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Agriculture (Silo Subsidies)

Volume 581: debated on Wednesday 29 January 1958

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7.52 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. J. B. Godber)

I beg to move,

That the Draft Silo Subsidies (Variation) (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if this Motion were discussed with the next one on the Order Paper, relating to Scotland.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I think that that would be very helpful.

I do not propose to speak at great length in moving the Motion. This variation Scheme deals with certain technical and administrative matters which have arisen in the first year of the operation of the silo subsidies scheme. It will help to strengthen the scheme and make it administratively sounder. During the past year we have had a very satisfactory response to the Scheme and, of course, it is very important that we should seek to encourage the making of silage to the greatest possible extent.

That is the purpose of the Scheme and I think that, generally, it has succeeded. I believe that it has the approval of the House. I am sure that there are certain points of detail which hon. Members might wish to ask me but if, to save the time of the House, I move the Motion briefly at this stage perhaps, with permission, I may be allowed to answer any questions afterwards.

7.54 p.m.

As I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's suggestion will meet the convenience of the House, I do not wish to detain hon. Members for more than a few minutes. As the hon. Gentleman has said, this is a variation Scheme. It offers very little opportunity for debate, but I should like to put one or two points to him.

The hon. Gentleman will remember that when the principal Scheme was discussed, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) raised the point of the provision of larger concrete aprons in front of the silos. I would merely ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary whether, in the light of experience of the past year, he still thinks that he is right and my hon. Friend is wrong. My hon. Friend referred particularly to the case of those in the western counties, where there is a much greater rainfall than elsewhere.

I do not want to anticipate tomorrow's debate, but I should like to point out that we know that in his Department's Supplementary Estimates the hon. Gentleman is asking for an additional £1,400,000. There is a material point here which I do not raise in any spirit of acrimony or criticism. The amount of expenditure here is solely determined by the Department. It can determine whether the expenditure should be £600,000, as provided in the original Estimate, or should be £2 million as provided in the Supplementary Estimates.

We are entitled to an explanation of this increase from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. Either the number of applications which ought to be accepted have been larger than anticipated, or the Department has made a miscalculation, or it has altered the way in which it regards these applications. The hon. Gentleman might, at any rate, take this anticipatory opportunity of telling us why the applications accepted by his Department are much greater in number than was envisaged. It is a matter of some importance. It affects the global review, and it is one about which the farming community are very properly concerned. I do not think that this Scheme will cause any such additional expenditure.

Another matter which arises more directly from the Scheme, and about which I should like further information, in the exercise of the Minister's discretion in respect of exceptional cases, where he can provide for modification of the schedules. I have no quarrel with this provision. I do not mind at all his exercising such discretion, but I think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should inform us of the sort of circumstances which have led his right hon. Friend to seek such discretion.

Finally, there is a broad point, which I raise without criticism because many of us took part in the discussions on the Agriculture Act, 1947. It is rather unfortunate that repeatedly we have this ad hoc approach to assistance to agriculture. We had an opportunity, which I think we missed when we were discussing the Agriculture Bill last year, of trying to make a more comprehensive provision. As the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knows, I have been in correspondence with him and I have felt that anomalies and difficulties arise from the different classifications and the different financial provisions for the different capital improvements that may be carried out.

I should have thought that, in the light of the experience we have had of the principal Scheme, it would have been a good thing, sooner or later, to review this matter generally and to try to put the improvement schemes, if I may use that general phrase, into a more tidy form. However, we have no quarrel with this Scheme. We understand the reasons for the modifications and, on the whole, we welcome them.

7.59 p.m.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies he will be able to tell us the number of the applications for these grants, and that the number will indicate, as one believes, that farmers generally have been quicker than was originally expected to take advantage of this improvement scheme, which ties in with the agricultural policy of trying to be more self-sufficient in our own grassland.

My hon. Friend might also say whether, so far, there is any proof or evidence of improved quality in silage. One would hope that the effect of the grants would be to raise the general standards of silage made, apart from increasing the quantity. I hope that sufficient analysis of clamps is being made so that we can have more information on that matter.

The scheme introduces a new principle of fixing standard quantities worked to specifications, and, so far as I know, it is the first time the farmer can do some of the work himself. That was the understanding we came to. I should like to know whether that has proved satisfactory in practice. It is a very important method of enabling the small farmer to contribute his own labour, and thus get over the great difficulty, from which we have suffered in the past, of not being able to have assistance for the farmer's own work.

8.0 p.m.

I wish to re-endorse the plea of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) for information from the Parliamentary Secretary about the experience of the Ministry regarding the use of their own labour by farmers. This is the first time it has been possible to gain such experience, and it would be interesting to know what the Ministry feels about it. If it has been a success, the hon. Gentleman should tell us: if it has been a failure, he should give the reasons.

I understand that, generally, the Scheme has not gone very well in Wales, and if the hon. Gentleman can give figures I hope that he will not lump the figures for England and Wales together. If it is possible, may we be given separate figures for Wales? I wish to help the Minister as much as possible to get silos on farms, as is envisaged in the legislation. It should not need an Opposition Member to urge upon the Ministry the importance of this work at the present time.

I am grateful for the way in which hon. Members have received the Scheme, and I will try to clear up the points which have been raised. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) referred to a question put by his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) when we discussed the previous Scheme. This related to the size of the concrete apron in front of the silo. We have not received a single complaint about the inadequacy of this apron. Of course, it would be open for anyone to put down a yard under the Farm Improvement Scheme, but I am glad to tell the hon. Member that my anticipation in this matter proved more correct than that of hon. Members opposite.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North referred to the substantial increase over the original estimate. This was a new Scheme of a type we have never had before, and it was difficult for us to be certain how it would be received. In fact, its success has exceeded our expectations. It has gone extraordinarily well. I am delighted that it has, but its success has meant that we have this extra amount to provide.

Nearly 13,500 schemes have been approved in the United Kingdom as a whole up to the end of last December. A large number of these have been completed. I apologise to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Watkins) for the fact that I have not separate figures for Wales, for which he particularly asked. I have a breakdown of the figures between England and Wales and Northern Ireland and Scotland. I can give them separately, though, of course, that will not meet the wishes of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor. The figure for England and Wales is 11,411, for Northern Ireland, it is 1,210, and for Scotland, 848.

As a result of this increase, we had a larger production figure for silage last year than ever before. That is very encouraging when one remembers that last year the season was not good for the making of silage. There was a very dry spring in many areas compared with previous years, and the fact that we are able to show an increase is very satisfactory. I am hoping that next year there will be a further increase. This is something we should encourage to the utmost. As was so rightly said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill), silage production is something we wish to see increased still further. It involves expenditure which we should all welcome, because it carries with it the implication of a reduction in the amount of imported feedingstuffs. That is something which all hon. Members will support.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North referred to the exercise of discretion which is provided for in the fourth paragraph of the Scheme. As he pointed out, this is a new process and it is proper that he should call attention to it. We put in that paragraph to meet a difficulty. As I said, under this Scheme we have something which is quite new. We are basing ourselves on standard costs. We have to set out in the Schedule detailed items, and we have tried to cover everything we thought practical and right. It has meant that we have come across a few schemes which it would have been most unfair to rule out of the Scheme as a whole. Yet they did not quite tie up with the wording here.

To give an example of the sort of thing I have in mind, there are certain silos, particularly in Scotland, which have roofs known as self-supporting barrel roofs. These are put over the silos and are perfectly satisfactory. Yet that is not specifically covered in the terms of the original Scheme. We felt it right that we should be able to include such cases, which fell outside the Scheme. There are not many of them, but we felt we should try to cover such cases and that was the purpose for which we introduced this paragraph.

The hon. Member spoke of the ad hoc approach, which he deprecated. He felt that with the introduction of the Farm Improvement Scheme under the 1957 Act it would be better to bring all this under one umbrella. I sympathise with that view. Administratively, it has many attractions, but I wish to put these points to the hon. Member. This was started before the Farm Improvement Scheme was envisaged. Of course, as he said, it may be incorporated at a later stage if we felt it desirable. But these two Schemes are separate. This one is based wholly on standard costs, which is something we have not yet been able to introduce in the general Scheme. We made provision to introduce standard costs in certain respects, but it is more difficult to do so in a general Scheme than in a specific one such as this, which provides for a particular type of building.

This Scheme was introduced as a direct incentive to produce one thing. We felt that such production should be encouraged for the benefit of good farming and in the national interest. The Farm Improvement Scheme excludes any suggestion of that sort. There is no direction or impetus towards one kind of production. We made that Scheme quite general, so that it would cover any type of farm improvement which was felt to be right and which a prudent landlord would adopt. That is the difference.

In this Scheme we are trying to direct attention to a particular thing which we consider right and proper. In the Farm Improvement Scheme we leave it entirely to the farmer, and his advisers from the Ministry, to do what is thought right for the farm as a whole. This is a particular thing directed at a particular objective and for that reason, for the moment, at any rate, we ought to keep it separate. I will keep in mind the point the hon. Member raised. It may well be valid to incorporate it in this Scheme at a later stage.

I am obliged for the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's reply and for the assurance he has given. I should have thought that what he said about standard costs supported the general tenor of what I had said. If we had considered this in relation to improvements generally, we might have found other examples where the principle of standard costs might have been applied, although, generally, the case put by his right hon. Friend has been accepted, that this could not be done under the 1957 Act.

Under the 1957 Act, of course, we have made provision so that if we can find a means of establishing standard costs we should do so. I hope that before long we shall be able to put forward certain suggestions for incorporating that, but in general, as the hon. Member has rightly said, it is difficult.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South asked whether there had been an improvement in quality of silage. The quality of silage varies so much and is so much dependent on the weather, as my hon. Friend is aware, that I should not like to say specifically that there has been a definite overall improvement in quality, but, in general, there is an opportunity for an improvement in quality in that way encouraging farmers to have silos of a better type. Some of the old and rather rudimentary types of silos, such as one saw in the past, must have been inefficient.

I am sorry if my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) has a rather disreputable silo. Perhaps it does not come within that term.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his skill in overcoming these difficulties. Perhaps other farmers are not as skilful as he, and so do not get the same advantage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South also referred to standard costs and asked whether we found the position satisfactory. By and large we do, but, of course, the very reason for this Scheme is that we have found one or two small difficulties which we have now tried to cover. For buildings of this type, we have found that, by and large, standard costs work very well and are a help for the farmers, particularly small farmers, whom we want to encourage in this way and who can use their own labour. This is something about which many of my hon. Friends feel keenly, and I am anxious that we shall use this system and extend it in any way we can.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor also felt strongly on this point. He worked very hard in the Committee which considered the 1957 Measure. I was not able to accommodate him as much as he wished, but I hope that he is satisfied on this point. I am sorry if he feels that Wales has not taken as much advantage of the Scheme as it might. I will try to get the figures for which he asked and send them to him. I will welcome any support he can give for spreading among his friends in the Principality a realisation of the need to extend this excellent Scheme still further.

I have tried to answer the questions which I have been asked. This is a development to the principal Scheme and deals with one or two small points. I am glad to have had this opportunity of saying that the Silos Subsidies Scheme is valuable and that farmers have taken advantage of it in greater numbers than we had expected. I hope that even more will do so, because I am certain that it is in the extended use of our grassland and the further use of silage as a whole that we have great opportunities for making fuller use of our home-grown grass, thereby curtailing the use of imported feedingstuffs. That is something for which there are great opportunities open to our farmers and I commend the Scheme to the House.

8.15 p.m.

My first question obviously arises because of the very disappointing figures given by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary about the position in Scotland vis-à-vis that for England and Wales. He said that 11,414 schemes were approved in England and Wales, 1,210 in Northern Ireland and only 848 in Scotland. We have been told that one of the reasons for the modifications is that there have been difficulties in Scotland.

We might get a better picture if the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland told us how many applications were made and we could then compare that with how many applications were approved. Admittedly, not all of those which were not approved were turned down because of this special difficulty, but at least we would be given some indication of the disadvantage which Scotland has suffered because of this interpretation.

May I make it clear that the cases where a difficulty has arisen were very few, I think only 22 for the whole of the United Kingdom?

In case there are other special difficulties with which we might have been able to deal in such an amending Scheme, it might be as well to have the actual figure of applications. Since we have had the number of approved applications for the three areas, could we not be given the figure of applications in the three areas?

The scheme has my full support and there is no doubt about the importance of saving as much as possible on imported feeding stuffs. I know that farmers in my area have discussed this matter and I have heard heated arguments about the merits of one kind of silage as against another. I think that the ease with which feeding stuffs are made available makes farmers less inclined to consider silage. They are always talking about agriculture's importance to the nation and they should be informed about the importance of saving as much imported feedingstuffs as possible.

I wonder whether the Scottish figures are bad because of an objection to subsidies. Lord Strathclyde made a speech at Girvan in the middle of the South Ayrshire agriculture area, in which he declared that subsidies were immoral. Knowing how God-fearing the people of South Ayrshire and, indeed, the people of Scotland are, it may well be that although his speech related to housing—it was housing subsidies which he thought immoral; perhaps agricultural subsidies are all right—he may have frightened people with that reference to subsidies.

I want to draw attention to paragraph 4 of the Scottish scheme. It is a rather strange position in which we now give the Secretary of State power to interpret a statute as he likes subject only to the proviso:
"Provided that where on account of the special circumstances of any case the Secretary of State is satisfied that any description a works specified in the schedule to this scheme in relation to the kind of works to be carried out should be modified in relation to that case…"
In other words, the Schedule mentions a definite kind of work, and the Minister has the power to modify the words in the Schedule to make them fit certain schemes. I think that my interpretation is correct. The Scheme says:
"Provided that…such modification does not materially alter the description of the works specified in the Schedule, the Secretary of State may approve the works subject to such modification."
That means that we are making the description fit the works. I know that the proviso is that
"such modification does not materially alter the description of the works specified in the Schedule…"
but how are we to know? We shall never know what schemes will he approved by the Secretary of State, but some people will know, namely, the individual farmers.

The Secretary of State will obviously make some such modification in respect of some works, but he will not do so in respect of others. In giving this flexible power to the Secretary of State we are placing him in a rather difficult position. We are told that 22 schemes were turned down because they did not fit in with the words of the Schedule. Can we be told whether all of those schemes, with this change made, would have been approved? If the case is that 20 would have been and the other two would not have been, the persons concerned in those other two cases will have a definite "grouse". I should have thought that the correct thing to do would have been to deal with this matter in the Schedule itself, making it perfectly clear what was the scope of the Secretary of State's powers.

With that criticism I welcome the Scheme. I should be grateful to receive the information for which I have asked from the Joint Under-Secretary.

8.22 p.m.

I do not have particulars of the number of applications made in Scotland, but I have made a note of the request of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) and I shall meet it. The hon. Member asked why the Scottish figures appeared to be relatively less good than those for the other parts of the United Kingdom. I do not think that we should admit that; certainly the general position is not less good. It may well be that in Scotland there were already relatively more silos in position and working than elsewhere, and therefore not so many were needed when the Schemes came in.

Is that the hon. Member's suggestion, or is it something that he merely hopes? Is it a fact?

I think I can say that quite clearly.

As to paragraph 4 of the Scheme, I gather from my hon. Friend that most, or all, the works would have been approved.

They all received Treasury approval.

As to the hon. Member's general point, the answer is that the proviso itself provides that the modification must be a very minor one, inasmuch as it must not materially alter the description of the works specified in the Schedule.

But Parliament cannot check what the Secretary of State is doing under a Statutory Instrument in respect of each case. Unless we have a complaint from someone who has been turned down we know nothing about it. It is the old question of delegated legislation.

Is it not a fact that in Scotland approval must be given by a body comparable to the agricultural executive committees in England, and that experts from that body inspect the scheme and approve it, or do not?

The examination is carried out by the officers of the Department of Agriculture.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Draft Silo Subsidies (Variation) (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) Scheme, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

Draft Silo Subsidies (Variation) (Scotland) Scheme, 1958 [copy laid before the House, 19th December], approved.—[ Lord John Hope.]