HC Deb 12 February 1953 vol 511 cc737-48

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir H. Butcher.]

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

This House is well aware of the fact that the allotment holders of this country have produced, are producing and intend to go on producing a great deal of valuable food for the hungry people of this land. They made a very great effort during the war in the "Dig for Victory" campaign, and they are now continuing to produce food for their own domestic consumption.

I am sure everyone in this House also realises that every ton of food which we grow at home saves a ton being bought overseas, and the Chancellor would be the first person to encourage the allotment holders of this country to go on producing as much food as they can in order to save paying for it overseas. This food production is an entirely voluntary effort on the part of these diggers of the soil. It does not strain the resources of our manpower in any way, and, what is more, the food they produce is fresh food, valuable food and food good for human consumption, and a welcome alternative to the tinned food of which we get far too much even in the average country cottage at the present time.

It is also a very healthy pastime; it provides an open-air, out-of-doors life, and doctors from time to time prescribe allotment cultivation as a cure for nervous diseases and other ailments. It is also a great recreation, for one's mind is at rest on the allotment, and, what with the food produced, the heaIth that is given, and the recreation obtained, I am certain that all hon. Members would wish to encourage the allotment diggers in every way they can.

I am glad to see that the Government are encouraging them, and doing a great deal for them. The Government have given a grant to the National Allotments Association, but they do not want to go on giving that grant for ever. They think that the Association would be better off if it were self-supporting, and that is what the Association members themselves think. But I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not be too keen to take that grant away just at present, because at the moment this society is having a difficuIt time. They have just taken on the work which used to be done by the village produce associations and are trying to stretch their arms out into the rural districts more than before. They have important work to do and need a little Government assistance for the time being.

Now I should like to explain that, as well as vegetables, livestock are reared on allotments; not on all, because, among other reasons, this depends on local by-laws, but it should be encouraged as much as it can be, and here I am glad that the Government intend to de-ration feedingstuffs. For this will have an enormous effect on the amount of pigs. poultry, rabbits, and even bees, which can be kept on allotments. The Government have also helped by giving a fertiliser subsidy, and they were careful to see that allotment holders could take advantage of that.

The Government have given great encouragement, but I want to say, having praised the Parliamentary Secretary for all that he has done in the last few months. that there are still dogs worrying livestock on allotments. Dogs also go and dig up seed-beds just sown on allotments, and during the war it was deemed right and necessary that a Defence Regulation should be made to discourage this. Allotment holders were able to put up notices giving a warning that a penalty of £5 or so would be imposed on the owners of dogs causing damage; and, accordingly, dogs were kept on leads. That Regulation has been withdrawn and, I think, quite rightly, because it is wrong that we should deal with a criminal offence by way of delegated legislation. In the argument for getting rid of it, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said it was no use putting up such notices because dogs could not read. I think that perhaps that was said in rather a frivolous way, but he also added that it was intended to protect war-time allotments which are a rapidly diminishing quantity.

Those allotments are still going on, and in another place at the present time there is a Bill for the purpose of keeping going some 35,000 temporary war-time allotments. He also said that dogs can be dealt with under the law of trespass, but to invoke that is a costly procedure, and it is very difficult to get a conviction in that way. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture has stated that he has no records that there have been any convictions under it, but I imagine that the answer is really that no records have been kept; because I personally know of 167 convictions and there may have been a considerable number more than that. The Government were quite right in not dealing with this under a Defence Regulation, but I ask the Parliamentary Secretary now to consider what he will do following the abolition of the Regulation.

It is also very important that we should grow more fruit. Not nearly enough fresh fruit is eaten in this country. The growing of raspberries and strawberries on allotments should be encouraged. In most cases they would be grown by people who cannot afford to pay the high prices which are charged in the shops for these luscious berries. I know that apples are not encouraged in allotments because the trees sprawl all over the place, but with the provision of cordons more could be grown and the more apple growing is encouraged the better.

How are we to encourage people to grow more fruit to give us better health? The answer is to provide more sugar for jam-making. I hope that I am not asking for the impossible. The position is very difficult at the moment, but I hope that my words will sink in so deep tonight that when, as I am enormously confident will happen, the Government de-ration sugar, they will bear my words in mind and de-ration it quickly so as to encourage allotment holders to grow more fruit so that the housewife can make more jam.

The allotment holders have a number of grouses. There is still a shortage of allotments in certain parts of the country. I suggest that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government should give a clear directive on this subject. There are cases where land has been scheduled for allotments under area planning schemes but the plans have not matured. One does not know why. There is something wrong somewhere. Under Defence Regulation 51, allotments were laid out on re- quisitioned land during the war. That Regulation has been renewed, but I understand that no circular has been sent to local authorities this year to inform them of the continuance of the Regulation. It is important that local authorities should realise the need to provide allotments. I should be interested to know also whether the Minister of Agriculture has made quite sure that new town sehemes will provide ample space for allotments.

The advisory service which was provided for allotment holders in the past was a very good and complete service, but it is now part of the National Agricultural Advisory Service and I am told that those responsible for that service spend most of their time on the large commercial growers and leave the small allotment holders in the hands of the education authorities. That is not entirely satisfactory. Will the Minister see to it that small allotment holders receive as much good advice as do the large commercial holders?

The leasing of land by local councils to societies has been done with conspicuous success for the past 50 years, but Section 67 of the Agriculture Act, 1947, did not re-enact the provision which enabled this type of leasing to be continued. I was a Member of the Committee which dealt with the Bill and I take as much of the blame as anyone else for having neglected to ensure that that provision was re-enacted. It was not re-enacted, and the result is that local councils can let land to individuals but not to societies, though I believe that the law is being broken in many cases. I hope that the Government will do something in the near future to put this matter right.

Section 14 of the Allotments Act, 1922, lays down that representatives of allotment holders are entitled to one-third of the seats on statutory allotment committees. The qualifications laid down under that Act are that the persons must be experienced in the management and cultivation of allotment gardens and representative of the interests of occupiers of allotment gardens. In many cases these seats are given to defeated councillors—I suppose in order to give them something to do—and to trades and labour councils who are not even allot- ment holders. When complaint is made to the Minister of Agriculture, no satisfaction is ever obtained. He says it is in the hands of local authorities and that he has no power to intervene. But the Minister of Agriculture is the Minister responsible for the working of this Act and he can surely bring pressure to bear on the local authorities to see that these representatives, with one-third of the seats on the statutory allotment committees, are carrying out their duties as they should.

Then there is the question of communal huts. These huts are not rated, generally speaking, because they are agricultural buildings. Recently the assessment of these huts for rates has been transferred to the Inland Revenue, and they have re-opened the assessments on all sorts of trivial grounds. The Act states that if they are agricultural buildings, occupied together with agricultural land, they should not be charged in rates; but the Inland Revenue authorities quibble over this definition and say that if a communal hut is on a piece of waste land, perhaps 20 or 30 yards from the allotment, it is not actually on the land and therefore rates have to be paid.

If a few bottles of ginger beer are sold to the members, the Inland Revenue authorities say that that is not what the communal hut is meant to be used for, and rates have to be paid. In some cases it is said that certain members, although having gardens of their own, are not actually allotment holders, and the huts must therefore be rated. They are all quibbles, and the law is meant to provide that communal huts belonging to allotments are not subject to rates. The position needs to be clarified and the Minister should make it quite clear to the authorities that communal huts should not be liable to rates.

Something more could be done with regard to the educational system. There are children who are keen, willing and anxious to know how plants are grown, how science works, and what can be done to make a living out of the land. I know that many sehools have gardens, but a great deal could be done to encourage children with a flair for growing things if a little more attention were paid to the subject.

The allotment growers of this country are a very gallant band. They did extremely well for the nation in the war and we should encourage them now for all we are worth. I have mentioned a few of their grouses. Some may be trivial, but they are all real and nagging grouses and I hope that the Minister will be able to do something to remove them, to the mutual advantage of himself and the allotment holders and the production of food in this country.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I want to support a good deal of what has been said by the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) and, in particular, to suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that one of the great needs of allotment holders is a greater sense of security in the allotments they occupy.

I have had quite considerable diseussions with the Parliamentary Secretary in connection with the case of an allotment association in my own constituency, where the allotment holders have been given fairly short notice to leave a site which they have cultivated for some years. They form a group of about 100 active allotment holders, although most of them are old age pensioners, and the tragedy is that there is no hope at present of providing them with aIternative allotment gardens in any area to which they could reasonably be expected to go.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to use his good offices to get a reconsideration of this case or to see if the dismissal cannot be delayed at least for some further period, and in any case to use his good offices to try to secure some alternative for them. If he were to press the matter rather more strongly on the local authority, it might still be possible to get something done. It is a great pity if these men and women who have done a good job are to be turned off at comparatively short notice.

10.56 p.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

I should like to support my hon. Friends in pleading this case. Allotments are a very important part of our domestic, social, and economic life, and there are five million families, I estimate, who could provide most of the things they want in the way of vegetables, food, pig flesh, pouItry, and honey if they were provided with the opportunity. The Tory Party at one time used to speak of "three acres and a cow." They are more modest than that today, but we should put forward a policy on allotments for every family that wants one.

The lack of security on allotments at the moment, particularly in the large urban areas, is a crying scandal. I have large numbers of persons in my constituency, particularly old age pensioners, with no other interest in life except this interest in growing food and flowers. They are given little encouragement by the Government or the local authorities, and it would be a recognition of the characteristic individualism of the Scotsman if they were given this opportunity.

Dogs are one of the greatest bugbears of the allotment keeper. However intelligent they may seem to be, they cannot read notices. Their intelligence does not run to the height of being able to read notices "Dogs not allowed," and consequently there is little protection from them. The allotment holder should he given the protection of good wiring and siting. Allotments should be a part of town and rural planning.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

I must declare a vested interest in supporting this plea. I have cultivated two allotments in the last 25 years, and I have never been out of the first four. I have held the Minister's certificate for the last 15 years. These allotment holders are worthy citizens with the best of intentions. Dogs are a real menace, scratching up plants. I know of a case where an allotment holder threw a stone at a dog and injured it. He was taken to court by the owner and lost the appeal as well. The whole action cost him £75. He lost heart, and the owner lost his dog, and that was no consolation to either of them. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, in the interests of this great band of helpful people, to give them all the encouragement he can. The world is getting shorter and shorter of food, and the population is getting larger all the time.

10.59 p.m.

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

I can certainly express my sympathy with the sentiments that have been voiced on both sides in support of the allotment holders. I would particularly like to thank the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) for raising this subject on which he feels very deeply in common with other hon. Gentlemen.

As regards the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) that provision for allotments should be included in development plans, that is really the same point as the one raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop), and I am sure both hon. Members are aware that this matter is in the hands of local authorities to a large extent, and all we can do is to advise them to make the best provision they can when they are drawing up their development plans. The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne. East recognises the difficulty in such a densely populated area as his constituency, of making provision in the right places near enough to the men's homes. But I will give this undertaking that, although we have had one go without success, we will have another go to see if there is anything we can do to persuade Newcastle to make the provision for which he hopes.

Turning to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge, I was glad that he recognised the help we have given to allotment holders and other domestic food producers in the de-rationing of feedingstuffs. It will be a welcome help to them. Similarly they will be helped by the fertiliser subsidies. I welcome the opportunity to declare that the Government fully support domestic food production. We believe that it is a most valuable movement generally, and that of course includes allotment holders. I quite agree with his sentiment that we are a nation of gardeners. I know of no country I have visited where one sees so many gardens as in this country, and there is no doubt that the act of gardening makes a deep and fundamental appeal to Englishmen

As my hon. Friend said, there is an enormous volume of food produced on allotments and gardens in this country. On a very rough computation the value today of food supplies and poultry and pigs from allotments and gardens is £44½ million a year. That is a very large amount of food to produce without drawing on labour or other resources of the nation. In addition, there are 6,000 tons of honey and a large number of rabbits. I have no record of the number of goats produced, but there is a certain Goschenlike atmosphere about the production of milk and honey.

Although we are short of allotments in some places, it is good to know that we have something like 1 million extending over 100,000 acres. I agree that the actual act of gardening and growing something on one's own plot of land makes a very deep and fundamental appeal. It has a recreative value and gives a sense of real satisfaction. It might be a good thing, since as my hon. Friend says it is a relief for overstrain, if we had a few allotments in the park where Members of Parliament could dig.

The policy of the Government is to encourage all associations and societies devoted to the work of domestic food production. With my hon. Friend, we feel that they should work towards financial independence. What is wanted is that these societies should be strong, active and independent and that Government grants should not be made a permanent feature in their general structure. Many of these domestic food production organisations have a long and distinguished history running back for many generations before the war when they had no Government grants and through those many years they gave valuable help to their members.

I feel that the principle at which we should aim is that Government grants should only be given to them for specific purposes—such as for starting a new domestic food production movement. For instance, last year we were able to get started the new Council for Domestic Poultry Keepers and we have given them a fairly generous grant for the first two or three years to enable them to get going. Another example is when a domestic food producing movement like the Small Pig Keepers Council assists in the rationing of feedingstuffs. It is 'right that the Government should reimburse them for what they are doing. Those are specific reasons for giving a grant, but, outside that, we should encourage them to be independent. This has been emphasised by the Brown Report, which was the authoritative document produced by the previous Administration. I assure my hon. Friend that we do not intend to proceed so fast along this line as to upset the existing organisations.

We will proceed in a reasonable and sympathetic way, reducing the grant as we think the organisations concerned are able to stand more on their own feet financially. But I am sure it would not be in the long-term interest of the National Allotments and Gardens Society or of any other domestic food producing organisation to have a permanent Government grant. Government grants are bound to mean some supervision and control by Governments, if only to see that the money is properly spent. That in the long view cannot be a sound thing for an independent organisation of this kind.

Of equal importance, we have a general interest to see how in various other ways we can help. My hon. Friend alluded to the function of local education authorities. It is their proper function to provide an advisory service for domestic food producers, and there is the distinction that the N.A.A.S. are responsible for commercial food production and the L.E.A. for domestic food production, and the N.A.A.S. only come into the sphere of domestic food production for advisory purposes.

We have done a great deal in the last year to stimulate local education authorities to play their full part in this field, and we have promoted one or two valuable conferences with regional further education councils and other educational bodles. A sub-committee of the National Council of Domestic Food Producers is now carrying out a survey of the work done by local education authorities in this field so that we may know just what they are doing and can stimulate those who are, perhaps, not doing all they can.

We have also been able to help by issuing this booklet on the housing of small domestic livestock, which is quite a help to local authorities. It gives some sort of standard and removes the specifications of chicken houses and rabbit hutches out of the sphere of argument into which it sometimes used to fall. We have been able to help as well by getting a publicity campaign going in the food offices and post offices throughout the country.

I can give the House the assurance that the Government are keenly interested to do all they can to maintain the great movement of food production in this country, and, in particular, in the context of this debate, the National Allotments and Gardens Society, not only to maintain it at its present size, but to do the utmost nationally to help it develop in the future and be an even more flourishing and productive institution in our national life.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.