HL Deb 15 December 1970 vol 313 cc1329-35

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting and, I think, useful debate on the Farm Capital Grant Schemes. I should like now to direct the attention of the House to their horticultural counterpart. I beg to move that the draft Horticulture Improvement Scheme 1970, laid before the House on December 1, be approved. This is the fourth Horticulture Improvement Scheme. Each Scheme in its time has made a valuable contribution to the development of the horticultural industry.

Since the first Scheme was introduced in 1960, improvement schemes to the value of .70 million have been approved for grant. Since January, 1965, over a thousand acres of new glass has been erected in England and Wales, and there has been a 9 per cent. increase in the area of heated glass, with continuing gains in the use of fully automatic systems for the control of temperature and irrigation in glasshouses. By any standards this amounts to very substantial progress in the modernisation of the glasshouse industry in this country; but the glasshouse sector is not of course the only one to benefit from the Schemes. Fruit growers, in particular, have taken advantage of the assistance that is available for the provision and improvement of temperature-controlled stores, for which works lo the value of nearly .2 million have been approved in England and Wales during the last four years for grant under the 1966 Scheme—a development of very great value in lengthening the marketing season for home grown fruit.

Grant has also been approved under the 1966 Scheme on investments totalling three-quarters of a million pounds for plant and equipment to control pests and diseases on fruit growing holdings, nearly half a million pounds on fork-lift machinery and other equipment for the movement of produce and materials, and .379,000 on grading equipment. The vegetable sector has been no less active, particularly in the provision of harvesting equipment, of equipment for grading produce and preparing it for market, and in equipment for pest and disease control; and the growers of hardy nursery stock have invested quite considerable sums in stores and packing sheds and other buildings and in harvesting equipment. These are, of course, only a few of the items which can qualify for grant. But, broadly speaking, they are where most of the money has gone, and I think that noble Lords will share my satisfaction at this evidence that growers are devoting a very particular part of their attention and resources to ways of improving the handling and marketing of their produce, as well as to the primary operations of actually growing it.

It is, then, against the background of an industry which is constantly progressing, increasing its productivity and making a substantial investment in its own future that I take pleasure in introducing this new Scheme, which continues and furthers the basic policy of encouraging and assisting the horticultural industry to increase its competitive efficiency. The Scheme does not introduce any major shift in policy. Rather it is designed to make life a little easier for the growers who apply for grant, and to streamline the official procedures for dealing with the applications, though it also introduces some new items which recent experience has suggested should be made eligible for grant.

The aim has been to cut out unnecessary restrictions, to reduce paperwork and, within the limits of the eligible facilities listed in the Schedule to the Scheme, to leave it to growers to make their own investment decisions without having to satisfy officials that investment will be worth while. In the same spirit, we are dropping the former requirement that the applicant must provide evidence that he has sufficient security of tenure to make it worth his while to invest in the proposed improvement. This again is something he will obviously consider himself, and the responsibility for the decision is, and should be, his own.

When the new Scheme comes into operation, we shall also modify the administrative requirements relating to the prior approval of expenditure on plant and machinery. Hitherto, grant has been payable only where the applicant has had prior approval, in writing, for the expenditure on which he wishes to claim grant. We propose to introduce simpler arrangements which will allow growers to claim grant on their investments in plant and machinery without going through all the arrangements for seeking prior approval which have applied in the past. I should emphasise that this applies only to plant and machinery; but these items are of course of particular importance to horticulturists. Prior approval will still be needed where expenditure is to be incurred on improvements to land, or on building works, or on the provision of services for buildings. With these more long-term, and usually more costly, improvements it is necessary to make sure that their construction is technically sound, and that any safety or amenity considerations have received full attention.

In drawing up this new and simpler Scheme, we have taken the opportunity to drop the provision allowing grant to be paid by instalments. It was very little used, apart from the grants made to horticultural co-operatives which now qualify under the Co-operation Scheme, and for which therefore provision is no longer made under the Horticulture Improvement Scheme. Lastly, we have taken the opportunity to bring up to date the list of items eligible for grant. None of the items covered by the 1966 Scheme is being withdrawn, but a number of new items have been added, to bring the Scheme into line with advances in horticultural practice during the last four years. Under the new Scheme, the grower will, for instance, be able to claim grant on structures of approved design for cladding with film plastic, together with the necessary equipment to furnish these structures; on some new items for use in the mechanised bulk handling of produce, and on plant and equipment for pre-packaging.

There has been full consultation with the unions over the changes proposed, and I have no hesitation in saying that the new provisions will be welcomed by the horticultural industry and will contribute to the industry's efficiency. It is as important now as it ever was in the past for growers to provide themselves with the best and most up-to-date equipment that is available. The new Horticulture Improvement Scheme both frees them from past restrictions and reflects the most recent developments in horticultural practice. I confidently commend the Scheme to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Draft Horticulture Improvement Scheme 1970, laid before the House on December 1, be approved. (Lord Denham.)

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord need not have apologised for answering at some length points put in the last debate. They were important. We are grateful to the noble Lord for taking this trouble to secure the necessary answers to the points that we put to him then. I was going to raise something of the same sort of thing in connection with this Scheme—namely, the removal of restrictions on applications and the way in which they are made—but I am bound to say that the noble Lord has convinced me that the Ministry have good answers to the points that I made in connection with the other Schemes.

We are grateful to the noble Lord for his report on past Schemes related to this important industry. I think it shows the value of those Schemes and the advantage that has been taken of them by the horticultural industry. Generally, I welcome the additions that have been made under this Order to the previous items that were available for the grant. I think this is right. If I do not make a long speech on this Order, I hope no one will think that I am not interested in the horticultural industry or that the Opposition are not so interested. Indeed we are. We think that this Order is absolutely right, and for this reason, we give it a welcome.


My Lords, I should be the last person to look a gift horse in the mouth. I learn that this is the fourth Horticultural Grants Scheme, and therefore one assumes that they are doing a lot of good. The object of such Schemes must be to produce more and better produce and, so far as the consumer is concerned, to produce it at less cost. I should like to know whether the noble Lord can give us, in addition to the figures that he quoted, of over a thousand acres more under glass, and various other impressive facts, any evidence that as a result of the Horticultural Grants Scheme the grower is producing more or that the housewife is able to buy more cheaply. I very much doubt it. Therefore I would ask why we go on with these Schemes, improving them, and making it, as he said, somewhat easier for the grower to get the money, unless we are convinced that they are doing what they are basically required to do; that is, to produce more at less cost.

I think it was a good apple year this year, and again we had the spectacle of large quantities of apples being, if not given away, certainly thrown away. With lettuce, we have again seen them being sold in the market at virtually give-away prices, yet high prices are still charged in the shops. I do not believe that the full benefit of this Scheme, in a national sense, will ever come about until the Government make up their mind that they must have a proper central scheme of distribution. I hope the noble Lord will not regard me as in any way dissenting from the general support given by my noble friend Lord Champion, but perhaps he will try to provide answers to these questions, which I submit are by no means unimportant.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to say one or two words on horticulture, having refrained from taking part in the agricultural discussions this afternoon. I would pay tribute to the noble Lord who introduced this Scheme, because, after all, he is saying that we now have, as a result of past policies, a thousand acres of new glass in the horticultural industry. If one can claim some little credit for this, it is a tribute to the previous Government. Horticulture was planned (if I may say this to my noble friend who has just spoken) so that it would be able to hold its own competitively with any other country. I should also like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the Apple and Pear Development Council, because in this respect I cannot think of any other section of the horticultural industry which has done such a good job in promoting the sale of British apples and pears. And a tribute is due to Sir Richard Boughey and his committee for the work they have done in this respect.

I am pleased to know that the procedure is to be streamlined. We had hoped to do that, and I am certain that the noble Lord who is now carrying it out was aware of the success of the plans that were made before the present Government took office. I did not quite understand his statement that horticulture could go on and make changes without proving that they were a worthwhile investment. This seemed to me to be a little peculiar, and I should like the noble Lord to explain what he means. Does it mean that any horticulturist can decide to adopt a certain line of action, with Government money involved, and that no Government official or anyone else will have anything to say whether it proves profitable or not; that the decision will just depend on the horticulturist, and that the Government will then be expected to pay their share of the money? That seems to me to be an extraordinary statement. I may not have heard the noble Lord correctly. Perhaps when he replies he can tell me whether that is what he said, because I regard it as somewhat peculiar that anyone can go on spending public money without any responsibility shown to the Government of the day.

The noble Lord went on to say that in respect of plant and machinery regard would not be paid to the old rule of prior approval. I always understood when I was at the Ministry—and I was there for a long time—that before anyone invested money in plant and machinery it ought to be proved that it was going to do good to the person making the application, to the industry, and, eventually, as my noble friend said, to the consumer, and also that they had to prove that it was going to be worth while. What the noble Lord has said seems to be contradictions of all that has gone before. There may be very good reasons for it, but if that is so then the noble Lord ought to spell out what the reasons are. I am not objecting to them, because I do not know what they are, but before we give approval to them I hope that the noble Lord will give an explanation to your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I am again most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, for the welcome he has given to this Order. I am most grateful, also, for the constructive criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, and the noble Lord, Lord Hoy. Basically, I think the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, and the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, were really making the same point: we are paying out this money; are we getting anything for it? In the opinion of my right honourable friend and Her Majesty's Government we are.


My Lords, I was not saying that. I was convinced that we were getting a return for our investment. I was questioning the changes by which people were allowed to invest without approval of any kind. I wanted to know the reason for the change.


My Lords, if I may direct the first part of my remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, these Schemes are intended to encourage increased efficiency, and growers' readiness to invest in capital equipment is surely evidence that they are doing so. Investment in improvements in preparing produce for the market is eligible for grant, and we all know the disadvantages suffered by apple producers when there is a particularly good year. Her Majesty's Government are confident that these schemes are not only worth while, but absolutely vital to horticulturists and to the country.

I hope I can satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Hoy. It was the last Administration who paved the way for the withdrawal of the worthwhileness test by an Amendment which they themselves made in the Agriculture Act 1970. Under earlier Schemes the Minister had to be satisfied that the cost of carrying out approved proposals was not unreasonably high in relation to the benefit derived from them in carrying on the business. Provision for this test of cost-benefit was contained in Section 1(4) of the Horticultural Act 1960, now repealed by Section 31 of the 1970 Act. In considering the rationalisation of the capital grant schemes it was concluded that the decision as to whether or not investment was worth while for the farm business could now reasonably be left to the farmer or grower himself. He would be contributing the major part of the cost; and advice is obtainable from the advisory service. My Lords, I may not have quite satisfied the noble Lord, but I hope that I have gone a little way.

On Question, Motion agreed to.