HL Deb 23 February 1938 vol 107 cc868-73

LORD MIDDLETON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can make any announcement of their intentions with regard to the extension of the land fertility scheme beyond the three-year period laid down in the Agriculture Act, 1937. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that the fact that I cannot compete either in eloquence or staying power with the noble Lord, Lord Olivier, or with the noble Earl who replied to him, will not create the false impression that I attach very little importance to the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Quite naturally, the scheme for assisting farmers to feed their land properly has created enormous interest in agicultural circles, particularly where farmers really are farmers. As soon as the scheme became known, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society set up a committee to investigate the local resources in lime, and I have since heard from four or five different quarters that there is every likelihood that in the next twelve months there may be a considerable shortage of lime. I have also heard on good authority, in my own county and elsewhere, that certain interests are prepared to open up new lime quarries and build lime kilns, provided they have an assurance that there will be continuity of the Government's policy beyond the three years indicated, and I hope that the noble Earl on the Front Bench will be able to satisfy us on that point.


My Lords, I only want to testify to the truth of what the noble Lord has said—namely, that the land fertility scheme has not yet had a chance to get into full function. In my part of the world, Oxfordshire, farmers have been thinking of lime probably before the Yorkshire farmers knew what it was, and undoubtedly there is now a demand for lime which cannot he satisfied. Of course, there has been a shortage of basic slag also. It is very important, if the necessary supplies of lime in particular are to be available for the farming population, that a rather longer view should be taken than is taken by this Act.


My Lords, I hope the Government will be able to give a satisfactory reply to the noble Lord who has asked this Question. There is another aspect of this matter, the inevitable delay which may ensue before advantage can be taken of the facilities offered by the Government for increasing the fertility of the soil. The noble Earl is well aware that there are many parts of the country where, before any advantage can be taken of the Act, it is essential that drainage should take place. Although we are very grateful to the Government for the action they have taken in providing funds for the drainage of the agricultural districts, the execution of these necessary works is bound to take more time than the three years mentioned in the Agriculture Act. Consequently, before full advantage can be taken of the provisions for fertilisers it is very necessary that a considerable extension of the period mentioned should be secured.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for having placed this Question on the Order Paper, for it provides me with an opportunity to make a statement to your Lordships' House on a subject which, the noble Lord will fully agree, is of great importance to agriculturists all over the country. Your Lordships will recall that the Agriculture Act, 1937, provides that the land fertility scheme may be extended for a fourth and fifth year by successive Orders made jointly by the three Ministers concerned, but that any such Order, before it can become effective, must be expressly confirmed by a Resolution of each House of Parliament. In the last resort, therefore, it is for Parliament to decide, as a matter of policy, whether the scheme shall be extended after the expiration of the current three-year period and it is not possible for the Ministers to give any undertaking now that Parliament will decide affirmatively. It. is, however, obvious—since the initiative in the matter will rest with the Government —that if the scheme proves its worth and the demand for assisted lime and slag is sustained, my right honourable friend and his agricultural colleagues, unless unforeseen difficulties arise, will have every desire to invite Parliament to approve the necessary Orders. Anything beyond five years would require fresh legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillimore, has referred to the shortage of supplies experienced by farmers in many parts of the country during the course of the last few months. I hope that your Lordships will have the benefit of hearing the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, Chairman of the Land Fertility Committee, make reference to this matter, but I am given to understand that the Commitee have every reason to believe that if the scheme does last for five years there will be enough lime and basic slag to satisfy the needs of all farmers in turn. With regard to the point raised by Lord O'Hagan, that the assistance given to obtain greater potential fertility of the soil must go hand in hand with drainage assistance, I would remind the noble Lord that in the same Act in which this assistance was given, the Agriculture Act, provision was also made for assistance to the lesser internal drainage authorities, which comes in the natural sequence of dealing with the whole question of drainage. First, considerable assistance is given to catchment boards all over the country for clearing out the main rivers in the district; the second step is to clear out the subsidiary streams and main drains, and the logical sequence will be that consideration will no doubt be given to field drainage, which will undoubtedly assist the farmer in his agricultural operations.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the ability and energy which the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, has devoted to the task of launching this scheme. I should like at the same time to congratulate him upon the success that has attended his Committee's efforts. Paradoxical as it may seem, the noble Lord has not allowed the grass to grow under his feet. Within five weeks from the passing of the Agriculture Act an entirely new organisation of approved suppliers was set up throughout the United Kingdom. By making use of this organisation each farmer could, if he so desired, avail himself of the help afforded by the scheme in connection with his cultivation operations last autumn. The House will agree with me when I say that agriculturists owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord and the Committee over which he presides for the speedy and successful way in which they have undertaken their work.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl very much on behalf of my Committee for the unsolicited testimonial which he has been good enough to give them. I think that he will probably appreciate that I feel some slight disappointment with the answer that he has given, because quite clearly it would be advantageous to the scheme if he had been able to say definitely that it was going on for five years. It is doubtful in certain parts of the country—and I think I may particularly refer to Scotland—whether even in five years it will be possible for the farmers to cover the whole of their land in rotation as they would wish. I attach even more importance, myself, to the other point brought up, and that is that these farmers and other people who have been considering the question of rehabilitating old plants and setting up new plants for the processing of lime and chalk are doubtful whether it is worth while, for such a short time, to set these plants in operation. If they did so, not only would it be good for agriculture, but it would supply a certain amount of employment which at the present moment would appear to be undoubtedly needed.

At the same time I thoroughly appreciate the difficulties of Parliamentary procedure, and feel that the reply which the noble Earl has given is a reasonable one. I trust it will give encouragement to those people to proceed with the work which they might do, and I also sincerely hope it will do something by way of giving confidence to stop what I call the almost unseemly scramble for supplies that is going on at the present time, and which is not only expensive to the Treasury but in some cases uneconomic to the farmer. There are innumerable cases of farmers who are unable to get supplies from their usual people close by, and who have been forced to go far afield. The cost in transport in such cases has proved very expensive and an unnecessary drain on their pockets and on the Treasury. There are numerous cases, too, of people who in their hurry to get supplies have not taken sufficient care to be sure that the supplies they are getting are of the kind and standard they require. It may very well be their fault, but not always; but they have often found when they have got the supplies home from some considerable distance that they were not up to the standard anticipated. They complain to the Fertility Committee, and a post mortem takes place, but a post mortem very seldom gives much satisfaction to any of the parties concerned.

Possibly your Lordships might like to have one or two rather dry figures connected with the progress of this scheme. Up to the present time there have been something like 110,000 applications—I talk in round figures—from about 94,000 farmers, and I look on that result as a very great testimonial to the farmers. It proves that it was not idleness or folly or greed that caused them to neglect their land, because they showed the moment it was anything like a commercial proposition that they welcomed the opportunity with both hands. There has been spread on the land over 640,000 tons of lime and over 280,000 tons of slag. The contribution up to date is over£560,000. Applications are still coming in at the rate of a thousand a day, and somewhere between 1,30o and 1,400 are being paid daily. Your Lordships would naturally conclude from that that we are getting up to date, but you would not in fact be right, because the farmer, almost alone in this country, has the reprehensible habit of working seven days a week. I hope that in the early spring we shall make an appreciable cut in the "lag," and that during the summer it will disappear.

We have approved 500 suppliers and 3,300 distributors, and there are 500 farmers who are working local pits and getting sea sand. With regard to those small holders who take less than two tons, we have devised a simple procedure whereby they can form themselves into societies and get the slag or lime by this means, and over 350 of such societies have already been approved. With regard to basic slag, there has been delivered in the first four months more than was delivered during the preceeding twelve months, and reliable estimates indicate that double the amount of last year will be available during this year. The lime figures are less easy to ascertain, because producers of lime also produce in nearly every case industrial lime, and in many cases they do not differentiate in their books between the two; but one large producer informs us that for the first five months of the scheme he produced three times as much as in the whole of last year, and I do not think his case is an isolated one.

I trust I have said enough to show that the Government's faith in their scheme and in the farming community has not been misplaced, and I would point out to your Lordships and to the noble Earl that one of the great merits of this scheme is that it lends itself to expansion in more directions; than one. I confidently look forward to such expansion. After all, the avowed object of this Act is to improve the quality of the land of this country—the land which is the heritage of every one of us—and that is an object to which every one in this House, to whatever Party he may belong, and outside for that matter, might well subscribe.