HL Deb 27 June 1910 vol 5 cc999-1004

*LORD CLIFFORD OF CHUDLEIGH rose to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries why the consent of the Board of Agriculture required by the Fertiliser and Feeding Stuffs Act, 1906, Section 6, subsection (3), was withheld in a case where the official analyst appointed by the county of Devon found that in the sample of cattle food in question there was forty per cent. of wood sawdust, and the county wished to prosecute under Section 6, subsection (1) (b).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question which I have put on the Paper is one that to agriculturists is of very considerable importance. When the Fertiliser and Feeding Stuffs Act was passing through Parliament the county councils objected very strongly, but ineffectively, to being dependent, in prosecuting for offences under the Act, upon the consent of the Board of Agriculture, and I think the present case brings out very forcibly the objections that there are to limiting the power of prosecution on the part of county councils. When one comes to consider it, one cannot help arriving at the conclusion that probably the only real solution of the difficulty, and it is a very grave one, is an amendment of the Act.

The facts of the case are practically these. The foodstuff in question was analysed according to the provision contained in the Act. Section 1, subsection (2), of the Act provides that— Every person who sells for use as food for cattle or poultry any article which has been artificially prepared shall give to the purchaser an invoice stating the name of the article, and whether it has been prepared from one substance or seed or from more than one substance or seed, and in the case of any article artificially prepared otherwise than by being mixed, broken, ground, or chopped, what are the respective percentages (if any) of oil and albuminoids contained in the article, and the invoice shall have effect as a warranty by the seller as to the facts so stated, except that as respects percentages the invoice shall have effect as a warranty only that the actual percentages do not differ from those stated in the invoice beyond the prescribed limits of error. In this case the invoice which was sent with the article only contained a statement as to the quantity of foodstuff sent. There was, however, a printed slip attached to one of the invoices which stated that this particular food was a mixture of pure cellulose and cane-sugar. It did contain the sugar—the molasses—and it contained this other material which the analyst said was wood sawdust. The manufacturers of the article practically do not dispute the fact that it had originally been wood sawdust, but they contend that— after wood has been chemically disintegrated and all its original and chief constituents have so radically been altered as in the process my company carried out, it must be clear to the most uninitiated that the original substance can no longer exist or be referred to as such. It is quite evident from this that the county analyst was right in saying that a large proportion was sawdust. Wood sawdust, of course, contains a large quantity of the materials which were claimed to be in this actual compound. There was cellulose tissue to the amount, I believe, of some thirty per cent. of the solid matter, whereas ordinary wood fibre would contain from about sixteen to seven.

The point which I wish particularly to bring before the House is that this entirely new substance is thrust upon the market without any recognised certificate of what it possesses, what is its food value, or anything of the kind, and when the Devon County Council, on behalf of the agriculturists of the county, endeavoured to prove whether or not this is valuable as a foodstuff, the Board of Agriculture refused their consent to a prosecution. The point they raised in defence of refusing their consent was that litigation would cast a heavy burden upon the rates of the litigant county and perhaps be unsuccessful. By this action the Board of Agriculture, having no power to decide the matter themselves, have barred the only means which the Act gives of deciding the question. Either there should be some power to prevent a manufacturer, however scientific, however useful his invention, placing upon the market an article of this description without some certificate of its nature, or else it should be open to a county council, on behalf of those who are aggrieved, to bring the matter before the only tribunal open to them—namely, a Court of law. I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name.


My Lords, the noble Lord at the commencement of his Question alludes to the necessity of the consent of the Board of Agriculture to prosecutions initiated by the different county councils. Your Lordships will remember that in 1906, when the amending Bill was before this House, the noble Lord brought forward an Amendment to the effect that the consent of the Board of Agriculture in such eases should not be required. He brought that Amendment forward in Committee, but withdrew it, I think, because he said it was not strictly consonant with the feeling of the House at the time. Your Lordships' House decided that question, and until the law is altered we must act on the law as it stands. The noble Lord will forgive me, therefore, if I do not pursue that portion of the subject further.

The Question which the noble Lord asks is, why the consent of the Board of Agriculture required by the Fertiliser and Feeding Stuffs Act, 1906, Section 6, subsection (3), was withheld in a case where the official analyst appointed by the county of Devon found that in the sample of cattle food in question there was forty per cent. of wood sawdust and the county wished to prosecute under Section 6, subsection (1) (b). The sanction of the Board was asked to a prosecution under Section 6 of the Act. Perhaps I may be allowed to read subsection (1) of that section— If any person who sells any article for use…as food for cattle or poultry commits any of the following offences,namely—

  1. (a) fails without reasonable excuse to give, on or before or as soon as possible after the delivery of the article, the invoice required by this Act; or
  2. (b) causes or permits any invoice or description of the article sold by him to be false in any material particular to the prejudice of the purchaser;
he shall, without prejudice to any civil liability, be liable, on summary conviction, for a first offence to a fine not exceeding £20, and for any subsequent offence to a line not exceeding £50. The Section further goes on to say— A prosecution for an offence under this section shall not be instituted except with the consent of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the Board shall not give such consent until the part of the sample retained by the agricultural analyst has been analysed, and a certificate of analysis given, by the chief analyst. The law has been carried out, for this has been done, and the Board do not find that the invoice or description was in any way false. That is what we had to decide. Examination of the material in question does not confirm in all particulars the statements made by the Devon analyst.

Perhaps I may be permitted to describe what this cattle foodstuff is. The article in question consists of a mixture of molasses and some absorbent material. The House knows that molasses is an extract from sugar-cane. It is a sticky liquid compound, and some absorbent material is added to the molasses whereby it is brought into a sort of powder, and then it is sprinkled over the hay or feeding stuff, instead of the old-fashioned way of putting the molasses into a watering-pot, adding water, and then watering the hay from the watering-pot. This absorbent material is derived from wood; there is no doubt at all about that. It is sawdust, which has undergone some chemical treatment—that is the secret of the trade—whereby it becomes to some extent digestible. That to laymen like most of us seems an extraordinary statement, but in this respect it does not stand alone. This particular cattle food must be classed with other sugar foods, the absorbent material of which is of very little or no feeding value. These absorbents are only used as a medium for absorbing the molasses, which, as your Lordships know, is a Valuable food for cattle. The Board are taking steps to investigate further the composition of this substance and its suitability as a feeding stuff. That, I think, answers the Question of the noble Lord.

Your Lordships must bear in mind that the Board are not only criticised under the Fertilisers and Feeding Stuffs Act from the agricultural point of view, but also by the traders themselves, and we have had several complaints against us of having been too free in sanctioning prosecutions. We are in a very difficult position, but we do the best we can to bold an impartial hand. Our great object is to try to do justice in each case. That is the reason why we have been unable to comply with the desire of the Devon County Council to begin a prosecution against the persons interested in this trade. We are informed that the analysis of the Devon county official is not correct, and we are also informed by our legal representatives that no action at law would hold water. In these circumstances I think your Lordships will admit that we have done the only thing that lay in our power.


I should like to ask the noble Earl whether the Board's analyst says that the statement which was made by the makers of this material—namely, that it was a mixture of pure cellulose and cane-sugar molasses—was in fact true. The county analyst only found that there was thirty per cent. of cellulose in the forty per cent. of solid matter.


I am not a chemist, and therefore my opinion is not worth much. The analysis of Mr. Dutton, the Devon analyst, only brings in thirty per cent. of cellulose. That, I am informed by our chemist, is incorrect, and that is one of the reasons why the local official's analysis could not be accepted by the chief analyst of the Government Department.


What I wanted to know was this—whether the analyst to the Board of Agriculture asserts that the definition given of this material by the makers is an absolutely true one?


I believe it is, and that there is no fraud. The chief analyst does not find anything wrong or anything fraudulent whatever.


I should like to ask the noble Earl whether, if further researches lead to the conclusion that sawdust treated in the manner he describes is less digestible rather than more so, he will consider whether leave might not be given to prosecute the seller of this article under Section 6, subsection 1 (c), of the Act, which makes a man liable to prosecution if he sells for use as food for cattle or poultry any article to which has been added any ingredient worthless for feeding purposes?


I believe the feeding quality of this cellulose is not great, but not absolutely worthless, and therefore I do not suppose a prosecution would lie.


I hope that the noble Earl will be able to give us some further information on this subject at a future time, because in this case there has been either decided fraud in selling stuff which has little or no value at 7s. a cwt., or else there are opportunities opening up for owners of timber to convert it in a manner and for a purpose which they have not hitherto found possible.


Noble Lords opposite have entirely shifted their ground. If they will bring forward this new point on a future occasion, I shall be only too glad to go into it to the best of my ability.