HC Deb 03 August 1972 vol 842 cc1030-9

Postponed Proceeding on consideration of the Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), resumed.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I want to return to the substance of the Amendment and the new Clause. It is important to differentiate between the two main lines which have run through the debate. The first, which concerns Amendment No. 55, is why we are removing the agricultural executive committees. In this connection, I have to repeat some of the arguments that I put forward in Committee. If they did not go home then, they may tonight. I shall then turn to the more specific aspects of the new Clause.

I must join the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members opposite in paying tribute to the useful work that the agricultural executive committees have done over the years. At the same time, unlike right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, we on this side move with the times. We are prepared to recognise that the work of those committees has been progressively reduced over the years to the point where the present committee system cannot be justified in the modern situation.

It was for this reason that my right hon. Friend announced in January last year that he proposed to replace the county agricultural executive committees in England and Wales by small regional panels. Since then the committees have been extremely co-operative in our various plans and in identifying potential activities. The committee system included 58 county agricultural executive committees, their sub-committees and their district committees—more than 300 bodies in all. We think that this is too expensive and elaborate for the, few remaining tasks. Similarly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced in January his intention to abolish the 11 agricultural executive committees and their sub-committees in Scotland and, over the period since then, their work has been concentrated on their essential statutory tasks.

The county agricultural executive committees in England and Wales had important and extensive statutory and executive functions for many years after they were first set up. They supervised bad farmers. They arbitrated between landlord and tenant. They administered a wide range of services. They paid grants and subsidies to farmers. But now they exercise none of those functions. Their main rôle is to provide a two-way channel of communication between the Government and the grassroots of the agriculture industry.

I agree with right hon. and hon. Gentlement opposite about the importance of this two-way communication of ideas and other links between the Government and the industry. However, it is our view that the regional panels that we propose to set up will carry out these functions and the other main task which is that of advising Ministers on farmers' representations against decisions by officials in grant or subsidy cases most effectively This will be more in keeping with the present needs of the industry, and that is the main reason why we feel that there is no need to keep the county agricultural executive committees in existence in future.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones

The hon. Gentleman is trying to tell us that two-way contact is important. At the same time in Wales he is disbanding 12 committees and putting two in their place.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

We have to see whether the job can be done as well by the two panels. We have some experience of this in Scotland. The hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) knows that we have our Winter Keep Consultative Panel, and the hon. Gentleman is always ready to point out what good and valuable work it does. This is one panel for the whole of Scotland, though of course it has its sub-panels. However it looks not only at problems concerning the winter keep scheme and classification. It also provides a great deal of useful information. It is intended in Scotland that the advisory and review functions of the old agricultural executive committees shall be taken over by a new panel to be known as the Scottish Agricultural Consultative Panel which will be an expanded form of our present Winter Keep Consultative Panel.

Our view is that there is insufficient essential work for these committees to do. In the circumstances we feel that it would be wrong to continue the present committee structure. We are anxious to bring the committees to an end and to set up the new panels as soon as possible. By doing this we shall be making worthwhile savings in public funds. At the same time we shall be making worthwhile savings in the time of a number of very busy people. It would be both wrong and wasteful to keep these committees in existence. This important consultative work on which the party opposite places great emphasis can be done equally well by the new panels, without keeping a top heavy structure like the agricultural executive committees.

I turn now to the new Clause.

Mr. Peart

About time.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The right hon. Gentleman wished to know our arguments about the executive committees. I assume that he wanted me to answer his questions.

The new Clause deals with effective consultation. I cannot accept nor can I recommend the House to accept that the right way of achieving effective consultation is to create by Statute an advisory committee, with the obligation to consult it on the issues listed in the Clause.

I summarise my arguments under three heads. First, to formalise consultation in the hard and fast statutory way laid down in the new Clause would be bound to make consultation slower and more rigid. It would create delay in the implementation of common policy, and this could be damaging to the interests of our own producers and traders and of our consumers. If the Clause were enacted, it would be likely that consultations with the advisory committee would tend to become a very ineffective substitute for the present consultations that we have with the unions, trade associations and other bodies.

The second main objection to the Clause concerns the range of the problems about which the committee would advise the Government. It is so wide that the committee could not include those with specialist knowledge and, therefore, its function would be in the broadest general advisory sense. I do not believe that it could achieve fully the objectives which hon. Members would like it to achieve. The Clause would oblige the Minister to consult this body on all problems arising on the implementation of the common agricultural policy, including, presumably, specialised problems of certain commodities. This would introduce rigidity and delays.

Third—this is the most important point—if the new Clause were enacted it would import into the existing procedures under the Agricultural Marketing Acts a new requirement to consult the advisory committee to suggest this ignores the fact that these procedures are designed to ensure that all interests have an opportunity to express their views on the introduction of a marketing scheme or on changes in the marketing scheme and to have those views independently assessed. I am not convinced that an additional stage is necessary in these procedures.

We are being realistic in what we are doing about the functions of the agricultural executive committees. We are approaching their major function of con- sultation in a much more sensible way which will give just as good value through the panels.

Although I sympathise with the view of hon. Members opposite that consultation is important at all stages, I believe that it would produce rigidities and delays because of the width of the area they are trying to cover. The new Clause is unnecessary, because the procedure is laid down under the Act for consultation and changes. I reject entirely the Euro-phobia of hon. Members opposite and I cannot advise the House to accept either the new Clause or the Amendment.

Mr. Buchan

It is a sad day for the House. After the co-operation and wisdom we experienced in Committee, we should have had a rather more forthcoming attitude from the Minister. I intend no disrespect to the junior Minister when I say that this debate should have been replied to by the right hon. Gentleman himself. The Minister, who at a moment's notice can announce the setting up of new intervention boards, should have been here to defend this aspect of his policy, because this goes to the heart of what he is doing to our agricultural background and policy. It should not have been left to the junior Minister to reply to this debate. The hon. Gentleman should not have been persuaded to put a squib at his back and start off with those pyrotechnics, because this is a serious issue.

The arguments presented by the Under-Secretary were not only superficial. He said that he respects our motives. I did not respect the bases of his argument. I believe that they are phoney and that he knows that they are phoney. In saying that I do not intend to engage in pyrotechnics across the Dispatch Box.

The Under-Secretary gave us that nonsense about saving £150,000 on the present structure. This is the Government who will cost us about £450 million across the exchanges by the time they come to the end of their policy and who, in the pursuance of their European adventure, will take £500 million out of the pockets of the lowest quarter of the people. The poorest quarter will pay. Half of it will be given to the Common Market farmers and half will be transferred to the wealthy in Britain in the form of tax cuts.

As the Government are saying to the poorest of the British people that they can afford an enormous amount of extra money to pay for the Government's Common Market agricultural policy, we should not be told that the whole of our consultative processes are being scrapped to save £150,000.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that I require no lecture from him on what is phoney? Nor should he lecture a Government who in their two years in office have reduced taxation by £3,000 million a year.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Buchan

I do not care greatly whether the hon. Gentleman wants to get lectures. He needs them. I shall deal with the question of taxation, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that. If I had raised it, I should doubtless have been ruled out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The second piece of nonsense we had from the Under-Secretary was that this is somehow linked with our Euro-phobia. On the contrary, the whole background and basis of the scrapping of the consultative classes is the Common Market adventure. The change to the panels is tied up with the so-called Common Market's consultative measures. In our debates on the European Communities Bill we considered what was regarded as consultation and negotiation and the Solicitor-General nipped in rather like the Official Solicitor—and tried to defend—not very successfully—the consultative processes of the Common Market.

The Under-Secretary's third argument was that we did not move with the times. This was from a Government who are hooking and linking our agricultural policy on to the near mediæval peasant economy of Western Europe. Britain's agricultural economy and structure, dating very largely from the 1947 Act, is a century ahead of the organisation and structure in the Common Market, but that is what the Government are trying to take us back to. For some reason, hon. Members opposite think that movement is progress; but movement is not always progress. People can move backwards.

Then the Under-Secretary said that we are ignoring all that was said in Com- mittee. On the contrary, we understand very clearly from what was said in Committee the need for us to table, not only the defensive Amendment No. 55, but also the new Clause to establish an advisory committee.

The rejection of our proposal is based on the incredible argument of rigidity, delay and formalisation. The Government reject an advisory board on the ground that it would be rigid, but they are writing into our agricultural system an Intervention Board which will be responsible for consultation with no one. It will have the task of directly implementing within Britain the policy of the Common Market. It will be rigid and formalised and acting upon decisions and price levels arrived at, not in Britain, but in Brussels. Therefore, the Government should not talk to us about rigidity and inflexibility.

The right hon. Gentleman announced the Intervention Board in reply to an Amendment. It should have been introduced in a White Paper which described at length its functions. The Government, who talk glibly about saving the taxpayers' money, then set up a board which they say candidly will be dealing with large sums of money and affecting the activities of a great many people.

We believe that when it deals with large sums of money and affects the lives of the people then we have the right to have a say. Perhaps hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite do not accept this, but this is what we are trying to achieve. They should not bring forward this kind of argument and ask a junior Minister to present it. The Government say that the advisory board we propose is too wide and would have insufficient knowledge. Has the right hon. Gentleman never heard of a staff of experts to advise an advisory board? Why not draw upon that? Is it because he is putting so many civil servants into the intervention Board that there will be none left? Someone asked earlier about the numbers involved in the board. We have been told that there will be 200 in the board headquarters at Reading alone. This is another bureaucracy. They should not come forward to us with nonsense about inflexibility and bureaucracy because it is they who are introducing this—a Government who were elected to cut back the Civil Service.

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. He would know, if he had done his homework, that the abolition of the deficiency payments scheme over the next two three or four years will more than release enough members of the "bureaucracy" as he calls it to run any Intervention Board.

Mr. Buchan

I am not particularly concerned about that. It seems as though the Government are spending half their time cutting down the numbers of people doing useful work and replacing them with people doing bureaucratic, statistical work. Cut back on the advisory service, on all those things that help production and replace it with the Intervention Board, is what the right hon. Gentleman says. If he regards that as being to his credit, I am happy that he should have it.

There are other reasons why we should have this advisory board. Above all there is the consumer interest. We got very short shrift in some of our earlier comments about the rôle of the co-operative movement. What we hope is that when the Government accept this board, after they had been convinced by my speech, they will pay some attention to the cooperative movement which has given so much advice to consumers.

I must stress the question of prices. We are in grave danger of handing over our own faltering means of preventing price increases to an outside body in the Common Market. It is important to understand what is happening here. The background is that between May and June this year the retail food price index jumped by 1.7 points. That was one of the highest rises ever, indeed it has only once been exceeded and that was last year when the rise was 2.6 points. That is the record of this Government. In 1970 the increase was 0.9, a third of what it was last year. The year before that it actually went down. Let us have no more nonsense

from the Government, when we discuss the emergency powers next Tuesday, saying that they intend to hold down prices. They had better get a system to do it, because we do not trust the right hon. Gentleman.

We remember what he said. We remember his policy. It was clearly enunciated.

Mr. Torney

"At a stroke".

Mr. Buchan

Not just "At a stroke". That was his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but the right hon. Gentleman said that the Prime Minister did not mean that. I remember what the right hon. Gentleman said in a debate with me some years ago. He said that: The time has come when we should have higher prices for food and no subsidies for either the agricultural or fishing industries. This is why they want to cut out consultation. They want to wipe that out altogether. The right hon. Gentleman went on: If we did that, we would get competition working in both industries and the nation would get better value because the nation has been molly-coddled for too long by receiving cheap food."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July, 1966; Vol. 732, c. 2127.] The man who comes to this Dispatch Box every few weeks to say how he is trying to keep down the price of food is a high-price theorist. He believes that the people of this country have been molly-coddled. This is why we need the new Clause, that is why we need to establish this kind of advisory board and that is why we need to restore consultative conditions—because we have to defend both the industry and the ordinary people against the bureaucratic, inflexible, rigid and doctrinaire policy of the Tory Party.

Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 75, Noes 116.

Division No. 334.] AYES [7.30 p.m.
Albu, Austen Concannon, J. D. Foley, Maurice
Archer, Peter (Rowley Regis) Cox, Thomas (Wandsworth, C.) Foot, Michael
Atkinson, Norman Cronin, John Gilbert, Dr. John
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove) Grant, George (Morpeth)
Bidwell, Sydney Deakins, Eric Harper, Joseph
Brown, Bob (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne,W.) Dormand. J. D. Hefter, Eric S.
Brown, Ronald (Shoreditch, F'bury) Edelman, Maurice Horam, John
Buchan, Norman Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas
Cocks, Michael (Bristol, S.) Faulds, Andrew Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)
Cohen, Stanley Fisher,Mrs. Doris(B'ham,Ladywood) Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.)
Johnson, Walter (Derby, S.) Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen) Stewart, Rt. Hn. Michael (Fulham)
Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John
Judd, Frank Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Strang, Gavin
Kaufman, Gerald Moyle, Roland Summerskill, Hn. Dr. Shirley
Kerr, Russell Oswald, Thomas Thomson, Rt. Hn. G. (Dundee, E.)
Lamond, James Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, Sutton) Tinn, James
Latham, Arthur Palmer, Arthur Torney, Tom
Lawson, George Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles Wallace, George
Lestor, Miss Joan Parry, Robert (Liverpool, Exchange) Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.) Pavitt, Laurie Whitlock, William
Mackenzie, Gregor Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred Wilson, Rt. Hn. Harold (Huyton)
Mackie, John Perry, Ernest G.
Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Prentice, Rt. Hn. Reg. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mendelson, John Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich) Mr. John Golding and
Mikardo, Ian Silverman, Julius Mr. James Wellbeloved.
Millan, Bruce Spearing, Nigel
Miller, Dr. M. S. Stallard, A. W.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley) Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)
Amery, Rt. Hn. Julian Hall, John (Wycombe) Page, Graham (Crosby)
Atkins, Humphrey Haselhurst, Alan Page, John (Harrow, W.)
Benyon, W. Hawkins, Paul Paisley, Rev. Ian
Biggs-Davison, John Hayhoe, Barney Percival, Ian
Body, Richard Hiley, Joseph Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
Bowden, Andrew Hill, James (Southampton, Test) Price, David (Eastleigh)
Bray, Ronald Holland, Philip Prior, Rt. Hn. J. M. L.
Brewis, John Hornby, Richard Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis
Brinton, Sir Tatton Hornsby-Smith,Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia Redmond, Robert
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.) Reed, Laurance [...]Bolton, E.)
Chapman, Sydney Hutchison, Michael Clark Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Chichester-Clark, R. Iremonger, T. L. Rost, Peter
Churchill, W. S. James, David Scott-Hopkins, James
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Kellett-Bowman, Mrs. Elaine Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Clegg, Walter Kilfedder, James Shelton, William (Clapham)
Cooke, Robert Kimball, Marcus Simeons, Charles
Cormack, Patrick Kinsey, J. R. Stanbrook, Ivor
Costain, A. P. Knox, David Stewart-Smith, Geoffrey (Belper)
Crouch, David Lamont, Norman Stuttaford, Dr. Tom
Crowder, F. P. Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Sutcliffe, John
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone) Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Dixon, Piers Longden, Gilbert Tebbit, Norman
Douglas-Home, Rt. Hn. Sir Alec McCrindle, R. A. Thatcher, Rt. Hn. Mrs. Margaret
Drayson. G. B. McLaren, Martin Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) McNair-Wilson, Michael Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon,S.)
Emery Peter Mather, Carol Tugendhat, Christopher
Eyre, Reginald Maude, Angus van Straubenzee, W. R.
Farr, John Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Wall, Patrick
Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton) Mills, Peter (Torrington) Ward, Dame Irene
Fowler, Norman Moate, Roger Warren, Kenneth
Fox, Marcus Molyneaux, James Weatherill, Bernard
Fry, Peter Money, Ernle White, Roger (Gravesend)
Glyn, Dr. Alan Monks, Mrs. Connie Wilkinson, John
Grant, Anthony (Harrow, C.) Morrison, Charles Winterton, Nicholas
Green, Alan Murton, Oscar Woodhouse, Hn. Christopher
Grieve, Percy Neave, Airey
Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Normanton, Tom TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gummer, Selwyn Nott, John Mr. Tim Fortescue and
Gurden, Harold Oppenheim, Mrs. Sally Mr. Michael Jopling.

Question accordingly negatived.

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