HC Deb 07 February 1955 vol 536 cc1673-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Draft Coastal Flooding (Acreage Payments) Scheme, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st December, be approved.—[Mr. Nugent.]

9.51 p.m.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. When you called the Minister of State, Board of Trade, just now, I rose to my feet before you put the Question but I did not catch your eye. It may be that you were attending so closely to the Order itself that you did not see that I had risen. I should be very grateful if I might say a word on that Order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrews)

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman had drawn my attention to the fact that he had risen, I should have called him. Upon which Order is it that the hon. and gallant Gentleman wishes to speak?

Major Legge-Bourke

I wish to speak upon the Import Duties Order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am afraid that nothing can now be done. We have now passed that point. I am sorry. I went very quickly. It is perhaps my fault, but we have now passed the Order. I apologise.

Major Legge-Bourke

I would not, of course, question your Ruling for one moment, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but might I point out with great respect that when these Orders come before the House there is very little opportunity for anyone to have any say upon them? If this opportunity is not given, it will be very difficult for anybody to do anything with a view to amending the Orders in future or preventing a similar Order from being presented.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I realise what the hon. and gallant Gentleman says. I had not realised that anybody wanted to speak on the Order. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman had said "Mr. Deputy-Speaker" or something of that sort, it would have attracted my attention.

Hon. Members

The hon. and gallant Gentleman did so.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am afraid that I did not hear him. However, I have explained the position now, and I am very sorry for what has happened. The Question is—

Mr. George Brown (Belper)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I do not want to exhaust my right to speak at the moment, but are we not to have any comment from the Minister upon this Scheme and the previous Order?

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The Scheme was moved before the right hon. Gentleman came into the House.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I take it that it is the Coastal Flooding Scheme which is now being referred to.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

It is true, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the Scheme was moved by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary nodding his head, but that should not prevent him from telling any hon. Member who desires to know about the Order what is in it. Even if moving the Scheme counted as a speech, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has the right to make a second speech.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary does not need to make a speech.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. G. Brown

I do not quite know what the Parliamentary Secretary expects to gain by taking this attitude. He is moving a Scheme which continues a provision that we have now made for three years and on which presumably a great deal of public money has been spent. It is a Scheme which, if I remember rightly, he moved once before in the way in which he has moved it tonight. He succeeded in holding up the House for several hours and then had to withdraw the Order and bring it back again in an amended form. Having seen that that did not help the business of the House or himself, I cannot see why he persists in taking that attitude again.

The history of this matter—and I will speak for a little time to give hint an opportunity to read his brief and make his speech at the end of the debate instead of at the beginning—is that a series of Schemes, of which this is by no means the first, was made necessary, because of the tragic disaster which faced agriculture and a number of farmers some time ago, because of the effects of our weather and the storms that we had around our coasts.

It was the view of the whole House at that time—and we assisted the Minister very considerably from this side of the House in making into a better Bill a rather inadequate Bill which he first brought before the House—that adequate help should be made available to farmers who were badly affected by the flooding disaster. Since then we have been very interested, not unnaturally, in the results of the help that this House so willingly made available.

I must enter a protest on behalf of the farming community that at the end of another year the Minister deems it proper to proceed to a new Scheme without telling us a single word about how this help has been dispensed to the farmers, whether they are satisfied, whether they have been helped, whether the land is being restored, how much has been restored, how much we have spent to get it restored, on how much land originally inundated crops are now being grown, and whether or not the land has to be held out of cultivation.

There is no section of this country which receives more unfair criticism than our farming community. That is natural enough, in a way. We are a country of over 50 million people and the chief interest in food shown by the bulk of us is in eating it, and only a minority is interested in producing it. That is quite understandable. But the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture comes here and has not sufficient interest in his charge to explain either how much his Department has spent of the taxpayers' money on helping farmers, or what the farmers have done with their help. It is a pretty severe criticism.

I deliberately sought to give him an opportunity, which in the somewhat graceless way which he sometimes chooses to adopt, he tossed aside. To do the farmer a reasonable service and see that his point of view is put, it is not sufficient for the Department that is charged with the job of looking after the interests of agriculture to refuse an opportunity to explain what it is doing and what is going on, or what the industry is doing. I can only guess that, in fact, the farmers have made a very stout and good job of restoring their land after that disaster.

My guess is that they have put the State help they have had to very good use indeed. My guess is that a lot of fields that might reasonably have still been out of use are already back in use. Why should I be left to guess that? Why should not the Minister have got up and told us if that is the case? Why should not he have said what the farmers have done? This is, once again, a case in which, unless the Opposition—the Labour Party—at the risk of being slightly awkward late at night, stands up for the interests of the farmers, the Government will let the matter go absolutely by default and try to get away with it. [Laughter.] That sort of laughter is no answer.

The simple fact remains that the Minister was presented with two opportunities—indeed, three opportunities, because my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) presented him with one—and he declined to take them. The House is entitled to know, first, as the custodian of the taxpayers' money, the answers to some questions; and, secondly, the House is naturally interested in what our fellows who are charged with the job of farming have tried to do, and how they have made use of the help which the taxpayers of this country have made available to them. I hope that, at the end of this discussion, the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us what has happened.

First, before we proceed to renew the Scheme for yet another year, I hope that the Minister will tell us how many of the acres originally affected have received grants under these Schemes. On how many acres have we paid grants? Secondly, we should be told how much we have spent in each year, and what this measure of public assistance to an important and deserving section of agriculture has cost us in each year.

I am sure that hon. Members opposite who sit for agricultural constituencies, as I do, and who, in some cases, sit for agricultural constituencies which were affected, as I do not, will feel with me that we ought to know what is the total amount so that we bring home to the farmers, who may sometimes think that they are not supported as they should be, the exact measure of the special help which we gave; and also so that we let the taxpayer know exactly to what he has been committed for this purpose. As far as I know, the figure has not yet been given, and I think we should know what it has cost us, for how many acres we have paid out, and what is the total expenditure in each of the years in which these Schemes have been running.

Thirdly, this Scheme continues a number of provisions, including some for dealing with land that still has to be bare fallow and cannot be cropped. We are now getting some way from the original plan. It would be interesting to know how many of the number of acres originally affected can now be regarded as rehabilitated. I know that originally it was said that this would take four, five, six, or even seven years.

I have, like other hon. Members, a modicum of experience in these matters, and I know that one is apt to overstate a little at the beginning. My guess—and I apologise for doing so much guessing, but the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has forced it upon us—is that some of the land that we originally thought could not come back into cultivation for some time is, in fact, already back, through the special help which we were able to make available.

I should like to know how many of the original acres may now be regarded as rehabilitated. It would be very interesting, and I think a very good thing for the public, both as taxpayers and as consumers, to realise the measure of help given by the original Act, under which these Schemes are presented, because if land was put out of production as the result of flooding and is now back producing food again, it is, quite obviously, par excellence the argument in favour of giving this kind of special assistance, and it removes any argument that it is a subsidy.

If the land is not back in cultivation, which is what we are left to assume in the absence of any answer, then the money given is a straightforward dole or subsidy; if, on the other hand, the land—or some of it—is back in cultivation, it is not a dole or subsidy, but a straightforward act of rehabilitation of our important, indeed vital and precious, raw material. Therefore, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say how many of the acres are now rehabilitated, for then we shall know, not only how much good the Act has done, but also for how much of the remaining land we have still to face the problem of keeping it bare fallow, and paying, I think it is, £10 an acre as provided under this Scheme.

Further to that point, and as a sort of sub-heading—I will not call it question 5, but perhaps question 4a—I should like to know the total acreage for which the hon. Gentleman's Ministry expects still to pay the bare non-cultivated Grant 4. How much land does he expect—I think that there have been two previous Schemes according to the Explanatory Note, so that this is the third—in the third year, to be out of cultivation altogether, and therefore qualifying for the higher grant made available for such land?

Again, I must guess, but my guess is that it is not very much. I would say that there is very little land going to be out of cultivation this year, and this is why I did not particularly want to exhaust my right to speak by asking questions which ought to have been answered first of all. I think the House is entitled to say to the Parliamentary Secretary that if one is right in one's guess that there is not much, if any, land still out of cultivation, it becomes a question of whether we ought to pass a Scheme which commits us to a fairly high acreage sum for land which is not already cultivated.

It means that we may be voting money which, for the main part, is not needed at all, and which may be misrepresented as an unreasonable cushion by people who do not really understand the position. Therefore, I think that the Parliamentary Secretary ought to make clear how much land he expects to be under cultivation. I hope that other hon. Members who have not been forced, as I have been, to get in ahead of the Parliamentary Secretary, will quiz him rather closely if the answer he gives is what I guess it will be.

These are the kind of questions on which I should have expected that the Parliamentary Secretary would have produced information in introducing this Scheme. We shall watch and listen to the answers which he gives on the subject. I repeat that we on this side of the House are most interested in this. We share paternity of the Bill with his right hon. Friend, and he will remember that we assisted very considerably in building up the Bill and getting it a very hurried passage through the House, so that it will be seen that our interest in the matter is every bit as great as his.

Some of us on this side of the House have as many friends as he has who are farming under the very difficult conditions left by the disaster of the floods. We shall pay the most close and sympathetic attention to the answers which he gives. If he can show that this Scheme in its present form is still required for a third year, we shall most willingly agree to it, because we on this side—and this is most appropriate coming after a colonial development and welfare debate—perhaps rather more than some of his hon. Friends, are very concerned indeed about the food production situation in the world.

I have just come back from a short visit to what was hitherto one of the largest food-producing countries in the world. I spent a very short while in the Argentine. What I saw there made me more sure than before I went that the production of the maximum amount of food from our own fields is going to be the saver of this country in the years immediately ahead. The hitherto agricultural producers are industrialising so fast that almost all of them, without exception, are neglecting their agricultural industries in order to do so. Unless we in these islands produce as much food as we can, a very severe situation will face our people. Therefore, any Measure that will bring these inundated fields back into cultivation seems to us to be a very wise, a very proper and a very important Measure. We have more sympathy with this Measure than some other people who are not so convinced as we happen to be on this point.

That is why I have had to press the Minister very hard with these questions. There are two other somewhat minor points which I should like him to answer, if he can find the time. No doubt he has in his possession the answer to the questions which I have just asked, and if on the two minor points which I wish to put to him he has not the answers in his possession but can get them in time for his reply, I shall be grateful for them.

Brigadier Christopher Peto (Devon, North)

The right hon. Gentleman says how much more interested in this matter the Opposition are than we on this side? How many Members out of the eight who are representing the Labour Party opposite represent agricultural constituencies?

Mr. Brown

Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will one day realise that if agriculture has to be left to the consideration of hon. Members who represent agricultural constituencies, it will have a thin time.

Brigadier Peto

A very thin time on the right hon. Gentleman's side of the House.

Mr. Brown

The great hope for agriculture is that Members who sit in this House for industrial and urban constituencies will stand up for agriculture. Let us realise that. We in the Labour Party, although we represent a large number of industrial and urban electors, are fortunately fighting for a good policy for British agriculture. That is the great difference between us and the party opposite in which only those Members who sit for agricultural constituencies take that view.

The two minor questions which I wish to put to the Minister are these. Paragraph 8 relates to the reduction, withholding and recovery of acreage payments. We had a short discussion about this on an earlier Scheme, and I should like to know whether, in practice, it has proved necessary to use that paragraph at all, and, if so, to what extent. The other question is: how many of those who hitherto had received the full grant can now be given a somewhat lower grant on the ground that although their fields are back in cultivation they are not producing a full crop, and whether this Order gives the Minister the power to pay something between the full grant, if the land is not back in cultivation at all and no grant, if it is back? There may be cases where some cultivation is going on and some payment ought to be made, but where it would be unreasonable to pay too much. I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that there are any such cases, and whether he has power under the Scheme to deal with them.

I hope that I have said enough. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I think it is extraordinarily foolish for the hon. and gallant Member for Devon, North (Brigadier Peto) to take that line and to let his constituents know that, after a quarter of an hour's debate and because it is after 10 p.m., he is in such a hurry to get rid of this important agricultural Scheme. He is already demanding that the debate should not go on.

I hope that I have said enough to show that this Scheme is, in our view, a most important one—important to the agricultural community and important to the consuming population of our country who depend so much on agriculture—and I hope that the Minister will be good enough, perhaps without waiting for the rest of the debate, to offer some observations and possibly answer the question which I have asked him, so that the subsequent debate may proceed in a rather better informed way than it could possibly do without that information.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, South-West)

I represent a constituency where there is a good deal of land which was flooded in the 1953 floods, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) on at least one point—that this is a very important Scheme. I have one question which I should like to ask my hon. Friend. Before doing so, I would stress one point about these payments, which, I think, has not been sufficiently stressed so far.

One of the dangers about this land which was flooded in 1953 was that it would be entered on too soon and cultivated. I think a lot of farmers would very much like to get on with cropping on this land but have been prevented from so doing by the official advice given to them. These payments have been absolutely necessary if that land is to be treated in the right way.

The question which I should like to ask is this. Undoubtedly some of the land which was flooded in 1953 has not been as well drained of the salt water as has other land. I know that from my own experience. I am not quite sure what criterion is used by the Ministry of Agriculture in judging whether these payments should be continued or not. Is it the state of the land that is judged by practical people who are in a position to decide whether it is completely recovered or not; or is it a matter of analysis of the salt content?

I think it is very important for the proper working out of this Scheme that land which requires continuation of the payments should have them, but that land which has recovered should come out of the lists. I hope my hon. Friend will be able to tell me what standard is used and who is actually in a position to say whether the land is recovered or not or whether it requires further treatment.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Nugent

By leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

On a point of order. I understand that this is a positive Motion and that the hon. Gentleman has the right to make a second speech without asking for leave. A habit has been growing up of late with Ministers in the position of making a second speech to ask for the leave of the House, and it would be as well if we could have the position defined.

Mr. Speaker

It is quite clear that the hon. Member moved a substantive Motion and has the right of reply without asking for the leave of the House. It is sometimes difficult for hon. Members to distinguish between a substantive Motion and an Amendment or a Motion on a Bill to which different considerations apply.

Mr. Nugent

May I reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard), who asked me about the criterion used for judging whether acreage payments are justified on salt damaged land. There can be no very precise standards, but the main standard is actually the physical condition of the land which can be observed, and the scientific standard applied with it is to take an analysis of the soil and calculate the salt content. If it exceeds .1 per cent. it is regarded as so seriously damaged with salt as to warrant payment for rehabilitation.

I can assure my hon. Friend that payments are most carefully assessed, and although in some cases good crops were grown on some land last year, that was more the result of the unexpectedly wet weather than the normal prediction of what might be expected in land of that condition. I can assure my hon. Friend that nothing is likely to be wasted in that way.

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), I should like to say about his strictures directed at me personally that if it had not been for a point of order raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) the adoption of the Scheme which I have moved would have been assented to by the House before the right hon. Gentleman came in. His strictures, therefore, on my discourtesy to the House were really aimed very far from the target.

I must congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his customary skill in attacking when he is in a weak position, and doing his best to uphold the agricultural cause on his side of the House where it is now a little thinly represented. However, I am very pleased to answer his questions and to say, in reply to his further strictures on myself, that on no occasion when it has been my duty to move anything have I not been forthcoming in answering any questions the House might desire, and giving all the information required.

He first asked what acreage had up to date received grants. In the first of the two years since 1953, about 150,000 acres received payment—50,000 acres of tillage and about 100,000 acres of pasture. The sum expended was about £1¼ million. In the second year—1954—there was a small reduction of, I should think—we have not the precise figure yet—some 10,000 to 12,000 acres. The cost was £1 million plus. We have not yet the final figures but it was slightly over £1 million.

For the year to which this Scheme would apply I cannot give the House precise figures. The best we can do is to say that about 42,000 acres of tillage and about 75,000 acres of pasture will qualify for rehabilitation acreage payments. It will mean a reduction over last year of about 20,000 to 25,000 acres. We therefore see in the first year about 10,000 acres put back into cultivation, and, in the second, something over 20,000—slow progress, but I will say a word in conclusion about the general problem with which we are contending here.

The right hon. Gentleman next asked how much bare land there will be in 1955. I am afraid that I cannot give him a precise figure. The acreage payments which we have scheduled this time allow for a payment of £10 an acre for land which must be left bare in the judgment of our experts as being the best thing for it. Here I should say that no farmer is anxious to leave his land bare, and one of our great problems is to get farmers to leave land bare that should be left so. To leave it bare means applying gypsum and keeping down the weeds, and it is difficult to restrain farmers from growing some sort of crop. I can assure the House that every field is inspected. A schedule is drawn up with each farmer—and agreed with him—as to what is to be done on that land. If the farmer is to qualify for the acreage payment he must carry out, or refrain from carrying out, the cultivation.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked a question with regard to paragraph 8, which deals with the withholding of payments. That paragraph was put in to give my right hon. Friend the Minister power, where necessary, to withhold payments. There have not been many cases—I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a specific number but there have been a few—where farmers have not been willing to carry out, or refrain from carrying out, the operations which we have felt were right on any particular field. I am sure the House would agree that, where we are paying out large sums of the taxpayers' money, we must insist on the field being properly cultivated, properly cropped and so on if the farmer is to qualify. I am glad to say there have been very few cases and that, in the main, farmers have been only too willing to co-operate.

Mr. Brown

Could the Parliamentary Secretary find out the number?

Mr. Nugent

I will see if I can discover precisely what the number is, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that there have been very few cases. I have only had reports from one county, where difficulty did arise in one case.

In his last question the right hon. Gentleman asked whether there was some land which could qualify for some grant but not for the full rate of grant. The House will have observed that we have very much simplified the schedule of payments this year. We have cut out the high price horticultural crops and we have simplified the schedule of payments to two rates of £10 and £6. The £6 rate is applicable to pasture land which is still damaged but has some use, and the £10 rate applies where a crop is to be grown or land is to be re-seeded or where it is to be left bare fallow. With those two rates, I think we have sufficient flexibility to ensure that money is properly spent. I think I have covered the main questions that have been asked.

May I say in conclusion that there is a difficult problem here. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we had not been a little pessimistic to start with in thinking of a seven years period. I think we shall undoubtedly want seven years in which to rehabilitate the very heavy Essex clays. We find that we have got something quite exceptional there, something which is much more difficult to deal with than anything the Dutch have ever seen, and it responds very slowly to the treatment that we can give it. The treatment is, broadly, to spread annually on it gypsum which penetrates to a shallow depth and gradually restores the soil structure. The penetration in heavy clay is a matter of only a few inches a year, so that it will be a slow process rehabilitating the soil to a depth of two feet.

On the lighter land good progress has been made and some good crops were grown last year. If it was a good summer for growing anything at all, it was good for growing crops on salt land because the effect of the salt is such that the roots cannot penetrate the deeper soil which had its structure spoilt by the salt. It runs together like glue and, therefore, the roots spread out sideways and have a shallow growth. In a normal summer the roots would dry out and wither. Last year in many places we had rather better crops than we had expected. In a normal summer when we can rejoice in the sunshine, some of the crops may not be so good.

Progress is satisfactory in a very difficult job. The farmers are coping with what is a long and very difficult task for some of them, and it is heartbreaking to see the slow progress. But I can assure the House that the money is being well spent. We are making progress as quickly as can be expected in this difficult matter, and I hope with that assurance that the House will give its approval.

Resolved, That the Draft Coastal Flooding (Acreage Payments) Scheme, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st December, be approved.