§ 4.55 p.m.
§ LORD HILTON OF UPTON
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Beswick, I beg to move that the Ploughing Grants Scheme 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on April 21, 1970, be approved. I trust that it will be acceptable when dealing with this Order to deal also with the Ploughing Grants (Scotland) Scheme 1970. Noble Lords are already familiar with these Schemes, which provide grants for ploughing up grassland which is at least twelve years old, where the cost of the work required to bring it into a satisfactory state for cropping is substantially heavier than normal. Our aim is to encourage farmers to improve the condition of suitable land. The acreage recouped in this way helps to counterbalance the agricultural land lost each year to non-agricultural development.
The provisions of the Schemes are virtually unchanged from previous years, but this is probably the last time that 456 we shall see an annual Ploughing Grants Scheme in its familiar form. As the House will be aware from the proceedings on the Agriculture Bill, it is proposed to simplify certain of the agricultural grants, and the Farm Capital Grants Scheme, to be introduced later this year, will include provisions for ploughing up grassland. Arrangements will be made to close the Ploughing Grants Schemes to new applicants from this date. I trust that your Lordships will accept that this grant encourages the effective use of agricultural resources, and will agree to the approval of these Schemes. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Draft Ploughing Grants Scheme 1970 laid before the House on April 21, 1970, be approved.—(Lord Hilton of Upton.)
§ LORD BELSTEAD
My Lords, at a time when the cereals acreage is declining, the continuation of this grant is certainly welcome. However, the rate at which this grant remains, £12 per acre, is not quite so welcome. Costs have recently risen enormously. Your Lordships will remember from the Agriculture Bill that the tractor grant is to be done away with completely, although tractor prices have recently gone up. The Government will probably agree that the proof of the pudding in an Order like this lies in the results achieved. Therefore, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Hilton of Upton, whether the Government have any details of the amount of grant-aided land under this Order which is drilled with cereals? I realise that the answer to this question may be that it is a fairly small amount.
May I also ask whether the Government feel that the 32,000 acres which this grant covered last year is a really satisfactory target? The noble Lord, Lord Hilton, has told us that 50,000 acres are taken out of agricultural production each year, and many of us genuinely wonder how the Government's own agricultural expansion programme is going to succeed. I do not want to seem unreasonable; obviously, in a small island no Government policy can replace 50,000 acres indefinitely. But the Economic Development Council Report, published only in March, reported progress for the Government in rather arresting terms. It stated that the expansion of arable acreage 457 needed for the Government's targets had not yet begun. It would seem that there is a disparity under this Order between the 32,000 acres which are brought back into production and the 50,000 acres which are taken out of production.
Finally, several questions were asked in another place about ancillary work; either that which is grant-aidable, such as the chemical preparation of land, or that, such as proper drainage, which has to be undertaken in some cases because the grant will not otherwise be given. May I ask whether, in order to get these grants, there must be not only permission to proceed, but also inspection preceding the work? If that is so, I should have thought there might be factors of which some applicants were unsure before they went ahead with ploughing under this Order. With those few questions, I most certainly support this Older and the continuation of this grant.
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Hilton, replies to those few questions, I wonder whether I may make a comment. On the Committee stage of the Agriculture Bill I said on one occasion that I thought the ploughing grant of £3 an acre which used to be paid was a perfectly absurd grant and that I was glad to see it done away with. I do not think the same comment would apply to the £12 an acre grant, because its object is to bring into production and cultivation land which has previously not been properly used; therefore this does help agriculture as a whole to become more efficient. I wonder whether the noble Lord would be kind enough to give us some indication how this grant has been used. I believe that in the last year 32,000 acres were grant-aidable under this scheme, but is this a declining figure or has it always been a fairly substantial figure?
Can the noble Lord also say whether the land which has been brought into cultivation has, on the whole, been used properly, and therefore has been of benefit to agriculture as a whole, or has the opportunity to claim a £12 an acre grant merely been taken, the grass re-seeded and then allowed to go back into relative desuetude? If the noble Lord could answer those questions I should be grateful. Can he also confirm that when this scheme comes to an end the new farm 458 improvement grants will cover what this scheme has up to now covered?
§ LORD HILTON OF UPTON
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the way in which they have supported the introduction or the reintroduction of these grants. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, as usual, asked a number of very interesting questions. I cannot at the moment give answers to some of them, but I will write to him with the full information for which he has asked. He asked, however, about cereals acreage, in view of the fact, as he said, that costs have gone up—and that is true. As to the acreage, I cannot let him have the full facts now, but I will write to him.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, reminded us that he had criticised the grant of £3 per acre which was formerly given but that he does not criticise this particular grant, and that is not surprising. As I said in my opening speech, although the provisions of this scheme are virtually unchanged from those in previous years and this is probably the last time we shall see an annual ploughing grant scheme in its familiar form, the House will be aware from the proceedings on the Agriculture Bill that it is proposed to simplify certain of the agricultural grants—and really I am repeating now what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said a moment ago. The farm capital grants scheme, to be introduced later this year, will include provisions for ploughing up grassland, and arrangements will be made to close the ploughing grants scheme to new applicants from that date. If I have not replied fully to the questions put to me, I promise to write to both noble Lords with the information they need. With that, I commend this Order to your Lordships.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.