HC Deb 26 July 1967 vol 751 cc929-40

Motion, made and Question proposed, That this House do adjourn.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

12.5 a.m.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

When I raised the question of the financial assistance that was being given to large-scale egg production units in Scotland at Question Time on 28th June, the Under-Secretary of State replied that it was not the practice to disclose information of this kind. In no way do I wish to ask him to disclose confidential information, but I think that the House and the agricultural industry as a whole ought to know what basic help is available, particularly because, as was well illustrated at Question Time today, there is real concern in all sections of the poultry industry about the prices ruling for eggs. Therefore, a general statement of policy on what the Government are prepared to do is a matter which is of general interest.

On 7th June, my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) received a letter from the Minister of State at the Board of Trade setting out what was available to producers of eggs, subject to various conditions as to the provision of extra employment.

From the Questions asked today, it is obvious that many hon. Members have personal knowledge from their constituents of falling egg prices, and the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) ventured to suggest that the Egg Board might even collapse.

It was disclosed today in answer to a Question which I asked of the Minister that we are 98 per cent. self-sufficient in eggs and that hatchings are up, which suggests that there will be a rise in home egg production next year. If we are 98 per cent. self-sufficient, it looks as if we are only 24 million dozen short, and perhaps the only good thing which will come out of these large-scale egg units, if they go on, is that only two or three of them will be required to make up the shortfall.

What effect will the introduction of large-scale egg producing units have on the market and on those producing eggs at present? The answer is quite simple. Last year's Price Review decreased the price of eggs by ¾d. a dozen. The paper which accompanied the Price Review said: The underlying trend for some years past has been for production to rise faster than demand. This continues to be the danger, and the guaranteed price is therefore reduced by ¾d. a dozen. If big egg producing units come into production, the only thing that I can see happening is that other existing producers will be forced out of business.

If such units are set up in the central belt of Scotland, where one of which I know and of which I shall speak in a moment is to be established, it is certain that the areas which will suffer and where we shall lose egg production are such places as the Orkney Islands and the counties of Aberdeenshire and Banff, which are the very places where the Government are doing all that they can to stimulate industry of any sort to make certain that we do not suffer further rural depopulation.

I came to know of the detailed plans for a large-scale egg production unit to be set up by Messrs. Eastwood in my constituency. It is proposed to set up this unit on a farm which happens to be next-door to my own home, and, as a neighbouring proprietor, I was served with a copy of the planning application. It is obviously right that I should declare this interest. In fact, I raised objections to begin with, because I was worried about the effect on public health and water supplies, particularly as its locality was in the catchment area for a local water supply. This matter was thoroughly gone into by the public health authorities, the river purification board, and so on, and it would appear that they are satisfied that there is no danger to public health.

This is a very large-scale unit. It consists, first, of six blocks of buildings with three sheds per block, each shed being 250 feet long by 60 feet wide. Those blocks are for rearing. Then there are five blocks with four sheds per block for breeder layers, and six blocks with five sheds each for commercial egg production. Each block has a farm worker's bungalow for the person responsible for looking after the block. In addition, the unit will have a feeding-stuffs mill, a packing room and a hatchery. Probably between three-quarters of a million and 1 million birds will be in the unit. Whilst I have this knowledge of layout I speak of, I have reason to believe that similar layouts may be set up elsewhere, either in West Fife or in other parts of Scotland.

Exactly the same thing will happen if those units go into the production of feedingstuffs. If, with Government assistance, a new provender mill is set up to supply the needs of the unit, as we are nearly self-sufficient, existing mills will have to decrease their output and will therefore have to pay off labour. I cannot see the result of such efforts being to increase employment in the egg industry in Scotland. The Minister of State, in the letter to which I have referred, said that the unit would obviously provide extra and secure employment, so I want to ask the Under-Secretary some questions.

First, is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that an enterprise such as this is really in the public interest? I admit that there are many difficult questions to answer here, because there is no reason for say- ing that egg production units must stay as they are for all time, but if he is satisfied that it is in the public interest, does he think it right that public money should be made available for it? I ask, because all the unit will do will be to replace the production of eggs in one part of the country by producing them in another.

Is the Minister satisfied that if money is given to this enterprise it will not frustrate grants that have already been made? Whenever we have passed agricultural Orders, there has always been a notice in them which says that a grant shall not be payable if it frustrates the purpose of money already paid out by another Government Department. There must have been many occasions when farm improvement grants have been paid to other egg producers, who could now very easily be put out of employment. That would mean that the grants they have received would be stultified if this scheme goes through. As we are 98 per cent. self-sufficient, I cannot see that any new employment will be created.

Again, while the farms on which these sheds I have described will stay in production, between 20 and 30 acres of what is now good agricultural land will be covered by buildings. Is that in the general agricultural interest? In my county of Fife there are many areas of ground which suffer from mining subsidence, but which would be perfectly suitable for putting up buildings like these, which have a low weight-bearing load factor. This ground is not otherwise in productive use, and the unit could well be put on it.

Further, in view of our application to join the Common Market, should Government finance be given without seriously checking up the Common Market regulations in this respect? I find this a little difficult to pursue. I know that suggestions have been made, and I believe measures taken, in various Common Market countries with a view to restricting the number of pigs and poultry which can be kept on any one unit. This may be a measure of protection for British agriculture and not of necessity anything which must apply, under Common Market regulations, to every Common Market country. In other words, if in their wisdom the French Government say that not more than 2,000 hens can be kept on any one agricultural unit, this does not of necessity mean that, if we adhere to the Common Market, we must have the same regulation.

Lastly, what are the Government's intentions with regard to the implementation of the Brambell Report? It is true in this case, I imagine, that any grant payable will not be payable on the hen houses or the cages in which the hens which are laying will be housed. The whole enterprise is centred round intensive egg production in cages. If the Brambell Report in any way alters a unit's viability, if alterations are made in the way birds can be housed, if the intensive housing conditions of factory farming are altered, the money destined for, say, the packing station, provender mill, or houses for workers, could go by default, because the enterprise would no longer be the profitable enterprise which obviously Messrs. Eastwoods think it ought to be

Having inquired into Scottish conditions, after having heard from friends of the many complaints they have had in East Anglia, I have discovered that factory farming conditions mean that the laying birds in these sheds will be situated over deep pits and the droppings will go down into the pits. Several generations of hens for many years will sit over the open pit of droppings and the pits will not be cleaned out for, perhaps, 8 or 10 years. Although this may be very economical, it is not what everyone would like to think are the conditions in which hens should be kept. No doubt it can be argued that, if people want to keep hens in other ways which are more expensive, eggs will cost more. However, if Government money is to be used to stimulate an enterprise of this sort, the Minister should give us an assurance that not only he, but the National Farmers' Union and the Egg Marketing Board are satisfied that this is something which is in the public interest, which will not cause rural depopulation, but which will help Scottish agriculture.

I bear no ill will. I am not a poultry farmer of any size, so I have no interest in trying to keep out this enterprise, which will obviously bring employment to my constituency and to my part of the world; but it would be short-sighted to accept an enterprise like this without having a good deal more information than we have at present.

12.19 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) on raising some very cogent points relating to this difficult situation. If the Under-Secretary had been in the House this afternoon, he would have heard the very grave anxiety which was expressed by hon. Members on both sides about the position in the egg market. My right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) and I visited the President of the Board of Trade last week. We were left in no doubt that he admitted that eggs were being dumped, that material damage was being done to egg producers, and the only uncertainty that he gave us to understand was what was actually causing the material damage. He was not convinced that it was the import of eggs. There is no question—and the White Paper of last March bears witness to this—that the Minister of Agriculture was anxious to discourage further egg production. It seems to me an extraordinary inconsistency that we have here an actual encouragement being given by another Government Department for egg producers to do precisely what the Minister of Agriculture is anxious that they should not do, and that grants of a substantial nature are being given to egg-producers to set up within the development areas.

I suppose it is possible that the hon. Gentleman may say that if the Act allows grants to be paid, one cannot start choosing between one undertaking and another. I can see that one might get into all sorts of difficulties about having to make a decision as to whether it was a good thing to give a grant to somebody who wished to open up a licensed undertaking for selling liquor in a district where such a thing might not meet with public approval. But my hon. Friend has pointed out and quoted the escape route that is available, and I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to explain to us that there is not so much inconsistency, although I think he will have a very hard task in doing so.

12.22 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Norman Buchan)

With those final words I am in complete agreement. In this full House it will be very difficult to be convincing to the two main speakers opposite‡

I recognise the difficulties which the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) has expressed. I was not present during the discussion this afternoon. I was involved in other matters, as the hon. Gentleman knows. But I do know of the large number of Questions which have been put down on this subject. I know that there is a good deal of anxiety in the general egg producing community, and I would be the very last to suggest that this should not be looked at with a great deal of care. I am sure that the Minister of Agriculture showed that he, too, is concerned and cares about the situation.

However, that is not quite what has been raised tonight. What has been raised with me is a very special matter about which the hon. Gentleman has already put down Questions. We discussed it at Question Time when I made it fairly clear that it would be difficult for me—indeed, impossible—to deal with a particular application of this kind. The hon. Gentleman declared his own interests. Therefore, to him the project is not hypothetical. I shall have to treat it to some extent as being hypothetical, as the hon. Member will understand.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, not all of which I intend to follow. He asked if we were concerned. Of course, we are concerned. We are concerned with all matters that affect agriculture. He asked me for an outright answer to the question whether this would be desirable in terms of employment. This is one of the difficulties. The hon. Gentleman has also raised other matters in the past. I am thinking in particular of sugar beet. We both know the problems facing people in his area concerning a certain factory. What the hon. Member himself—not me, because to me it is a hypothetical issue—must do when he is considering the schemes that have been put forward is to preserve a certain balance. The hon. Member referred to unemployment among egg producers. He and I are both aware of unemployment in other sections of the community in that area and he therefore cannot lightly dismiss this hypothetical project which he has described and which might bring employment to the area. He would be venturing on dangerous ground if he did not also take that matter into consideration.

He also mentioned the hypothetical project purely on the grounds of egg production, but maybe there are other by-products—for example broiler production. There are perhaps other possible uses for the hypothetical building which he described and which do not raise the same problem. That is another question which he should consider before too enthusiastically firing off all guns in attacking measures which might or might not bring employment to this area.

The hon. Member asked me whether I am satisfied that such a project would be in the public interest. It is not for me alone to decide that. I cannot comment on it except to say that I think that any large-scale venture suggested for Scotland, or any large-scale form of industry, let alone agriculture, must be looked at very carefully from the point of view of the balance within the community and of employment as well as from a narrower point of view like that of egg production. These things must be balanced even while we recognise that we face a grave situation in respect of egg production.

If I remember rightly, the hon. Member quoted some figures suggesting that we were producing 98 per cent. and hatching more chicks and therefore were within 100 per cent. of production of all the eggs now needed. He was talking in terms of the United Kingdom. I am not at all sure that we face precisely this situation in respect of Scotland. For example, in so far as we can estimate the Scottish figure—sometimes it is rather difficult to estimate it—an intelligent estimate suggests between 20 and 25 per cent. and possibly more of a shortfall between egg consumption in Scotland and eggs produced in Scotland. We do not therefore break level in terms of Scottish production. When the hon. Member talks about the hypothetical project possibly removing egg production in certain sectors in Scotland, I suggest that it is not as simple as that. We are importers of eggs from England.

Sir J. Gilmour

Is it not true that the situation has forced poultry keepers out of production, particularly in the Orkney Islands?

Mr. Buchan

I am not at all sure that we can at all times dismiss the economics of industry even when considering agriculture, otherwise we would still be producing as we were in the days before "Turnip" Townsend. Changes take place.

Orkney production is still fairly considerable despite the difficulties which the hon. Member mentioned. The 25 per cent. shortfall is not explained by a decline in areas such as Aberdeenshire or Orkney. We cannot back all kinds of development, much as some of us would often like to do so. Other things must be considered when we put such a question as is it right to make public money available on a project such as this?

The hon. Gentleman said that the project would cover good agricultural land. But at least it would concern if not an agricultural process, at least an agricultural product. To that extent, the equation would balance. But the hon. Gentleman went further and said that there were areas of poor ground—for example, former mining areas—which might be used. I am not sure whether he means that we do not want this project at all or whether, if we have it, we should have it in another place. Was that what the hon. Gentleman was arguing?

Sir J. Gilmour

I was arguing from the point of view of efficient land use. We know that much agricultural land is being absorbed. Therefore, many areas subject to mining subsidence in, for example, West Fife which have been spoiled by mining operations would be the sort of areas to use for this purpose.

Mr. Buchan

I am grateful for that constructive suggestion. If I encounter the hypothetical scheme, I will make sure that that constructive comment is considered, namely, that if the project is to go ahead we may consider another area with the blessing of the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman wondered whether this might frustrate the other grants in existence—a kind of Government grant versus Government grant situation. Suppose that one wanted to drive a road through land which had been subject to certain improvements grants. It would not be illegal to drive a road through because a hen house had been erected by Government grant. That would be no argument for changing the line of a new trunk road. The hon. Gentleman went further and said that it was a question not merely of the land which would be occupied but of the effect on a whole host of farms in respect of which grants had been given. It is not usual to write into enabling legislation that regard should be had to such possibilities. It is a matter for the Board of Trade.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the E.E.C. This is the "in" subject. Every question on agriculture seems to end with points about the Common Market. The hon. Gentleman said that, despite the fact that the Common Market countries had certain limitations concerning livestock and animals, they would not necessarily apply to Britain. In these circumstances, I cannot understand why he raised the point.

Sir J. Gilmour

I was not certain on this point. I know from what my hon. Friends on the Council of Europe have told me that there are such regulations, but I believe that they are domestic regulations rather than Common Market regulations.

Mr. Buchan

In other words, they would not necessarily apply to Britain.

The hon. Gentleman stated that there was anxiety in other areas about intensive farming, but not about the kind which we are considering tonight. However, the point is of significance, and I was glad to receive it.

The question of the Brambell Report was raised. I would expect that a firm of the kind the hon. Gentleman described would, of all firms, have the capacity and resources to make sure that it behaved in accordance with any of the Report's requirements.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of public health and pollution really in order to discard it. He said that he raised it because of his interest in the subject, but that the relevant authorities had examined it and found that in the particular project no problem was involved. The answer on all such schemes is that they must still be subject to the normal river pollution boards and other public health authorities.

Since it was hypothetical, I do not know if the hon. Gentleman's description of generations of hens' droppings over a large pit year after year was accurate. I should not have thought it any more unhygenic than the normal hens with which I was brought up, which laid over their own dung.

We should congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having raised the matter and on the way he did so, because it seems to me that he would not discard all the pos- sibilities out of hand. He accepted that farming, like other aspects of our life, must change, that technological advance must go on, and—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday 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 five minutes to One o'clock.