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Potato Marketing Board (Messrs Groves And Son)

Volume 640: debated on Monday 15 May 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Whitelaw.]

10.26 p.m.

I rise to bring to the attention of the House the extraordinary case of Messrs. Groves and Son. This firm farms a lowlands farm near Blaby, in my constituency. It is not a large, semi-industrial, factory type farm; it is what is termed today a small farm. The firm farms just over 50 acres, and when one remembers that the national average for England and Wales is about 210 acres, one realises that by those standards the farm of Messrs. Groves and Son is a very small one.

The story that I wish to relate tonight goes back about three years, to the time when Messrs. Groves and Son bought the farm in January, 1958. At the time the land was very dirty and weed-infested, and in an endeavour to clear away some of the weeds and get the ground into good heart Messrs. Groves and Son decided to plant potatoes. Many of us think that planting potatoes is a more natural and beneficial way of cleaning dirty land of weeds than some other methods, such as the use of poisonous sprays, which have various harmful effects.

At any rate, Messrs. Groves and Son ordered seed potatoes in the spring of 1959. It was only after the delivery of those seed potatoes that the firm learnt that it had to join the Potato Marketing Board. It was in a difficult position. It had enough seed for 14 acres, and it found it impossible to resell the seed it had purchased for planting to anybody else, or back to the people who had sold it. Only after the 14 acres had been planted did the firm learn that the Board had given it an allocation of about 5 acres only.

What was the firm to do? It was in a very difficult position. It was obviously impossible to uproot the excess of nine acres which it had planted. Mr. Speaker, the firm did what you and I would probably have done in similar circumstances; it left the whole of the 14 acres of seed potatoes in the ground and paid the £1- an-acre levy—£14—to the Board, and hoped for the best. Hon. Members will agree that, so far, no desperate crime had been committed. It is true that Messrs. Groves and Son had broken the law, but they had done so in ignorance, and so far they were acting completely in good faith.

The next phase in the series of misfortunes which has befallen these smallholders was the dry summer of 1959. To some people unadulterated sunshine, such as we had in that year, is a blessing, but to many farmers it is a curse. In seven months only four small showers of rain fell on the newly-planted potato crop of Messrs. Groves and Son. The result was complete disaster. Only three-quarters of the crop was worth trying to lift and a quarter was left in the ground. Of the three-quarters which the firm attempted to lift, only 20 per cent. was worth picking up. That was used for animal feed. Messrs. Groves have estimated to me that the cost of planting the crop and endeavouring to lift it, reckoned in labour and seed alone, resulted in a loss of over £1,000. That is a tragedy for any small farmer and I submit that it might result in the bankruptcy of some.

One might have thought that at this stage the Potato Marketing Board would have helped the newly joined member, the fledgling in the nest, to overcome the difficulty. But not a bit of it. The reaction of the Board was prompt, efficient and speedy. It immediately demanded from my constituents the payment of a £90 fine at the rate of £10 an acre for the excess of 9 acres above the allocation of 5 acres. In the circumstances, such a demand appears to me to be brutal. When one remembers that such a sum would be used to finance purchases of potatoes from other farmers, perhaps in a bigger way of business, who had been successful in lifting their crops, it becomes a case of Robin Hood in reverse. To put it a little more bluntly, it is a good example of kicking a man when he is down.

My reason for raising this matter is not merely to bring to the attention of the House the misfortune of my constituents. I want to call attention to the method by which this fine was extracted. The normal procedure is for an offender to be notified of his case, which is heard by a disciplinary committee consisting of four to six members of the Board who are paid, and a chairman, who is generally a barrister of not less than seven years' standing, and who is usually reimbursed for his trouble by the Board. Such a committee met in London last Wednesday. The meetings are generally hush-hush and le-in-the-corner affairs. The Press is not notified. The fine is decided on by the Board and the defendants notified.

That is the normal procedure, but one big flaw occurred in the case of Groves and Son. The firm was never notified by the Board or by anyone that its case was due for hearing by the disciplinary committee. The first Messrs. Groves heard of the matter was when they were notified that they were required to pay the fine of £90. After some correspondence with solicitors and others they asked whether I could give any advice.

Does my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary think that it is possible for a disciplinary committee, the chairman of which is paid by the Potato Marketing Board, to act in good faith, however much it may wish to do so? I have written to the Potato Marketing Board in connection with this case and I have been informed that there is nothing that the Board can do in the matter. I have written also to the Ministry of Agriculture and I have been informed that there is no action that the Ministry can take.

It seems to me that the very essence of British justice is that not only should justice be done but that it should be seen to be done. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he will be good enough to tell me whether he is satisfied that the disciplinary committee of the Potato Marketing Board is doing its job and is fair and impartial, and whether he is also satsified that it would not be far better if such committees were abolished and the whole procedure brought out into the open and in conformity with the normal course of British justice.

10.31 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for giving me notice that he would raise this subject tonight. I appreciate the reasons which have led him to do so, and I hope that I shall be able to help him on the question of procedure about which I do not think he has given the House an entirely fair account.

I am only sorry that I can add so little to the explanation that I have already given him in the course of correspondence about the constitutional position. In short, I think that I must make it clear that the day-to-day administration of the levy arrangements under the Potato Marketing Scheme is a matter for the Potato Marketing Board, that Ministers have no authority to intervene, and that it would be improper for them to attempt to do so.

There is not a great deal, therefore, that I can say in reply to my hon. Friend's points, but I will help him where I can. It would be helpful, I think, if I tried to explain in general terms where the Minister stands in a matter of this sort, which it must be admitted is a dispute between a producer and his own Board. I am going to speak of the levy arrangements, because that is how they are generally known. Here may I say at once that a levy is not a fine, and that it is misleading to refer to a levy as a fine. Nor do I think that the question of a disciplinary committee which my hon. Friend mentioned is relevant to this case.

Strictly, both at the lower and at the higher rates these levies are arrangements for obtaining contributions towards the costs and operation of the Scheme. I have seen them before now described as fines, but that is a totally wrong description and is misleading. The position is that the Scheme empowers the Board to prescribe the rates of contribution which every registered producer shall pay to the Board for the operation of the Scheme, and the Scheme also provides that the sums payable shall be recoverable as a debt to the Board. These provisions were put up by producers. Parliament approved them in 1955 and Parliament gave the Board the responsibility for administering them.

There is only one point of detail to which I want to refer. In a letter which my hon. Friend sent me he explained that his constituent purchased seed for 14 acres, that he had then received his allocation for 5 acres but, in his own words, as it was impossible to sell the seed he planted the whole lot. In the course of his speech, my hon. Friend said that he planted the whole lot before he realised what his quota amounted to. I mention that in passing in the interests of accuracy.

The position is that Parliament approved these provisions, and Parliament gave the Board responsibility for administering them. It is not open to Ministers just to amend the Scheme. An amendment could be sought only by the Board, and it would be subject to the procedure of the Agricultural Marketing Act. The principle is that producers sought the Scheme in the first place. The Scheme is self-governing, and it is right that any proposal for amendment should come from the producers' elected Board.

This leaves the question of the Minister's position to intervene by any other means, for instance, by directing the Board. As to this, the circumstances in which Ministers can of their own motion direct a marketing board are explicitly set out in the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1958, and they apply only where a board is using particular regulatory powers, which, I am advised, do not include this power to make levies.

I might also mention now—indeed, it is public knowledge—that the Potato Board is considering some amendment of the Scheme, including amendments bearing on the levy provisions. If the Board proceeds with its amendments, there will come a stage in the statutory procedure when Ministers will have to consider them in a semi-judicial capacity, so it is important that I should be careful this evening to say nothing about the levy arrangements which could in any way be interpreted as prejudicing my right hon. Friend's position at that stage.

I hope that the House will not consider that this explanation is too legalistic. I do not want that, but I must make it clear that it is not in our power to try to run the day-to-day management of the Scheme.

My hon. Friend might think that Ministers ought to be able to intervene in particular cases where they think that hardship can be pleaded. But much of the responsibility for operating these marketing schemes, which involve large sums of producers' money as well as, in some cases, Government money, would then be transferred to Ministers, so undermining producer control and producer responsibility, which is the philosophy behind the Agricultural Marketing Act.

Naturally, I do not support the extreme proposition that a marketing board can be a law unto itself, but when Parliament passed the Agricultural Marketing Acts, which are now consolidated in the 1958 Act, it was concerned to hold the balance between producer responsibility and the interests of the consumer and the general public. The main safeguards for the general public are those applied when the Scheme is introduced. It is virtually impossible for a scheme to be introduced without a public inquiry being held before Ministers decide whether or not to commend it to Parliament. When it is placed before Parliament, it is subject to affirmative Resolution of both Houses. When it has acquired binding force, a further set of safeguards comes into effect. I shall briefly refer to them now.

First, there is protection for the consumer. There is a standing consumers' committee empowered to seek information from the Board and to hear complaints. Second, there is power under Section 19 for complaints to be referred by Ministers to a committee of investigation, the chairman of which is an eminent Queen's Counsel. Thirdly, under Section 20, there is a power of direction, to which I have already referred. Its purpose is broadly to prevent injury to the public interest arising from the Board's adoption of restrictive practices or the regulation of prices.

The protection available for producers consists primarily of the democratic procedure specified by the Act for the election of the Board and the hearing of minority interests. Aggrieved producers can make their case at general meetings of the Board. They can participate actively in Board elections to secure the election of members who they feel will represent their point of view, and they can in certain conditions demand revocation polls. Above all, under Section 8 of the Act, each scheme provides for arbitration between an aggrieved producer and the Board. My hon. Friend did not mention arbitration. Indeed, I think he said that there was not arbitration.

I do not wish to misquote him. There is arbitration between an aggrieved producer and the Board, and the Act imposes no limitation on the subject matter of this arbitration. The arbitrator is to be a person agreed by the parties or, failing that, nominated or appointed by the Minister on the application of either party to the dispute. No doubt Messrs. Groves have considered seeking arbitration, but I understand that they have not yet taken this course. Whether they decide to do so must be their decision, but I should have thought that they would be wise to consider that course carefully.

I said at the beginning of this speech that I was not in a position, nor do I think it wise for me to try, to go into great detail on an individual case which is not my right hon. Friend's responsibility. I have indicated certain points in the course of this speech and, as was most important, I have tried to explain to the House the general position dividing my right hon. Friend's responsibility from that of the Board. I hope that I have been able to make it clear that when Parliament considered setting up this Board it was careful not only to achieve a situation which was just but also to achieve a situation in which it could be shown that justice is done.

10.46 p.m.

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) referred at the end of his speech to the procedure of these disciplinary committees and the apparent—I stress the word "apparent"—injustice which can exist under these proceedings. Since it is out of order to discuss legislation on the Adjournment, I cannot argue for an amendment of the Act, but at least I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will say that the Government will inquire into the working of these Acts and especially the procedure of these committees. I have pressed for such an inquiry several times at Question Time over the last two or three years, as have other hon. Members. I hope that the Government will be forthcoming enough to say that they will investigate this procedure to see whether there is any room for improvement in it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.