HL Deb 17 June 1926 vol 64 cc450-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. It is a Bill which seeks to amend and amplify the Fertilisers and Feeding Stuffs Act of 1906, which, in the opinion of the farmers, traders and local authorities alike, as the result of their respective experiences, has proved to be largely unworkable and quite inadequate for its intended purpose. Although the bulk of the manufacturers and distributors of these commodities are reputable people and their goods are, generally speaking, of reliable quality, it is impossible to disguise the fact that in recent years, and especially since the War, quite a considerable quantity of adulterated and relatively worthless fertilisers and stock foods have been sold to farmers and small holders, particularly to stock owners, with no adequate security against their being imposed upon or the vendors of these agricultural requisites being penalised, as I am sure your Lordships will agree they ought to be.

These numerous and widespread complaints against the existing law on this subject culminated in the appointment, three years ago, of a Departmental Committee under the Chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Clinton, and I desire to take this opportunity of expressing publicly to him the thanks of my Department and of the agricultural community for the invaluable work which he and his colleagues performed in thoroughly investigating this problem and preparing the Report upon which this Bill is almost entirely founded. The Schedules to the Bill, which are somewhat technical, embody the Report of a further Committee composed of scientists as well as the representatives of farmers and traders over which Lord Clinton also presided. These Schedules are the most interesting and probably the most important part of the present Bill.

The principal objects of this Bill are as follows: (1), To indicate more clearly the various articles to which the law shall in future apply; (2), to amend the present: law requiring the vendor of certain fertilisers and feeding stuffs to give a warranty to the purchaser upon which a civil action can be founded; (3), to provide facilities for testing such a warranty by analysis and to enable the purchaser to do so without being exposed, as he is at present, to the risk of becoming involved as a witness in criminal proceedings against the vendor. This is one of the great difficulties under the present Act. The average farmer is most reluctant, even when he is conscious that his foodstuffs or fertilisers are adulterated, to appear as a witness in criminal proceedings that are instituted by a county council. The fourth object of the Bill—and this perhaps is its most important object—is to give additional protection to purchasers and reputable members of the trade against a minority of fraudulent traders by facilitating criminal proceedings in cases of fraud. Finally, the Bill is designed to limit the criminal liability of the vendor to goods which are in his possession or under his control.

The main feature of the Bill from a legal standpoint is that it separates for the first time the enforcement of the civil rights of the purchaser from criminal proceedings instituted by local authorities. Under the present Act the statement in an invoice which constitutes the warranty to the purchaser is also a description in respect of which a local authority may institute criminal proceedings in the event of its being found to be incorrect. The attempt to make the same statement serve as a basis for both civil and criminal proceedings has resulted in preventing the satisfactory operation of the present law as regards both civil actions and prosecutions. Purchasers, generally speaking, decline to have analyses made to test the warranty with a view to the enforcement of their civil rights because, as I have said, of their reluctance to appear as witnesses in criminal proceedings.

The articles to which this Bill is intended to apply are set out in the Schedules. The First Schedule contains the names of articles and classes of articles to which the whole of the Bill will apply. The Second Schedule contains the names of articles to which the provisions as regards the giving of warranties apply, but to which those relating to criminal proceedings for false description do not apply. The provisions as to warranty are the same in principle as those already in operation. The vendor of any article which is specified in the First or Second Schedule is required to give to the purchaser a statutory statement (which is the equivalent of an invoice under the present Act) stating the name of the article and certain prescribed particulars. These particulars are, of course, in the case of fertilisers, the amounts of nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash respectively and, in the case of foodstuffs, the amounts of albuminoids (or proteins) oil or fat, mineral matter, sugar and in some cases mineral substances such as phosphates. This statutory statement is made a warranty. If the vendor of a fertiliser or feeding stuff not included in either the First or the Second Schedule makes voluntarily a similar statement in writing, this statement is also made a warranty by the Bill.

I want to draw particular attention to the Fourth Schedule, which is an entirely new departure in legislation of this character. This Schedule comprises definitions of trade names, and the Bill provides that an article sold under any one of these defined names must comply with the definition. Perhaps I may be allowed to give some instances. You will find what is generally called basic slag accurately defined in the Fourth Schedule, but what is very often sold as basic slag consists to some extent of mineral phosphates which are largely insoluble and are accordingly of far less value than the phosphates contained in basic slag. The same applies to the article known as fish guano, which, as often sold, consists of fish refuse together with guano. As your Lordships will be aware, guano, properly defined, is the fossilised excrement of sea birds and has nothing to do with fish, but very often fish guano is sold which is a mixture of the two. The same applies to sugar beet molasses, an article which is now in considerable supply and demand as a foodstuff for stock. This is very often adulterated with glucose and other similar products. The same applies also to white fish meal, which is very largely used for feeding pigs. White fish meal, if it is adulterated or if it has a high percentage of oil in it, is apt to cause considerable taint in bacon which is produced from pigs that have been fed from it, and the same remark applies even to barley meal.

There is a recent case on record where the Ministry of Agriculture instituted proceedings under the Merchandise Marks Act against a trader who had sold as barley meal an article which contained no less than 15 per cent. of tapioca meal, which is a cheaper substance, and 10 per cent. of palm kernel meal. Trade witnesses who were called for the defence gave evidence that it was the practice to describe as barley meal meal which contained 50 per cent. only of barley meal mixed with other ingredients. The evidence of those witnesses, which is contrary to the fact, was accepted by the Court, and the case was dismissed, and I think that was a good illustration of the necessity of having definitions included in the Bill even of such substances as barley meal.

Provisions are embodied in the Bill similar to those in the present Act for the taking of representative samples and the analysis of such samples by an official analyst at a fee to be fixed by the local authority, but this Bill differs from the present law in requiring such samples, if needed for criminal proceedings, to be taken on the premises of the vendor and not on those of the purchaser, which is the usual custom at the present time. This is, in fact, a great improvement because, as it is only possible to prosecute in respect of samples delivered to the purchaser, it is now exceedingly difficult for the official samplers to obtain samples from the purchasers, whose evidence is often withheld. To show the way in which this operates at the present time, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to mention the case of a trader who adopted the practice of selling wheat offals 20 per cent, of which were plaster of Paris. On the fact becoming known the official samplers of many local authorities made every effort to obtain samples of the mixture with a view to prosecution, but more than a year elapsed before any officer succeeded in obtaining the necessary evidence. Under this Bill it will be possible to obtain the necessary evidence in the course of a few hours.

Similarly, in order to ensure the greater correctness of the warranty and to deal effectively with fraudulent vendors, the Bill provides that the particulars required to be given in the statutory statement shall be applied to the goods before their despatch from a factory or warehouse and it is made an offence to apply a false description. To meet cases where it would be inconvenient or impossible to apply the full particulars to the article itself, the Bill permits the vendor to apply them by means of a mark or code sign indicating a description of the article as entered in a list or register. In order to prevent fraudulent vendors from applying a correct description of the goods by means of a code sign and giving the purchaser too favourable a description in the statutory statement, at is made an offence if the statutory statement differs to a material extent from the definition of the mark as entered in the vendor's register, and the code sign must be added to the statutory statement.

The Third and Fifth Schedules relate to relatively worthless and deleterious ingredients in a feeding stuff. In the case of such substances as wheat straw, or peat, or sawdust their presence in the consignment must be declared. Deleterious substances such as sand, or poisonous substances, must not be introduced at all. The Bill provides that the Minister of Agriculture and the Board of Agriculture for Scotland shall jointly appoint an Advisory Council and may make Regulations for certain purposes after consultation with the Council. These powers are similar to those contained in the present Act with one important addition—namely, the power to make Regulations for varying the schedules. This power is required as it may be necessary to add articles to the Schedules from time to time or to alter the particulars required to be stated according to current requirements. I may, perhaps, give your Lordships a good illustration of this in connection with a substance called cyanamide, which is obtained by a process of extracting nitrogen from the air by means of electricity.

This power, which appears to be somewhat large, is really not so extensive as it may appear to be since almost everything that is commonly used as a fertiliser or feeding stuff is already included in the Schedules. The requirements of the present Act that the consent of the Ministry or the Scottish Board, based on a certificate by the Government chemist, must be given before prosecutions can be instituted by a local authority for certain offences is retained in principle, but I am glad to state that it will now be limited to false statutory statements involving allegations of fraud or culpable negligence. It will no longer be necessary to obtain such consent where there is failure on the part of the vendor to furnish a statutory statement or invoice. It may well be argued that a distinction should be made between fraudulent dealing and accidental or unintentional failure to fulfil a guarantee, and, if this is so, it would seem that the consent of the Ministry or Board as a condition precedent to a prosecution in all cases where the charge involves a suggestion of moral obliquity would be preferable to any other machinery to effect this process.

The other provisions of the Bill are either ancillary or relate to administrative details with which I do not think it necessary to trouble your Lordships. Your Lordships, and Lord Banbury in particular, will probably be pleased to know that the Ministry does not contemplate that it will be necessary to appoint any new officials for the purposes of this Bill. One notable tribute to this Bill is that the Government of Northern Ireland have asked that it be made applicable to that part of the United Kingdom. It is proposed to bring the Bill into operation as soon after January 1 next as it is found possible to frame the necessary Regulations. I beg to move that the Bill he now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Bledisloe.)


My Lords, I think the noble Lord is well justified in saying that this Bill deals with matters which in substance have already been dealt with, but deals with them in what he considers to be a more effective way. I am not going into the general questions which he has raised as regards various substances and how far they are true substances, and how far they are substances which ought not to be there, but I think on general principles the Bill is right, and on the point which he has stressed—namely, the distinction between civil and criminal liabilities—I think it is drawn on the right lines. I agree that, particularly as regards farmers, if you want the Bill to operate fairly and be acceptable, you must not render them liable to criminal proceedings in respect of matters which ought to come within the category of civil liabilities. So far as I am concerned I think the Bill is a good one, and I hope it will obtain a place on the Statute Book. If any question should arise with regard to details it can of course be raised in Committee.

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