HC Deb 01 December 1947 vol 445 cc152-61

Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 69.—(King's recommendation signified.)

[Major MILNER in the Chair]

Motion made, and Question proposed: That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session (in this Resolution referred to as 'the Act') to amend the enactments relating to agricultural holdings in Scotland; to make further provision for the improvement and development of agriculture and the use of agricultural land in Scotland; to authorise the making of grants towards the provision of houses and buildings for landholders and cot-tars in the Highlands and Islands, and to extend the time for making applications for assistance under the Housing (Agricultural Population) (Scotland) Act, 1938, it is expedient to authorise:—

  1. A. The payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of expenses of the Secretary of State incurred under the Act—
    1. (i) in securing good estate management and good husbandry;
    2. (ii) in acquiring land by agreement or compulsorily, and whether by way of purchase or taking possession;
    3. (iii) in managing, farming or otherwise dealing with land acquired by him as aforesaid, and in providing facilities for tenants and workers on land managed by him;
    4. (iv) in providing and in adapting, equipping and managing holdings of an area not exceeding seventy-five acres or holdings the annual rent of which does not exceed one hundred and fifty pounds; in making loans for providing working capital for tenants of holdings provided on land vested in the Secretary of State not exceeding three-quarters of the estimated amount of such capital; and in making grants or loans to bodies promoting by co-operative methods the efficient conduct of holdings;
    5. (v) in making grants towards the erection, improvement or rebuilding of dwelling-houses or other buildings for landholders and cottars in the Highlands and Islands;
    6. (vi) in respect of the prevention of damage to agriculture by animals and birds;
    7. (vii) in providing agricultural goods and services;
    8. (viii) in defraying the expenses of the Agricultural Executive Committees established under the Act and of sub-committees of the said Committees in paying allowances to the members of such Committees or sub-committees, and in defraying the expenses of the Agricultural Advisory Committees established under the Act.
  2. B. The payment into the Exchequer of sums received tinder the Act by the Secretary of State or by any person or body of persons exercising functions on his behalf.
  3. C. The payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any expenditure attributable to—
    1. (i) any provision of the Act increasing from five pounds to ten pounds for each acre of agricultural land benefited the maximum limit to the cost of works of minor arterial drainage in respect of which a grant may be paid under Section twenty-nine of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous War Provisions) Act, 1940;
    2. (ii) any provision of the Act extending by five years the period for making applications for assistance under the Housing (Agricultural Population) (Scotland) Act, 1938;
    3. (iii) any provision of the Act whereby additional areas are to be deemed to be congested districts for the purposes of the Congested Districts (Scotland) Act, 1897.
  4. D. The charging on and payment out of the Consolidated Fund of any increase in the sums charged on and payable out of that Fund under Section three of the Small Landholders (Scotland) Act,1911, in respect of the salaries of members of the Scottish Land Court arising by reason of the appointment of additional members under the Act, and the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any increase so arising in the expenditure incurred under the Scottish Land Court Act. 1938, in respect of pensions of such members.
  5. E. The application of any balance in the Agriculture (Scotland) Fund at the date of the winding up thereof under the Act in repayment of loans made by the Public Works Loan Commissioners under Section twenty-six of the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act, 1919, the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any sums which apart from the Act would be authorised to be paid out of that Fund, and the payment into the Exchequer of any sums which apart from the Act would be authorised to be paid into that Fund and of any remainder in that Fund after the repayment of loans as aforesaid."— [Mr. Woodburn.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I do not intend to keep the Committee very long, but I do not think that this Financial Resolution should go without a word or two of caution being said with regard to it. As has already been said on the main provisions of the Bill, it is acceptable to the whole House, but there are wide powers conferred upon the Secretary of State for Scotland in this Resolution, on which there should be some comment from this side of the Committee, and I trust that one or two hon. Members from the Government side may even enter caveats. I should like to congratulate whoever was responsible for drawing up this Financial Resolution on having on this occasion at all events fairly specified what it is proposed that it should do. There are some five categories mentioned, and in Category A there are no less than eight subheadings which will provide for payments of moneys provided by Parliament for the expenses of the Secretary of State in regard to outlay under this far-reaching Measure.

I should like to call the attention of the Committee to four of these subheadings. The first one is paragraph (i) which deals with the question of good estate management and good husbandry. In Scotland, there is no doubt about that, because the term is well known in Scottish agricultural legislation. The words "good husbandry" have appeared in every lease so far as I am aware for a considerable period of time. There cannot be any doubt in the mind of anybody on this side of the Committee as to what they mean. The first paragraph authorises the expenses of the Secretary of State in order that he may secure good estate management. I am quite aware it would not be open to me to go at any length into the details of what the definition of good estate management may or may not mean. I only want to say that it is clearly laid down in the Fifth Schedule of the Bill that good estate management shall impose liabilities upon the owners of land—it might be public ownership because it might be a public company and I hope that that might not cause any resentment on the part of the hon. Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis)—to provide what is called due equipment in order that the tenant or occupier of the land shall carry on the farming of land and produce food up to the maximum extent possible. I am quite in favour of that.

The burden of my quest on this occasion is to ask the Secretary of State that he shall fully realise, with regard to the provision of paragraph (i) the responsibility that rests upon him to see that this injunction is exercised with due care and foresight. I have one or two other comments to make—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have a perfect right to make comments. I wish to say something with regard to three others of these paragraphs. Paragraph (ii), again, confers powers of a wide and sweeping character, such as have never been conferred upon any Secretary of State for Scotland, for the acquisition of land, whether by agreement or compulsorily. I hope——

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

On a point of Order. We have already passed the Bill which gives the Secretary of State for Scotland these powers. Are we now discussing those powers, Major Milner, or are we discussing simply the provision of money to enable the Secretary of State to carry out his duties?

The Chairman

We are discussing only the provision of money to enable the Secretary of State to carry out the duties connected with those powers. So far, the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie) has not been very relevant, but I thought it best to allow the hon. Member to conclude his speech.

Mr. McKie

I follow the Rulings which you give, Major Milner, and not any rulings which the hon. Member for North Edinburgh may seek, in his innocence as a new Member of this House, to try to impose upon me. I intend to be guided only by you, Major Milner. We are speaking upon a Financial Resolution which can only be agreed to in Committee of the whole House. That is a fact which might not appeal to, the hon. Member for North Edinburgh. It deals with a very large sum of money, and it ought to be commented upon before we pass away from it. I do not intend to trespass upon your indulgence, Major Milner, by going into any great detail. I was only addressing to the Secretary of State a word of warning about the wide and sweeping powers which are being conferred upon him and which are wider than any Secretary of State has ever had before. I think I was well within my rights in doing that.

I will now pass very quickly to the three other paragraphs. I noticed that the Secretary of State, when speaking on the Bill, went out of his way to commend the way in which the estates managed by the Department of Agriculture had hitherto been carried on. I am afraid I could not agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said. I now seize the opportunity of expressing the hope that any future operations carried on by that Department—especially am I thinking of what has been done during the 28 months of the present régime—will be more conducive to the best economic interests of the people of Scotland and of Great Britain than they have been in the past. The Joint Under-Secretary of State will know the specific case I have in mind, when I say that. I do not intend, Major Milner, to trespass upon your indulgence any more in this direction.

The only thing I now desire to say on the other two paragraphs is, firstly, in relation to paragraph (v), which deals with the Islands and Highlands and stresses the erection, improvement or rebuilding of dwellinghouses or other buildings for landholders and cottars in the Highlands and Islands. Everybody must be wholeheartedly in favour of granting the Secretary of State the requisite expenses under this heading. I would only add that I hope that the Secretary of State will bear carefully in mind when thinking of the provision of accommodation in the Highlands and Islands that there are other parts of Scotland which are in almost as sore straits.

Paragraph (vi) relates to the prevention of damage to agriculture by animals and birds. Of course we are all in favour of that. At the moment I am thinking mostly of deer. They are dealt with in no fewer than five Clauses of the Bill. I am not putting in any plea whatsoever for the maintenance of certain areas of Scotland purely as a pleasure ground, but I hope that the Secretary of State and those associated with him in carrying out this Bill if it is allowed to reach the Statute Book will realise the service the deer of Scotland have been in the past and will act in the reasonable manner which we expect of the Secretary of State and those associated with him.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley (Aberdeen and Kincardine, Western)

I want to direct the attention of the Committee briefly to a rather different point. We are asked in this Money Resolution to vote money for: the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of expenses of the Secretary of State incurred under the Act … in managing, farming or otherwise dealing with land acquired by him. We have been informed this afternoon that the Department of Agriculture for Scotland——

The Chairman

Hon. Members are not entitled to reply to points made in another Debate on a different Motion. It is not therefore competent for the hon. Member to deal with what was said this afternoon.

Mr. Thornton-Kemsley

I quite agree, Major Milner, I had not intended to. All I intended was to refer to the fact that the Department of Agriculture is already farming large tracts of the land of Scotland. They are taking powers under this Bill—I hope I am in Order in referring to this—to acquire additional land for various purposes which I need not enumerate, so that by the time this Bill becomes law we as guardians of the public purse will have to provide money for the Secretary of State to indulge in all sorts of purposes connected with the management and farming of the land of Scotland, or at any rate, some of the land of Scotland. The purchase price for this land is to be found out of public funds, the management expenses have to be paid out of public funds, the farming costs have to be paid out of public funds; and I want to ask what accounts are to be kept.

I have asked a Question of the Secretary of State on this point. I asked him to give me an oral answer, and I had an answer in writing this afternoon because the Question was not reached at Question time. The Question was whether the Scottish taxpayer has any means of finding out whether the farming activities of the Department of Agriculture are run at a loss or a profit. The Secretary of State told me that a financial account of the activities of the Department of Agriculture in connection with land settlement can be found in the appropriate accounts, but in respect of the other farming activities of the Department no trading accounts have been published. Will they be published in future? They ought to be.

We, as a Committee of the House of Commons, are asked tonight to vote money for the Secretary of State to indulge in farming, and we should insist that he keeps proper accounts and that these accounts should be available to us in detail as well as in general. The Joint Under-Secretary has reminded us that during the war separate accounts were not kept, and he hinted that no doubt in the future they would be kept. I hope they will. They should be divided between accounts of land management and accounts of farming activities. These are two quite separate functions in respect of which we are asked to vote money tonight, and I hope that not only will those separate accounts be kept, but will be published to us.

What is meant by the phrase in paragraph A (iii): or otherwise dealing with land acquired by him"? We are asked to vote money for the Secretary of State to manage and to farm land, and also to "deal otherwise" with land. Does it mean that when he has displacéd landowners because they have not been managing their estates in accordance with good estate management, or when he has dispossessed tenants because they have not been farming in accordance with good husbandry, the land he has taken over from them will be offered to other tenant farmers? I hope it does, and I hope we are asked now to pay his expenses in finding other tenants. What is the amount of this charge?

I have never seen a Money Resolution like this one. We are given a whole page of things for which we are asked to vote money, without any indication of the sum. Can the Secretary of State not tell us within £100,000 or £200,000 what we are asked to vote tonight? I am glad to see the Financial Secretary on the Front Bench, and that he has come in time to give the Committee the benefit of his advice. What amount is contemplated? We get used to spending vast sums, but when the Government ask us to vote more money, we should have some indication of the size of the sum in question.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I see that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is appealing to the Chief Whip to move the Closure as soon as possible, but perhaps he will allow me one moment on paragraph A (vi)? We are asked there to vote money: in respect of the prevention of damage to agriculture by animals and birds. What is to be done about the far greater damage done by insects and weeds? Are we not to take any cognisance of these two pests which are the greater of the two? It is vitally important to agriculture.

10.19 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

It would not be proper for this important Financial Resolution to be passed without even the meanest intelligence being clear as to what the trans- action means. I am among those who are never ashamed to admit that they do not understand anything, and I am prepared tonight to ask one or two questions on this subject. With regard to paragraph A (ii) I would like to know the anticipated expense arising out of the words "or taking possession." There have been cases where farms have been taken possession of by military action. Is that kind of thing contemplated, and, if so, what kind of estimates of expense did the Under-Secretary have in mind when he placed that in the Financial Resolution? The second item is perhaps less controversial. Would I be wrong in supposing that the last line of paragraph (iv) promoting by co-operative methods the efficient conduct of holdings; should be read widely? I take it that the words "co-operative methods" include such devices whereby those employed in the industry all have some share of any advantages which accrue.

The last of these curiosities of mine is concerned with paragraph (viii): in defraying the expenses of the Agricultural Executive Committees. I would like some indication of the expenses. After all, Scotland is only half the size of the area of England and Wales, and I would like some idea of the cost of what this new development of a super-imposed bureaucracy is likely to be. The Secretary of State has indicated that individual officers will be receiving salaries in the nature of £400, £500 and £600 a year. This is setting up a new administrative service, continuing wartime experience, and it may be a very costly one. The Under-Secretary would satisfy my curiosity and much curiosity in the country if he were to say what is the extent of these expenses to which he refers in paragraph (viii). If these matters can be answered, it will make the Financial Resolution much more satisfactory to me, and, I am sure, to my hon. Friends.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Woodburn)

If I may deal with the last Question put by the hon. Member for South Edinburgh (Sir W. Darling), first, the expenses of the agricultural executive committees will, I hope, range over many years. This is a permanent Bill, establishing things for many years, and the expenses will come up each year in the form of Estimates, which can be discussed. It is not possible to say what is the expense over a number of years——

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

One year would do.

Mr. Woodburn

In other words, one cannot say how long the provisions of the Bill will endure, and no one can put in a total cost for the purposes mentioned. They will come up in the form of annual Estimates, which is different from a fixed charge. The hon. Member is quite right about "co-operative methods." This is to be interpreted in an intelligent and general way. "Taking possession" means exactly what it says, in legal terms. If the Secretary of State has requisitioned land for the purposes of research, as stipulated in the Bill, certain expenses will be incurred, and I am sure hon. Members would not like us to fail to pay legal and surveyors' debts for valuation, and things of that kind which must take place when we take possession. The Secretary of State must meet the obligations of people in humbler positions.

In regard to "otherwise dealing," the hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Thornton-Kemsley) will notice that in the Bill the Secretary of State takes power, if necessary, to resell land. He may have to acquire land, but may also find that that land can be more efficiently used by selling it to someone else. Therefore, there is power to resell, and "otherwise dealing" would include the power of resale. The hon. Member asked about keeping accounts, but, of course, the House of Commons keeps a very close check over all the accounts of the Departments through its Public Accounts Committee. They have ample opportunity for checking any case such as the hon. Member referred to by making a complete investigation and reporting to the House. Nevertheless, the accounts are kept, and we are considering the question of whether they can be produced as they were formerly. That will be looked into in due course.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

It is rather important that the Committee should have full information in regard to these trading operations and operations of land management. We were so informed in the past. Why should not that practice be followed again? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will see to it that these accounts are introduced again as soon as possible.

Mr. Woodburn

The hon. and gallant Gentleman will understand that we have just come out of a war, there are grave problems to be tackled, we are trying to cut down the cost of the Civil Service, and we want to economise as much as possible; but as soon as matters return to normal, or approach anywhere normal, we shall be able to tackle many of these problems, and probably resume our normal practice.

Commander Galbraith

But the right hon. Gentleman has told us that the accounts are available. It is only a question of producing a consolidated account and having it printed. The figures are there, and there is no work to be done on them.

Mr. Woodburn

That does not follow, but we are giving consideration to that matter, and we will look into it.

The question has been raised of damage by weeds. That is covered in the Bill also. Insects are not exactly a responsibility of the State, but we provide all the scientific data that is possible to assist people in destroying those insects. I quite agree with some of the hon. Member's observations that sometimes these measures are more harmful than useful. These are matters which science has not yet quite resolved. I have had a personal experience of washing trees with a winter wash. I managed to kill off all the insects and left red spiders a clear run, and I had to use another wash to deal with red spiders. I think the trees are much healthier without any washes, and my experience bears out some of the things which the hon. Member said about that. However, so far as science is capable of giving advice on these matters, we are helping farmers, and will continue to help them.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Will money be provided?

Mr. Woodburn

That is permitted under the Bill, but the getting rid of weeds is more a matter of giving advice, which does not cost much, and which sometimes is not even welcomed. We think the farmers will be able to find the money to do the job.

Question put, and agreed to

Resolution to be reported Tomorrow.