HC Deb 14 May 1962 vol 659 cc1086-105

11.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Gilmour Leburn)

I beg to move, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1962, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th April, be approved.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Would it be convenient for the House to discuss this and the Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme, 1962, at the same time?

Mr. Leburn

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for suggesting that we might take both together. That would be convenient.

As I said in reply to the criticism of these grants made during the debate on last year's Scheme, the Government, before submitting proposals for changes in the ploughing grants, must be sure that they have found a more effective measure to be put in its place. This is no easy matter because, as last year's debate showed, there are different ideas about the type of grants which would be most effective, and, of course, in this particular matter of tillage and grassland husbandry conditions and circumstances tend to differ from one part of the country to another.

My final word in winding up the debate on the Schemes approved a year ago—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) will remember it, no doubt—was to assure the House that the Government would undertake a serious review of the ploughing grants. A lot of thought has been given to this matter during recent months, and, as was announced in the White Paper on the Annual Review, 1962, the Government intend, subject to obtaining the necessary legislation, to introduce Schemes for grants to encourage the production of winter keep in livestock rearing areas and for the renovation of permanent grassland, including rough grazings, the proposals for these Schemes being linked with a revision of the ploughing grants.

Discussions have taken place and are to continue with the Farmers' Unions on our ideas about these Schemes, but there is still a good deal of work to be done before we can bring detailed proposals before the House. As the Schemes are closely tied up with the review of the ploughing grants, in the circumstances, the Government have decided that the ploughing grants should continue in their existing form and at existing rates pending the introduction of the new Schemes.

It is therefore proposed to make the Ploughing Grants Schemes, 1962, which are the twelfth to be made under the 1952 Act, on the same terms as the 1961 Schemes subject to the necessary advancement of dates and in the case of the Scottish Scheme a slight amendment to extend to occupiers, who are eligible under the Crofting Counties Agricultural Grants (Scotland) Scheme, 1961, the concession which has hitherto been given to small landholders and to crofters with regard to the minimum acreage qualifying for grant.

The House will no doubt wish me to follow the practice of previous years and give a summary of the outcome for the past year. I therefore propose to give the figures for expenditure in the United Kingdom and for each country separately for the financial year ending 31st March, 1962. I have chosen financial years in order to give the House the most up-to-date information. The 1961 Scheme year is not yet finished, and it will be some months before anything like finality is achieved in payments under that Scheme. However, for all practical purposes the cost of the Scheme is the same, whichever year is chosen to illustrate it.

For the United Kingdom—this is for the financial year ending 31st March, 1962—£11.5 million was paid to 181,590 applicants in respect of 1.6 million acres. The breakdown of these figures is as follows. In Part I grants—that is, the £7 grants—in England £6.3 million was spent, covering 910,000 acres. In Wales £1 million was spent, covering 138,000 acres. In Northern Ireland £1.18 million was spent, covering 167,000 acres. In Scotland £2.4 million was spent, covering 342,000 acres. For Part II grants, in England £0.4 million was spent, covering 28,000 acres. In Wales £0.1 million was spent, covering 11,000 acres. In Northern Ireland £0.02 million was spent, covering 2,000 acres. In Scotland £0.1 million was spent, covering 10,000 acres.

Despite the criticism that has been levelled against these grants in the House in previous years, there is still a strong feeling amongst our technical advisers, and indeed in agricultural circles generally, that these schemes have served and are serving a useful purpose. Their main effect has been to stabilise the arable acreage at a high level and, with the modifications which have been made from time to time, to serve grassland as well as tillage policy. They have helped to expand the acreage of temporary grass, thus ensuring that our grassland is kept in a productive state, and have encouraged the farmer to attain a better balance between tillage crops and grass so as to achieve greater efficiency in the production of feeding stuffs for his livestock.

Changes in the bases of the agricultural returns make it difficult to give exact comparisons with earlier periods, but over the last ten years the decline of about one million acres in tillage crops has been balanced by an increase of the same order in the acreage of rotation grass. I think it will be agreed that it is in the national interest that our increasing numbers of cattle and sheep should be maintained as far as possible from our own resources. The ploughing grants have played a useful part to this end, and I am advised that their withdrawal without an effective replacement would lead to a decline in the amount of land under rotational cultivation and in the quality of much of our grassland.

It has been said in the past that the same amount of ploughing would be done without the aid of the grant, but I believe that this requires serious qualification. The better land would certainly continue to be ploughed and cropped, but may I remind the House that this grant is paid only in respect of the ploughing of land that has been down to grass for not less than three years. The proportion of our best land that is left in grass for as long as this is not high and it is therefore those who farm predominantly with livestock on the medium and poorer land who would be most affected by the withdrawal of ploughing grants. As I have said, it will be our intention at the appropriate time to submit proposals concerning the three types of assistance—ploughing grants, winter keep and grassland renovation. In the meantime, my colleagues and I, after much thought, and particularly in view of what was said last year, are satisfied that the proper course is to continue the ploughing grants in their present form.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

We have had debates on similar Schemes ever since 1952, and this Scheme differs very little from previous ones, an exception being made in the case of a small number of people in the crofting counties of Scotland. I am certain that the amount involved must be extremely small indeed—at least, it would not pay the increase that the nurses want in their wages—and therefore it would not affect the general subsidy.

The Under-Secretary said that the difficulty in disposing of the present method of grant was that conditions differed in different parts of the country. The only thing that did not differ was the subsidy. Whether it was good ground or bad ground, the subsidy remained the same at £7 an acre if it came under Part I. I think he might have been a little more explicit about what was going to happen in the future, because the winter keep scheme is a substitution for the old M.A.P. grants. We shall have to look at this carefully to see whether it does not extend to all forms of agricultural and arable land instead of being restricted as it is at present.

It is true that each year we have had an explanation of these Schemes, and each year I have listened to the explanation. They have been opposed, certainly as to Part I, by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), who has never found any necessity for using taxpayers' money in this way and has always argued that they made no contribution at all to agricultural production. After all, it is a case of paying a subsidy for land which is under grass for three years and, in its normal rotation, comes up for tillage once more. This point was made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart), and I shall return to his comments later.

We have always felt that a case was made out for Part II which pays about £12 an acre for ground which has been under grass since 1946. In fact, my hon. Friend and I am certain the whole House always regarded this as a kind of reclamation payment, for bringing into use land that otherwise would not have been used. Despite that, there has each year been a growing opposition to the payment of these grants and that opposition has not been confined to this side of the House. In fact, I think that the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd) only a year ago criticised these subsidies, and this has been fairly general.

I am a little surprised that the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) is not present tonight. He made a terrific speech on a similar Scheme last year. He said: I do not intend to vote against this Scheme, but I wish to announce that I want to 'fire a 16-inch shell' right across the bows of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by telling him that this is the last time I shall allow a Scheme of this kind to go through without voting against it. He added: I can assure my right hon. Friend that the shell is not made of Polish eggs."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May, 1961; Vol. 640, c. 572.) That was to be a considerable shell—a 16-inch one. The hon. Gentleman, as one can appreciate from those words, looked on this matter very seriously and it is unfortunate that he is not here tonight. So, it appears, the gun will not go off just now.

Sir Anthony Hurd (Newbury)

It should be mentioned that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) is probably not here at the moment because he was occupying the Chair until quite recently.

Mr. Hoy

That may be so. I was using his words as an example of the feeling that exists among hon. Gentlemen opposite on this issue. There is, however, an hon. Gentleman opposite who is present and whose words I can quote. It is the last quotation I shall use, although there are many others. The hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) said last year: These are perhaps among the more questionable of the production grants. Nevertheless, I would support my hon. Friend in continuing them for a further period. At the same time, it is very desirable that we should examine their true effects and their long-term effects upon agriculture."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May, 1961; Vol. 640, c. 580.]

Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)

It was kind of the hon. Gentleman to quote from my speech, but the rest of it was clearly in favour of the Ploughing Grants Scheme. It was the only speech from this side of the House on that occasion which was, in fact, in favour of it.

Mr. Hoy

It may have been an enthusiastic speech from the hon. Gentleman's point of view, but he certainly said that it was, perhaps, among the more questionable of the production grants. The hon. Gentleman may regard that as an enthusiastic speech in support of the Government, but if one of my hon. Friends supported me in that way I should not regard such words as being of any great support. However, we will not quarrel about it. At least I quoted the hon. Gentleman correctly.

In that speech the hon. Member for King's Lynn urged the Government to consider the long-term effects on agriculture. What are those effects? Whatever they are, we must consider them. The figures are as follows, and I was surprised to hear the Under-Secretary say that a high level of tillage had been maintained. Between 1936 and 1938, the pre-war average acreage for tillage in Scotland was 1,538,000 acres. In 1960 it was 1,548,000 acres and last year, 1961, it fell by 13,000 acres to 1,535,000. It showed, in fact, a substantial drop over what was a slight increase in 1960. Even this was 3,000 acres below the pre-war figure. Surely this is not a tribute to an expenditure of millions of pounds each year to maintain the acreage under tillage? These figures prove this and they are taken from the Ministry's report for last year.

Is it true that the expenditure was necessary? I think that I have made it perfectly clear that these figures show that the Scheme has not achieved its purpose. The necessity for the Scheme has always been more than doubtful and this is proven by a pamphlet which has just appeared from the pens of five hon. Gentlemen opposite. It is called "Land of Abundance," and is published by the Conservative Political Centre—and for this advertising I do not charge—and it has this to say: We think that the subsidy for ploughing up grass in its fourth year should be reviewed, as the taking of the plough round an arable farm is so fundamentally an exercise of good husbandry that it should not be made the subject for Government aid. One does not require many guesses to know who wrote that part; it has been culled word for word from the speech made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West last year. All that he is saying is that these millions of pounds ought never to have been spent for the purpose for which they were provided.

It was a speech of such a different character from that which the hon. Member usually gives us that it even earned the commendation of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). That proves that the money has not been spent to the best purpose. Indeed, the National Farmers' Union would agree that the money should have been spent in a different and better fashion.

Tonight the House was entitled to expect a new Government programme for the years ahead. It is true that the hon. Member touched on this a little. He said that a promise had been made last year. But what we ought to have had from the Government tonight was plans for the future, and not a promise that they will tell us something later on. Last year the Parliamentary Secretary said: During the last debate on the subject in this House my right hon. Friend's predecessor promised that the review of these grants would be undertaken. It is not yet possible, however, to be sure of the outcome, since further discussions between the agriculture Departments, and the industry, and a good deal of work on administrative arrangements, will have to be carried out before proposals can be put before the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May, 1961; Vol. 640, c. 570.] What the hon. Member did not point out was that the promise was made not last year but in 1960. That was when we were promised that the review would take place, and last year the hon. Member merely retold the tale. Now he says, "Very soon we hope to be able to put some other scheme before you."

I do not know whether the House can be satisfied with this. I have said sufficient to prove that at least this subsidy—whatever might be said for the one we have just discussed—has not fulfilled the function for which it was first introduced. This is symptomatic of what is happening today. I do not want to give any further quotations, but all this has caused great perturbation to the farming community. It is the indecision that the farmers are complaining about. The hon. Member will know, as a result of his meeting with the National Farmers' Union of Scotland, that the statement did cause great perturbation. The farmers are asking some of the things that we have been asking tonight about the problems of the agriculture industry. The National Farmers' Union of Scotland, in a Press release, said: Some of those things are long term. That is all the more reason to get started. A new spirit is needed. There is a feeling of frustration in all branches of our industry the causes of which must be removed. This is one of them, because whatever is said about subsidies the responsibility for them always falls on the farmer, no matter who is getting them. As was said in the course of the last debate, even though we have to provide £32 million for fertiliser subsidies there is no guarantee that the farmer will get the money. There is a suspicion that they will go into somebody else's pocket. The same was said of the £72 million we had to find for grants not long ago. All the time this falls on the farmer, and just now he is saying, "There is great indecision in the industry, of which this is a symptom." While we may pass the Scheme tonight we are bound to express disappointment at the fact that although the Government promised my hon. and right hon. Friends, two years ago, that we should get a new Scheme to replace the present one, it has proved so inefficient that tonight we have the Government spokesman, in introducing the Scheme once more, expressing the hope that they will be able to do something in the near future, and that if they do not they will go back and produce another Scheme of this kind.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. J. A. Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

I seem to detect in the advertisement which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) was good enough to give to our reflections, a note of criticism in that I or somebody else ventured to say the same things as I said about the ploughing subsidy last year. I am certain that if those views in the booklet were mine and they had been different from what I said last year the hon. Member would have been down on me like a ton of bricks today. But last year I asked my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary what was the purpose of these ploughing grants at this particular time, and I asked him whether it was merely a way of injecting £10 million, for the United Kingdom as a whole, into the agricultural industry.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in reply said that the purpose of the Scheme in 1961 was … to maintain fully the arable area and within that area to encourage the farmer to strike the right balance between tillage crops and grass so as to achieve the highest possible efficiency in livestock production …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May, 1961; Vol. 640, c. 602.] If that really is the reason today, I still maintain that some attention should be paid to questions which can broadly be described as good husbandry. Any farmer would agree that a lifetime spent at the job will not see all the secrets of nature revealed to him, but the near-thirty years I have farmed have convinced me that circumstances should be exceptional before farmers are encouraged to plough up three years' old grass. There may well be argument about it, but I should have said that grass reaches its optimum at some stage between five and six years and then it starts to go back.

Mr. Leburn

Could my hon. Friend confirm that that is the practice in his own county of East Lothian?

Mr. Stodart

No, indeed it is not. I shall explain precisely why that is not the practice there. I would have said that the main reason for the ploughing subsidy at the moment has been to inject money into the farming industry and my objection to it is that I would prefer that the £10 millions was injected with very much more precision. My hon. Friend has implied in his question that farmers on the best land do not get very much from the ploughing subsidy because they probably take their grass up at two years. Certainly the figures for the allocation of ploughing subsidy between the counties in Scotland bear that out. East Lothian, as an example of fine arable land, receives very little. I think that Aberdeenshire, which is essentially a county of marginal land, receives a larger sum in ploughing subsidy. Even though I admit that, I still say that upland farmers and farmers on marginal ground in Aberdeenshire and the like should not be encouraged to plough ground when it has not reached its best, namely at three years old.

I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that we do not want to remove from the farming support system the £10 million, but I should prefer to see it limited to older ground, and to land that is being reclaimed I would pay a higher rate still. If it were limited to, say, ground five, six, or seven years old and over, it would remove altogether any charge that farmers on the best land were getting this, because nobody would dream of leaving arable land in grass for that time because it could be more valuably used in some other way.

I should like to see this ploughing grant aimed at that section of the industry which I am certain needs it most, those who are producing store stock on land which is incapable of turning out the score of sacks per acre that come off the wheatfields of the low ground. I do not know the details of the Scheme—I understand that they are still under discussion—but because I suspect that this is what the new winter keep is aimed at doing, that is, injecting money into the marginal areas, and, I hope, slightly more than the rigidly defined areas, I am ready to support this Scheme. I think that the circumstances have changed since last year, and that the Government have started negotiations to do what hon. Gentlemen asked them to do a year ago.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

Once again I find myself supporting the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart). I agree with practically everything that he said.

The figures quoted by the Joint Under-Secretary for maintaining the ploughing grants are not borne out by the facts. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to what the hon. Gentleman said last year about maintaining the arable land and keeping a balance between grass and tillage. In view of the figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy), it is difficult to understand how the hon. Gentleman justifies this subsidy. I should have thought that it could be justified only on the basis on which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West attempted to justify it.

Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, I hope that this will be the last year when we shall have this type of Scheme. I hope that the Part I grant will disappear altogether. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that the ploughing grants were to be linked with the new scheme of subsidies for winter keep and for grass renovation. Whatever is left of the ploughing grants, I hope that nothing will be left of Part I, for which I can see no justification at all. In the past it was argued that this was necessary to encourage farmers in England to do the same as farmers in Scotland. That may be good enough for England, and it may be desirable to leave some of it at present far England, but I hope that it will disappear altogether in the case of Scotland and that we shall deal with conditions in Scotland rather than conditions in the United Kingdom as a whole. I believe that by and large some of our problems in Scotland are different in magnitude, if not in kind, from those in England, and I should like them dealt with on that basis.

I assume that the Government are trying to do something about the ploughing grants and about the ending of M.A.P. I think M.A.P. ends this year, with the 1962 cropping season—

Mr. Leburn

indicated assent.

Mr. Willis

—and is then to be replaced with the new formula. I would have liked the hon. Gentleman to say more about it. I wonder whether he will be able to give us a clearer indication of what he has in mind. There should be a fairly big emphasis on winter keep. There is no doubt that that is a tremendous problem in large areas throughout Scotland. Indeed, it is one of the most serious and important questions in Scotland, and I should like to see this aspect coming very much to the fore. But I still think that, besides that, something will have to be done for the marginal farmers.

I should have thought that its form would be something on the basis of the former M.A.P. system, for it seems to me that there is something which will not be retained by the basis which the hon. Gentleman has announced. If I am correct about that, it is rather a bad line for the Government to be taking, because the basis on which the M.A.P. grants were being paid in Scotland had a great deal to be said for it. It assisted a great number of people who really required help. But that is not to be continued. I am not sure that the simple linking of the three things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will meet the requirements of those farmers. But I hope I am wrong.

I most sincerely hope that this will be the last time that we shall be asked to pass a Scheme of this kind. I think that the Government, having examined this production grant, might also examine some of the other production grants.

11.54 p.m.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

It is with a great deal of trepidation that I take part in this argument which up to this moment has been entirely Scottish.

I am very sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) has not found it possible to be present. I feel sure that he would have taken great satisfaction from the fact that the Government have remembered his speech last year, a fortune which does not always fall to back benchers. I am sure that he would have been satisfied with this, but he would have been disappointed by the lack of any dramatic results from the explosion of the 16-inch shell which he fired last year.

I now direct my speech at the Government, for what it is worth. I confess that I suffer from a certain lack of affection for these grants. I represent a lot of small dairy farmers who are constantly being castigated for over-production. They get no benefit for these payments. Despite any story told by a convenient version of statistics, I feel that we are paying rich men and big farmers to do what they are going to do and have had to do anyhow. Personally, I do not like it.

I do not believe that agriculture as a whole is benefiting from them any longer, and my suspicions were more than fanned by the observations of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary—a lot of thought was being given to the problem; discussions continued; a strong feeling among his technical advisers that these things were useful. These are very powerful arguments, but they betoken a certain slight nervousness on the part of my hon. Friend. It is a nervousness which I welcome, but the House has not received a convincing argument to justify these payments.

I do not want to go into the whole of the economics of agriculture at this hour, even if I were capable, but I refer again to the small men who do not get the benefit of these payments. Any payment which they do get is infinitesimally small. The people who really benefit are the large farmers on thin land who find it convenient to plough up one-quarter or one-fifth of their land every year. They have to do it. They and not the small farmers are the real beneficiaries.

The people on whose behalf I complain are the small dairy farmers who do not benefit and who see others in a position to compete with them in the production of milk and to contribute to the glut which is a serious threat to their livelihood. I do not believe and I have not believed for a long time that assistance or subsidies, whatever they are called—these are unpleasant words—which are given to agriculture with the intention ultimately to benefit the consumers are well balanced.

The overwhelming loser, most unfairly, is the small dairy farmer who has responded again and again to the persuasions of the Government to increase his efficiency and who is not in any sense the beneficiary of this kind of payment. It is for reasons like that that I echo the suspicion and dislike, expressed from these benches last year, of these payments and I am not convinced from what I have heard that they should have eternal life.

11.59 p.m.

Commander C. E. M. Donaldson (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I do not follow the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). I wish to refer to the marginal farmers whom I know in my three counties in the South of Scotland. I believe that there are about 756 marginal farms in the area. I remember our discussions on the Small Farmers Measure when there was such great disturbance of mind not only among the marginal farmers, but among all types of farmers in my three counties. I well recall, and the Under-Secretary of State will remember, that I reported to the Secretary of State a meeting held in Selkirk where all the farmers—arable farmers, large farmers, and those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart)—attended a meeting representing the N.F.U. and farming interests generally of the three counties, and all supported those farmers who felt concerned about the alternative to M.A.P. I welcome my hon. Friend's opening remarks and I hope that we shall soon hear of the alternative schemes which are being investigated. Indeed, for once—this is unusual—I agree with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis).

This Friday I am to meet one of the several branches of the N.F.U. in my constituency who are very disturbed about the effect on the stock farming in the three counties, particularly in the Hawick area. I shall repeat to them what my hon. Friend said tonight. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be so kind—as he always is—to permit me to speak to him on their behalf after the meeting on Friday. If the meeting had been last Friday I could have contributed in more detail to this debate, but what he said will give some assurance to the many farmers in the high parts of my constituency who are concerned about the diminishing quantity of the substitute for the M.A.P. which we had in the past.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. Percy Browne (Torrington)

I share the strictures which most hon. Members have uttered against the present system of ploughing grants. Indeed, I have been saying this ever since I have been in the House. But I must disagree to a certain extent with my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). I accept, as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) said, that much of this grant is going to the large farmer who does not need it, and who, of necessity, if he is to be an efficient farmer, will plough up his land regularly within a period of years in the interests of production, but I would point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil, as a 100-acre dairy farmer, that this ploughing grant is of inestimable value to the small farmer. This is a case in which I think we could do as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) suggests—weight the ploughing in favour of the small farmer.

One thing which we do not want to do is to get rid of any of our producer subsidies, which are under a third of the total subsidy bill; over two-thirds is a consumer subsidy. We do not want to do that because we are in the process of negotiating our possible entry into the Common Market, and if we get in we shall be able to keep a number of our producer grants or subsidies. I therefore do not want to see this grant abolished, but it should be restricted in Part I of the Scheme to 15 acres in 100 acres. In that way the ordinary straightforward act of husbandry of ploughing up grassland which has been down for three years or more will go in principle only to the smaller man. As a dairy farmer with 100 acres, I know that on such an acreage, farming livestock, one has to plough up 10, 12 or 14 acres a year but rarely more.

In this way one would benefit the person who has been the butt of this Price Review and who is always said by the N.F.U. to have done badly—although they do little to help him—and the rest of the money could be used, possibly at the suggestion of paragraph 22 of the White Paper, for renovating old grassland or for drainage, another expensive and important part of husbandry on the smaller livestock farms. I suggest that we should not do away with this ploughing subsidy at this juncture because it is a produced subsidy, but that we should alter it. I very much hope that these discussions will come to a fruitful conclusion very soon. I ask my hon. Friend to say how long it will be before paragraph 22 of the White Paper comes into operation and if farmers can be told that the Scheme will remain in force until this time next year.

12.6 a.m.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

I should like to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) in one point he made. Whatever our basic feeling may be about the relative value of the two parts of these ploughing grants, this perhaps is not the moment when we should disturb the pattern of production grants.

Having said that, I give my support to the objections in principle which have been made from the long-term point of view against some aspects of the ploughing grants. During my short time in this House in the debates I have heard about annual renewal of these grants many arguments have been put forward, especially latterly, against them. We have been assured that their continuation and application would be reviewed. It would be quite wrong simply to cut short the existence of this grant without something to replace it. In this connection the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) must welcome the action the Government have initiated because we appear to be gradually thinking of disposing in time of some part of this grant in favour of another grant which will concentrate aid where aid is obviously needed. That is in the livestock rearing areas.

I welcome paragraph 22 of the Price Review White Paper and I have been fallowing with great interest statements made by my right hon. and my hon. Friends about the progress of the winter keep and grassland renovation schemes since then. I hope that it may be possible in a moment for my hon. Friend to say something more about the progress of the discussions which the Government are holding with the National Farmers' Unions and perhaps to give us an indication of when we can expect the livestock winter keep scheme to take effect. I hope that it will be possible for it to take effect in 1963, thus following hard on the heels of M.A.P.

I believe that it is in the areas where the winter keep aid will take effect that we need to see a growing concentration of agricultural support. It is there that the future of farming may lie. It is there that we can raise more livestock. We have fine stock and fine stocksmen. The difference which the existing pattern of grants has made in that countryside has to be seen to be believed. The transformation of the glens and the giving of new life to the Highlands is something which I hope the winter keep scheme may continue.

12.10 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I am not surprised at the number of questions which have been put this evening, bearing in mind the debate on last year's Schemes. I hope that I can help hon. Members by casting a little more light on some of the problems about which they have asked.

I cannot give any definite dates for when a scheme which will modify these Ploughing Grants Schemes will be before the House, but it is our intention that there should not be any gap between this crop year, which M.A.P. can benefit, and the next crop year. I hope that that will allay some of the fears.

Mr. Willis

The end of this crop year?

Mr. Vane

Yes, the M.A.P. Scheme affects this crop year, and we want to have something in its place to follow. Questions have been asked about the extent of any new scheme. It is in our mind that it should go further than the limits of land now drawing benefit under the M.A.P. Schemes and go rather wider.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman will know that the acreage which has been receiving M.A.P. grant has been reduced during the past three years. Each year it has been getting smaller, and the number of persons as well as the acreage benefiting has been reduced. When he says that the Scheme will go further than the acreage benefiting under M.A.P., does the hon. Gentleman refer to the acreage now or the acreage three years ago?

Mr. Vane

I mean the acreage now. There is somewhat similar land outside Scotland, of course, which ought to be considered when we are concerned with this revision.

In the main, the criticism against this Scheme has followed the lines of previous discussions, that is, that much of the land which now attracts subsidy would be ploughed in any case, that the Scheme encourages the ploughing up of grassland which would much better be left down a little longer, that, by and large, it brings more benefit to the big arable man than to the smaller livestock man, and that it does not maintain the standards of farming and the arable tillage acreages as originally intended.

There is some force in all those arguments, but I think that it would be wrong for the House to feel that there is great strength in any of them. It is fair to claim that this Ploughing Grants Scheme has helped the standard of farming in this country. When figures of areas ploughed are quoted, we must remember that we are losing certain areas of good agricultural land every year for other purposes, and that, in fact, last year a greater acreage was ploughed than in the preceding year. It is true also that this is one of the grants which has to be looked at not only in the narrow sense of bringing particular benefit as a result of certain operations but it is in a sense an injection of capital into the industry as, in its way, the fertiliser subsidy is.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

The hon. Gentleman has said that last year more land was ploughed than in the previous year. Is that true? I understand that more grassland was ploughed to qualify for subsidy, but were there more acres tilled last year than in the year before? In Scotland there were 13,000 fewer.

Mr. Vane

I did not wish to mislead the House. The figures I have are as the hon. Gentleman suggests in regard to grassland, that is to say, that there was more grassland ploughed which was attracting this subsidy. I wanted to make the point that this was still a very live issue. However, I think it fair to say that, apart from that acreage, the farming acreage of this country is shrinking from year to year because of the demands of transport, building and the like, which, of course, was not taken into account when the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) compared figures from about ten years. But, in general, I maintain that this Ploughing Grants Scheme has helped to maintain a high standard of husbandry in this country and also it has become a means of injecting support into the industry over a broad front.

As regards amendment of the Scheme, the changes one can make, under the Statute, in the Price Review determinations are not very large without having pluses to compensate for any minuses. The effect of some of the suggestions the hon. Gentleman made would be a very serious reduction in the ploughing grant and, of course, the consequence of that would be that one would have to see where else support could be given to keep within the obligation under the Statute. The proposals that we have in mind will commend themselves to the House, I think, for these reasons. First, they will produce something which will help those who have drawn benefit under M.A.P. Secondly, we have not as yet done anything to help the permanent grassland of this country, which is a very great asset. Although much of our grassland is very good indeed, we still have a good deal of middle standard grassland which could be made a good deal better. If we had a reduction in the ploughing grant and we had to counterbalance it by a winter keep scheme and also a scheme designed to help our permanent grass, hon. Members would inevitably find a certain shift away from the support of the larger arable farms towards the smaller grassland farms and particularly those on the less good land. That, speaking generally, is something which will commend itself to the House.

I would not agree with the statement which has been made that the smaller dairy farmer got no benefit from these production grants. I should have thought that the small intensive dairy farmer might well benefit from the fertiliser subsidy and probably ploughed as big a proportion of his land as many others. As a matter of fact, two-thirds of the total grant paid last year went to farms of 150 acres or less. It is also not true to say that it encourages, broadly speaking, the ploughing out of all young grass. A very large proportion of the acreages ploughed every year are surprisingly old grassland. Half the payments last year were in respect of grassland which had been down for six years or more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) made an important point which should not be overlooked. When we discussed the comparable Scheme last year we genuinely had the intention of bringing forward this sort of scheme with certain amendments to it. It was only a very short time after the House accepted the Scheme last year that we made application to negotiate with a view to joining the Common Market. Although one must not read too much into these things, as one of my hon. Friends said, at this time probably it would be wise to leave this Scheme in the form that it is until one can see a little further ahead how our agricultural support system may have to be shaped to fit a new situation.

In the light of all these facts, which I think are important facts, and these explanations, I hope that the House will accept the Scheme and see that, even though it may be disappointing in some ways, none the less there is reason in presenting it again in virtually the same form as it was presented last year.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1962, a draft of which was laid before this House on 18th April, be approved.

Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme, 1962 [draft laid before the House 18th April], approved.—[Mr. Leburn.]