HC Deb 30 July 1971 vol 822 cc1022-8

2.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I beg to move. That the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) Scheme 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 1077), dated 1st July 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

It will be convenient to take at the same time the Scheme relating to Scotland— That the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) (Scotland) Scheme 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 1076), a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.

Mr. Stodart

I entirely subscribe to your suggestion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the two Schemes should be taken together. They are very much alike. One governs England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the other governs Scotland. If I may trespass upon the ground for which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office is responsible, I would point out that the only difference between the Schemes is that there is no reference in the Scottish Scheme, as there is in the English Scheme, to the exclusion of cider apples, because there are no cider apples grown in Scotland, even in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ruther-glen (Mr. Gregor Mackenzie).

I shall deal first with a minor drafting amendment contained in the Statutory Instruments to clarify one of the provisions of the principal Schemes. It is in paragraph 2(a) of each of the Schemes. It has no part in the introduction of the special rate of grant for grubbing, which is the main purpose of the Scheme. Its purpose is simply to make it clear that applications made under the principal Schemes before the closing date qualify for consideration for grant and not, as could possibly be inferred from the existing provisions, that grants will automatically be paid on any application made before the closing date.

I turn to the main purpose of the Schemes, which is to provide a higher rate of grant as an inducement to growers to grub up unwanted apple and pear orchards of dessert and cooking varieties. These grants have been available since 1960 at rates of between 33⅓ and 40 per cent. and they have been taken up by many growers who, in the normal course—and I underline the words "normal course"—of good husbandry, wanted to renew their orchards and put the land to some other agricultural or horticultural use. But they have not been as successful as could have been wished in encouraging the grubbing up of some of the oldest and least profitable orchards.

Fruit trees can go on producing fruit of a sort for many years with virtually no care or attention, but this is not the way to produce good fruit or to get a regular crop. But the grubbing up of an orchard of solid, well established trees is not the sort of job which can be done before breakfast. It takes time, money and hard work, and many growers on the fringe of the industry are not prepared, and sometimes are not able, to provide the necessary cash to get rid of a few acres of trees which cost little to keep and on occasions provide some return, albeit a small one. In the meantime, they are a source of quite considerable weakness to the rest of the industry. We cannot afford a weakness of this kind.

Apple and pear growers have done a lot in recent years to increase their competitive efficiency. New methods have been tried and adopted. Many growers have provided themselves, at no small cost, with the latest equipment for storing and handling their apples after harvesting as well as for growing and picking. Grading standards have been introduced. The Apple and Pear Development Council has been working hard to stimulate consumer demand. Both individually and co-operatively growers have developed their marketing skills to a higher level than ever before, but they rely heavily on sales from the beginning of the season up to Christmas, and the early part of this period, in particular, is the time at which fruit from the barely commercial orchards on the fringe of the industry comes on to the market.

The marketing of this fruit is haphazard and casual and its quality is usually mediocre. In the long run, its production has no commercial future, but in the short run it may pay the farmer concerned to get what price he can, even though this may disrupt the market for better fruit and undermine the efforts of the serious grower on whom the industry and the consumer must ultimately depend. Therefore, the purpose of the new Scheme is to provide an adequate incentive for the grubbing of these fringe orchards.

The grant will be at the full rate of standard grubbing costs. These are related to the girth of the trees and they are fixed at a level which represents the average estimated cost of the work if it is done by direct labour. If he prefers to, a grower can employ a contractor to do the work and claim the grant at the same fixed standard rate.

The grant will become available, subject to Parliamentary approval, from 1st September and applications may be made up to 31st March, 1973. It is essentially a short term grant and it is aimed at encouraging an immediate programme. It is not intended to help the grower who is grubbing up old trees as part of a regular system of rotational replanting. He can look to the familiar orchard grubbing grants which will still be available at the same rate as before under the Horticulture Improvement and the main Farm Capital Grant Schemes.

The new grant is for the orchards which will not and should not be replaced and it will be subject to the "no replanting" conditions which are set out in the amended paragraph 6(2).

What it comes to is that from the date when a grower applies for the new grant until five years after he has completed the grubbing operations he must not increase the acreage of apples and pears, after deducting the acreage to be grubbed up, on the land he had at the time of his application. The grant is not payable on cider and perry orchards as they do not give rise to the same problems.

The new Scheme has been welcomed by the horticulture industry. The questions which have been put to my right hon. Friend by hon. Members, both on the Floor of the House and in correspondence, encourage me to think that it will receive no less a welcome today. I have no hesitation in commending the new grant to the House or in asking for approval to be given to the two Statutory Instruments.

2.10 p.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I welcome this Scheme and I rise only because of a statement overnight from the President of the National Farmers' Union who indicated at a meeting of fruiterers in London yesterday that in a very short time there is likely to be 1 million ton surplus of apples in Europe.

The object of the Scheme, as I understand it, is to ensure that growers who will be in operation when we go into the Common Market will be as well equipped as possible to meet any increased competition which may come about as a result of Britain's joining the Common Market. My own belief is that one of the key factors for the success in future of British growers is concentration on first varieties be they dessert or culinary.

In my own constituency, we have a fairly heavy concentration of apple production in two villages, Haddenham and Wilburton, in the southern part of the Isle of Ely and up in the north around Wisbech both of dessert and culinary varieties. Incidentally, I prefer to call the culinary ones cookers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] As for cookers, the Bramley is the finest cooker in the world. I hope that there is not to be a major campaign to grub up the remaining orchards around Wisbech since that area grows the finest Bramleys. Cooker varieties grown on the Continent are almost dual-purpose varieties and I do not think they will represent a major threat to the cooking apples grown at Wisbech. It is worth remembering, however, that already a very drastic reduction in the acreage under cooking apples has already been achieved.

My own belief is that in the main growing areas we are not likely to see the need for this scheme. I would suspect that the places where the scheme will have the greatest application is in those areas which one could not really regard as horticultural areas, and to old orchards, orchards attached to old farm houses as well, in non-horticultural areas. It is those which will require some attention and which will get more benefit from the scheme.

I still believe that if growers in Britain concentrate on growing Cox's Orange Pippins, Worcesters—my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) is not here, but I know he would wish to say this—and on Laxtons, on these three varieties, we shall possibly get on a great deal better. I think there is a marginal application for this grant, but the real solution of the problem for British growers is not so much the reducing of acreage but to ensure the practising of the best storage methods, the best marketing presentation, and, of course, the best husbandry methods.

I would suggest to my hon. Friend that I think we have to be a little bit careful in assuming that trees 25 years old ought to be grubbed up. If orchards have been properly husbanded a great many of them will have trees 25 years old. What matters is the application of modern science in the best growing areas.

If our orchards are cultivated and managed with proper dedication and effectiveness then our growers need not fear the possibility of Britain's entering the Common Market. I think we have to give some reassurance to the British growers that they need not be frightened by the sort of astronomical figures given yesterday by the President of the National Farmers' Union. If the right varieties are grown and properly stored and properly marketed there will be not only a domestic market for them but a potential export market as well. Let us not underestimate it. We can fully understand the natural anxieties of British growers about our entering the Common Market but I feel that they need not fear competition as being as daunting as it has sometimes been represented to be.

Mr. Gregor Mackenzie (Rutherglen)

Although in Rutherglen, I would say to the Parliamentary Secretary, we do not grow apples and pears, we do eat them. I should like to say to him that we are very grateful for the very courteous explanation he has given, and to assure him that we do have an interest in these matters.

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Stodart

By leave of the House, I would say just a few words in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke). The last thing I would wish to do would be to convey the impression that age should necessarily be the criterion, and if I gave that impression I am sorry.

I would absolutely agree with what he said, in that most of the effects of this grant will be where there is what I described as rather haphazard orchards, the less efficient ones, of whatever age they are.

I am quite convinced, and here again I agree with what my hon. Friend said, that, if we enter the Community those who concentrate on quality and the varieties which my hon. Friend mentioned, and which I believe to be the best in the world, and combine that with efficient production, those who produce them will do so successfully. I have enormous confidence that, provided quality and efficient production are concentrated as my hon. Friend has described, this will happen.

I was very pleased, and my hon. Friend will be, to hear it, when the other day I had a letter informing me of the export of a lorry load of strawberries from this country to Europe. That is the kind of thing we want, and apples and pears could possibly benefit as well in exactly the same way as the raspberry crop which comes down to England from Scotland and makes a lot of money once the English crop is finished. This is how I see the apple and pear industry developing if we enter the Common Market.

I do not expect that this grant will appeal very largely to the fully efficient growers of popular varieties but I do believe that it will have a very useful part in firming the market by getting what I called the fringe orchards out of it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) Scheme 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 1077), dated 1st July, 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.

Resolved, That the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) (Scotland) Scheme 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th July, be approved.—[Mr. Younger.]