HL Deb 17 March 1959 vol 215 cc2-8

2.39 p.m.

THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD (EARL WALDEGRAVE) rose to move, That the Draft Small Farmer (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1959, be approved. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving that the Draft Small Farmer Scheme for England and Wales and Northern Ireland be approved, may I say that I think it would be convenient to consider at the same time the Supplementary Scheme. I will therefore deal with both of them together, if I may.

These schemes are the first to be made under the Agriculture (Small Farmers) Act. 1959, which will still be fresh in your Lordships' minds since it received the Royal Assent as recently as February 19. Your Lordships will remember that the Act is an enabling measure, under which Ministers were authorised to make schemes of assistance for small farmers. These schemes had been foreshadowed in the White Paper published in October last. I will not weary your Lordships with a recital of their detailed provisions, but I would remind noble Lords that the object of the main scheme—the Small Farmer Scheme—is to make small farm businesses more profitable by giving the farmer, first, advice on a programme for improving his business; and, secondly, some extra cash to help to put that advice into practice. A small farmer is defined by reference to the acreage and standard labour requirements of his farm business. The Supplementary Scheme is intended, first, to give interim help to those who are in the queue for the Small Farmer Scheme—those who cannot be dealt with straight away. Secondly, it will provide temporary help to some of those who have been receiving assistance under the old Marginal Production Schemes but who will not be eligible for the Small Farmer Scheme.

Now I should like to draw attention to changes that have been made in the schemes since the publication of the White Paper. There is one change which has been decided upon since our discussions on the Bill. It has been implicit in all our thinking about the Small Farmer Scheme that it should provide "once for all" help. We have now spelt out this principle in paragraph 8 of the draft scheme. Your Lordships will observe that sub-paragraph (1) provides that a person carrying on two or more eligible farm businesses may have a grant-aided improvement programme for only one of them. To the best of my recollection, this point was not touched upon in the course of our debates on the Bill in your Lordships' House, but the point was made in another place that it was possible for a farmer to have several small farms which, if run as separate businesses, would all be eligible. We have thought about this, and in order to make the position entirely clear, we have decided to meet the point by the definite limitation in the sub-paragraph.

Sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 8 provides that once a small farmer has completed an improvement programme he cannot be given further help under the scheme, either for the same or for a different farm business. Sub-paragraph (3) provides that a small farmer who moves from one farm to another before completing an improvement programme may have a programme approved for the second farm, if it is eligible; but financial assistance for the second programme will be reduced by the amount of the grants he has already had. That is the first change to be made.

The second change—already announced —relates to the farm business grant. Paragraph 10 of the White Paper said that this would be paid in four equal instalments spread over three years. But. as I indicated on Second Reading, it was subsequently decided that the four instalments would instead be paid at intervals of 6, 12, 18 and 30 months from the beginning of the programme. This is covered by paragraph 5 (1) of the draft scheme.

The third change to which I want to call your Lordships' attention relates to the list of standard labour requirements. Your Lordships will remember that a provisional list was given in Appendix I of the White Paper. We received comments on this provisional list from the Farmers' Unions and others, and as a result we decided to make a number of minor changes in the list. The list of standard labour requirements included in the explanatory leaflet which was made available to farmers in January incorporates these changes. No further alterations have been made, and the table given in the Second Schedule to the Draft Scheme is the one with which farmers have already become familiar.

Now may I turn for a moment to the Supplementary Scheme—the "supplementing" scheme as one might almost call it. There are only two differences here from the proposals in the White Paper. First, the table of standard labour requirements in the Second Schedule is the same as for the Small Farmer Scheme. Secondly, we have introduced a limit of £70 to the supplementary grant for ditching. This supplementary grant is 35 per cent. of the cost and it is paid in addition to the ordinary 50 per cent. grant for ditching under the normal ditching scheme, for which there is no limit. The limit to the supplementary grant will operate in only a few cases—in fact, it will bite only where the gross cost of any ditching work done during the period of the scheme exceeds £200.

As your Lordships know, we have been receiving provisional applications under these schemes since January 15. I am really glad to say that the initial response has been quite excellent. Up to last Friday—that is, only eight weeks from the start—we had received 11,590 applications under the two schemes in England and Wales and about 90 per cent. of these we think are prima facie eligible. Under the Small Farmer Scheme we have already had well over half the number of applications we hope to be able to deal with in the first full year of the Scheme. These figures fully vindicate the estimates which my right honourable friend in another place and I gave during the passage of the Bill. They show that the small farmer thinks that the help we are offering is really worth having.

They also show that we were right to resist attempts to widen the scope of the Small Farmer Scheme at this stage. Had we not done so we might well have taken on far more than we could possibly have dealt with effectively, and so endangered the success of the entire scheme. I think the progress made so far reflects great credit on those officers of the Ministry who have had to deal with the Schemes out in the country, both in the National Agricultural Advisory Service and in the Ministry's divisional offices. They are really coping very well indeed with the extra burden which the Schemes place upon them. I have nothing but praise for them.

Of course, we have not yet been able to give approval to any farm business plans that will be coming in from the farmers in connection with the schemes, but we expect to be able to begin to do so within a few days of the Schemes' coming into operation. So, from the beginning of next month, a large and growing number of small farmers will be engaged on improvement programmes drawn up with the advice of the National Agricultural Advisory Service. I am sure that they will result in a substantial and lasting improvement in efficiency and profitability. My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Small Farmer (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1959, be approved.

Moved, That the Draft Small Farmer (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1959, be approved.—(Earl Waldegrave.)

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, before these Orders are passed by your Lordships' House, there are one or two matters with which I should like to deal from this side. I am glad that the Minister has made reference to the alterations in the scheme, and I hope that these alterations will be fully publicised, because anyone who is not conversant with the scheme will not be aware that there is any alteration in the working of the Act as it was passed. I had myself noticed the first two alterations—namely, that no second farm is allowed to come into the Small Farmer Scheme and that a person who has entered once will not be able to enter again although he may be within the time limit—and I think that these will not be thought of too favourably by many in the farming community. In the second case, I should have thought that if after a period of thirty months a small farmer was in a position to come into the scheme again with another farm, he would be entitled to do so.

I am glad that the Minister has made these alterations, but as he has made no reference whatever to the supplementary conditions referred to in paragraph 6 of the Order I cannot resist the temptation of reminding the Government that they are making a "right about face" in regard to the views which they held when they dealt with Part II of the Agriculture Act, 1947. They are now bringing the small farmers under a large measure of supervision because, when they become subject to these conditions, it is obvious that the small farmers cannot receive their periodic payments unless somebody has inspected the farms and decided that these payments are due to them. I think, therefore, that the small farmer who comes under this scheme, unlike his big brothers who do not, will have to suffer a measure of supervision before these grants are given. In this respect I suggest to the Government that they have gone away from what they argued in this House when we dealt with Part II of the 1947 Act.

Apart from those few comments, I think the matter seems to be in order. The applications are heavy—I know that from what goes on in my own county—and if this benefits the small farmer, well and good. In conclusion, I would only say that, from my own point of view, I should welcome a loan in this Scheme, because I think a loan would be far more effective than a grant and might help the small farmer to carry out the scheme as I am sure we all wish it to be carried out.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Wise, that these minor changes will be fully publicised. I do not want there to be any misconception. We have made no alterations to the Act; we could not do that. All we have done is not to follow precisely the details in the White Paper—which was no more than a suggestion of what would be done. The farmers will be under no difficulty, because these minor changes have all been put into the pamphlets, leaflets, and application forms, and, if necessary, further attention will be given to the dotting of the "i's" and the crossing of the "t's". The principle of "one farmer one grant" is one which I am sure farmers will not object to.

The other point, as to supervision, is a little more controversial. We have done no "right about face" on the 1958 Act. The supervision to which the noble Lord referred somewhat nostalgically was a penal matter; it was where you put a man under supervision if he had done something wrong. There is no supervision here. This is not farming from Whitehall, but the farmer's own plan, produced with the help of the Advisory Service. The only time that the farmer gets supervision in the broadest sense is if he falls down on the scheme and does not carry out the details. Then, to protect public funds which we are expending, we must have the right to go back and see whether he is sticking to his contract. There again, I would remind noble Lords that we have arranged that he shall have the right to make representations, and the representations he makes will be to his own agricultural executive committee which he knows and trusts. The noble Lord will not wish me to follow him into the question of loans and grants. That does not arise under this Scheme. I am glad the noble Lord has welcomed the Schemes and that they are generally welcomed. I am sure they will do good.


Could I ask the noble Earl why he refers to supervision under the 1947 Act as "farming from Whitehall", whereas he says that appeals under this scheme will be "to the local A.E.C. which the farmer trusts"? Were not supervision orders made also by the A.E.C.s which the farmer trusted?

On Question, Motion agreed to.