unless he was prepared to pay a penalty of £10 per acre per annum.

I know that is right because I asked my hon. Friend about it. I have looked through the Scheme to see whether any grower could take up the document and find out under which provision that penalty was imposed. I think that he would have some difficulty in finding it. Under the provision about registered producers it says that if a grower grows more than his registered acreage he should be penalised, but I cannot see where it is said that any outside farmer who wants to start growing potatoes is entitled to do so. I accept the statement of my hon. Friend that he is entitled to do it if he pays a penalty of £10 per acre per annum, but he would be an optimistic farmer who would be prepared to pay that sum of money year after year to grow potatoes. The Scheme should have been debated by the farmers of the country at meetings of the National Farmers' Union, just as the Apple and Pear Marketing Scheme was debated before it was put to the vote of the producers. I suggest that the promoters were nervous that if they made plain to farmers what it really contains this Scheme would have been served in the same way as the Apple and Pear Marketing Scheme.

I am satisfied that something should be done to stop huge gluts and low prices such as occurred before the war. But I am not in favour of compulsory schemes of this sort under which growers may be penalised if they do not do what they are supposed to do. I should like the Minister to say why this Scheme has not been debated in the House, and why it was not put to the producers to give them a chance of saying whether or not they approved it. I think I am speaking for the rank and file of the farmers when I say that they do not know where they are going. Soon they will be completely hamstrung by the various boards which are being set up.

The right hon. Member for Belper suggested that the grain market was not as it should be. I have no doubt that he would be in favour of a cereals marketing board. I suppose that under such a board farmers would be told what acreage of grain they should plant; how much wheat or barley they would be entitled to grow. The freedom of cropping which they secured in 1923 is being gradually whittled away.

Consider the case of a man who has a basic acreage of 10 acres and decides to grow potatoes in a 13-acre field. He is not entitled to plant more than 10 acres with potatoes and may have to use the remaining three acres for some other crop, thereby upsetting the rotation of the field. Such a procedure is not to the advantage of the farmers, and certainly not to the advantage of land cultivation generally. I feel that these schemes will result in such a "closed shop" mentality that we shall create inefficient producers. Farmers do not want to hear any more jibes that they are so inefficient that they need marketing boards to tell them what to do and how to do it.

I wish to register my protest against this Scheme. This is what was said in 1933 by the present Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—the hon. Member for Fife, East: Take two farms owned by one landlord. He occupies and farms one holding on which he has a large quantity of potatoes. The other he lets to a farmer who at the time of the Scheme coming into operation has no potatoes. The second farm is given up. The rent drops, because there is no chance of growing potatoes on it save by the payment of a penalty. Another holding, which may be put into the market in the same year, having by sheer luck a basic acreage, rises in rent 2s, or 5s."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th December, 1933; Vol. 284, c. 1253.] In other words, this Scheme is depreciating the value of some farms and increasing the value of others, and I do not think that is fair. My hon. Friend also said: At the present time there are accepted among farmers certain rules of good husbandry—a certain rotation that must be followed, a certain method of keeping the land in good heart. This Scheme, which is going to penalise a man for ploughing up grass, may interfere with the rules of good husbandry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th December, 1933; Vol. 284, c. 1252.] It would be well if all farmers in this country had the opportunity to read the debate.

I have registered my protest, and I can do no more. I know that this Scheme will be approved, but it will be a sorry day for the farmers of this country when they create machinery for the nationalisation of their industry. Hon. Members opposite are pledged to the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution. In this Scheme we are—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is going very wide of the Question before the House.

9.50 p.m.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

After the self-congratulatory speech of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on behalf of the Government, it was very interesting to listen to the cold douche poured upon the Government by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin). Here we have a Scheme introducing rationing and control, and one which puts the farmer in a strait-jacket, and this after the remarkable speeches about freedom to which we have listened this afternoon.

I wish to ask one or two questions about the Scheme with the object of getting further elucidation. In the first place, the farmer growing potatoes will be given a basic acreage which he will be permitted to cultivate. But if in any quota year he exceeds that basic acreage, he can be fined up to £10 for each acre cultivated in excess of his basic acreage, and in another year £5. If the farmer grows an excess of acreage, is that excess added to his basic acreage, and does it become the basic acreage for future years, as it did under the old marketing Act?

Secondly, can any farmer, under this Scheme, grow as much as he desires so long as he consumes the production on his own farm? Under the previous Scheme he could do so. Under paragraph 71 of the Draft Scheme, the Board can fix the terms and the prices under which potatoes are to be sold. If anyone breaks the provisions of this Scheme he can, according to paragraph 83, be brought before the Disciplinary Committee. Under sub-paragraph (2, a) that Committee will consist of not less than four nor more than six members of the Board and a chairman who is not a member of the Board … Here we have a court being set up—and I have raised this objection before—that is both prosecutor and judge. The Potato Board will lay down the terms and conditions under which potatoes are to be grown, and any producer who disobeys those terms and conditions may be brought before members of the Board and fined.

According to paragraph 83, the Board can recover from him such monetary penalty not exceeding two hundred pounds as that Committee think just, or, in the other case, the Committee can recover from him such monetary penalty not exceeding £100 or a sum representing £5 per acre of his potato acreage, whichever is the greater, as that Committee think just. I feel that here, once again, we are contravening everything which hitherto we have understood as British justice.

If a person is to be fined for breaking the law as set out by this House, he should be brought before a properly constituted court. The prosecution should be made to state its case there and the farmer should be able to defend himself. Under this proposed system the prosecutor is the judge, and I feel that we are once again departing from what we have always stood for, namely, the right of the individual to be brought before a properly constituted court.

This is a restrictive Measure; a regulatory Measure and a control Measure. It is the exact opposite of everything which hon. Members opposite have ever stood for, judging by what they have said. They lay the blame for this sort of thing upon us, but here they are putting the proposal forward and only one objection has been raised by an hon. Member opposite, namely, the hon. Member for Leominster. The Minister boasts that he will set up an Egg Board. We shall be under boards of all descriptions, and the funny thing is that the farmers in general enjoy it, because they know that it is the basis of their prosperity.

9.56 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

I should like to make a very brief reply to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon). The answer to his first question is "No." If there is a penalty paid for an acreage in excess of the basic acreage in any particular year, that will not then be added to the quota for that farm for the following year.

His second question was whether, in the case of the potatoes which are grown all being consumed on the farm, there was any restriction upon the acreage. The answer is that in that event the producer would not be registered and he could grow as many potatoes as he liked.

The hon. Member's third point referred to the Disciplinary Committee. The answer is that it is impossible to operate a marketing scheme without disciplinary measures. It is simply up to the producers to decide whether they wish to have such a scheme or not. They saw how this Board worked before the war and they believe that it is in their interests, and so they wish it to go forward. My belief is that this Board will serve the interests both of producers and consumers.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Draft Potato Marketing Scheme, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th April, be approved.