HC Deb 28 January 1947 vol 432 cc885-96

Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 69.

[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 make further provision for agriculture, it is expedient to authorise: —

A. The payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of expenses of any Minister of the Grown incurred under the Act—

  1. (i) in providing guaranteed prices and assured markets for producers of fat cattle, fat sheep, fat pigs, milk, eggs, wheat, barley, oats rye, potatoes, sugar beet or other produce specified by order under the Act;
  2. (ii) in securing good estate management and good husbandry;
  3. (iii) in making contributions to the losses, calculated by reference to estimates or otherwise as provided by the Act, incurred by smallholdings authorities in the provision and management of smallholdings (including expenditure in respect of proposals which are not carried out) of an amount not exceeding three-quarters thereof, in making loans for providing working capital for tenants of smallholdings not exceeding three-quarters of the estimated amount thereof, in making grants or loans to cooperative societies concerned with the conduct of smallholdings, in providing smallholdings, and in the exercise of powers of smallholdings authorities transferred to the Minister;
  4. (iv) in obtaining statistical and other information relating to agriculture (including the payment of allowances to statistics advisory committees);
  5. (v) in acquiring land by agreement or compulsorily, and whether by way of purchase, hiring or taking possession;
  6. (vi) in managing, farming or otherwise dealing with land acquired by the Minister as aforesaid and in providing facilities for tenants and workers on land managed by him;
  7. (vii) in making grants for drainage, the improvement of ditches and the supply of water to agricultural land in making contributions towards the cost of acquiring, transporting and spreading lime;
  8. 886
  9. (viii) in respect of the prevention of damage to agriculture by animals and birds;
  10. (ix) in providing agricultural goods and services;
  11. (x) in defraying the expenses of the Agricultural Land Commission, the Welsh Agricultural Land Sub-Commission, the Agricultural Land Tribunals and the County Agricultural Executive Committees established under the Act and of sub-committees and district committees of the said Committees, and in paying salaries, wages or allowances to members, assessors, officers and servants thereof or thereto and to members of a committee to advise on the calculation of compensation for tenants' improvements on agricultural holdings.

B. The payment into the Exchequer of any receipts under the Act of a Minister of the Crown or the said Agricultural Land Commission or any other persons exercising functions on behalf of a Minister of the Crown.

C. The payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any sums which apart from the Act would be authorised to be paid out of the Small Holdings and Allotments Account, and the payment into the Exchequer of any sums which apart from the Act would be authorized to be paid into that Account and of any balance in that Account at the date of the winding up thereof under the Act.

D. The release in consideration of the transfer to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries of land, or land and other property, belonging to land settlement associations, of debts due to the said Minister from suchassociations."— [Mr. Thomas Williams.] (King's Recommendation signified.)

10.2 p.m.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

There are two short points I should like to put before this Resolution is passed. The first arises out of paragraph A (iii) which deals with small holdings. Obviously, we do not wish the Government to show any signs of being niggardly in the provision of small holdings, and it is a little disappointing that no indication is given of either the top or bottom limits of the amount which the Government are prepared to spend. This is a matter upon which we are entitled to call for some elucidation. It has been mentioned in the Debate on the Bill that as many as 5,000 small holdings may be provided, some of which may not cost very much, but some—

The Chairman

The matter to which the hon. Member is referring is one which will be decided by the Bill, and the occasion to discuss it would be on the Committee stage of the Bill.

Mr. Renton

I naturally accept your Ruling, Major Milner, but I was hoping for some elucidation of what the Govern- ment have in mind in asking the House to provide this money. The other question which I wish to ask the Minister is whether it is necessary for us to provide money to defray the expenses of the Agricultural Land Commission, because we find in Clause 65 of the Bill that the Commission shall have among its functions "managing and farming land," and may grant tenancies from year to year. If they grant tenancies from year to year, they will, presumably, have a certain amount of revenue. It would seem logical that any expenses and outgoings should come from that source, and that it would be unnecessary to ask Parliament to grant money to defray the expenses.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

The answer to the first question, relating to small holdings, is very simple. If the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) reads the Financial Memorandum to the Bill, he will see that on the assumption that a certain number of small holdings is to be provided, the cost is likely to be a certain sum of money. There is no top limit to the number of small holdings which may be provided. The answer to the second question is equally simple. Under paragraph B, it will be observed that any income will have to be paid into the Exchequer, and arrangements must, therefore, be made to meet any expenses incurred by the Commission.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

The Minister has given some explanation, but there are various headings in this Financial Resolution which it would be difficult for His Majesty's Government to present in understandable form to this Committee, so wide is the scope of the Measure. If we were given a reasonable field within which the method of accounting of most Government Departments could apply, that would be a different matter, but how is this matter, covering the enormous field of guaranteed prices, restricted markets, and the prevention of damage to agriculture by animals and birds, to be accounted for? For instance, how is the damage done by a sparrow to be accounted for? [Laughter.]This may seem absurd to some Members opposite, but I am putting a practical point to the Committee. How will this money be accounted for to Parliament in practical form?

It might be a comparatively simple matter, one imagines, for the Government to evolve a system of accouning for industries like coal and iron and steel, and so on, which are limited to certain relatively narrow fields. But in this case the' field is so vast covering not only actual work on the land, but such things as payments to committees and commissions, and payments in default of debt that we are entitled to ask for some information as to how Parliament will be able to examine it. This is one of the widest fields we have been invited to examine under any Bill which has been put before the House. That is saying a great deal, when we remember what has been placed before the House, since this Government came into power. I am amazed that no Minister has risen from the Front Bench to explain voluntarily, off his own bat, without being invited to do so, what the Government propose to do, and I make no apology to the Committee for inviting the right hon. Gentleman, with all courtesy, to make some explanation.

Mr. Vane (Westmorland)

Cannot the Minister give a little more information about the charges to be incurred by the Agricultural Land Commission? In this great new step which is to be taken cannot we be told more about the numbers that the Minister will recruit into this Commission, and its expenses?

The Chairman

That is a question which can be discussed in Committee. It cannot be discussed now.

Mr. Vane

Then may I ask the Minister another question? In what shape, or form, will the accounts of the estates which he will manage be laid before the House? In the country the other day, the right hon. Gentleman said he looked forward to the State becoming a great model landowner. One of the most important things a landowner can do is to show some form of model accounts. Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman give any idea of the total expenditure involved in this Financial Resolution, or is he just asking us once more to sign a blank cheque?

Mr. York (Ripon)

The Debate which has taken place on this Financial Resolution has certainly had the effect of opening my eyes to the evil—[Laughter.] I was saying, when the ribald laughter of the phalanx opposite interrupted me, that, at any rate, this Debate has had the good effect of opening my eyes to more of the evils of the Land Commission than I thought it possessed. I have no illusions whatsoever about the absurd, extravagant, useless and wasteful organisation which the Ministry is to set up under the Bill, but I thought that that organisation would be run in a businesslike manner. The Government have obviously no intention whatever of running that organisation in a businesslike manner. What do they propose to do? First, they are to have a subvention from the taxpayer to pay its expenses, and under paragraph B of the Financial Resolution any income which they receive is not to be theirs to use, but is to be paid back into the Treasury. Was there ever a more unbusinesslike or wasteful process of accounting than that? The Minister must think again, unless he has some excuse to offer, for that extraordinary process of accounting.

To turn back to paragraph A (vi), the sixth sub-paragraph, we get the words: In managing, farming or otherwise dealing with land. I think that the Minister has to be a great deal more explicit. I can easily understand the fact that the management expenses will have to be paid, but I am astonished to think that, despite the degree of stability of prices and markets which we are reputed to be having under the Bill—although I beg leave to doubt that it will be quite as good as it looks on the face of it—the taxpayer has to foot the bill for the farm losses of the Land Commission and many other organisations which the Government are to use.

During the war there were losses on farming accounts, and they were accepted with a certain amount of good grace. They would have been accepted with a little better grace had the Ministry published some accounts on the subject. But in this case not only will the taxpayer have to pay for all the mismanagement of the farming operations which the Land Commission is to carry out, but the Commission will also have to do another piece of secret farming, from the financial point of view. Nowhere in the Financial Resolution is there any sign whatever that these farming operations are to be accounted for. As far as I can gather, there will be no more possibility in the future—

10.15 p.m.

The Chairman

All those are matters with which the Committee will be able to deal on the Bill. They will be able to decide what powers the Minister shall have, or what steps he must take in regard to accounts, and so on, to deal with payments or receipts.

Mr. York

I should have thought, had you not corrected me, Major Milner, that before passing this Financial Resolution we were justified in asking how we would find out how the money was to be spent. That seems to me to be a reasonable request to make on the Financial Resolution, and that was what I was doing. Of course, if you take exception to my line of argument, I will not pursue it. I was trying to keep very narrowly to the point of the Financial Resolution. I want now to turn to sub-paragraph VII in which I think there is another point of great substance. The Minister will see that the Financial Resolution covers only the supply of water to agricultural land. That is a far too narrow definition, because we know that he will want that water supply to go also to buildings, cottages and farms. I will not elaborate the point now, but I ask the Minister to consider, on the Report stage of the Financial Resolution, whether it is not necessary and desirable that that provision should be extended.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

Surely, my hon. Friend will agree that it will be too late if the Minister waits until the Report stage to extend the Financial Resolution. He will then have no power to do so. He must alter it now in Committee or not at all.

Mr. York

I thank my hon. Friend for opening my eyes. If the Minister agrees with the point I am making, perhaps he could say that it is not in fact a question of extending the financial side of the Resolution, but only the verbal side. What is required is a slightly wider wording to cover what I believe the Minister really intends. I hope that it is merely a matter of making quite clear what is not at all clear now. I cannot, I am afraid, pursue my full argument owing to your Ruling, Major Milner. I do most strongly press upon the Government the undesirability of having settled accounts for dealing with exactly the same kind of payment.

Sir John Barlow (Eddisbury)

There are one or two points on which I should like some elucidation. Paragraph A (v) provides for: acquiring land by agreement or com-pulsorily and whether by way of purchases hiring or taking possession. I can understand purchase and hiring but what I am not clear about is what is meant by "taking possession." I should like that point elucidated. Then I would like to refer to Paragraph A (vi), which says the money is for managing, farming or otherwise dealing with land acquired by the Minister. There again, I know what managing is and what farming is, but do the Government contemplate dealing in land in certain circumstances? I think from this subparagraph it is possible to interpret that they will be dealing in land.

The Chairman

That again is a matter to be dealt with on the Committee stage of the Bill. As I have said, the Financial Resolution gives general power or authority for the purposes set out in the Resolution which the Committee will decide in detail. These are details which should be discussed on the Committee stage and not on the Financial Resolution.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

Is it not permissible for this Committee to find out how much money it is proposed to spend upon this particular item? Is that not within the scope of the Financial Resolution? Should there not be some definition?

The Chairman

It is competent for any hon. Member to press for particulars of that sort from the Minister in charge of the Bill, but whether he can answer it or not is a matter for him.

Sir J. Barlow

Naturally, I bow to your decision. Major Milner, and I pass on to Paragraph A (VII) which deals with making grants for drainage. We all know how important drainage is, especially in agricultural land. I should like to know if this is additional to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which, I gather, already provides money for drainage purposes.

The Chairman

That, again, is a matter which can be gone into on the Bill itself, and not at the present stage.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

Is it not a long-established procedure governing the discussion of Financial Resolutions, that matters of this nature can be entered into at whatever length the Member chooses, having regard to the fact that they all bear upon the question of the financial costs?

The Chairman

Not at all. The details will be decided on the Bill itself.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

With great respect, I submit that they may be discussed again.

The Chairman

The Financial Resolution gives power to the Committee on the Bill to come to certain decisions on the Bill within the four corners of the Financial Resolution. What decision the Committee may come to as to the details, is not a matter to be discussed at this stage, but to be discussed on the Committee stage of the Bill.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Arising out of that Ruling, do I take it, Major Milner, that you definitely rule out of Order discussions, on the Committee stage of the Financial Resolution, on points arising on the Order Paper, and bearing upon the financial cost to the Treasury?

The Chairman

No, I am not giving any general Ruling. Each case must be considered on the merits. What I am saying is that for the most part matters raised on this occasion are matters which can be more properly discussed on the Bill itself.

Sir J. Barlow

There is only one other point. I am very sorry if I have transgressed too widely. There is a small point which I would like to raise under paragraph A (VIII), which reads: in respect of the prevention of damage to agriculture by animals and birds. If reference is made to Clause 95 (4) it will be found that provision is also made for dealing not only with animals and birds but with the eggs of birds. I suggest that the eggs ought to be included in addition to the birds, and I think that we should have some elucidation about that point.

10.25 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I think that the one or two questions which have been raised on this Financial Resolution can be dealt with fairly expeditiously, but I feel that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) was not quite justified in declaring that no right hon. Gentleman rose from the Front Bench to make a statement about the Financial Resolution. In fact, no one had a chance before the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) was on his feet and there was, therefore, no discourtesy, actual or intended, on my part. As a matter of fact I do not think the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for many hours—

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am in the Chamber in order to consider the Financial Resolution which is before the Committee now, and I have been here ever since the discussion of that Resolution began.

Mr. T. Williams

The hon. Member is quite entitled to raise any point, but he is not entitled to suggest that there is any discourtesy on the part of a Minister who has been on the Bench since half past three o'clock today. With regard to the points that have been raised, one hon. Member complains that the Money Resolution is too wide, while another says that it is too narrow, so that it is very difficult to decide just what hon. Members opposite desire in this respect. I was asked how the House would learn of the expenditure on particular heads of the Resolution. Clearly, the House will be informed by the ordinary votes and estimates submitted by the responsible Department which, in this case, will be the Ministry of Agriculture.

A question was also asked about the Land Commission expenditure. It is obviously impossible for me to give any estimate either of the area of land to be acquired or of the price of that land, or even of the cost of rehabilitating or developing land. That is fairly set out in the Financial Memorandum to the Bill. Then I was asked how the House would learn just what the Land Commission is costing the State. If the hon. Member who put that question had been good enough to read the Bill, he would have found that Clause 67 states very distinctly that the Land Commission, before a certain date, must provide an annual report to the House concerning costs, so that the operations of the Land Commission will be made known to the House. I was also asked why we compel the Treasury to meet the costs incurred by the Land Commission or the county executive committee, whereas any income derived by one or other of those bodies has to be paid into the Exchequer. All I can say is that that is the accountancy method which has gone on over a very considerable period of time, and certainly for very many decades before there was a majority Labour Government. We are merely pursuing what I am sure the right hon. Gentleman opposite, who used to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury, knows is the proved method of accountancy, and which alone makes it possible for hon. Members to see where expenditure actually takes place. I think that deals with all the questions raised with the exception of that put by the hon. Member for Ripon (Mr. York), who asked about land and buildings. Perhaps it is not to be expected that the hon. Member would be aware of the fact, but for this purpose, land includes buildings.

10.30 p.m.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

I do not think we need take much longer on this Resolution because there is other business of importance to come before the House tonight. But I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that for years past it has been the complaint against these Resolutions that they have been drawn so tightly it was almost impossible, in Committee, to make Amendments which the Committee desired. As I look at this Resolution I think that, while it may be undesirable in the view of some of my hon. Friends on other grounds, on purely technical grounds it has been drawn so widely that we can amend it in the restrictive sense. The difficulty in the past with a Money Resolution was that it was so restrictive; in this case it is so extended, that it can be restricted.

To that extent the right hon. Gentleman has acted in accordance with the recommendation made some years ago to the Government and accepted by the Government of the time. That recommendation was that Financial Resolutions should be as wide as possible. Therefore I do not think it lies in the mouth of any of us to complain that this Resolution is too wide, because that is the will of Parliament, and it is the way in which such Resolutions can best be drawn up in order to secure the maximum of discussion in Committee or in the House as the case may be. On that assumption, I do not think there is much wrong with this Resolution. Although I know, Major Milner, that you cannot control the Rulings of the Chairman of a Standing Committee, I am sure that the Chairman of the Committee on this Bill will be guided by what you have said, and will not be likely to rule out of Order anything which you, from this Chair, said could be discussed upstairs. To that extent, I think that my hon. Friends who have raised points have been justified in having been able to secure Rulings from the Chair which can be quoted upstairs should there be any tendency to rule amendments out of Order.

While as I say the Government have fulfilled the general agreement that these Resolutions should be drawn very widely, I do make one comment, and that is on the very last sentence in the right hon. Gentleman's speech in reply to my hon. Friend, the Member for Ripon (Mr. York). He says that land for this purpose includes buildings. The point my hon. Friend had in mind was, of course, that if grants are made for bringing water to agricultural land, the places where some of the water is really required, may be in the farm buildings themselves. The right hon. Gentleman says that, for this purpose, land includes buildings but, of course, it does not do so in this Money Resolution and it does not do so in the Bill. I have only had a minute to glance at the definition Clause, but that does not say that land includes buildings. The right hon. Gentleman evidently means it to do so. I hope, therefore, that if, by chance, his legal advisers were to say that the observation he made, perhaps on the spur of the moment, is not absolutely correct, he will take steps either to make the Amendment which I think he can make as Minister on the Report stage, or will see that a suitable definition is included somewhere else under the general procedure of the House. That was really the point my hon. Friend had in mind. I am doubtful at the moment whether the right hon. Gentleman is correct, but I am no lawyer and I am no Parliamentary draftsman. I understand I have the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman that he intends what I have indicated, and I have every confidence if he intends it to be done, he will find ways and means of doing it.

Mr. T. Williams

That is my intention, and the words cover my intention.

Resolution to be reported Tomorrow.