HL Deb 26 February 1970 vol 308 cc173-8

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move, That the Draft Sugar Beet (Research and Education) (Increase of Contributions) Order 1970, a copy of which was laid before the House on January 20, be approved. This is a straightforward provision. The effect of the Order is to maintain at ins present level the maximum contribution which growers of beet and the British Sugar Corporation may be required by Order to pay to finance the programme of research and education which the industry wants to see carried out. The actual rate of contribution is determined annually and is subject to an Order separate from the one under discussion. Section 18(1) of the Sugar Act 1956 provides for an Order to be made each year by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland setting out a programme of expenditure on research and education for home-grown sugar beet. The Ministers are required by the Act to consult the industry and it has long been the practice to do this through the Sugar Beet (Research and Education) Committee, which comprises representatives of the National Farmers' Unions of England and Wales and Scotland, the British Sugar Corporation and agricultural scientists. The income is raised by Orders made under Section 18(3) of the Act and the contributions from growers and the Corporation are paid into the Sugar Beet (Research and Education) Fund which is under the control of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The 1956 Act specified that the maximum rate of contribution should be 3d. per ton each from the growers and the Corporation for each ton of homegrown sugar beet sold for delivery to the Corporation in that year. Under Section 18(4) of the Act the maximum rate can be increased by Order. The maximum rate was raised to 4d. per ton in 1967 and this gave rather wider scope to Ministers to meet the rising costs of the programmes by increased contributions. The present maximum contribution Order expires on March 31 and without another Order the maximum rate would automatically revert to the 3d. per ton specified in the Act. The actual rate of contribution is currently 3½d. per ton. The income from this rate of contribution in the present financial year ending March 31, 1970, is likely to be of the order of £177,000 and the estimated expenditure on the current programme is £229,000. This means that we are cutting into the reserves of the fund to pay for this year's research. Costs, the major portion of which is attributable to the salaries of the scientists and others carrying out the programme, are continuing to rise, and if the present level of research is to be maintained—and that is what the industry desires—the total expenditure must go up.

The proposal embodied in the Order now before your Lordships is that the present rate of 4d. per ton from the grower and 4d. from the Corporation should be maintained for a further period of two years. The Sugar Beet (Research and Education) Committee do not contemplate any major expansion of the programme over these two years and have looked closely at current expenditure to see that this is fully justified. Ministers are satisfied that the maintenance of the current rate for the period proposed will meet present needs. The position will of course need to be reviewed towards the end of the two years for which the proposed Order will be in force. The price of sugar is unaffected by these proposals.

I should like to say something about the research which is supported by these contributions. It is not easy to measure the effects of research on production, but sugar beet has shown an impressive increase in yield per acre from about 9 tons 25 years ago to about 15 tons in recent years. There has been a comparable increase in sugar yield. The whole of the increase cannot be attributed to the research effort alone, since much of it must be due to the general improvement in husbandry standards. Nevetheless, research and experiment have provided greater knowledge of the requirements for seed beds, plant spacing, weed and disease control, and so on. The plant breeders have made earlier sowing possible and have largely overcome the problem of bolting. Monogerm seed is now a reality, and a multigerm variety tolerant to virus yellows is now available. Harvesting operations are now largely mechanised and the primary need is to cut some of the handwork out of the preparation and cultural operations during the growing season. These examples of the success of the research and education programmes bear testimony to the shrewd use of resources and to the work of the industry and the scientists who are helping to increase productivity in this way.

I must also pay tribute to the work of the Sugar Beet (Research and Education) Committee in its sensible and practical advice on the research programmes. This is perhaps a fitting opportunity to thank publicly the chairman, Sir Peter Greenwell, who is retiring after 13 years of untiring service to the Committee. I commend the draft Order to your Lord-ships. It is a measure which will enable further progress to be made in increasing the productivity of this important industry. In conclusion, may I stress again that a separate Order will be made shortly, specifying the actual rate of contributions for 1970–71. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Sugar Beet (Research and Education) (Increase of Contributions) Order 1970, laid before the House on January 20, be approved. —(Lord Hilton of Upton.)

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hilton of Upton, for explaining this Order and for the tributes which he has paid on behalf of the Government, not only to those engaged in research and education but also to those actually in the industry on account of good husbandry. I particularly thank the noble Lord because the retiring chairman of the Committee, Sir Peter Greenwell, lives within a few miles of my home.

As the noble Lord has explained to us, this Order seeks to maintain the contributions from growers and from the Corporation to research and education at a maximum of 4d. per ton for the next two years. The noble Lord, Lord Hilton, has explained that the 1969–70 income from contributions is estimated to be £177,000, which I believe will result in an estimated loss of about £52,000. I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord why there is to be a drop in the statutory contributions? As I understand it, the 1968–69 accounts for the fund show that a total of £204,344 was received from growers and the Corporation. I was not aware that the national acreage or the national tonnage had been reduced in this way. It is clear that the costs of the research and education programme are, like everything else these days, mounting. Can the noble Lord say whether a rise in contributions is envisaged after April, 1972? I know that that is some time ahead. Alternatively, is it possible that now some cut-back can be made in the programme, for great strides have been made as a result of sugar beet research, which as the noble Lord, Lord Hilton, so accurately said, the industry wants to see carried out.

The noble Lord mentioned monogerm seed, which must have saved growers thousands of pounds in cost; and for any who have attempted the back-breaking job of singling, monogerm seed has come as an undisguised blessing. Apparently there is also now a virus yellows resistant seed. This is also welcome news, for a field which has turned, as they say in East Anglia, "as gold as a guinea", has long been feared after a spell of "muggy" weather. I was not aware that this seed was available commercially, and perhaps the noble Lord could advise us on this.

There is one area of research to which the noble Lord, Lord Hilton, referred and which still seems to be highly experimental. I refer to pre-emergent sprays for weed control. Of course growers are thankful that these sprays exist, and they realise that conditions have to be reasonable for effective results, but these sugar beet pre-emergent sprays seem to operate on a far more critical factor. For instance, a still morning may be chosen for drilling and band spraying; the morning turns into a beautiful hot day and then sometimes the sun destroys the effect of the spray. Could the noble Lord tell us where in the Schedule to the 1969 Order research into sprays fits, as I feel that this is an area of research which to some extent is as yet unfulfilled. My Lords, with those few questions, I hope that the House will wish to support this Order.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for the way in which he has supported this Order, and I should like to congratulate him on his knowledge of this subject. If the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, had been here I would probably have indulged in a little leg pulling. With the noble Lord's knowledge of the sugar beet industry, having a farm quite near one of the beet sugar factories in East Anglia, he will have to look to his laurels or in the future he will find himself second spokesman on agriculture for the Opposition.

While welcoming this Order, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, asked me a few questions which he was kind enough to give me in writing before I presented this Order, and which has made it some-what easier for me to give him the answers for which he has asked. In a way I think I partly covered some of the noble Lord's questions in my previous remarks. He referred to the figures that I mentioned earlier on, the estimated income of £177,000, which is now up to something of the order of £204,000. The answer is this. The estimate referred to in my opening speech was in respect of the current year, which does not end until March 31, 1970. The accounts to which the noble Lord referred are those for the year ended March 31, 1969. Although the rate of contribution may be the same, since it is levied on each ton of beet sold to the British Sugar Corporation the income must vary according to the size of the crop in each year. For the purpose of estimating the rate of contribution from year to year we have to assume average yields. Actual yields may be above or below that figure, and this has to be taken into account in the calculations.

The second question the noble Lord asked was whether the Government envisage an increase in the rate of contribution after this Order expires. I think I made it clear in my opening remarks that we shall be reviewing the position before the two-year life of this Order expires in 1972. I cannot anticipate the outcome of that review of course, but the trend of costs is upward, and it may well be that the industry will have to decide between a rate of contribution which would meet the rising cost of the present level of research and a reduction in the scope of the programme. However, the cost of the programme to the industry represents a very small proportion of the total value of sugar beet, and the Sugar Beet (Research and Education) Committee which advises Ministers on the programme is well equipped to ensure that costs are kept to the minimum.

The noble Lord also asked whether virus yellow resistant seed is available commercially. The answer is that the multigerm variety, Maris Vanguard, is tolerant to virus yellows and work is going on at the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge to develop monogerm variety which is as tolerant as Maris Vanguard and with improved sugar content.

The noble Lord then asked where in the 1969 Order Schedule does research on pre-emergent sprays fit in. The answer is that the main work on pre-emergent sprays is carried out at the Norfolk Agricultural Station which is No. 4 in the Schedule to the 1969 Order, and this is carried out in association with Broom's Barn Experimental Station (No. 3) and the British Sugar Corporation (No. 9). Those are the answers to the questions which the noble Lord put to me, and I hope that your Lordships will now give this Order your blessing.

On Question, Motion agreed to.