HC Deb 18 January 1971 vol 809 cc515-21
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)


Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order. I tried a little earlier to give you notice of this point of order, Mr. Speaker.

It is customary for Ministers to ask permission to make statements on rather urgent matters and for them to be given preference over other matters, but is it not a fact that details about the White Paper and of what the Minister is about to say are contained in this morning's Press and they must therefore have been given to the Press last night? Is it not an abuse of the privileges of the House for the Government to have two chances of getting good publicity, as they no doubt feel it to be, for their rather belated activities? Having dished out the information to the Press last night, should not that be good enough and should they waste the time of the House with a statement?

Mr. Speaker

Neither the decision to make a statement nor the contents of the statement is a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Dalyell

Further to that point of order. Should not the Minister be congratulated—and I mean this—on having the good sense to publish a White Paper so that we could read it before we asked questions?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Prior

Further to that point of order. I am not happy about what I have read in the Press this morning and I should like to apologise to the House for any "leaks" that may have occurred. I am having investigations made in my Department. It was exactly because I felt that right hon. and hon. Members would like to be informed in advance so that they could ask me questions on this statement that I published a White Paper this morning.

Mr. Lewis

I withdraw what I said earlier.

Mr. Prior

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make the following statement.

I propose to make certain changes in the work of my Department in order to bring it into line with the Government's objectives to reduce Government intervention and expenditure and to encourage individual initiative and self-reliance.

These changes shown in the context of the Department's overall aims and objectives are set out in a White Paper published earlier today. They affect the Department's work on all three fronts, food, agriculture and fisheries, and fall into four main groups—regulation and control, advice and research, grants and subsidies, organisation. New objectives for agricultural advisory work, their implications and the services for which charges will be made, are described in greater detail in a separate paper placed in the Library of the House.

The changes I am now proposing will lead by 1974 to annual savings of about £15 million. These will be in addition to the savings on deficiency payments that are expected from the proposed change in the support system. They could result in the staff engaged on the Department's work being reduced over the next three years by 5 to 10 per cent.

I shall be discussing the application and implementation of the changes with the organisations concerned and with the staff, through the normal Whitley channels.

While considering these administrative changes, I have seen a great deal of the work of the Department. I have been greatly impressed by its high standard. I believe that the changes I propose will ensure that my Ministry will make a more effective contribution in accordance with the Government's general philosophy.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be making a statement in the House tomorrow on certain agricultural matters in Scotland.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House will need to debate in full this dismal and reactionary document—[Laughter.]—which I think will have persuaded the farmers who voted Tory at the last election that they made the biggest mistake they have ever made?

Can the Minister explain why he is abolishing the North Pennines Rural Development Board after the Government stated last July that this was a worthwhile experiment, and what other steps has he in mind to help this marginal area? Can he say how much money the Government will save by charging for the services mentioned in paragraph 14 of his White Paper? Is it not mean to introduce charges of this kind when, on the right hon. Gentleman's own admission, farmers are facing the highest costs they have ever faced? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in anticipation of the Review in March, those costs are already more than £100 million?

How many redundancies will result from these parsimonious cuts? What consultations has the Minister had with outside bodies, such as the N.F.U., the C.L.A. and the N.U.A.W., and what were their reactions to these miserable proposals?

Mr. Prior

The whole purpose of these changes is to make the services more cost-effective. In future my Ministry will not be prepared to give advice unless it can see a return for that advice. This is part of the Government's policy and philosophy, and it was amply stated at the election last June.

The amount of money to be collected from the charges will depend very much on how much the facilities are used. It is my belief that a lot of the services for which we are now going to charge will be taken up by private enterprise. No charge will result to the farmers and the Exchequer will make considerable saving. Our estimate of the saving is £400,000.

On the question of the Rural Development Board, I should make it plain that the Government are not turning their backs on the hills. We shall be making further proposals in the next few months. But we do not believe that the Rural Development Board was the right vehicle for carrying out this work. The ability to acquire land, either voluntarily or compulsorily, does not fit into the scheme of arrangements which we wish to make.

The matter of the costs incurred and the coming Price Review is completely separate, and any question of a debate is not for me.

Sir M. Stoddart-Scott

Does my right hon. Friend realise how welcome his statement will be in the Northern Pennines region, if it is not in Wales? What does he intend to do with the acres of land which the Board has already nationalised?

Mr. Prior

The Board has two farms in its possession and it is arranging to sell them at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Mackintosh

Is the Minister aware that, while many richer farmers no doubt can afford to pay for advisory services, his cuts will hit precisely those marginal and weaker farmers who most need such services? Does he appreciate that in giving advice many diagnostic tests are required? It is for these that he is proposing to charge, so that the charges might well be heavy. Does he agree that many commercial firms are withdrawing from this service and that those who have stayed in often do not give fully impartial advice? They have an interest in the kind of advice which they offer which the advisory service does not have.

Mr. Prior

I do not accept the last point because the firms which are offering this advice, whether it be sampling advice or other advice, would be extremely shortsighted if they gave advice which was not correct scientifically. Therefore, I reject altogether what the hon. Gentleman says. Small farmers will be able to seek advice provided they are progressive and provided my staff feels that the advice it can give is cost effective and can be taken up. No charge is being instituted for advice. These moves will make for a better advisory service, and certainly a better trained and more skilled advisory service, which in the long run will be of great benefit to the industry.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I am sure that the whole industry will be only too ready to support the Minister in achieving cost effectiveness in administration, but does he recognise that the matters most concerning the industry at the moment are imports from Eastern European countries and a fair return from the market? The Minister will be expected to ensure in the Price Review that a great improvement is made on those two fronts.

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's advice and help. I am aware of the points that he has made and I have no doubt that they will be taken into consideration at the Price Review.

Mr. Peart

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the Northern Pennine Rural Development Board was supported by a great cross-section of northern farming opinion, even by people who, if I may use the right hon. Gentleman's phraseology in the White Paper, had sympathy for the Government's philosophy? Indeed, he himself and his colleagues did not oppose this when it was put forward to the House a long time ago. Why is the right hon. Gentleman doing this? Why is he prejudicing something which would give help to large sections of the farming community? Is he aware that his decision to attack the Advisory Service will not have the support of large sections of the farming community? Did he consult the National Farmers' Union and other responsible bodies? Is he aware that his decision will create dismay in the scientific world?

Mr. Prior

I completely reject the right hon. Gentleman's last remarks. I do not for a moment believe that it will cause dismay in the scientific world, nor in the farming world either.

As to consultations, I have been in touch with the National Farmers' Union, the County Land Owners' Association and the National Union of Agricultural Workers, and I have explained what I intend to do. Full consultations are not possible in advance of the publication of the White Paper, and it is for them to say whether they agree or disagree. All I am saying is that I am certain that my decision is in the interests not only of the farming community but of the nation as a whole.

As to the Northern Pennine Rural Development Board, I could not see any sense in keeping in operation a board whose compulsory powers of land acquisition I was not prepared to support. To spend £67,000 as it did last year on providing about £4,000 worth of actual material help to the area did not seem a very good return for money. At the same time, I pay tribute to the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Board for the work that they did.

Sir Clive Bossom

Will my right hon. Friend make a further announcement about bull licensing, which is so important to the industry and to the export market?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. I hope to be in a position to make an announcement in the very near future.

Mr. Roderick

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Agricultural Advisory Service has revealed widespread damage to soil structure and is advocating more soil testing, and that under these new proposals farmers will be charged for this service? How does the Minister think this will affect the small farmer? No doubt, the large farmer can bear the cost, but does he not agree that agriculture will deteriorate unless the small farmer receives this service free?

Mr. Prior

Ample facilities are available for the sampling of soil at no cost whatsoever to the farmer, and the small and large farmer can take full advantage of them. There is nothing in the White Paper which is in any way inconsistent with the report on soil structure published earlier last week.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many small farmers will welcome his announcement? Does he not agree that some functions of the Ministry have become too top-heavy a burden and are unnecessary? Does he not also agree that in this new-found freedom agriculture will be able to market its products far more freely in the future?

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I respect his advice on farming matters more than I respect some of the advice which is tendered to me by some hon. Members opposite.

The question of marketing is important and one that I am fully prepared to consider with the National Farmers' Union and other bodies.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we share his concern at the prior leakage of these details and that we shall need time to consider them—the same sort of time which apparently has been enjoyed by others already?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is the small farmers in the hill and marginal areas who benefit most from advisory services, and that those services have greatly contributed to making units viable, and have made contributions to the economy of this country? Can the right hon. Gentleman say what guarantees they will have that they will be able to obtain advice? Is he aware that we have built up in this country a very skilled body of advisers many of whom have been induced to take prolonged courses for the benefit of the agricultural community? What guarantee is there that they will not be lost to the community at large?

Mr. Prior

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is the small hill farmers who have made most use of the advice available. In fact, they have not been amongst those who have taken most advice.

On the question of the Advisory Service generally, our proposals will result in a cut in the establishment of between 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. over three years. Most of this can be carried out by natural wastage, but there will have to be some redundancies and we shall make these as reasonable and as easy as possible.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on. Mr. Chataway.