HC Deb 06 February 1951 vol 483 cc1600-11
Mr. Snadden

I beg to move, in page 5, line 10, at the end, to add: Provided that in any such hill cattle scheme the qualifying period in the year for which payment is to be made shall be not more than a continuous period of sixteen weeks between the fourteenth day of April and the sixteenth day of November in any year, commencing not later than the fifteenth day of June. We are trying to provide that the qualifying period in regard to eligible cattle in the hill cattle scheme shall be reduced from the present period of seven months to a lesser period. I raised the question in a debate on the Department of Agriculture Estimates in the Scottish Grand Committee last July when the Secretary of State indicated that he was sympathetic with the proposal that the qualifying period should be reduced from seven months to five months, or an even shorter period, but that we should see the scheme working a little longer before we made any alteration or came to any fresh conclusion. I suggest to the Government that the time has now come for such an alteration.

6.30 p.m.

I think it no exaggeration to say that no Measure has done more for our hill land or cattle stocks than the hill cattle scheme. We are today seeing its effect not only in the establishment of permanent hill herds but in the increasing number of store, cattle coming forward to our markets, and, what is very important, store cattle of the right type. I do not think one needs to emphasise today that because of our meagre meat ration it should be in the national interest to press on to the maximum extent so as to derive the full effect from this excellent scheme. We need to get the maximum stocks of store cattle produced which our country can possibly supply.

I submit that there are today two factors preventing the full development of the scheme. I have just said that the scheme is the finest step that has yet been taken for the hill farming land of Scotland—and of England and Wales, also. One of those factors is really outside this Bill—the high cost of transport rates for fodder and winter feed. It is the second factor that is preventing the full benefit of the hill cattle scheme in certain areas, especially the far north, with which I wish to deal.

By "far north" I mean far from the point of view of London—Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness and parts of Moray and Nairn, for example where it is not possible, in the climatic and geographic conditions of those counties, to comply with the seven-month qualifying period. When I look at the scheme I do not find in it anything which lays down a seven-month period. All it says is that the Minister shall have power to bring in schemes in regard to eligible cattle grazed in accordance with sound farming practice. The term "sound farming practice" has been interpreted by the Department of Agriculture, no doubt with some reason, to mean that these cattle have to be out for seven months on the hills. I wish to press the point that what happens up in those regions where there is very little shelter, and where the weather is very severe, is that those hill herds go back in condition when September comes. They usually go out to the hills in May, probably a little after the middle of that month. When September comes they suddenly begin to lose condition and that leads to the greatest problem of all in respect of hill cattle. I refer to sterility. The problem of hill cattle is very similar to that of sheep—acclimatisation, the building up, through the survival of the fittest, of hill cattle which can resist high altitudes and severe weather. When sterility occurs because of loss of condition, and the calving dates go all wrong, the farmer becomes discouraged and, in the end, drops out of the scheme.

I suggest that the existing scheme is too rigid, particularly in view of the fact that this week we are to discuss the complex problem of the meat famine here. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that when he talks about the great increase in our cattle population, which I very much welcome and admit, it must be remembered that while we have far more store cattle we have far less beef from them. Our production of store cattle is some 20 per cent. up but the production of beef for the housewife is 15 per cent. less than in 1938. That is the final answer, just as the block test at Smithfield is the final answer to all the breeding in this country.

I wish to press on the Government the necessity of relaxing this scheme in order to secure the maximum amount of store cattle being kept out on the hills by farmers in those parts of the country which from a climatic point of view are very difficult. If the Government were to relax the winter grazing period far more farmers would enter this scheme than is the case today, especially in places like Caithness, Sutherland and some parts of Inverness. T hope the Government will consider this point, because I understand that it has already been pressed upon them by the National Farmers' Union of Scotland. If the Government agree to change these conditions I am certain that they will remove one of the greatest obstacles today to securing the maximum result from this excellent hill cattle scheme, which, incidentally, was begun by the Coalition Government.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

I wish, briefly, to voice my support of the Amendment. There is no doubt that the maximum advantage is not being gained, certainly in the mainland of my own constituency and elsewhere in the north of Scotland, because of the seven-month qualifying period. As the hon. Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) pointed out, large areas in the north of Scotland are, for that reason, not being fully utilised. I have just had a letter from the Easter Ross Branch of the National Farmers' Union, which is in my constituency, in which they say: Great anxiety exists in this area regarding the cattle already cleared and those under threat of dispersal from hill areas on account of the seven-month qualifying condition. If that is the case, as it must be, it is very serious indeed.

I am fully aware that the Department of Agriculture in Scotland has brought out this regulation, and that, as the hon. Member for West Perth pointed out, this qualifying period is not mentioned in the original Act. I have no doubt also that when the Minister replies he will say that he has consulted the National Farmers' Union, and certainly that the Under-Secretary of State will say that the National Farmers' Union of Scotland have been consulted. I have quoted from a letter from the Easter Ross branch of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland, which represents a very wide area indeed.

Mr. T. Fraser

Not as wide an area as the National Farmers' Union represents.

Mr. MacLeod

That is just the point, not as wide an area perhaps as the National Farmers' Union represents, but I say that the Department is not fully taking into account the areas and latitudes where 500 feet represents what would be about 1,000 feet further south, and where animals which remain out after the end of September or the middle of October waste extremely quickly.

A farming friend of mine has written to me as follows: In many cases, it is more feasible to take the cattle to the feed rather than the feed to the cattle, which latter, in a bad winter, such as 1947, might prove impossible. Unfortunately, on most of the hill farms in my region, and certainly throughout the Highland area, it is impossible to take the food to the animals because of the high cost of transport and the bad roads and communication, and one must emphasise the wastage, if animals are kept out too long. There is no doubt we are not getting the full co-operation which we could have between the Lowland farmer and the Highland farmer due to that long period during which, under this present regulation, the cow and heifer have to remain out on the hill. I support those who say that if we are to get the maximum amount of advantage from the luxuriant grasses obtainable in the Highlands for the shorter period of about four months this Amendment should be supported.

Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton (Inverness)

I support the Amendment with great pleasure, and I can certainly bear out what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. J. MacLeod) about the effect of altitude on the climate. I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that Scotland is to get its share of this scheme, because Scotland can make the greatest increase in home-produced food of any part of the United Kingdom. But it does mean making full use of the 11 million to 12 million acres of undeveloped land which we have. I have seen sheep grazing at an altitude of up to 4,000 ft. in Scotland in the summer. I do not know why the Department selected the period of seven months as the qualifying period. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us. They must know about the rigours of the climate particularly in the central and northern Highlands.

One can be very much deceived by the climate on the west coast where the Gulf Stream runs. We know that on the west coast the grass can grow even as late as February and that it is possible to get grazing quite high up but fairly near the coast. The point we have to remember is that the area with which we are concerned, where we hope to get this great increase, lies between the latitudes of 56 degrees and 59 degrees. In Canada and Siberia at this latitude it is sub-Arctic. So it is in Scotland when one gets up to 3,000 ft. There is good grazing there in the summer-time, but not in the winter.

If the Amendment is accepted it would lead to a much greater increase in applications. I was concerned when the Parliamentary Secretary said that he was worried about the very much larger selection of farmers who would come within the scope of the Bill and that he was afraid there would be a greater choice to make. But surely that is desirable at this stage; surely this is not the last Bill of its kind which we are to have. The more we hear about this kind of thing the better, and I heartily agree with everything which has been said by my right hon. Friends.

6.45 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

I support the observations of my hon. Friends. This hard and fast rule of seven months applies to Sutherland and Caithness and the other northern counties in the sub-Arctic region referred to a few minutes ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness; and the same applies to Wigtownshire. It cannot be right for both. There is a tremendous variation in the temperatures. I was in my constituency a day or so before the House resumed its sittings after Christmas. The roads were ice-bound. It was practically impossible to travel by road at all; the only means of travel was by train. When I came to London I seemed to be in another world.

I would suggest to the Government that some latitude must be given in this matter. I hope they will accept this Amendment, because I am certain that without it the very object of the Bill will be defeated. Some of the farmers and crofters on low ground adjoining the sea, on the sheltered ground of the South-East and on the West coast adjacent to the Gulf Stream, will be able to keep cattle on the hill for seven months. But is it suggested that farmers and crofters in the districts of Lairg, Rogart, Assynt, Berriedale, Altnabreac and Braemore can keep cattle out for seven months?

I am only ventilating the views of the farmers whom I have the honour to represent, some of them past presidents of the Scottish National Farmers' Union. who came to the House last week and largely inspired this Clause. They say that the Highlands of Scotland can make the greatest contribution to this problem. I know that the men and women who have to put up with the miserable ration will support these farmers whose views I am expressing today.

There is another point. The whole of Sutherland is sheep sick. The sheep stock is diminishing each year. It got away to a very good start, because before cattle and mankind were cleared away from the glens there were abundant cattle. Now, in this century, certainly since 1900, there has been very little in the way of cattle. The ground is suffering. Grazing capacity is going down. Mr. Ian Campbell, of Balblair, one of the biggest sheep farmers in the Highlands, said that the grazing capacity has gone down by 75 per cent. I cannot say whether that is right or not but it is his, statement, given in writing.

It is of the utmost importance to the country that our mutton and wool production should be maintained; and no one would challenge the fact that if cattle are brought back in numbers—and the Bill is surely designed to do that —the fertility of the grazing will increase greatly.

The Highlands was a great cattle area at one time. Over 150,000 cattle a year, very largely from my own constituency, used to go down on the hoof to Falkirk. It can become a great cattle country again. I have spoken about this every time I have had the opportunity, because I believe it to be in the national interest as well as in the interest of my constituency. This area, representing more than one half of Scotland, could make a massive contribution to our beef production. I do not think there is any area comparable to it and the only regret I have is that the hands of the Minister are tied by this somewhat pitiful sum of £20 million. Hundreds of millions of pounds have gone into the development of the southern areas as well as a tremendous amount of human effort. That kind of effort is required in the far north, and the time has come when it might be brought about.

I welcome the Bill, and hope that the Minister will accept this Amendment, because it is supported by all the practical people who know how long their beasts should remain on the hill. Is there a better judge than the farmer? Is he likely to bring his cattle in from the hill before the grazing is exhausted? I think the farmer is the best judge, and the farmers in the north were emphatic that this seven-month rule is a hopeless one and that it beats the object of the Bill.

Mr. T. Fraser

I think hon. Members know that we want to complete the Committee stage quite soon, and I do not want to speak unnecessarily on any of the proposed Amendments. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) has just said that this proposal was supported by all practical farmers. I assure him that, to my knowledge, that is not so. He named a farmer who is a constituent of his and an ex-president of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland. I know that it is his view, and that he has argued his contention very forcibly with his fellow farmers; but there are many of them whom he has not convinced of the desirability of this change.

The hon. Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) said that he believed that the National Farmers' Union in Scotland had been pressing for my right hon. Friend to make this change. I assure him that that is not so.

Mr. Snadden

I said that I understood. I have not got the document here, but I think that I have got it in writing somewhere. I understand that the National Farmers' Union have put forward the necessity for a change in the period. They did not name 16 weeks.

Mr. Fraser

But this Amendment does name 16 weeks. The hon. Gentleman proposes to write into the statute the provisions of the hill cattle subsidy scheme which operated from 1943 to 1946.

Captain Duncan

This was not in the scheme.

Mr. Fraser

Yes. It was in the scheme from 1943 to 1946. At that time the primary purpose was to improve grazing. My right hon. Friend and his advisers had full discussion with the National Farmers' Union and the farming interests. It was agreed that the whole purpose of the scheme should be changed and that a new scheme should be made the purpose of which would be to establish breeding stocks in the hills as a store cattle reservoir for the country. It must be remembered that the whole purpose of the existing scheme is to establish breeding stocks in the hills as a store cattle reservoir.

I know that the gentleman to whom the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred is a farmer in a big way in Sutherland. He takes the view that he cannot keep the cattle on the hill for seven months in the year. It is also true that this farmer, and many others in the same county and in Inverness and in Ross-shire, have considerable stretches of low lying ground on which they keep cattle which are not hardy cattle, but which they could easily put on to the hill for four months in the summer and so qualify for subsidy. If we were to revert to the old scheme, and pay subsidies in respect of cattle on the hill for some 16 weeks in the year, we should have to pay a much lower subsidy than the one which is paid just now.

I have not heard it contended that there would be a justification for a £5 subsidy in respect of the heifer or the breeding cow put on to the high ground for 16 weeks in the summer. I do not think anyone would seriously suggest that that is so. But it has been said that it is a fair subsidy to pay for the breeding cow which is on the hill for as great a part of the year as it can reasonably be expected to find feed on the hill. As the scheme is at present, we say that seven months is a reasonable period for which to ask that the farmer should keep his beasts on the hill in certain parts of the country. In other parts of the country he might be expected to keep them for eight, nine or even 10 months of the year. Indeed, in Perthshire—I think the hon. Member for West Perth does it—there are many who keep cattle on the hill the year round. It is he and farmers like him, who keep hardy cattle on the hill all the year round and who produce this hardy breed, who ought to get the benefit of this subsidy scheme. That has certainly been our intention.

It would be a mistake to go back to the 1943–46 scheme by writing this period into the Bill. The hon. Member for West Perth said it was desirable that we have some flexibility. We should not be too rigid. There is nothing more rigid than this Amendment. It is desirable that the Secretary of State, with his advisers and the farming interests, should be able to consider whether or not the seven-month period is the right one for Caithness and Sutherland, parts of Inverness or Ross-shire, or any other county in Scotland. But we should not disturb the main purpose of the scheme which I need not repeat but which is different from the purpose of the earlier scheme which this Amendment proposes to write into the statute.

There are a fair number of lowland farmers in all parts of Scotland who buy soft-skinned Irish stores. These farmers are not hill farmers at all, but they want to take these less hardy animals away from the low ground in the summer months to enable them to do some haymaking. They want to put them on the hills for 16 weeks in the summer. We think that they ought not to qualify under this scheme. Under the Amendment they would qualify. Manifestly, they would make such a drain on the funds at our disposal that there would not be the same assistance available for those whom we set out to encourage in the first place—the people who will produce these hardy stores from the hillsides of our country by breeding them there and keeping them on the hillsides for as long as possible.

It would be very wrong of us to write this provision into the Clause. I submit that, much as hon. Members and some farmers in different parts of the country might think that the seven-month period is too long a period to ask for cattle to be kept on the hills, it is better that we should be able to consider the representations of the National Farmers' Union and then see whether we should not reduce the period from seven to six, and perhaps even to five months in certain areas. We can do that within the provisions of the existing scheme. It is better to do that than to accept this Amendment.

Mr. Snadden

if the hon. Gentleman had not come out at the end of his speech with a fairly good assurance that this matter is to be reconsidered, I should have been prepared to carry the Amendment to a Division. I cannot accept what I can only call his flimsy arguments. He mentioned the enterprise with which I am connected. It is true that in the wilds of Perthshire I am connected with an enterprise where we keep the cattle on the hill all the year round. We can only do that. even in central Scotland, by going to the expense of importing considerable quantities of hay and straw which costs many hundreds of pounds to keep the cows "ticking over" for the few months when there is nothing at all to eat on the hill.

Because of that we are in a reasonably favourable position; but that is not so in the far north, where transport rates are terrific. Anyone living in Inverness, Caithness or Ross-shire will appreciate that the whole scheme depends on transport. There the people are not in a position to get fodder at the same prices. I consider that they are in a different position.

7.0 p.m.

As for the money, I am not so sure that it would be a bad thing if we reverted to giving the same sort of grant for almost any cattle on the hills today. We can spend £36 million on groundnuts in Africa, and we are in the middle of a meat famine in this country, and I do not think there would be much money wasted if it would increase the meat ration. I am not at all impressed by the financial argument. It seems to me amazing that we can distribute only a few hundred thousand pounds in this direction, when we are in the middle of a meat famine—

Mr. T. Williams

What does the hon. Gentleman mean by a few hundred thousand pounds? He knows that the Bill provides for the expenditure of £28 million.

Mr. Snadden

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the money provided in the Bill covers great capital expenditure on roads and buildings. I am talking about the cattle scheme itself, which, at the moment, is based on the figure of 100,000 cows.

If the Minister gives us the assurance that he will take this matter back and reconsider the question of the period—and I am not rigid about 16 weeks, which was put into the Amendment to bring it into line with conditions in England; I should say five months of the summer—I think it would be a big step forward. However, for the reasons I have indicated, I will not press the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.