HL Deb 10 May 1984 vol 451 cc1119-24

10.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I beg to move, That the draft Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order, which was laid before your Lordships on 31st January of this year, be approved.

The first order which we have before us this evening seeks to amend various items of legislation and to revoke others with which the Department of Agricul-ture for Northern Ireland is concerned. The order also provides for a levy on the Northern Ireland seed potato industry, as well as for the making of schemes to aid consumers of liquid milk.

If your Lordships would care to glance at the amendments contained in the order, I think that you will agree with me that most of them are of a relatively minor nature. Indeed, we believe they are concerned mainly with correcting deficiencies in some enactments and clarifying ambiguities which have become apparent in the light of experience in the administration of this legislation. I hope that your Lordships will agree that in view of the hour this evening I might limit my comments to just the most important provisions only. Of course, if your Lordships have any questions I shall attempt to answer them briefly. If more detail is required, perhaps I might have to do so by correspondence.

If I might start by just glancing at Article 3, your Lordships will see that this will enable the department to levy the Northern Ireland seed potato industry and to allocate the money so collected for the benefit of persons engaged in the production or marketing of seed potatoes. It is particularly important that the work of promoting and developing the seed potato industry, which was previously carried on by the Northern Ireland Seed Potato Marketing Board, should be continued. Article 3 provides the means by which the funds for these functions can be collected from the industry. It also enables the department to prescribe a body to receive the levy income in order to carry out these functions. It is the Government's view that Seed Potato Promotions (NI) Ltd would be a suitable body to receive the levy income. The Northern Ireland Assembly, although in favour of the department being empowered to raise a levy, expressed some reservations about this. I assure your Lordships that there will be fullest consultation with all interests before we proceed to collect the levy and allocate the funds.

Article 4 provides a legislative base for making schemes to benefit consumers of liquid milk. The consumer subsidy ensures that consumers in Northern Ireland do not have to pay a higher retail price for their milk than consumers in England and Wales. For the producer this has meant a very welcome £5½ million of additional income in 1983–84, which is continuing at the same level in the current year. The original intention of Article 5 was to transfer the duty to license slaughtermen from district councils to the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. However, following representations from the local authorities it was decided that the article should be amended to leave the licensing function with the district councils. The revised article amends the Slaughter of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1932 and makes it clear that local authorities should check the age and competence of the applicant before issuing a licence to slaughter or stun animals.

If we move on to Article 7, this extends the scope of the Agriculture (Temporary Assistance) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954 so that schemes can be made to aid persons engaged in the production, processing, packing or marketing of agricultural produce. I would briefly add for your Lordships that at the moment the Act only provides for assistance to or for the direct benefit of farmers.

If we could turn the page and go on to Article 11, this amends the Agricultural Produce (Meat Regulation and Pig Industry) Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 to enable the department to recover the full costs of the meat inspection service, while enabling measures to be taken for a more efficient use of staff, and we hope this will reduce costs.

If I could take your Lordships on to Article 14, we see that this amends the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 to permit trade during the close season in salmon, trout and pollen, and also in brown eels imported from fish farms outside Northern Ireland as well as trade in such produce from fish farms in Northern Ireland.

Article 16 amends the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 to bring Northern Ireland more closely into line with Great Britain and to enable the department to exercise greater control over the running of such things as pet shops, animal boarding, riding and zoological establishments, in the interests of the welfare of animals.

Article 17 makes a number of changes to the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. This will allow for more effective control over animals imported into Northern Ireland and thus will aid disease control. Most of the changes reflect the animal health law in Great Britain.

I have briefly gone through the main provisions. If your Lordships have any questions on what I have raised, or indeed on any other articles that I have omitted in my little speech this evening, of course I will attempt to answer them and will attempt to do so tonight. But I hope your Lordships will forgive me for that brief glance through the order and, with that, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 31st January be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, the theme of this order is agriculture but it touches, according to my rough count, on about two dozen agricultural subjects. It is important for Northern Ireland because it is the largest single industry in the Province. That Province has its own crop of problems in this field. I am particularly pleased that this order has been discussed by the Agriculture Committee of the Assembly. The Assembly received written evidence, it heard oral evidence, and the report of the committee was accepted by the Assembly without amendment. So on behalf of these Benches let me say that we see here the Northern Ireland Assembly at work. This really is an excellent example of the Assembly at work and a justification for its existence.

The Minister has been very helpful in concentrating on the most important provisions covered by the order and describing the relevant background. If I may, I want to deal in particular with Article 3 because a substantial part of the evidence presented to the Agriculture Committee of the Assembly was concerned with just one aspect of Article 3. It appears to me that there is overwhelming agreement with the principle of compulsory levy to be applied for the benefit of the seed potato industry—subject, however, to one important reservation: that those who pay the levy should have effective representation on the governing body of the organisation which will disburse the funds. We on these Benches believe that that is a fair contention. There is force in that contention, and we support it.

The Minister has indicated that unless something unexpected happens the prescribed organisation will be the Seed Potato Promotions (Northern Ireland) Company Limited. We understand that 50 per cent. of the directors of this company will be merchants nominated by the Northern Ireland Potato Marketing Board, the other 50 per cent. being nominated by the Ulster Farmers' Union. This is the snag. In the abstract, this formula may sound all right but it does not ensure that 50 per cent. of the directors will be seed potato producers. I understand that that is a matter of great concern to the Assembly, which has drawn the attention of the Secretary of State to its concern.

If the Seed Potato Promotions Company is to be given the responsibility of dispersing the levy, should not the articles and memorandum of association of this company be amended to ensure that the seed potato producers have an effective voice on the governing body? I think it is right that we should raise that key question.

I will turn now to a non-contentious area. So far as I can see, no one appears to have dissented from Article 4, which introduces a scheme to make payments for the benefit of consumers of milk. I will have to read carefully what the Minister has said, but some of us are not quite sure who will benefit from the scheme. Having listened to the Minister, I am inclined to think that the consumer generally will benefit from the scheme, and obviously we would be content with that. But it could be argued, merely on the wording of the article, that the benefit would be confined to groups such as school children or the elderly. Again, we would be very grateful if the Minister could give us a rough indication of the value of the benefit to the individual consumer. I rather think the benefit will be to the individual consumer.

The Minister made no reference to Article 8; but from reading the evidence presented to the committee of the Assembly I understand there is certain concern about the imposition of payments for navigation on the Lower Bann. But I will not pursue that point.

I come now to my last question. This relates to one of the enactments to be repealed. A great deal of concern has been expressed in Northern Ireland about Section 20, or the vacuum that may be left if Section 20 is implemented. Both the Ulster Society for the Preservation of the Countryside and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland have voiced concern. I was born and bred in the countryside and I understand their concern. Both are of the opinion—and possibly "opinion" is too weak a word and the right word is "conviction"—that the Department of Agriculture should have power, a new power if I understand the position correctly, to control the felling of trees of high amenity value.

We have been referred by the evidence of one of those bodies to the corresponding provision vested in the Forestry Commission which operates in the rest of the United Kingdom. Both organisations claim that the mechanism of the tree preservation order does not meet the problems. We invariably hear in this House—and quite rightly—about the need to protect the quality of the environment. Therefore, I would be interested to know why the department's representatives should not come to the Houses of Parliament and ask for power to control the felling of trees of high amenity value.

I would be very grateful if the Minister could deal with those few points. I should have given the Minister notice of the fact that I was going to raise them, and I am sorry that I did not do so; it is due to my inexperience. I am sure that many people in Northern Ireland will be interested in the Minister's response. However, we on these Benches generally welcome the order: after all it is acceptable to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

10.52 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we are particularly grateful for the careful work and scrutiny which has been carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and for the welcome which he has given to this order. The noble Lord need have no fear that we were unable to follow the line of his questions, because he laid them out in an admirably clear and concise way. I hope that, with just a little debutante's luck, I shall be able to give the noble Lord clear and fairly satisfactory answers to the queries that he has raised this evening.

First, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his comments on the very valuable work that has been done by the Assembly. I am sure that his words will be echoed in Northern Ireland and that they will be read and will give great pleasure to members of the Assembly who work so hard. Secondly, I am sure that the noble Lord's comments on the importance of the agricultural industry in Northern Ireland will also find favour, because I am finding that the agricultural industry is particularly important to the entire life of Northern Ireland. I am very pleased that the noble Lord and I are on the same side so far as that is concerned.

The noble Lord asked me about the organisation concerned with seed potatoes, and why Seed Potato Promotions (Northern Ireland) would be an effective vehicle, and how the seed growers would be represented in that organisation. I stress to your Lordships that four of the eight directors of Seed Potato Promotions are already appointed by the Ulster Farmers' Union. The noble Lord will be aware that all producers can join the union; and so far as I am aware all the main producers are already members of that union. I hope that the noble Lord will understand that producers do and can influence the selection of the union-appointed directors through the normal democratic procedures of the union. For that reason we believe that our method is the best for the promotion of the seed potato industry in Northern Ireland.

On Article 4, concerning the milk consumers' subsidy, I am able to tell the noble Lord and your Lordships that the present level of the subsidy is 1½p per litre. The cost to the Government this year is approximately £5½ million. I would stress to the noble Lord that, strangely, the payment of the subsidy is made to the Milk Marketing Board, and, in turn, they pass it on in full to the liquid milk processors. It is in this way that all consumers benefit by not having to pay a higher retail price. We believe that that is the best method. It is easy, and, above all, it is cheap to administer.

The noble Lord asked a particularly relevant question about Article 20, concerning the felling of trees. I would stress to the noble Lord and, indeed, to all those who have expressed an interest to him—and certainly there are one or two people in Northern Ireland who have expressed an interest—that the aspects of restricting felling on important and, indeed, justifiable grounds of landscape, conservation and, above all, amenity are fully covered by the Department of the Environment through the administration of its tree preservation orders. Therefore, there is no need for the Department of Agriculture to duplicate this particular function. I am able to assure the noble Lord and your Lordships that the Department of the Environment has been fully consulted on this measure, and certainly it has no objection to the repeal of this legislation.

I hope that I have been able to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davis. He raised some very important points. I should like to commend him for his very detailed study, and also for the concise way in which he put his questions. I hope I have been able to answer them.