HL Deb 23 June 1964 vol 259 cc91-6

2.53 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Horticulture Improvement Scheme, 1964, a draft of which was laid before the House on May 13, be agreed. If your Lordships agree, it might be convenient if we discussed at the same time the Small Horticultural Production Business Scheme, 1964, which comes next on the Order Paper. Noble Lords will recollect that, among other things, the Agriculture and Horticulture Act increased from £8 million to £24 million the total sum of money made available by the Horticulture Act, 1960, for grants to growers and their marketing co-operatives. It widened the range of a co-operative's activities which may be eligible for grant under Section 1 of the 1960 Act, and postponed the closing date for applications for grants from April, 1965, as it was under the 1960 Act, to April, 1974. We were also given powers to introduce a Scheme to make grants to persons carrying on small horticultural production businesses.

The two Schemes now before the House implement these sections of the Agriculture and Horticulture Act. They have a number of features in common: for example, the two Schemes define "eligible land" in the same way; and the definition in the second Scheme of a small horticultural production business is based on that of a horticultural production business in the first. It is inevitable that two Schemes so closely related should bear a marked family resemblance to one another.

Before I go on to deal with the detailed provisions of these Schemes, I should like to mention particularly one important feature of both, which we debated at some length during the passage of the Bill. This is the minimum acreage. It has never been our intention, either in 1960 or now, to make grants for improving part-time businesses. On this, the Government and the Farmers' Unions have always been agreed. The 1960 Scheme, therefore, set a minimum of four "adjusted" acres, below which it was thought that there would be very few horticultural businesses providing a full-time occupation for one man. The House will remember that, during the passage of the recent Act, a number of noble Lords expressed concern as to whether this was a satisfactory test.

It was feared that a considerable number of viable holdings would be excluded by a minimum of four "adjusted" acres. As I then told the House, we were consulting the Farmers' Unions to see if any better test could be devised. We discussed with them possible alternatives, such as assessments of gross or net income, or of standard man-days, but both the N.F.U. and ourselves became convinced that there were insuperable objections to them all—and we remain so convinced. The Farmers' Unions are fully satisfied that the right course is to keep the 4-acre limit for both Schemes.

We have, however, been able to make two changes in the rules of the existing Horticulture Improvement Scheme which will help some growers on very small acreages to qualify under either Scheme. First, we have found it possible to increase the weighting, in calculating the eligible acreage, of land under lights and cloches and of watercress beds. The House will see that paragraph 3, subparagraph (2), of the draft Horticulture Improvement Scheme and paragraph 2, sub-paragraph (4), of the draft Small Horticultural Production Business Scheme both provide that land cultivated in these ways will count for six times its actual area instead of four times as under the 1960 Scheme. Land under glasshouses will continue to count for twenty times its actual area. Secondly, on technical advice we have relaxed the conditions of eligibility for land on which vegetables are grown in the open. To be eligible, such land must be used intensively; and this was interpreted in the 1960 Scheme as meaning that at least one-half the land must be double-cropped. We are now satisfied that it is sufficient for one-third of the land to be double-cropped. Both these changes will make it easier for some growers to fulfil the minimum conditions of the Scheme.

I will deal separately, in brief detail, with the two draft Schemes. The Horticulture Improvement Scheme, 1964, is in outline similar to the 1960 Horticulture Improvement Scheme. The more noticeable changes are in the Schedule of equipment eligible for grant. We have retained all the items which are eligible for grant under the 1960 Horticulture Improvement Scheme, but we have also added very considerably to the range of equipment, especially on the production side. In general, our principle has been that only worthwhile specialist equipment which is not quickly expendable or easily diverted to some other use should be included in the Schedule. These new facilities are very extensive indeed. Paragraph 1, for example, provides for the replacement, reconstruction and improvement of glasshouses, mushroom and rhubarb sheds; paragraph 4 for the installation, as well as the improvement, went, of heating systems; paragraph 8 for watercress beds. Paragraphs 9 and 10 break fresh ground in offering a very wide range of equipment and machinery for production. There are also a number of additions to Part II of the Schedule; and Part III is extended to provide for facilities for conducting markets.

I turn now to the second draft Scheme, the Small Horticultural Production Business Scheme, 1964. The minimum condition of eligibility is the same as for the Horticulture Improvement Scheme—four "adjusted" acres. The upper limit is set by paragraph 2, sub-paragraph (3), of the Scheme. This provides that there must not be more than fifteen "adjusted" eligible acres, and that the total area, including any land used for farming, is not more than 30 statute acres. This latter provision is designed to exclude the business which is primarily concerned with farming.

The second major difference between this Scheme and the Horticulture Improvement Scheme is that the business grant will not be tied to specific expenditure by the grower, such as the purchase of particular items of equipment. Under this Scheme the grower will have to undertake to carry out an approved programme to increase the efficiency of his business. Paragraph 3 of the draft Scheme provides that grant is to be at the rate of £50 per "adjusted" acre, up to a maximum of £500, and that the grant will be payable in four equal instalments; two in the first year of the approved programme, and the other two at the end of the second and third years. The grower will be able to use this money as he thinks fit—provided, of course, that he carries out the approved programme or that he obtains prior approval to any change that he wants to make in it. The grant is designed to make it easier for a small man to reorganise his business by helping him over the period of reorganisation.

I hope that I have been able to show that the Government are doing what we undertook to do. In preparing these proposals we have worked closely with the representatives of the industry and I should like to pay tribute to the ready co-operation that we have had from them. I commend these two draft Schemes to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Horticulture Improvement Scheme 1964, laid before the House on 13th May last, be approved.—(Lord St. Oswald.)


My Lords, we should like to express our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, for his clear exposition of these two Orders and, indeed, for the negotiations which have gone on since the Bill became an Act, and also for the improvements made, particularly those which favour the interpretation of the four adjusted acres on behalf of the watercress growers. We are aware that the noble Lord has discussed with the National Farmers' Union the possibility of meeting some of our other objections, in order to bring more small horticultural business into this Scheme, and we accept that it has not been found possible to do so.

While we are grateful for those points, and warmly welcome the considerable extensions of the various types of machinery and equipment which can now become grant-aided under the Order we are now discussing, we regret that it was not found possible to include in the Schedules the pre-packaging equipment, lists of which the noble Lord may recall asking me to submit for consideration and which he was kind enough to inform me by letter could not be included. We welcome the fact that the definition of grading machines has been adjusted so that, instead of aid being confined to machines for grading by weight and size, it will be possible, when they become available, for machines for grading by colour or quality to be grant-aided. That is forward-looking and helpful.

We cannot, however, accept as a valid reason for excluding these other items or machines from the Schedules the fact that they are easily disposed of (I am not using the noble Lord's actual words), because here the noble Lord's Department is in conflict with other Government Departments which do grant-aid furniture and equipment of various kinds which is easily disposed of. They safeguard their position—the Ministry of Education, for one, in regard to youth clubs—by having a contract which ensures that those goods cannot be disposed of without the consent of the Minister. That would have safeguarded the position in this case.

I would point out to the noble Lord that the present Order is wholly inconsistent with the principle he has put forward, of excluding from the grant types of equipment which are easily disposable and can be used in other industries. For example, if the noble Lord will look at Part II, paragraph 19, Groups (iii) and (v) he will see there mention of sorting tables, return flow tables, packing tables, automatic loaders and mercury switches, all of which are to be grant-aided, yet can be used in a wide range of industries. It is also difficult to understand how, while properly agreeing that box fillers should be grant-aided, bag fillers are "beyond the pale" and cannot be grant-aided. That seems an extraordinary decision. Then again, in the case of new producer co-operatives the noble Lord's Department have very properly agreed that their office equipment, furniture, and even, in one case, their lawnmower, shall be grant-aided. Yet all these things—though we do not object to their inclusion—are easily disposable. So the noble Lord has not been in any way consistent. We consider that the development of pre-packaging is of vital importance to the future of horticulture, and we therefore regret that the noble Lord has not seen fit to help this section of the industry on this occasion. We only hope that next year there will be an opportunity to put this right.

On Question, Motion agreed to.