In the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Agriculture, the responsibility for dealing with the Second Reading of the Flax Act, 1936, devolves on me. This Bill is, in effect, a Bill to do now what the 1947 Flax Act, 1936 (Suspension) Act then did, with this additional feature, that the Flax Act (Suspension) Act, 1947, suspended the 1936 Act for a limited period, while this Bill will suspend the 1936 Act for an unlimited period. The 1936 Act will not come into operation hereafter unless and until an Order to that effect is made by the Government for the time being. The purpose of the original Act in 1936 was to promote the cultivation of flax in the country. It fixed minimum prices, and it was hoped thereby to evoke the growing in certain areas of the country of about 5,000 acres of flax.
In fact, the provisions of the 1936 Act never functioned, because the minimum prices which it was thought expedient to fix under it never reached market prices, which were consistently in excess of the minima fixed. Then, with the outbreak of war, a variety of factors operated which made it highly unlikely that provisions designed to promote the cultivation of flax would be necessary and it was deemed expedient to suspend the Act. That situation continued until 1948, which was the last year in which the Board of Trade in Great Britain made itself responsible for buying the entire flax crop of this country. When the Board of Trade in London withdrew, the future market for flax grown in this country by our people became a matter between the growers and the Northern Ireland spinners. The Northern Ireland spinners suggested that a lower price than had been paid in 1948 should be acceptable to our growers in 1949. The final offer of Northern Ireland spinners was to buy 2,000 tons of flax at 32/6 per stone for grade 5. That was a reduction of 2/6 on the prices paid for the 1948 crop. The Minister for Agriculture advised spinners that that was not a proposal he considered he would be justified in recommending to growers in this country, in view of the fact that, at the same time, the Northern Ireland flax spinners not only proposed to maintain but to raise the prices paid to growers in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, the Association of Flax Spinners in Northern Ireland met representatives of the growers and agreed to purchase 3,000 tons at prices ranging from 26/6 for grade 6 to 34/- for grade 1 with an additional 1/6 a stone for turbine-scutched flax.
Arrangements have been made with regard to the coming year for the sale of 3,000 tons, and the prices agreed on show a further reduction of 3/- on the prices ruling in 1949, and are 10/- per stone less than growers in Northern Ireland will receive. The House should know that in respect of the flax crop in Northern Ireland there is an arrangement whereby the spinners will pay a basic price and the Northern Ireland Government will pay a subsidy under the Flax Act, 1949. Under the First Schedule of the Flax Act Northern Ireland, 1949, a growers' agreement contains this provision:—
"Whereas the cost of growing flax in Northern Ireland exceeds considerably the world price of flax of equivalent quality and whereas it is important that the growing of flax in Northern Ireland should be encouraged and the quality improved ..."
It then goes on to set out that a subsidy shall be made available to the growers by the Government. The Northern Ireland Government recognised that the prices provided by the spinners were inadequate to give the growers of Northern Ireland flax accepatable prices, and a standard of living that they could be expected to accept without a subsidy. In those circumstances the Minister for Agriculture did not feel that it was reasonable to ask flax growers in this country to accept 10/- less than that paid to growers in Northern Ireland.
The Minister, however, did not consider it necessary in present circumstances to fix a minimum price as laid down in the Flax Act, 1936, and this Bill suspends that Act for an indefinite period.