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Agriculture, Scotland (Pasture Acreage)

Volume 496: debated on Wednesday 20 February 1952

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Agriculture (Maximum Area of Pasture) (Extension) (Scotland) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2199), dated 12th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be approved.—[Mr. Snadden.]

7.27 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland should say a word about this Order before the House is asked to approve it. He did not commit the error which the Leader of the House did in 1948, because we did not then have the Scottish Order. We had one in December, 1949. He did not make such a speech as did the right hon. Gentleman when the English Order was brought forward in July, 1948. The Under-Secretary was not very enthusiastic about the scheme. He said that it was necessary only because of the maladministration of the Government. Is the Order now necessary because of the maladministration of the late Government or the maladministration of the present Government?

This process of education of the Conservative Party is interesting. In 1948, the House was, we were told, doing a stupid thing, a monstrous thing, a dictatorial thing, which ought not to have been done at all. The Conservative Party voted against the scheme. By 1949, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture has just told us, the Conservative Opposition did not make any speeches at all about the renewal of the English scheme. When we had the Scottish scheme in 1949, the right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench on behalf of the Conservative Party, said:
"These powers must be watched with caution and must be withdrawn at the earliest possible moment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 1670.]
As a matter of fact, they die a natural death if they have not been used. The Government are now saying, "Please support us" in renewing this scheme and continuing its operation. Surely, in the circumstances the Under-Secretary should tell us what has happened since 1949 to convince him that this sort of thing is now good. I am not surprised that he did not volunteer a speech, because he must be suffering a little from embarrassment.

We are all glad, notwithstanding all that, that the Government appreciate that it is desirable that farmers should not be permitted to allow too much of the land of Scotland to go back to grass. In my view a lot of the land that has been allowed to go back to grass, or is under grass at the present time, is producing a most valuable crop. Those acres that are given over to grass, which is cut two or three times in the summer and is used for grass drying or silage-making to feed to cattle in the winter, are producing a most valuable crop. It may well be that such acreage ought not to be listed in the acreage of pasture at all, but in the acreage of tillage-producing crop.

However, it is undeniable that farmers in many parts of the country have allowed too much of their land to revert to semi-permanent or permanent pasture. It is, unfortunately, true that farmers with good arable land, suitable for producing crops, but whose main industry is that of feeding or raising beef, are satisfied with producing only that quantity of grain necessary for their own requirements, and are not interested in producing that little extra to help the fellow next door who has not the land to put to the production of those cereals necessary for animal feeding. It is right and proper that the Government should give to the executive committees power to say to the farmer, "You are not ploughing enough land," and that, of course, is precisely the power which this scheme proposes to give to the executive committees.

Since the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland must, by now, have appreciated that he really owes it to the House of Commons to make a speech in justification of this scheme, I wonder if he could also tell us something about the need for this scheme in Scotland? Could he tell us at what rate tillage has been going down in Scotland in 1951 or during 1950? Could he tell us what use has been made of the scheme from the time it was first introduced in December, 1949, until the most recent convenient date for his purpose?

Could he tell us how many directions have been issued under the scheme? Can he tell us, as he probably can, that there have been no prosecutions at all? In any case, he can tell us how many directions have been issued throughout the whole of Scotland, and I think he can tell us the extent to which the acreage under pasture has increased during the past year and to what extent we have fallen short of reaching our tillage target.

If he does that, he will go a long way towards showing us that there is a need for this scheme. In any case, in view of his lukewarm attitude to the scheme when it first came before this House, and in view of the conversion of the Conservative Party to the use of these Statutory Instruments for bringing about more production and higher efficiency in agriculture, I think he will wish to make a speech to the House in justification of this scheme.

7.34 p.m.

Before the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland replies, may I put to him, shortly, one or two points which are entirely agricultural and not dialectical? As I understand it, the need for this scheme is largely due to the fact that we cannot now import and pay for the feedingstuffs which we used to get from other countries. That in itself must take a considerable amount out of the fertility of our soil.

I should also like to ask him whether he, with his great knowledge, and his Department are satisfied that the continual ploughing up of land in this country in the long term will not have deleterious effects not only on the soil but on the stock raised on the soil? Also, how far is he satisfied with the progress made in the introduction of new grasses and the treatment of grass for fodder? The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) mentioned that in some cases grass silage, dried grass, and so on, is an important product. I wonder how far the Department is satisfied with regard to that, as far as Scotland is concerned.

Further, is there not a danger in the method by which this Order is applied through the agricultural committees? Is there not a tendency for each committee in its own county to insist on the maximum acreage being ploughed, regardless of the special suitability of that county to particular form of agriculture? In Ayrshire, for instance, is there not a tendency to order each farmer to plough up a certain amount of his land? In that process there may be encouragement of mixed farming which, while it may have many advantages, may not be the most efficient way of farming in a specific county, bearing in mind the shortage of labour and the high results in food which can be achieved only by specialisation. If the hon. Gentleman could outline those points I should be grateful.

7.36 p.m.

In answer to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) may I say that as there had been a debate on the previous Order for England and Wales, whose purpose is identical with that of the Scottish one, with exactly the same background, I thought it would not be necessary for me to go into the question of why we wish to have a similar Order. However, I expected that the hon. Member would probably raise a few points on it. If the hon. Member will refer to the OFFICIAL REPORT Of our debate on the previous Order—and he mentioned what I said on that occasion—he will find that I did not oppose the Order or even criticise it. I asked for the reason why it was found to be necessary, which is rather different.

Nobody likes the service of directions, least of all myself, but in that connection the same can be said of Scotland as can be said of England and Wales. We do our best in Scotland, through our agricultural executive committees to persuade the very small minority of farmers who have not done so to play their part in the food production programme. It is only when persuasion has failed that an agricultural executive committee reverts to compulsion. I think I am right in saying that this is the only Order under the Agriculture Act of 1948 which is now in operation, apart from the general powers that exist in that Act.

We have to take into account the very serious figures that are available now. I will give the hon. Gentleman one or two of them to show how even I, who dislike directions, feel that it is now in the national interest to see that the maximum area of our land is ploughed up. Since 1947 we have lost 128,000 acres of tillage, and considering the smallness of our arable acreage in Scotland that is a very big figure. We have lost over 84,000 acres of cereals and over 33,000 acres of potatoes.

The Government, therefore, recognising the need for more tillage, more coarse grains, have recently offered a new subsidy of £5 per acre for ploughing up grassland which was sown out in 1948 or earlier, to try to bring in the coarse grains that we feel are necessary if we are to maintain, let alone increase, the head of livestock which we have at present in the country.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but could he tell us the rate at which this tillage acreage has been running down in more recent years? He gave us the figure since 1947. It was precisely because the tillage acreage was running down after 1947 that we brought in an Order, first of all, in 1949. I do not want to press the matter, but if the hon. Gentleman has separate figures for last year we should like to hear them.

I gave the overall figure from the 1947 expansion programme, quite apart from any party point, to show that we have not reached our target and, rather, that we are moving downward. As regards the actual fall of tillage—the hon. Member, who was in the Scottish Office, will know what I mean by "tillage"—the latest figure is that we have lost 38,000 acres since 1950. I could give the figures for all the commodities if the hon. Member wishes—wheat, oats, barley and all the rest—but it would take some time to read them out. The figure I have given is the one that really matters.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), asked one or two questions which I hurriedly wrote down, and I may not have noted them all correctly. One of his questions concerned the putting of such powers as these into the hands of agricultural executive committees. I agree that some risk is run by allowing the A.E.C.s to use powers of direction, but throughout Scotland the evidence in my possession, at any rate, shows that, generally speaking, these powers are very sparingly used. They are used after every factor is taken into account. If the farm in question is a dairy farm, the nature of the farm, the acreage that is under grass, and so on, are taken into account. It is only when a committee feel that the farmer is not pulling his weight in the national production drive that they serve directions.

As regards grass, a lot has been done in this direction, especially in Ayrshire. Recently, I visited the various research institutes there and was very much impressed by what I saw. There are tremendous possibilities in increased intensive manuring of grass, strip grazing with electric fencing, and better conservation, and it may be that in the course of time there may be no such thing as imported feedingstuffs. I am very hopeful that we will make real progress.

On the question of the danger to stock from ploughing up, I do not think that scientific advice would show that there is any danger at all in this respect.

Can the Under-Secretary say how many directions have been issued under the Order?

I am sorry I meant to give that figure, but I forgot. To date, 91 directions have been served under the Order since its inception, or a little over one farmer in 100. That is not a very high proportion, and it says a good deal for our efficiency in Scotland. Those 91 directions involved a total of 1,680 acres brought back into cultivation out of grass, and is a very small figure when the full total is taken into account.

7.43 p.m.

Is the Joint Under-Secretary aware that in one or two of the beef producing areas, there is a reluctance on the part of farmers to make any contribution whatever to the producing of winter feed? They tend to depend on somebody else outside their own area—I do not want to mention any area in particular—and some of the agricultural executive committees have had great difficulty even in pursuading some of the farmers to do their duty in this matter.

In one place, where the farmers were rather different even from the economic point of view of the returns from the farm, they were prepared to go through the motions of ploughing up and playing with the job but not really producing the crops. It may not be a matter for congratulation that so few directions have been issued, and I hope that not only will there be discrimination in dealing with the type of grass that should not be ploughed up but should be used as an equivalent to crops, but that careful supervision will be given by the agricultural executive committees, with backing to them from the Scottish Office, to see that farmers in areas that can produce crops actually produce them.

I could mention places where some of the good farmers of the area were very disturbed that the crops of which the land was capable were not being produced. It may be, therefore, that some parts of the country remain too sparsely used in the sense that farmers treat their colleagues with too great delicacy in getting the job done. If the feeding is to be produced for the winter, the farmers who are to use it for beef must play their part as well as the others in trying to plough up the necessary ground.

Question put, and agreed to.

That the Agriculture (Maximum Area of Pasture) (Extension) (Scotland) Order, 1951 (S.I., 1951. No. 2199), dated 12th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be approved.