HC Deb 23 July 1986 vol 102 cc509-11

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 4, at end insert— (2A) The provision which may be made under this section includes provision for the supply of such services and goods as are mentioned in subsection (1) above through any organisation; and the Minister shall establish an organisation through which such a supply may be made.".

1.35 am
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not intend to delay the House unnecessarily, but I do not think that you put our manuscript amendment on the Wages Bill to the vote.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

We have considered that measure. The amendment was not moved.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I moved it, Sir.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Lady spoke to the amendment, but she did not move it. I got the impression that the amendment was not to be pressed to a Division. We have passed that point now.

Mr. Gummer

The amendment seeks to meet the fears of Committee Members that there was no obligation to maintain an advisory service. The Government were determined that that should be a false fear, but, so that there would be no misunderstanding, this amendment was moved and agreed in their Lordships' House.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

To debate the Bill barely 24 hours after it was given its Third Reading in the other place is contrary to reasonable government. A clause on tenants' rights in Scotland has never appeared in the legislation before, and we are seeing for the first time a substantial number of amendments to the tenants' rights clauses. I protest, not to the Minister of State, but to the business managers who did this to him.

I welcome the slight move on the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. The "may" and "shall" debate seems to have ended in a draw. The Minister "may" still provide services, but, if he does, he "shall" provide a structure and organisation to carry them out.

We want to put on record our opposition to the present cuts. We want a commitment that there will he no further reductions in ADAS, whatever the revenue charging. The first pilot scheme — the plant laboratories charging scheme — has led to an 80 per cent. loss in the throughput of work in those laboratories, which is not an auspicious start to the new regime.

The same is true of the statement by Mr. Bawcutt, the head of the new ADAS marketing unit, that the aim of ADAS is to improve the efficiency of agriculture through the market. Does that mean producing still more? If so, will it be in the larger public interest? We believe that the charging clause, as admitted by Mr. Bawcutt, had a big effect on staff numbers and morale. We believe that the farmers' reaction at the Royal show, where they said that they would not pay for the services of ADAS if they could get advice free from other sources, is not an auspicious start.

I have tried to read Lord Belstead's attempts to differentiate between a chargeable and non-chargeable service. I still think that this is a recipe for disaster. The advisory work should be done free of charge, as a contribution by the Government towards re-orientating the whole of British agriculture.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have to remind the House that this amendment involves privilege.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I should like to place on record the fact that amendment No. 1 will at least give the Minister the power to carry on with the advisory organisation, and that is better than what we had previously. At least there will be some mechanism in operation. Perhaps in the future it will provide the possibility of a better service than we are being given in clause 1.

We would like to place on record the fact that we regret that enshrined in clause 1 are charges for ADAS services. We deprecate this very much. At at time when farming is up against it and farm incomes are the lowest that they have been for 10 years, the slapping on of charges for the very services that could rescue the industry is totally inappropriate.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

This amendment is a modest improvement on what was in the Bill when we first saw it. However, it must be said that it does not, of itself, describe how the Government intend to exercise their discretion to make charges. I had hoped that the Minister would use this opportunity to say something more about that. There has been considerable debate in another place about the appropriateness of charging for advice that is required to enable statutory obligations to be met. In another place the Government refused to accept an amendment along those lines. That has been a matter of great disappointment to the farming industry, which properly feels aggrieved that the Government have refused to make that change.

It is not satisfactory that a Bill of this kind should embody such a wide discretion without any indication being given of the circumstances in which the Minister may choose to decide that it is appropriate to offer services, advice or goods free of charge. Perhaps in answering this short debate the Minister will find it possible to say something about that, because the industry is hanging on his words.

I agree with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) about the inappropriateness of putting such an important Bill and such important amendments before us without proper time being allowed to lapse for consultations and proper consideration of appropriate amendments. This is not a serious way to treat the industry. We will have more to say about that in the context of amendments which follow this one, which is a relatively modest change from the initial Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the Minister have the leave of the House to speak again? It appears that he does.

Mr. Gummer

I am pleased that some hon. Members have seen that this amendment, like almost every amendment before the House, is an attempt by the Government to move towards the Opposition and others in the criticisms that they have made. In that sense it seems sensible to debate them tonight, even though it is a short time after their Lordships' debate, to try to ensure that the Bill goes on to the statute book so that the benefits of it can soon be seen in agriculture. I believe it to be a benefit to agriculture that in Britain, as in most of the Common Market countries, it will be seen that advice should be as close to the marketplace as possible. Payment for that advice is part of ensuring that the advice that is given is commercially valued. That is a positive good, and not a disadvantage.

That positive good was dramatically shown at the Royal show this year, when we saw how the French and British advisory services operated side by side. What became clear to people, perhaps for the first time, was the extent to which other advisory services charge for the service that they give. In the House we hear hon. Members say how valuable those advisory services have been to those countries. I find it odd that we should be so unique that we feel that the only thing that is worth while doing is something that is done free. The amendment would be a valuable contribution to the closer working of agriculture and the market.

1.45 am

The need to get advice on statutory obligations is important. A large number of them are there to benefit the industry. It is not unreasonable that the industry should bear the cost of much of that, which is why we have seen to it that in future that is what will happen. The purpose of the clause is not to cast any doubt on the advisability or the wish of the Government to continue an advisory service. The intention is to make the advisory service more effective, more market oriented, and more useful to the farmer. As some doubt was put into the minds of the people because of the phrases in the Bill, we tried to insert into it a phrase that would give us the obligation to retain advisory services, while enabling the organisation to respond sensibly and quickly to changes in demand for particular goods or services. That is why the amendment should help Opposition Members who had that fear. I hope that the House will accept it.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the right hon. Gentleman go a little further in explaining his attitude to the statutory obligations? He said that some of them would have to be paid for. Does he have it in mind to make some exceptions to the general rule about keeping close to the market?

Mr. Gummer

With my natural reticence, I was making sure that I had covered all eventualities. It is reasonable to charge for advice on statutory duties where they benefit the industry.

Question put and agreed to.

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