HC Deb 30 April 1968 vol 763 cc1047-68

5.44 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I beg to move: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Industrial Training Levy (Agricultural, Horticultural and Forestry) Order 1967 (Amendment) Order 1968 (S.I., 1968, No. 343), dated 7th March 1968, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th March, be annulled. It is unusual to start discussing a Prayer at a quarter to Six in the evening, and I am delighted that we have enough time to debate in full whether this Order should be annulled.

Not long ago we debated the original Order which Order now being discussed amends. At that time many arguments were put forward from this side of the House, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells), to show why the Order was a bad one, and why the cost involved was too high. The Parliamentary Secretary replied to the debate. He was adamant that it was necessary to maintain the levy at that level, that the work of the Board would be worth while, and that it was essential to maintain it. Not long after that the hon. Gentleman came back to the House and said that, having had second thoughts, he had decided to reduce the level of the levy, hence this Order.

I do not wish to weary the House by going through all the arguments which we put forward last time to show that the level of the levy was far in excess of anything that was needed. We said that there should not be an Agricultural Trading Board, but that if there had to be one it should not operate at the level proposed by the Government. The strength of feeling throughout the country, and particularly in the farming industry, is the reason why the Parliamentary Secretary has changed his mind and reduced the rate of levy.

The arguments which we advanced on the previous occasion still hold good. The plans put forward by the Board are such that they do not warrant the money which it is proposed to provide. This is one reason why I am seeking to have the Order annulled. I have not heard any argument in support of any levy at all.

The Government have had to spend quite a lot of money to keep the Board in operation. Producers are being asked to provide money for the Board, but they want to know what they will get in return. If they were to receive something worthwhile in return, something which would improve efficiency in the industry, they would not object to the levy, but many of the plans put forward by the Board are impractical. It does not make sense to suggest that an industry which consists of a number of small farmers can have its apprentices trained in the way suggested by the Board.

Let me consider the amount of money that is required. Although the levy is now £3 instead of £6, it is still too high for the benefits which the industry will reap. The Minister will probably say that this is a necessary scheme, that the industry must contribute a certain amount towards it, that it will help young farmers to become better trained and make them more efficient and increase their productivity. He will no doubt say that it is necessary for the Board to raise the money in this way.

I think that the House will agree that unless the Minister can show conclusively that this levy will increase productivity in the industry he has no case for imposing it. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone has been unavoidably detained. I know that if he were here he would be much more severe in his strictures on the Board and on the idea of having a levy. I do not know quite how far he would have gone, but he might even have called for the Minister's resignation——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. It is not in order on this Prayer to debate the desirability or otherwise of the Order, or the desirability or otherwise of the levy. It is in order only to discuss whether the proposed levy should be reduced from £6 to £3.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I accept what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the fact is that I want the Minister to reduce it from £6 to nil. Presumably the Board will use the levy to carry out some functions. I am querying those functions, and, indeed, I am querying whether the Board should exist at all. If the levy was reduced to nil, it would be up to the Minister to supply the Board with money from Government sources to keep it going.

However, this is not what we are debating. I am glad that the Minister has reduced it half way, but I want it reduced to nothing at all. That is why I am asking him to think again. I am encouraged in this, because the last time we asked the Parliamentary Secretary to think again about the Order he refused, but within two weeks had agreed. Perhaps he will do so again and reduce it by another £3.

The arguments against the levy and the Board were conclusively argued in our previous debate, and nothing has changed: there have been no improvements and no ideas of value since then. Therefore, I do not know how the argument for even £3 can be sustained. That is why I am asking for the Order to be withdrawn, since that would be much more in the industry's interests.

5.51 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

We have gone over this subject at considerable length already, but since our last debate I have seen nothing to suggest that the Industrial Training Board is prepared to put its house in order. Nothing suggests that it is prepared to cut the very large administrative costs. This is what is annoying the agricultural community. I do not believe that it is quite so annoyed now that the levy has been reduced but it is still concerned about the attitude of the Board and of the chairman, who is not prepared to give a little and make severe cuts.

Has the Minister heard whether the Board is prepared to do anything about this? If these costs could be slashed, the Board could get on with its task with our agreement. The chairman has been completely inflexible and his attitude to this problem and to the resentment of the farmers has been distressing. I would have thought that he would at least try to gain the good will not only of hon. Members, but of the farmers, and he has not. Is the First Secretary of State prepared to see whether she can ask the chairman to take a more reasonable line? As I said last time, unless he has the co-operation of the agricultural community, this will not work.

I have a levy form at home, but have not sent the money and I do not intend to send it until I see a change in the chairman's attitudes. If the First Secretary of State wants the Board to work she should have a polite word in the chairman's ear. Without a change of attitude by the chairman, this will not work. I represent a remote area with very small farms and I have not heard what help the Board can give these farms, which have perhaps one workman or none. But they will have to pay the levy nevertheless and will get little benefit.

If the Parliamentary Secretary will answer those three points—about the administrative costs, the chairman's attitude and how the Board will benefit remoter areas with hundreds of small farms—it would give me some heart not only to pay my levy, but to encourage other farmers to pay theirs. The First Secretary of State should beware. Without the co-operation of the agricultural community, the whole thing will collapse. If she has not realised that already, I am afraid that she is in for a very big shock.

5.56 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Since our last debate on the previous Order which was withdrawn, an incident has come to my attention which the Minister should know. I have written to the Chairman of the Agricultural Training Board, Mr. Neame, about it and received a totally unsatisfactory reply.

The largest horticultural producer in my constituency, whom I have known for seven years and for whose veracity I have the greatest respect, told me that, several months ago, without any prior arrangements, a representative of the Board suddenly arrived at his office. My constituent was naturally very busy, and when he got the telephone message that this man wished to see him immediately, he had to say that he could not see him then because he was heavily engaged, and the training officer had given him no advance notice. Although the officer had a discussion with my constituent's manager, he sent my constituent a message to say that he was in much greater demand than supply, that far more people were waiting to see him than he could get around to, and that, unless my constituent saw him immediately, he would leave and never come back.

When I reported this extraordinarily arrogant incident to the Chairman, I received the extraordinary reply that this was but another example of the ill-will and prejudice of the agricultural industry towards the Board. I can conceive of no more topsy-turvy reply. If the Board intends to conduct its relationships with people trying to earn their living in the industry in this extraordinarily arrogant manner, it cannot be surprised if it meets suspicion and resentment.

If these training officers are busy and want farmers and horticulturists to drop everything and discuss their business when they arrive, they should take the precaution of ringing or sending a postcard beforehand. Large producers with many customers cannot tell customers who are visiting them to go away for an hour while they talk with someone who has given no advance notice but indulged in a sort of apostalic visitation.

I would therefore ask the Minister himself to make strong representations to the Chairman of the Agricultural, Horticultural and Forestry Industry Training Board, who is not himself over-endowed with tact or the ability to get on with others, and to impress upon him the necessity of employing as training officers people who have the gift of getting on with individual producers and impressing upon them the necessity of conducting themselves in a courteous and reasonable manner towards those whose co-operation they are going to need if they are to make a success of the scheme.

If they do not get that co-operation the £3 levy in the Order which is before the House for approval at the moment will not just be wasted, it will be scandalously wasted; because this is a statutory imposition placed on the industry which can be justified only by results—results which will not be forthcoming unless the representatives of the Board conduct themselves in a courteous and reasonable manner towards the individual producer. Certainly, the example which I have quoted, from a constituent whom I have known for more than seven years, leads me to suppose that there, at any rate, these elementary preconditions do not exist.

6.1 p.m.

Mr. Bert Hazell (Norfolk, South)

I rise to express the approval of workers employed in the agricultural industry. I recall, as does the House generally, the very long debate we had when the previous Prayer was moved in January last during the course of which various aspects of the proposed training in the agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries were discussed at considerable length. It is fair to say that the Training Board has so far hardly had an opportunity of getting on its feet; and debates of this nature will be considerably unsettling for those who have entered into this work which requires, and will require, a good deal of patience and understanding on both sides of the industry.

If there has been a measure of reluctance—and one recognises that there has—on the part of employers within the agricultural industry to accept the Board, it is equally true, I believe, that the workers too, perhaps particularly some of the older ones, are a little reluctant to accept the idea of training. I do not believe that anyone on either side of the House would but agree that training is an absolute "must" within an industry so complex and so changing as modern agriculture. I do not believe that even hon. Gentlemen opposite would oppose the idea of training as such.

One can, of course, understand that irritation is caused if a newly-appointed officer goes about his task in a ham-fisted way. Certainly, I would not be one to condone anything of that kind. I believe that, in the main, the field officers who are appointed have a good deal of knowledge of what is expected of them, but I suppose it would be fair to say that there might be the odd individual here and there who might tackle his job in the wrong way. I am pretty certain that he will not be working with the Training Board and coming up against farmers and workers for very long before he realises that he will have to approach both sides in a more tactful manner.

During the past three months I have been privileged to attend conferences of my organisation from Devonshire to the north of England, and I have had the opportunity of talking informally with, and listening to, training officers in the areas where these conferences have been held; because we have deliberately followed a police of inviting the area training officer to our conference, recognising as we have the need for him to make known clearly to workers within the industry what training is about and how essential it is that they should recognise their responsibilities in this matter.

We felt—I believe probably quite rightly—that it would be an excellent opportunity to introduce these training officers to our branch officers at county conference level; and I have been impressed by the general quality of the field officers whom I have met. Obviously, there have been among them some who have not had the practical training one would have wished, but they will not be doing much of the training themselves. Their responsibility will be to ensure that at the machinery depôts, Royal Agricultural Colleges or progressive farms, facilities are made available to provide a training class for a small nucleus of workers interested in a particular facet. Theirs will be the job of unifying the work of management, with proper and adequate training facilities.

I listened with interest to what was said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills)—that small farmers will not derive much benefit from any training scheme instituted within the industry. I believe they will stand to gain more advantage, perhaps, than some of the larger units; for if one takes the pattern of industry generally, it is the larger manufacturer who provides the training facilities in his workshop and allows his workers to go on day-release courses and so on. Often when those men are trained they migrate to smaller businesses so that the smaller businesses take advantage of the training facilities provided by larger undertakings. I believe that this will prove equally true of farmers.

It will be the larger farmers who allow their workers to go for training, and without doubt the small farmer, looking to the future when recruiting labour, will recruit from people trained on larger farms. I believe that it will largely be the bigger farmers who will provide such training opportunities, because the absence of workers on courses always causes inconvenience and it may well be that larger farmers, after having had their workers away on training courses for half a day, a day or two days, as the case may be, will later find they have lost them to small farmers who had not sufficient manpower to enable them to offer training facilities for their own workers. I believe this will affect all sides of the agricultural industry, and all farmers, be they small or large, and that nothing but good can come, ultimately, from the facilities that will be made available.

I will mention just three results which I feel sure will be experienced after the scheme has been working for some time. First, I believe that efficiently trained workers will be able to do much of the minor maintenance required on tractors and farm implements, and substantially to reduce the heavy maintenance costs that every farmer has to meet at present in having his agricultural machinery repaired by his agricultural machinery dealer or possibly the local garage. Men who have been even partly trained can be of tremendous advantage to farmers in reducing maintenance costs and the small outlay involved will be recouped time and time again.

Secondly,—and I believe this to be all important—trained workers will act more responsibly towards their jobs and we might, as a consequence, see a substantial reduction in the heavy toll of nearly 10,000 accidents which occur on British farms annually. That would be of advantage not only to the worker who suffers the consequences of accidents but also to farmers who find their work-load upset and their plans disarranged because a worker is off for a few days, or perhaps for a week or a fortnight, suffering as a result of an accident that, with some care and responsibility, could have been avoided

Thirdly, as a result of training, workers in agriculture will take a greater interest in the work they are doing. Instead of regarding a task merely as a job, they will have the knowledge that, by performing a task in a certain way, they are increasing output. I am a member of an agricultural wages board—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he can refer only to the merits of the scheme as a whole in relation to the proposal in the Order to reduce the levy from £6 to £3.

Mr. Hazell

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for drawing that to my attention, but of course without the levy one cannot have a training scheme.

In the development of an agricultural wages structure, the categories into which workers will be fitted will be dependent on the training and skill of those workers. The Training Board will obviously be of help in ensuring that workers have the skill and knowledge to make them capable of receiving the rate of pay that will ultimately be determined for each category in such a wages structure.

Perhaps it is a good thing for the air to be cleared by the levy being discussed openly, as it is today. I hope that the time has come when the Training Board can now be allowed to show its worth to the industry. Grants are already being paid from the levy, and while the levy is not yet being collected, farmers are enabling their workers to be trained. Now that the scheme is more clearly understood—as a result of the debates in Parliament and elsewhere—I hone that it will be allowed to progress because in the long run this modern and complex industry, as it now is, needs highly trained workers. The scheme must succeed because other methods have not proved successful.

6.12 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

It is always interesting to hear the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) pouring oil on troubled waters in support of his right hon. Friends. The waters are troubled, and nobody knows that better than the hon. Member for Norfolk, North. The hon. Gentleman has been telling us how pleasant the situation is. I suggest, on the contrary, that of the Minister, the chairman of the Board or whoever else it is who must apply this concept, someone is well on the way to ruining a very good idea.

The idea of an industrial training levy was inaugurated by the Conservative Party. Now it is being ruined because of the way in which this scheme is being handled. Those concerned do not like the way it is being presented and represented to them on their farms; and evidence of that has been supplied by my hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, North said that grants are already being made out of the fund, which is made up of levies, but the levies have not yet been collected and, as yet, I understand that there is no authority to collect them. In what position is Parliament? The Parliamentary Secretary is good at answering these sorts of debates—he has had a lot of practice at it lately—and suggest that the Order should be completely withdrawn in view of the evidence which shows that even if we must go back to having an industrial training levy in agriculture, now is not a good time to have it.

The whole atmosphere has been made sour. For the sake of this concept, not only in agriculture but in engineering, the hotel industry and other trades which have training levies, the scheme in this case should be withdrawn so that, at a later date, those who must operate it and pay the levy can be more in sympathy with the concept and we can have rather more public relations from the chairman of the Board and his officials who eventually must sell the idea.

In urging the Minister to withdraw the Order, I should make it clear that I believe that training is a good idea. In every industry—and certainly in an industry as complex as modern agriculture—the idea of giving guidance on how to use the latest implements and new techniques which are being introduced almost daily is highly desirable. However, I do not believe that a case has been made out for having a statutory training—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing in this Order whether the levy should be reduced from £6 to £3.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I accept that, Mr. Speaker, but I am suggesting that the whole thing should be withdrawn. I am not asking for a reduction in the levy but that, since it is still within the power of Parliament to do something about it, we should abolish it. Perhaps this is the last moment when we can ask the Government to withdraw it, in the interests of the industry. It is our duty—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The only Instrument which the hon. Member can ask to be withdrawn is this Order, not the original Order which it amends. We are here discussing whether the original sum of £6 in the original Order should be reduced to £3.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I understand that if it was withdrawn the Government would not have the authority to collect any levy whatever for this industry.

Mr. Hazell

On a point of order. Is it not a fact that the original Order relating to the sum of £6 was approved by Parliament?

Mr. Speaker

I am endeavouring to convey that fact to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls).

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Nevertheless, Mr. Speaker, as this Order represents an amendment to the original Order—in that it is designed to reduce the levy from £6 to £3—if this were withdrawn, the Government would not be left with statutory authority to impose a levy. I gather, from the acquiescence of the Parliamentary Secretary, that this is so.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Roy Hattersley) indicated dissent.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

We still have time to ask the Government to reconsider the full effects—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot discuss the full effects of the parent Order on an Order which is designed to reduce the levy mentioned in the parent Order from £6 to £3. He can only discuss whether the sum should be £6 or £3.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Although I would have thought that we could press for the whole Order to be withdrawn, I will not pursue that line of argument since it seems, from what you have said, Mr. Speaker, that I would be out of order.

Even an. amended levy of £3 should not he proceeded with because even if we did not have a levy—and it has been pointed out that it has not been collected—that would not mean that this great industry would not have a training scheme. Those of us who have served in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I was a junior Minister and I note that one of my successors in title is on the Treasury Bench—are aware of the amount of training that goes on. When we attended agricultural shows—I refer not only to the large exhibitions but the small country shows as well—we saw the training facilities that were already being provided by those who supply tractors and other farm equipment. Those training schemes have produced amazingly good results, without there being any statutory obligation on farmers to pay a levy of £3 or any other sum. In view of the great success of this voluntary training system, as one might call it, I suggest that the Government have no need for even a reduced levy of £3.

Whether or not we approve the order today, I hope that the Government will take heed of the ham-handed way in which the people who have to implement the Order carry out their public relations. Whether or not the chairman of the Board is an able man, dedicated to his task, it is unhappily the fact that he has given the impression of being so bureaucratic and high-handed that he has prevented the easy acceptance of what was a good idea.

Even at this late hour, I feel that there is a sufficiently strong case for the Government to consider withdrawing the Order. By withdrawing it they will let the farming community know that their genuine protests are being heeded. They can then re-present it, if they so wish, having produced a better and more co-operative atmosphere than at present exists.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member cannot propose amendments. He can debate whether the levy should be £6, £3 or some other sum.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I am trying very hard. You, Mr. Speaker, are very much on the alert. I apologise if I am straining your discretion too much. I am not asking for £6, or £3; I am asking for nothing; and the only way for me to do that is by asking the Government to withdraw the Order. I can see no great urge in the House to press them to do that. If they do not do that, I urge them to work very hard to try to recreate an atmosphere of co-operation and understanding. If this debate does no more than impress upon the Ministers concerned the need to do that, then it will have been worth while.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Tony Gardner (Rushcliffe)

With very great respect to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), I recall that we have been through all this before. The arguments which are being rehearsed now were rehearsed over two evenings on the parent Order. At that time some hon. Members opposite, with whom I felt some sympathy, supported in general terms the need for agricultural training and eventually the levy, because of the very considerable difficulties which the industry faced in the winter. On that occasion we on this side supported the Order which the Government were bringing in, but we shared some of the fears of hon. Gentlemen opposite.

It seems most strange that this afternoon, when the Government have recognised the difficulties which were then discussed at great length, and in fact cut the levy by half, we are now discussing the same old arguments.

We might debate at great length exactly how much the levy should be, but if hon. Members opposite pursue the line that the industry appears to be able to pay nothing, since this is the ultimate effect of their Prayer, whatever their arguments will be, we are saying that agricultural industrial training is just not worth even the £3.

The hon. Member for Peterborough was talking about the agricultural training that is already being given. I agree completely—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot discuss the Training Board. We discussed that on a previous Order. That previous Order fixed the amount of levy at £6. This Order reduces it to £3. We can discuss only whether it should be reduced to £3 or left at £6.

Mr. Gardner

I apologise, Mr. Speaker; I was tempted by some of the arguments. In that case, there does not seem to be a great deal that we can discuss. I have made my main point, that this is a major concession on the part of the Government, who recognise the difficulties which the industry has faced this year. I hope that hon. Members opposite will not look this gift horse in the mouth, but will join with us in supporting the need for the reduced amount of levy, if only to show that we support the need for training in agriculture.

6.25 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

Two fundamental differences have arisen since the parent Order was debated, and I will endeavour to direct my remarks entirely to the change in the levy.

The first difference is that within 48 hours of the previous debate the Government ate their words. They said at the previous debate that it could not be changed, and it was changed.

As has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), the Board is already paying out the money, although the levy is not yet fixed, which calls into question the Parliamentary authority for this action. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Gardner) has said that we should not look this gift horse a in the mouth, but the extra £3 must come from somewhere, and it is coming from the majority of taxpayers. If the farming community do not want the Training Board at any price—and I shall seek to prove this in a moment—why then should the taxpayers have to find the balance?

Since this matter was previously debated, hon. Members in several parts of the House have asked the Government if they will hold a referendum of the view of the farming community, and the Government have consistently refused. In my county of Kent, not in my own area but elsewhere, a branch of the National Farmers' Union have held a poll of their members to ascertain their views on this point. They put out two questions—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have discussion on the existence or the need for the existence of the Board. That has been decided. We have also decided that a levy shall be made. This Order seeks to reduce the levy from £6 to £3. This is what we are discussing tonight.

Mr. Wells

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The point remains that the farmers have been asked what levy they would like to pay, and most of them have said they would like to pay no levy at all. If the farmers would like to pay no levy, I see no reason why the majority of taxpayers should pay the lot. I therefore ask two specific questions of the Minister. First, will he wind up the Board, and, second, will he dismiss the Chairman?

Mr. Speaker

Order, order, The Minister cannot, in winding up, answer either of those two questions.

6.28 p.m.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)

I have two points to put before the Minister. The first is that in all the speeches which have been made this evening the message that has been conveyed to the Minister is that unless the Board is able to convey to the country that it is winning the confidence of the farmers, it will not be very successful.

There has been very strong resentment against the levies, not only in my county of Sussex, as doubtless the Minister knows, but throughout the country. The hon. Members for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) and for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) have all suggested various ways in which confidence in the Board could be won. The hon. Member for Torrington wanted to ensure that the administrative costs were kept low, which is most important.

My second point is that an assessment notice has been sent out during the last few days asking for the balance for the year 1967–68 to be paid. As the Minister knows, conversations have been taking place between the National Farmers' Union and the Board. It is a pity that such levy notices should have been sent out before the end of those discussions. This has resulted in opinion in the country hardening against the Board. I have received a letter from a very responsible member of the farming community in my own county, expressing it in this way: I am genuinely convinced that unless the Agricultural Training Board adopts more realistic, prudent and practical methods, it will fail. The Board has alienated itself to the industry and to those whose backing it cannot afford to be without: whether the position can be recovered or not is a moot point. I hope the Minister will convey to the Board how important it is to obtain the confidence of farmers and of workers in the industry. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) explained four reasons why training would be of value. Unfortunately, I cannot pursue that, Mr. Speaker, as I am sure that it would not win your approval.

6.30 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

A number of hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have had to leave the Chamber, but all of them have expressed their apologies to me and their understanding that I may have to make comments about their speeches in their absence.

I turn immediately to the point made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) and the suggestion that I was so adamant in the defence of the previous Order and so certain that £6 was the only conceivable figure, that there could not be any reason to assume that I now proposed an appropriate figure. Had the hon. Gentleman been here, I would have urged him to read the final paragraph of my speech on 29th January in which I made it clear that at that time I was discussing with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture the application from the Board and from the National Farmers' Union for additional Government assistance in the financing of the Board.

It is clear from the words with which I ended my speech that the possibility of the amended Order which is now before the House was in my mind. In my final sentence, I said: While that request is under consideration the Board must continue to exist, because it is in the interests of the industry, and it can only continue if it is financed by levy. It must be financed by the Levy Order which I commend to the House now."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1968; Vol. 757, c. 1050.] That is a clear implication of the possibility of change. In fact, it was so clear that the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), who followed me, described my speech as leaving the House in the worst of both possible worlds. The clear implication of his remarks was that I had left the House not knowing what the exact levy position would be.

While I think that his criticism was unjustified, his conclusion was reasonable. It is certainly at variance with the suggestion that the original Order was so definite that something approaching negligence is implied by asking for this reduction.

That I could imply the possible need for a reduction on that occasion stems from two causes. The first was the structural problems which always affected training in the industry and made our original intentions by their very nature liable to alteration. To organise training adequately, it had to be organised in the counties and on the farms and not from London. To organise training adequately, it had to be organised amongst the small units which make up the bulk of the industry and are the units most in need of training. Both necessities posed problems for the Board from the word go.

We knew on 29th January that, as well as these structural problems, there were immediate problems facing the Board because of the greater problems facing the industry at that time. Because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, farmers were unable to move from farm to farm, as were union officers and training officers of the Board. As a result, the training programme was seriously curtailed. The campaign of explanation and description of the work of the Board was equally curtailed. I have told the House on two previous occasions of the number of meetings and schools which had to be cancelled and closed down because of that necessary immobility. It was that which obliged the Government to intervene and look again at the general financial support which we were prepared to give to the Board in these altogether extraordinary circumstances.

Because of the curtailment in activities as a result of the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the Board's inability to meet all the demands for training which it anticipated, and because of the special circumstances associated with the acceptance of the Board since the Board had been unable to justify itself to the industry, my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Labour agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that an extra grant of £450,000 should be given to the Board so that it could continue for a temporary period on a reduced levy. The levy was to be reduced by 50 per cent., and that is the levy which is the subject of the amended Order that I am defending tonight.

I announced the intention to amend and I announced the agreement that a grant of £450,00 should be made to the Board in the House on 14th February. Tonight's Order is a direct consequence of that announcement.

It is worth recalling that on 14th February the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) asked me: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the statement he has made is very much in line with the proposal I made in a recent debate, and that I welcome it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th February, 1968; Vol. 758, c. 1348–9.] As I recall my reply, I said that it was immaterial to me from where a good idea sprang but that, if it was a good idea, I hoped that he and I would join together in welcoming it. I only wish that other hon. Gentlemen shared our view that the decision to reduce the levy in this way was one which was in the interests of the industry and one which should command the unanimous support of the House.

In defence of the Board, I should make it clear that when I met the Board, together with representatives of the National Farmers' Union, I made two things clear. The extraordinary circumstances affecting the industry justified the special grant of £450,000. It was, however being made during a time of economic stringency. The grant of £½ million should not encourage it to believe that more might be available. There was an obligation on the Board, which I imposed as part of its undertaking and agreement to accept an offer, to make itself self-sufficient and to create a viable Board, which, after the £450,000 was spent, could stand of its own feet and run its own affairs.

My stipulation stemmed from two main reasons. The first is that the Board needs to be part of the industry and accepted by the industry. The application of an acceptable grant and levy system is a step in that direction. The second is that if training is to be organised in accordance with the provisions of the 1964 Training Act introduced by the right hon. Member for Grantham, it is essential that the industry itself should finance that training. The £3 levy to which I am asking the House to agree is a measure intended to enable the industry to finance its own training.

I made other points to the Board at that time which in many ways are identical with some of the expressions of opinion which we have heard from hon. Gentlemen opposite, although I trust that I said them in a rather different tone. I pointed out that it was essential for the Board to work in harmony with the industry. I think that I have spoken on this subject in the House on five previous occasions. Every time, I have said at least twice, and I make no apology for repeating it now, that it is essential that the Board should work with the industry. I hoped that the fact that the Board could say to its constituent farmers that during these troubled times the levy was being reduced by 50 per cent. would help the industry and the Board to work together in harmony.

In a sense, that has been achieved already. The National Farmers' Union is now holding discussions with the Board and has made a series of proposals which must remain confidential at the moment. But these are material proposals which the Board is considering and which may result in a great deal more harmony than we have yet had.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Are the discussions likely to affect the level of the levy, or is it fixed, whatever happens?

Mr. Hattersley

Since I am under an obligation to keep the proposals confidential, I do not want to pursue that in any detail, but I hope that the House understands that, whatever the union's proposals may be and whatever their outcome, they are about the long-term future of the Board. The £3 levy seeks to make the Board viable at the moment.

The Board needs this money for running today. It has needed it for running every day since 1st April. I hope the House and the parties to this discussion will keep separate in their minds the problems which the N.F.U. is discussing with the Board and the obligations of the Board to raise a levy to keep it in being until those problems are sorted out and a mutually agreed solution—as I hope it will be—becomes part of the Board's policy.

The levy is necessary because no other source of finance is possible if the Board is to continue. There is no possibility of any additional Government grant being available. The only source is the very modest levy which the Order recommends. I think I am in order in telling the House of the progress of the amended Order to date. It has been said that levy notices have already gone out on the amended figure. So they have, to farmers, except in areas affected by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, to whom the levy will be sent later. The notices went out on 5th April.

Most farmers have responded in a different way from that of the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills). About 400 payments a day are being received and to date the Board has received £76,000. This is the sort of response one would expect from a responsible industry, from an industry which knows that both the Government and the Board are anxious for the industry to work in harmony with the Board. It is the sort of responsibility which I hope will characterise the work of the Board in the years ahead.

I must tell the House of the general attitude of the National Farmers' Union towards the amended Order as it stands. It is important to remember that originally the Board came about because of the National Farmers' Union request that it should be set up, a request sent to my right hon. Friend on 13th February, 1965 in the name of the then Vice-President who is now the President of the National Farmers' Union. It is important to remember that the National Farmers'. Union even remained enthusiastic for the Board raising the original levy of £6, until immediately before the levy Order was debated in this House in January. Indeed, the anti-levy committee set up in the county of the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells)—not, of course, connected with him, but coincidentally in his county—was greeted officially by the N.F.U. Press office with the description of "Luddite". That was the attitude of the National Farmers' Union until the very eve of the original debate on the original Order.

I hope that that attitude, which certainly has hardened in the last few months, will be softened by the knowledge that the Government remain determined that the Board and the industry—both sides of that industry not just the farmers but the employees as well—should work in harmony. I hope that the reduction in levy which the Order recommends to the House will be taken as an indication of our determination to work in harmony with the industry.

Mr. John Wells

The hon. Gentleman must realise that when he speaks of the National Farmers' Union he speaks of the hierarchy in London, whereas it is poles apart from the membership in the country on this problem.

Mr. Hattersley

I acknowledge that the enthusiasm shown by the leadership of the National Farmers Union, which was shown up to 29th January, is not reflected everywhere among its membership. Equally I am sure the hon. Member will acknowledge that the 400 letters a day containing the levy received by the Industrial Training Board do not come from the council of the N.F.U. but from ordinary farmers meeting their statutory obligations. While there may be disagreement as to the way in which the Board is working, there is general acceptance that its job needs to be done. I ask the hon. Member to read again the many articles which have appeared in the technical and professional Press in the last few months—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not be tempted to go beyond the Order.

Mr. Hattersley

—none of which, I am sorry to say, referred to the reduction of the levy. I referred to the reduction of the levy in meetings with the National Farmers' Union and made two points about the decision to reduce the levy. The first was that it was intended as an indication of our enthusiasm for the industry and the Board to work hand in hand. The second was my hope that there would be no temptation to do what I fear the hon. Member for Torrington said would be done—not to pay the levy until the last moment. Any hon. Member or any farmer who complains about the administrative costs of a board but intentionally increases the administrative costs by not responding to the first application and waiting for the second or third seems, to say the least, inconsistent.

Irrespective of that, there is the basic fact, which I cannot stress too strongly, that the only way in which the Board can be financed is by a levy, on this occasion the reduced levy of £3. Since it is the intention of the Government that the Board shall continue, since it is the view of the Government that it is in the interests of the industry to continue and that the reduced levy must be paid, it becomes—if the House approves it—a statutory requirement. Members of the industry who choose not to pay it are only buying a very short amount of time. It will become an obligation on them, an obligation which the Board will have to pursue to continue its effective and important existence.

Question put and negatived.