HL Deb 28 October 1952 vol 178 cc1036-42

2.58 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in normal circumstances my noble friend Lord Carrington would have moved the Second Reading of this Bill, but he has an engagement outside which he was unable to break, and he has asked me to apologise to your Lordships. The background against which I move the Second Reading of this Bill is one which is painfully familiar to your Lordships and to the country. Meat, which a comparatively short time ago was plentiful and cheap, is now scarce and dear; and the prospect is that it is likely to remain so. If we compare, for instance, the import figures of 1947 and 1951, we find that in 1947 we were able to import 478,000 tons, whereas in 1951 we were able to import only 150,000 tons. Therefore, the quantities of imports available to us are much less, and, of course, the price is much higher. I believe your Lordships will all be agreed that we must produce more beef from our home farms, and produce it more quickly.

This Bill therefore gives to the Minister of Agriculture, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, the power to make schemes to pay grants to farmers for calves of a beef type. In the last price review, £4,500,000 was set aside for this purpose, and it is estimated that at this price we should be able to get an additional 400,000 calves of beef type. This Bill is, of course, no more than a continuation of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1949, under which calf subsidies were paid. And, this being so, I think it is really only a question whether a subsidy is the best way to expend the £4,500,000 or whether it would have been better and more advantageously applied by means of an increase in the price of the end product. None of us likes subsidies, and that point might be a matter for argument. But when we consider that it is our object to increase the number of beef animals as quickly as we can, I think that the subsidy or grant method, which the last Government started and which we are carrying on, has certain advantages. The breeder and rearer can count on the grant for at least three years. It was the experience (I think the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will perhaps confirm this) that in the two years after 1947 the number of qualifying calves rose by something like 450,000. I think that was a record increase in beef production. The Government believe that this experience will be repeated and that we can, by certain adjustments in the subsidy, improve on the quality of the animals which qualify.

This Bill does not contain administrative details, but I think your Lordships would like some indication as to how it is proposed to work it. The subsidy will be paid on steers, as before. The only variation is in respect of heifer calves. I think one criticism of the previous Act might reasonably have been that money was paid out unnecessarily on some heifer calves of a dairy type. I think everyone will agree that that was a valid criticism. The £5 will be paid on heifer calves for fattening and for beef calves for further breeding, for more good beef-type heifers must be reared for breeding if we are to increase the number of calves by something like 400,000. I am afraid that no scheme which involves inspection can be fool-proof. In Scotland we have no dual-purpose animals, and therefore the scheme will be easier to work. In England it will be a little more difficult, but the Minister of Agriculture believes that the inspection system is fair and can be made acceptable.

There are three final points which I should like to make. There will be no gap in this scheme between the 1949 Act of the last Government and this Act, since the grant of £5 can be paid in respect of any animal born on or after October, 1951. So far as the age of certification is concerned, normally the calves will be marked at not less than eight months, but in order to meet conditions in the Highlands of Scotland, and in hill areas in England where, because of shortage of winter feed, the breeder has to get rid of the calf more quickly, marking can be done at six months. There is only one other point that I wish to mention. It is possible that this subsidy might be abused—that it might be taken where the beast had already been sold. In such a case the Ministry of Food will see that the necessary amount is deducted from the price of the beast when it is sold. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me these few words. I am not one of the Agricultural Ministers, but I move this Second Reading in response to my noble friend's request. This is a United Kingdom Bill; I hope your Lordships will feel that it is worth while and that it will help in the very necessary campaign, which we all have at heart, to increase the amount of meat production from our own soil. I beg to move.

Moved. That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Home.)

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Earl for his brief and clear exposition of this Bill. I am sure that from that point of view we have not suffered from the absence of his colleague at the Ministry of Agriculture. On behalf of noble Lords on this side of the House I welcome this Bill, because I share the noble Earl's belief that it will contribute towards the increase of production of home-killed meat which we desire. This is a Bill that has had the support of all Parties in another place and I have no doubt it will receive an equal measure of support here.

My noble friend opposite has pointed out that the policy of paying a subsidy towards the cost of calf rearing was, in fact, introduced by the 1945 Labour Government. It was, of course, a part of the agricultural expansion programme which we put in hand in 1947. I think your Lordships will be gratified to observe that this is an example of continuity of agricultural policy, which is so important for the prosperity of British agriculture. The success of the first calf subsidy, as the noble Lord was good enough to indicate, was proved by an increase of 450,000 in the calf population between 1947 and 1949. But in 1950 the downward trend began which is continuing at the present time. By March of this year there had been a fall of 300,000 in the calf population. This trend must be stopped if we are to prevent a decline in the number of our beef cattle in four or five years' time.

The more frequent slaughterings of calves in the past two years have been due to economic conditions as well as to Government policy; but I think—and I do not see why we should not be frank in this matter—we were too optimistic about the possibility of getting the same output without the subsidy. We hoped—and this was the reason for our policy—that a better price for end products would be a sufficient stimulus to maintain the number of calves being reared. But I remember, when I used to go round the counties, being warned quite often by farmers that they could not afford to go on rearing without the subsidy. I reported these forebodings to my Minister. This is, in fact, what has happened. Many small farmers have been unable to go on without the benefit of the subsidy or without the certainty that the subsidy would be renewed. I am therefore extremely glad that the Government have decided to try to avert this downward trend by resuming the policy which has already shown that it works.

Now, I know there are two schools of thought about the relative merits of sub-sidising production costs and raising the price of end products. I think there is an honest difference of opinion between those people who believe that public money should be injected at the beginning of production and those who believe it should be injected at the end. But to my mind this is rather like the dispute between public ownership and free enterprise, in the sense that both have a place in our economy. For my part, I do not believe—and this is a personal opinion—that we can guarantee the stability of British agriculture which we all desire without controlling to some degree prices as well as costs. But the suitable method in a particular case should surely depend on the circumstances of that case. I agree entirely with the noble Earl opposite and the Government that if we want to encourage calf-rearing, the best way to do so is to pay a subsidy to the rearer and breeder.

This, to my mind—I think some noble Lords will be of an opposite way of thinking and, therefore, it is perhaps worth while to state the case quite briefly—has three distinct advantages over the alternative method of a higher price for the finished product. As experience has shown, it does result in the rearing of more calves, whereas a higher price for fat cattle may or may not work through to the owners of store cattle and dairy herds. Secondly, it undoubtedly saves the taxpayers' money, because a higher end price would cost much more than the subsidy if it was to achieve anything like the same result as the proposed subsidy to the calf breeder and rearer. Finally, it is much the quickest way of getting more beef—and that is what we all want—because obviously it cuts out the delay while the higher fat stock price is percolating through from the top to the bottom, to the people who are engaged in breeding and rearing calves.

I also think that the Government are right in restoring the subsidy for heifer calves of beef types instead of limiting it to steer calves. We should not get the number of calves we want if the subsidy were limited in this way, but—and this is a doubt which I express now—I am much afraid that difficulties will arise in the administration of the heifer calf subsidy, because the Government have not drawn a sufficiently clear line between beef and dairy types. The pure dairy breeds should certainly be excluded, and I think the noble Earl's criticism of the previous Government was perfectly fair: we were unwise to pay a subsidy for heifers of dairy types as well as for the beef type of heifer. Looking back—it is always easy to be wise after the event—I think it would have been better if we had not done so. I am glad that the Government are excluding dairy types altogether. I think the colour-marked heifers which are easily recognisable should be included. I am glad the Government are going to do that.

But here is where the trouble will arise. I feel certain that there will be all kinds of difficulties when beef animals have to be sorted out from dairy-type heifers in dual-purpose breeds. I think that is the main problem that this Bill poses. Let us look at some of the difficulties. There will be an enormous amount of work thrown upon certifying officers who have to travel about from one small farm to another all over the country to look into these matters. There will be sharp differences of opinion between farmers and officials of the Ministry. The farmer will take one view about the animal and the official may take another. That has happened before now, and it may well happen again. Another thing which has occurred to me in studying the report of what Ministers said in another place, is that the expectation appears to be that three out of four of these heifers in these dual purpose breeds will be suitable for beef. If that is the case, I cannot see why the Government have not extended the subsidy to all heifers in dual purpose breeds. It surely costs very little more money. I apologise for not giving the noble Earl notice of this matter, and I understand that he may not be able to reply to it to-day as he does not belong to the Department, but, if he could reply, we should all find his answer most helpful. We support this Bill and will try to expedite its passage through this House. We hope that the schemes which will be made under the Bill and by which its provisions will become operative will be made with the least possible delay.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I should just like to say that I am most grateful to the noble Earl for the response he has given to the Second Reading of this Bill, on which, of course, there is a large degree of Party agreement. I think it is true that there will probably he some difficulty in the administration of this scheme, and I will draw to the attention of the Minister of Agriculture the suggestion of the noble Earl that all dual purpose animals should qualify. I am afraid I am not competent to answer that question this afternoon. As a matter of fact, these proposals will lead to some economy. The proposal now is to appoint full-time inspectors. That is taking a leaf out of the Scottish book, which is not a bad thing, because in Scotland our costs of administering the calf subsidy were about 2s. a calf, whereas in England I understand it was 4s. a calf. We have always had a full-time inspectorate, so it is calculated that the introduction of a permanent inspectorate here will save £75,000 a year in administration, which will be all to the good. I will bring the proposals of the noble Earl to the attention of the Minister.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended (pursuant to the Resolution of October 21), Bill read 3a, and passed.