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Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 12 September 1950

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

10.0 p.m.

It may not seem appropriate, when Parliament has been recalled from the long Recess to debate such an important subject as Defence, to raise a matter so homely as smallholdings, but I make no apology for doing so, because I think that one of the things on which this House prides itself is the airing of grievances, whenever possible, and I have a grievance to air tonight, which I think concerns constituents other than my own and which certainly is a very great grievance so far as my own constituency is concerned. If I had had my way, I would have raised this matter much sooner, and I have been trying to do so since April. I am only sorry that it has not been possible to raise it before.

I was particularly aware during the Election and before it that a considerable number of men on the land are very far from happy. Particularly is this so with part-time smallholders. These are the people who work for someone else all day and in the evenings and on half-days and holidays work on their own account, running their own holdings of very limited acreage. I was particularly glad that the Conservative Party at the last Election said that it was in favour of the continuance of part-time holdings and sorry that His Majesty's Government could not also support that policy.

Last year, the first report of the Smallholdings Advisory Council was published and in that, the final conclusion was come to that part-time holdings ought to end. On the wider aspect of that Report, I have little or no criticism, because I believe it to have been an intelligent and sincere attempt to guide those who would have to deal with Part IV of the Agriculture Act. I am afraid that it is not working out in the way that even the authors of the Report intended. In paragraph 18 of the Report we read:
"We consider that smallholdings authorities should be given as much latitude as possible in the discharge of the functions entrusted to them—"
I hope the Parliamentary Secretary is listening—
"particularly in the day-to-day management of their smallholding estates."
That thought, coming from a Council which included the Parliamentary Secretary who, I think, is its chairman, and the hon. Members for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) and Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye), whom I am glad to see present, was certainly a very welcome point of view. I would submit to them, however, that deeds and not words are what are really required, and I am afraid that, in accepting the recommendations of the Council, the Minister has overlooked that some of these recommendations are proving so unpopular with smallholdings committees that a deadlock will very soon be reached, which I am afraid, no kind words can overcome.

Paragraph 35 of the Report admits that
"While we cannot offer precise advice—"
regarding the size of holding—
"since circumstances and land qualities vary so much from county to county and from one part of a county to another, we feel it is desirable to provide authorities with some guidance as to general principles."
That all sounds most helpful, but unfortunately the Advisory Council go on to say that a smallholding must provide a full-time occupation and a reasonable livelihood for the occupier. I am not blaming the Council for saying that, because that is in Part IV of the Agriculture Act, but the result is that by accepting the report of the Council the Minister has now made it obligatory on county council smallholdings committees to begin the process of eliminating smallholdings by amalgamating them with others to make up holdings of a minimum size of 50 acres.

From the point of view of my own constituency, the minimum considered necessary there for a full-time holding, owing to the productivity of the soil, is only 20 acres. In England and Wales there are 13,161 full-time holdings and 9,288 part-time holdings. These incorporate over 22,000 acres, of which over 12,000 are divided into holdings of less than 10 acres. In other words, about two-thirds of the holdings in the country are part-time and over one-half of all the holdings are less than 10 acres. In my constituency, the position is greatly aggravated by the fact that we had at the time of this report 1,417 part-time and only 200 full-time holdings.

With Part IV of the Agriculture Act coming into force, the Isle of Ely County Council advertised for applications for full-time holdings. Last December they received 269 applications for full-time holdings, but in addition, and without asking for them, they received 242 others applying for part-time holdings of an average of 8½ acres each. The last list of applications for part-time holdings, in Michaelmas, 1949, produced 685 applications for 548 acres divided into holdings of about five acres. I hope that with these figures I have convinced the Parliamentary Secretary that the Isle of Ely has a very big demand for part-time holdings, a demand which is far greater than that for full-time holdings.

The graver problem that confronts the county council is disclosed in the answer the Parliamentary Secretary gave me last April, when he said that between 1st October, 1945, and 30th September, last year, there had been 15,984 applicants for holdings, of which less than one-fifth had been granted, there being 9,950 applications outstanding, involving possibly 248,000 acres. I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that his predecessor said on 28th January, 1947, when speaking on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill, that 5,000 new holdings or more in five years were visualised, and when someone suggested that that was being set as a limit said, no, but that it was an example of what he hoped to do. To convert to full-time holdings of about 20 acres all the existing estates will mean the elimination of over 1,000 tenants in the Isle of Ely alone, let alone the provision of holdings for new applicants.

The cost of putting the existing holdings into the state now required by the Minister is estimated at approximately £500 per set of buildings, excluding houses, of which there are now 247. To provide the houses needed, if this conversion takes place, will mean 370 new houses and 242 new sets of buildings costing about £1,200,000. In the Isle of Ely a penny rate produces about £1,240, and to cover the estimated cost of all these conversions to the new set-up the county rate will have to be increased by 8d. to 9d. in the £.

I hope, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will realise that it is not surprising that there is some reluctance on the part of the county to proceed on the lines which the Minister has laid down and which the Lands Commissioner is prodding them to follow. The Isle of Ely does not wish to lay down what should be the procedure in other counties, but they have had meetings with Norfolk and the Holland Division of Lincolnshire and have found that the problems there are very similar.

I am pleading with the Minister tonight to treat the Isle of Ely and any other county which can substantiate similar difficulties, as a special case. I ask him to remember that this county has the highest number of part-time smallholdings and the greatest demand for them of any county in England or Wales. I ask him to remember that, while the English and Welsh county average for the number of holdings between nought and five acres is 129, the Isle of Ely has 894, and in the case of holdings of five to 10 acres, whilst the English and Welsh county average is 59, the Isle of Ely has 312. Those figures express a demand for part-time holdings of a considerably smaller size than the minimum laid down under the new direction.

That demand may be explained by the older men who say that after the First World War they put all they had into fulltime holdings, and in those days when there was no protection from foreign dumping and no guaranteed prices a great many of them lost all they had, and they are not prepared to risk again putting everything they have got into full-time holdings. Their view, which I think is understandable is certainly listened to by a great number of the young men some of whom came out of the Second World War.

There is not a demand for full-time holdings, yet the Ministry are insisting on amalgamating part-time holdings to make full-time ones. That, surely, is putting the cart before the horse. It is providing for a demand that does not exist, and it is denuding the market that does exist of what was available, all for the sake of an ideal, which may be admirable in many counties and in many ways, but from the Fens point of view is just crazy. It is resulting in an ever-growing number of disappointed men, who are ready to help their country and county by helping themselves and working on their own account very often in their spare time.

I know that some farmers in other counties do not like men having a holding because they think they would pay more attention to the holding than to the job which the farmer wants them to do. I have never heard that complaint in the Isle of Ely, and that is confirmed by the county council itself. In fact, we believe that good farm management will obtain good service, and in the Fens if the farm is not well managed, the farmer fails.

This is another case of whether the man in Whitehall or the man in the local district knows best. Those who know the Fens best know that if a deadlock is wanted, it is only necessary to start trying to enforce something which the Fenman knows will not work, and which, as in this particular case, he is convinced will not result in improved farming. The reputation of the Ministry of Agriculture in the Fens is very much better than the reputation of the Ministry of Food, and I hope the Minister will think again on this subject. Let the Fens farm worker have his part-time holding and he will respond as nobly as anyone can desire. Deprive him of what helps him to make family life a little less austere and saves the nation food, and the agricultural labour force will be further depleted just when we desperately need to increase it.

May I refer to paragraph 133 of the Report, which states that in Section 50 (4) the Minister may—and I emphasise "may"; it is not "shall"—give a smallholdings authority a direction to alter the size or layout of an existing holding where he considers it necessary either to ensure that the holding can provide a reasonable livelihood or for efficient farming. I invite the Parliamentary Secretary to show me where part-time holdings in the Isle of Ely are inefficiently farmed. I am confident he will find that they are well farmed and I say, in the words of Lord Palmerston, "Pray, Sir, have the goodness to leave things alone."

10.15 p.m.

I am grateful personally to the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) for raising this question of part-time holdings. As he said, I am a member of the Smallholdings Advisory Council, and I subscribe to the recommendations as to grouping small pieces of land where possible and thus creating full-time holdings. As President of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, which has many part-time holders as members, I am concerned to see that the interests of part-time holders, men who work full-time on the farm and cultivate these small pieces of land in their spare time, are attended to. Most of these men are doing a good job and producing abundance of food, while adding to their personal incomes in this way. There is an impression abroad that the intention is to take these small pieces of land from them and to add them to larger holdings. That is not the intention at all. It is to group them where possible so as to create further full-time holdings. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman has said, our part of the country is very much concerned about this matter.

In Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridge and the Isle of Ely there are many part-time holdings. Representations have been made to me and to other hon. Members with regard to the possibility of wholesale dispossession. The Norfolk Smallholders' Committee thought that a useful purpose would be served by a joint approach to the Minister of Agriculture, to secure guidance as to policy. I raised the matter with the Minister, who very gladly agreed to receive a joint deputation from the counties named. The deputation was received by the Minister in a short time.

There are many hundreds of approved applicants for holdings on the Norfolk County Council list, but we cannot relieve the demand in Norfolk for more full-time holdings merely by amalgamating the part-time holdings. We can do that only by taking possession of other estates and creating entirely new holdings, and then, I hope, see to the possibility of running them on a co-operative basis. The chief difficulty is to get the land. The Labour Government have made farming so prosperous that neither owners nor occupants of land want to part with it. The prosperity of agriculture mitigates against the successful development of smallholdings policy. I am concerned to see that there shall not be any undue disturbance of part-time holders and that no harsh treatment shall be meted out to them. These men are doing a fine job of work and they should be left to carry on with it.

10.18 p.m.

The speech of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) and that of the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) together with my own intervention, should convince the Minister that this is no party matter. We represent parts of the country where the part-time holding for the farm worker in regular employment is a valuable part of the local set-up. It is of advantage to agriculture as a whole and to the individual men themselves. On the rich, valuable land of these counties there is the opportunity for the men to start small part-time holdings, while retaining full employment on a farm. They can farm their own land with the same operations which they see performed on the larger holdings of the farm. The men learn in the most practical way to fit themselves to enter into the field as full-time small holders.

There are additional crops such as onions and strawberries which are of particular value to the community and which are essentially useful to the part-time smallholder. We all recognise the good work of the Advisory Council, but let us equally realise that, in certain parts of the country, the general recommendations must be dealt with in the most delicate and careful manner, or great hardship will prevail.

10.20 p.m.

It may well be that hon. Members recognise the valuable work of the Advisory Council, but what they do not seem to recognise is the essential purpose of the 1947 Agriculture Act. I think it is permissible to mention that this point was never queried during the passage of the Act. I have looked up the Debates to see whether this basic principle was challenged at the time, and it was not. All who spoke paid tribute to the ideal that we ought to change our smallholdings policy fundamentally in order to provide full-time occupation of holdings which would return what was many times called "a reasonable standard of living." The whole argument here really is whether at this late stage we shall now go back upon the cardinal principle of Part IV of the Act that the aim of a smallholdings policy is to provide a ladder of opportunity for the farm worker whereby he may have a full-time holding and get from it a reasonable standard of living.

There is no question here of the men in Whitehall or the local men knowing best, as the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) put it. After all, this is a principle of the Act which was supported by everybody in the House, and it was also considered at great length by the Advisory Council which, if I am left out, consists wholly of local men. The Fen men were also on that Council. This proposal was thought out by the people who know the local conditions. It is all very well to say that we can have a general principle in an Act of Parliament but should exclude the Isle of Ely. If it is important to provide this ladder of opportunity for the farm worker to become a farmer on his own account, one is not doing a service to the workers of the Isle of Ely by excluding them.

Nobody is insisting that there shall be wholesale notices to quit in order to convert existing part-time holdings into full-time holdings. I have given that assurance again and again. The hon. and gallant Gentleman brought along a deputation from the Isle of Ely about 12 months ago, and I have here a transcript of what was said. I gave a most firm assurance—and was thanked for it by the Clerk of the Council, who was a member of the delegation—that that was not intended. We have said that there shall be no new part-time holdings because that would be a breach of what was the will of Parliament and what is enshrined in the Act, but that existing part-time holdings shall be amalgamated and turned into permanent holdings as opportunity provides.

I was given by that deputation what was to me an astonishingly high figure of the number of part-time holdings which fall in every year. I am speaking from memory, but I do not think I am far out when I say it was about 200. At any rate, it went into three figures. I am told that it is 100 and not 200. If that number of part-time holdings falls in every year it is obvious that in the course of time, without causing anybody any discomfort, there will be considerable opportunities to group holdings, amalgamate them and turn them into full-time holdings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) said, and that is really what we are suggesting should be done.

I am afraid I cannot give way. We have asked the county councils concerned to conduct a review of demands, of the existing situation, what is required in the way of equipment and how holdings are likely to come together for use in this way. We have asked them to let the Ministry have their reviews so that we can discuss with them what their difficulties are. I assure everybody that there is no intention whatsoever of ignoring the difficulties—the difficulty of money, of equipment, of people already in possession and so on—in bringing the existing part-time holdings into line with the new policy. We shall certainly be prepared to see this done over quite a period of time in such a way that all the difficulties are taken care of, but we certainly take the view—I do personally, and it was the will of Parliament—that the new policy shall hold the field. There is something significant about a system of part-time holdings which leads to that number falling in every year.

It is not so. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman, who comes from a long way from the Fen country, should go and have a look.

The hon. Gentleman sought courteously to interrupt just now when I was not able to give way because of the shortness of time. He should not now seek to do the same thing discourteously. If he will look at the reason for those falling in, he will find that he is not right. I was particularly interested in this and examined it closely.

The hon. Gentleman should not forget the demands which immediately follow those falling in.

I shall come to that in a moment. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said that many of these men were discouraged from putting in for full-time holdings because they had been told what happened to smallholders after the First World War. It was precisely because of the shocking mess made by the Government after the First World War that we decided to change the smallholdings policy this time. I became interested in this because I knew men who went on the land after the First World War in the county where I gained such farming knowledge as I have; I knew what happened to them, and I do not want to see that happen again. Much sentiment and emotion can be brought into this, but I believe that a system of bare land holdings, even where they are intended to be part-time, is a bad smallholdings policy. In fact, I do not believe it is a smallholdings policy at all. I believe that is confusing what is really an allotment policy with a smallholdings policy; it is confusing the distribution of pieces of land for what are really large allotments with a smallholdings policy which is intended to do something entirely different.

I hope that we shall resist the sentiment that may be introduced, and certainly resist the pressure to have one county treated as a special case. Norfolk, who are associated with the deputation that is coming to see the Minister, have, despite their views about this—and I want them to be assured that there will be no hardship—done quite a lot since the end of the war to obtain new land on which to create new full-time holdings, and have spent a good deal of money and put schemes up to us. We have not yet had one scheme from the Ely County Council and not one proposal to acquire land for full-time holdings.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman says we shall not get them. I think we are entitled to draw the attention of the Ely County Council to the fact that they are the smallholdings authority; they are there to carry out a smallholdings policy. I think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman would perform a very good service to the farm workers in the Isle of Ely if he suggested to the county council that the time may well have come, while discussing with us the difficulties of implementing the conversion of existing estates—and I have given the most sweeping assurances about this—to proceed to prepare schemes for acquiring land for new holdings. I am as sure now as I was when the Agriculture Act went through the House that this is the right policy for us to follow.

I hope that we shall not be talked away from this point of view. We can do a great deal to give the farm worker the thing that takes the place of the chance of promotion in other industries. I believe that the only other thing can be the chance to work on his own. I do not believe that he learns on a part-time holding, because he cannot possibly learn the economics of the job or its marketing problems. He will only learn that on a properly equipped smallholding on good land which will give him a full-time occupation and a reasonable income. I hope that we adhere closely to that, because I am sure that in that way we shall do much more good for the farm workers of the Isle of Ely and the rest of the country than in going back to what was always a reactionary and would now be a very retrograde policy.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.