HL Deb 12 March 1952 vol 175 cc695-716

4.47 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the origin of this Bill lies in the undertaking that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture gave in November last that he would introduce a subsidy for phosphatic fertilisers. The need for this subsidy has arisen as a result of the continued steep rise in the prices of all fertilisers and particularly phosphates. The last half of the war-time subsidy ended on June 30 last year, and it was calculated that this would increase farmers' expenditure by about £10,000,000 annually. This was known during the Annual Review which took place at the beginning of 1951, and these increases were taken into account in the settlement which was reached. Between the time of the review and last November, there were further big increases in freight rates and the cost of imported materials; consequently, fertiliser prices rose again by rather over £9,000,000 and on November 29 my right honourable friend the Minister announced in another place the results of the Special Review which had taken place during November. He said that although there was this steep increase in the price of fertilisers which could have been taken into account at the review, he felt that the most effective way of dealing, with it was by introducing a subsidy which would encourage the proper use of fertilisers.

Since then, however, there have been still further increases—though on a much smaller scale—and these were included in an order made by my noble friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that came into force on February 1, 1952. The result of this was that the farmers' fertiliser costs—on the assumption that they would use approximately the same as in 1950—would have been about £10,000,000 more than the additional cost included in the Annual Review of 1951. It is therefore to help the farmer in coping with this increase in fertiliser costs that I am asking your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading this afternoon.

The Government, having decided that a Bill to authorise a fertiliser subsidy was necessary, thought it prudent to prepare it in such a way that it would provide the necessary authority for any other assistance of this kind which might from time to time be necessary. This, in effect, means that the powers under the Bill are not limited to specific sanction for a particular subsidy for one year, although this was all that had actually been promised when the Minister of Agriculture made his announcement in November. I should make it clear now that no undertaking beyond that made by the Minister of Agriculture has been given or is being given, and what may happen in the future will depend on the needs of agriculture as they arise. But, if this Bill is passed, the Government will have the necessary powers to introduce any type of fertiliser subsidy that may prove to be necessary.

The Bill provides for contributions to be made to the cost of fertilisers acquired by farmers, horticulturists, allotment holders, smallholders and associations of such persons in accordance with schemes made under the Bill. Separate schemes may be made for England and Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland, or joint schemes for any two of these countries or all of them. These contributions would be made in the form of direct payments to farmers and others as in the lime subsidy scheme or, alternatively, if there were special circumstances making it desirable, payments could be made at the source—that is, paid through the manufacturers, importers or distributors of the fertilisers. The Bill sets a limit to the contributions that could be paid for any or all fertilisers, and this is fixed at one half of the expenditure on the fertilisers by the farmers or other persons benefiting. The Bill provides that the first scheme may extend from July 1, 1951 to June 30, 1952 only; this, of course, is because the fertiliser year runs from July 1 to June 30. Any subsequent scheme might have a maximum life of two years, unless it were extended by a varying scheme, in which case the extension would also be limited to a period of not more than two years. The life of the first scheme is to be limited to one year in order to implement, immediately the Bill is passed, the promise that was given of a special phosphatic fertiliser subsidy for the year July 1, 1951, to June 30, 1952.

Noble Lords will observe that any scheme under the Bill will be made by statutory instrument, and that the Affirmative Resolution procedure will be employed in every case. The Government proposes that the first scheme to be made when the Bill is passed should be limited to phosphatic fertilisers, and that, broadly speaking, the contributions would be on a scale that would relieve farmers and others of approximately one-third of their expenditure on these fertilisers. The scheme will also cover to the same extent the phosphatic element in compound fertilisers. In order that the smallest farmers may have the advantage of the subsidy, it is intended that the minimum quantity for which contributions will be paid will be as small as possible, and it is likely that the limit will be as low as four or five cwt. of fertiliser Users of even smaller quantities will be able to obtain their share of the subsidy if they are members of appropriate bodies. The choice of phosphatic fertilisers for inclusion in the first scheme is due mainly to the heavy increase in phosphates as compared with other types. The increase in nitrogen and potash has been approximately 20 per cent. whilst phosphates have increased by almost 80 per cent.


In cost?


Yes, in cost. Since we intend when the Bill is passed to subsidise phosphates by a third, it will be possible to equalise the price increase over the three main classes of fertilisers. The Government is satisfied that any increase in the use of phosphatic fertilisers that this scheme will bring about can be met from available supplies. Noble Lords may like to know what alterations were made in this Bill during its passage through another place. A definition of "agricultural land" was added in order to make it quite clear that market gardens, nursery grounds and such like are included within the scope of the Bill. The original period of five years in respect of which statutory instruments may be made—in default of extensions—was replaced by a first period of one year and subsequent two-year periods. Also, the Affirmative Resolution procedure re- placed the Negative Resolution procedure for securing Parliamentary approval of all schemes to be made under the Bill.

Finally, my Lords, I should like to apologise to the House for the speed with which we are asking your Lordships to pass this Bill through all its stages. Noble Lords will be aware, however, of the reasons why the Bill has taken rather longer than was expected to come up from another place, and it is most important that we should get the Bill on the Statute Book as soon as possible. The Bill has a retrospective effect in that the subsidy under the first scheme will be payable on fertilisers bought since July 1, 1951. This means that there will be a large number of outstanding claims to be met for past purchases. Unless those elegible have in early opportunity of making their application for purchases made during the last nine months, there is a danger that they may mislay their receipts and accounts which it is necessary they should keep in order to receive the subsidy. Although, in normal circumstances, we should not ask the House to pass this Bill in only two days, I think your Lordships will agree that it is in the interests of agriculture that the first scheme should be made as quickly as possible and therefore that the Bill should receive the Royal Assent tomorrow. This is, I think, a non-controversial measure which does justice to the farmers in a way most calculated to increase production of food, and I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.

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

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Carrington, whose speech we have just heard—and with which even my professional instinct as a fault-finder has been unable to find anything wrong—forestalled a complaint which was on the tip of my tongue and which I should certainly otherwise have made about the haste with which this Bill is being taken through all its stages in this House. But I am perfectly satisfied by the reasons which the noble Lord gave for the urgency of the Bill. I am certain that the Government will not treat this Bill as a precedent and that we shall have in the future as much time as that to which we are accustomed to consider legislative proposals which are submitted to us. I agree with the noble Lord opposite that this is a good Bill. It is so, in the first place, because it will stimulate production of crops and livestock. Without the subsidy proposed in the Bill, I have no doubt at all that there would have been a serious decline in the productivity of both grass and arable land.

There has been a sharp fall in the use of every type of fertiliser since the subsidy was removed, a fall which was accentuated when the price went up so sharply last year. Going round the country last year, I noticed that farmers complained more about the price they were paying for fertilisers than they did about any of the other recent increases in their costs. In many cases, I found that they were cutting their costs by using a smaller quantity of fertilisers on the land. This is far too easy a method of economy and I am sure it is a short-sighted one, because the value of the produce would have more than compensated them for the increased price of the fertilisers they usually bought. In one area I remember finding that fertiliser merchants had accumulated large stocks which they did not know how to dispose of, because the orders they were getting from local farmers were often only half of what they had been the year before. I am talking of 1951, when I was at the Ministry of Agriculture. That experience made me feel forcibly the position in the country as a whole. Another useful point about this fertiliser subsidy is that poor soil takes the largest amount of fertilisers. The pasture and rough grazing in the hill and upland areas, to which we are looking for more sheep and cattle, will not carry the large number of animals we require without a very great improvement in the quality of the grass. Most of the hill and upland farmers are small men who could not afford to carry through this improvement, even with the help of the Livestock Rearing and Hill Farming Acts, if they had to pay the present market prices for fertilisers.

The second reason why I think this is a useful Bill is because I believe the form of the subsidy will give the public value for their money. The Government might have dealt with the rise in the price of fertilisers in another way. They might have added £10,000,000 to the increased costs of farmers in 1951, and have taken this additional sum into account in the course of the annual price review in fixing farm prices for the current year. But an increase in farm prices, desirable as it may be, in many cases benefits equally the man who either will not, or cannot, produce more from his land and the man who grows more in response to the price incentive. I am sure that the payment of the subsidy in this way will be highly productive—much more than a subsidy of the same amount on the price of farm products, because it will help the small farmer who would not otherwise use fertilisers in sufficient quantities. I am glad that in the course of his remarks the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, explained the reason for limiting the first scheme under the Bill to phosphatic fertilisers. The use of a particular fertiliser obviously should depend on the character of the soil and not on the relative price of different fertilisers. It is important that farmers should realise that, in spite of the subsidy, phosphatic fertilisers will not be cheaper than nitrogenous fertilisers or balanced artificial manures, which are far more suitable on certain types of land. I hope that the Minister will consider the desirability of making schemes to cover other fertilisers in time to come, should the need arise. The Bill gives him power to do so.

The aim of the Bill is to encourage the use of fertilisers. There is one matter I should like to mention in the hope that the Government will consider it and, if they think it a good suggestion, will be willing to help the farmers. I remember visiting a hill-top in Wales where the farmer told me that his grass had been greatly improved over a wide area, which could not possibly be reached by a surface route, by the spreading of a fertiliser from the air. I should like the Minister to find out—and I am sure he could—how many hill areas there are in Wales, in Scotland and in Northern England, which are inaccessible by road or track, where rough grazing could be much improved by the dropping of a suitable fertiliser from the air. I have no doubt that this information could be obtained from the local advisers of the Minister's Department. There must be many other hill-tops similar to the one I saw in Wales. The farmer I spoke to was a farmer in a very big way, but, of course, the ordinary farmer could not afford the expense of manuring his land by this method. I have sometimes wondered whether the Government might not secure the co-operation of the R.A.F. for this operation. It may seem a fanciful speculation, but if we really mean business about increasing home supplies of meat we must examine every possible method of getting it. This system has worked well in New Zealand, where it has been widely used, and I cannot see on the face of it any reason why it should not be used far more widely in this country.

Finally, I should like to congratulate the Minister on subsection (5) of Clause 4, to which the noble Lord referred in his speech. I am sorry to refer to the Bill without mentioning the specific matter. It is the question of the use of the positive procedure in dealing with orders for schemes. This change took place during the passage of the Bill through another place. The Minister had second thoughts while the Bill was under way, and I am sure he was right to change his mind. It is not unusual for the Opposition to prefer the positive procedure, because it offers more targets for criticism, and for the Government to prefer the negative procedure, because it is administratively convenient. If I may say so, the Minister behaved as a good Parliamentarian in saying that these arguments were trifling and that his position must be based solely on the ground of Parliamentary procedure. The choice between these two methods depends upon the character of a Bill. This is not a Bill to give the Minister specific powers, requiring only administrative orders in matters of detail connected with their discharge, but a Bill to give the Minister a general power to make schemes and fix the contribution from public funds towards them. Parliament should have the opportunity of considering the content of every scheme made under this enabling power. I am very glad that that is what has happened, and I look forward to the time when the Minister will submit those schemes. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that we shall do all we can to facilitate the Bill during its remaining stages. We entirely concur with him in regarding it as a non-controversial and extremely useful measure.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to give my support to this measure, because I believe that it is right to give this subsidy and that this is the right way to do it. If there is an agreement about prices it is obviously right to take steps to cover any additional factor that could not have been taken into account when the price review was held. We want to get as much produce as possible from our land, and to bring under cultivation extra marginal land. If we encourage people by paying one-third of the cost of fertilisers, they are more likely to buy them than if we increase prices a little more in the price review. Therefore I think this is the right way to proceed. At the beginning of the war, when we wanted all the food we could get from our own country, we started with the lime subsidy, with the object of getting some of our land into better fettle for the war that eventually came. To-day, of course, war or no war, we need this extra produce from our own soil because of the difficulties of our international financial position. For this reason, I am certain that we ought to give farmers every encouragement to use these fertilisers on the land, and especially the proper ones, even though they are more expensive, and to give them this help to do so.

The noble Earl who has just sat down referred to the practice in parts of New Zealand of spraying these fertilisers from the air. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, was with me in New Zealand on one occasion when we saw an aircraft performing that particular function. It is an expensive way of spraying the ground, but it may be impossible to get over the ground it is desired to fertilise in any other way than by aeroplane. There is the cost of maintenance of the aircraft, and the cost of the vast amount of petrol it takes to run an aircraft for two or three hours going up and down. Moreover, you must choose your day, because if there is a strong wind blowing when spraying is done from the air the fertiliser will not be spread evenly. I fancy that the Royal Air Force would completely turn down the noble Earl's suggestion that they should be employed on this particular project. It may interest the House to know, however, that in the early days of the war, when we feared that the Germans might start using poison gas, either on ourselves or on our Russian Allies, appliances were made to be attached to some of our bomber aircraft, and we tried to disguise their purpose by pretending that they were for spreading fertilisers and other things over the ground. I doubt whether the Royal Air Force would be very helpful, although the noble Earl's suggestion is an ingenious one. There are, of course, some places where machines are used for training pilots, and they might well be used for this other purpose at the same time. I would commend the Under-Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture to take up this suggestion with the Royal Air Force to see whether some of these training machines cannot give a helping hand. I am only sorry that the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Air is not in the House to hear this suggestion.

5.14 p.m.


My Lords, I desire on this occasion to be quite brief, because on both sides of the House there is general agreement on this small Bill. It has already been said that the Bill was improved during its passage through another place, and I do not think it will be necessary for noble Lords on this side of the House to suggest many Amendments. When the Bill was discussed in another place, certainly on the Second Reading, a considerable amount of latitude was given to the Members there to wander round and round all over the agricultural field. Remarks were passed on that occasion which we on this side of the House should not let pass without comment. I think it is recognised by the farming community as a whole, and certainly by members of your Lordships' House, that those remarks did not represent a true picture of what we believe the agricultural position to be. I, for one, who have been interested all my life in practising agriculture and land matters of that sort, disagree entirely with what was said generally about the farming community, and what has been said in the last few months. I would say, here and now, that I hope that sort of speech will stop for ever.

There are one or two matters in the Bill to which I should like to refer. I must say to the Government that I am not at all happy about the wording of Clause 1. Part of that clause is excellent. But if your Lordships read the clause, leaving out certain words, you see that it says: Contributions out of moneys provided by Parliament may be made"— and here is the point— … for relieving occupiers of agricultural land of a part of the expenditure.… I do not like the word "relieving." I feel that some other form of words could have been found, because the use of the word "relief" or "relieving" opens the door to comment upon the inefficiency of the farming industry, and on the doles which have been meted out to that industry in days gone by. In my view, it would be much better to use some such word as "repayment." The Bill has reached such a stage that probably we could not amend it, but for future guidance I think the word "relief" in connection with farmers, who are, indeed, playing a great part in the life of this nation, might be left out of our Bills. The end of the sentence I have quoted from Clause 1 shows the need and the use of the Bill—namely, to improve the fertility of the soil. I believe that what we all have in mind, in this House and throughout the country, is that we must take every possible step to improve the fertility of our soil and the productive efforts of our farming community in order to augment the food supply of the nation.

A further point in the Bill of which I do not really approve is that it deals rather piecemeal with the needs of the agricultural industry. In a desire to stabilise our agricultural prosperity I would far rather that we produced all-embracing and comprehensive schemes. To my mind, it is not a good thing that we are now dealing with one portion of the industry and one expenditure of the farmers. I believe that it is necessary for the future to produce a comprehensive scheme for a balanced agriculture on a long-term basis. We shall then be doing what is necessary by giving to the farmers of the country a knowledge of what they may expect over a long period of years. I do not think we should deal with this matter piecemeal and introduce what I would term stopgap legislation. There is another difficulty in regard to this. By this Bill we are paying a direct subsidy to the farmer for a portion of his artificial manure. The expenditure on his other artificial manures is dealt with in the February Review of Prices, if my knowledge on that particular point is correct. I hope that if we. pay an amount to the farmer, either directly or through his merchants, as is suggested in this Bill, then the other expenditure on artificial manures which the farmer has to undergo will be taken completely out of the February Review of Prices, so that there is no question of duplicating the matter of the expenditure on artificial manures.

I wish to ask the Government a question which I felt was not entirely satisfactorily dealt with in another place; that is, whether there is a sufficiency or phosphatic manures. I believe that that is important, because I have no doubt that by reason of this Bill there will be a fairly heavy run on phosphatic manures, and on compounds of which phosphates form a part, and we must be certain that a supply of those manures is available to meet the demand which must arise. Without detaining your Lordships further, I want to say to the Government that I hope they will keep an eye—and a very critical eye—on the question of the rising cost of manures. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the need for this Bill arose primarily from the fact that phosphates have increased in cost—by, I believe, 80 per cent., as against a 20 per cent. rise in the cost of other artificial manures. It is within our knowledge that the manufacturers and suppliers of artificial manures have been batting on quite a good wicket since the subsidy was removed a few months ago. It is necessary, therefore, not only from the point of view of this Bill and the public purse—because we may have to pay an extra price by reason of the increase in prices—but also from the point of view of the farming industry itself, that a very definite control should be exercised in regard to the rising costs of these artificial manures, whether they are phosphate or some other kind. From our point of view, as has already been said by my noble friend on the front Bench, we on this side of the House shall facilitate the passage of the Bill. I know that it is necessary to bring the scheme into operation, and I hope that it will serve the purpose, as it sets out to do, of improving the fertility of the soil of Britain.

5.24 p.m.


My Lords, like previous noble Lords, I give this Bill a very hearty welcome. One knows from experience how important for the increasing of production from our land is the proper use of fertilisers. Indeed, I am informed that in the last twelve years the use of fertilisers has increased threefold. Part of that is, of course, accounted for by the increased area which is under cultivation, but in the main I think it is owing to farmers becoming more fertiliser conscious. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency recently to reduce the amount of money spent on fertilisers, and that has been caused largely by the prospective and the actual increase in price.

I would agree that at the present juncture the utmost production is necessary from our land. Indeed, so far as one can see, the food situation, so far as home production is concerned, is nearly as serious as it was during the war. I do not want to go into great detail on the Bill, because I am speaking more as the Chairman of Rothamsted Experimental Station which, as your Lordships are no doubt aware, is the home of the fertiliser and has, through its 100 years or more of existence, acquired a great deal of knowledge upon the subject of the use of fertilisers. What I have to say has come largely from conversations with members of the staff of that Institute. I wish to say a word or two about the direction in which the subsidy is to go—that is to say, in regard to the type of fertiliser on which there should be a subsidy. The noble Lord who introduced the Bill informed us that the first scheme will be applied to the use of phosphatic fertilisers, and he has given us extremely sound reasons for that decision—partly in fulfilment of a pledge and, of course, on account of the extra cost of phosphatic fertilisers as compared with other forms of fertiliser, which makes it quite clear that that is for the time being the right direction in which to apply the subsidy. There are other reasons, to which I will come later, as to why phosphates should be the fertiliser to be considered.

Before I go any further, I think a few relevant facts might be of interest to your Lordships, and they have a bearing on the arguments I wish to use in a minute or two. First of all, with regard to phosphates. It is a fact that only 20 per cent.

of the water soluble phosphates in phosphatic manures are recovered in the next few years in the subsequent crops. The remainder of the water soluble phosphate up to comparatively recently was thought to remain in an unavailable condition in the soil. As a matter of fact, that is not so. It has now been realised that it becomes slowly available over a long period of years. In fact, there is one plot at Rothamsted where there can still be seen in the crop—it is an exhaustion crop; that is to say, no fertiliser is put on—the results from phosphates applied fifty years ago. Therefore there is a slow release from the soil over a very long period of that otherwise unavailable phosphate, and in any soils which have had phosphates applied there is a small reserve available all the time. To some extent the same remarks apply to potash. Quite an appreciable quantity of the potash which is applied as fertiliser is carried over from year to year. So far as nitrogen is concerned—I want to emphasise this—with the nitrogen applied as fertiliser there is no carry-over from year to year. Those are the facts with regard to the three main fertilisers which are required by plants.

Now there are one or two other facts which I think are of importance. The first is that the response in increased crops from the application of nitrogenous fertiliser is far greater than it is from the application of phosphatic fertiliser. Early in the war a careful survey was made of all fertiliser experiments in this country and in Northern Europe from the year 1900 until. I think, 1940, and from that were extracted certain very interesting figures. So far as cereals were concerned, with sulphate of ammonia the increased crop from the application of the first cwt. was three cwt., and from the second cwt. it was two cwt. The increase from the first cwt. of superphosphate applied was one-half cwt. of grain, and from the second cwt. one-third cwt. With potatoes the figures are somewhat different. Potatoes are grown on more highly fertilised land and therefore the figures are not so striking, But, even so, the figures for potatoes show up very much in favour of sulphate of ammonia. Clearly, money spent on nitrogenous manures will bring a quicker and greater return than money spent on any other fertiliser.

Another relevant fact is a calculation made by some of the people who carried out the survey to which I referred. It showed that an additional 100,000 tons of nitrogen properly used in this country would give an overall increase in our total production from the land of 5 per cent., and that was worked out with 20,000 tons on cereals and 80,000 tons on grass. That, at the time the calculation was made, was, broadly speaking, the proportion of the two crops. That is important, and I will come back to this question of grass in a few moments. But I am informed that the extra quantities of nitrogen could certainly be used on the land for four or five years without any necessity for the increased use of phosphates or potash, because there are adequate reserves in the soil to stand up to it for that time at the very least. The extra use, therefore, would not do any harm to the actual soil for the time being—especially if the phosphates or potash were applied in small and frequent doses from a combine-drill, so that the fertiliser is placed near the seed where the seed can get hold of it easily.

As to the question of nitrogen and its use, more particularly on grass, I think this is an important matter; and I shall now leave the question of the cereal crop because that is simple. Grass in one form or another is the largest crop in this country. From the Survey of Fertiliser Practice which was carried out at Rothamsted in conjunction with the National Agricultural Advisory Service, it would appear that only about 15 per cent. of grass cut for hay and 10 per cent. of the grazed land in this country at present receives any nitrogen at all. There is, therefore, a field for increased production in that direction which might be extremely fruitful, provided there are the animals to make use of that additional production or the facilities for preserving in some form or another the extra production—either silage or dried grass, or something of that sort. This is rather a striking figure, showing how little a great many farmers realise the importance of getting the most out of their grassland. It is, I think, clear that at the appropriate moment the Ministry of Agriculture ought to turn their mind to some form of subsidy, and therefore of encouragement, of the greater use of nitrogen, in order to obtain in the easiest possible way, without harm—I emphasise that—a great increase in production from our land.

I am well aware that there are many difficulties. I have given a figure of 100,000 tons of additional nitrogen which would produce a 5 per cent. overall increase in our production. An additional 100,000 tons of nitrogen is just under 30 per cent. more than we are producing now. It is true that of our present-day production a certain amount is being exported, and I am not going to suggest that exports should be cut down for the benefit of British farmers, because if I did I should be embarking on extremely tempestuous seas. The matter is, I realise, very difficult. One knows that we have to export much of our produce to-day in order to pay for our imports. Over and above that, I believe that there are other difficulties regarding an increase of production to the extent which I suggest it ought to be increased. We have to face these grave difficulties, and all I can say is that I hope that Her Majesty's Government will seriously consider these points and see whether steps cannot be taken in the interests of increased production of foodstuffs in this country. I ask whether the Government should not consider taking vigorous steps to increase the manufacturing capacity of nitrogenous manure. I am sure that without an increase of that nature we shall not get the increased production which is so very necessary, and which, I think before many months are out, will be seen to be even more necessary than now.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, debates in this House on agriculture are not only profitable to those who listen to them but are often much more united than debates in another place. This debate appears much more united than the discussion in another place yesterday on food subsidies. I should like to make a few remarks on the question of fertiliser subsidy. It is rather interesting that shortly after the General Election I had two lunches for farm tenants when they paid their rents. I asked them if they could make any suggestion as to how production on the estates could be increased. Their first suggestion was that there ought again to be a fertiliser subsidy because the prices of fertilisers were then so high that they felt that production would go down. I was very pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Wise, mention this question of the word "relief." We farmers are quite used to being told we are "feather-bedded," but I must say I personally have not noticed it. I think that the joint Parliamentary Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, might give attention to the substituting for the word "relief" of some such word as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wise—the word "repay" or even the word "reimburse." I cannot help feeling that the word "relief" appearing in this Bill is rather objectionable.

I particularly welcome this fertiliser subsidy because it applies to all land. We have heard this afternoon that the poor and marginal land requires more fertiliser than the good land, and we have even heard that hill land can be fertilised by aeroplanes. I myself have heard of that sort of land being fertilised by aeroplane. I think it would be expensive to do it by aeroplane, but when the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, replies perhaps he will reassure me on that and subsidise the aeroplane as well as the fertiliser. In regard to hill land, marginal land and good or fiat land, I think it is a fact that the repayment of the benefits of the subsidy on the good land will produce a much larger overall volume of food than the repayment of the benefits of the subsidy on the marginal land or even the hill land. Therefore I am glad to think that this subsidy will apply to all the different types of land. I think we cart look for the largest volume of increase from the good land. Arising from that point, I was also pleased to hear the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, ask a question about nitrogenous fertilisers, because he speaks with such great authority, not only as a large farmer himself but as Chair-man of the Rothamsted Agricultural Station. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to his remarks—although no doubt they will not require their attention to be called to it.

Another point in regard to farmers is that very often I find that they buy fertilisers and leave them lying in bags about their farm buildings and do not put them on to the land. I do tot know whether it is possible to see that the fertilisers provided partly by this subsidy will actually be put on the land. That reminds me of a story I was told by a gentleman who came back from Tanganyika during the currency of the ground-nuts scheme. He told me that just before he left, a train load of cement arrived for building houses. When this train load of cement arrived, they put it on the ground-nuts in order to fertilise them. Another train load was shortly due to arrive, this time of fertilisers. I asked him whether they built houses with that. He said that luckily he came on holiday back to England before the second train load arrived. I am glad that the definition of "agricultural land" in Clause 5 (2) does not include houses! I would not suggest that it should be extended in that way.

I have very little more to say. I am glad to hear the noble Lord say that the Bill should be put through all its stages quickly, because during the last few days we have had such springlike weather that sowing will be starting or going on all the time, and farmers must know their exact financial position in regard to fertilisers. Therefore I will not stand between other noble Lords and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who is to reply to the debate. I welcome the advent of this Bill and I hope that it will pass through quickly, before tomorrow evening.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, I am happy to join in the general welcome which has been extended to this Bill from this side of the House. Of course, one welcomes it, but with regard to these small measures (they are admitted to be small) we always get a feeling that they savour of being sops and palliatives, rather like those the industry suffered from in the years before the war. In some way, we get the feeling that these measures which take so much time are standing in the way of the grand strategy that is needed at this vital moment in the history of our food production. Nobody doubts the tremendous importance of the need for maximum production at the moment. Of course, in the near future, there will have to be a revision of the whole system of guaranteed prices and incentives, which certainly is unsatisfactory. I mean, why do we have to have this indirect subsidy? Why cannot a farmer get the right prices for all sorts of products and then plan his top dressing accordingly? That is what happens in a country like New Zealand, where there is a subsidy on the transport of fertilisers but not on the application itself. This subsidy, actually, is partly recoverable from the farmers in New Zealand; they have to pay it back.

Why do we have this considerable inequality of efficiency to a greater extent than in countries like New Zealand and Denmark? I think it is all a "hangover" of not being wanted, and it would be much easier to get rid of these subsidies as soon as this question of equality and inequality of efficiency is put right. Mr. Philips Price, in the Second Reading debate in another place, put very well the fact that we do at the moment need an indirect subsidy. He stated the case for that in this way (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons; Vol. 496, Col. 289): The non-progressive farmer would much prefer to receive the help in his prices and not bother about his method of cultivation, but those of us who know something about the industry know that the planning and systematic use of fertilisers takes a lot of trouble but it does bring about, in the long run, much greater returns than direct subsidies. … We shall catch up in this respect of equality of excellence, as the Dominions, and these other primary producing countries, have done. I hope the noble Lord who is to reply will agree that it is far simpler to do the business through prices than through measures like this, which after all occupy a great deal of the time of Parliament and the county committees and so forth. We could then concentrate much better on this magnificent grand strategy that is needed. For instance, there is the point that a measure like this is fuel to the fire for people like Mr. Stanley Evans, who regards it as just another proof that the industry is not able to stand on its own feet. Of course it is able, but the introduction of measures like this—"another £20,000,000 to agriculture" or whatever it is—does afford fuel to the fire for people like that, who are enemies in our midst—really, rather curiously, William Cobbetts in reverse. That is another argument against this sort of measure which was well brought out in another place by Mr. George Brown.

May I conclude by asking the noble Lord a question which I suppose it will be hard for him to answer fully at the moment? I hope it is not out of place to ask him whether measures to increase production are being conceived by the Government on what one might call a "for ever" basis or "until the world situation do change," as it were, because I am sure that the intention that it is "for ever," stated by the present Government and reiterated by future Governments, would do more good than would a hundred measures, however large. It is against this background of "for ever" that we can best see the nature of the various measures which must come about. Therefore, I welcome the Bill—with these reservations: that we must look always to the grand strategy and somehow see things in relation one to the other; we must not become obsessed by particular measures that ought not to come about if there were no need, as obviously there is not at the moment, for this indirect subsidy.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, you have received this Bill so kindly that I think there is very little I need say. There are, however, two points which have been mentioned, which I think it would be right for me to answer. The first point which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned, and which was taken up by my noble friend Lord Radnor, was the question: why are we intending to put this subsidy on phosphatic fertilisers and not on nitrogenous fertilisers? In addition to the reasons which I gave in my opening remarks (I did not want to make them too long, and therefore I did not include any further reasons) such as, the price of phosphatic fertilisers increasing disproportionately to that of potash and nitrogen, there is the question of the supply of nitrogen.

The total production of nitrogen for agriculture in this country at the moment is approximately 250,000 tons, of which about 50,000 tons are exported, mainly to the Commonwealth and to the Colonies. It will be seen, therefore, that about 200,000 tons are actually used by the farmers of this country. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, said that he felt that another 100,000 tons was necessary. I think he may have meant 100,000 tons of sulphate of ammonia, which of course would be only about 20,000 tons of nitrogen. As your Lordships will see, as the allocations have already been made for this year and we have agreed to export 50,000 tons, and as the greater part of the 200,000 tons which is used by the farmers of this country has been taken up, if we put a subsidy on nitrogenous fertilisers, inevitably we should find ourselves quite unable to fulfil the demand. I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Radnor has said, and if I may say so, I think it is another example of how useful your Lordships' House can be when we have speeches of such excellence and interest on a subject of this kind. We are at the moment looking into the question of raising the production of nitrogen, although it is rather a long-term business.

The other question which was raised by several noble Lords who have spoken—in particular, Lord Llewellin, Lord Brocket and Lord Listowel—was that of spraying fertilisers from the air. Of course, this is not a new idea. It has been done for some time experimentally in this country and, as the noble Earl said, in New Zealand. I know of three firms which are at the moment carrying out tests in spraying fertilisers from the air. They have done this in some parts of Wales, in Lancashire and on the marshes in East Anglia. Of course, the method has its drawbacks and difficulties. One of them was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brocket—namely, that the spraying of lime from the air in any great density would be a very expensive business indeed, because the aeroplane can carry only a limited quantity, and has to keep coming down and taking off again. If there is any question of a shortage of fertilisers one also has to take into account whether or not the materials concerned would be better used elsewhere than on the top of mountains. There are all sorts of problems of that kind to be taken into account. My Department is going into this question of spraying from the air. We are very interested in it, and I assure the noble Lord that we will let him know from time to time how things are going on.

The noble Lord, Lord Wise, did not seem to like the word "relieving" in Clause 1 of the Bill. I do not know, but I imagine that the Parliamentary draftsman had something to do with the word "relieving." I think it would be fair to say that relief was certainly the feeling of the farmer when he learned about this Bill, because he was getting extremely worried about the cost of fertilisers. If the noble Lord feels very strongly about this we will remember what he says in any future measures of this kind. The last thing that Her Majesty's Government want to do is to encourage speeches of the type that the noble Lord mentioned earlier in his remarks. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, seemed to think that this is rather a piecemeal way of doing a good thing. I agree with them wholeheartedly, that the right thing in agriculture is to produce a long-term policy, but I think the right place to do it is in the Annual Review which is taking place at this time. As your Lordships will realise, we cannot pay a fertiliser subsidy unless we have a Bill to enable us to make a scheme. After all, this is only one part of what is going to be a larger and grander scheme, about which I hope the noble Lord will hear in the not too distant future.


When the noble Lord says "long-term policy" would he explain what he means? Is it literally for ever—or for any long number of years? I think that is of psychological importance.


I wonder how much the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would like to be committed for ever. Perhaps the noble Lord can wait until the Annual Review and the agricultural policy of Her Majesty's Government is published, and then if he is not satisfied with what we have done, he can make a speech in the debate which my noble friend Lord Llewellin is introducing some time next month. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, asked me one other question—namely, whether there was a sufficiency of phosphatic fertiliser. I can assure him categorically that we believe there will be enough for any demand which is likely to arise as a result of the scheme which will be introduced when the Bill becomes law. Another question which the noble Lord asked was whether we would look at the prices which manufacturers were charging for their fertilisers. He will know that the price of fertilisers is very strictly controlled by the Minister of Materials, but, of course, a substantial proportion of the phosphates which we use in this country are imported, and over that matter we have very little control.

Finally, my Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, I thought, blessed this Bill with faint praise. He seemed to think that the better thing would have been to put the money which we are spending on this subsidy on the end product. He seemed to feel that that course would have all sorts of advantages and, in particular, would confound Mr. Evans and his followers. But the trouble with that idea is, that if we gave the subsidy on the end product (which, on the face of it, I agree is the best thing to do), there would be no guarantee whatever that the farmer would put any fertiliser on his land at all. In the circumstances, and with the urgent need for greater production, Her Majesty's Government felt that the right thing to do in this case was to put the subsidy on fertilisers, thereby making sure that it was used for that purpose. I should like to thank all noble Lords for the kind way in which they have received this Bill.

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