HC Deb 17 July 1968 vol 768 cc1609-30

11.24 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

I beg to move, That the Meat and Livestock Commission Levy Scheme (Confirmation) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd July, be approved. I begin by reminding the House how the Commission came into being. It followed the inquiry which the previous Government had made into this industry. The Report was published in February, 1964, as Cmnd. 2282. In the 1965 White Paper on the marketing of meat and livestock we took up the task and made clear what we intended to do. We said: The Government are resolved that the weaknesses should be remedied and intend to take very early action. At that time, and in the subsequent proceedings on the Agriculture Bill, there was much common ground on both sides of the House. Some thought that the powers proposed for the Commission were too great; others thought that they were not great enough, and a few even thought that it had been given the wrong name. But there was no division on the broad policy of tackling in a comprehensive way the problems of the meat and livestock industry.

I am recalling this deliberately, because now that the Commission is in being and its work has to be paid for, we are hearing all about the opposition expressed to it. The need for the work which it will undertake is in danger of being forgotten. From the first, however, it was the Government's intention that the work of the Commission should be financed mainly by a levy on the industry. This was stated clearly in the 1965 White Paper on the marketing of meat and livestock, and embodied by Parliament in the Agriculture Act, 1967. There was no misunderstanding about this at the time.

I cannot accept that the Commission's work should be paid for out of public funds. The Government have been contributing for a long while to some of the main work which the Commission takes over. We have, for example, rightly used public money to get beef recording started, but I need scarcely remind the House of the words in the 1963 Annual Review White Paper, when the right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), sat on this side, that Government contributions were, and I quote: to the costs of establishing the necessary organisations until they can be taken over by the industry. Government support will have been given to the Beef Recording Association for some five years, which is a good deal longer than might reasonably have been expected at the time, and a good deal longer than most hon. Members expected. It is, therefore, time for the industry to finance, through the Commission, what amounts to an investment in its own future.

Now I come to the Commission's proposals and the Order before the House. The Commission submitted to the Secretary of State for Scotland and me a levy scheme which included the following maximum rates of levy: cattle, 8s. a head; calves, 2s. a head; sheep, l0d. a head; pigs, 2s. a head. It was estimated that this would yield an annual income of just under £3 million. The Commission also indicated that at first it intended that the actual rates of levy would be: cattle, 4s. a head; calves, 1s. a head; sheep, 4d. a head; and pigs, 1s 9d. a head.

This would yield about £1,850,000. The Commission believed that this lower level would be sufficient for about two years, but it none the less attached considerable importance to the inclusion in the Order of the higher levels, so that there could be reasonable forward planning of its future work.

The Secretary of State for Scotland and I received representations from a number of different interests about the Commission's proposals. We received several deputations and gave careful thought to these matters and I would draw the attention of the House to two important points. First, we have received an assurance from the Chairman of the Commission that the initial rates of levy will not be increased during the first two years, and the Commission has made this assurance public. In other words, the Commission will not levy in excess of the estimated sum of £1,850,000 a year during its first two years.

Secondly, we have reduced the maximum rates of levy so that in the draft Order now before the House, these rates are: cattle, 6s. a head; calves 1s. a head; sheep 6d. a head and pigs 2s. a head. This would raise an estimated £2,450,000. The question is: why did we do this? Why have we exceeded the minimum amount which the Commission stated would be necessary for the first two years? We thought it right that the Commission should have some room for manoeuvre to plan for its future development.

The Commission has an important job to do in the longer term in the interests of the whole industry and it clearly needs confidence to plan ahead. None the less, the Secretary of State for Scotland and I, taking note of the representations made to us, decided that we should reduce the maximum rates of levy, so that the Commission will have to come back to Ministers and to Parliament, if it should wish to make any substantial increase in its expenditure and its charge on the industry.

The position, therefore, is that the levy will not be raised for two years above the initial rates which are estimated to yield £1.85 million and that after that time there will be a small margin which might allow the Commission to charge an estimated further £0.6 million.

The House is entitled to know how the £1.85 million will be spent. About three-quarters of this money will be spent on existing work—the work which is now being done by the Pig Industry Development Authority, on meat research and on beef recording. The largest part of this— about £1 million—is the continuing programme of the Authority. I think that this has been very valuable and I am glad that the Chairman of the Authority, Sir Richard Verdin, is now the Deputy Chairman of the Commission.

The remaining quarter of the Commissions' expenditure—about £0.45 million—will be on the first stages of work in a number of fields. This includes sheep recording; carcase classification and evaluation in the interests of producing meat most suited to the requirements of the housewife; and market information. That will amount to about 25 per cent. of the Commission's work during the first two years of its operations.

I turn now to the method of collecting the levy, because there has been a good deal of publicity given to this point. The scheme will enable the Commission to impose a levy on the various categories of livestock at the point of slaughter. This proposal to collect a single payment in respect of each animal, instead of splitting the levy between the various parties to any market transaction, obviously makes for simple and economical administration. But as it has been criticised, I should like to deal with it more fully.

It has been said that the person on whom the levy first falls will pay the whole of it, and that the burden of the levy will not, therefore, be spread across the whole industry, amongst all the people who will benefit from the Commission's work. Before confirming the scheme in this respect, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I gave this question careful thought. We went into it with very great care. We believe, with the Commission, that the burden of the levies will be diffused, which is how the market works with any other cost of distribution. Why should it prove otherwise with these levies?

I am satisfied that although a levy scheme could have been put forward under the Act specifying any number of classes of people on whom charges might have been separately imposed, the Commission was right to consider the equity of the scheme in practice rather than in appearance. A composite charge would still be spread by market forces and the complication of additional payments would merely add to the cost of collection.

I should like to emphasise here that the Commission is concerned with the whole of the meat and livestock industry. One cannot allocate the programme of work on the basis of its supposed immediate value to particular sectors of the industry. All parts of this diverse industry are linked and inter-dependent. It is in the interests of the retail trade as well as the farmer's that the right type of livestock should be produced and marketed at the right time.

It is in the farmer's interests as well as the meat retailer's that consumers should be well informed and that their demands should be reflected back quickly and accurately through the marketing complex. When different sectors argue narrowly their own particular case, they show the very fragmentation due to immediate interest which the Commission has been set up to overcome in the longer-term interest of the industry as a whole.

We have confidence in the Commission. I am sure that its work will develop progressively as all sectors of the industry appreciate the value of the tasks with which it has been charged and the need to press ahead with them. The consultative machinery included in the formal structure of the Commission is there for all sectors of the industry to use. Through it they can make known their views and be closely connected with the Commission in carrying out the work which is most to their own benefit. Their co-operation is vital. I believe that it will be forthcoming in full measure as the Commission tackles the work ahead.

To make the start which is so important, my right hon. Friend and I have no hesitation in commending this Order for the approval of the House.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)

An important Order of this kind should not have been brought forward so late at night. My hon. Friends and I feel that we should have been given more time in which to debate the matter. It is regrettable that the Order should have been imposed on us at this hour.

We have noted what the Minister said about the Order and I would not dissent from what he said about the background to the setting up of the Commission. It arose, as he said, from the Verdon-Smith Report and it was included in the Agriculture Act, 1967. When we debated this matter on Report and in Committee we made our attitude towards the Commission perfectly clear; that we were not opposed to it being set up, but that we felt that it was being given unnecessary extra powers. We discussed this issue at great length, and I do not propose to repeat that discussion now.

We had no desire to prevent the Commission from being set up. Indeed, we could not, and we expressed our belief that there was useful work for it to do in terms of the scope about which the Minister spoke. In other words, I wish to make it perfectly clear at the outset that I do not dissent from the Minister's general approach to the setting up of the Commission.

Once set up, the Commission must have the funds to do its work. I would not recommend my hon. Friends to oppose the Order if we felt that the proposed levy was correct and that one could have complete confidence in the method of collection. I will, therefore, concentrate my remarks on these aspects.

The Minister gave an assurance that the proposed levy would not be raised for at least two years. That is a useful assurance. He also said that the levy would not be the maximum provided under the Order. We note, too, that the Minister has reduced the maximum for which the Commission had asked. In terms of cattle units, it has been reduced from 8s. to 6s., and the Commission says that it will raise only 4s. in the first two years.

The Minister will be aware of the concern that has been expressed by the meat trade, and by the butchers in particular, about the method of collection. I would not disagree with the view that the most economical method of collection is at the point of slaughter. Hon. Members connected with the agriculture industry will have in mind the problem of collecting the levy for the Agricultural Training Board. That is extremely diffuse and the cost of collection is enormous in relation to the funds raised. Nevertheless, the meat interests feel strongly that there is a degree of injustice here, and we should take careful note of that view.

How is it that this matter has not been cleared up in discussions by the various committees of the Commission? When the committees were set up, some of us voiced doubts about whether they had been made large enough or fully enough representative. I referred specifically to this in Committee, and pointed to the danger of antagonisms arising in the working of the authority and the feeling that one section was being unduly squeezed.

That is precisely what one section now feels. I am not clear why discussions in the Distributive Committee did not lead to a fuller understanding about the matter, and whether it means that some sections of the distribution side feel that they are not adequately represented. If that is so, I can only say that we warned the Government about that when the matter was in Committee. The feeling is there, and it is one of which the Government should take note.

It is in this connection that I feel that the Minister's approach is wrong. While I do not accept what the meat trade is saying about it, because I feel that the effect of the levy will be spread out by the operation of the market, I have to acknowledge that the trade feels that it is being put upon in an unfair way.

Had the Minister put before us an Order of 12 months' duration for the amount asked for by the Commission, or, assuming that it is impossible to limit the period, if he had undertaken to bring forward a variation order next year, we should have had 12 months in which to see whether the fears expressed by the meat trade were real. If they had proved to be real, at the expiration of 12 months, the Government could have brought forward an amending order.

My grievance is that, in the form in which the Government have put this Order forward, it is possible not only to go on for two years at the level that the Minister has indicated, but, under the existing Order, at a later stage it is possible to raise the levy to a higher level without the necessity of coming back to the House for verification and approval. By reason of the way in which this is being done, the House will not be given the automatic opportunity of considering the matter again. It worries us when power is given in a way which is claimed by one section of an industry to be unfair and we have no means of knowing whether we shall have an opportunity to put it right in another year.

If the Minister would give an undertaking to come back this time next year with an amending Order, that might change our attitude. But, as it is put forward, one section of the trade feels that it is being unfairly treated, and we cannot know whether or not those fears are justified. I do not feel that they will be in the event, but I know the fears are there, I know that the operation of the scheme will be affected, and I know that many people in the meat trade have uttered all sorts of threats about non-co-operation. In those circumstances, the Meat Commission will not have the opportunities that we all wanted it to have to get off to a good start.

We are not only concerned about the size of the levy, but about the power to raise it. When we part with the Order tonight, we have no power to bring it back to the House afresh.

It must not be forgotten that the attitude of traders is conditioned so much at present by the actions of the Government in other directions. When the Government impose levies on a section of the community, it has to be borne in mind that they have singled out the distributive trades for very harsh treatment.

For instance, Selective Employment Tax operates fully and completely on the distributive trades which have no rebate of any kind. When investment allowances were withdrawn and investment grants were substituted for them, the distributive trades were far from getting any advantage from the change. If they are now to have this additional impost, they will regard an Order of this kind with greater criticism. We have to consider the totality of the effect of these things upon the trade. I do not think that the Minister has taken sufficient note of the genuine concern which has been expressed in this regard.

If there is to be a levy on home-produced meat, why is there not to be a levy on imported meat as well? This was an argument which I pressed in Committee. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor then told us that the Bill gave power for a levy to be imposed on imported meat, although he said that it was not his view that the Commission ought to place a levy on imported meat. However, if there were such a levy, the levy on home-killed meat would not have to be so high. It seems unfair to, our home meat producers to put a levy on them at a time when we are not imposing a levy on imported meat as well. There could be different rates of levy for imported and home-produced meat and the levy for imported meat might arguably be lower, but to eliminate the possibility of a levy on imported meat means that the impact of a levy on home producers is that much greater.

The Opposition are very unhappy about the way in which the Order is being brought forward. That does not mean that my colleagues and I are opposed to the Commission as such—we have always made it clear that we are not. Nor does it mean that we are opposed to the levy, or its level, particularly if account is taken of the fact that there is no levy on imported meat. We quarrel with the way in which the Order is brought forward and the fact that we shall not have an automatic opportunity in 12 months 10 discuss whether the fears of the meat trade have been justified and whether action has been taken to deal with them.

I ask the Minister for an assurance that, if the fears of the meat trade are shown to be well founded, he will introduce an amending Order. If he cannot give that assurance, the position will remain unsatisfactory. In that case, in spite of what I have said about the Commission as a whole, I shall have to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to express their views in the Division Lobby.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Like several other hon. Members, on both sides of the House, at the weekend I was approached by butchers in my constituency who put their case to me on this subject. Hearing it for the first time, I thought that they put it extremely persuasively. It was a case which has to be answered in the House, and I came to listen to the debate to hear what was said by the Minister and others with much more knowledge of this matter than I have.

My fears have not been allayed by what my right hon. Friend has said this evening. Nor were they allayed by what was said by the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), who agreed with the Commission and with the levy and with the postponing of the raising of the levy, and who did not feel that the fears expressed by the butchers would materialise.

Mr. Godber indicated assent.

Mr. Foot

I see the right hon. Gentleman nodding, I do not think that I have misrepresented what he says.

When I hear a speaker from this Front Bench praising the operation of market forces, and when I hear the right hon. Member for Grantham saying that we can leave everything to market forces, I become extremely suspicious. It is much better to try to leave it to some form of planning especially when we are operating a Commission which is intended to introduce a form of planning into this operation of the free market.

Speaking personally, I need a firmer explanation than has so far been given to persuade me that market forces will really settle this question, in a manner which is just to the butchers. My right hon. Friend says, and the right hon. Gentleman agrees, that no one can dispute that this is the most convenient way of raising the money. I would not attempt to dispute that at all. It is obvious that if one raises a levy of this kind from one place, it will be easy to raise it in that way than from two places. It will be easier to raise it from the trade than through a division between the producer and the trade.

But because it is more convenient, it is not necessarily the right way of doing it. It may be an unjust way of doing it, and it certainly could leave the feeling of injustice, even if the actual injustice is not imposed. Therefore, I would ask my right hon. Friend to explain, if he wishes to have my vote at the end of the debate, whether there would be any substantial difficulty in dividing the levy between producer and butcher. I understand that when the Bill went through, and I am not an expert in these matters, the Minister of State said that this question would be considered. I would like to know why this has been rejected. If I am told that it has been rejected solely because it is inconvenient, I am not convinced. If I was told that it was impossible, then we have to examine that. That is not the Government's case. The Government do not say that it is impossible, but that it is more convenient. Supposing that it is slightly more expensive to raise it from the farmer as well as the butcher, there is still a good case for doing it.

I do not see why it should not be made certain that different sections of the industry which will benefit from this Commission should have their contributions to the Commission apportioned, by the decision of this House, rather than leave the matter to the haphazard course of what the market forces may eventually determine. The Government should not place such confidence in the market forces, particularly when the whole purpose of this operation is to introduce more order, more planning, in to the sale of meat. There may be a few hon. Members who are against this scheme, but the right hon. Gentleman has indicated that, officially, the Opposition are in favour of the Commission.

When we are trying to introduce a fresh form of planning into the system we have to make the plan fair. If it is unfair we will create opposition to the whole scheme. It would be most unfortunate if, when we set up a Commission which it is agreed on both sides of the House is for the benefit of the industry as a whole, we should arouse the hostility of one part to the Commission and its operations because of the way in which the levy works. If there is a convenient way of getting out of that difficulty, the Government ought to reach it. I ask my right hon. Friend to look at this afresh and consider whether it is possible to have a different system of applying the levy.

As I understand, the levy will not be further increased, for the next two years at any rate, so there is some time. It is not as if we have to settle this matter forever tonight. It may be settled a bit later. It would be much wiser, in view of the feeling that has been aroused, if my right hon. Friend were to say that he will give fresh consideration to the view put by the butchers. It is one of the purposes of the House of Commons, that these matters should be represented. I know that my right hon. Friend can say that he has already had conversations with the butchers about this, but this is the place where these discussions are supposed to be heard.

I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will make an accommodating reply to the representations which have been fairly made to him on behalf of the butchers. I believe that if he does he will do it in the interests of the Commission and of ensuring that the Commission will be able to do the job which hon. Members, on both sides of the House, wish it to do.

11.55 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport (Knutsford)

It appears that the Minister has acted in this matter without any proper consultation with the trade, and it seems that the inevitable result will be more bureaucracy, which will serve no useful purpose. In view of the already efficient system of meat distribution in the trade, it can mean, in the end, only higher prices of meat to consumers.

The cost of collection of the levy will be outrageous. It has been the object of those in the trade to keep prices down, but they are being heavily penalised through Government action. Their overheads have been considerably increased over the past four years, due to the imposition of the Selective Employment Tax—increased taxation; heavier charges for National Insurance and graduated pensions—increased taxes; heavily increased transport changes—the nationalised industries; higher rates—increased taxation; increased gas and electricity charges—the nationalised industries; and higher wages for employees as a result of inflation.

They are all feeling the pinch, and so are the customers, to such an extent that they are already encountering sales resistance and their sales of meat are decreasing, simply because the customer cannot afford to buy as much meat nowadays as he could in the old days of so-called Tory misrule.

The levy on carcase weight may seem small at 0.1d. per lb., but the result can mean only a substantial increase in charges which, in fairness to all sections of the trade, will have to be passed on 1o the customer. This will stem from the additional time spent in the grading and ticketing of meat at wholesale and retail levels.

The trade is being asked by the Government to keep prices down, and yet Government action is forcing prices up. The trade is anxious to keep its prices as low as possible and this additional burden, due to the proposed levy system, cannot be absorbed. That is why the trade ask for a square deal and, in the process, an endeavour to prevent further waste of public money on such senseless bureaucratic schemes.

12 m.

Mr. Derek Page (King's Lynn)

I was very pleased to hear the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) welcome the scheme, as I do. Indeed, I think that many hon. Members of this side will regret that the Commission will not have more powers than these. Certainly, the scheme has to be paid for, but the point I want to protest about—it has already been mentioned, but it needs covering a little more fully—is the fact that imported meat should bear its proper due.

Many of the functions of the Commission will be of help to the importers and to the producers, of course. Carcase classification will help marketing of imported meat, market information is bound to help importers just as it will our own producers, market development is bound to help them as well, and so will research, and it will help our competitors in increasing their efficiency abroad. In these circumstances, it is quite indefensible that the whole charge should fall on our home producers. Of beef, 73 per cent. is produced at home, but of mutton only 438 per cent., and yet the whole of the charge is falling on those producers. This is plainly inequitable.

I would point out also that the effect of putting the charges purely on home carcases will be a reduction of the levies charged on imports. Imported carcases are charged at about 30s. per carcase, apart from those from Commonwealth countries. By putting the levy on our own carcases we reduce the import levy, which is bound to encourage imports, at a time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.

I would, therefore, ask my right hon. Friend to consider very carefully whether imported meat should not pay its proper due. If he wants my vote tonight I would certainly like to hear an undertaking from him that he will think this point over carefully.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I think that most of us, on both sides of the House, have butchers and their slaughterhouses in our constituencies. They feel, I believe rightly, that they are being discriminated against. They feel very strongly that while it is a good idea to have the Commission set up, the levy should be more widely spread, and not imposed on only one section of the industry.

The Farmer and Stockbreeder recently said: The Government has thought it necessary for the livestock industry to have a co-ordinating and development body imposed upon it And Government could well be right. I think we all agree about this. But as the Commission is evolving, it seems only fair for the Government to pay direct for this work and not make it a charge on either side of the industry"— I think that that is true— to neither of which it seems likely on its present showing to be of much help. Would it not be possible?

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) when he says this is the most economical and possibly the easiest way of collecting this levy, but is there not an easier one still? That is for the Government to put it in the February Price Review and let them pay for it. Would not that make more sense? That would make it easier to collect. I do not think that it would be detrimental but much fairer to all of the agricultural industry.

I also believe that the cost of this exercise is far too high. For example, why have we got £50,000 for rent and equipment of the out of London offices in the first year, and why have we got £30,000 for general headquarters' expenses?

This is surely one further example of excessive Government expenditure on commissions and other forms of bureaucracy. I am in entire agreement—and I know my right hon. Friend also agrees —on the setting up of this particular Commission, but surely we must look at the expense of these various bodies set up by the present Government at a time when we are doing so much to take money out of people's pockets and increasing bureaucracy.

The burden of this levy, which I think is much' too high, should be more equally spread over the whole of the agricultural industry, and possibly the best way to do it is through the February Price Review. I would also like to see the cost of this Commission reduced quite considerably, because it is too high.

Finally, I would like to see this reviewed in the near future and not just allowed to go on expanding and expanding, thus making the levy more onerous for the whole of the agricultural industry.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. James Davidson (Aberdeenshire, West)

I should like, first, to get an assurance from the Minister that he has seen this report produced by the Meat Distributors' Action Committee, because I feel that if he has read it and seen the arguments in it it will save a great deal of time in this debate and save us from going over the same arguments.

May I have a nod from the Minister that he has read it? I see indications from the Front Bench opposite that this obviously has been seen, and so I can at least throw away one page of the short speech I had intended to make. The arguments are there in the report, and there is no point in repeating them over and over again.

Having studied with care the representations of the National Federation of Meat Traders' Associations, I think many of their arguments are totally invalid. Some I agree with, and some I do not. There seem to be two completely separate points at issue. The first is whether a Meat and Livestock Commission is necessary at all, and the House has made its decision on this point in passing the relevant Section of the Agriculture Act.

I personally do not agree that a Meat and Livestock Commission in its present form is entirely desirable or necessary. I believe it has excessive powers, and yet the most essential power of all—some power to regulate imports—is missing. In this respect it seems to me like a horse with three legs. The other question—

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves his point about getting an assurance from the Government, would he bear in mind that at this late hour of the night a nodding head on the Government Front Bench can have two possible interpretations?

Mr. Davidson

Well, I am sure the whole House is very grateful for that most useful contribution to the debate.

The other major question is the way this levy is actually to be financed, and this is what has raised all the dust and caused all the complaints that have come to us through the post, and more directly through representations, in the last few weeks.

On the reluctant presumption that the Commission is necessary and that therefore a levy has to be raised somehow, is it unfair that it should be taken at the point of slaughter? In my view it is not unfair, since it will filter through the ramifications of the industry from the producer to the consumer. I cannot agree with the arguments which have been put forward by the meat trade that this is an unfair imposition and an unfair concentration on one section of the trade. As with every extra cost on an industry, it is bound to find its way through the industry to every section, to the farmer and to the housewife who buys her meat in a chain store, or wherever she goes for it.

If at the end of the debate the Order is voted on, my colleagues and I will go to the Lobby against the Government, and I will make clear the reasons why we shall be doing so. We are not convinced that the Meat and Livestock Commission in its present form is desirable, particularly because it lacks powers of control or regulation over imports, and in this respect is an incomplete meat marketing commission. We are dissatisfied with its published programme of work. We are not persuaded that it will give value for money. If the Government persist with their intention to finance it in this way they should adopt the suggestion that has already been made in the course of the debate, that, rather than the money being taken at the point of sale, for the first year or two, in the nature of an experiment, it should be financed directly from the money provided by the farm price review in February, at least until every section of the industry from the farmer to the consumer is convinced that the Commission is giving value for money. When we are convinced that it is giving value for money, then we will be prepared to pay for it.

12.12 a.m.

Sir Arthur Vere Harvey (Macclesfield)

I have had many protests from my constituents in Macclesfield and Congleton, and I am glad to follow the theme of the forceful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Sir W. Bromley-Davenport), who is a constituent of mine. It is a monstrous situation that we should be asked to debate this subject after midnight. I have heard a rumour that there may be some other arrangement, but why did not the Leader of the House think of this earlier? He makes a face, but it is very bad administration and is not the way in which to run the House of Commons.

I am concerned about the amount of paperwork the slaughterer has to deal with day by day. The Government revels in handing on paperwork to all sections of the community. It is not surprising that we have had nearly 60,000 additional civil servants in the last 3½ years. The powers to raise the levy could have been taken in a different way, but the Government always say that this is a convenient way. S.E.T. is a convenient way, and that is being doubled in September. The butchers, amongst other members of the community, will have to bear that as well. Why is imported meat not included? Why should it be only home produced meat that is involved? The agricultural industry as a whole, and the butchers, have a great deal to contend with. The debate last week did not take us very far. We were told by the Prime Minister in his famous broadcast after devaluation that there would be long-term planning in the agricultural industry, but we have had nothing but increased prices. No industry has been treated more shabbily than the agricultural industry in Great Britain.

Mr. Orme


Sir A. V. Harvey

The only time the Labour Party makes a noise about agriculture is at General Elections. The Minister has had precious little support for the Order, even from his own side of the House, and he should look at this scheme again, for it is untidy and unworkable.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

I want to take up the question of the exception of imported meat from the levy. I have some sympathy with the Government in the problems they are facing on this issue. The main question facing the Government is how they are going to get the confidence of the agricultural industry for what they claim is a great appeal to it for import saving on a large scale in the present balance of payments difficulties. Over and over again, when speeches have been made by the Prime Minister and other Ministers, the appeals have been nullified by by what the industry regards as sabotaging moves in the opposite direction.

There have been complaints about imports of dairy produce, of new potatoes and so on, at exactly the time when we are trying to substitute home produce for imports. Now, at a time when there is a genuine disquiet about the size of the levy and the way it is levied, all imported meats are to be exempted.

The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson) said that of course the method of collection proposed is the most convenient because it filters through to the consumer. It does on home produced meat but not on imported meat. The British meat industry is entitled to say that it is being put at a serious disadvantage.

I understand the difficulties with which the Government are faced, with which any Labour Government are faced —and I am not trying to make a party political point—because it is difficult for a Labour Government, whose supporters represent largely urban areas and constituencies, to put any kind of taxes or levies on cheap imported food. We have always known this. But they cannot try to maintain this attitude convincingly while at the same time trying to get the agricultural industry to make a major effort for import substitution.

Either the Government really want to encourage the British agricultural industry to replace imported agricultural produce with home produced food or they do not. At the moment, the industry simply does not believe that the Government mean it. It is no good Ministers making speeches with high-falutin' appeals to the industry while this sort of thing happens, and this is a striking example of it.

The right hon. Gentleman must realise that not a single hon. Member from either side has expressed himself as satisfied with this Order and with the system he is bringing forward. He would be wise, if he wants to encourage and satisfy the food and agricultural industries, to make some conciliatory noises, take the Order away and look at it again.

12.20 a.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

The Minister is not having a warm reception for his Order. I hope he realises that one of the reasons behind the very strong opposition to the Order is the feeling that he is approaching saturation point with schemes of this kind. This is very keenly felt by the primary producers and their agents. To be honest, we have all contributed to this. In the sense that the right hon. Gentleman has only entered his Ministry recently, he is perhaps among the more blameless for the present state of affairs. But there is a general feeling that schemes of this kind are amounting to far too heavy an impost. In this case the right hon. Gentleman is vulnerable, because the impost will fall on one section, namely, the slaughterers and the butchers. As we have heard, the importers and the primary producers will be left out.

I know what lies behind the problem. Any levy applied to import prices has an effect on the price to the consumer, it is always considered a very dangerous thing to impose a levy on imports which will affect the level of prices here. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands that the levy here will be passed on to the consumer. This is the inevitable consequence of a scheme of this kind. For the moment the slaughterers are appealing to their Members of Parliament to support them against an unfair levy. But they know, and I know, who will eventually pay. It will be the customer. We should be clear about that in discussing this Order tonight.

The arguments being levelled against the scheme are not—here I give the right hon. Gentleman a point—altogether rational. My right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) accepted this. In terms of the 1967 Act, which is what we all agreed we wanted, there is in this Order a good deal of substance to which we have all subscribed. It is not altogether rational to oppose the particular proposal that the Minister brings tonight, but he is now facing the central core of resistance, which I must warn him will steadily increase, from the primary producers and others who reckon that they have had very nearly enough. One of the lessons we should learn from this Order is that the Minister has not yet had a single voice raised in warm support. The primary producers are not involved at the moment, but their agents, the slaughtermen, are, and they are up in arms.

I beg the Minister to realise that this will have to be the last scheme of its kind. I hope that hon. Members on this side, who have their own ideas about schemes of this kind, will accept it as well. There will have to be a limit on future imposts of this kind, both on the primary producers and their agents, or we shall have more trouble than we are having tonight.

12.23 a.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I hope that we shall not pass this Order tonight. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have second thoughts about it.

I agree with the idea of having a Meat Commission. I have always said that this is right. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) said, it is obviously necessary to have a charge for it. But I part from the Minister on the level of charges that he is making. Although the Minister has reduced what was originally asked for by the Commission, I do not believe that he is right to levy an extra leeway over and above what the Commission says that it will need for two years. I think that £1.85 million is more than is needed, including what will be needed for P.I.D.A. I believe that what will be needed for the extra amount of work that the Commission will be doing comes to less than £1.85 million. Therefore, I submit that it is asking for too much. I think that to give leeway over this is asking too much. That is my first point of disagreement.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)

I think that the hon. Gentleman said in addition to P.I.D.A., but P.I.D.A. is included in this sum and represents more than £1 million of it.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

If the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I was saying he would realise that what I said was that £1.85 million is more than is needed, including what will be needed for P.I.D.A. This is my first point. That is why I think that too much is being asked for. He is wrong also not to come back in a year or so and ask the House for more money or to reduce the levy, depending on how the Commission has got on. I have just as much confidence as the hon. Gentleman in the people who will run the Commission: that is not the point.

The next point which is wrong is to give the extra £600,000 after two years. The third point at which I part company with the right hon. Gentleman is that I think that this is the wrong way to collect the levy. I do not agree with my right hon. Friend that because the point of slaughter is the most convenient way, it will filter down. The Order says that the slaughterer is entitled to recharge the amount of levy which he has to pay. How is he to apportion it? It will be done down the line. The local authority as well as the butcher is often the slaughterer, and this will certainly go down the line away from the producer to the customer at the far end: he will have to pay at the end of the day. It is not only the primary producer but the consumer who has had enough of these extra imposts on agriculture. As a result, the price of food is continually rising and the time has come to call a halt.

The Order should not be approved. As I said in Committee on the Bill there should be a charge on imports. We must remember that the Commission's activities in improving the tenderness, cutting up, presentation and marketing of meat can affect imports as much as the home producer, and it is wrong that the Order does not include a charge on imported meat. This is the gravest mistake of all. It need not be at the same level as that paid by the home producer, but it should be there. I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) said: since the Minister is asking the farming community for increased production, particularly of livestock, and for import replacement, this is he wrong way to get their confidence. He will regret that he has brought the Order forward like this, unfairly framed and phrased as it is, and I beg him to take it away.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

We have made good progress in this debate and many other hon. Members still wish to speak. Although we have heard many interesting speeches, I would not agree with their argument, and in due course I think that I will satisfy hon. Members that their arguments have no validity. Nevertheless, I am anxious to hear a full debate. Therefore, I beg to move,

That the debate be now adjourned.

Question put and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed Tomorrow.