HC Deb 26 November 1953 vol 521 cc615-23

8.30 p.m.

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

I beg to move. That the Draft Coastal Flooding (Acreage Payments) Scheme (No. 2), 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th November, be approved. This is the second Scheme under the Coastal Flooding (Emergency Provisions) Act of this year, and it provides acreage payments for the rehabilitation of farm land and allotments damaged by the floods of 31st January last. The details of the second Scheme follow similar lines to those of the first. Hon. Members will notice that there have been some modifications and telescoping in the Schedule, but the main criteria for qualification for acreage payments will be the state of the land on 1st January next and, combined with that, the general method of management which is then approved for the land in the coming year.

Payment will be made to the occupier of the land on 4th June, and his application must be in by 31st August. This will enable the county agricultural executive committees to ensure that the land is dealt with in the approved manner during the greater part of next year, before payment is actually made, and so will ensure that the proper measures are taken to rehabilitate the land, or, in the process of so doing, to bring it back into cultivation. I believe that the Scheme as drafted will give farmers the help which they need in this rehabilitation.

8.31 p.m.

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

The Parliamentary Secretary has been commendably brief, and I shall try not to be unduly long in my remarks, but I feel that I must ask him a number of questions, particularly in regard to the experience of his Ministry in the administration of the previous Scheme that was adopted by this House. We were dealing with something rather novel. It was a new experience, and we might be able to learn something from it. Before parting with this Scheme, I think we ought to know something about the way in which the first Scheme has worked. That will give us an idea whether the second Scheme is likely to work well or ill.

This is very largely a continuation of the first Scheme, except for certain modifications, which I believe to be in the right direction. The first Scheme made provision for acreage payments at rates which varied according to the crop and to the extent of damage to the land. In the case of damage to the land the payment differed according to whether the land was flooded or only damaged and not flooded by sea water. Both types of payment seemed to me to contain—as, of course, they did—a considerable element of compensation. But the main purpose of the Act was to bring the land back into full productivity as soon as possible.

That was the main consideration as far as the nation is concerned. To the individual farmer the aspect of compensation was a pretty considerable one, but the intention to bring back the land into full productivity was the matter which was of interest to the nation. I have been wondering what the first Scheme actually achieved in the way of a return to full productivity, and in what way it has simulated the farmer. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say that in his opinion the first Scheme was a success?

My second point concerns the extent of the cost to the Treasury. This is an important matter. We are here as guardians of the money which comes from the taxpayers, and it is our job to find out how much these Treasury payments have amounted to. If we can be told that, we shall be able to decide whether or not they have been justified. Is the Minister satisfied with the way in which the county agricultural executive committees have been approving the management of the land for which these acreage payments have been made, that is, with a view to a return to full productivity? I am assured by farmers in Suffolk, whose land was very badly damaged by this flooding, that the administration of the Scheme in that county has been reasonable. There has been great care exercised by the county agricultural executive committee in checking the claims that the farmers have made.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is now doing. Is he discussing the old Scheme? That would be out of order now.

Mr. Champion

What I am trying to do, before parting with the new Scheme, the second made under these arrangements, is to ascertain what has been done under the old Scheme, and the experience there has been of it, to give us an idea whether we can approve this Motion, this second Scheme. I do not want to go into this fully. Indeed, I am coming to the end of my questions on the administration and experience of the first Scheme.

The points I want now to make arise definitely out of the Scheme before the House at the moment. The first question is, what is the estimated cost of the Scheme? Second, what steps has the Minister taken to satisfy himself that the payments now proposed are roughly fair to the farmers whose land was heavily inundated with salt water? As the Parliamentary Secretary himself said, payments have been scaled down under this second Scheme, and I wonder if he has taken steps to ascertain the point of view of the people concerned as to whether the payments are fair having regard to the fact that there are many acres from which very little will be got, I think, in 1954.

I have only two more questions. On the point of the crops mentioned in the second Scheme, I am wondering whether they have been selected because they are regarded as tolerant of salt. I think myself all the cereals are certainly in that category, but I am wondering about some of the crops included under the heading of agricultural crops. That can embrace almost anything, and many of those crops, I should think, are not suitable for sowing on land that has been affected by the inundation of sea water.

The last question is one on the laying down of the grass as mentioned in the second paragraph of the Schedule. I am wondering whether suitable advice was given under the old Scheme and will be given under the new Scheme as to the type of grass best suited to salty conditions. I noticed in the "Farmers' Weekly" last Friday that from Dutch experience it has been shown quite clearly that Ryegrass, Meadow Fescue and Perennial Timothy are the most suitable types of grass following salt inundation. I am wondering whether care has been taken to ensure that that sort of advice has been given to farmers under the old Scheme and whether the farmers will be suitably advised, having regard to Dutch experience, under the Scheme before us.

Finally, I do welcome this Scheme. I am glad I am able to do this at a time when everything seems to bleak for the Minister and Ministry of Agriculture. It is nice that we should be able to give a welcome to a Scheme produced in the conditions which we have now. I support it.

8.39 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

As I live in Cambridgeshire and represent a Lincolnshire constituency, naturally I am very interested in this Scheme. My constituency being the city of Lincoln, none of my constituents is affected by it, but since there are, unfortunately, no other Lincolnshire Members present when this important Motion affecting the whole acreage payments under the Coastal Flooding Scheme comes up, I think it is only right that I should ask if the Parliamentary Secretary is satisfied that the fanners of the heavily inundated areas of Lincolnshire are going to get a fair share of the payments under this Scheme. I should like to take this opportunity of agreeing with the concluding words of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion). When something goes right for the Ministry of Agriculture it is fair that we should say so, because they have taken such a beating in every part of the country.

8.41 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

Perhaps, by leave of the House, I may reply to the questions put to me by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion). The first question, which I may answer by your leave, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is germane to the Order because this Order and the Schedules are based entirely on the experience we have had this year and the terms of the first scheme.

I was asked what the first scheme has achieved in the way of rehabilitation in the 12 months which expire at the end of this year and in returning the land to productivity. The general answer is that it has made only a beginning. On some of the lighter lands, where the soil structure does not suffer so much by salt damage, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, where there are good soil drainage conditions and where possibly the rainfall has helped to leach the salt out a little, there has been some improvement during the past eight or nine months, but the general condition of the land varies not only from county to county but from field to field according to the nature of the land, the period for which it was flooded, the amount of salt which was in the water when it was flooded and the rainfall which has been experienced since then. There are a number of variables in the picture.

We have the impression that on the heavy lands—and that will account for most of the marsh grazings in Essex, Norfolkand Suffolk on the clay soils—rehabilitation is going to be a fairly long job and is likely to take, at any rate on the most difficult land, the whole of the five years provided in the Act; that is to say, probably up to the end of 1957. We have, however, gained a great deal of valuable experience in the first year and we are fairly confident that the lines we are pursuing are the right ones.

Mr. Denys Bollard (Norfolk, South-West)

May I put a further question on that point? I am not very clear from my memory of the previous scheme—perhaps I ought to be—whether any point is established at which the land can be said to have been rehabilitated. My hon. Friend has mentioned light land where drainage is good and leaching may have removed the salt. Presumably if land recovers within the period it ceases to be eligible for payment when it has recovered to its proper condition.

Mr. Nugent

Yes. That is so. It is not possible to lay down any clear definition of the exact condition which land must reach to be fully restored. We have regard to the percentage of salt in the soil, and we have regard to the look of the land and to the conditions on the field itself.

Mr. Bullard

May I further inquire who decides that? Is that the responsibility of the local county agricultural executive committee?

Mr. Nugent

Yes. I was about to come to that in dealing with one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East. Perhaps I may first deal with the bon. Gentleman's question about cost and then I will return to the question asked by my hon. Friend. The cost up to date, until November, has been £1,190,000, and we expect that by the end of this year it will probably be about £1,500,000. That covers an acreage of 139,545,including some 237 acres of allotments, about which I recollect the House was rather anxious when we discussed the last scheme.

Coming to the point of the administration of the agricultural executive committees who continue under this new scheme to be our agents in this matter, the House will be interested to know that they have done a really good job. Between the executive committees, their advisory staffs and the district committees they have tried to survey every single field which has been flooded in all the counties concerned and advise the farmers individually about every field, about how they could cultivate it or not cultivate it, or how they could crop it or not crop it in this year.

They have done a tremendous job when one considers that they had to survey some 139,000 acres. They are now in progress, in connection with the scheme before the House, of making a re-survey in order to decide what is the condition of each field with regard to its qualification for acreage payments and what mode of management should be followed in the coming 12 months. When they have made their second survey, it is intended that they shall put in writing, in order to give greater certainty to this second scheme, exactly what the conditions should be for the coming 12 months. The House can be assured that this work has been most conscientiously done, that the money voted for the purpose is being properly spent and that the land is being properly brought back into production.

We have been greatly helped in this by the Dutch, and I should like to pay tribute to them on behalf of the Government for the assistance they have given us. They have been most helpful in inviting us over there to see what they have done and in giving us every facility from the technical experience which they have had of this matter in the past.

I have been asked for an estimate of the cost of this new scheme. While it is difficult to be certain about it, I should say that it will be between £1 million and £1½ million, in other words, about the same amount as in the past year. I was also asked what steps had been taken to ensure that the acreage payment will be adequate.

Mr. Champion

On the point of £1 million or £1½ million against £1½ million last year, I noticed that this Order makes provision for just about half the amount of the payments. Does that mean that additional acreages will qualify?

Mr. Nugent

The only Schedule where the payments are being halved is in respect of the very expensive horticultural crops, for which in the first Scheme we provided £80 an acre and this year are providing £40 per acre. The actual acreage involved there is very small indeed—20 to 30 acres of small holdings, which although important, are not really significant in the total sum.

The far greater part of the acreage concerned is marsh grazing—something like 91,000 acres—and most of the rest of it is arable land growing cereal crops. The House will see that the broad picture is that most of this will have to continue in much the same way as it has this year and will qualify for acreage payments in much the same way. Some of it will have to carry crops of some kind, but it will still need acreage payments because the crops will not be very big.

A great deal of trouble has been taken to study this matter on the spot. We have had advice from all our county agricultural officers so as to get a clear picture, and in the light of that we have made a few adjustments in the Schedule. One or two items have gone up a little, particularly in regard to cereals, because experience has shown that cereal crops sown on this salt damaged land in practice yield less than we expected. In many cases the plant looked quite good during the early summer months but when crops came to harvest they proved to be very light indeed. Therefore, we learnt that if farmers were to be asked to plant crops in this flood-damaged land, because it would be beneficial to the land to do so, we must give them a slightly larger acreage payment to reimburse them for the poor crop which they would gather.

I was then asked whether the crops covered by paragraph 3 of the Schedule have been specially designated because they are resistant to salt. The answer is that they are not. They are simply the ordinary crops, and in most places it will be cereal crops that are grown. We have included horticultural crops because it is possible that in some cases, and particularly that of the smallholder, the person concerned would wish to plant a horticultural crop and our adviser might think that it was worth while to do so. I imagine, however, that that would be the exception and that normally, if the land was in a doubtful condition, it would not be worth planting a crop as expensive as that.

On the question of advice on the best grass seeds to sow, we are making full use of the Dutch experience in this matter and are giving similar advice to our farmers. I stress again, however, that undoubtedly we have quite a problem with this permanent grassland, which is the main part of the flooded land and which has shown during the year that it was far worse damaged than we expected. Most of the grass has gone and nearly all that is growing there now are salt-loving weeds. It will take quite a long time before we can get that land back into a condition where we can sow grass seeds with a reasonable prospect of their taking earth. However, that will be persisted with. Further applications of gypsum will help, and all the proper management will be applied.

I hope that following these lines of action we will progressively bring this considerable acreage of farmland back again into production, and I hope that the House will now be prepared to give its approval to the Scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft Coastal Flooding (Acreage Payments) Scheme (No. 2), 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th November, be approved.