HC Deb 14 March 1956 vol 550 cc524-6

10.26 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 Eggs (Guaranteed Prices) Order, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd February, be approved. This Order is on exactly the same basis as the milk Order, which the House has just approved. It follows exactly the same procedure for my right hon. Friend to transfer the authority for implementing the guaranteed price for eggs from the previous authority of the Appropriation Acts to the Agriculture Act, 1947, Section 4. An undertaking was given last year that this would be done and the Order now fulfils it.

A small difference which I should perhaps mention is that the price guarantee for eggs is implemented through the packing stations, to which my right hon. Friend makes payments to enable them to pay the guaranteed prices on a seasonal scale and to discharge other liabilities in connection with maintaining the price guarantee. Once again, the effect of the Order makes no difference either to the producer price or to the consumer price. It is simply a machinery change, transferring authority from one place to another.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

Again, we have no complaint about the form of the Order, which follows the precedent of the one we have just discussed. The Parliamentary Secretary will, however, realise that it may well be—at least, we hope it will be—that this Order will be a temporary one and will not last the whole of the year.

The Order is, in effect, continuing the interim scheme, a disastrous scheme which has brought with it a heavy burden upon the taxpayer. I do not blame the Parliamentary Secretary for this—he is no more than a receiver in bankruptcy—but the present Home Secretary abolished the subsidy on eggs and it is now running at about £30 million a year.

It is not only the subsidy that concerns us on this side, but the way in which it is administered. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, it is a remarkable subsidy, which takes the form of a cash allowance paid to the commercial packing stations, 95 per cent. of whom are wholesalers. We do not regard this as a satisfactory arrangement. It is scandalous that it has continued for three years. It has been stigmatised time after time by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The only thing I can say is that I have never known a Minister, whether of Agriculture or Food, who has been as thick-skinned as the present Minister and his predecessor.

We have the position today that in the most recent Report on the Trading Accounts the Ministry is again stigmatised. Again, the Ministry can say no more than that it is conducting negotiations with the packers. I imagine the hon. Gentleman is in the invidious position tonight that he can say no more than that his Department is conducting negotiations with them. We know that discussions are going on at Church House. We do not know how fruitful they will be, but we know that the Department prepared a scheme which was rejected and that there is further delay.

These are, however, matters that it would be inappropriate to pursue at further length in discussing the Order, which, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said, is an empowering order. No doubt we will have a later occasion during the coming financial year to discuss the consequences that flow from the Order.

Mr. Nugent

May I, Very briefly, give the House one piece of information to reassure the hon. Gentleman in particular and hon. Members generally, and that is that the cost of implementing this price guarantee is today running at an estimated £22.6 million for the year finishing this month, which is nearly £1 million less than it was running at in 1952–53, with a very much larger volume of throughput than there was then. I hope that it will be some reassurance to the House that, in fact, this interim arrangement has not been wasteful or costly to the public.

Mr. Willey

When I gave the figure of £30 million I was including the two elements—the producer subsidy and also the trader loss. If the figures has declined and is not as great as it obviously was, that is a matter we would welcome.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

It has meant fresher eggs.

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