HC Deb 06 May 1971 vol 816 cc1783-805

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

I beg to move, That the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board (Dissolution) Order 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 224) be withdrawn. Since they took office last June, the present Government have taken a number of measures with which we have disagreed profoundly, but for sheer, shortsighted parsimony this Order takes some beating. Let us examine the background. There has been an acceptance for some decades that the upland areas justify special attention. It was in recognition of this that the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts were passed in the late 1940s under the aegis of the greatest Minister of Agriculture this country has even seen, the late Tom Williams, and that the hill sheep, hill cow and beef cow subsidies are paid.

But it has also been recognised that something more than production grants is needed. Communications and amenities in these upland areas are generally poor. Holdings are not uniformly viable. Different bodies are trying to carry out related functions without cohesion. Nor is the potential of these areas for recreation fully exploited for the benefit of the inhabitants.

The men who farm in these difficult regions are sturdy and independent. They work hard for a small return. The Chairman of the Board, Mr. Cowen, has estimated that the average income of the hill farmer in the North Pennines is £500 a year. However, these men make an important contribution to the nation. Without them our uplands would drift into neglect and decay, and no hon. Member will disagree with that.

It was in an effort to help these areas that my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) made provi- sion for rural development boards in his 1967 Act. It was an imaginative proposal which won support and approval from a wide body of opinion in all political parties.

When that Measure was in Committee it received little opposition. There were debates on its Clauses and Amendments to them, but no Divisions took place. The only outright opponent to rural development boards was the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills). Although the hon. Gentleman is not in his place now, I must, in fairness to him, make this point. Of all the Opposition hon. Members on that Committee, he was the only one to voice total opposition to it.

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) spoke for the official Conservative Opposition on 11th July, 1969, from the Front Bench and offered the Board the good wishes of the Tory Party. He said: It has a job to do and we should give every encouragement and opportunity to do it. The hon. Gentleman, who is now the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister, added: We wish the Board well and hope that it has a fair wind to do its important job."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1969; Vol. 786, c. 1771.] The hon. Member for Westmorland is well on his way to becoming the Vicar of Bray of his party.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

Read the last paragraph.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman wished the Board well—

Mr. Jopling

Read on.

Mr. Hughes

I will not delay the House by reading the whole of his speech on that occasion.

Mr. Jopling

The right hon. Gentleman is cheating.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman accuses me of cheating. If he says that, then I tell him, as he sits in his place tonight, that he is himself a cheat. He makes that charge against me, but he was the one who turned completely round over this.

Mr. Jopling

Read the rest of the quotation.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman has shown himself to be a weathercock, blowing with every wind. Let people beware when that spokesman of the Conservative Party wishes them a fair wind. It is likely to be a hurricane that blows them out of existence.

In another place, speaking for the Conservative Government, Lord St. Aldwyn, said in July 1970 that the Government intended to continue the Northern Pennines Board which, he said: has widespread local support and which we regard as a worthwhile experiment in finding solutions to the problems of the hill areas."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 16th July, 1970; c. 729.] It was against this background that the Board was set up and commenced its work. I take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to Mr. Tom Cowen, a Chairman of outstanding ability, and his colleagues for the way in which they set about their work and what they have accomplished in such a short time.

Before the last General Election the Conservatives said that if elected they would abolish the Welsh Rural Development Board, and they gave their reason; namely, that it did not have public support in the Mid-Wales region. It is a pity that hon. Gentlemen opposite do not follow this doctrine in relation to their other policies in Wales which are unpopular there now.

"Acceptability" was the criterion which the Government laid down, and in July the Minister said that he was not abolishing the Pennines Board, although the Mid-Wales was abolished, because it had wide support in the area. Then we had the most extraordinary volte face.

On 18th January last, in a White Paper on the proposed changes in the work of his Ministry, the Minister said that the Board could … not be justified under the Government's philosophy and the experiment of the Board would therefore be terminated. That was an extraordinary change even for this Government.

What happened between July 1970 and January 1971? Did the views of the farmers of the North Pennines change? Did the views of the National Farmers' Union change? Was there a change in the views of any other public body the area which had supported the Board? On the contrary, public support for the Board remained strong. The six branches of the N.F.U. in the region have opposed the abolition. The President of the N.F.U. has described the Government's action as a tragedy. In a letter sent to hon. Members in the last few days, the N.F.U. has made clear its opposition to the Order and it has given reasons for its opposition.

What consultation did the Minister have with local interests to ascertain their views? He visited the area, but that was after he announced his turn-about. When he was there he was told that farmers generally opposed the abolition. I should be grateful if he would confirm or deny that. The vox populi, as they heard it, was paramount in Wales, but it did not count six months later in the north of England.

But by January the Minister had been deep in thought. By then he had discovered philosophical reasons for abolishing the Board. Perhaps it would be unfair to him to suggest that the philosophical revelation came to him in a flash on the road to Damascus. He has been pondering on it for weeks. The dominant theme of his speeches was that the farmers must stand on their own feet. I read with great interest his Farmers Club speech. It is easier for a farmer to stand on his own feet in the area in which the Minister farms than it is in Mid-Wales and the North Pennines. With respect, in East Anglia he has a much smoother ride.

The philosophical argument was not thought of when the Bill was before the House or when the Order was debated. The hon. Member for Westmorland did not mention it, nor did the Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw). The position of the Leader of the House in this matter is very interesting. He well appreciates the difficulties of North Pennines farmers. Very few people know it better than he does. As a sincere person, he realises the full merits of the Board. I am sorry that he collapsed before the philosophical arguments of the Minister of Agriculture.

Much has been made of the land transfer provisions. If ever a mountain was made of a molehill it was on this matter. A number of other authorities, the Forestry Commission and the Highlands and Islands Development Board, for example, have far wider powers than those vested in the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board, let alone the local authorities. But to what extent were the powers under Section 49 used by the Board and to what effect? It is only fair that the House should look at this.

During the Board's short life there were nearly 500 land transfers in the region. In 233 cases the Board was able, through advice and guidance, to encourage sensible amalgamations. In one case only, out of over 500, the Board refused consent because the farm in question was badly fragmented and incapable of being farmed efficiently and economically. The Board bought them and resold to other farms, helping them to become more viable.

If local opinion had felt that the Northern Pennines Board had acted arbitrarily or wrongly, we would certainly have heard about it and there would not have been this opposition in the area to the Minister's action. If the opinion had been that Section 49 dealing with the transfers had been used arbitrarily, unwisely and imprudently against the public interest, there would have been a hullabaloo about it.

The question of cost effectiveness has been raised in some quarters. The Minister hinted on one occasion that the money had not been well spent by the Board. I believe this to be totally unfair and unworthy. The Board's administrative costs in its first financial year were under £50,000. Its expenditure was about half that. The costs cover the whole year, whereas the grants began only last June when Treasury approval was obtained, so that like is not being compared with like. Again, the administrative costs cover all the Board's activities and not just Section 47 work.

A board of this kind is not judged solely in terms of cost-effectiveness. For example, how is a figure to be put on the advice it gave on land sales and farm structure or on the influence it had in planning circles or, indeed—and most important of all—on the way it helped to hold agricultural morale in a difficult area? This cannot be judged in terms of cost-effectiveness.

The Minister's decision cannot be justified on grounds of non-acceptability, on grounds of philosophy, or on grounds of cost-effectiveness. This was a great opportunity to raise standards in the hill areas, to co-ordinate agriculture, forestry and tourism, and to help the people there to help themselves.

I will give but one example out of many. The Board gave a lead to local authorities to subsidise and keep in being essential bus services. The bus services in Swaledale, Weardale and Westmorland, in the constituency of the Parliamentary Private Secretary, have been saved from closure largely because the Board was there to help local authorities. Many excellent schemes, not expensive in themselves, but very important to the area, will now fall as a result of the Government's action. It is true that a Board of this kind in an area like the North Pennines or Mid-Wales, in small ways and by the prudent expenditure of small sums, can do things which are important to those who live there in difficult conditions.

Then there are the Common Market implications. We do not know what will happen to our hill farming policies if we enter the European Economic Community. We are told to wait and see, and we must be content for the time being with that. Rural development boards could have been an important factor. The Government seem determined to throw out of the window every policy that might, to say the least, have been a good bargaining counter in our negotiations to enter the Common Market.

On 18th January the Minister said that he would be making other proposals for hills. The House should be told tonight what those other proposals are. The Government said the same thing in July when they abandoned the Mid-Wales Board. What about these plans? What are they to be?

I am sad and angry about the Order. The Board would have helped many people in an area which badly needs help. A small number of well-to-do reactionary Tories have taken the opportunity to show their teeth. So the area, with its substantial population, will continue to decline.

There are debits and credits to every Minister's record. I know that I had my debits, and there were many things I should like to have done during my tenure of office at the Ministry that I was unable to do. No doubt I made mistakes, but I am glad that I had nothing of the nature of this Order on my conscience, and I ask my hon. Friends to vote against it.

10.40. p.m.

Colonel Sir Malcolm Stoddart-Scott (Ripon)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on abolishing the Board. The right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes) talks about the Board's area as though it were all moorlands and uplands, but some of it is among the best agricultural land in the country. Nearly half the six northern counties are included in the area.

Mr. Fred Peart (Workington)

Why did not the hon. and gallant Gentleman oppose it?

Sir M. Stoddart-Scott

I did not know that it included half my constituency. I was referred to maps in the Library which I could not make head or tail of, but I realised then that it included part of the plain of York, including Fountains Abbey.

How much land did the Board nationalise? Six hundred acres in my division were saved from being nationalised by the General Election. Farm land was hawked to other farmers who could not afford to buy it and to others who could not afford to rent it.

Mr. Peart

Will the hon and gallant Gentleman declare the amount of land that was nationalised in the area?

Sir M. Stoddart-Scott

Of course I will. From memory, I think 400 acres were nationalised. Six hundred acres were being nationalised when the General Election took place. I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us how much land has been denationalised.

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas (Abertillery)

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman tell us where he was when the land was nationalised, and if he was in the House whether he completely misunderstood what was happening?

Sir M. Stoddart-Scott

It was nationalised since the Board was set up.

I want to know whether the land has been denationalised. This was simply a Socialist measure to get hold of land for the State, and in order to get it they preserved one or two bus services at Swaledale. This was selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. I could not be more delighted that the Board has been done away with, and I hope that the land will have been denationalised at the earliest possible moment.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes) made the point quite plainly that we on this side are beginning to get used to the volte face of the Government, but many of us find this measure very disagreeable because the Minister seems to have changed his mind completely within a period of six months.

There has been reference to what the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) said in speaking for the then Opposition in July, 1969. The hon. Gentleman has said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey did not quote his full speech, and referred to his qualification at the end of that speech. I intend to read out that qualification. He said that the Board had an important job to do, and welcomed it. He then said: If after a number of years we feel that it is not doing the job but is merely becoming another bureaucratic extravagance, we reserve the right then to wind it up."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1969; Vol. 786, c. 1771.] I would not disagree, but this is not after a period of years. The Government wish to wind it up 18 months after it was set up. I believe that the Government have been entirely unreasonable about it, and the hon. Member for Westmorland has not stayed true to his friends in this case. At the time, his point was sensible, but 18 months are not "a number of years".

It seems to me that the only argument that the hon. Gentleman can use for the winding up of the Board is that it has not got local support. In his speech in July, 1969, that was the cornerstone of his reason for supporting the Bill. But local support has not dissipated. It is there still.

I take Westmorland, for example, since that is where the Board has its headquarters. The Westmorland Gazette, which is not exactly sympathetic to this side of the House, comments on the decision: More regrettable than the money cuts to the Westmorland hill farmer, perhaps, was the political decision to wind up the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board. That sums up the situation in a nut-shell.

Then we have the chairman of the South Westmorland National Farmers Union. He said that he regretted that the Board was being wound up, and he added: I felt it was a vehicle to boost the economy of the hills. I am sure that that is a sentiment felt by the majority of farmers in the Pennine area.

Representing a Pennine constituency, though it is not within the ambit of the Board, I am very disappointed to see the Board being wound up. We saw it as a great experiment. We felt that, if it worked, it might be extended to other areas. Unfortunately, it has not had time to show whether it can work.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

The hon. Gentleman has quoted from the Westmorland Gazette. Perhaps he will also quote from the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, another newspaper circulating in the area, especially in my part of the area.

Mr. Clark

I gather that the paper—

Mr. Peart

As the Member for a Cumberland constituency, I hope that my hon. Friend will also quote the views of the Cumberland Farmers Union on this point.

Mr. Clark

I quoted the views of the Westmorland Gazette because it is published in Kendal and has a greater circulation in the Appleby and Pennine area than—

Mr. Jopling


Mr. Clark

The point is irrelevant in any event, because I was quoting merely the opinion of the Westmorland Gazette.

I think that we all agree that the fortunes of hill farmers have not been very happy in the last decade or so. There is a great deal of fear in hill farming circles about entry into the Common Market. Under Article 92, on which our hill farmers have their hopes, there seems to be some social subsidy for them, but I doubt whether there is any production subsidy. I feel that rural development boards may be the only hope of salvation for our hill farmers if we go into the Common Market.

We need hill farmers for many reasons, not least to keep our hillsides and upland areas cultivated, to keep them suitable for our recreation, and to keep them looking beautiful. All too often, agriculture, forestry, tourism and conservation are conflicting aspects of upland life, and they have to be married. In the rural development boards, we saw the possibility of co-ordinating these often conflicting interests.

In the Yorkshire dales there has been a great deal of controversy about afforestation, especially in the Langstrothdale area. There was much discussion in the Press and in farming and conservationist circles about this. The Board gave its blessing to this scheme and the conservationists were worried about it. In other cases the Board had refused its blessing. I understand that when the Rural Development Board goes there will be no planning authority that can stop the planting of trees.

This means that any private forestry group can cover the whole of the Yorkshire dales with conifers and we can do nothing about it. I do not use this as an argument against afforestation because, I believe that we need more of it, but it has to be balanced, with deciduous trees and conifers.

There is a strong case for retaining the Board, and the Government are acting for purely personal and political motives. They have not got an economic or social case. They are letting all the hard work that has gone on go by the board. They are letting the hill farmers down; they have disappointed them dreadfully. When we go into the Common Market the hill farmers will be sacrificed

10.53 p.m.

Mr. John Stradling Thomas (Monmouth)

I should declare an interest. I agree wholeheartedly with one matter that the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes) referred to, and that was his tribute to Mr. Tom Cowen, the Chairman of the Board that is to go out of existence. He is a personal friend of mine and if anyone could have made a success of this he could.

Hon. Members

"He never had a chance."

Mr. Thomas

I take the point that he never had a chance, because he was given the wrong vehicle with which to travel along the road.

There is agreement that the objectives of the Board are desirable.

Before I entered this House I told Mr. Cowen that I did not believe that the organisation was one which could succeed. He was faced with an almost insoluble problem. The right hon. Member for Anglesey is a lawyer and I am not. He quickly brushed over the legal points regarding land transfer powers under the Act.

Mr. Peart

The hon. Member's party supported them.

Mr. Thomas

I did not support them, in this House or before I entered it. There is a substantial difference between the situation in Wales to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and the situation in the Pennines. It will be found that owner-occupiers in Wales are in the majority. People strongly object to the fact that under the land transfer powers of the Board, it became automatic that every piece of land in the Board's area was faced with a legal charge upon it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Sir M. Stoddart-Scott) who referred to nationalisation, and who was greeted with hostility from the other side of the House, was not so far away from the truth as was thought. It is not pleasant for a man who owns his land to find himself in the situation that his freehold is eroded, perhaps inadvertently, by the imposition of a legal charge put upon it by statute. That is a substantial point which should be met in this debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] We hear cries of "Rubbish" on this point because it is regarded as an inconvenient debating point, but it is a point of substance.

I have paid tribute to Mr. Cowen. The chairman-designate of the Welsh Rural Development Board was also known to me personally and I have a high regard for him. I am happy to pay a tribute to all the great work he has done in bringing about agricultural cooperation in Wales, and indeed throughout the United Kingdom. But it is an unfortunate fact that he was accurately quoted—I was at the meeting when he said it—as saying that in fact the rural development board was a nail in the coffin of the private ownership of land.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

Of landowners.

Mr. Thomas

I have the advantage over the hon. Gentleman in that I was there; he was not.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Would the hon. Gentleman accept from me that Dr. Phillips showed me the notes of the speech he made; they were written in Welsh, although the speech was delivered in English. The Welsh word there used did not mean private landowner, but the basis of landlordism, which is a very different thing.

Mr. Thomas

I was present at the meeting and it was immensely hostile. Dr. Phillips was heckled and badgered. People in the area disliked these proposals though not the objectives of the Board. The fact is that they deeply resented these charges. [An HON. MEMBER: "They were whipped up."] They were not brainwashed; it was entirely spontaneous. I was at the heart of the matter, at grass roots level, as opposed to the level of the right hon. Gentleman opposite. The initial reaction of both unions was to give this a welcome. It was the reaction in the grass roots which brought about a change of reaction in Wales.

I will deal with the difference in character of land ownership in the North of England and that in Wales. The reason the hostility never arose in the North of England can be put down simply to the fact to which the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) referred. It was felt by the vast majority of tenant farmers in the North of England that the Board might possibly be a bulwark between them and landlordism. But this is where I felt that Mr. Cowan and the Board were up against a great difficulty.

Contrary to what was suggested a few moments ago, the first people who would have been through the doors of the Board's offices—and I am not critical of them—would be the factors, the land agents of the great estates, many of whom have had to carry men who through the decline in farm incomes have not been able to get out. Although I do not claim that all landlords and landowners are tender-hearted, there is good will in the countryside, and they would have liked to have created a humanitarian organisation for the structure of farming. This difference in character is why the vox populi spoke in one way in Wales and in another way in the Pennines.

On afforestation, I would say to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) who spoke about balance—what a consummation devoutly to be wished. There is not a man who has looked into forrestry in any depth who has not said, "Cannot we have more deciduous trees? I live in an area where the sad, dark, green conifers surround us, but when we look into the economics, we find that until the urban population is prepared to pay the tremendous cost of the type of planting we would all like, there is little hope of getting this suggestion off the ground.

Finally, I address myself to my hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. I know that I shall have the support of both sides of the House when I say to him, "I will support you tonight, Sir, but I hope you will tell us what your policies are for the future to deal with the problems which could not have been satisfactorily solved by the rural development boards as set up by the previous Government."

11.2 p.m.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

I do not wish to follow the theme pursued by the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. John Stradling Thomas), but I wish to comment upon his description of the restrictions upon the disposition of land as being a land charge. He admitted that he was not a lawyer, but had he understood those legislative provisions he would have realised that there was nothing in the Act of 1967 or in the powers of the Board which forbad a person to sell. All they meant was that the Rural Development Board was given the power of first option and, if it exercised that option, it would have to buy that land for the price that had been agreed in a free, arms-length negotiation between the owner of the land and the would-be purchaser. That is not a legal charge by any stretch of the imagination. It would have been better if the hon. Gentleman had not bothered him- self with legal matters. Byron described a person: with just enough of learning to misquote". That is what happens when laymen with the best will in the world start analysing statutory provisions.

Mr. John Stradling Thomas

The hon. Gentleman used two terms, "legal charges" and "land charges". I did not say "land charges" because, not being a lawyer, I did not want to get into technicalities. Possibly some who come from the highways and byways are better lawyers than some legal gentlemen. Where a man is to purchase land and his solicitor finds that there are restrictions on the transfer, surely it is the duty of that solicitor to warn the purchaser that there is a charge which erodes the freehold, otherwise he would not be doing his duty? If that technically is not a legal charge in the opinion of legal gentlemen here—

Mr. Morgan

I do not think there is any question of a solicitor discovering the presence of this restriction, because he would know that the land was included within the area of a rural development board and, as a competent practitioner, would well know that the restriction was a restriction on a would-be purchaser. This is the point the hon. Gentleman has not grasped. It was a restriction perhaps upon a farmer who already owned 500 acres and wished to buy another 30 or 40 acres in addition. It was not a restriction upon the seller because he would have his sale at his price in any event.

Mr. John Stradling Thomas

It would be registered with the county council in which the land was situated.

Mr. Morgan

The point has been made and I do not want to pursue it further.

Although I am a Cambrian and not a Cumbrian Member, I intervene briefly as one who, a year ago, was forecast by his opponents as about to have the letters "R.D.B." written across his political tombstone. The fact that I managed to survive and treble my majority in the General Election is a tribute to the integrity of the electors of Cardigan. At the same time, it is the clearest evidence of the miserable failure of a ruthless campaign dedicated to foment and exploit the inevitable initial suspicions which exist in relation to something as new and radical as the Board. The fate of the Welsh Rural Development Board is not directly material to the issue before us tonight, but I refer to it because it is the only rural development board which it was attempted to establish in the United Kingdom other than the Board which is the subject of the Order. That Board was established under the same Act of Parliament. It had the same purpose and it had exactly and to the letter the same powers as the Board we are discussing. But totally different reasons were given for its extinction.

When a person makes and gives two totally different sets of excuses for the same acts, society has serious reservations about that person's credibility. The same is exactly true of a Government. When the Welsh Rural Development Board Order was presented to the House on 19th January, 1970, none of the Conservative Opposition spokesmen had any reservations at all about its powers and purpose. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt), now Minister of State, Welsh Office, said: It was only when Mid-Wales farmers from all five counties rose up in their wrath that we in the Conservative Party asked the Government to cancel the Board."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1970; Vol. 794, c. 187.] The Conservative Party at that time had no fundamental objection to the Board as such. As my right hon. Friend has said, how could it? No vote had been registered against it in the Standing Committee which had considered the Act, as a Bill, for many weeks and which had scrutinised it in very great detail. No argument had been proposed against it, except that of the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills), and he was listened to by his colleagues with that benign tolerance which they reserve for West County eccentricity.

When the Minister of Agriculture made the announcement to the House on 18th January last that the Northern Pennines Board would be extinguished, wholly different reasons were put forward by him. He said: As to the Northern Pennines 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. Those were his two reasons—that the powers of the Board were intolerable and that the financial excesses of the Board were also wholly unacceptable. Let us look at those reasons. The powers of the Board were nothing compared with the powers of local authorities in this country; certainly they did not compare in magnitude with the powers of other statutory boards or the absolute power of compulsory purchase which was given to the Highlands and Islands Development Board by Section 4 of the 1965 Act. The point is that if the powers were excessive, surely the Government had the power to legislate. Surely they would be able to cull from this situation the unwholesome powers, leaving only the residuum which they were prepared to tolerate.

There is then the argument about the financial excesses. They stopped the process at a stage when the Board was still promoting this great new venture. Obviously, as right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite know, when promoting a venture one has first to prime the pump. The first movement of finances will be in expenses long before one is able to direct one's mind to anything else. There were inevitable initial expenses here which could not be avoided.

It was unworthy of the Minister to pretend that this was evidence of gross irresponsibility on the part of the members of the Board. In the next sentence to that which I have just read—it may well be thought that this detracts absolutely from the indictment which he had levelled against them of financial irresponsibility—the Minister said: At the same time, I pay tribute to the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Board for the work that they did."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th January, 1971; Vol. 809, c. 519.] Is he maintaining that the eight other members of the Board were responsible for the expenditure of the £67,000?

We may well ask: why was the Northern Pennines Board ambushed? It was slain not because the Government feared that it would fail, but because they suspected that it would succeed. It was destroyed because the barbarous backwoodsmen of the Tory Party demanded its sacrifice on the crusty altar of their reaction.

The object of my short intervention this evening is not so much to castigate the Government for the meanness with which they have perpetrated this extinction—a meanness which is gilded with hypocrisy—but rather to hazard a guess at the consequences in future as a result of their squalid little act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) has already made a passing reference to Article 92 of the Treaty of Rome. If we enter Europe, if the Government are determined to abrogate the sovereignty of Britain, to spurn the democracy of this country, to shanghai Britain into a European alliance, which three citizens out of every four in Britain utterly condemn, then it may be that our farmers and rural dwellers will find that a rural development board is invaluable to the protection of their interests.

Article 92 of the Treaty of Rome says: Except where otherwise provided for in this Treaty any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods shall, insofar as it adversely affects trade between Member States, be deemed to be incompatible with the Common Market. In fairness, I must say that there are a number of exceptions listed, but they are all within a narrow compass. In practice, those exceptions are only possible within the area of European rural development boards. Such boards exist in the Mezzogiorno and the Massif Centrale—areas of acute poverty. Rural development boards may be possible in Britain under the Treaty of Rome, but at the moment there is nothing to suggest that the condition of our hill areas, poor though they are, can match the poverty of those areas which have already been designated rural development board areas in Europe.

This Order represents a decision of monumental unwisdom by the Tory Party. It is an act of small, mean-minded, doctrine-infested men. It is a policy which is foisted on the Pennines and the country wholly contrary to the statesmanlike advice tendered by the National Farmers Union. By their submission to powerful, loud-mouthed un-progressiveness in their party, the Government have deprived small farmers of a range of assistance which could have succoured many to viability. They have denuded rural communities of a variety of benefits which would have given them hope and sustenance. At the same time they have cheated agriculture of the longer term advantage of a farseeing experiment of bountiful possibilities.

11.16 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) has just delivered a speech of extravagant language, not least in the fears which he tried to express—and perhaps to influence people—about entry to the Common Market. I would not want to follow him into those fears tonight.

This is an important debate on a controversial decision of mine. I appreciate that there are strong views on both sides of the House about that decision, which was part of the review of functions which I carried out last summer and last autumn. In so far as it was a review of functions, it was part of the implementation of a pledge which my party gave during the election campaign, that we would examine in each Department the role of Government and that, wherever possible and wherever we thought it right, we would reduce the rôle of Government and Government expenditure and create a society which stood on its own feet.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon (Sir M. Stoddart-Scott) asked me what amount of land was held by the Board on dissolution. Its assets at the moment include two farms of 95 and 65 acres respectively. These are to be resold as soon as possible and arrangements which will benefit farm structure in the locality are already well advanced in one of them.

The right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes) said that, out of 500 applications so far for consent to land transfer, 233 had resulted in useful amalgamations. We have no evidence to show that those amalgamations would not or could not have taken place irrespective of the Board. The assumption is that the vast majority would have taken place in any case. On the question of afforestation in the area, there is no restriction in the normal way on the planting of trees; but in the national parks there is a voluntary agreement under the joint auspices of the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Commission under which joint surveys of areas are carried out by the Park Planing Authority and the Forestry Commission.

People proposing to plant are urged to discuss their proposals with the Park Planning Authority. This agreement, given good will on both sides for its operation, offers a constructive alternative to the statutory powers of control formerly held by the R.D.B., and I see no need at present for further measures.

I wish to give the reasons why I wound up the Board. The Board had wide powers of purchase. Consent was required for all land sales that took place in its area and I confess that I was not happy that Government money should be used to purchase land in this way. After all, the Government were committed to saving the taxpayers' money.

The intervention powers of the Board were such that it could take over a farm which was put on the market and for which it had refused consent for its sale. When the Chairman of the Board came to see me, he was quite prepared to give up those particular powers, though he wanted to retain the voluntary powers of acquisition.

When I examined the voluntary powers of acquisition, I asked the Chairman and the Board whether they were likely to use those powers, and the answer was that often when small owners of land, and not so small owners in some cases, wanted to sell, they found it difficult to sell and approached the Board to see if it wanted to buy.

I then asked if it was the Board's intention to hold this land, and the answer was that it would get rid of the land if it could, but that if it could not, it would hold it and let it to neighbouring tenants, occupiers or owners for them to farm. It seemed to me that we were in grave danger, if this were allowed to go on, of creating a situation in which dotted all over the Pennines we could have small areas of land owned by the Board and paid for by general Government expenditure.

I felt, too, that we were creating a situation in which the Board was becoming the buyer of last resort; that people were looking to the Board more and more to get them out of their difficulties rather than looking to themselves. These were some of the reasons why I felt that I could not support the continuation of the purchase of land.

The problem here was that as soon as one took away from the Board the right to purchase land, one could not, at the same time, take away its statutory duty to consent to all land sales in the area. It would, therefore, have required fresh or amending legislation merely to keep the Board in operation if I were not prepared, as I was not, to keep it with its powers of purchase. I therefore had no powers to prevent these transactions from taking place.

I have been asked about the consultation that took place. I saw the Chairman of the Board on at least two occasions and I saw one or two other members of the Board either with the Chairman or at other times. In the course of my review I consulted officials of the National Farmers Union, the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the Country Landowners Association.

I join hon. Members on both sides in saying that Mr. Cowen, the Chairman, and Mr. Brocklebank, the Vice-Chairman, have, during this time, won a wide measure of support and I have absolutely no criticism to make of their work or of the way in which they have run the Board. The Board was drawn from within an area which understood the agricultural and rural problems better than some other rural bodies, and that is certainly an improvement on some statutory bodies.

I then looked at the administrative costs of the Board. The figures which I gave when I announced the winding up of the Board were only estimates, and I now have the true administrative costs. For the year ending 31st March, 1971, they were £51,000, and grants during that year were £5,353, with another £30,000 in the pipeline, to give the figures as nearly as I can. In that period, land purchases amounted to £8,840.

Having taken from the Board the powers of purchase which I was not prepared for it to continue to use, I had to see whether the administrative costs would justify the work which it was likely to do. Having looked at the matter carefully, and recognising that there was a need for some organisation, some vehicle, with which to help the hill areas, I decided that this was not the right organisation. That is why, having looked at the Board's powers and the costs of administering it, I decided that I could no longer go on supporting it.

What are we doing for the hills? Since the Government came to office last June, we have made two announcements of great importance to the hill farmers. In the autumn, we announced an increase in the hill sheep subsidy and in the general beef subsidy. This March, we announced the biggest single increase for lamb end price and another very large increase in beef price. I am prepared to go into any hill area in the country and put before the farmers there the question whether they prefer to stand on their own feet

with a higher end price. I have had plenty of opportunities to do so, and the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) may go with me if he wishes.

I have been to the Pennines and put this to the farmers. I am convinced that in these areas we have some able, independent and sturdy people who do not want a situation in which they are constantly supported by boards and subsidies and that what they require is a good end price for their product. What Government policy for the first time for many years offers them is a fair return for their efforts and it is in that spirit that I ask the House not to withdraw the Order.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 99, Noes 124.

Division No. 359.] AYES [11.29 p.m.
Allaun, Frank (Salford, E.) Hughes, Rt. Hn. Cledwyn (Anglesey) Parry, Robert (Liverpool, Exchange)
Atkinson, Norman Hughes, Mark (Durham) Pavitt, Laurie
Barnes, Michael Hughes, Roy (Newport) Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred
Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood Jenkins, Rt. Hn. Roy (Stechford) Pendry, Tom
Boardman, H. (Leigh) John, Brynmor Pentland, Norman
Booth, Albert Jones, Barry (Flint, E.) Perry, Ernest G.
Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan) Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen) Prentice, Rt. Hn. Reg.
Carter, Ray (Birmingh'm, Northfield) Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, W.) Prescott, John
Clark, David (Colne Valley) Judd, Frank Reed, D. (Sedgefield)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol, S.) Kaufman, Gerald Rhodes, Geoffrey
Coleman, Donald Kinnock, Neil Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Concannon, J. D. Leonard, Dick Roderick, Caerwyn E (Br'c'n&R'dnor)
Conlan, Bernard Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Rodgers, William (Stockton-on-Tees)
Davies, Denzil (Llanelly) Lomas, Kenneth Skinner, Dennis
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.) Spearing, Nigel
Davies, Ifor (Cower) McBride, Nell Spriggs, Leslie
Davis, Clinton (Hackney, C.) Mackie, John Stallard, A. W.
Deakins, Eric Maclennan, Robert Stoddart, David (Swindon)
de Freitas, Rt. Hn. Sir Geoffrey McNamara, J. Kevin Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John
Dormand, J. D. Marion, Simon (Bootle) Strang, Gavin
Edelman, Maurice Marks, Kenneth Taverne, Dick
Evans, Fred Marquand, David Tinn, James
Fisher, Mrs. Doris (B'ham, Lady wood) Marsden, F. Urwin, T. W.
Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Varley, Eric G.
Foley, Maurice Millan, Bruoe Wainwright, Edwin
Freeson, Reginald Milne, Edward (Blyth) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Garrett, w. E. Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Weitzman, David
Golding, John Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Wellbeloved, James
Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Morris, Rt. Hn. John (Aberavon) Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Hamling, William O'Halloran, Michael Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)
Hardy, Peter O'Malley, Brian
Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Orme, Stanley TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hattersley, Roy Owen, Or. David (Plymouth, Sutton) Mr. Ernest Armstrong and
Horam, John Palmer, Arthur Mr. Joseph Harper.
Huckfield, Leslie
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Channon, Paul Fell, Anthony
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Chapman, Sydney Fenner, Mrs. Peggy
Atkins, Humphrey Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Fortescue, Tim
Awdry, Daniel Coombs, Derek Fowler, Norman
Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone) Cooper, A. E. Fox, Marcus
Benyon, W. Cormack, Patrick Fry, Peter
Biffen, John Curran, Charles Gorst, John
Biggs-Davison, John Dean, Paul Cower, Raymond
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S.W.) Drayson, G. B. Green, Alan
Boscawen, Robert Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Gummer, Selwyn
Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hn. John Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Hall-Davis, A. G. F.
Bray, Ronald Elliott, R. W.(N'c'tle-upon-Tyne,N.) Hannam, John (Exeter)
Burden, F. A. Emery, Peter Haselhurst, Alan
Carlisle, Mark Eyre, Reginald Havers, Michael
Hawkins, Paul Meyer, Sir Anthony Speed, Keith
Hay, John Miscampbell, Norman Spence, John
Hayhoe, Barney Mitchell, Lt.-Col.C. (Aberdeenshire, W) Stanbrook, Ivor
Homsby-Smith. Rt. Hn.Dame Patricia Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Stewart-Smith, D. G. (Belper)
Howe, Hn. Sir Geoffrey (Relgate) Moate, Roger Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M.
Howell, David (Guildford) Molyneaux, James Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Hunt, John Money, Ernle Tebbit, Norman
Iremonger, T. L. Monks, Mrs. Connie Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)
Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Montgomery, Fergus Tilney, John
Jessel, Toby More, Jasper Trafford, Dr. Anthony
Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead) Morgan, Geraint (Denbigh) Trew, Peter
Jopling, Michael Nabarro, Sir Gerald Tugendhat, Christopher
Kershaw, Anthony Neave, Airey Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Kilfedder, James Nott, John van Straubenzee, W. R.
Kinsey, J, R, Osborn, John Vickers, Dame Joan
Kirk, Peter Page, Graham (Crosby) Waddington, David
Kitson, Timothy Parkinson, Cecil (Enfield, W.) Walker, Rt. Hn. Peter (Worcester)
Knox, David Prior, Rt. Hn. J. M. L. Ward, Dame Irene
Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry Proudfoot, Wilfred Weatherill, Bernard
Le Marchant, Spencer Pym, Rt. Hn. Fancis Wells, John (Maidstone)
Longden, Gilbert Raison, Timothy White, Roger (Gravesend)
Loveridge, John Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Luce, R, N. Reed, Laurence (Bolton, E.) Woodhouse, Hn. Christopher
McCrindle, R. A. Rees, Peter (Dover) Woodnutt, Mark
McNair-Wilson, Michael Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Madel, David Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Mather, Carol Russell, Sir Ronald Mr. Walter Clegg and
Maude, Angus Simeons, Charles Mr. Victor Goodhew.
Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J, Soref, Harold