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Agricultural Training Board Bill

Volume 77: debated on Friday 19 April 1985

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Considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

2.22 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a modest Bill which I hope will enable the Agricultural Training Board to offer its unique training expertise overseas to the benefit of the United Kingdom.

As many hon. Members know, the Agricultural Training Board, which was established in 1966, provides training for the commercial agriculture and horticulture industries in Great Britain. Many of the board's activities centre on short craft skills courses for agricultural workers. It has great expertise in the development of those courses and the training of instructors. It also undertakes management training and organises farming apprenticeships and other youth training. Its skills are highly regarded by the farming industry in the United Kingdom.

The board has powers under section 5 of the Agricultural Training Board Act 1982 to teach workers from overseas the methods of agriculture in the United Kingdom, but those powers do not enable the board to carry its expertise overseas. Its ability to do so would be especially useful in the involvement in major export contracts in the agricultural sector such as the installation of irrigation schemes and the setting up of other agricultural businesses, such as complete dairy units, in areas like the middle east. The training of local staff to run such new systems is a vital part of the total export package, and the participation of the board could improve the United Kingdom's chances of gaining contracts and materially helping employment in the United Kingdom.

I hope that the board will be able to operate profitably overseas and that its involvement in such work will be of great benefit to the United Kingdom. There are safeguards to that effect in the Bill. I hope also that the board will he able to use its commercial expertise and to maximise its revenue so that any profits that are generated can be used for the material benefit of training in the United Kingdom.

The Bill also has the subsidiary purpose of strengthening Ministers' formal rights of access to the board's books and records. There is already an agreement that such access will be given, but this power will bring the Agricultural Training Board into line with the current guidelines for public bodies.

The Agricultural Training Board is outstandingly effective in promoting training techniques in agriculture. I hope that this modest measure will enable the board to help to promote British agricultural expertise and business worldwide. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.25 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. John MacGregor)

It is most gratifying that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) has been able to progress this useful Bill so fast. I congratulate him on introducing it and on the speed with which he has got it through the various stages so far.

As the House knows, the Agricultural Training Board was established in 1966 under the Industrial Training Act 1964, together with many other training boards in ether industries. Subsequently, the board was transferred to the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and its powers were consolidated in the Agricultural Training Board Act 1982.

The board provides a vital training role for the commercial agriculture and horticulture industries in Great Britain. It is largely funded by a grant in aid from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, amounting to more than £7 million in 1984–85. The development of short craft skills courses and the training of instructors is undertaken by the board, while the organisation of most individual training courses is carried out by a network of 600 farmers' training groups. The strength of this group activity, and the board's expertise in organising them, is of particular interest to developing overseas countries, as the hon. Gentleman has emphasised. In addition, the board undertakes management training and organises farm apprenticeships and other youth training. The board's skills are highly regarded by the farming industry.

In 1982, the then board chairman suggested that the board's training expertise could with advantage be made available overseas. Ministers agreed in principle on the understanding that such activities would be undertaken by the Agricultural Training Board in collaboration with the private training sector and that this would not lead to any dilution of domestic training effort. That is most important. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, clause 1(2) of the Bill imposes on the board a requirement to act commercially in the exercise of its overseas functions so that at an early date it can show that expenditure on overseas work can be met from revenues received. That is a most important provision, as we do not wish the United Kingdom agriculture industry to suffer any diversion of funds from its training in order to meet the needs of others, however deserving, outside the United Kingdom. The board has had substantive discussions with private sector consultants through the British Consultants Bureau on this basis, and I understand that a good understanding has been reached.

The 1982 Act does not, however, enable the board to engage fully in overseas activities. The hon. Gentleman's Bill would therefore empower the board to undertake work which Ministers have agreed is desirable. It would remove the restraint on providing training for employment overseas to permit the board to provide training courses and teaching and advisory personnel as well as advice and to charge for those services. Through the requirement to keep separate accounts under clause 1(3), the Bill also provides an assurance for agriculture that there is to be no diversion of funds from the United Kingdom to overseas activities.

Although the board has not yet been authorised to do work overseas, there is considerable evidence that there would be a demand for its services. It has received requests for consultancy and training advice and activities, and there is a steady flow of orders for its publications.

I was also pleased to see that the opportunity had been taken in the Bill to incorporate a further amendment to the Agricultural Training Board Act 1982 to give the Government a formal right of access to the board's books and records. As has already been said, there is already an agreement between Ministers and the board, and it is reaffirmed every year when grant in aid is given that such access should be given.

The Bill is welcome. The ATB has great expertise in the sector within which it operates. As a public sector body, it must first provide a high service and value for money for its customers in the United Kingdom. It is most important that the public and private sectors collaborate in a positive fashion to promote our interests abroad. Agricultural expertise in this country is second to none and many areas of the world would benefit from it.

I highly commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.