HC Deb 07 December 1970 vol 808 cc163-74

9.33 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I beg to move, That the Horticulture Improvement Scheme, 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

It has been agreed that we shall take this with the next Order on the Paper— That the Agricultural Investment (Variation of Rate of Grant) (No. 2) Order 1970 (S.I., 1970, No. 1756), a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved. We shall discuss both together.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I intend to deal briefly with the Horticultural Improvement Scheme. All that it does is to bring to horticulture the same removal of unnecessary restrictions as the Farm Capital Grant Scheme, which we have just debated, is bringing to agriculture.

As the House will realise, the two Schemes are essentially far more matters of procedure than of policy, and I assure hon. Members that the adoption of these simpler procedures does not in any way reflect a change in the general policy which underlies the provision of grant aid for horticulture. I shall not deal with the matter in detail, but there are one or two points of difference in this Scheme from those which we have just debated.

In drawing up the new and simpler Scheme, we have removed an obsolete provision under which grants were paid to co-operatively-run horticultural producers' marketing businesses. These grants were superseded by the introduction of the Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation Scheme. At the same time, we have removed the provision which allowed grant to be paid by instalments. This provision was little used, apart from the grants which are now made under the Co-operation Scheme.

The second point of difference is that we have brought up to date the list of items eligible for grant. I assure the House that none of the items covered by the 1966 Scheme is being withdrawn. We are adding fresh items and bringing the whole Scheme much more into line with advances in horticultural practice. For example, a grower will be able to claim grant on structures of approved design for cladding with film plastic. This is one type of improvement which was not previously eligible.

In addition, a grower will now be able to claim grant on further items for use in mechanised bulk handling of produce and on plant and equipment for prepackaging. Those are just two examples of the new items now eligible as a result of advances in horticulture.

Next, there is the rate of grant itself. Under the Horticulture Act, 1960, the rate of grant was set at 33⅓ per cent. In 1967 a supplementary grant of 5 per cent. was added, making the rate 38⅓ per cent. This supplementary grant of 5 per cent. is now replaced by a rate of 1⅔ per cent. under the Agricultural Investment Order, the second Order now under debate, and the net effect of the change is that the total effective rate will now be 35 per cent. We have made that change to take account of the general discontinuance of investment grants and their replacement by the new tax allowances.

The Scheme has been brought forward in full consultation with the unions. I trust that it will be welcomed by the industry, and that it will contribute to the industry's efficiency. I hope that growers will avail themselves of it so that they can provide themselves with the best and most up-to-date equipment. As in the previous Scheme, all we are anxious to see is that our industry is helped in every possible way to increase its competitiveness vis-à-vis industries elsewhere. I commend the Scheme and the Order to the House.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Michael Barnes (Brentford and Chiswick)

We welcome the introduction of the Horticulture Improvement Scheme, which matches the Farm Capital Grant Scheme. The existing Improvement Scheme was brought in by the previous Labour Government, as were many of the schemes we have been discussing tonight, and it represented a big step forward on the previously existing arrangements. We are glad that the list of items eligible for grant is to be extended. We are glad, also, that the conditions for eligibility are to be relaxed and that, for example, a grower is no longer required to meet the security of tenure test.

We recognise the special difficulties which horticulture faces in relation to the negotiations for Great Britain to join the European Economic Community. We therefore welcome everything that can be done to help the industry to become more efficient both in production and in marketing.

I have several questions to ask. First, can the Minister say something about the level of take-up of the present Scheme during the current year? Secondly, what progress is being made with glasshouse acreage? The hon. Gentleman said that one of the reasons for relaxing the cost benefit test was that the Government felt that if the applicant was prepared to put down his own money, it should not be for the Government to approve the scheme, provided, of course, that he met the other qualifications. Thirdly, therefore, in view of the competition in horticulture, which will increase, does not the hon. Gentleman feel that this move by the Government may encourage some schemes to be embarked upon which will not be completely realistic?

Subject to these questions, we welcome the Scheme and we hope that it will be very well taken up.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I, too, welcome the Scheme, but before launching forth in my welcome I shall draw some slight contrast between this debate and the previous debate. Then, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland congratulated hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench on their elevation to high office, and the congratulations were reciprocated. It seems to me that there is a fine showing on the Opposition Front Bench at the moment—they are still all there except for the Shadow Minister—but that there is a total dearth of interest in agriculture and horticulture on the back benches opposite. This contrasts with the attendance on these benches. My right hon. and hon. Friends are present from every horticultural constituency in the country and a great many more besides. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) is in his place, as is practically every Kent Member.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will not be out of order if he now comes to the Scheme.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Willesden, West)

Is the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) aware that we have the same kind of problem as he is mentioning when the House is discussing industrial affairs? We then have very few hon. Members opposite present in the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We now come to the Horticulture Scheme.

Mr. Wells

Anyway, it shows that there is massive support for the Scheme on this side of the House.

We welcome the simplification of the new items contained in the Scheme. For example, in the Schedule there is the inclusion of the grubbing-up of orchards. This is of the essence of the future profitability of the horticultural industry. If we are to get a proper price for our apples in this country, there must be a substantial reduction in the acreage. Are we going to get enough take-up of the grubbing-up of orchards encouraged by the Scheme? The hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) raised the question of take-up under the existing Scheme. I do not believe that the take-up for grubbing-up grant bears any relation to the national need. Will the Minister be able to come to the House in the foreseeable future and extend or modify the Scheme to allow a much higher level of grant?

The fourth item in the Schedule refers to Land levelling work, including filling in of ponds .…". At this time, when there is lack of water supply and a great move towards irrigation and other chemical washes, we should have been thinking more of the digging-out of ponds rather than the filling in. Item 16(ii) refers to irrigation equipment and so on, but does not actually list reservoirs or ponds. So the creation of reservoirs or ponds does not seem to be included. Perhaps I misunderstand the Scheme and such provision is included in the jargon, but if it is, it is not clearly set out. Incidentally, I congratulate the Minister in general on the extreme way in which these things are set out in the Order. But it seems that the creation of reservoirs and ponds.

which is badly needed and for which grant aid is needed, particularly in horticulture, should have been included somewhere. I hope that it is and that I have misunderstood it. Section 15 says: Provision of water supply, other than for the purpose of the growing of horticultural produce. But what on earth is it for? Is it for washing hands, or what? Perhaps the Minister can tell us more about that.

One appreciates that the Order should be as wide as possible but it seems that the making and improvement and renewal of cattle grids, under Item 6, is a little wide of the necessary requirements.

The item particularly welcomed in my part of the world, and in the King's Lynn area, is the provision of bulk bins, mentioned in paragraph 20(ii) of the Schedule. It is slightly oddly worded. It says bulk bins for use in temperature-controlled stores. Then we refer back to Item 17, which says, packing platforms for use in orchards. But anybody with practical experience of modern orchard methods will know that a great many bulk bins are loaded in the orchard and taken to a packing shed and may or may not go into the temperature-controlled stores. I hope that there will not be any niggardly attitude about the bulk bins people use in the orchard, and that they are not told that because they are not packing platforms they cannot have grants on them. I hope that this will be interpreted in the widest possible sense.

Paragraph 20(vii) says, heating equipment (other than portable heaters)". Here I speak from the heart. I have a small commercial greenhouse in Kent which suffered a power cut this morning. I was trotting along laying out night lights, lighting them and covering them with inverted clay flower pots. I do not seek to obtain a grant for my night lights, but it seems a bit silly, against the background of today, that portable heaters should be specifically excluded. I realise that the Civil Service and the Treasury are always dead scared of people using a vast piece of agricultural or industrial machinery, of perhaps the width of the Chamber, in their living room once they have obtained a grant for it. But this is too ridiculous. The sort of portable heaters needed in the horticultural industry or in ordinary industrial application could be used only for commercial purposes. There could not possibly be any misuse of this equipment. Might it not have been better if the Scheme had been worded "other than portable heaters of a value of less than £200"?

Mr. Speaker

Order the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) cannot amend the Scheme.

Mr. Wells

I know, Mr. Speaker, and it is a tragedy. But I have urged my right hon. Friend to come to us in the near future with a new Scheme and one or two further improvements such as those I have outlined, for example the grubbing-up grant, and I hope that this sort of item might be looked at. One could say that, although paragraph 20(vii) specifically rules it out, under the glorious new paragraph 21—which enables one to do absolutely anything and is like somebody drafting articles of association of a rather ropey company, for people could carry out any operation incidental to the provision—one could, I suppose, have a massive portable heater.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office, I wonder whether at this juncture it is wise to remove the security of tenure provision. At the present time horticulturists face grave difficulties not only from the possible threat of the E.E.C. but from many other causes such as the import of Eastern European produce. I cannot enumerate them tonight. If I attempted to, I would be out of order. But my right hon. Friend knows the underlying anxieties of those engaged in horticulture.

When an industry faces grave upheaval and possible bankruptcies and failures of large private companies, is it entirely wise to encourage people to take up public money where there is not security of tenure? My right hon. Friend may be surprised that I take this line, but I should be glad to have an official view on it. It may be that my right hon. Friend has greater confidence in the industry's future than would appear to be the view of the N.F.U. and those engaged in horticulture, but a phrase about security of tenure must give us food for thought.

Horticulturists will welcome the Scheme wholeheartedly, but we would like an explanation of these few small matters, and we hope that my right hon. Friend will make a major horticultural pronouncement on matters on which we cannot touch tonight without getting out of order.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I rise briefly to ask one question of interpretation of the conditions of eligibility in Schedule 3. It refers to … the person carrying on a horticultural production business, or … the landlord of land occupied for the purposes of such a business … Is the word "person" all-embracing? I have in mind especially co-operative societies carrying on the business of horticultural production as groups of members of the Agricultural Co-operative Association, or persons carrying on horticulture as part of the business of a retail co-operative society. I am thinking especially of the Enfield Highway Co-operative Society, which conducts a large horticultural business in the Lea Valley. Does the word "person" include a group of people carrying on that kind of business?

9.52 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)

I am grateful to hon. Members who have taken part in this short debate, and I must congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. Barnes) on his performance at the Dispatch Box. He won a famous victory at the last election by holding his seat in difficult circumstances. I am certain that he will prove a worthy debater on food topics in the next few years.

The hon. Gentleman asked first about the glasshouse acreage. The position is that the area under glass has increased by about 15 per cent. since 1965, or by a total of 529 acres, and has now reached 4,158 acres. In the four years ending March, 1969, approximately 1,100 acres of new glass was erected, which is nearly 30 per cent. of the total acreage. But there still remains scope for further modernisation since some 34 per cent. of the total glasshouse acreage was erected before 1945.

Whereas we should like to see more modern glasshouses erected, we hope that growers will look carefully at the sorts of businesses into which they intend to go before taking advantage of grants to put up glasshouses. They must look to the future. We do not want a situation where a lot of growers spend large sums on new glasshouses and decide in a few years that they cannot make their businesses pay. The one thing I do not want to do is in any way to encourage the industry to take action which is not good sound marketing sense. This is very important to the industry, and I am prepared to give it what help I can in taking decisions.

The level of take-up grants has been extraordinarily good and they are currently being approved at the rate of about £5 million a year. Looking back as far as the 1960 Act, by the end of September, 1970, the total value of work approved for grant under the Horticultural Improvement Scheme was £70.9 million. This is a considerable sum of money put in by both the growers and the Government of the day and I should have thought that it had done a great deal to help the efficiency of the industry.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether growers would commit themselves to unwise schemes of improvement. We must leave that to the judgment of the growers, but, in view of what the hon. Gentleman said about the Common Market, it is important that they should think carefully before going in for these schemes. It would be folly to fail to do so.

I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) for the work he has put in on behalf of horticulture for a number of years. He comes from Kent which does not always make things as easy for its Members of Parliament or the Minister on horticultural matters as do some other counties. He has spoken up on all occasions for horticulture. He has come to know the industry extremely well and he is held in high esteem. His contributions to our debates are always lively, if not always quite in order.

He asked about grubbing up. As he knows, I have been having some consultations with the National Farmers' Union on the subject of grubbing up. Consultations are going on and I am not yet in a position to make a statement. The present situation is that some 40 per cent. of all the trees which are shown in the June returns each year are now more than 20 years' old. As far as we can tell, that is an acreage on its own of some 40,800. To that must be added another 15,400 acres of apples and pears which are classified as non-commercial and there must be many more in back gardens and small orchards and so on which are not added even to that total. I agree with him that we will need to keep out of the industry large acreages of unproductive fruit. They do nothing to improve the quality of the fruit market and the Government must look carefully at schemes to give them greater encouragement. This is what I am doing and I hope in due course to be able to make an announcement to the House.

My hon. Friend asked about reservoirs and irrigation equipment generally. As I know from personal experience, reservoirs are grant-aided, but, because they are used for both horticultural and agricultural activities, they are included in the Farm Capital Grant Scheme and not the Horticultural Scheme. My hon. Friend will see that they are mentioned in paragraph 5 of Schedule 2.

He asked whether it would be wise at this stage to alter the provisions for security of tenure. We have come to the conclusion that this is a question for the tenant himself to decide. If the tenant or applicant feels that he has sufficient security of tenure to make it worth while putting in his own money, we felt that it was no business of ours to say that he should not. We are trying to move away from the idea that Whitehall and "Auntie" always knows best and to rely much more on the individual himself to make up his own mind what he wishes to do.

My hon. Friend also asked about portable heaters. He recognised, I think, from what he said, that this was a difficult one. I am sorry to hear, incidentally, that his greenhouse has suffered from a power cut today. I hope that no irreparable damage has been done. The difficulty is that these heaters could, perhaps, be used for non-horticultural purposes.

I want to be very careful not to bring any Scheme into disrepute. One often hears hair-raising stories—always, I think, proved to be untrue—of farmers or horticulturists who have used grants for heating swimming pools or items of that nature. All this has been proved to be untrue, but it gives a bad impression to the industry and to the Department and I wish to avoid anything of that sort. Therefore, we had to draw the line at portable heaters.

My hon. Friend asked a question about bulk bins which I have noted carefully. We will try to administer this as fairly and as properly as we can. He also drew attention to the good, attendance on this side of the House for this debate. I wonder whether, perhaps, it does not have something to do with the debate which is to come rather than the debate in which we are now interested. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am glad to hear from my hon. Friends that that is not the case.

The horticulture industry has always been treated as the Cinderella of agriculture. It has made a good deal of progress in recent years. The Scheme gives a little more grant when one takes into consideration the initial allowances as well, and it considerably widens the scope to a number of items which have previously not been grant-aided. I hope that all this will give confidence to horticulture that the Government wish to help and want to see a prosperous industry.

My hon. Friend expressed the hope that we would have a debate before long which could take into account all the problems of the industry. I agree with that. Nothing would suit me better. I hope that the horticultural industry will not spend the next few years writing itself down or writing itself off. I believe that there is a good future for it. We are looking at ways and means of trying to assist it sensibly, but it must make up its own mind about what are proper marketing opportunities and then take them. If it carries on as it has done for the last three or four years, modernising its equipment, putting up new glasshouses and grubbing out old orchards, I believe that with a little extra help it has a prosperous future ahead of it. It is in that frame of mind that I ask the House to approve these Statutory Instruments tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Horticulture Improvement Scheme, 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.

Resolved, That the Agricultural Investment (Variation of Rate of Grant) (No. 2) Order, 1970, (S.I., 1970, No. 1756), a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st December, be approved.—[Mr. Prior.]

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