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Agriculture (Pasture Acreage)

Volume 496: debated on Wednesday 20 February 1952

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7.7 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture
(Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I beg to move,

That the Agriculture (Special Directions) (Maximum Area of Pasture) Extension of Period Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2262), dated 17th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th December, be approved.
Section 95 of the 1947 Agriculture Act gave the Minister power to make an Order
"…which must be approved by affirmative Resolution of both Houses within 28 days of Parliament's re-assembling."
The Order was first made in 1948 and it was renewed in December, 1950, to be effective in 1951. The duration of the Order now before the House is for the current year, 1952.

The effect of the Order is to give the Minister power to limit the maximum pasture acreage on a holding or, by implication, the minimum tillage acreage. In practice, the Order is operated by the county agricultural executive committees to whom the Minister delegates these powers. As to the past operation of the Order, up to 31st October last year there were about 400 directions which had been served by county committees. Most of them were fully or substantially complied with, and in only 14 cases were prosecutions necessary.

The case for continuing the Order in 1952 was stated by my right hon. and gallant Friend when he announced the introduction of the new £5 per acre grant for ploughing for the 1952 harvest, and there is a continuing need for the greatest possible production of all tillage crops, particularly coarse grain and potato crops, and in the present critical state of the nation's economy this need is greater even than it was before.

Since 1947 there has been a serious decline of more than 500,000 acres of tillage, mostly in 1951, which is serious enough in itself. A further decline now cannot be contemplated. I believe that most farmers are maintaining the maximum possible tillage acreage in response both to their own interests and the nation's needs. But there are some who could do more, and it is to provide the county committees with means to deal with those people that I am asking the House to approve this Order.

7.10 p.m.

I must apologise for having so rapidly been translated from below the Gangway to above it, but in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), for reasons that we all understand, there are one or two things which I should like to say. I do not believe that the Government side of the House expect to get away with this Order like this.

This is the Order which the present Government fought so bitterly when it was introduced in 1948. This is the Order which the present Minister of Agriculture voted against. This is the Order against which the present Leader of the House made such a violent speech. The hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. York) made a wonderful speech against this Order, and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Mallon (Mr. Turton), who is now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance, put forward many reasons why we should not have this Order.

We on this side of the House are prepared to consider the circumstances and the facts and to vote consistently. We shall vote the same way as we voted when the Order was brought in, but what about the Government side of the House? I cannot attack the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, because he was not then in Parliament, but other Members on the Government side of the House are to vote in a way opposite to that which they voted before when they would not accept the Order we proposed.

The Minister of Agriculture and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton must have some reason for changing their minds. It cannot be the economic situation because I read that the Leader of the House, when speaking of this subject in 1948, said:
"Although we are aware, that, in general, the international background and the national economic background are extremely serious today, that is not enough for this argument."
He said, in fact, that we could not use that argument, but that we must use something better. So, today, it cannot be because of the serious economic position, and something else must have happened in the interval to make him change his mind.

The hon. Member for Harrogate asked why is it we had to use this kind of sanction, and said:
"Why cannot the same sanction of public opinion be used now as was used before? The Minister is using a legislative sanction and not the sanction of public opinion.…This Order is a very serious error. It certainly has, and will further, upset the industry."
We ought to be told why a very serious error that would upset the industry is being carried on now.

Let us have a look at what was said by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton:
"I do not object to any Order against a man who is not farming in the interests of his land or country, but the men who are going to be attacked by this Order are farming in the interests of their land and are producing a good crop, which is grass."
He went further and he described the Order—the same Order as this with the same wording—in this language:
"If that is right…it means that this Order besides being oppressive, is also nonsense."
We are entitled to know why we are being presented tonight with an Order which, in the opinion of a Member of the Government, is nonsense. This Government have had sufficient time now to know the answer to that.

I could go on with further extracts. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) also made a speech against it, but I think it is hardly right to read out portions of that speech when the hon. Member is not here. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House is not here. I understand that he could not be present. I mentioned to him that I was going to raise this matter, so that I gave him notice of my intention. He began his speech in 1948 by saying:
"I will say that most sensible people in the country object to being ordered about by directions."
He then went on to give the argument which I have already read to the House about the economic situation:
"Although we are aware that, in general, the international background and the national economic background are extremely serious today, that is not enough for this argument…That is the Labour Party and the Labour Government all over again—the big instrument for the little necessity."
It is not the Labour Party or the Labour Government now. It is the Conservative Party and the Conservative Government who are introducing this Order.

The right hon. Gentleman said:
"What is being done by this order is typical of that mentality…the Government are making a terrible psychological blunder for which the whole farming community, who have done everything they can to increase production, as was asked for by the Government last year, will suffer."
The Government ought not to perpetuate terrible psychological blunders. They have had time to put these things right. The right hon. Gentleman also said:
"It is an absolutely stupid thing"—
this Government are carrying on doing a stupid thing—
"when an immense voluntary effort is needed and is being accorded, to introduce this great hammer of compulsory direction."
As I say, I absolve the Parliamentary Secretary from any blame, but the farmers of Guildford ought to be told that their representative is introducing what the present Leader of the House once described as a
"great hammer of compulsory direction."
and that he also said that this was
"an absolutely stupid thing to do."
The farmers of Thirsk and Malton and of Richmond, in Yorkshire, ought to be told what the Government are up to tonight; indeed, the farmers of the country should be informed. We on this side of the House are entitled to an explanation, in view of the fact that the Leader of the House said:
"Surely we are not in the very parlous condition that we have got to have peace-time powers of direction which are admittedly against the rules of good husbandry throughout the country."
The Parliamentary Secretary is bringing in an Order which a member of the Cabinet, which he supports, has admitted as being against all the rules of good husbandry. As the right hon. Gentleman went on he worked himself up into a real passion:
"It is a monstrous thing to bring this great weapon of direction into force for what is admittedly to be a comparatively small majority."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 19th July, 1948; Vol. 454, c. 123–152.]
So we have an absolutely stupid thing, which is quite monstrous. He said that the only reason the Order was introduced was because the gentlemen in Whitehall knew best. He ended in much the same way as he had begun.

So we have the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), who used to wind up debates in those days, the hon. Member for Harrogate and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton supporting this Order tonight. None of them is completely inarticulate or a "yes man" for this Administration, but they are being asked here tonight to support what was once described by them and by leading members of their party as a stupid, monstrous, cruel, and dictatorial thing. I do not think the Government can get away with it.

It is true that the present Minister of Agriculture, on that occasion, kept out of that discussion. I remember trying to get him to make a speech that night. I did not succeed, but he went into the Lobby and voted against the Order. Several other hon. Members opposite voted against the Order then with the hon. and gallant Member for Rutland and Stamford (Major Conant) and the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Drewe) acting as serjeant majors and whipping them up and getting them into the Lobby.

I shall advise my hon. Friends tonight to be consistent and vote the same way as they voted in 1948. We regard the economic situation as serious, but here tonight we see a Government going to do the very thing which they described as wrong in 1948, and I think we are entitled to an explanation.

7.19 p.m.

It was a very good thing that in 1948 my hon. Friends and I made such a fight against this Order. The result was that the Ministry of Agriculture were forewarned that if there was an abuse of their powers, arising out of this Order, there would be serious consequences. To many of my hon. Friends direction of this kind is reprehensible.

Many of the things in this Order are objectionable to us, but hon. Members opposite must realise that we have received a legacy from them which we cannot digest in five minutes. We have to continue a considerable number of wholly objectionable Measures that we hope in due course to obliterate. I confess that the Government thoroughly deserve the barracking that they have had. I do not think that we ought to extend this Order for a future year. I shall not support a similar Order for another year.

7.21 p.m.

Many hon. Members remember the action that has been taken by the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. York) on many occasions, and not just on this Order. I remember the discussion that took place on many proposals in the main Agriculture Bill of 1947. In the Committee stage on that Bill, the hon. Gentleman used to argue his point very forcibly that we were interfering with the freedom of the individual and were taking powers that we ought not to have. That was his attitude when he opposed this Order. He ought to say now that his party was wrong and admit it, instead of trying to make an excuse for the action which it is taking.

I am not referring to any particular Clause, but if the hon. Gentleman will read his own speeches on the Clauses of the Agriculture Bill—

Any of them. Take the Clause on direction. The hon. Gentleman may take pride in the fact—

I must point out to the House that discussion on a statutory Order must be strictly limited to the contents of the Order.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, but I was drawn into an argument by the hon. Gentleman. I merely ask that the Opposition should come clean on this point. [Laughter.] I mean the opposition—which is still there on the Government side of the House—to this Order. The hon. Gentleman has said that he has not changed his opinion. He should be prepared to say that his colleagues are wrong, and particularly the present Minister of Agriculture, who was against this Order. We support the Order because we believe that it is necessary in the interests of food production. I am very glad that my hon. Friends on this side of the House are taking a much more responsible attitude to British agriculture than the Tory Opposition did when we were in the Government.

7.23 p.m.

I must congratulate the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). He has really had a field day today. Considering that his hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) has also tried to restore the confidence of the country in the agricultural intentions of his party he has had a good day.

Reading past copies of HANSARD is a fascinating occupation. I daresay there are speeches that could be taken out of it, not necessarily referring to the right hon. Gentleman, but to other hon. Members, that would fill them with embarrassment. If we have many more speeches of the kind we have had in the last few weeks, the Opposition, if they find themselves back on this side of the House again, may be very much embarrassed at them.

Well, we shall see.

It is a point worth making that the greater part of the decline in the tillage acreage in this country took place in 1951 and to a certain extent in 1950. The right hon. Gentleman did not know that, when this Order was renewed at the end of 1949. At that time the Order went through on the nod. He did not at that time charge hon. Members of the Government, who were then in the Opposition, with any inconsistency. It was very significant that the Order went through so easily. The greater part of the decline has taken place in the past year. We have something like 500,000 fewer acres of tillage in 1952.

The cogency of this Order is very much what it was before. We have always been prepared to look at the facts of a case and to apply what we think the best practical measure to deal with the situation. In the circumstances, my right hon. Friend was more than justified in taking the view that, in the circumstances and the present position of the country, it was necessary to extend this Order for another year. I trust that the House will give this Order its approval.

Question put, and agreed to.

That the Agriculture (Special Directions) (Maximum Area of Pasture) Extension of Period Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2262), dated 17th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th December, be approved.