HC Deb 13 July 1950 vol 477 cc1694-705
Mr. Turton

I beg to move, in page 2, line 28, to leave out from "land," to the end of line 30, and to insert: which—

  1. (a) is under grass; or
  2. (b) has been ploughed up from grass since the first day of July, nineteen hundred and forty-three."
The first point in the Amendment merely concerns drafting. I think the Clause reads rather better with the wording proposed in the Amendment. The important part of the Amendment is contained in the second part. The point is that a great deal of ploughed-up marginal land and heather, unless it has fertiliser applied every year, goes back, and as the Bill is drafted it is not quite clear whether that land will qualify for grant in successive years after it has been ploughed up. I feel sure the Minister will know of the great difficulty which marginal farmers have, when ploughing up heather, in keeping it from encroaching on the land. I am not certain that this Amendment is drafted in quite the best way. The Minister might have some other form of words for dealing with this problem. Perhaps; too, he might say that he is going to make such Regulations as will ensure that farmers who plough up hill, heather or bracken-infested land will always be able to get the subsidy, provided it is used on that particular land. That is the intention of the Amendment.

Mr, G. Brown

I really think that there is nothing in the first part of the Amendment, and I will spend very little time on it. I think that the wording of the Bill is better. The second past seems to me to be a first-class example of somewhat undesirable retrospective legislation. We are to go back to 1943 for all land ploughed up which has already attracted a grant of £2 an acre at that time, and £4 an acre after that time, which has had the full fertiliser subsidy, and now to include all that land under this Bill.

It seems to me not only is it retrospective legislation, but the taxpayer is being asked to contribute all over again. The obvious thing is to fix the date at the time the scheme starts. We have, in fact, suggested that it should be after the passage of the Bill. It would be wholly wrong to go back on this land which has already qualified under other provisions.

Mr. Baldwin

I think that the Parliamentary Secretary does not quite understand the position with regard to ploughed-up grass. Ploughed up grass is stored up fertiliser, and with the exception of chlorate of lime it does not want fertiliser for the first year. [Interruption.] I happen to know something about this matter. I know grass which has been ploughed up, and has had no fertiliser for the first three years. That is the position with regard to a lot of land that is being ploughed up now. It is at this stage that the land is crying out for fertiliser. The Amendment is a good and practical one, as against something that is theoretical. Land that has been ploughed up and had the fertility taken out of it now wants fertiliser. I hope the Minister will think again on this matter.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-West)

I do not want to detain the Committee, but for the hon. Member to argue that very rich grass land which has been ploughed up during the past four or five, or even, seven years, because it is very rich and does not want fertiliser, should now qualify for an additional subsidy which ordinary farm land does not get, is crying out for ridicule.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I do not quite understand the force of that line of argument. I have a certain amount to do with it in a practical sense, and I agree with what my hon. Friend said. Surely the hon. Gentleman is in error in suggesting that we are seeking to insert retrospective powers by this Amendment. The Clause as it stands puts no limit whatever on the date from which the land was ploughed-up from grass: presumably you can go back to 1939 just as well, and the subsidy would be available. What we are seeking to do by this Amendment is to specify a particular limit, whereas, as the Government have drafted the Clause. there is no limit at all.

Mr. G. Brown

The short answer is that the scheme when made will provide the date from which it operates, and it is not our intention in fixing that date to legislate retrospectively for the past seven years.

Amendment negatived.

The following Amendment stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr. HURD:

"In page 2, line 28, leave out from 'land' to end of subsection (2)."

The Deputy-Chairman

This Amendment is out of order.

Mr. Hurd

May I seek your guidance, Sir? The Bill is to provide fertilisers for agricultural land, and I am wondering how the Amendment could fall out of order.

The Deputy-Chairman

It is clear if the hon. Gentleman will turn to the Money Resolution. It states under (b). used on land under grass or ploughed up from grass. This would be extending the scope of the Bill. As I say, I am not a lawyer, but that is my view. We are working on the Money Resolution.

Mr. Nugent (Guildford)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 15, to leave out paragraph (f).

The Deputy-Chairman

Perhaps the following Amendment in page 3, line 16, to leave out from "where," to the end of line 20, and to insert: a tillage order has been served upon the occupier with respect to that land and he has failed to comply with that order. might be discussed with this one.

Sir T. Dugdale

That would be convenient to the Committee.

Mr. Nugent

The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that this Amendment is being moved. The points in this and the next Amendment were put to him on Second Reading. We pointed out that in ordinary practice the farmer would have applied fertilisers before he knew the Minister was going to give a subsidy. In those circumstances he may well have undertaken expenditure expecting to get a subsidy, but the subsidy may subsequently be withheld. I cannot believe that the Minister really intended to introduce such a piece of legislation. If his Advisory Service were to administer a sanction of that kind, it would have the opposite effect to that which he desires, which is confidence in the Advisory Service.

The other aspect which would be objectionable is that the farmer could not know in advance whether or not he would be recouped. I should like the paragraph to be deleted. If the Minister is unable to do that, perhaps he will accept our next Amendment because that will provide a safeguard so that the farmer will know what his position will be before he embarks on the expenditure and the operations on his land.

Mr. G. Brown

I get more and more surprised at the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent). He appears to be slipping from grace in a number of ways. I do not agree with his argument in so far as he says that we must defend those who are not playing their part in securing the degree of tillage that we require. There is everything to be said, short of the final sanction, for giving the committees who administer agricultural policy and seek to obtain the county targets such support and incentives as one can to enable them to get the laggards to come up to scratch.

Whenever I visit a county, I get far more criticism from those who are playing their full part. They say that, short of the final'sanction, there is so little that can be done about the unco-operative fellow, and they always ask why they cannot be given more influence over such people. The hon. Member for Guildford is arguing that, short of the final sanction, we should not be able to do anything with that sort of person. The introduction of new assistance of this kind is preeminently the sort of occasion on which one says to such people "Unless you play your part like your fellow farmers, you cannot expect to share in this assistance," because it is, in part, designed to secure adequate breaking up.

The next Amendment asks us to serve more tillage orders in such cases, but we do not want to have to serve more tillage orders if we can attain the same objective by quieter and more peaceful means. The insertion of the next Amendment would mean that in every case the committees would have to serve a tillage order to be able to withhold the grant if they so desired at a later stage. Leaving the position as it is, they can use their powers of persuasion and use a gentler stick.

On Second Reading the hon. Member for Guildford asked for an assurance that a warning will be given before this action is taken. He referred to the case of a man who may already have incurred expense without knowing his position. I am happy to give that sort of assurance. Action under this provision will not be taken without a preliminary warning having been given. A committee will say "For reasons which you already know" —for the matter will have been discussed already—" we do not think that you are keeping enough of your land in tillage. We will pay the grant on this occasion because of special circumstances, but we give you clear warning that unless you change your habits in this regard, and have increased tillage, we will not pay a similar grant in future." With that assurance and in view of what I said on the principle, I hope the Amendment will be withdrawn.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Snadden (Kinross and West Perthshire)

I am not altogether satisfied with the hon. Gentleman's reply. It is not so long since we had the Agriculture (Area of Pasture) Order in which the Minister took power to limit the area of pasture on any holding. I agree with him that the majority of farmers play the game. I do not think very many directions have been served anywhere in the country, but it seems absurd, when this Order exists and when directions are being served, that we should have in this Bill a provision which will cause a certain amount of uncertainty in the farming community. The farmer will not really know whether he is going to be safe on his holding or not.

I think the Government would be acting in a much more straightforward manner if they made this grant available to all holders unless they had come under the Area of Pasture Order, and had been told that they had to till an area of grass. As it stands, I think we shall find that many farmers will wonder whether they are going to have the grant withdrawn even when free from any form of supervision either under the Act or under the Area of Pasture Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider this point, which I think is of considerable importance.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

Paragraph (f) provides that the Minister can …withhold contributions for fertilisers used on land under grass where in his opinion the occupier of the land has an excessive proportion of land under grass, …. What is the definition of "excessive proportion"? Supposing, for the sake of argument, 50 acres is considered an excessive proportion, but 30 acres is not. Is the grant going to be withheld for the whole 50 acres or only for the difference between 50 and 30? We would like to know exactly how this proportion is to be interpreted. Is the grant to be withheld only in respect of that portion of the total which is considered to be excessive?

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

Too much is being made of this matter. The Parliamentary Secretary made it plain that this provision is made in order to deal with the farmer who is not pulling his weight. As for this creating uncertainty in the minds of farmers, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) suggested, I do not think it will do so at all. Farmers know when they are doing wrong. I think the Parliamentary Secretary has gone further here than he should have done. He said we have to give them what they are asking for in the first year and withhold it the second year. I think we should withhold it the first year. The average farmer working under the agricultural executive committee knows clearly where his duty lies. There is no uncertainty in the mind of any farmer in regard to this position.

Mr. Baldwin

May I reinforce the arguments put forward from this side? The necessity for this Clause simply means that the district officers are not doing their job. If there is any farmer who has an excessive amount of grass, he should have been put under a supervision order under the Act. Then there would have been no doubt in the minds of people applying for a grant whether they were entitled to it or not. There will be a great deal of hesitation in the minds of farmers who are not sure whether it will be maintained that they have an excessive amount of grass. I consider that if a farmer has an excessive amount of grass, it is up to the district officer to put him in the right place. He has the power to do it and should be doing it.

Sir T. Dugdale

We are grateful to the Government for the assurance that there will be a warning. I think that that is a step forward. Our reason for moving this Amendment is that we believe that the original proposal will clutter up the administration of a scheme which will be very difficult to administer, in any case. We have not seen the scheme in England, yet, and I have no doubt that I should be out of order if I detailed the Scottish scheme; but that scheme has been issued, giving all the various grades of fertiliser subsidies which are to be introduced. It will be an extremely difficult scheme to administer, and, while we accept the Government's assurance that there will be a warning, before this Bill goes to another place I hope the Minister will have another look at this paragraph and consider whether it is really necessary for the good administration of the scheme.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Turton

I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 25 and 26.

This Amendment is to leave out the provision that the Minister shall specify the period in which the fertilisers can be used after ploughing up. I ask the Minister what is going to happen to the hilly and marginal land. It may be that the answer to my views upon this part of the Bill is that the Minister will use the marginal production scheme and that the farmer will be entitled to help for fertilisers which he uses not only in the first year of ploughing up, but in other years; and that therefore the Minister will justify the stand that he is taking in stipulating that it is only one year in which the farmer will get any help from fertiliser subsidy on any particular land.

I stress the point, although I do not want to speak long, as I have dealt with a similar point earlier, that it is very hard upon small farmers in hilly land who have to use a very large quantity of phosphate manure to keep their land free from bracken and heather. So I ask the Minister to explain what he is going to do under these powers and, if his powers are limited to one year, what help is to be given to the upland farmer in subsequent years?

Mr. T. Williams

The answer is very simple. The intention of this part of the scheme is to apply the subsidy specifically and directly to the operation of ploughing up. As the subsidy is based upon the application of fertilisers, we must place some limit on the time in which that part of the operation must take place. The actual time will be specified in the scheme, and I do not think it will affect adversely the lowland or hill-land or marginal farmer, since the time during which the fertilisers must be used on that grassland ploughed up will be specified in the scheme.

Mr. Turton

What is the position of the upland and marginal farmers who have to put fertilisers on their land for several years to keep down bracken and heather?

Mr. Williams

We have already said that the subsidy for grassland is one-third: and for land ploughed up from grass after seven years it is two-thirds, up to a maximum of £3 an acre. Beyond that there is nothing I can add to the matter.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

May I ask the Minister to reconsider the point which has been made about making this scheme too rigid? The Minister is binding himself to time limits which really do not seem necessary at all and which cannot do him any good, or be of any use to the taxpayer; they can only be to the detriment of the farmer.

Mr. Baldwin

I should like to raise the case of the man who ploughs up his grass in the summer to plant winter corn. There are many such people, but it may well be that, when the time comes for planting the winter corn, the weather does not allow of it and the land may remain unplanted until the spring. If he has to apply his fertiliser in a specified period, it means that he will have to do it months before it is needed, and the benefits will be lost. Fertiliser should not be put on ploughed up grass before it is needed.

Mr. Williams

I can assure the hon. Member that we have given thought to that.

Mr. Turton

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Turton

I beg to move, in page 3, line 32, to leave out paragraph (i).

This paragraph deals with the contributions below a minimum obtained in a specified manner, and I think that the Minister will agree, on reflection, that it is a harsh little paragraph. I am sure that he does not want to "do down" the small man, and it would not damage his Bill at all if he took out this paragraph. The small man is much worse off than any other farmer, and I ask the Minister to deal sympathetically with him.

Mr. G. Brown

I do not think that the Committee need be much worried about this. The scheme may restrict, and in particular, may specify certain things. It is common form to have a de minimis provision. When the hon. Gentleman sees the scheme, he will be satisfied that we have not done something silly; but there must be a limit, below which the whole thing would become cluttered up. There ought to be some de minimis line, and we thought it right that there should be this provision. I assure the hon. Member that he will be quite happy when he sees the scheme.

Mr. Turton

In view of those remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Moeran (Bedfordshire, South)

I assume that my Amendment to define "fertilisers" has not been selected, and, therefore, I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary could give some assurance about what the word includes. It looks as though there will be no definition in the Bill. Will the Minister have power to grant for organic, as well as inorganic, fertilisers? Will farmyard manure be included? What wider powers can be exercised by the Minister?

Mr. G. Brown

I am happy to give the assurance that while we specify no kind of fertiliser, the term includes the kinds my hon. Friend has in mind. I cannot commit myself tonight to saying which will be included, but I am sure that he will be satisfied.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Snadden

I should like to raise a point which concerns those north of the Border. In paragraph (h), there is reference to the costs of transporting fertilisers in excess of rates ascertained by reference to the cost of acquiring the fertilisers… and so on.

I hope that we can get an assurance now in relation to the remote areas or less profitable areas where they are already suffering increased rate charges as well as removal of fertiliser subsidy, that their removal from centres of production is not going to mitigate against grants. That is to say, we hope that this paragraph is not going to affect grants in places in the far-off West of Scotland and the marginal land areas in relation to the transport rates which would be charged. If the Parliamentary Secretary or the Scottish Minister, whom I see in her place, can answer that, it would wipe out some apprehension in those areas.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

I wonder if the Minister would be good enough to give me an answer to my question about subsection (2)? I will repeat it to make it clear. If the Minister is to be empowered to withhold contribution regarding fertiliser used on land where in his opinion there is an excessive proportion of land in grass, is the contribution being withheld if the figure named is 50 acres, for the sake of argument, over the whole or only over that proportion of the 50 acres which is considered to be excessive?

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

We are dealing with a Clause which is to provide the machinery for a scheme to enable farmers to have a subsidy for the use of fertilisers. It involves not only the Clause, but five sub-clauses, 14-sub-clauses and two sub-sub-sub-clauses, and then we do not know what the scheme is. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that farmers are going to be able to carry on their business with the full and proper planning efficiency which they have been accustomed to in the past if they are to be subjected to legislation of this sort. The proper and right way of dealing with this matter is by the February price review and not having all this complicated machinery in order to produce an unknown scheme for an unknown purpose.

Mr. G. Brown

I must say that I get very near to resenting that kind of speech. The purpose of this—and I am glad the hon. Gentleman is now on record about it and I do hope steps will be taken to let the people of Chichester know about this speech—is, after all, to carry out the arrangements which have been made at the time of the price review. The hon. Gentleman complained that the farmers are being subjected to this kind of legislation. He means that the Government are carrying out their part of the price review. I commend that kind of comment to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent) and the hon. Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) as an example of how some hon. Members are tempted to talk politics on this sort of thing.

We have tried our best here to do what we have been accused of not doing earlier in the Bill—to give as much idea as we can of the kind of scheme there will be. If we carry out the terms of the price review the Government ought not to be open to that kind of attack. With regard to the question about withholding contribution on 30 or 50 acres, the answer is that it will be covered in the scheme; but the general intention is that if the fellow is not farming in accordance with the policy which this part of the Bill is intended to induce, then he will not, subject to the warning I have mentioned, qualify for the benefit under the Clause at all on anything. If he farms in accordance with the general policy, of course, he comes in.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for West Perth, I cannot give him a firm answer at the moment. It is one of the things we are discussing and it is a point that we have fully in mind.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.