HC Deb 27 February 1952 vol 496 cc1333-47
Mr. Paget

I beg to move, in page 2, line 23, to leave out Subsection (2).

The object of this Amendment is very much the same as one moved earlier by one of my hon. Friends, that is to draw attention to the principle that payment to the manufacturer will be much more convenient than payment to the farmer direct. What it seems to me has happened is that the only fertiliser subsidy in existence was the lime fertiliser subsidy, and that subsidy worked in a peculiarly complicated way, but it was not one generally for an article but for a particular user of an article.

I think most of us who have had experience of that subsidy know how much trouble it causes to farmers. Now that that machinery has been re-introduced, I see that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland shakes his head, but I would certainly say that having had a good deal of lime under that subsidy scheme I found the procedure to get it was a great nuisance. It is necessary when it is not to be confined to a user, but when it is to be confined to a user it is unnecessary. I hope the Minister will give that point additional thought in considering further schemes under this Act.

1.30 a.m.

Mr. Nugent

The effect of the Subsection, as I have no doubt the hon. Member knows, is to make provision for where schemes are injected into the subsidy. If it was left out it would prevent the Minister introducing such schemes if he thought at any time it was desirable to do so.

I can assure the hon. Member that my right hon. Friend is well seized of the point he wishes to make and that where it is appropriate he will do so, but I think it would be right to say that the lime scheme has been operated now for many years and quite a number of hon. Members have used it and have not really found it was onerous. It is true that we followed the form of existing machinery—it could be used conveniently —but in the first place, if we find the scheme is not working satisfactory, the Clause allows my right hon. Friend to introduce a scheme which injects the subsidy at that manufacturers' level.

Mr. Hale

I had hoped that we would have had a prolonged and interesting debate on retrospective legislation on this point and had the services of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, whose expert knowledge on this subject we had so frequently in the last Parliament. I must say that I and my friends do not intend to carry this Amendment to a Division. Therefore, with the greatest reluctance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. T. Fraser

I beg to move, in page 2, line 34, to leave out "fifty-six" and insert "fifty-two."

Mr. Nugent

I wonder if the hon. Gentleman would consider also taking the Amendment in page 2, line 39, as I think the two are related.

Mr. Fraser

No, Sir. With great respect, they are quite separate. I hope the Joint Parliamentary Secretary accepts that. I want to recall what the Minister said on Second Reading. He said: Here again I wish to make it perfectly clear to the House that while the Bill contemplates that these fertiliser subsidies may be continued up to 30th June, 1956, or even longer through the procedure of affirmative Resolution, nevertheless the Government have given no undertaking that the fertiliser subsidies will in fact continue for so long a period. The power thus taken is permissive and what use is made of it will depend on the needs of agriculture and the prevailing financial circumstances during the next few years. I hope I have made that position clear to the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February; Vol. 496, c. 245.] These are the words of the Minister. This condition he has mentioned will have to be taken into account in the next few years, not only by the Minister but by the House of Commons. One has only to think of the discussions which have taken place in the last two or three years as to whether it is desirable that there should be a subsidy or a special subsidy injected into agriculture production. One thinks of the calf rearing subsidy introduced a few years ago.

There are no party politics in this. When we discussed the Orders, and when we discussed the subject in the Budget debate, and when we discussed the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, hon. Members on both sides expressed the view most forcibly that it would be better to give an increased price for beef than to pay the calf-rearing subsidy and so inject money into agriculture at some point in the course of production.

Equally, there are some Members in all parties who take the view that instead of having this subsidy it might be better to give an increased price to farmers for their scheduled price commodities. There is that argument. What I am asking is that this Bill should not empower the Minister to bring forward a scheme to run for three, four or more years. It would be wrong for the Minister to bring forward such a scheme. If he did, we could debate it and the House, if it thought fit, could reject it, but the House might think the scheme admirable in every respect except that it was to run for three, four or more years. The Minister has said we must keep this subject under review, and that we should do so from year to year, but it should be done not from 1956 but starting in 1952.

Both the Minister and the N.F.U. negotiators should be quite free to press changes at the succeeding Price Review —for instance, that there should be an increase in price for a product rather than that this subsidy should be continued. Some N.F.U. negotiators, seeing that this amount of money was to be granted, might suggest that it should be given to the farmer who produced the guaranteed price commodity, instead of having it more thinly spread over all farmers and occupiers of agricultural land, including horticulturalists. They might feel it should be paid to the farmer producing the commodities contained in the Schedule to the 1947 Act, which would include some horticulturalists—people producing potatoes—but which, by and large, would mean only the farmer.

These are things which ought to be left for further discussion year by year between the Ministers and the farmers' representatives. They ought to be open to discussion in the House. I take the view that these directional subsidies are an excellent thing; I favour them and I favour this method. I prefer to spend £10 million in this way to giving £10 million to the farmers in increased prices. But there are many who take the contrary view, and they have a right to express their view, and the Minister should take it into account as it is expressed from time to time. Circumstances can change so much in the course of a year that it is desirable to have a full review each year.

I am not speaking on the second Amendment, which the Joint-Parliamentary Secretary wanted us to discuss with this Amendment, but I submit that we should have an opportunity of having this review at any time after 1952. We should give the Minister power in this Bill, were it not amended, to bring forward a scheme which would run three or four or more years. We hope the Minister will be able to accept the Amendment. It is not denying him any powers, or denying farmers any subsidies at all. It means only that the scheme can be made in the first place only for the period about which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman made an agreement with the farmers quite recently and an announcement to the House of Commons in the early days of December.

Mr. Mikardo

I am sure, after the speech to which we have just listened, that the Minister will appreciate the advantages which would flow from his accepting this Amendment. I merely wish to observe, very briefly, how much greater those advantages would have been if my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) had not, misguidedly, as I thought, declined to move his Amendment, in page 2, line 33, to leave out "fifty-one" and to insert "fifty-two," and if that Amendment had been moved and accepted; because if both Amendments had been accepted the period to be specified for the purposes of this Clause would have been one not only not beginning earlier than 1st July, 1952, but ending not later than 30th June, 1952; that is to say, it would have come to an end slightly before it had begun.

The advantages of that, as, I am sure, the Minister will be the first to see, would have been very great. In the first place, he would have saved administrative costs which, he has told us, amount to about £30,000—a saving, I am quite sure, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have appreciated; second, this very difficult choice he has to make, between paying subsidy on claims from farmers and paying on claims from manufacturers, would have been greatly mitigated—if the period had been limited to one which ended before it began; third, of course, if we had this period, how much easier would have been the work of this Committee for the rest of tonight!

Mr. Nugent

The reason why this Clause is drafted in this way is, to fulfil two primary considerations which are embedded in the Bill. The whole intention of it is to give confidence to the farmers, so that they will use the maximum amount of fertilisers that are available, to grow the biggest crops that can be grown. In that context, it is essential to try to give some sort of continuity, so that farmers have confidence from one year to another that fertilisers will be at a price that they can afford.

My right hon. and gallant Friend decided to make part of the Special Price Review award in this way, and then put that in the form of a Bill, which has a longer term effect, because of his anxiety about the possible under use of fertilisers while the cost of procuring them is so very high as it is now. The Bill is so drafted that it gives him the chance of flexibility to run on from year to year with this scheme. Normally, he will revise the terms of the scheme from year to year, probably in the light of the new settlement, but he would be at a distinct disadvantage if he was bound by the terms of the Bill to present a fresh scheme each year to effect any changes he wished to make.

1.45 a.m.

There is also the consideration of the merchants, who have to purchase the greater part of these fertilisers abroad, in fairly competitive markets, and unless they have some reasonable confidence in the continuity of demand they will be handicapped in their future buying programmes. There is also the point that it is difficult to see how this scheme will evolve exactly. It is obviously desirable not to have too many jerks in the transmission, so to speak, or the sort of situation we have not now where farmers have not been taking the available supply, warehouses have been choked, and manufacturing capacity has not been used to the full because there was nowhere to put the fertiliser.

It is therefore desirable that the scheme should be designed so as to give the maximum continuity of demand from year to year. My right hon. Friend will wish to adjust it from year to year according to what is happening, in cost, rate of off-take, and so on, and the scheme is drafted this way to give effect to what I believe the whole Committee would accept as the general philosophy of the Bill.

Mr. G. Brown

The hon. Gentleman has addressed himself not to our Amendment or our arguments, but to different ones. We do not dispute the need for confidence over a long period, or the need for continuity. We are not arguing that the Bill should come to an end next year. We are arguing that the Minister, when he makes what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary called yearly changes, should come to the House and let us know all about them, and that since it is likely that there will need to be flexibility we should decide to proceed year by year. That is all. But that is not the argument to which the hon. Gentleman addressed himself.

This again shows the great difficulty of ever relying on assurances in this House. I have had my share of this particular wickedness, and I am prepared to stand in a white sheet with every other Minister. It is too often the temptation to put one thing in a Bill, give an assurance in the House—in good faith, as we always do—and then we find that somebody writes out a brief in the opposite sense and a wretched Minister has to read it. What the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said is opposed to what the Minister said in specific words on Second Reading.

My hon. Friend has already quoted from the Minister's speech, and a little lower down the same column the right hon. Gentleman said: I was dealing with the situation as we found it at that time—that is, when he came into office—but when the Government found it was necessary to legislate, the only right and sensible course to take was to see that we took powers, with the approval of the House, to continue this kind of help to the agricultural industry— and I invite the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's attention to the next lines— if the House in its wisdom, in due course of time, thought it was the right and proper thing to do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 245.] How would the House be able to exercise its wisdom and express its views unless, in fact, the Minister has to come to get an extension. I am certain that the Minister was speaking his mind and that of his Department on Second Reading, just as his hon. Friend was tonight; but the two minds and two things are different. If we give power tonight for the Bill to run to 1956, unless the Minister chooses to ask us, the House will not have power to express a view about the wisdom or otherwise of carrying it on.

The only interpretation we can put on the clear and specific words that the Minister used was that this Bill was being introduced to permit of a scheme to give effect to a bargain made at the Special Price Review in autumn last year. That bargain was to date from July last year and was to run out in June this year. He must have a Bill to give him authority to have a scheme for the year ending June, 1952. Although I do not share other people's complete enthusiasm for this method of doing it, we as a party accept that the Price Review was properly conducted and must be given effect to.

The Minister may decide at the annual Price Review now begun that it is a good thing to carry it on, or he may not. But if his words are to have the meaning he meant to attach to them, then obviously he should come back at the end of the year, for which he had to provide in a hurry, and get the view of the House whether it should go on.

That is strengthened by something he said tonight. Earlier the Minister was discussing with us the method of payment, and he said that he will see how this scheme runs and maybe in the next one he may want to do it differently. The assumptions he made there were quite in keeping with his speech on Second Reading. Why should we not have the Bill drafted in the way he is quite clearly assuming that he intends to go about it? He assumed that he would come down to the House for another Order after June of this year. If we leave the Bill in this condition we get into the difficulty that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary got into. Somebody in his Department—obviously not the person who provided the Minister's brief—provides him with a different brief altogether, and we get two Ministers from the same Department saying two different things altogether.

It does not at all follow that we shall get the new Order in July. I press the Minister and his hon. Friend on this. The first scheme is being very hurriedly put together. It has many weaknesses about it. We ought to have time to consider the next scheme when we are not hurriedly putting right a bargain made six months before us and extending back a year before us. Therefore, I think it is most important that we ought only to authorise this first scheme because it is part of the bargain. The next scheme ought to get the proper approval of the House, because we might then want a lengthy discussion which we cannot have tonight without keeping the Committee an unreasonable time. Incidentally, it is to be hoped that the next Order comes on earlier in the day.

I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister not to treat this lightly. Because there is complete confusion and contradiction between the Minister on Second Reading and again tonight, and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight, I think we are entitled to some other explanation. Of course one wants to make progress, and if the Minister can say he will reconsider this between now and the next stage, I shall accept that on the understanding that we shall return to that at the next stage if he felt unable to put it right. But we cannot have the position that the Bill is drafted in conflict with what the Minister says he specifically intends it to do and then his colleague comes down here and justifies the Bill in contradiction of his speech. I hope the Minister, therefore, will be able to give us some better assurance.

Mr. Nugent

I am sorry that my observations did not satisfy the right hon. Gentleman. I did address myself to the point that he has now said I did not. The argument that I put was that it was framed in this way so that if my right hon. and gallant Friend wished, for some good reason, a scheme to run for more than one year, the Bill as now drafted had the necessary flexibility so that he could do so. I went on to make the point that usually he would probably wish to vary the scheme from year to year, and very likely in relation to the settlement in the Price Review.

However, I realise that the right hon. Gentleman has a point of substance, that this is a scheme of importance where large sums of public money are being spent, and the fact is one of concern to this House. It is a problem to reconcile the intrinsic needs of the scheme with the necessary measure of Parliamentary control. At this stage I cannot accept the Amendment, but I will give an undertaking that we will think about it to see whether we can suggest any alternative form of words which will give my right hon. and gallant Friend the flexibility which he needs to operate this Bill successfully, at the same time meeting, as far as we can, the points which the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) and the right hon. Gentleman have made. I cannot give any specific undertaking that we shall be able to do so, but we will try to do so.

Mr. T. Fraser

I am obliged to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the undertaking that he has just given to us. I think he need have no fear that if this date is altered the agricultural industry will be filled with alarm and despondency. If he or his Ministry had thought that the farmers assumed when this Bill was published that the fertiliser subsidy would automatically run until at least 1956, they must have had a shock when they read the words uttered by the Minister which I quoted a few minutes ago. He made it quite clear that there was no undertaking that the subsidy would run for as long as that.

Speaking personally, I hope it will go for much longer than that. I want to give an assurance to the farmers and I want the farmers to have confidence in the continuity of some such scheme. However, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has now appreciated that there is considerable substance in the point we have made. He has given an undertaking that he and his right hon. and gallant Friend will have another look at this before the next stage of the Bill, and I have pleasure in trying to discontinue this part of our discussion.

In asking leave to withdraw the Amendment, I must say that we feel strongly upon the matter. We know the Minister cannot say specifically now what he is going to do but, if he is not able to put something on the Order Paper later, he must not be surprised if we do. We hope it will not be necessary.

2.0 a.m.

Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I have listened carefully to the arguments. In considering the assurance which the Minister gives, may I say that the question of the date and the length of time of running of the scheme should not be shortened, but, if possible, some method of Parliamentary control, year to year, should be inserted? I feel the suggestion curtailing the date is too drastic, but I appreciate the point made that there should be Parliamentary control from year to year.

Mr. T. Fraser

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. George Brown

I beg to move, page 2, line 39, to leave out from "be", to the end of line 42, and to insert: extended by not more than twelve months on any one such occasion. We are dealing with a very difficult and rather complicated Clause, or, at any rate, Subsection of the Clause. As it is drafted, it is somewhat difficult to get the hang of it. I confess, frankly, that I have had some difficulty in framing an Amendment which would give effect to our intention and fit in with the somewhat cumbersome wording that necessarily, perhaps, has been put in the Clause. We have had the argument whether the first scheme ought to be in a position to run for five years. The argument now before the Committee is whether we should pass a Bill which not only provides for schemes over the next five years but, at this stage and time, provides for schemes to continue forever and leaves the Bill so widely drafted that once the first five years are over, the next scheme could go on forever.

Here again, I am sure the Minister would say, "Of course, I will never do that." The Joint Parliamentary Secretary, too, would say, that the Minister will want to come back to Parilament and ask the House about it. But the Bill does not do that. There is, in fact, no limit. I have done some hunting of precedents since I swapped over to this side. I have some precedents with me if the Committee would like to have them quoted. I cannot find easily a Bill which took authority to spend annually £10 million, which could be extended to £50 million—that is, £10 million a year for five years, as the Bill is at present drafted —without further Parliamentary control and then can go on, without any limit to its life, spending £10 million, as can be done under this Bill.

This is not a Bill to give farmers £10 million because of the Price review. This is a Bill to give them £10 million in perpetuity and without any further Parliamentary control at the end of five years, unless the Minister chooses to ask for it. I had the somewhat melancholy experience the other day of leaving this bench and going to a back bench to do battle on behalf of the agricultural industry with the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans), whose views I thought most misguided and rather damaging. Frankly, having done that, I am not willing to be put in the position of having to argue that I am prepared to go to this extent or that the industry needs to go to this extent to provide a subvention, the limit of which is not controlled by anybody in the House. We want continuity and confidence. We will not get it by buying it in this way. And again I say one cannot rely only upon an assurance from the Minister that he would not do it.

The safest thing for everybody is to put in this Bill that it can be extended for one year at a time. By six or seven years this scheme will be beginning to be a pretty long job and we shall know where we are. And if we are to have it go on for ever we should provide for that by permanent legislation and not by statutory instrument. It is in the interest of everybody, and certainly in the interest of Parliamentary government, that we should have annual control over the scheme after five years. I hope the Minister will accept our Amendment or put down a similar one of his own to ensure that after 1956, or after 1952 if he accepts our previous point, any extension shall be by annual extension.

Mr. Hale

It seems to me this is quite the most objectionable Clause in the Bill from many points of view, and I am very glad that the hon. Member for Heeley (Mr. P. Roberts) made the intervention he did. This is not a party matter. This practice has been going on for a considerable time and it is getting worse. I have never been in favour of delegated legislation at any time, although one realises it is a necessary evil.

No doubt examples can be culled from the statutes because we do not notice all these extensions, but I do not recollect seeing anything before quite as remarkable as this. The only redeeming feature is that it has to be passed affirmatively by each House, though one knows, even so, how infrequently there is opportunity to discuss a matter of this kind.

There is something coming gradually into force which is very much worse than delegated legislation—which, after all, has a Parliamentary origin and remote control. It is the sort of thing we had in the Home Guard Act and again in this Bill in which Parliament is asked to sign a blank cheque or a series of blank cheques. And not merely sign blank cheques but a blank authority to blank persons to renew them and to use our signatures on a series of cheques to be issued by them under powers delegated under this provision.

This is getting quite fantastic and objectionable. I know I should prove out of order if I argued this point now, but even if I am out of order now I hope I may develop it on the Motion that the Clause stand part of the Bill where discussion of it might be more appropriate. The position is that the scheme can be issued at any time, that it specifies a date and that that date can be extended by a future scheme. And so one goes on as long as one does not let the final scheme expire. I see the Joint Parliamentary Secretary smiling, but I have read the words. I agree that they are pretty unintelligible, but I do not regard that as conclusive evidence of merit.

The words say: Provided that provision may be made on one or more occasions by an order made by the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Secretary of State acting jointly, and subject to the approval of the Treasury,— We have all three witches together at once. No one has specified what would happen if they do not agree— for authorising the period to be so specified to be one ending not later than a date specified in the order, being a date subsequent to the said thirtieth day of June or to the date specified in the last preceding order, as the case may be. So far as I know that really means that it goes on for ever. The final date is specified as 1956, but under the power of the first sentence the date is 1957. Then in 1957 a new order is issued push- ing the date further on in precisely the same manner as the example of the bigger fleas having smaller fleas upon their backs to bite them, except that the size of the fleas would go up instead of coming down as in the biological example to which I have referred.

I suggest that this is really going too far. What the Committee is asked to pass tonight is a Bill which authorises a completely undefined sum of money for a generalised purpose which we are told is being particularised in practice. We are told that the Government are taking powers to deal with the whole range of commodities, but are not prepared to do it on a definite financial basis because we are told that we can go up to a half and from a half down to nothing, but that it is going to be about a third for a period which is barely specified and which can be extended from time to time without reference to anybody except this gentleman in the Treasury to whom reference has been made in the course of our deliberations.

This is not a party matter, but is it not bringing us back to the gentleman who returned from the Colonies and took a look at this House and said, "Do you still go on with that nonsense there?" Any hon. Member reading this Bill and this Clause will come to the conclusion that the Committee is being asked to do much what the Cabinet have to do in the first instance, to give a general approval to the details of a scheme or to the proposals of a scheme which normally would come before Parliament and would be dealt with in detail in Committee line by line as we did with Bills some six years ago. Now the Committee are being asked to give a general approval to a general benevolent intention.

Brigadier Christopher Peto (Devon, North)

You have said that already.

Mr. Hale

Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman wish me to give way, because if he really has anything to say he should rise to his feet.

Brigadier Peto

I was just remarking that the hon. Gentleman had already made the same remark at least once if not twice before.

Mr. Hale

I venture to say that if the hon. and gallant Gentleman refers to HANSARD he will find that his state- ment is devoid of both truth and accuracy. Even if I am wrong, the observations I am making are important, and I will make them again. Since the undertaking was given to the Patronage Secretary at about 20 minutes to one, I do not think I have used more than five or ten minutes of the time of the Committee and I have withdrawn every Amendment standing in my name. In these circumstances it is a little discourteous of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has himself taken no part in this discussion to make such a remark. The lack of agricultural knowledge shown by hon. Members opposite in this debate is astonishing in a Government which purports to represent agricultural interests. I think we should be spared discourteous comments of that kind. This is a very serious matter, and I hope that on Report the Minister will be prepared to be as reasonable as he has been in many matters tonight. We have appreciated his attitude very much.

I will conclude by saying that the House must retain control over its affairs. We said at an earlier stage that matters were being referred to the Treasury, but on this Clause we are now getting to the fact that matters will not be referred to this House or only in the form of a brief extending order giving a date which will be forced through by a vote, which will not be discussed on its merits, and which can only be taken in the form of an affirmative vote. I do support my right hon. Friend in this matter, which is a serious one, and one to which some attention should be given,

2.15 a.m.

Mr. Nugent

Perhaps I could shorten this discussion by saying that we shall be pleased to give the undertaking which the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have asked for. This is much related to the previous point, and we shall be willing to look at both of them again before Report to see what can be done to meet the intrinsic needs of the Bill and at the same time give the necessary measure of Parliamentary control.

Mr. G. Brown

I am grateful to the Minister and his hon. Friend for meeting us and must say that anyone who thinks we have been overstating the case must have regard to the importance of the points we have raised and need to look at them again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.