§ The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:
§ 71. Sir ANTHONY HURD
To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the policy discussions recently held with the National Farmers' Union; and when a White Paper will be published.
§ 74. Mr. GEOFFREY DE FREITAS
To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now make a statement on his talks with the National Farmers' Union on a long-term policy for agriculture; and whether he will now give the House the information on these talks which was circulated to all branches of the National Farmers' Union on Thursday, 15th December.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)
The talks with the leaders of the Farmers' Union were intended to clarify some of the problems confronting the industry. They have resulted in a much clearer understanding between the two sides and a substantial measure of agreement has been reached. Both sides have found the talks most valuable, and I should like to pay a special tribute to the skill and vigour with which Mr. Woolley and his colleagues have represented the interests of the argicultural industry. A full report on the talks is being published in a White Paper, copies of which are now being made available in the Vote Office. The talks have taken place in a constructive spirit and discussion on some of the topics which require further examination will be resumed after the 1961 Price Review.
In reply to the second part of the Question of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), I am informed that no information has been circulated to N.F.U. branches.
§ Sir A. Hurd
While welcoming the constructive spirit of these talks, may we take it that they have served to reaffirm the essential feature of Government policy in developing and expanding the competitive strength of British agriculture? When these talks are resumed after the February Price Review, may we also take it that there will be a fresh look at the various methods of agricultural support in order to see that both farmers and taxpayers get still better value for money?
§ Mr. Soames
In answering the first point of my hon. Friend, that is certainly so. They have taken place in a constructive spirit with a view to improving the understanding between the Government and the unions. In answer to the second part of the question: yes, that is what we have in mind.
§ Mr. de Freitas
Obviously, until we have read the White Paper we cannot ask detailed Questions on its contents, but there are three general points. Does the Minister recall that the Leader of the Opposition at the beginning of the Session asked for a debate on agriculture? If we are to have it before the Price Review, we must have it very shortly after Parliament reassembles after the Christmas Recess.
887 Secondly, as regards information to the National Farmers' Union, did not 50 or 60 chairmen of county branches receive an outline of the White Paper on Thursday? If so, why were not hon. Members given similar information on Thursday, especially as there were Questions down to the Minister of Agriculture which were reached?
Thirdly, does this White Paper meet and tackle the basic problem on which there has been such a lot of divergence of opinion between unions and the Government, namely, on production policy?
§ Mr. Soames
Taking the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question first, on production policy, he will find a statement in the White Paper saying that the Government and the unions agree on the broad outline of what our production policy should be.
In answer to the second part of the question, on the unions being informed, these were talks between the Government and the unions. The objective was to reach agreement on a number of outstanding points, and though there was no question of the White Paper being circulated to the branches of the union, Mr. Woolley addressed a meeting of the Council of the National Farmers' Union, which it was essential for him to carry with him in order for me to be able to report to the House whether or not there was agreement reached between the unions and the Government.
As to the debate in the House, I am aware of what the Leader of the Opposition said about an agricultural debate. The timing of debates, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, is not a matter for me but something which is carried out through the usual channels. We shall be getting very close to the Price Review when the House reassembles.
§ Mr. Bullard
Will my right hon. Friend say whether agreement has been reached about the future of annual assessment for improved efficiency, which has always been a great source of trouble at all Price Reviews?
§ Mr. Soames
Yes. The hon. Member will find a paragraph of considerable length on that topic which, I hope, will please him.
§ Mr. Grimond
Is the agreement set out in the White Paper likely to affect 888 Scotland? If so, were there any consultations with people which might represent the interests of crofters, marginal farmers and hill farmers in Scotland, because they are worried about the issue of agriculture in the North?
§ Mr. Soames
The consultations have included consultations with the leaders of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland.
§ Mr. Deedes
In view of the value of these talks, does my right hon. Friend think this kind of thing may happen again, or does he regard these as once-and-for-all talks?
§ Mr. Soames
I think it is profitable for both sides that there should be talks from time to time on such matters, especially where there are outstanding differences, as there were after the last Price Review, and that there should be full co-operation and discussion between the Government and the unions. I do not regard this necessarily as an exception.
§ Mr. W. Hamilton
Would the right hon. Gentleman say what steps he is taking to meet the point made by his hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd) as to whether the public are getting value for money from the various methods of price support now being paid to farmers?
The second point is a point of order for you, Mr. Speaker. It concerns again the question of an English Minister answering for the Scottish Office.
§ Mr. Soames
I will deal first with what you, Mr. Speaker, have been kind enough to refer to as the point of substance. When the hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper he will find some paragraphs stating categorically that both the unions and the Government agree that, nationally speaking, great benefit is derived from the policy of support for agriculture which the Government pursues.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I want to raise a point of order which, Mr. Speaker, you may 889 recollect I raised a fortnight ago on another matter. We had an English Minister answering on behalf of the Scottish Office. Scottish Members are thereby precluded from putting their Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The same thing has happened today. It has been increasing for some months past, and I want to protest on behalf of my hon. Friends at this continuing and extending practice.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman may make protests, but I do not think that makes them into points of order. At the moment, I do not follow how it is a point of order for the Chair.