HC Deb 19 February 1963 vol 672 cc276-86

(1) The following provisions of this section shall have effect with respect to the particulars to be stated under section 1 of the Seeds Act 1920 by persons selling or exposing for sale any seed potatoes and with respect to the containers in which seed potatoes are to be delivered to a purchaser.

(2) So much of that section as relates to the time at which any statement is to be delivered to a purchaser, and the manner in which it may be delivered, shall not apply; but regulations under that Act may provide for the time at which any statement containing all or any of the said particulars is to be delivered., and may require such a statement

  1. (a) to be in a form prescribed by the regulations;
  2. (b) to be delivered to the purchaser in such manner as may be so prescribed;
  3. (c) instead of or as well as being delivered in any other manner, to be delivered by being enclosed with the potatoes in their bags or other containers or by being marked on or attached to those bags or containers in such manner as may be so prescribed, or by being both so enclosed and so marked or attached;
and any such regulations may exclude any of the said particulars from those to be contained in a statement displayed under subsection (2) of that section with seed potatoes exposed for sale.

(3) Regulations under the said Act may prohibit, subject to any exceptions provided for by or under the regulations, the delivery to a purchaser of any seed potatoes otherwise than in such bags or other containers as may be prescribed by the regulations.

(4) In subsection (3) of the said section 1 the words "or seed potatoes, as the case may be" are hereby repealed.

(5) This section shall not come into operation until such day as the Ministers may by order made by statutory instrument appoint.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. R. Brooman-White)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This new Clause meets an undertaking given to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) in Committee. He asked us to add to the Seeds Act a provision whereby statements identifying the farm of origin would be inserted in all containers of seed potatoes. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary accepted this proposal in principle and undertook to table a suitable new Clause at a later stage which might conveniently cover somewhat wider ground than the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West.

This is an enabling Clause. It empowers Ministers to make regulations laying down the particulars to be given on a statement or statements, the time and the manner in which such statement or statements shall be delivered to the purchasers, and the kind of containers in which seed potatoes may be delivered to the purchasers.

There are three main points which I may briefly explain. First, this is a general enabling provision which will make it possible for Ministers to require, if necessary, that the statement accompanying a container of seed potatoes shall contain, not only an identification of the farm of origin, but such other particulars about the potatoes as it may be reasonable and desirable for a purchaser to have.

Secondly, the form of the Clause has been shaped, to some extent, by the fact that the Seeds Act as it stands permits a statement under the Act containing prescribed particulars to be delivered to a purchaser within seven days of sale or delivery, and also allows a statement to be attached or put in a package or container at the option of the seller.

Clearly, a requirement to place labels on the containers of seed potatoes conflicts with these provisions. Therefore, subsection (2) of the new Clause enables Ministers to prescribe the times at which different kinds of statements may be delivered to purchasers of seed potatoes and removes the existing option to sellers whether to send such statements with the potatoes.

Subsection (3) enables Ministers to prescribe the kind of containers in which potatoes may be delivered. This follows a recommendation of the Committee on Transactions in Seeds. That Committee strongly recommended that all certified seed potatoes should be delivered in new bags or their equivalent. It regarded this as an essential part of the machinery for providing the purchaser with healthy, pure seed. It regarded it primarily as a further security against potato diseases and infection. The Clause also enables Ministers, when necessary, in special cases, to make exceptions to any general rules which are written into the regulations.

There are two assurances which I should, perhaps, give to the House. First, as regards the contents of any regulations which may be made, the Seeds Act provides that there must be consultation with the representatives of the interests concerned before regulations are made. We will certainly ensure that the organisations concerned have every opportunity to give their views, particularly about the practical considerations of the operation, before regulations are made.

Secondly, I assure hon. Members and, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West, who raised the matter in Committee, that we will go ahead as fast as we reasonably can in making regulations. It is hoped that we may be able to make the arrangements in time for them to be operative for the 1963 crop. I hope that the new Clause will commend itself to the House.

Mr. Peart

The Minister has fulfilled a promise which he made in Standing Committee and I congratulate the hon Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) upon making the proposal which initiated this action. We feel that the new Clause is necessary and I am glad that assurances have been given, including the assurance that there will be consultation with all sections of the industry. As was explained in Standing Committee, the farmers' unions, the seed potato trade in Scotland and the merchants in England, as well as the Potato Marketing Board, welcomed a new approach and the labelling of seed potatoes. The Minister has gone further and dealt also with containers, as he said he would on 5th February.

Obviously, before a new Clause of this nature is introduced, there should be consultations. I should like to know whether those consultations with the trade and with farming organisations have taken place since the Committee stage, although I recognise that the time interval has been short.

I hope that the Minister will not delay the making of the regulations. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has promised that speed will be the Ministry's watchword. It has not always been so. There have been cases when, despite Government promises that regulations would be issued with haste, we have had a rather dilatory attitude. We hope that speed will be the order of the day.

Mention has been made of the Seeds Act. I recognise that there have to be alterations in it and, generally, I approve of what the Minister has done. I hope that both sides of the House will welcome the Minister's assurance and the extension of the proposals contained in the earlier new Clause moved by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West.

Mr. Stodart

I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, not only for taking up the Clause which I moved in Standing Committee, but for improving it a good deal. The object of the whole exercise derives from the fact that 60 per cent. of all seed potatoes in the United Kingdom are certified and, therefore, healthy and that 400,000 tons of them come from north of the Border, therefore outnumbering the English and the Northern Irish supply by over three to one—

Mr. Peart

The hon. Member will, I hone, accept that this is a matter of importance even for the people concerned in England. I recognise that the English figure is approximately 25,000 tons only; it is considerably smaller than the Scottish figure. Nevertheless, the trade generally will benefit.

Mr. Stodart

Yes, of course, but this arrangement will be of much greater importance to the country North of the Border, where the trade is worth about £10 million a year, which is a fairly big slice of our agricultural production. In a trade of that magnitude, it is essential that buyers should have complete confidence in what they get—that is the main objective—because confidence can be so easily undermined by carelessness, to use the politest possible word, on the part of a tiny minority.

It is true that the bulk of deliveries of Scottish seed—this probably applies to English-produced seed also—goes direct from one farm to another on an individual load and, therefore, in such cases, the loss of identity does not arise. In addition to inspiring confidence among buyers, however, the new proposals will be of benefit to growers. I have with me a label which is already being put into one in every three bags of certain seed potatoes in Scotland, and which includes on it the slightly tendentious remark: Ross-shire, source of the healthiest seed potatoes. I am not sure that I entirely subscribe to that; but at least, it is a good advertisement for a great seed potato producing area.

These new proposals will not, of course, be foolproof. If anyone is determined to evade them, it will not be impossible to do so. Suppose, for example, that a consignment arrives on an English farm after the regulations are in force and no labels are found inside the bag. It would be quite possible for the consignor to say that he had included the labels and that he could call evidence to prove it. Merely to insert a label and to sew up the bag with string leaves scope for the driving of a small horse and cart through the regulations. [An HON. MEMBER: "A pony and cart."] A tiny one, at least.

I wonder whther my hon. Friend the Minister will consider whether, the label having been inserted, a metallic seal should be used bearing the code number of the farm, rather like the type of seal that is used by the Department of Agriculture for its stock seed inspection. The fact that the seal had not been tampered with would be proof that a label had been put in.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)

Farmers in my constituency use, Scottish seed potatoes. I myself use them and I offer my thanks to my right hon. Friends for this Clause. I want to make an observation about subsection (3), however. This deals with the prescription by the Minister of the type of container used for seed potatoes. We have been told that it is proposed to prohibit all but new bags for the transport of seed potatoes.

I hope that when the Minister consults the interests concerned, he will make sure that he is quite right on this point, because, although there is danger of disease such as eel worm in re-using old bags—and one naturally wants to eliminate every chance of disease occurring—there are certain advantages.

Potatoes coming from Scotland to England are either in new bags which are not returnable and therefore are apt to be pretty thin, or in returnable bags which are much thicker and give much greater protection from damage. I hope that, in prescribing that returnable bags shall not be used for seed potatoes, the Minister will not overlook the damage factor because, from long experience, I know what mechanical damage can do to seed potatoes in transit. It is by far the greatest difficulty the user of seed potatoes has to contend with. In trying to combat disease, I hope that my right hon. Friend will not overlook the fact that this damage may occur if he insists on only non-returnable, thin bags being used.

Mr. John Mackie (Enfield, East)

I apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for not being here when he moved the Second Reading of the Clause. I want to underline the point made by the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) about the thickness of sacks used for shifting seed potatoes. To use new bags every time is very expensive, and I suggest that we should try some system of disinfecting sacks before they are sent back to Scotland for use again. These regula- tions should not be made too difficult to carry out. Nor should too many different ways of doing this be allowed.

I am in favour of the system suggested by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart), which would involve putting a label inside the sack. It should, of course, be a waterproof label and should not be merely tied on, for if there were any "fiddling" or rain the number on such a flimsy label would be wiped out. I suggest that we use a label with a number stamped on it.

I do not suggest that a farmer's name and address should be stamped on the label, for that would be a retrograde step and unnecessary. If every sack had a number on it, there would be no difficulty. In any case, I suppose that 90 per cent. of the seed potatoes go through a merchant, and he has a number which can be traced if necessary. This system should be simplified as much as possible.

Sir John Maitland (Horncastle)

I thank my right hon. Friends for introducing what I think will be most useful regulations, particularly for those who, like myself, live in Lincolnshire, which produces certainly the best as well as the most potatoes in England. There is urgency in this matter. The last part of the new Clause says—quite obviously— This section shall not come into operation until such day as the Ministers may by order … appoint I want to be assured that we may have this in operation by next season.

Mr. Hoy

This is an interesting discussion. I delivered a forceful oration on this matter in Committee. I would not express all the doubts which hon. Members opposite have expressed about seed potato merchants. The grave doubt which they have about the credibility and honesty of these merchants is amazing.

I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) that if these potatoes are to be delivered to the South at least the recipient should know that he is getting what he has paid for. That is not asking too much. Indeed, a measure of this kind seeks to give protection to people who go for quality. To that extent, it will do the industry a fair amount of good. As I said in Committee, it may be that a certain number of merchants allow bags to get burst and mix up first and third qualities. I am certain, however, that this is not common in the industry.

Every hon. Member has assumed that in this context canvas bags will be used. I will not argue that point, nor will I argue about the qualities of a new bag compared with an old one. I am not expert enough to do so. But can old bags not be treated after use? This should surely not present any great difficulty.

Having made up his mind to carry this through, the Minister should not delay. The sooner this provision comes into operation, the better it will be for all concerned. I am certain that the message of the House is to get ahead with the job, because this will be an improvement.

Mr. Brooman-White

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) asked about consultation. He quite rightly expressed the view that time had been short. We have not had formal consultations with the interests but we have informally told them what we propose to do. They were very much in support of labelling containers, as he knows. I understand that they also approve of the proposals concerning containers. There will, however, be full consultations before the regulations are drawn up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) said that quite a number of people are already doing something on these lines in labelling, and he mentioned policing difficulties. One of the technical matters which will have to be considered very carefully with the interests is how far one can go in policing this without imposing too great a strain on those doing the job.

Other hon. Members have raised points which will be of considerable concern when we come to draw up the regulations. Notice will be taken of those comments when our discussions with the interests are held. We do not prescribe anything about new bags in this Clause. This was mentioned in Committee when we discussed the technical point about the sort of precautions which should be taken.

We have been urged to get ahead and we will do so as fast as we can. I repeat my assurance that we will do our best to get the regulations out in time for the 1963 crop.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

When I came into the Chamber and heard the House discussing the Clause, 1 was amazed by the unanimity with which hon. Members opposite approved of this introduction of more regulations. I remember the rubbish which they used to talk about regulations in 1950, and yet here we have a Clause in which people are to be told what sort of sacks they are to use and which provides for regulations which will prescribe all sorts of things. We are to tie people right, left and centre, but hon. Members opposite apparently think that that is all in order.

I wonder at this sudden conversion. What a lot of hypocrites! What a lot of humbug they talk! What a lot of hypocrites when one recalls the things which they have said in the past!

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

On a point of order. Is the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) in order in having come into the Chamber very recently and throwing accusations against hon. Members on this side of the House of being hypocrites?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

There is no question of order as regards having come into the Chamber recently. It would be out of order for an hon. Member to accuse a particular Member of being a hypocrite, but I have often heard hon. Members en masse being accused of being hypocritical, on both sides of the House.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Anybody with any experience of debates of this kind knows that it is quite correct. The term is not exaggerated. Although at times I am given to exaggeration, that is not the case on this occasion.

Another thing which interests me about the Clause is the great length to which Parliament has to go in order to protect people against the activities of private enterprise. That is what we are doing. Time after time we are confronted with long and involved Clauses—and this Clause is 27 lines long—to protect the buyer against the activities of private enterprise. I hope that hon. Members opposite will note this when they go to their constituencies to extol the virtues of competitive private enterprise.

Sir J. Maitland

The trouble is that one cannot protect oneself against the activities of public enterprise.

Mr. Willis

One can do that in the House quite simply.

Mr. Burden

There is no need for the hon. Member to pursue this line, because the Leader of the Opposition made it perfectly clear in the House yesterday that if the party opposite were returned to power, it would go in for wholesale nationalisation.

Mr. Willis

I should be out of order if I followed that. What I am suggesting to hon. Members opposite is that when they go to their constituencies this weekend and extol the great blessings that private enterprise confers upon us they should also tell their constituents of the enormous lengths to which Parliament has to go to protect people from the activities of those who are engaged in this competitive, private, free enterprise. I do not know why it is called "free", because we spend the whole of our time cribbing, cabnning and confining it, but apparently that escapes the notice of hon. Members opposite.

I rose only to point that out. I am in favour of the Clause. I am always in favour of anything which protects people against the activities of private enterprise. That appeals to me. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly. Against the activities of private enterprise. That is why I am on this side of the House. It is one of the things which led me to this side of the House.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

Does the hon. Member want to nationalise the seed potato industry?

Mr. Willis

I did not say anything about that.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is beyond the scope of the Clause.

Mr. Willis

I am discussing a Clause which seeks to regulate, to control, to crib, cabin and confine the activities of people engaged in selling seed pototates.

Sir Richard Glyn (Dorset, North)

The main point of the Clause of which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) approved so strongly is to protect the English customer from the irregularities of the Scottish seed potato merchants.

Mr. Willis

I have never suggested that the Scottish private free enterpriser was any better than the Englisher private free enterpriser. In Scotland the majority of people tend to think the opposite and to vote for our party.

Mr. Woodburn

Has it not been made clear that most of the potatoes are sold through merchants and that there is no designation about where they live?

Mr. Willis

The majority live down here. However, apart from that, I would be the last to say that the Scottish free enterpriser was any better than the English free enterpriser.

5.45 p.m.

Having drawn attention to one or two points which I thought pertinent to the Clause—and at times it is a good thing to draw attention to the contradictions in the attitudes of hon. Members opposite towards different things—I close by saying that I shall support the Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.