HC Deb 26 July 1951 vol 491 cc800-5

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Gage (Belfast, South)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Order, dated 26th June, 1951, entitled the Wheat (Northern Ireland) Order, 1951 (S.I. 1951, No. 1123), a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th June, be annulled. This is an Order which is in a fairly common form. It is of a type with which I think most hon. Gentlemen will be fairly familiar. It is a type of order which has been in existence for some time both in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland.

Quite briefly, the main point of it is that growers of wheat can sell only at approved prices to approved buyers, or to seed merchants or to the Port Area Grain Committee. It makes the qualification, however, that growers can keep either two tons or 25 per cent. of their threshed crop, whichever shall be the greater. The most important part of it, from the point of view of this Prayer, is that it also provides that people who grow only two acres of wheat or below shall not be affected by the Order at all.

I should like to make it clear at the outset that we in Northern Ireland recognise that there is a necessity for orders of this kind. In wheat growing parts, while we are dependent upon imported supplies of food and while it is difficult to get because it costs dollars, it is obviously important that there should be some kind of regulation as to the amount of his crop which a farmer can keep for feedingstuffs, and we make no general complaint upon that score.

Our objection to this Order, which applies only to Northern Ireland, is this. Northern Ireland is not a wheat growing part of the world, and my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Harden), who knows very much more about farming than I do and is himself a farmer, tells me that in his county there is practically no wheat at all grown and that you could count the number of farmers who grow wheat on the fingers of one hand. It is, unfortunately, due to our climate that wheat is not a crop that does well, and people try to grow as little of it as possible. It needs a dry climate, and anyone who knows Northern Ireland will know that we have not got a dry climate and that it is very difficult to grow wheat at all.

I have received some figures, and I should be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary will say whether he agrees with them. According to these figures, in the whole of the Province not more than 2,000 acres of wheat are grown and there are scarcely more than 30 farmers who grow over two acres of wheat in the whole of the Province. The effect of that is as if one were to pass a stringent Order dealing with the growth, production and distribution of bananas in the United Kingdom. It might be an admirable thing in a place where bananas grow, but it would be useless and quite negative in a country where they are not grown. That is almost the position in regard to wheat being grown in Northern Ireland.

I have not the slightest doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that the Government of Northern Ireland have never raised any objection to this Order. I am not surprised that they have not, because I am certain that the Ministry here presents them with a number of clerks and other people to administer this Order and to see that the non-existent wheat is not sold other than as stated in the Order. Who are they to complain if they get a number of clerks, especially if someone else is paying for them? I am certain that their view on the matter is this: "If the Ministry likes to erect this expensive machinery, it is not for us to say 'No'." The Ulster Farmers' Union say, "We have always wondered why we have these orders. We have no surplus of wheat at all. We grow only an acre or so for our own crop, but after all, they have done so many odd things in relation to Ireland that one more will make very little difference."

There is one other problem which this Order illustrates, and it is that of divided control. Some of my hon. Friends from Scotland, who I understand are similarly agitated, might be interested here, although unhappily they seem mostly to be in Scotland tonight. Agriculture is a non-reserved service in Northern Ireland. There is a Ministry of Agriculture, to whom any complaints about this order have been made; and people naturally expect the Ministry of Agriculture to deal with this matter. But they say, "We have nothing to do with it. It is a Ministry of Food order". Then, if one goes to the Ministry of Food, one is told, "The order must be all right because the Ministry of Agriculture in Northern Ireland have never made any complaint about it." That is a difficulty which we frequently experience in Northern Ireland through the fact that there is division of control. Nobody knows precisely where one Ministry ends and another begins.

I think I have now established, with tolerable certainty—since I see the Parliamentary Secretary here—that this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Food. I hope, therefore, that I may enable them to save a little of the money which they are spending in administering this Order—which they have been doing, I admit,. through my lack of diligence, since 1945. But, because a thing has been wrong from. 1945 to 1950 it does not become right in 1951, and now that the Parliamentary Secretary knows the position, I hope that he will see that this is one of the controls which can be removed. Hon. Members. opposite are fond of saying, "You say we control everything; what controls, would you remove?" Well, Sir, I would start with the control of wheat in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Harden (Armagh)

I beg formally to second the Motion.

11.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

The hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. Gage) spoke with his usual brevity and his usual persuasion. I shall try to equal his brevity and exceed his persuasion. I must dash his hopes; he has not persuaded me.

We do not differ about the facts. I agree that just over 2,000 acres are devoted to wheat in Northern Ireland. This is not a substantial difference, but I do not quite agree with him about the other facts. About 15 per cent. of the estimated production of wheat comes under this Order, and our information is, as far as 1950 is concerned—the last year for which we have complete figures—that there were 110 farms with more than two acres given to wheat. I think the hon. Member is right in believing that the figure is now rather less. Our estimate is that it is probably about 50 this year.

The position is that there are admittedly small quantities of wheat coming forward, most of which goes to local millers. The hon. Gentleman accepts, in general, the wheat orders on the grounds, I presume, of the farm price review machinery and the fact that imports of wheat have a heavy dollar content. Conceding that, his idea is, I think, that it is rather ridiculous that the Orders should apply to Northern Ireland. But we have to remember that we are dealing with farmers in the United Kingdom generally. Rightly or wrongly, I believe that the farmers of Great Britain would feel some resentment if the farmers of Northern Ireland were treated differently in this respect.

The farmers of Northern Ireland are treated differently where a case can be made out on the different conditions obtaining in Northern Ireland, with regard to oats, for example. With regard to the operation of the animal feedingstuffs scheme, Northern Ireland is admittedly different. But here, the farmers in Northern Ireland could make out no different case from many small farmers in Great Britain; and Northern Ireland, as an area, could not make out a case different from that of many areas of about equal size in Great Britain.

There are wide stretches of country in Great Britain where there are few farms with any more acres devoted to wheat than in similar areas in Northern Ireland. But we have to regard, for this purpose, the whole of the United Kingdom as a single agricultural economy. We would be in impossible difficulties if we started dividing it up regionally for wheat and the different commodities covered by the price review. We have, in short, to regard the whole of the United Kingdom as a single area for the purpose of price review.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has made inquiries in Northern Ireland. I am equally sure that Northern Ireland believes that it has great benefits in being considered in this single agricultural economy.

Mr. Gage indicated assent.

Mr. Willey

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. I need take the argument no further. That argument, as it is conceded, does not mean that we should ignore special conditions where they obtain in Northern Ireland. We recognise that in the oats and animals feedingstuffs schemes.

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my main reply, because he guessed what I was going to say, namely, that we have to pay regard to the views of the authorities in Northern Ireland. With regard to this Order, we not only consulted the Minister of Agriculture for Northern Ireland, but have his concurrence with it. So, if we regard his evidence as being valuable evidence to which we ought to pay careful attention, we have no evidence that there are special conditions in Northern Ireland so far as wheat is concerned.

Again, as the hon. Gentleman admitted, the National Farmers Union of Northern Ireland has not made representations to us. They do not share his feelings about this. They do not feel that Northern Ireland ought to be separated and treated distinctly from other parts of Great Britain.

Mr. Gage

They do not feel strongly enough about it because practically none of them are affected by it.

Mr. Wiley

Exactly the same could be said about parts of Great Britain. But, if it is conceded that these steps ought to be taken to ensure that we have the greatest possible amount of wheat for human consumption, then these conditions ought to operate for the whole of the agricultural economy upon which we rely for home production. I hope I have not created the impression that we are unsympathetic. In fact, we are alive to this.

Originally, these wheat Orders only provided for the farmers to take 5 per cent. of the "tailings" to feed their own stock. We have gone a long way from there, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out; and this present Order goes some way to meet him because in it we allow, for the first time, that the farmer shall retain 25 per cent. of his thrashed wheat, or two tons. This change is because previously there was an anomaly.

Previously farmers with rather more than two acres found that they could keep for their own livestock less feedingstuff than those with only two acres, but they will, in many cases, now get the benefit of this further concession by being able to keep two tons—if that be the greater amount. The change should help farmers with rather more than two acres.

I assure the hon. Member that he has not raised this issue in vain; we are alive to the exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland and, so far as is possible, we shall meet them; and, if he can persuade us that there are other respects in which we can meet the exceptional difficulties of the Northern Ireland farmers, we shall pay every attention to him.

Mr. Gage

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.