HC Deb 09 April 1957 vol 568 cc1091-100

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me permission to raise what, on such a day as this, must seem a tiny matter but one which is, to my constituents, a matter of great importance. Today, we have discussed a Budget involving the raising of £5,387 million; tonight, I am pleading for the expenditure of only £4,000—well below a millionth part of that Budget figure.

On 18th March last I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he would now permit the completion of the Theddlethorpe drainage scheme, on which already £100,000 has been spent, and which requires only another £8,000 to complete. My right hon. Friend replied that he could not grant this permission because he had to have … regard to the Government's general policy of restricting capital expenditure. I pointed out in a supplementary question that the 1,500 acres directly affected and the 2,000 acres indirectly affected are producing only about two-thirds of the possible crops and that in a period of three or four years the additional food produced, if the drainage scheme were allowed to be completed, would more than pay for the scheme. My right hon. Friend rather astonished me by replying that he still could not allow the scheme to go on, but would remind me … that grants have not been brought to a standstill. He added: … during the past twelve months, we have approved schemes in Lincolnshire alone amounting to £450,000."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1957; Vol. 567, c. 4.] Whatever I now say, I say without any personal animus against either my hon. Friend or his Minister, but what seems so extraordinary to me is that the Minister has, in the last 12 months, agreed to new schemes in Lincolnshire involving an expenditure of £450,000. I suppose that those schemes will not be productive for 12 months, two years or three years, yet here is a scheme on which £100,000 has already been spent, and which could be completed by the expenditure of only £8,000.

Of that sum, £4,000 would be raised locally, so that the Ministry has to find only another £4,000. It seems absurd— bureaucracy gone mad—to sanction new schemes which will take years to come to fruition, and yet to prevent a scheme from being completed that requires only this very small amount of money to be spent. The excuse that in the county this extra £450,000 has been sanctioned does not cut any ice at all with my constituents. They feel very strongly that the whole thing has not been wisely handled.

During the August holiday of last year, in the small village of Theddlethorpe— the centre of a large agricultural area— there was a meeting of the farmers, at which about 30 of my constituents turned up. They felt very discouraged and disheartened at what the Ministry had done, and passed the following resolution: This meeting strongly urges the N.F.U. "— the meeting had been called by the local branch of the N.F.U.— should fight for the reversal of the Government policy of stopping drainage grants. The land at Theddlethorpe which is at present waterlogged is a national asset which is being squandered by such a policy. Here we have the farmers, the representatives of the Ministry, and the N.F.U. men responsible there, and they all agreed that the land, which is very good agricultural land, was waterlogged and could be made to produce really good crops. Yet nothing is done, for want of a measly £4,000 from the Ministry. For the life of me, I cannot understand why it should not be granted. To say that it is because of the credit squeeze just will not stand thinking about.

I had a letter from the Secretary of the Louth Branch of the N.F.U. who sent the resolution to me. In it he said: The many farmers who spoke at the meeting were very concerned at the way they appear to have been left deserted with a half finished scheme. This is a question which my hon. Friend must answer. These men feel that they have been let down, that the scheme, which is a good one, seems to have been overlooked, and that the Ministry is hiding behind a general directive from the Treasury. They feel, if I may say this to my hon. Friend, that his Department is allowing the Treasury to decide agricultural policy; and the Treasury "boys" are the last people who should be allowed to decide what is good for agriculture.

On 22nd October, my agent received from the engineer of the Alford Drainage Board, which is responsible for the scheme, a letter about this matter. I should like to read two passages from it. The engineer said: At the present time, although the pumping station at Theddlethorpe has been provided, water from the area in question cannot get to these pumps on account of the condition of the drains, some of which have not been dredged for about 20 years. The Ministry should look into this. It is no good asking farmers to produce more and more food if the land from which it is to be produced is neglected in this sort of way.

The engineer goes on to say: The Ministry officials agreed that a good case had been put forward from the agricultural point of view … From what point of view do they want it justified, so that this tiny sum of money may be granted to finish the scheme?

The letter continues: … but that this was not sufficient to justify any change of policy in restricting the capital expenditure of the drainage authorities ". From what point of view does the Ministry want it justified? I should have thought that the growing of food was about the most important thing which the Ministry of Agriculture could want.

A letter, dated 1st October, was sent by an official of the Ministry to the Chairman of the Alford Drainage Board. He said: I fully appreciate the points you made to me about the desirability of the scheme from a food production point of view … I should have thought that it would damn any Ministry official to say, first, that he agreed that the scheme is justified from a food production point of view, and then run round the skirts of the Treasury officials and say that it cannot be afforded. All I am asking for is £4,000. … and the fact that if the work is deferred you may well have to dispose of skilled labour which will be difficult to get back at a later stage. That is another reason for going on with the scheme. If this sort of decision were arrived at in private business, somebody would quickly get the sack, or the firm would "go broke." Then he goes on to say: There is no difference between us about the need for the work. Well, why cannot they get on with it? All I want is £4,000.

The letter continues: But, as you must know, the Government has decided that capital expenditure must be drastically reduced in order to curb the inflationary trends in the national economy. This is just bunkum; it just is not true that this expenditure will affect the inflationary trend in the national economy, because if, as a result of finishing this drainage scheme, food production were increased, it would, instead of acting in an inflationary manner, act in exactly the opposite way, for we should then be growing food which we should otherwise have to get from abroad. The writer of the letter, however, adds: All I can offer at the present time is:o give your proposal a high priority when this relaxation is possible. That letter was written six months ago. Is it not time permission was given, so that something further can be done?

As my hon. Friend will know, a meeting was held some weeks later at Grantham, and his right hon. Friend the Minister was questioned by the farmers there about this very scheme. He made a half-promise to the farmers assembled at Grantham to whom he talked—and I believe that my hon. Friend was also present—and it was stated that this would be given first priority. It seems ridiculous to keep saying, "No" and I hope that tonight my hon. Friend will say, "Yes", because I want to quote two more bits of evidence supporting the claim which I am trying to make.

There is a letter written from the engineer of the Board to the Lincoln office, and dated 20th June, in which the local engineer makes these two points: The scheme is necessary to obtain the advantages of the lowered water levels in the main drains under the present Northern Scheme, and some of the drains have not had any work carried out on them apart from rodding for some fifteen years. It is fantastic that it has been neglected so long. The letter goes on: A great deal of agricultural land will obtain considerable benefit from the scheme, and the work will transform areas which are now frequently waterlogged into productive arable land. Surely, that is an important point—that this waterlogged area will be turned into productive arable land. In three years' time, the extra crops that we get from these 3,500 acres would more than pay for the scheme, and when the Minister says, on behalf of the Treasury, "We cannot afford this money," the local people can see other workers putting down kerbstones along the sides of country lanes—unproductive and unnecessary work, which is costing labour and materials which might well be put into this type of scheme.

They also see additional petrol pumps being put up everywhere, or new "pubs" erected, all of which work could be delayed, yet here is a scheme that is to pay for itself, that will produce food that we want, and which is being held up after we have spent nearly £100,000 on it. My constituents just cannot understand why the Ministry refuses to agree, and neither can I.

Finally, I would like to put this to my hon. Friend. In the Economic Survey, which we have been discussing today in another context, on the back page, certain figures are given for agricultural production. The Survey says: To help the industry "— that is, the agricultural industry— to increase its working efficiency in a direction where there is great room for improvement a new scheme of Treasury grants at the rate of 33⅓: per cent. is to be introduced for investment in fixed equipment and long-term improvement to land. It is useless finding a new grant for investment in fixed equipment and long-term improvements to the land, unless, first, the land is properly drained. It is no good putting either up-to-date machinery or buildings on land that is waterlogged. It is from properly drained land that we will get the extra production. The farmers are tired of waiting. They have protested through the N.F.U., and through their local organisations, and I have done my best for them, but every time we are told, "No".

In the Financial Statement published today, showing how much money has been expended, I was astonished to find that during the past year the National Coal Board was granted net capital expenditure of £26 million, while loans to other nationalised industries totalled £284 million and railway finance loans accounted for £52 million. None of these items will be as quickly productive as the small scheme for which I am pleading tonight. There may be other similar schemes throughout the country, but this one, surely, ought to have priority over everything. If the Treasury grants loans amounting to £350 million for capital expenditure which will not be productive for many years, there cannot be any reason why my hon. Friend should not press his colleagues at the Treasury to allow this scheme to be completed.

My hon. Friend has, I think, rather been put off by the Treasury refusal on general grounds. If the Treasury has not already given him permission, will he not go to the Treasury tomorrow and say that that is not good enough? It is hindering the work that he is supposed to be doing.

This morning, I received a letter from the Assistant Secretary of the Lincolnshire Branch of the National Farmers' Union, supporting the plea which I am making tonight and saying: The Lincolnshire County Executive sent the Minister a personal telegram at its annual general meeting in January deploring the inclusion of land drainage in the credit restriction arrangements. This county has been a very strong supporter of the Heneage Report on drainage. In view of the difficulties of its implementation, we have subsequently recommended that certain sections referring, in particular to old parish drains and water courses, should be put through by other means. We believe that the Minister is in favour of this step. I commend these words to my hon. Friend: Our farmers are unwilling to accept the need for maintaining restriction on expenditure when they see so many other instances of 'open-purse' spending on items which could be more correctly delayed, e.g., hard tennis courts (schools for the use of). I think my hon. Friend agrees that I have a legitimate cause to plead, that I am not asking for a lot and that he and his Department would get a great deal of return if only we could have this scheme completed. It would please my constituents immensely and would put heart into them.

Nothing is more discouraging to a farmer than to do half his work on land and then see the result of his labours lost because the land is waterlogged. I therefore plead most earnestly with my hon. Friend, if he cannot say "Yes" to me tonight, at least to see the Treasury tomorrow and not leave until the Treasury has said, "Yes, the scheme can be completed."

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) has put his case with his usual forcefulness and persuasion, and I am sure that his constituents have reason to be grateful to him for the very clear manner in which he has put this most important matter before the House.

As a Lincolnshire Member, I also am well aware of the very important part that drainage plays in the farming economy of Lincolnshire, and I have a very natural sympathy with a great deal of what my hon. Friend has said. I know from my hon. Friend's own keen interest in sound national financial control that he will realise that this matter has to be viewed against the national background, of which we were reminded in this Chamber only this afternoon when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was making his Budget speech. My right hon. Friend made clear once again the need to continue the credit squeeze, which we are all willing to cheer in principle but which, when it affects particular items which impinge on us in our constituencies or in other ways, we are not so keen about.

My hon. Friend quoted the words of the then Chancellor in February, 1956, when he introduced the credit squeeze and talked of curbing the inflationary trend in the national economy. That was the time when it was decided drastically to reduce capital expenditure by local authorities and by Government Departments in many ways. It was in accordance with that policy, speaking in general terms for the moment, that it was decided that approval should not be given to further schemes of land drainage improvement works, except where they could be justified by immediate considerations of health, safety, or other public interest. That is why, in the letters which my hon. Friend quoted, the point is made that agricultural interest was clearly established but even so consent could not be given because the scheme did not come into the categories which I have just mentioned and which were laid down at that time.

Mr. Osborne

Surely, if we do not improve the food supply and people go hungry their health will deteriorate.

Mr. Godber

That is a most interesting point, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would not suggest that people are going hungry in Lincolnshire at present. I should not have time to go into the details if I were to follow him on that broad point.

That policy has had the effect, undoubtedly, of postponing the carrying out of many works for the improvement of the drainage of agricultural land, which we and my Department want to see carried out and are anxious to see carried out as soon as possible. Internal drainage boards are the authorities concerned essentially with drainage schemes designed to benefit agriculture. They have felt the effect of the restriction policy far more than have the river boards, which are concerned as much with urban drainage improvements as with purely agricultural drainage improvements. Since the then Chancellor's request, schemes from river boards and internal drainage boards to a total value of £3 million have been approved, and schemes to the value of £1¼ million have been deferred. The deferred schemes have been those mainly designed purely for the benefit of agriculture.

That is the general picture. As to the Theddlethorpe scheme, I would remind my hon. Friend that it is a subsidiary scheme which follows a much larger comprehensive scheme, undertaken jointly by the Lincolnshire River Board and the Alford Drainage Board. The river board's part involves improvement to main drains and the construction of pumping stations at an estimated cost of £158,000. The drainage, board's part of the work involves the erection of a pumping station at Theddethorpe and the regrading of main and subsidiary drains at an estimated cost of a further £92,000. The area of benefit is roughly 23,000 acres. It is, therefore, a pretty substantial scheme and the bulk of the work is almost completed.

The subsidiary scheme is much smaller. It was submitted only last May. It involved the regrading of certain subsidiary drains, the replacing of culverts and the fencing of grassland in the Theddlethorpe and Withern areas. The estimated cost is just over £7,000 and the area to benefit is roughly 1,500 acres. That area is part of the 23,000 acres that benefit from the whole scheme. The subsidiary scheme is to bring the 1,500 acres into benefit from the Theddlethorpe pumping station and to take advantage of the lower water levels now achieved in the main drains.

It is also proposed, as part of the scheme, to connect the Theddlethorpe and Trusthorpe pumping areas, and that is another valuable safeguard. My point is, however, that this is not part of the original scheme, as my hon. Friend suggested; it is an extension to take advantage of certain benefits which have flowed from the original scheme.

Whilst I do not dispute that it is of great value and deserves to be carried out, it must be realised that this extension was only submitted in May last year. It would be untrue to suggest that the main scheme is valueless unless this work is carried out because it is only an improvement. The Theddlethorpe scheme is closely allied to the other scheme but it cannot be said to be an integral part of it. It is solely for agricultural improvement—and, as such, it falls within the scope of the ban to which I have referred earlier.

For many years the Government have given financial help to drainage authorities and farmers to facilitate land drainage improvement. My right hon. Friend and I regard good drainage as a fundamental factor for securing full and efficient agricultural production. I cannot over emphasise that, but the present restrictions on capital expenditure are holding up work which we all agree is highly desirable, and it has not yet been considered practicable to lift the restrictions on these new land drainage schemes.

We have this matter very much in mind, and we are hoping that it will not be too long before some easing of the restrictions is possible. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are anxious to get them lifted quickly, and as soon as we can do so the schemes in Lincolnshire —the one which my hon. Friend has mentioned and another which I have very much in mind because it is in my own constituency—will be in the forefront of those which will have priority as soon as a change in policy can be made. Until that change of policy can be made we cannot allow these schemes to go forward, because they do not fall within the categories coming under the existing arrangements, but we will push them as soon as we can.

The only assurance that I can give my hon. Friend now is that this is very much in our minds and that we are as keen as he is to ensure that agricultural land is given every possible help to produce efficiently for the national advantage. We realise the benefits that will come from increased production on it and we want to see it in full use. We have had to play our part in maintaining the national credit squeeze, which has done good throughout our economy, and it is in that context that I ask my hon. Friend to be a little more patient with us over this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.

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