HC Deb 16 June 1952 vol 502 cc887-98

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Paget

I beg to move, in page 2, line 23, at the end, to insert: and for all subsequent schemes shall include the period from the first day of October to the fifteenth day of April. This Clause provides that the first scheme to be made under this Bill will operate from 5th February, 1952. The Minister has explained to us why that date was selected. It was because his tillage acreage was falling back. He wanted to urge people who had not decided to plough to change their minds at the last moment, and to get additional ploughing done in consequence. So 5th February was chosen as a surprise date to say, "Look here, you chaps who have not ploughed, if you will change your minds we will give you £5 an acre." I think that is a fair way of putting it. I think that the Minister will agree with me that 5th February was very nearly too late to plough grass.

The hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) raised the question of bare farrow earlier in the debate, and I had a little argument about it with the Parliamentary Secretary. If we are to plough grass, the time we ought to plough it, and much the best time to plough it, is before the winter frosts, so that the weed roots are broken up by the winter frosts. That will clean the field for the next crop. I do not say that if we get a mild winter that it will kill absolutely everything, but, broadly speaking, if we turn up the roots to the frost that will clean the field.

It will also do quite a lot towards destroying the redworm and wireworm which will otherwise be a pest. The late ploughing of grass rather increases the wireworm and redworm risk, and it also means that the field will not be as clean, nor will there be as good a till, as if it had been turned up in time for the frost to get into it.

What I am sure we do not want is for farmers to delay their ploughing for another year, and to say, "Last year I ploughed mine in October or November. Bill Jones delayed his until February. He got £5 an acre; I did not. I am not going to be a mug this time; I am going to delay my ploughing until the Ministry say that they have not enough ploughing and put on a subsidy."

I am sure that that is something which the Minister does not want to happen. Therefore, I think that it is highly-important to say, quite clearly, "We did it this year but we are never going to do it again, and, therefore, we are making this quite clear to every farmer: if you plough early you will never again be penalised." I think it is very important that notice should be given in the Bill to every farmer.

The right hon. Gentleman must realise that the present scheme has created countless grievances throughout the countryside. The man who ploughed his grass before 4th February is furious with the man who ploughed it afterwards. I do not say that it was not right to put that date or that it should not have been done, but it would be quite wrong to leave the impression with anybody that it is to happen again or that there was occasion to wait for it.

I have in my Amendment two dates which seem to cover the proper period for ploughing grassland. I do not insist on those dates, but the Minister would be well advised to put in dates covering what he regards as the best period, purely from a husbandry point of view, for ploughing grassland. He should also make it clear in the Bill to all farmers that they shall never again be penalised for ploughing grassland in the best period.

The Minister should say to the farmers, "It is too bad that you have been penalised this year, and we are very sorry about it, but do not farm badly next year in the hope that you will be rewarded for doing so, as farmers have been this year. If you plough at the right time next year you will get any subsidy that is going. There will never again be a special subsidy for people who have ploughed at a time other than the best." It is important that that should be expressed in the Bill.

Mr. Snadden

As a practical farmer, I have considerable sympathy with what has been said by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), specially in regard to frosts, for it is almost elementary to say that the best results are achieved by exposing land to frosts throughout the winter and that a very much better tilth is thus obtained in the spring.

I also realise that behind the Amendment there is probably the idea that because of the kind of scheme we have had to introduce this year there is a certain amount of discontent as the ploughing grant became applicable only in February. I realise that some of the better farmers feel aggrieved and penalised because their ploughing has not ranked for grant. Against that, a lot of land which could not be ploughed during the winter because of severe frost has in consequence ranked for grant having been ploughed later than it would otherwise have been.

The first scheme was a special short-term emergency scheme. It was the first step that we could take as a new Government in the policy of trying to stem the fall in our tillage acreage. It is certainly intended that the second scheme which is to be put forward as part of the Government's longer-term programme shall cover the whole of next autumn and the spring ploughing season. We feel it is undesirable to include in the Bill anything so binding as that suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman. In Scotland, because of the later season, it would not be too late to plough at the finishing date in the Amendment.

Mr. Paget

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has entirely understood the matter. The Amendment says: and for all subsequent schemes shall include the period… That does not mean that a scheme cannot start before 1st October or end after 15th April; it merely includes that period. The idea is that we must not discourage people from ploughing at the right time.

Mr. Snadden

This may be a legal question, but I am advised that it would mean the opposite of what the hon. and learned Gentleman said. In any event it does not affect my argument. We do not want to be bound with dates in this Bill, because it is conceivable that conditions may arise at some future time when, for instance, for Price Review, a grant may have to be terminated at certain times. We do not feel we should like to put specifically in this Bill any particular date, because we would be bound for all time to adhere to those dates.

I think I am right in recollecting that the Agriculture Development Act, 1939, was a case in point. An argument arose then as to the advisability of putting dates into the Bill, and it was decided that it was undesirable to do so because at some future time, for reasons which could not be fdreseen, there would be a desire to alter the dates and that would mean bringing in a Bill which would be a rather cumbersome way of dealing with a question of this sort.

The hon. and learned Gentleman can be assured that in the second scheme full provision will be made to cover an entire period which is what he has in mind. I hope, therefore, that he will not press his Amendment.

Mr. G. Brown

On the contrary, it is a little tiresome—and I have no doubt that Oppositions who were here before us have felt the same—for Ministers to read prepared speeches saying why they cannot accept an Amendment, and then, when it is pointed out to them that they have misconceived the point of the Amendment, say, "Well, we do not want to put it in the Bill and that is the end of it. In any case we will do it so why bother about it." That is no answer to the point. If the point is a good one, we want a specific reason why it should not be put in the Bill; if it is a bad one let us hear some argument about it.

The Minister of Agriculture has been silent on the Bill all day. I gather that so many speeches have been quoted against him that he has decided not to give any more hostages to fortune. He is not going to make any more speeches for that reason, but if it will help him I will not quote him on the Bill. It is unfortunate that he cannot get up this evening and defend his own child, but he might inform us on the subject. I personally hope there will not be another scheme. I can understand the argument for a ploughing scheme this year, but I do not like the idea of a general scheme, because it is possible that there will be included in the ploughing up far more routine ploughing than new ploughing, so that the thing becomes too expensive per new acre.

The Minister wants the power in the Bill to introduce second and further schemes, and if that is so we must have it in such a form that we know what he wants to do. My hon. and learned Friend has quite rightly made the point that we want to be sure that the men are not discouraged from ploughing up when they want to do it. The point on which the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland went wrong is that this Amendment does not state a period within which the ground has to be ploughed up to qualify, but gives a clear assurance that before the next cropping season arrives they will be covered.

9.15 p.m.

I agree very much with my hon. and learned Friend that there is much feeling in the country about this matter. Many people have followed the line which Mr. A. G. Street has been writing about vigorously in one of the farming journals, that they were caught, that they were treated unfairly, that they were mugs, as my hon. and learned Friend has put it. There is very strong feeling about it. Since the Government intend to do what we propose, we obviously want to have it stated in the Bill that every scheme shall include a period between two dates. That will leave the Ministry with all the discretion and freedom they want to make schemes as they please. They can put in the final date. I assume that there will be a final date after which ploughing up will not earn a grant. It will be a very serious matter if there is not.

All that the Minister has to do is to make up his mind what the position will be next year. I ask him not to reject the Amendment simply on the ground that somebody has written a little document saying: "Better not put this one into the Bill." There are good reasons for putting it into the Bill, and my hon. and learned Friend has given many of them. For all that panoply of weighty reasons, some from the Minister's own side, I hope that he will think about it again.

Mr. Paget

While there is a certain amount of coming and going on the Government Front Bench, I should like to explain what the Amendment means, as a matter of construction. If the Minister will look at Clause 2 (2), he will see these words: The period specified for the purposes of this section in the first scheme under this Act for any country shall be. Then come the words: the period beginning with the fifth day of February. Now comes the proposed Amendment: and for all subsequent schemes shall include the period from the first day of October to the fifteenth day of April. The right hon. Gentleman will note the contrast between those words "shall be" and "shall include." The larger includes the lesser.

The purpose of this Amendment is to make quite certain that the period for any future scheme shall include the best period for ploughing, from a husbandry point of view. It may include a longer period than that, in order to cover places in Scotland where ploughing has to be later. It shall at least include the important period when ploughting has to take place. It is insufficient to come and say to us, "We shall always put that period in any future scheme," because we shall still have the man who has been bitten and irritated this time. Nobody can be so irritated as a farmer who has been made a mug of, particularly when his next-door neighbour has been smart. Pay or no pay, he will be resolutely determined not to miss the subsidy next time.

It is very important, therefore, that this matter should be in black and white in the Bill so that it can appear in all the agricultural Press. Do not take my dates. Take any dates which it is thought will cover the right time for ploughing and make it clear that the Bill provides that on all future occasions the right time for ploughing shall be included—the larger period shall be included—so that if a farmer does his ploughing during that period he will be all right for any future subsidy. It is essential that that be told him in the Bill.

Sir T. Dugdale

I do not think we want these words in the Bill. It would be rather untidy to have them. Let me accept straightaway what the hon. and learned Gentleman said. Subsection (2) refers to the emergency scheme. That scheme has been successful, and I hope that I shall be able to tell the Committee how much has been ploughed up under that scheme when we come to discuss it. The Parliamentary Secretary only gave an indication of what has been achieved, which was all that he could do. I hope the Committee will agree to leave subsection (2) as it is, dealing with the one scheme only, and then we can get on to subsection (3) which deals with possible future schemes. Perhaps I shall have a word to say about that in reply to the next Amendment which may be discussed.

In passing, I would remind hon. Members that the previous administration had a ploughing-up Bill of this nature during a period of time. They did not put any date for the scheme in that Measure because of its obvious disadvantages, but in every scheme they put a specific date, as we have said we shall do here. The date chosen by the previous Government was the calendar year, that is, from 1st January to 31st December. I am not saying that is the best date to put in, though it may be as good as any other in the circumstances of the time. However, I am certain that we do not want to clutter up the Bill with any specific date. I can give the Committee a firm assurance that as long as I have the privilege of occupying my present position, no scheme will start on 5th February again as this first scheme does, owing to the Parliamentary situation in the country at that time.

Mr. Paget

Before the right hon. and gallant Gentleman sits down, could he not go a little further than that? Clearly he was advised that the Amendment had a different meaning and purpose from what he thought it had. In view of that, will he have another look at it? It may be that this is the wrong place to put it, but it seems to me important that farmers should have some assurance in this Bill that it will not again pay to postpone their ploughing.

Sir T. Dugdale

I do not think it is necessary, but I am prepared to look at it on the understanding that my mind is completely open and that I do not give any promise one way or the other.

Mr. Hale

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said definitely that there would be a scheme for next winter, which will be scheme No. 2. That throws a different light on the situation. The Parliamentary Secretary said that bare fallow is necessary in many cases and that it must be subsidised where it is required.

I doubt whether anyone would suggest in England that land ploughed about 31st May this year will be any better or any more productive in 1953, left as bare fallow, than land ploughed on 1st October of this year. At the moment the man who has rushed in to get the subsidy but who does not intend to develop this year will get the subsidy, and there is no assurance for the man who is planning to do it during the winter and during the ploughing season. That is the second misapprehension, if I may say so with respect.

The Under-Secretary said there was some doubt whether the word "include" meant "include." I have heard some argument about the word "comprise," because it has an etymological derivation somewhat similar to "comprehend" and it means a different thing. There is no question that the meaning of the Amendment is merely that we should include a legitimate period for normal ploughing, so that, as my hon. and learned Friend says, people can know in advance what they are going to do.

We have had some talk about the area of farms. The great majority of farms in this country are of the order of less than 30 acres and are very small farms. Even now, in these times, when farming, under a Labour Government, has improved very greatly and has become a more prosperous and more successful and a better planned endeavour, there are very many small farmers who have to make arrangements with other farmers for the sharing of labour, mechanical ploughs, and so on, in order to get their ploughing done in the best way, and they have to make arrangements in advance.

Therefore, it is very important that they should know what is going to happen, that they should be able to refer to what is in the Bill or what the "Farmer and Stockbreeder" says about the Bill, which is no doubt where they will get their information from, and that they should know now what the assurances generally are. That is why we think that the matter is so very important.

The Minister has said that he will look into the questions that we have raised. It is our experience that he looks at these things benevolently and constructively and with a desire to improve, and so far as I am concerned I am grateful to him for what he has said.

Mr. Paget

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. G. Brown

I beg to move, in page 2, line 25, to leave out "two years," and to add" one year."

We managed to get something out of having the Minister take an interest on the last Clause. I hope he will stay with us a little longer and will continue to take an interest, so that we may make progress with the Bill.

I ought to make one explanation so that there is no doubt about the motives for the Amendment. When we had the Agriculture (Fertilisers) Bill and were asked to allow schemes under that Bill, we moved some Amendments to the drafting of the Bill. After listening to our arguments, the Minister very generously gave us a period of two years as the limit for each scheme, and we accepted it.

I should not like the Minister to think that since we accepted two years on that Bill, if he puts the same thing in this Bill we are being awkward about it. It seems to some of us that there is a rather different argument in this case, which can be held to make the period of one year much more important so far as the present subsidy is concerned than it was for fertilisers.

I admit the argument of those who say that we want people to use more and more fertiliser as a long-term proposition and that we want them to know that the arrangements for helping them to meet the cost will continue and that, therefore, they can place their orders in advance, make their plans, and so on. But I do not believe that the same argument ought to be applied to a ploughing-up subsidy.

Leaving out my oft-repeated views about this form of subsidy, the fact remains that, on the whole, we want the people to do now the ploughing that ought to be done. We do not want to give farmers the same sense of security about the rewards for doing it as about the rewards for using fertilisers. We want them to plough this year all that is available for ploughing, rather than to have some of it left for next year. Therefore, on the whole, the period of one year, which the Amendment proposes, is, in the circumstances of the Bill and the subsidy, justified.

I have given the right hon. and gallant Gentleman a frank explanation of how we came to our view. I hope that he will not cause us to deploy our arguments at much greater length but that he will be willing to agree that, for the purposes of ploughing-up, we want the people to do the job when it ought to be done. We ought not, as it were, to encourage them to spread the thing over and to wait until next year.

It is a little additional trouble for the Department and for the Minister to come here a little more often and to get an affirmative Resolution, but we know what happens with affirmative Resolutions. Once the first hurdle is taken, which is usually accompanied by a lot of threats of what will happen, the second hurdle can as a rule be overcome rather easily. I do not think the Department need worry about that. I am sure that it is good practice and those of us who think it a bad thing anyway would be happier to have it dealt with on a year-to-year basis.

9.30 p.m.

Sir T. Dugdale

I think it would be the wish of the right hon. Member that his Amendment to Clause 3, page 3, line 6, to leave out "two years," and to insert "one year" should be considered with this Amendment.

Mr. Brown


Sir T. Dugdale

I listened intently to what the right hon. Member said, and I think the balance of advantage and disadvantage is very close. On the one hand, I imagine it would be very convenient, if one intended to have a scheme which could last two years, to have it in one bite because one could revoke or change it at the end of any period and come to the House with a new order varying, revoking or changing any particular scheme. But one remembers that one has been in the House a long time and hopes one is a House of Commons man, and from the point of view of Parliamentary control—which is all important—I think that, on balance, it would be best to agree with the right hon. Gentleman and accept the Amendment.

The acceptance of the Amendment will only mean that, instead of the possibility that at the end of 12 months one must come to the House for an affirmative Resolution if one wishes to vary a scheme, as probably would be the case whoever was responsible at the end of 12 months, it will be mandatory on the Minister, if he wishes to continue the scheme, to ask for an affirmative Resolution to continue it. To ensure greater Parliamentary control, which I believe to be so important in these matters, I am prepared to accept the Amendment and also the Amendment to Clause 3, which I mentioned.

Mr. Brown

We are very grateful for the way in which the Minister has met us. I am sure he has done the right thing.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Mr. Paget

We are all grateful to the Minister for accepting the Amendment, but I believe there is an additional reason for accepting it other than the question of Parliamentary control. It will make the Measure more efficient. This is a Measure to get people to plough as soon as possible and if you say to them, "This scheme overlaps one year; if you put it off until next year there may not be a subsidy" they are more likely to plough this year. I think that a scheme limited to one year will get more ploughing than if we allow it to go on for two years.

For the same reason I am sorry that the Minister did not accept the earlier Amendment. Let us make it clear that it will pay no one to wait for a subsidy but that it may do the opposite and make people lose the subsidy if they do not buck up, as the subsidy will not last for more than a year.

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