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Feeding Stuffs

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is satisfied with the operation of the emergency measures that he introduced in respect of assisting hill farmers with the fodder requirements for their stock; and what is the number of hill farmers in England and Wales that have taken advantage of this scheme and the number of cattle that have been moved to lowland farm locations.


asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the current supply position of animal feeding stuffs.

Supplies of cereal feed are adequate and prices have fallen. Fodder is short, although the carry-over stock in 1974 was higher than we had earlier estimated. The mild weather has helped, but some farmers, particularly in parts of Wales, continue to have serious shortages of roughage. About £12,500 has already been committed under the agistment scheme; 29 hill farmers have moved 830 cows to lowland farms. I am satisfied that the measures taken, particularly the substantially higher payments of beef cow, hill cow and hill sheep subsidy now being made, are helping with feed costs.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, however well-intentioned the scheme may have been, it has not been a success? Does he accept that the immediate requirement of our hill farmers is both confidence and cash—cash to help them purchase their much-needed fodder and confidence to restore their faith that they have a future in the pattern of home-produced food?

I appreciate some of the points made by the hon. Member. Of course, the cost of food was one of the reasons why we introduced measures to increase the cash flow. Noticeable among these measures was the advancement of the hill and beef cow subsidy and higher hill sheep subsidies which accounted for more than £30 million. The hon. Member should not forget the other aspects of the comprehensive package introduced by my right hon. Friend. The hon. Member suggests that in the long run this is a matter of confidence, and I am hoping that in his discussions in Brussels my right hon. Friend will be able to achieve some of the assurances which we all need.

The Minister's comment about the mild weather was correct, but does he agree that in terms of supply and price the imports from the EEC have helped considerably over a difficult period?

I appreciate the hon. Member's feelings, but there are aspects of this matter which were mentioned by the hon. Member which have been delayed to some extent through requiring the agreement of the EEC. I know that the hon. Member's area of the South-West has had problems. I was there a fortnight ago speaking to an open meeting of the NFU at which I was able to hear more of the area's difficulties. In that area, as elsewhere, farmers are in touch with our officials who are advising them about the NFU's measures.

However well-intentioned this scheme, was it not entirely misconceived? Is the Minister aware that 830 cattle at £15 a head costs the Ministry just over £1,200 and that that is the only help from the Government to meet the fodder shortage? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes it is. It is impossible for hill farmers to get valley farmers to take any interest in the scheme. They need direct help to enable them to buy fodder.

The hon. and learned Gentleman underestimates my right hon. Friend's intentions. When the situation was revealed as a result of a comprehensive survey we made—we had a straw poll—of the fodder situation, my right hon. Friend was anxious to introduce as many measures as possible. I appreciate that the agistment aspect is not as useful in some areas as in others, but the hon. and learned Gentleman should not overlook the fact that among other measures we decided to increase over six months by 7·7p per gallon the price for milk producers, a floor was put to beef producers' returns by a variable premium and there was an increase in the hill sheep subsidy, a doubling of the hill cow subsidy, advancement of the 1975 hill cow subsidy and other cash and credit measures. The hon. and learned Gentleman should look at the whole package, not just one part of it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it was a former Labour Minister of Agriculture who introduced considerable help to hill farmers, particularly on the point of guaranteed prices? Does he agree that a system of guaranteed prices is far better than going cap in hand to the Common Market, which the Conservatives rushed us into a couple of years ago?

I am not sorry that my hon. Friend has caused a little discomfort among the Conservatives. It was the Labour Party which gave assurances and long-term confidence to agriculture over the years with the 1947 Act and subsequent measures. It was the ending of the fatstock guarantee scheme by the Conservatives and other aspects of entry into the EEC which removed the certainty. My right hon. Friend is busy trying to regain the assurances which were so much taken for granted when we were in power before.

Does the Minister recall that when this scheme was announced the announcement envisaged that 10,000 cattle would be moved to lower ground with the estimated expenditure of £150,000? Does he not, therefore, agree that the movement of only 830 cattle under the scheme shows what a miserable failure it has been? Is he aware that at this moment it is estimated that 1,000 cattle a week are being slaughtered in the West Country alone because of malnutrition? Will he take steps to improve the scheme?

Of course, the problem has not been as severe as might have been expected in the areas where the agistment scheme might have been helpful. We have taken all the steps that I have mentioned. In addition the O'Brien Report has been debated by Parliament, and the outcome there might help. In the long term it is a question of getting a good deal from the package now being negotiated in Brussels.