HL Deb 17 May 1966 vol 274 cc893-8

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, when the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was speaking on the British Wool Marketing Scheme he said that many of the Orders which come before your Lordships' House are straightforward. I think that this Order is in that category. I hope that, in moving that the Order be approved, I may be forgiven if I do not find it necessary to go fully into the background of the Scheme, which, after all, is an annual one which has been regularly debated in your Lordships' House for a number of years. I hope that it will also be acceptable to the House if the remarks which I make on this Scheme can be taken as applying equally to the Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme 1966, which is virtually identical.

The main change we are proposing this year is a reduction in the rate of the Part I grant from £5 an acre to £2 10s. an acre. As we explained in the White Paper on the 1966 Price Review, we are reducing this grant because changing methods of grassland management and arable husbandry have made it unnecessary to continue to provide so large an incentive to ley farming. We do not propose at present to make any change in the rate of grant under Part II of the Scheme which, noble Lords will recall, provides for a payment of £12 an acre towards the cost of ploughing old grassland, where the expenses are significantly higher than in normal ploughing I should, however, draw attention to some minor changes which we have made to this part of the Scheme. First, we have made it clear that any expenses incurred in clearing and other preparatory work may be taken into account in addition to the cost of ploughing in assessing eligibility for grant. It has always been our practice to do this, but we want to remove any doubts on this score so that we can ensure that these preparatory works are properly carried out before grant is paid.

The second change we have made is to allow an approval given under the 1965 Scheme to remain valid for the 1966 Scheme if the farmer is unable to complete the ploughing before 31st May, 1966. The reason for this is that reclamation work of this kind must often be spread over two years or more, but of course any approval given under the Scheme ceases to be valid when the Scheme itself expires on 31st May. In the past, this has meant that if a farmer who has been given approval to plough under Part II of the Scheme has not completed the ploughing by 31st May he has had to apply for a fresh approval under the following year's Scheme. This is time wasting and annoying, and I am sure that the amendment which we have made will be welcomed by those farmers who take part in this Scheme. My Lords, I think it is generally agreed that these grants play a useful part in our agricultural support arrangements. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Ploughing Grants Scheme 1966, laid before the House on May 4, 1966, be approved.—(Lord Hughes.)

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I want to make it quite clear that I am the last person who would say that any grant should not go to farmers. They are at present hard pressed, and their incomes of people in other industries. But what I object to is that this grant is really a fraud and a deception. It is not an honest grant, but purely one of the aids to keeping down the cost of food. It is merely a convenient way of getting money into the merely a convenient way of getting money into the farmer's pocket so that the price of food can be kept down for the housewife.

When this grant was introduced as a result of the Agricultural Ploughing Act 1952, it was perfectly honest—it was an excellent grant in every way—because the cry then was for maximum production. Now it is very different. Agriculture is being asked for economic production, not maximum production. It is often not economic, or the best husbandry, to plough grass which has been down for only three years. Surely it is making a mockery of government if Her Majesty's Government, by encouraging a practice that is not economic or even good husbandry, introduce or continue a grant such as the ploughing grant. Of course, with present agricultural policy the farmer must get the money by some means, but do not encourage him to do something that it not only wrong but deceives the public of the intention of the grant. Why not base the grant on an acreage basis, and call it something like the "consumer subsidy grant", or the "cheap food grant", and then there will be some purpose in it? The grant as it stands is merely deception, and it is high time that the Government became honest about this.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, there is much to welcome in this Order. It was almost inevitable that there would be some reduction in the grant under Part I of the Scheme, but I would draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, to a fact of which probably he is aware, but to which I think more recognition should be given; that is, that there are in Scotland large areas of agricultural land which are remote and have a particularly adverse climate. In such areas more help is required. In some respects, the remoteness factor is being met by a more generous treatment of the farmer under Part II of the Scheme, which, of course, does not in any way benefit the farmer who is operating on the better lands, the low-lying lands of Scotland, and those which are nearer the market.

I would ask that the operation of subparagraph (2) of paragraph 6 should be very liberally interpreted: in other words, that this more liberal interpretation of Part II should be continued throughout. Undoubtedly the cut in the ploughing grant and the lime subsidy is viewed by many farmers with alarm and dismay, but one must recognise that, from the point of view of grassland intensive farming, a reduction was almost inevitable. As a farmer doing intensive grassland, no longer growing any cereal, I can, without any prejudice or self-interest, press for the more generous treatment of those farmers in the more remote areas with a very adverse climate.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for introducing this Order. He began by saying that he hoped that this would be considered as a normal Order. I suppose it is true to say that the form of the Order is normal, but it is abnormal in that it cuts the subsidy by 50 per cent. I would not necessarily pick a quarrel with that, but I wonder whether the subsidy of £2 10s. an acre will offer any incentive to farmers to plough up their lands—and that is, presumably, the purpose of the subsidy.

I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, would like to indulge in a little crystal-gazing and say whether he considers that in the next year the subsidy on ploughing grants might be cut yet further, or even annihilated. Indeed, if he were to say so, I would think he would find that at least my noble friend Lord Forbes would be supporting him. But whether or not the £2 10s. an acre subsidy is cut any further, I am glad to see that the Government have retained the £12 an acre ploughing-up grant, because this, I think, serves a useful purpose and is a strong incentive. Personally, I doubt whether £2 10s. an acre is any incentive at all.

Could the noble Lord tell us how many acres, or how much cost, was involved in the last year for which he has the figures, both for the £5-an-acre grant and for the £12-an-acre grant? If so, I think it would be useful information. The noble Lord concluded by saying that he considered that this grant was useful to agriculture. I think it probably is. The only thing is that now it will be half as useful as it was before.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all answer the question put by the noble Earl on the subject of acreage and costs? In the financial year 1965–66, in the United Kingdom as a whole, over 1¼ million acres of grassland was ploughed under Part I of the Scheme, attracting just under £7 million in grants. Of this total 59 per cent. went to England, 23 per cent. to Scotland, 9 per cent. to Northern Ireland and 9 per cent. to Wales. The sum paid under Part II grants is, of course, very much smaller, and amounted during the same period to £610,000, in respect of 54,000 acres.

The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, spoke particularly about the remote areas of Scotland requiring more generous treatment because of climatic and other conditions. I do not know whether I am in order in suggesting that climatic conditions are necessarily one of the conditions to be borne particularly in mind in relation to this grant. I have no doubt, however, in giving the noble Lord the assurance that the interpretation of sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 6 will continue to be interpreted in the liberal way that has been applied throughout the operation of Part II of this Scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Forbes, took a rather unusual line in relation to this Order and, of course, it was none the worse for being different from that taken by everybody else. Having regard to the fact that not so long ago the noble Lord was himself a Minister with an interest in these matters, I wonder whether he has any particular period in mind at which this grant ceased to be honest and became dishonest, because I think the whole purpose of the grant from the beginning was to help the farmer in the best possible way to give food to the British housewife at the cheapest possible cost.


My Lords, to begin with the point of the grant was maximum production, and that has changed now to economic production. That is the crux of the whole matter. If the noble Lord is trying to argue that this grant has been going on for a very long time, I would merely say that two wrongs do not make a right.


I am not trying to argue anything of the kind. I was merely wondering, in my innocent Scottish way, at what point what was once honest became dishonest. It may be that if this had been a question of marriage, the noble Lord would have taken the normal Scottish procedure: that if a man and a woman live together in the beginning it is not particularly honest, but if they do it long enough in Scotland it becomes honest. Perhaps the grant may have been regarded in this way. He is reversing the process.

I think I am entitled to say that the Order has been generally welcomed by noble Lords, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, and apart from the point made by the noble Earl that the Order is not normal in that we cut the grant by 50 per cent. That is perfectly true. But percentages can be very misleading. I should prefer to say that on this occasion we are reducing the grant by £2 10s. an acre. The last time it was reduced by the previous Government it was reduced by £2 an acre. There is not very much difference, and I am quite certain that no one in your Lordships' House would wish to fall out with me over 10s. an acre.

On Question, Motion agreed to.