HC Deb 09 July 1953 vol 517 cc1546-69

6.21 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Draft Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th May, be approved. Substantially this Scheme contains the same conditions as the second Scheme which came to an end on 31st May. There are three small differences to which I should call attention. There are two small alterations in Part I of the Scheme. One occurs in paragraph 3 (1) which gives the Minister power to agree to a summer fallow in suitable cases. That is to say, that the ploughing can be done in one year and the sowing in the next.

The other small alteration is to tighten up conditions slightly where re-seeding is to be allowed, and that is done by excluding from the meaning of crops a fodder crop which has been under-sown with grass-seeds. The other small Amendment is in Part II of the Scheme in paragraph 7, which slightly widens the Minister's power to make grants before the crop is finally sown under the £10 an acre grant. Otherwise the Scheme is the same as the one that has been running in the previous 12 months.

I should just say a few words about the operation of the Scheme in the past 12 months. I think the House would wish to know how it has been working. I am not able to give precise figures as to the working of Part I of the Scheme until we have seen the collation of the agricultural returns for 4th June, and that will not be for another two or three weeks, so that I am not able to give an exact figure for the present tillage acreage and, therefore, the net increase that may have occurred over the past 12 months. I can only say that the indications from the 4th March returns of farmers' crops forecast are that there will be some increase in tillage in spite of the fact that we have lost some 60,000 acres this year from the flooded area on the East Coast.

Part II of the Scheme is working satisfactorily. It began on 1st August last year and, therefore, has had only 10 months to run. We have in England and Wales an increase of 64,000 acres under the £10 an acre part of the Scheme and a further 1,500 acres in Northern Ireland. I am hopeful that if this Scheme is continued for an further 12 months we may very well achieve some further 50,000 to 100,000 acres.

I think it is fair to say that that is a complete net gain in tillage acreage and, broadly speaking, in food production. Much of that land is doing little or nothing now. A good deal of it consists of outworn derelict orchards and so on, which without this assistance would not be brought into cultivation, and which, once brought into cultivation, is very rich land and, therefore, is a thoroughly good proposition from the point of view of the nation generally and the farmer in particular. It seems that this innovation, as it was last year, of the £10 an acre grant for land which had been under grass since 1939 has proved to be a useful practical measure. That gives a brief report on how the Scheme has been working.

I think it is fair to say that these ploughing grants are proving a very valuable assistance to us not only in maintaining tillage acreage but in continuing to get some increase. It is fair to judge this achievement against the background of the downward trend in tillage which began in 1948, and continued in 1949 and 1950 until in 1951 the trough of the downward trend occurred with a loss of something like I million acres in the United Kingdom in those years.

I think we can credit this ploughing Scheme which was started at the beginning of 1952 by my right hon. Friend with the main part of the success in arresting this downward trend and in securing again this continuing upward trend in tillage acreage. I therefore ask the House with confidence to approve this Scheme to enable us to continue these ploughing grants for a further twelve months.

6.27 p.m.

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

We did not oppose the Measure under which these Schemes have been made. We do not, in fact, propose today to oppose this Scheme, but there are one or two points which I have to put and I hope that we shall get a reply before we part with another of these Schemes under the Agriculture (Ploughing Grants) Act.

The Minister said—and I did not quite follow him—that the addition to Paragraph 3 (1) was to enable in certain cases a summer fallow to intervene between the actual ploughing and the cropping. I wonder in this connection what are those circumstances. Can he give us any idea of the sort of circumstances the Minister had in mind when he included this addition in his Scheme. I wonder, too, if there are any cases in which this alteration might not apply to Part II of the Scheme. Would the words which he has inserted in Paragraph 3 (1), in fact, cover anything that might happen under Part II of the Scheme if he thought it desirable in those circumstances to have a summer fallow and possibly the same sort of cropping as he is thinking of in connection with Part I of the Scheme?

The Minister has told us that there have been certain increases in tillage and, of course, we welcome them. They make for better farming and better production on our land, and we certainly welcome that. I can understand his difficulty in providing at this time figures of increase which would have been very helpful to us in connection with this Scheme, but realising that we have not yet got to the time when those figures are available, we have to take his word for it that there have been some increases and that these increases are a continuation of those which we saw in the previous year.

We ought to know what is the total cost of the grant under the 1952 Scheme before we part with the 1953 Scheme. The Minister will remember that under the original Price Review, which set in Motion this train of production grants, we were told that there was likely to be a figure of some £3.4 million per annum spent upon this part of the production grants subsidy. We were told that under the Ploughing Grants Scheme a total of £3.4 million would be spent annually, and that sum would be deducted from the amounts which were to be paid to the farmers as a result of the increases in the cost of production. We ought to know if the £3.4 million has been exceeded and, if it has, how this was taken into consideration in the Review of 1953. We should also like to know whether these grants are still being paid out of the farmers' pockets and not out of the pockets of the taxpayers.

The Minister has told us that we have had a number of additional acres. I wonder whether he or his Department have reckoned up the cost of those additional acres in subsidy payments? What is the cost per acre of this addition to tillage? I know that other figures come into the reckoning, but when one isolates the figure for the increase in the amount of tillage and compares it with the amount of money paid out per acre, the increase appears to be a figure which neither the Minister nor anyone else can justify, unless there is something else which must be taken into consideration. The amount of the increase, when reckoned in connection with the money paid out for each additional acre ploughed, appears to be a staggering figure. I hope that the Minister can tell us something about this, and can also justify the fact that the money has been spent in this way.

There is one other aspect of this matter which should be cleared up. I understand that the Minister of Agriculture today, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers), told us that agriculture was moving into a freer economy and that he was in the process of setting the industry and the country free. Those words appealed to the hon. Member for Orpington, who so often represents advanced Tory thought on this matter.

If we are moving into this very free economy, it is right that we should know what place a production grant and a subsidy should have in that free economy. If we are to have this freedom; if the market is to be freed so that the farmer can go there and get the best price he can—and it may be that he will get a higher price in a free market—how can there be any justification for a production grant in addition to the free market price that he will get?

In the Review of 1952, the Minister said that he was thinking in terms of the increase due to the farmer as a result of his increased production costs being paid to him in two ways. One was by increasing his end-price and the other by giving him, instead, some form of a production grant as a stimulus to production. If there were justification for that in circumstances in which the price which the farmer got was controlled, there would appear to be not the slightest justification for it in circumstances in which the market might be absolutely free. It is possible that the farmer would receive something very much in excess of the price which he would have got if the Ministry of Food were purchasing the cereals from the farmers.

The date fixed for the derationing of feedingstuffs is 1st August. I understand that controls on the price of cereals will be removed by the next harvest and, although no final decision has yet been taken as to the method to be employed in giving effect to the price of market guarantees under the 1947 Act when the decontrol of cereal takes place, if, as appears likely, the decision is in favour of a support price scheme, or some form of deficiency payment, the position might arise in which the farmer would receive a market price higher than the support price and, on top of that, a production grant in the form of a ploughing, fertiliser, or calf subsidy.

If that position arises, the farmer will win both on the swings and on the roundabouts. We want to give the farmer a square deal. We did so when we were sitting on that side of the House; the 1947 Act is evidence of that fact; but we do not want to exceed a reasonable return to the farmer for his product. We do not want the position to arise in which these production grants will be allowed, not as a deduction from the end-price to the farmer but from the taxpayer's pocket. That would be an unjustifiable payment to the farmer.

These are some of the questions which are worrying some of my hon. Friends at the moment. It is quite obvious that people who know something about the industry are worrying about what is to happen when we move from the present position into a freer economy, where, if the Ministry is not very careful, the farmer will be given this quite unjustifiable double payment. Before we part with this Scheme, I hope that we shall have a reply to the points which I have raised. If the reply is satisfactory we shall not divide against this Scheme. As I say, we passed the first Scheme under the Ploughing Grants Act, 1952, but at that time the circumstances were entirely different. Knowing the Minister, I expect that he will be able to supply us with some answers which we shall at least consider sympathetically.

6.37 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I have never liked this Ploughing Grants Scheme. I did not like it when it was introduced by the Labour Government, and I do not like it now—I have always believed in the principles of the 1947 Act—and I am getting more and more doubtful whether the Government do. It is a question upon which the farmer and the community require some reassurance. The principle of the 1947 Act is that farm production shall be on a contract basis, that the price of the contract shall be fixed each March, and that that price shall be such as to call for the production required.

If, instead of having a price that will call for the production which is required, we proceed to have a price lower than that which is necessary, and our short-fall in price is made up by a random system of subsidies, the whole contract scheme will begin to topple. Yesterday, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food made some observations with regard to the freeing of meat. I am not saying that that Minister is a particularly responsible spokesman. He does not carry the weight of the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers), to whom reference has been made. On the other hand, is there anything in that? If that happens, the whole structure of the 1947 Act will go.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Member is getting very far from the Scheme which we are discussing. There is a parent Act of 1952 which authorises these grants in principle. The hon. and learned Member cannot criticise that Act without a Motion for its repeal. He must confine himself more strictly to the Scheme which is before us.

Mr. Paget

If I may say so, Mr. Speaker, I wholly agree, and I shall confine myself strictly to the Scheme. I hope my remarks may be taken as an introductory form indicating the general framework—

Mr. Speaker

I formed that view of the hon. and learned Member's remarks, but I thought his exordium was somewhat prolonged.

Mr. Paget

It shall be prolonged no longer. To return to this device. As it was introduced last year I understood that it was not regarded as a permanent measure but as a temporary boost to obtain a particular increase hurriedly, a boost which would give an increase more quickly than the application of a price to the final product. We are told that some acres which were not ploughed before 1939 have now been ploughed. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) asked a very telling question; what does the ploughing of each of these acres cost? Does it cost considerably more than the acres, either ploughed or unploughed, were ever worth? Does not the cost of getting the increase considerably exceed the value of the land which has been added by ploughing? Does it exceed it by several times? That is the sort of test to show whether this kind of boost is worth while.

If this inducement is the operative factor to get people to plough land which they have not thought worth ploughing since 1939 and did not think worth ploughing last year, even with this bonus, why should they think it is worth ploughing next year? What is the point of continuing something which is applied as a boost? If we continue a boost, its effect is destroyed. What we require is to be able to give a quick and temporary inducement, and then people will take it because they will know it is their one chance.

If we carry these things on people will say, "Now they have put it on, they will not take it off next year or the year after." The idle farmer who has not ploughed his land since 1939 and who requires special inducement to make him do so and to see that he makes the best use of his land, will put it off until next year. Can the Minister give some indication of when we shall see the end of this boost and when we can get back to the 1947 principle of a contract price?

6.44 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

Perhaps I may have the leave of the House to reply to the various points made. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) asked a number of questions. His first dealt with the amendment in paragraph 3 (1) which will enable my right hon. Friend to approve an acreage for a fallow. This will occur where a particular field may be dirty and may require the fallow in order to clean it, and where there is no other suitable way of killing the weeds growing on the field. The farmer might make his application next spring in order to start his summer fallow, and if he is fallowing it in the summer of 1954 with the intention of sowing in the autumn of 1954, he would run into the following year and would not qualify for subsidy. Unless there is some special dispensation of this kind, the farmer cannot be paid the £5 an acre. In practice we found this was a necessity, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise it.

The hon. Member asked why we did not apply this dispensation to Part II of the Scheme, and the answer is that provision to give my right hon. Friend sufficient latitude in Part II has been made, enabling him to pay a £10 grant at such a stage in the operation of clearing and bringing the land into cultivation as he thinks fit. It was never so tightly drawn as Part I.

I was also asked the cost of the grant in 1952–53, but I cannot give precise figures. The year ends on 31st May, and quite a lot of the land on which application has been made for grant has not yet been finally approved and cleared. There is bound to be an element of estimate in my answer, and the best estimate I can give him is that in England and Wales and Northern Ireland about 730,000 acres will have been approved, entailing a cost of about £3.65 million. In other words, it is not far from the figure which he mentioned and is about the same as last year.

The hon. Member also asked what was the cost of an additional acre in subsidy because it seemed to him to be very high. I think that was part of his general argument about the effect and value of these subsidies as we move into a freer economy, when, instead of the system of guaranteed fixed prices paid by the Ministry of Food, we have a system of support prices or deficiency payments and a return to a free market.

I shall deal with his first question first—and it was also asked by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget): what is the cost of an additional acre in subsidy? That does not give a fair indication of the value of the ploughing grant. The cost of an additional acre would indeed look ridiculous if it were measured in terms of the total cost of the subsidy, but the subsidy is given as part of the general award to farmers at a price review when end prices for commodities are fixed. It is at the same time part of the general award and of the net income of the industry making up the figure of £320 million or whatever may be the approved figure for the year. It has been given in this way by these specific subsidies. The cost of the £3 million or £4 million in ploughing subsidy must be regarded as part of the net income of the farming industry as a whole.

That brings me straight into the general argument of how this is to work in a satisfactory way from the point of view of the taxpayer and consumer, as well as from the farmer's point of view, in the freer economy.

Mr. Champion

Has the hon. Gentleman any figures to tell us about the cost per acre for the increased acres? He has merely given a general statement.

Mr. Nugent

Obviously I am not able to give any figures because I have not the figures of the increase this year. What I am saying is that the figure would be no indication of value for money, because the value of this subsidy, as I hope I will convince the hon. Member and his hon. and learned Friend before I have finished, is far wider than the actual increase in the general tillage acreage.

The cost of the subsidy is not attributable only to cereals. In fact only about 10 per cent. of it is reflected in cereals. The greater part of it, in oats and barley and a variety of other crops, is of course fed to livestock and comes out finally in livestock realisation rather than in cereal realisation. It is essentially an award to the industry as a whole and is taken into account in deciding the proper level of net income for the industry in the year under review. It would be unwise to judge the value of it simply in terms of the net increase in acreage.

I recognise the importance of the question about how we justify the making of this award as we move into a freer economy. There are two points in the answer. The first is that a system of support prices has been common throughout the whole of the Scheme. For oats and barley the price fixed at the Review has been a support price. The farmer has been free to make the best price he can over that in the market. With barley he had the opportunities of the malting market. With oats he had the opportunities of the oatmeal market and he could make the price considerably higher. That type of farmer thereby has an advantage. One must recognise that.

But the total amount realised by the industry by virtue of sales in the malting market, the oatmeal market and so on is taken into account in the general calculation when assessing the net income and expenditure for the industry in the year. One cannot do it more precisely than that. We have not been able to do it in the past nor shall we be able to do it in the future. I must not stray too far into that field. It is right to say that we shall be able to continue to make what is called this global calculation in future, as we have done in the past.

From the point of view of justifying the system of ploughing subsidies as part of the award, there is no reason why we should not continue it in future. I have no reason to think that thereby the consumer will get less value than he has done in the past. I hope that that reassures hon. Gentlemen opposite that this will not become an haphazard system of subsidies. We shall continue to be vitally interested in what is the net income of the industry. We must be, because without that we cannot be assured of getting the volume of produce that we want. Therefore we must continue to have regard in the Price Review to this sort of calculation.

In the same way, it is right to make the point that they have never been precise in the past. They cannot be accurate to more than about 2 per cent. or 3 per cent.—about £20 million or £30 million. In future the margin of error may be a bit bigger. The only satisfactory way to regard the calculations is as an indication of the broad trend of the income of the industry. There are many other factors in judging just what is the right award and how it should be broken down to specific prices for specific commodities. I hope hon. Members will realise that the continuation of the subsidies for another year will in no way prejudice the position.

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton asked why we continue with this ploughing subsidy which, in his opinion, was intended to be a boost. The answer is that experience has taught us that it is necessary to continue it if we are to maintain the tillage acreage that we want. When my right hon. Friend introduced the parent Act he said that he wished to make these Schemes run for two years and not to have to renew them annually. He thought that they should have a measure of continuity though they should not be permanent.

I ask the House to approve this Scheme because I believe with confidence that it is necessary to continue this device if we are to maintain and to continue to increase the tillage acreage. This Scheme has a special value in the hon. and learned Member's part of the world, in the Midland counties, where there was a distinct tendency to go back to grass at the end of the war and where they were not only going back to grass but were allowing the speed of rotation to decrease. Instead of a three-year rotation they were going to four, five or six-year rotations.

There is no doubt that in practice the subsidy makes a strong appeal to the small farmer, who has responded by speeding up his rotation and perhaps bringing under the plough land that has not been ploughed before. It gives him some cash at the beginning of the process which helps him to finance his operations. The Scheme also has a valuable effect on the farmer in the counties. When the district advisory officer or the district committee man who is making a survey can say to a farmer, "What about ploughing up that field? We can give you £5 an acre," that has a most valuable psychological effect encouraging the farmer to take the decision to go ahead.

I am confident that the subsidy fully justifies its continuance at least for another year. I do not suggest that it should be permanent. I simply say that it is fully justified now. It is maintaining and increasing tillage acreage. I firmly believe that it will continue to do so.

Resolved, That the Draft Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th May, be approved.

6.58 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. McNair Snadden)

I beg to move, That the Draft Agriculture (Ploughing Grants) (Scotland) Scheme, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th May, be approved. This is the third Agriculture (Ploughing Grants) (Scotland) Scheme, and is similar to the one which has just been approved. I do not think I need go into the details which have been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. I should like to give the relevant Scottish figures.

We believe that the two previous Scottish Schemes have accomplished the Government's aim of reversing the dangerous downward trend in our tillage acreage which was clearly apparent in 1951. The actual fall between 1950 and 1951, was 39,000 acres. We have contributed, through the ploughing grant, to arresting that decline and turning it into a net increase of 13,000 acres in 1952.

My hon. Friend was asked about the figures for this year. Unfortunately, we are unable to give final figures because the June returns are not yet analysed. As far as we can see, with about three weeks still to run under the last Scheme, we have applications for about 300,000 acres under Part I. Under Part II, again with several weeks to go before the closing date, we have applications for 10,500 acres. That is under the £10 grant.

Broadly speaking, this Scheme is the same as the second. There are three small alterations which I should explain. They are practically similar to those which have just been outlined by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. We are including the same condition about fallowing, although in Scotland fallow will not have the same application as it will have south of the border. Here and there we have heavy land where fallowing may come into the picture but we do not expect this condition to be of any great importance in Scotland.

The previous Scheme required the occupier of eligible land to seek the approval of an agricultural executive committee before the land was sown direct to grass. That is to say, direct re-seeding required the approval of an agricultural executive committee. We have extended this provision to include re-seeding with any other crop grown for grazing by livestock. In Scotland it will apply almost entirely to rape, and where rape is sown with a grass seed mixture prior approval will be required just as if it had been a case of direct re-seeding.

The last alteration, in Part II of this Scheme, is that provision has now been made for the payment of the grant where the farmer has completed at least one approved operation after the ploughing and where the remaining operations are likely to be spread over a considerable period. The reason is that under this part of the Scheme there is very great expense. It involves ploughing extremely difficult land, where tree roots and scrub and various things of that kind have to be got out of the way. We believe that paying the grant after one appropriate cultivation has taken place will encourage people who are hanging back because of the long time that they have to wait for their money and in view of the high expense. We hope that these arrangements will induce people to take advantage of this grant where hitherto they have not seen their way to finance projects of this kind before receiving some payment.

7.2 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

I submit that the case for these ploughing grants grows progressively weaker. Last year the Government made a case that could not be strongly resisted. This year the Government are on weak ground. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has reminded us that in 1951 we suffered a great reduction in tillage acreage in Scotland of 39,000, but largely in consequence of this Scheme we turned that drop of 39,000 acres into a gain of 13,000 acres last year.

The hon. Gentleman will of course have in mind that in 1950 it was exceedingly difficult to convince the farmers of Scotland that the Government could not obtain feedingstuffs from countries overseas. Hon. Members who are now supporters of the Government, and some who are in the Government, went about the country saying that the miserable Socialist Government just would not spend the exchange on procuring much needed feedingstuffs from overseas. In 1951 world prices for feedingstuffs went up rapidly and farmers had brought home to them the fact that towards the end of 1951 and into 1952 the price was going up and up.

If world prices go up the growing of the grain at home becomes of course an ever more attractive proposition. Not only that, but the farmers had a party in Government who had said that the Labour Government had not really been trying to obtain feedingstuffs from overseas, and now that same party had to say that those feedingstuffs could not be obtained. The farmers, therefore, were in the position of knowing that under no party which was likely to be a future Government was there a possibility of increasing the purchases of feedingstuffs from overseas and that, therefore, if we were to increase production and increase the number of livestock we must grow more feedingstuffs ourselves. One would have expected that the downward trend would have been held. We must not have this drop quoted as if it were an annual occurrence. This 39,000 acre drop was the biggest drop in post-war years.

We are bound to look at the cost of these extra acres that we are obtaining. The Joint Under-Secretary of State said that we had an additional 13,000 acres in 1952. We are also told in the report of the Department of Agriculture that applications were made for ploughing subsidy in respect of 288,000 acres. Even at £5 per acre, leaving aside the payment of £10 per acre under Part II of the Scheme, that represents £1,440,000 in respect of an additional 13,000 acres. So to get down to the figure for which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire. South-East (Mr. Champion), it really costs £111 per acre to get the additional acreage that we are obtaining.

The ploughing up of this land is either good or bad husbandry. I have spoken to many farmers about this scheme. When I have asked them about the ploughing up subsidy the immediate reaction of any responsible farmer has been a broad smile and the words, "It is just absurd." I spoke to one farmer a fortnight ago and asked him what he thought about it. He said, "Well, I ploughed up 50 acres of grass this year"—he farms in rather a big way. "My farming operations are carried on in a seven to eight years' rotation—three to four years of grass and four years of crop. The ploughing-up subsidy does not make a bit of difference to me." He is in the higher range of taxpayers as it is and this subsidy would not be any inducement to him, but he added. "I ploughed 50 acres and I will get £250 for them."

It is all very well to say that this money is really part of the global sum which we intend should go into agriculture. Those of us who have to address urban audiences on this matter from time to time could justify the payment of £250 to this farmer if we could convince them that if the farmer did not receive it in this way he would obtain it in the end price for the crop. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said that even in this free economy into which we are moving, when farmers will be able to dispose of all their grain at the best prices that they can obtain in the market, we shall nevertheless take into account in the Annual Review what they actually receive, and that will determine the support price for some commodities and the fixed price for others and the level of subsidy.

That is not an explanation that will go down very well with urban audiences. They will say, "Why should the farmer on good land who will obtain a good price for his produce, and who would carry this cultivation through as a normal routine job that he does on the farm, have the subsidy when if he did not do the job of ploughing up he would go out of business?" A member of an urban audience asks, "Why should this man get £5 an acre for doing a job which he will do in any case?" Indeed, the farmer to whom I referred just now said to me that in his view if he had not ploughed up his 50 acres of grassland he ought to have been punished rather than given this subsidy of £5 an acre for doing what he would have done in any case.

I think the higher subsidy of £10 in respect of the difficult land where the tearing up of tree roots etc. is involved is probably a very good subsidy. I am glad to learn from the Joint Under-Secretary of State that applications have been made this year in respect of 10,000 acres of such land in Scotland because I regard that as work of reclamation, the bringing into food production of acres that would otherwise be producing little or nothing. I want to encourage that, and I think we all do. Indeed, I would rather we spent a little more money on that.

I come to the fallowing of which we have been told. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture said that it was desirable to permit certain acres, particular fields on particular farms, to lie fallow for a whole year after ploughing up to get rid of the heavy growth of weeds that had developed on that land. The farmer of that land has been guilty of very bad husbandry, otherwise his fields would not have got into that state. One wonders whether it would not be better if the Government were to exercise some of the other powers they have to see the land so treated and managed that it would not get into such a deplorable state that it has to be left fallow for a whole year—fallow for a whole year while the taxpayer has to help to pay for the ploughing up of fields left idle.

We must, I think, pass this Scheme for Scotland. The House has just approved one for England for another year, and I think we shall have to approve this one for Scotland as well. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that he thought a case had been made out for continuing the scheme for another year. I hope he will bear in mind the words he has uttered, and that the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland will do likewise. The Scheme is to be continued for another year, but they had better consider the whole business very carefully before coming back in a year's time and asking for this kind of subsidy to be paid for yet another year.

It will not do. The Government have powers under the 1947 Act in England and under the 1948 Act in Scotland to get a high measure of efficient husbandry. They have Orders in both countries called the Maximum Area of Pasture Orders which give them and the executive committees power to say to a farmer, "You shall not have more than such an area of pasture on your farm." If those powers were being exercised, and if the farmers were not disposed to leave too big areas of pasture on their farms, there would be no need to give this payment of £5 an acre for the ploughing up of grassland.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said that this instrument had been a great help in getting the small farmer on marginal land to plough up that extra acre or so. He said that an officer of the executive committee would call on a farmer and say, "You could plough up this additional acre. This additional small field will give you £5 an acre for doing so," I doubt very much indeed if it is from that source that the farmer has got his additional ploughed acreage. I think he has got his additional ploughed acreage from the best arable areas in this country. Let us do our utmost to encourage the small farmer, indeed the large one, too, on marginal land.

We can give him assistance by marginal land production schemes and so help bring into production land that would otherwise be doing little or nothing. We do not have to employ this extravagant, expensive instrument to do it, this instrument that is really pouring far too much of the taxpayers' money into the pockets of the most successful and the wealthiest farmers, most of whom are complaining at the end of the day in any case because three-quarters of the money goes back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Income Tax and Surtax.

If that is so, it is all the more reason why the Government should not put us in the position of having to justify to urban audiences this continued payment of £5 per acre to a farmer for carrying out his normal operations on a farm. Let us have a high standard of efficiency, let us have a high standard of husbandry, let the Government and their agents, the executive committees, do their job in administering the Acts of 1947 and 1948 and administering the Maximum Area of Pasture Orders, and it will not be necessary to continue this very expensive and disturbing instrument for yet another year. We shall not oppose this Motion this year, but let this be the last year.

7.17 p.m.

Mr. John Mackie (Galloway)

I shall not detain the House for more than a few minutes, and I should not have intervened at all had it not been for the speech of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser). I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who has himself been formerly an Under-Secretary of State especially charged with looking after the welfare of this most ancient industry in Britain and the most important in Scotland, as he will have to admit, did not speak more in unison with the more reasonable and in some ways excellent speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion). I thought that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Derbyshire, South-East showed himself to be very much more at grips with the situation really existing in agriculture today than did his hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton.

The hon. Member for Hamilton made great play with the difficulty he would have—and I suppose that applies to all Socialist Members for Scotland—in justifying this ploughing grant and its continuance for another year to urban audiences in the Northern Kingdom. I know, and I am delighted to know, that it is the case that there is far greater interest being taken in the urban areas in agriculture today than has ever been the case before. That is why I do not want to see that interest in any way diminished or injured by speeches such as that the hon. Gentleman has just delivered to this House.

I am delighted to think that there is such an interest being taken in even one detail connected with agriculture, namely, this ploughing grant. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends if they set out—and I did not know they were thinking of doing so, but if they do—to justify this to urban audiences, will not have as formidable a task in so justifying it as the hon. Gentleman has just told the House they will.

The hon. Member for Hamilton also made a great point, or endeavoured to do so, about a conversation he had a fortnight ago with a large farmer in Scotland about this ploughing grant. He said that this farmer seemed to indicate that for his part it was a waste of money, and that the land would have been ploughed up just the same if this grant had not been forthcoming. I wonder if that is the case? That is an individual opinion. We all know individuals in any industry or business with which they are connected who are out to pour cold water upon schemes which most of their brethren in the same industry would gladly welcome.

I say, without offence, that I could mention one or two individual farmers in Scotland who take the same kind of line that the hon. Gentleman has just told the House his farmer friend has taken, but I feel sure that if we could take a plebiscite of the farmers, large and small, and particularly the small farmers, in Scotland—and I think that this probably applies to England and Wales as well—we should find a very large majority of them in favour of continuing this ploughing grant for one more year.

Mr. T. Fraser

indicated assent.

Mr. Mackie

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman approves of what I have said.

I have a constituency and personal interest in farming generally. I am only too delighted to confess that. I for one am delighted that this grant is going on for another 12 months and if at the end of that time this Government are still in power, enjoying even greater majorities in the House, and come forward with an another ploughing grant which will be the subject, no doubt, of keen debate and review by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I shall be delighted.

As I say, I am delighted that this matter will come up again in 12 months' time, if this Government see fit to introduce such a proposal again. But let the hon. Gentleman realise—I beg him to keep it in mind: it is very important, when he is pouring cold water on this Scheme, or endeavouring to do so—that no matter what was said today by the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers)—and his name has been mentioned several times in the last hour in this Chamber—the farmers' costs of production have been rising. It is no use saying that they have not—the hon. Gentleman well knows it—and this grant will be an incentive to them for the ensuing 12 months.

Mr. Fraser

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mackie

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if that is not so I shall be very disappointed.

The Joint Under-Secretary says that another 13,000 acres have been reclaimed as a result of the Scheme which operated over the last 12 months. With great respect to him, I think that it would be a more graphic way of putting it to say that we have got back 39,000 acres and we have added another 13,000 acres, making 52,000 acres.

Mr. Fraser

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mackie

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the Joint Under-Secretary does not deny it. The hon. Gentleman has not been associated as actively as the Minister with the Scottish Office for nearly two years, and he is not in a position to trifle with the statement which my hon. Friend made, and which I have endeavoured modestly to elaborate in this speech.

As I say I did not intend to speak, and I do not think that I should have done so but for the challenging speech which the former Under-Secretary of State for Scotland delivered. I am delighted to think that at the end of his speech he associated himself with what my hon. Friend had said, by saying that he would offer no opposition to this Scheme. I am glad that he supports it, and I can say that we are delighted to have it for another 12 months. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be proved entirely wrong, that the taxpayers of Scotland will not suffer and that the consumers will not suffer. I hope that the agricultural community—the farmers—whose duty it is to plough up and till the land will benefit largely from the result of these ploughing grants, if they are continued for another year.

7.25 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I have no doubt that the Government will be reassured to hear that the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Mackie) and his farming friends do not intend to reject the subsidies offered to them under this Scheme.

Part III, paragraph 10 of the Scheme makes special provision for small landholders and crofters. I am very glad that in these schemes such special provisions are usually incorporated. I think it is generally agreed that this is the type of farmer who genuinely does need assistance and who often finds difficulty in getting the full benefit from the various agricultural subsidies owing to the nature and size of his holding. I should like to ask one or two questions about that paragraph. If the Joint Under-Secretary cannot reply to these points now perhaps he will do so at some other time.

Paragraph 10 as drafted applies only to landholders who are holders under certain Acts. There are certain parts of the crofting counties where the crofters have bought their crofts and are owner-occupiers. On the face of it they would not come under this Scheme. I do not know if there are many cases which have arisen of people being excluded from these benefits because they are owner-occupiers. The person who has bought his croft is in the same position as the true crofter, and I have no doubt that the Government intend to give him the benefit which the true crofter would get under this Scheme.

The Scheme refers to landholders of "neighbouring" landholdings. They have to make up one acre among their holdings to be able to apply for the grants. Has there been any difficulty in finding out what this word "neighbouring" means. It looks as if it was intended to refer only to landholders who have an interest in a common grazing. Can the Joint Under-Secretary tell us what is meant by "neighbouring" in connection with this Scheme. Is it all the landholders who have rights of common grazing together. If so, some of their holdings may be a considerable distance apart. I take it that it is not intended that they should be able to apply for this subsidy only in respect of land which has been enclosed for the common grazings after an apportionment by the Land Court. Are they entitled to apply for subsidy for any land whether it originally came from a common grazing or not? I should like to know if there has been any difficulty, and, if so, I hope that the Government are being as lenient as possible and are interpreting this word "neighbouring" as widely as possible.

The Scheme also states that, … application in respect of the total area ploughed up is made on behalf of the individual landholders concerned by a Common Grazings Committee or Grazings Constable … or by a representative authorised by the landholders to act on their behalf and approved by the Secretary of State. No doubt this is not such a high-sounding phrase as it appears to be in the Scheme. I urge on the Government that these are small people, who possibly are not very well read and conversant with these Schemes, and I hope that the Government will not put too many difficulties in the way of their getting their representative properly accredited.

Again, I should like to know whether there has been any difficulty in bringing crofters within the orbit of this type of scheme and on this particular point of getting their representative approved. My general point is that the Government should do all that they can to assist in allowing crofters and smallholders to take advantage of this sort of scheme, and to make the conditions for them as easy as possible.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Snadden

Perhaps, with permission, I might reply briefly to one or two of the points which have been made.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) about neighbouring holders, we are making the provision as wide as possible and are in no way drawing the line very tightly. My information with regard to the crofting position is that the provision does not apply to owner-occupiers, but perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to look into it and verify that, and if he will send me particulars of any cases that he has I shall be grateful. There is no difficulty about the representative who is appointed. The provision is merely to make sure that proper control is exercised from St. Andrew's House and that a responsible person is chosen.

I wish also to deal with a few of the points raised by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), to which he is entitled to a reply. He said that, to a great extent, the increased acreage of land came from the best arable areas. That is his opinion. It is not our opinion. The reason is that, as a rule, the better arable farms work on short rotations. Therefore, the grants that we have been giving for a four-year ley or over have in the main gone to medium and poorer farms.

Mr. T. Fraser

Has the grass to be a four-year ley or over? According to paragraph 5 (b) of Part I of the Scheme, land which would qualify for subsidy is land which has been continually under grass since 1st June, 1950, and is ploughed after 1st June, 1953. It has to be sown down to grass only three years. That means only two years of usable grass.

Mr. Snadden

It is really a three-year ley, but many people would regard it as a four-year ley, including the year of sowing down.

The hon. Member also referred to fallow. Certain types of land, even quite good grass land, contain a grass called twitch grass, and in Scotland we have a particularly nasty one called knot grass, which is often found on good farming land and is not always the result of bad farming. In order to kill that grass, one has to cultivate the land, very often for a considerable time, and with the help of the rays of the sun, to get rid of it. That is one of the reasons why we feel that it is useful to include fallow.

The hon. Gentleman criticised me for giving the figure of 39,000 acres. If I had not given it I should still have been criticised. I gave it to show the fall in the tillage acreage and also to show that we have made a net increase of 13,000 acres above that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. Mackie) said, that means 52,000 acres. The hon. Gentleman opposite talked about the expense of the scheme. He will agree that we had to face the hard fact that our tillage acreage was falling steeply, and we simply had to put forward some incentive to stop the fall. We cannot tell what the fall might have been in the next year had the ploughing grant not been introduced, but it might have been much more than 39,000 acres.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the point that many farmers would be doing the job in any case, and said that we were paying money to people who should have been doing the job in the ordinary course of farming. That is the case, and we have to admit it, but, again, we had to take a hard fact into account. We had a falling tillage acreage and we had to stop that trend in order to maintain and increase our head of livestock. There was no way round that. I admit that in many cases farmers would be paid for grass land which in the normal course they would have been ploughing anyhow.

The hon. Member expressed a fear about the ploughing grant generally. I would remind him that we have to bring our Schemes before Parliament every year. It might happen that price levels would move in a free economy, or circumstances change to such an extent that a further grant would be inappropriate. As any scheme would still have to be brought to Parliament for approval, however, I do not think there is any reason to be afraid about the future. Parliament has the duty of approving a Scheme. I hope that, with that explanation, the House will give us the Scheme.

Resolved, That the Draft Agriculture (Ploughing Grants) (Scotland) Scheme, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th May, be approved.