HC Deb 05 December 1949 vol 470 cc1659-71

9.46 p.m.

Mr. T. Fraser

I beg to move: That the Agriculture (Maximum Area of Pasture) (Scotland) Order, 1949, dated 10th November, 1949, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved. The purpose of this order is simply and clearly stated in paragraph 2. Perhaps I should make it clear that the fact that my right hon. Friend has seen fit to bring forward this order, which gives him powers of direction over farmers, must not be taken as evidence that my right hon. Friend feels that the policy of freedom has failed. He believes that the policy of freedom has not failed and that the great majority of farmers are doing a first-class job of work. There are, however, once or two—not a great number—here and there who are believed by their colleagues, the farmers, by the National Farmers' Union and by the Agricultural Executive Committees, to be doing slightly less than they might do under present circumstances. They have expressed the view that the Secretary of State ought to have the powers of direction which are contained in this order.

The House will remember that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture introduced a somewhat similar order in July, 1948, and at that time questions were asked why we in Scotland did not have an order. As I think was explained then, we could not have an order even had we wanted to because we had no statutory authority to make one. In any case, we were not altogether satisfied that an order of this kind was necessary. However, the acreage under crop has gone down considerably since the end of the war. It has gone down by 226,000 acres. Recently when the Secretary of State met the N.F.U. Council, and a little later when I met the branch and area chairmen of the National Farmers' Union, subsequent to which meetings there were consultations between the N.F.U. area and branch representatives and the Agricultural Executive Committees, the view was expressed that we ought now to take advantage of the provisions of Section 35 of the Act of 1948 and make an order of this kind.

I do not think that I need say more in introducing the order. The powers proposed will certainly not be used indiscriminately. They will be delegated to the agricultural executive committees. Persuasion will be the rule, and direction under the order will be reserved for the exceptional cases. I repeat that there are a few farmers who, we believe, are allowing too much of their land to go back to grass. We appreciate that many farmers who cropped very heavily during the war must, if they are to continue to farm their land well and in accordance with the rules of good husbandry, allow a certain part of the acreage to go back to grass. In the not-so-good land in Scotland—and we think we have a lot of not-so-good land—we believed that it would be inevitable to have some slight reversion after the intensive cropping of the war years, but there are a few farmers who have allowed this process to go too far.

We believe that the executive committees ought to have certain powers of direction now which they can use if need be, but which we hope will not often have to be employed. Before I resume my seat perhaps I may repeat that the National Farmers' Union have been consulted and that they have again made their position quite clear. They think we ought to have these powers, and in the circumstances I hope that the House will be able to assent to them.

9.51 p,m.

Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)

I hope that I shall not emulate the lawyers on the Bill that went before, but this is a very important order. It raises a question of principle, and I think it would be wrong if it were allowed to pass into effect without something being said about it from this side of the House. By invoking paragraph (d) of subsection (2) of Section 35 of the Agricultural (Scotland) Act, 1948, the Secretary of State proposes to take powers under the order to serve directions on a farmer limiting the area of land which he may maintain under pasture. What the order does not do is to give specific directions in respect of the actual crops. We must get that point clear. The order expires on 31st December,1950.

I do not think that hon. Members on this side of the House like directions at any time. As the hon. Gentleman has just said, when a similar order for England and Wales was brought before this House my hon. Friends divided the House against it. We in Scotland had hoped it would not be necessary for our own Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to come to this House for similar powers, but we recognise that, because of the maladministration of the Government, we have now to face a vastly different position from then.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

As regards what he calls the maladministration of the Government, may I ask the hon. Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) if he can give us any case in which the Opposition have divided on the Third Reading of any Government Measure for Scotland?

Mr. Snadden

I am referring to the economic situation of the farmer. In any event, I think we agree that our economic position has vastly deteriorated since 1948 and that we are now in an emergency. For that reason we take a different view of the order.

Further, as the Under-Secretary has just said, the National Farmers' Union of Scotland are not, I understand, opposed to the order. I think it would be inaccurate to say that we asked for it. I think the Under-Secretary will concede that that is an indication that the agricultural industry in Scotland is out to do its very utmost to help the country in this time of extreme difficulty. For those reasons we do not intend on this side of the House to oppose the order, but it is necessary, even at the expense of keeping the House for perhaps five or six minutes, that we should examine one or two questions which arise out of it. After all, here are powers to serve directions upon agricultural producers. "Why is the order necessary at all?" is the question in my mind. If it is a fact that co-operation in the industry among farmers has failed, are we certain that the Government have co-operated with the farmers? Those are the two questions into which we should look.

The reason for this order, so far as I can see, apart from the dollar crisis, which has quickened matters at St. Andrew's House, is that our cropping targets have not been reached, and that there is a tendency to lay down land to grass. Quite true, in a small minority of cases, excessive areas of grass are being laid down by certain farmers, who, I agree, must be pulled up if the best results are to be achieved all round. No one in his senses would disagree about that, but, in getting at the small minority who are not playing the game, very great care will have to be exercised by the people who are to carry out this order.

We must remember that the percentage of pasture to tillage is by no means the yardstick of efficiency of an agricultural holding, and that is why the Minister is quite right in bringing in this order, rather than invoking the powers under the Act. We cannot put all the farmers under the wartime cropping directions, because some of them are not farming badly at all. Everything will depend on how the agricultural executive committees interpret their instructions from the Minister, and whether they take into account the available resources of the farmer and a good many other things as well. We on this side of the House are hoping that the order will not have to be used at all, but we shall watch very carefully to see what happens if. in some cases, it should be used.

Because of the fall in tillage, there has been some criticism of farmers in Scotland, and also in England and Wales I think, that they have been falling down on their jobs, but I say without hesitation that such criticism is really both unjust and uninformed. The good farmer will not continue to stock his land to death year after year, even for high prices. It is against all his experience as a farmer, because he knows that, after the tremendous effort during the war—and many of us increased our tillage area by over 70 per cent.—he simply must rest his land in order to restore its fertility. It was because of the fact that there was so much fertility in our land that we were able to make that great effort during the war.

The position in Scotland today is that we are striving for an even greater production than was ever achieved during the war, but with diminishing resources, and I will give a few examples. The subsidies on fertilisers are disappearing and those on feedingstuffs are also being withdrawn. The freight rates are to go up and the licensing of agricultural tractors is to be washed out very shortly under a new Bill. The ploughing grants are to stop on 31st December. Is it any surprise that the farmer, when he looks at these things, says that it does not seem very logical that the cost of fertilisers should jump and the ploughing assistance grants be stopped at the very same moment when we are being pressed for a greater effort than we even had to make during the war?

I am sure that the Joint Under-Secretary will appreciate this point concerning the peculiar situation of Scotland as regards cropping, which has to be taken into account. We grow practically no wheat in Scotland, and, for poultry, we have 100,000 acres or more. We look upon barley as a crop which is only grown in certain stretches. It is true that I grow a little myself in the centre of Scotland, but not quite enough for using as feed. The result is that we are forced back to one important cereal crop—oats. Whereas wheat is subsidised in terms of flour, oatmeal is not; and whereas the commodities under the Agriculture Act

Mr. T. Fraser

On a point of Order. I rather think that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward arguments to which I could not possibly reply on this order. He has been discussing wheat subsidies and the absence of a subsidy on oats, and all sorts of things which seem to me to be miles from the provisions of the order which we are discussing, and I think that if I attempted to reply to his arguments I should probably be out of Order.

Mr. Snadden

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am out of Order, but he is bringing in an order serving directions on agricultural producers, and I am doing my best to say why it is that we have a fall in our tillage area, and why this order has been issued. I know that when we get on to the oats subsidy and the failure of the present Government to include it in the same category, I am on a very sticky wicket as far as the hon. Gentleman is concerned.

Mr. T. Fraser

The hon. Gentleman certainly is.

Mr. Snadden

I am only drawing attention to the fact that these things show that if co-operation within the agricultural industry has not been great enough to secure the answer without directions, the Government have very good reason for looking at their own administration in order to see whether they are co-operating with the farmers.

A very big effort is being demanded, and the hon. Gentleman's Department should again review what they are asking the Scottish farmers to do. For what my opinion is worth, i think we are attempting too much all at once—something rather more than can be done at the present time. But, having taken these powers, which we are not going to oppose, I want to ask the Secretary of State and his Department to do their best to remove any unfair handicaps that cripple production at the same time as this order is brought in. It is often contended that the success of the food production drive rests entirely in the hands of the farmers. In my opinion, that is utter nonsense. The success of the food production drive depends on co-operation between the farmer, his workers and the Government. If the Government do not co-operate we shall not get the answer. As I have indicated, we shall not oppose this order, but we feel that everything will depend on how it is used by the agricultural executive committee.

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

Representing as I do a great dairy farming constituency, it is very natural that I should have an eye to pasture and the possibility of its being ploughed up. I did not feel that the hon. Gentleman had made out a case tonight. He started by saying that his right hon. Friend did not wish this order to be taken as evidence that the policy of freedom had failed, and he quickly went on to say that he did not believe that it had failed. He then said why he thought the order was necessary, but it can only be necessary if he thought that the policy had failed. In fact, he admitted that in some cases the policy of freedom had failed.

The House will certainly wish to know what is the proportion of cases in which he thinks that this policy has failed, to what extent it has failed, and where it has failed. Has it failed all over the country, and is he going to take these powers universally throughout the country, or is he only going to apply them in those areas where the policy is alleged to have failed? He has not made it clear who alleges it has failed. He did make it clear that the demand for this order certainly did not originate with the National Farmers' Union. With whom did it originate?

Mr. T. Fraser

May I quote one sentence from a letter written by the General Secretary of the Scottish National Farmers' Union? It says: I have now to say that the Council of the Union yesterday unanimously agreed to support the action which the Secretary of State proposes to take.

Mr. Macpherson

I am bound to say that the National Farmers' Union have not got very much alternative. What would have happened if the National Farmers' Union had said the opposite? Would the hon. Gentleman have reversed the order? Would he not have brought the order forward at all? I do not for one instant think that that is so. It certainly is not clear to me, and the hon. Gentleman has not made it clear, why these compulsory powers are necessary. There is not the slightest doubt that the farmers have been putting forward their best efforts. My hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) has said, as the farmers say, that they have to have an eye to the fertility of their land, in case it is exhausted.

But there is another thing which may also be exhausted, and that is very often the energies of the farmers themselves. In many farms, owing to the amount of ploughing that they have been doing in recent years, they have been greatly stretched; and a number of my constituents have told me that if they are asked and even more so if they are ordered, to plough up more they will simply chuck in their hands altogether. They cannot stand for this at all. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I can assure him that this is what I am told.

Mr. T. Fraser

Do not take it too seriously.

Mr. Macpherson

The hon. Gentleman says "Do not take it too seriously," but nobody can say that the farmers are not the best judges of how much in the long run they can afford to plough up on their own farms, and that is the main criterion we have to follow in this matter. It is in the long-term interest of the country to make certain that not too much is ploughed up so that the fertility of the land is maintained. It is in the short-term interest of the country to get the maximum production, and that to a large extent means that we should maintain what is pasture as pasture. Therefore, I do not feel that any case has been made out for compulsion of this kind.

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I must defend the farmers of Scotland against the implied attacks of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson). He seemed to assume that the farmers of Scotland were afraid of the Secretary of State, and the Under-Secretary of State. I very much object to that because I know that if the farmers of Ayrshire had any criticism to level against the Secretary of State for Scotland they would be the first to come forward and state it most emphatically.

Mr. Snadden

They will not come under this order. It is all grass in that area.

Mr. Hughes

No. The hon. Gentleman does not know as much about my constituency as I do. If the farmers had this great objection and if they were in revolt against this proposed dictation by the Secretary of State for Scotland, I am sure that they would be quite capable of expressing their point of view to the National Farmers' Union of Scotland. After all, the National Farmers' Union of Scotland are a very active organisation, and I object to the assumption that the National Farmers' Union are not looking after the best interests of their members.

Mr. Snadden

No such accusations were made. I understood that the National Farmers' Union have not opposed this order, and I think an hon. Friend of mine also said so.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Member for West Perth (Mr Snadden) speaks for the Conservative Party in this House on matters relating to agriculture, but he need not presume to speak for the National Liberal Party. We have it from the only spokesman of the National Liberal Party for Scotland that somehow or other the farmers are afraid to express their point of view, and that the Secretary of State is in some way imposing some kind of harsh policy upon the farmers of Scotland.

Yet we have just had read out to us the plain statement that the National Farmers' Union of Scotland are absolutely unanimous in favour of this. I suggest that to imply that the farmers of Scotland are in any way unable to put their point of view is entirely without foundation. I was not sure whether the hon. Member for West Perth was damning this Order with faint praise or praising it with faint damns, but he went out of his way to have a kick at the Government and he used the words, "The maladministration of the present Government." I presume he was referring to agriculture, but when I challenged him to state on which major Measure the Opposition had opposed the Government he rode away on broad generalities, saying something about the economic situation.

Mr. N. Macpherson

Would not the hon. Member agree that that would be legislation, not administration?

Mr. Hughes

He referred to maladministration.

Mr. Snadden

That is what produced the Order.

Mr. Hughes

I presume that if the Opposition were doing their duty they would be going into the Division Lobby over and over again to protest against legislation on agriculture which this Government had introduced. But this Government have been exceptionally good to the farming people. This has been the best Government the farmers of this country have ever had and I believe the Scottish farmers know that, and the National Farmers' Union of Scotland knows it, too.

Mr. Snadden

Do not believe it.

Mr. Hughes

I will give one instance of how we can test the extent to which there has been maladministration of agriculture under the present Government. Compare the bankruptcies of farmers in Scotland last year with those in any comparable year under a previous Government. The farmers of Scotland know very well that this has been a good Government. The National Farmers' Union has endorsed the policy of the Government, as the Secretary of State has informed the House, and it is merely captious and niggling criticism to try to put a case against this order.

10.13 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Scottish Universities)

I think we might have disposed of the business more rapidly had it not been for the well-intentioned efforts of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) to put in a little constituency work while there was yet time. Nobody blames him for that, of course; the Election is approaching and the maladministration of the Government will shortly earn for them the condemnation of the electors. My hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) was referring to the general maladministration of the Government which has brought about a situation as a result of which the Chancellor of the Exchequer came down to that Box and said that our civilisation was in danger of withering away. I call that maladministration and I should like to know what the hon. Member calls it.

It is on account of that situation that these exceptional efforts are being called for, and all my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) said was borne out by the statement read out by the Under-Secretary—that "… the request for this order did not originate with the farmers." On both those points, therefore, my hon. Friends were completely correct and, if I may say so, the rather amateurish attempts of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire to rush to the defence of the Under-Secretary were both maladroit and unjustified.

The hon. Member mentioned the remarkable improvement in the conditions for the farmers—I take it more particularly in South Ayrshire—and I should like him to ask those farmers how much of that improvement is due to the Milk Board, which I had the honour of introducing, and the licensed Milk Administration which a Government of which I was a Member had the honour of bringing forward. At the desire of the Government we are now limiting the best and most profitable crop of Scotland, which is grass; and that is what the Government are asking us to do because of the difficulties in which they find themselves in dollar earning. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Agriculture, after all, spent a great deal of time debating opposite me when I was Minister of Agriculture and opposed many of the beneficent measures from which he has since reaped so much advantage—

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

And will do so again.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

—and I am glad to see that he accepts our view of the relative future of the two parties. I only say that he will admit that grass is, in fact, the most important crop in Britain, and that from the stock-feeding point of view an increase in the pastures of this country is the best thing we can achieve.

Mr. T. Williams

Surely the right hon. and gallant Gentleman is not suggesting that the quantity or quality of grass is determined by the acreage of grass?

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

No, indeed. But is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting the limitation of pasture on bad ground? Not at all. He is asking for the limitation—I take it that this is what the order is about—of pasture on good ground. The right hon. Gentleman must not try to ignore the importance of pastures as such, and I am sure he would not try to. No practical farmer suggests that the amount of grass is determined by the acreage of grass, but that is what the order suggests—the limitation of acreage—

Mr. Alpass (Thornbury)


Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

Yes, it does. The hon. Member must really not make those livestock noises—if I may so call them. We are discussing livestock, and they are to that extent in Order.

Mr. Alpass

Will it not have to be decided under these orders whether there should be any direction or not by the county agricultural committees, and are not the speeches of hon. Gentlemen opposite showing a great want of understanding of and of confidence in the agricultural committees?

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

No, I should not say that, but I would say that the hon. Member is not fully acquainted with the agricultural situation in Scotland. We are discussing particularly the problems of Scotland, and I am only saying that my hon. Friends have contended that this is admittedly a measure of compulsion and that the measures of persuasion have not only not been fully exhausted but have actually been diminished.

The ploughing-up grant, for instance, as a great measure of stimulation for work on marginal land, is being discontinued; and not only being discontinued but being discontinued in circumstances in which in Scotland seem singularly inappropriate, in that this ploughing is not taking place on pastures capable still of making a contribution to our fortunes here. This date has been chosen arbitrarily by the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State, and the ploughing-up grant and the fertiliser grant, and other measures have been discontinued. I know that other measures for encouraging tillage are being discontinued, but it seems a little odd in the Government that, at the same time, they should ask for powers to compel stimulation of tillage. We only say these seem to us evidences of a not fully coherent or consistent policy, and that these things will have to be watched with very great care.

As my hon. Friend said, we have had the statement of the Government—reiterated by every leading member of it from the Prime Minister downwards—that we are facing a state of great crisis and a state of grave deterioration of our affairs, and so we naturally do not wish to refuse the Government the powers for which they are asking, but we say that these powers must be watched with caution, and must be withdrawn at the earliest possible moment.

Resolved: That the Agriculture (Maximum Area of Pasture) (Scotland) Order, 1949, dated 10th November, 1949, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.