HC Deb 15 March 1951 vol 485 cc1864-7

Resolution reported: That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £36,450, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1951, for certain food production services of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland.

Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

8.29 p.m.

Mr. Snadden (Kinross and West Perthshire)

I do not want to detain the House more than a few minutes, but this Estimate is, of course, of just as much importance to Scotland as the one we have just discussed is to England and Wales. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) has already made the main points, but I shall express one particular fear I have in regard to the removal of subsidies in the Scottish Estimates, in whole or in part. Personally, I am always glad to see direct subsidies go, provided prices are struck so as to show a realistic reflection of costs, because thus we get away from an artificial economic structure and make our way towards a securer foundation for agriculture. I think that that is a good thing.

So far as the petrol grant is concerned, no one will regret its passing. No one liked it. It was an absurd scheme, a cumbersome scheme. Having had some experience of the form-filling that had to be done in connection with it, I can say that it is no exaggeration to say that the forms to be filled up were so complicated that they would have baffled a professor of mathematics, let alone a farmer who spends most of his days out in his fields. I am glad to see it is now to go. The Opposition never liked it. They said it would not work, and it has not worked very well.

But, like my hon. and gallant Friend, I am a little apprehensive about the removal of the fertiliser subsidy, and here, I think, with all respect to my English friends, we in Scotland are going to feel this possibly more than farmers South of the Border, because of the remoteness of our farms from the beaten track. I am not sure that this is a wise move, because, in face of the international situation, it hits at something we ought to preserve—the fertility of the soil. A little while ago we were discussing stockpiling, and I should have been rather inclined to have taken the view, if I had spoken in that debate, that we cannot provide enough food for current consumption at the moment, let alone for stockpiling.

Here we are doing something that will tend to hit the small farmer, who is a very important person in Scotland. Farms in marginal and remote areas are in the most serious position at the moment. The greatest problem in front of the British producer of food today is that of ever-increasing costs. In the remote areas we are faced with enormously increased costs of transport; we have had a recent increase of wages; machinery has gone up; spares have gone up; so have tyres and overheads. Rising costs are uppermost in the farmers' minds. On top of all that, we had a very bad harvest due to the wet season, which has been so long drawn out. We have had a most expensive winter because we have eaten into winter feed, and the result is that farmers today are very worried about their cash position.

I am afraid that the removal of the fertiliser subsidy may tend to curtail fertiliser applications by the farmers in the remoter areas whose farms, at any rate in Scotland, comprise the only type of farm from which we can get increased food production. I know the Minister has promised us—and I presume that this applies also to the Scottish position—that the removal of these subsidies will be taken into account in the price review, but the majority of the farms about which I am talking—and they form a very large percentage of the farms in Scotland—the marginal and remote farms, do not actually benefit in any direct form from guaranteed prices, the reason being that they are mostly concerned with store, stock and stock rearing. Therefore, that argument about the price review does not apply to a very large number of the farmers in Scotland.

So I want to ask the Under-Secretary of State to say a word about this to assure us that the removal of the fertiliser subsidy is not going to affect adversely the expansion programme undertaken by the Government. Is anything to be done, for example, through the marginal production scheme to fill the gap created because of the removal of the fertiliser subsidy? I want to know if he is satisfied that it will not result in the curtailment of applications for fertilisers in a large part of the country, which, I think, in present circumstances, would be disastrous. The second question is this. Before this decision was taken, were the agricultural organisations—and I suppose that the National Farmers' Union is the principal organisation—consulted? Did they think this a wise move? I should like to know that for the satisfaction of my hon. Friends who represent Scottish divisions.

The problem facing producers of food—and I speak from my own experience—is to keep down rising costs and at the same time to meet the wages of agricultural workers fixed by Statute. Here we have a greatly increased cost imposed upon the producer. I think it true to say that from 1st July, 1950, fertiliser prices have risen by more than 25 per cent. The blow was softened to some extent by this scheme. Now the scheme is to be removed I would like the Minister to say that it has been fully discussed in co-operation with the National Farmers' Union of Scotland and that they are satisfied that, even though there is an increase in costs, there is no danger of a curtailment of production which would have an adverse affect upon our expansion programme.

8.36 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

I am glad that we have had the view of the hon. Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) on the grass fertiliser subsidy, particularly as it must have affected the small marginal farms in Scotland. He asked whether the agricultural organisations had been consulted. They have. We have had discussions with the National Farmers' Union in Scotland and I do not think I am misrepresenting them when I say that, broadly, they are in agreement with what we have proposed.

I think I should make it clear that this present grassland fertiliser subsidy scheme runs for some little time yet. The scheme year is from 1st July to 30th June, and since we have already been discussing the date by which applications for grants must be made, let me make it clear that claims may be received for this scheme up to 30th September. It is true that we are discontinuing this particular scheme, but the hon. Gentleman was careful to observe that we were going to do something in a modified way.

What we have in mind is to deal with these small farms he mentioned, particularly those farms in marginal areas. We wish to change this scheme from one which gives a grassland fertiliser subsidy to farms in all parts of the country and to preserve the subsidy mainly for application to marginal agricultural land. I say "mainly," because it will not be exclusively. We are still having discussions with the organisations concerned, but we think it probable that it would be desirable to continue in the scheme a provision to assist with fertilisers certain areas of land not included in the marginal agricultural production scheme.

Mr. Snadden


Mr. Fraser

Yes, separately, quite outside and in addition to the grants given under the M.A.P. scheme. What we have in mind in the modified scheme which will come before the House eventually is what the hon. Gentleman has been asking for. In removing this subsidy we are not bent upon removing it from the people who are most deserving of it, and who must have it if they are to continue to be successful in their operations.

Question put, and agreed to.

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