HC Deb 24 July 1956 vol 557 cc375-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Godber.]

11.7 p.m.

Mr. E. H. C. Leather (Somerset, North)

I rise to raise a constituency case which my hon Friend the Parliamentary Secretary knows as well as I do. It is the case of a young man by the name of Michael Patch, and it is typical of the kind of matter which comes from a farming community. It is the case of a young man running a smallholding, in this instance a holding of 27 acres, and if he is called up it will have to be sacrificed. It will mean the sacrifice of a life's work, and his parents will be devoid of any earning power of any significance during the period of his National Service. The smallholding will disappear, in effect, during his National Service.

I do want to make it quite clear at the outset that we in the countryside fully appreciate that we have certain special privileges in the matter of the call-up. We understand that, and as the representative of a country constituency I do not want to say anything which might be taken as desiring an abuse of that privilege. From time to time all hon. Members have young men coming to us asking us to try to help them to get out of doing National Service, and the majority of those applications can be turned down without consideration. It is no part of my duty to help people to avoid a national obligation, but I have personal knowledge of the case which I raise tonight, and I must say that I regard it as quite exceptional.

This is the case of a smallholder who is the unfortunate type of man who falls between two stools. If he had been the son of a large farmer, or on the other hand had he been a farm worker, he would doubtless have been deferred; but the smallholder appears to be nobody's concern. The first point in my argument is that many of my constituents, the local branch of the National Farmers' Union, and others who are interested, say that, in fact, the Minister and the regional office of the Ministry of Labour and the National Service Tribunal have all been acting under a misapprehension from the start. We believe that a report was made by the county agricultural officer which was misleading.

Therefore, the Agricultural Advisory Panel and subsequently the Minister of Agriculture, in advising the Minister of Labour, were acting under a misapprehension and not upon the correct facts. That being so, I am pleading with my hon. Friend to find some way in which this case can be reopened and we can go back to "square one." I am convinced, as are most of those who know the case, that the Agricultural Advisory Panel would then give a decision different from that which it gave originally, acting on what I believe was misleading evidence.

I think that my allegation is borne out by a number of facts, the most notable one of which was the Ministry of Labour's suggestion to this young man that he could make alternative arrangements. Nobody who knows the conditions of these smallholdings, in a district consisting practically entirely of small farms, could make such a suggestion, because it is obvious to anyone with a true appreciation of the facts that such a suggestion is quite impossible to carry out.

The evidence which we believe was misleading was that which was given at the start, which meant that all the subsequent negotiations have been bedevilled and "off the beam." Indeed, I believe that there is some evidence to support my contention. These are the kind of things which should not be said publicly, but things get around in a country community. Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny that one of the members of the Advisory Panel himself has in fact privately written to the Ministry urging that the panel be given an opportunity to consider the matter again?

I will quote from a letter my hon. Friend wrote to me on 14th March, in connection with the Panel and the significance of this point. My hon. Friend said: …it is the function of the agricultural members alone to give the recommendation as to whether or not deferment can be justified on agricultural grounds. Secondly, to support my view that the Panel was at the time acting upon misleading or inaccurate evidence, I would quote from a statement which I have and which I can substantiate, although it is not from a letter but from a telephone conversation. The Ministry of Labour informed the National Farmers' Union in May, in the following words: … the other information which this Ministry hold which states that Mr. Patch was not working full-time on the holding, but was doing work in gardens, maintaining machinery and working on other farms. My hon. Friend pointed out to me, in a further letter written on 13th July, that that had not influenced his decision. I fully appreciate that, but I think that it strongly influenced the Ministry of Agriculture when it advised him upon the decision. In other words, while I agree that it did not affect his view at the time, I am absolutely certain that it materially affected the advice which the Ministry of Agriculture gave him. This is a most important point, and again it is an illustration of how the report was misleading.

The county agricultural officer reported that Michael Patch was doing work for other people and, in the words of one report put into the Ministry of Agriculture as long ago as December, 1955: there was not sufficient work on the 18 acre holding to keep Mr. Patch fully employed …

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

Is not it possible that a man with a smallholding might, in the winter months, do repair work and help other people when he is not too busy himself sowing or doing other agricultural work?

Mr. Leather

Precisely; that is the point I was coming to. The point is that in a district such as this, where practically all the farms for miles around are one-man farms, there are periods of bad weather when a man might not be able to work on his own holding.

Furthermore, there are periods, especially in the hay and harvesting time, in our part of the world, where a man must have help from his neighbours, and the only way in which he can get it is by helping his neighbours. The system of mutual help is general, and it is essential if people running one-man farms are to continue to exist. That is the reason why this young farmer was not working full-time on his own holding, and that fact was used as an important piece of evidence against him, whereas if it had been properly understood, and explained to the Panel in the first place, it would have been strong evidence for him.

Finally, we come to the very important question of what constitutes significant production. My hon. Friend wrote to me on the 20th March and said that the issue of deferment in such cases is determined by reference to two basic tests; namely, whether the farm or holding is making a significant contribution to food production, and if so, whether the call-up of the person concerned would make it impossible for this significant production to be continued.

On the basis of the misleading report, on the basis of the misunderstanding about the work being a part-time job, this man's application was turned down. I have explained why we believe that the report was misleading, and have stated that to say that his holding was a part-time job was wrong. On the question of significant production, I believe that the case was so much in the balance because it was said to be a part-time job.

My hon. Friend has been kind enough to send me figures of other cases. There was a case in my constituency in which a farmer in a similar situation was deferred. The difference between his figures and those of Mr. Patch is infinitesimal. I would point out that the figures do not give a true picture, and that had the initial advice and evidence been right a different picture would have resulted.

In the case of another young man in my county it is true that his acreage, and the number of cows in milk, were larger than those of Mr. Patch. A significant point which the Advisory Panel did not consider was that the yields from Mr. Patch's cows and acreage were bigger. In other words, he was doing a better, a more efficient, job. He was getting more milk from each cow, and more tonnage an acre, than was the person with the slightly larger acreage and more cows.

On the basic tests, and making comparisons with what the Ministry has agreed is significant production in other cases, I have no doubt that had the facts been known to the Advisory Panel in the first place it would have reached a different decision. I am convinced that the members of the Advisory Panel, now as private citizens, hold that view. The fact that they do so is not unknown in my constituency.

Production is, I believe, significant by the Ministry's standards. The picture would have been better if the true information had been given. If this man is taken away the whole of that production will be lost. The 27 acres will revert to pasture, and the farm will have to be sold to support the mother and father while the boy is away. It will be gone when the boy returns. On the test of the standard of production which will be lost if this man is called up, and on the facts which the Advisory Panel and Ministry of Agriculture did not have when they advised the Minister, this case ought to be revised. I again plead with my hon. Friend to find some method whereby the Panel can be allowed to look at the case again.

11.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Robert Carr)

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather) has pressed his constituent's case with great force, not only tonight in the House but in correspondence and interviews with my predecessor and with me. No constituent could have had an hon. Member who would have pressed his case more strongly.

Of course, I sympathise with someone in the position of Mr. Patch who is liable to be called up in this way. But we must realise that National Service, by its very nature, causes hardship in many cases. The possibility of hardship is quite inseparable from the need for universal National Service. I take no pleasure in informing my hon. Friend that this possibility of hardship includes even the possibility that a small family business, built up over the years, and representing a family's savings, may have to be disposed of in order that a man may carry out his National Service.

Had this not been a farming business—had it, for example, been a greengrocery business, selling food products in the retail market—Mr. Patch could not have applied for deferment. I wish to make clear that deferment is not, nor was it intended to be, a means of alleviating personal hardship. Deferment is granted on a large scale only in the mining and agricultural industries and in the Merchant Navy, and to an extremely limited extent in individual cases in a few other industries where vital national interests are at stake. Personal hardship is alleviated through the granting of postponement of call-up, as distinct from deferment. That is as it should be. Were deferment the means of dealing with cases of personal hardship, it would be unfairly favourable to those in one or two special industries.

Every man called up for National Service has the right to apply for a temporary postponement of his call-up on the grounds of hardship. My hon. Friend did not raise this question of postponement in detail and I do not think I need to say much about the machinery by which postponement is considered. Suffice it to say that the final authority is the umpire appointed by the Crown. If I may put it in this way, he is the sort of House of Lords in these postponement cases. The umpire has laid down that in all cases of business hardship such as this, if it becomes clear that an applicant can make no other arrangements for the conduct of his business, then the business must, if necessary, be disposed of. That, I fear, is the position.

Mr. Patch has already had the benefit of this postponement procedure for a considerable period. He had six months' postponement from the time his application for deferment was turned down in June last year, and he had two renewals which ran until 8th June this year. When he applied for a further renewal it was refused on the grounds that sufficient time had been allowed for making alternative arrangements. If it was found impossible to make further arrangements the rule I have mentioned must come into force, and Mr. Patch must do his service.

My hon. Friend has pressed the deferment aspect of this case, I have mentioned postponement only because I wished to make clear that it is postponement only and not deferment which can be granted on the grounds of personal hardship. In agriculture deferment is granted only in the interests of maintaining existing food production. As my hon. Friend said, the essential test is that the farm or holding on which the worker is employed must be making a significant contribution to food production. There are other tests, but that is the first one, and the claim automatically fails if this first essential test is not satisfied. That is what happened in this case.

It has been decided through the appropriate machinery—I will go into details in a moment—that the contribution of this smallholding is not sufficient to constitute significant production. It is, therefore, not sufficient to entitle Mr. Patch to deferment of National Service. I want to stress once again, because this must be made crystal clear, that the decision is based on economic considerations at the time the application for deferment is made. It does not take into account considerations of personal hardship, which is a matter for the postponement procedure.

How do we decide whether a particular farm or smallholding is or is not making a significant contribution to food production? That is a difficult decision as agricultural production cannot be dealt with by standard units. There is infinite variation in the type of product and conditions are very different in different areas. Therefore, it has always been considered impossible to lay down centrally some standard national definition of significant production, attractive as that would be were it possible. It would be easy if each farm could be measured against a national yardstick, but because of the variations in agricultural conditions of production that has never been thought possible.

For that reason, it has always been considered best to deal with all these applications at local level. That is done through a network of local National Service deferment boards throughout the country. These local deferment boards are advised by agricultural advisory panels which are composed of local farmers and farm workers. That procedure has long been agreed by all the farming interests involved. It is a human institution, trying to do an extremely difficult job, and however thoroughly and conscientiously those concerned do it there are always bound to be borderline cases. There are bound to be claims of inconsistency between one case and another, but my right hon. Friend and I are satisfied, and so, I believe, are the farming interests that not only is this the best machinery that can be devised but that it has been working as satis- factorily as any machinery we can devise can work.

Only if there is failure to reach agreement at local level is a case referred to the headquarters of my Ministry, which in turn consults the Ministry of Agriculture. In this case there was disagreement locally. The case was therefore referred to the headquarters of my Ministry and we in turn consulted the Ministry of Agriculture, which investigated the case in detail and advised that the production was in fact not significant and that deferment would not be justified. As a result in June, 1955, the deferment board notified Mr. Patch that his application had been rejected.

That is the history of the case, and in the six or seven minutes which remain to me I should like to fill in that history in reply to some of the points made by my hon. Friend. First, he made the point that Mr. Patch was a smallholder. I think he felt that because he was a smallholder he was at a disadvantage. I can only assure my hon. Friend that I have not seen any evidence of that whatever. The only disadvantage which a smallholder may be under is that if the production of his smallholding is so small that by all the tests which can be applied the total production is not considered significant, his claim for deferment must unfortunately fail. That is what has happened here.

There is no question of a smallholder, as a smallholder, being treated unfairly compared with a son of a farmer, or farm worker, who had a vested interest. It depends on the production of the farming unit. The difficulty in this case is that it has been decided that the production is not such as would justify deferment on grounds of significant production towards the food supply of the country. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no question of any prejudice against this case because it concerns a smallholding. I have looked into it most carefully, and I can assure him that I am satisfied on the point.

I now turn to the more serious question raised by my hon. Friend, as to whether the test of significant production was determined under a misapprehension, whether the report on which it was based was inaccurate, and whether the facts on which it was based are not the true facts. I can only assure him that the decision was taken on facts supplied by Mr. Patch himself. No other facts were taken into account. The facts are supplied by the man making the application. They are checked by an agricultural officer. In this case there was no significant disagreement between them. Those are the facts on which the decision was taken.

My hon. Friend asked whether the decision was influenced by the fact that Mr. Patch was working part-time. I should like to deal with that stage by stage. First, the deferment board did not know about it until December, 1955. because Mr. Patch had not stated it when supplying his initial information. When the Ministry of Agriculture made its investigation, however, it became aware of the fact. But the basis on which it made its decision was not whether Mr. Patch had been working elsewhere than on his own smallholding. The basis on which it came to its decision was the figures of production disclosed by an investigation by one of their county officers, which did not disagree with the facts about production given by Mr. Patch. The question whether he was working whole-time on his own unit was purely a secondary consideration compared with the production figures of that holding. The Ministry of Agriculture considered that those production figures did not show significant production.

I should like to give these figures. At the time of his application Mr. Patch had 18 acres, four under arable crops. He had seven cows and 35 poultry. My hon. Friend mentioned one or two other cases which he seemed to think were the same, but in one of the cases he mentioned, in Somerset, there was a slightly larger acreage, and the man had 13 cattle compared with seven and twice as many poultry as Mr. Patch. In another case he mentioned in which deferment was granted, in Yorkshire, there was only half the acreage but at least the same number of cattle and nearly five times as many poultry. The man also had more acres under arable crops.

I do not believe that these matters can be decided by taking them case by case about the country, because the conditions vary tremendously from one area to another. That is why we have the local machinery. I can, however, assure my hon. Friend that the decision in Mr. Patch's case was made on the basis of the figures of production, and I am afraid that I cannot agree to refer this matter again to the board unless some entirely new facts about the production on Mr. Patch's holding come to light, of which so far there has been no evidence.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked whether one member of the Agricultural Advisory Panel had written to the Ministry. That is the first suggestion I have heard of any such matter. I can neither confirm nor deny it, but I will certainly inquire and will let him know the result. But I can assure him that the case has been looked into and the decision taken on the figures of production. After full consideration, those figures were judged not to constitute significant production.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.