HC Deb 28 April 1971 vol 816 cc571-92

10.39 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I beg to move, That the Amendments of the Potato Marketing Scheme 1955, as amended, a draft of which was laid before this House on 6th April, be approved. In 1933 a Potato Marketing Scheme covering Great Britain came into operation under the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1931. During the war, it was suspended, and most of the functions of the Potato Marketing Board were taken over by the Ministry of Food.

Until 1954 the Government provided a guaranteed market for all ware potatoes. In that year the Government announced that they were prepared to implement the guarantee to potato growers, provided under the Agriculture Act of 1947, through a substitutional Potato Marketing Board with suitable powers, and in 1955 the present Scheme came into force. Parliament approved Amendments to it in 1962, and I now recommend the House to approve some further Amendments.

I should like to refer first to my own sorrow at the death of one who would certainly have been in the Gallery tonight disagreeing with everything I am about to say. I refer, of course, to Mr. Jack Merricks. I knew him very well and argued with him with animation but never with anger. Hon. Gentlemen on both sides and many people in the farming world will agree that the farming world is much the poorer for the passing of so colourful a character.

There are at least three reasons why potatoes merit the support which is given to them. They are a useful and popular food. We eat about 4½ million tons of them every year, or close on 200 lbs. per head. For obvious reasons, I would suspect that both my right hon. Friend and I do not eat that amount.

Potatoes are bulky and so their transport costs are high. To import large quantities would do no good to our balance of payments. Secondly, they grow very well in this country and they are good for our system of farming. But—and this is my third point—such is the variation in the way they yield that without support there could be no stability so far as production is concerned.

The Board co-operates with the Government in their policy for maincrop potatoes in two main ways—in operating its acreage quota powers and in support buying. The Board determines a basic acreage for each registered producer. This normally depends on what he has planted over the preceding three years. Additional basic acreage can be allocated to any individual producer who satisfies the Board that this should be done.

The Government, after consulting the Board and the farmers' unions, decides each year what acreage of potatoes is needed in Great Britain. In the light of this the Board decides the proportion of his basic acreage which each grower may plant without incurring a financial penalty. The proportion is the same for all growers.

So long as a grower keeps within his annual quota, he is liable to pay to the Board only the ordinary contribution, which is at present £3 an acre, with a reduction for potatoes which are lifted early. But if he plants a larger acreage he is charged, on what is excess over his basic figure, both the ordinary contribution and an excess one of £25 an acre. This rate is not high enough to prevent excess planting altogether; contributions on these were paid in respect of some 16,000 acres last year.

Market support is the main way of giving a guarantee to potato growers. Demand is fairly stable, but yields vary a lot. So surpluses can arise if the acreage is the same as the target, or even a bit below it. If these surpluses were not taken off the market, prices would fall disproportionately and growers would suffer. Also—what some hon. Members may think at least as important a consideration—growers who had lost heavily in one year would be strongly inclined to reduce their acreage the following one, with the result that shortage would follow glut, and prices to the consumer would soar.

Market support works like this. When there is a surplus, the Board makes contracts for all potatoes of suitable quality which it is offered. It sells as much as it can of these for animal feed. If the ordinary shopping market runs short, the Board releases some of what it has contracted for. It pays compensation for any potatoes contracted to it which are left on the farm.

The guarantee arrangements bind the Government to make a deficiency payment to the Board if the average market price to growers of potatoes sold for human consumption in the United Kingdom falls below the guaranteed price. Under a financial agreement between Ministers and the Board, the Government contribute towards the cost of joint market support. The agreement is soon to be changed so as to increase the Government's normal share of the cost of market support, which is two-thirds now, to two-thirds of the cost of the first 200,000 tons put under contract by the Board and three-quarters of the remaining cost.

The Government share is reduced a bit if in a support year the average market price rises significantly above the guaranteed price. The details of the new sharing arrangement have still to be worked out with the Board.

The 1970 yield was a record, and the Board expects to spend about £3.5 million on market support after allowing for the Government's share.

The ordinary contribution is the Board's main source of revenue. The existing Scheme limits it to £3 per acre unless a poll of registered producers is taken, in accordance with the Scheme, and a two-thirds majority of those voting, in terms of number and productive capacity, are in favour of the increase. Productive capacity, for this purpose, means acreage under potatoes in the year when the poll is held. This limit was fixed in 1962, and the costs of support have increased since then.

It is important to consumers, as well as producers and the Government, that the Board should be able to meet its financial commitments. If it is to do so, the £3 limit must be raised. In May, 1970, the Board submitted to the predecessors of my right hon. Friends Amendments to the Scheme, including provision to raise the maximum rate of ordinary contribution.

A chance for objecting was provided, and my right hon. Friends appointed Mr. J. R. Pickering, barrister-at-law, to conduct a public inquiry. Mr. Pickering reported to my right hon. Friends in February this year. In the light of the objections and the report, my right hon. Friends have modified the Board's Amendments.

The result is to be found in the draft Amendments now before the House, and I will deal with them in order of importance. The draft Amendments numbered 3 and 4 concern the ordinary contribution. If they were approved by the House, they would first of all substitute for the limit of £3 per acre one of £4.03 for 1971. The Board has, in fact, announced that, if the Amendments are approved, the rate for this year will be not more than £4 per acre. For later years the rate would be restricted in two ways. In the first place, the maximum rate would change in proportion to movements in the guaranteed price and the three-year average yield. The reason is that these two factors—the guaranteed price and the yield—are what really determine the cost to the Board of market support.

Secondly, the Amendment would provide that, even if the guaranteed price and the average yield had changed in such a way as to allow the Board to fix for any year a rate more than 6 per cent. above that fixed for the previous one, the Board could impose such an increase only if the producers were consulted and agreed to the increase, either by not requesting that it be put to a vote of producers; or, alternatively, if a vote were taken, by voting in favour by a two-thirds majority. It it did not get this majority, the rate could not be raised by more than 6 per cent. above that for the previous year.

In any one year, the amount by which the ordinary contribution could rise would be limited either by the formula or by the 6 per cent. rule, whichever was the lower. Thus, if the formula allowed the rate to rise by only 4 per cent. compared with the rate actually fixed for the previous year, this would be the maximum increase which the Board could impose for that year, and the 6 per cent. limit would not operate.

Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 meet a point which has been raised in the House. Under the present Scheme the Board can relieve a grower of liability to pay the excess acreage contribution if flooding prevents him from growing or harvesting his potatoes—but it has no power to give relief from his ordinary contribution. The Amendments proposed would give the Board this power, but they would require it to determine in advance, and announce, the conditions subject to which the concession would be made.

The draft Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would fix lower and more convenient maximum charges for supply by the Board of certain documents—for example, extracts from the register of producers or copies of the Board's balance sheets.

The Government have considered all the objections which were made to these Amendments, and the report of the Commissioner who conducted the public inquiry. We are fully satisfied that the Board should have power to increase the ordinary contribution to the extent permitted by the Amendments now before the House. We believe that the market support operations of the Board are of advantage to producers generally, and also to consumers, because, by levelling out the returns which farmers get, they tend to maintain production at a level consistent with a fair profit to producers and also reasonable consumer prices.

My right hon. Friends have given full weight to the argument, advanced by objectors and supported to some extent by the Commissioner, that the ability to increase the rate of ordinary contribution above £4.03 per acre would reduce the Board's incentive to efficiency and economy in its operations generally; but the Board is accountable to producers at all times for what it does, and we are satisfied that, if the Amendments are approved, it will make responsible use of its greater latitude in this matter.

By rejecting the Board's proposals as to further changes in the method of fixing the ordinary contribution, my right hon. Friends have ensured that the full and impartial procedure laid down in the Agricultural Marketing Act would apply to any change in the limits on the ordinary contribution which I now commend to the House. The Government believe that these and also the remaining Amend- ments will make for more effective working of the Scheme.

I am very willing to admit that the Amendments are couched in somewhat forbidding terms, although I assure hon. Gentlemen that they become less so on further acquaintance with them. I have tried to explain them in homelier language, and hope that hon. Members will have a tolerably clear idea of what they will mean to potato growers.

Their apparent complexity arises from the fact that they have had to translate a mathematical formula into words: but I assure the House that the actual rate of contribution which the Amendments authorise will be a simple rate per acre which the Board will notify to producers, and which they will have no difficulty in understanding.

I therefore recommend the House to approve these draft Amendments.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Michael Barnes (Brentford and Chiswick)

Although I did not know Mr. Merricks, I endorse from this side of the House what the Parliamentary Secretary said about him.

The Amendments before the House follow, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, from a consideration of the report of the inquiry into objections that were made to the Amendments. There are one or two points in that report of which we ought to remind ourselves. We on this side believe that many of the criticisms in the objections were very wild. Among other things, the Board was accused of being a puppet of Ministers and of being run by the "old brigade" who did not understand the problems of early growers. It was said that too much was being spent on administration, on research and development, and on publicity.

The Commissioner very properly rejected these criticisms and pointed out that a board such as the Potato Marketing Board needs to spend a considerable amount on administration if it is to be efficient, that more research is obviously in growers' interests, and that the amount the Board spends on publicity is very small compared with the amounts spent by many similar organisations. The Commissioner emphasised, as we on this side strongly emphasise, that it is the Board's job to balance the competing interests of consumers and growers. To do this, the Board must have adequate resources.

Therefore, we support the Amendment which increases the ordinary contribution from £3 to £4.03 an acre. We think it is puzzling that there was so much opposition from growers to an increase, because the Board has done a great deal to benefit growers and growers have received a great deal of money from the Board and from the Government as a result. It is surprising that some growers should jib at an increase as they did do.

The Commissioner rejected the original Amendment that there should be an automatic formula for increasing the ordinary rate of contribution, on the ground that this was unfair to growers. I am sure that there the objections from growers were much more soundly based. We agree with, and welcome as a sensible compromise, the modified Amendment which the Government have introduced which will require the Board to consult every registered producer before fixing a rate of ordinary contribution for any year after 1971–72 which exceeds the actual rate for the preceding year by more than 6 per cent. There is a poll procedure built into this Amendment.

The most important question which the Amendments raise and which the inquiry raised is that of surpluses. Today's Financial Times reports— Stocks of potatoes held by farmers and merchants at the end of March were a huge 1.45 million tons.… This is a record end-March stocks figure and reflects the massive surplus of supplies produced this season as a result of a peak yield per acre…it is still likely that some 0.5 million tons of surplus supplies will be left at the end of the seasonֵ A month or two ago there were estimates that there might even have been 1 million tons of surplus supplies.

The Commissioner's report says this: I am far from being persuaded that the Board cannot get closer to the 'minimum desirable acreage'. Earlier in his report the Commissioner says this: It is, therefore, for consideration whether with gradually increasing yields…the min-mum desirable…acreage is being set too high, bearing in mind that the national average annual consumption of potatoes remains more or less constant. What does the Parliamentary Secretary think of the Commissioner's comment that the minimum desirable…acreage is being set too high"? What are the likely future demands of potato processors? I believe that the demand for tinned potatoes is on the increase and that the potato crisp market, which has expanded fantastically in recent years, is still expanding at a fair rate. Therefore, in dealing with the question of whether the minimum desirable acreage is being set too high, will the hon. Gentleman also say something about the likely future demands of the processors?

If we could arrive at a situation in which there are smaller surpluses, less money would be paid out of the market support fund, the Board's finances would improve, and it would presumably be possible to keep contributions at the same level for growers for a longer period. As Mr. Pickering said in his report, all those objectives are very desirable.

Apart from those questions, we on this side support the Amendments.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I support the Amendments. Most of what my hon. Friend the Minister has said stems from the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1958. I support orderly marketing, and that is why I support the Amendments. Some people are bitterly opposed to orderly marketing, but I believe that in the years ahead it will be important for all of us who are concerned with agriculture to look at the whole question very carefully.

It is terribly easy to criticise any board, and I have done so. There are faults, but a complete free-for-all would bring problems not only for the producer but for the consumer. Therefore, we must look at the matter with an unbiased view, realising the time we live in and the difficulties. I hope it will be realised that orderly marketing can be a tremendous benefit to both the producer and the consumer.

No one likes paying a levy. We remember the tremendous arguments here in the House about the levy for the training boards. But the levy here helps the producer. In spite of his natural reluctance to pay out, it brings a benefit and it is not a very large sum.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

I am sure my hon. Friend must agree that when a levy is to be imposed, whether by Governments or by boards, and particularly by organisations that are somewhat bureaucratic, it is a good thing if there is a resistance, because that is the only way to keep the increase to reasonable proportions.

Mr. Mills

I could not agree more. I was coming to that. When a levy is imposed upon a producer it is very important that the House and the producers should look at the levying organisation very carefully. We need to see whether we are getting value for money. It is important that all boards should come under the scrutiny of the House and of producers to ensure that we get value for money. It would be a very foolish board if it did not try to keep down administrative costs.

Good housekeeping demands a small surplus. We must not be frightened by surpluses. There was a tremendous surplus of butter in the E.E.C. It has disappeared overnight. In one year, with a combination of factors in potato growing, it is possible to get a very large surplus of potatoes if all the conditions are right. Good housekeeping demands that the Government should ensure that there is just enough or a little more, and the Board must do the same.

I hope that the Board will, with some of the money from the levies, look carefully into the question of new varieties and research. Mention has been made of the tremendous demand for tinned potatoes and chips. A weakness of producers is that they tend to produce what they want to produce and not what the consumer wants. I hope the Board will pay attention to this question of new varieties and what the consumer wants

The surpluses this year and the amount of potatoes sold for stock feeding have been of tremendous benefit to us hard working and poor farmers in the South-West of England. We are grateful to the wealthy farmers in Norfolk, Suffolk and the better areas who have provided the surplus. It has been of tremendous benefit to those of us who feed stock and go in for the production of milk. Perhaps I shall be allowed to thank them for the excellent potatoes that we have been able to feed to our cattle in the South-West this year. The situation would have been serious if we had not been able to feed surplus potatoes to our cattle. In view of the shortage of hay and cereals, the surplus has been a godsend.

I am concerned about the language and type of message produced by the Ministry. I found the Amendments extremely difficult to understand, even though I read them more than once. The more I read them, the more confused I became. I hope a simplified instruction or message will be given to growers and producers so that they may understand what is proposed and the reasons for it. I do not say that the ordinary working farmer is not intelligent, but I am sure the Amendments are extremely difficult for him to understand. I cannot think why they could not have been produced in a more simple form. I ask the Minister to try to find a way of putting them into simple language. However, I hope that the House will accept them.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. John Mackie (Enfield, East)

As a potato grower, I welcome the Scheme. The Potato Marketing Board has been of great help and done a good job of work. I join in the tribute paid to the late Frank Merricks. I knew him well and he drove me round the bend and must have driven many other colleagues round the bend, but we shall all miss him.

The plant breeders—I might say the nationalised plant breeders—have done a good job of work. They produced new breeds called Printon Green and Printon Dale which contributed to the surpluses which helped the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) so much. They are enormous croppers and good keepers.

I do not agree that we should grudge these levies. If we want the Board we have to give it the finance to enable it to operate. I am puzzled that farmers have twice refused, in a poll, to give the Board what it wants to carry out its task. It is a pity that an inquiry had to be held so that the Minister could come here and give the Board the wherewithal to carry on.

11.12 p.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

My constituency, I think, grows more potatoes than any county other than Yorkshire. Naturally, the Scheme will be of great concern to my constituents, I have had no protests in advance of this debate about the terms of the Scheme but I am not quite certain whether this necessarily means that all my constituents who grow potatoes are fully conversant with the terms of the Scheme. I am doubtful whether any of them fully comprehend what the Scheme really means, and I am not certain whether this debate will enlighten them.

Of all the Amendments which the Scheme brings about, the one which I welcome most is that contained in paragraph (6)(a) which says: …the Board may, if they think fit, prescribe different classes of exceptional circumstances in relation to ordinary contribution or excess acreage contributions respectively. What has worried me most about all the systems of guarantees that we have for agriculture has been the blanket nature of the benefit, such as it may be, that any guarantee gives. As we move forward, particularly in the light of the arrival of what for some extraordinary reason are called "convenience foods", we should become a little more sophisticated in the application of such guarantees that we operate. We have already seen the "culinary apple" and we are now seeing convenience foods moving in on the potato market with a vengeance. As a result of the marketing of potatoes is varying considerably. If the Amendment in paragraph (6)(a) means what I think it means I welcome it because it implies a recognition of the fact that we have now got to appreciate that some areas will be more heavily disadvantaged than others as the years go by. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to confirm that.

In one of the central fen areas in the Isle of Ely the average rainfall is 1½ inches for the month of March. March is a very important month for potato growers. In 1966–67 the rainfall was about 1¼ inches; in 1967–68 it was 2½ inches; in 1968–69 it was 3½ inches, and in 1969–70 it was 6¼ inches. That means 650 tons of water falling on the ground in a potato-growing area. One can imagine what happens when that occurs. I hope that the Board will now be able to take into account such factors in a way that it has not been able to in the past.

One factor arising from the Amendment is likely to disturb those who are not fully acquainted with what the Order means, namely, the variation in the polling system involved. Under Orders which have been in being for some time. where there teas been a variation in the acreage quota there has been a poll to get acceptance for any increase. Now, under paragraphs (d) and (e), on page 5 of the Scheme, a poll will arise only if the actual rate of ordinary contribution for any calendar year exceeds by more than 6 per cent. the rate for the preceding calendar year. That is a considerable restriction on the right to poll.

I should like an assurance that in introducing this important Amendment, for which I am sure there are good reasons, my hon. Friend has fully consulted the National Farmers' Union, and especially the potato committee of that union, on which several of my constituents have given distinguished service. I should also like his assurance that there is general agreement that this is a wise change.

I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) has said, one thing that always worries the Fenland potato grower is that areas less suited to grow potatoes all too readily take the opportunity to grow them if they think that there is a good market. The trouble is that when that happens it often undermines the market for those areas which can normally be relied upon to provide the main quantity of potatoes.

My hon. Friend was unnecessarily modest about the importance of the potato crop. As a staple food it is second to bread. During the last war and afterwards our experience was that any inroad in the supply of potatoes was a very serious matter. I remember the late John Strachey having to introduce potato rationing for the first time, and what a disturbance it caused. We must not under-estimate the importance to the nation of the potato crop.

I must not argue this in detail tonight, but ever since I have known about its operation I have regarded the Potato Marketing Board's title as a misnomer. It is not a marketing board; it has no control over the distribution of imports. To make sense of marketing, imports must be taken into account. At present 165,000 tons of raw potatoes are coming into the country from Egypt which are classified as "new potatoes". This sort of thing has undermined the confidence of the industry.

If my hon. Friend wants to make the Potato Marketing Board a marketing board in the true sense, he should allow it to have a say in the control and distribution of imports on the home market. He should at least try to find a better name for the board, since all it can do at the moment is to decide what acreage of potatoes shall be grown, particularly second earlies and main crop potatoes, and the rate at which that crop should be distributed in the country once it has been grown.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I hope that the farmers and those with farming interests will not take offence at a lawyer seeking to intervene in this discussion. I do so for a number of reasons. The first is that I feel attention should be drawn to the fact that the Minister has made severe modifications to the Amendments which were first proposed.

I couple with this point my own personal and warm tribute to the late Jack Merricks. He was my wife's cousin and a close personal friend of mine for about 20 years. I am glad to have the opportunity in this House of paying a tribute to him as a person, and to recall that it was he who initiated the opposition which has resulted in these severe modifications—and to those by whom after his death the fight was continued—and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Ministers for insisting on these modifications. The two most important Amendments which were proposed relate to the calculation of the ordinary contributions. At the moment the provisions provide for a figure of £3 but there could be an increase from that figure if the registered producers so decided on a poll by a majority of two-thirds. It was proposed to substitute for that an automatic increase or decrease by the application of a formula. The control of that increase by means of a poll was to be removed altogether.

The Commissioner appointed by the Minister to hold the inquiry was very severe in his comments. Not only did he say that this was a powerful disincentive to efficiency, but he also said that it removed from producers a right which they had hitherto possessed, namely the legal procedure which had to be observed before the board could increase contribution. I very much doubt that Parliament ever intended a statutory body to have self-perpetuating powers to exact money from a sitting target without the persons providing the money having effective means of expressing their approval or displeasure. That is the situation which the original amendment would have brought about. As I read the Amendments there cannot now be an increase of more than 6 per cent. without a poll. I do not think it is correct to say that the producers have to demand a poll.

I read the amendment to mean that there can be an increase only if there is a poll. Although this is an improvement on the open-ended formula that the Board would have introduced, there could still be a 6 per cent. increase this year, a 6 per cent. increase next year and a 6 per cent. increase the year after, without the producers having any say.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I hope that what I said did not lead my hon. and learned Friend to suppose that I was not fully supporting the argument he is making.

Mr. Percival

The only advantage of what the Ministers are doing is that the increase cannot be more than 6 per cent. without it being approved by two-thirds of the producers on a poll but this is quite a severe modification.

The second most serious Amendment gave the Board power to alter the basis of calculating the ordinary contribution, without coming to the House, on a two-thirds majority on a poll of the producers. I congratulate my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friends on taking notice of the objections made and requiring that Amendment to be deleted. It is wrong to introduce provisions under which so fundamental a change could be made without going through the Amendment procedure.

These Amendments might have gone through had it not been for the vigilance of Mr. Jack Merricks and those who supported him. Those who opposed what he was doing often sought to beat him by ridicule. What a pity it is that he is not here to see the opposition which he started so amply justified and heeded.

Secondly, as a lawyer Member, one of those who often get the blame for the appalling legislation churned out by the House, I wish to take this opportunity of disclaiming all responsibility for the new paragraph 84. I agree with every comment that has been made about it. One might be justified in thinking that it was in code. With no disrespect to the potato growers, it is laughable to think of them trying to understand it. The original paragraph 84 consisted of 30 lines and any farmer could have read and understood it. It referred to £1 ordinary contribution and £10 excess. It was perfectly clear. In 1962, these amounts were put up to £3 and £25 respectively, and the new paragraph was three times as long as the old one. Even so, the provisions for the increase were tolerably certain and most farmers could understand them, because it was laid down that the maximum was £3 and that any increase over that must have a majority of two-thirds in a poll. Now we have taken out sub-paragraph (3) of paragraph 84, which occupied 16 lines and was intelligible, and are inserting a new sub-paragraph (3) which runs to 68 lines—and those lines are enough to defeat most people.

I have been daily concerned with this sort of thing, but I have no shame in admitting that it took me a long time to read the new sub-paragraph (3), and I am far from sure that I have it right. But if I have it right, then my hon. Friend has one section of it wrong. It is ludicrous that we should allow ourselves to get into this kind of situation.

Thirdly, I want to draw attention to the fact that it now seems apparent that the Government are actively encouraging the Board to use its power under this scheme to limit production in order to limit its own financial responsibility. I think that is wrong. I base my starting proposition here on the fact that paragraph 7(a) of the 1969 agreement between the Ministers and the Board, which recently became public through this inquiry, seems to me clearly to place a contractual obligation upon the Board to restrict production.

Since 1955, when I was not a Member of this House but was engaged professionally in the inquiry into the Potato Marketing Board Substitution Scheme, and also since I came to this House, I have been advancing the argument that the Agricultural Marketing Act only empowers schemes for marketing, and marketing starts where production stops. Production and marketing are two quite different things. Section 1 of the Act refers to A scheme regulating the marketing of an agricultural product by the producers thereof…may be submitted… and so on. The point was taken at the inquiry into the substitutional scheme. I think I am right in saying—I have given my hon. Friend notice of this point, so he can correct me if I am wrong—that objection was taken; indeed, I know it was, because I took it. No report was published giving the Commissioner's findings on that point. We were waiting for the report to come out to see if the Commissioner reported unfavourably because there would be a chance to go to court for a declaration.

My recollection is that the next thing we knew was that an order had been laid, and we had to apply immediately to Mr. Justice Upjohn, as he then was, for a mandatory order ordering someone to take something off some table. I had the privilege of arguing the case before him. It was ex parte on the first day, so a decision was not given then.

Mr. Justice Upjohn made it clear, however, that he thought there was an argument which called for an answer. I remember his asking the then Solicitor-General, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, what would be the procedure if he—Mr. Justice Upjohn—thought that the Order should be withdrawn. The Solicitor-General replied that if he had to earn a living by his knowledge of the procedure of the House, it would be a poor living but he would try to ascertain during the lunch interval. I thought that was rather amusing later when he was occupying the Chair of the House and very soon became an absolute expert in the procedure of the House.

What happened was that the Government gave an undertaking that the Order would not be brought before the House until the following Wednesday, so that there could be a hearing on the Tuesday with the case argued on both sides. The then Attorney-General, however, took a technical point that one could not have a declaration on an interlocutory motion and he would not have the interlocutory motion treated as the trial of the action. We therefore had one of those arid arguments which continued for some hours and resulted in nothing happening at the end of the day.

Next day, the House of Commons approved the Order. Parliament is very clever sometimes. In the Agricultural Marketing Act it included what we lawyers call a whitewashing clause which says that once this House has passed an Order, never mind that it was wholly outside the purpose of the Act and ultra vires, once the House has passed the Order, that is that. So there was nothing that could be done about it.

The point was raised again, I think, in 1962. It was raised again at the recent inquiry and now, for the first time of which I know, there is a clear statement of opinion by another lawyer on the point. It is not the sort of point on which many lawyers have to spend much time, but the point having been raised at the inquiry with the Commissioner—who is the independent lawyer chosen by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench—he had occasion to consider it in detail and he expressed the view in no uncertain terms that The Potato Marketing Scheme of 1955 was 'ultra vires' in that the enabling Act contained no power for the Scheme to regulate production which in fact it does. He added: Before coming to the above conclusions I spent a considerable time in closely reading the relevant legislation and also had the advantage of obtaining the views of the Legal Department of the Ministry on the 'ultra vires' point. Those views, I need hardly add, were at variance with mine. He expressed that view. He was not a person professionally engaged for one party, although I know, as every other lawyer here knows, that lawyers who are professionally engaged express independent opinions. He was, however, the Ministers' choice, and that was what he said.

I know that the first scheme was "whitewashed", but Mr. Pickering went on to say that because the original scheme had been legitimated, amendments to it could not be regarded as ultra vires. I am not sure whether he was right about that, but I do not want to get into a legal argument tonight.

I want to put this general proposition to my right hon. Friends, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. For goodness sake, if the Government desire to limit the financial liability on the guarantee by restricting production, or if it is desired to give the Board power to restrict production, let them say so in terms. Let the Government take express power to limit production if that is what they want to do. If they want the Board to have the power to do that, let them produce another Act, which is not confined to marketing but which says expressly that this House can give the Board power to control production. Do not let us continue doing this under very doubtful powers, relying on legitimating provisions like the "whitewashing" ones to which I have referred.

I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends place as much importance as anyone can on open and honest government, and I support them fully in that. Like them, I want to see more open and honest government and legislation. I beg them not to leave this point indeterminate. Do not go on sheltering behind "whitewashing" provisions, or even behind doubts. I hope that they will either get the point resolved, which they can by not laying their Order for a day or so, and simply applying for a declaration, or saying frankly that they want the power to control production themselves or to empower the Board to do it and, if they wish either to happen, to come forward with legislation which can be fairly and openly discussed in the House.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Stodart

I must thank the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House for their remarks about the usefulness of the job that the Potato Marketing Board does in balancing the interests of consumers and producers. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman welcome the new poll procedure tied up with the 6 per cent. limitation.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to surpluses, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills). Yields per acre are tending to rise as a result of new varieties. Fortunately, consumption is rising as well, and I am in no doubt that the processed potato market is likely to show a considerable increase in demand in the next few years, just as I am sure that the Board will take note of what my hon. Friend said about the need for research in this subject.

Accepting the complete uncertainty about the likely yields, the Board has done an extremely good job in managing to have output turn out somewhere in the vicinity of our requirements. Over the last nine years, it has taken off an average of 230,000 tons a year as surplus. That may sound a lot. It is in fact 5 per cent. of what is required for consumption.

When one looks at the various years in which there have been surpluses, it is unarguable that they are due to high yields rather than to too many acres being grown. Therefore, it is quite uncontrollable. The highest surpluses have all been in years of high yields. In 1965, there was an average crop of 10.2 tons per acre. In 1967, it was 10.1. In 1970, there was a record crop of all time of 11½ tons an acre over the country.

It is interesting to note that consumption requirements, averaged over the last nine years, turn out at 4.6 million tons. There is a seed requirement of 0½6 million tons, and wastage of 0½5 million tons. That gives a total of 5.7 million tons. In two years out of the nine the crop has been a shade under. In only four has it been fairly substantially over, and that has been due to years in which there have been very high yields.

The expectation of the total crop this year is 6.6 million tons. Human consumption will require 4.8 million tons, seed requirements 0.6 million tons, stock feed 0.5 million tons, waste in the form of what we in Scotland call brock, thirds, chats, and all kinds of things, 0.4 million tons, and taken off by the Board for compensation 0.3 million tons, together adding up to 6.6 million tons. These are our latest estimates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torrington said the usual wise words, which we always expect of him, about the need for orderly marketing and the keeping down of the administrative costs of the Board. His account of the difficulties and the anguish of having to farm in the South-West wrung my heart strings. I must urge him to buy a farm in Scotland and learn what it is all about.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) gave a particular welcome for exceptional circumstances allowing ordinary contributions to be waived. He rightly said that the change in the system of polling is a considerable departure. I agree. I assure him that the N.F.U. was fully consulted and approved the change.

I think that all who take part in agricultural debates must have welcomed the contribution of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival). I felt that he was listened to with both interest and respect. I absolutely agree that wise action was taken by my right hon. Friends on the amendment which was proposed but not accepted. This would have allowed the basis of determining the ordinary contribution to be changed if a poll of registered producers were taken and two-thirds of those voting were in favour of the change. Registered producers opposed to the change could have voted against it, but other interested people would have had no opportunity of making representations, nor would Ministers or Parliament have been consulted. My right hon. Friends rejected the proposal because they considered that such an important change in the scheme should be made only if the full procedure laid down by the Agricultural Marketing Act was followed.

My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right in what he said about the possibility of an increase in the levy of up to 6 per cent. without a poll being held. I can tell him that the interested bodies were fully consulted and that they agreed with the change. I think that there was a considerable weakness in the scheme before, particularly at a time when we all know that costs are rising, because when there had been a single poll there could not be another. If the Board applied for, say, £4 an acre, and got it, and two years later it wanted £5, without coming to the House for a new scheme and going through all the elaborate procedure laid down, there was no chance of it so doing. I believe that this is a fair compromise and a workable solution to the difficulty.

My hon. and learned Friend criticised the restriction of production. Government policy remains to produce a small surplus in years of normal yield, restriction of production only to a level required to produce such a surplus, and restriction of acreage because of expansion of yield. We cannot get away from this.

It would be absurd for a layman to try to follow my hon. and learned Friend. I would not dream of disputing with anyone as eminent in his profession as he is. I have read the opinions of the Commisioner on the vires of the 1955 Scheme, and his observations on what he described as the subsequent "cure". But more than this I am not prepared to say, because members of the legal profession are to be found who take a different view from my hon. and learned Friend, which is what keeps him in his very robust state of health.

Mr. Percival

It is not that: it is wording like that of this Instrument which keeps my learned Friends and myself in business.

Mr. Stodart

I was going to say that we have noted the Commissioner's remarks about introducing the word "production" into future legislation. There has been criticism about the wording of the main Amendment, but it was as well that very little of it came from hon. Members opposite. If it had, I should have had to say that, although this looks complicated, it is nothing like as complicated as a Bill we once engaged on to do with farm almagamations. I do not think that it is as bad as it looks. If it were, I would not be able to understand it, and I think I do.

It is not a question of being able to say that a firm figure will be able to operate on a certain date. We are trying to avoid recourse to Parliament and public inquiries, while still having a formula operating on the present levy, married to the guaranteed price and the yield. This is workable. If hon. Gentlemen would like to see examples of the actual calculations had this formula been in existence over the last few years, I could let them see them or write to them about the matter.

I am obliged for the general welcome which the scheme has received. I have noted the criticisms and I hope that, if I introduce a similar scheme in future, I shall have learned something from the constructive speeches made tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Amendments of the Potato Marketing Scheme 1955, as amended, a draft of which was laid before this House on 6th April, be approved.