HC Deb 01 August 1940 vol 363 cc1448-57

Order for Second Reading read.

4.30 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. R. S. Hudson)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House is no doubt aware that Parliament has granted to the Government very wide and drastic powers to deal with the question of food production, powers wider and more drastic than were conferred upon my predecessors in the last war. The other day when I was speaking, I promised the House that if I found that I needed more powers I should not hesitate to come and ask the House for them. In the short time which has elapsed I have come to the conclusion that further powers are required to fill up the gaps that we have discovered. The Bill does not enunciate from the start any great new agricultural policy, but is designed merely to supplement our existing powers. Perhaps it will be for the convenience of the House if I run rapidly through the Clauses, and explain what they contain.

Clause I deals with drainage. As the House knows, powers have been granted in the past, and have been used, for the improvement of the lower reaches of rivers, obviously the first part of any drainage scheme. When the lower reaches of rivers have been dealt with, then comes the turn of the tributary streams higher up. Finally, come the development and improvement of the drainage on individual farms. In the past, grants have been made and legislation has been passed to secure the cleaning out of ditches, and for what is known as mole drainage. There is another form of drainage which is very important, more especially on the lighter land, and it is known as tile or stone drainage. The Clause enables us to give grants, on the same lines as the existing mole-drainage grants, for drainage by other methods, such as tile or stone drainage, and, secondly, it enables us to simplify the procedure for ditch clearing schemes and to assimilate it to the mole-drainage procedure, so that all forms of farm drainage can be treated on the same basis.

The arrangements made under the Act for mole drainage have worked very well, and although they have been in operation for only a short time there is a steady and increasing influx of schemes. As regards tile drainage, the object of the Bill is to give a grant towards starting new tile drains and also to improve existing tile drains. It has been found that although a great deal of the country has old systems of tile drainage which, through long neglect, have ceased to work, they are capable of being made to work again by clearing out the ditches and by repairing the tiles. The Bill enables us to do so. We intend to give grants to cover not merely installation of new tile drainage but making existing tile drainage systems work again. One point of some practical importance is that a great deal of the trouble with the old tile drainage has been caused by the fact that the place where the old tile drains run is not known exactly. We have therefore added the condition to the new scheme that, when application is made for grants of new tile drainage, a plan should be deposited at the same time so that, at any later date, it will be possible to find out where the drains are and to repair them if necessary.

I might mention that until the beginning of this year grants for ditching were ineligible if they were merely for work undertaken on an individual holding. Since 1st January last this ban has been removed. The arrangements for ditching work have also been open to the objection that the grants could be made only through a drainage authority. Under the Clause ditching schemes will be put on the same footing as the various kinds of field drainage and all forms of farm drainage will in future be dealt with by the county war agricultural executive committees. The only other point is that Sub-section (2) of the Clause provides that, where a tenant, in pursuance of a notice served on him on behalf of a war agricultural executive committee, carries out mole drainage work, he shall be entitled under the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1923, to compensation for that part of the expenditure incurred by him, but not for the part which is represented by the grant.

Clause 2 deals with the difficulty that arises in the case of grass roads over certain fen land. No doubt, in the old days, the grass roads were sufficient for the traffic, but, with the development of motor transport, they have become wholly insufficient and inadequate to bear the increased loads. Up till now, it has proved impossible to reach agreement to make new roads, because one or two owners or occupiers of the land were unwilling to make the necessary contribution. We therefore propose to take powers to make the grass roads into hard roads at the expense of the Government, and through the war agricultural executive committees, and to recover from the owners whose land will have been enhanced in value because of that work. Hon. Members will see that Sub-section (3) of the Clause provides the machinery. The owner is not to be charged a greater sum than the enhanced value of his land due to the work, and the total to be recovered from all the owners affected is not to be greater than the total cost of the work. In addition to that, it is intended to provide for the maintenance of these roads when once they have been constructed. Therefore, we are taking powers to authorise internal drainage boards to levy rates for the maintenance of the roads. In addition, there is provision enabling owners to pay the cost over a period of years.

Sir Joseph Lamb (Stone)

Do I understand that the reference is to the increased value of the holdings and not to the actual cost of the work which has been done? Sometimes, when the work is done by Government authorities, the charge may not be worth what has been done.

Mr. Hudson

We can trust the war agricultural executive committees to make sure that the work is done as economically as possible.

Sir J. Lamb

Is the rate to be limited to the increased value of the holding, and not to the actual money expended?

Mr. Hudson

It cannot be greater than the enhanced value which has resulted to the land.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

Can it be greater than the actual cost?

Mr. Hudson

No, it cannot be greater than the cost. I will not try to explain the mathematical complexities involved in the Sub-section, but, if it is of any use to hon. Members, I will insert in the OFFICIAL REPORT a statement showing the factors involved. Perhaps an hon. Member will put down a Question.

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

If the cost of the improvement is, in fact, in excess of the actual increase in value of the contiguous land, it gives rise to the question now being asked, whether the landowner will be charged only for the increase in the land value or be charged the full amount?

Mr. Hudson

He will be charged on the increased value of the land.

Colonel Gretton (Burton)

Does the Clause cover the case where a bad tenant has let his land run down by neglecting the work, and the landlord is not in a position to get rid of that bad tenant? The land has suffered owing to bad cultivation.

Mr. Hudson

I am afraid that that case is not covered by the Clause, which only deals with land which we want to get back into cultivation, fairly extensive tracts of land, where the difficulty is that there is no access to the land because there are no hard roads. It is believed that the land will be enhanced in value by the existence of the roads. It is a very complicated matter.

Clause 3 extends for seven years the period specified in Sub-section (1) of Section 20 of the Agricultural Act, 1937, during which the Minister will be entitled to make payments to the owners of herds of cattle for the purpose of eradicating bovine tuberculosis.

We come to Clause 4. The House is aware that tenants of grass land may require protection against the terms of their leases, which very often prevent them from ploughing up that land. It is not always possible to make sure that the order to plough up the land is served on the farmer before the ploughing up actually starts. The Clause is intended to enable us to treat the order to plough up as having been served, even though it may in fact have been served after the ploughing up has started. This provision is for the duration of the

As to Clause 5, we have found that, in a certain number of cases where an order has been made for a farmer or owner to carry out work, and the owner or occupier has not carried it out, we have only two resources open to us. One is to prosecute the man. The necessary preparation for doing that takes a long time. Even if it is successful, the proper time for carrying out the work has often passed, and it is, therefore, an extremely unsatisfactory procedure. The only other remedy is for the committee to go in and do the work at the public expense, but that again is not very satisfactory. Therefore, the Clause gives the committee power to require an owner or occupier to perform a certain act and, if he does not do it, to go in and do it for him and to recover the cost, as well as prosecuting him, if the case requires that course.

The remaining two Clauses of the Bill apply only to Scotland and are self-explanatory. Clause 6 extends the powers as to drainage, that the Secretary of State for Scotland has at present, of securing the cleansing and scouring of the channels of watercourses. A great deal of land could be brought back into cultivation, and the Clause gives the necessary authority. It also makes some consequential alterations with regard to the power to recover from the owners of land.

Brigadier-General Clifton Brown (Newbury)

Does that apply only to Scotland?

Mr. Hudson

Yes, only to Scotland. Clause 8 is designed to simplify the procedure in cases where my right hon. Friend desires to requisition land devoted to sport or recreation. At present he has to obtain a certificate from the executive committee. I have explained as shortly as I can the main objects of these Clauses. The House will realise, as I have already said, that this Bill is designed merely to supplement our existing powers and to try and shorten as far as possible any delay that may in future arise in carrying on this intensified campaign of increasing food production.

4.46 P.m.

Mr. Jackson (Brecon and Radnor)

Before addressing myself to the Bill before the House, I would like to say one word of congratulation to the Minister of Agri- culture and to the Parliamentary Secretary—I do not know whether I can include the Secretary of State for Scotland, because I do not know what he has been doing—on the hard work and enthusiasm which they have been putting into their new task. All I hope is that this hard work and energy will be translated into a great increase in food production in the months and years to come and that, assisted by their efforts, the agricultural industry may be able to do what I believe every farmer and farmworker in the country is wanting to do, namely, to play their full part in the conduct and winning of this war. I know that the Minister is making a big effort to clear away red tape and vested interests so that the work can be accelerated, and I believe that this Bill will contribute a little towards attaining that end. This is not an important Bill, I know, but it does move in the right direction, and I feel certain that it will meet with very little opposition or criticism from this House except on the ground that it may not go far enough in some directions.

I do not intend to deal with the Bill Clause by Clause, but I will just make a few brief observations on it generally. I believe that when the original Bill was introduced by the previous Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. and gallant Member for Petersfield (Sir R. Dorman-Smith), the present Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture described it as a miscellaneous collection of odds and ends, and he also suggested that the Bill as a whole was a weak, tubercular and miserable child. I must admit that at the time when it was introduced I could agree with him, but it is astonishing what two capable nurses have been able to do—perhaps I should have said three—[HON. MEMBERS: "Four.")—with even this puny infant. If I may use a farming illustration, it is often the case in our part of the country that if what is called a. misgo—that is a very small pig which sometimes appears in a litter, the same kind of pig as I believe is referred to in other parts of the country as the parson's pig—is given to one of your workmen, very often his wife will look after it so well that it outgrows all its lustier brothers and sisters. I hope this Bill will grow in the same way and will bring about good results, although I am still certain that many Bills of a much more sweeping character than this will have to be passed before farming will attain its maximum results. I read a very forcible article in last week's "Sunday Express" which, no doubt, the Minister will have read. It suggested that the aim of British agriculture at the present moment should be the production of another £300,000,000 worth of homegrown food. I should not like to set the Minister such a difficult task, but I believe that he could go a long way towards attaining that goal if he were prepared to take all the means possible. As an instance of what a tremendous increase in production can be made, I would like to remind the Minister that he has lately visited the county in which I live, and I believe, from what he said to me after that visit, that he was very pleased with the way in which it was farmed. Yet the same week Sir George Stapledon, whose name is now so familiar to all agriculturists, speaking at our county town, Hereford, said that of the 350,000 acres of grassland in the county 210,000 were of a low yield of production, 83,000 of second unit production and only 4.63 per cent, capable of producing 100 to 150 lbs. of meat per acre. If this is the case in Herefordshire, I shudder to think what is the percentage of bad grass in some of our poorer counties. This is an example which shows what tremendous scope there still is for improvement in our land and through that for increased production.

This is shown to anyone who goes on a railway journey. I have to come up to town each week, and I notice the state of our farming. One sees field after field of poor grass covered with nettles and thistles, acres and acres of wasted, sprawling hedgeland, and dilapidated farmhouses and buildings. One then realises how much work lies before future Ministers of Agriculture before they should be satisfied, and one also wonders whether Bills like this are sufficient to bring about such radical changes.

Mr. De la Bère

No, they are not. They are no good.

Mr. Jackson

I should like to mention a word about drainage. I know that what is contained in this Bill will be welcomed by all, but I hope that the Minister will not be disappointed if full use is not at once made of the scheme because there is so much extra work being taken on in food production that farmers may not be able to find time or labour to carry out work on the lines suggested in the Bill unless the Minister is prepared to supply the labour. I do not wish to dwell on the question of drainage, because I know that I can leave it to discussions among the experts from the Eastern counties who know so much more about it than do we who dwell in the hilly lands of the West. Perhaps the Minister will be pleased to know that his efforts in initiating drainage schemes have already had one effect, and that is to bring pleasure into the life of the otherwise melancholy and hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell).

The powers which the Minister now possesses and which are added to by this Bill makes the control of agricultural land more complete, and he is able to give to the county agricultural committees a very wide and sweeping power. It seems to me most important, therefore, that these war agricultural committees should be composed of the best brains that can be found in our agricultural districts, and I hope that the Minister will get rid of those committees or committee members who, he thinks, are not up to their job. I know it is unpleasant to dismiss people who are working for you to the best of their ability without reward, but in times like these one must be ruthless. If I could make one criticism of the composition of these committees, I would suggest that they are in the main composed too much of elderly people, and I would like to see one or two younger and more progressive farmers on each committee. Let your farming members be the best in the industry, regardless of wealth or social position, and keep off the committees all those peculiar people who call themselves "gentlemen farmers." I believe that on the whole these committees are working well, and I would like to make one or two suggestions by which the Minister could increase their powers with advantage.

My first suggestion is that he should give these committees or some other authority under these committees the power to take over all gardens which are not properly cultivated. They have at present some authority over professional market gardens, but not over private gardens. Many of these gardens—and I speak with a knowledge of small country towns and country districts—are going to rack and ruin, and the worst cases are those in the larger county towns and the larger houses which have been taken over either by the military, the Air Force or the Navy.

An Hon. Member

Or by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

May I put a question to the hon. Gentleman? Does he not realise that in many cases the reason that these gardens have gone out of cultivation is the inability of the owner to pay the rate of wages which he would wish to do? He is the only person in the agricultural community who is not protected.

Mr. Jackson

This may seem a small matter, but I do not think it is so, because during the last two or three weeks my wife and my gardener have been judging county gardens in Hereford, and I have been delighted and surprised at the large amount of fruit and vegetables which have been grown in such small gardens. They must be a tremendous contribution to the food of the nation. I think that the Minister should attend to this point if he can find time. I do not want to blame a great number of people whose gardens are uncultivated, because we know that many of them belong to soldiers in the Army or to people who are working in the factories on munitions for long hours.

Another source of waste to which I would like to draw the Minister's attention is the neglected and overgrown common lands all over the country, over which no control is exercised. I know that the Minister has in my county authorised the cutting of injurious weeds on one common, but I wish to see further powers taken to deal with all waste and common land. Many of these are producing nothing but bracken and briars and are only grazed to a small extent by sheep, goats and poultry. There is no authority by which they are controlled, with the result that they are practically derelict and serve only as rubbish dumps for the surrounding houses. There is no meeting of commoners, and no one seems to be responsible for the matter. Cannot the Minister have powers, at least in war time, to cultivate commons which are in this state, so that they may be made to produce a very full quota of food? I know of one very good example where a common adjoins farmland. This year, the farmer has reclaimed some of the land adjoining this common, and is getting magnificent crops. This common should be made to produce quite a good crop. No hardship need ensue to commoners. It would be sufficient to compensate them by allowing each to have a patch for his own use for a specific number of years. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary stated several weeks ago that where it is felt that a crop could be obtained at the next harvest it would be quite reasonable for the councils to plough up any portion of common land. But that does not go far enough. I hope he will realise that he is charged with the responsibility of securing the maximum productivity of every common acre. He should have asked for more powers for ploughing land taken over by other Government Departments.

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