HL Deb 27 May 1963 vol 250 cc559-65

2.23 p.m.


My Lords, I hope it will be convenient if we take together the first three schemes, with their Scottish counterparts, which are down on the Order Paper—that is, grassland renovation, winter keep and ploughing grants—since they are closely related. From an exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, I gather it will be convenient to him. This will enable us to look at the subject of grassland and tillage as a whole, instead of scheme by scheme. If your Lordships agree, we might also take the corresponding Scottish schemes, which are on much the same lines. My noble friend Lord Craigton will deal with any Scottish points which may be raised.

There is little I need say about ploughing grants, because these annual schemes have regularly been debated in your Lordships' House for the past ten years. Our experience during that period has been that ploughing grants encourage ley farming and help to maintain the acreage under temporary grass, and thereby serve a very useful and desirable purpose. Unless your Lordships wish it, I will not follow the usual practice of giving statistics relating to the operation of this year's scheme, but will launch into what we are proposing for the coming year. In the 1963 Ploughing Grants Scheme we propose to make two changes. The first, which follows from the review of the grants mentioned in our debate on last year's scheme, is to reduce the standard rate of grant from £7 to £5 an acre. This change can best be viewed, not in isolation but alongside our new proposals, which I shall mention shortly. The second change concerns grants at the higher rate—the £12 per acre which is offered for ploughing difficult land at costs substantially heavier than normal. Here we propose to bring the qualifying date forward so that land will be eligible provided it has been under grass since 1951 instead of 1946. Apart from these two changes, the scheme will be in much the same terms as hitherto.

In our review of the ploughing grants we sought to close a gap in our existing provision for grassland improvement. The £12 grant has played its part in the reclamation of some of the oldest permanent grassland, especially where it has become semi-derelict. At the other end of the scale the lower rate of grant has done so much to encourage and intensify ley farming. But between these extremes of the old and devitalised grassland needing the drastic treatment of the £12 grant and the younger, temporary grass benefiting from occasional injections of the ordinary grant, there are (if I may continue the medical analogy) the middle-aged fields which could be rejuvenated with advantage. It is for this type of land that our prescription is the Grassland Renovation Scheme. The scheme offers a grant of £4 an acre for the renovation of seven-year-old grassland by operations which are approved in advance.

Under this scheme farmers will have the advantage of discussing with the advisory officer (or his equivalent in Scotland) the best methods of improving their grassland and any desirable preliminary or follow-up treatment. The land must be suitable for and require fairly thorough renovation, such that the work will cost the farmer at least £6 an acre excluding any work or materials which are already subsidised. In calculating costs we shall have a flexible approach which will take account of local conditions as well as the farmer's labour costs and machinery depreciation. This new scheme is designed to give an impetus to the improvement of permanent grassland, and we hope that at least 250,000 acres in the United Kingdom will benefit in the first full year.

I should like to turn now to the Winter Keep Scheme. Here again we are providing a grant to fulfil a need which is not adequately met by the Ploughing Grants Scheme. To put it briefly, our livestock-rearing farmers in the upland areas would often be placed in a stronger and more competitive position if they could themselves produce a higher proportion of the winter feed needed for their livestock. A system of grants aiming directly to encourage the production of grass and tillage crops for fodder may often be better attuned to their needs than the ploughing grant. The Winter Keep Scheme will, therefore, offer a grant of £2 an acre for growing the scheduled winter keep crops. In Scotland there will be three rates of 30s., 50s. and 80s. differentiating in favour of poorer quality land but averaging out over the whole country at about £2 an acre. The grant will be payable to farmers having predominantly livestock rearing enterprises on land which is mostly only suitable for livestock rearing. Price-guaranteed crops are excluded from the list of eligible crops, apart from oats, which have been included because of their traditional importance for winter feed, especially in Scotland.

I have not described the contents of these schemes in great detail because your Lordships are already familiar with the Ploughing Grants Schemes, and we discussed the two new schemes earlier this year during our debates on the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. I believe that this combination of grants will provide a range of assistance for grassland and, in the uplands, for fodder crops, and will enable farmers to choose the system best suited to their land and to the economy of their holdings. I confidently commend them, and their Scottish counterparts, to your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Ploughing Grants Scheme, 1963, be approved.—(Lord St. Oswald.)

2.29 p.m.


My Lords, although the schemes referred to by the noble Lord are entirely new, they have a very close relationship to the original Livestock Rearing Act, 1951, which was devised to help hill farmers to make better use of their cultivable areas than they had been able to do up to that time. It will therefore be no surprise to the noble Lord when I say that in general we are in agreement with the new schemes. I have said before in your Lordships' House that it is perhaps a good job that there are no patent Tights in political policies, and when we see this Government, of all Governments, following a very good lead given by a previous Labour Government, we can only commend them for their exercise of wisdom, which happens on so few occasions.

As the noble Lord has said, the new ploughing grant represents a reduction from £7 per acre to £5. Apart from the recipients themselves, I think there is general agreement with the reduction from £7 to £5; but, of course, the noble Lord will remember that £5 today is worth about £3 in terms of 1951 value. So I hope that the Government will not overstate their case in attempting to suggest that the grants are still reasonable, and even generous to the farmers. The new Winter Keep Scheme to benefit upland livestock rearers whose land is largely unsuitable for other enterprises is a step in the right direction. The scheme will provide a variety of different grants, and will enable the occupier of the land to make his own choice. It would be a waste of time, and perhaps of your Lordships' patience, if I were to repeat in detail what the Minister has already said. The central object of all three schemes is to achieve greater winter self-sufficiency on livestock-rearing enterprises on the hills, and it will be welcomed by farmers in England, Scotland and Wales.

The one question mark with this Government is: having encouraged all the hill farmers to make better use of their acres and to make themselves more self-sufficient in feeding-stuffs during the winter period, can we feel sure that there will be no limitation on the British market for the sale of home-produced meat? The Minister of Agriculture, in a speech he made in another place last Wednesday, gave all sorts of possibilities, but nobody knows what the outcome will be. But at least I hope the noble Lord and his right honourable friend will make it clear to the hill farmers that if they expend money on renovating their grassland and accept the grant available from Government sources they will not then he denied the right to rear the animals for which there is a restricted market in this country. I have no means of telling whether or not that situation will arise. I am only suggesting that it ought to be made as clear as possible that for whatever meat they can produce, at economic prices and of good quality, there will be a market in this country. The size of the grants have already been referred to by the noble Lord and I need not repeat them. I need only say that, on the whole, we think that the original grant for ploughing upland is still required. The new schemes are an extension; and, we think, a useful extension. We hope that the hill farmers will make the maximum use of the advantages.


My Lords, I welcome the Scottish Winter Keep and Grassland Renovation Schemes; but, of course, much will depend on how these Schemes are administered. There are bound to be borderline cases, some of which can cause considerable hardship. In the case of the Winter Keep (Scotland) Scheme I think it is fair to say that any farmer who is farming these days in a predominantly hill country area is having a pretty tough time. I hope that those who are to administer the scheme will be instructed to give a flexible interpretation to the words "material extent" where they occur in the definition of livestock-rearing land in paragraph 2(2)(a) of the Winter Keep (Scotland) Scheme.

I hope also that the Government will give further thought to the crops to be eligible under this scheme—a matter dealt with in Schedule 1. Why has barley been omitted, while oats have been included? There is emphasis now on growing grass for keep in upland areas and this is perfectly right; but there is a technical point here. Grass and barley go well together on a farm; both require soil with little acidity—that is, soil of a high ph; while oats require a certain amount of acidity, or a lower ph. That fact seems to have been lost sight of. I hope the Government will put that matter right at the first opportunity. I welcome the Grassland Renovation (Scotland) Scheme. I have always believed that grass is one of the crops we could grow best in this country. This is a crop that can replace much imported feeding-stuffs and so materially affect our balance-of-payments situation. With the reservations I have made, I welcome both these schemes.


My Lords I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, in whose footsteps I am always happy to tread when they coincide with Conservative policy, as anticipated. I am grateful also to my noble friend behind me and I shall certainly take very careful note of the points he has made, as will my noble friend Lord Craigton. There is a certain difference in view between our two countries on the use of barley as a feeding crop; but I will confine myself now to thanking him for the points he has raised and assure him that they will be taken note of.


My Lords, I did not seem to hear any reference to what is a very important point. If we are going on making facilities for grass crops in areas where they can raise especially meat, what is the position regarding the market? The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, put a specific point to the noble Lord who is answering to-day on this question. I should like to hear more about it.


My Lords, I did not regard it as a specific point, and I should have thought that what my right honourable friend said in his speech the other day in another place would have reassured farmers, both hill farmers and others, as to the determination of the Government to stabilise prices. This is a general matter of close interest to farmers. He also gave a clear forecast that there would be room for expansion in farming. Naturally, to be specific is quite impossible at this stage, because, before anything specific can be arranged, talks must go on with a number of interested bodies in this country, in the Commonwealth and elsewhere.


My Lords, I understand the difficulty of the situation, and I did not invite my noble friend or his right honourable friend to start Press conferences, and so on, to reassure us, despite the right honourable gentleman's speech in another place last Wednesday. I suggested in simple terms that there is anxiety because, in the nature of things, these negotiations may be prolonged. They may or may not succeed in achieving what the Minister has set out to do. But we hope that the Minister will let the hill farmers, in particular, understand that it is his intention, at all events when they have improved their grassland and are rearing more livestock, that they shall not be denied a market in our own country. If the noble Lord's right honourable friend will take every opportunity of making that as clear as possible in the circumstances, we shall all be happy.


My Lords, naturally I will convey to my right honourable friend what the noble Lord has said. Listening to the noble Lord to-day, I cannot see that his views differ in any way from ours.


Except, my Lords, that I am still nervous about certain aspects of the negotiations that are going on, and I am not quite sure about his assurances on that point.

On Question, Motion agreed to.