HC Deb 09 October 1946 vol 427 cc266-79
Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I beg to move, in page 27, line 45, to leave out "ewes," and to insert: draft ewes (being the older ewes annually sold off the farm in accordance with the custom of the district). The Second Schedule sets out in detail the rules which are to be followed by anyone who is valuing sheep stocks on farms taken over on a Whitsun day tenancy. This matter is a little complicated and confusing to a layman, and it is, therefore, all the more important that the rules should be worded as clearly as possible. What is intended is that the basis of the valuation of ewes and lambs should be the ascertained price over an average of three years of the older ewes and the wether lambs which are drafted off the land, and to that ascertained average price is added an additional amount in respect of the young ewes which are retained on the farm because of their increased productivity. The value of these draft ewes, therefore, becomes the foundation of the whole valuation, and it must admit of no misunderstanding. It seems to me to be clear that the word "draft" ought certainly to be inserted before the word "ewes". If that word is not inserted, one might have to deal with breeding ewes that happened to be sold off the land for some other purpose. If one inserts the word "draft", I quite admit that it might be argued that it is necessary that the word "draft" should be defined. Therefore, the definition of the word has been inserted— draft ewes (being the older ewes annually sold off the farm in accordance with the custom of the district).

Mr. Snadden

I beg to second the Amendment.

I can see no reason why we should not have the wording of the Schedule made clear for everyone to understand. At the moment the wording does not seem to be satisfactory. I do not think there would be any objection in Scotland to the words which we wish to insert in the Schedule.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Fraser

In moving this Amendment the hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) said that if we accepted the word "draft" it would have to be defined and that in the Amendment it had been defined in brackets. But surely it is clear to anyone who reads the Schedule that what we want to do is to provide that the arbiter will take into account the prices obtained for all ewes and lambs in the preceding three years, and not only those obtained for certain ewes and lambs—of whatever particular kind they may be or for whatever reason they may have gone forward to sale—while excluding others. The hon. Gentleman called attention to a particular category of ewe that might go forward and so alter the average price. When I saw the Amendment on the Order Paper I felt that he might have in mind that a tenant going out of a holding some three or four years hence might contrive to sell off ewes that would fetch a higher price merely for the purpose of putting up his average prices obtained so that the valuation for his bound stock could be higher. I can only direct the attention of the House to paragraph 5 on page 28 where the valuer is enabled to adjust, within the limits of 10s. upwards and downwards, the value to be placed on the stock having regard to the value of stock which may have appreciated or depreciated as the result of the categories of ewes that he has been sending forward to the sales in the preceding three years. I am aware that some people do not think that the words in the Schedule are all that they might be or that they make the position clear enough, but I can only repeat that it is clearly our intention that the price obtained for all ewes and lambs sold from a particular farm or from a particular stock in the preceding three years shall be taken into account by the valuer, and that can only be secured by leaving the words in the Bill as they are.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I beg to move, in page 28, line 1, to leave out "sales," and to insert: auction sales and at the graded sales of the Ministry of Food. It seems to me that it is necessary to qualify the words in the Bill in this way. "Autumn sales" in the past has meant just the auction sales of sheep, but now, when we have sales under the auspices of the Ministry of Food, it is necessary, I think, to make it clear in these Rules, which must be thoroughly understood by the valuators and arbiters, that sales of every kind are included.

Mr. Snadden

I beg to second the Amendment.

Mr. Thomas Fraser

I fully appreciate that the hon. Gentlemen who have moved and seconded this Amendment are earnestly and conscientiously attempting to improve the drafting of the Schedule, but I would ask them to believe me when I say that the auction sales, as referred to in the Schedule, are indeed auction sales of store sheep and sales of fat sheep to the Ministry of Food—both sales.

Mr. Snadden

Does the hon. Gentleman mean that "autumn" is intended to cover both auction and autumn sales?

Mr. Fraser

Yes. If we were to take in the words proposed by hon. Members opposite I think we should be particularising too much and might, indeed, get into difficulty at a later date were we to alter or discontinue the purchase of fat sheep by the Ministry of Food. In the circumstances, I hope the hon. Member will agree to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

In view of the explanation which has been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.35 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Tom Williams)

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

This Bill seems to me to have been hanging about the precincts of this House for years and years and years. At long last we have reached the Third Reading and I should like to express my thanks to hon. Members who have pursued this Measure through the Second Reading and Report stages, for whatever time may have been occupied I think there has been little or no politics running throughout the Debates. There may have been a difference of opinion here and there but little or no politics. This Hill Farming Bill is designed to help one of the most depressed sections of British industry. I am hopeful, therefore, now that the opportunity is to be available within a very short time, that there will be a ready response, that improvement schemes will be put up, and that we shall see not only drains, fences, reseeding, houses and other things, but that we shall be able to provide ourselves with a little more meat in the years that lie ahead for our own insides than we have had for many years. It may be regarded as a very small approach to a very large problem but I think it is a start, and to the extent that there is a response on the part of those who occupy hill farms then I think Parliament, whatever the colour of the Government at any future date, will not hesitate to increase the amount of money made available under this Bill. I hope, therefore, that those hon. Members who have hill farms in their constituencies will be as helpful as they can in advising and guiding their constituents as to what they think they ought to do. Once the Third Reading is through, Parliament, as far as this House is concerned, will have done its share. It now, therefore, depends on those on the spot to respond to the opportunities given them. Although a small Bill I think it may be an extremely useful one and I look forward to its early passage through another place and to its rendering a small contribution to the wider aspect of agriculture as a whole.

7.39 p.m.

Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)

I should like to add a word on behalf of those hon. Members who sit on these benches and to ask another question or two which I hope may be answered before we separate. I must say that I regret very much that we did not have two separate Bills in connection with this very important hill farming legislation. After all, Scottish conditions differ in so many respects from those in England; they differ topographically, our system of tenure is different, and our climatic conditions are quite different. Therefore, I think it would have been a great improvement had we had two separate Bills so that our friends south of the border might have been able to get in a proper definition in regard to hill land in England and Wales. I hope on that point that the right hon. Gentleman may be able to do something about the insertion of the word "cattle" in the Bill.

The crux of this Measure is whether we can reasonably expect that the assistance offered under it will be taken advan- tage of upon a sufficiently wide scale to arrest the vast deterioration of our hill lands alluded to by the Balfour and De La Warr Committees. I was always very doubtful about that, because the industry has passed through a tremendous depression. There is very little money in it. Unless some special credits are offered I am very doubtful whether proprietors and hill farmers will be able to meet even the 50 per cent. of the cost of schemes that they are asked to put up. I asked a question in regard to that point during the Second Reading stage of the Bill, but the Joint Under-Secretary for Scotland did not give me a reply. There is anxiety in the North on that point, and the farmers wish to know how they stand in regard to the Scottish Agricultural Mortgage Company's loans. They want to know whether they will apply to this Bill, and what rate of interest will be charged to them if they take advantage of the scheme.

I very much regret that the Government chose during the Committee stage to put in the Amendment in regard to housing. I have had some experience of Scottish conditions. During the Recess I have toured a large number of the farms which will come under the Bill and I have talked with the farmers. I have not met one who is prepared to take advantage of the Government's provisions in regard to housing. I am very much afraid that we may, as a result, have very few improvement schemes. There is no point in carrying out a vast improvement if one is denied assistance to maintain the improvement. It is regrettable that the Amendment was put in during the Committee stage. My personal point of view is that it deals very nearly, if not completely, a fatal blow at an otherwise promising Measure. I believe that is the feeling also of hill sheep farmers in the part of the country to which I belong.

The Bill has a first-class objective behind it. In its original form it was welcomed because it seemed to go a long way towards solving the problem of the depression in hill farming. It tries to solve the technical or farm management part of the problem. Hon. Members on this side now feel that we are being asked to pass an unsatisfactory Measure, because of what has been done to the Bill in respect of the housing of the workers who have to maintain the improvement schemes when they have been carried out. Those who sit on this side of the House will endeavour, when they have the opportunity, to remove or to reverse this harsh and unimaginative proposal. Nevertheless, I wish the Bill the maximum of success possible—although I am bound to say I am not very optimistic, because of what the Government has done in refusing assistance to the tied cottage.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Roberts (Merioneth)

There is no part of the country in which the Bill is more welcome than in Wales, which has as many hill farms as has any other part of the country. I hope that the Bill will lead to an upgrading of the mountain lands. I have seen some of the work which has been carried out in that respect under the aegis of the county agricultural committees, and it has been remarkable indeed. The help made available by the funds provided under the Bill should enable further progress to be made in the same direction. We are indebted to the inspiration and the work of Professor Stapledon. Although limited in the lands to which it applies and in the funds available, the Bill may well be a step towards the rebuilding of the countryside, which should be our objective. This is an urgent problem. We should make the farming of these hills an occupation in which men may look for proper gain, and one which will attract the best men. I hope the Bill will be administered in a sympathetic manner and that we shall be able to arrive at a common plan which will reconcile the claims of hill farming on the one hand and of afforestation on the other. I see no reason why a survey and a plan should not be carried out which will enable us to obtain the greatest benefit from the Bill. Hill farmers are a hardy race, and the Bill will be a contribution to a solution of their problems and I welcome it.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

I am glad to have an opportunity of giving my blessing to the Bill. I regard it as one more step towards the execution of a concerted plan for putting farming upon a sound basis for the future. The farms embraced in the scope of the Measure are probably in a worse plight than any others. They comprise about one-sixth of the total farmland of England and Wales and are to be found especially in the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, especially North Yorkshire, and Northumberland. In Scotland, hill farms predominate.

The Measure is very important to the hill farms. The total number of hill sheep qualifying for subsidy in England and Wales alone is about 2,250,000. That figure represents some 38 per cent. of our total sheep population of 5,924,000 in that area alone. The Bill has already been spoken of as a relatively small Measure, but the figures I have given are a significant illustration of its importance.

I like the Title of the Bill. It conjures up in our minds—or it should—some of the loveliest tracts of country in the British Isles. The farms which are affected undoubtedly occupy sites of great charm and beauty wherever they lie. That fact endears them to all walkers and climbers who know the areas where they are, but they do not always realise the depressing inefficiency and the troubles encountered by the farmers who have to live there all the year round. As the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Emrys Roberts) has said, hill farmers are a virile and tough section of the community, living as they do next to Nature. Their calling has developed in their minds a poise and a largeness of outlook which has provided one of the healthiest and most sparkling tributaries which feed the stream of our national life.

Further depopulation of these areas would therefore be a real tragedy. That process has already gone much too far. The farm houses which come within the scope of this Measure are in many cases situated at much lower levels than the acres which have to be looked after. I therefore regret that the Bill does not provide for the resiting of those houses as well as for their alteration, enlargement or reconditioning as the First Schedule has it. I was glad to hear the Minister say tonight that, in the light of experience, the question of resiting might be attended to in the future. I believe that, in the narrow interests of sheep farming alone, the resiting of farm houses is very often essential.

I would refer to one or two other aspects of the Bill. It deals with hill farms as separate units rather than with their rehabilitation as a whole. That, I think, is unfortunate and may lead to its effect being rather patchwork in its character. I am glad that the new Bill pays due regard to cattle and does not confine itself merely to sheep farms. I say that because cattle are of supreme importance in a balanced agriculture, and the reinstatement of the cattle industry on sheep land must be the first objective, which is, incidentally, very necessary for the good of the sheep themselves. Our hill lands have great potentialities and there should therefore be the closest integration between hill and lowland farming if the total livestock population of the country is to be maintained and if we are, as is so vitally necessary, to augment both meat and milk production.

The schedule of improvements which has been dealt with on the Report stage and which is undertaken under the Bill is pretty comprehensive and I am glad to note that it includes attention to such things as drainage, electric power, fencing, improvements to roads, buildings and bridges —and reseeding. I had great sympathy with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Scott-Elliot) on that aspect of the matter. If we take full account of the trend which may develop in this country we must always in measures of this kind aim at what I might call a marriage of the working and holiday interests. The hill land of this country is at once the workshop of the agricultural community and the playground of the urban dweller. I would like therefore to see the fullest attention paid in the future to the provision of improved facilities for holiday makers and visitors for which many farmers' wives in our hill lands are longing. This is an aspect of the reconditioning of farm houses which I hope the Minister will not overlook. It is part of that great plan to keep us all in touch with one another and with nature and to keep our feet on the ground—

Mr. R. S. Hudson (Southport)

On the hills.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

Summer visitors to the lonely hill farm dwellers can mean a very great deal to them. They provide a change of environment and an atmosphere which imparts that contentment which ensures that there shall be no more drifting from the countryside to the town. Finally, I do not believe that the productive use of our hills conflicts in any way with a policy of wide exten- sion of national parks, a subject in which I am very specially interested—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member has gone into a good many matters, but there are some at which I must draw the line. We cannot discuss national parks on this Bill.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and in conclusion say I very greatly welcome this Bill and wish the Minister well in carrying out its provisions. I am quite satisfied that it is very much indeed in the interests of hill farms in this country.

7.54 p.m.

Mr. Drayson (Skipton)

Before this Bill leaves the House I should like to make one or two comments. The discussions we have had have shown very clearly the desirability of having two Bills rather than one—one to deal with England and the other for Scotland, where conditions differ vastly. It is to be regretted that the definition of hill fanning land in this Bill is still not as clear as it might be. Unlike the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge), I did not gather that the Minister was including cattle in his definition. It may be within the recollection of the House that he said this afternoon that he could not include cattle under Clause 1 of the Bill. The sum of money allotted under this Bill is still far too small and I was sorry to hear the Minister say that he did not wish the scope of the Bill to be enlarged. When saying that, he was referring to marginal land, which to my mind is one of the most important features of hill country in England requiring development at the present time. It has been pointed out that the marginal land at some future time may be more economical for farmers to develop without the need of Government assistance, but if, as the Minister also said, his desire is to increase the food supply in this country as soon as possible, then it is the marginal land that requires immediate attention and assistance. I would like to think that this Bill started at the marginal land and went up the mountain side rather than starting at the peaks and coming down. Here the emphasis has been wrongly placed.

I cannot feel altogether happy that the Minister has allowed no appeal against the decisions of the Ministry in regard to subsidy payments which the Minister referred to as a discretional payment. I hope that the Minister will use his influence with the Minister of Health and the other Ministers concerned to see that the rural amenities that are mentioned in the Bill are as speedily as possible brought to the districts concerned. During the Recess I took the opportunity, like other hon. Members, of visiting the more remote districts of my constituency and I was impressed more than ever before by the need for these amenities in all areas. The whole countryside in the North of England at the present time is in perhaps a more parlous condition than it has been for many years. We have had, as the country well knows, an extremely difficult season. In some places no hay whatsoever has been gathered, feeding stuffs are of vital importance at the present time, and immediate assistance is required; nevertheless I wish this Bill, in spite of its limitations, every success.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. York (Ripon)

One of the points made by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) struck me as rather odd. He proposed for the rehabilitation of hill lands the widespread use of these lands by the people of the towns. I am all in favour of getting people out into the country, but I could never claim that that would be the best way of rehabilitating the farm lands. Before we get to that point, we want a very wide-scale educational movement in the schools to get the children to appreciate how to use the land, and perhaps then we shall be doing less damage when we go out for our walks at week-ends over these moors, I mention that in passing, but I did not want a wrong impression to go out. I want to ask a question on a point which I have not had an opportunity of raising before, with regard to wild birds—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to tell me where any reference to wild birds appears in the Bill?

Mr. York

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that my announcement was a little abrupt. I was going on to the question of heather burning and the destruction caused by it to the inhabitants of the heather. I only want to ask for an assurance on this question from the Government. In Scotland during the breeding season heather burning is prohibited. In England, under Clause 19, the Minister has complete and very wide discretion as to what regulations and in what regions he will give those regulations. The Parliamentary Secretary knows as well as I do that the breeding seasons differ widely from Devonshire up to the Border, and if I could have an assurance from him that his regulations will meet the point which has been put to me by Societies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the R.S.P.C.A., it will reassure them that he will not permit heather burning during the breeding season which would harm the very large numbers of birds on the list they sent me.

I am indeed sorry that this Bill has been wrecked by the exclusion of the tied cottage. It has adversely affected those people whom the objectors to the tied cottage most wish to help, and I say this without fear of being a bad prophet. On that point alone they have done the agricultural workers, particularly the shepherds, an ill service. Further, this Bill is quite worthless unless one fundamental point is borne in mind by all parties, that is, the price of the produce which comes off those hills. Unless the price of agricultural produce is right, no amount of rehabilitation, of rebuilding, of building cottages, of draining, will have the slightest effect because the producers will not produce unless it pays them, and the hills of this country will deteriorate still further despite this £5,000,000, which will be a mere drop in a very large ocean scattered over the wide areas that have to be dealt with. So unless this question of keeping the prices sound is borne in mind by all parties, the work we have put into this Bill, which the Government have put into it, and which the hill farmers will, I hope, put into the rehabilitation schemes will be wasted. Therefore, although I would like the Bill to be a success, I fear it will not be such a success as it would have been had it been left in its original form.

8.5 p.m.

Mr. Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

I would like to join in the chorus wishing this Bill a speedy and easy passage through another place, and to voice the hope of the hill farmers in my constituency that this Bill will pass speedily into law. Contrary to the views expressed by a previous speaker, I think the Government are right in beginning with agriculture on the hills. That good Welshman, David Lloyd George, always turned to the hills for inspiration, and I am certain that on this occasion the Government have done likewise, and that they will proceed not only with hill farming but also with marginal land as well in the near future. They have started well and I wish them every success. I would like to emphasise that other Ministries should pay great attention to the First Schedule to this Bill. I refer particularly to roads and bridges, because if you have not roads and bridges you will not get the wellbeing of agriculture. You cannot do anything in the Schedule unless you have good roads and bridges, and I hope local authorities will support it to that end. One word about cooption. If the war agricultural committees are not the right people to look at these schemes, I welcome the Minister's assurance in Committee that men who understand something about hill farming will be co-opted on some of these Committees.

With those few remarks I emphasise what the Minister said, that we as Members of Parliament ought to tell our constituents exactly what this Bill means to hill farmers. I did so during the Recess, and I paid tribute to the Opposition as well in some of their remarks with which I agreed. That being so, I did not have a single criticism or suggestion to bring before the House, and that is why I did not talk on the earlier stage. With these remarks I wish the Bill a speedy passage through another place.

8.8 p.m.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

This is the last opportunity we have, before this Bill leaves us for another place, for approving or complaining of the Measure. I would not like it to leave us without a word being said about the Second Schedule. I would not like it to go out from this House, especially to those in Scotland who are interested, that we are entirely satisfied with the method of valuation proposed in the Second Schedule. I was at a meeting of the Black Faced Sheep Society of Scotland recently held in my constituency when very considerable doubts were expressed as to how the valuation would work out if the Schedule remains in the Measure as it is at present framed. I hope the Under-Secretary when replying will, if he sees fit, try to allay my fears and those of people who have expressed similar fears to me on this point.

A very well known hill sheep farmer in Scotland expressed the view to me that it would have been very much better to have had, not the three year basis for the valuation, but to have taken it on the prices of farms ruling in the districts, giving a valuer power to add or subtract according to the quality of the sheep stock in the individual farm under consideration. Fears will no doubt continue to be expressed, until we see the Measure functioning, as to whether or not the door is open to "wangling" under the present system of valuation. Further, the same hill farmer pointed out that if the valuation is on a three year basis it might be difficult, when the tenant went out of his farm, to find a suitable successor if there was a falling market, which there might quite easily be, especially when the agricultural welfare of this country is presided over by such an administration as we have at present, having regard to the very large sum which he would be required to pay as a result of the valuation with the market perhaps falling very rapidly. Then, no doubt, the poor landlord would be faced with the heavy responsibility of taking over the farm and taking over the sheep as well.

It is only right before this Bill obtains Third Reading that this possible danger— which I hope will not become a reality— should be stressed. I associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) said, and in which he was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Mr. York), about the housing situation on the hill farms. There is nothing contained in this Measure as it leaves us on Third Reading to make for what we consider a proper state of affairs for housing the people on the hill farms of Scotland, or any part of Great Britain. I sincerely hope that the Measure will be attended with all the success that hon. Members on the other side of the House have assured us will be the case.

8.11 p.m.

Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)

I must also extend a welcome to this Bill, as one of that community which has been referred to as "tough and virile," and also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) for his eulogy of the hills and dales, and hill farms. I felt as I heard those things said that my hon. Friend has walked over those hills and dales in the summer, and in the day time. He should try walking over them at night, and in the winter; he might then have a different opinion altogether.

This Bill has been accepted on both sides of the House as a good Bill. As one who was rather critical of it at first, I am afraid I have not changed my views. But I cannot agree with those who say that the omission of the Amendment which was not accepted by the Minister will cause the wrecking of the Bill. If this Bill is a good Bill and brings the stock to the hills and income to the farmers as we have heard it will, then the farmers should be able to meet some of the expense of these houses themselves. If this Bill is not going to bring that income to the farmers nor increase their stock, the whole thing is a complete failure. But I cannot accept the depressing view so often put forward in regard to this section of the industry. As one of them, I know that things are not so bad as they are painted, and that hill farmers in a large number of cases can renovate and recondition these cottages without any assistance. The whole success of this Bill, and of agriculture, depends upon the guaranteed price. The price of this product, the increase of the stock, and the reconditioning of the land —all these things depend on the market and the guaranteed price. If that goes, whatever the Government may try for agriculture will fail. So long as that is maintained, as it is at present, agriculture will come back into its own and stand on its own feet. As a hill farmer, I welcome the assistance that this Bill gives to the hill farmers, but in my opinion it was not necessary so long as the guaranteed market and guaranteed price were ensured.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.