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Hill Farming Losses

Volume 436: debated on Friday 18 April 1947

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

4.5 p.m.

The matter to which I wish to draw the attention of the House this afternoon is that of the plight of the hill farmers in the country as a result of the recent severe weather. I know that all farmers throughout the country have suffered loss not only as a result of the prolonged cold weather, but also as a result of floods, but I hope I will be excused if this afternoon I refer only to the hill farmers, as that is a subject which particularly affects a large number of my constituents. This House is fully aware of the importance that is attached to hill farming. One of our earliest duties in this Parliament was to pass through all its stages the Hill Farming Bill which arose as a result of reports from two committees, the De La Warr Committee and the Balfour Committee set up by the Coalition Government to put forward recommendations as to how this industry could be rehabilitated.

Since that Bill was passed we have been faced with this disaster, and I would like to remind the House that the last crisis which we discussed, that of the coal shortage, arose only because my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr.Prescott) was lucky in securing the Adjournment of the House on which to debate that subject. Now I have had that good fortune, and raise a matter which will vitally affect our food in the next few months or years. I know that a number of statements have been made from time to time; two, I think, Lave been made by the Minister of Agriculture, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned this aspect of our economy in his Budget speech when he assured us, and repeated the assurance to us yesterday, that he would not be niggardly in the matter of compensation or in whatever way it is decided to tackle the problem.

The full extent of the capital losses cannot yet be calculated. It is variously estimated to he from 20 per cent. to 5o per cent. of the hill flocks, and in some instances, I believe particularly in Wales, they go up as high as 8o per cent., but in my constituency and, no doubt, in many others, the snowdrifts are still on the fell sides and they must be still covering a number of victims of this severe weather. Also many of the breeding ewes which have survived the winter are too weak to reproduce, and in some parts of the country we will be lucky if as much as 4o per cent. of our lambing stocks reach maturity. It is not only sheep which have been affected. There has been a large loss of cattle. I have seen not only dead sheep, but also dead cattle lying on the fell sides in the snow. The loss of cattle will vitally affect the country's milk production later in the year. The point that must be borne in mind is that these hill flocks can only be re-established by their own breeding. These flocks are "bound to the ground." I think that is the term. They are acclimatised to their own particular part of the fell. If new stock is introduced they will wander all over the country, and involve the farmers in a great deal of extra work and trouble. Therefore, the problem with which we are faced is, how the hill farmers are to earn their livelihood while they are building up their flocks, which may take anything from three to five years, or even longer. It is true, of course, that, in the normal process of eliminating the older members of the flock, there will be a certain number of sales, which will take place this season.

The Minister of Agriculture, I know, is fully aware of the position, because only a few weeks ago at Gloucester he said that the hill farmers occupied a key position in our whole agricultural economy, and that we could not afford to see them go under for lack of help in their hour of need. But later, I think in the same speech, he said, referring to the responsibility in this matter, the problem of assuring supplies of feeding stuffs for the hill districts was the 'first to arise, and that these difficulties were foreseen last harvest, when abnormal losses of fodder crops occurred as a result of the bad weather at the time. The farming community will not forget that they gave ample warning to the Minister. The Minister now repeats that these difficulties were foreseen last autumn. We accuse the Government of not taking adequate steps at the time to ensure that fodder would be made available during the winter months for farmers who had had a bad hay crop. The Minister went on, as is customary, to apportion blame in other quarters—to say that priority in transport was given to fuel. I am afraid that appears to be another case where the Minister of Agriculture has failed to make his point with the Cabinet, for the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Fuel and Power obtained the priority.

There are several special points to which I should like to draw the attention of the Government in connection with the country districts. The farmer's wife has had a particularly difficult time during this bad weather. Owing to the rationing and points system she has ben unable to lay in stocks of food, a thing which all country people use to do before the war. I should like to ask the Government if they could consider some scheme whereby the farmers in isolated districts—some of my farmers have been cut off from market for as long as eight weeks—could be allowed to build up stocks of coal and feedingstuffs during the autumn? Extra rations for self-employed farmers is also a vital question. I know we discussed this in the House last night. I must say I thought the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food excelled herself when she suggested that these farmers might all run canteens. Perhaps, if she will come up into the more remote parts of our country, and see how the farmers live, instead of enjoying the more exotic atmospheres elsewhere, she would be wiser, I he miners are receiving special consideration with regard to food, and I should like to see that extended to hill farmers.

Another point which arises is that of farmers' sons being called up for national service. Could not that be deferred for the time being? The most difficult type of labour to replace is farm labour and, where there may be only one or two sons on an isolated farm, if they are taken away, then the cultivation and, indeed, the whole success of the farm suffers severely. A small item which has been mentioned before at Question time is that of baling wire which has added to the troubles of the hill farmers. Hay is carted on the fells largely by the use of sledges, and hay which is not baled is very difficult to handle. I ask the Minister whether he can arrange also for additional supplies of timber to be made available to the wheelwrights in the country districts. They have had very great difficulty in effecting the necessary repairs to the sledges used on the mountains during the bad weather.

A minor point which farmers felt acutely was the loss of 4d. per gallon suffered because milk produced in February could not be delivered until March when, as the Minister knows, the price was reduced. In regard to extra rations for calves over six months old, if some of the rations available in the discretionary allowance could be used for this purpose, it would be greatly appreciated. The young stock on the hill farms has suffered great privations in recent months. Many hon. Members feel that the farmers would have been in a position to have weathered at least some of their losses if the price structure and taxation during the past few years had enabled them to build up reserves. Few people in the towns fully realise the gravity of the situation. Perhaps they will begin to notice its effect on their dinner plates later in the year. I am afraid that, as a result of this disaster which has befallen the hill farmers, there may be a flight from the hills. It is very difficult to replace the farmers when they leave. The solution which, so far, has been offered, is that of an agricultural fund, to which the Government are to contribute. When speaking at Gloucester the other day, the Minister of Agriculture said that it would take every ounce of determination that our hill farmers possessed to surmount their losses. I think it will take a little more than determination. We want something tangible from the Government. The Minister also said:
It is cleat that our home food supplies are goring to be seriously prejudiced by our recent heavy losses and the lateness of the season."
We want to hear what remedy the Government are to put forward. The Minister has also said in this House that the Government considered that the losses were a matter of national importance and that they should be restored at the earliest possible moment. I think that there will be difficulties with the administration of the agricultural fund. It is to be administered in districts by three representatives from the National Farmers' Union and three from the county committees. Would the Minister himself like to be one of these farmers having to administer a fund to his fellow farmers and having to impose innumerable means tests? The National Farmers' Union are afraid that as a result of this they may lose a large number of members. In any case, while we appreciate the generosity of those who have contributed to the fund—and we thank them for that—we fear that the amount of money which it is hoped to raise will be far from adequate. These losses have been estimated to be in the neighbourhood of from £20 million to £40 million.

This is a national problem. The small hill man has to meet the cost of rent, fertilisers and seeds for spring sowing. He needs financial help immediately. I hope at a later stage, when compensation is considered, that some reference will be made to the census of 1946 and to the June return of 1947. Only then can he see the full extent of the loss which those farmers have suffered. I have included in my remarks not only the hill farmers, but also the farms on marginal land. Their losses have been in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent. or more. I urge the Minister to do all he can for these important sections of the community.

4.21 p.m.

I am sure the House will be greatly indebted to the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Drayson) for raising this question. I fear that I cannot associate myself with the criticisms he has made of the Government, nor do I entirely agree with all the matters of fact that he has stated. Things may be different in his part of the country from what they are in mine. I speak as a practical hill farmer and as a member of the Committee which has been set up by the Secretary of State for Scotland to advise him in the administration of the Hill Farming Act. I do not think we can yet ascertain the nature of the disaster. Definitely we have incurred a disaster but quite how bad it will be we do not know. Ewes are still dying of the suffering that they went through during the winter, and in some parts of the country hill lambing is only just starting. On my own farm, hill lambing starts today. We cannot possibly tell what the weather is going to be. If the weather is warm and the sun is shining the lambs will require only about half the milk they need when it is cold.

Farmers have obviously lost so much money that they are seriously concerned lest they should be deferred from putting in claims under the Hill Farming Act. The House will know that it is necessary to put in a comprehensive scheme of rehabilitation. That will cost a lot of money and in many cases the farmer will be deterred by the loss he has suffered from putting in any sort of claim at all. He will fear that the scheme will be too expensive. That position will react very seriously upon the national interest. It is absolutely necessary that we should rehabilitate our new grazings and be enabled thereby to raise more sheep and cattle. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give some assurance this afternoon to the hill farmers that will enable them to go forward with confidence with their comprehensive schemes under the Hill Farming Act.

4.23 p.m.

The House is, I agree, indebted to the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Drayson) for raising this important matter of the plight of the hill sheep farmers. The gravity of their losses arising from the exceptional severity and duration of the winter weather is fully recognised by the Government, who have been doing their utmost to mitigate the effect and they are taking further steps towards that end. The preliminary estimates of the losses were that we had lost one million ewes, and 1,750,000 born and unborn lambs which had perished from exposure or starvation. [An HON. MEMBER: "In the United Kingdom?"] Yes. The greater proportion of them were on the hills. Store cattle were also affected. From further inquiries which have been made it is believed that those figures understate the severity of the crisis. The figures are not known finally but it is believed that in Great Britain the loss of sheep is as high as 1,140,000 and that the lambing losses may be as high as two million. The effect of these losses is very great. The sheep-breeding stocks on the hills have been greatly reduced and most hill farmers' incomes must be affected for some years, both through the smaller sales of draught ewes, of lambs, of wool and of cattle. Inevitably, they will be compelled to retain all suitable ewes and ewe lambs on the hills for breeding purposes until they can re-establish their flocks.

The National Farmers Union have set up a fund out of which hill farmers may be compensated for their capital losses on livestock, so far, of course, as the size of the fund permits, and the Minister has announced tht the Government are prepared to contribute to that fund approximately the same amount as is subscribed by farmers and others. Compensation will be paid from that fund for exceptional mortality among ewes and hoggs and also for ewe lambs normally retained on the farms for breeding. It is, of course, too early to state what the size of the fund will be, and, therefore, to what extent the total capital losses will be met. Under the Hill Farming Act, subsidy payments are made on the number of ewes and shearling ewes in the flock on 4th December in the previous year, and the rate of subsidy is determined on the basis of changes in costs and receipts of the hill sheep farmers, in the 12 months preceding that period. This subsidy payment takes account of the greater or lesser net returns to the farmer over the period. The rate for 1947 has already been fixed at 8s. 9d. per ewe—ewes that were in the flock in December, 1946. That rate was determined before the blizzard and before the ill effects of it on the sheep flocks were known, so there is no reason to alter the 1947 rate.

The Government have decided to do two things: Firstly, to assist those farmers whose flocks have been seriously depleted, it is proposed to pay the subsidy payments for 1948 and 1949 and perhaps 1950 upon the number of ewes and shearling ewes that were in the flocks in Decembre, 1946. That is, of course, on the numbers as they were before the blizzards. I am sure that the House will appreciate what that means in practice. It will mean, in fact, that by adopting the December, 1946, figures, the volume of the subsidy that will be paid to the hill sheep farmers will be much greater. Even if we return to the normal flocks in 195o, and pay the subsidy on the number of sheep, ewes and shearlings that there were in the preceding December, the arrangement will be made by which on appeal, on the individual facts of a particular case, being established, the 1946 December figures can still be taken as a basis. I am sure that the House will readily agree that this is of not inconsiderable assistance to the hill sheep farmers in meeting their difficulties.

Secondly, it is proposed that the Ministry shall pay in 1947 to those farmers who desire it, an advance of up to 5s. per ewe against the subsidy payable in 1948 Clearly, that will enable the hill sheep farmer who has had some difficulty in tiding over this period to draw an advance up to 5s. per ewe which normally would be payable when he gets the 1948 subsidy. In regard to the rate of subsidy for 1948, and in the next few years ahead, it is bound, of course, to reflect the smaller numbers of ewes and lambs which hill farmers will have for disposal in the autumn, both in this and succeeding years, and therefore, it has not been possible at present to forecast actually what the rate of subsidy will be for 1948 and the subsequent years, but I think that it is reasonable to say that inevitably it is bound to be appreciably higher than the 8s. 9d. per ewe payable this year as it has regard to the income and debts of the hill farmers. I should think that it is unlikely to fall below 10s. earlier than the next two years ahead. These are the very positive things that are being done in this matter. There is a further point that this may involve amendment of the Hill Farming Act. Then we want to do what may be possible—and we all know the difficulties—to get stock suitable for the hill farms. In Northern Ireland, where the weather has been less severe, if there are any suitable sheep coming into the grading centres capable of going on hill farms, we want to obtain control of them, so that we can help the hill sheep farmers

With regard to the two points of criticism which have been made, I know that the hon. Member appreciates, no less than I do, the assistance which the Government have tried to give to the hill farmers during these difficulties, and he is aware that we tried with some success, in his own neighbourhood, to drop fodder from aeroplanes. The Government made no difficulties in enabling the hill farmers, so far as they were able, to get fodder on to their farms. They could have done it. In point of fact, the Government had an assisted scheme by which they undertook to provide 75 per cent, of the costs necessarily involved in transport to bring fodder from another part of the country into the hill districts. If criticism is to be made we must not overlook the other side of the matter.

The hon. Gentleman made one other point, and that was in regard to timber used by the local wheelwright. He asked that something might be done in regard to this timber. Every one knows how exceedingly tight timber is, and we in the Ministry have an allocation but I can assure hon. Members that we have no difficulty whatever in getting rid of our allocation. The wheelwright has the highest possible percentage of timber supplies that we could reasonably give him within our own Department, and if I remember rightly, wheelwrights at the moment are getting 8o per cent. of their applications met. I think for the current quarter their applications are being met to the extent of 70 per cent. of their demand. I should like to assure the House that in this matter of timber supplies we are doing everything possible to meet these difficulties, particularly those of the village wheelwright, because the Ministry is very appreciative of the assistance which village wheelwrights give to the farming industry generally.

There was one other point on which the hon. Member for Skipton was critical. I was astonished at his criticism, of the way in which the fund of the National Farmers Union, which the Government is assisting, is to be administered in the localities. He complained of the fact that there are to be three farmers on the Committee. Who would he have administering the Committee if it were not the farmers themselves? This fund is to help the farmers in all these localities, and I do not see how it could be properly administered without the assistance of farmers. I am perfectly certain the farmers would not like that suggestion.

No, I have not time to give way. I think I may say with the utmost respect that the hon. Gentleman was a little previous with his criticism on that point. The administration of the fund has been most carefully thought out, and I feel certain that when the fund is administered it will be done with credit to the organisation and the parties responsible for it.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTYSPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13 th November, as applied by the Order made upon 12th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-four Minutes to Five o'Clock