HC Deb 10 April 1957 vol 568 cc1260-8

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)

For the last two days we have been listening to debates concerning our national finances. Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, you have been unable to listen to them. I want to bring a breath of air from the countryside. I wish to raise some questions about the calf subsidy. I feel that I have a real grievance to present to the House on behalf not only of many of my constituents but many stock-breeders throughout the country.

Their grievance is about the subsidy which is given to cattle of beef type. It has been suggested to me that if a private individual behaved in the way in which the Minister of Agriculture has behaved since the beginning of January, he would be brought to the courts and accused of fraud. I have with me a form of application for the beef subsidy. The form says that the Minister is not paying the subsidy on all types of calves at the moment.

We realise that the Channel Islands breed and Friesian and Ayrshire heifer calves are excluded from beef subsidy, but the form says that the subsidy will be given for calves which are reasonably well reared and suitable for further rearing for beef production, or if they can be used for breeding for beef production.

I know that there has been a certain amount of difficulty for a number of years about distinguishing various types of Shorthorns. There are three distinct types, the beef, the dual-purpose, and the Dairy Shorthorn. Dairy Shorthorn breeders are quite prepared to accept that their heifer calves are not considered suitable for further beef production.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Dugdale) recognised this difficulty when the Agriculture (Calf Subsidies) Act, 1952 was introduced. He was aware that the original Bill was introduced in 1947 by the then Socialist Government which let it go into default. My right hon. Friend said: Now I come to the difficult group, the large number of heifers which are so called "dual-purpose" breeds. I refer to the Dairy Shorthorns and other breeds like the Welsh Black, the Red Poll, the South Devon and the Lincoln Red. In this category every heifer will have to be judged on its merits when it is inspected. If it is of a marked dairy type it will be excluded! if it looks as if it will make a good beef animal it will be accepted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1952; Vol. 504. c. 981.] I accept the statement of my right hon. Friend, but I object to the fact—and I was quite unaware of it on Thursday last, when I found that I was to have this Adjournment debate—the Livestock Committee of the National Farmers' Union were not looking at animals that had been rejected. That is definitely wrong. I shall not mention any names in this speech, but one of the Minister's inspectors turned up to inspect a herd which I saw on Sunday, and said to the dairyman, "What are these?" The dairyman answered, "Shorthorns". The inspector said, "They are out in any case. It is not worth while my getting out of the car." That was grossly wrong. He should have looked at those animals, but he did not. His predecessor last year granted a subsidy to certain animals in that herd.

I saw that herd on Sunday. The calves were well reared according to the Minister's ruling, and quite suitable to be carried on for beef production. I saw the dams of those heifer calves. There was no question about the steers. I saw the dams and would say that they would probably average 13 cwt. each, which is the purpose of a dual-purpose Shorthorn and not a Dairy Shorthorn. As a result of this toughening up on the Minister's part, I believe that we shall lose a great many animals which would be suitable for beef production.

I think that the average milk production in the herd which I visited is about 600 gallons a year, which is not very much, compared with that of Friesians. Recently three heifers proved to be barren, were sold for beef at £90 apiece. They must have been the dual-purpose type; they could not have been the dairy type. If the Minister insists upon including all Shorthorns except those of the extreme beef type we shall lose a great many potential beef animals. If the Minister persists in his ruling this constituent of mine will be worse off by about £1,300 a year.

In the recent Price Review the Minister definitely stated that he wants to encourage beef production. He has put a premium upon beef. In round figures, since my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks reintroduced the beef subsidy scheme for calves in 1952, the number of cattle in England and Wales has increased by between 750,000 and 1 million head. The scheme has therefore proved successful and I cannot understand why the Minister has decided to exclude Shorthorn heifers from its benefits.

From conversations that I have had with responsible people in the National Farmers' Union, I understand that the Minister has done nothing in relation to the Lincoln Red Shorthorn or the Red Poll, which I believe have only two types —either beef or milk. The Shorthorn breed definitely has three types—beef, dual-purpose and dairy.

I remember the late Arthur Hiscock, a great breeder of Shorthorns. They were beef cattle, but he tried always to say that they were a dual-purpose type. No one could say that Arthur Hiscock produced a Shorthorn that was of the proper dairy type. I am sure that if he were alive today, he would be horrified at the treatment that the Minister is giving to our Shorthorn cattle.

My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary may be unaware of what has happened today at the monthly council meeting of the Shorthorn Society. The Secretary and one of his officers have been to sec me this evening after the meeting. They endorsed the resolution passed by the South-Western Shorthorn Society deploring that the Shorthorn should be singled out for treatment in this way and be refused subsidy. They argued, quite rightly, that the dual-purpose Shorthorn is quite capable of producing a good body of beef—and we do not want the type of body of beef that was produced by the late Arthur Hiscock. We do not want spiny cattle. We want reasonably well-fed cattle which have not an excess of fat, but an excess amount of lean. These people feel that if the Minister pursues this policy concerning the calf subsidy, instead of the amount of home-produced beef being increased it will be reduced. So far as Shorthorn cattle are concerned, the Minister is prepared to accept any steer.

I challenge my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary whether he can tell me the difference between a well-fattened Shorthorn dual-purpose heifer and a well-fattened dual-purpose steer. As a practical farmer, I have probably fattened more of the medium type of steer and heifer than he has done. I appeal to him tonight not to pursue this toughening up policy. There is no need to set about us in the South and the farmers in Cheshire also. I see one of my hon. Friends from Cheshire, the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) present, but I wish that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Knutsford (Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport) were also present to plead the case of the Cheshire dairy farmer.

I ask the Minister not to make an example of the Shorthorn breed and single it out for persecution by this toughening up policy that he is apparently pursuing. I hope that as a result of my intervention tonight, he will treat us fairly. Let us be honest about this. Do not persecute the people of Dorset, who do not have a high-yielding cattle but have dual-purpose cattle. I ask the Minister to continue the policy that was pursued prior to the beginning of the year.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I have been approached today by the Red Poll Cattle Society, which represents a breed that is particularly well-known and indigenous to East Anglia. The Society has no complaint whatever at the standards demanded by the Ministry's inspectors. There appears, however, to be a certain amount of misunderstanding amongst those inspectors about the stock that they are permitted to inspect and on which subsidy can be granted. The result is that in some cases the inspectors have not even come to look at Red Poll heifers, which are suitable for the breeding of beef animals, and so have not given them the opportunity of proving their worth to the eye and so attracting subsidy.

The point I would put to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is to ask him to ensure that all the inspectors understand which animals and breeds are entitled to attract subsidy. Will he ensure that throughout the whole country those qualifications or instructions are consistent?

10.15 p.m.

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

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) for raising this matter tonight, because it will, I hope, enable me to clear up one or two misunderstandings.

However, before I go on to deal with the points he has raised, I should like to reply very briefly to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. B. Harrison) with regard to Red Polls. I was not aware until a few moments before this debate started that that matter would be raised, but I should be very glad to look into the point in so far as it goes beyond the general aspect with which I shall deal in a moment. I am disturbed to think that anyone should have said that they would not even look at a Red Poll. That certainly was not the intention of the Ministry, and I shall most gladly look into it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset. North has drawn attention to certain difficulties in the administration of the calf subsidy which have been causing my Department some concern during recent months. It is a very good thing that he has raised this matter on the Adjournment as I can try to explain the position.

The purpose of this subsidy, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, is to encourage the rearing of calves for beef production. The description of eligible calves in the statutory scheme is as follows: Any steer or heifer calf, except a heifer calf of the Jersey, Guernsey, Friesian or Ayrshire breeds, which has been reasonably well reared and is suitable for further rearing for beef production or, if a heifer calf, for use for breeding for beef production, being in either case an animal which after further rearing and fattening would be likely, after slaughter, to yield a carcase of reasonably good quality beef."' Those are the exact terms of the scheme which allows these payments to be made. They are pretty specific, I think. What we are trying to do is to adhere to this. My hon. Friend quoted from the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Dugdale) on 25th July, 1952. My hon. Friend quoted from one paragraph, and I should like to quote from the next one to get this matter in its right context. After saying: if it looks as if it will make a good beef animal it will be accepted my right hon. Friend went on to say: I do not pretend that the decision will be easy; there are bound to be borderline cases. But the farmers' representatives have accepted the principle that the object of this subsidy is to increase our supplies of good beef animals and that wherever a line is drawn some heifers must be rejected."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July. 1952; Vol. 504, c. 981.] That, I suggest, is what we are trying to carry out. The limitation to beef type calves does give our calf certifying officers a difficult task with certain types of calves. While it is comparatively easy to judge whether a calf at eight months is worth further rearing, it is frequently very hard to say whether a calf of the dual purpose breeds, such as a Shorthorn or Red Poll—especially a heifer calf—possesses at that age the qualities needed to make it a good beef animal. That arises because in cattle of the dual purpose type, particularly Shorthorns, there is a tremendous variation.

Mr. Crouch

I should like my hon. Friend to support me and not one of his officers who arrived at a farm quite recently and said, "Shorthorns? You have had it." Does my hon. Friend support that?

Mr. Godber

I am coming on to deal with the point that my hon. Friend has made, if he will allow me, but at the moment I am trying to state the general principle involved here. As I have said, these Shorthorns, in particular, vary from the pure beef type to almost a pure dairy type, and it is therefore always a matter of difficulty to decide at which particular point one characteristic predominates over another.

Hon. Members may ask whether, in these circumstances, it is not possible to describe these beef characteristics in more detailed and precise terms so as to help our certifying officers. We would, of course, have done that if we could have done, but while it is comparatively easy to do that with a mature beast it really is not possible with an immature animal. The whole object of the subsidy is to encourage people to rear more calves for beef, and for that reason we aim at judging the calf when it is about eight months old.

That means that the decision on the eligibility of a calf must depend on the personal judgment and experience of the certifying officer. If we are to maintain a reasonably uniform standard of eligibility throughout the country, those officers must be specially trained on a standard acceptable to informed farming opinion. That was done in 1952, when a standard set by the principal livestock husbandry officer of my Ministry was demonstrated to members of the C.A.E.C.s and of county branches of the National Farmers' Union, and was then used as the basis for training certifying officers.

Safeguards, of course, were provided for the farmer who is aggrieved by the rejection of a calf—and this is where my hon. Friend's point arises. An aggrieved farmer can ask for an independent inspection by an officer of the Ministry's livestock husbandry service. He can also present the calf again—and more than once—if he thinks that it has developed since the original inspection was made, provided that he does so before it gets its first permanent incisor tooth. There are, therefore, several safeguards whereby further inspections can take place.

With a system like this, however, there is the problem of ensuring that the agreed standard is subsequently maintained. This we endeavour to do by a system of check inspections by livestock husbandry officers but, despite these precautions, we have found during the last year or so that the standard of certification in the difficult class of dual-purpose heifer calves has tended to fall away in some areas from the 1952 standard, and calves of predominantly dairy type have been accepted for the subsidy.

That is quite clearly a misuse of the subsidy, and as my predecessor said in this House on 4th June last, when the present scheme was under consideration, we had consultations with the National Farmers' Union to tighten up the standard for heifers of the dual-purpose breeds and to restore the 1952 standard. A standard which was agreed to fulfil that requirement was decided, and our certifying officers were rebriefed last January. The application of the restored 1952 standard has appeared to many farmers, in areas where officers had become too lenient, as a raising of the standard. As a result there have been complaints such as those to which my hon. Friend has referred.

I should say that, in the main, those complaints are mistaken. As I have said, the 1952 standard has been restored, but it has not been raised. I do emphasise that, because there has been a certain misunderstanding. In reply to Questions in this House not very long ago my right hon. Friend made that clear. There may have been misunderstanding in my hon. Friend's constituency. I have checked the percentage figures of calves rejected last year, and in Dorset it was well below the percentage of neighbouring counties— and, indeed, below that of the whole country. It is perhaps, significant that since the beginning of this year that figure has levelled up and has come well up to the national average.

All the same, I do not rule out the possibility that some officers, in an excess of zeal, may have tended to go from one extreme to another. That is clearly possible, and it may have happened to one or two of the farmers of whom my hon. Friend has spoken—I do not know —but I should be very happy, of course, to look into the matter further. I will give him this assurance tonight, that if, in fact, he is referring to the one or two farms about which he has been in touch with me, I am quite prepared, in order to satisfy him completely, to arrange for a further inspection to be made of the particular calves in question.

In order to make certain that it is perfectly fair and that his constituents will see that it is fair, I will arrange for that to be done by a senior officer of my Ministry. I shall ask him to go down from headquarters; he will not have seen the calves before and he will be able to consider them without any bias and in relation to the national standard. I cannot offer more than that.

Mr. Crouch

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. Can he also give me an assurance that never again will a certifying officer sit in his motor car and say, "Because they are Shorthorns they are out"?

Mr. Godber

I was hoping to deal with with that point. I have given an assurance, and I hope it will go a long way to meet the point which my hon. Friend has raised.

With regard to my hon. Friend's reference to a certifying officer sitting in his car and making a statement such as my hon. Friend has alleged, I have had no information about that. It is not the intention of the Ministry that that should be done. We want these animals to be judged on their merits, and particularly in the case of these dual-purpose breeds we are determined to see that that is done. I would certainly frown on any attempt by any of my inspecting officers to make a snap decision in cases like this without even seeing the calves.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

This is a matter which interests the whole House and not only those who represent agricultural constituencies. May we take it that the Minister is now saying that he will give instructions that breeders of Shorthorn dual-purpose calves will not be automatically excluded from certification and that any breeder will have the right to have such cattle inspected by the inspectors?

Mr. Godber

Certainly. That is the point that I have been trying to make. Dual-purpose Shorthorns will be judged on their merits. There is no question of excluding them altogether.

I would, however, remind the hon. Gentleman that if a calf is judged by our officers as being a dairy type and if it is turned down after appeal by another officer, then it is definitely out; but it is certainly judged on its merits and is not excluded because it is a dual-purpose type.

I should like to make one last point. My hon. Friend referred to the conditions that are printed on the form. He mentioned this to me before the debate. In fact, some of these forms were issued at one stage with one phrase eliminated, and perhaps this has led to a misunderstanding. That phrase has been reinserted; it says: provided in either case that the calf, after further rearing and fattening, would be likely after slaughter to yield good quality beef. That has been reinserted to make the position plain—that in fact it is beef cattle that we want.

The intention was never to imply that calves of a dairy type going into dairy herds should qualify. There can be no exceptions, but by and large the principle is to encourage beef production rather than milk. We want this matter to be judged on its merits and we shall certainly try to clear up any difficulties connected with other herds which may come to our notice.

Question put and agreed to.

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