HC Deb 23 June 1993 vol 227 cc331-2

'. The functions of a committee appointed under section 19 of the Agricultural Marketing Act 1958 (consumers' committees and committees of investigation) shall not include the consideration of anything done by a milk marketing board—

  1. (a) by way of preparing for the enactment of this Part of this Act, or
  2. (b) in connection with an application under this Part of this Act or the carrying out of an approved scheme.'.—[ Mr. Jack.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Jack

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Wit h this it will be convenient also to discuss Government new clause 14—Functions under section 19 of the Agricultural Marketing Act 1958.

Mr. Jack

In taking these two clauses together, it is important to stress that the establishment of committees of investigation and consumer committees is provided for by the Agriculture Marketing Act 1958.

The committees' purpose is to consider complaints about the operation of the milk marketing scheme and the parallel operation for potatoes and to monitor their effect on consumers respectively. The approval and monitoring of the implementation of the reorganisation schemes are dealt with not by that mechanism but by the Agriculture Bill and, as the Bill says, are matters specifically for Ministers. It is unnecessary for the committees to oversee reorganisation.

The new clause makes it clear that the committees have no particular or specific role in boards' activities relating to schemes of reorganisation before or after enactment.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box and look forward to sparring with him many times in the future.

As the Minister will know, I agreed with the former Minister of State that I would not speak about the new clause on Report, as he had agreed.to withdraw it to allow consultation to take place outside the House. The Minister may also know that his hon. Friend has subsequently released me from that commitment.

Some concern is being expressed about the new clause. It appears to preclude the right of a consumer organisation outside the Government, the House and the milk marketing boards to complain about the operation of the scheme during the transitional period preceding vesting day when that transition might be considered to be the cause of any difficulties caused to milk consumers by the scheme. In effect, the transition could be used as an excuse for failure to report to Ministers and to put that report in writing. Moreover, by removing the power of the committee of investigation to investigate any act or admission by the board through the use of the same "transition" arguments—or excuses—the new clause may well prevent a perfectly legitimate investigation from taking place.

Ministers may have had in mind the possibility of prolonged and delayed investigation when the new clause was tabled, but it does not necessarily follow that an investigation will be prolonged or delayed. At a time when the milk marketing board is in turmoil—it is going through a period of great uncertainty—the new clause may well act against the public interest. Indeed, precisely that has happened on more than one occasion in recent months.

We believe that the powers in the Agricultural Marketing Act 1958 should be retained, in the widest possible sense—if only for brief investigations—and that other powers that might be available to Milk Marque or to consumer organisations are insufficient.

Mr. Jack

I thank the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) for his words of welcome. I have listened carefully to what he has said.

At times of change, there is a danger that people will use certain language to try to create a crisis where none exists. The hon. Gentleman said that the board was in a state of turmoil; my early observation suggests that it is working extremely hard to establish its future, while continuing to serve both consumers and providers of milk. Certainly, no flood of letters has arrived on my desk suggesting that it is in turmoil or that it is paying insufficient attention to detail.

The purpose of the committees, under the 1958 Act, is to consider complaints about the operation of the milk marketing scheme and to monitor its effect on consumers. By "complaints", I mean specific complaints about the day-to-day operation of the board. The committees are intended to examine the details of complaints; they were never designed to examine matters of policy. That is what the elected members of the board are there to do. They are the farmer representatives: they sit on the board to consider the complaints and concerns of the industry. It is important not to confuse the two sets of activities.

The committees were not established to judge what might be the nature of a successor organisation. The Bill sets out clearly the terms on which that job would be done. The hon. Member for Workington put his points precisely. Let me say to him with equal precision that this is not the committees' task, that I do not think that the board is in a state of turmoil and that the terms on which the interests of consumers, producers and others will be taken into account are clearly defined in clause 3.

Question put and agreed to.

Claused read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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