HC Deb 11 April 1963 vol 675 cc1541-54

3.14 p.m.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to be able to raise the subject of the Welsh Agricultural College.

I recall that my first Adjournment debate in the House was on the administration of the Welsh Books Grant, and the debate I then had with the then Minister for Welsh Affairs, now the Home Secretary, proved to be a very fruitful one, in that since that time there have been very few, if any, difficulties with the administration of the grant following the Minister's statement on that occasion. I am optimistic, I hope rightly, about having a helpful statement from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary on this occasion so that we shall be able to take good news back to Wales. I make no apology for raising this matter today. I have on previous occasions declared the interests of myself and family in Welsh agriculture and I am proud to have been associated with that industry throughout my life.

The past history of the Welsh Agricultural College and the events surrounding it is a long and shabby story. It is said that procrastination is the thief of time. It is also the thief of money in this case, and because of the delays which have occurred year by year this project has become more and more expensive. Let us consider the history of this matter. The Seaborne Davies Committee was set up in December, 1955, to inquire into this issue and reported in the following October. It may be of interest to hon. Members to consider the Committee's exact terms of reference because of what the Parliamentary Secretary may say in replying to the debate. They were: To consider and advise on the suitability of offering two-year diploma courses at farm institutes in Wales, with particular reference to the applications made by the local authorities of Monmouth and Carmarthen-shire. What is the history behind this type of agricultural education in Wales? Before the Second World War there were extensive facilities in Wales for agricultural education at Aberystwyth and Bangor. Then we had the Luxmore and Loveday Reports, and also the Murray Report; and in the end these Committees came down in favour of the segregation of agricultural education. There was, therefore, agreement on the need for a three-tier scheme for the institute, the diploma and the university.

I need not go into the reasons why these Committees came down firmly in favour of the separation of farm institutes and universities from the middle-tier; that is, the diploma courses. The Seaborne Davies Committee discovered that there were seven centres in England providing this education and three in Scotland. The Committee therefore stated: To us it seems unsatisfactory that facilities in Wales should have dropped sharply (and not because of any decline in demand) over a period when the number of places in England has increased sharply. They had, in fact, dropped so sharply in Wales compared with the previous position at Bangor and Aberystwyth there was nothing at all in this respect.

The Seaborne Davies Committee produced its Report and one of the items it particularly emphasised was the need for a central plane in Wales which would have a special "pull" and would thus bring together the right type of students from the various parts of Wales. The Committee found that of the students at the farm institutes at that time, 20 per cent. had the calibre and aptitude necessary to benefit from education of this kind.

The reason for the presence of that 20 per cent. at the farm institutes was that those students were faced with one of two choices; they could go to England and institutions there for jobs or they could remain in Wales and obtain lower qualifications at the Welsh farm institutes. In this connection, the Seaborne Davies Committee stated: There never was a time when Wales was in such dire need of retaining its best sons to better its own soil, nor a time when agricultural leaders require such a span of technical knowledge and could turn it to such immense advantage for their nation and industry". At the same time, we had the Report of the Council on Mid-Wales. There was also the Report of the Welsh Land Sub-Commission. Both of those reiterated the grievous and tragic state of Wales in this connection. However, nothing was done about either of those Reports by the Government.

The Minister of Agriculture of the day used words which clinched the argument for this College. His words, which were quoted in the Seaborne Davies Report, were: The answer is quite simply more and better technical education for the coming generation of farmers. I am absolutely convinced that this more than any other single thing will be of help to provide a long-term solution. The Seaborne Davies Committee went into the question of scattering and diffusing the resources of Wales and came to the conclusion that a nation such as Wales could not afford this loss. In this connection, the Committee went into its original terms of reference in detail and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary has noted the suggestion about the need to extend the facilities of farm institutes in Wales.

It revealed that there was a "pull" betwen the North and the South, and that if Usk was to provide these facilities the students in North Wales would look to Harper Adam. In the same way, if the facilities were at Glynllifon, students in South Wales would look to the Royal Agricultural College and Seal Hayne. Therefore, having examined the present form, the Committee came to the conclusion that, once we had had Report after Report like this, there could be no going back. It could not find any single ground of economy for preferring a farm institute to an agricultural college, and came down firmly in favour of an agricultural college.

Nothing was done, but in due course the Minister set up a working party to study the details. I submit that the acceptance of the idea of one college to provide the middle tier of education was implicit in the setting up of the working party. The only questions left are where it is to be and when it is to be established. As to where it should be, the unanimous conclusion of both the Seaborne Davies Committee and of the working party endorsed the idea of a national agricultural college affiliated with the University of Wales, sponsored by the Welsh Joint Education Committee at Aberystwyth, with an annual intake of about twenty agricultural students and coupled with a school of forestry with an intake of about twenty-five students a year.

These two bodies stressed two reasons for affiliating the College with the University—the preservation of high standards and cultural and social benefits to students, and also the possibility, though not much more, of pooling resources between the University and the College. Page 19 of the Report states: We think it worth recording that we have been struck throughout in our deliberations by the enthusiasm for the project shown by those bodies who have a decided part to play in its success—a joint venture embracing the Central Government, the local authorities and the University. Following this, Parliamentary Questions were put down by many of us and in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins), and we also put down a Motion before Christmas. Year after year we have been promised a statement at an early date. I have gone into some detail to trace the record of Government action in Wales. If ever there was an exercise in padding it is the paragraph written year after year in the Government's Report on Wales. Each time it is in a different form. Sometimes all the bodies consulted are listed at length, and at other times we are told that the Minister of Agriculture is in consultation with the Minister of Education, but always it reveals bankruptcy of action—nothing done except to re-write the paragraph.

I have complained that the section on Government action in Wales in reference to agriculture is becoming worse every year. I hope that there will be a better paragraph in the coming year. Everyone has been consulted on this; there can be no complaint in Wales about consultation on this issue. The Welsh Joint Education Committee, the Council of Wales, agricultural institutions, agricultural bodies—everyone has been consulted. indeed, this body has had such a long period of gestation that it seems to me that the Minister is turning to all these potential midwives in order to effect a miscarriage of the child.

I hope that in this debate the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us something about the future of the College—

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

It might be convenient at this stage if I were to intervene in order to indicate the line of the Government's thinking on this problem. The Government would like—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

Has the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) just given way to the Minister, or has he finished his speech?

Mr. Morris

I have not finished my speech, Mr. Deputy-Speaker—I merely gave way.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We are very pressed for time, so perhaps I might suggest that the hon. Member should finish his speech and that the Minister should intervene later.

Mr. Morris

The Minister of Education told the Welsh Grand Committee that he would make a statement before the Christmas Recess. He was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) which Recess he meant, and the Minister of Education said it would be the Christmas Recess. But nothing was done, and we have had no statement. Welsh agriculture demands a college and we cannot be fobbed off any longer with places in English colleges. For far too long Wales has had to put up with that sort of device.

Institutions, research stations and agricultural colleges are found in far greater number in England and in Scotland. We in Wales have a right to demand that a college of this kind should be set up in the Principality. I and other hon. Members went to see the Minister for Science about the suggestion that there should be an agricultural research station in Wales. The noble lord said that he did not want to proliferate these institutions; that he preferred to expand the universities and to provide facilities adjacent to and in conjunction with the universities so that these isolated institutions were not duplicated.

There is no argument on this ground here. If the Parliamentary Secretary says that it is desired to extend and expand the existing forms of institutions he is going in the face of every Report that we have had. They were not all Reports relating to Wales but Reports relating to the whole of the country. They came down firmly on the segregation of this three-tier type of education and it would be wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest—I am sure he will not do so—that there should be an extension of such facilities.

We have had delays, and the more delays that there are the greater will be the cost. If no decision is reached now another Minister may have to set up another working party to discover the cost of this institution. The only working party which the Welsh people would be satisfied with would be a working party of builders and labourers on the site at Aberystwyth actually assembling the bricks and mortar.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). I congratulate him on his persistent advocacy of the need for a Welsh agri- cultural college. As an Englishman who has to watch for the Opposition matters connected with agriculture, may I say that we would welcome a positive statement from the Minister announcing that there will be a new college at Aberystwyth. I have heard rumours that the Government will attempt to fob off Welsh opinion with an extension of an existing college elsewhere. But I can tell the Parliamentary Secretary that we shall not be satisfied. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will reconsider what he proposes to say today if it amounts only to the announcement of such an extension.

I should like to know who is responsible for the delay and whether it is due to a disagreement between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Education. Over and over again, as my hon. Friend said, Committees have reported. Why has there been this delay? There is an urgent need in Wales for this type of education. We all accept that agriculture needs the services of technicians, and only through improved education facilities at all levels throughout the country will such technically-equipped people be obtained.

Here is an opportunity for the Government to indicate their belief in the need to extend agricultural education in the best sense. I know Aberystwyth, which I first visited during the war years. I have also family connections with the place. It is a great agricultural centre, one of the finest in the world. Many illustrious names in agricultural science are connected with Aberystwyth—Stapledon, Ashby and others. It would be an ideal site for a new college. There would be a link with the university. It has cultural and geographical advantages. Being in Mid-Wales, it could cater for the north and the south. It would be the best centre that the Government could choose.

It is not too late this afternoon for the Minister to say that the Government have decided to start now at Aberystwyth and that they will provide the drive and the energy which so far has been lacking. I warn the Parliamentary Secretary that, if he does not give a favourable answer, we, the Opposition, will certainly chase the Government in regard to this whole matter.

3.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) for bringing this matter before the House. It is an important subject and I realise, as he does, that agricultural education is the key to better and more prosperous farming, particularly in the Principality. I appreciate the strong and sensible wish that agricultural education at college level should be available in Wales to supplement the present provision at university and farm institute level.

The hon. Gentleman ran through the history, with a slightly biased and jaundiced view, I thought—

Mr. Peart


Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I do not agree. What the hon. Gentleman said in running through the factual history was, to all intents and purposes correct, although he said that the Seaborne Davies Committee reported in 1956, whereas, in fact, it reported in 1957. The minimum capital cost at the time when the Seaborne Davies Committee reported was estimated at £50,000 for the establishment of a college at Aberystwyth. The Working Party was set up, with the Welsh Secretary of the Minister of Agriculture as chairman, and it reported in 1960. Its Report suggested that a college at Aberystwyth should cater for not only an annual intake of 20 dairying diploma students and 20 agriculture diploma students, but in addition, for a department of forestry with an annual intake of 25 students and a syllabus approved by the Forestry Commission.

Mr. Morris rose

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

May I continue with my speech? I am not really quarrelling with what the hon. Gentleman said in outlining the history.

The estimated cost was very greatly increased when the Working Party reported. At that time, in 1960, the capital cost was estimated at £343,260, of which £223,170 was attributable to the provision of diploma courses and about £120,000 to the provision of a forestry course. The annual running cost of the college was estimated to be £37,670, of which £31,905 was attributable to the same diploma courses and about £5,700 to the forestry side.

I accept that, between 1957 and 1960, there was an increase in cost. The delay was one of the reasons for it. Nevertheless, we are talking of very considerable figures, and it is only reasonable that we should look very carefully into them when considering spending public funds to this extent. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) has attacked the Government for the delay in taking a decision, but I maintain that this is a very complex issue, and it is only right to look at it very critically when considering expenditure of this kind.

Mr. Peart


Mr. Scott-Hopkins

What I was about to say in my earlier intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Aberavon was this. The Government would like to see an agricultural college established in Wales provided that this can be done at a reasonable cost. As I have explained, to establish an entirely new college for 80 students would now cost, so it is estimated, not less than £326,000, a capital cost of over £4,000 per student place. The Government feel bound, therefore, to take a little more time in examining whether the problem can be solved by meeting the requirements at a lower cost through the development of some existing institution in Wales.

Mr. Peart


Mr. Scott-Hopkins

One such proposal which my right hon. Friends are exploring is that the existing farm institute at Usk should be adapted to attain college status. If this happens, it would become the agricultural college and would not continue with its farm institute work, which would be transferred elsewhere, perhaps. It is thought that it might be possible in this way to provide additional student places at a cost less than half the £4,000 per place which the establishment of an entirely new college would entail. We shall be exploring the proposal in full in consultation with the Monmouthshire County Council and the Welsh Joint Education Committee. I am fully aware of the impressive and considered support that the proposal for a new college has received from the various bodies throughout Wales which the hon. Member for Aberavon men- tioned. I do not deny that there has been some delay before we have been in a position to give an answer to the hon. Gentleman about this, but I deny that it was completely wrong—

Mr. Morris

The hon. Gentleman said that I was wrong in saying the Seaborne Davies Committee reported in 1956. If he has read the Seaborne Davies Report—and I hope that he has—he will have seen that it is signed by J. B. Foxlee, Secretary, October, 1956.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I have read the Report. The hon. Gentleman and I are a little at variance about the time the Report was published. That is the point between us.

I do not believe that it was wrong for us to take some time to consider whether or not this was a right decision to have an agricultural college in Wales. The Government have to consider the estimate of the student demand for an agricultural college in Wales, particularly in view of the decision of the University College of Wales to close down its dairy diploma course. As I have said, the Government would like to see an agricultural college established in Wales, provided it can be done at reasonable cost. [Laughter.] It is all very well for the hon. Member for Aberavon to laugh, but it must be provided at reasonable cost and it must fulfil its intended functions.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

It would be helpful to hon. Members if the Parliamentary Secretary could indicate what the Government considered to be a reasonable cost?

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I have referred to the possibility—and it is only a possiblity—that the Farm Institute at Usk might be adapted. The cost would be about half the cost of building a new college, something in the region of £150,000, or £2,000 per student.

Mr. Peart

This is nonsense, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Indeed, I do not know it. This is far from nonsense. It may be that the hon. Gentleman is in such a frame of mind that he is prepared to throw away public funds right, left and centre, I do not believe that that is the right thing to do in the national interest.

Mr. Peart

The Parliamentary Secretary knows that no one wishes to throw money away, but we believe that money spent on the provision of technical education in Wales, particularly in Aberystwyth, would be money well spent. I cannot understand the cheeseparing attitude of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I think that the hon. Gentleman is being unreasonable because the proposal might well be—I will not go further than that today—to provide dairy and agriculture diploma courses within the Principality. If they are provided, the purpose is fulfilled, and this is the object of the Government's studies. I am sure that this is an important point.

If a college were established at Usk, it might be ready to take diploma students in 1964. But, of course, this proposal, which would involve changing the status of the existing Farm Institute, can be properly explored only in association with the Monmouthshire County Council and the Welsh Joint Education Committee, which have not yet had the opportunity of considering the proposal.

I should add that under the proposals of the Local Government Commission for Wales it has been recommended that parts of the adjoining counties might become amalgamated with Monmouthshire. The proposal is that it should become the County of Gwent. That would be in the Principality. The Government envisage that, if the development of Usk Farm Institute is accepted as the best solution, the agricultural college will cater for forty agriculture diploma students and forty dairy diploma students as proposed by the 1960 Working Party.

In coming to this conclusion, the Government have been influenced by the need of Welsh agriculture and its associated industries for more better trained people with an understanding of the problems likely to be met in practice by Welsh farmers. The establishment of an agriculture diploma course, which Wales has not had for very many years, in a Welsh agricultural college would be an event of the first importance, both to education and to agriculture in Wales. We very sincerely hope that if this college can be provided at reasonable cost it will receive the support that we have anticipated.

3.35 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I have heard feeble speeches from time to time from the benches opposite from Ministers who are batting on a sticky wicket, but I have never heard a feebler one than we have just had from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I do not criticise his manner, but I have never heard anything as indecisive or indefinite as his remarks this afternoon, after this matter has been going on for so many years.

After all these years of waiting, why do we still not have a decision by the Government? This is preposterous. There is not one Welsh Member who has not at some time or other asked Questions or made representations about this Welsh Agricultural College. I at least expected that we would this time have something definite, but all we have been told is that there are to be still further consultations with the Welsh Joint Education Committee and the Monmouthshire County Council.

What is to be the subject of those consultations? Every facet of this proposal has been examined microscopically over the years. The recommendations have been emphatic that it should be a Mid-Wales college, for reasons which any Welsh person can fully appreciate. I appreciate an English Minister's difficulty, but anyone who is familiar with the state of Mid-Wales—and I am glad that we have the presence of the Minister for Welsh Affairs—knows that we are far more deeply concerned about the future of Mid-Wales than about the future of Monmouth or Gwent. Everything we can do to vitalise Mid-Wales is something which we should support. The Minister is even worse than Dr. Beeching, who is, at least, allowing the railway to stay.

There are many reasons why I believe that any decision on Usk would be unfortunate. The way in which the proposal has been put forward this afternoon by the Minister indicates that the main concern of the Government is to cut down estimates. Also present with us is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education. We have hardly a speech on education from the Government benches without being told what wonderful architects there are at the Ministry and what marvellous work they have done in rationalising buildings. If they can do it for the schools, what prevents them from being taken into consultation? If the cost per student place is considered too great, why cannot these gentlemen, of great experience, be called in to bring the cost to a level which is considered proper?

If I may speak for a moment in a housewifely way, one nearly always finds that to adapt existing premises to a different standard is likely to be unsatisfactory and very nearly as expensive as starting de novo with something which is tailor-made for its purpose. Furthermore, if Usk were to be turned into a different type of institution, what would happen to the students who are there now? Other provision must be made for them.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

There are other farm institutes in Wales where arrangements could be made for the students to go.

Mrs. White

That would involve the cost of providing accommodation for them.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

There are spare places.

Mrs. White

I would like to know where those spare places are to be found and whether they are places to which students would wish to go.

Although we are extremely anxious to have this agricultural college in Wales, preferably at Aberystwyth, for all kinds of reasons, with which anybody who knows Wales is familiar, we do not expect that only Welsh students would go there. Our experience at the university college at Bangor, for instance—the most Welsh of the university colleges of Wales—is that a large proportion of the students are from other parts of the country. Therefore, there is the strongest possible case, first, that a decision should now have been announced, and secondly, that it should have followed the recommendations which have been submitted, not by one committee only, but by a number of different bodies which have studied this matter, and that we should complete at Aberystwyth this nexus of agricultural study. It would I am sure benefit by proximity to the Welsh plant breeding station, and so on.

It seems to me most regrettable, firstly that there has been no decision, secondly that the reasons given for that are so utterly inadequate, and thirdly that apparent intention is to have the college somewhere where many of us feel it would not be of the greatest possible use. I can only say that this has been the most disappointing speech from the Minister, and that I hope we shall have a further opportunity very shortly after the Recess to go into battle about this with all the Welsh cohorts.