HC Deb 14 February 1956 vol 548 cc2319-22

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Transfer of Functions (Agriculture) Order, 1956 (S.I., 1956, No. 87), dated 25th January, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th January, be annulled. I am not a chewer of gum, but I am very relieved that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) has thought it right, on hearing the explanation of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, to withdraw the previous Motion, which means that my constituents who are chewers of gum may be assured that they are not doing so with danger to themselves.

I am moving this Motion in order to seek an explanation of the purposes of this Order. It would appear on the face of it that there has been a part of the Ministry of Food still not absorbed into the combined Ministry. As the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate, we opposed the original Transfer of Functions Order and we think that we were right in so doing, but we should not divide on this Order for that reason now. While we have to accept that Transfer of Functions Order and do not complain that apparently there is a part of the Ministry of Food still floating about, we think we are entitled to know how it comes about that a further Order should be laid before the House.

This rather confirms what we said at the time of the passing of the original Order; that it was prematurely thought out and rushed through the House so that at the time of the General Election the Conservative Party could claim that it had abolished the Ministry of Food. I wish to raise again two points which I raised in discussion of the original Order. Whilst we would not feel justified in dividing on this Order, I still feel, as I said at the time that the original Order was made, that it would be far better for producers if there were a producers' department directly and wholly responsible for producers.

The other point I raise again is very pertinent to this Order because at the time of the original Order I maintained—and it is still my view—that the producer would be in a better position in relation to the February Price Review if there were three-pointed negotiations and the three separate interests were represented at those negotiations. The producers with a producers' department would be in a far better position than now, confronted as they are by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, I am quite sure, unable to withstand pressure from the Chancellor on fiscal grounds. We should like to see how effective that has been when later we discuss the results of the present Price Review. I may be wrong about this, but I mention these points because the step which the Minister is now taking is consequent upon the Price Review negotiations. I say no more about those negotiations than that we shall await their result with interest.

It appears that the Order has been laid because of some doubt which has arisen on the construction of the Agriculture Act, 1947. It appears a little strange that so long after the amalgamation of the Departments a further Transfer of Functions Order should be laid before the House, and we think it right and proper to afford the Joint Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity of explaining why this Order should be laid at this late stage.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I beg to second the Motion.

11.19 p.m.

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

I sympathise with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) if he could not understand this Order at first sight; it certainly does appear to be a complex matter, but the explanation is, I think, simple.

The Order is not in fact laid arising out of the Annual Review negotiations, but out of the preparation of the Estimates, when a doubt arose as to whether existing powers under the 1947 Act— particularly in Section 8 (1)—covered operations over the past year in the case of one Order, and the past several years in the case of the other.

The particular point to which I refer is whether the Act which gave power for Ministers to act severally in the making of Orders, under Section 4 of the 1947 Act, could also be used by Ministers acting jointly. In this context the Ministers are the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Act empowers them to act severally, but we also require them, in the case of certain commodities, to act jointly, and it was because a doubt had arisen whether they could act jointly under the terms of the Act as it now stands that this Order is now made, in order to remove any possible doubt that might exist.

Article 2 (1) of the Order is a tidying-up amendment of Section 8 (1) of the 1947 Act, and by adding the words "or the Ministers" at the end it makes sure that they can act jointly as well as severally in order to remove any doubt from the Act.

Paragraph (2) proceeds to apply this same theory to the two Orders referred to and to the two commodities concerned —that is to say, potatoes and wool—by transferring the functions as now set out in those two Orders from the Ministers severally to the Ministers jointly, and thus making it possible for one Minister —that would be my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—to carry the payments on his Vote for Scotland as well as for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As the Orders are now drafted, it would be necessary to differentiate between Scotland, England and Wales and Northern Ireland in the Votes.

In the case of these two commodities, as to both of which the price guarantees are implemented by the operations of United Kingdom marketing boards, this would be a most difficult practical matter to carry out, and therefore it is obviously much more convenient to carry the moneys concerned on the Vote of a single Minister, as they have been in the past.

I should say that the wool Order has been hallowed by time. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, North will have noted, the original Order was made in the time of the last Labour Government, in 1951. Whatever doubt there was here is a slight one, and it is to remove it for ever that this Order is now before the House.

Paragraph (3) deals with a slightly different point—the question of the cereal payments in Northern Ireland. The point is that in the cereals Order the appropriate Minister was stated to be, for Northern Ireland, the Home Secretary. If that was left unchanged, it would introduce a new practice of the Home Secretary carrying on his Vote the moneys required for implementing the price guarantee for the cereal payments in Northern Ireland. In order to follow the practice that we have always followed in the past, of those moneys being carried on the Ministry of Agriculture Vote along with the England and Wales payments, this particular transfer is made. That will bring the matter back to the convenient form that we followed in the past, keeping together the Votes both for England and Wales and for Northern Ireland.

The effect, then, is entirely procedural, and I can assure the House that it does not go beyond the simple explanation which I have given.

Mr. Willey

I am sure that the House is obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his explanation. He has removed my doubts and confirmed my suspicions, and on those grounds I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.