HC Deb 05 June 1947 vol 438 cc525-38

11.0 p.m.

Captain Crookshank

I beg to move, in page 75, line 31, to leave out Clause 92.

This Clause is one to which we have taken grave exception at every stage, and the right hon. Gentleman will therefore not in the least be surprised to see that on this final occasion we will once more try to get it deleted from the Bill. We find it very difficult to understand, in spite of the explanation given to us, why it appears in the Bill at all, because the underlying assumption here is that there will be some national emergency, and that it will be necessary, subject to affirmative Resolution by Parliament, to take specific action to secure production by giving special directions as set out in Subsection (2), paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). What we have never been able to realise is the nature of this national emergency which the right hon. Gentleman has in view. If it is to be the sort of emergency which is a polite euphemism for war, obviously it will be necessary for the House to give to the Government of the day, at that time, very large powers, not only with regard to the direction of production in agriculture but, as we all know from our own. experience, over the whole field of national activity. If that is what he has in mind, then we say that this Clause has no place in this Bill, because whatever regulations or Emergency Powers Acts are passed, whatever they would be called—because they are given different names in, different wars—this sort of power would be sought, and would naturally be included in the regulations. It may be that this is not entirely what the Minister has in view. It may he, in the first few words of the Clause— Where it appears to the Minister necessary so to do in the interest of the national supply of food or other agricultural products. that circumstances of that kind may conceivably occur having nothing to do with a national emergency in the sense of war or the approach of war. It may arise through a national disaster, such as we have suffered from the floods or frosts.

Mrs. Manning

Or a world disaster.

Captain Crookshank

Yes, it may be a world disaster. But that is a very different matter from a war. That is why we want to find the stopping place of this proposal. The Amendments which the right hon. Gentleman is to move to this Clause are directed to the very point that it has nothing to do with the coming of war, or an emergency in that sense, but that it is because of certain anxieties with regard to food production in the near future that he wants to take these powers of special direction. That is something which we do not think should be contained in this Bill. I know very well that an order can have no effect unless it is approved by Resolution of each House; but in spite of that, if there are going to be such emergencies that there is a risk of war, or a great international crisis, or some emergency so serious that you have to take special steps to deal with agricultural production in the interests of food supplies, then they should be dealt with ad hoc, and should not be considered part of an agricultural Measure which deals with quite different matters.

That is something extraneous to the whole line of the Bill, as those who have studied it for so long know. The right hon. Gentleman may say it is necessary, or that as we are dealing with agriculture it is convenient, to put these powers in. But it is on that that we join issue, and say that the powers necessary to deal with these emergencies should not come into this Bill which deals with markets, and landlord and tenant, and all those various other complicated matters that we have discussed. For that reason we do not think that the Clause should be here and that is why I move that it should be left out.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I wish to press this question upon the Government. This Clause is utterly illogical in this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has so impressed upon us that we have come to believe him that this Bill is designed to increase the confidence of the farming community and to foster and to improve the stability of the industry. To introduce into a Bill, which is designed for that purpose, a Clause providing for general directions by the Minister to over-ride, and over-rule everything connected with the production side of the industry in the guise of a national emergency is to make absolute nonsense of the whole purport of the Bill.

I can remember the right hon. Gentleman saying on Second Reading how he was building up the farming industry upon the twin pillars of stability—fixed prices and assured markets—and in that way he was creating stable conditions for the industry. With Clause 92 we suddenly find that the whole of that is swept away. The right hon. Gentleman presupposes a national emergency. But what type is not clear either in the Bill or from his remarks. As my right hon. and gallant Friend has said, whether it is an emergency caused by the weather or the policy of the Government's bulk purchase system, or the failure of the Government's nationalised transport system so that we cannot import food from overseas, or whether it is a failure from any other cause, even possibly a war or a comparatively minor activity of the Government which might equally raise a national disaster such as the Town and Country Planning Bill—whatever the cause the Government take power to remove from all farmers in the country the discretion to run their own industry, the discretion to produce their own crops and over-ride the whole thing. It is neither logic nor commonsense. The Minister takes the powers for a year only. What good is that going to be? It is not a thing he can do in a moment of time because it requires an affirmative Resolution. If there is this emergency making it necessary for these powers to be taken, surely it is time the Government explained the situation, explained the powers and how they will operate, then do it by means of an emergency Measure rather than do it in an order introduced under this Clause which destroys all the confidence of the community and the purpose of the Bill.

Mrs. Manning

How long before the last war did we know that there was going to be a war with Germany and how long before we appointed—

Mr. Deputy - Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

That is outside the scope of the Bill. Even if the questions were asked, I could not permit the hon. Member to answer them.

Mr. Hurd (Newbury)

I want to support my right hon. and gallant Friend on this point. This is a Measure for the permanent governing of agriculture. The Minister is seeking to give himself powers for ever to direct cropping. That is a drastic power which was used during the war and was then very necessary. But in more normal times, the balance of agriculture, the proportion of tillage and grass, should be determined by the economic forces which make the farmer decide whether he is going to plough so much, and whether he is going to concentrate on milk or growing vegetables. He should not in normal times be dictated to as to how he is to crop his land. That gets you back to farming from Whitehall under direction. It does not result in good crops. We know the difficulties of growing potatoes and wheat on unsuitable land. The Minister is here taking powers to continue that kind of direction, and to tell farmers they must go against their own judgment and fulfil a general cropping direction which the Minister is giving.

We on this side say the Minister should be able to get the right balance in production through the use of Part I of this Bill in which he has full power to fix prices and quantities. This is the right way rather than by taking powers to give general cropping directions which result, I suggest, in inefficient production. The land may not be suitable for a particular crop and it may involve large sections of the farming community in serious loss. Last year and the year before, many people working under general directions to grow potatoes did incur loss. The Minister here is seeking to continue that power. We do not feel it is right in this Bill, which is to be a permanent Measure for the betterment and stability of agriculture, that this should be included.

Mr. Marquand

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman rightly said that it had been claimed that this Bill had gained the confidence of the agricultural industry. I want to begin in the few words I shall address to the House by assuring him and my hon. Friends that since this Bill has been published it has been fully discussed with the representatives of the agricultural industry. This Clause in particular has been discussed with the National Farmers' Union, the Central Landowners' Association and the Agricultural Workers' Unions, and they have all expressed agreement with it. I want to assure the House that besides the confidence of the agricultural industry we have also acquired the confidence of the rest of the nation. The rest of the nation has an interest in this Clause. They want to be assured that if an emergency occurs again, the sort of action necessary, to produce additional food sup- plies for this country, when they cannot be imported, will be taken.

My right hon. Friend is quite clear in his mind that this must only be used when a grave emergency threatens, but by an emergency we do not only mean war. We might have to take these powers at a time when there was a world shortage of certain types of grains, as there is at the moment. It is not now so acute that these powers have to be invoked, but that extreme shortage might occur again. Surely the experiences of the last two great wars show that it is unwise to wait until an emergency comes upon us, especially in the case of agriculture. Cropping plans take a long time to mature, and if such plans are not made in advance we are likely to be caught napping, and defeated in a war, or starved in some emergency which may come from outside this country altogether. Therefore it is necessary to take this power.

11.15 p.m.

The Minister requires the power which is in the Bill. It is not sufficient to say that we must wait until an emergency arises and then use the Emergency Powers Act or the Defence Regulations, or whatever may he put into force when a war starts. It is necessary to use this power before an emergency comes upon us, because the next sowing must take place before the next harvest is reached. We admit that the powers taken are drastic, but in defence of them, having said that we intend to use these powers only in cases of grave emergency, we defend them further by pointing out, as has been pointed out already, that there is ample safeguard in the fact that the powers cannot be enforced until the House has passed an affirmative Resolution.

Mr. W. Roberts

I would like to ask for your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, on whether it would be out of Order to make a general reference to the Amendment which the Minister proposes to make to this Clause in speaking on the Clause itself. I think it would save time if that were possible.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Yes: that will be in Order.

Mr. Roberts

I am surprised that the Minister has found it desirable since the Bill was drafted, and since the Committee stage, to ask for the extra power which appears in the new paragraph (d) which he is to propose. The power in the paragraph (a), seems to be so wide that I wonder whether he will explain why he specially wants to take this power, which is a lesser power than the power which he has already. I do not understand it, and it raises in my mind the possibility that he wants to make use of the new paragraph which he is to move at, perhaps, some not too distant date. We would like to have an assurance now that he is not contemplating using this new power in the near future. It occurs to me that we may be faced with a dollar crisis, and I would like to ask the Minister whether that has anything to do with this new provision—whether it is his intention to make use of this power in the next year, say. Do I understand from the Minister that he does not mean to use this power?

Mr. T. Williams

If the hon. Member will wait a few moments I will try and explain why I think I need the power embodied in my Amendment.

Mr. Roberts

That is very interesting, for I rather feared that the right hon. Gentleman did intend to use this power in the near future.

Mr. T. Williams

Oh, no.

Mr. Roberts

We have got the power now, it is true. We have got it in the Supplies and Services Act, which empowers the Government to make regulations up to 1950, with, I understand, power to extend them for another year. The Government have that power now, and are using it now. It is not popular with farmers, but they recognise that it is a hangover from the war and due to the economic circumstances in which we are living. Farmers will think it is a great mistake to introduce this emergency Clause, with increased powers, at this time into a Bill which is a permanent charter for agriculture, not for the next two or three years, but, we hope, for the next 10 or 20 years. It is very bad psychology on the part of the Government. The Bill, as has been said, begins with price guarantees for the majority of farm products and then we come here, towards the end of the Bill, to a Clause which empowers the Minister to do all the things which have been most unpopular during the war and which farmers in many parts of this country still strongly resent. There are one or two things which may happen in the immediate future. One is that the American loan will run down. Another is that German prisoners of war are returning to Germany at a time when we need more food and when we have a shortage of labour. I believe the `way to solve the shortage of labour is to build more houses and to provide more machinery. I think I am not out of Order in dealing with that, for I am submitting that if farmers are to grow more crops, and not lay their land down to grass—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have not suggested that the hon. Member is out of Order, but he seems to have an uneasy conscience.

Mr. Roberts

What I was just saying is that if farmers are anxious to cease growing crops and to lay land down to grass, it will be because of the shortage of labour. This can only be cured by increased output and an increase of the machinery available. The right way to prevent them laying land down to grass is not to take powers in a permanent Bill to compel them, even if those powers have got to be reviewed annually, but to deal with the fundamental causes why they want to cease growing crops. It is a great pity that at the end of this Bill this should appear when the Government already have powers in other legislation, and when the agricultural community is, in my opinion, looking forward to the security which this Bill will give them. The Minister says he proposes actually to use this Clause in the near future. That act itself will undermine what is so necessary for continued and increasing production—the confidence of farmers in this Bill. Therefore, I very much regret the suggestion that these powers are to be used.

Mr. Lambert

I support this Amendment for the reason so ably put by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr Hurd). There can be no question that the farmer is the best judge of what to grow on his land. In my view, the Minister has adequate power in Part I of the Bill to stimulate the production of a particular crop. Again, I am opposed to the Clause because it is a retrograde step. My predecessor in the representation of my constituency more than 50 years ago established the principle that a farmer should be able to grow what he liked, provided he maintained the fertility of the soil. I cannot but think it is wrong now for the Government to take away the right from the farmer to decide how he is to farm his own land.

Mr. Baldwin

I rise primarily because it is so seldom that I agree with the agricultural ideas of my hon. Friend the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert). I want to support him in this case. If we want production we must give a price incentive, and make it worth while for the farmer to produce. If the Government had realised we were short of wheat in 1945—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member must realise we cannot go back to that.

Mr. Baldwin

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I still can refer to the fact that price incentive is the way to get crops. I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for South Molton said about his predecessor, who was one of the soundest agricultural Members this House has ever had. That was his theory —that the farmer should be paid a worthwhile price for his crops and that then he would produce them. That is worth more than all the orders in the world.

Mr. Byers

I think we might, at least, have a reply from the Minister on this point. Perhaps, I may lead the Minister to it. I do feel that this is a most important principle, and I do not like the look of complacency there is on the Minister's face at the present moment. He seems to think that it really does not matter at all. I think it does. After all, he is seeking to introduce into permanent legislation the idea that a Minister should have compulsory power to order what crops are to be grown at any time. I am perfectly willing to admit that in times of emergency, and to carry on a war, it may be absolutely vital to have the powers the Government have in the Supplies and Services (Transitional Powers) Act. That is very reasonable. But I do think that if we put into permanent legislation this power and the power contained, in the proposed Amendment, it will undermine the confidence of the farmers and, as a result, may depress conditions in the farming industry, which may affect the agricultural workers, too. I think that that is bound to happen.

After all, what is this? It is an easy way out for the Minister. It is the old story of delegated legislation. That is what it is. It is the old story of conscription, against the voluntary system. Here the Minister is covered, and given a way out, if he does not want to pay the price. I am not blaming the Minister. This is a Treasury decision. I believe that the Treasury have given a direct cropping order to the Minister of Agriculture—that a saving Clause has got to be in this Bill because they may not, at certain times be prepared to pay the price—just as they were not prepared to pay the price for a volunteer force. It is the old game of Treasury control. If the farming community of this country believed that, then I say—and I believe it to be true, because if it is not true, why is it in the Bill?—I say that confidence is going to be very seriously undermined in the farming industry. I should like a definite assurance from the Minister that it is not his intention to have an easy get-out, because he is not prepared to pay the price.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

I do not know whether I have to reply to the Amendment to delete Clause 92 or to move my Amendment. The hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) spoke throughout about the Amendment which had not been moved and paid little or no attention to the Amendment that had been moved. It seems to me that as a result of this Debate there is still hope of a design for freedom. The hopes of the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) are not completely lost. Greater unity is coming hour by hour as the night goes on.

Mr. Byers

Coming our way.

Mr. Williams

I presume that I must first direct my few observations to Clause 92. While the hon. Member who has just spoken talked about losing the confidence of the farming community, my hon. Friend the Paymaster-General told the House with great truth that the National Farmers' Union are in favour of Clause 92. There is no price "dodgeability" about it, and were there any such, it would be following the very bad example we witnessed in the prewar years when there was no sort of confidence, guaranteed market or prices, or indeed anything else. During the past seven years—

Mr. Baldwin

1929 to 1931?

Mr. Williams

Yes, because the Conservative Party were always in the majority. In 1929–31 the Conservative Party with their comrades of the Liberal benches were in the majority. In any case I do not propose to discuss that now. We are living in 1947 where there is more security for the farming community than there has been for 50 years.

We have had the power for seven years to give individual cropping directions to every farmer and almost on every field, but when this Bill was introduced it was promised that individual cropping directions would cease once this Bill became law. I repeat that individual cropping directions will cease once this Bill becomes law. But there may conceivably be an emergency; and who am I to say what kind of emergency it might be? As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) said earlier, county executive committee chairmen were chosen before war broke out in an anticipation of the war that did breakout. [An HON. MEMBER: "Good planning."] For the first time in the life of the Tory Party. We supported it. We thought it an exercise of wisdom should such an emergency arise. As for Subsection (1) of Clause 92, it is right that, whoever may be the Government or Minister, they should be able to proceed to the House of Commons to get an affirmative Resolution to provide themselves with power to make the best use of our national resources. Therefore, as we are allowing individual cropping directions to cease, it is fair under this Bill that provision should be taken so that on a future occasion, where an emergency arises, the power will be in the hands of the Government, following an affirmative Resolution, to proceed to do what the then Government deem best. I think there can be no objection to any Government taking the power they need in the circumstances visualised in Subsection (1). I am sure that hon. Members opposite, as well as I and my colleagues on these benches. are all anxious that this emergency shall not arise, but I hope that, since all the farming interests are agreed with Clause 92, the House will accept it.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. T. Williams

I beg to move, in page 75, line 33, after "that" to insert "all or any of."

This, and the following three Amendments, I suggest, might conveniently be linked together. The purpose of the Amendments is to enable control to be exercised over the proportion of agricultural land under tillage crops, and to ensure that land is not laid down to grass too quickly and before there is adequate stock to consume the increased quantities of grass. The House will recall that on 6th March, in my statement about future production programmes, it was made clear that British agriculture must make its biggest contribution, but that it was not the Government intention to secure the targets for particular crops by the issue of special directions unless emergency conditions arose such as those contemplated under Clause 92 (1). I said that the need for the highest level of self-sufficiency in feeding-stuffs called for a higher acreage of tillage—a greater acreage than in pre-war years—and that the Government would deprecate a decrease in the next four years below a point half-way between the war- I time peak and the pre-war tillage. The peak tillage year was 1944, when we I reached 14½ million acres, compared with the average of the last three pre-war years, when it was about 9 million acres. The Government fear that the tendency to decrease which has taken place since 1944 may go too far and too fast, when we need to make the best use of our agricultural resources. We should not make the best use of them if we allowed that to continue. We cannot expect an unlimited supply of feedingstuffs to be at our disposal at least for a few years, and our claim for supplies available from elsewhere cannot be good unless we can show that we are doing our best at home. We must preserve a proper balance, therefore, between crops and grass while allowing farmers complete freedom to decide what particular crops they can best grow in accordance with the economics of their particular farms. As has been pointed out, the Government can operate under the Defence Regulations up to 1950, but there are obvious objections to using the provisions of this Bill at the same time as using the Defence Regulations.

The first Amendment enables the Minister to make an order as set out in paragraphs (a), (b), and (c) of Subsection (2), and also for the additional purpose of controlling tillage specified in the new paragraph (d) to that Subsection, which it is now desired to add to the Bill. It will still be necessary to secure specific authority from both Houses of Parliament by affirmative Resolution to control tillage acreage. The second Amendment to add certain words at the end of line 36 will enable any order, made under the new provision to be inserted in Subsection (2) of the Clause giving power to serve directions for control of tillage and grass, to operate to the end of 1950, in the first instance. This coincides with the period during which the Defence Regulations can continue, so we are not seeking more power than we possess at the moment. Instead, however, of cancelling this power in the Bill and then operating it by an apparently backdoor use of emergency regulations which would subject us to the charge of dodging the column, I think it far better that the House should agree to these Amendments so that emergency regulations can fall the moment an affirmative Resolution is passed through both Houses of Parliament. It is, therefore, my intention to seek the approval of the House to make an order later this year, after the appointed day has been settled and announced. In the meantime, of course, we shall continue to rely on the Regulations. After 1950, should we desire to continue control of tillage acreage, we shall have to seek the authority of Parliament year by year.

The third Amendment is really the operative part of this series of Amendments. Under this paragraph, an order is made and a county agricultural executive committee can serve appropriate directions where they think a farmer is reducing tillage acreage too quickly. Every county will be given a tillage target, and in most cases I am convinced they will get their target without directions being served. Where served, they will be served by practical agriculturists, men who can be relied upon to act reasonably. As these Amendments are necessary in the national interest, I hope the House will be disposed to accept them. The Amendments, which seem rather complicated, are quite simple. We are forfeiting the right to give cropping directions to any farmers. We are merely retaining the right to control tillage acreage, but we do so by means of this Bill instead of by continuing the wartime emergency regulations. I feel that most hon. Members would desire that that should be done.

Sir T. Dugdale

The Minister of Agriculture has made an important statement to the House. I think that, on behalf of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, I can say that if the point is made clear we can agree with his proposals. As we see them, they are simply that, after this Bill becomes an Act, the Minister will draft an order which will come before Parliament in order that he may control the tillage acreage growing in this country up to 1950, instead of using the powers he possesses at present under the Emergency Powers Act; and after 1950 the Emergency Powers Act will cease, as also will the operation of this Clause, unless the Minister returns again to this House and seeks additional powers in order to make definite regulations. I think this will commend itself to the House, and that hon. Members will agree with the Minister in these Amendments.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. W. Roberts

I am very much obliged to the Minister for answering my questions so fully, in a statement which was very interesting indeed. It seemed to me to contain several points, and, summarising them very briefly, I agree with the Minister in the desirability of maintaining the tillage acreage. A large part of what he said was devoted to that. The question at issue is how to maintain the tillage acreage, whether by direction, or by some other inducement. I am not satisfied that other Government Departments have assisted the Minister sufficiently in this business of producing food. I am not satisfied that the Minister responsible for housing has done so, and I think many members of his party are not satisfied either; and I am not satisfied that the President of the Board of Trade has helped sufficiently in regard to machinery. At this hour we cannot go fully into that. The time will come, when the Minister lays the Order, when we can go fully into the question whether.it is the right way, or not, to continue to maintain the tillage acreage by regulation rather than by price inducement or other means.

I cannot agree with the Minister that it is better that he should use permanent emergency powers under this Bill than continue to use the emergency powers under the temporary Act. Apparently the way to get rid of temporary emergency powers is to make them permanent by putting them into a permanent Act of Par- liament, and that seems to me an Alice-in-Wonderland way of dealing with temporary powers. They are limited only by the fact that they are subject to affirmative Resolution each year, which, with a large majority, any Government can get through. I think it is disastrous to British agriculture that it should be permanently subjected to the emergency powers that we had during the war, and I make my protest about that. It is most unfortunate, and the Minister has made a decision which I very much regret, because I, for one, wish this Measure the greatest success. It is a very valuable Measure, and it is a credit to him and to his party that he has carried it through. I think it is a great mistake that he has incorporated these powers, used during the war, into a permanent Measure, and is going to use them right away.

Mr. Baldwin

Again I have the unusual job of supporting the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts). I agree with his suggestion that the way to keep up the tillage acreage of this country is to make it worth while. I would like the Minister to explain whether, if there is not to be any compulsory cropping after this Bill becomes an Act, there will be any compulsory acquisition of the crop after it is grown. The Minister said there has been an enormous drop in the tillage acreage during the last two years.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 75, line 36, at end, insert: or in the case of an order made before the first day of January, nineteen hundred and fifty, and confined to the powers conferred by paragraph (d) of the next following subsection, for the period ending with the thirty-first day of December in that year.

In page 76, line 7, at end, insert: (d) without prejudice to the general powers conferred by the foregoing paragraphs, as to the maximum area of land which may be maintained on an agricultural unit under pasture laid down with clover, grass, lucerne, sainfoin or other seeds or under herbage crops grown for commercial seed production.

In line 26, at end, insert: so long as the act or omission was reasonably necessary in consequence of the giving of the direction."—[Mr. T. Williams.]