HL Deb 08 June 1920 vol 40 cc517-23

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. It seeks to make permanent one of the most far-reaching of minor reforms in the progress of good agriculture, and there is nothing really novel about it. It has been tested by three years of practical working during the war and since, and represents in a peculiar sense an agreed Bill; that is, agreed by all the interests actually concerned. It is a matter of some urgency that it should be passed, in view of the fact that the powers which we are now exercising with regard to seeds will lapse with the conclusion of Peace, and it is very essential in the interests of farming that the powers which have been so successfully exercised during the last few years should become part of the permanent law of the land.

I need hardly remind your Lordships that in these matters of insuring the purity. of our seed supplies this country has been behind the rest of the world, hitherto, and England has been notoriously backward in this, respect, and shown itself behind even Ireland and Scotland. At any rate, I hope we have seen the light now, and daring the activities of the Food Production Department it was decided some three years ago that the question of insuring that nothing but reasonably pure seeds were sown was a matter of national concern as well as a thing of importance from the point of view of the farmers' own interests.

It is equally expensive to endeavour to cultivate dead seed. It is as unprofitable as to try and set one's poultry upon infertile eggs. Therefore, in 1917 we first introduced the Seed Testing Orders which were issued under the authority of the Food Controller and which, in effect, merely compelled seed merchants to disclose the character of the goods they were selling to the farmers and to do that in writing or in the actual invoices. These Orders were not imposed upon the trade by a bureaucratic Government against the wishes of the trade; as a matter of fact, they were drawn up in consultation with the trade itself. I should like, if I may, to pay a tribute to the trade for the public-spirited way in which it not only submitted to these Orders, but actually collaborated in framing them so as to remove any possible reproach from the industry.

In 1918 the Regulations were simplified and modified, and it is those simplified Regulations which we propose to make permanent in the present Bill. After all, only results justify measures of this kind, and the results already have been extraordinarily favourable, and are so admitted to be, I imagine, by agriculturists through out the country. I remember one notable case during the food production campaign in which we imported a cargo of seed oats from Ireland. We were assured that they were of the highest quality, and undoubtedly they would have been distributed amongst the famers of this country to sow without any further examination if we had not had our embryo seed-testing system in existence. Upon that being applied we found that this cargo consisted of only 30 per cent. fertility, and one can easily imagine the waste of money, time, and indeed of food, that would have ensued if those oats had been sold instead of being applied, as we promptly did apply them, to the purposes of feeding stock. I only quote that as an example of the sort of evil which has to be contended against.

The main provision in the Bill requires the seller of any seed to give a certificate showing particulars as to the variety, purity, and germination of the article which is being sold, and that certificate has to be based upon an actual test at the seed-testing station. It is merely asking the seller to disclose what is the nature of the goods. We then make it unlawful either to sell, or knowingly to sow, seeds containing more than the prescribed percentage of injurious weeds. Such weeds may cause an injury not merely to the individual concerned but also to his neighbours. This is a very necessary power to take in a good many cases. There are also the necessary provisions for inspection to see that these Orders are carried out. I should like to reassure your Lordships at once by saying that this Bill does not contemplate the setting up of a large number of inspectors. That will be quite unnecessary. The whole of the work at present is done by four or five, and I think that that number will not have to be materially increased. Certain clauses deal with minor exemptions; for instance with seeds required for exhibitions, or seeds which may be offered for food rather than for purposes of sowing.

Clause 7 contains a very important provision—namely, that the Minister of Agriculture shall he empowered to make Regulations which will have the effect of keeping these Orders up-to-date and in touch with the new conditions of the time. Clause 8 sets forth the penalties for failing to comply with the Orders or for tampering with samples (which could be a possible source of evil) but the prosecutions can be instituted only by the Minister. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there are provisions for the setting up of the official seed testing stations which will be necessary to make this Act effective. It is provided that separate stations may be set up in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but it is permitted that there should be a central official station to cover the whole of the United Kingdom. I need hardly say that I, at any rate, hope very much that opinion in Scotland and Ireland may come round to recognising the real importance to them, as well as to every one else, of having a central station to certify, the hall-mark of which shall be recognised as being above reproach.

There is a great opportunity in this connection with regard to the developments that are taking place at Cambridge where there has been set up the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in connection with the Plant Breeding Institute, with which the name of Professor Biffen has been so long and so honourably connected. We see the possibility of making the establishment at Cambridge at least the equal of the great Institution of Sweden at Svalof. Already very large funds have been made available for this purpose. Nearly £100,000 is now available, half of which or nearly half has been collected by private effort. In this connection I cannot forbear from paying a tribute to the extraordinary energy and activity of Sir Lawrence Weaver, to whom this idea is largely due, and who has, quite outside the scope of his official duties, succeeded in collecting these large sums from enthusiasts and making this in stitution for the first time a practical possibility. We have reason to hope that we may now have the finest seed testing station in Europe established under these auspices, and I trust very much that it may be recognised before long as the one central official testing station for the whole of the United Kingdom. Up till now our export traders in seeds have been forced practically to send their samples to be tested at Zurich, and to attach to the goods that they sell the Zurich certificate in order to enable British seeds to get their proper market in the world. Surely that is a rather humiliating position for this country to be placed in, and I hope that very shortly the Cambridge certificate for the purposes of our seed trade may replace the Zurich certificate, and stand much higher in the estimation of the world.

In conclusion, I will emphasise that this Bill is not only in principle but in detail an agreed Bill; that it has been supported by unanimous resolutions passed by the Advisory Committee upon which the trade is largely represented—resolutions by the Agricultural Seed Trade Association—and, last but not least, it has been very strongly backed by the Consumers' Council. That is a body which as a rule is not altogether friendly to the agricultural interests, but in this matter it feels that it is looking after the interests of the allotment holders who, of course, are an increasing and very important body in this country. The Bill is very urgently needed, and I trust that your Lordships will not only give it a Second Reading but will speed it on its way as rapidly as possible.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lee of Fareham.)


My Lords, I desire to offer a word of warm welcome to this Bill, and I should like also to endorse what the noble Lord said about the energy and paiaiotism of the seed trade in England in endeavouring to put upon the market seeds free from adulteration and with a good germinating capacity. Your Lordships are probably aware that there has continued to be a great waste of money for many years past, at any rate by farmers, in sowing unfertile seeds and seeds of noxious weeds such, for instance, as dodder and charlock, which unfortunately are almost indistinguishable, except by an ex pert, from seeds of very high economic value. In my judgment the most valuable clause of this Bill is the one which provides for the setting up of official seed testing stations, and which very wisely provides for co-operation fort his purpose with the other parts of the United Kingdom and their respective Departments of Agriculture. I only hope that the noble Lord will be successful in avoiding that rather absurd jealousy and love of separate administration which unfortunately some in animates our several Departments of Agriculture, and in inducing all of them to co-operate in providing in the united Kingdom one seed testing station, with the official hall-mark upon it, which will enable all British seeds, whether sown in this country or exported abroad, to have upon them the imprimatur of purity and capacity for germination.

My only fear with regard to this is that it will not be enforced—will not, in fact, be taken advantage of by the farming community as it ought to be. There are, unfortunately, farmers all over the country who entirely ignored the provisions of the Seed Testing Order and have yet to learn the value to themselves of keeping their land clean. The present foulness of farm land, which I think must be admitted even by the Minister of Agriculture, is, undoubtedly, largely due to the adulteration of farm seeds. Whatever may result from the passage of the Agriculture Bill which is now being considered in another place I think there is no doubt that there will be a very large amount of land put down to temporary or, indeed, to permanent pasture, particularly in the West of England, and it is of the utmost importance that the seed for this purpose should be free from adulteration.

Unfortunately there is a large amount of grass and clover seed at the present time, coming particularly from Sweden, in spite of its great testing station, and from Denmark, which is of very much lower value, both as regards freedom from adulteration and as regards germinating capacity, than the best of the seed raised in this country. It is for that purpose that I wish to ask the Minister whether he can incorporate in his Bill some sort of protection to purchasers of foreign seeds which are sold possibly as English seeds in the English market. It is those foreign seeds which are the great source of loss to the farmer, and not, as a rule, those which are raised by good seedsmen in this country.

I have to apologise for having put down Amendments to this Bill before it has passed Second Reading, and those Amendments have, unfortunately, been circulated. But there is only one important Amendment that I desire to press upon the Minister of Agriculture, and that is that the provisions of this Bill should be extended to seeds imported from abroad. I should like to ask the Minister why it is that in Clause 2 he differentiates between agricultural and timber tree seeds on the one hand and horticultural seeds on the other. It is obviously quite impossible to differentiate—I am sure nature never intended to differentiate—between the seeds of peas, beans, cabbages, turnips, and the like, as sown in gardens and on agricultural land respectively. It is impossible to do it, and I should have thought that the machinery in each case ought to have been the same. In the case of gardeners and allotment holders the official seed testing station is not to be brought into operation apparently, but it is to be left to the Minister to decide what shall be a sufficient protection to prevent fraud being perpetrated upon gardeners or allotment holders.

As regards Clause 4 subsection (5) I think some provision ought to be incorporated in this clause to prevent any un fortunate salesman of seeds having proceedings brought against him in consequence of an unfair and inaccurate allegation on the part of a purchaser. I suggest that there is no proper provision there, and a man might quite easily be haled into Court under the provisions of that subsection, although entirely innocent. And why is Ireland in this, as in so many other Bills, treated totally differently from the rest of the United Kingdom? Why should there be a relaxation in the case of Ireland, which would, in certain cases or circumstances, allow Irish seed—and this applies very particularly to seed potatoes—to be placed upon our market without the hallmark which the Minister of Agriculture desires to place on seeds raised in other parts of the United Kingdom?

I dare say the noble Lord is well aware that a large quantity of seed potatoes is imported into this country from time to time which is said to be immune from the terrible wart disease. It is quite possible, as I read this Bill, for seed emanating from Ireland purporting to be of certain immune varieties, such as Majestic, or Kerr's Pink, or other varieties known to be immune from disease, proving in fact not to be immune, and involving considerable loss to the purchasers of those seed potatoes. In this matter I think that Ireland ought to be brought within the scope of the Bill, if only by way of protection to those, whether gardeners or farmers, who purchase seed raised in that country.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.