HC Deb 03 August 1972 vol 842 cc1081-8

Amendment made: No. 26, in page 29, line 45 leave out 'subsections (3), (5) and' and insert: 'subsection (3); in subsection (5), the words from "and" onwards; and subsection'.—[Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

Order for Third Reading read.

[Queen's Consent and Prince of Wales's consent signified]

9.33 p.m.

Mr. Prior

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I do not think that there will be many who will disagree when I say that the Bill has been carefully and, I think, considerably examined by the House. We spent the best part of fifty hours in Standing Committee discussing the 28 Clauses and five Schedules, and we have spent just about another six hours on the Bill today. I think that we now have a better Bill, and I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the part that they have played in making it so.

We have had some interesting debates. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) is not with us now, but he has other business to attend to. The major part of our time has been devoted to slaughterhouses, and the hon. Gentleman played a major part in dealing with them. We also discussed sire licensing and the provisions to abolish AECs, and I shall come to deal with much of this shortly.

I should not be in order now in referring to the eradication of brucellosis because the Clause has been withdrawn from the Bill. But I am grateful to the House for the way in which it has accepted the reason why I felt able to withdraw the Clause.

Turning to the question of slaughterhouse policy, which is dealt with in Clauses 6 and 7, these Clauses certainly qualify as the most controversial Clauses in the Bill. They were most thoroughly debated. We spent six sittings in Committee dealing with them. Yet I fear that there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about the objective of the Clauses. I should like, therefore, to emphasise once again that they do not affect hygiene standards. On the contrary, they have the effect that no licence should be granted or renewed unless the requirements of the regulations are fully complied with; and they are not expected to lead to any proliferation of slaughterhouses. Their objective is to remove a control which has proved to be ineffective in its operation and to create conditions which will ensure that in the future, which no one can properly predict, we shall get slaughterhouses of the kind we need, where we need them.

In Clause 9 we are seeking to reduce Government intervention in matters concerned with livestock improvement and to give breeders greater freedom to exercise their own judgment. Our proposals have been worked out after full and prolonged consultation with the industry and veterinary profession and are broadly acceptable to them. The Clause abolishes boar licensing but retains bull licensing in a modified form. This has been criticised as illogical. But in fact it is a rational and pragmatic decision based on the different stages of development reached by the pig and cattle industries. Selection of sires on the basis of performance and progeny testing is widely accepted and used in boar breeding but is not nearly so widely in use in the cattle industry. So it is wise to continue with safeguards against unsuitable bulls until the more scientific methods now widely used in boar breeding are also generally used in the cattle industry. Meantime, the bull licensing arrangements are simplified so as to give breeders a wider freedom of choice, and Government intervention will be reduced by the provisions which enable inspections to be carried out in future not by Government officials but by veterinary surgeons in private practice who have been accredited for this purpose by their professional bodies.

The Clause also removes the restriction on imports of breeding animals which have hitherto been permitted only for "exhibition or other exceptional purposes". Of course, the veterinary controls over imports will continue to be enforced in their full rigour, and inevitably this will limit the number of breeding animals which can be imported. But the industry itself will be responsible for advising us on priorities through an independent industry-based panel which the Royal Agricultural Societies have recently established for that purpose.

I now turn to Clause 22. Since their inception the Agricultural Executive Committees have done a tremendous amount of useful work. Although their functions have progressively diminished over the years, I agree very much with all that has been said today and in the past about their contribution to the system of two-way communications between Ministers and the grass roots of the industry. So I should like to assure the House that, in making our arrangements for the new panels that will be set up following the abolition of the AECs, we have fully recognised the need for Ministers to keep in close touch with the views of all sides of the industry as part of the consultative process. I am satisfied that the panels will carry out this task effectively, and at only a fraction of the cost of maintaining the existing committee structure.

It is always difficult to know whether it is right to abolish a certain state of affairs which has existed for a long while. We were finding that the powers of the AECs were diminishing and the job that the AECs had to do was becoming very much a diminishing rôle. I believe that the regional panels, with the chairmen of the panels who are really acting as my liaison officers, will be able to perform an extremely useful job, and this in no way detracts from the very great work done by the old War Agricultural Committees and then the Agricultural Executive Committees which took their place.

Finally, a word about farm safety and one of the four new Clauses. We have had two extremely interesting debates on Clause 15, which increases the maximum fine for breaches of farm safety. I whole-heartedly endorse the remarks made by many hon. Members stressing the importance of continuous vigilance against accidents on the farm. In particular, the more complicated farm machinery becomes, the more potentially dangerous it is. Looking back over the past 10 years, we see that a great deal of progress has been made in this respect. The Government are concerned that there should be full understanding, acceptance—and above all observance—of the safety regulations.

There is one other matter I should like to mention, the measures for dealing with grey squirrels and coypus, which I believe will be a significant step forward in saving our hardwood trees and the river banks drainage systems in East Anglia from further damage. Doing something to help our hardwood trees is particularly important for environmental and amenity reasons, but is even more important with the ravages of Dutch elm disease. We shall not permit the use of any poison in any area until we have discussed our proposals with conservation and animal protection interests, and until their use has been cleared by our expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides and other Toxic Chemicals.

Both Houses will have opportunities to consider our proposals in detail. I hope to be bringing our proposals for grey squirrels forward for consideration early in the next Session, but we have more field experiments to do before we shall be ready with suggestions for coypu.

This is not perhaps the most controversial Bill of this Session, although at times it has had its moments of controversy, but it is a useful Bill. It contains a number of small measures but measures which are important to an industry to which everyone in the House pays a warm tribute. I am grateful to the House for the support it has given it and the care with which the Bill has been discussed. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Peart

We shall not oppose the Bill's Third Reading. We have had Divisions earlier, and our point of view has been adequately represented by my colleagues. Conservative hon. Members accused my hon. Friends and me of delaying the Bill unnecessarily in Committee. They said that we were filibustering. I do not think that that was so. In fact, we encouraged progress on the Bill.

I rather liked a remark made by the Parliamentary Secretary. Incidentally, may I say that I did not mean to be churlish when I forgot to mention him earlier. I wish him well in his new position. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to say this, and he knows that I mean it sincerely. However, I was rather amused when he said that he believed the Opposition were making a mistake. He said: They can discuss these things fully at a later date, but let us get on with the urgent business that is required by the consumer, by agriculture and by animals."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee H, 27th January, 1972; c. 13.] —in that order. I hope that I am not doing him an injustice.

I once had an injustice done to me by the previous Parliamentary Secretary, who has now been promoted. Winding up a debate on agriculture not long ago, he quoted from a speech of mine, but it was not a single quotation. He joined up extracts, which gave a different sense to what I said. That was a very dirty trick—and I mean that. For example, I talked about the Ministry's needing to have control at Department level in the Scottish and Welsh Offices. I said that I would like to consider that carefully, because we must be cautious, but that we must be adventurous about new breeds. That was quite different to the quotation that he read out. I am sure the present Parliamentary Secretary will never do a trick like that.

It is true that we have had a long debate on the matter. It was the first time for 20 years that such a Bill had been introduced into the Lords. I made the point on Second Reading that the Government were in difficulty with their legislative programme. The delay which has occurred over the Bill has been due to that difficulty, and that is why we are debating the Bill in August. The Bill should have been completed a long time ago. It is the fault not of the Opposition but of the inefficiency of the management of Government business. I am not blaming the Department as it is a matter outside its control. However, I am sure that my point of view is understood.

I recognise that there have been controversial aspects of the Bill. We have carefully scrutinised the Bill in Committee and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends Members for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan), Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), Walthamstow, West (Mr. Deakins), Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) and Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes) who sat on the Committee. They made some very effective speeches, and Ministers and hon. Members opposite were generous in their praise of their constructive approach when we sought to discuss the Bill in detail.

I have listened to many agricultural debates in the House since 1945. I must say that the skills and abilities of my hon. Friends show that we have one of the best teams I can remember. I am thinking not about myself but about my hon. Friends' contributions. It is good for agriculture because a strong Opposition is vital for the wellbeing of the industry. I held that view when I was a Minister. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) also played an effective rôle when he was in Opposition. Let us hope that the hon. Gentleman will soon go back to that rôle.

It is true that there has been controversy over slaughterhouse policy. I am sorry that we have not been able to convince the Minister, even at this late hour, that there should have been an inquiry. The Minister has argued the case against an inquiry. He has stood by what he has decided and not budged an inch. On the other hand, he had made concessions here and there on brucellosis. We recognise it was right for him to go to the House and withdraw the Clause. We were accused in Committee of delaying this part of the Bill, but we now see that that was not so.

I am sorry that we have destroyed the county committees. I feel passionate about them. The Under-Secretary of State accused me of being a Conservative and accused my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West of being an Anarchist. I regard the hon. Gentleman as a Tory Anarchist. He is not a Conservative in the best sense of traditionalism. However, I am a conservative Socialist, and I am not afraid to admit it.

The EEC Bill will affect this Bill. I dealt with that matter when we discussed the county committees and the need to have adequate advisory services whereby Ministers would be able to know what is happening in the industry. It is important that the consumer and those in the industry who contribute to the work and development of the industry should have their views known by the Minister and those who make decisions. Even though it is not in the Bill, and I appreciate I will be out of order if I develop it too far, inevitably looming over these matters is our entry into Europe. Our decisions could be taken out of the hands of the House by the bureaucracy in Brussels. If I feel worried about that as a parliamentarian it is because I desire to protect British parliamentary traditions and, above all, to make sure that British farming is not harmed by people outside this country.

I welcome parts of the Bill such as the Clause on amalgamations. I welcome the improvement grants which are examples of policies which we pursued when we were in Government. Reference was made to the central council dealing in co-operation. That was one of the finest Measures any Government have introduced. I know that that desire for increased co-operation is so important, especially if we have to go into Europe.

We shall not oppose the Bill on Third Reading. We have made our position clear on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. We have been constructive because we, as much as the Government, believe that agriculture is an important industry which affects the well- being of the nation and, therefore, has to be safeguarded and developed further.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.

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