§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
My Lords, yesterday we had an exceedingly interesting debate on the subject of horticulture and the marketing of fruit and vegetables. At the end of that debate, I think it was agreed on most sides of the House, if not on all sides, that a lot could be done to solve the problem facing that industry by greater co-operation within the industry. I also suggested to noble Lords that one of the most useful steps which His Majesty's Government were taking to give assistance was by means of the Agricultural Marketing Acts. Very appropriately, this Agricultural Marketing Bill comes before your Lordships for consideration this afternoon. The original Acts, of course, provide for schemes by which producers can combine together to regulate their marketing and to help the individual members concerned in the schemes.
Marketing and distribution are important subjects. The Government set up a Committee, under the Chairmanship 132 of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to examine these questions, and that Committee produced an extremely useful and weighty Report. Their recommendations and the implications of those recommendations, were so far-reaching that the Report is still under consideration. It may well be that some of your Lordships may feel that action has been too long delayed, but when we consider how our lives may be affected by these decisions, we may conclude that it is far better to delay a final judgment and not to take quick decisions and possibly fall into error. While the Report is still being considered, it is obvious that the industry must carry on, and that we must do everything we can to produce as much food as possible. Therefore it was thought wise to introduce this Bill to help marketing schemes to be revived and new schemes to be brought into operation. In case of any misunderstanding on this subject, I should like to make it clear to your Lordships that this Bill in no way prejudices final decisions on the Lucas Report.
The Agricultural Marketing Acts marked an important step in the history of agriculture. I should like to pay tribute to the father of agricultural marketing schemes, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, who introduced the original Act in this House and who must contemplate with great satisfaction the results of, for instance, the Milk Marketing Board, which has had such successful results in our economy. We look to the revival of marketing schemes. Already a scheme for cucumbers and tomatoes is being considered; a further scheme for wool marketing is being prepared by the National Farmers' Union, and no doubt other schemes will come forward. The purpose of the Bill before your Lordships this afternoon is to tidy up the Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933, to bring them up to date and make them suitable for present-day conditions, which are considerably different from those of pre-war years.
When Parliament gives wide powers, it insists on proper safeguards against the abuse of those powers. Under the Marketing Acts considerable powers were given to the marketing boards and I must say that in the past these boards have used their powers extremely wisely. I make no criticism. But the Government must always be alive to the possibility, 133 under changed conditions, of these powers being used against the interests of the consumers. It is also important to remember that since the passing of the Agriculture Act of 1947, which guaranteed markets and prices for certain commodities, the consumer is doubly interested in agriculture, first as a consumer and secondly as a taxpayer who, under certain conditions, may be called on to pay the bill. In the measure now before your Lordships we strengthen the safeguards protecting the consumer, and at the same time take great care to prevent any tendency in the boards towards monopolistic or restrictive practices. There is, of course, the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Act of 1948, but this could not apply to marketing boards which are set up by Statute. Therefore, we must have the definite safeguards proposed in the Bill.
At the same time we also extend the powers of the boards. The Report of the Lucas Committee pointed out clearly that the boards could not only have a considerable effect on marketing but would also be extremely useful bodies for increasing productive efficiency, and in line with this we give further powers to the boards so that they can promote more orderly marketing and more efficient production. Clauses 1 to 4 deal with the safeguards. Clause 1 lays down the number of members of the boards—not fewer than eight or more than twenty-four, unless the Minister thinks fit. The qualification is necessary in case some far-reaching scheme may require a larger board. For instance, the wool marketing scheme which is being considered may apply to Northern Ireland as well as to the whole of the British Isles, and in this case it might be necessary to extend the board. The clause also provides that the Minister shall nominate not fewer than two members or more than one-fifth of the Board.
Clause 2 is more far-reaching. It enables the Minister to stop a board doing anything which he considers is not in the public interest. Your Lordships may think that this gives the Minister excessive powers of discretion, but you will find that these powers are curtailed by the safeguards which prevent the Minister from acting with, perhaps, excessive zeal or in any improper way. Subsection (2) limits the intervention of the Minister to questions in regard to restric- 134 tions on the purposes for which the product is used, to limiting quantity, to regulating price and to limiting classes of persons to whom or through whose agency the commodity may be sold. These are not the only safeguards. If the Minister thinks that an action of a board is contrary to the public interest, he has to notify the board, giving them twenty-eight days' notice, during which time they can lodge an objection and may demand that the matter should go to a committee of investigation. This is an independent committee with a chairman of legal qualifications—usually an eminent lawyer. Should the committee of investigation approve the Minister's view, the Minister may proceed with an Order under Clause 2. If they do not, then the Minister is unable to make the Order. This is the position, with the important exception of the commodities in the First Schedule of the Agriculture Act of 1947, which are the commodities for which we have accorded to producers guaranteed prices and assured markets.
I do not wish to dwell on Clause 3, which reconciles the Bill to previous Acts. Clause 4 gives a further safeguard to the consumer—namely, that during the period in which a committee of investigation may be considering an intention of the Minister to act, the Minister may give temporary directions to the board. The reason is this. If we suppose that a board have an intention of putting up the price of something which the Minister thinks will be against the public interest the board may object to the Minister's directions and may demand that it should go to a committee of investigation. That committee might sit considering the matter for a considerable time; and during that time the public interest might be seriously affected and great loss or harm caused. It is proposed, therefore, to give the Minister power to give temporary directions for a limited period during which he can restrain the board from doing what they wish.
I do not think there are many objections, but I might mention a particular one which was raised in another place—to the effect that some harm might be done to the producer if the Minister considered that some action of the board was harmful and on consideration by the committee of investigation opinion went against the Minister. It was thought 135 that some harm or loss might have been caused to the producer in the meantime. I think the answer is that it is surely in the interests of the board to give advance notice to the Minister of what they are going to do, so as to give adequate time for the matter to be considered and if necessary discussed. There would be no danger to the producers, and the interests of the consumers would be adequately safeguarded.
Clauses 5 to 8 are clauses which arise from the recommendation of the Falmouth Committee, and deal with penalties for producers who break the rules. I would remind your Lordships that it requires a two-thirds vote of the producers before a board can be brought into existence; and if two-thirds of the producers vote for the board to cease functioning, then the whole scheme will be revoked. But while the scheme is in operation penalties can be imposed on any producers who break the rules of the board.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
May I interrupt the noble Earl? When he speaks of two-thirds of the producers, does he mean two-thirds of the producers of any particular commodity throughout the country, or two-thirds of the producers in any region or area?
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
As a rule it is throughout the country. As your Lordships know, a poll is taken of the registered producers to see whether two-thirds are in favour. As I say, these clauses deal with penalties, and with the disciplinary committee. It was thought better to have a small disciplinary committee to decide on these penalties, rather than the whole board, which is a somewhat cumbersome body for this purpose. The disciplinary committee would be under the chairmanship of an independent member with legal qualifications and experience.
In Clause 9 we come to the opposite side of the picture. Under that clause we give wider powers to the boards. As I said in introduction, we not only want these boards to function in regard to marketing but we also want them to promote increased production. It was thought wise—the Report of the Lucas Committee supports us in this—to give the boards power to sell, make or hire to producers articles or commodities 136 which they may require, either for better marketing or better production. This is, of course, a big step, which no doubt your Lordships will want to consider carefully and in detail. We are anxious to encourage production. For instance, supposing that some new form of milk churn were invented which was far better than the present one, and that for some reason the commercial factories did not want to make it, then this clause will give a certain bargaining weapon to the appropriate board to say: "If you do not provide us with this more efficient milk churn we shall get it ourselves." And ultimately they will be able to manufacture the churn. In practice, of course, the board would not want to go into manufacturing. The suggestion in another place that they might wish to set up in competition to Ford's or Ferguson's, is, on the face of it, ridiculous. This is only a safeguard to enable them in certain circumstances to produce a much-needed article. What is more important—and what we think they will do—is that they should provide services to the producers. Of two services already provided by a board, one is grass drying, which, for various reasons, might not have been started by individual or private concerns. There will be marketing boards such as the Milk Marketing Board, who can perhaps get big plants and distribute their products to the producers.
§ LORD CRANWORTH
May I ask the noble Earl whether this clause would enable a board to carry out experiments, involving money of course, on any new plant?
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
The actual wording allows them to "manufacture or make," which would include experiments. However, I will look into that point.
The other development, which has already been undertaken by the Milk Marketing Board, is the operation of artificial insemination centres—that is obviously a function that has to be kept under very careful control, for it is something which will affect the whole of our livestock. These centres have been operated very successfully by the Milk Marketing Board. I do not want to go into details of all the clauses which, by and large, bring earlier Acts up to date, but I should like to mention Clause 12, which abolishes the Market Supply Com- 137 mittee. This Committee was set up under Section 3 of the 1933 Act, but in practice has not been used since 1939. The original object of this Committee was to review the circumstances affecting the supply of agricultural products, and to advise the Government generally on the agricultural situation and on the steps which might be taken. This Committee was set up long before the Ministry of Food was created. Now that we have the Ministry of Food, a large Department with the duty of looking after the national diet, of buying foods from abroad and planning ahead, with a staff of advisers of every kind, the Market Supply Committee is really unnecessary, and we propose to abolish it.
Clause 19, which is the last important clause in the Bill, enables northern Ireland to be included. I would emphasise the fact that it can be included only with the consent of both Houses of Parliament in Northern Ireland. If they do consent, then a marketing scheme can apply in the whole of the British Isles, including northern Ireland. I apologise for taking so much time over this Bill, but I feel that it is a very valuable Bill indeed. In view of our agricultural expansion programme, and the real necessity to encourage the production of food as much as we can, I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a welcome and a speedy Second Reading. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Huntingdon.)
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Earl for the way in which he has placed this Bill before us. He did it with great clarity and thoroughness, albeit with brevity also. I should like briefly to welcome the Bill in the main, if only because it clears the decks to enable the farmers to go ahead with schemes which they have had in preparation for some time. I think it has been an agreed policy among all Parties in both Houses, and an agreed policy indeed among the farmers themselves for many years, that efficient marketing must go hand in hand with efficient production. The main purpose of this Bill, as I see it, is to strengthen the public safeguards against what some might feel to be monopoly powers enjoyed by the marketing boards. Whether we think all those safeguards are neces- 138 sary or not, they are, I believe, all to the good if public confidence is thereby increased. We should make it perfectly clear that it is more a matter of giving reassurance than a matter of supplying any need. Indeed, I think the Minister of Agriculture himself, during the Second Reading debate in another place, made it clear that the arrangement which had hitherto been in existence for protecting the public had, in fact, worked perfectly satisfactorily. The noble Earl, also made that point.
There are, however, one or two exceptions we must make to the general attitude of benevolence and blessing, and I do not think I shall surprise the noble Earl when say that the first one applies to Clause 4. At the present moment, the position is that there is a consumers' committee. That committee can make complaints, and those complaints, having been made, are then referred to a committee of investigation. On receipt of the report, the Minister can either give orders to a board to rectify whatever is reported by the committee to be wrong or, indeed, in the ultimate resort he has the power to revoke the scheme. The Minister, therefore, is in an extremely strong position. Now under Clause 2, to which the noble Earl drew our attention, the Minister's position is strengthened to the extent that he no longer has to wait for a complaint; he can, on his own initiative, raise a point for submission to the committee of investigation. Having received the report, in this case also he may give orders that whatever he is complaining about shall be rectified, or again he has the power of revocation. But, as the noble Earl said, this particular strengthening of his position refers only to commodities which come under the First Schedule of the Agriculture Act—namely, commodities that are guaranteed. I think I am stating the position correctly.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
In regard to guaranteed commodities, the Minister has full power and need not take action in accordance with any recommendation of the committee of investigation.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
The noble Earl is quite right, and I accept that correction. Now we come to Clause 4, which is a very different matter. We might feel that Clause 2 afforded a considerable 139 strengthening of the Minister's position, but, taking the long view, perhaps we need not quarrel unduly with that. Clause 4, however, gives the Minister power to issue interim instructions to a board while the case is sub judice. Now that is a very different matter. Nor is there any qualification about the commodities coming under the First Schedule of the Agriculture Act. That means, therefore, that the Minister has power to make interim orders with regard to commodities for which there is no guaranteed price at all, and so may limit what may be a very necessary rise in price.
There might be something to be said for that if, at a later stage, should the Minister be proved wrong by the committee of investigation, there was some right to make a claim for compensation. It might well be that not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of pounds would be lost by the board because of a faulty instruction given to them by the Minister. I know, of course, that the implication is that Ministers in fact never give faulty instructions, and on the whole I think we have been fortunate in having responsible Ministers at the head of the Department. I believe it will be a very rare occasion when this power will be used, and an even rarer occasion when the Minister will be proved wrong. But that is not the point. The principle of the Minister taking to himself power to issue orders while a question is sub judice, and to give no right of appeal, no right of protection or no right of compensation to the board if later he should be proved to be wrong, is a principle which it is very hard to tolerate.
We were discussing yesterday the problems of the horticultural industry. I suppose no section of the agricultural industry is affected by this clause more than horticulture. Price changes have frequently to be made. The noble Earl said that it is up to the boards to give the Minister plenty of warning. Sometimes it will be possible to give that warning, but there are occasions, as in the case of a crop failure, when adequate warning cannot be given, and severe losses might be caused. I submit to your Lordships that there is no case whatsoever for this. If the Minister could have produced one single instance of the powers of the boards being abused, one would 140 have felt it harder to offer opposition. But what are the Minister's comments on the present operation of the powers of the board? On the Second Reading of the Bill in another place, speaking with regard to the arrangements hitherto in force for protecting the public, he said:These arrangements proved very satisfactory before the war. There was a strong Committee, with an eminent lawyer as chairman, which dealt, I believe fairly, with every complaint that lay before it. Fortunately, however, over the years there were very few complaints.The whole burden of the speech was, in fact, that the powers never had been abused. I should like to appeal to the noble Earl even now—though I know the matter has been thoroughly discussed—to give us some indication that he is at least prepared to consider, if not the total withdrawal of this clause, at any rate some considerable modification of it.
I now turn briefly to other clauses. The noble Earl mentioned Clause 9, and I think we all welcome that extension of the powers of the Board. The noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, asked whether the Government would make it possible for a board to carry out experiments for improvements in technique and equipment. I am not a lawyer, but I should have thought the Bill did go some distance to give the boards complete powers—but no doubt the noble Earl will be able to tell us whether that is so. I notice that in the copy of the Bill that was introduced into another place, there was in Clause 10 a limitation on the powers of the board to lend money to producers. I am glad to see that that has gone; the board as a credit agency may frequently be a most suitable body.
Now I come to my next complaint, and that is with regard to Clause 12, which concerns the abolition of the Market Supply Committee. The purpose of that Committee was to review the supply position and to make recommendations and give advice with regard both to quantities required for home production and to the regulation and control of imports. Now if that body were needed before the war—and it was: it was used quite frequently up to 1939—it is most certainly needed now—doubly so. The grounds for doing away with it are that it is not used. But why? Would not a great number of the difficulties we were discussing yesterday have been 141 avoided if there had been a fact-finding body sitting permanently, in a position to give objective advice to Ministers? I am quite sure they would. And it is a much better way of settling these questions for the Ministers to receive such advice than by the methods of departmental controversy of which we know only too well to-day.
Incidentally, on this point of the Market Supply Committee and of the information that it was originally designed to give, could the noble Earl tell us what is going to be the position of the marketing boards with regard to themselves receiving information? They have to carry out a great deal of the planning of the business in the commodities for which they are responsible. We all recognise to-day that it is impossible for this country to work entirely by itself. To have a sound policy, it is essential to have information about foreign supplies and about any new decisions that are likely to be published in the near future by His Majesty's Government. Is there any machinery to be set up, or any intention to undertake to give to the boards prior information about future decisions of the Government on the supply position? I think that that is very necessary. We did not receive any actual pledge yesterday from the Government as to consultation with the National Farmers' Union with regard to import arrangements. Possibly sometimes it will be found more or at any rate equally important to have consultations with the board actually responsible for the regulation of marketing even than with the general growers' representatives, the National Farmers' Union. If the noble Earl could say a word about that, I should be extremely grateful.
Having mentioned Clause 4 and Clause 12, I would say that the Bill is one which we generally approve. There may be two or three Amendments that we shall want to put before your Lordships, but those are really Committee points, and I do not propose to trouble the House with them at the present moment. The main point is that we can now wish the farmers Godspeed with their plans for the improvement of the growing, packing and marketing arrangements of their produce; and I would express the hope that no further legisla- 142 tion on this subject will be envisaged for some time, so that farmers can feel that they know where they stand and can go ahead on a firm foundation of legislation with which they are familiar. I do not say this by any means in a spirit of opposition to all the proposals in the Lucas Report. As a whole, while we may not like all that is in that Report, speaking for myself, at any rate, I think there are some points in it that might some time be useful. But would appeal to the Minister and to the noble Earl opposite to leave well alone for the moment and let the farmers get on with the job they have to do: a job which they have been anxious to tackle for a number of years.
§ 4.38 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I desire to give my support, for what it is worth, to this Bill. I have no doubt whatever about the justification for the Bill. I have a great Admiration for the work of the Milk Marketing Board, which I believe has done more than any other organisation to develop both the quantity and the quality of the milk of this country. To me that is a sufficient justification for this Bill. Of course, the main reason for the necessity for marketing boards in this country is the unfortunate lack of development in agricultural co-operation. Other countries have solved all these problems efficiently without all this Government intervention. I am afraid that in this country, so individualistic are we, at any rate in our rural economy, that these marketing boards are a necessity.
For at least fifty years some of us have been drawing attention to the big spread between the producer, on the one hand, and the consumer, on the other, of agricultural products. Obviously, in the absence of efficient co-operation amongst the producers, something must be done—which, indeed, was the reason for the setting up of the Lucas Committee and of their Report—in the interest of the public, as well as of the producers, to reduce that spread so far as possible by the elimination of superfluous or unnecessary middleman interests.
At the same time, I was a little shaken in the opening speech of the noble Earl when he told us that the Lucas Report was still under consideration, and that 143 this Bill in no way prejudices the final decision on that Report. I may say that I have noted with great admiration the astute ingenuity of the Lucas Report, but I do not know any Report on any agricultural topic that has fluttered the dovecotes of the agricultural community to such an extent as has the Lucas Report. If action is going to be taken upon the Report of the noble Lord's Committee, I hope that an intimation on the part of the Government will be given at the earliest possible moment, because this Bill, if translated into an Act of Parliament, with the possible implementation of the Lucas Report hanging like the Sword of Damocles over our heads, would evoke a certain amount of anxiety, if not of opposition.
There is what I may call the sinister figure of the Minister behind the whole of this scheme, the whole of this policy. We are apt to be misled by the fact that in Mr. Tom Williams and in the noble Earl opposite we have two very sympathetic, efficient and charming personalities. After all, when this Bill is passed, we cannot look for all time to having Tom Williamses and Lord Huntingdons to represent the person referred to in this Bill as "the Minister" and I am a little anxious when it is left merely to "the Minister" to decide what is in the public interest. Under several clauses in this Bill, he can intervene in the operations of the boards that are to be set up under this Bill if, in his opinion, their activities are contrary to the public interest. We had a little illustration of what might happen in the discussion only yesterday. I myself ventured to refer to the planting of fruit.
If I may say so, fruit is a long-term proposition, unlike cucumbers, tomatoes, or even wool. When you plant forest trees, or apple and pear trees, you do so with a view to their productivity over a period of something like twenty-five to thirty years ahead. If, in a spirit of impetuosity or ministerial anxiety, it is deemed to be in the public interest to take any step by importations of a commodity like fruit, to check the actual planting of fruit trees, I suggest that in the long run it will not be in the public interest. I do most earnestly hope that the Minister, in exercising his discretion under this Bill as to what is in the public interest, will take 144 the long view and will display the vision which is so essential in this connection.
I refer particularly to the expression "quantity of the regulated product." The "quantity of the regulated product" is one of the matters with which these boards may deal, but in respect of which the Minister may interfere if he deems that those prescribed quantities are not in the public interest. I imagine that Clause 2 (b), is inserted to avoid a glutting of the general market, or a possible glut of any particular commodity in one area while there is a scarcity in another. In this connection I feel tempted to refer to the most remarkable agricultural co-operative organisation in the whole world, the Californian Fruit Growers' Association. The organisation governs the whole of the fruit supplied to every single urban community throughout the whole of the United States, and it does it so effectually as to ensure that there is never a glut of fruit in any part of America, and that every part of the country is supplied with a sufficiency of fruit on the one hand, and walnuts on the other.
Whilst giving my own—I will not say enthusiastic, but shall I say cautious, support to this Bill, I desire to express the sincere hope that the very great powers which are exercisable by the Minister will be employed with all due caution and with vision. I want to ask just one question. In Clause 1 (3) who exactly are the persons who come within this category? If traders are excluded, as they specifically are, surely the whole community, as consumers of these commodities, would come to be included. It is rather difficult to see what is the exact meaning of that clause if, as is specifically stated, the traders and the industrialists, as potential purchasers from the producers, are excluded altogether. All I wish to say further, by no means for the first time, is that it is a treat to listen to the noble Earl expounding these sometimes rather complicated Bills. I can assure him of the prima facie support which he may always expect from all of us, largely owing to his own charm of manner and the ability with which he explains such Bills as this.
§ 4.48 p.m.
THE EARL OF GAINSBOROUGH
My Lords, I cannot claim to be an expert on marketing as indeed is the 145 noble Lord, Lord Lucas, nor can I claim the vast experience of the previous speakers; I can only declare my interest, which is mainly that of a producer. My interest as a consumer is really only that I consume a good deal of what I produce. I do not have to pay over the counter for much of what I consume, and so I am not so concerned with the price that the consumer has to pay when he has to buy everything from the shop. It appears to me that this Bill, if it becomes law, will be little more than an enabling Act, in that it will enable marketing schemes to be brought into effect. It will also enable some of the recommendations of the Lucas Report to be put into effect. I do not wish to say anything on that Report today, because I hardly think it would be in order to do so on the Second Reading of this Bill, but I was rather amused to read in the Minister's speech on the Second Reading in another place that the Lucas Report "provoked much thought, some argument and occasional hysteria." I hardly think it provoked hysteria, although it certainly provoked a great deal of argument and discussion amongst the farming community. However, we must wait until these marketing schemes come into effect and, to a certain extent, one's opinion must be reserved until that time.
To some extent—I think to a large extent judging from what I have heard to-day—the specialist producers are affected by the Agricultural Marketing Acts more than the producers of general produce, who are governed by the Schedule of agreed prices. I gather that they are not affected to the same extent. However, the specialist growers are certainly affected, and in regard to specialist crops one would hope to see much closer co-ordination between producer and consumer than one has seen in the past. I have known of cases recently where a man has had to market his cauliflowers at the ridiculously low price of something less than one halfpenny each, and the actual price to the consumer has been eightpence each. That must be wrong, and it must be right for the producer to get a larger share than that for his toil. Therefore, although I speak as a producer, I say that we must have regard to the consumer and give him some sympathetic consideration, because without him it would not be any good producing.
146 My Lords, I do not wish to prolong the debate, but I merely desire to say that farmers generally are afraid of the powers given by Clause 4, and, unless Clause 4 is amended later, they can hope only that this power will be wisely administered. Undoubtedly, as the previous speakers have said, under the present Minister and the noble Earl we can expect it to be wisely administered. Unless the clause is amended, however, we shall have only to hope that this power will be wisely administered. I will conclude by thanking the noble Earl for the way in which he introduced the Bill and for his always sympathetic attitude to requests made to his Ministry, however small they may be. I have also to thank him personally for the kindness he extended to me in giving me some information recently which, although of a very small nature, was most helpful. With those words I, too, welcome the Bill.
§ 4.54 p.m.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
My Lords, I do not wish to detain you long, but I would like to ask the noble Earl one question on Clause 4—namely, whether he could give us some assurance that during the later stages of the Bill some insertion will be made to ensure that these boards shall receive the fullest information from other Government Departments—notably, of course, the Ministry of Food—of what is likely to happen. This will remove the danger of the boards making arrangements, for instance, by price fixing, which will prejudice the growers and later make the crops they grow become, through Government action, unmarketable. That is a very strong point which needs consideration.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
My Lords, I am extremely glad at the welcome that this Bill has had, even if it was cautious on the part of the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe; and I should like to say, even if I am somewhat embarrassed, how grateful I was to hear what has been said in regard to my introduction of the Bill. On the whole, I think this Bill has had a very good reception, with the qualification that there has been some doubt in your Lordships' minds, particularly about Clause 4, and to a lesser extent about Clause 2 in relation to the powers or the Minister. One or two questions have been asked by 147 noble Lords which I should like to try and answer. The noble Lord, Lord Cranworth asked whether it would be possible for the boards to make experimental research into the production of various commodities. I see that under Section 5 of the 1931 Act there are powers given to the boards to enable them toencourage, promote or conduct agricultural co-operation, research and education.Without any doubt that definitely covers research.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, asked several questions, one of which was in regard to the area in which producers might decide whether or not a board should come into being. This would, of course, depend entirely on the area for which the scheme was designed. For instance, in Scotland we have three different Milk Marketing Boards, whereas in England we have only one. Where there is a specific area it would be only the people in that area who would elect whether they had the scheme or not. I hope I have made that clear.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
Yes. If I understand aright, so far as England is concerned, and possibly England and Wales, two-thirds of the registered producers would have to come in before a scheme could be initiated under this Bill.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
Provided that the scheme was for that particular area. If it was a scheme only for Wales it would be two-thirds of the registered producers of Wales; if it was a scheme for England and Wales, obviously it would be two-thirds of the registered producers of England and Wales. It is two-thirds of whatever area is specified.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
Would it, for instance, rule out a particular fruit area in England, such as Kent, on the one hand, or Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, on the other; or would it necessarily be England on the one hand, or England and Wales on the other?
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
I hope I have understood the noble Viscount aright. So far as I understand it, it would depend entirely on the scheme. The scheme could be promoted either for a certain limited area, or it could be pro- 148 moted for a much larger area altogether—say, for the whole of England. But wherever it was promoted, it would require the approval of two-thirds of the producers in that particular area. I hope that I have made that clear. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, raised a point in which the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, was also interested—namely, about consultation. Obviously, I think, the boards would have the fullest information. We could hardly have big boards such as the Milk Marketing Board that would not have the fullest consultation with Government Departments and also advance information, if that could be given to them. I will look into that matter, and see that adequate provision is made, because a board would be seriously handicapped through not having the information needed.
The greatest doubt which perhaps exercised the minds of your Lordships was in regard to the powers of the Minister. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, was particularly worried over Clause 2, in which the powers are considerable. He mentioned the example of fruit trees, and asked whether the Minister could stop the planting of fruit trees.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
I am sorry, but I asked the question: Could the Minister, by the exercise of his discretion, discourage the growing of fruit trees, not specifically but by encouraging or authorising large competitive importations of fruit from overseas?
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
I think that is a rather wider question. The Minister could not actually stop the planting of fruit trees because, as your Lordships will have noticed, under the Bill he cannot order the board to do something; he can only restrain the board from doing something which he considers is against the public interest. Added to that, I would like to stress that, except in the case of guaranteed products, the Minister is subject to the findings by the committee of investigation. If the committee find against the Minister, there is nothing he can do about it; he must submit to their judgment. I suggest that, generally speaking, that is a very strong safeguard.
What is perhaps a more difficult case is the problem which arises under Clause 4 in connection with the service of 149 notices, to which the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, referred. I would remind your Lordships that these are only temporary directions. They are not permanent; they are to extend over only a short period of time. Although it is conceivable that there might be some loss to the producer in a glut period, I think that in practice it would be found that this would rarely occur. As a rule, the Minister would give a wise decision. He would certainly hesitate before taking any action to restrain a big board from doing something on the ground that it was against the public interest. A very strong case would have to be made out to impel the Minister to act in that way since he would be answerable to Parliament for any error which he might make or for any loss which might be caused to the producers.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
The principle has been considered, but it was thought that it was a principle which could not be adopted. The conclusion we reached was that the field would be far too wide, and that the difficulties which would arise would be too great. As I have said, I think, that in practice the Minister would rarely take action as suggested.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
That may be true. I will bear that in mind. I think that I have now dealt with most of the questions which have been asked, and I hope that I have satisfied noble Lords. I would like to say again that I hope your Lordships will accept this Bill. No doubt, there will be points raised in Committee, but I think the main thesis of the Bill is extremely valuable and sound. If it is passed and becomes an Act it will be a source of great encouragement to the farmers of this country, and to the agricultural community generally, whom we are asking to do their best in the interests of the nation. I therefore trust that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.