HC Deb 25 July 1952 vol 504 cc1035-44

Motion made, and Question proposed. That the Draft Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th July, be approved.—[Sir T. Dugdale.]

2.32 p.m.

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

I do not want to prolong our proceedings. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary is getting hungry; I am, and I also have a train to catch very shortly.

There are three or four questions that I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary about this Order. When we originally discussed this question the Minister was asked how much he expected to get in the way of increased acreage ploughed up as a result of the Order, and he made a guess of something like 500,000 acres and told us that on that basis a cost of £2½ million had been arrived at, because it was five times 500,000. Since then there have been at least two subsequent guesses. In one 600,000 acres and in another 700,000 were mentioned.

The June returns must now be in the possession of the Ministry. Some preliminary examination must have been made. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us a little more accurately what the figure should be. Is it 700,000? If so, the cost will now be much greater than £2½ million. Only £2½ million was allowed for in the Price Review. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us how much we are to pay, and how much that will be in excess of the allowance mentioned in the February Price Review?

There is no indication in the explanatory memorandum attached to the Order. I know that many protests have been made. I am not a purist in these matters, but I do add my little meed to the general protest that the explanatory memorandum should be so sketchy and that there should be such a paucity of information. I hope that those responsible in the Department will, in future, see that the explanatory memorandum is what it is really meant to be.

We should like to know what the cost is, how many acres there are, and if the cost is very much more than £2½ million, as I suspect it is—probably half as much again—what is going to be done about that money and what will be the effect on the Price Review.

I ask the House to look at paragraph 3 (b). We had a long discussion on the Agriculture (Ploughing) Grant Act, when it was a Bill, on the question of approved crops, and the debate was conducted on the assumption on both sides that no grant would be paid unless there was a follow-up not only with the land ploughed up, but that it was cropped with one of the approved crops. These are set out in the Schedule. I cannot understand why there is provision for some crops which are not approved crops being allowed and paid, for at the discretion of the Minister. There seems to be no reason for it.

I do not know if the idea is that this would allow re-seeding and thus rank for payment. If so, I do not see why the Order should not say so. I regard this as one of those things which draftsmen like to include in such an Order so that they are never caught out and so that whatever happens there are some words in the Order which will save them. I do not think it is right that that should happen.

I now come to paragraph 7. I have previously said that I thought it was a bad thing that we should pay for any inefficient work, and that certainly it was not right to pay for work when we had not been allowed to see whether it had been done properly. We were told "That is a matter of administration, but we will make some arrangements to reduce the cost." The wording here is very wide indeed. Where the Minister thinks that either of the things mentioned in paragraph 7 have happened, he can specify a grant not greater than he considers reasonable. Of course, that would enable him to make a grant of £10 or £20.

What is more to the point is: who is to operate this discretion? Is it to be the county agricultural executive committees? If so, presumably the Minister will give the committees instructions upon which to work. I have been a member of a county agricultural executive committee, and I am certain that we could never have operated an Order worded like this. We should have had to have some instructions. The claims will be coming in. The date of the Bill is the end of August. Payment will have to be made soon, so presumably instructions have gone out to the committees.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary say what is to be the yardstick of measurement—how one will decide what is inefficiency and how much will be paid? Is it to be a half, a quarter or three-quarters, or is every disputed claim coming to the Minister? If so, we ought to be told how the Minister intends to do this.

On paragraph 8, I am surprised that we provide a discretion for the Minister to set against this grant any other grant to which a farmer may be entitled. That should not have been discretionary; it should be mandatory. It is a very good principle of government that one does not pay twice for the same thing. If the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance were here he would agree that a person is not given a pension twice over, even though he may have two separate entitlements. I would have thought that what is a good principle there would be a good principle here as well.

If a man already gets a grant for this work, why should he get another grant under this Measure? I should have thought that this provision ought not to be discretionary but absolutely mandatory. I should like an assurance that however the provision is framed here, the Minister does not intend to pay twice.

2.39 p.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

There are two points in which I am interested in particular, because some of the farmers in my constituency are hill farmers. I am glad that reference has been made to paragraph 7, which says: Where in the opinion of the Minister—

  1. (a) the ploughing or any further operation in respect of which a grant under this scheme may be made has been inefficiently carried out,
  2. (b) adequate facilities for the inspection of the land in respect of which such a grant may be made have not been given,
the grant shall not be of an amount greater than the Minister considers reasonable. Just as everybody is keen to see that Members of Parliament do their job efficiently with the money they get we, too, are inclined to say that if a job has been carried out inefficiently there should be some penalty and there should be some adequate check.

I come from an area where the small farmer is not getting the attention he deserves and, rightly or wrongly, there is a growing suspicion in the agricultural committees that weight is thrown on the side of the big farmer in the matter of distribution, grants and even facilities for getting them. After all, four-fifths of the farms in England are under 100 acres. Most farms in my area are around 20 or 25 acres.

I should like to ask an important question from the point of view of the small farmer. The scheme says, in paragraph 9: Any person who desires to apply for a grant to be made in accordance with the provisions of this scheme shall apply to the Minister—

  1. (a) in writing in such form as the Minister may from time to time require, and
  2. (b) before the 31st day of August, 1952, or before such later date as the Minister may in special circumstances allow."
Is the Minister quite certain that every opportunity is made available for these small farmers to get the subsidies to which they may be entitled? The Government have asked for an increase of 15 per cent. in food production by 1956. Despite all these ploughing grants and the grant of £5 an acre, during the last 20 years 74,000 men have left the land and, through some economic quip, the fear that exists at the moment in this most important industry, which keeps our pantry shelves stocked, is that it is having its manpower taken away. Even the village blacksmith is taken away apparently in order to keep the country secure.

When the country is at its highest point of firing power and its lowest point in food production how long do the party opposite think that they can keep up the defence of these islands? [An HON. MEMBER: "What is the point?"] The point is that none of these grants and none of these artificial fillips that are being given to the industry will make up for a policy which does not allow enough steel to make the ploughs and which, the other day, reduced the amount of steel allocated to the industry by 10 per cent. It is not making up for the manpower that is being taken away; it is not making up for the inefficiency in drainage and for the old-fashioned farmhouses in which the little men live —buildings that are as inefficient for farming as this building is for legislating.

The figure for feedingstuffs the year before last amounted to £16.2 million. That figure has now dropped to £11.2 million. There has been a terrific drop in our imports of feedingstuffs. I hope that this Scheme will increase the amount that we produce at home. Has the Minister an estimate of what this £5 an acre will give us in increased feedingstuffs, what the dollar saving will be and what acreage of land might thereby be put under the plough?

Marginal land, like the marginal man, is something which is very difficult to define. Nobody quite seems to know what it is. I have talked to people in my own area about it and they do not know. Will any of the so-called marginal land come under the plough as a result of this grant and, if it does, will we see that the country's money is not wasted by pushing our plough-shares above a contour line that is too high and is an entire waste of money.

I have spoken to scores of small farmers and—it may be prejudice or lack of knowledge of farming technique, and, on the other hand, it may be a question of the "know how" of farming which is inbred in these men—they say, "We knew in the beginning that it would not give us a penny if we tried to put that field at such-and-such a point under the plough." Will the Minister make sure that before the Government give these grants, in the spirit of adventure which they say they possess, they will make full use of local knowledge, so that this money is not spent willy-nilly on subsidies in the small areas?

With regard to the increase in the ploughing grant I am worried about the small man. We want more mechanisation on his farm, but if we study the cost per hour of a tractor we find that it is anything from 4s. to 7s. 1d. If we make these ploughing grants to increase the amount of fodder or crops and the cost of machinery is too heavy the country will get little out of it.

Consequently, I hope that the Government will, at the same time, encourage the smaller men to adopt some system of co-operation in the use of tractors and other farm machinery. It is an uneconomical proposition for a small man to buy a tractor even for ploughing, because the tractor is used for so very few hours of the year on the small farms. I hope that the Government and the nation as a whole will look at this problem of co-operation in the use of machinery and tractors in the districts of the small farmers.

The Government ought to be very ashamed of having increased the Bank rate. This Government were going to create a property-owning democracy, but the small farmer today is having a very thin time getting credit from his bank. If we want to expand this industry—which is just as important as the armaments industry—opportunities and facilities should be given to the small man to enable him to get the credit that he deserves.

It is no good the Government saying that the richest jewel in the Tory crown is the countryside and the farmer. He has been that for a long, long time and, through some quip of his judgment, he did not believe that my Government gave him the squarest deal he has ever had. But that richest jewel in the Tory crown is suddenly beginning to realise that, despite the subsidies for ploughing and despite the calf grants, when he wants to use his initiative in the merchant venturer spirit about which the Prime Minister told us he has to crawl to his bank manager, screwing up his cap in his hand, after a hard day's work, only to find before him the hard face of a Tory financier, who says, "I am sorry, but you cannot get the credit for this expansion." This scheme will mean very little in terms of expansion unless the points which I have spoken of briefly and, I hope, amicably, are borne in mind by the Parliamentary Secretary.

2.50 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I want to deal briefly with the points raised by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). His first query was with regard to the acreage we expected and the cost thereof. The original estimate, which he rightly says was made by my right hon. Friend, was that we might expect to get an application for about half a million acres at a cost of £2½ million.

The best estimate we can give now is that the England and Wales acreage will be between 400,000 and 450,000 acres, and that of Northern Ireland between 100,000 and 150,000 acres, making a total of 500,000 to 600,000 acres for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although Scotland is not affected by this Order, the House will want to know the total and it is estimated that the Scottish acreage will be about 200,000, making a total for the U.K. of between 700,000 and 800,000 acres. The total cost, therefore, would be between £3,500,000 and £4 million for the two schemes, with £1 million deducted for Scotland.

It is true that it was originally estimated that the first scheme would cost £2,500,000, but the total sum allowed at the Price Review in this year was £3.4 million, so that the estimate was not very far out. The House will, I am sure, understand that with these subsidies, whether they are for fertilisers or for ploughing up, it is never possible to estimate exactly what the response will be. In the Fertiliser Scheme, for instance, the use of fertilisers in the past 12 months was a good deal below the estimated quantity, so that farmers recouped considerably less than the amount anticipated. These figures are taken one against another at the Price Review, and if there is a plus or minus it is taken into account in the preparation for the coming Review.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what was meant by Clause 3 (b) of the scheme, which says: … such other crop as may in exceptional circumstances be agreed to by the Minister. This provision was inserted as a special provision to meet the case where the land being ploughed was in an exceptionally rough condition and where, in the opinion of the county committee concerned, it justified the planting of a pioneer crop, such as Italian rye grass or chicory, which are not in the Schedule, before it was finally brought into production. It was not anticipated that such discretion would be needed often, but it would be needed on occasion, just as it has been required occasionally in high lands in Wales.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

That means that it will be operated by the county agricultural executive committee for the Ministry?

Mr. Nugent

That is so Of course, the Minister is responsible, but he would be advised by the county committee as to where an appropriate case arose.

I was asked a question on paragraph 7—why is this latitude given and how will it be operated by the Minister? I can assure the House that under paragraph 7 (b), where adequate facilities had not been given by the farmer for inspection to be made, no grant would be paid in any event: but, under Clause 7 (a), where the operation has not been carried out as efficiently as it might have been, it is a matter for the county committee to decide whether part of the grant should be paid.

I am sure that the House will not want me to go into great detail now, for we have had some fairly long discussions on the subject in Committee, and it is sufficient to say that this provision has been in schemes in the past and that this small discretion of the Minister, acting on the advice of the county committees, has been useful on occasions when the county committees have felt that the work has not been done quite as well as it should have been done but that, nevertheless, some grant was justified. I hope that the House will approve the provision, made in the same terms.

On paragraph 8, I was asked why this reduction was not mandatory. First of all, this is a common form of words— to use "may" rather than "must"; but, in fact, there is also a technical point. Where a scheme is promoted under the Livestock Rearing Act, the grant is made as a percentage of the total cost of the whole scheme, but where it is promoted under the Marginal Production Scheme, the grant is made as a percentage of the net cost. The ploughing grant might have been paid on the fields concerned under the Marginal Production Scheme, and then, with that deducted, another grant paid as a percentage of the net sum remaining. There is a technical point, therefore, about why the word "may" is appropriate.

I can assure the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. H. Davies) that the main object of this subsidy is to help the small farmer, for we recognise that a higher end price of crops will not give him the same measure of reward that it gives to the big farmer, who gets a larger yield per acre. Throughout the scheme we have had very much in mind the special needs of the small farmer. The hon. Gentleman, and small farmers in the country, can be assured that there is no ground for suspicion that the grants are not fairly paid to small, large and medium farmers alike, exactly according to the acreage which they plough up. The hon. Gentleman can also be assured that by Press notices and, generally, by a very full discussion in the farming Press, every farmer in the country is well aware of this scheme. I do not think any grants will fail to be paid for lack of application by the farmer.

It is impossible to tell the hon. Gentleman accurately the increased acreage we expect. We know that a certain acreage of four-year-old grass would have been ploughed up this spring in any case, but exactly what that would have been and what is the net increase it is impossible to say. I think I can safely tell him that of the total acreage of between 700,000 and 800,000 acres, a very substantial part will be an increase in acreage. If we take an average yield of one ton to the acre, which one might reasonably expect, it is evident that we have a net increase of several hundred thousand tons of grain and feedingstuffs, which will be a valuable addition to the larder and will represent a big saving in dollars.

Turning next to the question about marginal land, I can assure him that very little marginal land will be brought into the scheme, because the cost of bringing marginal land into production is so high Normally, a farmer would not wish to put that straight under a food crop. The problem of bringing into production marginal land is one that we are now considering, to see how we can deal with it in one scheme, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the provision that we shall make for dealing with it will allow us to take into account carefully local opinion to ensure that what is done will, in fact, be of net economic benefit to the nation.

I think that that, broadly, covers the points to which I have been asked to reply, and I hope that the House will now approve the Order.

Question put, and agreed to

Resolved, That the Draft Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th July, be approved.

Resolved, That the Draft Agriculture (Ploughing Grants) (Scotland) Scheme, 1952, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th July, be approved.—[Mr. Snadden.]