HL Deb 16 January 1974 vol 348 cc981-1005

4.17 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I think we might now resume the debate on the position of hill farming. It is true that we are running a little behind time, but at least the time we have just spent will not be taken out of the time allocated to this debate. We are extremely indebted to my noble friend Lord Maelor for introducing this debate, and I am certain that we were all interested to hear his analysis of soil values in the uplands of Wales. I thought he went just a little too far when he said that the Aberdeen Angus has been coming down in size. This was not due to soil deficiency, but because certain breeders thought they had to get the animal on its knees because it might look better that way. They have now decided that it had better go up again, and this they are now doing.

My Lords, I was interested in the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. The two Scots who preceded me, the noble Baroness and the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, both started their speeches by saying, "We are sheep breeders". I am bound to start my speech by saying that I am not a sheep breeder. I have no land to dispose of, either in a dry, wet or fairly wet state. I have none at all, so I speak without an interest, but I have had an interest in this particular side of the industry and, indeed, for a short period was Chairman of the Hill Farming Committee. I do not agree with the noble Baroness who, I am sure, did not mean to convey that all the schemes of land drainage and that type of undertaking have arisen since 1970.




My Lords, I was certain the noble Baroness did not quite mean that. A lot of it was going on in my own time, and long before that. One of my jobs in the latter years of the Labour Government was to help make these provisions. We were always very grateful for the thanks we got; they were never very enthusiastic, but gratitude was expressed. I hope that in our time we have made our contribution to the agriculture of this country.


My Lords, I am sorry if I made that statement; it is not true at all. I thought I said that the contribution of the Labour Party through the Act which Tom Williams put forward—which I think was in 1948, but I am not sure—was one of the biggest and most important contributions to agriculture, because it brought in a capital grant scheme and all the subsidiary schemes that came or went under the grant aid schemes. I am glad to say that subsequent Governments have continued these schemes, although they are apt at times to say that they will reduce the subsidies. But it was the Government of the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, who brought in these schemes under the 1948 Act.


My Lords, it was a foundation and it has now been changed. That which we claim worked well was changed when we decided to join the European Economic Community. I shall say a word or two later about that, but as time is getting short I hope the interruptions will not be too many.

There are three things we have to consider in connection with hill farming. First of all, as the Report of the Economic Development Committee for Agriculture said when it was published last month—and it made this point perfectly clear—one thing we had to do in the course of looking at this industry was to maintain the population in the uplands and hill lands of our country. They are so essential to the economic wellbeing of the community that they have got to be maintained and even extended. I can speak with a little knowledge of Wales, the part my noble friend Lord Maelor comes from, and certainly with a lot more knowledge with regard to Caithness and Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty in which I spend a number of weeks each year, and certainly the Borders of Scotland where I lived for three years. So I think I have a fair idea what it is all about.

But while we have to do that, quite obviously we have to make the industry profitable for those employed in it—and I use that word in its best sense. And thirdly—and I am grateful that the noble Baroness reminded the House of this—we have also a responsibility to the consumers in this country; their interests must not be overlooked when we are discussing any industry, and particularly food. I should not like anyone in your Lordship's House to pretend that we have not been making it difficult for a number of people in this country to buy the meat we have been producing, because prices did go up, I thought rather alarmingly. It is true that they are a little on the way down. But we have to remember that there are still millions of people in this country whose wages simply do not permit them to spend very much on these lines. It is this to which I want to direct the attention of the House, because we have now to work in unison with the countries of Europe. It is true that they met and issued a Directive in February of last year and it is true that we had the comments in November of last year. But I think we must note well that this paper remains no more than a Directive. I am sure I ought to congratulate the Minister on having been promoted to Parliamentary Secretary; this will be the first debate to which he has replied in his new capacity. The only thing I can say is that since 1970 the Ministry of Agriculture has increased its ministerial strength by 100 per cent.; we used to have two, and now it is four. But I do not grudge them that.

This is a Directive issued by the European Community, and it must always be remembered that even if we reach decisions in this country it is not for us to make the final decision; it has to receive the approval of the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. So to that extent we are a little more tied than we were before joining the Community. As I understand it, each State will have to designate its own areas for improvement and other grants, and having made that decision they will have to go back to the Commission and the Council of Ministers to secure approval. In other words, what this Directive does is nothing more than confirm the right of Britain to operate the grants, whether they be for land improvement or any other thing, and to continue to do so without interference. Payments of these grants, from my study of the Directives, will not differ very much, if at all. The Minister will let us know whether this is correct. The payments will not differ very much, if at all, from the present practice, because it is intended that they should be not less than 25 per cent. or not more than 50 per cent. for the livestock subsidies and 25 per cent. of aid for improvements under these development plans. This in fact is roughly the figure that we are operating on at the present time.

I think the Minister will agree that even if we get this agreement it does not mean that there will be any more money available for the farmers of this country. What it does mean is that expenditure over and above that will be met by the State concerned, but that we shall be getting a share of the E.E.C. money as a supplement to what we pay. So that while we appear to be doing somewhat better by getting the E.E.C. to pay part of the moneys involved, it does not mean that there will be more money available for the farms or the farmers. If I am wrong in my analysis of this Directive, the Minister will correct me. It is to this that we have to direct our attention.

My noble friend Lord Maelor was very much on the mark when he said that we have to feed our ground if we are going to feed the cattle and the sheep that graze on it. If we cannot provide feeding-stuffs we are obviously not going to get the best return for our cash. Indeed, it was with all this in mind that I was a little surprised—I put it no higher than that—to read the speech made by the Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture last week when he was addressing a symposium at Kirkley Hall in Northumberland. He had some words to say on this industry and its problems. I think he very fairly summed up what had been happening. He was in fact doing a little repetition, but more up to date—and I say that in the best possible way—of the noble Baroness's outline of the history of sheep farming in this country, with all its ups and downs. He was saying that even in spite of the fact that the figures fell by 1 million in a certain period between 1960 and 1970, throughout this time our self-sufficiency in mutton and lamb rose from 38 to 42 per cent. So the potential, he was arguing, for import saving was among the highest in our list of agricultural products. He was saying that our self-sufficiency rate for 1973 to 1974—and he added that it was nothing to brag about—was at least becoming respectable at 52 per cent. I am not going to dissent from any of these figures. But then he said: Far be it from me to claim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, although I am going to stick my neck out and say that we are seeing the promised land". I can hardly believe that there is anybody who has had a look at the promised land in the last fortnight, not even the hill farmer. But I wondered what it was when he finished with another line in which he said: If so, the sky really is the limit". I do not think we ought to indulge in euphoria of this kind. I think it is very good that progress has been made and I would congratulate any Government who could put up production in this way. But I am certain that even the noble Baroness who very loyally and very rightly defends the Government of the day, would not say that what we were really seeing was the sky being the limit; she would not go to that length. All I would say is that despite all that, these problems remain.

What is cardinal to the whole situation is the position vis-à-vis ourselves and the European Community. I should be grateful if the Minister, when he comes to reply, will either confirm or deny what I have had to say this afternoon, because I do not think that the industry, as a result of what has happened in Europe, is going to get greater cash assistance. Indeed, we must always remember that even after we ourselves have decided which parts of the country ought to receive assistance, the final decision will lie in the hands of the Commission and the Ministers. If I am right, I should be grateful if the Minister would say so clearly and unequivocally.


My Lords, it is my duty to inform noble Lords of the revised time by which this debate must end, taking into account the time taken by the Statement. This revised time limit is 5.48 p.m.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those remarks. I am sure we are all grateful to him, and I shall try to keep my remarks down because I think we are running out of time. I would also thank the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, for introducing this debate, and I am sure that we are all grateful to him. A good deal of his speech was devoted to the poverty of soils in our hills, and he suggested that the remedy was lime and slag. This is only part of the solution. Hill farming is of course to a large extent the grazing of animals, and one should consider the long-term effects.

Deserts in the world are reputed to have been made by sheep and goats, and we must ensure that we do not allow our hill grazings to deteriorate by overgrazing. Why do we now have to stuff our sheep full of all sorts of medicines, while in the 1850s, the heyday of sheep, certainly in the North, this was not necessary? Why do stock thrive so well where they can get a salt spray from the sea, or on a felled woodland? Why do grouse thrive so much better when the land has been ploughed for forestry, or roads have been bulldozed? The reason, my Lords, is that trace elements have leeched from the topsoils of our hills, and it is only when we turn the soil, or have trees putting their roots down into the subsoil, that these minerals are brought to the surface to enrich the herbage. Some of these trace elements, such as copper, may well be locked up by a heavy application of lime, so that lime is by no means the only answer. Indeed, it may do our hills considerable harm if we overdo it.

One must get away from monoculture. I am sure that this is the answer. It does not matter what sort of monoculture it is. It may be that, where the hills have been traditionally considered to be suitable only for sheep, we ought to try to get cattle on them. On the West coast of Scotland I found this to be very beneficial. Cattle can be there only in the summer months, but they have done enormous good to the hills. I believe that we are wrong in handing over pieces of land for forestry alone. There are thousands of acres which could benefit from forestry but, as my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood said, we cannot eat trees. I believe that both forestry and agriculture can benefit from a rotation of the cropping of trees and animals on our hills. I hope that the Government will look at this possibility, even though such a rotation would have to be long-term. Of course it would be contrary to the terms under which the Forestry Commission have been established for growing trees, but if we are going to look at the benefit to our hills we must look at the possibility of rotating these crops.

Quite rightly, a good deal of money is spent annually by the country upon research, but there is one quarter where there are large losses to agriculture every year and upon which it appears that remarkably little is being done in this respect. This is in the field of tick control. Indeed, far from assisting in the control of this vile parasite, Parliament has seen fit to outlaw the best preventive measure we had when it became illegal to use certain sorts of dip on the doubtful assumption that eagles would be protected. For a long time we have suffered from tick-borne diseases, such as louping-ill in sheep, but recently there appears to have been an increase in a tick-borne disease called "red water", which can swiftly kill off unacclimatised cattle. I must declare an interest here in that I have recently suffered serious losses from this disease in my cattle. The disease was originally imported to my hill by Irish cattle, but now that the hill is infected there appears to be no method of clearing the disease from it. I hope that it will be possible to get some research going on tick control at home. Though I do not expect an answer today, I should like to know why the Irish, who, after all, export cattle to this country, are allowed to vaccinate against red water fever, and yet apparently we in this country are not allowed to use this vaccine.

Finally, I find some confusion over E.E.C. Regulations. We can apparently ban the export of live animals to fellow members, while surely what should be taking place is the improvement of livestock handling by our fellow E.E.C. members. Now the French are banning the import of dead hares from our hills, ostensibly to prevent the export of brucellosis from this country, but brucella abortus, such as we have in this country, has not been known in hares. It seems as if the free market is not working. I should like to remind the noble Lord, Lord, Hoy, since he introduced fishing into this debate when he talked about fishing boats and subsidies to them, that beef is still a cheaper commodity than cod steaks.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I can make the first English contribution to this debate, and I should like to begin by sympathising with the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, in his analysis of the soil poverty of some upland soils. I have some personal experience of this. I live in Yorkshire, on the North Yorkshire moors, and I should have thought, following what he said, that there is a much stronger case for retaining a lime subsidy in the case of the uplands than in other areas. The noble Lord, Lord Hoy, mentioned the development plans that a farmer may have to fill in if he is to get grants under the E.E.C. I understand that there is a danger that these plans may in fact be so complicated that hill farmers may be deterred from getting their grants, and I would urge the Government to make the plans as simple as possible.

I am not myself a hill farmer although, as I have said, I live on top of the moors and am surrounded by hill farmers. My purpose in joining in this debate this afternoon is to ask the Minister whether he will do everything he can to encourage the Agricultural Research Council to develop a new kind of grass seed—one that will grow at a slightly lower temperature than is required at the present time. If there could be developed a seed that would grow at, say, two or three degrees lower temperature than at present, it would mean that the grass would start to grow sooner and would go on growing longer; and this would make a tremendous difference to the hills. There is a lot of poor grassland in our area, and also a lot of dense bracken land. I have had a little experience of trying to eradicate this bracken. I have been swiping at it twice a year, and this has considerably weakened it; but so far when I have been to have a look at it there is absolutely nothing growing where the bracken was. Obviously, if the Agricultural Research Council could produce a really good seed this could take the place of the bracken.

On the subject of bracken, there is also a spray which has recently been developed, though it has not yet been fully tried out. But it is not much good killing the bracken with a spray unless something useful can be grown in its place. If, as seems likely, there may be hard times ahead of us, and if we are going to have a big deficit on the balance of payments, surely we ought to do all we can to get the maximum production from our hills. During the war we had the slogan, "Dig for victory". May I ask the Minister whether he will do everything he can to encourage the Agricultural Research Centre to produce a new grass seed for victory in 1974?

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, may I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, for initiating this debate, particularly at a time when food production may be assuming considerable importance in the public interest. I propose, with your Lordships' leave, to confine my observations to the position of a typical small Welsh farmer in one of the many rural counties of Wales. But not for that small Welsh farmer the thousands of throw-away acres of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. His farm will be a small area of land of 100 acres, or 200 acres. Three hundred acres would be a large hill farm.

I ask your Lordships to consider the position of this typical Welsh farmer, with a devoted wife and family, who is working his plot of land and endeavouring to make his farm an efficient business organisation. What are his problems? His problems arise chiefly from the uncertainty of adequate financial returns so that he can pay his way as all businesses must pay their way. Inherent in his whole attitude to life is uncertainty about planning his future business, which arises chiefly from the uncertainty of the policies of previous Governments in regard to the production of food in this country.

It is essential that the confidence of such a farmer should be increased so that he can render his farming business viable, profitable and efficient. Therefore may I ask the Minister a few questions in relation to the activities of such a farmer? The confidence of an active hill farmer such as I am talking about would be very much restored if he could have the following simple assurances. First, can he have better assurances about the future prices of his products—sheep, wool and cattle? Secondly, can he have more advice about husbandry techniques, hill pasture improvement techniques and methods of reducing animal diseases? Thirdly, can he have better facilities for cheap credit? Those are the problems which face the small Welsh farmer when he is trying to plan his future.

First, on the question of the future prices of products, would the Government be willing to introduce a new arrangement for reviewing minimum prices every three or five years, instead of reviewing prices every year? The costs of each of these products could be adjusted each year, or arrangements for financial assistance to a farmer could be modified, with increases in basic farming costs. As regards the availability of more advice on husbandry techniques, hill farming improvements and methods of reducing animal diseases, will the Government agree that more local research is necessary in the environment in which hill farmers operate? Is it possible for the Government, as a first step at least, to double the contributions made by experimental institutions in Wales and agricultural departments of the University of Wales for research into the development of hill farm production, on the lines indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Maelor?

I should like to pay tribute to the many Government advisory centres which exist in Wales, to the Welsh plant breeding research station at Gogerddan, to which the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, referred, and also to the experimental hill farm at Pwllpeirian. The latter has been in existence for some 20 years, and without the work of its devoted research workers hill farming in Wales would be in a much worse position than it is at present. I should also like to pay tribute to the valuable but very limited work of the agricultural departments of the University College of Wales, which the noble Baroness, Lady White, knows so well. Those departments work closely with local agricultural interests, and a great deal of research is quietly going on around Aberystwyth and in parts of Pembrokeshire into such subjects as land improvement strategy in Wales, hill pasture improvement, some of it in collaboration with the Potassium Institute at Henley. There is also very limited work being done on protein synthesis and the resistance of sheep to various infections.

During the past year, the agricultural biochemistry course for undergraduates at Aberystwyth has been significantly modified to include studies of soil science and animal nutrition. It is hoped that some of the persons now undertaking these courses in the University of Wales may be encouraged to take up work in agriculture in Wales. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, indicated, there are serious problems in relation to depopulation and encouraging young men and women to stay on and work in Wales, particularly on hill farms.

Lastly, are the Government prepared to offer special grants or credit schemes at much lower interest rates to Welsh hill farmers, particularly those who wish to increase their production? The Report of the Economic Development Committee for Agriculture, published in December, 1973, on farming on the hills and uplands of the United Kingdom, stressed the desirability of investing in techniques to increase output. The production potential of the hills of Wales has been neglected for far too long, and urgent action is now required in the national interest to revitalise the hill farming agricultural industry of Wales, in order to secure a substantial increase in the totality of food production which is possible from those hills.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Burton, for possibly having infected his lands with some Irish cattle which were suffering from red water, although I do not feel that any have come from my area. But I was interested to hear from him that cattle can be vaccinated against red water and perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, can inform us whether such vaccination is possible.

One of the encouraging aspects of the E.E.C. Directive is that it showed that within the United Kingdom we shall still be able to encourage our regional farming areas with hill farming grants. Many of us were rather nervous that that would not be possible within the concept of the E.E.C. I also derive a good deal of encouragement from the fact that the Directive appears to widen the area covered to include marginal land, because I have always considered that it should be included. To the definition given by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, I would add that marginal land is land which requires a greater input than non-marginal land and probably has a lesser output, which is more important than the geographical or climatic problems.

During this debate we have progressed from the North of Scotland, through to Wales and the Borders, and we now come to the edge of the Atlantic. In Northern Ireland, 25 per cent. of all farms are marginal or hill farms and 90 per cent. of their net income comes from subsidies. So it is very important that the E.E.C. Directive allows us to continue with this form of assistance in order to increase production in those remote areas. I feel it is very important to maintain the social status of the people in these areas, otherwise we shall end up with completely unpopulated areas covering large parts of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. For us especially, as the noble Baroness has mentioned, there is no hope of tourism because of our particular trouble.

I want now to ask the Government whether they can go a little further and accept the suggestion contained in the E.E.C. Directive that in fact marginal land that is not hill land should now be included in the grant areas. In the area I come from, Fermanagh and West Tyrone, there are some 200,000 acres of wet, poor land, and if there are 200,000 acres in Fermanagh and West Tyrone there must be many hundreds of thousands of acres in both Wales and West Scotland to which this would apply. This land is no better than hill land, and provides the same problems except in different dimensions. It is all first-class potential beef livestock land, but it requires a far higher level of input in order to make enough money for the farming of it to pay. This area was in fact included in what was called the Marginal Land Scheme during the war, and a lot of good was done on it. I feel that someone should recall the good which was done on that land and examine it to see whether we should not now cover marginal land in this way. In all sincerity, I would ask the Government to look at this matter to see whether this sort of land, marginal land, not necessarily high land, could now be covered, because it must be done on a United Kingdom basis.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, there is one aspect of this important matter which has not been referred to this afternoon but to which I should like to direct your Lordships' attention for a very few minutes. One of the most important areas in the country for the sheep farmer is the Lake District, which has its own particular type of sheep, going back a very long way, the Herdwick, and which has a very fine historic tradition in the way of sheep-rearing and the conduct of these very difficult hill farms. Over the past generation, and more particularly since the end of the last war, the Lake District has become an extraordinarily popular place for people establishing themselves with week-end cottages. They come in and pay the most enormous prices for small hill farms, which prices are really completely out of step with anything that even a local landowner, let alone a hill farmer, can afford to pay. The result is that it has become almost impossible for a local hill farmer to buy his farm. Farms which are worth £5,000 or possibly even £10,000 are going for £25,000, £30,000 or £40,000. Your Lordships can see that in effect the local man is being driven off his heath, if I may use a local expression relating to the way in which the sheep find their way about on the hills on which they are heathed.

I cannot myself quite see what the answer to this problem is, but there is no question at all that it is a very serious one indeed. The Lake District is almost ceasing to be the home of the dalesman, and has become the home of the rich businessman from Lancashire or Yorkshire, or even further South. Some method must be found, whether it is through the planning arrangements or through some other type of subsidy, which will enable the necessary farm buildings to be put up for the local man, and for them to be preserved to him, insulated, as it were, against the attentions, the very natural attentions, of the man who wishes to establish himself in a holiday home or even to come into the National Park to reside there. When we established the National Parks, at any rate that in the Lake District, I do not think we had any idea how it would cause the price of land to rocket. You cannot just walk into a National Park and build a country cottage. The planning arrangements are pretty tight, and very properly pretty tight. This leads to an exaggerated price being paid whenever any small farm buildings come into the market. I am sure your Lordships can understand that this is indeed a very difficult and very pressing problem in the Lake District. I imagine it applies to a considerable extent also to Wales, which is another very popular place for holiday homes. I wish I could see some solution to this problem. I hope the Government will look at this question and possibly remit it to the next Committee which they set up to deal with this intractable problem.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, for having put down this Motion and so enabled us to have a wide-ranging debate on hill farming. I do not know, but I suppose that possibly apart from the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, I must be the only person to speak in this debate who is not in fact a hill farmer. It seemed to me an unfortunate quirk of chance that my first appearance in my new capacity should require me to speak on the subject of hill farmers, in a debate introduced by a Welshman whose knowledge and love of Wales and of the hills have never been disputed, though it may have been rivalled—but even then only by another Welshman. It is to my personal regret that my knowledge of Wales and its hills cannot claim to be as great as that of the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, although I am bound to say that I like the singing that comes from there. I hope that the noble Lord will acquit me of any indifference if I tell him that the first week in my particular job has not permitted me to take a vacation in Wales to study at firsthand the problems of the hill farmers.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for tabling this Motion because it is a very important and difficult subject from a social, economic and agricultural point of view. The hills make up about one-third of the agricultural acreage of the whole of the United Kingdom, and hill farmers make a very important contribution to the output of our livestock industry. We must recognise that they continue to live and work often in remote and difficult areas, and by so doing they help to provide a secure and stable basis for the local economy and population. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, that the health of our hill farming industry is an important matter and that is why I welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

While I accept and respect the noble Lord's intimate knowledge of Wales and what goes on within it, I should have thought there were signs of a new air of confidence in the hills. This is borne out by the Report, to which my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood referred, United Kingdom Farming and the Common Market: Hills and Uplands. recently published by the agricultural "Little Neddy". But let us be clear at the outset and recognise, as I am sure we all do, that anyone who farms in the hills, whether they be in Wales, in Scotland or in England, faces very special problems and limitations, and a totally different set of factors from those which his lowland counterpart faces. When the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, referred to the fact that in his part of the world it is possible to have only one ewe on 100 acres, I thought this brought into stark relief the distinction between some of the more distant and difficult parts of the country as compared with the lowlands. The climate and elevation, and the soil, or indeed the lack of it, the bleakness and the fertility, and even the potential, are all factors which tend to weigh against the hill farmer, yet which precisely characterise him for what he is and the job that he does.

My Lords, despite the many handicaps and limitations which hill farmers face they have made considerable strides in recent years and, I venture to suggest, not without the support and encouragement and indeed the appreciation, of successive Governments. The figures should speak for themselves; because over the past three years, for instance, the number of hill cows which have qualified for subsidy has gone up by no fewer than 85,000, which represents an increase of 11½ per cent. At the same time, the number of hill sheep which have qualified for subsidy has gone up by 300,000, an increase of 4 per cent. So from those figures there is an indication that there is more prosperity in the hills. Of course, from the hill farmer's point of view numbers alone are not the sole criterion of achievement. The quality of the stock he produces and the price he can obtain for it are equally important. Here again, the results over the last few years have been encouraging. I accept, of course, that there are variations in quality and price from year to year, and indeed from area to area. But the overall trend has, I think, been satisfactory. This has been due partly to the three open winters we have had and partly to the strong market for livestock I need not dwell on this particular aspect, but it is obvious that the general increase in livestock prices which has been apparent over recent years, and which has been conditioned by many factors outside the scope of this debate, has worked its way through to the hill producer.

The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, said that he would like to see in future prices known in advance. That is an understandable plea, but I am sure the noble Lord will realise that it is a difficult thing to do. I suggest that what is needed is not so much knowledge of future prices as knowledge that future prices will be as stable as possible; and this is what the Government would like to see. The noble Lord said also that he would like more advice given on hill farming, and he asked that more money should be spent on research into hill farming. The problem, however, is not so much the need for more research as to communicate to hill farmers the results of research already done. There is a mass of information available but much of it is buried in technical journals and scientific papers. We recognise the need to distil this information into an easily digestible form. We have already started a scheme called the hill project areas in which, in selected areas, including one in North Wales, our advisers from ADAS will concentrate on giving as much advice as possible to hill farmers, using the latest results of their research.

Of course, my Lords, over the past few years costs have increased as well, as much, or to a similar degree, for the hill farmer as they may have for the lowland farmer. The farm accounting information which is collected from samples of farms by universities and agricultural colleges in Great Britain, and which was summarised in the Annual Review White Paper in March last year showed substantial increases between 1970 and 1971, and 1971 and 1972, in net income for the types of farming most representative of hill farms. If it is put simply, and I recognise that there are difficulties and dangers in doing so, hill farms in England, Wales and Scotland were, by 1971–72, yielding net incomes which were rather more than double the level which prevailed some two or three years earlier. During the current Annual Review we shall be seeing the results for 1972–73 and I shall be surprised if they do not indicate a very substantial improvement. All hill farmers are aware of the new levels to which prices for sheep and cattle have now risen compared with those of past years. I am fairly confident that we may look for a continuation of the upward trend in hill farming income during the current year.


My Lords, if the noble Earl is going to publish those figures perhaps he would publish the retail prices for 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973, so that we may make an assessment of them.


My Lords, the figures I was quoting there been gathered by universities and various Departments and they show how the incomes of hill farmers have gone up.


But, my Lords, this is not unrelated to prices.


My Lords, the income is the return after costs have been taken off the return. Subject to various adjustments, that leaves the net income, which is the figure to which I was referring. There are bound to be limitations—


My Lords, may I raise one point in connection with that matter? If the net income has gone up, can the noble Earl say whether these net incomes are comparable with any other levels in agriculture or in the Community?


My Lords not without a certain amount of study. But I am sure that the figures are available, and if the noble Viscount studies them he could draw his own comparisons. I could not give that information to him without consideration. There are certainly limitations in the use which can be made of this type of data. There are exceptions to the trends which I have indicated. But I do not believe it can be denied that the income position of hill farmers is far better to-day than for many years past. This is why I find it difficult to accept the general trend of Lord Maelor's speech.

In the second part of his Motion the noble Lord asks what steps the Government propose to take. He made clear what steps he would favour, and he called for a 100 per cent. grant for land improvement. He made some criticism of the hill livestock subsidies. I agree with much that the noble Lord said when drawing attention to the role which land improvement could play in improving the profitability of hill farming. This has been demonstrated over and over again, and I welcome, in particular, the noble Lord's reference to the work done at the two experimental farms whose names I, as an Englishman, do not propose to try to pronounce lest I should offend the noble Lord's delicate ears. But it is important to keep these matters in proportion. Land improvement must be selective because not all of the hill farmer's land is capable of dramatic improvement. The improvement cannot be carried out all at once. It must be a step-by-step operation which may well involve changes in the whole farming pattern. Great importance may be attached to the control of grazing to bring out the maximum amount of improvement in the sward; but to achieve better lambing and calving rates, as well as increased weights of stock coming off the hills, requires improvements in husbandry as well as improvements to the land.

As the noble Lord indicated, land improvement pays for itself in a relatively short period, but I am advised that results quite as dramatic as those which the noble Lord quoted are rarely achieved, and one must not underestimate the effect of the hill climate, which poses severe limitations on the use even of improved hill land. It is one thing to increase the potential of summer grazing, but frequently the hill farmer's greatest problem has been to bring his stock through the winter in fair condition. In some areas, especially in Wales, the structure of farms and the lack of sufficient acreage of in-by land are obstacles to land improvement. Often in these areas more radical structural changes may be the only proper long-term solution. But, with those general observations, I would go along with the noble Lord in his call for more land improvement; and this is backed up, too, in the "Little Neddy" Report to which I referred earlier. I am bound to say that I thought I detected a slight glint in the noble Lord's eye when he asked for 100 per cent. grant for carrying out this undertaking. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, also asked for the same thing.

The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, wanted cheap credit. These are all ways of trying to come to the same conclusion. There are various methods of supporting agriculture, and successive Governments have found it most appropriate to do this by means of grants and subsidies. If one looks at what is available, one realises that the present rate of grant for hill land improvement is 50 per cent.; and for hill land drainage 70 per cent. These are by any standards very sizeable rates of grants and they are substantially higher than any other capital grants which are offered in the agricultural sector.

The really determining factor in investment of this kind, which pays for itself over a relatively short period, is the underlying economic position of the hill farms, and in particular the level of their returns and income. The noble Lord, Lord Maelor, says there is not much point in having a 50 per cent. grant if you cannot provide the other half; and he instanced his friend who wanted to buy a railway ticket and had only half the fare. The noble Lord remarked at the delight and surprise on the man's face when a friend provided the other 50 per cent. that was needed. That did not surprise me at all: if anyone offered to pay half my fare at a railway station I should be equally surprised and delighted. But in fact substantial grants have been offered to hill farmers, and the evidence is that they have been used. In 1969–70 the amount of Exchequer contribution towards hill land improvement and associated works was £1.9 million. The amount rose to £6.9 million in 1972–73. The acreage of land which has been improved under the Farm Capital Grant Scheme since its introduction in 1971 is about 716,000 acres and the acreage of land which has been drained is about 190,000 acres. So use is being made of the grants available and of the Government's support for hill farmers.

I think that few hill farmers would agree with the noble Lord's criticism that the hill livestock subsidies encourage over-stocking and lead to lower production. The bulk of the farmer's return comes from the sale of his calves and lambs, and this in itself is a powerful incentive to stocking the land at the optimum level. The subsidy schemes contain provisions to prevent payment of subsidy where there is over-grazing or where the calving or lambing rate is low. There is no doubt that without the subsidies hill farming would have collapsed many years ago. The subsidies represent an element of security for hill farmers, even when times are better, and they stimulate investment both in land improvement and in technical progress. As evidence of the Government's intention to help and support hill farming, I would tell your Lordships that since this Government took office the hill cow subsidy rate has been increased by 10 per cent. and the hill sheep subsidy rate by 48 per cent. Of course, the future level of assistance to hill farmers, like all other aspects of farm support policy, is currently being considered under the Annual Price Review.

The noble Lord's Motion refers to the Common Market. This aspect was also mentioned by a number of other noble Lords, as well as by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, who hoped that the Government would be firm in their dealings with the E.E.C. The record will show that we have used our influence and put forward our views to very considerable effect. The agricultural policy of the Community of Six which was in operation when we joined did not allow for the type of support which we have been giving to our hill farmers for a great many years. I recognise that our entry into the Community clearly entailed some uncertainty for our hill farmers, despite the general form of assurance which we received from the Community during the accession negotiations. This uncertainty has now been lifted because the Council of Ministers have agreed, as mentioned by my right honourable friend on November 22, on the framework of a Directive on aids to farming in mountain and other less-favoured areas. The main line of the Directive follows broadly the forms of support which have been covered by our own arrangements. The Council have yet to take a decision on the precise areas of the Community to be covered by the Directive and the degree of financial participation by the Community's agricultural fund. However, we are satisfied that the general effect of these decisions is to confirm that we can continue to pay grants and subsidies in hill areas on much the same lines as we are doing at present.

My noble friend Lord Brookeborough referred to bad land in Northern Ireland which was not hill land. I should like to tell him that we are fully aware of the situation regarding the type of land to which he refers, and we will certainly take note of the points he has made when we consider which areas we shall put forward for assistance under the Directive. The noble Lord, Lord Hoy, referred to figures of 25 and 50 per cent. These are the figures for the Community's contribution from FEOGA to our own expenditure. The noble Lord is right in saying that the Community will reimburse the Exchequer for part of what is paid to hill farmers, but the decision as to whether we increase, maintain or reduce the level of assistance is one for the Government to take within the general limits set by the Community.


My Lords, may I just say one word here? It does not need to be complicated. The noble Earl is saying that inside Europe any recommendation made by this Government, or any other Government, to the Nine must first of all have the approval of the Commission as well as the Ministers. We are not free to act on our own. I do not want to be difficult about it, but I think this is so. Secondly, moneys that are to be contributed from FEOGA will not in fact improve in any way the grants that can be made to farms or farmers in this country. In other words, while it makes a contribution, this will be to the expenditure of the Government and not to the expenditure of the Fund.


My Lords, as usual, the noble Lord is quite correct. The Government will have to decide what areas they believe should come within the jurisdiction of this particular scheme. They will then submit the information to the Community and all the other Members of the Community will do the same, so that a decision may be agreed as to which areas are to be helped. It will then be known what the amount of contribution from FEOGA will be. The noble Lord is right in saying that this will not in itself raise the level that we ourselves pay to the farmers, but it will mean a contribution to the Exchequer from FEOGA funds.

Referring to the Common Market schemes, the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, made a plea that they should be simple. I have a great deal of sympathy with that plea. I cannot promise the noble Viscount that they will be simple but I share his hope that this will happen. The noble Viscount also put forward quite strongly a very interesting point that there should be research into seeds which will grow at lower temperatures. In fact a considerable amount of work has been done, not only by the Agricultural Research Council but also by the Ministry, on experimental farms. A recent report from our experimental farm at Redesdale in Northumberland showed what could be done by using the right seed for re-seeding hill land after destroying bracken. I would advise the noble Viscount to contact his local agricultural adviser on this point, because there is a great deal of information available about seeds. It is really a question of selecting the right mixture to suit each type of land.

My Lords, I feel sure that this debate has been useful. It is an important subject and it is right that it should be aired. Although many people in our country may not be engaged in hill farming, nevertheless vast acres of our country are covered by it. The increase in breeding livestock numbers, the improvements in the numbers and quality of stock coming off the hills and the general increase in livestock prices have all tended to raise hill farmers' incomes significantly and they have ushered in, I would suggest, a new mood of confidence. The decision of the European Economic Community Council of Ministers on a Directive for the less favoured areas has now removed the hill farmers' doubts as to the freedom of the Government of this country to continue the support which is considered necessary to maintain their livelihood. I would suggest—and I hope that after what I have said the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, will agree—that our hill farmers have every reason to look forward to the future with confidence, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Maelor, will be able to quote from his own ecclesiastical source—not Psalm 72, but Psalm 114—and will be able to look back and say that: The mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like young sheep.


My Lords, before the noble Lord resumes his seat, could he say something on the question of farm buildings, a subject which is causing a great deal of trouble in the Lake District? I appreciate that I am taking him rather out of his brief, but if he could say something it would be welcomed locally in Cumbria.


My Lords, if I may, I should like to study in detail what the noble Lord has said and try to give him a more informed answer than I could now over the specific point, which is rather wide of the original Motion. I shall certainly look into it and let the noble Lord know.


My Lords, I am grateful.

5.23 p.m.


My Lords, let me in the first place congratulate the Minister on his appointment to his new post. He told us that he had been in the post for a week. I was hoping that there would have been a slip of the tongue and that he would have added, "and of course I shall be leaving it on February 7". But that did not come off.

Perhaps I was very presumptuous in putting down this Motion, because I will tell your Lordships quite frankly that I know nothing about farming. I am sure that I should not be able to tell the difference between a ewe and a ram. I was prompted to put down this Motion because of what I have been reading in the Press of Wales particularly and in the national Press of Britain too, that there is a great urge to convert a large portion of Wales into a National Park. If it is converted into a National Park—and this will be half of Wales—no industries will be brought into that area, and consequently I was thinking. "How are those people going to live?" When I questioned them, I found that they cannot live now and that the vast majority are of course hill farmers with whom I dealt in my speech.

I thank all noble Lords who took part for a very useful debate, and I thank the Minister also for all the promises that he has made. There is perhaps one point regarding what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood. She did not agree with me that we should have a 100 per cent. grant. I think she was thinking in terms of subsidies. I was not thinking of subsidies at all; this is a once and for all grant to convert poor soil into good soil and it would be there for evermore. Subsidies must be repeated year after year, but one grant would be sufficient; and I showed by my statistics that the money could be recouped in a period of three years. I thank all those noble Lords who took part. May I say that I do not desire any Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.