HC Deb 30 January 1958 vol 581 cc521-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £853,200, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1958, for the salaries and expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; of the Agricultural Land Commission; of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and of the White Fish Authority and the Scottish Committee thereof.

3.43 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Hare)

if it had not been for recent events it would, of course, have fallen to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to present these Supplementary Estimates to the Committee.

Before coming to those Estimates, I would like to pay a tribute to the great contribution which the Chancellor has made to British farming. He was the architect of the long-term policy which is now embodied in the 1957 Agriculture Act, and which underwrites and secures the price guarantees in the 1947 Agriculture Act, introduced by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). I believe that he won the confidence of all sections of the agricultural industry. Whatever differences of opinion may have arisen from time to time in the House of Commons, I am sure that everyone on both sides would wish to join with me in this very short tribute to his great achievements.

The Supplementary Estimates amount, in all, to £54 million, a very considerable sum of money. Vote I, which I am now moving, consists mainly of the cost of the staff of my Department. I think that the Committee would wish me to deal fairly briefly with this Supplementary Estimate of £850,000. I suspect that Members will want the main discussion to take place on the very much larger issues which arise on Vote II.

Most of this Supplementary Estimate arises from pay increases awarded to civil servants as part of the general Civil Service settlements arrived at in the early summer of last year and mainly coming into effect in July.

The Committee will wish to be assured that we are trying to make all possible economies in the number of staff whom we employ. We have, in fact, reduced the number by more than 500 during the past twelve months, partly through the radical reorganisation of our regional work on the lines recommended by the Arton Wilson Committee which was set up by my predecessor. I hope that there will be some further streamlining of the Department.

I would remind hon. Members that the scope for major reductions in staff is now rather limited. Since the Ministries of Food and Agriculture were merged in 1955, the total run-down has been fairly considerable. In 1955, the total staffs amounted to 18,000. Today, they amount to 15,000, a run-down of 3,000. I am glad also to be able to say that the heavy extra duties imposed on the staff in the operation of the Farm Improvement Scheme have been taken on without additional staff being added.

The only other point I would mention specially is in Subhead A3, which deals with payments to the Potato Marketing Board. These payments are to cover the cost of certain services which the board does at our request: the collection and processing of statistics and other information on the varieties grown, their yields, stocks on farms, and so on. It was originally included in Subhead B6 of the main Estimates of last year, on the cost of the price guarantee. For the sake of greater clarity we have brought it out separately. It is not extra expenditure but a transfer, and partly accounts for the saving of £300,000 which hon. Members can see in Subhead B6 in page 7 of the Supplementary Estimate.

After this short explanation, and the very straightforward reason why I am putting this Supplementary Estimate forward, I ask the Committee to give it approval.

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Williams (Don Valley)

Let me, first, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, upon his recent appointment.

The right hon. Gentleman is by no means the first Conservative Minister of Agriculture to be appointed since I have been in the House of Commons. Between 1922 and 1939 there were no fewer than eight of them and, after a couple of years, they all seemed to run like hares I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not gallop off just as fast as some of his predecessors.

Having had some little experience at the Ministry, I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a very tough assignment. If he can please 360,000 farmers, 50 million consumers, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Gentleman will be almost a miracle worker. I hope that he has a fairly easy time at the Department. We will make it as little easy as possible in the House of Commons. We wish him well in all that he has to do.

It is pleasing to note that some Civil Service claims for increased salaries are granted by the Government when the claimants have made out their case. Therefore, we are not prepared to complain this afternoon about this Supplementary Estimate.

The only other item referred to by the right hon. Gentleman was the question of agencies, and I do not think we can complain about that payment which is for services rendered. It may very well be that some other hon. Member will have something to say either on salaries or these payments. For my part, they are quite in order and I am prepared to leave it at that.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

May I ask the Minister whether any part of this Supplementary Estimate represents an increase in overtime by existing civil servants because of any cuts made in the staff of the Department?

Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

The Minister has told the Committee that quite a number of discharges have taken place from the staff of his Ministry. I wonder whether he is in a position to indicate the ranks of the people discharged? What departments do they come from? Do they include high civil servants as well as those who suggest to farmers how to catch rats on the farm?

Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)

My right hon. Friend stated that these charges were due to pay increases to civil servants. Does that also apply to the additional provision of £5,000 in respect of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew?

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

The Minister said that the Department had managed to absorb the work done in the Farm Improvement Scheme without additional staff. I think those were his words. That seems amazing and I wish to ask whether more cannot be done in this connection. I think that about 19,000 farmers asked that work should be done on their buildings and that its total value amounted to £12½ million. I believe that the Department pays one-third of the cost of the schemes allowed and that would be £93,500. A total of approximately £3 million has been allowed so far. In ten years £50 million would be paid in farm improvement work if the Government plan is completed. Why are the Government not getting on with the job? Why is it considered such a paltry job at the moment that they can absorb the work amongst the existing staff of the Department?

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the rule is that where a class of civil servants obtains an increase the cost of the increase has to be borne by that particular establishment. In other words, the increase has to be offset by a reduction in the establishment. I have pursued the right hon. Gentleman or his predecessor on the question of cartographers doing specific work for the Department. I am sure that if the rule has to be followed here the Minister would find difficulty if it had to cut down the services of the Ordnance Survey. I do not know whether the Department is affected by this rule, but there is certain essential work which has to be carried on and it is fair and proper that the people carrying out that work should have the increases to which they are entitled.

3.55 p.m.

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

I will reply to the points which have been raised. We are grateful to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) for his generous tribute to my right hon. Friend. The right hon. Member said that he is satisfied with these matters, but other issues were raised.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) asked whether, in fact, there was increased overtime for the staff. I am advised that there has not been any considerable amount of overtime work. As regards the reduction in staff, it was spread over two or three years and a certain number of services which we were operating have closed down, as the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) is aware. Some of those people have left us and have gone into other industries. It has been a general and gradual process and we have done our best to solve personal problems as staff have left our service. At present, the run-down is largely accounted for by normal wastage.

Mr. Gooch

I wanted to know about the relationship between the manual and other workers and whether only the manual workers "got it in the neck".

Mr. Godber

I think it has been fair all round; I am satisfied that the clerical workers, just as much as the manual workers, have been reduced.

The hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) gave some figures which he said related to farm improvement schemes, but I think he got the figures wrong because he referred to £12 million. There is no question of £12 million arising on farm improvement schemes. The total number of schemes involved certainly does not approach that figure.

Mr. J. Johnson

I think that about 19,000 asked for work to be done and that, in total, it would amount to more than £12 million. I think that the Department has passed about £3 million of the work. That means it will provide £1 million, because it pays 33⅓ of the cost. Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Department will push on with this matter? We talk about slums in the cities, but we ought also to clear slums in the countryside and give good conditions for farmers and their wives. The Minister said that manpower was being absorbed in the Departments, but I would not mind if he extended the number of people on this job, because it will pay dividends in the years to come.

Mr. Godber

I am sorry that I misunderstood the hon. Member. As he said, we have authorised about £3 million worth of work to go ahead, but I would remind him that this is a 10-year scheme. The problem arising here has been that so many schemes have been put in which have not been sufficiently thought out and considered by the applicants. It is up to the farmers themselves to think out their plans and prepare them very carefully. If they do so, they will benefit themselves as well as the nation.

I think that there is a great deal of simple work study—which is only applied common sense—needed by the farmer in carrying out a scheme and we would not wish to encourage acceleration. I think it best to have a steady through-put. If we thought that the staff were inhibiting the work, we would look at the matter again. There have been one or two pockets—notably in the South-West—where there has been delay and we have posted staff there to look into the question. We have adequate staff to deal with this matter.

Mr. D. Marshall

I hope that my hon. Friend will reply to the point I raised about whether the £5,000 in respect of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, relates exactly to the increase in remuneration.

Mr. Godber

I am sorry I missed that point. Yes, it is exactly on all fours with the other addition.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £853,200, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1958, for the salaries and expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; of the Agricultural Land Commission; of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and of the White Fish Authority and the Scottish Committee thereof.