HC Deb 05 May 1970 vol 801 cc368-74

11.45 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 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved.

It might be convenient, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if we discussed, at the same time, the corresponding Scottish scheme, which is the subject of the second Motion:

That the Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Sydney Irving)

If that is to the convenience of the House, so be it.

Mr. Mackie

These schemes provide grant for ploughing grassland which is at least 12 years old, where the cost of the operations necessary to bring it into a satisfactory state for cropping is substantially above normal. By helping farmers to improve the condition of suitable land this grant encourages the effective use of agricultural resources and helps to offset the yearly drain of agricultural land to urban and industrial development.

The provisions of the schemes are virtually unchanged from previous years, but I should perhaps remind the House that the streamlining of capital grants will affect this grant. As hon. Members are aware from proceedings on the Agriculture Bill, the ploughing grant will be replaced by a grant under the farm capital grant scheme when it is introduced. The Ploughing Grants Scheme will then be closed to new applicants.

The House may wish to have the latest figures of expenditure. In the financial year just ended £382,000 was spent, of which £323,000 was for England and Wales, £12,000 for Northern Ireland and £47,000 for Scotland. This was paid in respect of 32,000 acres ploughed. We estimate that the amount of grant paid will be slightly higher in the current financial year.

I commend these schemes for the approval of the House.

11.46 p.m.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)

On the last occasion when such a scheme came before the House the Minister was asked why the figure of £12 was appropriate in 1969 whereas it was £10 in 1952. There was no satisfactory answer to that question last year, so I give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to answer it this time.

Last year, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that the cost had not risen as much as we might have expected. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman will say today, but he will not overlook that there has been, according to the Price Review, a large net increase in costs this year—a total of £60 million. Even since the Review there has been a large increase in costs. For example, the cost of a tractor has gone up by £150 since the Review was announced. Therefore, if in 1952 the right figure was £10 it is time the hon. Gentleman told us why £12 is the correct figure today.

Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied with the way in which the conditions are laid down? He mentioned that two of the conditions are that the land must have been under grass since 1958 and the expenditure substantially heavier than normal. Are there not one or two other things he should also bear in mind when these grants are being administered?

In any area farmers will know that there are certain pieces of land which might qualify under the two conditions we have both mentioned, but that it is land which it is not economic to plough, because it is well known that it will not provide an adequate result.

Second, should not the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that land should not be ploughed which is known not to be properly drained? There are examples where land has been ploughed and as a result of bad drainage very little has resulted from the work.

Third, I would like the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that although we all agree that new leys, if the land is put down to grass again, are much more productive than old pastures, many people have found that old pastures have certain merits. They can be of use in many ways. For example, when some herds affected by infertility have been put back on the old grass the difficulties that the veterinary surgeons were unable to isolate have disappeared.

On at least the past two occasions when the schemes have been brought before the House the Minister has been asked to let us know whether chemical preparation of the land was covered by the definition of ploughing. There has ben no answer so far. Perhaps after three years' contemplation the Minister would make it clear either that it is or is not covered.

The last thing I ask him to consider is whether he is doing enough by the scheme. The Minister said that the schemes this year covered 32,000 acres. Last year, it was said, in the House, to cover 45,000 acres and a week later when it got to the other place, 5,000 acres had disappeared. It is now 32,000 acres and the urban requirements come to about 50,000 acres a year, with that these schemes do not cover those requirements. Doubtless, the idea is to enable new land outside traditional farming areas to be brought under cultivation. The Minister will recall that as recently as March the Economic Planning Council for Agriculture said that the expansion of arable acreage envisaged by the Economic Development Council had not yet begun. It went on to say that the arable objectives would not be achieved unless there was a pronounced upturn in the next three years. These schemes however show a diminishing number of acres.

If the total requirement in the selective expansion programme is to be achieved, according to the figures of the E.D.C. there is a deficiency in each of the years between now and 1972 of 413,000 acres and a total deficiency on cereals of 643,000 acres. The 32,000 acres does not seem a very significant addition when these figures are borne in mind, along with the fact that the cereal acreage has been declining since 1967. With these points in mind, I commend the scheme to the House.

11.53 p.m.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie (Ross and Cromarty)

I welcome these schemes. It must be clear now that the land being ploughed after having been rested for such a considerable time cannot be of the best quality. Going through the countryside I notice that much of this land needs draining, and it will be a waste of money and energy to give a ploughing grant unless conditions are laid down dealing with drainage and the application of the necessary lime and phosphorus. This land will not carry grass for long unless it is put into an initial state of fertility. I am not clear about the conditions attaching to the grants and I would be grateful if the Minister would explain them.

11.54 p.m.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

I support what has already been said and would like to be sure that the Minister is satisfied that the grant will always be given in circumstance justifying it. There is a temptation when a grant is available for one purpose not to carry out the preparatory operations such as drainage. Often to plough up an old sward which has often provided a certain amount of drainage merely compacts the ground and makes drainage even worse. Equally important, is the regeneration and improvement of pastures. It is not necessarily the mechanical action of ploughing which is the best method here.

In rougher areas operations such as discing and direct reseeding, for which grants are available, are often much more effective. Because the ploughing grant of so much per acre looks simple, often the farmer goes for that method rather than for perhaps better methods which are eligible for assistance. Are the farmers made fully aware of the other types of assistance which are available for more suitable operations which may be in the best interests of husbandry?

11.55 p.m.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

Most of my points have already been covered. This scheme has been going for some time, but are we certain that it is keeping up with the times? It is rather depressing that whereas, in 1938 we were 38 per cent. sufficient in lamb and mutton, we are now down to 36 per cent. It may be true that the deficiency in our sheep stocks comes from the lowlands, and that the hill ground, where ploughing up and the renewing of pastures plays an important part in our livestock husbandry, is keeping pace. But unless we are certain what we are aiming at by continuing the payment of £12—and what my hon. Friend said about its inadequacies with present-day costs needs reinforcing—we shall be spending this £12 less effectively than we might.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) last month put down two Questions about Scotland, the replies to which showed that in 1969 the applications for ploughing grants in England were 4.266 and in Scotland 521. On a strict arithmetic calculation, this might appear to be a fair proportion. but the proportion of hill and upland area in Scotland is much higher than in England, and the 521 applications for Scotland is somewhat disappointing.

There is in Scotland a much higher proportion of difficult land to plough than in England. and it seems that Scotland is not getting as much as it should. This may be the fault of the farmers, or of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland in not telling people what is available.

The Minister stressed this year and last year that the purpose of the Scheme is to help farmers to bring into cultivation land which might otherwise remain uncultivated. In the Outer Islands bulb growing is developing, and land not previously cultivated is being brought into cultivation. Will the grant apply to this? The land has been uncultivated for hundreds of years.

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Mackie

The hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) asked whether the increase in the grant from £10 in 1952 to £12 today was sufficient. As he knows, there has been a tremendous increase in efficiency over the years with machinery and the chemical treatment of the sward, and all this has made ploughing easier. It is a little difficult to estimate the 30.000 or 40,000 acre target; sometimes the target is reached. and sometimes not. It is obvious that farmers have taken advantage of it and that they find it profitable to take the £12.

The use of chemicals to kill sward forms part of the operation and comes in for grant with the rest because it represents a proportion of the cost.

I was not sure about the first point raised by the hon. Member for Rye, but if a farmer owns land which is not good enough, I cannot imagine him spending money on it. It will cost considerably more than £12 an acre, and presumably he will not go ahead.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie) asked whether the land would be properly drained. There are various schemes for land. If a lot of draining is required and it is hill land, the best course for the farmer would be to take advantage of the Hill Land Improvement Scheme which attracts a 70 per cent. grant. I am sure that, if our officers saw that some land was very wet and required draining, the ploughing grant would not be given.

I was then asked whether it is expected that new leys will give the same results as old ones. We all know that many farmers have land that they would not dream of ploughing. But the productivity of a new ley is such that one has to consider whether it will give better results than an old one. However, new leys will help to balance the 50,000 acres that we lose every year, and it is up to farmers to judge how much they will take on.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty mentioned drainage. Of course, it is ridiculous to plough land without draining it. But in his area, most of the land which would come under the scheme would be dealt with under the Hill Land Improvement Scheme.

The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) referred to chemicals and other methods of doing the job. There are other methods, of course, but most of the land will ultimately require to be ploughed. However, the use of chemicals to kill sward makes ploughing easier, and it all comes into the cost.

The hon. Member for Rye raised the question of cereals and asked whether this scheme would add anything to arable production. Most of this land would be reseeded. Very little of it would come into cereal production.

The hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) asked whether this would help keep up hill stocks. Lowland stocks are going down, but hill stocks are going up, and I presume that this grant is helping a little in that direction.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the proportion of land in England compared with Scotland. As he said, I know the terrain in Scotland, and quite a lot of it is improved by the direct seeding and harrowing of hill land. Certainly, the land is different, and there is more of this type which would react to definite ploughing. But there are other methods in Scotland which bring quite a lot of improvement to the land.

I think that I have covered most of the points raised by hon. Members. No doubt, when we bring forward a similar scheme next year, the hon. Member for Rye will ask various points which I have not applied myself to tonight. So, if I have not covered everything this year, he will have another opportunity next year.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Ploughing Grants Scheme 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved.


That the Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st April, be approved.—[Mr. Mackie.]


Resolved,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.].

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o'clock.