HL Deb 04 August 1965 vol 269 cc300-9

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry to inflict myself on the House again so soon, but I have to make a Statement similar to that which my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is making in another place about two White Papers which the Government have presented to the House and copies of which are now available in the Printed Paper Office. If I may, I will use my right honourable friend's own words:

"The first White Paper marks an important step forward in our plans for the development of agriculture over the longer term. It contains our proposals for improving the size, lay-out and equipment of farms, for developing the rural economy in the hills and uplands, and for encouraging cooperation among farmers.

"The problem of the small farm has never been comprehensively tackled in this country before, although much has been done abroad. We have far too many farmers trying to win a reasonable living from insufficient land. Many of them cannot hope to earn for themselves and their families an income in keeping with modern standards if they are dependent solely on farming. We want to help these men. It would be neither in their own long-term interests, nor could the nation afford it, if we were merely to try and boost their incomes artificially by higher subsidies. We want to attack at its roots this problem of too little land providing too small a business, giving too poor an income.

"We are going to tackle this problem in various ways. First, we shall help the man who can get more land to develop his farm to a satisfactory size and equip it properly. We shall give generous grants for the necessary remodelling works and other costs, and we are exploring ways of helping over credit for land purchase.

"Second, we shall give financial help to the man who wants to give up an uncommercial holding by selling it either privately or to the State for approved amalgamation. This help will take the form of grants to aid resettlement, or annuities to aid retirement. I should stress that we aim to let the fanner who retires in this way stay on in his own farmhouse if he so wishes.

"Third, we shall give help through a series of grants to those who wish to co-operate together to get some of the advantages of a bigger-size business. We are for the first time providing grants to stimulate cooperation in production, for example of a uniform product to be sold on contract. We propose to set up a Central Council to administer these grants for farming and horticultural co-operation and to provide the necessary purposeful drive.

"The small farm presents a particularly acute problem in the hills and uplands where there is also a need to plan the integrated development of agriculture and forestry together with related uses such as recreation and tourism. All past reports on this problem have stressed the need for a body which can promote and co-ordinate such rural development. We propose to do this by setting up Rural Developments Boards, to start with in a few selected areas. The Boards, which will include people with local knowledge, will have a variety of powers to help them carry out their programme of rural development. They will work with, and through, the people and the authorities already in the area, including the Regional Economic Planning Councils and Boards. In addition, we propose to reaffirm our belief in the vital agricultural rôle of the hills and uplands as a reservoir for breeding stock by re-enacting the hill cow and hill sheep subsidies on a long-term basis. We also intend to introduce a new scheme of capital grants for land improvements of a kind particularly important in hill and upland farming.

"Finally, the Farm Improvement Scheme which has done so much for the modernisation of our farms, particularly by helping the industry to save labour, will be extended on lines similar to the present.

"The second White Paper deals with the Meat and Livestock Commission. There is a vital need to improve the marketing arrangements for agricultural produce in this country. One of the most important products, to both the housewife and the farmer, is meat. The White Paper sets out our conclusions, after discussions with the main organisations concerned, on how the marketing of meat and livestock should be improved.

"The improvements required touch all sectors of the industry, and are interrelated. We have concluded that a single body of independent persons, a Meat and Livestock Commission, should be set up to bring them about. Its responsibilities would extend over Great Britain, and the funds for its work would come mainly from levies on animals slaughtered for meat. It would be assisted by a number of advisory committees which would be representative of consumers, producers and the trade.

"The functions of the Commission will extend all the way from the farm to the retail shop. On the farm the Commission will be closely concerned with livestock improvement. It will also help the farmer to improve his marketing of fatstock in various ways such as assisting the placing of contracts, and collecting the disseminating market intelligence. The Commission will act for the Government in certifying fatstock for the guarantee, although the Government will remain responsible for its level and the conditions of eligibility. Next, the Commission will aim to improve slaughtering and wholesale distribution, notably through the introduction of a carcase classification scheme and by giving expert advice to the industry on the efficient construction of slaughterhouses and improved techniques of slaughtering. It will work towards improved presentation in the retail shop and could help to promote the sale of home produced meat. It will also promote and co-ordinate research. Lastly, the Government would look to the Commission for advice on the level of current and prospective supplies at home and abroad.

"The Commission may in future find that some further step by way of regulation, reorganisation or development is needed to serve the interests of the industry and the nation. We therefore propose that it should be empowered, after consulting the interests concerned, to promote schemes for this purpose. Any such scheme would be subject to approval by Parliament.

"The need for such a Commission is urgent. We therefore intend that it should he established as soon as possible and expect it to bring benefit through its work to consumers, producers, and the trade alike."

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, for repeating this Statement, which is an extremely important one. At the outset, I would congratulate Her Majesty's Government on being prepared to continue the Farm Improvement Scheme grants, which I think have done almost more than anything else to modernise agriculture. But, having said that, I must address a word of protest to the noble Lord that his Government should produce two White Papers of such importance to agriculture twenty-four hours before the House rises for the Recess, which gives no time at all for consideration or political expression.

A whole fund of questions jumps to one's mind, which I will try to prune out as best I can. But I am bound to ask the noble Lord one or two questions on so important a Statement. He has said, for the first time, that the Government are virtually going to offer small farmers some form of assistance—a golden pitchfork—to encourage them to get out of their farms. I would ask the noble Lord: what are the sizes and the extent of the grants and annuities to which he refers? If a farmer is to give up his farm by encouragement, how much is he going to he paid for it? What are the limits of eligibility? Is it going to be by the acreage of a farm or by the amount of man-days that a farm uses? And having got rid of his farm to the State, if he wishes to do it that way as opposed to disposing of it to a private individual, who is going to run the farm? I understand that the State will keep the farm for a period, but until it is relet, who runs it? And is it going to be relet or resold? Is the State going to hold on to this land until it is let, or for good?

As to the second White Paper, the Meat and Livestock Commission seem to be given fairly extensive powers. I assume that they are going to be more than advisory powers, as the noble Lord said that they would reach from the farm right down to the retail shop. Can the noble Lord say whether trading is going to be a function of the Commission? Are they going to buy and sell meat? Can he also explain what is the further step which may require to be taken by the Commission—does this refer to reserve buying powers for the Commission to buy meat when the prices temporarily drop? I should be grateful if the noble Lord could give an answer to at least some of these questions, because I feel that they are of great importance.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I just say from these Benches that we thank the noble Lord for his Statement but that we are not grateful to him. For my part, I think it is far too long, one of the longest we have ever had in this House, and it seems unnecessary, because there are two White Papers already in the Printed Paper Office which we can read for ourselves. I doubt whether any noble Lord can possibly have taken in what has been said in such a way that he can make an intelligent assessment of it. I beg the Government, please, not to interpose an agricultural debate into an afternoon when another subject is on the Order Paper.


My Lords, in trying to understand some of the things the noble Lord has said in his Statement, am I to gather that the policy of the Government now is to get rid of small farms as such and, certainly in the Principality of Wales, to see them disappear altogether?


My Lords, before my noble friend replies, may I ask, on the second Statement, whether the Commission will have power with regard to the co-ordination of overseas supplies and holding supplies? It does not seem to me to be clear in the Statement whether that comes within the scope of the Commission. May I further ask whether the Commission will now have power in their hands to establish factory abattoirs?


My Lords, may I ask whether all this long catalogue of powers which the noble Lord read out requires legislation and, if not, which of them can begin without legislation? Do the Government intend to draft this legislation before either House of Parliament has had a chance of debating the White Papers? Because if so, it seems a quite intolerable step. With regard to the Boards, under which Department are they to operate—under the Ministry of Agriculture or under the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, which may seem more appropriate? The Minister of Agriculture in another place referred to the pre-emption of land. This is something very serious, and I hope that the noble Lord can tell us a little more about it. This word "pre-emption" can mean anything or nothing.


My Lords, can the noble Lord make clear whether this applies to Scotland?


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that there is considerable apprehension amoung the members of the staff of the Pig Industry Development Authority about the continuation of their employment? Could he give an assurance that the employment of the staff of the Authority will be continued under the Meat Commission, under terms no less generous than those they have at the present time? I welcome the Minister's reference in the Statement to the fact that the Meat Commission will continue to be an agent for research. May I remind him that while purely scientific research is best done by bodies such as the Agricultural Research Council, applied and technical research can be more immediately and more efficiently done by a body such as the Commission?


My Lords, I have had a number of questions and I will try to keep my answers as brief as possible. I must admit that I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, about the length of this Statement. Of course, this is already decided and I am merely repeating a Statement prepared for another place. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, complained of its being presented so late. I can only say that the noble Earl will have the whole of the Recess to read the White Papers and master their details, and, if he wishes, I am fairly sure that we shall be able to have an opportunity to debate these Papers after the Recess. The noble Earl asked what were the grants that were going to be made and said: "Are they going to be sufficient to provide a golden pitchfork?" We do not regard them as a golden pitchfork, which would be an implement for prodding people out, but rather as golden roller skates, for helping them out. The noble Lord will find the amounts in the White Paper, and I do not think your Lordships will expect me to read them out now, particularly in the middle of this debate. This also applies to the limits of eligibility, which the noble Lord will find set out in full in the White Paper.

The noble Earl also asked me how much of this land will be taken over by the State. I would say that very little or none will be taken over by the State, excepting some little bit that may be taken over by the Boards that are to be set up. But certainly it is not the Government's intention to take over and hold land permanently. What we shall do as soon as possible, if we cannot amalgamate it with another farm straight away, is to let it until such time as we can amalgamate it.

The noble Lord also asked, on the Meat Marketing Commission, whether trading is to be a function of the Meat and Livestock Commission. No, my Lords: trading is not going to be a function of the Commission. This applies, to some extent, to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Royle. The Commission will be advisory; they will be helpful, and they will conduct research in some of the fields already covered by P.I.D.A., the body mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Balerno. And in answer to Lord Balerno's question, I must say that the intention is to integrate this body; and I am sure the Commission will be happy to have the experience which resides in the body of people who have up to now served P.I.D.A. so well.

The noble Lord asked me what further steps might be taken by the Meat and Livestock Commission. It is for the Commission themselves to decide, first of all, whether they think some further powers are necessary, or some further suggestions should be made. If they consider that this would be advisable, they then must prepare a scheme, discuss it and present it to the Minister; and the Minister can secure the scheme finally only by the consent of both Houses of Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Brecon, asked me a question which clearly comes up in the mind of everybody who knows small farms, farmers and so on. No; it is not our intention to pitchfork out of business a small farmer who does not want to go. What we are trying to do is to ensure that the farmers shall agree to remain, and that they shall have a reasonable livelihood based upon a farm that will support them. That is really what we are doing here. We are certainly not going to take compulsory powers to push any farmer out of business who is content with a comparatively small income and the way of life that he has chosen.

So far as the question of my noble friend Lord Royle is concerned, it will not be for this Commission to co-ordinate overseas and home buying. Final decisions as to imports, and so on, must be taken by the Government, and not by an independent body such as this is going to be. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, asked me whether legislation would be drafted before consultation. These are proposals in this White Paper. They have been informally discussed with the bodies concerned. Now there will be formal consultation—


My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord unnecessarily, but I am afraid he has misunderstood me. Clearly there should be consultation with the interests involved, but it was a debate in Parliament about which I was asking.


That is a matter for the House to decide, and, as I indicated to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, it will be, to some extent, for the Opposition to decide whether we debate these White Papers. I believe they are of sufficient importance to justify a debate in this House before legislation is finally agreed.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, asked me about Scotland, and certainly these proposals cover Scotland equally with the rest of the United Kingdom. I think I have answered all the questions, and I am sorry to have detained your Lordships for so long. I hope that we may now revert to the financial discussion.


My Lords, could my noble friend say what further financial aid will accrue to the small farmers? Could he say what consultations the Minister has had on these proposals with the National Farmers' Union and other interests concerned? Is the financial aid not good redundancy payments, if there is a merger of small farms?


I am afraid I did not get the last point put by my noble friend. There have, of course, been consultations at every stage of the preparation of these White Papers and the presentation of this Statement to-day. But they have been, as I said just now, on an informal basis. After these White Papers have been laid, the consultations will then proceed on a formal basis on all the aspects, including the financial assistance to small farmers.


My Lords, as my noble friend—


Order, order. Byers, Byers.


My Lords, I hesitate to-day to interrupt anybody at all, in view of what was said earlier about my compulsive interruption, but I wonder whether my noble friend would not feel that this discussion has gone far enough for the moment.


My Lords, it was only the fact that my noble friend said that he did not hear the last part of my question that caused me to rise. What I said was: is the financial aid not good redundancy payment for redundant farmers to make bigger units?


The intention is that it will help farmers who are not really able to get a decent living on the small farms.