HC Deb 07 May 1968 vol 764 cc345-55

10.1 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Mackie)

I beg to move, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd April, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that it is convenient to discuss the second Scheme with this Motion: That the Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme 1968, a draft of which was laid before this Home on 23rd April, be approved.

Mr. Mackie

I think that that will be convenient, Sir.

As hon. Members know, this grant is payable for ploughing grassland more than 12 years old where the cost of operations is substantially heavier than normal, and it is designed to encourage farmers to bring into cultivation land which would otherwise be unproductive.

About 40,000 to 50,000 acres are reclaimed each year in this way, and hon. Members will agree that it is particularly desirable to go on providing this encouragement at a time when it is so necessary to make the best possible use of this country's resources. In addition, the land reclaimed helps to offset that lost to agriculture through urban and similar development.

I should perhaps draw attention to a minor change in paragraph 3(3), which will allow an approval given under any of the three previous Schemes to remain valid for the current Scheme. The change involves no loss of financial control and saves the farmer and the Ministry some unnecessary paper work, which is always desirable. When we can, we like to simplify the requirements of our Schemes to enable farmers to get on with the practical business of farming.

The House will wish to know what the Schemes will cost. The figure included in the 1968–69 Estimates is £696,000, of which £575,000 is for England and Wales, £25,000 for Northern Ireland and £96,000 for Scotland. This differs from the total of the published Estimates, which include £150,000 for the special £10 ploughing grant introduced 'earlier this year to assist farmers who had suffered as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic.

I would commend these Schemes for the approval of the House.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

I do not think that we have ever had a briefer and more business-like presentation of a Scheme than that which the hon. Gentleman has given us tonight. Might I say to him that one of the advantages, although that perhaps is too strong a word, of the £12 an acre Scheme is that we are tonight enabled to concentrate solely upon this without it playing second fiddle to the Part I Scheme of previous years.

Presumably, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will reply to the debate, and I wonder whether he will tell us about the kind of land which qualifies for the £12 an acre grant. I have done a certain amount of research into previous debates of this kind, and it is a fact that, perhaps inevitably the £12 Part II section of the Ploughing Grant Scheme has always been dominated by the much more popular Part I.

What sort of land qualifies for the £12 an acre grant? One knows from the Scheme that it is land which involves heavier than normal expenditure on ploughing, subsequent cultivation and seeding. What does the land usually consist of? Is it steep land where ploughing has to be done in a special way, or is it land which involves the cleaning up of woodlands and the pulling out of the stumps of trees? Would the Under-Secretary of State say where normally it is to be found? Is this the sort of grant which applies more to the steephill areas of each country, or does it apply to inaccessible land in the low areas?

Would the hon. Gentleman also explain the significance in paragraph 2 of the Scottish and English Schemes of the words land under grass' includes any grazing land"? I should have thought that grazing must mean that beasts frequently eat in a grass field. Is it possible for a beast to graze other than on grass? This is typical of the points in the education which I have received from the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). It puzzles me a little. Surely a beast cannot graze other than on grass. Therefore, what is the purpose of putting these words in the Scheme?

What is the significance of paragraph 6 of the Scottish Scheme compared with paragraph 3(4) of the English Scheme? The English Scheme—and we should give the English credit for something now and again—appears to say precisely the same but very much more succinctly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would say whether there is any point in paragraph 6 of the Scottish Scheme compared with paragraph 3(4) of the English Scheme. It is about two and a half times as long, and I am not entirely convinced that there is any great difference between the two paragraphs.

Last year, the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. John Mackie) said that since 1952 600,000 acres had received the advantage of the grant, of which Scotland contributed 108,000. That is an average over the United Kingdom of 40,000 acres a year, of which Scotland had an average of 7,000. In percentage terms, the Scottish average was 18 per cent. compared with 23 per cent. in respect of the former Part I Order. I should have thought that Scotland would have benefited more from the Part II Order than England or Wales because of the nature of its terrain.

To what extent does the acreage under Part II vary from year to year? Last year, the Parliamentary Secretary said that each year an extra 40,000 or 50,000 acres qualified for this grant. He gave the figure of 40,000 again tonight. It is interesting to note that in 1963–64 the amount was 42,000 acres, in 1965–66 it was 54,000 acres and in 1959–60 it was 71,500 acres. There has been a very considerable reduction within the last five or six years. Do the Government as a matter of policy want this kind of land ploughed up for the £l2 an acre? If so, are we making full use through the various machinery of propaganda to ensure that we get all we want? If we want this kind of land, does the hon. Gentleman think that £12 an acre is enough in these days?

In 1952, 16 years ago, when the grant was first introduced the grant was £10 an acre. It was increased to £12 an acre in 1955 and it has not been changed since. If £12 was regarded as necessary in 1955 to get this land under cultivation, are the Government entirely satisfied that, with the tremendous rise there has been in costs since, £12 is still adequate? I should have thought there was room for reclamation and ploughing up of these difficult areas subject to abnormal expenditure in these days. We know only too well that every year 50,000 acres are taken out of cultivation and are used for new towns, playing fields and roads. They are usually built on low ground. There would seem to be a very strong reason for reclaiming more acres by this method to try to fill the void created by the 50,000 acres which are removed from production.

If, 13 years ago, it was considered necessary to fix the grant at £12 an acre, can the Parliamentary Secretary give a good reason why the figure should still be considered adequate today in view of the rise in costs which has taken place? I have asked several questions to which I hope we shall have an answer. This grant of £12 an acre has been largely overshadowed, if not neglected, in previous debates. I shall therefore be obliged if, before the House gives assent to this Order, the hon. Gentleman will reply to these points.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. William Baxter (West Stirlingshire)

I am not quite sure what the main aim and object of the Government is in regard to this Scheme. I incline somewhat to the same view as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart). In previous years ploughing grants were available and special grants and special circumstances exceeding the ploughing grant were available for land reclamation purposes and improvements of marginal land brought under the plough and cultivated.

This may get a few extra acres into better heart in view of the fact that the time stipulated for it under the Scheme was 1956, but I am very doubtful if that should be the aim and object of the Government in the present circumstances. I should have thought that the aim and object of any Government was to bring as much land as possible under cultivation and I feel that it is almost beyond the purse or the ability of the ordinary farmer or many of those who own land throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, if not of England.

This s a matter which requires a greater concept than that contained in this Scheme of giving just the £12 grant. I think that the concept which should be put before this House by any progressive Government, seeing and knowing the necessity for greater production of foodstuff in our own country, is that seeing that all land which can be utilised is utilised to the best possible extent. That would presuppose the necessity to put into operation a different method of land reclamation than in the past.

Mr. Speaker

That cannot be done on this Scheme. We are discussing whether we should make a ploughing grant of £l2 an acre.

Mr. Baxter

But I think that the ploughing grant is such a small measure of assistance at £12 an acre that it will not be sufficient to meet the requirements of the Scheme which is before us. I should have thought that a better method could and should have been adopted, such as I have indicated, by giving at least £12 an acre to the Land Commission for the purpose of reclamation throughout the length and breadth of Scotland.

I agree that this would be diverging somewhat from the Scheme before us, but it is a suggestion which merits the serious consideration of the Government, because I believe that the method which has been adopted in previous years and has been continued in this Scheme, of giving a grant of £12 or even £15 an acre, is not sufficient to meet the requirements envisaged in the Scheme, which is to bring more land under the plough for the purpose of producing more foodstuff or grassland. As has been said, grassland is the food of livestock, and better grassland for our country would mean a greater amount of fat cattle and dairy cattle and of sheep.

Therefore, I believe that this is the wrong way to go about achieving the aims and objects that seem to underlie the provisions in this Scheme. I should have liked to take the matter further on a different theme but, as I am restricted to the contents of the Schemes before us, I must resume my seat and let other hon. Members take up the cudgel.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie (Ross and Cromarty)

The two Schemes before us this evening are fairly straightforward but there are one or two points which I should like to have clarified.

Some years ago we had two Schemes for bringing this type of land into production—this No. 2 Ploughing Grant Scheme and the Reclamation of Hill Land Scheme. This grant is for land which requires more than the normal labour to bring it into productivity. The grants are paid for land which has been under grass since 1956. In my opinion, if a grant was paid for this type of land 12 to 15 years ago, it should not be necessary to pay it again this time. Land which qualified for this £12 an acre grant 12 to 15 years ago, if it has been farmed, should not require those special operations which would make it qualify for this grant.

The acreage should be decreasing all the time, because the greater part of such land was brought under cultivation many years ago. I think that it would be better to go for the reclamation of hill land on a bigger scale and give the extra grants for that purpose. As reclamation grants were stopped a few years ago, there has been little activity in that regard.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is only this grant that we can talk about in discussing this Scheme.

Mr. Mackenzie

I thought that it had a strong bearing on this Scheme, with respect, Sir.

I would like this point to be clarified: are these grants available for land which was brought into cultivation prior to 1956—say, between 1950 and 1956? If so, this is a waste of money because, if the grants have been paid and if the land has been properly farmed, further grants should not be required now. The English Scheme is straightforward. As a Scot, I cannot comment on it, but I give it my approval.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I will confine myself to asking only a few of the many questions which I would like to ask. The first point which springs to my mind is whether the grant of £12 an acre will tempt farmers to get on with the job that they should be doing. This remains to be seen. Will it tempt farmers to carry out an operation which, in spite of the grant, is costly, because agriculture is not always as profitable as we would like it to be? I am not certain that the grant will encourage farmers to go to the trouble of doing all this, even though I admit that the grant is a help towards meeting the cost. A grant must be such as to tempt farmers to carry out the operation of reclaiming difficult land.

Obviously, I am not asking for an accurate figure, but it would be interesting to know how much more land is left which can qualify for the grant. We have been concerned for some time about this type of land. In the South-West there is much of this type of land which needs bringing into cultivation. The time is rapidly approaching when we should have a much better classification system of land so that we know how much land will qualify for grants such as this.

There is no doubt but that the grant will go a long way to encourage farmers to bring into cultivation land which would not otherwise be brought into cultivation. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) that the cost of these operations is increasing all the time. The time may well have arrived when the Minister should carefully consider whether £12 an acre is sufficient to meet the cost of bringing land into cultivation, as the cost of ploughing, with the heavy tackle which is necessary, and of fertiliser and of all the other things which must be done if land is to be brought into cultivation is rising all the time.

When he allows such land to have a grant the Minister should encourage farmers to persevere. It is not good enough to accept the grant, carry out the necessary cultivations, and then after a year or two allow the whole land to slip back, as happens in many instances. Therefore, it is worth asking the Minister to encourage the N.A.A.S. and those who advise and operate the Scheme to see that the farmers persevere and the land is brought into a high state of cultivation.

The need for this type of grant to bring in extra acres will grow. As more and more land is used up for other pur- poses it is vital that the country starts to use every bit of ground it can to produce the food we need and to save imports. Therefore, I welcome the Scheme.

10.26 p.m.

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

There has been a general welcome for the grant on a number of points. I shall try to emulate my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and deal with the questions as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) asked what land would qualify for the £12 grant. He asked whether it should be land that was steep or had particular problems because of contours clearance problems, stumps, boulders, and so on. The problem is all those kinds of land. In the past, there has been about 32 per cent. of hill land, 8 per cent. bordering hill land and about 60 per cent. of other land. The requirement is the inordinate cost rather than the nature of the land.

Mr. Stodart

Is it well known by farmers that if, for example, they were going to break land that is steep up from the plough and might have to be ploughed one way it would be worthwhile for them to apply for a £12 subsidy before they start, because they must not start first or they will not get the subsidy?

Mr. Buchan

I cannot say how well it is known. No doubt we should try to get it better known. On both sides of the Border the Departments make every effort to make the grants known to farmers. From my experience in office in the past 15 months, I have not found them l0th to respond when there is a possibility of assistance.

I was asked about the significance of the phrase "grazing land". The problem is that some land is grazed but also takes in heather, scrub, and so on. This kind of rough grazing would qualify.

The hon. Gentleman asked why paragraph 6 should be more complicated in the Scottish scheme than in the English. Part of the reason is the presence of the smallholding and crofting position in Scotland. But there is also the need to provide specifically for the making of an application because of the later provision in paragraph 7(c) which allows the joint application of crofters and so on.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question whether we want to encourage the use of the £12 grant. The kernel of the question was whether the grant is sufficient and one or two other Members, including the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) also asked this. It is interesting to look at some of the figures. There has been a considerable improvement in efficiency, and because of this contractors' charges have not risen very significantly since 1952, when it was introduced. We estimated for the United Kingdom as a whole there has been an increase of about 24 per cent. Under the 1966 scheme over 80 per cent. of the approved acreage in the United Kingdom attracted grants in excess of half the estimated cost of the operation. Even more interesting perhaps, is that in about 68 per cent. of the work done in Scotland the actual cost to the farmer after offsetting the grant was about £8 an acre. There is no evidence that the small farmer is put at a disadvantage.

Mr. Peter Mills

Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that since 1952 the costs of this operation have only gone up by 22 or 24 per cent? He should look at the figure again.

Mr. Buchan

We have the advantage in the Department of looking up figures again before we are asked to do so, and that is the figure as far as we can assess it. It is because of increased efficiency and other factors. There is general acceptance that the grant is useful and there seems no indication that insufficient use is being made of it.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West and my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter) raised general points, which it would be wrong of me to pursue now, as to whether this Scheme is likely to increase cultivation. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West made the point that the figures fluctuate and have not always increased. The land available for potential cultivation inevitably decreased in a sense, but to some extent this is compensated for. There has been fluctuation rather than a downward trend, and fluctuation is inevitable.

I take the point that we need to look specially at hill land because it is low land where the grant for development is mainly being taken. My hon. Friend asked for a new concept on land reclamation, but it would be out of order for me to pursue that question now. But he knows that I am always open to suggestions. It is worth repeating that there are, of course, other grants available, including those under the Hill Land Improvement Scheme and the Farm Improvement Scheme, and these, of course, also affect the situation to some extent.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie) raised the question of the reclamation of hill land rather than land that perhaps was brought into cultivation before 1956. Again, it would be wrong for me to go into the whole question of reclamation, but I remind him that a number of interesting experiments are taking place, particularly in the Highlands and in his area.

One thing to keep in mind is that we estimate that, on average, it would take about 20 years for the condition of land previously covered by a scheme to deteriorate to such an extent that reclamation of it would meet the requirements of this scheme—that is to say, if the cost of carrying out the work was substantially higher than normal.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie

My point was that any land reclaimed from the rough will deteriorate and go back to a state of nature after a period of years unless properly farmed. I wanted to be satisfied that there was no duplication in that respect if a grant was paid for reclaiming land 15 years ago and, because of bad husbandry, had gone back to bull rushes and whins.

Mr. Buchan

The technical requirement is grass prior to 1956. The land concerned would have to be in a very bad state of repair to qualify under this scheme.

The hon. Member for Torrington said that the real task is to ensure, through the advisory services, that a follow up takes place and the original reclamation becomes permanent.

I would not like to estimate how much land is left to cultivate. There must obviously be an "X" answer in so far as improved methods will alter any assessment which might be made at present. The need for better classification remains a permanent headache. This is a difficult problem and the hon. Member will remember the difficulties in the past of defining marginal land. There has been a general acceptance of the Scheme and tonight it has been uncomplicated by the absence of Part I of the Grant.

Mr. Stodart

May I ask the Under-Secretary one thing about his statement, which obviously surprised my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) and myself? He said that the costs had risen only by 25 per cent. Has the Under-Secretary investigated this figure fairly recently? I can recall putting ploughs on high steep ground. This was ploughing grant for forestry purposes. In the course of four years from 1964 up to the present time the cost of getting implements on to this land has risen by 40 per cent. I am, therefore, surprised to learn that from 1952 until today the figure has risen by only 25 per cent. Could the Under-Secretary say whether this figure is continuously scrutinised?

Mr. Buchan

This is an average figure. I have no doubt that in particular circumstances the cost of reclamation would be very much greater. The Scottish figure comes nearer to the point that the hon. Member has in mind. We found that in 1968 the cost to the farmer in Scotland after offsetting the grant was £8 an acre. This is a reasonable approximation of the cost. One can presume that there are more difficult areas. I understand that the figure of 24 per cent. is up to date. It is based on contractors' charges and it is a great tribute to farmers, including the hon. Members for Edinburgh, West and Torrington.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd April, be approved.

Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme 1968, [draft laid before the House 23rd April], approved.—[Mr. Buchan.]