HC Deb 18 May 1939 vol 347 cc1618-26

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

89. Lieut.-Colonel Heneage

to ask the Minister of Agriculture whether he can state his plans for dealing with barley, sheep, and oats?

91. Mr. Boothby

to ask the Minister of Agriculture whether he can now state the policy of His Majesty's Government with regard to sheep, oats and barley?

Mr. Speaker

It is not the custom to call a Private Notice Question which is similar to a question on the Order Paper which has not been reached. There are two questions, 89 and 91, in the names of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, East (Mr. Boothby) and the hon. and gallant Member for Louth (Lieut.-Colonel Heneage) on which, I understand, the Government are very anxious to make a statement. It may be convenient to the House to put them, but I can only do so by leave of the House.

Hon. Members


Mr. Boothby

The sooner we get an answer the better we shall be pelased.

Lieut.-Colonel Heneage

I, also, am in agreement.

The Minister of Agriculture (Colonel Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith)

The general review of the agricultural situation which was initiated earlier in the year, and the subsequent discussions with the representatives of the farming industry and of other interests, have now reached the stage when the Government are in a position to announce the conclusions at which they have arrived in regard to the application of the principle of price-insurance to sheep, barley and oats.

SHEEP: Sheep form an essential feature of the agricultural economy of a large part of the country and past experience suggests the desirability of safeguarding the industry against serious losses such as occurred in 1938. The Government accordingly propose to invite the Livestock Commission to prepare a scheme of price insurance which would provide a deficiency payment from the Exchequer on sheep (excluding ewes and rams) which are presented for sale for slaughter and exceed a prescribed qualifying minimum weight. It is proposed that these deficiency payments should be made in respect of standard weights; that is to say, a given amount per head would be paid in respect of all sheep of the same class eligible for subsidy, irrespective of their actual weights. There would, however, be two different classes of sheep with different qualifying and standard weights, consisting of a lighter class and a heavier class.

It is proposed that the monthly standard prices for sheep should follow the normal seasonal variations and should be such as will average 10d. Per lb. over the year and that this figure should be related to a total United Kingdom sheep population of 27,000,000, subject to provision being made for varying the standard price in the event of the sheep population rising above this figure or of the standard price being in excess of the market price for two years in succession. To give effect to this provision it is proposed that

  1. (1)The standard price should be "stepped down" by ⅛d. in relation to successive increases of 250,000 in the total United Kingdom sheep population above 27,000,000 up to a figure of 28,000,000 and by ¼d. for each successive 250,000 thereafter; and
  2. (2)If the standard price should be for two successive years in excess of the market price, the standard price of 10d. as related to the basic sheep population of 27,000,000 would be scaled down, subject to which all relevant factors, including imports would be considered.
OATS: On 23rd February I announced that the Government had reached the conclusion that the provisions of the Agriculture Act, 1937, in respect of oats and barley were inadequate and that additional assistance was required by growers of these cereals. The purposes for which these crops are grown are very different and it is accordingly considered that they merit separate treatment in future. Under the Agriculture Act, 1937, growers of oats who receive wheat deficiency payments are debarred from receiving oats subsidy. It is proposed that these growers should be entitled to receive oats subsidy based on 6 cwt. per acre with a maximum payment of £1 per acre.

Growers of oats who do not receive wheat deficiency payments are entitled at present to receive oats subsidy based on 6 cwt. per acre. It is proposed that these growers should be entitled to receive oats subsidy based on 14 cwt. per acre, with a maximum payment of £2 6s. 8d. per acre. The standard price will be, as at present, 8s. per cwt. and deficiency payments will be calculated according to the difference between the average market price of oats in the United Kingdom during the seven months September-March and this standard price. The average market price in the United Kingdom will be determined by weighting the average prices in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively, according to the acreages in each country qualifying for the higher rate of subsidy.

It is proposed that the maximum acreage in respect of which the full rate of subsidy will be applied should be 2,500,000 acres, which will be divided as to 1,030,000 acres in respect of growers who take wheat deficiency payments and 1,470,000 acres for non-wheat growers.

It is proposed that this additional assistance should be applied retrospectively to the 1938 crop, any payments received under the Agriculture Act, 1937, being treated as advances. The effect of these proposals in respect of the 1938 crop will be that oat growers who received wheat deficiency payments will, if Parliament approves, now receive a payment of 13s. 6d. per acre. Oat growers who grew no wheat or who chose not to receive wheat deficiency payments, will receive a payment of 18s. 4d. per acre in addition to the payment of 13s. 2d. which they have already received under the Agriculture Act, 1937. Those farmers who did not apply for oats subsidy during the prescribed period last year will be given a further opportunity of applying.

BARLEY: The production of barley in the United Kingdom is designed in the main to meet the requirements of brewers, distillers and other users of barley for malting purposes, and these industries have expressed their willingness to co-operate in ensuring to the grower a reasonable price for that part of his crop, the continued production of which it is in their interest to maintain. It is proposed that the risks attaching to the remainder should be insured by the Exchequer. Substantial progress has been made in the discussions with the malt-using industries, which are still proceeding, and I have every hope that a satisfactory scheme will be evolved at an early date. It is proposed that the rate of Exchequer assistance should be related to a "ceiling" of 18 million cwt. which is, on the basis of average yields, the produce of 1,250,000 acres, after making an allowance of 10 per cent. for seed and waste.

It is clear, however, that no plan of the kind under discussion with the malt-using industries could be applied retrospectively, and it is accordingly proposed that, in respect of the 1938 crop, growers of barley shall receive assistance at the same rates and on the same terms as are proposed for growers of oats.

The effect of this proposal in respect of the 1938 crop will be that barley growers who received wheat deficiency payments will, if Parliament approves, now receive a payment of 13s. 6d. per acre. Barley growers who grew no wheat, or who chose not to receive wheat deficiency payments will receive a payment of 20s. 8d. per acre, in addition to the payment of 10s. 1od. per acre which they have already received under the Agriculture Act, 1937. As in the case of growers of oats, a further opportunity of applying for subsidy will be given to those farmers who did not make application within the prescribed period.

Provision will be made for varying the standard prices referred to in this statement if there is a material change in conditions. For this purpose it is proposed that Ministers should be given power, with the approval of the Treasury, and subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in Parliament, to vary the standard prices by statutory order.

The legislation necessary to give effect to these proposals will be introduced as soon as possible, and the House will appreciate that these will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Silverman

On a point of Order. I want to ask whether the time that has been taken in reading this very long statement will come out of the time allocated in the Time-table Resolution, and, if so, whether there is any method whereby it can be added at the end, so that the time of the House in discussing a very important matter shall not be further limited?

Mr. Speaker

The time between a quarter to Four and Four o'clock is usually taken up by Private Notice Questions generally and statements of this character, and other business.

Mr. Attlee

Further to the point of Order. May I draw your attention to the fact that it is now becoming increasingly the practice for very long statements to be made by Ministers announcing Government policy and taking up the time of the House, whereas they might be circulated or issued as White Papers; and in this case, as you said this is a matter of urgency, I should like to ask what exactly is a matter of urgency, whether this statement could not have been issued as a White Paper for the information of the House, and whether it was, as a matter of fact, urgent that it should be taken at this point?

Sir John Wardlaw-Milne

Before you reply to the point of Order, Sir, may I draw your attention to the fact that, while I do not disagree necessarily with what the right hon. Gentleman has said, this demand for statements from the Front Bench really comes from the House as a whole, which has repeatedly asked that all declarations of policy should be made from the Front Bench?

Sir Irving Albery

May I respectfully remind you, Sir, that you put to the House the question whether it desired that this statement should be read?

Mr. Leslie Boyce

May I ask you, Sir, to bear in mind that the Opposition have recently been in the habit of wasting at least half an hour a week of the time of the House in needlessly dividing the House on the Motion for the suspension of the Eleven o'Clock Rule?

Mr. Speaker

In the time between a quarter to Four and Four o'clock the Government have a right to make statements to the House. There is nothing unusual in that. With regard to the other point raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, I was informed that it was a matter on which, from the point of view of agriculture, it was urgent that an announcement should be made as early as possible.

Mr. Attlee

The point is that we have rather strict Rules in the House as to what is urgent, and when we are raising matters of urgent public importance, there is a point of urgency which you decide. I was asking whether in this case this was decided to be a matter of urgency; that is to say, a matter of hours or even of days.

Mr. Speaker

The matters on which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, I am very often called upon to judge whether they are urgent or not, under Standing Order No. 8, are altogether different from this one. This matter is one which, I believe, is urgent to the agricultural industry.

Mr. T. Williams

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain the reason for the proposed method of weighting the price of oats in determining the United Kingdom average price.

Sir J. Nall

What will be the cost to the Exchequer in the first year?

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

With regard to the first question, the answer is that it is proposed to divide the growers of oats, for the purpose of the oats subsidy, into two categories—those who also receive wheat deficiency payments and those who do not. The latter category represents in the main growers for whom oats are the principal cereal crop, upon the sale of which they largely rely for their cash income. The proposed method of determining the average market price by reference to the acreages in this category will ensure that the price, and therefore the deficiency payment, is related to the market conditions in those parts of the country where oats are the main cereal crop.

Mr. T. Williams

May I ask then, as oats are very largely sold to farmers, if the price the selling farmer receives is so small as to call for the maximum additional price, will the Minister state what steps the Government will take to ensure that the seller does secure from the farmer-buyer an economic price for the oats and barley, and will the right hon. Gentleman say what the estimated cost for a full average year will be for sheep, oats and barley?

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

With regard to the first part of the question, I think the farmers can be relied upon to make the best possible price for the oats. As far as the cost is concerned, in the case of oats, for the 1938 crop, the additional cost will be about £2,120,000. The maximum liability in any one year will be about £4,500,000. As far as barley is concerned, the additional cost of the 1938 crop is about £800,000. Of course one cannot say for the future what the maximum Exchequer liability will be until the scheme for malting barley is settled with the malt-using industries. As far as sheep are concerned, the cost, of course, will vary considerably from year to year according to the average market price of the sheep, but on the basis of prices in the last six years the average annual cost will be about £900,000.

Mr. Boothby

Arising out of my right hon. Friend's statement, is he aware that the fanners of Scotland will be deeply grateful to him and will raise no objection whatever to the length of his statement?

Mr. Gallacher

The old age pensioners would be deeply grateful for something too.

Lieut.-Colonel Heneage

May I also thank my right hon. Friend and ask him to bear in mind that barley growers have been living on borrowed money very largely during the last six months, will he do his best to let us know when they can expect to receive the money under this new arrangement?

Mr. G. Griffiths

Will there be any means test for those who receive this money?

Mr. H. Morrison

In all seriousness I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is now in a position to answer the question I put some time ago, namely, can he inform the House what is the gross amount of public money that is now being expended for the political purpose of the Government retaining the support of the farmers?

Mr. Gallacher

Old age pensioners, what about them? It is a scandal.

Mr. Benn

On a point of Order. As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, this House treasures the right to authorise public expenditure. Now it appears to me a new practice has grown up, by which, through statements of this kind—this is about the third made—the Government seek to gain some authority from this House for the expenditure of public money pending the introduction of legislation. I understood from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that payments have been made under cover of last year's Bill and in anticipation of legislation to be introduced. I would suggest that some word might be spoken to indicate that a statement of this kind at the end of Questions is no substitute for the procedure laid down in this House for governing the expenditure of public money.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

No payments will be made until the House has in fact passed them. The only payments to be made are under the Agriculture Act of 1937. No advance payments will be made at all without sanction.

Mr. T. Williams

Is it not the case that the foreshadowed payments can only be made when a Bill is introduced to cover the right hon. Gentleman, and that the Measure will in fact become a retrospective payment for the 1938 crop? Is not that really a departure from the normal procedure of the House?

Mr. J. Griffiths

On a point of Order. I understand that payments are to be made retrospectively. Last week I put to the Home Office a question asking whether they would consider making payments retrospectively to certain men in South Wales who are suffering from silicosis and have no compensation, and the Home Secretary replied that he had no power whatever to make retrospective payments. If there is to be no payment to injured poor miners, where do the Government get the power to make retrospective payments to farmers?

Mr. Speakers

As to the last point of Order, the reply is that this House will have to authorise any payments.

Mr. Griffiths

Am I to understand that if this House desires to make payment of compensation to silicosis men this House can do it? The Home Secretary says that he cannot do it.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the Home Secretary said he could not do it without the authority of the House.

Mr. Silverman

I understand now that the Minister has said that his announcement does not bind him to make any payment to anyone pending the approval by his House of the expenditure that is entailed. In view of that statement may I ask what was the urgency of this question?

Mr. Price

I wish to get back to the original question. I would ask whether, in view of the fact that a portion of the money that is raised on beef subsidies and for the assistance of the beef industry is used to improve the quality of beef, the same thing will be done for mutton; whether in fact an attempt will be made to use this money for the purpose of improving the quality of mutton?

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

The answer is "Yes."

Mr. R. Acland

When the beef subsidy was passed was it not on the basis of the price realised in 1938?

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

I have not got that figure with me, but I can let the hon. Member know.

Sir H. Morris-Jones

Is my right hon. Friend aware that that part of his statement which refers to the sheep and lamb industry will be received with the greatest satisfaction? Is he aware that that industry has been suffering from more depression than the mining industry?

Major-General Sir Alfred Knox

Will my right hon. Friend state how his scheme is to be explained to an agricultural audience in a short bright speech?