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Hill Farmers: Livestock Allowances

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 13 November 1980

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3.13 p.m.

My Lords. I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to improve the income of hill farmers in 1981.

My Lords, my right honourable friends are at present reviewing the hill livestock allowances, in consultation with the farmers' unions. We shall announce the outcome of the review as soon as it is completed.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer, but can he indicate when we can expect the report on the designation of what constitutes marginal and upland land? Would it not assist farmers in the present difficulties which face them if this report were to hand and they could more or less calculate what compensation they might expect to receive?

My Lords, what compensation they might expect to receive is, of course, a prerogative of the Government, and I can only tell my noble friend that he will find out the answer to his question as soon as negotiations are completed.

My Lords, will the noble Earl recognise that this is really a very important question for a section of the industry in which the noble Lord is involved? I believe that hill farming must have a certain priority. I regret to say that on one occasion when I ceased to be a Minister we had a wonderful scheme for the development of the hill farms and it was destroyed just like that. So will the noble Earl give us a really satisfactory answer?

My Lords, I would be delighted to give the noble Lord, Lord Peart, a satisfactory answer. I recognise that this is a very important point. He will realise that in 1976 the Government, of which he was a distinguished member, fixed the grants for hill livestock compensatory allowances at a certain figure and they remained unchanged until 1979 when they went up by a 50p supplement for the higher rate for hill sheep. It was my right honourable friend who last year put the rates up very considerably, with the result that in 1979 the expenditure by the Government on hill livestock compensatory allowances was £.57·4 million and this year it is £79 million, which is an increase of very nearly 40 per cent., over what the noble Lord's Government did.

My Lords, anent this issue of the hill farmers, is the noble Earl aware—to give a personal example—that for a quarter of a century I had the privilege and the honour to represent a part of North Staffordshire and East Staffordshire where there were 3,000 farms, 1,400 of which were under 30 acres and many of them were in hill farm country? Will the noble Earl tell me whether there is still the tendency to say to the small farmer, "You must grow bigger"? The individuality and yeomanry of Britain have been kept alive for centuries by the first-class breeding of this type of man in our civilisation. Will the noble Earl still remember that small is beautiful, and not let us wipe this type of person off the earth to please those who are concerned with contracts on a large scale?

My Lords, I could not find anything over which to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek. I think that these people who work in the hills are a staunch backbone of the people of this country and we wish to see them so continue. There is, however, the difficulty of trying to ensure that their livelihood keeps pace with modern times, but that is the reason why my right honourable friend last year made this very substantial increase of nearly 40 per cent. We hope to take their condition into account in the current review.

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend very much for the help that has been given to hill farmers, I should like to say, as a hill farmer, that the urgency of the matter is tremendous. Costs have increased enormously and we need an immediate inquiry and, if possible, an immediate answer, otherwise there will be bankruptcies right and left.

My Lords, an immediate inquiry, my noble friend will be glad to know, is being instituted, but an immediate answer I cannot give for the reasons I have already given. But, if my noble friend is patient for a short while, she will soon have an answer.

My Lords, the noble Earl spoke with great satisfaction about a 40 per cent. increase. Can he say whether that was an increase in real money terms? If not, would he care to say whether it was an increase or a decrease, if we are comparing like with like?

No, my Lords, it is an increase in money terms and not necessarily in real terms. I would have to find out the answer to that point before I gave it to the noble Lord.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the recent heavy fall in the retail price of English lamb has been at the expense of the hill farmers or not?

My Lords, I do not think that it has been at the expense of the hill farmers, but I daresay that the hill farmers in some way and some time later on might feel the draught of it.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the tremendous struggle hill farmers are now having in order to keep their heads above water and to remain in operation? Other noble Lords have already asked whether the noble Earl recognises the importance of hill farming. It is, of course, a most important element of the British farming picture. Together they contribute a considerable amount to the economy and a considerable amount to agriculture. Does the noble Earl recognise that, because their farms are small, they are hit more heavily by inflation in terms of buying the necessary equipment they have to have and the foodstuffs with which they have to supplement their stock in winter? Will the noble Earl take careful note of what the National Farmers' Union, which represents these people, says to him?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collison. These people play a very important part in the life not only of agriculture but of Great Britain. I accept the fact that they live in very difficult conditions and have been affected by inflation. I can assure him that we shall take into account very carefully what the National Farmers' Union says and what its views are. Our own view is that we wish to see these people who farm in this way live as reasonable a life as possible within the constraints within which we are all bound to operate.

My Lords, I should like to ask one final question. Does not the report which is awaited deal in some substance with the definition of what is marginal and upland land and therefore applies to those people who might be considered to have a case for applying for assistance? For that reason alone, is there not some urgency for having the report as soon as possible for the benefit of these farmers?

Yes, my Lords, I accept my noble friend's call for urgency. All that I can tell him is that we shall see that this is produced as soon as possible.