HC Deb 20 May 1958 vol 588 cc1253-8

11.33 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 Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House, on 6th May, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

This Scheme and the next Scheme seem to be identical, one applying to Scotland and one to England and Wales. The language is a little different, but the effect seems to be the same. Perhaps they could be taken together.

Mr. Godber

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for that suggestion.

I am proposing to deal with the Scheme for England and Wales, but if there are any special points relating to Scotland my noble Friend will be glad to deal with them. This Scheme, which is the eighth one to be made under the Agriculture (Ploughing Grants) Act, 1952, reenacts the previous Scheme, apart from the necessary advances of dates. There are no other changes at all. The House will wish me, perhaps, to give one or two brief comments.

The House will remember that the Scheme was modified last year in two respects, to include grass as a crop for the sowing of which permission was no longer necessary, and to bring forward the qualifying date for old grassland under Part II of the Scheme from 4th May, 1939, to 1st June, 1946. No further changes are called for this year, and we wish, so far as possible, to avoid successive changes in a Scheme which is by now well-known to farmers.

It would be premature, moreover, to make further changes in the Scheme until we have received the report of the Committee of Inquiry into Grassland Utilisation, which was set up last September under the chairmanship of Sir Sydney Caine, and will report later this year. For this reason, we have not thought it appropriate to make any changes in the Scheme this year. It is somewhat early to assess the effects of the changes made last year. There has been no marked change in the amount of old grassland coming forward under Part II of the Scheme. The slight decline in England and Wales has been counter balanced by an increase in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Regarding the abolition of the reseeding proviso, there has, as one would expect, been some switch from tillage to temporary grass in 1957 as compared with 1956, but this no doubt reflects in part the fact, as I told the House last year, that we had been granting reseeding certificates freely for some time. The abolition of the reseeding provision has undoubtedly contributed to one of the major objects of the Scheme, that is to encourage the practice of ley farming.

Cultivations and sowings were both adversely affected by the spring drought last year, which accounts for the increase of 94,000 acres of bare fallow at the expense of tillage. There was, further, a reduction of 215,000 acres of tillage in the United Kingdom as a whole, which was offset by an increase of 223,000 in the area of temporary grass. There was thus a net decline in arable of some 86,000 acres. Of this, 71,000 acres were accounted for in Northern Ireland, so that for the rest of the United Kingdom the change was infinitesimal.

The 1958 figures will not become available until we have the results of the June returns, but from present information I would say that there will again be no great change. Ploughings recovered very well after September, except in Northern Ireland where there is no autumn ploughing. Conditions have been rather difficult this spring. In general I think that it may be said that we are maintaining a reasonable degree of stability in the area under crops and grass. This is a fundamental objective of our agricultural policy and there is no doubt that the ploughing grants are a major instrument in achieving it.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

We shall not oppose these Schemes, but if one dislikes them very much I think one should make that clear. I have never liked these ploughing grant schemes or the Act under which they were made. I have made it clear before now that I was not very fond of these grants when they were made by the Government of which I was a member.

I well remember when the relevant Act was passed. The justification for it was not the encouragement of ley farming, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said, but the getting of an increase in tillage acreage so that we might produce more foodstuffs from home sources and save expenditure of precious dollars in buying foodstuffs from America. It was anticipated that there would be a great increase in tillage acreage following the introduction of the first Scheme under the Act, which there was. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary will know that I risked prophesying at the time that there would be an increase for two years or so and then there would be a steady decrease once again. That had happened when a similar Scheme was introduced in 1947. My prophecy was not very clever, but it was right, and there was this run-down.

How does the Joint Under-Secretary justify this Scheme? One of the justifications each year has been that the grants provided for here are included in the settlement made at the Price Review. If the money were proposed to be given in this way and the global settlement were adhered to, an increase would have to be given in deficiency payment. I appreciate that. If that is the reason, it is always difficult for an hon. Member to oppose it.

These Schemes make no substantial difference to the amount of acreage put under the plough each year. If our farmers follow the rules of good husbandry and if there is a proper rotation of crops, these Schemes will not add to our arable acreage. In any case, following the Scheme of last year, it is now possible to put the land straight down to grass without seeking permission of the Minister. There is now no insistence upon putting the land that is ploughed into grain crops to produce the feeding-stuffs which otherwise would have to be brought across the Atlantic.

I fully appreciate that, with good ley farming, grass is cultivated as a crop, but I suggest that if our farmers know their job—I have no reason to believe that they do not—they will have a constant rotation of crops. They will have three or four years in grass and another three or four years in crops. They will be cultivating grass as a crop without these Schemes at all.

I notice that the tillage acreage is still going down. In the early years of the Scheme, the justification for another Scheme each year was the increase in the tillage acreage achieved the year before. For some years it has not been possible for any Minister to say, "Look at the increased acreage last year; that is all due to these Schemes." All that Ministers could do was to say that if there had been no Scheme there would be a bigger acreage. I doubt that very much.

We are told that this is of great value to the small farmer, but I do not think it influences him very much in his farming. I have the impression that most of the money is collected by the bigger farmer who works on a large scale. I believe we are misleading ourselves in saying that these Schemes are costing about £3 million if a quarter of the money is coming back in increased taxation paid by the big farmers.

I doubt very much whether these Schemes are justified. I wish we could assist agriculture in a better and more easily justifiable way than by this. I wonder whether the Joint Under-Secretary would say a word or two about the effect he thinks this Scheme will have in Scotland and about the continuation of the Scheme.

11.45 p.m.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

I have a certain amount of sympathy with the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) when he says that the general ploughing grant is not really necessary because the good farmer, using normal rotation of crops, will farm his land and plough anyway.

It is impossible to oppose the Scheme, whether we like it or not, because it is all part of the Price Review. There may be a justification and balance between direct subsidies, plus supports and direct production grants, including grants for land on ley farms. I want to register one slight note of dissent from Part II of the Scheme. I believe that part should continue. In Great Britain we are losing a very large acreage of agricultural land every year. No one knows how much it is, but it is something in the region of 5,000 acres in Scotland. We have to make that up in some way, either by increased production from land already in cultivation, or by breaking up new land on the hillsides.

There is one new feature under the 1957 Act and the Farm Improvement Scheme. Grants under improvements schemes stop before the land is ploughed. One can root up trees and remove rocks, but when it comes to ploughing the grant stops. Therefore, it is all the more important to have reclamation schemes to give additional production. This is the ideal form of assistance for ploughing this land which has never been ploughed in the history of man. There are acres in Scotland which have not been ploughed since the agricultural depression of last century. We can make up for the loss we have to suffer through the modern demands on our land.

I urge, firstly, that the £12 subsidy is worth consideration on its merits. I like the second part of the Scheme, which should be valuable to farmers who are doing reclamation of land, in addition to the one-third grant under the Farm Improvement Scheme. In addition, I believe there is something to be said in favour of the second part of the Scheme, because I believe it will help farmers with small acreages to plough and reclaim. I do not say this is always necessary on a small farm, because some hill farms are fairly large. That does not necessarily mean that the farmer has a large, rich farm, because much of his land may be poor. Whether we call him a small farmer or a farmer with a small income, I believe this would help him.

The hon. Member for Hamilton does not seem to have realised the amount of good that can come from having the subsidy under Part II of the Scheme. That would help the upland farmer who ought to get the benefit of the £12 scheme for land reclamation in small areas and will help to redress the losses we are suffering through housing schemes and other demands on our land.

11.50 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord John Hope)

The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) has asked me to say a word as to why we think this Scheme is still justified. I do not want to detain the House, except to say that I think it is fair to claim that, on the whole—and one has to judge all these things on the whole—the Scheme does provide a stimulus to plough that is definitely useful.

There is one figure I should like to give that could at least be said not to militate against the claim I have just made. Imports of feedingstuffs are still below the estimated pre-war level of 5.9 million tons, despite the fact that our output of livestock and livestock products is now forecast at no less than 52 per cent. higher than pre-war. That, of course, might have happened whether or not this Scheme had come into existence, but it is at least a pointer to the usefulness of providing what stimulus one can to ploughing. That is the basis of the Scheme, although I fully realise that one has to watch the whole situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Draft Ploughing Grams Scheme, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th May, be approved.

Draft Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme, 1958 [copy laid before the House, 6th May], approved.—[Lord John Hope.]