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Clause 6—(Short Title And Interpretation)

Volume 497: debated on Wednesday 5 March 1952

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I beg to move, in page 3, line 40, after "Act," to insert:

"agricultural land" means any land used as arable meadow or pasture ground, or for the purpose of poultry farming, market gardens, nursery grounds, orchards or allotments, including allotment gardens within the meaning of the Allotments Act, 1922, or the Allotments (Scotland) Act, 1922.
This Amendment introduces in the Bill a definition of agricultural land and is for the purpose of satisfying two doubts which were expressed by Members in various parts of the House during the Committee stage. It makes it clear that the definition in other Acts which refer to agricultural land as land used for the purposes of a trade or business or introduce similar limitations, does not apply.

It also makes it plain that individual allotment holders, for example, are occupiers of agricultural land, and may apply for contributions in their own right, and, subject to taking delivery of at least the minimum amount of fertiliser to which a scheme will apply, are not bound to apply through their association, co-operative society or similar body. The purpose of the Amendment is to meet the arguments raised in Committee. Again, I think that this Amendment improves the Bill.

Here again, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has responded to an Amendment moved from this side of the House in Committee. Since this Amendment will include allotment holders and those occupying a very small area of land, we readily agree with the Amendment and express our appreciation to the Minister.

I should like to add a word of thanks to the Minister for the way in which he has treated us in respect of this Amendment and the other Amendments which he moved. He has considered our Amendments—I think they improve the Bill—and he has accepted them.

I should just like to point out that originally this Bill was put on the Order Paper to have the Committee stage taken after 10 o'clock, with the Report stage and Third Reading to follow immediately afterwards. Well, when an Opposition puts down a number of Amendments that is not treating an Opposition with respect, because it is quite impossible for the Government to consider—because they have no time to consider—Opposition Amendments if they take the Report stage immediately after the Committee stage. Indeed, had the concession, for which we were very grateful, not been given, this improvement could not have been made. There is another Bill in the hands of the Board of Trade at the moment, and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will say a word to his colleague so that we shall be treated in as reasonable a way as he has treated us.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

10.31 p.m.

I do not intend to delay the House for more than two minutes on this Motion. I did not intervene on the Report stage, but I do so on Third Reading, when I consider it perhaps a little more appropriate. I should like to reinforce the observations my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) managed to make on an Amendment on Report stage. It looks as though these proceedings will conclude in a very few seconds, but there is no doubt that that would not have taken place had the Government pursued their original course of trying to force this Bill through without discussion after 10 o'clock. When I say that, I acquit the Minister; he was very patient and helpful, and I think he set an example to his colleagues.

It is one of the curiosities of Parliamentary procedure that if we have a two hours discussion of an important Amendment in Committee and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, after considering it, decides that he cannot incorporate it in the Bill, there is no opportunity of discussing the matter on Report stage because there is nothing on the Order Paper to discuss. Therefore, on Clause 1, we were faced with the problem that, either we had to put down an Amendment we did not intend to discuss again because it had been discussed, or there was no means, except on Third Reading, of asking the right hon. and gallant Gentleman how he had come to his conclusion and what attention he had given to the suggestions that had been made to him on the previous occasion.

As, fortunately, it was an Amendment to leave something out of the Bill and not an Amendment to put something in the Bill, I apprehend it is in order to discuss it on Third Reading, because the words are still in the Bill. Therefore, I venture to ask the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to tell the House why the words to which we took exception in Clause 1 are still in the Bill, or why they have not been moved half a line back, as suggested by one hon. Member, or three-quarters of a line back as suggested by somebody else, because I am sure he has considered this matter.

I must say at once in fairness that, although we thought it was a very im- portant matter, we realise that, although the Ministry of Agriculture is a very important Department, it perhaps is not that Department which is in so close an alliance with the Treasury as to be able to bring about a new proceeding on the part of the Treasury. I and my colleagues have, therefore, taken the view that this exceedingly important matter can be raised more appropriately on some future Bill, and I am happy to say that there appears to be on the Order Paper at this moment a sufficiently wide choice of Bills upon which this can be thoroughly raised and debated.

Having said that, I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton. I hope that the Minister will forward the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee and Report stages of this Bill to one or two of the more recalcitrant Ministries so that they can be shown that a little courtesy and a little consideration, with a desire to further the business of the House, while at the same time considering the rights of the Opposition to express itself on these matters, and the necessity for a certain amount of patience, diligence and discussion on important points, on the whole makes for speed.

I think that we have shown by our attitude in this matter that we have no desire whatever to delay legislation. What we do desire is to have the opportunity of putting points in such a fashion that they can be properly and decently discussed, without the haste that the right hon. Gentleman the Patronage Secretary appeared to think was necessary in the first instance.

In conclusion, may I venture to hope that, notwithstanding our enforced holiday at Christmas, and the interruption to Business since, we shall not normally be presented with these important stages of discussion on important Bills after 10 o'clock but will revert to the ordinary procedure of discussing them in normal school hours and not during a period of over-time. The hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) gave notice to-day of his desire in other institutions to introduce double-shift working, which gives us some ground at least for thinking that in an emergency we should adopt that procedure here, but I am sure that we prefer at the moment to discuss these matters in the spirit in which we have had the discussion on this occasion.

10.36 p.m.

I do not wish in any way to delay the Bill reaching the Statute Book, but I think it right and proper that one who has cultivated an allotment for the last 16 years—and still does cultivate it, knowing the urgent need for food in this country—should express the gratitude of the many thousands of allotment holders in the country for the Bill and particularly for the Clause which assists in providing fertilisers, which have been in very short supply at high prices.

The Minister and the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland have gone to considerable trouble to meet the requirements of crofters and other small users of fertilisers, and for that I am grateful, as I know they will be. The Minister has promised us that the minimum quantity will be kept as low as possible and, secondly, that associations which acquire fertilisers in bulk for re-distribution among their members may receive the benefits of the subsidy for those on whose behalf they buy the fertilisers.

I hope the Minister will make the Orders as wide as possible when he introduces them, so that associations of different kinds can take advantage of the Clause and so that, even in the crofting townships where there is no association, the grazing constable or perhaps a leading member of the township may be enabled to obtain the fertilisers on behalf of the other crofters.

10.38 p.m.

Perhaps I may reply briefly to the point raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale). I know that he does not expect an exhaustive answer tonight and that he realises that there will be opportunities to raise the matter on future occasions. I can assure him that we have looked at this closely in the context of the Bill. The House has recognised, I am sure, that a Bill of this kind is not an occasion for raising a major principle, but within the limits of the Bill the words, in the place in which they stand, give the Minister the maximum power to make his own schemes and leave him with what has hitherto been only the normal obligation to consult the Treasury.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) spoke about minimum quantities. We have had further opportunities to look at that aspect, although there are a number of considerations involved. We can give an assurance that the minimum will be less than 10 cwt.—a figure mentioned on Second Reading—and I believe we can also give an assurance that it will be not more than five cwt. We are trying to make it as low as possible in order to meet the convenience of such people as allotment holders and crofters.

I do not propose to deal at great length with the point previously raised by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). I imagine he is satisfied that the supply position is satisfactory.

Perhaps I may give one or two figures which will help to satisfy the right hon. Gentleman that the supply position looks as if it will be satisfactory. The main reason for putting the whole subsidy on phosphates was because the price of them rose very steeply last July by comparison with that of other inorganic fertilisers like potash. In fact, the price rise was something like 60 to 80 per cent. on the phosphates, and only 30 to 35 per cent. on other fertilisers. It was for that specific reason that my right hon. and gallant Friend thought there should be a subsidy on phosphates alone.

The deliveries to farmers and merchants during the six months from last July to 31st December give some indication of what the effect of that price rise has been because, during that period, farmers did not know that this subsidy was going to be put on; it was not until December that they heard about it. It is significant that during those six months the offtake of phosphatic fertilisers did fall by about 35 per cent., whereas the offtake of nitrogen and potash showed only about a 10 per cent. fall. It was obvious that the steep rise in phosphate prices was acting as an extreme disincentive.

For the period to 30th June, which we have still to go, the Department have studied the demand position, and the best estimate it has made is that there is sufficient supply to meet the demand, even with the stimulus which the subsidy will give. I hope that the House is satisfied that, for the next 12 months, the situation will be satisfactory.

There is one other point to which I direct the attention of hon. Members, and that is that in the course of the Report stage the Bill has been amended so that it has now a slightly different aspect—an important aspect, as we all agree. Whereas in the original Bill the life of it was defined as from 1951 to 1956, with powers to extend, the definition of the life of the Bill for those years has now disappeared. A word or two to clear up any misconception which might arise, either in the House or outside, about the continuity of the Bill would, I think, be in place.

It is possible that merchants and farmers might not realise that the continuity of the Bill is still there. My right hon. and gallant Friend's intention was to give power in this Measure to make a subsidy in order to bring the price of fertilisers within the reach of farmers so that the full supply of them should be taken up in all circumstances. The position in the Bill now is that it can be extended from two years to two years; the first period is of one year, and with the affirmative Resolution procedure of the House, the Bill can be extended thereafter as the Minister considers necessary to ensure the full offtake of fertilisers.

May I, in conclusion, thank right hon. and hon. Members opposite for their assistance in dealing with this Measure so expeditiously, and now ask the House to give the Bill its Third Reading?

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.