HL Deb 04 December 1956 vol 200 cc740-52

3.41 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, your Lordships will remember that in the White Paper which the Government published after the last Annual Review we stressed the need for making more good quality silage, and said that we should be seeking the necessary legislative powers to enable a scheme of grants towards the construction of silos to come into operation this autumn. The purpose of this Bill is to fulfil that undertaking. It is part and parcel of the Government's policy of developing the production of home-grown feeding-stuffs and, in particular, encouraging the better use of grass. By this means we hope to reduce the need for imported feeding-stuffs and so save foreign currency. I am sure the House will appreciate the importance of that aim, especially at the present time.

Making silage is one of the best ways of conserving grass and fodder crops economically, and of saving bought-in feeding-stuffs. Although the technique is by now well established in this country, its progress in recent times has been slow, and there is still plenty of room for improvement. If silage is to be made by reliable methods, which are especially important in an unreliable climate such as we have, a certain amount of capital outlay is necessary, and this may often deter the smaller farmer. That is why we decided to work out plans, in conjunction with the National Farmers' Union, to give financial help for the construction or improvement of silos. We intend to associate this financial aid very closely with the general work of our advisory and technical services. In that way we should be able to ensure not only that the silos are properly built, but that the silage is efficiently made and that beginners can be helped to avoid the mistakes which are quite often made. Farmers who are already making silage will also be able to get grants towards the cost of additions or improvements to their existing silos.

The Bill itself is merely a short enabling measure, authorising Ministers to make subsidy Schemes which will require Parliamentary approval. The Bill as it stands applies to the United Kingdom, although a scheme under the Bill can be made to apply either to part or to the whole of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has already for some years been operating a scheme under its own legislation. They intend now to join in with us. We hope to table the first Scheme as soon as this Bill has received the Royal Assent. Meanwhile, to save time, we have already invited farmers to start submitting their projects for silos and I am glad to say that there has been a ready response. This will enable the Agricultural Departments to get on with the preliminary work of examining projects and advising farmers. Although these projects may be approved, no payments will, of course, be made until Parliament has approved the Scheme.

For your Lordships' convenience I have placed in the Printed Paper Office a copy of the Schedule of the rates of subsidy which we shall be seeking power to pay under the first Scheme, together with the main conditions. The Scheme will have certain novel features, which we think will simplify administration and also benefit the farmer, to the extent that he will be able to use his own labour without affecting the size of the grant. That should be particularly helpful to the smaller farmer. We propose to pay standard rates of subsidy for the various processes and component parts involved in the construction of silos. The total payment will thus depend on the dimensions and materials used, except that there will be a maximum grant per farm of £250, and of that total not more than £125 will be paid for unroofed silos. The rates of; subsidy are calculated to cover roughly 50 per cent. of the cost of moderate, but adequate, methods of construction. In each individual case we shall need to satisfy ourselves that the silo is properly constructed and of the right size to meet the needs of the farm. I think your Lordships will find that the Scheme is highly flexible, while at the same time ensuring that sound methods of silo construction and silage making will be used. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl St. Aldwyn.)

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that silos have a distinct advantage over the earlier business we had this afternoon. in that they are more familiar to most of your Lordships than patents and far less controversial than the Government's action in Egypt. I do not suppose that anyone will quarrel with the two main purposes of the present Bill, which has been presented by the noble Earl opposite with his usual clarity and brevity. I am reversing the order of these purposes because I think that, from the point of view of their importance, nine is right. The first, I take it, is to save imports. We all know that animal feeding, stuff are an expensive item in our annual import programme. By producing more fodder at home, as I hope we shall do under this Bill, we shall certainly cm down our total payments for these particular imports; and, as the noble Earl pointed out, this is particularly urgent at the present time, because, on account of events in Egypt, we shall have even greater difficulty in balancing our foreign payments. This contribution, small as it may be to the saving of imports, is therefore even more desirable new than it was a short while ago, and w e very much hope that, with the help of this Bill, the I knowledge that they are strengthening the national economy will encourage small farmers to make more silage than they are making at the present time.

The other object of the Fill, which was also emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, is to increase the prosperity of agriculture by the better use of grass; and, after all, grass is a crop which we can grow most easily and satisfactorily in the humid, temperate climate that we have, in the British Isles. As all your Lordships are aware, there are other ways of improving the management and use of grass, and I feel sure —and I think the noble Earl will agree with—that there is still enormous scope for improvement in both these directions. But conservation of grass for winter fodder, more particularly when the hay harvest is always so uncertain, is undoubtedly one of the best ways.

This is an enabling Bill, and certainly it is right that when a Minister makes Schemes under a Bill they should be subject to Affirmative Resolutions of both Houses. I was going to ask the noble Earl (but I shall not do so as he has answered my intended question in the course of his speech) whether he expects to be able to present his first Scheme in time for farmers to get on quickly with the work of preparing silos for next year's grass season. I am very glad to hear that there will not be a moment's delay and that the Minister intends to present a Scheme as soon as this Bill has become an Act of Parliament. I am still not quite clear whether farmers will have to wait until a subsidy Scheme has been approved by Parliament, or whether they will be authorised to start work on their silos as soon as the Minister has sanctioned detailed plans for improvements to existing silos, or for new construction. I feel sure the noble Earl will agree that we cannot afford to waste any time if we are to get more grass conservation next year.

Whether, in practice, this Bill —which is based on the two admirable principles to which I have just referred —will do more good than harm will, I believe, depend on how it is applied. I should like to ask the noble Earl whether the grants will be paid only to the efficient dairy or livestock farmer, or whether it will also be paid to some of the large number of inefficient marginal producers, those with either too little land to get a reasonable return or with land which should be producing something else. Everyone wants to help the small farmer, for he is one of the most hard-working members of the farming community. If, as the Minister said in another place, not more than four small farms out of every 100 are making silage to-day, it is clear that more silage should be made on those small farms than is being made at present, and that those who can make a success of this work should be encouraged to do it. But this Bill seems to fail to draw any line between the small farmer who is an economic asset to the industry and the one who is a liability: and if a man is a liability surely it is not right that he should be kept going out of public money.

The recent Government White Paper on a long-term policy for agriculture makes it a condition for payment of grants towards capital equipment (and here I quote the words of the White Paper) that: farm units are economic, or could be made so with the improvements proposed. A similar condition is attached to grants made under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts, but no condition of this kind appears to have been attached to the payment of grants under this Bill. Judging from what the Minister said in another place, the Minister would require to be satisfied by the applicant, the farmer who is applying, only that a particular silo for which a grant is sought is suitable for the farm and will be properly constructed. I gather from the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, that that is, in fact, the only requirement.

I wonder if he is aware (he may well be, for he knows more about these matters than I do) that a recent survey of the Eastern Counties showed that two-thirds of farms of between 20 and 50 acres, and one-third of farms of between 50 and 100 acres, failed to produce for their occupants a gross income of more than —500 a year. If this is typical of small farms in England near sea level, small upland and hill farmers must be doing far worse. The existence of these uneconomic holdings is recognised in the White Paper, and for the first time grants will be made under the White Paper towards amalgamation schemes. The fact is that we have too many small holdings whose size makes it impossible for their occupiers to earn a reasonable living for themselves and their families. Surely these people should be encouraged to go in with others to form larger units, or at least to co-operate with neighbouring farmers to share in the use of silos and other expensive equipment. If these uneconomic producers are to be propped up by grants given under this Bill, perhaps the noble Earl, when he comes to reply, could explain in rather more detail the intentions of Her Majesty's Government in regard to eligibility for payment of this subsidy. With that important qualification, I should like to make it perfectly clear that we on this side of tine House strongly support this Bill and shall do our best to facilitate its speedy passage through your Lordships' House.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, as I advocated, during a debate on agriculture, that there should be a grant towards the construction and roofing of silos, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a few words about this extremely good little Bill. I am certain that it will be of great benefit, not only to farmers but to the country as a whole. As the noble Earl who introduced it has already said, more of our output must be produced from home-grown feed. Our main object should be to substitute home-grown for imported feed, whenever possible, and there is no better way of doing this than by making more feeding silage.

Unfortunately, it is true to say that, at any rate up till now, silage-making has played a much less important part in this country than in many other countries enjoying an advanced system of agriculture. I believe that to-day only about 7 per cent, of farms in this country make silage; yet our need to make silage, and thus reduce imports of feeding-stuffs, is probably greater than that of any other country. In my part of the country, farmers have great faith in turnips. Many of them wend a lot of the winter burrowing under the snow trying to find turnips. But as they are good farmers, and also Aberdonians, I have little doubt that they will make the greatest use of this grant, and I can assure my right honourable friend the Minister that more silage will be made in the North-East of Scotland this coming season.

Besides being very welcome to farmers, this Bill is also most acceptable to landlords and townspeople. For the landlord, it is a small injection into farming of capital which, although long overdue, is none the less very acceptable. It means, too, that townspeople will in future be able to see how the money is being spent, for they will actually see the silos being built. In another place, this Bill received some criticism. The cry went up that once more large-sized and medium-sized farms were being helped, but that nothing was being done for the small farmer. That is just not true. Even the marginal land farmer should be able to get 4 tons of grass to the acre, and in the conditions it has been laid down that the smallest silo eligible for the grant will be one of 20 tons capacity. That means that the farmer would have to cut 5 acres of grass to qualify for a grant; and one cannot possibly call a farmer who cuts 5 acres of grass a medium-sized farmer: he is undoubtedly a small farmer

I am glad to see that there is nothing rigid laid down in the conditions about the actual design of the silo. It is left. to the farmer's ingenuity, and if he wishes he can get an expert to advise him from the National Agricultural Advisory Service or from one of the agricultural colleges North of the Border. There are to-day too many inadequate silos, and I welcome the fact that this Bill makes provision for improving existing silos. Inadequate silos mean loss of feeding value. This loss of feeding value is not just loss to the farmer; it is also probably loss to the country, because feeding-stuff has to be imported to make good the loss. Roofing new and existing silos in the wetter areas will undoubtedly be of great advantage. The agricultural colleges in Scotland have found, through experiments, that where silage is covered with a proper roof the drying of the matter content is probably about 17 per cent. better than when silage is covered with earth or some other such mat trial. Neither the farmer nor the nation can tolerate this loss in the future. The sooner this excellent little Bill passes all its stages, the better. If farmers are to make more silage next season, they must begin planning their silos now.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a word or two about this Bill, which I think is quite an excellent measure and one which will bring about a different feeling amongst smaller farmers. Your Lordships will remember (those who indulge in farming will know) what a tremendous gamble there always is in regard to hay. Really one needs to make only enough hay to give to the calves. No doubt some of your Lordships will remember how, two or three years ago, particularly around the district where I live, we had to burn all the hay which we had tried to make. We never got a chance to get it at all, That meant a very severe loss to us all—I was one of the sufferers.

Just to show your Lordships (though many of you know of it already) the seriousness of this matter, let me say this. I have a friend whom I put down as one of the biggest, most responsible and most intelligent farmers in the country. He has anything from 2,500 to 3,000 acres under the plough. He milks about 200 to 250 cows a day. He said to me the other day: "If I had tried to feed my stock on hay, and had never gone in for ensilage, I should have been in the bankruptcy court now." He went on: "Of course, people said to me, when I began to produce silage in a big way: The milk will taste; the nourishment will not be there as it would be when the cattle are fed on hay That is absolute nonsense". My friend finds that the milk produced now is of just as good quality as when he used to feed his beasts on hay; and the production per cow is just as good. I feel that this is one of the most useful pieces of legislation with regard to farming of which I have ever had experience in Parliament. I wish the Bill every success, and I congratulate the Government on evolving the idea on which it is based.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am afraid that I have only just entered the House, as I was detained by work in my own county this morning. But I do not like to remain silent when such a topic as this is under consideration, particularly as I have found, as my noble friend who has just sat down has found, the enormous value of making silage. I make silage now to a much greater extent than I ever made hay. And I do so with a feeling of security, for I know that, whether we have rain or shine, there will be —if it is properly made —an ample supply of food with a high-concentrate protein value which can be fed to the cattle. I should like to express my endorsement of the view put forward just now by my noble friend Lord Forbes, to the effect that silage, whether made in a concrete silo or a pit silo, if it is properly covered has a very much greater concentrate value than if it is merely compressed with an earth covering.

I am one of those, I am sorry to say, who thoroughly disapprove of subsidies if they can be avoided. So I am sorry to hear that there is to be a further instal- ment of Government subsidies. How long the long-suffering taxpayer will put up with heavy subsidies for the benefit of our most vital industry, I cannot, of course, say. But I feel —and I cannot refrain from saying so —that, if this measure is intended to be for the benefit of the small farmer, neither subsidisation nor any other form of Government assistance can be of anything like the economic value to him of agricultural co-operation as practised in other civilised countries. It is of very slow growth here. In the other countries (the ones with which I am most intimately acquainted are New Zealand, on the one hand, and Denmark, on the other) one finds that the co-operation is universal and exhaustive. It is applied all through husbandry operations; and, incidentally, in neither of those countries are Government subsidies required, for the people in the industry are able to stand upon their own feet and work out their own economic salvation, not as the result of Government control but of what I have always liked to describe as mutual control, operating through properly organised agricultural co-operation.

Following the recent announcement of a grant for the capital equipment of farms (due, in the main, to the increasing impoverishment of landowners during the last half century. which has made them wholly unable to supply the necessary capital equipment required for up-to-date agricultural processes) I made bold to contribute a letter to this morning's issue of one of our chief agricultural journals, the Farmer and Stockbreeder. In that letter (I know that my views may meet with a good deal of criticism), I expressed my great appreciation of this capital grant towards the provision of up-to-date equipment, and my hope that the excellent example of countries like New Zealand and Denmark will be followed, and that farmers may be induced to strive much harder to work out their own economic salvation than they can possibly do by continually groaning and moaning over their grievances. I trust that your Lordships will forgive this rather hasty contribution to the debate. I am sorry that I was not here to hear the opening speech of my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, it seems that this Bill has received a better reception in your Lordships' House than it did in another place, where doubts were expressed about its utility and its effectiveness in the agricultural situation. I expect that in bringing forward this Bill the Government have realised, apart from the fact that it was promised in last February's Review of Prices, that it is possible to increase the output of silage. The noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, said that at the moment progress was slow, and that is borne out by the figures which have been quoted. He also said that there was room for improvement. I am wondering whether the small farmers, who seem to be catered for by this Bill, will be willing to do the job.

The subsidy is a selective one, payable to only a small percentage of farmers, and I hope that, when the Bill becomes law, the Government will take steps fully to inform the agricultural industry that it corers every kind of silo. Many people think in terms of an ugly erection amidst old-fashioned farm buildings; and certainly I should be sorry to see the countryside inflicted with a large number of white towers such as we have known in the past. The information set out in the record which the Minister has made available in the Printed Paper Office should be made clear to the agricultural community. If a small farmer realises that he can construct, at a small expense, a silo sufficient for his purpose, and can receive a grant up to 50 per cent. of the amount of his outlay, I think we shall find that more silage will be made. With all respect to those noble Lords opposite who have spoken, I myself am inclined to be a "hay man": I prefer sweet-smelling hay to the smell of silage. In regard to the smell, I would suggest to the Minister that, when sites for silos are suggested in or around villages, the amenities of the people who have to live there when the farmer is cutting silage should be considered, because the smell is not at all acceptable.

The Bill shows one new departure which I think we can accept —that is, that the small farmer is to be paid for his own labour in erecting a silo. It has already been pointed out that an increase of ensilage, would save imported feeding-stuffs, and to-day that is more important than ever, because it is certain that in the coming summer the price of foodstuffs will rise, imports will lessen. If we can increase home produce, it will be to the advantage not only of agriculture but of the national economy as well. I notice that the Bill is to operate for a period of three years and that the estimated subsidy is £200,000. Is that the sum for the whole lifetime of the Bill, or is it the annual amount? I should like to know what is in the mind of the Government about what will happen at the end of three years. Will the subsidy go on, or will it finish?

My noble friend Lord Listowel referred to the payment of grants to inefficient farmers. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I take it that anyone who constructs a silo with the consent of the Ministry and their approval as regards site and materials will receive a grant, on the understanding that he will make silage in that silo, whether he is a first-class farmer or any other class of farmer. The Bill does not lay down what kind of silage he should produce, whether ordinary roughage or first-class silage. If a farmer constructs a silo, then he will receive payment from the Government I welcome the Bill. Anything which is likely to improve home production is acceptable to us on this side of the House. I hope that. as a result of this Bill and the publicity given to its provisions, the Government will be satisfied that the industry is making good and that the greater home production sought will be forthcoming from the farmers.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate to this afternoon for the warm welcome they have given to the Bill. If I may say so, there appears to be a much greater understanding of the Bill in this House than there was in another place, particularly in regard to the small farmer. I welcome the fact that all noble Lords who have spoken fully appreciate the benefit that this Bill will be to the small farmer. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me whether farmers who have projects approved can proceed with the work before the passing of the Bill. The answer is that as soon as a project is approved they may proceed, subject to the small gamble that the Scheme might get thrown out by your Lordships' House.

The noble Earl made a point or, the question of uneconomic holdings. I have a certain sympathy with what he has in mind. We certainly want to encourage the amalgamation of uneconomic holdings into larger units, but I feel that this Bill is not the right instrument for that purpose. The object of this silo subsidy is primarily to help the farmer to make more and better feeding-stuffs, independent of the weather and haymaking. I am sure that we should all like to make more hay. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, may be able to control the weather in his part of the country, but those of us who live more to the West have greater difficulty.


I have always been most fortunate.


I can assure the noble Earl. Lord Listowel, that our advisory officers will not recommend any elaborate work on something which, at the moment, we should class as an uneconomic holding, but I think it would be unwise to put express conditions such as he proposes into a Scheme such as this. The advisory officers will, however, bear in mind the general economy of the farm when they are considering the silo.

I should like to say how delighted I was to hear my noble friend Lord Bledisloe speak this afternoon. It never seems right to discuss anything to do with agriculture without hearing a few words from him. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, was worried about getting the information over to the farmer. I can assure him that we are doing, and shall continue to do, everything we possibly can to bring it to the knowledge of all farmers. He will appreciate that there are a certain number of farmers whom it is difficult to contact, but we are doing all we can. There is already a pamphlet available to farmers. I think that, by and large, the publicity which this Bill has received so far has been good, and I have no reason to think that it will not reach virtually all farmers.

I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Wise, feels that the making of silage these days necessarily involves a considerable amount of smell. I am under the impression that it is possible to make silage which does not smell —at least, not to any great extent, and certainly not enough to disturb the neighbours.


The noble Earl should come into my district some time.


All I can say is that the noble Lord's neighbours should call in the advisory service and get a little further instruction in the art of silage-making. I can assure him that the use of tower silos will be assisted only in exceptional circumstances; as a general rule this assistance is not for them. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, made two other points on which I should like to enlighten him. The first was with regard to the £200,000. If he will refresh his memory on the White Paper, he will see that that sum was to deal with the period for the remainder of this year, and has no effect on the future. He also said that the Bill was going to be in operation for only three years. I would point out that it is not the Bill which runs for only three years, but the first Scheme. In any event, I think it is probable that we should want to modify the Scheme by that time in the light of experience. From the words of my noble friend Lord Teviot, I feel that he looks upon ensilage for the cow in much the same spirit as he looks upon wholemeal bread for the human.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.