HC Deb 05 June 1947 vol 438 cc495-8
Sir. T. Dugdale

I beg to move, in page 56, line 34, at the end, to insert: together with a statement of account in such form as the Minister with the approval of the Treasury may prescribe being a form which shall conform with the best commercial standards and shall show separately the results of any farming operations carried on during that year by the Commission and of the discharge by them during that year of their functions as owners of land. During the Committee stage we had assurances from both the Minister and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that the accounts of the Land Commission would be published, but there is nothing in the Bill to that effect. We had assurances that certain things would happen, but we had no assurance that provision to see that they did happen would be made in the Statute. We on this side consider it to be of the utmost importance that there should be an instruction in the Clause that the accounts of the Commission should be kept and made public. We are not tied to the actual words of the Amendment, but we hope the Government will accept our suggestion. It is necessary that the accounts shall be published in detail, so that the agricultural industry and the community at large can appreciate the work of the Land Commission.

Major Mott-Radclyffe

I beg to second the Amendment.

It is extremely important that the accounts of the Land Commission should be published as an ordinary profit and loss account. I cannot think of anything more damaging to the general confidence of the farming community than for a farmer, who may be going through a difficult period, to know that the farm next door, which is managed by the Land Commission, is having money poured into it, in an uneconomic fashion, without any attention being paid to the return on the capital invested. That is the way to cause criticism and ill-feeling between the Commission and landowners or owner-occupiers who are farming under their own auspices. It is important, for the sake of the reputation of the Commission and the community as a whole, that the accounts of the Commission, on a profit and loss basis should be published, so that all can see whether farming under the Commission is efficient.

Mr. T. Williams

I said in the Standing Committee that I had some sympathy with the object outlined by this Amendment, which was then withdrawn. I explained at that time that this statutory requirement was not necessary because, under Section 5 of the Exchequer and Audits Department Act, 1921, the Treasury have power to direct the Ministry to prepare trading accounts. It is their intention to do so. The accounts will ultimately be published. The land, however, will he owned by the Minister, and the direction will go to the Ministry who, in turn, will request the Commission to prepare trading accounts for publication. It was asked in Committee why this Commission should not do as the Coal Board, the Electricity Board, or the Transport Board will be obliged to do? The analogy is not quite good. They are completely independent boards. They are very large owners of property, engage in commercial undertakings, and their expenses are not borne on a Ministerial vote. That, of course, is the fundamental difference. The Land Commission will manage or farm land on behalf of the Minister, and their expenses will be borne on the Minister's vote, and the receipts will be paid into the Exchequer. The Coal Board is not a Government Department, and the Treasury cannot direct them to produce accounts; therefore, arrangements must be made for that in the Bill. In the opposite direction, the Treasury can direct a Government Department, and I have already stated that it is their intention to direct the Ministry of Agriculture to prepare and publish the accounts of the Land Commission. I see no necessity, therefore, for this Amendment, and I hope hon. Members will not press for it.

Mr. G. Williams

The Minister's assurance is not nearly good enough. He agrees in principle that the accounts should be shown for the convenience of everyone. He says that he can direct the Commission to do so, but is he going to do that? He assures us that he is, but we want to have that in the Bill. The hon. Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. M. Philips Price) said, "I hope that, in fact, he will do it." If there is doubt in the minds of the Minister's own supporters, there is even more doubt in the minds of hon. Members on this side of the House.

Mr. Philips Price (Forest of Dean)

I made that remark not to cast suspicion or doubt on the Minister. I only expressed an opinion, and I was satisfied with his assurance.

Mr. G. Williams

We on this side of the House have heard so many assurances, repeated so many times, that we want some definite assurance in the Bill. I feel rather strongly that the Commission should account for its farming operations, and also for its farming operations. Its accounts should be vetted by the Auditor-General and be given his certificate. Then everyone would know that they had been properly audited. We also want to see them in concrete form so that we can make inquiries, criticise and, above all, make useful suggestions. Even though the accounts may be published in some form or another it would take us so long to delve into all the payments to find out the exact position that that would probably never be done. We want the accounts and the report. The Minister does not want to hold these from us, and as he has given away practically nothing today, I hope that he will fall in with this Amendment, because Socialist Utopias sometimes cost a lot of money. These figures may be interesting, and we want the right to receive them in conjunction with the report.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin

I support the Amendment and ask the Minister for rather more than he has given us in the way of an assurance. I support what the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) said about the Minister not being very forthcoming yesterday and today. In my cricket team, I think he would make a good opening batsman and not give way very easily. I appeal to the Minister not only not to publish these accounts in such a form that no one but an expert can find out what the truth is, but to publish them in detail, so that those of us who are in the job can see whether a particular farm is paying or whether it is losing money. The Minister has here a wonderful opportunity of providing himself with figures which will be realistic. It seems to me that when the farmers' leaders and his Department have to meet at the end of February and settle prices, they very often get so mixed up by the economic experts on both sides that they never arrive at figures which are profitable to the farmer. If the Minister want a demonstration as to whether or not a farm is paying, what better demonstration can he have, or give to the farming community, than to publish the accounts of the job he is doing himself, not publishing them in a form covering two or three counties, but unit by unit, so that we can tell what he is doing? If he does not do that, we shall suspect that he is not doing very well, and I ask him to publish these accounts in such a form and in such detail that we can see what he is doing.

Mr. T. Williams

I think I can give an answer without wasting the time of the House. The Treasury will direct the Ministry of Agriculture to have these accounts prepared, and whoever the Minister of Agriculture may be, he dare do no other than respond to that direction. With regard to what the hon. Member said about concessions, surely he cannot forget that two out of every three Amendments we have been moving today are concessions to the Opposition?

Amendment negatived.