HC Deb 12 November 1968 vol 773 cc210-9
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about agricultural objectives.

The Government have carefully reviewed the contribution made by agriculture to the national economy over past years. This review has amply vindicated the industry as one which has made efficient use of the resources devoted to it. Productivity has continued to rise. Output has increased. There has been a valuable saving in imports. All this has been achieved without a significant increase in support costs and consistently with our international obligations. The industry has given good value for money to the British people, both as consumers and as taxpayers.

Against this background the Government have decided that the selective expansion of agriculture should continue, provided that this is based upon the maintenance of the rate of increase in the industry's productivity. The programme announced in 1965 took us forward to 1970–71. Now we are to project it to 1972–73. We shall, of course, continue to take stock from year to year as we go along.

We have had a valuable report from the Economic Development Committee for Agriculture on the import saving possibilities of agriculture to 1972–73. The Government have examined the Committee's technical assessment. In addition, we have had to take into account the likely consequences on the use of resources and support costs and our international obligations.

The Economic Development Committee, in looking at cereals production for the next four years, believed that it would be possible to overcome the husbandry and disease problems to achieve increasing average yields. We consider that, taking into account the quality of the additional land which would have to be brought into production, the objective set by the Economic Development Committee may prove to have been a little optimistic. This year's difficult harvest underlines some of the uncertainties which cereal growers can face.

For pigmeat, the Economic Development Committee proposed a very large increase indeed. Much of the expanded production would have to go for bacon. The Committee assumed that it would be possible to obtain a rapid expansion in the production of British bacon of the right quality and at the right price. There are some difficult technical and marketing problems in doing this. But we are looking to the curing industry to increase its share of the market by improving its productivity and competitiveness. Subject to these points, we welcome and endorse in broad terms the Economic Development Committee's assessment.

Our broad objectives over the next four years will be as follows. I have sounded a note of caution about the practical pace of advance in cereals production. Our objective, however, for cereals is clear. We aim to expand production as much as is technically possible and con sistent with reasonable resource use and support cost. With this objective, goes an expansion of the appropriate break and fodder crops. For sugar beet, we shall maintain the acreage against a level of consumption of sugar which is, at best, static. We shall continue to aim at meeting the demand for main crop potatoes for human consumption. We shall encourage the output of the right quality potatoes for the processing industries.

It remains important that we should make significantly better use of our grassland. The Economic Development Committee considered that, on this basis, a continuing growth of beef production was possible. We should like to see an increase in suitable calf retentions. We should also like to see any increase in the dairy herd for beef production related to cheaper milk production; for example, from summer grass.

We accept that we should continue an expansion of beef from the beef and dairy herds. This means that for these important commodities, beef and milk, we are aiming for increased output, similar to that suggested by the Economic Development Committee up to 1972–73. We recognise the importance of sheep and aim at a continued shift of the flock towards the hills and uplands.

For those commodities where we are already virtually self-sufficient—namely, poultry, eggs and pork—we shall aim to increase production to meet rising demands. We shall encourage the bacon curing industry to improve further its productivity so as to produce more bacon of a quality and at a price which will attract the consumer. We also wish to see the encouraging expansion of the horticultural industry continuing on the basis of its competitive efficiency.

Sir Charles Taylor

On a point of order. Could not this important speech be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT, so that we could give it the study which it deserves?

Mr. Speaker

That will no doubt happen. It does help if statements made to the House are as concise as possible; but that is a question for the Minister himself to decide.

Mr. Hughes

I have tried to set out clearly the broad aims of a balanced programme for the whole industry. It goes a long way towards the import saving objectives of the Economic Development Committee. Although, for the reasons I have set out, the full import saving envisaged by the Committee would not be reached by 1972–73, nevertheless, by that time, we should achieve a net saving of about £160 million a year.

I should emphasise that, in the context of the programme, the Government are well aware of the need for stability in our markets. This stability contains support costs and gives confidence to the industry. Measures to promote such stability already exist for many commodities, such as cereals, butter, bacon and potatoes. Further measures for other commodities may be required. This is under consideration by the Government.

We believe that it is within the capacity of the British industry to achieve the objectives of selective expansion which I have outlined. Much must depend, however, on the ability of the industry to go on improving its technological standards; on the extent to which its rising productivity can help to hold down support costs; and on the attention which it pays to marketing.

We believe that, if this progress can be made, the selective expansion can be achieved with an economic use of resources and consistently with our international obligations. The development of the programme, its cost, the resources required and the market situation will clearly have to be examined with the industry at each Annual Review.

I believe that the industry and the country will welcome the guide lines that we are laying down for the years ahead. I am sure that farmers and growers will do their part. They can be sure that the Government believes in them and in their potential for making a further major contribution to our economic prosperity.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the hosts that I see rising before me, may I warn hon. Members that I must protect the business of the House. Mr. Godber.

Mr. Godber

My hon. Friends and I would welcome any proposal for agricultural expansion which is based on sound economic grounds. The right hon. Gentleman's lengthy statement, however, begs far more questions than it answers.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that he will get the increased production for which he calls when farmers are not told how he intends to deal with, for example, dumped imports, or how the expanded production will be financed? What does he intend to do about such things as dumped imports of cheese? What is he doing about the marketing of eggs, a subject on which producers are anxiously awaiting some information?

Does his statement mean that the production targets to which we have been working under the expansion programme in the National Plan have been raised? If not, what does his statement mean? Will he clarify the position to the House?

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman has completely failed to understand the importance of my statement. He is obviously more concerned to make party political points than to secure the confidence of the agricultural industry. He knows perfectly well, on the question of eggs, that the Reorganisation Commission has published a voluminous report, that it is now being considered and that consultations are taking place. To answer his question about cheese, he knows that consultations are going on with our overseas suppliers.

The right hon. Gentleman realises—he should realise, as he was a Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture—on the question of support, that these matters are dealt with when the Review determination takes place. He should not betray so much ignorance when asking supplementary questions.

Mr. Anderson

My right hon. Friend has outlined a series of aspirations. Can he say what relation these will have with the Price Review? Can he give a detailed breakdown of the £160 million import savings figure which he mentioned?

Mr. Hughes

The industry will obviously need the resources to do its job. As the House knows, the Annual Review examines what the resources are and how they are to be found.

To answer my hon. Friend's question about the figure of £160 million, I have set out the objectives for agricultural production in broad terms, but it would be unwise and imprudent of me to set specific targets, as hon. Members who represent agricultural constituencies will be aware. I do not believe that it would be desirable to set out detailed financial targets for each separate commodity.

I have tried to set out a balanced programme. Changes in the industry's circumstances at home and in its export opportunities abroad could only leave a rigid programme unaffected if we forcibly directed the industry. I do not want to compel the industry, but to lay down guidelines, and that is what this programme does.

Mr. Stodart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that although it may have a sort of biblical annotation to urge people to drive their flocks to the hills, that is quite the wrong way round, because sheep should be fattened on the low ground and not up on the hills? Does he realise that it cuts absolutely no ice whatever for him to encourage home producers and then to go to Denmark and speak soft words to the Danes?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman has asked a completely irresponsible question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] My statement made it clear that we appreciate the importance of sheep farming to the economy, particularly of the hill and upland areas. We have already given considerable help by way of production grants and in other ways. For example, the hill sheep subsidy is worth about £6½ million and wool guarantee payments of about £7 million are expected this year. We shall need a vigorous expansion to offset the reduction of sheep numbers in the lowlands. There is plenty of scope for this expansion.

Dr. John Dunwoody

Will not my right hon. Friend agree that the E.D.C. Report on Agriculture did not take fully into account our international obligations? Will he further agree that for a nation that is as dependent as we are on international trading this poses some very serious, difficult and complex problems? Does he not think that the time is now overdue for a serious, all-embracing reappraisal of our international agricultural obligations?

Mr. Hughes

I appreciate, as my hon. Friend says, that the E.D.C. did not consider our international obligations, by which we are bound. At present, we are entering into consultations on the Bacon Market Sharing Understanding entered into by the party opposite five years ago. Naturally, we look at our international commitments from time to time to see how they affect home production and, where it is necessary, we shall seek to renegotiate the commitments we have.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is it not extraordinary that the Minister's long statement made no reference at all to problems relating to farm workers? Does he appreciate that the meagre wage paid to these men can never be put right unless the income is there for the farmer, and that men are leaving the farms by the thousand? What does he propose to do about it?

Mr. Hughes

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support for our farm workers. We certainly appreciate the importance of the farm worker. I realise as, I am sure, the House does, that the E.D.C. Report regarded the outflow of labour from the agricultural industry as a possible limitation on expansion, but I think that the statement I have just made should increase the industry's confidence in its future. I shall continue to keep a very close watch on the labour situation, which I regard as important.

Mr. Hazell

I am sure that the whole House, and farmers generally, will welcome the statement just made by the Minister in its acceptance of the main principles outlined in the E.D.C. Report. I am sure that the whole industry has been waiting to get the Minister's reaction to that important Report. Does my right hon. Friend think that the industry will have the skilled workers required to achieve the programme he has outlined?

Mr. Hughes

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. I agree about the need to retain skilled workers on the land. This is a matter which we are looking at very carefully. But the important thing is that the industry should have confidence in the future and become more productive and efficient even than it is now. This is the best way to ensure the future of the agricultural worker.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the farmers are getting rather fed up with bromides like "increased production", "better service", "better quality", "hard work", and all that sort of thing? Does he realise that what they want is better prices? Will he not agree that the farmers are the exact opposite of the nationalised industries, which give worse service at increased cost?

Mr. Hughes

I shall be grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman if he will spend this evening studying the statement I have made in the House. If he requires any further elucidation, I should be very glad to explain it to him.

Mr. Tomney

In an effort to assist the Minister, Mr. Speaker, and to pour oil on troubled waters, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend would now state in advance of the Price Review next February that it is not his intention to increase guaranteed prices or support prices beyond the existing levels, because the support price is never reflected in the shops, especially at weekends?

Mr. Hughes

These obviously are matters which will be considered in February and March, when the Price Review is being considered.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie

We welcome the fact that the Minister has given very serious consideration to the recommendations of the Economic Development Committee's Report. Since it is very doubtful whether the target set for 1970 in the earlier plan will be reached, and the Minister wants further expansion by 1973, will he bear in mind that what the industry needs most is an injection of more capital through better prices for the end product?

Would the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind the importance of retaining sufficient skilled labour on the land? To that end, will he see that the agricultural wage is brought more into line with that paid in other industries?

Mr. Hughes

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I certainly have the points he has made very much in mind. What he and the House should realise is that we are going for the broad objectives of the E.D.C. programme. This is the important advance that we are today making. As regards beef and milk, we are going for the broad objectives of the E.D.C. programme. This will give the agricultural industry more confidence than it has had for many years past, and certainly more than it had under the party opposite, which never had any plan for expansion.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone will welcome his tribute to the small farmer for his attempts to increase productivity? Is he further aware, however, that during the four years he mentioned there has been a steady increase in the rents which extortionate and rapacious landlords—some of them sit opposite—have taken out of the farmer; and that the time has come for an immediate consideration to prevent the money going into the pockets of parasitical landlords, especially in Scotland—the large landowners, some of whom decorate the benches opposite?

Mr. Hughes

I am quite sure that my announcement will give confidence to the small farmers in my hon. Friend's constituency. The last part of his supplementary question is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

Speaking for perhaps the largest food-producing constituency in the country, may I ask the Minister whether he thinks that he will do any good by such a statement as we have just had, when what the farmers in the milk-producing areas want is a ban on the importation of milk products? If he could only get that done, and have a little less talk, those in the industry will be more satisfied.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that there are quotas on butter, and that we are at present in consultation with our overseas cheese suppliers.

Mr. Hawkins

Perhaps the Minister appreciates that we had some difficulty in hearing the full content of his statement. Can he give one concrete example of how my farmers in Norfolk will be given greater confidence for increased production during the coming year?

Mr. Hughes

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find when he next meets his farmers, after they have read my statement, that they have been given confidence by it.

Mr. Maude

Would the right hon. Gentleman realise that the farmers will have no confidence in his exhortations about future import savings unless he gives them a chance to save more imports now by doing something about dumped imports of dairy products? Will he stop consulting, and do something?

Mr. Hughes

That, with respect, is the kind of generalisation which does a great deal of harm. I have just pointed out that there are quotas on butter, and since I made my announcement on 8th August about voluntary restraint on cheese the cheese market has been stabilised. We are continuing to try to get an arrangement about it, and the method we are adopting in respect of cheese is the quickest possible method to get results.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must restrain their enthusiams. We have no Question before the House. I have no doubt that the House will find other opportunities of debating the statement which has just been made.