This is a rather important Bill, and will need a certain amount of explanation. I think it is quite clear from the figures of prices for the years 1926-1927, and 1928-1929 that the result of the original Agricultural Produce (Eggs) Act was to increase and stabilise the prices of eggs in the English markets. I have taken some trouble to get the prices for the years 1927, 1928 and 1929, but before I give these prices I want to make this point.
Ireland is a country that produces, unfortunately if you like, different varieties of produce and of the same kind of produce. In bigger countries where they specialise more the quantities of their exports are bigger, and in addition to that they are more uniform. That point must always be remembered when quoting the prices of Irish produce in the English market. I could exemplify what I have to say on that matter by particular reference to Irish butter, but it would take time, and the opportunity for doing that will come up on a different issue later. But it applies to some extent to eggs. There is only one way that I can see to get any sort of a real picture of what the Irish prices are, and that is to take the years as a whole, and not only to take the years as a whole, but to take the different markets and to average them. I have done that for the years 1927, 1928 and 1929. I have not done so for the year 1930, not for political reasons, but for this reason: that the year 1930 is not yet finished. There is a number of quite important trade and official publications not yet issued which contain a large number of relevant and reliable figures. These figures are not yet available, and to make a figure for 1930 in the absence of that sort of information would be quite misleading. So I confine myself to the years 1927, 1928 and 1929.
I find that as a result of averaging official and market and trade reports from the various sources and from the different markets in England the following figures are, in my opinion, approximately correct. Take the best Irish eggs: in 1927 the price per long hundred was 17/5; in 1928 17/8, and in 1929 18/6, and that was for the best, for the extra-selected eggs. I have the figures here before me for other grades of Irish eggs, but I do not quote them at the moment, because that would only complicate matters, but Deputies might take it that these figures exactly tell the same story as the grade I have mentioned.
Danish, best quality, are as follows for the same years:—16/6, 16/1 and 16/6. Dutch eggs for the same years are 17/4, 17/5 and 17/8 as against our 17/5, 17/8 and 18/6. I regard these figures as reliable. They are the best I could get, not from the point of view of showing the best side of the picture, but rather from the point of view that I regard them as reliable and representative of the markets. And they show, as against other eggs in the English market, that since the passage of the original Act Free State eggs have more than held their own as against any other imported eggs. That has been the case certainly up to this year and is the case still, but I must make certain limitations with regard to this year, and I will deal with that later on. Before doing so I want to draw the attention of the Dáil to another rather important consideration.
A Merchandise Marks Act was passed by the British Parliament some time ago. Strange to say, the British Parliament was concerned with British interests purely, and the Act was deliberately passed so far as possible to help home producers, that is to say British producers, against the importers, no matter who they were. It has had the desired effect. The effect was that imported foodstuffs from anywhere had to be marked with the name of the country of origin, whereas British, which includes Northern Ireland eggs, could be sold without any mark of any kind. Now it will be fairly obvious to anyone who has got anything to do with business, either as a merchant or a purchaser, that the immediate effect, apart from the permanent effect, of that Act would be to put a premium on unmarked eggs. Where you have in a big market a comparatively small quantity of eggs singled out in this way there must be a big advantage to the eggs so singled out, at least for a short period immediately after that took place; and that has happened both with regard to English and North of Ireland eggs.
The consumer—the housewife—in England who is offered a choice of Dominion eggs, Dutch eggs, Danish eggs, French eggs, Chinese eggs, and eggs from all over the world, had a simple obvious rule to guide her. There were eggs without any mark at all. The rest had to be marked. The others were home eggs and so obviously they were more likely to be fresh eggs. That was a sort of reaction these conditions had on the mind of the consumer in England, and the result is that North of Ireland and British eggs had got a big premium as compared with eggs of any importer, whether Irish, English, Danish, Dutch, and so on. We still, however, hold our position in the English market relative to any other importers, and the figures I have just quoted indicate at present the true position of Irish eggs in the English market relative to any other importer; but there is this to be said to complete the matter, that English eggs and North of Ireland eggs are at a premium at present, in relation to Free State eggs, Danish eggs, or the eggs of any other country that exports to England. That is the situation that we have to face. We have to export a surplus of practically half our produce in the way of eggs. In this connection I would remind Deputies of a point, although it may not be entirely relative: The Danes do not appear to be as particular as we are. The proportion of their eggs they consume at home is far less than the proportion of Irish eggs that we consume at home. Exactly the same applies to butter. We consume more than half our total production of butter. The Danes consume one-eighth and fill up with margarine. The Danes never consume any of their first or second grade bacon except, of course, a limited wealthy class. They keep at home the low-price bacon, and they export the expensive article.
To some extent that applies to eggs, but, even though we do consume at home a very large proportion of our eggs, nevertheless the export market in eggs is absolutely vital to us. Our total import of eggs is valued about £70,000. We export about £5,000,000 worth. Unless we are to go out of production for the next five or six years we must find a market for the £5,000,000, and it is up to us to increase prices as much as possible in that market. The problem that faces us is, how to close the gap between the price of British eggs on the British market and Free State eggs in the same market. We have solved the other problem. As against the importer, Irish eggs are safe enough, but there is that problem there, namely, how to close the gap between the price of British eggs and that of Irish Free State imported eggs. There is only one way to do it. Like every real problem, it cannot be solved quickly or by any simple action on the part of either the Government or exporters. It takes time to build up good-will. It takes time to do anything worth while doing, and, in order to do anything worth while doing, we must have the co-operation of the people most interested, namely, the farmers and exporters.
The only way we can close the gap is gradually, by giving better value and by increasing the prestige of our own brand, to convince the English housewife, the English purchaser, who is quite impartial and who considers nothing but value, that the mark "Irish Free State" on our eggs is, in fact, a better guarantee of freshness than the absence of the mark which distinguishes English eggs. There is no other way, and it is from that point of view, as well as to solve other difficulties, that we introduce the Bill. There is one other point to which I wish to refer before dealing with the Bill in detail. Everybody is aware, as the result of reading the newspapers during the past year, that Irish eggs got a certain amount of publicity both here and in England, publicity on many occasions of quite an undesirable kind. The question whether Irish eggs in 1930 were as good as those in 1929 has been canvassed in the newspapers both on this side and on the other side. There were very divergent views on the matter. It was obviously the duty of the Department of Agriculture, with the help of their agents on the other side, to make investigations as to the reality of complaints that had been made, and they have done so. I can safely state the position to be as follows. It is the old story.
The Department of Agriculture has been inspecting exporters' premises for a great many years and has been endeavouring to get exporters to change their methods, to instal better equipment, to improve their premises, and to pack properly. It had been concentrating on exporters' premises, and that went on for three or four years. This year there was a certain amount of concentration of another kind, namely, at the ports, on the eggs in transit. There was not quite the same amount of inspection of exporters' premises. What was the result? As I say, it was the old story. The big proportion of our exporters lived up to the regulations of the Agricultural Produce (Eggs) Act. They carried out the regulations loyally. They went ahead and did their business exactly as if the inspectors were calling, and they shipped eggs which were creditable to the Irish Free State. Undoubtedly, however, a small minority took advantage of the absence of inspection and went back to the methods which they had been adopting before the Dairy Produce Act was passed. There is quite a considerable minority in business and in every other sphere in this country who want to take advantage of the other person's work. We had built up a reputation for Irish eggs. The people who had done that are the best exporters in the country. They are to be found everywhere, not necessarily the big exporters, but undoubtedly you are bound to find a small minority taking advantage of that. They are going to get the price which the box entitles them to. The box carries a certain prestige, but they are going to supply an inferior article. We found that a small minority did that this year, but we have endeavoured to change all that.
I would ask Deputies to realise that position on the next occasion that they are approached by some exporters who are experiencing drastic measures on the part of the Department of Agriculture and who complain that they are being threatened with the withdrawal of their licences. I ask Deputies to remember that they may be very well trying to shield exporters who have no real merits, who are doing no real service even in their own district, but who are injuring the trade as a whole. It is an extraordinary state of affairs that even a small number should succumb in this way. One would think that these regulations were made for the benefit of the Department of Agriculture and that it was just for the love of making and carrying out regulations that they were being enforced. Every one of the exporters knew that the Act saved the trade to some extent when that measure was passed. Of course, you will get silly people, definitely hostile, malevolent people, who will say: "Look at the price of eggs in 1924 and look at the price now after the Act was passed."
I suppose you must point out, even though it should be pretty obvious, that such a comparison is quite idle. No one can prevent prices falling. The only thing you can do in any one year is to get the best price offered, and the real comparison is not between prices in 1924 and those now ruling, but the price which eggs now get when well packed and properly delivered, compared with the prices they would have fetched if the slip-shod methods of seven or eight years ago were adopted. Difficulties occurred in certain markets with a small number of Irish exporters, and it is to meet such difficulties and to deal with certain omissions which revealed themselves in the Act, that this Bill is being introduced. It is quite a complicated Bill, and it is necessary to refer to the various sections.
Section 3 of the Bill is an important section. Under Section 3 of the original Act the maximum quantity of eggs that could be taken by a farmer across the border without being tested, graded and packed in accordance with the regulations was 11 lbs., i.e., the maximum amount allowed to be sent per parcel post. The Merchandise Marks Act, under which the order was made by the British authorities, requiring the marking of all individual eggs imported into Great Britain or Northern Ireland, does not apply to farm produce carried by a farmer from the Irish Free State into Northern Ireland in course of his business as a farmer. It was thought necessary, therefore, to relieve the farmers in the border districts of the Irish Free State from the disability under which they suffered. Section 4 gives the inspector powers to detain a package or a consignment for a reasonable period to allow of examination. This is necessary in view of the practice of some shippers in rushing a consignment to the docks at the last moment in order to avoid inspection. It also gives him the power to return the consignment to the owner when contraventions of the regulations are observed in a certain number of packages in the consignment. Hitherto all the inspector could do would be to take or detain one package from the consignment, which, if found to contravene the Act, could later be forfeited to the Minister. This section also gives the inspector power to detain one package when the consignment consists of one package only. The powers in the original Act were weak in this respect, as law officers' opinion had been received that if the consignment consisted of one package, the package could not be detained. The section also relieves the carrying companies of all responsibility for any delays that may occur by the exercise of these powers by the inspector.
Section 5 is also important. Hitherto the Minister before granting registration of any premises in the register of exporters could not under the original Act insist that the applicant or one of his employees was fully competent to test, grade and pack eggs properly. This section remedies the defect and gives the Minister power to cancel the registration if no competent person is employed. Under the original Act the Minister could not refuse to register premises which were suitable and properly equipped, even though the registration of such premises had previously been cancelled owing to serious contraventions of the Act on the part of the registered proprietor or where the applicant had been previously a registered proprietor and had had the registration of his premises cancelled. Section 6 of the Bill now gives the Minister the powers to refuse registration in such cases. Section 7 merely amends a slight flaw in Section 9 (8) of the original Act in regard to the date before which the annual fee should be paid. In regard to Section 8 it was found undesirable to have the name of a registered proprietor who became bankrupt left on the register. Under the original Act the Minister had no power to cancel the registration of the premises for this reason. This defect is now remedied.
Under Section 15 of the original Act all packages of eggs exported from registered premises had to bear a brand consisting of an ellipse with the letters "S.E." and an identification letter and number assigned to the particular premises enclosed therein. The law officers' opinion was obtained as to the use by a merchant whose registration had been cancelled of this brand on packages of eggs sold by him within the Irish Free State. The law officers gave it as their opinion that merchants whose registrations had been cancelled were entitled to use this brand on such packages. Section 9 of the Bill now prohibits the use of the brand except by the registered proprietor for the time being of premises registered in the register of exporters. The necessity for Section 10 is as follows: the grades into which eggs intended for export must be divided, have minimum weights, i.e., each great hundred of "Extra Selected" must weigh not less than 16 lb. with no individual egg included weighing less than 15 lb. per hundred; "Selected" must weigh not less than 15 lb. per great hundred with no individual egg included weighing less than 14 lb., etc., etc.
Some exporters have been in the habit of grading over the minimum weights and branding their cases accordingly, e.g., "Extra Selected," 17 lb., "Selected," 15½ lb., to indicate that the eggs are in reality heavier than the minimum weight required for that particular grade. The practice was not, of course, objectionable, except in some cases when it came to the Department's notice that the eggs were not up to the weights branded on the packages. The object of this section is, therefore, to ensure that if such weight marks are branded on the packages in addition to the ordinary grade marks, the eggs will be per hhd. of the weights indicated.
In regard to Section 11, in the light of experience it has been found necessary to amend and strengthen Section 17 of the original Act enabling the inspector to search for eggs on the premises, and requiring the registered proprietor or any person employed by him to give any information which the inspector may deem necessary for the purposes of the administration of the Act. This section also equips the inspector with the same powers in regard to premises registered in the register of preservers or in respect of which an application for registration in the register of preservers has been received. Section 12 strengthens the provisions of Section 18 of the original Act in regard to the sale, etc., of bad or dirty eggs. The latter section was the chief one governing the internal trade in eggs in the Irish Free State. Hitherto some offenders who have sold or offered for sale bad eggs have escaped on the plea that the eggs were sold subject to test. Also the purchase of bad or dirty eggs was not specifically made an offence in the original Act although it has been found possible to proceed against such persons as aiders and abettors under the Petty Sessions Act. This section now makes it an offence to sell or offer for sale bad or dirty eggs even if such sale or offer for sale is subject to test. It also makes it an offence to purchase bad or dirty eggs or to have such eggs in possession. This latter provision will, it is thought, help enormously in coping with the question of the sale of dirty eggs which has grown to be an outstanding evil in the egg trade. In regard to Section 13, up to this, proprietors of registered premises were in the habit of reconstructing their premises to suit their own needs or business and applying later to the Minister for approval. In some cases, in fact, no notification of the alterations was received. This section makes it obligatory on the proprietor to obtain prior permission for such alterations, and thus remedies a slight defect in the original Act.
I now come to Part II., which deals with the register of preservers. It has been found necessary to legislate for registration in the register of preservers and for the egg preserving trade generally, as the powers in the original Act (Section 7) were found to be faulty. The original Act placed the onus on the Minister of setting up a register, to be known as the register of preservers, of all premises in the Irish Free State in which the business of preserving eggs was carried on. It did not, however, make it compulsory on the owner of such premises to apply for registration. As a result, it has been found that the section in question, in so far as the egg preserving trade was concerned, was unworkable. This part of the Bill, therefore, makes it an offence for any person to carry on by way of trade in premises which are not registered in the register of preservers the business of preserving eggs, and sets out certain requirements in the way of premises, equipment, etc., which must be complied with before such premises can be registered on the same lines as the requirements regarding the premises of exporters in the original Act. It also prescribes a fee to be paid on application for such registration.
In addition, it empowers the Minister to make regulation setting out the marks to be placed on eggs consigned to or removed from any premises registered in the register of preservers and makes it an offence for the eggs to be consigned to or from premises registered in the register of preservers or for the registered proprietor to accept on or to sell from or for any person to purchase from premises registered in the register of preservers any eggs which have not accordingly been so marked. These powers are necessary to prevent any abuses being practised in regard to the mixing of preserved (especially cold stored) eggs with fresh eggs, either for the export or home trade. At present, it may be added that all cold stored eggs, before being removed from cold storage premises whether for export or internal trade, have to be marked individually with the Irish Free State design (the design which has to be placed on all Irish Free State eggs exported to Great Britain) in black ink all the year round. As fresh eggs exported during the period 1st July to 31st January must be marked in red ink, this provision to an extent prevented any malpractice in this connection, but the powers now sought are regarded as necessary. Hitherto the onus was on the owner of the cold store. Under the new provisions, regulations can be made providing that the eggs must be marked before going into the preserving premises. This part of the Bill also requires certain registers to be kept on preserving premises which will be open to the inspector for perusal.
The two principal provisions of Part III. of the Bill are:—
(a) Section 23, which prohibits the sale, offer for sale, etc., of eggs in places or under such conditions which do not afford adequate protection from dirt, damp or contamination. This is designed to prevent the sale, etc., of eggs in unsuitable open spaces in towns or villages where in inclement weather, for instance, the eggs would be liable to become dirty or musty from contact with damp straw.
(b) Section 24, which empowers the Gárdaí to assist in the detection of dirty eggs. I have been in correspondence with the Minister for Justice in this matter and he has no objection to the insertion of this clause, on the understanding that the police can only carry out their duties under this section in the course of their ordinary patrol work.
The Gárdaí were not expressly authorised in the original Act to take samples of dirty eggs. The practice has been for the Department's authorised inspectors to take samples of the eggs when they are found to be dirty, and to notify the owners, etc., of the taking of the samples, and if the same procedure were to be carried out by the Gárdaí it would have been necessary to authorise each individual member of the Gárdaí as an inspector under the original Act. The present method of authorising them by a section in the Amending Bill is considered much more satisfactory. The Department are of opinion that this section will assist them to a great extent in preventing the sale, or offer for sale, of dirty eggs.