HC Deb 04 February 1952 vol 495 cc641-6
Mr. Hurd

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture if, in view of the world scarcity of coarse grains for livestock feeding and the vital importance of increasing home meat production, he proposes to take any action that secure a substantial increase in grain production from the 1952 harvest.

Mr. George Thomas

On a point of order. May I ask of what grounds a Question of this sort, which might well have been put on the Order Paper, gets priority as a Private Notice Question, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Wigg

Is it not a fact that this Question was on the Order Paper and that it was removed for the specific purpose of making it a Private Notice Question? Is not that an abuse of the procedure of the House?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that I am, to some extent, responsible for this. The original Question on the Order Paper was for tomorrow. The statement which was to follow it in its original form was very long. I have already received many more requests from hon. Members to speak in tomorrow's debate than I can accommodate, and I realised that if this long statement was made, with the supplementaries following it tomorrow, it would trespass severely on the only time available for Private Members to participate in the debate.

Therefore, in my anxiety to preserve their rights, I asked the Minister if he would either circulate the answer or bring it forward to today. He has taken that course at my instance. If I have done wrong I beg the House's pardon, but I have done it in the interests of Private Members of the House to save their time for the debate tomorrow.

Mr. Thomas

May I say that, of course, I readily accept the explanation you have given, Sir, but may I bring to your notice the fact that the question of Welsh affairs is equally important?

Mr. Speaker

I do not wish to detract from the importance of today's debate, but there is a very much larger number of Members desiring to speak tomorrow than today.

Mr. F. J. Bellenger

Mr. Speaker, I am sure the House will be in complete sympathy with you in the action you have taken. Nevertheless, in view of the particular nature of Private Notice Questions, and to preserve their nature, is it not possible that a statement like this can be made by the Minister asking your permission and the permission of the House to make such a statement without the necessity of a Private Notice Question being put?

Mr. Speaker

That course could have been adopted. The course that has been adopted is that of a Private Notice Question. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is some danger in permitting Private Notice Questions for purposes which are not strictly relevant to that procedure, and I will take care that it does not happen in the future.

The Minister of Agriculture (Major Sir Thomas Dugdale)

Yes, Sir. I realise that it is late in the season to ask farmers to plough grassland and sow extra crops, but the situation demands exceptional measures and exceptional efforts. The Government propose to introduce legislation, making available, subject to certain conditions, a contribution of £5 per acre towards the costs of ploughing up land which has been under grass for four years or more, and sowing it to an approved crop for harvesting this year. I am circulating a fuller statement on this subject in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Hurd

Can the Minister give the House any idea of the response he hopes to get in terms of acres of crops and tonnage of grain grown?

Sir T. Dugdale

Yes, Sir. I hope that we shall get not less than 500,000 acres ploughed up, and if we accept that it will all be in coarse grains it will be the equivalent of half a million tons.

Mr. Thomas Williams

In view of the importance of this statement and as the subsidy commences tomorrow, and in view of the fact that the "long statement" is not a long one at all, may I ask whether the longer explanation might be given to the House now? Otherwise, the Press will have the detailed contents before this House does.

Brigadier Christopher Peto

Can the Minister say from what date this subsidy will start and—

Hon. Members

Let us have the statement.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If it is the wish of the House, I have no objection to the Minister reading his statement.

Sir T. Dugdale

I am entirely in the hands of the House. If the House wishes it, I will read the statement which I proposed to circulate. It is as follows: We must increase our meat production, and we cannot do this without more feedingstuffs. Although coarse grains are not included among the list of items of which imports are to be reduced, there can be no assurance that difficulties may not arise in obtaining from overseas all the supplies that we are at present expecting. Still less can we count on importing the addition needed to feed an increased livestock population. There is, therefore, an outstanding need to obtain this year a substantial increase in the home production of feedingstuffs. Then follows that part of the answer already given. The land must have been under grass for four years or more; that is to say, it must have been sown to grass in 1948 or earlier. The approved crops will be: Wheat, barley, oats, mixed grain, rye, approved fodder crops, potatoes, linseed, and the requirements of good husbandry must be reasonably complied with. Land ploughed on or after tomorrow, 5th February, will be eligible for the payment if the conditions are satisfied. This is a temporary short-term scheme with the sole purpose of securing more spring sown crops. It is without prejudice to more permanent plans which the Government will formulate in the light of the discussions with representatives of the industry at the forthcoming Annual Review, which, by agreement with the farmers' representatives, will start on 26th February. The Government propose to end the existing subsidy for fertilisers on ploughed-up grassland in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. Land ploughed up after today, 4th February, will not qualify. In Scotland where the corresponding fertiliser subsidy is confined to marginal areas, the nature of the scheme makes it necessary to allow farmers in these areas to choose between qualifying under the existing grassland fertiliser scheme or under this new scheme. I make a strong appeal to all farmers who can do so to break up more grass, sow extra corn and to keep up the acreage of potatoes this spring. The range of crops which will earn the new payments is wide, but the primary object of the proposals is to increase the area of barley and other grains for increasing total feedingstuffs next autumn and winter. No one need fear that any feeding grain they wish to sell will fail to find a good market. It is important, too, that the yields shall be large, and I would urge that there should be no stint in the use of fertilisers. This is a false economy and can only do harm both to the farmer and to the nation's food supply.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Mr. Williams.

Brigadier Peto

On a point of order. I was in the process of asking a question when the Minister rose and made his statement. Am I not entitled to continue my supplementary question?

Mr. Speaker

I had not called the hon. and gallant Member. I will call him after Mr. Williams.

Mr. T. Williams

Are we to understand from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that this scheme is devised to ensure an adequate supply of feedingstuffs for the vast increase in livestock population, especially eggs and poultry, under the late Government's expansion programme?

Sir T. Dugdale

Yes, Sir; and not only that, but we hope to get more meat for the consuming public at home.

Mr. Williams

Do we understand that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman appreciates that there are difficulties in obtaining coarse grains from abroad?

Brigadier Peto

When I was asking my question, I got as far as asking from what date the subsidy would start. I wanted to know that particularly with regard to the unfairness of making the date 5th February. People have already partly ploughed up a great many acres in order to grow greater crops. Why should not the subsidy start from the beginning of this season?

Sir T. Dugdale

All schemes must start on some date, and whatever date is selected there are some marginal cases of people who will be unfortunate. This scheme starts on 5th February.

Mr. John Hynd

In view of the fact that the Minister said—and it is quite obvious—that there will be a ready market for the produce of this land, presumably at good prices, what is the need for the subsidy at all, bearing in mind that an hon. Member behind the right hon. Gentleman has just said that many farmers are already doing this without a subsidy?

Sir T. Dugdale

We believe that this is the quickest and most effective way to secure more meat for the public this year.

Mr. R. T. Paget

Has the right hon. and gallant Gentleman considered the desirability of ploughing grass and planting new crops as late as this, the effect of wireworm and that sort of thing? Will he get the result he expects?

Sir T. Dugdale

All these technical subjects have been gone into very carefully, and we believe that this is the best way to maintain an increase in our home supplies.

Mr. Baldwin

Is my right hon. and gallant Friend aware that the farming community will meet this challenge, provided that one thing is realised, and that is the increased costs of production on the marginal land from which this increased acreage is to come? Instead of making an appeal to farmers, would it not be better to recognise that costs have gone up for imported grains, and let the farmers be given something comparable? Is he aware that today barley from abroad is costing from £20 to £50 more per ton than the so-called guaranteed price paid to farmers, and would it not be better to do away with subsidies and pay the price that will get the production?

Sir T. Dugdale

I cannot agree. We considered all the alternatives in this very difficult problem, and we came out with the conclusion that this is the best and most effective way of helping the farmers to produce more grain this year.

Mr. George Brown

The Minister referred to a figure of 500,000 acres as the expected result of this scheme. We are now in February. Will he tell the House on what he bases what to me is a rather remarkable statement, or is it just a mere guess? How much does he think the nation will benefit by this increase, because the advice which he repeatedly gave as late as July last year was that it was safer to rely on Canadian supplies rather than supplies from the sterling area?

Sir T. Dugdale

There are very many points of view as to what acreage we shall achieve, but it all depends very much on the weather in the next two months. My technical advisers believe that we shall get rather more than that acreage, but I am not giving any particular acreage, because I believe that it will turn out to be a medium between the most optimistic and the most pessimistic.

Mr. Douglas Marshall

As my right hon. and gallant Friend has mentioned that potatoes will qualify, can he tell me what is the minimum size of plot that will qualify for the subsidy?

Sir T. Dugdale

I must have notice of that question.

Mr. Frederick Peart

In view of the Minister's statement and the present decline of the labour force, will he take any special action to attract more agricultural workers, with special regard to the extention of harvest camps?

Sir T. Dugdale

I am very well aware of the point raised by the hon. Member, and I shall be making a statement very soon about the labour situation, with special relation to the potato crop.