HC Deb 13 September 1956 vol 558 cc343-54

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

11.39 p.m.

Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)

I suppose that it is inevitable, even in moments of great national crisis, for an Englishman to refer to the weather. I make no excuse whatsoever for doing that today, because I want to take this opportunity to draw attention to what might well develop into a great national crisis, namely, the problem of the harvest for the British farmer and farm worker. We have been discussing for two vital days the possibility of wars and rumours of wars—and those rumours have been going on for many, many years. But the problem of getting enough food has gone on since man was born.

We have been experiencing one of the most difficult harvest periods for many years. It is quite true that in recent days the weather has turned, and I am certain that the whole House hopes that it will be possible to regain much of what appears at the moment to have been lost, and even to make good something. But there will inevitably be losses. Therefore, it is only right that the Government should be afforded an opportunity to make a statement to the House about what has been happening, and to tell us what are their plans and their hopes to alleviate the problems which may arise.

All farmers realise that good harvests and bad are part of the day's work, and they are taken into account in the prices which the farmers receive for their goods. We have had a good many bad harvests lately. I hope that we may be able to get the harvest in, but to do so we shall have to work very quickly. The first thing I want to know from the Government is what plans they have made with the various Departments to see that we mobilise all the extra labour which is available, and which will be needed.

There are two morals to be drawn from this very difficult situation. The first is the vital need for more storage accommodation for grain. Incidentally, we must consider the fact that not only is there difficulty with grain; peas and potatoes are in just as bad a situation, and in many cases a worse one. The need for storage and drying capacity is absolutely vital, and I hope that when those of us who farm try to raise capital to add these vital necessities to our farms, as we have realised we must, the Treasury will not frown too much upon our efforts.

Secondly, the bad weather has drawn attention to the need for better drainage. It is a fact that where efficient drainage has recently been carried out not nearly such a disastrous time has been experienced. The real disaster arises as a result of the softness of the land. It is incredibly soft, even for this country. I hope that both main drainage and field drainage will continue to receive the Government help which they are now receiving, and that there will be no restrictions. I hope that the Government will smile upon our efforts to improve our land through drainage. As I have often said in this House, good drainage is far and away the best way of improving production.

It is very fitting that this great problem is the only domestic one which has engaged the attention of the House during these vital days, and I hope that the Government will be able to give us a full account of what has been happening.

11.45 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) has rendered a useful service in raising this problem, and I hope that we shall hear something from the Parliamentary Secretary about the intentions of the Government. It is true that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been on a tour of some of the afflicted areas where the position is indeed serious. We have a long-term drainage policy which is absolutely essential, but it will not help the farming community during the next few months.

We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that the present harvest has been adversely affected both in quality and yield. The Minister has uttered a few encouraging words, but we should like to know how those words are to be translated into some material advantage for the farmers. I know that the Government have provided additional facilities for drying grain and that sort of thing, but, as a result of the poor grain harvest, the pig producer and the livestock producer generally will be more than ever dependent on imported feeding stuffs. What is the policy of the Government about that? One of the difficulties has been that the price of feeding stuffs has been going up and I am afraid that, with the fall in the home grain harvest, and the inevitable increased dependence on imported feeding stuffs, livestock producers will find things extremely difficult.

I will not go into the situation as it affects the beef producer, but pig producers, if they have not already done so, will no doubt bring their difficulties to the notice of the Ministry before very long. We wish to know something now and not have to wait until 23rd October. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us something of the tangible and practical assistance which the Government propose to afford to the farmers to tide them over their difficulties.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. David Gibson-Watt (Hereford)

I am able to say from practical experience that this harvest has not only been wet, but very wet. A year which started too dry has finished too wet. Although the constituency which I represent has not suffered so badly as other parts of the country, particularly in the north of the country, it is true to say that only three days ago only half of the grain harvest was in, though I hope that the position has improved by this time.

Farmers in this country, as in other countries, accept the risk of bad weather, but it is something about which there can be no compromise. I speak tonight to help to bring home to the general public, and particularly to the urban public, the gravity of the situation of all those who work on the land in this country. They have had a difficult and miserable harvest and can look forward to a much reduced income for their labours at the end of the year. In his visits to the worse affected areas my right hon. Friend the Minister has done a great deal to make the agricultural public realise the serious way in which the Government view this problem. His action in releasing grain dryers is appreciated by the farming community as a whole. I wish to add my weight to what has been said in this debate.

11.51 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

I wish to thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) for raising this subject tonight. I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in reply. I make no apology for turning my mind from Pharaoh to the harvest, as that is a very natural thing to do.

The figures for the banks' farming facilities have, in fact, risen during the course of last year yet, at the same time, the difficulties of credit may very well be the restriction of credit to the merchants, as their figures do not appear in the agriculture figures. I ask the Minister to take note of that arising out of the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton). As there may be a demand for extra feeding stuffs to be imported, greater facilities may be required by merchants and farmers generally. I trust that my right hon. Friend will see that those views are expressed in the quarters which grant finance to the agricultural industry.

11.52 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I am delighted that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) has raised this subject, because I received a telegram this evening from my local branch of the National Fanners' Union, saying : Report harvest position most serious. Well over 8,000 acres cereals yet to combine. Greatest need is drying facilities and storage. Urge you press for all national silos to be opened and working 24 hour day, also all airfield hutments made available. I wanted particularly to put that before the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and also to say that, owing to the energetic representations of my Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport), we have had the greatest co-operation through the Ministry in opening silos. I hope that that cooperation will continue and that my hon. Friend will do everything possible to see that they work 24 hours a day.

Owing to the shortage of corn because of the bad harvest the price which will be paid for non-malting barley will be higher than normally it would be and as a result the deficiency payment will be calculated at a lower rate. Therefore, farmers will get less in deficiency payment than they would have under normal conditions. Although I do not expect an answer tonight, I should be grateful if the Minister would consider that point. I wish, also, to emphasise the importance of keeping drying facilities open all the hours of the day.

11.54 p.m.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

After the all-important debate of the last two days it is proper that we should be able to discuss the problems of agriculture, because, as has been emphasised, probably the harvest this year is the worst we have had within living memory ; and there was a bad one two years ago.

I am personally satisfied that my right hon. Friend and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, with their advisers, will do everything possible, but I think it will encourage the industry to know that we have had even a short debate tonight on these very acute problems. May I have an assurance that there will be no question of calling up farm workers for National Service until the crisis in the industry is over? Farmers are facing a very justified wage claim and that is another problem they have to meet. They are worried about imports of beef. I do not want to go into details, but they are very much concerned.

I should have thought that if we have foreign currency available it ought to be spent on ensuring that we have food supplies available for cattle. Otherwise, beef producers will have to sell store cattle and farmers will not have food for the cattle they keep. We must keep the industry buoyant. It is often said that too much milk is produced, but it is rare that we have too much on our hands.

Even if we are fortunate enough to get a few more days good weather, this year's harvest will have a very poor yield. Even now, in many counties it is impossible to get a tractor on the land. On my own farm, and in Cheshire generally, that is the problem, quite apart from the question of getting a combine on the land. The root crops are poor and hay will be practically nonexistent early next year.

I ask my right hon. Friend to give consideration to all these problems and I ask that the Treasury should not be mean—I know that my right hon. Friend will not be mean—in giving real assistance where it is needed. I am sure that they will do so. I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) for having raised this subject tonight, because I think it will help and spur the industry on in its great task.

11.56 p.m.

Sir Harold Roper (Cornwall, North)

One point which has not been mentioned in the debate is the unfortunate fact that this very bad harvest coincides with a period of very low beef prices. During the coming months the farmers will be faced with higher prices of feed resulting from this harvest. I hope that that will be borne in mind by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I would mention, also, that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. D. Marshall) are particularly affected, representing constituencies in the more distant areas, because the prices we get for our beef are lower than those over the country as a whole.

11.58 p.m.

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

May I, in replying to this brief but important debate, congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) on his wisdom and good fortune in securing the Adjournment tonight and express my appreciation of the comments and the support which my hon. Friends have given to him on his able speech. I also congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) on upholding the case from the other side of the House with his customary vigour. What he lacks in numbers on that side of the House he makes up in his own personal qualities.

The general concern expressed by my hon. Friends, as the House knows, is fully shared by my right hon. Friend and myself. It is, I think, right that despite the preoccupation of the House with the great dangers and difficulties which face the nation abroad, we should find time to spend a few minutes while Parliament is sitting to discuss the difficulties and hazards which our farmers face at home in dealing with this harvest. It is indeed a harvest of exceptional difficulty. At present, I am glad to say, it is not quite as bad in most places as 1954, but it may well become as bad.

The common experience which farmers and farm workers throughout the country had during August was almost daily a shower of rain. Each time they got out the combine or the binder they were sent back again because of this inevitable shower of rain. Those who have taken part in these operations know that there is nothing more discouraging than getting everything ready day after day and then—down comes the rain and one is unable to start. It is a very trying experience for them to sit there day after day watching the crops being spoiled and being unable to get them in. All the inventions of the scientists and the engineers have not taught us a means of cutting wet straw. We can dry the grain once we have it in, but we cannot cut wet straw.

In many parts of the country the rainfall has been more than three times the average for August. With this rainfall, almost a daily shower, the work has been terribly impeded. As a matter of interest, the Meteorological Office told me that the summer this year, to the end of August, had been the wettest at Kew since 1941 and the fourth wettest since 1871. My memory does not go back as far as the earlier date but it certainly seems to me the wettest summer I can remember.

The state of the cereal harvest, which, I am sure, Members will be interested to hear, is roughly this. About one-third is cut and about two-thirds uncut. For wheat, about one-quarter is cut, most of it combined. A little of it is in stook but most of it is in. Half of the barley is cut, most of it combined. Nearly all the oats have been taken by binder. Three-quarters is still out in the fields in stook and some of it, I am sorry to say, is beginning to grow out. Some areas, of course, are better and some are worse, but that is the broad national picture. In some areas the floods are very bad and the corn is flattened by high winds, but in the main the corn that is still out is standing astonishingly well. In passing—let us pay tribute where we can—this is a great tribute to the work of the plant breeders over the past 10 to 15 years. It is quite remarkable the way the corn has stood.

As a basis of comparison of the condition of the harvest today with normal, usually by the end of August in England and Wales about three-quarters of the harvest is gathered and by now, by the middle of September, most of it would be in. This week, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, the weather has relented and the work has been going ahead extremely well in most parts of the country. If we can get another three weeks of this, despite everything and all the depressing features, the greater part of the harvest will be safely got. The yields, of course, will be down and will, I think, be less than average. It is too early yet to say what they will be but certainly they will be less than the record levels of last year. The quality will probably be down too.

Cereals are not all. In expressing our sympathy, we must not overlook those who grow the pea crop, which has been very badly hit indeed, and those on the heavier soils with potatoes, who, I am afraid, will suffer from blight and at present are having great anxiety about getting the potatoes at all. We must not forget the horticulturist. The fruit growers in Kent particularly, who were struck by the hailstorm, and in Suffolk, have had severe losses in small areas, as have the hop gardens. Other horticulturists have suffered too in this difficult weather.

I certainly join with my hon. Friends and with the House as a whole in my tribute to the farmers and farmworkers in coping with the difficult job this year. They make good use of any time they can get when they can get the harvest in, both in their interest and in the nation's interest. It is too soon to predict what the final result will be, but I do not doubt that if we get another two or three weeks' fine weather they will get most of the harvest. If the weather turns bad on us again, however, we may well see a disastrous situation. At any rate, for the present the weather is being fine and there is hope for us.

The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton asked what the Government would do, but I think that all my hon. Friends struck the same note, that farmers expect to bear the harvest risk. In a good year, like last year, when yields are well above average, we as a Government do not ask them to pay something back, and in a bad year they do not expect the Government to pay something extra. They take the harvest risk, as any other industry has to take risk, taking the rough with the smooth.

We have a long way to go yet before we see exactly how the harvest turns out. Although we provide a great range of grant payments, advisory services, and so on for the farming industry we cannot protect it from bad weather because the sky is the industry's factory roof. But there are ways in which we assist and we are anxious to do everything we can to help. My hon. Friends have mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Minister has authorised the reopening of recommissioned mills. This is of great help to farmers throughout the country in giving them drying facilities and storage space. It is, incidentally, a reversal of Government policy and a considerable additional commitment of public funds but we felt that it was fully justified in these exceptional conditions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) asked whether we could work day and night. The answer is that we are doing so in the silos where we have the labour and where the need exists. All silos are not working to capacity even now, but in his area, if the need is there, we will certainly do it there as well if it is possible to find the extra labour. This evening I had a telegram from the Warwickshire N.F.U. asking if the Atherstone silo could be opened. There are still two silos not opened, and we are willing to open those two additional silos as soon as we see that the need is there. I will have that matter looked into in the morning. If we are satisfied that the need is there we will open that one as well.

We are able to help farmers by a liberal interpretation of "millable wheat" so that they can qualify for deficiency payment. We are also able to help where farmers are unable to harvest their crops. Under the 1955 scheme of deficiency payments for barley, oats and mixed corn we can still pay a deficiency payment on unharvested crops. In those two cases we can help farmers who are in difficulty.

I turn to the labour position referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey). The position is that the call-up was suspended for a period of 14 weeks in order to assist the harvest. This period is arranged locally in order to fit the harvesting periods of the different regions of the country. The earliest time at which this 14 weeks ends in any region is 6th October. My right hon. Friend is now in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service to consider whether some extension is necessary. Certainly, if my right hon. Friends are satisfied that the need is there they will be willing to make such an extension.

As far as possible reservists have not been called up. Inevitably some have been, but as far as possible reservists have not been called up where they were needed for the harvest. My right hon. Friend is also looking into the possibility of making again the same arrangement as that which we had in 1954 when a special leave scheme was arranged for all farm workers serving in this country who could be spared to go back to the farms to work.

Finally, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle mentioned land drainage. These schemes are going ahead despite the necessity for economy in capital expenditure. We have had to make some cut there, as elsewhere, in capital expenditure. However, since restriction of capital expenditure began we have refused only about 50 schemes amounting to a total of £500,000 and we have allowed to go forward nearly 150 schemes estimated to cost just over £2,250,000. These are all schemes in the hands of river boards.

I was glad to hear the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton acknowledge that my right hon. Friend had been visiting the worst areas in the country, which I am sure has done much good. My right hon. Friend and I are deeply concerned to do all we possibly can to help farmers and farm workers with their extremely difficult job of getting in the harvest this year—both the cereal harvest and the potato harvest. We are in day-to-day touch with the situation and, as it unfolds before us, if there is anything further we can do to help farmers the House can certainly count on us to do it.

Let me assure the House. If either my right hon. Friend or myself were forgetful or failed to notice we should be very quickly reminded by my hon. Friends. We shall continue to watch the situation and to do all we can to help our farmers.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.