HC Deb 05 March 1951 vol 485 cc109-37

7.12 p.m.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 30, to leave out subsection (2).

The Deputy-Chairman

I think that it would be for the convenience of the Committee if we discussed together this Amendment and the one that follows—in page 3, line 32, at end, insert: Provided that such advances shall not exceed in the aggregate two hundred thousand pounds in any financial year.

Captain Crookshank

That would be very convenient, but I presume that they will be put separately so that we can divide if necessary. The purpose which we have in mind in regard to this Amendment——

The Minister of Food (Mr. Maurice Webb)

I think it should be clear that we are discussing the two Amendments together.

Captain Crookshank

That is so. The point of putting down the Amendment to leave out subsection (2) was to get from the Minister what his financial plans are for the Queensland experiment. The second Amendment seeks to limit the amount of such advances, but we have fixed the haphazard figure of £200,000 because we have no material on which to estimate what would be the right figure.

I might at this stage refer to the accounts for last year, ending 31st March, 1950, because in the first year of the experiment the advances made by the Overseas Food Corporation were £147,000. I take it that in the second year they will have been over £1 million, because it is shown under liabilities at the 31st March, 1950, that there is a sum of £1,239,000 due to the Overseas Food Corporation. Therefore, roughly speaking, it is £1,100,000 for the second year. Obviously, those two figures bear no relationship to the future.

7.15 p.m.

In the first year the scheme had not got very much under way and in the second year possibly they had to purchase a great number of properties scattered over this area of Queensland. I imagine that, for the time being at any rate, they have probably bought as much as they want, because they have now got to attend to stocking, and so on. It would be desirable before we pass this Clause if we could be told something about the future of the scheme and we think that this is an appropriate Amendment when we might discuss it, together with the finances. We hope it will be within the Rules of Order for the Minister to make some statement about what the Government intend shall happen in Queensland. I might add that if it is considered more suitable to have this discussion on the Question that the Clause stand part of the Bill, it makes no difference to us, but if we were to have a general discussion on the Queensland scheme, it would, I think, be helpful to most Members, whether they are in the Committee or not.

Under the original Act powers to expand food production were given to the Minister, but this Queensland experiment is the only one in which any attempt is being made now and, owing to the fact that it is in a Dominion, obviously it has had to be dealt with differently from what was done in any Crown Colony. We have this arrangement made under legislation not of this House but of another Legislature. It is a very interesting constitutional issue, but I do not think we need dilate upon that.

What we in this House have to consider is the fact that we are voting money annually to a Corporation established under an Act of Parliament of another Legislature, over which, as such, the House has no control. Any control that the House is to keep will be on the Minister when his Estimates come before us. I dare say that when the time comes to consider them, the Public Accounts Committee may have some comments to make, because it may well be that there will be some accounting difficulties—not that we want to make any. I hope that no one in Queensland or anywhere else thinks that we do, but when we start novel constitutional practices we have to think round the problem to see how it develops. I shall be grateful to the Minister if he will explain to us anything that he can on that subject.

It might be as well if some limiting figure were put in. We had the idea of doing that on an earlier Clause, but we did not move that particular Amendment. I think that possibly in both cases it would be well if the Statute set the maximum. Whether £200,000 is the right maximum depends entirely upon what the right hon. Gentleman envisages as the future of this scheme, and that is why we put the Amendment in this form. If possible, we can insert a more appropriate figure during the later stages of the Bill. Obviously we do not want to put in something which is out of scale. Already we have spent £1¼ million. We should not be bemused into thinking that because we are writing off £36½ million under an earlier Clause, that £1¼ million is just nothing. It is quite a lot of money, and it has to be found by the taxpayer.

Having already put down that amount presumably for capital work, it may be that not very much more will be required, because one hopes that there will be trading profits sooner or later out of this venture, though these schemes always seem to run up against difficulties. There have been climatic difficulties hitherto, and it seems very strange that where we want rain there are droughts and where we want dry weather we have rain. Nothing seems to go really right for us either in Queensland or in Africa. In recent reports we have read of disastrous heavy frosts and all sorts of things which had not happened hitherto for many years past.

This is the first time we have had an opportunity of reviewing this matter and of being told what the financial commitments are likely to be. We are proposing to delete the subsection, but that is only a device in order to get a debate. We naturally want the scheme to go on, and if it is to go on after the virtual disappearance of the Overseas Food Corporation I cannot see any other way of financing it. I think the proportion that has been mentioned is three parts of ours to one of theirs, which is a very considerable proportion. If that is to be done, and has been agreed upon, it seems to me that the Minister of Food doing it as a result of annual Votes is probably the right answer.

The right hon. Gentleman need not worry because we are seeking to take out this subsection, provided that he gives us a reasonably satisfactory answer to the questions which my hon. Friends will no doubt want to put to him. We should like him to deal with the point whether in the long run it would not help him or his successors, as the case may be—as the case will be, I ought to say—to have a maximum annual figure in the Bill. I should like to hear his views on that point.

Will he tell us how far he thinks this scheme will develop, how much money it will cost in the long run and whether he thinks it is really a good scheme? Does he think it is wise that we should annually pump money in for the kind of expenditure which has already been outlined in the annual report for 1950 rather than, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) will probably be telling us, spending it, or even making grants to the appropriate bodies, for such things as railways and roads, and not going in for the farming and trading side of the business? It is in order to start that discussion, and no more at this stage, reserving all the rights we feel must be reserved for later on, and to find out what is in the mind of the Government, that I am moving this Amendment.

The Minister of Food (Mr. Maurice Webb)

If it is the desire of the Committee that I should intervene now, I am very happy to do so, without of course forgoing my right to reply later, if that should be necessary. The right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) has introduced this discussion in a very fair way and I am glad to be able to give rather a wider amount of information on this very important scheme, which, as he rightly said, has been rather in the background. It would have been to our common advantage on both sides of the House of Commons if we had had more frequent opportunities to examine the scheme. At least we have an opportunity tonight. It is important that we can debate it in an atmosphere of calm, without undue party differences. In the course of what I have to say I hope to be able to give information which will satisfy hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the Committee that what we propose to do is a wise and proper thing.

It is essential, now that the Overseas Food Corporation is to go to the Colonial Office, that we should make this change. It would be improper on all sorts of grounds to control an institution in a Dominion through the Colonial Office. Quite apart from the Dominion's own ideas on that point, there would be complexities of administration, but the more decisive reason would be that they themselves would not feel it proper to have their affairs under the control of the Colonial Office. It is for those reasons that we make the change.

As to the scheme itself, since you have ruled, Major Milner, that we can discuss it rather widely and as I was asked some questions by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, I think I can satisfy hon. Members, after a very exhaustive examination, that the scheme is well founded. It is still a promising scheme and financially sound in every respect. It has not yet made a trading profit, but certainly it shows every prospect of doing it. Even the most prudent—incidentally, I use the word "prudent" although I was corrected for using it in another connection, but I still use it in this connection—estimate of the resources of this scheme shows that it is well founded and well established and is likely to go forward to satisfactory results.

I recently saw the chairman, who came back to visit me, and I discussed with him the finances of the scheme. Although I cannot anticipate the report which will be laid before the House in due course according to the requirements of the statute under which the scheme is operated, I can tell the Committee that the chairman was able to give me an assurance that the capital resources of the scheme have been assessed in accordance with normal commercial practice and in a most cautious and careful way, and that even on that estimate it is quite clear that the scheme has more than enough in hand to meet any emergency that might come along. Certainly its capital assets are more than adequate to cover any liabilities that might arise. By every kind of test that can be made, it is clear that the scheme is well founded.

The question arises, what would be the best way to administer it in these new conditions? I discussed this in great detail with the- Prime Minister of Queensland, Mr. Hanlon, and he was very anxious that our association should continue. He preferred that the United Kingdom should have links with Queensland in this operation, and indeed in other operations. As I think I suggested in my speech on the Second Reading, I hinted that it might be desirable, if they should want to take over the scheme, for them to administer it themselves. The Prime Minister did not think so, not because he did not think that the scheme was well founded. On the contrary, he knew that it was well founded and full of promise. He felt that it was a scheme that presented an admirable opportunity for that kind of economic link between the Dominions and the mother country that was full of all sorts in interesting possibilities. In the end I agreed with him that it was better in the long run and to our mutual advantage to have this kind of association.

Therefore we have made this proposal, that the Minister of Food, whoever he is—it may be the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough some day, or some other hon. Member. I am glad to see that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman shrinks from that fate, which only confirms what I have long since felt about him that he is a man of great wisdom. It may be some unfortunate individual sitting in this House or even sitting outside it. I cannot think that anybody who has been a Member of this House in recent years would want that fate. That individual will be directly responsible to the House for the administration of this scheme. We should be clear what that means.

7.30 p.m.

Future expenditure will be on an annual Vote in this House. That means that the House of Commons can scrutinize that expenditure and that all the machinery of scrutiny and check will be available at every stage. In addition I should hope that the House would feel at liberty to question me as freely as possible on the operations of the scheme. I am not sure how far one can commit a successor—I do not know what the constitutional proprieties are—but in so far as I am responsible for the administration of the scheme, the change having taken place and there being a direct responsibility for the scheme in that the Vote will come annually before the House, I should hope that the House would feel free to put down the widest range of questions to the Minister who is responsible.

If they involve matters of detail there might be some delay because the administrators of the scheme will now be in Australia and not in London, but, broadly speaking, my approach to this is that so far as I am responsible for administration I should want to answer all questions. I should also want to improve the supply of information about the scheme. I gather that there is some dissatisfaction about the amount of information which has been given and I should hope, immediately after we began the new dispensation, to discuss with the new Board of the Corporation ways and means of improving the amount of factual information about the scheme.

I now want to come to the Amendments, because I believe that in dealing with them I shall deal with some of the points of detail raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough. The effect of the first Amendment would be to withdraw the power of the Ministry of Food to make further advances to the Queensland Corporation. So far £1,500,000 has been advanced by the Overseas Corporation to the Queensland Corporation out of the Consolidated Fund. That was for the ordinary purpose of founding the scheme. The reports available to the House already and the reports that will be available to the House in due course will show that that amount of money has been prudently spent and is more than covered by the available and potentially available assets in Queensland.

The point I want to make clear to the House—this is the real answer to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman—is that there is no intention of exercising the power to make further advances for at least two years; that is, up to the end of 1952. It is quite clear that the Corporation can proceed to fulfil all its immediate obligations and carry out its programme for the next two years on the resources that are now available to it. I want to state quite categorically to the Committee that there is no intention of asking the House to exercise the power—after 31st March we must ask the House for authority to exercise the power—to make further advances for at least two years.

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman wanted to fix a target. I should have thought that it would be better to see how we got on in the first or the second year before fixing a target. Whoever is responsible for the administration of the scheme after the change-over, I should have thought that if in the end the House wanted to fix a target he would have preferred to come to the House in the light of experience, bearing in mind that no money can be voted for the scheme without the approval of the House. As I have said, there is no intention of exercising that power for at least two years Our experience during those two years will determine whether it is desirable to let the Corporation have fresh capital.

If it is desired to make further advances, the Minister of Food of the day will have to ask Parliament to provide the money under Clause 4 (4). Surely that will give Parliament sufficient safeguard against money being advanced against its wish? An estimate will appear on the Ministry of Food Vote and will be subject to all the processes of scrutiny. I should have thought that it would be a mistake at this stage to fix a figure. I can understand the reason for fixing a ceiling on the amount of the advances—anyone as anxious as I am to get these things straight can see the attractiveness of that—but I have given an assurance that for two years at least it is not intended to make any advance at all, and, as in that time more facts will be available to the House, I should have thought that it would be better to use the two years to find out where we stand and how the scheme goes. If at the end of that time or in the process of that time we find that it is prudent to have a ceiling, then we can have a ceiling and fix it in the light of our experience.

With a development scheme of this kind it is impossible to see further ahead than two years in any detail, but in case it is felt desirable to make further advances to the Queensland Corporation later on, surely it is preferable to make provision for the Minister to be in a position to do so, rather than to have to introduce further amending legislation in two years time? The provision is there, and I have tried to give assurances about the way in which it will be treated by us. Surely it is rather a waste of Parliament's time not to retain the provision and instead to use the time of Parliament two years hence in bringing in a provision which might or might not be necessary at that time? Surely it is better to take the powers now than to bring in a separate Bill later.

I believe I have covered the point raised by the second Amendment, but, if I have not, I will try later to give any further information that the Committee may desire. Let us at least look at the matter on the basis that I have tried to put before the Committee. It is simply that here we have a scheme which by every test—I believe that will be confirmed although there will be criticisms in detail by people who have seen it—is shown to be of immense promise, quite well-founded and full of great possibilities for the advancement of not only our own interests but the interests of our people in the Dominions. Its finances are quite well established, and the provisions which we are now proposing to take are quite proper and well within the command of the Committee. I hope that, on that basis, the Committee will be prepared to let us proceed.

Mr. Hurd (Newbury)

The Minister has given us a very reasonable exposition of his side of the case and the feelings he has about the desirability of carrying on this partnership with the Queensland Government in this sorghum-pig-cattle enterprise. I am still left with an unanswered question in my mind. What are we doing farming 700,000 acres in Queensland with the British taxpayers' money? It is all right so far because we have had two good rainy seasons and there is plenty of grass and we have been lucky. There have been losses from cockatoos and mice, which I believe are risks in farming in Queensland, but we have, on the whole, been reasonably lucky. We may run into much harder times and may experience droughts, which Queensland often gets, and then we may be faced with some kind of disaster such as we have on our plate in Tanganyika and in the Gambia at the moment.

I am not at all happy that the Committee should encourage the Minister to continue the experiment. Fortunately for us and our money, it is being run by a very good team out in Queensland. Mr. Kemp, the deputy-chairman of the Corporation, is a first-rate man, and as long as he is able to take charge I shall not have any great fear. Mr. McEwen, the farm manager, Mr. Bond, in charge of the machinery, and Mr. Saxelby with the pigs, are also very good men. But what are we doing investing the British taxpayers' money in Queensland in this manner? This is very useful land which was largely sheep grazing in the past. We have cattle there now and are also growing sorghum. But other people were growing sorghum there before we came on the spot, and more people are growing sorghum in that area now.

If we wanted to show them that sorghum could be grown on a big area, we have already succeeded and the purpose of the experiment has been achieved. If we wanted to show them that cattle could be raised there, they did not require to be shown that. What they need to be shown is how to market their cattle economically. We have not succeeded in showing them that at all, because some of the cattle I saw there in December are just as coarse and over-age as any other cattle to be seen in Queensland today. We also set out to fatten pigs on the sorghum. That is quite all right, but the Queens-landers do not need the British Government to put in £1¼ million to show them how to fatten pigs. They have been accustomed to doing that for many years past and, indeed, were disappointed when the Minister of Food failed to give them a contract with adequate prices which would have enabled them to continue their supply of pig meat to Britain.

My feeling is that we have shown that the land at Peak Downs and elsewhere can be farmed intensively and that if we get favourable seasons such as we have had, the financial results are satisfactory. But I see no purpose in continuing this experiment. If we want to help Queensland and ourselves I suggest we should help them to improve their transport system so that the cattle can be got from the outback stations of the Northern Territory and of Northern Queensland more readily to the slaughtering yards at Rockhampton and Brisbane. That would improve the efficiency of their beef industry and would enable us to get better quality beef from Brisbane.

If we want sorghum grown as a cash crop to be shipped here, all we have to do is to guarantee a reasonable price to Queenslanders for their sorghum at the port. It need not necessarily be grown as a state farm enterprise. The same applies to pigs. If we want as many pigs as we used to get, let us guarantee a decent price to the Queensland and Australian farmers and then we shall get the pigs. It is not necessary for us to engage in a state farming enterprise in Queensland. As a Tory I am rather biassed against state farming enterprises of any kind. I have seen some operate in this country and I have seen also the operations in Tanganyika; I also followed those in the Gambia, and I am not at all convinced that farming is a job which the state is ever likely to do better than the individual.

On those grounds, despite what the Minister has said, I still feel not at all happy in my mind that we should be continuing this investment in Queensland, because I do not see what further good either we or Queensland will get out of our continued investment.

Mr. Anthony Nutting (Melton)

I was disappointed that the Minister did not, see fit to accept the suggestion of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) that some limit should be imposed on the total amount of advances which, not only the Minister, but any successor in his office, will be able to make to the Queensland British Food Corporation under this scheme. The Minister told us to rest assured that the House of Commons always has adequate check over the expenditure of public money. We have not had a very adequate check. It may be that in this Government we have a rather better check, but in the last Government, with a two to one majority, the House of Commons hardly had an adequate check on the expenditure of money by the Government.

The Minister also suggested that we could be assured that no money would be expended under this Clause by the Minister for the next two years. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that the capital resources of the Queensland Food Corporation were adequate to meet any further liabilities. I should have thought that was the very argument in favour of imposing some limitation upon the Minister of Food in the matter of advancing loans for still further capital expenditure. If he does not want the money, why does he come to Parliament with a Bill in which he asks for a blank cheque from the House of Commons to give him power to advance as much money as he likes?

7.45 p.m.

I agree with what the Minister has said about capital resources. The Overseas Food Corporation Report for 1949 to 1950 says there is enough plant, equipment, machinery and material to expand operations in Queensland from the present 60,000 acres grown in sorghum to 80,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) said, surely there is enough land in our possession already, since we are farming 700,000 acres. Maybe a little money will be needed to develop water supplies, especially for the cattle grazings. I read in the Report of the Overseas Food Corporation that Peak Downs has now got its new dam which is helping to supply the need for water. Surely, the £1¼ million already put into this scheme is sufficient to last it for some considerable time?

In his speech on Second Reading the Minister said that he looked to this scheme to operate on a sound commercial basis. I must remind him, however, that up to 31st March last year the profit and loss account of the Queensland Food Corporation Scheme showed a loss of £350,000. I agree with my right hon. and gallant Friend, who said that was child's play compared with the East African Groundnuts Scheme, but, at the same time, surely it is enough to show, certainly to hon. Members on this side of the Committee, that the scheme has yet to make its way. For those reasons I suggest that we should adhere to our demand that some limitation should be placed in this Bill upon the amount of money which the Minister may be allowed to advance.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)

There are two points I should like briefly to address to the right hon. Gentleman before he replies to this discussion. The first relates to Clause 4 (3), which deals with the tendering of an annual report which will be presented to Parliament. If hon. Members who have a copy of the Annual Report of the Overseas Food Corporation for last year will turn to the foot of page 64, they will see that a change was made then in the ending of the financial year— at the request of the Overseas Food Corporation the financial year of this Corporation was originally fixed to close on 31st March, but arrangements have now been completed with the Overseas Food Corporation to have this date altered to 30th September. This will enable the published Financial Statements and Annual Report to cover a full cycle of agricultural operations, and they will therefore be of much more value. I think we all agree with the wisdom of that change, but it might have one consequence, and it is to that point that I shall address the Committee.

If, in fact, the result of that change in the financial year should be to delay the next Annual Report until well on in 1952, there will have been a period possibly of some 18 months without this House having received an annual report at all. I have heard rumours that in regard to the Queensland Scheme it is intended that an interim report shall be published at, say, six-monthly intervals. If those rumours could be confirmed by the right hon. Gentleman, it would go far towards meeting any doubts we might have on the subject.

The other point relates to some observations that fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary last week bearing on the suggestion made in the first Annual Report of the Overseas Food Corporation. It was made quite plain that after seven years of the Queensland experiment a complete change in the status of the Scheme might be envisaged. The first Annual Report said: Not later than seven years after the establishment of the undertaking a review would be made as to whether the undertaking should continue, or whether it should be converted into a co-operative undertaking, or in the case of the grain farms, into individual holdings. That was made quite plain at the start. In the debate last week the Colonial Secretary said—he added that this was a personal view and he was talking about East Africa, though no doubt the same principle will apply in his mind to both Schemes— …these things should not go to private enterprise anywhere but remain as public enterprise in these territories."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1951; Vol. 484, c. 2199.] That statement by the Colonial Secretary would render absolutely worthless the undertaking given by the Overseas Food Corporation in their first Annual Report.

In order that we should give to the Scheme in Queensland the support which I think many people are anxious to give it, I hope that the Minister of Food will make it quite plain that the Colonial Secretary was speaking only for himself and that it is not the policy of the Government to rule out altogether the handing over of some parts of the Queensland enterprise, with, of course, the consent of the Queensland Government, to private firms if that seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I should like my right hon. Friend in his reply to elaborate on one of the points which he mentioned in his opening statement, in which he said, to our very great pleasure, that he hoped we would all be agreed to put down Questions of all sorts and kinds about the way the Scheme is going to run. I am quite sure that we shall all agree to put them in at the Table. The question is whether they would get printed, and that, I understand, does not depend on the Table. In the earlier debate on this matter, you, Sir Charles, or one of your colleagues in the Chair, made this quite clear to us. It is a question whether the Minister has a responsibility for the matter covered by the Question. With great respect to the Minister, it does not depend upon his state of good will. He may be only too anxious to answer the Question, but whether it is answered will depend, will it not, on what the Minister's advisers—his rather technical advisers in his Department—find in the Act?

Lord John Hope (Edinburgh, Pentlands)

The hon. Member will, however, acknowledge that the change is at least a change for the better, in that the Minister has expressed a desire to answer Questions, even if he does not go further than that.

Sir R. Acland

I made that clear in my opening remarks. I am wondering whether in this case the rather technical and legal advisers of the Minister or of his successor may not find some means of frustrating the very good will which the Minister has shown.

Supposing Questions are put to the Table relating to, say, changes of cropping or stocking policy, rotation of crops, labour relations, rates of pay, conditions of employment, disposal of the produce, plans for processing the produce, or any conceivable change in the system of ownership by the Corporation to some form of co-operative running which may be proposed and mooted—supposing Questions are put to the Table on any of these points—will not the Minister's advisers, as the Bill is now drafted, say, "This is not the Minister's responsibility. It is the responsibility of the Corporation"? In that event, we cannot put Questions on the Paper dealing with such matters as these.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear these things in mind and will consider before the Report stage whether something does not need to be put into the Bill to make it clear that he has such a responsibility. If so, it will allow his goodwill to overrule the technical objection of his advisers and will allow the Questions to appear and to be answered.

Turning speeches into actual drafting Amendments in a Bill is something at which I am very inexpert, but I should have thought that conceivably there could have been added on Report stage a subsection which would indicate that the Queensland Corporation should, from time to time, make reports to the Minister on any major changes in policy or practice which the Corporation proposed, and that on the receipt of such reports the Minister would have the duty of offering comments, advice or instruction, which it would be the duty of the Corporation to consider. Something of this kind would give hon. Members a peg on which Questions could legitimately be hung and would prevent any technical objection from frustrating the Minister's goodwill and his desire to answer such reasonable Questions as hon. Members would like to put down.

Mr. Webb

May I reply to the points made in the discussion so far? The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), of course, really was making a speech against the Scheme entirely. I think that he was really in conflict with his own Front Bench. The right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), who opened the discussion said that hon. Members opposite were not against the continuance of the Scheme, whereas the view of the hon. Member for Newbury was an argued case against continuing the Scheme.

The hon. Member wanted to know what we were doing in investing the money of the British taxpayer in Queensland. In recent centuries we have invested our money in many strange places, and I should have thought it was not a bad thing to invest a little of it in our own Dominion. That in itself provides that kind of economic association that will help to bind in bonds of unbreakable solidarity the interests of our Dominions and the United Kingdom. That in itself, quite apart from the economic consequences of the investment, which arise from all overseas investments, anyhow, was, I should have thought, on the whole a very good reason. Now, it has been done, and with such a sufficiently high degree of success—I would not want to put it too high—and with the goodwill of all parties as to justify us in believing that it should go forward.

The hon. Member asked a straight question about what further results I thought would come from the Scheme. I do not know, but on the most cautious look-forward I think that there will be satisfactory results. Against the background of experience of the Overseas Food Corporation, I should be the last to make prophecies and I should always feel that it was better to make sure I was right about this, but on the most cautious examination of the Scheme it is clear that it has possibilities of providing us with food that we need, of providing Australia with food that the growing population of Australia needs, and that by every physical test we can look forward to results that will give satisfaction.

The hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Nutting) regretted that we had not fixed a limit. I tried to show that I concede there is something to be said for fixing a limit—it really would be a safeguard; but it is merely my concern about my successor who has been mentioned earlier tonight that prevents my doing that. Frankly, I do not feel that the present occupant of my post, in the situation as I can measure it on the facts available to me, has any right to limit his successor to any figure.

We are in the same difficulty as the right hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite, who was quite frank about it. He fixed a figure of £200,000, but he admitted quite frankly that that is just a notional and mythical figure—he does not know, and we do not know. If we were to fix any kind of limit at this moment, it would be a guess. It might be very wide of the target, or it might give a ceiling far too high for potential requirements, but the point is that that figure is going into legislation. It is not something that can be corrected later by Order in Council. It becomes the permanent ceiling for the whole period whilst the Scheme is going on, and it may, indeed, be too low.

I have to look at this matter realistically, and I should have thought that the proper answer was the answer I have given. We are not going to seek power to give money for two years. Let us spend those two years in trying to find out, first, whether a ceiling is necessary and, if we decide that it is, what it ought to be. It might be less than £200,000, or it might be more—I do not know—but frankly, I should not feel that I was acting according to the requirements of my post if I now agreed that any ceiling, wherever we fixed it, was a proper thing to stipulate at this stage.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) raised a question about the Annual Report. It is true that the new date causes some complexity, but I can safely undertake to provide the House, if not with a complete interim report, with adequate interim information. Just when that will be, I could not say offhand, but I should like to be able to give the Committee at the appropriate stage all the adequate information I can. If that involves an interim report of the ordinary kind, so that a document will be laid before the Committee and is available to the Committee, then I would want to do it.

8.0 p.m.

The second point the hon. Member raised was about the future of the Queensland Scheme. I think he was reading too much into what my right hon. Friend said. I do not know, but I heard what my right hon. Friend said, and of course he was giving his own view about the future. But how can any of us commit ourselves to the future of schemes of this sort? It may be that the Government of the day will decide to abandon the legislation we are passing, and if so, they must do it in consultation with the Government of Queensland. It may be that the Government of the day will say, "It is proper now to pass the Scheme over to private enterprise," but there is nothing in this legislation to prevent that from being done. We are legislating for a foreseeable period, the circumstances of which we can broadly predict, and I should have thought it safe to leave it at that. Of course, the House and the Committee have the right to cancel legislation and do what they think proper at that time.

Now I come to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland). I do wish he would not embarrass me by looking a gift horse in the mouth. It is true that the Minister is bound by the Rules of the House. But what I said tonight was based on what you read out, Sir Charles, in our previous discussion. We had some slight difficulty about this problem of Questions, and you made it very clear to the House on that occasion that the nature of Questions was determined by what the Minister was prepared to answer. Following that Ruling, I was trying to give my own view of my responsibility—so long as I exercise it— for answering Questions, and I repeat that I am prepared, in so far as I can, to answer all Questions which the Table would accept on this great project. I hope my hon. Friend will regard that as a reasonable answer.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

I should like my right hon. Friend to clarify the statement he made at the close of his remarks. If I understood him properly, he said that he would be prepared to answer all Questions that the Table would accept. If I am correct in my interpretation of what he has said, he is "passing the buck" back to the Table. My difficulty has been that there have been Questions which the Table did not accept and which, therefore, could not reach my right hon. Friend. Last week I thought we had reached the stage, on the words of my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary, that he would do his very best; I do not want to put words into his mouth or to interpret them in a way he did not intend, but he certainly gave me the impression that we would have no difficulty in future in putting Questions.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. James Griffiths)

I said that the future must be guided by the fact that these are substantial changes, and in future the other schemes we were discussing would be financed by Votes. I emphasised that when the Report stage of the Bill was reached, I would say something further on the matter of Questions. I propose when we reach that stage to make a further statement on this matter.

Mr. Rankin

In view of that, I am quite prepared to await the Report stage.

Captain Crookshank

We thank the right hon. Gentleman for the information he has given us, which certainly helped us very much. I agree that any figure of a maximum annual advance which we put in would, as far as we are concerned, be in the, nature of a guess, but I gather that the right hon. Gentleman has no more foundation for suggesting a figure than we have, which is rather important, as we hoped the Ministry would have a notion on this subject. But if the right hon. Gentleman has not, I agree that it is not of much good putting in a figure which would be a guess. We have been on a fishing expedition about the figure, but we have caught nothing.

What the right hon. Gentleman has done is something quite different. He has said that there is no figure, but there will be no advance for two years. It may be worth considering between now and the further stages of the Bill whether we should put that in or not. Hon. Members opposite must realise that all through our discussions on this side of the Committee we have been trying to safeguard the future for the taxpayer in view of the disasters which have come to the taxpayer in the immediate past.

Now, looking back, I think the right hon. Gentleman probably agrees that if some sort of figures had been put in from time to time through the original Act some of the worst of the original losses might have been avoided. That is what we are groping for and it may be possible for something like the words "no advance should be made before" a certain date, should be put in. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will consider that; certainly my hon. Friends will consider it before we come to the next stage of the Bill.

I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would say something of what was the view our fellow watchdogs, the Queensland Parliament, about this. They have the advantage of being closer to the area and it may be that they have information which the right hon. Gentleman could pass on to us in due course. The right hon. Gentleman must not try to make a distinction between my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) and myself. While it is true that I have said that as far as we could see at present we must try out the experiment, he must not forget that in the first annual Report of the Corporation, on page 82, it was apparently agreed, as a sort of basis, that these would be the articles of the company that Not later than seven years after the establishment of the undertaking a review would be made as to whether the undertaking should continue, or whether it should be converted"— and here the hon. baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) will be pleased, if he has forgotten the passage, or indeed if he ever saw it— into a co-operative undertaking, or in the case of the grain farms,"— which is the point put forward in the original debate— into individual holdings. In the latter case preference would be given to employees of the undertaking. There is there an implied condition that within seven years the whole thing will be thoroughly investigated. I do not know exactly at what date that decision may have been reached, but it must have been prior to March, 1949, so we have already had two years and there are only five more to go.

Mr. Webb

At the most.

Captain Crookshank

Yes, but it says that it might take place at an earlier date. So what my hon. Friend was saying was quite clear; there was a doubt, and apparently there has always been, whether this was the right kind of venture to establish in Queensland because they wanted to have the opportunity of changing it within seven years. There is not very much between us except that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has an advantage over practically every other hon. Member in that he is one of the very few of us who has been there and can, therefore, speak from experience; and his advice on this matter should certainly be weighed by the Government when he tenders it.

The right hon. Gentleman said in his reply that there was nothing very new about this because we had invested money in all sorts of places. That is quite true, but this is taxpayers' money and it has normally been the private individual who has invested money in different parts of the world, sometimes in our own lands and sometimes in foreign lands. While it is true that this particular venture may, and I certainly hope will, draw economic bonds between ourselves and Australia, we must in duty bound, as Members of this House, look at it through somewhat different spectacles than those we would use if we were merely venturing our own capital in a private venture. Because of history and of what has happened to the Overseas Food Corporation, which is what we are discussing throughout the Bill, we are trying to find some safeguard. After what the right hon. Gentleman has said tonight, I would not ask my hon. Friends to press this Amendment for putting in the maximum which we have suggested. I warn him, however, that we shall consider whether a period of time before which no further advances should be made should not somehow be inserted in the Bill.

For the rest, I am sure that we all wish the venture success because it is the taxpayers' money that we are venturing, not our own. We hope that on the encouraging advice which we have received from the right hon. Gentleman, and the expert information which he has gathered both from the Prime Minister of Queensland—we are glad that the right hon. Gentleman should have discussed the matter with him—and the men on the spot we shall find that this venture is a success and that it will not be another groundnuts scheme—that it cannot be because it deals with sorghum—but that the sorghum and pigs will continue to flourish and render to us on behalf of the taxpayer a fine dividend, and ultimately a return of the money invested.

Amendment negatived.

Captain Crookshank

I beg to move, in page 3, line 41, to leave out from the beginning, to "in," in line 43.

This Amendment was put down in order that we might inquire what sort of expenses would be involved in making advances, because if it is money which comes out of a Vote it does not seem that there ought to be any expenses involved. If there are not to be any advances for two years perhaps the point is not one of immediate urgency.

Mr. Webb

If the right hon. and gallant Gentleman proposes to raise, as he says he may on the Report stage, the question of time rather than the amount, the point with which this Amendment is concerned would arise then. I should have thought that it was consequential on the matter of amount rather than of time. Therefore, I suggest that as we are not proceeding with the question of amount we might also not proceed with the question which this Amendment raises.

Captain Crookshank

I do not quite understand what the right hon. Gentleman now says. The Bill states in Clause 4 (2) that the Minister may make advances to the Queensland Corporation. Clause 4 (4) says that any expenses in making these advances: shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament; … What kind of expenses could be involved in making advances in a case such as that? If, for example, one finds in a Vote under a sub-head an item of x thousands of pounds for the Overseas Food Corporation, what expenses are involved other than are involved in making any other grant out of the Votes of any other Government Department?

Mr. Webb

The right hon. and gallant Gentleman, who has been Financial Secretary to the Treasury, knows how strict that Department is to protect its flank. This is another way of dealing with that problem. I suggest to the House that this Amendment is a consequential one. We have taken the advice of the Treasury, of course, and they are satisfied that there will be no additional expenses involved. I should have thought that we could have left it at that, but if there is any doubt about the point I should like to take further advice about it. Now that we do not propose to proceed with the question of amount I cannot conceive how the point dealt with by this Amendment could conceivably arise. Could we not, therefore, leave the matter until the Report stage and see if it arises then on any possible new Amendment that is put down, and if so, talk about it then?

Captain Crookshank

I am quite prepared to leave the matter until any further stage if necessary. I am sorry if I have caught the right hon. Gentleman unawares but the point of when an advance is made does not seem to make any decided difference as to whether there are any expenses in connection therewith. I was merely asking what kind of expenses they could be. I should like to find out.

Mr. Webb

I am advised that there are no such expenses involved but that it is felt proper to include this provision in legislation.

Captain Crookshank

If there are never to be expenses this provision should not be included in the Bill, and the Amendment should be accepted. After what the Minister has said I feel more confused than ever about this point.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

The Minister has rather given his case away. He says that we know how strict the Treasury are. The Treasury have had cause to be strict in the last six years. I wish the Treasury were strict on these matters. I do not see any representative of the Treasury on the Government Front Bench, and accordingly I find it all the more difficult to accept the view that the Treasury will exercise any influence in this matter. My view, and I think that of a large majority of my party, about this Amendment is that the Treasury should exercise a very much closer control, and also that the House should be much more fully informed. For that reason I am only too pleased that my right hon. and gallant Friend has moved this Amendment. I do not think anyone can say that from the point of view of the taxpayers we have had an answer or even a quarter of an answer about what we ought to know of the real financial position.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Webb

I beg to move, in page 3, line 43, after "and," to insert: any sums received by that Minister in respect of interest on or repayment of principal of any such advances shall be paid into the Exchequer. (5) This and the two other Amendments in my name which follow, are technical in character and are to clear up a difficulty of accountancy. The three points covered by the Amendments are linked. At present, under Section 18 of the principal Act, which we are amending, any interest paid on an advance or any repayment of such an advance made by me to the Overseas Food Corporation has to be accounted for in a special account certified by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. Clause 4 (4) of the Bill now before us would apply the same process of the special account to repayment of future advances made—if I make any—to the Queensland-British Food Corporation. The Committee will appreciate that the repayment of any such future advances will in any case be shown in the Appropriation Account of my Department. The purpose of this Amendment, which I am moving on advice which I have received since the Bill was drafted, is to remove the unnecessary duplication of the special account procedure and provide for the future that the repayment of any advance or the payment of interest on any advance should be paid into the Exchequer.

Mr. Fredèric Harris (Croydon, North)

Are these advances bearing interest.

Mr. Webb

No, there is no interest being paid at the moment.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 3, line 44, leave out" that Minister," and insert" the Minister of Food."

In line 45, leave out "or subsection (2)."—[Mr. Webb.]

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

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)

I wish to raise a minor drafting point. If I understand Clause 4 (1) correctly it applies to the transfer to the Minister of all the rights of the Overseas Food Corporation in respect of advances made by the Cor-portion to the Queensland Corporation. I looked at the Queensland Act, and it is rather a relief to look at the Acts of another Legislature. I found the Act sandwiched between a Measure entitled "The Labour Party" and another dealing with executors, an association of ideas that I found very pleasing.

There are certain functions laid upon the Overseas Food Corporation in other parts of this Bill with regard to the nomination of members of the Corporation; certain provisos if their number fall below a certain figure; the appointment of nominated deputies; details of remuneration and allowances to the Corporation; fixed schemes, etc. Part V of that Act deals with advances to be made to the Overseas Food Corporation. I assume it is the intention of the Minister that all the rights and duties of the Overseas Food Corporation under that Act should now pass to the Minister. With respect I do not think it is clear in the wording of the Clause as it stands.

Mr. Webb

That is clearly the intention. I should like to look into the drafting and if there is any ambiguity or obscurity I will have it corrected.

Mr. Nutting

I hope the Minister will do that. In his speech on Second Reading he referred us to the position which existed when the Overseas Food Corporation was in charge, but did not tell us what the position would be when he takes over. I wish to raise a point on the question of reports we are to receive when he takes over this scheme. I ask the Minister to let us have a better and more informative system of reporting than we have had up to date. The two reports which have appeared, the 1948–1949 and 1949–50 reports, are of such a highly detailed and technical character that although I read both of them twice each. I was unable to get any general grasp or picture of what the scheme had achieved up to date and the advantages to this country. I am encouraged to ask that question by the remark the Minister made earlier when he said it was vitally important that we should get a grasp of the matter. I hope that from time to time we may get a general picture of this scheme and of its working.

Mr. F. Harris

I was very surprised at the reply of the Minister that these advances are not bearing any interest so far as the Queensland scheme is concerned. We have been very gentle with the Government this evening regarding that scheme. Many of us wish to try to find out why the Government think it is not necessary to charge interest on the advances or loans. Goodness knows, they are quick enough with any private enterprise scheme to try to cash in on the interest forth- coming, and to take as much taxation as they possibly can. Why should the Minister here support the view that such advances under the Queensland scheme should bear no interest whatsoever?

I believe that in July, 1949, the advance was in the region of £370,000 and I believe that now it is up to £1¼ million or £1½ million. But whatever it is it should bear a charge in respect of interest. If it is the genuine view of the Minister—and I am sure it must be if he expressed it this evening—that this scheme is to go ahead, and presumably in due course to make profits, there is one thing I wish to see avoided. That is that the public should have put across to them the belief that profits are being made, whereas they are not really being made, or are being reduced in some form.

Surely it is only right that from the start there should be proper charges in respect of interest on the advances being incurred under this scheme. However successful it may be in the years to come, they should bear a proper rate of interest. I would not suggest what the rate should be. It may be 2 per cent., 3 per cent. or 4 per cent., that is up to the advisers of the Minister. But surely it cannot be suggested that this money should bear no interest whatsoever? I must admit to being very disturbed at the reply of the Minister. Is he able to tell us when he considers this money will bear any interest? Many of us were pleased to learn his view that the financing of this scheme is such that he will not need any further money in the next two years. As I understand, he staked his reputation. I only hope that it will not be the same as when his predecessor staked his reputation on the groundnut scheme when he said it would be the best public scheme he had ever undertaken in his time of serving the public.

This is a very important point. With all the schemes that the Government undertake we have an unhappy feeling about the financial arrangements, and I am strongly of opinion that here is another instance which has been put to us, and accepted rather easily by hon. Members as quite natural and automatic. Why should it be? Why should not advances bear a proper rate of interest even if the scheme is losing money at the moment? Why do not we draw up proper profit and loss accounts, with a view to telling the public in the years ahead, when as we all hope profits will be made, that these profits are correct and that everything right has been done in the handling of these accounts? I hope the Minister will enlarge on that point, because surely he as Minister does not support the view that the Government should advance money without charging the proper rate of interest. After all, the Queensland authorities are in this Scheme with us and they would like to see this matter rectified

Mr. Webb

The hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Nutting) again raised a question which was raised by another hon. Member. May I assure him that the changes required to be made in the Queensland Act will be made by the Queensland Parliament, quite apart from any necessary re-drafting we may have to make. We have that assurance, and adjustments will be made in the Queensland legislation in due course. On the second point raised by the hon. Member I can only repeat that it is my firm and resolute desire to amplify and make public the information made available about this scheme. In so far as that can be done I shall undertake to do it. It may be done by amplifying the annual report, or increasing the number of reports or in other ways, but in so far as information can be made available it will be.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris), was rather disturbed. It was only because his question was a rather sharp and salutory one. I should have thought he would realise, in view of what he ought to know—and I am sure he has studied all the reports about this scheme in detail—that it was a deliberate decision in the beginning not to seek to put interest on the advances. But it is clear that all the advances will bear interest, and the Corporation with the consent of all concerned have been accruing a reserve to pay interest on the advances. So far the rate has not been fixed but the matter is, I may say, under almost urgent examination. I discussed this point recently with the Chairman and they feel they are reaching the point when they can begin to service their capital. I think with that assurance the hon. Member may let the matter go.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

I had an opportunity some weeks ago of seeing the Queensland Scheme in operation. I thought that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) in the Second Reading debate did not pay the tribute that ought to have been paid to those who have done so much to make the Scheme a success. He did pay a tribute to the Deputy-Chairman of the Queensland Food Corporation, but I think he should have gone further and paid tributes to Mr. Bond and Mr. McEwen the two production managers on the job who are performing a magnificent task.

The hon. Member should also have called attention to the fact—because he was probably informed as we were—that at least two experiments which have been carried out on the Queensland Scheme have never before been tried in Australia. It was believed by many farmers in Australia that it was not possible to fatten store cattle on sorghum stubble. It has been proved to the Queensland farmers that it is possible to do so. Also, as a result of an experiment, it has now been established that it is possible to grow a good crop of sorghum in Central Queensland with a lower rainfall than is required for a crop of grass. It is, therefore, possible to have sorghum stubble available for feeding store cattle when grass is not available. We saw some 8,000 or 9,000 acres of this sorghum growing when we were there. We also saw the ploughs out on the project, ploughing up many more thousands of acres.

The tribute paid by the Chairman of the Rockhampton Chamber of Commerce is worthy of repetition. Mr. Ross is by no means a friend of either the majority party in the Queensland Parliament or of the Government of this country. He praised the Queensland project, saying that it has given an opportunity of proving that the soil in central Queensland, which in the past has been used only for grazing cattle, could be put to more profitable use. In the Peak Downs project there were two or three sheep per acre before it was taken over by the Corporation. It is now producing much more per acre.

This is contributing greatly towards making up for the food shortage in the world, and I am convinced that the Minister is justified in going ahead with his scheme. The Minister, in ensuring that the Queensland Scheme goes ahead, is not only making a contribution to the food supply of this country, but is making it possible for the Queensland soil outside the Corporation's propect to be put to much better use.

The hon. Member for Newbury in his Second Reading speech said that sorghum was grown in Queensland before the Peak Downs project was started. My information is that none was grown until it was proved to the farmers in the neighbourhood of Peak Downs that it was possible to make such use of it. The Corporation of Queensland, by their experiments, are proving that it is possible to make greater use of their land than ever before. I ask the Minister not to believe what he is told by hon. Members opposite. They constantly say that the trouble with Government sponsored projects is that the Government will not take risks. When risks are taken to prove that something better can be done, we are then told that they ought not to have been taken. I urge my right hon. Friend to go ahead with this project, because I believe it has great possibilities.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.