HL Deb 18 February 1959 vol 214 cc362-73

3.43 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Third Reading of this Bill I should like at once to refer to the undertaking I gave yesterday to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that I would again consider whether the words in Clause 1 (1) (a) of the Bill meant what I said they meant. I have considered this matter carefully and taken further legal advice, and I am completely satisfied that they do not require the person carrying on the business to be himself occupied in it full-time. The words must not be read, as it seems to me the noble Lord reads them, as though they were "a business carried on as a full-time occupation, and capable of yielding an adequate return". The words in the Bill are: … a farm business capable of yielding an adequate return to any person"— not the actual person— carrying it on with reasonable efficiency and as a full-time occupation". To my mind, therefore, it is abundantly clear that the words "capable of" qualify all the succeeding words. The business, and not its occupier, must satisfy the test of providing an adequate return if engaged upon as a full-time occupation. The test relates solely to the kind of business.


My Lords, I do not want to pursue the matter unduly, but the noble Earl has put the wrong question to his advisers. I never said that the words did not mean what he said they mean; I said that they were not clear to most people who read them and that it should be possible, without altering the meaning, to clarify them. I am sorry if I did not make myself clear yesterday.


My Lords, can my noble friend allay in any way the fears that were expressed on Second Reading regarding the upland farming in Scotland?


My Lords, I think I should move the Motion first. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Earl Waldegrave.)

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, before anything else is said, I think the Opposition had better start the reply to the Motion, and then I am sure the noble Viscount opposite will get his chance.


I apologise.


I should not in any circumstances regard this Bill as unimportant. It is certainly going to divide up some of the resources of the present farming community in such a way as to give more to one section than to another, and to provide that by taking something out of the agreement upon the Annual Review of Prices. In so far as small farmers undoubtedly need assistance, and certain sums of money will get to them in the circumstances, then it is important to them, and I think they will be fairly happy about it. But when I come to look at the claims that have been made in another place and, in some respects, in your Lordships' House also, on behalf of the Bill, then I am really rather astonished. If, for example, we turn to the speech of the Minister of Agriculture on the Second Reading of the Bill in another place last November, we find that he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 595, col. 38]: Most of those to whom I have talked about the scheme, and, I think, most of the Press, have accepted the principle of the Bill. I have observed the somewhat unusual phenomenon of the Manchester Guardian, the Economist and The Times linking arms, so to speak.… I read on through the speech carefully at the time and I have harked back to it to-day because I did not find a reference to the approval of the industry, the National Farmers' Union in each country concerned in the Bill being the body most able to give expression to the view of the industry.

While I am quite sure that the National Farmers' Unions in both cases wish to have some aid brought to the small farmers concerned in this Bill, and others as well, nevertheless in two respects the National Farmers' Unions have never agreed. In the first place, they have never agreed that it is right to say, as the Parliamentary Secretary said to us yesterday, that it was quite—I think he indicated not by using the word, but suggested that it was almost ridiculous to think that in some cases the small farmers would prefer a loan rather than a grant. But the National Farmers' Unions, in their wisdom, recommended this procedure and in fact that recommendation was ignored.

If we take the general view of small farmers, who are inhibited in one way or the other—and there are several ways in which they can be inhibited—from obtaining the advantages that can be offered under this Bill, then we find that there is certainly not much approval from that section of the industry. When I look back at what was said at the commencement of the discussion on the Bill—and I am confining myself to that, because we do not want to speak widely upon a Third Reading, but only upon the general proposition in the Bill—I would say that the other thing the National Farmers' Unions had not agreed to is the method of making grants to a very small proportion of the whole of the farms in our country and making that a general charge against the guaranteed prices promised in previous legislation. That is a great bone of contention. I am quite sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will not claim that the farmers' unions have agreed with the Government on that.

It is necessary to refer to that principle because in the last season the farmers had such a harrowing experience, owing to weather and the like, and such poor harvests. I am not quite sure from what has been said whether it is proposed in the conversations now going on between the farmers' unions and the Departmental representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture to take that into account on this occasion, or whether the Government will wait until the scheme is actually in operation and some fair proportion of the grants to be made have been paid. It is important to keep that in view. I have an idea that it was suggested that it might not come into operation until the Review of 1960, but as we are parting company with the Bill altogether to-day I should like to be clear on that matter.

I must say that when one examines more closely the, principles that the Government have adopted, the less easy one finds it for the Government to defend them. This guaranteed price business forms a part of what Mr. Godber in another place claimed to have been in a Bill—that is, this Bill—which was part of a great project for farming which is indicated by three measures the Government have passed. He said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 595, col. 152]: Indeed, this is the third of an impressive list of pieces of legislation designed to bring up to date our agricultural legislation according to the needs of the post-war years. We had the 1957 Act which gave long-term guarantees and the Farm Improvements Scheme, which already have proved valuable. Then we had the 1958 Act which disposed of obsolete disciplinary powers.… When I come to look at the judgments which are being expressed by the farmers themselves upon this Bill then, surely, find that this has not added greatly to the magnitude of the Government's policy so far in regard to these matters. If your Lordships will look at it closely you will find that the total cost of the scheme is £9 million, and of that £6 million is to be regarded as being under the terms of those items that come before the Annual Review of prices. In other words, when you assess the actual financial conditions or economic position, if you like to put it so, of the industry in a particular year, you add whatever has been paid out in a particular year under this Bill to the assets, as it were, of the industry in taking the Review of prices. But the whole industry has to pay back and it includes not only the small farmers who are inhibited from taking any part in these grants, but also the farmers themselves who are being helped and the rest of the industry.

As this Bill is leaving this final stage to-day, I beg the House to remember that there are farmers of anything above 50 acres who will be among those who are inhibited. There are those with up to 300 or 400 acres who will certainly not be able for some years to come, in view of the experience of the last year or two in the farming industry, easily to absorb the further diminution in security provided by the guaranteed prices under the Annual Review. After all, the 1957 Act, it is said, preserves the long-term guarantees. That is an entirely different position from what would have happened if the pre-1957 principles had been observed.

What is happening is that the Government feel bound as far as possible to reduce the amount of the guarantee by round about 2 per cent., even although some of the important commodities may be reduced to 4 per cent., and in any given year, therefore, the guaranteed prices, in their reduced position, may press more hardly upon one section of the farming community than upon another. Therefore it is exceedingly difficult. But if the Government are going to offer aid now to one section of the industry, and then charge that part of the industry and all the rest of the industry with the result, then, of course, the Government are doing practically nothing to bring aid to the small farmers, except perhaps to make the advance for a year or two until they have recouped themselves, at least from a book-keeping point of view, at the Annual Review of Prices. Therefore it seems to me that all the talk about the great assistance that this Bill brings from the Government indicates that the Government have been like a mountain in labour and have produced not more than a mouse.

I am sorry that in my view the Bill as a Whole does not add particularly to the credit of the Government in their consideration for and substantial aid to the agricultural industry as a whole. In so far as some farmers are going to get some immediate assistance at the expense of the whole industry and themselves, then those small farmers who can get by all the inhibitions in the Bill will be exceedingly fortunate and no doubt very glad. But I think it is a puny effort at dealing with the outstanding needs of the industry.

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, I wanted only to make one point, and this is in an entirely friendly way, because I know that some noble Lords have been worried about the construction of Clause 1. My noble friend Lord Waldegrave was good enough to discuss this matter with me. It may be some advantage for those who have to consider applications to know that they have a statement from the Lord Chancellor as to the meaning of the clause. That is the only reason I venture to intervene in this debate.

I should like to make it quite clear that my view of the last few lines of Clause 1 (1) (a) is that they constitute an objective test of the kind of business; that the business, not the occupier, must satisfy the test of providing an adequate return if it were engaged upon or run as a full-time business. I want to make that quite clear, in order to be helpful to those who are doubtful about it. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, yesterday, and he was afraid that people might be put off doing it. For what it is worth they have the opinion of the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. The curious thing is that to us lawyers, who in the past spent a considerable time on rating matters pursuing the hypothetical tenant over hill and dale in valuing properties, the hypothetical occupier who provides the test here is not so strange as he may be to those whose lot has fallen in more pleasant places. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, will take it from me that I am making these comments in a helpful way, simply regarding those who might be worried about the clause.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor for his most helpful intervention, and with regard to his remark "for what it is worth" I can assure him that I personally, and I have no doubt the farming community as a whole, will find his observations of very great worth indeed. The position with regard to that subsection is now certainly quite clear to me, and I hope, because of his intervention, will be very much more clear to a great many people who, I have reason to think, did not find it clear hitherto. I think it was for that reason that my noble friend, Lord Silkin, addressed his request yesterday to the noble Earl, Lord Waldegrave, that even at this late stage, because it was not so clear to many of us, he might without altering the meaning find another form of words which would clarify it. With that observation I will leave the matter, in the certainty that if there did remain any dubiety outside this House before, there is no room for it now.

Now that I am on my feet I should like to make a few very brief observations on the Bill. First of all I would express regret that it has reached Third Reading and leaves us in exactly the same form in which it was when we received it. Despite our great efforts to improve it, the Government have remained adamant and kept the Bill, as my noble Leader has indicated, within its very small and very narrow limits. It will, I am confident, bring very real benefits indeed to a substantial number, perhaps 50.000, small farmers, and for that they are very grateful; I am sure that I am very grateful. But it seems a great pity that, despite the benefits the Bill will bring, the Government have missed such a splendid opportunity of doing so much more. It is beyond dispute that if these 50,000 small farmers do benefit they will be benefiting at the cost and at the expense of some 400,000 other farmers, and many of those other farmers, as has been proved beyond question, are very much poorer than the small farmers who come within the terms of the Bill and will benefit. I think it is wrong that the Government should have devised the Bill in that way and arranged for payment of the costs in that way. It is quite unfair and cannot be justified, because it certainly does not benefit those in the greatest need.

There is one other point that has not really been dwelt on, and that is that this Bill introduces a new principle in connection with Governmental actions in relation to agriculture, in that a small section of farmers have been selected for benefit and selected on a basis of acreage and the man-days on their farms. We have never previously given assistance in that way at all. Assistance has always hitherto been given to agriculture by means of special grants, such as for fertilisers, or by means of supporting prices, and in that way the whole generality of farmers have benefited, or at least have had the opportunity to benefit. It would be wrong not to express concern at this new principle of selection and the hope that it will not be continued in that way. If farmers are to benefit, and I sincerely hope that they are, then it should be in a way in which they all have the opportunity to do so. We should never accept this as a principle for further experiments and say to the whole body of farmers: "You are going to contribute to a section of your community selected on an arbitrary basis either of acreage or in some other way." It cannot really be justified in equity, and I think it is going to be very dangerous to agriculture.

In spite of those defects, I am sure that this Bill is going to do some good when it becomes an Act. But it will lie on the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, and on the noble Earl, to make good their assurances that it will not harm the National Agricultural Advisory Service, because if it does harm to that Service it will do real and serious harm to the body of agriculture. I hope that, as the Bill becomes implemented, and as the applications pour in and are dealt with, if the Agricultural Advisory Service is then under strain the noble Earl will do his utmost to see that it is recruited and strengthened and implemented, so that nowhere else in agriculture does the work have to fall behind—because that would do real harm to agriculture generally. It is a very limited Bill with many faults, but it is going to do some good, and in so far as it attempts to help small farmers within the limit then I wish it very well indeed.


My Lords, may I first apologise to your Lordships, and in particular to the noble Viscount who leads the Opposition, for putting my question at the wrong time, and may I put it now? It is: can my noble friend allay in any way the fears that were expressed during Second Reading of this Bill regarding the upland farming in Scotland?

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, I put a question to Her Majesty's Government yesterday on this point, and I received my reply, and I do not intend to go back on that. I was told that this is a Bill of limited scope. There is nobody who knows better the state of agriculture and the land in Scotland than the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, who is to reply. I would put this point to him. Up in Scotland we have less power of sun than in the South, and in consequence it takes more land to make a living; and in consequence, per contra, we get the advantage that it is much harder for a had farmer to exhaust his soil, and that is why our soil in many parts of the North is much more fertile than in England. It occurs to me that the scope of this Bill, for what it is worth, may be more limited in Scotland than in England, because it seems to me that a farming business which is going to occupy a man as a full-time occupation must be of at least fifty, or probably more, acres. If that is so, the aid offered, £1,000, is going to be much less effective up in the North than it is down in the South. I think, therefore, that the operation of the Bill may be much more limited in Scotland than in England. If this proves to be the case, I hope that my noble friend will throw his weight about, inside the Office anyway, for the sake of Scotland and help us in that way.

4.11 p.m.


My Lords, in reply to my noble friends, I can certainly assure your Lordships that the Government have no intention of letting a lot of useful land go out of production, causing loss of employment and loss of the stores we need for beef and mutton. There are, of course, various forms of help available to producers through Price Reviews. Your Lordships will not expect me to say anything further on that point. On the general issue, however, I would say that in the coming months the Government will be giving most careful consideration to the position of those who have been in receipt of Marginal Agricultural Production Grants, and they will be prepared to consider what further action is necessary if the need should be shown.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for that answer? It satisfies me entirely, and I feel quite sure that it will satisfy many of my more truculent friends.


My Lords, may I ask whether we could have an assurance at the same time that when these additional grants are made, or continued, they will not be contemplated in the Annual Review of Prices.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will not want me to make a further lone speech on this Bill on Third Reading. We have had some interesting points to-day and the Bill has been well discussed. I should first of all like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. I am sure that he does not think that I wish to be discourteous to him. What I was attempting to do, and as the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack has so much better done than I could hope to do it, was merely to say that I had taken advice on these words, as to whether they meant what I thought they meant; and at this late stage when I had the Lord Chancellor's advice that they were all right, I suggested that we leave the words as they are.

The noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition raised one or two points which I feel I must answer. He mentioned the Farmers' Unions. I should like to say that though their representatives did want changes in these schemes, it is only fair to say and to report that they recognised, and said in their Press release, that the schemes will be a serious attempt to raise the economic and technical standards of a part of the industry experiencing considerable difficulty, and that they would recommend their councils to co-operate with the Government in the detailed planning and administration of the schemes. The noble Viscount asked a question about the net cost in the Price Review. The net cost of the new schemes will be taken into account on the current Annual Review. That is one of the established conventions in Review negotiations, as he will be well aware.


My Lords, I do not think the noble Earl has quite covered the point. I should like to get the position clear The total to be charged, so far as the scheme at present goes, will be £6 million, spread, I suppose, over the years of the grants payments.


My Lords, I understand that these figures are included in the current Price Review negotiations.


My Lords, I must say that it is astonishing if that is coming up to the general sort of credit account of the industry, after the disastrous summer of last year. We shall watch with great concern and anxiety what sort of guaranteed figures come out of the Annual Review.


My Lords, the other point that I should like to make in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, is that this is not an entirely new principle. He may not have been aware of it, but the assistance which has been given in the past to marginal producers has always been given through Price Review funds. Therefore it is not an entirely new principle.

The only other point that I would mention is that applications in relation to this scheme are coming in very well. The latest figures are most encouraging. They are coming in very fast indeed, and as at February 13 some 6,540 applications have come in, most of which seem to be in order and to be eligible. I hope that your Lordships in passing this Bill now will be optimistic and will let us hope, as all the indications show, that it is going to be welcomed and that it will do much good.

On Question, Bill read 3x00AA;, and passed.