HL Deb 01 July 1952 vol 177 cc582-7

5.55 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the purpose of this short Bill is twofold. First it enables the Government to pay the grant for ploughing up grassland which was announced by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place on February 4. He said that the Government would introduce legislation to make grants of £5 an acre for the ploughing up of grassland four years old, provided that it was sown to an approved crop. And secondly it enables the Government to make similar grants in the future if this is considered desirable. It was apparent when the Government took office that there was a need for an incentive to farmers to increase and to maintain the tillage acreage. To meet this need the Government announced this short-term scheme, with the object of getting extra crops sown for harvesting or use as fodder this year. Not only, as your Lordships will be aware, is theme a shortage of foreign exchange and a shortage of feeding-stuffs in the world, but the large increase in the number of pigs, amounting to about 1,000,000 in the last twelve months, made it imperative to take some action of this kind.

By ploughing up permanent grassland and old leys which had passed their peak of productivity, more land has been released for sowing to tillage crops. In England and Wales it is estimated that about two-thirds of the land qualifying for grant, which in the United Kingdom amounts to about 750,000 acres, has been sown to grain crops for this harvest. This will mean an appreciable addition to coarse grain supplies for feeding this winter. We do not, however, propose to measure the success of this first scheme entirely by the number of extra acres of tillage obtained, but regard it as part of the policy of restoring confidence to the farming community, and particularly the small farmers, by helping to meet the increased cost of ploughing up, cultivation and sowing which they have to incur before they are in sight of any return for the crops grown.

These ploughing grants are an important factor in the future production policy outlined in the recent White Paper, and the Government have decided to continue ploughing grants after May 31. I cannot, however, at this stage give any details of the new scheme except to say that it will cover a full twelve months, which is the maximum time possible under the Bill. The structure of the Bill is much the same as that of the Agriculture (Fertilisers) Act which your Lordships passed a few weeks ago, and empowers Ministers to make schemes for paying ploughing grants which must be approved under the Affirmative Resolution procedure.

Clause 1 of the Bill deals with the making of schemes. It makes it clear that the payment of a grant depends not only on ploughing up the land but on fulfilling certain other requirements, like bringing the land into a clean and proper state and using it in any way—such as the sowing to an approved crop—which the scheme lays down. The scheme must also set out what the rates of grant will be and for what period the land must have been continuously under grass to make the ploughing up eligible for grant. It will be possible, if it is desired and approved by Parliament, for a scheme to provide for different rates of grant for different kinds of grassland. Clause 2 lays down that the first scheme will deal with grassland ploughed up from February 5 to May 31, 1952, inclusive, and subsequent schemes will relate to periods of not more than one year. Any extension of a scheme will also be limited to one year. Clause 3 enables a scheme to attach conditions to the grant, and sets out a number of particular conditions, such as a minimum area to be ploughed up and other conditions necessary to make the particular scheme administratively workable. A scheme will normally provide that the grant will be paid only if the qualifying operations are carried out efficiently and if adequate facilities for inspecting the land are given. The other two clauses deal with definitions and miscellaneous matters.

In accordance with Clause 3 (4) of the Bill, the draft statutory instruments prescribing the first scheme will be laid before Parliament as soon as the Bill receives the Royal Assent. Because of certain differences in the administration it is proposed to have a separate scheme for Scotland, but one scheme for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Your Lordships will readily appreciate that we are very anxious to have this Bill passed as soon as possible, so that the first scheme can be laid and approved. No grants can, of course, be made until this has been done, and I think your Lordships will agree that the farmers who have responded so magnificently to the special appeal made by the Minister earlier this year should receive payment as quickly as possible. I think that grants of the kind provided for in this Bill are well suited to deal with the problem of increasing the tillage acreage, and that the way in which this Bill has been framed gives Parliament adequate opportunities for considering any measure of this kind proposed by the Government. I have every hope that your Lordships will approve this Bill, and I accordingly beg to move that it be given a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Carrington.)

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, this is another uncontroversial measure, like the Bill which preceded it, and I am sure that it will be convenient for your Lordships, at this time on a rather warm afternoon, if it is dealt with equally expeditiously. I will do my best to contribute to that end. We on this side of the House welcome the Bill because it will do something—as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said—to increase the tillage acreage. Everyone, I think, has felt a great deal of concern at the decline which has been going on at an alarming pace in the tillage acreage in recent years. I believe we lost another 600,000 acres during the course of 1951. That is the latest figure available. It was natural and, of course, desirable from the economic point of view that after the war some arable land should go back to grass. But, instead of stopping after the post-war adjustment had been made, this drift back to grass has been going on steadily year after year ever since. This is a process which really must be checked if we are to get the right balance in our agriculture between grass and arable. I sincerely hope that the full area of 500,000 acres will be ploughed up this year. I think the noble Lord said that two-thirds of the target had already been reached.


I said that about 750,000 acres had been ploughed, which is 250,000 acres more than we expected. Two thirds of the total for England and Wales have been sown down to cereal crops.


I am sure the noble Lord will excuse me if I say that I could hardly believe my ears. This is the first time in my recollection that a Minister has exceeded a target which he has set himself. I am absolutely delighted to hear it, for it is very pleasant to get a hit of news of that kind in these days. I am sure that this is due to the fact that the farmers feel it is their patriotic duty to carry out this programme. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the small farmers, who have reverted to grass because of their rising costs, to plunge into debt because the country wants their barley. I think everyone would agree that while farming costs remain as high as they are at present the small farmer is entitled to some measure of financial assistance. And one important merit of the Bill is that the subsidy will go to the man who really needs it. The big farmer in East Anglia has not had to allow his arable to go back to grass. It is the small farmer in Wales and other parts of the country to whom this has happened. That is exactly the type of man who will be helped.

It is very satisfactory to hear that farmers are, in fact, planting barley and other coarse grains that are needed for feeding our livestock. There is always a temptation, which, I think, the farming community ought to be given credit for resisting, to plant malting barley or other crops which may possibly he more remunerative later on. But the essential thing, as everyone seems to realise, is that we should get the home-grown feeding-stuffs we need to replace the scarce and extremely expensive animal feeding-stuffs imported from overseas. The position with regard to these imported feeding-stuffs is so difficult at the present time that we should probably have lost quite a substantial part of our present pig population, which, as the noble Lord has pointed out, has increased so remarkably in the last year, if farmers had not been willing to grow more of these crops at home. This is, I think, a great contribution to the welfare of the consumer of food—who has to look for more pig pro- ducts, if there is to be arty increase in the consumption of meat—as well as, of course, to farming. These are important reasons for saying that in present circumstances this subsidy is entirely justified.

There are two questions which I should like to ask the noble Lord about the future. Let me say that I shall not feel in the least aggrieved if he does not answer, because I have not given him notice—the omission is entirely mine—that I was going to raise these points. However, I should like to put these questions this afternoon, and it may happen that the answers are already in the noble Lord's mind. I think that these are both matters of some importance. The noble Lord has told us in the past that he and his Ministerial colleagues are considering long-term agricultural policy. What I have been wondering is whether they have reached a stage in their consideration of these long-range problems at which they can say whether or not this subsidy is likely to be—I would not say a permanent feature, for that would be ridiculous, but a fairly lasting feature of agricultural policy.

My other question is this. What we are all aiming at—it is, I think, the common aim of all Parties and of the farming community—is to achieve a healthy balance between arable land and pasture throughout the country. I wonder whether the noble Lord knows, or has any estimate which he can give us, how much more acreage in grass will have to be ploughed up if we are to reach the balance that from the economic point of view is desirable for maximum production of the many different types of food-stuffs which the country requires. I hope the noble Lord will forgive me for putting those questions now, and that he will exercise his indulgence in the knowledge that he has the utmost support of the Opposition for this Bill and for getting it passed into law with the minimum possible delay.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for what he has just said and for the way in which he has received this small Bill. I think it is an important Bill, and it is of great value to us that we should have the support of the Opposition in a measure of this kind. The noble Earl asked me two questions. The first was whether or not a scheme of subsidies under a Bill of this kind would be a permanent or, at any rate, a lengthy feature of our agricultural programme. He will not expect me, I think, at this stage of a Bill of this nature to give him an answer as to what will happen in the future. All this Bill seeks to do is to make it possible—if it is desired by Parliament and by the Government of the day—for the Government to bring in a scheme allowing grants to be paid for ploughing up permanent and other pasture. I have already said that the purpose of the Bill is to implement a promise given by the Minister in another place that there should be a ploughing-up scheme from February 5 to May 31 of this year. As I have announced, there will be another scheme next year. At the present moment, I cannot, as the noble Earl will appreciate, go further than that.

The second question which the noble Earl asked me was what sort of acreage we thought would be right as a balance between grass and tillage for the next few years. What we are aiming at in the production programme which we put before the country in the White Paper is that, in addition to the 500,000 or so acres which we hoped to get this year—actually, it is more than that—we expect to get another 1,000,000 acres of tillage by the end of 1956. If we get that other 1,000,000 acres it would, we think, be about right, and we should be able to get the targets we have set the industry.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.