HC Deb 02 March 1964 vol 690 cc1087-98

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

12.1 a.m.

Mr. Forbes Hendry (Aberdeenshire, West)

Parliament, from time to time, has determined to assist British agriculture, which is still, as everybody knows, our greatest industry. In 1947, and again in 1957, Acts were passed for the purpose of guaranteeing prices for agricultural produce, and for empowering Ministers to make deficiency payments. In 1952, Parliament provided grants for ploughing-up permanent grass. Regulations have been made each year since then fixing these grants, with parliamentary approval.

In 1957, provision was made for the payment of capital grants to secure the modernisation of farming by long-term improvements. Various other provisions have been made from time to time. These have been of great benefit to the agricultural industry. I very much regret, however, that I find it necessary to call attention to the fact that as a result of pettifogging and harsh administration these wishes of Parliament have been to a large extent frustrated.

On the other hand, I welcome the opportunity of informing the Secretary of State for Scotland of what has been happening, because from his answer to my Question in the House on 29th January it was perfectly obvious that my right hon. Friend had very little idea of the seriousness of the present state of affairs. Since then he has had the courtesy to supply me with figures, although he was quite unable to provide them without exhaustive inquiries in his own Department.

These figures have horrified me. They show a deplorably harsh and unconscionable course of administration in the Department of Agriculture in Scotland. It has shown harshness and unreasonableness in carrying out provisions made for the agricultural industry over the years by Parliament. It is difficult to believe it, but in 1963 no less than £81,060, or perhaps more, has been withheld from farmers in Scotland alone because of technical irregularities in submitting aplications for grants provided by Parliament or, in some cases, because these applications were late in reaching the Department. I have deduced that figure from figures given to me by the Secretary of State. I hope that it appals him as much as it does me. I should like to look at some of the figures in detail, because they are almost incredible.

A sum of £10,000 was withheld from 55 applicants merely because they started eligible farming improvements without the prior permission of the Department of Agriculture. That averages about £180 apiece. I should like to cite a typical case which has come to my attention. My constituent, Mr. John Wilson, farms a place called Kinclune, in Glenkindie, which is a very remote area in West Aberdeenshire many miles from a town or even a large village. Mr. Wilson was fortunate enough, some time ago, in being able to get a connection to the main electricity supply passing through the glen. He properly applied for an improvement grant to make the connection. A surveyor from my right hon. Friend's Department very properly not only approved the grant but called Mr. Wilson's attention to the fact that it would probably be necessary to rewire another steading which was also under Mr. Wilson's control. That steading had been supplied by a private plant and the surveyor pointed out that the private wiring was probably inadequate.

That proved to be the case, because when the engineer came from the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board to do the wiring he advised Mr. Wilson that the work was necessary, as the Department surveyor had pointed out. Mr. Wilson mentioned to him that he had been advised that he should get prior approval from the Department, but the Board's engineer told him, I am informed, that if he did not carry out the work at that momen in time there would be a considerably greater expense because the engineer would have to come back again and there would be a great deal of inconvenience and extra cost.

Mr. Wilson, in my view sagaciously, instructed the engineer of the Hydro-Electric Board to carry on and to wire up the steading, as had been advised by the surveyor from the Department of Agriculture. In due course he received a bill from the Hydro-Electric Board, and he sent it to the Department of Agriculture. To his surprise he found that he had been deprived of £150 of grant which he would otherwise have received in respect of this extra work.

There is no doubt that this was a proper improvement and that it would have been approved by the Department. In fact, for all practical purposes it was approved by the Department in that the Department advised Mr. Wilson to go on with it. As far as I can see there is no rule in the 1957 Act or in any Statutory Instrument stating that approval needs to be given in advance. That is a custom which has grown up in the Department of Agriculture without any statutory authority whatever. Nor is there in the Act or any Statutory Instrument, as far as I can find any provision that tenders must be lodged with the Department in advance.

In this case Mr. Wilson was in the heart of the country and there was no possibility A obtaining alternative tenders within many miles. The Hydro-Electric Board is a nationalised Board which is highly admired and is of the highest integrity. It enjoys a virtual monopoly in this part of the country. It is completely trustworthy to do this work. There is no doubt that the Board's tender would have been completely acceptable to the Department of Agriculture, but because of a Departmental rule which has no statutory authority whatever, the Department declined to pay Mr. Wilson the grant in respect of this work.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and his right hon. Friend, in considering the matter, to weigh up the administrative convenience and administrative tidiness against the great injustice which has been done to Mr. Wilson and, I believe, many other farmers in the length and breadth of Scotland who have been deprived of grants in this way. The amount of money is substantial; 55 applicants have been deprived in this respect.

Even worse is the case of my constituent, Mr. Alexander Milne, who is a farmer at Upper Affloch. Mr. Milne is a very methodical man and is regarded as a man of the highest integrity in Aberdeenshire and the North of Scotland generally. He is admired as an agricultural expert, but he farms in a comparatively smal1 way and does not employ clerical assistance. He attempts to do his paper work himself, and he does it regularly and systematically.

On Sunday afternoon, 28th June, 1962, he sat down and laboriously filled in application forms for his ploughing grant and cereals deficiency payment in respect of 1962. It was his custom to undertake his paper work on a Sunday afternoon, because he is a hard-working man with little leisure. Sunday was the only day lie had for such work. He addressed both letters to the Department of Agriculture and, in accordance with the custom of the district, he left the two letters on the kitchen table so that they could be collected by the local postman on his rounds next morning. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that that is the custom in many farmhouses in Scotland.

The following morning the postman arrived and the next thing Mr. Milne knew was that the letters were no longer on the kitchen table. There was no acknowledgment to either letter for some time. In fact, the first and only acknowledgment Mr. Milne got was on 12th July, when he received a postcard indicating that the Department had got the letter of 6th July, which was a considerable time after he had made up and posted his application. It would indicate that there had been some missorting of the mail because the letter had taken more than a week to get from Aberdeenshire to Edinburgh.

Some months later Mr. Milne was extremely surprised when the Department refused to pay his cereal deficiency payment and told him that it had never received his application up to that time and that, because his application had not been lodged before 31st July, it intended to withhold his cereal deficiency grant for that year. This is a serious matter, because the amount of the grant withheld was £856. There followed a considerable amount of correspondence between Mr. Milne and the Department, which took a long time over this. The Department is good at keeping people to the dates it fixes and it is interesting to note that in the course of this correspondence it took the Department two and a half months to answer a letter on the subject.

The grant was refused, although it was pointed out that the application had been made out in good time and that there was ample evidence to support that. But no trouble was taken by the Department to find out the facts or to invite Mr. Milne to sign an affidavit. It simply said that he had not put in his application in accordance with the rules made by the Department—without statutory authority, remember, for the date 31st July is purely an administrative date as far as I can gather—and that his grant of £856 was being withheld.

I have no reason whatever to doubt that Mr. Milne made out his application and posted it in time. The application probably got lost in the post. That seems to be the reason because the other application took more than a week to get from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. It seems obvious that it was delayed in the post. Inquiries have been made at the post office but, after such a long interval, it is impossible for the post office to find out.

There are many instances I could quote, but time does not permit of this and I do not want to weary the House. Suffice to say that, during 1963, 352 applications for ploughing grant were refused, at a total cost to the applicants of about £25,000 simply because the applicants failed to make application in time to the Department; that is, within 21 days of ploughing their fields. It does not matter whether ploughing takes place in November, March or even in June, which is even more important, within 21 days the Department must be informed because administratively—and I agree that this time limit is a statutory one—unless application is made within that time the ploughing grant is lost.

I beg my hon. Friend to remember that many farmers are small men who do not have clerical assistance. This work represents a very great labour to them and the making out of notifications of ploughing is a difficult task, particularly at certain times of the year when every moment of their waking time is used to get the ploughing and other work done. To literally fine these people hundreds of pounds for a lapse of this sort is quite unjustified. If penalties are to be imposed—and I agree that penalties might rightly be imposed where a man is idle or careless—I suggest to my right hon. Friend—and I hope my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will convey the message to him—that a fine or £10 or £20 would be reasonable, but that to fine a man £850 or even £150 is altogether beyond the limits of reason.

By Statute and Statutory Instrument my right hon. Friend has complete discretion in these matters. Parliament has given discretion to my right hon. Friend, but I suggest strongly that in giving discretion to the Secretary of State, and the Minister in England, Parliament expected that discretion to be used reasonably and justly. I beg my right hon. Friend to remember that he is not only a Minister of the Crown administering these grants, but is also a Member of Parliament, representing people, and that, as such, he has a duty to protect people against departmental tyranny. I suggest that in these cases there is a great deal of tyranny, and I ask my right hon. Friend to temper his administrative rule with mercy in these cases. I beg him to think again. If he requires powers to make the penalty more suitable to the alleged crime, I suggest that he applies to Parliament for them and that Parliament will willingly give them to him.

12.17 a.m.

Mr. Walter H. Loveys (Chichester)

As a farmer from only a very few miles of the English Channel, it is with some fear and trepidation that I join in this Scottish agricultural debate. I know that I would be out of order if I were to mention anything at all relating to farming south of the Border. The problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) has drawn attention is certainly not confined to Scotland.

I should like to make it clear that I do not condone for one moment any practice of slackness among farmers in filling up their forms, although many of the cases brought forward by my hon. Friend do not involve the question of slackness at all. I am certainly amazed at the figures he gave towards the end of his speech of cases which have arisen in Scotland, although I must say that that gives the lie to some of the characteristics that are universally applied to the Scots.

There are three points that I would like to make. First, I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that the disallowance of the grant and subsidies metes out extremely hard punishment. If ever there were cases of punishment not fitting the crime, several examples have been given by my hon. Friend.

Secondly, I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to bear in mind the special hardship caused to small farmers, for not only are they unable to get the secretarial assistance that a larger farmer has, but they have just as many forms to complete, as one form has to be completed for each grant or subsidy application regardless of the acreage involved.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend to be fully aware that the main reason for all these grants and subsidies is to keep the cost of food to the consumer at a reasonable level. This is the right policy, I am absolutely certain, but it seems extremely tough on producers that if they fail to fill up these forms in time they should lose all the grants and subsidies which are levied to support the consumer.

Knowing that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has played such a prominent part, on the back benches and outside the House, to secure fair play for agricultural producers, I hope that he will be able to give sympathetic consideration to the appeal of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West.

12.20 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. A. Stodart)

My hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) and for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) clearly feel strongly on the points which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West, and I shall do my best to deal with both the general point and the particular cases which have been put. I hope to show that what my hon. Friend described as departmental tyranny is far from being any such thing.

Neither my hon. Friends nor anyone in the House will dispute two basic principles: first, that any scheme which has to do with subsidies or grants must have rules, and, secondly, that, so far as there are rules, fairness to everyone concerned requires that the rules shall be applied with reasonable strictness, with complete consistency and with as much impartiality as possible. Of course, there is bound to be controversy as to whether the rules are the best and fairest which can be devised, and, equally, it is certain that there will arise difficult borderline cases some of which will result—there is no use denying it—in someone's exclusion. But I am still quite certain that, despite difficulties of this kind, we must have as good a set of rules as we can devise and apply them as fairly as we can.

The rules must include such matters as notifying the Department within a prescribed period that an operation has been carried out and submitting a claim by a date which has been determined beforehand. In dealing with cases arising out of failure to observe these rules —some of them, I agree, involving, unfortunately, large losses to the farmers concerned—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West has put on record his view that we should show a greater degree of flexibility and humanity.

I want the House to realise fully that we go to an immense amount of trouble to see that farmers are aware of these procedural requirements. They are given wide publicity in the newspapers, on the radio and in the farming Press. The Scottish National Farmers' Union spares no efforts on its part in incorporating them in its monthly magazine, the "Farming Leader".

I will give one example to the House. Claim forms for cereal deficiency payments, the subsidy about which my hon. Friend's constituent Mr. Milne fell foul of the Department, are sent automatically to all who made application in the previous year. If a farmer fails to send in a claim, he is sent a reminder a month before the closing date. I do not think that it is pitching it too high when I say that my Department leans over backwards to make sure that no farmer loses the opportunity of getting subsidies and grants to which he is entitled.

That these efforts are successful is shown by two examples. Out of nearly 13,000 applications for hill cattle subsidy submitted in 1963, only 29 were turned down owing to being submitted too late or to irregularities of that kind. The equivalent figures for cereal deficiency payments—this applies to Mr. Milne's case—are 32,000 applications and only 44 refused for late application or that kind of reason. Over the whole field of grants and subsidies in Scotland, less than ½ percent. of applications failed for these particular reasons.

The burden of my hon. Friend's complaint is that, with the best will in the world, mistakes and mishaps will occasionally occur and we ought to be prepared to administer the rules with reasonable flexibility when some requirement has not been complied with through circumstances outside the farmer's control either, perhaps, because he has been ill or because a claim has got lost in the post or something like that.

I can with absolute truth say that this is our practice. Although certain rules are laid down, we are always prepared, in very exceptional circumstances, where there is clearly good reason for the failure, to exercise discretion. It may interest my hon. Friends to know that in 1963, out of 67 late claims for cereal deficiency payments, we have so far found exceptional circumstances in 16 of them and these have been allowed. I stress, however, "very exceptional", because we cannot allow ourselves to get into a position where the exception becomes the rule. It is on this criterion that the cases raised by my hon. Friend have failed.

My hon. Friend referred especially to Mr. Milne of Dunecht, who was refused a cereal deficiency payment of £850 because his claim was not received by the closing date of 31st July. The first point which I must make is that my information is that Mr. Milne did not, in fact, lay his applications upon the table. My information is that Mr. Milne has stated that he handed his claim to a postman on the morning of 2nd July—a month before the closing date—and was very much surprised much later to discover that the Department apparently had not received it. My hon. Friend knows this. He has quoted the length of time which it took for him to get a reply. I say frankly that it was because I was personally giving the closest attention and consideration to the matter. He will, I think, admit that the case has been examined with great thoroughness.

We have considered this case very carefully, but we cannot avoid the conclusion that the responsibility rests primarily with Mr. Milne. With the reputation which, I know, he has in farming circles—and it extends far beyond Aberdeenshire—I am sure he realises that such claims as these are always acknowledged by the Department. Indeed, the notes which accompany the claim form specifically indicate that it will be acknowledged and that the applicant should let the Department know if he has not received an acknowledgment within ten days.

Mr. Milne did not do that. His first inquiry was four months after the date when, he says, he posted his claim. The Department is helpless if a farmer does not inquire when his claim is not properly acknowledged. If Mr. Milne had only done so, the circumstances would most certainly have come to light. While, therefore, Mr. Milne has my sympathy, I cannot but feel that in this case, unfortunate as it is, the responsibility was his and that we could not properly admit the claim. If we made a practice of doing so in cases such as his, we would to all intents and purposes be in the position of having no rules at all.

I am, of course, extremely sorry if my hon. Friend feels that we are pettifogging and that our attitude is unreasonable. Having listened very carefully, however, to everything he has said, I cannot agree with him and we must stand by the decisions which we have already reached in these cases. I hope, however, that what I have said will convince hon. Members in general that our attitude is fair and reasonable, and I assure the House that we shall continue to administer the rules as flexibly as we can having regard to fairness and the proper safeguard of public funds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West also mentioned the case of Mr. Wilson, of Kinclune, who failed to get his farm improvement grant. Although it is true that the work which had to be done was approved in principle, if public money is to be safeguarded it is essential that competitive tenders must be provided. I cannot possibly agree with the remark made to me by my hon. Friend in a letter on the subject of the farm improvement grant in which he said that the condition laid down about consent being required before work began was merely administrative convenience. Far from being this, it is, in my view, absolutely fundamental to this most valuable scheme.

Last of all, while sympathising with those farmers who have fallen victims to the regulations, I would urge them to do what I myself do. So much do I value every subsidy which I receive that I make it a golden rule to fill in the application forms and send them in on the same day as they arrive.

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

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to One o'clock.