§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (LORD BLEDISLOE)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. It is a Bill which is intended to carry out one of the many recommendations of the Departmental Committee on distribution and prices of agricultural produce, which, as your Lordships will remember, sat about two years ago and was presided over by the noble Marquess, Lord Linlithgow. This Bill provides that in every market in Great Britain where livestock are sold by auction and where there is a weighbridge, the weighbridge must be used in the case of fat cattle before they are offered for sale by the auctioneer and the weight recorded thereby disclosed to prospective purchasers, either by the auctioneer himself or by some mechanical device attached to the weighbridge. It also provides that whereas, under the Markets and Fairs (Weighing of Cattle) Acts of 1887 and 1891, which are described in this Bill as the principal Acts, the Minister of Agriculture can exempt by Order small markets from the necessity of providing weighing accommodation and weighing equipment, the Minister's discretion in this respect shall be now 569 widened so as to enable him to grant exemption in other cases where, for instance, undue expense would be thrown thereby upon the market authorities. Then Clause 3 and the Schedule vary to some extent the payments charged for weighing.
That is the whole Bill. It is short, it is simple and it is not likely to be regarded as contentious, except possibly by those who consider that they derive some financial advantage from the present somewhat casual methods of selling fat, cattle in our markets, and it is unlikely that their views will find expression in your Lordships' House. The Bill has the full sympathy of the National Council of Agriculture for England and also of the National Farmers' Union.
It may, perhaps, be asked why sheep and pigs and store cattle are not included in the Bill. As regards sheep and pigs, their inclusion would probably involve the provision in markets of several different weighbridges and a congestion of market space, and would also probably have the effect of prolonging auction sales and result in farmers spending even more time at market than they do at the present time. There is some difference of opinion as to whether store cattle should be included in the Bill, but it should be remembered that the value of store cattle does not so much depend upon their actual weight as upon their capacity for putting on weight. Their value is determined largely by their breed, by their sex, by their condition at the time of sale and, above all, by the prospects of their early maturity.
The Bill will involve a change of practice in many markets in the country, but by no means in all. Out of 620 markets which will be affected by the Bill all fat cattle are already weighed before sale in 215, and weighing is practised to a greater or less extent in several of the others. It is hoped that the passage of this Bill will enable farmers to obtain on the whole better prices for their fat cattle without in any way increasing the cost of meat to the consumer. It will be of special value to them in those markets where there is a danger of prices being influenced by the butchers' rings which are supposed to have operated in no small extent since, the conclusion of the War, as the public announcement of the true weight of the animals will tend to 570 indicate in some measure the fairness or otherwise of the prices offered. I confidently commend this measure to the favourable consideration of your Lordships' House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Bledisloe.)
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, I certainly do not rise to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. I gladly acknowledge all that the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, said as regards its value to agriculture and agriculturists. It is not a very big measure and its operation will not be widely felt. It is rather in the limitations of the Bill than in its principles that I find one or two faults to which I would ask the noble Lord to direct his attention. But before I come to those points perhaps the noble Lord would answer a question concerning the figures that he mentioned. He said, as I understood him, that weighing was in operation in 215 markets out of 620.
§ LORD PARMOOR
That gives us the number of markets at which there is no weighing at the present time, but I should imagine from the knowledge that one gains from seeing a good many of these markets and from general agricultural information, that a considerably-greater number of cattle relatively are sold in the 215 markets than you would expect from that proportion of 215 to 620. In other words, it is in the large and important markets that the principle of weighing is established and that sale by weight is the principle in use at the present time. I am not quite sure whether the noble Lord is right in excluding store cattle. It would certainly be an advantage if these could be included, and the matters to which he has referred—differences in breed, character, and so on—are matters which you always have to take into consideration if you buy or sell either fat or store cattle by weight. For instance, I have on my farm a weighing machine for all cattle, and store cattle can be weighed as well as the others. The weight of store cattle is a matter of great importance to the farmer. He wants to know their weight and then he can make such alterations as are necessary according to the character of the cattle and the condition in which he finds them.
571 The limitations of this Bill strike me as very serious and I want to call the noble Lord's attention to them. In the first place it applies only toany market, fair, or mart, in or Pear which a weighing machine is provided.That, I think, is the provision of the principal Act, at any rate in substance but it is exactly in the case of those smaller markets or marts, where a weighing machine is not provided, that the difficulties and the unfairness of what he has called the butchers' rings ordinarily arise. If you go to a large enough market you need not be afraid of a butchers' ring, but if you go to a small market it is a very formidable thing indeed. It may be asked in reply how you can have weighing if there is no weighing machine in or near the market. But that is exactly what, from the agriculturists point of view, we want to have provided. It is at those markets particularly that we want a provision that cattle should be sold by weight and not merely according to the contest between the farmer and the butcher. It is for the noble Lord, of course, to say how it is to be done at these smaller markets, but in order to make this measure a measure of real advantage to the agricultural industry it is in my view exactly at these markets that we want to ensure the selling of fat cattle by weight, as is done in the larger markets at the present time.
Then, in subsection (4) of the first clause, a very wide power of dispensation is given to the Minister—a power far wider than is given under the provisions of the Act of 1887 or that of 1891. The subsection says:—The Minister may by order declare that the foregoing provisions of this Act shall not apply as respects any market, fair or mart.In other words, you give a general dispensing power to the Minister to withhold from agriculturists the whole advantage which Parliament purports give them. I think that that power is far too wide and that no such discretion ought to be placed in the hands of any Minister, particularly since, as the noble Lord knows very well, it is a natural fact that in matters of this kind successive Ministers may have different views as to the exercise of a discretion of this sort. Some may hold the view that it is hard to call for the provision of weighing places and weighing machines while others 572 may think that the agricultural side ought to have the utmost consideration and that the dispensing power ought seldom, if ever, to be exercised. I hope that the noble Lord, looking at this matter from the point of view of farmers and agriculturists, will feel that it is a very wide dispensing power. It enables the Minister for the time being to negative all the provisions which are said to be so important—and I agree that they are important—by the noble Lord opposite.
Further, Clause 2 is not by any means in favour of agriculturists. In fact it is, if I may use the expression, adverse to them. The marginal note is expressive. It reads:—Extension of powers of Minister to grant exemption from provisions of principal Acts.…That is quite true. We have these Acts of 1887 and 1891, containing statutory provisions in favour of agriculturists which can be suspended only in certain specified cases by the action of the Minister. This Bill brings in a provision which practically enables the Minister to do so in any case at his own discretion. This I think is a most reactionary proposal so far as agriculture is concerned.
Let me read the provision to the noble Lord. It says that the limitations described shall cease to have effect —that is to say, the provisions as to exemption in specified cases—and the power of the Minister under the said section"—that is of the Act. of 1887—to exempt any market or fair from the requirements of that Act as to the provision and maintenance of facilities for weighing cattle"—which, of course, are what agriculturists desire—and the power of the Minister under Section four of the Act of 1891 to exempt an auctioneer from the requirements of that section in respect of the sale of cattle at a mart"—your Lordships may know that the effect of the Act of 1891 was to extend the operation of the Act of 1887 to an auctioneer's mart, the former Act applying only to toll markets where there was a toll authority—may be exercised respectively with respect to any market or fair and with respect to any auctioneer where the circumstances are in the opinion of the Minister such as to render the enforcement of those requirements inexpedient.573 Surely that is a very unwise form for legislation to take, leaving the existing rights of agriculturists in certain cases wholly at the discretion of the Minister.
The noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, knows very well that the Act of 1887 does not allow a discretion of that kind, nor does the Act of l891. Therefore, in this Bill, which purports to be for the benefit of agriculture and agriculturists, you give a wider power than the Minister of Agriculture has ever had before to nullify the conditions of the Bill to the extent that he can deprive the agriculturists in any particular district of the benefit of the Bill altogether. That is a very wide dispensing power. It appears to me to be a dispensing power that ought not to be allowed in any case in that wide form as against a statutory provision, and certainly not in a case of this kind where the agriculturists who are most anxious to have this reform generally have access only to small markets in small areas.
Then, Clause 3 is a very peculiar one. I doubt very much whether it would not come under the question of privilege, but that does not matter at the present moment. Under the existing Acts there is a schedule which allows, in the case of the weighing of every head of cattle other than sheep or swine, a charge of 2d. and for every less number of sheep than six 1d. This Bill, which purports to be in favour of agriculturists and agriculture, raises the charge of 2d. to 6d. Under the schedule the charge for cattle other than sheep or swine is to be one "not exceeding 6d." per head, whereas the existing provision is "not exceeding 2d.," and as regards sheep, which do for certain purposes come within the Act, whereas the existing maximum charge is 1d., it is to be raised to 3d. It does not occur to me that that is a matter of great advantage to agriculturists. One cannot help feeling that a schedule of this kind has not been introduced in their interests, but in the interests of other persons who naturally require from their point of view higher charges. Therefore, my enthusiasm for this Bill is limited by the three points which I have mentioned—namely, (1), that the first clause can be dispensed with absolutely at the discretion of the Minister; (2), that the same is true of the second clause independently of existing limitations on his power; and (3), that the schedule enables the charges 574 made to agriculturists for weighing their cattle or sheep to be raised to the extent I have mentioned. No doubt a Bill of this kind, having regard to the general dicontent and difficulties of agriculturists, only applies very homoeopathic doses to the worst of them, and as I read the Bill in those cases where homoeopathic doses are most wanted they will not be obtained. I do not rise to raise any objection to the Second Beading of the Bill, but I hope that the noble Lord, in considering its future course, will have attention paid to the points that I have made.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I can, of course, assure the noble Lord that every attention will be given to the various points which he has raised. I should be sorry if I should myself be suspected of sympathising in any way with a measure which on balance is not going to benefit materially the agricultural community, but in these matters in this country and where agricultural affairs are concerned we have to move somewhat slowly.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
Otherwise there is serious danger of defeating the intention of our measure by creating and arousing hostile interests or hostile comments. I am not sure whether the noble and learned Lord was quite right in indicating that in the larger markets anything in the nature of a butchers' ring was not often to be found.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My own experience, I am sorry to say, is that such rings are to be found in some of the larger markets. it is perfectly true that in the smaller markets such operations are easier and bring about greater injustice, but it is in these smaller markets that it is peculiarly difficult to establish a hard and fast system such as is contemplated under the Bill in the ultimate results. After all it involves a considerable expenditure of money, which may be thrown upon a. market authority and which may be out of all proportion to the profits to be obtained from the conduct of the market. The noble 575 and learned Lord expressed some doubt as to whether store cattle should not be included. Whatever may be my own ideas on the subject, and I confess I have some doubt myself, there is certainly no unanimity of opinion among stockholders on the subject. The value of store stock does not depend in the main upon the weight of the store stock as shown upon the weighing machine, but to a greater extent upon the fattening potentialities.
The main burden of the noble Lord's criticism is to the effect that we ought to tighten up rather than in any way loosen the system of procedure as adopted in the cattle markets of the country to-day, and incidentally he asked, I think, as to where this practice is already in existence—preponderating existence. In Scotland it is almost universal in practice to-day and to a large and increasing extent in the North of England. In the South of England the practice is not so common. He criticised an extension of the dispensing power of the Minister of Agriculture. Some discretion is obviously desirable in this matter and that discretion, as we think, can better be exercised by the Minister of Agriculture detached from all personal interest and advised by the best advisers in the country on such a subject, than by anybody else. The very fact that the former Acts of 1887 and 1891 only required the provision of weighbridges but did not require that animals should be weighed upon them makes it all the more necessary, when you introduce a Bill to provide for compulsory weighing, that you should give some discretion to the Minister, so that the process may be a gradual one and a very heavy burden may not be thrown upon market authorities and others in the provision of the necessary appliances. I will only say that I hope your Lordships will give a Second Reading to the Bill and that any reasonable Amendment submitted for the Committee Stage will, of course, receive most sympathetic consideration by my Department.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.