HL Deb 10 July 1978 vol 394 cc1406-25

7.40 p.m.

Lord DAVIES of LEEK rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the statement by the Milk Marketing Board that milk churn collection will cease on 31st July 1979 and be replaced by road tanker collection from refrigerated farm vats, what plans are envisaged to help farmers with small herds. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have listened with fascination to every speech in the shipbuilding debate, which was of paramount importance to Britain's industrial and international situation. But, funnily enough, British agriculture is one of the greatest savers to our balance of payments and, whatever we may think about industry, agriculture is pretty well the greatest employer of labour. The saving on imports to the British taxpayer is immense. At this late hour, I do not want to weary your Lordships with masses of statistics, but I want to get clearly across the gravamen of my argument.

In passing, I do not want to be a critic of the Milk Marketing Board, as such. It was established in the '30s under the late Dr. Addison, who was in the MacDonald Government, and it was later improved. I do not want to make a cheap Party political point, but, whatever our politics, we pay tribute on both sides of the House to the work of Tom Williams, the late Minister of Agriculture. Let me leave it at that, without trying to make capital out of it. I can also remember Smith, who was a Conservative Minister of Agriculture in the transitional period at the time of the war.

I am old enough to remember the farming disasters of the '20s and '30s and some of my family were farmers while others were miners. There is a wonderful old apocryphal crack in my family. I do not know whether my grandmother believed it, but my great-grandfather was the champion milker of Wales. The only trouble about him was that he was so enamoured of his milking prowess that every time he met a stranger he shook hands with one finger at a time. I am not sure about that, but it is a good story in the apocryphal history of the Davies family.

Today, we have invented a new system of society. I do not want your Lordships to come back at me politically, but all over the world technological society has invented the system of socialising the losses and privatising the profits. Even in the United States of America, the railways are subsidised. Subsidies are a common form of economics in the 20th century, and the old idea of pure, crystal-clear private enterprise, as such, is almost reduced to the level of a sweet shop or a little farmer with a small herd of cows, who has to work very hard and often gets less income than a bus driver.

Since small farming is business, we ought to be prepared, because of the great saving to our balance of payments, to plough a little more back into helping the small farmer. I do not like the expression "small farmer", because it sounds as if I am talking about English, Scottish or Welsh dwarfs, and I am not. I am talking about the farmer with a small acreage. I am not using the horrible word "hectares". I doubt whether 10 people out of 50 could say how many acres there are in a hectare.

A noble Lord: Tell us !


It is 2.47. Are your Lordships trying to catch me out? The Milk Marketing Board aims ultimately to complete the refrigeration of milk in vats on farms, and in the bulk milk scheme, by July 1979. Milk will then be collected only by road tanker which, in the end, means the demise of small-scale milk production, and the day of the hand-milked small herd will probably be finished for ever. I want to know what will happen to the 60-gallon farmer, who is considered small. Is he to be abandoned? Is not he, too, a small business? After all, I thought that the spirit today was to encourage small business.

This week I happened to pass through Stoneleigh and saw miles of farmers' cars —bless them!—going to the Royal Agricultural Show. I wish that they had had better weather. It is a magnificent show which does much for British agriculture, and more people than ever now come from all over the world to the Royal. Britain can be very proud of its productivity, but in farming, per head of capital, nobody can beat the farmer on a small acreage. He still has the productivity. The theme of the Royal Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh this year was the next 25 years in agriculture and its likely developments, and what British agriculture will be like in the year 2003. The emphasis was on technical innovation.

I want to enter a caveat here. Too much technology means an increase in the arithmetical chances of accidental breakdown and the wearying of the human spirit. Let me make a philosophical point, in passing. Freedom from all superstitions and freedom from certain kinds of labour—because we have invented electronic computerisation and technological processes—do not necessarily result in the production of an orderly society. Certainly, looking at the ugly discourtesy of the motorists on the modern roads of Europe, they do not add to the serenity of modern life. Probably the most discourteous animal on the roads of Britain today is the average driver, pushing along with that marvellous mass of human technology underneath him as he drives his car. I do not want to see British farming going all technological and going all for productivity, thus destroying the purpose of life.

Whatever we may think about agriculture, milk is still the major product and British consumers drink more milk than any other country, except in the Irish Republic. As the farming correspondent, Mr. Murray, pointed out in the Sunday Observer the other day, mainly because of the operation of the Milk Marketing Boards, their monopoly—it may be qualified, according to which Party gets into power—allows them to iron out the fluctuations of supply and demand across the country. They have been a boon to the farmer, big and small. That monthly milk cheque was the salvation of British agriculture. Surpluses of milk have gone to special areas and creameries.

I want to ask my noble friend, why cannot the small gallonage of the little man, with maybe less than 60 gallons, go in a churn to the creameries as happens in Ireland? Can we do something about that? And, for heaven's sake, do not let the Common Market destroy our doorstep delivery of milk. The milkman delivering the milk also helps the farmer with the small gallonage. What is more, the milkman is part of the social services. Many old gentlemen or old ladies have had their lives saved, because, in their loneliness, the milkman is more often a visitor.

In the constituency in the North-East of Staffordshire, which I had the honour to represent for over a quarter of a century, there were 3,000 farms, 1,400 of which were of 30 acres or less. How those people worked! I do not suppose that many of them voted for me; they were individualists. But they worked and they had a purpose and they were living and breathing the deep, free air. Their success lay in milk deliveries to schools and other places. I deprecate those mean local authorities who are now objecting to free milk for children aged 7 to 11. I do not want to name anybody, or their politics. The high mark of Britain's consumption is because we have about 45,000 roundsmen delivering milk in the early morning. We have to argue with the bureaucrats in Brussels to keep those milkmen. I hope to goodness that we keep them, because each day 15 million to 16 million homes in the United Kingdom receive their milk on the doorstep. It is a social service. It was the great Churchill who said that there is no finer investment that any community can make than to put milk into babies and the rest of us. I wish that some mean county councils would remember that saying when they are next due to debate the supply of milk to children between the ages of 7 and 11.

There are 3,000 of these huge bulk tankers which scour the countryside each day. The Milk Marketing Board provide an excellent system of bulk tanker collection. Let us be fair to them and ask: What is the advantage? The purest and best milk in the world is delivered to our homes by the Milk Marketing Board. Because we enjoy the advantage of bulk tanker collection, we are asked to abandon sales from milk churns. The Milk Marketing Board has rigid standards of cleanliness and hygiene, and ensures the composition and quality of this nation's milk, thus safeguarding the consumer and producing the best milk in Britain. But it had the best milk in Britain before the tankers. I know that the cleanliness of the milk churns was maintained and that farmers' wives and others maintained cleanliness in their small dairies. Our cleanliness is second to none in Europe and it is essential. All that we are doing is hindering the man with the 60 gallon milk production. In Scotland, 100 per cent. of the milk is already collected in bulk, while in England and Wales about 97 per cent. and in Northern Ireland about 80 per cent. is collected in bulk. In England and Wales, 86 per cent. of all milk producers are in the bulk collection scheme.

May I ask my noble friend who is to reply whether it is possible to evolve a formula like the green top system that we can extend to the small farmer? It is growing increasingly difficult to find dairies that will accept churn milk. Could not some scheme be evolved whereby they would be able to sell their milk to manufacturers for the purpose of making cream, cheese and butter? The problem with the tankers is that they come on to our country roads. These are the old B and C roads and they have to carry the weight of these tankers. This necessitates quite a large upkeep, which ultimately falls on the ratepayers and taxpayers.

We must remember that big things are not always the most efficient. If we study ontology or the history of the human race from primeval times, we have to ask ourselves why some of the mighty animals —some of which were 100 feet or more long, with huge limbs and thick hides—did not survive. The reason is that the information carried from their feet to their brains took so long to reach there! The bigger technological organisations become, the more we get mixed up. Because of computers, my bank statements today are the most difficult things to understand. In the old days, I knew whether the Minister of Agriculture had borrowed £10 from me, and I knew, by looking at my cheque book, whether he had paid me back. Today I just deal with numbers. Human beings are becoming numbers. We are losing the reality of living.

What current grants and subsidies can be used? I was unable to be here earlier this afternoon when the order relating to grants for the damage done by the great storms which occurred last winter was dealt with. However, could the hill livestock compensation scheme favour the smaller farms? It is those of about 7.41 acres which are eligible. Could calf subsidy schemes be used to encourage a new approach? Are we prepared to consider the lower level of farming where only a man and his wife are able to keep going? Best of all, could we not now take a new look at the capital grant scheme which came into operation in January 1974? The main items which were eligible for grant were farm buildings, silos, yards, waste disposal, milking equipment, bulk milk tanks, electricity and gas supplies, dairy and parlour buildings. I think that the very small gallonage man could get some help here.

We first introduced farm structure schemes in 1967. I do not want to detain the House for too long, but may we look at this year's annual review, since it shows the trend. On page 6 we see that the number of farms in the United Kingdom continued to decline. In 1977, the total number of holdings was 261,000, which was 3 per cent. lower than in 1975. Then the review goes on to say that the average size of farms is increasing. Full-time businesses averaged 113 hectares. There are 2.74 hectares to the acre. Including rough grazing, the total area in 1977 has to be compared with 111 hectares in 1975.

The trend to greater specialisation continues. Can we think of some kind of specialisation that the little man can take up with the encouragement of the advisory service of the Ministry of Agriculture, which has done excellent work? Three years ago, the average size of a herd was about 30 to 32 cows. Now the average size is 40 to 44 cows. In other words, the number of farms is growing less while the number of cows per farm is increasing. Once again we are worshipping at the shrine of bigness rather than keeping economic units at the optimum level.

A scheme for improving farm structures was introduced in 1967. Without reading out all of the grants available, because this information is available to the Minister, I believe that the standard grants are too small. According to the applicant's choice, he can obtain a lump sum of £1,000 for a farm of up to four hectares, which increases by £50 for each additional hectare of land, up to a maximum of £3,000 if he gets off his land. What is £3,000 today to a man who has lived all his life on the edge of the hills, on the side of a riparian meadow? To push a man of 55 or 60 out into the bleak world with £3,000 is almost suicidal. The annuity payable up to the age of 65 is at an annual rate of £250 for a farm of up to four hectares, increasing by £5 for each additional hectare of eligible land, up to a maximum of £450. In these days of inflation, these grants mean nothing.

If we are saying that little farms are to be moulded, rolled and cajoled by specious promises, that hedgerows should be destroyed and that we should make prairies out of farms that nature will ultimately destroy by blowing the earth away from them, or that we should go in for factory farming, what incentives will there be for our young who want to become farmers? There will be no small acreages for them to buy. There are many other grants available and, without boring the House—because I have taken the trouble to let the Minister know mostly what I am going to say and thus save the House a long speech—I express the hope that the Minister will spend some time studying this problem. Britain owes it to these food producers to work out a viable formula to keep the man with a small gallonage or a small acreage in existence. After all, he helped us to win the war with his food production.

8.1 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, for raising this matter today. I cannot compete with the noble Lord's humour but I hope to compensate with a little brevity. Equally I am not sure how much I personally appreciated his point about the longevity of the larger animal and the length of time it takes messages to get from one's feet to one's head. However, the noble Lord's Question really asks whether all milk producers, however small, should be forced to store their milk in a refrigerated vat and allow it to be removed in tanker lorries arranged for by the Milk Marketing Board.

The situation described by the noble Lord affects the whole of England and Wales and results from a scheme announced by the Board in 1973 under which there would be a gradual changeover from the handling and transport of milk in churns to bulk collection and bulk handling. The changeover is due to be completed by the end of July next year. It is only right to point out that all areas will have changed over to bulk handling by the end of this month, except for Wales, the South-west and North-west of England, which have another year to prepare. The National Farmers' Union tells me that, so far, the transition has taken place smoothly in these other areas and that there have been few problems. However, the situation may be different in the West, with its higher proportion of small and remote farms. The main benefits of the changeover accrue to the Milk Marketing Board and the dairies in reduced handling costs and the improved keeping quality of the milk.

In general, we on this side of the House think that the scheme is both a good and fair one. Bulk handling makes the producer's life somewhat easier and there is a considerable financial incentive for him to change over to bulk. To put the matter in perspective, the small bulk milk vat with cooler can be bought for just over £1,000 and a 20 per cent. grant is available. Probably a better financial proposition is to rent a vat from the Board for about £27 a month for the first three years and thereafter at a nominal rent. To offset this expenditure the Board pays the producer a bulk premium of £11 per month plus just over 1p per gallon of milk produced during the month. As a result, and on balance, the producer with 15 to 20 cows breaks about even; the man with 10 cows may be £8 per month out of pocket and the man with five cows, £12 per month out of pocket. One should bear in mind that the monthly milk cheque from a five cow herd comes to some £200.

It is a sad thing that the family farm with a very small herd on a very small and often isolated farm is running a doubtfully viable unit in any event. But there are a number of worthwhile people who value their independence and are prepared to accept what many others would call a low standard of living. Other very small herds are owned by men who have jobs in industry and who milk their cows in their spare time. Some young men find that their only prospect of getting into farming at all is to start off on their own account by buying or renting a small farm and accepting a hard life until they have gained the experience and hopefully a little money to move on to a larger holding. These men and their families are valuable and should be encouraged. I should hate to see them forced to leave their farms. Equally I should hate to see their houses and their buildings lying derelict and their land revert to bog or heath, as the case may be. There is a good case for the amalgamation of a few small farms but again, to my mind, vast farming units do not benefit the countryside.

It seems that the very small farmer has a number of alternatives if he is not prepared to install his own small vat. He can still make his own arrangements with a local dairy which may be prepared to accept deliveries in churn by private arrangement. He can retail his own milk if he is suitably situated and inclined. He can turn over to calf rearing, with or without sheep, and obtain an EEC grant under their non-marketing scheme. This grant is worth more than £500 per cow if the farmer agrees not to supply milk for five years. A point I am not entirely clear on is whether two or three neighbours can share a bulk vat. If this was permissible—and at present I think it is not permissible—I feel that there would be little hardship to the small producer.

One final point which concerns me is the contract between the Milk Board and the producer. There is the situation where the milk producer has been forced to purchase a fixed bulk tank by the Milk Board and the understanding is that a tanker will arrive each day to collect the milk, measure the quantity and the milk will be paid for on a monthly basis. However this is not the case in practice. During the snowstorms late last winter the tanker lorries failed to get to some farms for up to five days. As a result, a lot of milk was tipped to waste and the loss fell upon the producer. This is surely wrong. I would urge the National Farmers' Union and the Board to renegotiate the contract and perhaps the Government could use a little persuasion here. It could be more important to producers in the West and in hilly districts than in some other parts of the country. In conclusion, I should like to reiterate my previous point that it would be a great loss to the country if more small farms and farmers are lost and to urge that all reasonable help should be given to these farmers to remain in business on their farms.

8.9 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join my noble friend in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, for raising this matter. As your Lordships are probably aware, it is a subject which is very close to my heart. I have a great feeling for the small man employed in agriculture in this country. If we look back over history we shall find that he has been the basis of everything on which this country has grown up and become strong. He is virtually the small countryman, the foundation on which this country rests. It frightens me when year after year we find the enormous progress which is made by cold financial reason, without any thought being given to the person to whom it applies. I think this is very sad and very disastrous, because what it is doing is discouraging from continuing with it the very people who are providing the basis of our life.

This business of doing away with the collection of churns is one which has been brought to my attention in a number of ways, and in one of the ways which the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, pointed out. We now have enormous tankers which go down very small roads. I must tell your Lordships that it was only yesterday morning when I was stopped three times on three different roads by the same tanker, and had to back, I suppose, in all, about 450 yards to enable this tanker to pass me. Not only did it stop me but I had a queue of cars backing behind me. It is very nice to have these large tankers going round, but they do tend in remote districts to disrupt the movement of people who live there. If my memory serves me correctly, when we reorganised the county councils they were given a certain length of time to put weight limits on their roads and to draw up a plan as to what weights these roads would carry. I have a feeling that, had they done this, we would not be having milk tankers down many of our roads now. They are definitely breaking roads up. When it comes to these remote areas, the money which is put into repair of them gets less and less.

The people who have to use them day in and day out all their lives are the people who are suffering, not only from the wear and tear but the damage to their vehicles in using the roads. We are getting the feeling out in these large rural areas that nobody really cares very much about what happens. We have the feeling that the noble Lords who now represent the Government, feeling that they will not win an Election there anyway, are not particularly interested, and my noble friends on the Front Bench, who know that they are going to win it, tend to be exactly the same. It is a feeling which is growing very considerably.

My Lords, I do not like seeing the small people vanish. I do not like seeing these farms getting larger and larger. The smallholder throughout this country is a man who has got to be considered. If we must have these collections, I hope the suggestion about having group chilled vats could be considered, because that would be a tremendous step to ensure that these people are able to continue in business. I should like to end by saying that I hope that, every time finance and big business consider what is to be done in the production of our material from agriculture, some thought will be given to the people who produce it, particularly the small people who have very little voice to raise to protect themselves.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add three or four sentences to this debate, if I may. I speak as a lapsed housewife. It seems to me that there is everything to be said for the arguments which have been put forward in favour of my noble friend's Question. I support my noble friend, as I say. The social consequences of this move, which seems to me an utterly ridiculous move, outweigh all the economic advantages that we might get from getting rid of the doorstep milk and getting rid of the churn. It seems to me that the present system helps working women, and there are going to be far more working women in the future than there are now; it helps the small businesses; it helps the schools. I am very pleased that my noble friend stressed the value of milk for the seven to 11 year olds in the schools, because milk is the cheapest and best food that children can have, and not only children but grown-ups too. I think that is all I have to say on this matter.

8.17 p.m.


My Lords, I think this has been an extremely interesting and extremely useful debate, far more interesting than some of the debates we have had during this day, at least to me. I am also privileged in the fact that my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek very kindly gave me a volume of his speech notes. I would like to congratulate my noble friend because he is an artist of some distinction. Accompanying the speech notes was this lovely drawing of a small farmer, with the usual piece of corn sticking out of his mouth, leaning on a gate and saying this: Dear Lord Wallace of Coslany, what about my milk churns, me missus and me cows! Write an epitaph for the little farmer". My Lords, I am not going to write an epitaph for the little farmer. In fact I would thank my noble friend Lord Davies for giving us this opportunity to discuss these arrangements for bulk collection. Before I come to reply to his points, I would like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Fortescue, on his debut, his maiden speech at the Dispatch Box. He, like me, is not exactly short, and those of us who are rather long in the leg would like an expanding Dispatch Box to reach a little higher than they actually do. However, we have to cope.

I think we all accept, as my noble friend has already said, that milk remains the central agricultural commodity. Each day in the United Kingdom some 37 million litres of milk are collected from the farms of about 70,000 producers. Of this, the Milk Marketing Board of England and Wales, whose plans are referred to specifically in my noble friend's Question, accounts for over 31 million litres, involving about 55,000 producers. Much of what is covered by this Question relates to the Board's day-to-day operations, and it is, therefore—we must admit this—something where the Government do not have a direct locus. We are in fact discussing the Milk Marketing Board but noble Lords have given their views on the Milk Marketing Board's proposals. I think it is, however, a legitimate area for us to reflect on what has been done and what is being done.

The Milk Marketing Board in England and Wales first introduced bulk collection in 1955, as an alternative to the use of churns, on a trial basis in Berkshire, but it was not until the early 1960s that development really got under way. The benefits of bulk collection over churn consignment both to the consumer and to all sectors of the dairy industry quickly became apparent. There are considerable labour savings on the farm through the elimination of churn handling; milk transport costs are reduced through the use of refrigerated bulk tankers which are more efficient than churn collection lorries; there is a reduction in distribution costs since milk handled in bulk can be brought direct from farm to dairy thus reducing the need for double handling at country depots; and there are savings in labour and other costs at the dairies through elimination of the need to receive, handle and clean churns—not to mention the elimination of noise. Finally, as bulk milk is cooled on the farm, it arrives at the dairy in a better hygienic condition than milk in churns. This also benefits the producer, of course, by reducing the risk of his milk being rejected by the receiving dairy, a point, which, if I remember correctly, was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Fortescue.

By 1973 about 68 per cent. of all milk was being collected in bulk, but this represented only about 38 per cent. of the total number of farms in England and Wales. The Board had however already recognised the need to make bulk collection attractive to the smaller producers and were able to announce that the manufacturers of bulk milk vats had been encouraged to produce small refrigerated vats of 60 to 90 gallons capacity specifically for the benefit of farmers with small herds. A special fixed rate premium was made available to producers installing small vats as well as loan arrangements under which the Board were prepared to lend up to 100 per cent. of the total cost of the vat, the loan being repayable, with interest, by deductions from the producer's monthly milk cheque.

At the same time, the Board introduced a specially trained team of bulk milk development advisers whose specific task it was to visit each remaining churn producer in each of the 11 Regions of the Board in turn—starting with the Eastern, Southern and South-Eastern and East Midlands regions where bulk collection was already most highly developed and completing their task by the end of 1977 with visits to the least developed areas (the North-West, Wales and the South-West of England)—with the overall objective of achieving 100 per cent. conversion from churn to hulk collection in 1978. In all, over 20,000 of these visits were made.

Since October 1974, producers converting to bulk have also had the opportunity to rent their vats from the Board under a scheme providing for a monthly rental for the first three years (calculated to repay the cost of the vat to the Board) and thereafter a nominal rental of £1 per month. In turn the rental scheme has enabled the Board to obtain the benefit of a grant from the EEC Agricultural Fund and this, linked with the fact that the Board are able to negotiate discounts from vat manufacturers, has meant that producers are able to rent vats from the Board at prices up to 30 per cent. less than those for outright purchases. This scheme has proved immensely popular with producers; by way of illustration, over 70 per cent. of 17,500 producers converting to bulk since 1974 have chosen the rental scheme.

By May 1975, 83 per cent. of all milk in England and Wales was being collected in bulk; and the Board established that by March 1976 all but 2 per cent. of the milk produced in the four regions where bulk collection was most advanced would consist of churn supplies. In these cirstances, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Board to find dairies willing or able to handle the residue of churns. The Board therefore announced that a churn collection charge would be introduced in the four regions on 1st August 1976 and that it would not be possible to collect churns at all in those regions after 31st July 1977—although in practice the Board decided to extend this deadline by three months to 31st October 1977 to coincide with the introduction of the EEC's Milk Non-Marketing and Conversion Premium Scheme. Churn collection charges were extended to the Board's Northern and West Midlands Regions from 1st August 1977 and will be extended to cover the rest of England and Wales from 1st August 1978. In accordance with the Board's policy to phase out churn collection completely 12 months after the introduction of the churn collection charge, churn collection will cease in the Northern and West Midlands Regions by 31st July 1978 and in the remaining regions by 31st July 1979. Currently it is estimated that about 97 per cent. of all milk produced in England and Wales involving 86 per cent. of all milk producers is collected by bulk tanker.

Noble Lords will, of course, be able to form their own judgment, but I think the Board themselves would say that they have taken considerable care in promoting bulk collection to consider the needs and problems of all milk producers particularly those with small herds, and that, over the many years that the scheme has been developing, they have been at pains to make bulk collection available to the producer on the best possible terms and to give him as much notice as possible of any developments likely to affect him. Nevertheless, I am sure they will be responsive to the points which have been raised in this excellent debate tonight, and that they will take a sympathetic view of any individual problems that may arise and do all they can to help. May I say that if any noble Lords have any individual points that they would like to make I should be grateful if they would either pass them forward through the usual channels or straight to the Milk Marketing Board.

As I have indicated, the arrangements for the collection of milk from farms are essentially a matter for the Board and the Government's role in this, both from a general point of view and in relation to the situation facing individual producers, is a very limited one. Nevertheless, from 1965 up to 31st December 1977 when the guaranteed price system came to an end, successive Governments felt justified in making financial assistance available to the Board for the bulk milk programme on the grounds of the benefits resulting from economies in milk handling and improved hygiene. Currently, grant aid is available under the Ministry of Agriculture's Farm Capital Grant Scheme at the rate of 20 per cent. to producers who install their own bulk milk vats. Thus incentives have been—and are being—offered to all producers to change over from churn to bulk milk collection, and there is no evidence to suggest that further measures are needed to help small producers.

Of course, there will be inevitable cases of special difficulty—especially the small farm with difficult access—but the Board have sought to meet this particular problem by the introduction in recent years of mobile vats which enable farmers with access problems to move their milk in bulk to a suitable roadside pick-up point. It is also fair to say that, whilst we have today dwelt on the position in England and Wales, the three milk marketing boards' areas in Scotland attained 100 per cent. bulk collection some two years ago in a way which suggests that any remaining difficulties South of the Border can be effectively dealt with.

A number of noble Lords have touched on various issues and I do not apologise for taking time to give, so far as I reasonably can, some detailed replies to their questions. The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, made a point about large tankers and small roads. Other noble Lords made a similar point and I shall deal with the matter in a moment. I rather regret the noble Lord making a political point which rather tended to make the milk debate sour, but perhaps the advent of a certain election may have prompted him to be a little careless in his approach.

I should like to say to my noble friend, Lady Gaitskell, that I cannot reply strongly enough that there is no question of stopping doorstep delivery of milk—no question whatever. No British housewife or British husband supporting his British housewife—as indeed he is almost bound to do—will allow a thing like that to come about. We can at least wave the Union Jack vigorously on that issue.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Leek certainly plied a large number of questions. He referred to grants for small farmers. I do not intend to take up the time of the House by going into a great deal of detail, but I should like to say something about the options that are open to them. It is not anticipated that the introduction of bulk milk collections will result in any farmer having to give up milk production. Small producers have, of course, been able to benefit from financial incentives, to which I have already referred, in just the same way as their colleagues with a larger scale of operation. As I have already said, it is unlikely that any farmer will be forced out of milk production by the Marketing Board's bulk conversion arrangments.

However, I should remind noble Lords that should a farmer decide that he no longer wishes to continue in milk production, certain grants are available to assist him to convert. I am speaking, of course, of the EEC's Milk Non-Marketing and Conversion Premium Scheme. This scheme—which, noble Lords may recall, was recently revised and extended by the Council of Agricultural Ministers—introduces grants, known as "non-marketing premia", to those farmers who decide to cease production of milk or milk products for marketing purposes. In addition, a higher rate of grant, known as a "conversion premium" is available to those farmers who are willing to convert from milk production to keeping beef animals or sheep. Any producer who is contemplating taking advantage of these arrangements would be well-advised to consult with local Agricultural Advisory Service, which will be pleased to assist him.

I would reiterate, as the noble Earl, Lord Fortescue, did, that a farmer with a small herd is not obliged by the Board to change to bulk collection if there is a dairy willing and able to receive his churn supply. A number of such cases exist in those regions where churn collection has already been phased out by the Board, the terms on which the churn supply is handled being a matter for agreement between the producer and the dairy.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Leek and other noble Lords have greatly stressed the question of tanker traffic. The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, spoke about large tankers obstructing his progress. I hope that they were milk tankers; if not, they might be petrol or other tankers. However, I think that we have to consider the position as it actually is. The effects of tanker traffic on rural roads and the environment generally are expected to be small in relation to the present situation. The Board's larger tankers are used only for deliveries between dairies and for the transport of milk from smaller tankers. These latter vehicles, which are used on smaller country roads, are no bigger in overall size than the standard lorry used for churn collection. The extra carrying capacity of the tanker reduces the number of vehicles on the road at any given time and also increases the work-load in a day. Moreover, tankers usually travel right up to the farm building and, therefore, do not need to wait in the road for loading, as churn lorries do.

Another important point is that where farms have poor access facilities mobile mini-vats can be used. These can be pulled by tractor or manhandled to a convenient pick-up point where the milk can be transferred to a tanker, so obviating the need for tankers to use very small country lanes. Although it is nothing to do with this actual debate, country roads come into the picture. Local authorities may obtain assistance from the European Regional Development Fund. The trouble is that some local authorities are very slow to move, but that is not the fault of the Milk Marketing Board; it is the fault of the members of the local authority. I have already mentioned doorstep milk; doorstep deliveries will continue.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Leek also asked: Is it possible to extend the green top—that is, the untreated milk scheme—to the small farmer? Farmers who sell green top milk are those who do not heat-treat or pasteurise their milk. Many of these farmers have bulk milk storage facilities. I turn to a point on which I have very strong views indeed. I am the father of two bonny children—they are getting a bit elderly now—who were reared on milk. My noble friend referred to the value of drinking milk, particularly to young children. I should like to emphasise this. It is to be hoped that all those local authorities which have not yet made up their minds will take full account of the recent advertisement by the National Dairy Council, which set out a compelling case in favour of the new discretionary milk scheme. It is important that our children should get their full share of a very important element in their diet, apart from the desirability of this country as a whole deriving maximum benefit from the EEC subsidy.

The noble Earl, Lord Fortescue, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, and others made a suggestion about producers sharing bulk vat facilities. That suggestion has certain possibilities; it is a good suggestion. There are problems in recording the quality and quantity of the milk collected and there might also be problems in monitoring supplies after they had been collected. However, we shall certainly look into the feasibility of the suggestion, which has practical possibilities; I think that there is a possibility that something could be done. That point will certainly be followed up.

I could go on and on about this very interesting subject, but I see that I have already taken 19 minutes. Perhaps I could sum up what has been said in the main issue before us tonight. I think that there is general agreement that real benefits in terms of economies in handling and improved hygiene have already accrued both to the consumer and to all sectors of the dairy industry through the conversion to bulk collection of our daily milk supplies. Most of the country is now enjoying these benefits and in England and Wales where, as I have said, 97 per cent. of all milk is now collected in bulk, the Milk Marketing Board's announcement that churn collection will cease on 31st July 1979 marks the end of a very long and painstaking exercise which has had the support of successive Governments. Throughout this exercise the Board has endeavoured to give special consideration to the position of farmers with small herds, and I am sure that this will remain uppermost in its mind as the bulk conversion programme moves to its conclusion.

May I conclude on this point. Stress has been put on the value of the small farmer and I should like to emphasise my personal support of the recognition of the small farmers for the work that they have put in. The small farmer is probably the hardest-worked member of the community in running his small farm. He not only has the problems of trying to make a living out of it, but he has the physical problems of coping with the tremendous demands. In this connection, do not let us overlook the value of the farmers' wives, many of whom are doing as hard a day's work as their husbands. I thank my noble friend for raising this Question tonight. I think that the House as a whole has given it a very reasonable and welcome discussion.