HL Deb 05 March 1963 vol 247 cc332-44

3.1 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I will move the Second Reading of this Bill as briefly as I can, but a measure of this kind inevitably spans a number of subjects, and I think your Lordships would expect me to deal fairly fully with the more important provisions, even though I may pass quite swiftly over the lesser clauses. The main purposes of this Bill can be regarded as, first, to introduce, or to continue, various forms of financial assistance to the agricultural industry; and, secondly, to bring about some necessary legislative changes, either to remove anomalies or to allow for new techniques that have evolved. Beyond this there are one or two other matters which call for legislation and which have been awaiting their place in a Bill of this kind.

The various clauses dealing with grants and subsidies are designed to improve the structure and general competitiveness of the industry and they compose a powerful reinforcement of Government support for farmers. Over the next five years an extra £78 million will be made available to the industry, whether by extending the life of some well-proven schemes, by replenishing the funds available for them, or by pioneering new schemes. Nearly half of this sum is made up of the extra £35 million proposed for the Farm Improvement Scheme under Clause 3—a most important clause, which I feel justified in taking a little out of its proper order.

I am sorry that the architect of that Scheme, the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, who was in London last week, cannot be with us to-day to hear me speak of its success. The Agriculture Act, 1957, which he introduced, provided £55 million for the one-third grants towards the cost of approved buildings and improvements. Lord Amory made it clear, when he launched the Scheme that this estimate was necessarily a speculative figure and that at that time he could not give definite undertakings as far as ten years ahead, although this was the period provided for in the Act.

Owing to the massive response from the industry, which exceeded all initial expectations, the £55 million that was originally provided is now nearing exhaustion, either in actual payments or in money that has been committed in approved proposals awaiting completion. Up to December 31, 1962, over 200,000 proposals had been approved in the United Kingdom. Most of the money had been invested in new or improved buildings, notably those for grain and fodder storage, for dairy premises, and for buildings for rearing and fattening cattle. But: some has also been invested in other forms of fixed equipment, such as farm roads and buildings, and in the provision of electricity. Holdings of all kinds and sizes have shared these benefits; and I think it is widely recognised that, whether by cutting costs or otherwise enhancing efficiency, these long-term improvements under the Scheme have played a major part in helping our farmers to put themselves in a stronger competitive position. Without giving any definite undertakings regarding the life of the Scheme in 1957, Lord Amory hoped that it would be possible to allow it free play for the ten years mentioned in the Act, and to permit the grant-aided im- provements to go forward without restraint. I am sure your Lordships will also wish this good work to go on. On that note perhaps I may leave the Farm Improvement Scheme and turn to Clauses 1 and 2, which take us into the hills, where the winter has been even harder than it has been for the rest of us.

Your Lordships will know of the two post-war Inquiries into the general condition of the hill farming industry. One Committee studied the problem in England and Wales, the other in Scotland, and their Reports have taken their place in agricultural history under the names of two distinguished Members of this House—the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh. In each case the Committees found that the hill areas needed an injection of capital, manpower and confidence. Over the years successive Governments have been backing up these Reports with special measures of assistance for hill farmers.

Clause 1 in the present Bill deals with the 50 per cent. grant towards comprehensive rehabilitation of farms in these hill areas. Your Lordships may recall the tribute to this scheme which was paid by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, during our general debate on agriculture just over a year ago. In all, £27 million has been voted for the purpose and, as with the Farm Improvement Scheme, we are fast approaching the point where the whole of this sum will have been spent or committed. Unlike the Farm Improvement Scheme, however, this measure has already enjoyed a long run, and as far back as 1956 the closing date was announced as November 5, 1963. Farmers were told that they would be able to apply up to that date, by which time they will all have had a minimum of twelve years to put up proposals, and those in hill sheep farming areas will have had seventeen years. It would obviously be wrong to curtail the Scheme for lack of finance at this late stage, with but a few months to go, and Clause 1 provides a further £3 million to see it through.

Clause 2 provides for a straightforward four-year extension of our powers to make schemes for the hill cow and hill sheep subsidies; the former were designed to encourage the improvement of poor upland grazing and the establishment there of regular herds of beef breeding cows; while the latter help to maintain the basic foundation stocks of those hardy ewes from which a large and essential part of the national flock derives. Between them the two subsidies are costing at present about £6 million a year.

Next come two measures dealing with the fertiliser subsidy. Certain deserving classes of producer are at present ineligible for this subsidy because of the wording of the Agriculture (Fertilisers) Act, 1952. One of these classes is those mushroom growers who do not occupy agricultural land. The other is the producers of orchard crops and others who use foliar sprays. Clause 4 will qualify both classes for the subsidy. Clause 5 fulfils a long-standing pledge that we would take powers to obtain access to fertiliser suppliers' books. The object here is to strengthen our financial controls over this subsidy, which is currently running at over £30 million a year; and the effect of the clause is to confine payments to fertilisers bought from merchants who register with us and who undertake to give us access to their books.

Clauses 6 to 9 reflect the Government's policy of encouraging measures of self-help within the farming community. An industry made up of so many dispersed units has everything to gain from some pooling of its resources. The Bill acknowledges this by including grants, first for buildings which machinery syndicates use primarily for housing agricultural machinery or for drying, cleaning or storing their members' grain; secondly, for the central bodies which promote co-operation in agriculture; and thirdly, for projects conceived or sponsored by the industry itself towards research and development in marketing. These grants have been available for some time past, and the present object is simply to put them into permanent legislation instead of relying upon the annual Appropriation Act. I have myself, seen something of these machinery syndicates and producers' co-operatives at work in the last few months, and I was both impressed and encouraged by what I saw.

My Lords, I should also like to make two points about the provision for marketing in Clause 9. This is an important sector where we must fashion new ideas; and discover and exploit new techniques, if we are to hold our own in a developing world. We are looking to the industry to follow up the initiative its leaders have taken in promoting the Market Development Scheme; and to turn to good account the £1½ million grants with which the Government are backing it. My other point on Clause 9 is that since this Bill was first published the clause has been improved in another place by the addition of subsection (4). This brings in the usual safeguards for making and hearing representations before there is any question of recovering a grant.

That takes me to two grants which were foreshadowed in the White Paper following last year's Annual Review. One gives an incentive to the production of winter keep in livestock-rearing areas; the other to the renovation of permanent grassland. Together with the existing ploughing grant, these two new grants will help farmers to shape their tillage and grassland policies to better advantage according to the condition of the land and the economy of the holding. Clauses 10 to 12 are essentially enabling measures to pave the way for these new schemes to be laid before Parliament by statutory instrument. We shall first need to conclude our discussion with industry on the details, and to settle rates of grant at the Annual Review now in progress. Nevertheless, your Lordships may expect me to give an outline of what we have in mind.

The winter keep grant will apply to livestock-rearing land as defined in Section 1 of the Livestock Rearing Act, 1951, and to any land suitable for use with such land for livestock rearing purposes. Farmers on this land will still be able to choose the ploughing grant, instead of this new grant, if they wish to do so, but they will, of course, lose their entitlement to winter keep grant for a period of years. The winter keep grant will be an acreage grant payable annually on certain crops grown for winter keep. All the normal fodder crops, such as turnips, swedes, kale, oats, hay and silage would qualify, and the first to be covered by the scheme would be those grown to provide keep for the winter of 1964.

Subject to the Review discussions, we are thinking in terms of a grant of the order of £2 an acre in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland it is proposed to pay differential rates of grant in accordance with the practice which has grown up in that country under the Marginal Agricultural Production Scheme, but the overall average rate of grant would be the same as the rate in the rest of the United Kingdom. Under the grassland renovation scheme we want to bring about improvements in our permanent grass comparable with those which the ploughing grants, in association with ley systems, have already helped to confer upon our temporary grassland.

Under this new scheme grants would be payable on the acreage of land on which an approved programme of operations is carried out. It will be an integral part of the new scheme that grants will be linked up with technical advice from the local advisory officer. He will advise the farmer on the most appropriate programme for his land, but he will not recommend the approval of a programme unless the land is suitable for renovation; for example, any essential drainage work must be done before a programme is approved. The programme may include operations such as heavy harrowing, applications of lime and fertilisers, eradication of weeds and rushes, or perhaps killing the existing sward by new techniques, and over-seeding. Not all of these measures would necessarily feature in any one programme.

It will be a condition of the scheme that the work must cost the farmer at least £6 an acre, excluding the cost of any items such as lime and fertilisers which are already subsidised. Subject to Review discussions we have in mind that the Government contribution should be a flat rate of, say, £4 an acre. The, precise details remain to be settled, but we hope to start this scheme during the coming autumn. There were favourable reactions in the House during our debate on the last Price Review when these new grants were first announced. Now that I have been able to give these further details, I hope that the proposals will be endorsed by your Lordships' House.

My Lords, there are three clauses dealing with animal health and welfare. Clause 13 is largely a consolidating measure enabling us to deal more effectively with carcases, fodder, litter, or hatching eggs, which might otherwise act as carriers of notifiable diseases. Since the Bill was published we have brought fertilisers within these control measures. The clause also gives a permanent statutory authority for the compensation hitherto paid under the annual Appropriation Act.

Clause 14 was introduced in another place following some disquieting reports about the treatment of young unwanted male calves on their way to slaughterhouses. As my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh will know from his inquiry a few years ago into the problem of cattle exported to the Continent, we already have powers under the Disease of Animals Act, 1950, to protect farm animals during transit, and a new Order will shortly be introduced to deal specifically with the transport of calves. But we also want to ensure some minimum standards of comfort and treatment for calves while they are exposed for sale, and Clause 14 would give us the necessary powers to make such Orders.

Clause 15 arises from the Government's new policy on fowl pest. At the end of this month we shall be dropping the present system of slaughter and compensation in England and Wales and relying on the use of dead vaccine to control the disease. We shall adhere to the slaughter policy in Scotland so long as it remains virtually free from fowl pest. To give best effect to the new method of control the vaccination must be taken into wide and regular use, and so we are distributing supplies for two years at low prices which might result in a total bill for subsidisation of up to £2 million. Your Lordships will recall that we discussed various aspects of the vaccination method on July 26 last following a Question put down by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. The House might now like to have details of the present situation, though I should prefer to be making a report more comforting in its substance.

Vaccine at the subsidised price of ½d a dose has been available throughout England and Wales since mid-December. Now, two months later, and with less than a month to pass before the end of the slaughter policy, barely 10 per cent. of the poultry-keepers in England and Wales have applied for vaccine, and doubt whether more than a quarter of the national flock is at present so protected. This response is frankly disappointing. In general, the vaccine is proving effective against fowl pest, but until a high proportion of the country's poultry is vaccinated it may be that some vaccinated flocks will be unable to withstand the weight of infection to which they are exposed. This is why it is vital that everyone in the industry who has not yet vaccinated his birds should do so at once to give them immunity by the end of this month.

I will, by leave, take Clauses 16 and 21 together because they both have their origin in the changing value of money. Clause 21 is essentially a Scottish affair; it concerns bound sheep stocks which an outgoing tenant has to turn over to his landlord or to the incoming tenant. The statutory valuation of these stocks provides for certain adjustments within cash limits that are now out of date. Clause 21 substitutes a system of percentages as originally recommended in the Report of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and has exclusive reference to Scotland. The fee-charging powers of my Department are subject to this same problem of changes in money value, and Clause 16 is primarily concerned with removing obsolete cash limits. But, in the process of bringing our charges into line with the times, we are also giving up many long-standing charges for work which nowadays can be fairly viewed as a proper charge on the State. At present my right honourable friend is often compelled to charge for work of this kind—appointing arbitrators, regulating commons and so on—and this explains the appearance of many of the earlier Statutes in the Schedule of repeals.

Among the fees which will remain, and on which we shall be seeking something nearer full recoupment of our costs, are those for veterinary inspection of imported animals and for sire licensing. This is a convenient opportunity for me to mention Clause 17, which has been added since the Bill was first published and which will enable us to introduce new standards for sire licensing. Technical developments are paving the way for licensing to be based on other criteria besides the present "visual appraisal" for conformation, disease symptoms and the like. For example, the lactation performances of his ancestors can be brought to bear on the assessment of a dairy bull, and recent work on growth recording makes us hopeful of obtaining equivalent information on the qualities of beef bulls and boars. In the meantime, Clause 17 would give us broad enabling powers under which qualifying standards could be brought in, in due course, by order. Our inquiries have shown that the industry would welcome some changes along these lines.

A further measure which has been added, in another place, is Clause 24 which deals with seed potatoes. This follows closely upon one of the improvements recommended by the Committee on Transactions in Seeds. Here, again, we are seeking enabling powers, and in this instance they would be followed up by regulations prescribing the type of containers in which seed potatoes should be sold and the particulars which must appear on the label or sack. This will help to identify seed potatoes when they arrive at their destination and to investigate any complaints about quality. I am sure that your Lordships will favour a provision of this kind, which not only safeguards the purchaser but also protects the reputation of the efficient producer.

Towards the end of the Bill there are four clauses dealing with agricultural land. Nearly nine years ago, my noble friend, Lord Crathorne, announced the policy of disposing of State-owned farm land. It was a natural consequence of this policy that, in time, the acreage would decline to a point where its management would no longer require the apparatus of the Agricultural Land Commission and its Welsh Sub-Commission. The Arton Wilson Committee foresaw this in their Report on the Ministry's organisation in 1956; and the Estimates Committee reported in much the same sense in their findings for Session 1960–61. Barely 100,000 acres now remain in the management of the Commission and much of this is in process of sale—including the 35,000-acre Glanilyn Estate which is being bought by a consortium of its tenants. We shall in due course be dissolving the Commissions under Clause 18 and transferring the residue of land into the direct management of the Department—the Welsh lands being managed through the Ministry's Welsh Department at Aberystwyth. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to add to the tributes which my right honourable friend has paid to the work of the Chairmen and the members of both bodies.

Clauses 19 and 20 take us into the complex field of landlord and tenant relationships. Here legislation is largely a matter of preserving a proper balance between the two interests. One feature of the existing law which has not worked very satisfactorily is the provision in the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1948, for a landlord to recover possession on the ground of his tenant's failure to carry out repairs. A formula is embodied in Clause 19 which will, I am sure, commend itself to your Lordships. Clause 20 deals with another point under the same Act. It gives parties to an arbitration a little more time to prepare their statements of case for the arbitrator. This is a small, but I think useful, addition which has been made since the Bill was first published.

Clause 22 deals with an anomaly under the law relating to compulsory purchase. As the law stands the occupiers of residential or business premises can be paid, in addition to any statutory compensation, a form of disturbance allowance if they are displaced from a house or building; and in the case of business occupiers this allowance extends to the disturbance of their business. Farmers cannot at present be paid an allowance because agricultural land is not within the scope of the existing law. Clause 22 will rectify this and put farmers on the same footing as business occupiers. I think your Lordships will agree that this as right and proper.

Finally, a word about the two clauses on foodstuffs. Clause 23 which enjoys the support of all local authority, trade, and other organisations concerned, will enable producers and distributors to take advantage of new technical developments in the cooling and storing of eggs. It will help them to market fresh eggs in the best condition without risking an infringement of the law; and it will give the consumer better protection against the sale, as fresh eggs, of those that have been kept in cold store.

Clause 25 empowers the Sugar Board to carry out certain transactions to implement part of a proposed sugar agreement with the Irish Republic. As I mentioned to your Lordships yesterday when answering a question from my noble friend Lord Merrivale, details of the Agreement have already been published, and there are three main features. First, the Irish Republic have agreed to buy Commonwealth sugar to meet their import requirements for domestic consumption and for their export trade to the United Kingdom; this will be a useful new outlet for Commonwealth producers. Second, future exports of refined sugar from the Irish Republic to Northern Ireland will be restricted at a somewhat lower level than at present. And, third, the Sugar Board will purchase annually, at £50 a ton, 10,000 tons of refined sugar from the Irish Sugar Company; this sugar will be resold to the company at the world market price, for use in their manufactured goods exported to this country. The loss incurred by the Sugar Board as a result of these transactions was estimated at £150,000 in the first year of the Agreement but it will now be less, and possibly none at all, as I also told your Lordships yesterday. At the same time as the proposed Agreement was under discussion with the Irish Republic, we were able to arrange for the Irish Sugar Company to handle the produce from a field trial of sugar beet grown in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, it has taken me a little while longer than I thought to range over this assortment of measures, differing as they do in both substance and complexity, but I hope I have made the outlines of the Bill reasonably clear. It serves to illustrate the infinite variety of work and problems which come the way of an Agricultural Department, and it underlines the Government's continued endeavours for the well-being of the industry. I trust that your Lordships will see this as a really worthwhile Bill, deserving of your support, and that you will give it a Second Reading in welcoming terms. I beg to move.

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

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, I think we ought to begin this debate on agriculture by paying tribute to the farmers and farm workers, who have had to struggle so manfully with the frightful conditions of this winter. The Minister mentioned this aspect, in passing, when he was dealing with the hill farm clause of the Bill, but I think it is right that I, from this side, should also pay tribute, as I am sure the whole House will, to the work of the farmers and farm workers; and express some sympathy with them in the difficult task that lies ahead in the preparation of seed beds on iron-hard ground.

I could have wished that the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, had taken just a few minutes longer in introducing this Bill. I understand that there is to be a statement at about half-past three and, if your Lordships' Whips will give me the nod, as it were, when it is possible to make that statement. I will sit down.

My Lords, this Bill is aptly named a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill—and miscellaneous it certainly is. The difficulty that I find about making a Second Reading speech on such a Bill lies in the fact that there is no single underlying theme running through the Bill. There is no principle binding all the clauses together. The only word common to the whole of these clauses is the word "Agriculture" in the title, so the mind has to dart about from one of the varied aspects of agriculture to another. I must say that even the word "Agriculture" seems a little out of place when we look at the clause dealing with the Republic of Ireland Sugar Agreement. This is a clause which appears to deal with a Commonwealth rather than an agricultural matter—and perhaps even the word "Commonwealth" can scarcely apply, because Eire is not a member of the Commonwealth, although most of the advantages of Commonwealth membership apply to her.

Nor, it seems to me, is this a time to use the Second Reading of an Agriculture Bill to ascertain what are the Government's intentions for agriculture in the future, now that we have to face the future outside the Common Market; although I think that the probe into the position of agriculture will not long be delayed, for I predict that in to-morrow's debate agriculture's position will not be overlooked, and I am sure that the Government's statement on this will be the subject of the closest possible scrutiny by your Lordships and by the farming community outside.

There is nothing in this Bill to give much of a hint about the future, except in so far as it very wisely continues the specific improvement grants initiated by my noble friend Lord Williams of Barnburgh in the Act of 1947 and carried on in subsequent Acts. They were an essential part of his policy of trying to make up for the long years of neglect of agriculture from the period of the Corn Laws up to 1945; and I think that if it had not been for that part of his policy, together with a deliberate capital injection into the industry, the prospect which the agricultural industry seemed to have not so long ago of entering into the Common Market would indeed have been a very frightening one. Those improvement grants were extended by the Act of 1957, in the period of office of the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, paid a just tribute to him for his work in this connection. If it had not been for these improvement grants, I am positive that the industry would not have been in the position it is in now when it can claim that its improvement in efficiency falls little short, if at all, of the best in the industrial field.

I notice that the Chief Whip has just come in. I do not know whether that signifies that now is the time for the statement. I gather, that this might be an appropriate moment for me to break off, and I shall resume my speech after the statement.