HL Deb 26 July 1939 vol 114 cc523-35

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Feversham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF ONSLOW in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Provisions as to negligent cultivation]:

3.24 p.m.


I would like if I may to address the Committee for a moment on the subject of Clause 4, not that I have any Amendment on the Paper, as your Lordships are aware, but in answer to a number of inquiries my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary, in the course of the Second Reading debate, made one most interesting answer arising out of the criticisms which were made in the Second Reading debate upon Clause 4. He gave an assurance to the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, that in certain circumstances the persons appointed by the Minister to exercise a general supervision over fertility could be approached by any landowner, agent or other person with an interest in the particular holding, requiring an inspection to be made. There was no opportunity, of course, on the occasion of the Second Reading, to speak again after the Parliamentary Secretary had finished, but I feel that the matter ought not to be left quite as it is.

My noble friend will, I think, realise at once that it would be very peculiar for a landowner, agent or other person interested in the holding, to make a complaint of this particular nature. In the first place, I think that the landowner would regard it as very undignified. In the second place there would be certain risks attaching to such a complaint being made if a landowner were to complain of his own tenant to a third party. The tenant might, not unnaturally, turn round after he had been refused the subsidy and express to the landowner his grave doubt as to whether he would in these circumstances be able to pay his rent. I fancy that that particular safeguard which was adumbrated by my noble friend is not likely to add very much to the safeguards which are essential in this Bill. No Amendment is on the Paper, and it would not be the intention, I think, of anyone interested in this particular subject to press the matter at the present juncture; but I feel that members of all parties—because this is a wholly non-political matter—are so much impressed with the risks which are now being run, particularly in arable England, in respect of the entire and complete lack of control of bad farming, that they think something will shortly have to be done of an effective character by somebody to remedy what is so apparent to all concerned.

I imagine that the only effective way of doing that will be, sooner or later; and sooner I hope rather than later, to introduce a measure to amend the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1923. That is the only effective way of doing it, because at the present time and under this Bill which is before your Lordships' House, it is evident to all that the best that the Minister can do, however dissatisfied he may be of the strength of the reports that are made to him in regard to any particular individual claiming a subsidy, is to withhold the subsidy. That does not meet the case in the least. In all probability it only makes it more difficult for the individual from whom the subsidy is withheld to continue farming at all. Agriculture requires to-day that the man who is farming his land badly should be got rid of in order that he may be replaced by somebody both able and willing to farm the land better. Consequently, something far more comprehensive than that which is contained in this Bill will be required. I wish to ask for the indulgence of the Committee only for a moment to express my feelings upon this particular subject, because if no one had expressed what I have ventured to express it might perhaps be accepted within the industry that the reply of my noble friend was considered by the agricultural industry to be adequate to the occasion, whereas in point of fact, although it was the best that he could possibly say and the best, I think, that could be done under the framework of this Bill, it is not adequate, and something infinitely more drastic will be required quite soon.

3.29 p.m.


I should like to intervene for a moment in support of the general case that the noble Lord has presented to the Committee. I confess I was exceedingly disappointed the other day when the noble Earl told us that the reports to the Minister would be made by the staff crop reporters, and that apparently it was the intention of the Ministry to rely, so far as this particular clause is concerned, upon that type of report. While these gentlemen do their work very well as far as it goes, and have a great deal of work to do, really that machine is not appropriate for use for this purpose. We are now going to give considerable subsidies for the three main cereal crops and the wholesale deterioration of land that is going on has not been a bit exaggerated by the noble Lord. In fact I think he has understated the case. When we are spending these vast sums of public money I think it is incumbent upon the Minister to take some more effective powers to see that the money is being properly spent and that the land is being well used.

The Party with which I am associated take the view that it would be possible in every county or district—perhaps a district is better than a county—to set up an appropriate committee of knowledgeable, trustworthy, experienced men who would give advice and guidance on matters of this kind, which are essentially technical and which no mere outside person or reporter can possibly appreciate. We had county committees at the end of the War. Some of them operated better than others, I agree, but on the whole they did, I think, raise the general standard of husbandry. The noble Lord said that under existing Acts a landlord is practically helpless and we see in almost every arable county wholesale bleeding of the land and deterioration on a scale which I think is quite unappreciated by the mass of the people. I hope that the noble Earl will tell us, although it may not be possible in this Bill to propose anything more effective—it does not look as if it is possible—that the Government are proposing to set up some effective machinery to see that we get an improved standard of husbandry alongside this vast expenditure of public money.

3.33 p.m.


When replying to the Second Reading debate on this Bill I indicated, in answer to a question by my noble friend the Earl of Radnor, that the Government would give a definite assurance that in the case of any farmer who was to receive a subsidy under either the barley or oat subsidy proposals, a landlord or his representative, or an agricultural organisation could make representations either centrally to the headquarters of the Ministry or to the local officer of the Ministry, expressing a desire that an inspection should be made. My noble friend Lord Hastings has raised to-day a doubt as to the feasibility of a landowner in many instances being able to resort to that provision on account of the difficult relations that might ensue between landlord and tenant. I do not think there is real ground for apprehension on that account. It would be possible for any given landlord, first to make representations, as he at present does, with regard to the cultivation of any one of his tenants which he considered to be of a negligent character. If such a personal approach failed—many landlords know instances where it does fail—then, either with or without the knowledge and consent of the tenant concerned, he can write to the Ministry centrally or to the land commissioner for the district.

My noble friend Lord Addison, if I may call him such, has said that he is in doubt whether the three hundred crop reporters who are part-time officers of the Ministry can efficiently conduct these investigations and effect the remedy that is the underlying intention of Clause 4. As I endeavoured to point out in my reply to the Second Reading debate, if the report of a crop reporter is contested either by the farmer concerned or in certain instances I expect by the landowner, it will be for a full-time officer of the Ministry to go and make a second inspection. I believe that in such instances there would be ample safeguard for this work being done effectively and efficiently. I also stated briefly in the Second Reading debate that if it was found necessary in the future to appoint more crop reporters, or indeed more full-time officers of the Ministry of Agriculture, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture would take such steps as he thought necessary to see that the intention underlying Clause 4 was properly implemented.

With that specific assurance that I gave to your Lordships, which I now repeat, I hope that the desire on all sides of your Lordships' House to see better cultivation of the land will in fact be realised. If not, if there are further instances on a large scale of cross-cropping, of white-straw crops being grown season after season, thus destroying the fertility of the land, then that will be a most fundamental and proper subject on which agriculturists, either within Parliament or outside, can raise the issue and see that further steps are adopted. I think that my noble friends Lord Hastings and Lord Radnor, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Addison, will agree that Clause 4 goes much further than the provision of inspection in the Agriculture Act, 1937. As subsidy payment can be withheld in the case of a farmer who grows oats or barley if it is proved that the land previously has lost its fertility on account of the growing of wheat, much of the harm that has previously existed will now be removed.

3.39 p.m.


I am very grateful to my noble friend for having given the further explanation and assurance he has given, but I am compelled to repeat that really this provision is inadequate to meet our point of view. It is inadequate by reason of the limitations of the Bill itself. The only penalty which can be inflicted is the withholding of subsidy payment upon oats or barley. If I may, I would like to draw attention to what was said by my noble friend Lord Cranworth on Monday. He said that if a man who was not farming well, who was over-cropping his land with oats and barley, got into trouble with the Ministry's officials on that account, all he had to do was to switch over to wheat farming when he would be perfectly clear from any kind of interference. That is an extraordinarily undesirable loophole to permit to any man already farming badly, and I am sure that, however well these inspectors do their duty, the limitations within which they are compelled to work will make it absolutely essential sooner or later for an Amending Bill to be introduced in respect of the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1923, when the whole matter can be properly ventilated and dealt with.

The entire farming principle could be brought under the aegis of such a Bill. Anyone approaching the subject would be very careful in the first place to be extremely cautious as to how the measure treated the freedom enjoyed by the Competent cultivator of the soil. That would naturally be the first desideratum. But, always bearing that in mind, there must sooner or later be statutory provision for dealing with the appalling wastage which is going on up and down the country and which will, I fear, cause in large measure the expenditure of the taxpayer to be brought to naught. I do not propose to pursue the subject any further except to wish the Ministry the very best of luck under the present Bill. I hope it will be as effective as the Parliamentary Secretary expects. I do not share his beliefs, but I do share his hopes.

3.41 p.m.


I appreciate the good wishes extended to me and His Majesty's Government by my noble friend. I would merely point this out to my noble friend as he has mentioned the eloquent speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, in the Second Reading debate when he referred to the case of a farmer growing wheat upon wheat so as to avoid the cultivation provisions of this Bill and of the Agriculture Act, 1937. I would remind the Committee that wheat deficiency payments depend on the quantity of mill-able wheat which is sold. If wheat is grown too frequently on the same land, the yield will normally be reduced and so consequently will the amount of deficiency payments. Therefore I would submit to your Lordships that there is a definite limit of capacity to switch over the cultivation of wheat, and beyond a certain point it is far from remunerative to the farmer who does not observe the proper methods of good husbandry. That is to some extent a safeguard against the danger that has been pointed out by my noble friend Lord Cranworth.

3.43 p.m.


I must say in reply that although that is, I quite admit, some safeguard, nevertheless it is a very small safeguard, because wheat growing can go on till just such time as the fertility in the particular field is destroyed, which is rather like shutting the gate after the horse has gone out.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clauses 5 to 31 agreed to.

Clause 32:

Payments to Agricultural Mortgage Corporation.

32. The Minister may, with the approval of the Treasury, make, out of moneys provided by Parliament, to the company formed for the purposes of Part I of the Agricultural Credits Act, 1923, in the year beginning on the first day of April, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine, and in each or any of the nineteen next succeeding years, a payment not exceeding sixty thousand pounds either by way of grant or by way of loan and on such terms as may be agreed between the Minister and the said company with the approval of the Treasury.

3.44 p.m.

LORD HASTINGS moved to insert at the end of the clause: But no such agreement shall have effect unless it has been approved by a Resolution passed by each House of Parliament. The noble Lord said: Clause 32 is the clause which deals with the proposed payment to the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, the matter I raised in the speech I ventured to make on the Second Reading. The terms of this Amendment follow the usual lines which are embodied in this Bill in other cases. We have not very much information as to how it is proposed to utilise this grant, which is not to exceed £60,000, but we have a certain amount of information. I have been anxious to ascertain exactly how that money is to be used, because there exists in agricultural circles a very grave anxiety on the part of earlier borrowers from this Corporation, who at the present time hold £6,000,000 worth of loans, in respect of the very high rate of interest which they are called upon to pay, a rate of interest, of course, which they agreed to pay at the time of accepting the loan but which has become high by reason of the fact that money rates have been very much easier since those loans were raised.

I did not think the Second Reading, nor do I think that this stage of the Bill, would be an appropriate time, quite apart from questions of Privilege which would arise, for the insertion into the Bill of specific directions as to how the Minister and the Corporation should between them agree on the allocation of this money. I do not think that would be appropriate. What I do think would be appropriate is that, when agreement has been reached between the two authorities, Parliament should have an opportunity of examining the agreement and of expressing its opinion upon it. It is very evident that this sum, which is not to exceed £60,000, will not be sufficient to meet the very difficult case which confronts the borrowers of the sum of £6,000,000. It is to be assumed that this money is to be devoted in future to making it possible for the Corporation to offer loans at a lower rate than those terms which had to be offered to the earlier borrowers. That is as may be, but that very fact makes it desirable that the opportunity should be given to Parliament for a debate upon the whole great subject of agricultural credit. That is really the purpose that I had in mind in putting down this Amendment.

I have no desire to delay the passage of this Bill, and, as I have already said, I have no desire to impose upon the Minister any particular directions as to how this money should be allocated; but I do want to have the opportunity of debating these arrangements later on, and far more do I want a proper and constitutional opportunity of bringing to the notice of the House the extreme urgency of the whole question of agricultural credit. While the country is now seised of the necessity of re-establishing agriculture on a better, more stable and more confident basis than has been current for several years past, it is not going to be able to do that, and still less is it going to be able to draw back into agriculture that flow of new money without which agriculture cannot survive, unless at the same time it concentrates its vision upon the problem of agricultural credit. I cannot conceive of any more important subject than that in relation to the whole question of agricultural prosperity. That is the purpose of my putting this Amendment upon the Paper. I do not want for a moment to delay the Bill, but I want to have the opportunity eventually of discussing that question of agricultural credit based upon the particular manner in which the Minister is going to dispose of this relatively small subsidy which is being given to the Corporation that is mentioned in the Bill.

Amendment moved— Page 29, line 34, at end insert ("But no such agreement shall have effect unless it has been approved by a Resolution passed by each House of Parliament").—(Lord Hastings.)


On behalf of my noble friends I should like to give support to this Amendment, and for other reasons. First, I think it is right—it is surely essential—that Parliament should have an opportunity of reviewing the conditions upon which this additional assistance is proposed to be given. For my part, also, I should think it would be very useful if we had that opportunity. I have been profoundly disappointed at the trivial extent to which the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation has succeeded in helping agriculture—far short of the anticipations which some people entertained—and it is very important, I think, that Parliament on that account, if for no other reason, should have before it whatever proposals the Minister may have to make for giving this further assistance. I hope that the Minister will accept this entirely reasonable suggestion, which is quite in accordance with constitutional practice, and I see no reason why it should be departed from in this particular case.


I may first say that the Government are in sympathy with the motives that have been expressed by Lord Hastings, and just now by Lord Addison, upon this Amendment, but for reasons of which I think my noble friend may be aware, the Government are unable to accept it in its present form. It will be remembered that the Agricultural Credits Act of 1928 empowered the Minister, with the approval of the Treasury, to make advances to the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation for the purpose of establishing a guarantee fund. None of the arrangements made under the 1928 Act were subject to the procedure of receiving an affirmative Resolution by Parliament, and it was therefore thought not necessary to make such provision covering the terms and provisions of payments made under Clause 32 of this Bill. But the Government are prepared to do as the noble Lord opposite desires—to undertake that the terms on which payments are made under Clause 32 shall be communicated to Parliament, and I hope that, having received such an assurance, my noble friend Lord Hastings will see fit to withdraw his Amendment.

At the present stage it is not possible for me to describe exactly the way in which this communication may be made, but it may, for example, be by a White Paper, or some other suitable means of laying a Paper on the Table. This procedure would enable your Lordships to raise any points on agricultural credit which you might wish to bring before the attention of His Majesty's Government, and in so far as the terms of this Bill will be subject to periodic review the procedure which I now propose will itself provide sufficient safeguards to meet, the point raised by the noble Lord, that when arrangements have been made by the Treasury and my right honourable friend, such alterations or arrangements can be investigated and discussed by Parliament. I hope that after this explanation my noble friend will see fit to withdraw his Amendment.


As I understand the reply of my noble friend, he proposes, and he speaks of course with the authority of the Government in so proposing, to make arrangements to lay upon the Table a White Paper, or to adopt some equally suitable means of informing the House of the arrangements which are to be made under this clause between the Minister and the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. That I understand to be what the Parliamentary Secretary has said. I must confess that the actual allocation of a sum so small as £60,000 maximum per annum is hardly worth either the risk of holding up this Bill in the course of its passage through Parliament, or really of a full-dress debate by the House upon a matter of such relative triviality, because I recognise that that sum is not going to be sufficient, or nearly sufficient, to deal with the very much wider issues which are at the back of my mind, and probably also of the mind of Lord Addison. But as I understand the proposal of the Parliamentary Secretary it is that, by reason of the lodging or laying of this information, your Lordships' House will be given an additional opportunity of basing your discussion upon agricultural credits upon that particular Paper which it is proposed to lay in due course. If I am quite right in assuming that that is the intention, I am prepared to withdraw my Amendment. We shall lose nothing thereby.


I should just say that, as is customary in this House, if a matter of this description, which has only one aspect of agricultural credit, is to be submitted to the House by laying a Paper on the Table, it would be reasonable to expect that your Lordships would debate the fuller subject of which the actual proposals contained in the Paper formed a part.


I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

First Schedule agreed to.

Second Schedule [Provisions as to amount of fat sheep subsidy payments]:

3.57 p.m.


On the question whether this Schedule shall stand part of the Bill, may I say that it had been the intention of myself and some of my friends to move an Amendment to that figure of 27,000,000, which restricts the insurance to be given to sheep. I have been advised, however, that since this might cost some additional amount from the Treasury it would not be within the purview of your Lordships' House, and further that it would be an Amendment of such substance that unless the Government accepted it to move it would be merely a waste of time. I would, therefore, like to take this opportunity of making an appeal to the Government, through the noble Earl, that even at this eleventh hour they should once more reconsider this figure of 27,000,000. On the Second Reading I gave two reasons which seemed to me to be sufficient for reconsideration, and I only now wish to add this further one, that it does seem a pity that for the sake of what I may call a ha'p'orth of tar they should do something to destroy the value of this most admirable Bill.


As I believe I indicated to my noble friend on the Second Reading, the 27,000,000 ceiling level that has been fixed under this Part of the Bill is not an arbitrary figure, and I said that if the sheep population of this country exceeds the 27,000,000, the average annual standard price of 10d. will only be reduced to the extent of one-eighth of a penny for each complete quarter of a million up to 28,000,000, and by ¼d. for every quarter of a million thereafter. Therefore, if the sheep population should be 27,500,000— a figure which has not been reached during the course of the last quarter of a century—the average standard price would be reduced by only ¼d., bringing it to 9¾d. So I do not think it can be anticipated that the producers of sheep in this country will materially suffer or have great sacrifices imposed upon them by a reduction of that description.


I beg to thank the noble Earl for his reply.

Second Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.