HC Deb 09 June 1959 vol 606 cc947-58

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I must begin by expressing my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to raise the case of Mr. E. F. Saltmarsh tonight. I am doing so not because Mr. Saltmarsh is my constituent; he is not. He lives and has his farm in the constituency of the hon. and very gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken), who is in his place and who will, I hope, support what I have to say.

I am raising it because I was asked to do so by persons close to Mr. Saltmarsh, in whose judgment, public spirit and integrity I have the fullest confidence, and because I believe that the Minister, with I am sure the best intentions, has made a decision which was unnecessary in the public interest and most unjust to Mr. Saltmarsh. In this view the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and I are fully supported, as I shall show, by the Cambridgeshire Branch of the National Farmers' Union, to which Mr. Saltmarsh belongs.

Mr. Saltmarsh farms the Trinity Hall Farm at Moulton, Suffolk. In 1957, he had sown 264 acres of barley. On this, if he had filled in his forms and made his claim for a cereal deficiency payment at the appropriate time, he would have received an advance payment of £5 an acre, a sum of £1,320, with a further payment to follow at a later date. Under the Minister's Regulations, the forms should have been filled in and the claim presented by 31st July, 1957. In fact, this was done by Mr. Saltmarsh only on 3rd August, three days after 31st July. On 3rd August the claim was put in the post, but 3rd August was a Saturday and the following Monday was a Bank Holiday, so no doubt it was only on Tuesday, 6th August that the competent authorities at the Ministry received the claim and Mr. Saltmarsh's error would seem to them to have been a week.

Why did Mr. Saltmarsh fail to fill in his form by the Minister's date and so imperil a very large sum of money which he could by no means afford to lose? He is a man without great resources and with four children to educate. Was it idleness, incompetence or a lack of business sense? No one has for a moment suggested that that was so. It was because, as everyone admits, six weeks before the Minister's date—that is, on 21st June,—Mr. Saltmarsh had been kicked in the face by a horse. As a result, he suffered a fractured skull, grave injuries to his face and severe concussion.

I will read the certificates given to Mr. Saltmarsh by his doctor when Mr. Saltmarsh asked for his doctor's help over the claim for the cereal deficiency payment. The first certificate, dated 14th October, reads: This is to certify that Mr. Edward Saltmarsh had concussion, fractured skull. … and severe face injuries on the 21st June, 1957. He was admitted to Newmarket General Hospital for these severe injuries and was an inpatient there for about two weeks. He was ill and depressed for about two months afterwards, When that failed to produce the desired result, two months later, on 17th December, the doctor issued this second certificate: Following his concussion and hospitalisation in June and July, 1957, Mr. Edward Saltmarsh was mentally depressed to an abnormal degree … … This was a true depression, not just a period of slackness. I was very concerned about his mental health from the family point of view. In my opinion he was too mentally ill and depressed to realise the importance of filling up vital forms ". After two months of reflection on the case, when he had been in constant touch with the patient, the doctor wrote that second certificate. With great respect to the Minister and his colleagues, I believe the second certificate ought to have been instantly and finally conclusive.

What was the true position? The barley crop was there. Mr. Saltmarsh's claim for a cereal deficiency payment on it could not have been contested on any ground whatever, except on the ground that his claim was posted three days late. For this he was in no way whatsoever to blame. After two months reflection the doctor declared that, as the result of his accident with the horse, Mr. Saltmarsh was too mentally ill and depressed to realise the importance of filling up vital forms. I honestly do not see how anyone administering a Ministerial regulation could fail to see that this was one of the exceptional cases in which it was essential that discretion should be exercised and a payment made if grievous injustice was not to be done.

This was the conclusion I came to when I first learned the facts and when, after consulting the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, I first wrote to the Minister about it. I knew, when I wrote, that the Cambridgeshire branch of the National Farmers' Union had taken action. But it was only much later that I learned the terms in which it expressed its view. I will read the statement made in writing by Mr. J. Crosby, the County Secretary of the Cambridgeshire Branch of the N.F.U.: When this case came to our notice we made an application in the normal way through Ministry channels to have the decision reversed, but this was refused. I, as County Secretary, then investigated the facts of this extremely carefully, and was given confidential information from the doctor, with the approval of Mr. and Mrs. Saltmarsh, which led me to believe that the Ministry department concerned had made a very harsh decision. We have always informed our members that if the application for deficiency payments is not in by the final date, in this case the 31st July, 1957, it is useless to try and persuade the Ministry to reverse their decision, because unless the circumstances are extremely extenuating then no deficiency payment would be paid. However, I felt in this case that the circumstances were such that they warranted the utmost possible pressure being brought to try to reverse this position. Mr. Saltmarsh had a very serious accident. We admit that the Ministry sent him two reminders, and from remote Whitehall it might appear reasonable that this was sufficient, and that at least the second reminder should have brought forth the application form before the final date, but I felt that all along a more human attitude should have been adopted in these serious circumstances. … I reported these facts in full to my Committee, the name of the member not being mentioned, but the case was treated as one of complete principle and my Committee were unanimous in recommending that this be taken to the highest possible level. Action taken. The action taken by this county branch was twofold. First of all, the fullest possible facts were presented to Mr. Saltmarsh's Member of Parliament"— that is, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds: This information was also passed to our N.F.U. Headquarters in order that the Secretary of the Cereals Committee could take the matter up with the President, with a view to direct contact with the Minister of Agriculture. Unfortunately the Minister remained adamant and the position has not so far been reversed. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will note the language used. The case was treated as one of principle. The name of the member was not even mentioned. I hope that he will note that the committee has always warned members that payment will not be made if claims are not presented by the Minister's date; but that in this case the committee unanimously decided that the circumstances warranted the utmost pressure being brought to try to reverse the decision.

The committee considered that the decision was very harsh and recommended that the case should be taken to the highest possible level. Ministers are responsible to Parliament, and the House of Commons is the highest possible level. The National Farmers' Union is a most responsible body, with a great record of service. That is why I rely so much on its view tonight, and why I am trying to carry out what it urged.

Why has the Minister rejected this claim? What reasons has he alleged? He has treated me with great patience and courtesy and, therefore, I do not like to criticise him or the Parliamentary Secretary in any way. However, in his letter to me he said that the closing date of 31st July was necessary … because otherwise we should be unable to carry out the checks which are necessary to avoid fraudulent claims. He then went on to say that he had had to decide … that no exceptions shall be made unless it can be shown that the cause of the lateness of the claim was a fault in our own departmental arrangements. With respect, I think that the second sentence I have quoted destroys the value of the first. Exceptions can be made if the lateness of the claim is due to the fault of the Departmental arrangements, and the exceptions so made do not make it impossible to carry out checks which are necessary to avoid fraudulent claims. Nor would an exception made for Mr. Saltmarsh. Indeed, it is only necessary to consider the facts I have given to see that the argument does not really hold water at all.

I add that there is nothing sacrosanct about the Minister's Regulation. It has no legal force. It is in his discretion to vary it. He can make exceptions as he judges right. I know that it is always said that if we once make an exception to such a rule we open the floodgates, and chaos results. I have been responsible to the House for administering Regulations of this kind in more than one Government Department. I believe that such Regulations are bound to lead to injustice unless we are ready to make exceptions in the marginal case.

How many cases like Mr. Saltmarsh's are there to be? One in ten years? When was there one before with such extenuating circumstances as these? I believe that there is no valid ground whatever for rejecting the plea which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and I have put forward.

I do not ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say tonight that he accepts our plea and will grant the claim at once. I do ask him not to say that he will not reconsider the matter. I ask him not to say that he finally refuses this payment to Mr. Saltmarsh. I warn him that, if he does finally refuse, I shall continue to draw attention to the case in every way I can.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Aitken (Bury St. Edmunds)

This case concerns a constituent of mine, as the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel Baker) indicated. I raised it first just over two years ago. After an exchange of about forty letters between the National Farmers' Union, the Ministry and other parties concerned, the case which I made for my constituent was firmly and unequivocally turned down. I felt very deeply about it at the time and, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I expressed myself in rather more forceful terms than I usually use when speaking to my hon. Friends. But it seemed to me at the time that, as this was not a statutory obligation laid upon the Minister—I am sure my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong—but a purely administrative decision, the outcome of it could not be accepted, and I find myself tonight very much in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman in his bewilderment at the decision which was given.

Now I have the melancholy satisfaction of telling my hon. Friend that the right hon. Gentleman, whose experience of the involutions and convolutions of administrative principle is far greater than mine, has himself felt impelled, because of his friendship with the family concerned, also to take up the matter.

There is a very important matter of principle involved here. It seems to me that the Ministry of Agriculture ought to be able to sort out this sort of thing. In every county there is a county agricultural executive committee. In a case like this, it must be a very rare occasion when, through no fault of the individual concerned, someone has not followed the administrative drill. Two notices were sent to Mr. Saltmarsh, who was ill at the time, and those in charge of the farm, of course, should have dealt with this very urgent matter, a matter of great importance to any farmer, about £1,300 being involved.

If the matter had been handed over to the county agricultural executive committee, which was familiar with the local difficulties and all the personal factors concerned, there might have been a very different result. I hope that the result of this discussion will be, first, that the Minister will reconsider his decision, and, secondly, that he will have a good long look at the machinery for these payments. I am not at all sure that, sometimes, the administrators do not fall into the same error which some members of the public commit in thinking about these deficiency grants. They are not charity. They are payments made to farmers to enable the people of this country to have their food at world prices.

These payments are not really subsidies at all. It is not a matter of giving something to somebody. In a case like this, it is a matter of ensuring that the local administrative organisation is informed of the circumstances in what must be a unique occasion when a farmer misses an opportunity of collecting £1,300 for his deficiency payments. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will reconsider his decision and will have a good, long look at the administrative machinery that makes this sort of thing happen.

10.30 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) for raising this question and also to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken), because it gives me a chance to explain the principles which underlie this case and which make us adopt what both hon. Members obviously consider a most unsympathetic attitude. Let me say straight away that my right hon. Friend and I have most carefully considered Mr. Saltmarsh's case on many previous occasions during the past two years.

Perhaps I could first say a word on the general principle governing these payments. Deficiency payments on cereals constitute a heavy charge on the Exchequer. I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman faced the implications of this in his speech. This is a considerable burden on public money, for which we are accountable. Last year, for instance, cereal deficiency payments amounted to about £56 million of taxpayers' money. As a result, we must be completely sure that these moneys are paid out only in proper cases. Consequently, we have decided after most careful consideration that we must have a fixed final date for the acceptance of claims. Without this, proper administration would he impossible.

The right hon. Gentleman took that point and sought to deduce from the fact, that we admit cases where our own administrative machinery has failed that we violate that principle. I do not agree. Clearly, if we are at fault in a case like this, we must make amends for the fault. If any Government Department is at fault, it obviously must make amends. That does not, however, derogate from the principle which we set down of final fixed dates for claims.

The closing date of 31st July, which has been selected for these acreage deficiency payment claims, is the latest practicable one that gives sufficient time for the necessary inspection of the crops, bearing in mind that a large number of inspections must be made and that these must be fitted in with the other work of our field staff. For instance, about 135,000 claims on barley, oats and mixed corn are received each year and we find it necessary to check in the field about one-third of these claims, or about 45,000 a year. Claims received after 31st July can be admitted only if for some reason, as I have indicated, my Ministry is responsible. We must be able to inspect the crops as growing crops and in setting 31st July as the date we are setting a very late date.

In consequence of this strict rule, we give wide publicity to the closing date requirement. We put it clearly on the claim form that is sent to each registered grower at the end of April. Between the beginning of May and the end of July, growers are sent two postcard reminders from the Ministry if their claims have not been received by the time the reminder is issued. In addition, extensive publicity is given to the closing date in national local and farming Press and through the B.B.C. In all of this, it is stressed that no claims are accepted after 31st July. That is the general principle.

The case of Mr. Saltmarsh had been brought to my attention on several occasions previously by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds before the right hon. Member for Derby, South raised it with me. I have made the most exhaustive inquiries about it. As far as I can ascertain, Mr. Saltmarsh was sent a claim form at the end of April, 1957, by the divisional office at Bury St. Edmunds. As the completed form had not been received by that office, he was sent a reminder by postcard early in June and again on 9th July. These dates are important. The completed claim form for 266 acres of barley was, however, not received by the divisional office until 6th August. Mr. Saltmash was accordingly informed that his claim could not be accepted as it was out of time.

I understand that his unfortunate accident, which we all regret, occurred on 21st June. He would have received the claim form nearly two months before that accident. Let there be no doubt in the minds of hon. Members that he had two clear months in which he could have filled in and completed the form and during which our reminders appeared in the national and local Press and were given over the B.B.C.

Mr. Noel-Baker rose—

Mr. Godber

I cannot give way. I have very little time left.

It is absolutely right and proper that the House should be reminded that Mr. Saltmarsh had ample opportunity in which to send in his form. We gave up to 31st July. I quite accept the fact of his illness, but—if one is advancing illness as a reason, even if we accept it—he had ample opportunity before that illness occurred. He would have received the claim form, as I have said, nearly two months before, and should also have received the first of the postcard reminders. He had one reminder early in June before his accident. As a result of the accident, Mr. Saltmarsh was in hospital for about two weeks, so that he was available by the time the second postcard reminder was sent on 9th July. The right hon. Gentleman says he was too ill to take account of it. I naturally—

Mr. Noel-Baker

I do not say so. Mr. Saltmarsh's doctor says so.

Mr. Godber

I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said, and I ask him to listen to my reply. The right hon. Gentleman was repeating, quite properly, what the doctor has said. I am not disputing that Mr. Saltmarsh may indeed have been ill at the time he came out of hospital, but I would say to the right hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend that, after all, even when Mr. Saltmarsh himself was away from the farm he had on the farm two competent people capable of dealing with the matter, namely his wife and his foreman who were dealing with the other affairs of the farm. The application for grant is a matter which is surely within their competence to deal with.

As I have said, my right hon. Friend and I have gone into Mr. Saltmarsh's case on a number of occasions. We have done so most carefully. We have, as I am sure every hon. Member will have, a great deal of sympathy with him in his unfortunate accident. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out, he had ample time in which to make a claim. He was reminded by us before his accident that he had not done so. We have concluded, therefore, that we would not be justified in making an exception in his case to the rules which govern these claims. If we were to do so we should be unfair to a number of other people who have found themselves in similar circumstances.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I know of a single other case. Indeed, I do. I would not say that his is the worst case which has come to my notice. There have been a number of cases where I would gladly have liked to have found grounds on which I could give way, and Mr. Saltmarsh's case is certainly not an isolated case. A number of these cases, unfortunately come up from time to time.

As I have said, we could not make an exception without being unfair to a number of other people who have been similarly affected; but if we were to admit these claims at a late date when we have no opportunity of checking we should be laying ourselves open to charges that we were not dealing fairly and properly with taxpayers' money. I ask hon. Members to take that point seriously. After all, if a claim comes in after the corn has been harvested, there is no means of knowing what the acreage was. We are responsible for these payments, and I have indicated already that they are very large sums of money. The right hon. Gentleman has, of course, had a great deal of experience of Government Departments, and I am sure he will realise the heavy responsibility which there is on us when spending public money to take account of the need to be able to justify any expenditure of this sort to the hilt. I put this to the right hon. Gentleman most seriously. I am sure he will realise that I am anxious, just as he is, to see that fair play is done to these people, but I feel that we have a clear responsibility here which it would be wrong for us to evade.

So I am afraid that, in spite of the very eloquent plea that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have made, I really cannot see my way to making any variation in this case. The right hon. Gentleman has said that if I finally reject it he will raise it again and again. I am sorry, but I really must tell him that I cannot see any grounds, however frequently the matter is raised, on which I could justify payment of the money in this case. I say that with great seriousness after having considered the matter very carefully indeed. I feel that we cannot budge administratively on a case of this sort without opening the "flood gates"—I think the right hon. Gentleman used those words—so much that we should not be able to control the position.

I regret having to tell the right hon. Gentleman this. Nothing would please me more than to be able to agree freely to pay out this money, but I should be failing in my duty if I were to do so, and I am quite certain that the farming community realises that in receiving these payments it accepts an obligation to fulfil its part of the bargain, which is to see that proper application is made at the correct time.

We give the most ample warning, time and time again, as I have tried to show tonight. In Mr. Saltmarsh's case, much as I regret his accident, it occupied only a small part of the time in the vital period between the application form being sent to him and his second reminder sent some time after his accident took place. I do not see how, in those circumstances, one can say that he has been wrongly or harshly treated. I say that in all seriousness.

Mr. Noel-Baker rose—

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member has already spoken to the Motion. He has no right to speak again.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I merely want to ask a few questions, Mr. Speaker. First, is not it the case that Mr. Saltmarsh's barley was still a growing crop, which could be checked, on 2nd August? Secondly, is it not the case that in exercising his responsibility for public money the hon. Gentleman would have given Mr. Saltmarsh his original advance payment of £1,320 if Mr. Saltmarsh had not been kicked in the face by a horse and had concussion? Thirdly, is it not a fact that it was the doctor and not I who said that Mr. Saltmarsh was ill and unable to deal with the forms? Fourthly, was not the farming community of Cambridgeshire itself unanimously on our side, and against the Minister?

Mr. Godber

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me a number of questions. I dealt specifically with his third one. As to whether Mr. Saltmarsh's barley was available on the date mentioned, I do not know. What I am saying is that in general barley begins to be harvested well before that date. That is the reason for setting that date. We cannot accommodate it to any individual farm.

As to the rest of the farming community of Cambridgeshire feeling about this case in the way suggested by the right hon. Gentleman, I can understand the feeling of the farmers. They are all very sympathetic to their friends in relation to any problems which arise. I know that, being one of them myself. But that does not alter the fact that in general the farming community and the N.F.U. agree with the lines of principle we adopt in regard to these payments. They are in the long-term interest of the farming community. If we are to justify these payments to the taxpayers there must be no question—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.