HC Deb 07 April 1960 vol 621 cc727-33

11.20 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Horticulture Improvement Scheme, 1960, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd March, be approved. This draft scheme, which applies to the whole of the United Kingdom, is the first to be introduced under Part I of the Horticulture Act, 1960. It was laid before Parliament the day after the Act received Royal Assent. The main provisions of the scheme were set out in the White Paper on Horticulture, published in November last. The draft scheme now before us rounds off the detailed provisions and gives legal form to matters that have already been the subject of considerable discussion during the passage of the Horticulture Bill through Parliament. I do not think, therefore, that the House would expect me to speak at length on the detailed provisions of the scheme.

The House will recall that the scheme is designed to help horticultural producers, either separately or through their co-operative marketing associations, to improve the efficiency of their businesses, with special emphasis on improved facilities for the storage and preparation for market of horticultural produce. The draft scheme provides for grants of two kinds of business: first, production businesses run by growers as individuals, partnerships or companies; secondly, marketing businesses run by co-operative associations. The conditions of eligibility for a horticultural business are set out in paragraph 3 of the draft scheme. Eligibility for a horticultural marketing business is dealt with in paragraph 4 of the draft scheme.

The main requirement for a marketing business is the condition as to the cooperative character of the body concerned, which is laid down in subsection (4) of Section 8 of the Act. The Schedule of facilities for which grants will be payable corresponds closely to the appendix in the White Paper. The only significant difference is that the draft scheme lists in detail the items of plant and equipment for which grant will be payable.

I turn now to the administration of the scheme. In England and Wales, applications will be received in the divisional offices of the Ministry—in Scotland, arrangements will be somewhat different—and proposals will be dealt with from a technical standpoint in the first place by qualified horticultural officers of the National Agricultural Advisory Service. These officials are already in touch with a very high proportion of all potential applicants and this scheme will give new point to many of these existing contacts. The Agricultural Land Service will advise on applications relating to buildings and other fixed equipment.

My right hon. Friend is looking to the county agricultural executive committees to make a valuable contribution to the successful operation of this scheme. Members of committees will be consulted in difficult or borderline cases and will consider representations from persons aggrieved by official decisions. These functions of C.A.E.C.s are now a well-established feature of the administration of our grant and subsidy schemes.

My right hon. Friends' aim all along has been that we should be able to start considering applications from 1st April onwards. Accordingly, it has been announced that, as from last Friday, provisional applications could be accepted on the basis of the draft scheme now before us. No proposals, of course, have been approved, nor grants paid in advance of Parliament's approval of the draft scheme, but this arrangement has made it possible for these plans to go ahead.

It will be interesting to hon. Members to know that up until Wednesday afternoon this week we have had about 1,000 inquiries and 50 applications have now been received. That is an encouraging indication of the interest taken in this scheme. Growers are heeding our advice to think about their proposals carefully and discuss them with the local advisory staff before submitting formal applications. The figures I have given show the interest which has already been generated.

This scheme is the first to be designed specifically for horticulture. Unless I am mistaken in my judgment of the horticulture industry, it will quickly respond to this challenge and grasp with both hands these new opportunities, which were welcomed by both sides of the House.

I therefore commend the scheme to the House with every confidence.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

The Parliamentary Secretary gave us encouraging news when he said that already 1,000 inquiries have been received and 50 applicants—individual producers, I presume—had submitted applications for grant under the Scheme. We welcome that. As the Parliamentary Secretary quite rightly said, this is a Measure which has the approval of both parties. I know that it is very late and I promised not to make a long speech, in view of the previous debate. I shall not make a long speech.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

Why not?

Mr. Peart

I gave a promise, and that is enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) can say what he likes, but I speak for myself. I promised the Parliamentary Secretary, and I shall keep my promise.

This is an improvement scheme, the purpose of which is to make available under the Horticulture Act, which was approved in the House, £7½ million for improvements. This is a considerable sum of money. Grants under the scheme will amount to one-third of the costs of improvements, although I think that the House should recognise that even under the farm improvement scheme, which was previous to this scheme, horticulturists will obtain approximately £500,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) pointed this out on a previous occasion. However, we support the main provisions of the scheme.

The scheme sets out detailed conditions of eligibility and how to qualify. Paragraph 3 (1, a) says that, to become eligible, the applicant must have at least four acres of land. Paragraph 3 (1, b) says that the Minister must be satisfied that: the business would, after the approved proposals have been carried out, be capable of yielding an adequate return. In other words, applicants must show that they are engaged in a full-time occupation, and the businesses must be conducted with reasonable efficiency.

The scheme also contains definitions for incentive production. These have not been mentioned. I can understand why. The Parliamentary Secretary has been limited. We welcome paragraph 3 (2) dealing with the area of any eligible land in glasshouses, or in buildings used for the production of rhubarb or mushrooms. We accept the definition of land used for growing horticultural produce under movable lights or under fixed structures clad with translucent material other than glass, or for growing watercress. We believe that those definitions are right.

How many holdings will be affected by the scheme? During the Second Reading of the Bill and in Committee the Government estimated that approximately 25,000 to 35,000 businesses were likely to be eligible. This evening the Minister has said that already 1,000 inquiries have been made. I hope that he will be proved right and that many producers will benefit from the scheme. We tried to improve it. We hoped that there would be flexibility. I will not weary the Parliamentary Secretary or hon. Members with the arguments which we raised in Standing Committee when we discussed the Measure. They are on record, and I could have quoted them. We tried to have more flexibility because we were afraid that the small producers would not come under the scheme.

I hope that after some time, probably twelve months or two years, the Minister will look at the scheme again carefully to consider how it is working and whether some small producers would benefit who are now able to produce efficiently and obtain a reasonable livelihood, but do not come within the rigid definition laid down in the scheme. We argued over and over again in Committee that the small producer's position should be safeguarded.

However, we are very glad that in the scheme there is an innovation, and the Government are to be complimented upon it. It is that horticultural marketing associations and businesses will be reckoned for grant. During the Committee stage the hon. Member for Guild-ford (Sir R. Nugent) and several of my hon. Friends stressed this point. We are pleased that it has now been accepted that in a major scheme for the giving of grants producer co-operatives are to be considered. We therefore welcome the scheme.

We know, in view of what the Minister has said and in view of the applications, that the burden of the scheme will fall upon the National Advisory Service. On Second Reading and in Committee I put questions to the Minister about the Horticultural Advisory Service. We hope that there will be no weakening of this service. If the scheme is to be successful the Horticultural Advisory Service must be improved. I am certain that that is the view of the Minister, because in the end if the scheme is to be successful and if county agricultural committees are to approve schemes and to assist, the main recommendation work must be done by the National Advisory Service personnel. Therefore, in the operation of the scheme the key people must obviously be the horticultural advisers.

I should have liked this evening to tempt the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) to argue that the scheme by itself is not sufficient for the horticultural industry. We could no doubt have strayed out of order by talking about tariffs, etc., and the application for an increase of tariff on tomatoes which has gone in to the Board of Trade. However, while I accept that, I believe that the scheme is important. It must work. We wish it success and we hope that it will be administered wisely.

11.32 p.m.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) has reminded the House, I was no lover of the Bill when it first appeared and I was no greater lover of it when it came back from Committee. However, we have the scheme and I certainly wish it well, despite all my opposition in the past. Personally, I do not think that it will do what the Government think it will. I hope that it does for their sake and for the sake of the growers. I agree with the final re- marks of the hon. Member for Workington.

I wish to ask only one question arising out of the Statutory Instrument which I find very hard to understand. Paragraph 3 (1, c) refers to the useful life of the facility to be provided and says that it cannot be given to somebody in tenancy on a holding unless the unexpired portion of the tenancy is not less than the useful life of the facility. I may be very blind, but I cannot find that those words are used anywhere in the Act. It seems to me, as far as certain facilities are concerned, to mean that the unexpired tenancy has got to be an awfully long one. Some of the facilities which can be granted can be seen in the Schedule: Provision of means of sewage disposal … Making and improvement of roads, fords, bridges, railway crossings and under-passes. I do not know what the useful life of such things is regarded as being, but I should have thought that it was a great deal longer than some tenancies may be.

It seems to me to be rather serious that people who are in need of the assistance that the House wishes to give to the growers can be ruled out simply because a particular facility which they are being granted happens to have a longer life than the remaining tenancy of the holding.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Godber

With the leave of the House, I should like to say to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) that I am grateful to him for his comments about the scheme. I am glad that it has the support of both sides of the House. I would merely say to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) that I am glad that he raised his point. It is one which might have led to misunderstanding, which I am glad to be able to clear up now.

What we are really saying here is that we must see that there is some reasonable security of tenure. In the farm improvement scheme we provide for reasonable security of tenure and say that for those capital improvements we must have a definite continuity for a period of time which we have specified in some cases as being 15 years. In this case we are not laying down such a hard and fast rule as we attempted there. The normal agricultural tenancy which carries on from year to year will normally suffice. There are certain cases, however, where some tenant may have an unexpired lease of a definite period of years—two or three years—to run out. Clearly it would be wrong for us to grant-aid some long-term facility when there is only a short period to run. We would consider an ordinary tenancy under the Agricultural Holdings Act, which gives a very considerable degree of security, as normally adequate.

I hope that that assurance will give comfort to my hon. and gallant Friend. I am glad that he raised the question so that I could give that assurance.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Horticulture Improvement Scheme, 1960, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd March, be approved.