HC Deb 15 November 1977 vol 939 cc513-37

2.15 a.m.

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

I beg to move.

That this House takes notes of Commission Document No. R/1170/77 on seed and plant marketing.

The Report of the Scrutiny Committee has given us the opportunity in this debate to look at the EEC statutory seed certification arrangements, to consider how they are being developed, and to draw the attention of the House to various significant changes for which we have been working. Some of these changes are covered by the amending directive examined by the Scrutiny Committee; others we shall seek to have included when that directive is considered by the Council.

The House will be aware that in most developed countries schemes are in existence that offer a guarantee of seed quality and lead to the improvement of seed stocks through the certification of seed. The corner-stone of the system is the listing of varieties that have proved themselves in official trials and the subsequent absence from the market of those varieties that are of lesser value or that have been found not to retain their characteristics from one generation to the next.

On to this basis of high quality varieties —suitable for the particular conditions in which crops will be produced from the seed—is built a system of inspections of the crops to produce seed, testing and analysis of the seed before sale, and certification only of those stocks that meet the quality standards laid down. Apart from the checks and tests before certification, there are detailed controls over the sealing and labelling of the bags in which the certified seed is to be sold, and post-control checks through the growing of plots from samples taken from seed lots entered for certification.

These are the essentials of the system that has been operating on a statutory basis in the EEC for the most widely-used kinds of seed for the past 11 years. The United Kingdom had its own non-statutory arrangements for seed certifica- tion before accession and, moreover, we had been very active in this vital area of the control of seed quality for more than 50 years. Our long and detailed experience has helped us to move from a purely voluntary to a statutory system with comparatively few and unimportant problems and I should like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the excellent work of the United Kingdom Seeds Executive, whose firm and wise leadership in the transitional period has been of much benefit. Credit is due also to all sides of the seeds industry—breeders, growers and merchants—as well as to the officials of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and of the agricultural departments for the contribution they have made to our relatively smooth adoption of the EEC system.

The legislative basis for the EEC arrangements is contained in a single directive dealing with the testing and official listing of seed varieties for agricultural use and a group of directives each of which applies the basic requirements of the statutory certification system —crop inspection, seed testing, sealing and labelling provisions—to a particular seed sector. Ignoring vine propagation, which is not applied in the United Kingdom, there are six of these marketing directives, and it is principally these directives that it is now proposed to amend. The amending directive is so long only because each amendment has to be included up to six times so as to apply the changes in all the places where it is appropriate to do so.

Many of the amendments put forward are quite uncontentious, reflecting technological developments since the directives were drawn up or procedural improvements that will aid the smooth running of the administration. In the first category is an amendment that makes specific provision for the use of tear-resistant labels—a comparatively recent innovation—and that does away with the need for a further label inside the bag when such a label is used. In the second category—administrative improvements—are provisions that would remove from the cumbersome procedure of amendment at the Council level various details of the operation of the certification system that can properly be discussed and agreed within the Commission.

In the same category is an amendment that extends the period during which each Member State may take its own decisions on admissible varieties and admissible sources of seed from outside the EEC pending the completion of the research and inquiries that would be necessary for the adoption of Community-wide decisions on these matters. Further changes are largely of a drafting nature, for instance to maintain uniformity over such matters as sealing and labelling between the EEC provisions and those of the OECD certification schemes which are widely used in international trade in seeds.

Further amendments give effect to more up-to-date concepts of the needs of the consumer by requiring information to be supplied as to when seeds packages were sealed or officially sampled. Provisions on these lines were included in the EEC's more recent directives, though no such requirements appeared in the earlier ones —which covered cereals, beet and fodder plants.

I am glad to say that despite the absence of statutory provisions, the United Kingdom trade has recognised the need to quote full information, and, in the main, the proposed amendments merely reflect our own widely-adopted good practice. However, in one area—the labelling of small packets of vegetable seed—we are not satisfied that there is any real benefit from the Commission's proposals. Our packets already quote the year of packing, but we allow this to be any stated period of 12 months. The Commission wish to standardise the period, but we cannot see that this gives the consumer any better information than the present system, which has the virtue of allowing the trade flexibility to deal in different ways with the various species they sell. We are therefore resisting this part of the labelling proposals.

So far I have referred only to the type of amendment to detail needed from time to time to keep a well-used and well-understood system operating effectively. But this is not to imply that the system would not benefit from more fundamental amendment. Indeed the Government and all sides of the seeds industry wish to see two radical changes made. One is included in this amending directive, one remains for further negotiation, and I shall be saying a word or two about that in a moment.

But, first, let me deal with the fundamental change that we have succeeded in getting put forward. It sounds a straightforward and common sense matter—but it has taken three years of patient campaigning to reach the present position. I refer to the provision to allow sales for cropping of certain seed originally intended purely for further multiplication. The point is that there can well be a surplus of such seed and the present position is that unless the crops producing this were inspected in the field, which is by no means always the case, the seed cannot currently be marketed to the farmer. In our view it is nonsense to deny the farmer access to such surplus supplies as may become available in this way.

Against this it has been argued that the whole system could be evaded if, for example, the trade deliberately produced much more of this seed than was needed for multiplication purposes, avoiding the need for field inspection of the crops, and simply elected to redesignate it as seed for crop production. We have, however, stressed that the procedure will be used only with the permission of the certifying authority and that the lack of a field inspection of the crop is more than compensated for by the growing of post-control plots which can readily be inspected at all stages of growth.

I am very glad to say we appear finally to have persuaded our partners that with the proposed controls over the quantities involved there are no unacceptable risks to consumers or to the certification system from making this change, which we have long seen as adding a necessary element of flexibility to the arrangements and as enabling us to make the best use of our available seed supplies.

I come however to the fundamental point which is not covered in the amending directive—and it is the matter to which the Scrutiny Committee has drawn attention in its report. As the Committee has pointed out, the seeds regime is somewhat inflexible. Standards are laid down for varietal and species purity and for the level of germination, and if these standards are not met then the seed cannot normally be sold within the Community.

The old United Kingdom system, on the other hand, met the needs of buyers and sellers of seeds without imposing rigid absolute standards. Under our arrangements certain standards were laid down, but seed could be freely sold below these standards provided that the levels actually achieved were declared on the bags.

The Committee considers the old United Kingdom requirements to be preferable. I think it is quite right. The system worked well here from the time of the Seeds Act 1920 right up to the date of our accession. It allowed the farmer to buy the variety he really wanted regardless of whether germination may be 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. down. The price doubtless reflected the slightly lower level, and the farmer would take account of it in the rate at which he sowed the seed.

There are two important points here. First, the farmer got the right variety—it was not forced off the market, leaving him perhaps the alternative of choosing between one he might have tried before and found less suitable for his particular conditions, and one of which he had no personal experience at all. The second important point is that seed at less than the statutory standard would find a ready market.

Under the present arrangements, on the other hand, it can normally be sold as seed only if exported to a third country. Failing an outlet of this kind, or an alternative use—and this really applies only to cereal seed or oil seeds—the seed is wasted.

The view expressed by the Scrunity Committee is that held by all sides of the seeds industry in this country and also represents the firm view of the Government. We have long been seeking to have the directives changed in this sense. We have to bear in mind, however, that for the other eight States this would be a very radical departure indeed from the principle underlying their certification schemes—that is that standards must be met or seed cannot be marketed. They see the alternative as likely to lead to a situation in which very low quality seed would come to be sold. They argue that cheap, low quality seed would drive out the better quality product and the whole purpose of certification would be defeated.

Our experience over half a century is that quality is satisfactorily maintained despite the possibility of lower grade seed getting on to the market, and we shall continue to press for changes. We were not able to persuade our colleagues in the other States to include a suitable provision when the amending directive was being drafted. However, it is our view that the possibilities of a limited application of the United Kingdom philosophy on a trial basis might be worth exploring, and when the Council examines the draft there will be an opportunity to propose such an amendment. In our view this represents the best chance of making progress towards our objective in this area.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)

The Minister mentions a United Kingdom philosophy. Am I not right in thinking that there have been differences in practice between Scotland and England, and that in Scotland we have demanded much higher standards of certification?

Mr. Strang

I think that the hon. Gentleman must address himself to a particular species. If he is referring to potatoes, certainly there is some very important potato growing in his constituency. In Scotland we have traditionally had higher standards. We have designated Scotland and Northern Ireland as high-quality potato seed-growing regions in the Community. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that this has now been accepted by the Community. Indeed, the amending directive provides for the establishment of a higher Community grade of seed potato, and any seed potatoes below that standard would not be allowed to be moved into those high-quality seed-growing areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland. I hope that that will well illustrate to the hon. Gentleman that the Government are absolutely determined to protect the well-earned reputation of the seed potato growers in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The amending directive, then, updates or streamlines the seeds marketing directives in various ways that experience has shown to be necessary. It makes provision for the adoption of a fundamental improvement for which the United Kingdom has been pressing, and finally, whilst it does not make the radical change in approach that we should like to see, it does give us the opportunity to try to make progress towards our objective.

I should perhaps add one point for the benefit of the House. The substance of the proposed amendments is precisely as set out in the Explanatory Memorandum that I sent forward in June. However, so far as the timing of the proposed amendments is concerned, the Council is now considering taking the amendments in two parts, and according priority to those items of greatest urgency and taking a little longer over the proposals.

I am glad to say that the fundamental change we have sought—to get surplus multiplication seed to the farmer—will be amongst the priority items and could be introduced by the end of the year. Conversely, we now have a little longer in which to pursue our campaign for "declarable" standards as the Scrutiny Committee has recommended. I can assure the House that we shall lose no opportunity to press this matter. I hope that I have said—

Mr. Thomas Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

My hon. Friend has dealt mainly with the prices and quality of seeds used for mass production by farmers. Has he taken into consideration the retail trade in seeds, from seed potatoes to the most minute onion seeds, and the packaging content of the cost, which, apparently, is more than the seed content? Will he do something to remedy this cost factor because if we are to succeed in agriculture and horticulture we have to encourage the back-yard gardener to "dig for victory" as we did during the war, so that we can relieve this country of its overburdening foreign expenditure through the import of horticultural and agricultural goods?

Mr. Strang

I attach importance, as does my hon. Friend, to the supply of a high standard of seed at reasonable prices, and properly labelled, to the smaller producer who is, by and large, concerned about growing in his own garden, often for his own use. I can assure my hon. Friend that a point which concerns us in this package of modifications is that one of the proposals would have the effect of increasing the cost of the packaging of these smaller packets of seeds which are bought by those who, for example, wish to grow cabbage or lettuce in their gardens. We are resisting that element in the amended directive. We have the interests of gardeners at heart and are not concerned solely about the larger growers.

I hope that I have given hon. Members a good indication of the items of substance in this amended directive.

2.33 a.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

I thought that I heard the Minister, in reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) refer to something called "red lettuce". I must say that this is a totally new crop to me. Whether it is a manifestation of this Government I do not know. It would be interesting to learn what red lettuce is.

We are grateful to the Scrutiny Committee for referring this matter to us. I think it is fair to say that although we are embarking on this debate extremely late at night, one of the effects of the activities of the Scrutiny Committee since it has begun its valuable work is that it has landed the House with infinitely more complex problems with regard to agriculture than we ever had to deal with on the Floor of the House in the days before we joined the Community. I am not complaining about that, but I must say that even those of us who have some agricultural experience, perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will agree, find ourselves in more complicated waters than ever before. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) nodding assent. As he is the Chairman of that section of the Scrutiny Committee which refers these things to us, he has a good deal to answer for, though, as I say, I do not criticise him for that.

I turn now to the measures before us tonight. The Opposition's attitude is that we welcome measures to improve the quality of seed. Before any anti-Marketeer leaps up to intervene at this point—I see that the most usual faces are absent tonight which shows that when we reach such an hour as this they do not bother to turn up—I should point out that stringent seed regulations have always been a feature of our legislation. All hon. Members who have known anything about agriculture recognise that the House of Commons has always taken a close interest in the control of the seed which has been available both to the farmer and to the gardener, who has always been protected by regulations which the House has laid down.

However, although we welcome these regulations in general, several questions have to be asked. The Parliamentary Secretary referred to some thoughts which were submitted by the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association Limited—I shall call it UKASTA from now on—which gave evidence to the Select Committee regarding the views of its European representative body. The full name of that European body eludes me for the moment, but I shall refer to it as COSEMCO. I believe that it is referred to in the evidence given to the Select Committee.

First, then, will the hon. Gentleman tell us what is the attitude of COSEMCO to these regulations? I have not been able to ascertain its view, that is, the total European view of the seed trade. We have been privileged to have the views of UKASTA, which is the British limb, but we should like to know the view of the European organisation.

I shall take the matters in the order in which the Minister referred to them in the helpful explanatory memorandum which he circulated a little earlier in the year. First, with regard to the revised sealing and labelling requirements, it seems to me that there is some argument here between the various interested parties. Although the hon. Gentleman told us that in general the European regulations are falling into line with the way in which we have done things in this country over the years, it seems to me that there is still a measure of argument.

In its submission to the Select Committee UKASTA said: This information"— referring, in particular, to the requirement that a package has to be labelled with the month and year when it was sealed up— is of no value whatever to the user and is puite unnecessary for the enforcement authority. UKASTA went on to point out that it is an offence to market seeds below the standards of purity and germination which are laid down. We understand that last point, but, although I have no wish to get into a great argument with UKASTA, it seems to me that there must be cases in which knowledge that a pack of seed was last year's and not this year's could be of value both to the farmer and to the merchant as well as to the allotment holder or gardener to whom the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East referred.

A letter from the NFU points out that a great deal of seed is imported and a date on the package could alert a person concerned with the use of that seed that it might be wise for a re-test to be made on the germination of the seed to make sure that with the passage of time the germination had held up to the percentage exhibited on the package.

Mr. Swain

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that germination can be encouraged by artificial means, as against natural means, such as moisture in greenhouses, and mass production in the farming world? That would give a fictitious guarantee of seed germination within the standards laid down.

Mr. Jopling

I am trying to recollect my days spent at university trying to understand these matters. I think that we are in danger of getting into a semantic argument about what is natural and what is artificial. When the hon. Gentleman talks about moisture, I might argue that the introduction of an element of moisture was a natural process.

There is a set procedure, which I think is widely recognised, for arriving at the percentage of germination. The Parliamentary Secretary will no doubt use the advice that is available to him to confirm that. I think I am right in saying that the House has laid down specifically how moisture and other influences should be brought into the environment of the seed to establish the percentage germination. I think that that is a matter that is beyond dispute and something that the House disposed of many years ago.

I am not at this stage inclined to accept what UKASTA has said about this matter. I am more inclined to take the view adopted by the NFU, which is that it would be helpful to know the exact date on which the package was sealed. I was glad to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary that this matter is being pursued in the negotiations. I think that he referred earlier to small packages of vegetable seed. I gather that the NFU is thinking of rather larger packages, particularly of grain and herbage seeds.

UKASTA says that the enforcement of these provisions will cause it difficulties, and therefore put up costs. Whenever the House insists on more stringent measures to control the quality of seed, it inevitably means that the cost of that seed is increased. I regret that that is something that we cannot readily avoid.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Is it not the case that the anxieties of UKASTA are rendered less valid—although one understands what it is getting at—by the fact that a number of directives stem from the time before we joined the Common Market and accepted this requirement to put the month and year of sealing on the package? It was therefore logical to extend that to other directives. We had by definition accepted that as a result of the Treaty of Accession Section 2 of the European Communities Act, and any of the additional documents that were signed at the same time.

Mr. Jopling

I think that that is right.

It seems a little daft to put on a sack of seed potatoes the year in which they were packaged, because it would be a poor farmer or gardener who did not know whether they were this year's or last year's potatoes.

I now come to the second point to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred in his explanatory memorandum—the introduction of procedures for checking the trueness to variety of self-pollinating varieties of seeds

This refers principally to cereals. In its note to me the NFU has made this point: As the Community regulations have introduced a system of cereal seed never going beyond the second generation in order to ensure as little deviation as possible from the basic seed it would seem logical to have a standard covering seeds that could eventually be put on national lists and the common catalogue beyond 30th June 1977. I hope that the Minister will refer to that later.

It is all very well to have the procedure which is laid down in these proposals, but is it not also important to have botanical standards rationalised between the various countries in order to deal with the standardisation of seed? What are the Government doing to ensure that the same botanical characteristics are used in all the EEC member countries to determine the distinctness of a new variety? Secondly, what steps are the Government taking to agree identical standards for the uniformity of all varieties within the Community, thus ensuring that the seed trade between member States is not impaired by the enforcement of more stringent uniformity standards in one or more of the EEC countries?

I gather that, for instance, Danish seed has been refused entry into this country because we look at more of the minute botanical characteristics—by which I mean, for instance, the degree to which hairs exist on the outside of a barley seed—than the Danes do. I understand that there are similar examples elsewhere. It is important that the same treatment of minute botanical characteristics be applied by the various member States. This is not dealt with in the document. Unless it is dealt with at some future time, we are likely to land ourselves in a good deal of difficulty.

Mr. Swain

It is climatic conditions.

Mr. Jopling

It has nothing to do with climatic conditions. It has to do with the basic genetic make-up of the individual seed and is nothing whatever to do with the environment.

Representations have been made to me about the provisions concerning seed potatoes. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to explain in further detail the new grading system which is proposed for potatoes. Will it mean the total scrapping of the various grades of seed potatoes which have been in existence in this country for a very long time? Will it mean the end of farm-to-farm sales of seed potatoes which are, and have been traditionally, sold without a certificate of any sort on the basis of "once grown" or "twice grown" or, indeed, as "grown "? This is a trade in potatoes in which I have engaged both as a seller and as a buyer for many years. I did not declare my interest at the beginning of my speech, but I do so now. Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether it means the end of that trade.

How shall we continue to have health safeguards if the new grades are imposed upon us, which will mean that seed potatoes will be able to pass from one country to another? Is the hon. Gentleman sure that this is not imposing a health risk? As for the specialist seed-producing areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland, it would be tragic if we were to allow the new grades to be imposed upon us and if the stock seed potatoes from other parts of the Community were to be introduced into the celebrated seed-growing areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland to the detriment of the health of our basic seed stocks in this country.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us when all this will happen. Will the imposition of these grades be an impossible complication, bearing in mind that the earlier Community seed potato regulations have not yet been introduced? The NFU has written to me to say that it feels that there should be time to absorb the first group of regulations before the new group concerning new grading systems are superimposed upon it. That is extremely important. If the hon. Gentleman is able to clarify the situation, it will be of great help to the House and the potato industry.

I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the Government are doing their best to ensure that surplus seed for multiplication purposes may be sold to farmers. That must be right and it is something that we welcome.

My final point concerns a matter in which my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West is especially interested and to which the Select Committee has referred. We are concerned about the proposals that will not permit the sale of seed below certain levels of germination. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is a well-established practice in this country to allow seed of a lower germination level to be sold provided that the specification is freely advertised on the bag. For example, it is well established that whereas normally a farmer might plant 10 lb. of seed to the acre at 90 per cent. germination, he will need to plant 11¼ lb. per acre to get the same number of live seeds per acre if the germination is down to 80 per cent. It is proposed that that trade should now be stopped.

That would be extremely unfair on growers in a bad season when there might be a seasonal shortage of seed, or even local seed shortages in certain areas. In the event of there being a shortage of first-quality seed, it would be extremely unwise to stop totally the sale of second-quality seed of a germination level below the level approved by the Community. I am glad to see that UKASTA has referred to that in its evidence to the Select Committee. The Committee expressed its concern about that part of the regulations.

2.55 a.m.

Mr. Thomas Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

I rise briefly to clarify a few points made by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) about soil conditions. Everyone in agriculture and horticulture knows that dark soil has 25 per cent. higher heat yield than red soil or brown soil. As a consequence, the sowing of seed at various times in this country has an effect. Hence, we get early potatoes from the Scilly Isles. They arrive much earlier than potatoes from Scotland, seven weeks and two days in reaping time.

Therefore, we must take into consideration these effects on germination yield. In the area where I live, certain potatoes are subject, whoever grows them, be he farmer or small gardener, to scab. Anyone who has seen a potato with scab looks at it as an unholy thing. The inside of the potato is quite edible but the outside looks bad because of the scab.

In suppporting these regulations I hope that in his representations in the Community the Minister takes into consideration the variations from Land's End to John o' Groats in our climate and soil conditions and the various sowing and reaping times of the various crops. The potato is a main crop, especially the Arran and Pentland family.

Three years ago, the Community attempted to outlaw the King Edward potato in this country, although it has been a marvellous crop yielder through the ages. A flowering potato does not do as well as the Red King or Majestic, but it is a beautiful second early potato which is very edible and very beneficial to the farmer because it meets the vacuum between the early and the late and, as a consequence, he has a continuity of crop yield.

So the hon. Member for Westmorland is wrong. He should have studied agriculture. I remind him that I took agriculture as my second subject as well, and perhaps I achieved equally high standards. Hence my academic knowledge and more practical knowledge of growing seeds.

I have just sent away for £3 worth of onion seed, and for each pound in money I receive approximately 85 seeds in a packet measuring six inches by four inches. One can get 85 onion seeds on a new penny without spilling one. Therefore, I suggest that in the regulations there should be some etiquette, at least for packaging.

I have sent to Sinclair McGill for one of the best onions known to me in this country; I have sent to Robinson's for its improved Mammoth and I am also growing Ryan's Exhibition. Next week, I shall bring to the House three onions weighing 11 lbs three ounces between them. So I have some experience.

When I weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. I find that the germination percentage is very low by comparison with the yield, because no one can guarantee a germination percentage. One year one can get terrific frosts and as a consequence one's soil is slower in working up and one gets at lower percentage. In conditions like those of last winter soil heats up quickly and one gets a high percentage yield.

It is difficult for Ministers to draw a comparison right across the board in the Community on a percentage yield for any seed, from potatoes down to the minutest seed one can get, which I imagine is in the petunia family. That works out at about 48,500 to the half cubic foot. The yield from petunias is about 45 per cent. Anyone who achieves a 45 per cent. yield is doing tremendously well and will make a profit if he is in the nursery business, because he will fix his price according to the percentage of germination. No regulations in the world can determine the percentage of germination or guarantee that percentage. I suggest, therefore, although I support the regulations, that Ministers should carefully examine proposals before they are drawn up in the Common Market.

Spain has applied to join the Common Market. I have sent to Spain for a packet of onion seeds. The packet tells me that I must sow the seeds in March. But, as every onion grower knows, he must sow his seeds on Christmas Day. If I sow in March I shall get my onions in November when they are rotten. We grow onions both for immediate use and for keeping. I could keep the House here until 5 a.m. explaining the difficulties caused by different climates.

That is why we have hothouses for germination. That is why 90 per cent. of cabbages that are grown for spring use are grown in hothouses. They then germinate quickly and they fill the vacuum between the crops. That applies across the board from January Kings and Greyhounds to the Savoys that are familiar in the autumn.

The hon. Member for Westmorland professes to have theoretical and practical knowledge of agriculture. But he must remember the man who keeps this country going with a spade. He must remember the man who goes to Woolworths, for instance, and looks at an exhibition of seed packages. The picture on each package is of an exhibition specimen, a first prize winner at the Shrewsbury or Southport show. When that man finds that he achieves only 45 per cent. germination, he is disappointed.

The regulations must be tidied up. Conditions must be set strictly in accordance with the climate. There is a fundamental difference between the yields in Scotland and other parts of the country and in Europe. The potato grower must adjust his price for the earlier range to meet the price of the later yield. That applies whether he is growing Pentland Crowns or any other variety. It is difficult to legislate when one is dealing with climatic conditions from Denmark to Stuttgart, from the vine fields in West Germany to Lands End and John o' Groats. Account must be taken of the variations. If we try to draw a level or mean right across the board for the percentage of germination, we shall fail miserably in our aspirations concerning the creation of a system of quality for horticulture, agriculture and even the amateur gardener.

I suggest that my hon. Friend the Minister takes cognisance of this and looks at the whole question, from Kelso to Devon and from Devon to Stuttgart, which is only a hump in the plain these days, and considers the different conditions, the different colours of the soil and the varying germination rates. I have 4,000 square yards of garden, and I have blisters to prove that I am fairly diligent over it. I know that my crops cannot be a success unless I get a high percentage of germination. These regulations do not provide such a guarantee. I suggest that the Minister looks very carefully at the variations across the board, therefore, and makes representations accordingly.

3.6 a.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I am full of amazement at the knowledge of hon. Members on a variety of subjects. I shall not follow the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain), that well-known seed grower, along the line he has taken tonight. I say only that he certainly knows his onions.

We on the Select Committee considered this measure. It is one of those that could obviously slip through very quickly, but we felt that there was something important in it which should be debated by the House. I welcome what the Minister said about the views of the Government on seed that is below standard.

I must declare an interest. The farm in which I have an active interest felt for the first time the rigours and difficulties of the new Community regulations. I pay tribute to the work of the National Seed Development Organisation, and the National Institute of Agriculture and Botany. They do an excellent job, and many farmers can certainly vouch for that. We certainly have experience in that direction. Their standard of work is very high. I only wish that were true of similar organisations in the Community.

I have evidence that some of the inspectors in the Community are not always as careful as one would like and that they have passed herbage seed that would not have been passed in this country. Our seed is generally of a high standard and is certainly of a different grading.

I am told that in the Community certain herbage seed is obtained from the Eastern bloc. How can such seed be guaranteed? How can it reach the required standard? The country of origin has to be checked and certified. I am afraid, therefore, that that seed is coming into the Community, is reproduced and is then distributed all over the Community.

I have a letter from the Southern Counties Agricultural Trading Society, one of those excellent co-operatives that we have in this country. It has a high reputation in the herbage seed world. The letter states Breeders are responsible for producing basic seed and must have it under their control until the time of certification. Samples of all basic seed supplied to industry are grown under official conditions to check that no impurities are present. This provides not only a check against the seed as supplied by the breeder, but also against possible admixture subsequently on the farm … The principle of quality control in seed production is sound. The Certifying Authority in each EEC member country is controlled by the appropriate Government, and so one possible problem area is that the certifying regulations may be interpreted slightly differently in each country, or may even be applied with different degrees of diligence. That is what worries me. It is the nub of the problem of harmonisation in all these matters that the interpretation of the regulations can be different and that there are different degrees of diligence in the certification.

SCATS adds: In any event, if Government is to assume responsibility for certifying seed crops, it must also accept liability for any consequences arising from their actions. That, too, is extremely important. It is all very well for the Community to press for uniformity of standards of seed, but we need uniformity of standards of certification, inspection and control. That is where I have my doubts. Certainly, the Government that certified the seed, or their inspectors, must accept liability for any consequences of their action. This is most important, and I hope that we may have some assurance from the Minister that he will put forward that view in Brussels.

I come to a practical illustration of the problem, which concerns me and my brother on the farm where we grow many acres of Moretti perennial ryegrass basic seed. This year we obtained the seeds from a Dutch company. It was properly certified by the Dutch inspectors as being up to their standards. The resultant crop contained impurities, which were also found to be present in the official plots sown with seed taken from the same source of supply. In other words, the test plots of the NIAB contained the same impurities as the inspectors found on the farm when they came to certify our seed. The crop on the farm was therefore turned down by the certifying authority in this country, at a heavy loss to the grower, to us, of many thousands of pounds.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will note that the British certifying authority rejected the seed but the Dutch certifying authority passed the basic seed, because there were different standards; hence the problem, hence the dilemma. Standards must be harmonised and be constant.

As the Parliamentary Secretary rightly said, under these new regulations the seed cannot be sold within the Community. Yet it is first-class herbage seed, though it contains some other varieties of perennial ryegrass seeds. It is not that it contains weeds or different varieties of grass seed. We have suffered as a result of what has happened. The Minister must carefully watch this sort of difficulty.

I admit that it is best to keep very high standards, but the interpretation must be constant and the standards must be applied with the same degree of diligence. We are perhaps among the first British seed growers to suffer.

Why has such a grass as Moretti perennial ryegrass been taken off the approved list of varieties after one year? Is it because of its source? Is it because of these new Community regulations? It would be interesting to know, because again it is not much use seed growers in the Community having approved seeds if they are not on the approved list in this country. That is another practical point.

I believe that it is necessary to keep up the very high standard of pure seed varieties produced in this country. But there is a strong case for allowing a second grade which can be used by farmers in the country of origin. I do not suggest that such seed should be exported to other Community countries. It might pay us to go back to some system where there is a second class of seed. Everybody would know what it was like. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) said, it may even be of lower germination. But, as I said, as long as people knew about it, it would not do any harm. Certainly it must not be reproduced for sale again and it must not be exported to other Community countries. However, there is a strong argument for farmers being allowed to have the use of such seed, which may not be of the very highest standard.

I welcome this document. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the various queries that I have raised. Above all, I hope that he will make plain in Brussels that we want harmonisation not only of seed but of inspection and certifying standards over the whole range.

3.17 a.m.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)

I should like to speak specifically about the Scottish seed potato industry, which is an important part of the Scottish agricultural scene. I want the Minister to do all in his power to ensure that one of Scotland's prime agricultural interests is defended in any EEC alteration or creation of regulations. I was glad to receive his earlier reassurances on that matter.

From the Scottish point of view, any raising of standards or safeguarding of the quality of seed potatoes which are marketed is to be welcomed. Scottish producers have a proud record of consistently high quality production for the seed market. It is certainly in their interests that, above all, quality of the end product is maintained.

I hope that the Government will seek to ensure that an increased market for certified seed, with its corollary of strictly certified and accurately labelled products, is achieved as quickly as possible. Scotland has the highest quality seed available. Such an attempt to achieve quality will be of great advantage to our industry.

I notice that other countries—Holland and England—operate certification schemes which are different from the scheme presently working in Scotland. I should like some reassurances from the Minister about the common standards to be adopted in these matters in the Common Market. How close will Community grades be to the Scottish seed potato regulations and standards? It is important that seed potato regulations and standards elsewhere be raised to the Scottish level. Scottish standards are among the best in Europe.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) expressed fears about harmonisation and the lowering of standards. Scotland's position as a basic seed producing area must be protected. I should like to hear specific assurances on this important Scottish interest.

Referring to paragraph 2(c) of the explanatory memorandum, I should like an assurance that no loopholes will be created by these proposals that will allow uncertificated seed to go on to the market. To be of use to Scottish agriculture any EEC certification scheme must acknowledge our high grading standards. Again, I note the supremacy of Scotland and Poland as the biggest producers of basic seed in the world. I hope the Minister appreciates that.

Any EEC uniform standard proposals must accept the present Scottish standards and values, and ensure that our interests are adequately understood in Europe and properly protected. Any new regulations must be designed to ensure that low-quality uncertified seed is kept off the commercial market as far as possible.

Scottish seed producers are attempting to maintain and improve standards, particularly those in my constituency of South Angus. They are in the process of forming a Scottish seed potato producers' association. Will there be any future consultation on these matters with the association, and if so, what form will the consultation take? These people are keenly interested in future developments and I hope that their views will be taken into account.

3.22 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary wants to reply to many of the points raised, so I shall be brief. The hon. Member for Derbyshire North-East (Mr. Swain) promised to speak for two minutes only, and ended up speaking much longer. I do not think he was actually in order, but nevertheless the points he made have a certain relation to the features of the draft document being considered tonight.

I declare a non-interest, not being an expert in these matters. The characteristics of the seeds in this document are innate characteristics, and have nothing to do with external factors. It is very difficult to have classic Community harmonisation documents dealing with external factors.

The groping, halting process towards harmonisation of all sorts of standards is desirable, particularly in this field, but enough technical problems have already been raised in this debate.

Personally I feel—and I am not an agricultural expert—that this is an extremely useful measure of harmonisation, although it is much less dramatic than others and not likely to capture the newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, it is much more exciting and much less absurd than certain other aspects of harmonisation. The newspapers often claim that aspects are absurd, but frequently they are not. This instance is a practical way of harmonising good standards.

The trade association was right to voice objections earlier to the proposals, and the Select Committee dealt with those objections in its report. I hope that in due course the Government will fully assuage the original anxieties of the association.

I question the Parliamentary Secretary on a point about scrutiny, which is also relevant. The House is debating this matter very late tonight because of the emergency debate, but it is not the first time that Commission documents have been discussed in a way that is unsatisfactory to the House. I hope that this will be taken care of in future. It is difficult to get at the Leader of the House, who is not very preoccupied with EEC debates. The Parliamentary Secretary might convey to him some suggestions for modifications and improvements. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary and his colleagues will be bringing forward other agricultural documents in this current Session.

We still seem to be in the old pattern. Without detracting from the intrinsic, central importance of these documents, I think that this would have been a suitable subject to have been considered upstairs in the Statutory Instruments Committee. I do not think that any of my colleagues from agricultural constituencies would have objected to that. It is more appropriate for documents of this kind to be debated there than to take them on the Floor of the House at this absurdly late hour. What is more, that would have left time for discussion on the Floor of the House on the important principal areas of Community legislation.

Be that as it may, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will make some general comment on the problem of scrutiny. There will be many agricultural documents coming before the House in the future. After all the discussion, thoughts and hiccups and the resulting delays from this procedure, would not it be better to devise a more modern and streamlined procedure, which the House could perfectly well do? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is a little sympathetic to the remarks that I have just made

3.26 a.m.

Mr. Strang

if I may, I shall reply fairly briefly to a number of the matters which have been raised. On more detailed points I think that it would be more appropriate for me to write to the hon. Members who raised them.

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) inquired about the attitude of COSEMCO. I can tell him that it was consulted about all the proposals contained in the directive and that it accepted them. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman regards the amending directive as an advance, subject to one or two matters about which I agree with him.

Although it is true that the seed marketing directives lay down a Community standard for certified seed, this has not involved the abandonment of the higher standards that we apply in certain areas in the United Kingdom. We have to bear in mind that we have higher standards in certain areas. We retain these higher standards. But the Community is not automatically raised to those standards. If we want higher standards, there is no reason why we should not have them.

The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) drew attention to a difficulty which he had encountered on his own farm. Here we may have an illustration of that very point. There is no reason to doubt the effectiveness of the controls or the integrity of our partners' certifying authorities. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary, I shall be happy to consider it. But I suggest that the real answer lies in the alignment of standards that we are now endeavouring to achieve.

It may be that the Community standard which applied to ale seed imported by the hon. Gentleman was less stringent than he appreciated at the time because he tended to assume that the standard would be the same as that which we operate in this country. If he would like me to pursue the matter with him in correspondence, I shall be willing to do so. Obviously his experience was unfortunate, and we would not want it to be repeated by our growers.

Mr. Mills

There are legal problems at the moment, but if they are not resolved satisfactorily I should like to take up the Minister's offer. The problem was that the seed from Holland contained other varieties of ryegrass apart from Moretti. It was clear that Holland was prepared to accept a lower standard than we were.

Mr. Strang

I am not sure whether the standard accepted in Holland should be regarded as being in breach of the certified standard laid down for Community trade.

If I may turn to specific points, let me make clear that there are no plans to abandon any grades of potatoes in this country and when we accept the marketing directive, only certified seed will be marketed here. A similar situation exists under the new arrangements for cereals.

I have a particular interest in this matter. I come from a good seed potato growing area and when I was a student I spent a summer vacation inspecting potatoes in Aberdeenshire. I am well seized—as are our officials—of the need to protect the collective interest and we have not yet accepted the marketing directive for this reason. We shall accept it only when we have the assurances and agreement we need in relation to plant health as it affects potatoes.

We have made some important progress. We have designated Northern Ireland and Scotland as high grade seed potato growing areas and we have persuaded the Community to accept in principle that there will be a higher Community grade in these countries, at least in the first instance. No other country has a high grade seed area. I hope that I have reassured the House that the Government are determined to continue their policy of protecting the interests of our seed potato growers.

As regards consultations, I cannot anticipate how discussions with the organisation referred to by the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) will be handled. This is a matter for the Department of Agriculture in Scotland. We are grateful for the helpful and constructive attitude taken by the National Association of Seed Potato Merchants. It has been a tower of strength in the negotiations and it augurs well for the future that the Government have such confidence in the organisation and have received such good advice from it.

The Scrutiny Committee has enabled us to have a useful discussion. If we had not been members of the EEC, such changes as these might have gone through without debate. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). It is not a matter for me and I shall see that it is passed on to the Leader of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/1170/77 on seed and plant marketing.