HC Deb 15 December 1983 vol 50 cc1264-71
Mr. Speaker

Is it for the convenience of the House that the two schemes be taken together?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Then we must take them separately.

10.11 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

I beg to move, That the draft Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1983, which was laid before this House on 30th November, be approved. Although I understand the position of the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison), who shouted, "Object," in many ways it is a pity that we could not consider the two schemes together, because they are very much of a piece. Moreover, it would be for the convenience of the House if I could talk about some of the other instruments related to the capital grant schemes. However, since I must talk about the horticultural cooperation scheme first, I shall make a few general remarks to give the background. I shall then concentrate on the cooperation scheme. In the second debate I shall take up what I regard as the main subjects in relation to the agricultural grant schemes in general.

The purpose of the instruments is to ensure changes to the farm capital and co-operation grants. They are being made to adapt the schemes to changing conditions and to give different priorities. They also reflect the public expenditure decisions taken earlier this autumn which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food outlined in his statement on 17 November.

For the fiscal year 1984–85, planned expenditure on agriculture, fisheries and food will be £2,256 million. That represents an increase of £437 million over our previous plans. As the House knows, there has been a need to make increased provision for the intervention board for agricultural products, particularly for intervention costs in the dairy sector. It is not appropriate for me to discuss that subject tonight, but the House will know that the Government are deeply concerned to reduce the cost of that aspect of agricultural support to products which are in surplus. That is a part of the discussions for changes to the common agricultural policy. I shall content myself by saying that we shall continue to press strongly our views in this regard within the context of the post-Athens discussions, but in the meantime we need to spend an extra £422 million on intervention products, although a large part of that is met from FEOGA and from sales out of intervention. Therefore, the £422 million is not a real figure.

The remaining £15 million is a net increase in the planned expenditure by the three agriculture Departments. A part of that is related to the capital grant changes that we are discussing tonight and I should like to say a little about the general financial background. I shall not now deal with the individual items, as I had hoped. I suspect that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Hughes) agrees that it would have been much more logical and easy to mention the individual items before dealing with the co-operation grants.

To play our part in contributing to the overall need to control public expenditure, we have tried to make savings in spending on capital grants. As my right hon. Friend made clear in his statement of 30 November, they amount to about £30 million in a full year. However, I should explain that, because investment is now forecast to be higher than was previously thought, total demand for capital grants is expected to lead to expenditure broadly similar to that previously planned — perhaps that has been misunderstood outside the House and in the farming community—and in line with this year's expenditure in money terms.

One reason for the proposed changes is to make our contribution to the overall public expenditure objectives. In making them, we tried to follow through some specific and, in our view, sensible themes. I should like to deal with the three broad themes or objectives because they are relevant to the co-operation grants as many of the changes to the co-operation grants must reflect changes that we ae making in the general grant schemes. That is why, by not taking the two orders together, the issues cannot be presented clearly. I shall outline those three objectives and explain them in greater detail in the next debate. The first is that we have had conservation needs firmly in mind. Secondly, we have laid special emphasis on changing needs and up-to-date priorities. Thirdly, we have given priority to changes when administration of the schemes can be simplified and when administrative savings can be made.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I now said a little about the changes to the co-operation grant. The Agriculture Act 1967 provided authority for a scheme of grants which were designed to encourage, promote or develop any form of co-operation in agriculture or horticulture. Since then, successive Governments have operated an agricultural and horticultural co-operative scheme that, although modified on several occasions, has offered to agricultural and horticultural co-operatives financial assistance towards formation costs, including feasibility studies and initial managerial salaries, and grant on a wide range of capital investments.

The Government recognise that producers who combine their resources through co-operation can achieve benefits of scale that are unavailable to individual producers. Co-operation also assists producers to identify opportunities in the market and to fulfil those demands by supplying a product that is consistent in quantity and quality to satisfy customer requirements.

From the many visits that I have paid to co-operatives in the last few months, I have become increasingly aware of the importance, if we are to sell our products at home and overseas, of putting an emphasis on quality, and cooperatives help us to do that.

The Government, therefore, remain committed to the principle of producer co-operation, but this sector, too, cannot be immune from changes in the financial level of support if one considers that there are higher priorities elsewhere.

The amount of grant awarded under this scheme has virtually doubled over the last two years and is now running at some £4,500,000. That is a sizeable and positive commitment. The draft statutory instrument before the House amends the agricultural and horticultural co-operation scheme to reflect broadly the changes being introduced into the farm capital grant schemes that we shall be considering later.

While grain co-operatives will still qualify for grant, however, we have decided that there shall be some reductions from the present levels. Thus the rate for building and associated works is being reduced from 22½ per cent. to 15 per cent., and for plant and equipment used for the storage and drying of grain the rate will be 10 per cent. instead of 15 per cent. The small and relatively unused grant of 5 per cent. when such equipment is used by a co-operative on individual farms is being deleted.

For co-operative buildings other than grain, we are retaining the present 10 per cent. per premium over those available to individual farmers under the AHGS. This involves a small reduction in grant from 32½ per cent. to 30 per cent. Under the farm schemes, grant will no longer be available for production and harvesting machinery, and to reflect this pattern consequential changes are being made to the co-operation scheme. On those items eligible for grant, we are maintaining a premium for co-operative investments. As I said, my visits to several co-operatives in recent months have confirmed my view that the grants are well used and can make a significant contribution towards the better grading and marketing of farm produce.

To those who query the justification for continuing to grant-aid cereal co-operatives, I should point out that the effect of the proposed amendments together with those made during the summer in a Committee upstairs will be to reduce grants in the cereal sector by more than one half.

We have to make these consequential changes. but I was anxious to keep them to the minimum because, as some hon. Members may know, I have asked the Cooperative Development Board of "Food From Britain" to examine its priorities and strategies. I hope to be discussing these with the chairman, Mr. Douglas Cargill, in the coming months. If there are to be any further changes—and I make no commitment about that in advance of these discussions it could be that there will be none — I think it right to await the outcome of the board's deliberations.

In mentioning the Co-operative Development Board, I am able to say that in the co-operative sector as elsewhere, as I shall demonstrate later, we have taken the opportunity of the changes to make one improvement that reflects current priority.

The Co-operative Development Board has made clear to us its belief that one of its top priorities is that more resources should be devoted to the non-capital grants section of the AHCS, grants which are currently limited to a financial ceiling which, in 1983–84, stands at £250,000. The board considers that these grants, which go towards the cost of forming new co-operatives and the employment of key managerial staff or marketing agents, play an important part in ensuring that a new producers' group starts off on the right lines and enhances the longterm prospects of the business.

It urged that if there were any additional resources available, they should be devoted to that purpose. I agree, and I am happy to say that we intend to increase the present ceiling by £200,000 in each of the next three financial years, and I know that that has been welcomed by the board.

That, in broad outline, is what the draft statutory instrument does. The draft instrument, that we shall be discussing next, together with the other changes that we are making, are more material, and I shall comment on those when we come to that debate. Meanwhile, I commend this draft statutory instrument to the House.

10.27 pm
Mr. Walter Harrison (Wakefield)

I had expected a representative of the Opposition Front Bench to speak on this matter, and I received no indication that that would not be the case. However, I welcome this opportunity to speak about this instrument because I tried to discuss it on several occasions earlier in the day with Opposition Front Bench spokesmen on the subject and to explain my situation, but without success.

As I listened to the Minister I thought that there was nothing in the measure relating to the subject that I wished to raise. However, there is provision in the instrument for flood protection works and the protection or improvement of river banks. [HON. MEMBERS: "Wrong measure".] If I am out of order, the Chair will inform me of that fact. Indeed, I have already been called to order, as it were, by the occupants of my own Front Bench in that they have not talked to me today about the subject.

For nearly six months Wakefield has been flooded. Because 400 homes were flooded earlier this year, on 1 June I spoke to the then Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, now the Under-Secretary of State for Energy — we have a quick changeround under the Conservatives—and he told me, "I will deal with the flooding in your constituency," and he referred me to the Yorkshire water authority.

Within a few weeks we had the general election, after which I took the matter up with the present Minister for Housing and Construction. It is amazing how quickly I go through Ministers, just as I go through chairmen of water authorities. Within six months I have dealt with three Ministers and three chairmen of the Yorkshire water authority, all about the same subject. The reason why I am not receiving support on this issue from my Front Bench is that I have been raising the matter, without success, since 1970. [Interruption.] Does any hon. Member wish to intervene in my speech? I am willing to give way; I am a tolerant sort of chap.

I am thinking of a golfer who played a round at Low Laithes golf course in Wakefield. Golfers in the House may know it. He knew that he had got a hole in one because when the ball went into the hole it went "plop"; the hole was full of water. As he progressed round the course, he found that the 16th, 17th and 18th greens were all low-lying and under water.

Half a mile away, people's homes were flooded. They were not holing in one. They were trying to get the water out of their cellars. Then disaster struck. In the Lofthouse colliery disaster seven men, all from the same area, lost their lives. The water broke through and cost those men their lives. In the early 1970s, when I asked the golf club secretary about the 16th, 17th and 18th holes he said that there was no problem any more because the water had all gone into Lofthouse colliery. So the problem has existed for a long time.

The M1 extension was built in 1968–69. Since then there has been a catchment area problem under the Land Drainage Act so that the problem has not been dealt with either by the Yorkshire water authority or by the Department of the Environment.

This is the only opportunity for me to discuss flooding in Wakefield. I rang the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at 9.30 am last Sunday. One has to be quick off the mark in these matters. I asked the Minister whether I had got him up, but he said that he was still in bed— reading the News of the World, no doubt. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is wrong to doubt my words.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I was there.

Mr. Harrison

The hon. Gentleman says that he was there, but I doubt it.

Mr. Winterton

Do not worry—I was not there.

Mr. Harrison

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has withdrawn that comment.

After vigorously pursuing the Minister in charge for 13 years I find that the only opportunity to raise the matter is on item No. 9—of the wrong measure, according to the Opposition Front Bench, so it will have to be item No. 7 on the other measure. The provision relating to flood protection provides the only opportunity.

In Committee Room 10 in 1972–73 I watched Graham Page—one of the best Ministers that the Conservatives ever had — rush legislation through setting up the counties and metropolitan authorities. The Conservatives made a big mistake then. They now intend to correct it. How does one describe a mistake added to a mistake? The banks have a word for it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Compound."] That is the word. The Government are now going to compound their mistakes. The counties and metropolitan districts were given gums without teeth.

When the flooding occurred in Wakefield I asked the metropolitan district council who would deal with it. I explained that I had 400 constituents with wet ankles—not golfing, but trying to pump out their homes. More sandbags are sold in Wakefield than anywhere else in the country—the situation in 1945–48 has nothing on us. A few years ago 400 people were affected. In June there were 800. On 9 December there were more than 1,000. When I visited the metropolitan district council, the county council and the Yorkshire water authority, I realised that Wakefield met carried the can. I spoke to the chairman of the Wakefield metropolitan council, with whom I served about 30 years ago. I said, "Now Jack, who will deal with the flood?" He said, "I cannot do anything about it, Walter, as we have no money. It is not our responsibility."

I then visited the county council. I knew the people there, as I had served as a member of the authority. I said, "Now Rodney, what about this job? Some of my constituents are flooded. Who will deal with the problem?" He said, "We cannot do anything about it as we have no money." I then visited the chairman of the Yorkshire water authority, who said, "We have no authority to help. It is not our responsibility." I then went to the Department of the Environment, where I met the present Minister for Housing and Construction, a well-informed and knowledgeable man. He was the Prime Minister's previous Parliamentary Private Secretary. He said that it was a matter for Wakefield metropolitan council. When I was returning to Wakefield, I felt like the Oozelum bird. I was going round and round.

I am now with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I had a chat with him on Sunday morning and another chat with him at 4 o'clock today. When we finished at 4.45 pm he said "Permissive powers." The position is that thousands of people are flooded out in Wakefield. I have discovered that not one person to whom I spoke has the power to authorise remedial work or will help in any way.

Are you listening, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

If he were, the right hon. Gentleman would be ruled out of order.

Mr. Harrison

That is right. I appreciate that you are tolerant, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am concerned about my constituents. No-one is willing to carry the can. I am trying to include a clause to enable us to pin down the responsibility.

I declare my shot. I have told the Minister that the war is on. Wherever water is involved, be it in agriculture, horticulture density, depth or whatever, I shall discuss this problem because thousands of my constituents are suffering. I shall divide on every order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

The right hon. Gentleman sad that I was tolerant. Indeed I am. I have been waiting patiently for him to tell me how his grievous flood problem in Wakefield relates to approved proposals designed to promote co-operative activities in agriculture or horticulture. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is about to bring his remarks to a close, or show the House how they relate to the order before it.

Mr. Harrison

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being so tolerant. I was having the same difficulty as you as to where to get in. I was told that if I made my speech I would immediately be out of order. Even so, I have been speaking for 10 to 12 minutes. I am amazed.

If any item before the House deals with the provision or improvement of flood protection works, protection or improvement of river banks or facilities to prevent the flooding of agricultural land by water courses, I reckon that I am in.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The order relates to those matters only in connection with co-operative activities in agriculture or horticulture. If the flooding in Wakefield is relevant to the co-operative activities in agriculture or horticulture in Wakefield, the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman may be relevant. If not, the right hon. Gentleman must bring his remarks to a close.

Mr. Harrison

But they are relevant. The wife of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) came to visit me last week—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Rather, she came to visit my wife. When she looked out of our front window, she had a wonderful view of three lakes belonging to a farmer——

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The landed gentry.

Mr. Harrison

One consisted of 10 acres of land. I do not know whether barley is grown there, but whatever it is, it is green——

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)


Mr. Harrison

That is next year—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] I am glad that hon. Members have called me to order. My point is that, when confronted with problems such as this, and you start amending regulations——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has been in the House a long time and knows that it is not I who make these amendments.

Mr. Harrison

We used to serve together, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I am not taking advantage——

Mr. Home Robertson

My right hon. Friend now has an office.

Mr. Harrison

I do, but it was a Tory office. I can talk about accommodation if my hon. Friend wishes.

Sir Peter Mills (Torridge and Devon, West)

Perhaps I can help. The way forward is to form a co-operative to deal with drainage, as a result of which grants may be available to deal with the problems in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Harrison

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that advice. Those who have suffered from flooding have formed a co-operative because as riparian owners they could not afford the work on their own. They formed that co-operative to satisfy the insurance people. I shall, however, take the hon. Gentleman's advice back to my constituents. I am willing to accept any further advice that he may be able to give, and perhaps he will see me at the back of the Chair.

I looked up the Agriculture Act 1967 and discovered that water is mentioned nowhere. There is no reference to flooding in sections 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63 or 64.

I raise this matter now because I am disappointed with the replies that I have received in the last six months from the various Departments, including the Department of Transport which is responsible for the M1 catchment area. Even the Land Drainage Act 1961, amended in 1976 and subsequently, does not deal with this problem.

I had a few chats with a comrade of mine, Mr. Graham Page——

Mr. Home Robertson

And a pint.

Mr. Harrison

You have as well——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have never had a pint with Mr. Graham Page.

Mr. Harrison

If you have not had a pint with him, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have been there when he has had a pint with me. Be that as it may, I do not wish to be distracted.

There is a defect in the legislation when flooding cannot be dealt with by the metropolitan district, by Yorkshire county council, by Yorkshire water authority, by the Department of the Environment or by the Ministry of Agriculture because permissive powers are involved. Why do ratepayers pay rates for these things when the service cannot be carried out? Can the Minister tell us where the responsibility lies for dealing with flooding in Wakefield.

10.45 pm
Mr. MacGregor

The House has great affection, as have too, for the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Harrison). I was forced to keep in order in my original remarks about the order. What the right hon. Gentleman was saying was not quite relevant, because arterial drainage is not covered in the order. Nevertheless, understand his concern and I hope that he accepts that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food responds quickly, even at an early hour on Sunday, not only because of his old friendship with the right hon. Gentleman and his recognition of all he did to make the workings of the House possible but also because of his concern to help. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the Minister responded quickly by seeing him this afternoon.

It is for the district council to decide whether or not to initiate new drainage work to alleviate the problem. However, if it will help, my right hon. Friend is considering what he can do to help and he will write to the right hon. Gentleman shortly. I hope that the House will now agree to the draft order.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Does not the Minister agree that there is a relationship between his responsibility and what my right hon. Friend has been talking about? The schemes that we are debating encourage farmers to improve the drainage of their land which makes the water run off the land faster. This means that rivers like the one that we have been hearing about in Wakefield and others in my constituency and elsewhere are bursting their banks much more often. There is a relationship and there should be better liaison between the Ministry of Agriculture and the other Departments such as the Scottish Office and the Department of the Environment.

Mr. MacGregor

That is very ingenious, but it has little to do with the draft order that we are debating. I have already said that my right hon. Friend will be considering the matter on the right hon. Gentleman's behalf. I hope that we can proceed to approval of this order and get on to the main order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1983, which was laid before this House on 30th November, be approved.

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