HC Deb 04 August 1965 vol 717 cc1697-710
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I would like to make a statement about two White Papers the Government have today presented to the House, copies of which are now available in the Vote Office.

The first marks an important step forward in our plans for the development of agriculture over the longer term. It contains our proposals for improving the size, lay-out and equipment of farms, for developing the rural economy in the hills and uplands, and for encouraging co-operation among farmers.

The problem of the small farm has never been comprehensively tackled in this country before, although much has been done abroad. We have far too many farmers trying to win a reasonable living from insufficient land. Many of them cannot hope to earn for themselves and their families an income in keeping with modern standards if they are dependent solely on farming. We want to help these men. It would be neither in their own long-term interests, nor could the nation afford it, if we were merely to try to boost their incomes artificially by higher subsidies. We want to attack at its roots this problem of too little land providing too small a business, giving too poor an income.

We are going to tackle this problem in various ways. First, we shall help the man who can get more land to develop his farm to a satisfactory size and equip it properly. We shall give generous grants for the necessary remodelling works and other costs, and we are exploring ways of helping over credit for land purchase.

Secondly, we shall give financial help to the man who wants to give up an un-commercial holding by selling it either privately or to the State for approved amalgamation. This help will take the form of grants to aid resettlement, or annuities to aid retirement. I should stress that we aim to let the farmer who retires in this way stay on in his own farmhouse if he so wishes.

Thirdly, we shall give help through a series of grants to those who wish to co-operate together to get some of the advantages of a bigger size business. We are for the first time providing grants to stimulate co-operation in production, for example, of a uniform product to be sold on contract. We propose to set up a Central Council to administer these grants for farming and horticultural co-operation and to provide the necessary purposeful drive.

The small farm presents a particularly acute problem in the hills and uplands where there is also a need to plan the integrated development of agriculture and forestry together with related uses such as recreation and tourism. All past reports on this problem have stressed the need for a body which can promote and co-ordinate such rural development.

We propose to do this by setting up Rural Development Boards, to start with in a few selected areas. The boards, which will include people with local knowledge, will have a variety of powers to help them carry out their programme of rural development. They will work with, and through, the people and the authorities already in the area, including the Regional Economic Planning Councils and boards.

In addition, we propose to reaffirm our belief in the vital agricultural rôle of the hills and uplands as a reservoir for breeding stock by re-enacting the hill cow and hill sheep subsidies on a long-term basis. We also intend to introduce a new scheme of capital grants for land improvements of a kind particularly important in hill and upland farming.

Finally, the Farm Improvement Scheme which has done so much for the modernisation of our farms, particularly by helping the industry to save labour, will be extended on lines similar to the present.

The second White Paper deals with the Meat and Livestock Commission. There is a vital need to improve the marketing arrangements for agricultural produce in this country. One of the most important products, to both the housewife and the farmer, is meat. The White Paper sets out our conclusions, after discussions with the main organisations concerned, on how the marketing of meat and livestock should be improved.

The improvements required touch all sectors of the industry, and are interrelated. We have concluded that a single body of independent persons, a Meat and Livestock Commission, should be set up to bring them about. Its responsibilities would extend over Great Britain, and the funds for its work would come mainly from levies on animals slaughtered for meat. It would be assisted by a number of advisory committees which would be representative of consumers, producers and the trade.

The functions of the Commission will extend all the way from the farm to the retail shop. On the farm the Commission will be closely concerned with livestock improvement. It will also help the farmer to improve his marketing of fatstock in various ways such as assisting the placing of contracts, and collecting and disseminating market intelligence. The Commission will act for the Government in certifying fatstock for the guarantee, although the Government will remain responsible for its level and the conditions of eligibility.

Next, the Commission will aim to improve slaughtering and wholesale distribution, notably through the introduction of a carcase classification scheme and by giving expert advice to the industry on the efficient construction of slaughterhouses and improved techniques of slaughtering. It will work towards improved presentation in the retail shop and could help to promote the sale of home produced meat. It will also promote and co-ordinate research. Lastly, the Government would look to the Commission for advice on the level of current and prospective supplies at home and abroad.

The Commission may in future find that a further step by way of regulation, reorganisation, or development is needed to serve the interests of the industry and the nation. We therefore propose that it should be empowered, after consulting the interests concerned, to promote schemes for this purpose. Any such scheme would be subject to approval by Parliament.

The need for such a Commission is urgent. We therefore intend that it should be established as soon as possible and expect it to bring benefit through its work to consumers, producers and the trade alike.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

On a point of order. I think that I heard the Minister say that the two White Papers were now available in the Vote Office. I have just been to the Vote Office. The White Papers are not now available there. They will not be available until 3.45. Would it not make for the convenience of the House, when a very important statement is being made, for the Press summary to be made available to Members at the same time as it is made available to the Press, namely, at 3.30, which I think I saw happening up in the Press Gallery? It would be a great convenience if we could have it at 3.30.

Mr. Peart

I have carried out the normal practice as I understand it. I am in no way being discourteous. I am anxious that we should have full questions and answers on this Statement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I cannot deal with the matter of general practice now. It would merely hold up the House. Also, I should like to refresh my memory about the difficulties of this. I had to look at it once in the last Parliament.

Sir M. Redmayne

In any case, is it not treating the House with scant courtesy—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes—to produce this complicated statement, supporting two White Papers, which we cannot have seen, on the next to the last day before the House rises for the Summer Recess? I presume that there must be legislation arising from these White Papers. Does the Minister really propose to draft that legislation without consulting the House at all in these matters?

I shall deal with one or two points only, because I know that my hon. Friends will have very many questions to ask, Mr. Speaker. I hope that by your good grace, Sir, they will have the opportunity to ask them. I want to ask specially what is meant by that part of the statement which says that a man who wants to give up his holding can sell it to the State? What is the State to do with the land? For how long will it hold it? Will it then resell it for amalgamation, and, if so, at what price? Is not this, in fact, the creeping nationalisation of land? The Minister will have great difficulty in explaining how it is not.

Next, the Minister was even more vague about the rural development boards. He simply said that they will have a variety of powers". What is meant by "a variety of powers"? Does this include the acquisition of land and possibly by some more stringent means than those which are referred to specifically in the statement?

What is meant by the statement that the functions of the Meat and Livestock Commission will extend all the way from the farm to the retail shop"? Are we to assume that trading plays no part in that at any stage?

Lastly, on this matter, although I must admit that I should like to ask many questions, what is meant by the statement that the Commission will be charged with giving advice on the level of current and prospective supplies at home and abroad"? How does this relate to the Prime Minister's recent statement that what is required for agriculture is a vigorous import substitution policy? Is there any relation between the two? What are we to read into this phrase in the statement?

Mr. Peart

May I, first, reply to the allegation of discourtesy. I have produced these White Papers. Of course, there will be legislation. Before that legislation is introduced, there will be ample time for hon. Members to examine my proposals, I hope constructively and objectively. After all, there will be several months. Apart from that, all through our discussions on policy and in the preparation of the White Papers we have consulted all the interests concerned. I am anxious to do something. I should have thought that this would have the approval of hon. Members opposite, who did nothing.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether the scheme under which a man can give up his holding to the State was not, in fact, creeping nationalisation. This is voluntary. The State will hold the land. Then it will be resold to an individual farmer so there can be larger units. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that this is creeping nationalisation, I can only assume that he is living in a world of fancy.

The rural development boards will have powers of pre-emption. We think that this is right and proper. It is not unusual. Many other countries in Western Europe have this. If we are to have a co-ordinated plan for development in certain selected areas, which will affect hill land and upland, I think that this will be the right approach.

The Meat and Livestock Commission will not be a trading authority. It will be there to stimulate production. I have listed its functions in the appropriate White Paper. I hope that hon. Members will read them. The stimulation of contracts, to give only one example, will be of great benefit to producers.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the Commission's functions in relation to the giving of advice on imports. Import policy will be the responsibility of the Government. It must be. Any question of the rôle of agriculture in the national plan, its contribution to our own growth and to the saving of the import bill, will be the responsibility of the Government, not of the Commission.

Lady Megan Lloyd George

Is the Minister satisfied that the proposed Meat and Livestock Commission will have the necessary powers to safeguard producers and consumers against exploitation by middle men? What will be the total additional value of the benefits accruing to farmers under the proposals he has announced to the House?

Finally, what special consideration has he given to the problems and needs of Wales?

Mr. Peart

I believe that the Commission will seek to improve marketing. This is its purpose. By doing that, in the end the nation and the consumer will benefit. I hope that when the schemes to improve farm structure get into full operation by 1970 they will be running at approximately £15 million to £17 million, which is a considerable sum of money. For development in the hill and upland areas the peak figure will be in the region of £2 million by 1970. The Farm Improvement Scheme will be running at £12 million a year, which will be at the present rate.

There is also a new advance in co-operation. I am seeking co-operation on the farm itself in the sphere of production. There will be an increase in support, and I estimate that the approximate figure—these figures must be approximate—will be nearly £1½ million by 1970. I repeat that this is an advance. Altogether, the Government will inject considerable sums of money into parts of our agriculture which need it.

I must not forget Wales. Wales has considerable hill and upland and, therefore, the broad approach to the improvement of our hill and upland areas will help Wales considerably. I shall certainly consider the need for a development board in Wales. In the White Paper I have said that if we are to have a board for Wales there will be only one board which can do its work in one area, and then if the development work in that area is completed and we have to move on to another area, the same organisation could do the job.

Mr. Stodart

When the right hon. Gentleman refers to the rural development boards having powers of pre-emption, does this mean that a seller might not then be able to take the highest price from a private bidder because the development board might have the right to take it at a lower price? Is that the object?

May I now ask two questions about Scotland. How many of the rural development boards are intended for Scotland, and will the board that is envisaged for the Highland area co-operate closely with the Highland Development Board?

As to the Meat Commission, will not a Great Britain body be a considerably top-heavy affair? As Scotland is an exporter of quality meat, should there not be a separate commission for Scotland?

Mr. Peart

I think that proliferation would be disadvantageous. I think that a commission covering England, Wales and Scotland is the right approach and that two commissions would be wrong. That is the decision that I have come to and I think that it is the right one.

The question of rural development boards in Scotland is something which we shall have to consider. I have not made any final decision about this. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the the Secretary of State for Scotland would consult all the interests concerned, including the Highland authority, and consider where we should make a start, but we have nothing specific for Scotland at this stage.

The selling of land will be at the market price.

Sir G. de Frietas

Can my right hon. Friend say how far his proposals for co-operation flow from the Knapp Report, and how far and in what way his proposals affect the position of the Agricultural Central Co-operative Association?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend will remember that the Knapp Report was produced by an independent body. Obviously, its findings were carefully considered, but it in no way binds any Minister to make any particular decision. I propose to set up a special council, which will have drive, and we shall still use existing organisations. [Laughter.] I do not know why the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) always laughs at references to new proposals.

I should have thought that the stimulation of producer co-operation by the creation of a new council, with new grants and new aids, would be welcomed by the industry. I am certain that bodies like the A.C.C.A. and its Welsh and Scottish equivalents will act as agents for this new body.

Mr. George Y. Mackie

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most of the proposals are contained in the Farmer and Stock-breeder of 27th July, which is of considerable help? There are one or two questions that I should like to ask. Is the Minister aware that the industry would welcome a valid scheme to help reconstruction but that it will depend upon the scale? Can he also say where the money will come from for this scheme? I think that he mentioned a sum of £17 million. Will it come out of the general guarantees for farming or is this something on top of it?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Meat Commission scheme appears to me to be an emasculated Verdon Smith Report without the essential support buying? Without support buying, the industry is just as apt to get slumps in a period of long-term shortage as it is in a period of short-term shortage. May I ask why this factor has been omitted and what the right hon. Gentleman proposes to do about it?

Mr. Peart

I welcome what has been said by the hon. Member, speaking, I assume, for the Liberal Party. It conflicts with the rather vulgar and naïve statement just made by the Chairman of the Liberal Party Agricultural Committee. I am glad the hon. Gentleman's approach is different.

Of course, valid schemes will have to be examined, but the money which I mentioned will not be included in the guarantees, only co-operation.

On the question of the Meat Commission, I would only say that this commission has certain similarities to and certain differences from that which was proposed by Verdon Smith. I considered the Verdon Smith Report very carefully, but we have, in addition, this very important major reserve power, and I should have thought that this approach would have been welcomed by the hon. Member.

I carefully looked at the whole question of support buying, but this would probably have been too costly. After all, where it has been introduced in other countries—France is an example—farmers have not got the support system that we have in this country. In other words, we have a deficiency payment system. Therefore, expenditure of money on support buying in this country and the building up of stores, etc., would have been extremely costly and would not have been practicable.

Mr. Derek Page

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the proposals that he has announced today are no substitute for an adequate level of support for farm incomes?

Mr. Peart

I accept that. Here we are not dealing with a price review. I am seeking to make the industry much more efficient and viable. I am seeking to improve the position of thousands of small farmers, and to stimulate better meat marketing. The Government have never suggested that these proposals, which are designed particularly to help many small men struggling to earn a decent living on insufficient land, are a substitute. We are giving the fully commercial farmer an opportunity to earn a proper level of remuneration in accordance with our Agriculture Acts. I never said that the proposals were a substitute, and I reaffirm the fact.

Mr. Kitson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House are appalled at the timing of this statement? Would he state on what criteria these grants and resettlements are to be based? Would he give an assurance that they are not to be based on an acreage payment, because there is a very considerable difference in the price of land in various areas? Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell us what this will cost the Exchequer?

Mr. Peart

I have given an estimated cost. As to the hon. Member's criticism of the timing of the scheme, I think that this is the right way. I only wish the hon. Member had criticised his own Government for failing to introduce something like this.

Mr. Hazell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will undoubtedly be welcomed by many farmers, since it is clearly the intention and desire of the Government to maintain prosperity in agriculture? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that in the preparation of the White Papers he consulted the National Farmers' Union, the National Union of Agricultural Workers, and other interested organisations?

Mr. Peart

I have said in the White Papers that all interests were consulted. In the working out of legislation all important organisations involved will be consulted. I have followed this practice, which I believe to be right.

Mr. Kimball

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is unlikely to increase the rate of retirement from farms very much, but that as from today he will have to use the taxpayers' money to pay every small farmer who is thinking of retiring? In the present economic circumstances, is this a very wise scheme? Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that under the Conservative Government, when there was confidence in the industry and a wholesome market for land, the amalgamation of farms was going ahead at a far greater rate than most people appreciate?

Mr. Peart

I cannot accept that. It is true that under the Conservative Administration many small farmers went out, but that was a willy-nilly process, often with great hardship, but I am offering incentives. Whether the farmer accepts this is a quite voluntary matter. We think that this is the proper approach.

Mr. Walter Harrison

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that statement and paying him due credit as a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, may I ask him directly what benefit the housewife will receive from these proposals?

Mr. Peart

There is the improvement of meat marketing and production and also for the first time in a statutory authority there is a special consumer committee which I am proposing. In the end this will be of great benefit, I believe, to the nation and the housewife.

Mr. Jopling

Will the right hon. Gentleman say in which areas the rural development boards will operate? Will he also estimate how much land they will pre-empt in the future, in what manner they will acquire it and whether it will be done by compulsory purchase? Once they have acquired the land will they let it, sell it or is it intended that they should keep it for all time?

Mr. Peart

I have not made a final decision about the areas. Obviously, we must have careful consultations about this, but I am sure that there are certain areas which are ripe for this sort of development. To give an example of the type of area, without committing myself to my Welsh hon. Friends, there is Mid-Wales. It may be that the rural development board will be the right approach for that area. If I decide that, there will be local consultation and the right of people to make objections to the area being scheduled as a rural development area.

Mr. Harold Walker

Will the responsibilities of the Meat and Livestock Commission extend to the regulation of exports of beef and beef cattle? If not, why not?

Mr. Peart

I know that my hon. Friend is quite rightly concerned about exports. This matter, however, must be my responsibility, acting for the Government, and I would give the same reply about imports. These must be a Government responsibility and not the responsibility of the statutory Commission.

Mr. Noble

Will the Minister please answer the points put by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) which he said that he had answered but which I and I do not think anybody else heard? The question was whether the amount to be paid as annuities to farmers is to be on an acreage system. I heard nothing about that in the statement. Another question was about what the amount would be, and I did not hear anything about that in the statement either.

Could the right hon. Gentleman also add two other answers? He talked about an income in keeping with modern standards. This is important, but the figures which I have heard quoted up-to-date cannot be in keening with modern standards. The right hon. Gentleman also said that he made the decision not to have a commission for Scotland. I hope that he meant that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland together made that decision. I regret that decision myself.

Mr. Peart

If there is a decision about Scotland my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will take the initiative and I shall be associated with him, but we have not yet made up our minds, as I have said, whether we shall start a Commission in Scotland.

As for income, I should have thought that the new grants and extensions would have met the right hon. Gentleman's point. I did not intend to mislead the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) or the House. The details of the process of amalgamation are on page 4 of the White Paper. I know that hon. Members have not read it yet, but payment will be related to acreage. Up to the age of 55 there will be a grant of £500 plus £15 per acre—[Interruption.] I was asked to give a reply and I am being courteous. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will read the White Paper later.

Mr. David Griffiths

We on this side of the House congratulate my right hon. Friend most heartily on a most revolutionary act on behalf of agriculture. Hon. Members opposite laugh and scorn, but they are only laughing and scorning as far as big farmers and business are concerned. They are not worrying about the small farmer.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members cannot make speeches about this matter. There is very great pressure on the time of the House.

Mr. Griffiths

Is it envisaged that my right hon. Friend will give more financial aid to the hill farmers?

Mr. Peart

Yes, Sir. An improved farm structure will benefit considerably many farms in the hill areas. By 1970 aid will have reached £17 million and for specific development of hill and upland areas, I gave a figure of £2 million. The Farm Improvement Scheme will also benefit those areas and we must not forget what I said about producer co-operation.

Sir M. Redmayne

This is a most unsatisfactory situation. The House has many more questions to put to the Minister than you could possibly allow us to ask him, Mr. Speaker. May I have an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that he will not draft legislation before he has had an opportunity to consult the House?

Mr. Peart

I believe that hon. Members, after they have read carefully the details in the White Paper, will have an ample opportunity to consult those interests who are effected. I will carry out the consultation from the Government's point of view. There will inevitably be arguments and, quite rightly, controversy in the rural community and in all our farming and technical journals. This is a good thing. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that before the Bill is presented there will be ample time for discussion and consultation. I am responsible for bringing in the Bill and I shall do it.

Mr. Urwin

Will my right hon. Friend accept a further assurance from me that we warmly applaud the initiative which he has displayed in this matter and that we also welcome the very new ideas enunciated in his statement? May I ask what will be the amount of grant towards amalgamation costs and what exactly it will cover?

Mr. Peart

I gave a global figure which, I said, would reach £17 million by 1970. I intend to bring in a whole series of grants. For example, for farm remodelling the rate of grant will be about 50 per cent. The grants for structural changes and improvements will be 50 per cent.—for demolition 50 per cent.—and for other incidental expenses in amalgamation there will be another grant of 50 per cent. Then I mentioned also the outgoing payments. Here is a series of grants specifically given and I hope that the House will welcome them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must go on.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order. As two White Papers have been introduced by the Minister, could not we have more time to put questions to him before we pass on to the next business?

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry. I have to decide these things, which is an extremely difficult task to discharge. We have spent more than 20 minutes on questions on this subject and it would not be fair to the rest of the House and its business to go on in that way.

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