HC Deb 20 November 1947 vol 444 cc1383-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I intend that my remarks upon this Clause should be helpful. I am very glad to see the Minister of Agriculture present because the Clause gives effect to the ploughing up grant. Subsection (3) says: Any grant made in respect of the ploughing up of land after the said twenty-first day of August may be made subject to such conditions as to the crop to be sown on the ploughed up land as the appropriate Minister (within the meaning of the said Act) may think fit to impose, and, if any such condition is broken in respect of any land, the amount of the grant paid in respect of the ploughing up of that land shall be recoverable as a debt. I find that some members of the agricultural community who have studied this matter are troubled by the fear that those words imply that in every case where land is ploughed up and a grant is claimed, a direction as to the crop to be sowed will automatically follow. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is considerable objection in many cases to too much direction about precise crops to be sown. Agriculture is carried on upon very various soils in our country, and is, therefore, almost incapable of generalisation. The man on the spot who has lived on the land is very often in a much better position to know what crop will be best than some more remote official either in the county town or in London. I do not share those qualms. I think the Words in Subsection (3) embody what the Minister said in his statement, namely, that to be eligible for the grant the land should be sown to approved crops or resown with the approval of the agricultural executive committee to an approved grass mixture. I take it that those rather peremptory words in Subsection (3) do not imply an extension of the power of direction beyond what is intended, but it might be helpful if I mention it so that the right hon. Gentleman may clear away any misconception that exists.

The second point is a general one which has frequently been put. We all hope that as a result of this grant and of the exertions of the farmers and their men, there will be an increase in arable cultivation. The contribution which agriculture can make to our economic and financial position is immense, and it is the duty of all concerned in the industry, both governmentally and otherwise, to do everything they can to encourage the ploughing up effort. I would impress on the right hon. Gentleman and the Government as a whole—his colleagues are involved as much as if not more than he is—that the real difficulty that arises in implementing this policy is the lack of ploughshares and other pieces of farm equipment. It is very serious. I get complaints from all over the country. I grant that the season is a little unusual because the hard ground we have recently had owing to the drought has worn out and broken a lot of the implements which would have lasted longer under normal conditions. The general position is that whereas in earlier years agriculture relied on the horse, and in more remote times on the ox, for tractive power, now it relies more and more upon machinery. In those days the agricultural departments took care to cherish the breeding of horses. They saw that the prime mover of agricultural operations was kept in good supply. There were all sorts of schemes for encouraging horse breeding—

The Deputy-Chairman

I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman but he is now going extremely wide. The Clause under discussion only refers to ploughing grants. We cannot have a wide Debate on agriculture on this Clause.

Mr. Morrison

I bow to your Ruling, of course, Mr. Beaumont. All I was intending to say was that to give effect to Subsection (3) it will be necessary for the equipment which is required to be provided and for all concerned to be given the tools of their trade.

545 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

This Clause is essential. There is a very big job to be done in the ploughing up of land, but something more than that is required. The ploughing up of land is necessary because of the neglect of agriculture by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) and his friends, and the fact that so much of it went out of cultivation. That is something they cannot dispute. They neglected to provide the material when they had the opportunity. It is not only essential to plough up the land; if we are to get the fullest value out of agriculture, a measure of co-operation must be developed throughout the country. In order to ensure that the best and most desirable crops are obtained, it surely should remain the power of the Minister of Agriculture and those who are working under his direction to make certain that in each area, particularly where new land is being ploughed up, the land should not be left to the chance judgment of a farmer, but that the farmer should get advice, or instructions if need be, to grow a crop—

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. Member seems to be straying in fields of debate which are not within the scope of the Clause.

Mr. Gallacher

Subsection (3) deals with the crops which the ploughed up land will grow.

The Deputy-Chairman

The Subsection does not apply to grants.

Mr. Gallacher

It concerns the power to withhold a grant if the farmer does not sow the crops he is instructed to grow. It is desirable, if we are to give grants to plough up land neglected by Tory rule, that we should also have the right to direct the character of the crops to be grown there in order to ensure that the people get the very best value in food from the grants that have been given and the service that has been rendered to the farmers. In view of that, this Clause should be retained, because it is absolutely necessary. I think I was right, Mr. Beaumont.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. W. S. Morrison) said, that some fears have been expressed that Clause 3 (3) could be used by some malignant Minister as a backdoor method of introducing direction. I can give the right hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance on that point. This Clause makes no difference whatsoever to the existing position in regard to direction. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, and as I have stated on more than one occasion, I am not using directions to secure the targets for 1948, and I hope it may not be necessary to use directions even later on. Neither is it intended to lay down such conditions for ploughing grants as would amount to directions.

In the announcement I made on 31st August, I stated that the £4 grant would apply where land is sown to an approved crop or resown with the approval of the county executive committee to an approved grass mixture. As far as tillage crops are concerned, I do not intend to pay a ploughing grant for those who sow buckwheat, millet or canary seed since none adds to the food supplies of the country; nor in respect of land cropped in a manner contrary to a direction given for good husbandry purposes to a farmer who happens at any time to be under supervision. Of course we also reserve the right to disapprove anything clearly contrary to the rules of good husbandry, although a farmer not under supervision need not wait for approval of the county executive committee before sowing a crop on land for which he will ultimately apply for the grant. The farmer therefore determines whether or not he is sowing or planting the right crop to collect the grant.

As regards reseeding, we shall not disapprove in such a way as to compel the sowing of a tillage crop, for to do so would be reintroducing direction by the back door, except of course that a grant will not be paid where a tillage direction given by a committee has not been complied with by the farmer. Such direction can be given under Regulation 62 at the moment, but in practice that is not being done, except where a county executive committee considers it necessary because a farmer is falling short of his individual contribution towards our tillage acreage. After Section 95 of the 1947 Act comes into operation, Regulation 62 will be repealed and no more directions can then be given without the assent of Parliament As regards grass mixtures, we might conceivably publish a list—it is important that farmers should understand it—of standard grass mixtures for varying durations, and the farmer would have no need to get the approval in advance of the Minister if he was prepared to reseed with one of those grass mixtures. Where a farmer wants to depart from any one of the standard mixtures, he ought in advance to seek the approval of the county executive committee. The object of this is to deter fanners from using the cheapest of all inferior grades with an eye on the grant, rather than securing really good pasture. It will be clear that we have no intention of making a detailed examination of cropping proposals, but where cropping or reseeding is not properly done, it is quite right and proper that we should have the right to recover any grant we have made.

Mr. C. Williams

I wish to thank the Minister for his courtesy in coming here, and explaining this Clause. It might have been helpful to some of us if the Committee could have developed the matter a little further, but of course I will not follow the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) in his criticisms. I accept the Minister's last remark that if the Government are to give the £2 an acre they must have certain controls over the land, as far as that is reasonable. I do not see how one can expect a Government to expend public money without any control over what that money is expended upon. The Minister was pleading for better grass seed, and I entirely agree. The better the grass seed that can be grown the better it will be for all. The average farmer does not sow bad grass seed if he can help it; he is not a fool; but the difficulty is in getting good grass seed. When the Minister lays it down that good grass seed should be used, he should realise that it cannot be obtained in some areas. There is a shortage of many things. I hope the Minister realises that very close consideration should be given by his Department and especially—as he has quite rightly gone out of his way to mention the matter of grass seed—to seeing that grass seed of a high standard is likely to be available in the future.

We are being asked to grant £2 per acre of Government money for the ploughing up of land, and I rather gather that some individuals imagine that the farmer has a very good bargain. But, if we look at the original £1 grant and this new £2 grant, which is one of the fundamental principles of the Clause we are discussing, we find that in prewar days the cost of ploughing up was very much less than it is now, and it is not represented by the difference between £2 and £1. If we look at one item, wayleaves, it is very much nearer £3 than £2. Farmers will plough up their land because it is necessary, but £2 does not really meet the case as an incentive.

Mr. T. Williams

I hate to interrupt the hon. Member, but perhaps he might feel we are being more generous when I tell him that the amount is £4, not £2.

Mr. C. Williams

If the right hon. Gentleman would be a little patient I was coming to that. [Interruption.] But £2 is the figure which has been mentioned for a long time, and I was building up my case for the £4. I do not in the least mind interruptions, I have had too long a training for that. If hon. Members will listen to me for a minute, the argument I was going to make is a very simple one. In 1939, £2 was approximately the agricultural wage. Actually it was not quite so much as £2. Two pounds was above the wage in the main, but £4 is below the rate of wages now. So, taking the figure at £4, I still maintain that it is not a real inducement. It is an encouragement, and a help, but the real inducement to the farmer is the knowledge that he is doing something, helped by the labourer, which will be useful in the interests of the nation at the present time.

Looking at the matter from the taxpayers' point of view, we are going to pay this money for producing, but how are we to get the land ploughed at present? It is no good voting a scheme for ploughing up land when there is a shortage of almost everything that the farmer needs, in particular ploughshares. No doubt that shortage is partly due to the hardness of the ground this autumn, and partly to war measures. We are entitled to point out that we are being asked to vote for a Clause when we know that, through Government mismanagement, it is going to be very difficult to carry out what the Clause seeks to do. For a long while I have had many curious political and House of Commons conundrums put to me, but I have never been able to understand what is the use of passing a Clause which cannot be carried out.

The Deputy-Chairman

I too have a conundrum to solve, and that is just when the hon. Member is going to get out of Order.

Mr. C. Williams

I will do my best to keep in Order, but it has been mentioned repeatedly that we cannot have ploughing up unless we have the implements with which to do it. It is surely not a matter of commonsense to ask for a Clause when we have not the means of carrying it out. If we are going to deal with agriculture, let us have an Agriculture Bill, and do the thing properly. We so often have this sort of hotchpotch of various things and in this case it is agriculture. The Government want to rush things through the House of Commons at times when people are thinking of a variety of other things, and are trying to get them through without hon. Members representing agricultural constituencies having their opportunity. Perhaps some of them will have an opportunity later. The Government are trying to get through a matter which ought to be properly considered as an agricultural Measure. I welcome the Clause in principle. I think that it will do a certain amount of good—

Mr. Gallacher

I wish to inform the hon. Member that any Clause will do more good for the agricultural interests than the Tories ever did. The Tories destroyed agriculture.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. Williams

That may be the hon. Member's opinion. I would be only too delighted to debate it with him on another occasion. I would be completely out of Order in doing it now. It is very unkind of the hon. Gentleman to try to tempt me away from the narrow paths of Parliamentary virtue. My last words are that if there was anything damning to this Clause it was what we heard earlier about the complete and hopeless muddle the Government have made of their method of getting the machines for agriculture—

Mr. T. Williams


Mr. C. Williams

The right hon. Gentleman says "Order" to me. Apparently he thinks he is both Minister of Agriculture and Chairman of this Committee. That may or may not be so, but I should have thought that it was not very polite to the Chair. I do not want to be provoked into going on any longer, and I conclude by emphasising the fact that the Clause is acceptable because it puts something in print which ought to be printed, but on the practical side it is nothing like so good as some people imagine it to be.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.