HC Deb 25 June 1958 vol 590 cc556-63

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I beg to move, That the Cereals (Protection of Guarantees) Order, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 956), dated 11th June, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th June, be approved.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

I think that this Order and the next two, relating to eggs and fatstock, may be taken together.

Mr. Godber

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I intended to ask your permission to do that.

These Orders have a great similarity, in that each has been made to support the arrangements that are in operation to give effect to guaranteed prices under Part I of the Agriculture Act, 1957. Section 5 of that Act empowers Ministers to make by Order such provisions as are necessary to ensure that guarantee payments are given only to those entitled to them. Such provisions are essential for the protection of the Exchequer.

I wish to remind the House that considerable sums are involved. I think that is important. For example, in the last financial year it is estimated that about £180 million to £185 million were paid out under these three guarantees. The Orders now before the House make use of these powers and, in the case of eggs and fatstock, end our reliance upon Emergency Regulations for this purpose. I am sure that is something which the House will welcome.

I wish to describe briefly the provisions of the three Orders because these are matters which should be explained. They all require the keeping of certain records. I know full well that provisions of this sort are not over popular. I see from reading the Farmer and Stock-Breeder this week that "Blythe", that notable contributor, refers to them in relation to these Orders and I am happy to assure him, as well as the House that these new conditions are not very onerous. I should like to instance what they involve.

In saying this, we must recognise that some inspection of records is essential for the proper safeguarding of the guarantees and that the disbursement of large sums of public money of the order which I have indicated imposes certain obligations on the recipients. We hope and believe, however, that these Orders will not involve anybody in much additional work.

For example, growers are already required under the cereals deficiency payments scheme to keep records of their wheat and rye transactions substantially on the lines laid down under the Cereals Order which is now before us. The form on which growers claim acreage payments for oats and barley furnishes a duplicate for retention by the claimant, on which he is supposed to enter the same particulars as are put into the claim. This duplicate would be a satisfactory record for the purpose of the new Order. In that case, therefore, we are not asking very much. Nor would I expect dealers in wheat and rye to have any additional burden imposed upon them in the provision that they may be required to furnish information, supported by records if necessary, about transactions in those guaranteed commodities since it is similar to the existing provision.

The provision in the Order for protecting the egg guarantee requiring packers to keep and produce records of all purchases, sales and use of fresh hen and duck eggs is similar to that in the previous Order under the Defence Regulations; but we are now requiring that the prescribed records should be kept for two years instead of one. The fact that once a record has been made it must be kept for an additional year is not a big burden.

With livestock also, we do not expect the Order to impose any onerous burden. Obviously, anyone engaged in the business of rearing and selling livestock needs to keep some records for his own purposes. In the main, these records will satisfy the statutory requirements now being introduced in the Order. For example, it requires that a person who presents livestock for certification shall keep a record of his purchases and sales of such livestock. Generally, however, we will accept the retention of any normal commercial invoice as a sufficient compliance with this requirement. Again, anyone who moves livestock from place to place is already required under the animal health legislation to keep a record of the movement.

The present Order gives the right to inspect these records in any investigation connected with the fatstock guarantees. There will be cases where these simple requirements will be insufficient, but rather than impose additional record keeping on all sections of traders in meat and livestock we shall merely require any necessary further information in appropriate cases by serving notice. This should not, however, impose any burden on the normally efficient business.

I am sure that the House will recognise the need for these safeguards. I hope that hon. Members will recognise, too, that we have tried to find a balance between what would be ideally desirable to cover all possible eventualities and what we think is fair and reasonable in relation to the sums which have to be disbursed.

In addition to the requirements as to records, each of the Orders contains powers of entry for authorised officers of the appropriate Minister at reasonable times. I think I can safely say that this power, which has been available to us already under the Defence Regulations, has been used in the past with circumspection and this will continue to be the case. The Orders also provide power to obtain possession of vital evidence which may be needed for prosecutions.

The Order for protecting the egg guarantee specifies the approved marks which packers will be required to stamp on all hen and duck eggs qualifying for subsidy. It varies the approved marks for hen eggs by specifying the designation of the various weight grades—large, standard, medium and small—and by omitting the British Egg Marketing Board's lion emblem, not because we do not consider this unsuitable, but because we do not think that it is something we should provide. It is, after all, the Board's trade mark and the Board should provide it in the ordinary way. The Order also specifies the weight ranges to which the various grade designations for hen eggs relate.

The Fatstock Order similarly provides for marking every animal or carcase approved for guarantee payment in such a way that an attempt to get a second guarantee payment on it would be detected, and it prohibits the presentation for the guarantee payment of any animal or carcase previously approved for such a payment.

Fatstock guarantee payments are intended for animals which are ready to be slaughtered for meat. It would be an abuse of the guarantee system if animals on which payments have been made should be used for breeding. In the Order, therefore, we prohibit the use of certified animals for this purpose.

The powers which are being taken in these Orders are in my view the minimum necessary to safeguard public money which is intended for the support of our agricultural industry. I feel quite sure the House would wish to see that there is a proper safeguard of this nature. This is not something entirely new. We are merely tidying up here and making use of the legislation we obtained last year rather than Defence Regulations. With that introduction, I can with confidence commend these Orders to the House.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I wish him no harm, but I am very happy to speak in the absence of the Patronage Secretary because I need not fear that the Closure will be moved. You, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, can share my happiness, because I am aware that these are narrow Orders, dealing with procedural matters, and that they do not deal with the general issue of guaranteed, prices.

I say at once that I agree with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that, if we can, we have to achieve two objectives. If we are concerned, as we are here, with a large sum of money—£185 million—we have to take all the safeguards we can properly take, but the second objective is that the safeguards we take should be as little onerous as we can devise them. We do not seek unnecessarily to place obligations upon people. I for one believe that we should generally accept the honesty of people, and not be too anxious to provide safeguards against dishonesty. I think that the vast majority of people, when they know that their dealings affect public expenditure, deal with their affairs not only with honesty, but also with regard to the fact that public expenditure is involved.

Under these Orders we cannot discuss guaranteed prices and price supports themselves. We are discussing the arrangements, but I think the Joint Parliamentary Secretary realises that this is a difficult matter on which to achieve perfection and that as the arrangements are not altogether satisfactory we have to keep reviewing them. They are affected by the form of price support the guaranteed price takes. I say on behalf of the Opposition that in the light of experience of the past few years we are not satisfied as a whole with the working of the new price support arrangements. We believe, after consulting the industry's representatives, that we shall probably have to return to fixed guaranteed prices for a larger number of commodities.

Turning to the commodities affected by these Orders, there have been allegations in the past about fatstock. How justified they were I do not know. The Department made some inquiries and I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is satisfied that the arrangements to which he has referred will safeguard the public from any dishonest practices. Although there were allegations of such practices, I personally did not come across evidence of any widespread practices of that kind.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have mentioned eggs at Question Time recently. I do not know how much longer I am to share with the Public Accounts Committee responsibility for calling attention to the fact that this scheme is not properly administered, and that time after time there are complaints about the way in which the packers' margins are administered. I referred in the House this week to a Report.

I agree that as this matter is being discussed with the Egg Marketing Board we cannot discuss it further now, but it is an open secret that the amount involved is well over £1 million. Really, after all these years, we must do something about it. We cannot have this hopeless abnegation of responsibility. The Minister should feel some sense of responsibility in the light of the continuing criticism made by the Public Accounts Committee.

I am not criticising, and I do not wish to criticise, the packers as such tonight. I criticise the system. But it is a very real condemnation of the Government. They hastily rushed into the decontrol of eggs. They made an absolutely disastrous blunder, which has cost the taxpayer enormous sums every year, and, within those enormous losses, are the continuing losses due to the failure of the Ministry to accept any proper responsibility for the administration of these margins. How much longer we are to have report after report stigmatising the right hon. Gentleman's Department, I do not know.

Perhaps I have gone a little wide of the debate, Mr. Speaker. I promised that I would not. I will return to the procedural arrangements made in these Orders. We accept, with the Minister, the obligation of the Government to provide for policing arrangements where, in circumstances such as this, large sums of public money are involved.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

May I refer to the Fatstock (Protection of Guarantees) Order, and ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he is aware of the confusion which exists in Wales with regard to the markings set out in the Schedule for live sheep? There has been a great deal of doubt in Wales about the private markings and the Ministry's ear marks, and I should like to know whether anything has been done by the Ministry in recent weeks to clear up the confusion. I am sorry that I did not give the Parliamentary Secretary notice, but I was unable to do so, and I should like to take this opportunity now of putting the query to him, because the matter has been under discussion for some months in Wales. The Ministry insists upon the ear marks, and I understand that, as a result of the confusion of markings, farmers say that they sometimes do not receive what they say is the proper price. I want to protect our sheep farmers in this matter, and should be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary would say what the Ministry is doing about it.

10.33 p.m.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Tudor Watkins) has raised a point of interest to Wales, and I have a similar point to raise which is of interest to Scotland. It concerns the marking of cattle and the prohibition of … the presentation for a guarantee payment of any animal or carcase previously approved for certification or the use for breeding or milking of an approved animal". Incidentally, it is rather amusing to read in the Explanatory Note that one can present a carcase for breeding.

I want to know whether the marking of cattle, sheep and pigs shows any alteration from the present practice. If it is the same, that is all right; but, under the present system, if one goes to the auction, the marked beasts are not marked until they have been through the ring. Any farmer can buy for breeding a heifer, for instance, which he thinks he would like to breed from, and, at the end of the sale of the animal, the auctioneer will instruct his servants not to mark the animal. Thus, there is freedom for the farmer, if he wishes, to breed from an animal which is submitted to auction for slaughter. He can buy it in the open market if he wishes to breed from it.

Is there any alteration? I am not absolutely dear from the wording of the Order, and I should like to preserve the freedom of the farmer to come in and buy in that way.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Godber

Perhaps I might deal in reverse order with the two or three points which have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) asked me about marking. As I understand, there is no change whatever in the system in relation to those marks. The confusion of marks, to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) referred, has caused some difficulty, as I think he knows, when farmers have used marks which could be genuinely confused with the official marks.

If I may I should like to write to the hon. Gentleman about the precise position in Wales. I should not like to give an answer off the cuff. I hope that we can persuade farmers not to use the type of mark which can lead to confusion of this sort. We have tried to be as helpful as possible on that, but there are certain cases where difficulties are caused and the farmer loses his right to payment if he cannot give adequate proof.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), was his usual generous self in the way in which he criticised us. We rather expect criticisms from him. They help, perhaps, to keep us on the mark. But I thought that the hon Gentleman would have been a little more bashful about eggs. I accept that there have been the criticisms of which he spoke, but for a member of a party which criticised us so much when we took eggs off the ration, which said that eggs would go up to 1s. each, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been far more modest than to challenge us tonight. I have taken note of his criticisms. I assure him that I will give them all the attention that they deserve.

10.37 p.m.

Sir Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I want to get clear the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan). As I understood what he said, if a beast goes through the auction market and the buyer wants to retain that beast for breeding purposes, it does not have to be marked. That, of course, is not so because, otherwise, it would open up a tremendous avenue for fraud. If an animal goes through the fatstock ring and the owner receives a deficiency payment, that animal has to be marked. That point should be cleared up. No owner is going to allow his beast to be sold in the fatstock ring at a price very much below what he would get for slaughter. If a beast goes through the ring it is marked for slaughter. If it is bought by anybody and the subsidy is paid on it, it must be marked as soon as it leaves the ring. If the buyer wants to breed from it he has to make some arrangement with the vendor to see that the deficiency payment is paid from the buyer to the seller. If it goes through the ring and the vendor gets the subsidy it has to be marked.

Mr. Godber

If, in fact, it is certified for payment it must be marked. I do not think there is any confusion between us on that point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Sir A. Baldwin) for helping to clear it up.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Cereals (Protection of Guarantees) Order, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 956), dated 11th June, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th June, be approved.

Eggs (Protection of Guarantees) Order, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 957), dated 11th June, 1958 [copy laid before the House, 17th June], approved.—[Mr. Godber.]

Fatstock (Protection of Guarantees) Order, 1958 (S.I., 1958, No. 958), dated 11th June, 1958 [copy laid before the House, 17th June], approved.—[Mr. Godber.]