HC Deb 13 February 1957 vol 564 cc1399-410

10.10 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Draft Silo Subsidies (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1957, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I have looked at the Scheme and the related Scheme for Scotland, which also appears on the Order Paper. They seem to be identical, although the one applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the other to Scotland. If it is the wish of the House and agreeable to both sides, I suggest that we might have one debate on both Schemes. I can then, of course, put the Questions separately at the end of the debate.

Mr. Godber

1 am sure that your suggestion, Mr. Speaker, will commend itself to the House. I will try briefly to explain the Schemes and then, if necessary, answer any questions.

The Scheme for England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Scheme for Scotland, are the first of their kind to be made under the Agriculture (Silo Subsidies) Act, 1956, which received the Royal Assent on 20th December. Apart from certain necessary differences of nomenclature, the two Schemes are in identical terms.

The House will recall that the Act is a purely enabling Measure under which Ministers were authorised to make schemes for a silo subsidy. When moving the Second Reading of the Bill, before it became an Act, my right hon. Friend the Minister explained the main principles of the first scheme which he proposed to make under the Act. An outline of the conditions of the scheme was, in fact, placed in the Library of the House before the Second Reading debate. The draft Scheme which is now before the House does little more than fill in the outline which the House then had before it. In one or two respects, however, it has been necessary to go into greater detail.

My right hon. Friend also explained that after the Bill received the general blessing of the House on Second Reading. he proposed to invite proposals from farmers so that work on silos could start last autumn and be ready in time for use this coming season. No payments could, of course, be made until the Scheme itself had been approved by Parliament. It will accordingly be seen from paragraph 3 of the draft Scheme that the period during which the Minister may approve works of construction or improvement of silos began on 19th November, 1956. That was the first working day after the Second Reading of the Bill.

This exceptional arrangement was only practicable because we are dealing here with a limited class of building and because a full statement of the Government's proposals was available to the House at the time that the Bill was considered. I emphasise that, because it is most unusual in this House to provide for retrospective payment, and I think that that explanation is due to the House.

The response to the proposed Scheme has been very encouraging indeed. We shall, however, welcome further applications, because my right hon. Friend is extremely anxious that the Scheme shall be pressed forward, and he is most anxious to see a further extension of the use of silage. We believe that far greater use can still be made of grassland in promoting greater efficiency on our farms and in avoiding heavy purchases of foreign feedingstuffs. I ask farmers throughout the country to look at the Scheme and see whether they cannot make use of it.

The Scheme is straightforward. I do not propose to detain the House at this stage, but if hon. Members wish to raise any questions in this rather technical matter, I shall be happy to try to deal with them afterwards.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

The Bill went through the House and became the Agriculture (Silo Subsidies) Act, 1956, and, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, we had the chance to discuss the main details of the Scheme in Committee and on subsequent stages so recently, that I have nothing very much to add. But I want to bring two questions to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's attention, and I hope that he will be able to reply.

I pleaded with the Parliamentary Secretary who took the Committee stage of the Act to see whether he could not make provision in the final Scheme for a larger apron to the silo. The point I made was that if we are to adopt a modern method, now widely followed, of allowing the cows themselves to feed from the silo rather than moving the silage to the cows, a sufficiently large apron was necessary to prevent the cows getting muddied up. There is not much point in saving on food if one is going to spend it subsequently on washing the cows and cleaning their udders.

The then Parliamentary Secretary replied that while it was the intention that the grant for the apron would not normally be one exceeding 50 per cent. of the total for the silo, there would be a fair amount of flexibility in the interpretation in different parts of the country of the minimum requirements that advisory officers in the area would think it necessary for the farmer. It would obviously vary from east to west of the country according to the rainfall. That was very largely the point that I made. Obviously, a larger apron to the silo is required in the West where the rainfall is higher than is needed in the East.

Will this flexibility still obtain? Will the officers of the Ministry still be able to exercise their judgment in the matter of the size of the apron? The size is fairly clearly and definitely laid down in the Scheme, but I hope that, despite that, the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to allow his officers this flexibility.

My second point is that when the Measure was going through the House the Minister virtually sought the permission of the House to proceed with the Scheme before the Bill became an Act. He said that he was going to ask farmers to consider this matter and put forward their proposals for silo-building under the Scheme. At the same time, he said that he was sending out a leaflet entitled "Proposed Silo Subsidy", of which he gave us copies, in which farmers were invited to make their applications and were told what the conditions would be. I have studied the new Scheme and have related it to that leaflet.

I find in relation to the apron that the leaflet contains the words, 9s. a yard super for concrete on hardcore. Although that is an abbreviation, we know what it is all about, but in the actual Scheme the words are: Concrete (minimum 4 inches thick) surfacing a hardcore base, 6s. per square yard of superficial area. Why the difference? Why is it that since sending out the leaflet the Government have prepared a Scheme which is rather different in this particular? I would not call it a matter of major betrayal of the farmers who applied under the scheme, but there is a difference between 9s. and 6s. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to explain it adequately and acceptably to the House and to farmers who might have applied on the understanding that the job would be paid for at the rate of 9s. but now find it is to be paid for at 6s. per square yard.

Having asked those questions, I wish the Scheme every success, and I hope that the purpose for which the Act was passed will lead farmers to go in more for silage and thus save money which would otherwise be spent on imports of feeding materials.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. William Whitelaw (Penrith and The Border)

I want to raise only one small point which, I hope, will clarify my mind and perhaps also the minds of some of the farmers who are considering this Scheme. It has been said that although it should benefit particularly the small farmers, which is something we are all anxious to do, it should help especially the small dairy farmer on marginal land who does not benefit to the same extent as does the beef man under the marginal land and the other hill farming schemes.

This Scheme differs from many of the previous grants in one important respect. Previous grants have usually been made out on a percentage basis for the work done. This one is on a rate basis per cubic yard of work done. The point I want to raise with my hon. Friend is the following. It seems to me that under this method of the rate subsidy the farmer is able to charge for his own work in connection with carrying out the project. If that is the case, the Scheme will be of value to the small farmer. Also, if I am right in understanding it as such, it seems that this Scheme produces rather a new principle which I hope will be followed in some of the other schemes that we are anticipating in the near future.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I congratulate the Government on intro- ducing this excellent Scheme, on which I shall make only a few short comments and on which I shall ask my hon. Friend a few questions.

I am sure that the House hopes that this Scheme will result in the establishment of new silos and the improvement of existing ones. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), I hope that full use will be made of it, particularly by the small farmers.

As has already been said by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, the point of this Scheme is to endeavour to save imported feeding stuffs. This is a point of fundamental economic principle. something which we all wish to see achieved. As the Minister said some time ago, every gallon of milk produced in this country costs us about 1s. for imported feeding stuffs. When we also bear in mind the figures announced only a few days ago, showing that our trade deficit in January amounted to £104 million, we realise how important a small measure of this kind may be in the general picture, so we all hope that it will be successful.

I was particularly struck by what was said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) during the Second Reading of the Agriculture (Silo Subsidies) Act, namely, that if we must have subsidies. by all means let us have production subsidies. That is extremely important. What farmers in England want is to be given help to stand on their own feet, which is exactly what this Scheme does.

My hon. Friend said that there has been an encouraging response so far to this Scheme. It would be interesting to know how many applications he has received. I do not suppose he can tell us how many came from the small farmers. We should also like to know, if he will tell us, his target. We know the total amount of money to be spent, but it would be interesting to hear the total number of farmers who may eventually apply for, and make use of, these grants.

There has been a reference to publicity. There is always a reference to publicity in matters of this sort, because it is not always easy to see that farmers understand all the benefits to which they are entitled. The former Joint Parliamentary Secretary referred to publicity on a previous occasion. We would all be interested to hear the present Parliamentary Secretary's views on whether or not the publicity has been effective. I am sure that that is a point which really arises from the number of applications so far received.

I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said on the subject of farmers being able to obtain grants in respect of their own work. It is a matter about which there is extremely strong feeling among smaller farmers and it has been raised in the House on other occasions. Like my hon. Friend, I feel extremely pleased, as I know the smaller farmers do, that at last they will be able to charge for their own work. That is of particular importance to the one man farms, and to hill farmers in particular, who find it very difficult indeed to employ contractors.

Contractors sometimes have to travel long distances and it is not too much to say that farmers are held to ransom by the contractors and that if the farmer is not allowed to charge for his own labour the taxpayers' money is wasted, which is a pity. We therefore very much welcome the introduction of this principle and hope that it may be possible to introduce it in other cases of a similar kind.

I have spoken to a number of farmers in my constituency and, in particular, to representatives of the National Farmers' Union. I have said to them, "Tell me, frankly, what you think of this Scheme and the Act which underlies it." They said. "We like the look of this." So do I, and so, I believe, will hon. Members generally.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)

I should like to reinforce what the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) has said and ask whether the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us what response he has had from farmers and also tell us about the kind of work on silos for which they can apply for grants. There are many methods by which silage can be made. The Agricultural Advisory Service officers in each country should be brought in to advise farmers on this matter. That is extremely important, because much depends on the kind of soil, the kind of climate and the rainfall.

There is no doubt that a very cheap kind of silage can be made in the pit, but care must be taken about the kind of soil, because if it is very heavy clay, water will get into the silage. On dry soils, silage can be made very cheaply with very little expense for hard core and concrete. All that is a matter in which the Agricultural Advisory Service could be a great help.

Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)

I think that the county agricultural committee has to approve the grant before it can be made.

Mr. Philips Price

I should like that to be confirmed by the Parliamentary Secretary. Can the hon. Gentleman also say what kind of silo is favoured by those who know? Can he say whether the Agricultural Advisory Service will be brought in to advise, on instructions from Whitehall, on this very important matter? A great deal depends on the kind of soil in the area where it is proposed to make the silage.

10.30 pm.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

The importance of silage is that it is the only method by which we can conserve the potential increase in grassland production which is open to us. I think farmers realise that, because the figures of increased silage production in the last year are significant. The returns published last week show that 2,752,000 tons of silage were made in England and Wales in the year ended December, 1956, and 2,086,000 tons in the year ended December, 1955. That is an increase of nearly one-third. There is scope for a further increase, and I am wondering whether the Parliamentary Secretary can indicate the possible scope of the increase that might be made under the stimulus of the Scheme.

The point raised by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) is met in the Scheme because, as I read it, if a farmer uses only hardcore he gets 3s. a square yard, and if he puts concrete on top he gets another 6s., showing that provided he carries out the specification he will finish up with 9s. a square yard. The farmer should not think that he is being cheated in any way.

Mr. Champion

In the leaflet sent out to the farmers it says that hardcore only will get 3s. a square yard, but concrete and hardcore will get 9s. extra. The figures are 9s. and 3s. as against 6s., and 3s. in the Scheme.

Mr. Hill

The hon. Member has restored doubt to our minds. Perhaps we had better leave it to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. If the House approves the Scheme it will set something of a precedent, in that we shall have recognised the urgency of the time factor in certain agricultural operations, and that the weather, Nature and the harvest wait for no one. I hope that that precedent may be prayed in aid—assuming that it becomes a precedent in a few moments—in the consideration of the provision of grain storage equipment, which is urgently needed, by Nature, by a date which the Parliamentary machine and procedure may not allow to become legal.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Godber

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and with the leave of the House, I should like to answer very briefly the most helpful points which have been put. First, I should like to take up the points made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion).

First, there was his reference to the provision of a larger apron for the silo. This is a point which we looked into with considerable care. We have found on inquiry that 50 per cent. of the floor space will cover all reasonable requirements; indeed, among the number of applications that we have had—and that have been inspected—we have not had any complaints on that score. I would make the further point—again, anticipating the future, as other hon. Members have done—that there is a possibility that under some other Measure which might come forward there may be means of getting concrete yards.

I am most grateful to him for raising his other point, because it is important to get the position clear. Certainly, it would appear that there is a discrepancy, but my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) was very much on the right track. In the original circular the position may seem a little obscure, but it was intended that where hardcore is put down and then concrete on top 9s. per square yard would be paid for the whole operation, whereas in cases where hardcore alone is used 3s. per square yard would be paid. I am sorry if the circular seems a little confusing. The recipient will get his 9s. if he puts down hardcore and concrete. The scheme splits it into two items: 6s. for the surfacing with concrete and 3s. extra for the hardcore. Nobody is being cheated. So I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel dissatisfied, or think that we are trying to cheat the farmer out of anything.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) referred to the fact that this is a specific rate of subsidy. Most of the grants we have are based on a percentage of the cost. For that reason it is in many cases impossible to allow a provision for payment for the farmer's own work. I know that causes a good deal of heartburning, particularly among the small farmers, who feel that they could sometimes do the work a great deal better themselves than the people that sometimes they have to employ.

It is administratively difficult to find means whereby any rate of payment could be given in those circumstances. But when we adopt a specific rate of subsidy, the same amount is paid for the job and it does not matter whether it is done by the farmer or a contractor. There is, therefore, an advantage here for the small farmer.

Mr. du Cann

Take the case of laying a mole drain, which might occur as part of a comprehensive scheme under the Hill Farming Acts. Would it not be possible to lay down a standard price for that job as we have in the Scheme?

Mr. Godber

I am not sure whether we are in order in discussing this matter, but it would be difficult to do that. There are wide variations in the type of work, even in the case mentioned by my hon. Friend; whereas, with a silo, it is a straightforward and simple job. But we always keep this point in mind, as I know how keenly hon. Members feel about it.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

We are all desirous that building work should be properly and skilfully done, as the Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate, and we know that schemes will be submitted which are fully acceptable to the Ministry. But if the work is carried through by unskilled people, it may be faulty. Then public money would be wasted.

Mr. Godber

I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has made a fair point, although it is possible that the work could be checked.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) asked how many people had come forward to make use of the Scheme, as they were entitled to do after 19th November. So far, we have had over 3,000 inquiries, resulting in about 1,200 definite proposals. Of these, 700 have already been agreed. Those that have been agreed total about £100,000. That indicates the extent to which we have gone ahead. I think we may say that the Scheme has got off to a fairly good start.

My hon. Friend sought to give us a target. In the 1956–57 accounts we have allocated £200,000. That will give an indication of what we anticipated, but we must see how we go. Regarding publicity, we have issued the leaflet referred to by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, and we have brought this to the attention of the county agricultural committees. A special letter was sent to the chairman of each committee urging the committees to conduct a vigorous campaign to make this known. The figures which I have given indicate that they have done so with no small measure of success.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) asked a question which was covered by a later intervention from this side of the House. The grant has to be approved by our officials. There is no question of anyone going ahead without proper advice or instruction as to how best to build the silos.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South asked whether we were establishing a precedent in this case for retrospection. I do not want to raise his hopes or those of anyone else about this. Retrospection is most exceptional. This was a particular and very small matter and I do not think that it can be said to establish a precedent for something on a bigger scale which we may be considering in a few months. I wish I could speak more hopefully, but I know that Parliament is very jealous on this subject, and it would be wrong for me to pretend that I could reasonably hold out hopes that we should be able to do what my hon. Friend asked.

I have endeavoured to answer the questions which were asked, and I hope that the House will now agree to pass the Scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Draft Silo Subsidies (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1957, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.

Draft Silo Subsidies (Scotland) Scheme, 1957 [copy laid before House, 31st January], approved.—[Lord John Hope.]

Back to