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Agriculture

Volume 497: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1952

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8.24 p.m.

The few points which I wish to make may be small, but they could be important. We have recently suffered a tremendous epidemic of foot and mouth disease, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, and we have recently been notified that the disease has broken out again in East Anglia. This must be a very disturbing factor not only because of the loss to farmers in East Anglia, but also because of the loss of food to the nation.

I see from the explanation accompanying the Vote that no less than £600,000 is needed for compensation to owners of animals slaughtered for foot and mouth disease. I wonder whether anything more can be done to cope with this dread disease, which kills so many of our animals. It is a terrible disease in that it is a respecter of no animal. It affects the finest pedigree herds just the same as any other cattle.

We are told that it is thought that the disease comes from the Continent and may be carried to this country by starlings. I am told that it is an endemic disease on the Continent. Having regard to this huge expenditure of money, ought we not to consider trying to prevent the disease from spreading to our shores instead of slaughtering cattle and spending all this money in compensation? I know that this is a tremendous problem because the disease is endemic in parts of the Continent, but has the matter been tackled on an international scale? Would it be possible to get together with the countries in Europe which are closest to us, and from which the disease spreads to Britain, and create an international fund for the express purpose of tackling the disease at its source, namely, on the Continent, where it is endemic?

I do not suggest that this would be an easy problem to overcome, but it is worth while studying it for more than one reason. If the disease could be cured in Europe, even though it took many years, it would be well worth our while taking very energetic action to cope with it, for it is hitting not only Europe but also this country very hard from the points of view of loss of food, loss to farmers and loss of exports of valuable cattle and livestock. I hope that it will be possible to give some thought to this matter.

8.28 p.m.

I should like to say a few words about the enormous sum of money which we are now asked to vote additionally, totalling £1,620,000. Taking the Vote in its order, I should like to say a word about the first item, salaries. The agricultural community must do its best to reduce expenses, which are now bearing so heavily upon the country. Could my hon. Friend explain how this enormous sum of over £5 million for salaries is paid, and whether he will not reduce that figure when he makes his estimates for another year?

I know that it will be hard on some people, and I want to alleviate that hardship as much as possible by suggesting that in reducing staffs the reduction should not be among older people, who are now giving, and have given, the best of their lives to the industry, but rather that the reduction should be made by stopping the intake of young people into the industry. It would be better for some of those young people to strike out in the world either on the land and do a job of work themselves, or do what their forefathers did before them and go out into the Empire and develop it rather than be absorbed in non-productive work.

On the subject of Agricultural Research Grants in Aid, I have little to say except that there is a tendency to think that the troubles on a farm would be fewer if only more institutes and colleges were erected and run. I am all in favour of a certain number of colleges and institutes, but it can be easily overdone. In my county we have two, and a third is projected. I am glad to know that at the moment the activities of the third have been suspended until we can see where we are. I am very glad to know that, and I hope that consideration will not be given to any further projects.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) on the matter he has raised, for it is something of great importance. I am not greatly surprised at the total of the original Estimate nor the additional sum required, because it would be impossible, when framing the Estimates, to realise the extent of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease which we experienced recently. I agree with the policy of slaughter. There are some critics who say that the life of the animal should be saved and that it would be better to cure rather than to kill.

I do not agree with that, because it would mean that, like the Continent, we should have the disease with us permanently, and it would close down our important export trade. At present that trade is closed down in England because the epidemic is still continuing, and it is having a serious effect on our export trade.

I agree with the sums that have been spent on slaughtering, and I think the suggestion of my hon. Friend about endeavouring to contact the Continent to see whether some steps cannot be taken to wipe out this foul disease is something which should be followed up. It would not only be in our interests, but in the interests of the Continent. Their losses during the course of 12 months must be extraordinary.

This disease must spread to us from the Continent, because the outbreaks always seem to be on the eastern side of Great Britain. Occasionally we have an outbreak in the west, but it has never penetrated far enough west to reach Ireland, with one exception, and Scotland has been entirely free from the disease, except for the recent outbreak.

I should like some information on Votes J.3, J.6 and J.7. I do not know why it is necessary to have a Vote for the management and farming of land. I would have thought that, in view of all that the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) has said about the profits from farming, that no further grants would be needed as they could be met out of those profits. I am rather surprised to see that he is not here to attack what he must consider unnecessary expenditure. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is."] I am glad to see that the hon. Member has now arrived. I saw him earlier in the afternoon and I thought he was waiting for this particular Vote; probably he was.

We get a certain amount of credit under some of the items relating to the advisory service, the research grants and the training schemes. I have no criticism to make of the grants for land drainage, but I would like my hon. Friend to say what the £680,000 for the saving on the purchase of land is for. Would my hon. Friend tell us what it really means? There is an item "Destructive Insects and Pests." I have very strong feelings about it. The time has come when farmers should destroy insects and pests at their own expense, and not call upon the Ministry to do it. If they want the Ministry to do it, the service should be self-supporting. We should not have to call upon the taxpayer to pay for it.

With regard to the agricultural training schemes, as in other walks of life a lot too much money has been spent on this so-called training. I should be out of order if I were to mention the scheme for the training of domestic servants, which absorbs a great deal of money which would be better spent in putting girls into houses, perhaps with farmers' wives who would teach them how to do their job. Instead of spending a lot of money on agricultural training schemes at colleges, and so forth, it would be much better to apprentice these young men to working, practical farmers. It could be done without any expense to the community at all, and the young men would become better farmers for having had experience on a farm than by going to a college.

That is all I wanted to say about this Vote. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to enlighten me, particularly on the item "Management and Farming of Land." I cannot conceive why the money should be wanted, considering the enormous profits which farmers are said to be making. It may be that there is a certain amount of bovine complacency on the part of the Ministry in running these farms. I would like to know whether the Minister agrees, or whether the people running these farms are using too many dinner jackets and going out at night. Alternatively, will my hon. Friend say whether the money is wanted for deck chairs so that the Ministry can sit and run these schemes?

8.38 p.m.

I do not want to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) too closely in the remarks that he has been making, except that I would say something about the item of £150,000 to which he referred, in respect of the management and farming of land. It seems a lot of money. One wonders whether it is being spent upon educating the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) into understanding that it is not always easy to make money out of farming. If so, possibly it has been well spent. That is one way of looking at the matter, and perhaps it would come under the Education Vote more suitably.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a question on the same item and particularly about the land managed by the Land Settlement Association. This is an item which I find very difficult to understand. I understood that there were to be substantial economies in the running of this scheme, but this item scarcely seems to bear it out. Some time ago a committee was formed—I think it was called the Brown Committee—which went into the cost of running the Land Settlement Association. I understood it was to recommend substantial economies which were to come before us, but this Vote obviously shows that it did not have the desired effect.

I do not think that sufficient people realise what is involved in this respect. The organisation was set up to bring industrial workers on to the land and to educate them in the use of smallholdings. As such, it may have served a useful purpose when there was a lot of industrial unemployment. For some years, however, it has been involved solely in putting men into smallholdings of a special type and looking after them to an extent greater than their need. That is because the men who are being brought into the Land Settlement Association now are men with a knowledge of agriculture and the set-up is more elaborate than is necessary.

I should have liked to see this taken out of its watertight compartment and put in with the county council smallholding arrangements so that it would be far less costly in management. It seems to be top heavy. It should be remembered that in the finances of the Land Settlement Association no arrangement was made to take into account the interest on the capital involved over the period during which the Association has been in existence. It is about £2 million, and no interest has been shown. That represents a real expense to the taxpayer and it could be modified, so I ask my hon. Friend to pay some attention to this point.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) about the large figure for foot-and-mouth disease, Again, however, I would not dream of suggesting that we should stop our policy of slaughter. It is essential to keep it on. It is one good service which our Ministry has rendered, and it would be a policy of defeatism to go back on it. Although the figure is high, I do not think it is large by reason of what it has achieved.

8.42 p.m.

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

I will deal first with the two points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) with regard to additional expenditure on the eradication of diseases of animals. He asked first whether more could be done in the way of research into the problem of foot-and-mouth disease. The answer is that we have an admirable research station at Pirbright which has been working for many years and is at present being enlarged considerably. It has done valuable work in the past and I do not doubt that it will continue to do valuable work in the future.

Secondly my hon. Friend expressed the belief that foot-and-mouth disease comes primarily from the Continent. I agree that the recent outbreak probably came from the Continent and was probably carried on the feet of starlings in process of migration. It would be a mistake, however, to think that it comes only from the Continent. In the past it has undoubtedly come from South America, in beef from the Argentine, and from other parts of the world, and there is always a danger in any imported meat.

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a special danger in the infection coming from the Continent, where the disease is certainly endemic. I can assure him that our Chief Veterinary Officer, Sir Thomas Dalling, has been in the closest co-operation with the leading veterinary officers in the European countries through the machinery of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. He has had a number of meetings with them, has investigated a number of outbreaks on the spot and, apart from our own interests, has undoubtedly made a substantial contribution to the various European countries concerned in helping to get the disease under control. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks, that we are doing not only our share in this matter to protect ourselves, but also are helping other European countries to protect themselves.

I do not have to answer any questions about the soundness of the slaughter policy. I was glad to hear all my hon. Friends agree that it is undoubtedly the soundest policy for us to follow. It is right and proper for me to call attention to the average cost that the slaughter policy involves to the public purse in an ordinary year, because the recent outbreak has been the worst, not in living memory, but certainly in the last 15 years. We have had nothing comparable since 1937.

For instance, in 1948 there were only 15 outbreaks. There was the same number in 1949, and in 1950 only 20. The cost between April and September, 1951, was some £60,000. The average cost of pursuing the slaughter policy has run us into an expenditure, probably, of only about £50,000 to £100,000 a year. There is no doubt whatever that it has paid the country handsomely. We are lucky that we are an island and that the disease stays outside.

On the question of salaries, my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) questioned the additional sum required of £125,000. That is needed because of the increase in salary scales for the officers involved. If salary scales in other services are rising, it is not only fair to the officers concerned, but it is common sense, that the salaries in this Service must be kept in step. Otherwise, not only would there be unfairness to the men and women concerned, but the service would be depleted of the best officers.

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance regarding the junior officers, to whom he alluded, particularly in that there is a ceiling on the staff in the advisory service. Although it is quite significantly below the full establishment, nevertheless to meet the stringency of the present time, the ceiling has been kept at the existing level and there is no further recruitment to raise the ceiling which was established at the end of last year.

My hon. Friend referred to the management of land and to Items J.3 and J.7. J.3 relates also to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) regarding the Land Settlement Associations. There is an additional sum of £150,000 in the Vote, and my hon. Friend will notice that Item Z, "Appropriations in Aid," contains the sum of £300,000. This includes £150,000 which exactly balances the additional amount which is expended in the trading services of the Land Settlement Associations. Owing to the higher cost of feedingstuffs, fertilisers and so on, as well as certain other additions, the trading services have to that extent been more expensive, but the amount involved is fully recouped in the additional charge to the tenants concerned.

I am not sure whether I should be in order to deal with the rather wider point of whether the Land Settlement Associations should be transferred to the county councils. I think my safest course is to refer my hon. Friend to the answer he received last November from my right hon. and gallant Friend, which I think fully answered the point he made.

If it did not, it should have done, because in the opinion of my right hon. and gallant Friend, and in my opinion, it is desirable that the Land Settlement Associations should continue.

To deal with the point about the activities of the Land Commission, the reason why this additional Vote is necessary is because the equipment of the lands in hand by the Land Commission has proceeded rather more rapidly than had been expected. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster knows, the Land Commission take over land which has been farmed by agricultural committees under requisition and are then charged with the responsibility of equipping that land with buildings and then, wherever possible, letting it as complete farming units equipped with buildings to ordinary farming tenants. It is because that work of equipment has proceeded rather more rapidly than had been expected that this Vote is necessary.

In dealing with J. 3 and and J. 7, would my hon. Friend say whether receipts from this land are shown? Is there any balance sheet or any profit-and-loss trading account so that we can see whether the Ministry are farming at a loss or at a profit? If they are farming at this enormous loss, then it is about time they let all the land they have to somebody else to farm.

The Estimate before the Committee is a combination of capital account and revenue account, and the details of the Land Commission's operations will be found by my hon. Friend in their annual report if he cares to ask for a copy. This account is largely a capital account for the equipping of land which otherwise would largely be bare land without adequate buildings, and to make it into individual holdings, to equip it so that it can be let to private tenants.

That is the policy of the Land Commission—to let off, as far as they can, the land in their possession to private tenants and not to keep the land in hand to farm themselves. These figures cannot be taken in any way to reflect a farming loss. As the Vote shows by the balance of the recovery under Item Z there is an appropriation in aid which offsets this additional expenditure to some extent.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster raised a point on the destruction of insects and pests in connection with Item P. 1. That, of course, is a saving and it is doing exactly what my hon. Friend asks—that the activity of that service should be reduced. The reason why that saving is made is because the work of the Department of pest eradication has been reduced below what was estimated.

The same thing occurs in respect of the agricultural training scheme, about which my hon. Friend was so critical. The item of £140,000, under P. 3, is also a saving, and I have no comment to make on it beyond the fact that it is certainly not an extravagance in this context. With those comments, I ask the Committee to approve the Estimate.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved,

That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,620,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1952, for the salaries and expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, including grants, grants in aid and expenses in respect of agricultural education and research; services in connection with live stock; land settlement; land drainage; purchase, adaptation, development and management of land; agricultural credits and marketing; the prevention of food infestation; agricultural training and settlement schemes; fishery organisation, research and development; and sundry other services.