HC Deb 23 June 1993 vol 227 cc355-9
Mr. Campbell-Savours

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 15, after 'principles', insert 'and details'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 6, in clause 4, page 4, line 20, after 'above', insert 'following consultation with parties likely to be affected directly or indirectly by the proposed modifications'. No. 7, in page 4, line 26, at end insert ', and it shall also give then a statement as to what consultation has taken place with producers, consumers, retailers and purchasers as to the proposed modifications.'. No. 8, in page 4, line 36, at end insert— '(d) provided the authority with a statement as to the nature of any consultations which have taken place with those producers, retailers, consumers and purchasers of milk as it thinks appropriate on the proposed modifications.'.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

This set of four amendments is about the issue of consultation. It follows a long series of debates in Committee where we repeatedly raised the question of consultation. We raised the profile of the issue because throughout our own consultation with the industry and our discussions with people in the industry, in particular the processors, we repeatedly heard comment on the lack of consultation. In Committee the Minister told us that a particular organisation had been consulted but the two representatives of that organisation, sitting at the back of the Committee Room, shook their heads. So great has been the misunderstanding of Ministers about their responsibilities to outside organisations.

The Government have dragged their feet on consultation since the beginning with the result that at one stage or another. in the process the dairy trade, food manufacturers, retailers and producers have all expressed opposition to aspects of the Bill. We are entitled to know why the Government have been so tardy. Why have we had to drag Ministers, struggling, protesting and bickering, through the hoop of consultation? Even today the Bill says far too little about consultation.

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Furthermore, it makes totally inadequate provision for approved applications to be endorsed by the House of Commons. I accept that paragraphs (a) and (b) of clause 3(2) refer to the principle of consultation, saying that the authority must be satisfied that the board has taken reasonable steps to bring the principles of the schemes to persons who are registered producers and referring to the fact that the authority must consult purchasers, producers, retailers and consumers about the principles of the scheme. However, the provision is far too limited. The prospect of an unregulated monopoly fiercely requires the placing on the Government of an obligation to consult. And the consultation must be on principles, and not just about the details of the scheme.

Details of the scheme could arguably include the machinery for fixing prices; the arrangements for dealing with shortages in the market place; the standards of quality of milk sold by Milk Marque; the provision, or otherwise, of an independent arbitration or disputes procedure, as referred to in another amendment; the availability to producers outside the scheme of any assets that might be retained by Milk Marque, such as National Milk Records, Genus and Central Testing, which, as I said to Ministers at the Committee stage, would amount to a questionable placing of those assets; the arrangements in an over-supplied market where supplies might be rationed, as referred to in the intention to purchase document that the milk marketing board sent out to prospective buyers in March; the approach to be adopted by the milk marketing board and the residuary body to outstanding claims; the question of the incurring of expenditure by the Milk Marketing Board on the promotion of Milk Marque, which I understand to be causing quite some comment in the farming press of the United Kingdom; the attitude to be taken by Milk Marque to the supply of milk in conditions of vertical integration with processor plants in the future, in the way that I was suggesting in the debate on earlier amendments; the provision that is being made for the pensioners of the board's existing operation, which is to be dealt with in an amendment to be moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping); and the treatment of direct sellers, some of whom remain uneasy about certain aspects of the Bill, despite the fairly substantial, concessions that the Government have been prepared to make.

There are several areas in which future arguments should be avoided at all costs. To avoid those arguments, if we are not to have the disputes procedure for which we have argued today, we must have a proper process of consultation. Why should the industry have to worry about this potential lack of consultation in the future? I do not know whether the Minister has read the comments that Lord Howe made in another place. The noble Lord said that the principles of the scheme are its main elements—those elements that are enough to give a sufficient picture of the scheme as a whole so that consultees can reasonably be expected to form the view without needing the full details before them. The noble Lord said that excluded would be, for example, details such as the schedule of properties or the commercially sensitive and confidential elements of the scheme.

I remind the Government that this is enabling legislation and that Parliament is having its last say. In the wider sense of the approval of schemes, these matters will not come before us again. If only for that reason, there is a real need for the most sophisticated type of consultation procedure to be put in place. We need the fullest possible transparency, not only with regard to the scheme originally submitted but with regard to variations and modifications.

If the Government are minded to turn down these amendments, they would do well to recall the bitter experience of the milk marketing board in respect of its consultation on the milk requirements of the processors. The consultation did not work. It was wrong. It did not operate correctly—a fact that the Minister should bear in mind when responding. On that occasion the voice of the industry was unanimous in crying, "Stop the bullying." That was the industry's response to the way in which the milk marketing board conducted its affairs. The then Secretary of State had to intervene and almost instruct the board to withdraw the document that it had sent out, which had clearly upset so many of the processors. Of course, the milk marketing board responded.

Many of these matters could be dealt with if the proper consultation procedures were put in place. We have the support of the Dairy Trade Federation and the Food and Drink Federation for the amendments. Those organisations feel strongly about these matters, and the Government should respond sympathetically.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is right to raise the very important subject of consultation. In the short time that I have been in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food it must be one of the most-consulted Government Departments. Hardly a day goes by without someone writing to us about something. It is not as if we live in a secret world in which things happen and decisions are taken without probing. The very fact that we are debating these matters today is a further example of the type of probing that can take place in respect of an exercise like this. If, at the end of the day, people are concerned about what the board proposes, the House can always be used as a forum for such discussion. The potential role of Parliament should not be ignored.

The amendments seek to define in clear terms various ways in which the consultation process might be carried out. I am concerned about that. I can see no circumstances in which, once the board produces its suggestions, people—whether suppliers or processors—will not come forward and give us their views in no uncertain terms.

With regard to the obligations of the authority and Ministers in respect of these matters, clause 3(2)(b) makes it abundantly clear that the authority to which the application is made shall not grant it except in stated circumstances. The provision goes on to talk about consultation, and makes it very clear indeed that the process must be carried out thoroughly. It also makes clear that, in determining our role in this matter, we have to take into account the interests of consumers and producers of milk. Our obligations could not be clearer.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Why does the provision preclude detail?

Mr. Jack

I imagine that the hon. Gentleman, because of his political persuasion, has never made an application—perhaps I do him a disservice, so I shall speak very quietly—for shares in a company. [ Interruption.] We have discovered a new truth about the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to cast aspersions. Opposition Members have cast enough of them in the past 24 hours. I say to the hon. Gentleman as an honourable man, that if his eye had lighted on the prospectuses for the sale of shares in many companies that have sought to raise extra capital in the market, or have made a new issue, he would have seen the amount of detail that is necessary to satisfy even the most sophisticated of investors. Every single detail would not be provided, despite what the amendment proposed. If the amendment were accepted every lease, terms of property and every other single fact would have to be accumulated in some vast volume. A pantechnicon with that volume would arrive at the home of every consultee and a forklift truck would be needed to carry it in.

I do not believe that that is what the hon. Member for Workington had in mind. I believe that he wants sufficient detail and information to he given so that people can make informed choices. We. shall look carefully at the propositions that are presented to us for the means to provide such information.

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think, however, that our decision-making process will be clothed in total secrecy. Once we have looked at the boards' proposals, we will produce our description of them. We will include such detail as we consider necessary to enable consultees to comment on the matters that will affect them. We will exclude, quite properly, commercially sensitive information and details that are irrelevant to the judgment of the proposals on, for example, lists of property.

The hon. Gentleman, with his commercial experience, will appreciate the type of questions that people who are interested in the proposals will want to raise. If I were a supplier of milk, I would want to know the terms upon which my business would be conducted. I should like to know what I was expected to do. I should also like to know what Milk Marque was expected to do and when I would be paid. I should like to know how my milk would be paid for, when it would be collected and under what terms of the contract. Those are the things that matter to farmers. I do not believe that they would be wildly concerned as to whether the office typewriter is leased, bought or whatever.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

What about the boards' other assets?

Mr. Jack

I shall come to them in a moment, but they will want Co know about the terms under which their members may acquire their milk.

I appreciate that the document that was sent out by the Milk Marque did not get a warm and friendly press. I can understand why. The hon. Member for Workington is assiduous in his preparation, however, and if he delves into that document he will find that it contains some warm and friendly phrases. It talks about wanting to develop partnerships and offer service. That is the language that producers understand. The document also provides a variety of specimen types of contract. Those are the details for which those who are seeking supplies of milk will look. I feel certain the propositions from the boards will reflect on those issues.

The central issue is found in clause 3, which puts a clear responsibility on Ministers to ensure that the right detail is considered. We want to be able to paint our pictures. I am sure that the hon. Member for Workington will want to put his own questions and we may want to ask some in our consultation document. That important safeguard will ensure that people can give us their views.

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Someone may say that he would have liked to have seen more detail on a certain point. Such a sensible question is what proper consultation is all about. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, all the various interested bodies will certainly not be backward in coming forward with their propositions concerning the proposed major change.

I have considered the Opposition amendments and I cannot recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to support them.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

How sad.

Mr. Jack

It is a great sadness because some of them are drafted in such a way that they would not work.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Perhaps that was the reason for them.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman has admitted that he has drafted amendments that do not work, but he invites the House to support them. They are the product of the "Don't work" party. For that reason, I need not detain the House with a detailed examination of them.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Jack

I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 3, line 44, leave out 'milk production' and insert 'the occurrence'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss also Government amendments Nos. 11 and 12.

Mr. Jack

The amendments, unlike those tabled by the Opposition, work and make a small technical correction to clause 3(5). which deals with the possible basis for the distribution of hoard assets to producers. The present reference to milk production is fine in so far as it could refer to a person who is registered as a producer on a specified day or within a specified period.

If a board wanted to base its distribution of assets on a producer's litreage of milk or the value of it, it would refer to milk produced and marketed. Some milk is produced and not marketed, however; for example, if it is fed to calves on farms. The new wording makes the necessary distinction.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 11 in page 3, line 45, after 'year)', insert 'of any relevant matter'.

No. 12, in page 3, line 48, at end insert—

'(6) For the purposes of subsection (5) above, the following are relevant matters—

  1. (a) the production of milk, and
  2. (b) the sale of milk by the person responsible for producing it.

(7) For the purposes of subsection (6)(b) above, milk shall be treated as sold if it is sold in the form of milk or in the form of a product which is wholly or partly derived from milk or which includes milk as an ingredient.'.—[Mr. Jack.]

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