HC Deb 11 May 1964 vol 695 cc152-63

9.4 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1964, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd April, be approved. It might also be convenient if we discussed the corresponding Scottish scheme.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

If that is agreeable.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The Ploughing Grants Schemes are an annual affair and I doubt whether I need spend very much time dealing with Part II which is concerned with the £12 per acre grant, because no significant changes have been made and because the House has always taken kindly to this form of reclamation grant for grassland which is derelict, or virtually so, and which calls for a fair outlay before it can be made fit for cropping. In terms of the national farm these grants help to make good some of the unavoidable loss of agricultural land for development purposes and on individual holdings they are of special help to the farmer in a small way of business who is anxious to increase his effective acreage and therefore his viability.

During the financial year just ended about 42,000 acres in the United Kingdom were improved with the assistance of the Part II grant. Of the £500,000 paid out, about 60 per cent. went to England, a little to Northern Ireland, and the remainder was shared almost equally between Scotland and Wales.

In the draft Scheme, the date from which land must have been continuously under grass is being advanced by a further year, that is to 1st June, 1952. The effect is to maintain the qualifying age of grassland at 12 years. Apart from that, Part II of the Scheme remains virtually unchanged.

In contrast to that, in Part I of the Scheme there are changes in the £5 an acre grant. This sum is paid for ploughing out leys which are at least three years old, although in practice our statistics show that the great majority of applications are for land which has been under grass for upwards of five years.

During our debates on earlier Ploughing Grants Schemes, some hon. Members have questioned whether there was any need to encourage the practice of taking the plough round the farm, but I am certain that the main body of opinion in the House, and in agricultural circles, recognises that these grants have a useful part to play in the general scheme of things.

The House will recall that the rate of grant was reduced last year as a corollary to the introduction of the Grassland Renovation and Winter Keep Schemes. We have since been considering whether the range of qualifying operations could also be reduced to keep step with the lower rate of grants. This would help to expedite payments, which is particularly important when we remember that these grants often provide the farmer—and particularly the small farmer—with some valuable working capital during the lean months before he can harvest and market his crop. We have also been on the lookout for anything which would reduce the volume of paperwork for the farmer, and at the same time bring down our own administrative costs.

One significant change which we are proposing is to base our payments upon ploughing and the first follow-up operation towards production of a crop, instead of waiting until the crop has actually been sown. At the same time there must be a reasonable assurance of agricultural benefit, and so we have new provisions which confine the grant to land which is already in agricultural use and is suitable both for ploughing and for cropping, or for directly reseeding to grass.

Apart from speeding up payments, the new system will mean fewer and simpler forms for the farmer to complete. Hitherto, we have needed a notification that the land had been ploughed, so that our field officers could verify that the ploughing was from grass, and later the farmer has had to send in a claim when he has actually sown his crop. Some weeks or even months may elapse between the two operations, and this has meant not only two separate forms, but also a risk that the second one might be overlooked by the farmer. Unfortunately, this has happened in several cases. When it happens, we often have to refuse grant because the claim form has arrived too late.

Several hon. Members have had to take up cases of this sort with me on behalf of their constituents, and I am sure that they and the House will welcome any change which will help to avoid this happening in future. The new system should enable the overwhelming majority of payments to be made on the strength of one form sent in shortly after ploughing has taken place. There may be instances where the follow-up operation is necessarily delayed, for example because heavy land has been ploughed in the autumn and the frost is left to do its work. In this case the farmer may need to complete a separate declaration form when the qualifying operation has been completed.

The procedure in Scotland and Northern Ireland will differ slightly, but each of the Agricultural Departments will be arranging wide publicity to bring their precise arrangements to the notice of all farmers concerned. I am confident that these new arrangements should quickly bring about a very welcome reduction in the number of cases where we have had to withhold grant because the statutory timetable has not been observed.

As a further step towards simplification we propose to relax our rules in those cases where the farmer elects to rotavate his field rather than to plough it. We have no mandate to pay these grants save on ploughing or on operations which produce an equivalent effect. Hitherto, we have insisted upon prior approval for applications involving rotavation, and we have prescribed a depth setting and a minimum of three treatments. In future, we shall accept claims based upon rotavation provided an inspection shows that it has achieved an effect equivalent to ploughing—and always provided, of course, that the other conditions of the Scheme are fulfilled.

Another point of simplification is that we propose to discontinue deductions for unploughed areas such as headlands. In calculating grant, the usual practice has been to work to the Ordnance Survey acreage—which runs to the centre of any hedge or ditch—and then to scale it down by 2½ per cent. This has caused one or two anomalies, and it presents difficulties where part of a field is ploughed, where hedges are obliterated, ditches are piped, or post-and-wire fences are used.

There is provision in the Schemes to round down claims to the nearest ¼-acre and, provided that the area left un-ploughed is not found to be excessive, we shall treat this rounding-down process as broadly achieving the equivalent of the headlands deduction of 2½ per cent. These changes will together save us several thousands of £s in administrative costs and I am sure that they will also make things easier for the farmer. I am glad to say that the agricultural unions have warmly welcomed them.

The House may wish to have the usual figures relating to the Part I grant. For this purpose I will take the financial year 1963–64, because it provides the latest available figures. At the same time, I must point out that payments over this period are not altogether representative, as they stem partly from claims under the 1962 Scheme—when the rate of grant was £7 an acre—and partly from claims for the £5 grant available under the present Scheme.

With that reservation I can say that the total United Kingdom payments of Part I grant were just short of £9½ million, of which 53 per cent. went to England, 25 per cent. to Scotland, 13 per cent. to Northern Ireland and 9 per cent. to Wales. In all, during the last financial year, a total of nearly 1½ million acres was ploughed up with assistance under the Part I grant, and this is barely 75,000 acres short of the high level of ploughings reached in 1962–63. Indeed, compared with last year, the United Kingdom tillage area—land ploughed with or without grant under our Schemes—has increased by some 130,000 acres.

With that picture of the immediate past and with the provision for speedier payments and an easy and simplified procedure in the near future, I commend these Schemes for the approval of the House.

9.12 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

As the Parliamentary Secretary has explained the Schemes in detail and as, in any case, there is an Explanatory Note to them, I assume that hon. Members know what the Government are doing. There is, therefore, no reason for me to do more than what I would call a polite "waffle", because we are to have a very important debate on winter keep after this, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney) has a very important Adjournment debate.

At the same time, these Schemes involve the expenditure of a lot of money. The amount under the Part I grant for 1963–64 was £9½ million, of which 53 per cent. was spent in the United Kingdom. I am not responsible for Scottish agricultural matters, but we are told that Scotland received 25 per cent. of that sum—

Mr. Henry Clark (Antrim, North)

Is the hon. Member suggesting that Northern Ireland and Scotland are not part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Peart

I hope that the hon. Member, who has obviously just wakened up, will be patient. If I have made a mistake, I am very sorry. I certainly know where Northern Ireland is. All I say is that the main part of the grant in that year went to England, and that Scotland had the next largest share. I hope that I am not being provoked, because many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

I approve of the Schemes, which improve administration. It is important that the farmer should have less form filling, and the Minister has given us an assurance that the Schemes will help to bring this about. I am also glad that payment will be made more quickly. We shall watch this carefully, and, if we have any information to the contrary from constituents or elsewhere, we shall press the Minister about it in a constructive sense.

The purpose of the Schemes is to continue grants which have been given and to improve administration. Therefore, they have the approval of the House. These grants are important. They are mentioned in the Price Review. There is a useful table in Appendix 5 giving the incidence of the grants over a long period. The ploughing grant was £5.4 million in 1955–56 and it rose to a peak of £11½ million in 1961–62. It will go down to £7.3 million in 1965–65.

These grants are useful. The Undersecretary of State for Scotland used to take a contrary view. It would be interesting to know his view now that he is a member of the Government. I have always welcomed these grants. I hope that the hon. Member will not intervene in the debate, because it could embarrass his colleagues who represent the English part of the Administration. I hope that the Schemes will be approved.

9.16 p.m.

Sir Richard Glyn (Dorset, North)

I am sure that the House is glad to know, from the endorsement of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), that the Opposition approve the principle of these ploughing grants. I say immediately that I agree entirely that they are very useful.

The Scheme is particularly happy; speaking personally and as a farmer, I am delighted not only that we have a simplification of procedure, which is always most desirable and important, but that we have also overcome one of the principal difficulties of the old Scheme, whereby notice of intention to plough had to be given before ploughing began. Under this Scheme it need not be given before ploughing is begun as long as the application for the grant is made by the end of the month after that in which the land is ploughed.

Like many other representatives of agricultural constituencies, I have known of much friction and difficulty caused by cases in which a busy farmer has made a telephone call or given notice of ploughing in a rather informal way which has not been sufficiently recorded, and as a result sometimes under the letter of the law, as it stood until now, there has been some difficulty in establishing whether proper notice had been given. My right hon. Friend's Department has always been most reasonable in these cases and has tried to help, but there has sometimes been a difficulty, and to a great extent that difficulty will be overcome by the new Scheme, which I welcome.

It is happy that we are likely to have speedier payments. This will make a great difference, particularly to the smaller farmer who does not have a great deal of capital but who perhaps has taken over or inherited a farm and wishes to get it in good order quickly. The earlier payment will prove a great asset to him. The alternative further operations now allowed include spreading lime and fertiliser. There have been suggestions that this might no longer be available, and I am happy to see that this opinion has not made itself felt and that spreading lime or fertiliser will be one of the permitted alternatives in the way of further operations. I am glad to see that rotivation is being recognised rather more than it has in the past.

For all these reasons, I think that the Scheme in the form in which we are considering it tonight is a marked improvement on the one under which the grants formerly operated. I warmly welcome the Scheme.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Forbes Hendry (Aberdeenshire, West)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn), I do not propose to deal with the principle contained in the Schemes. I wish to discuss the mechanics of the Schemes and the way in which they are to be put into force.

I warmly welcome the alteration which makes it unnecessary to give notice of ploughing within 21 days after it has been completed. This has caused a very great deal of hardship in the past. I have gone into this matter with some particularity. I think I am right in saying that the provision cost Scottish farmers last year no less than £25,000, which on a national scale may not be very much but which from the point of view of individual farmers is a great deal of money. Taking England and Wales into account, the sum involved must have been considerable. The elimination of this provision will avoid a great deal of hardship in the current year. I thank the Government for eliminating the provision.

I ask the Government to reconsider the requirement that the application for grant must be made before a certain date. I ask the Government to be very much more flexible. Under the English Scheme an application must be received by the Minister not later than the end of the month following that in which the ploughing takes place. In Scotland last year the application for grant must have been made not later than 31st July. For some reason or other, in 1965 the date before which application must be made is not 31st July, but 30th June, one whole month earlier. Many farmers may be caught out by this alteration. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for Scotland to take great care to ensure that farmers are notified of this change in the date before which application must be made.

The Schemes provide that, if application is not made before that fixed date, grants may be withheld, unless the Minister, having regard to the special circumstances of the case, allows them to be received after that date. In the past this has caused a very great deal of hardship. For some reason or other a farmer may not make his application in time. His application may be lost, or he may not be able to prove that his application was received. The Schemes require him to prove that his application was received. In such an event he may be mulcted not of a modest sum but of hundreds of pounds. In an Adjournment debate I had not long ago I told my hon. Friend the Undersecretary about a farmer who suffered a loss under the former Scheme and other Measures of no less than £856 for this reason. It is unreasonable literally to fine a farmer for a mere technical fault like that.

I ask the Government to be more lenient than they have been in the past in dealing with such cases. If a farmer gives any reasonable excuse, at any rate part of the grant should be allowed. I do not propose that any alteration should be made in the Schemes at this moment, but I ask my hon. Friends to take steps, when framing similar Measures in the future, to make the punishment fit the crime. I am the first to admit that a farmer who is lazy and does not get his application in in time ought to be penalised in some way, but for a purely technical fault a fine of £5 or £10 is probably a sufficiently severe penalty and would probably ensure that he would get his application in in time in the future.

It is beyond all reason that a farmer should run the risk of being fined a sum running into hundreds of £s for a mere technical breach. There have been cases in my constituency and in others throughout the country in which men have literally been made almost bankrupt by a very harsh application of the regulations as they are drafted at present.

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

I do not wish to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) in his quarrel with the Government about the dates by which applications should be made. There may be very good reasons for being late, but, clearly, we must have a date. On previous occasions when we have discussed these grants there has been a fairly large volume of opinion in the House that the ploughing grant under Part I should be abolished. The general argument put forward, particularly from the other side of the House, was that we were paying farmers for doing something which every good farmer does.

One of the protagonists in those debates was the present Joint Undersecretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart). If I remember correctly, he was usually on the side of those who thought that Part I grants should be abolished. I am surprised, therefore, that on this occasion when he is in office he should come forward with a scheme very similar to previous schemes, with the exception that the grant itself has been reduced.

I rise to ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland what led him to change his mind between the time when he sat on the third back-bench opposite and his translation to the Government Front Bench. It would be interesting to know the reasons which have led him into believing that it is a good thing to continue this grant. On previous occasions we have been told that the possibility of doing away with the Part I grant had been considered but certain reasons have been given why it was not possible. I cannot help remembering the many arguments advanced in previous years for discontinuing the grant and using the money which might have been saved in some better way for increasing production. The Joint Under-secretary of State for Scotland frequently waxed eloquent on those occasions and made learned speeches about the other direction in which we should use this fund to the benefit of agriculture. We ought to be given some of these reasons before we dispose of the Scheme.

9.29 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)

I give my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture full support on this Scheme. I think that I have been fairly consistent on this question. When there was a great deal of criticism of the principle of the Part I ploughing grants I always maintained that it was a good principle. I should like to tell the House why I think that the grant is soundly based.

The arguments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) are good, and so have been the arguments advanced in the past by my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, but it has always seemed to me that in giving grants towards better farming it is necessary to have a balance between what I might call the pure arable areas, of the kind which I represent, and those where there is a high proportion of grassland and which on the whole are not doing as well financially as are the arable areas. It always seemed to me a justification of the grant that it was payment specifically made to areas where grassland was in a fairly high proportion.

I believe that that in itself is a justification for retaining the ordinary Part I grant and, therefore, I am delighted to support my hon. Friend.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I am glad the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) has welcomed these Schemes. I am sure that they will be of benefit to agriculture.

I should like to refer to the point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn), who talked about the giving of notice of the intention to plough. I think that this must have been a slip of the tongue on his part. In the past notice of intention to plough was required only under Part II. What was necessary under Part I was the fact of having ploughed. Notice of that fact had to be given within 21 days. Later, when the crop was sown, an application had to be made at that stage for a grant. What will happen now is that within a month, ploughing and one of the operations mentioned in the Schedule will normally be performed. As my hon. Friend has said, this will increase the speed with which farmers will receive payment for ploughing.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) about the necessity for keeping Part I. I am sure that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East will realise the importance to the farming community of this Part I ploughing scheme. Between 1949 and 1951 when the ploughing grant was discontinued, the tillage acreage fell by 1 million acres in this country. The first person to suffer if Part I were to be discontinued would be the small farmer because this is of great value to him.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman should put the case fairly. I said that arguments in the past have revolved around the fact that the money used for the Part I grant could be used more beneficially in other directions.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I was saying that this is an extremely beneficial way of using this money, and that if this grant were discontinued and the money were applied elsewhere it would be the small farmer who would suffer. I added that when the grant was discontinued, tillage acreage dropped by 1 million acres.

Turning to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry), he ought to realise that we are dealing with public funds and that there is a need to safeguard them. By dispensing with 100,000 forms and saving £15,000 in administration costs, we are trying to speed up the process. Nevertheless, it would be wrong if we did not take precautions to see that public money was properly spent. This must mean a certain amount of checking and it means also that there must be a closing date.

I was asked if I could be more flexible. We are always willing to be flexible, but we must safeguard the spending of public funds. I do not want to be drawn into the subject of the Adjournment debate which took place the other day when my hon. Friend put forward his idea for making the punishment fit the crime. I do not believe that these ploughing grants are the right vehicle by which to impose fines on the fanning community or for instituting a sliding scale. However, I will not develop that point, which was dealt with exhaustively in the Adjournment debate.

I seem to have covered all the points which have been made. I am sure that this grant will be of benefit to the agricultural community through the speeding up and simplification of the process. I therefore commend the Schemes to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1964, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd April, be approved.

Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme, 1964 [draft laid before the House, 23rd April], approved.—[Mr. Scott-Hopkins.]

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