HL Deb 21 May 1971 vol 319 cc753-6

12.42 p.m.

LORD DENHAM

My Lords, I beg to move. That the Draft Fertilisers (United Kingdom) Scheme 1971, laid before the House on April 21, be approved. The purpose of the Order is continue for a further year from June 1, 1971 to May 31, 1972, the fertiliser subsidy scheme at the current rates. They are now expressed in decimal terms, of course. The proposal is in accordance with the decision taken at this year's Annual Review.

The House will be generally familiar with the history and background of the fertiliser subsidy scheme, but it may be helpful if I briefly remind noble Lords of the salient features. Schemes similar to the one now proposed have been in operation continuously since 1952. They have provided for subsidy based on the nitrogen and phosphoric acid content of all inorganic fertilisers used in agriculture. It may be an indication of their success that since the first scheme was introduced consumption has more than doubled. It has never been thought desirable to subsidise the third important plant food—potash▀×all of which is imported and which, in any case, is by far the cheapest of the three main nutrients. There is no evidence, however, that the absence of subsidy has inhibited the use of potash, which has doubled during the life of the schemes. Nor is it administratively practicable to Vol. 319 subsidise organic fertilisers, which vary enormously in nutrient content.

During the 1950s, increases in the rates of subsidy and in consumption of fertilisers had, by 1959, brought the annual cost of the subsidy to £30 million. It was clear that the expansion in the use of fertilisers was gathering momentum. At the same time, prices were beginning to fall. Since 1960, therefore, it has been the practice to adjust the rates of subsidy from time to time, so as to keep the annual cost within reasonable bounds. The one-year increase in fertiliser subsidy from March 19, 1970, was introduced following the 1970 Annual Review as a means of injecting an additional £9 million capital into the agricultural industry in a way which would benefit the great majority of farmers. The decision did not indicate a departure from the general policy of containing the cost of fertiliser subsidy. From March 19, 1971, the subsidy rates reverted to the previous levels.

The general upward trend in consumption has continued, with some setbacks, throughout the past decade. I have little doubt that most farmers are now fully aware of the importance of inorganic fertilisers to their industry. Nevertheless, there is room for further expansion in their use, particularly on grassland. Although the subsidy is only one of the many factors affecting consumption, I hope the House will agree that the Scheme should be continued for a further year with subsidy at the current rate, as proposed in the Draft Order now presented for the approval of the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Fertilisers (United Kingdom) Scheme 1971, laid before the House on April 21, be approved. —(Lord Denham.)

12.44 p.m.

LORD CHAMPION

My Lords, this is one of the forms of subsidy to agriculture with which I am in complete agreement. It is one of those subsidies which bring a handsome return to the economy as a whole via agriculture. I must admit that I was in some little doubt about this when one of my noble friends said to me, " Would you mind looking after this Order? It is about mushrooms and fertilisers." Knowing that the expenditure was about £30 million a year, or a little more, I thought that in future if ever I ate a mushroom it would have a heart of gold. Clearly, the Scheme extends to the whole of the land upon which the fertiliser will be used. I welcome the Scheme entirely, especially the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, that the general use is on the up-turn. I think that that is right.

I am sure that he is correct about the grassland. It is a feature of our agriculture which I always feel is rather sadly neglected, that we do not get full value for the grassland in this country where we can grow grass so well. If we can do nothing else we can grow grass, provided that we fertilise it and look after it properly and do not think merely that it will always be there and provide a useful return without our doing anything about feeding it. Feeding it is the point of this subsidy. I certainly welcome this Scheme, and sincerely hope that the Minister's prognostication that there will be an increased use of and more money spent on this aspect will be borne out.

LORD DENHAM

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, for his welcome to the Order. I would only say that, although the entire £32 million, which is the approximate cost—it has marginally risen—will not be spent wholly on mushrooms, mushrooms are of course included in the general scheme. I am grateful to the noble Lord.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at thirteen minutes before one o'clock.