HC Deb 11 May 1964 vol 695 cc163-78

9.35 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. A. Stodart)

I beg to move, That the Winter Keep (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Scheme 1964, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd April, be approved. I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that it might be convenient for the House to consider, at the time time, the draft Winter Keep (Scotland) (Amendment) Scheme.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, if the House so pleases.

Mr. Stodart

These draft Schemes give effect to changes which were announced in the Annual Review White Paper. The Scottish Scheme, in addition, redefines what an agricultural unit is and what an eligible occupier is, and it substitutes the definition of "crofter" for the definition of "croft" in the existing Scheme. These latter small amendments have been made to clarify the relationship between eligibility for winter keep grant and other grants available under crofting legislation and to strengthen the safeguards against double payment. They do no more than that. They merely make clear that these grants should not be paid to people who benefit from grants under the special crofting Acts.

I remind the House of the fundamental purpose of the winter keep Schemes, in view of the considerable discussion to which they have given rise. Their object was to help farmers who, because of the natural conditions which govern or, at least, guide them in their farming operations, have had difficulty in providing enough keep for their stock during the winter, and who have found that the lack of it has limited them in getting the best possible returns out of their farms.

The operation of the Schemes is limited to land which is defined as livestock-rearing. These are words which are well-known, for it is 13 years since they were first defined in the original Livestock Rearing Act, 1951. To be livestock-rearing, for the purpose of Government grant, land has to be situated in an area which consists predominantly of mountain, hill or heath; and it must be land which is suitable, or which can be made suitable by improving it, for the breeding, rearing or maintenance of sheep or cattle.

I am sure that hon. Gentlemen will agree with me when I say that a farmer should be influenced very strongly indeed in choosing his lines of production by the natural conditions which have been gifted to his farm. To grow corn on a big commercial scale on high, cold land where it will not ripen until well on in the autumn is to fly in the face of what nature intended. This is why we do not want to encourage the use of livestock-rearing land for the growing of crops to be sold for cash as opposed to those grown for the feeding of stock, for use by the specialist dairy farmer or for the fattening of cattle or sheep.

Having given this background to the Schemes, I wish now to deal with the two changes which it is proposed should be made in them. In each, the ploughing grant, which we have just been discussing, is to be made available on the same conditions as apply to it elsewhere and not, as at present, only as an alternative to the winter keep grant. In each, too, the rate of winter keep grant is being raised by £1 an acre. This brings the rate in England and Wales and Northern Ireland up to £3 an acre. In Scotland, where, as hon. Members are aware, there are three rates according to whether farms eligible are graded A, B or C, the new rates are to be £2 10s., £3 10s., and £5 an acre respectively. These we estimate—and I am afraid that until we have experience of actual claims I cannot, with the best will in the world, provide the House with precise figures—will produce an average payment of £3 an acre. The increased rates will apply to crops grown this year for feeding to stock next winter.

The cost of restoring the ploughing grant plus the increase in the winter keep rate is estimated at between £1½ and £1¾ million, of which rather more than half will go to Scotland and about a quarter to Wales. In Scotland, we have been able to classify all our farms, and about 14,500 will be eligible for grants at the different rates. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom it will not be possible to give precise figures until applications have been received and considered on an individual basis. One reason for this is that applications in England and Wales had to be in to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food only on 30th April, 12 days ago.

In each country there is machinery for appeals to be heard either against exclusion from the schemes, or, in Scotland, against the grading of a farm, and, although I should not pretend for one moment that everyone is satisfied with his grading, or with the way in which his appeal has been dealt with, I should like to pay a tribute to those who are giving much of their time to help with the consideration of these appeals. I hope that the new system will achieve a uniformity of grading throughout Scotland, thus eliminating one of the main criticisms which used to be directed at M.A.P.

These are Schemes which, right at the very inception, were welcomed by the National Farmers' Unions in principle. The changes which we propose and which I have described, with, I hope, reasonable clarity, will improve their detailed working and I commend them to the House.

9.43 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I understand that we are discuss- ing the Scottish Scheme as well, and it is to that that I want to address a few remarks.

As the Minister is well aware, the running down of M.A.P. caused great concern in the hill areas of Scotland, particularly in the Highlands. Last year we were informed that the great majority of the £1.3 million which would be available under this Scheme in Scotland would go to the hill farms. The Under-secretary of State at that time said that, in his view, they would be slightly better off in total under this Scheme than under M.A.P. I think that he calculated that about £1.2 million would be applied under the M.A.P. Scheme as against £1.3 million under this.

The first question which I should like to ask the Under-Secretary of State is whether that has proved the case. Have the hill farms benefited, as he said? He said this evening that 14,500 farms are eligible at the different rates. If he cannot tell us exactly, can he tell us how many farms which were or are eligible for M.A.P. will be cut out from this Scheme and how this now compares in total with the old amount of money paid under M.A.P.?

The Under-Secretary mentioned that there was anxiety over grading, and there certainly was. A sore point in parts of the Highlands and of my constituency has always been that some farms, for instance, in the North Isles of Orkney, were excluded while other farms which appeared to the farmers, at any rate, to be of much the same nature were included. I wonder whether this new grading scheme has led to any better method in this regard and whether the Under-Secretary can say a word about this. The increase of £1 per acre will be extremely welcome. This was what the National Farmers' Union suggested last year as the minimum amount.

I understand also that in some parts of the country there has been a tendency to cut out farms, from, for instance, hill land subsidy, although I understand that the farms will get the hill cattle subsidy, if they qualify under the Winter Keep Scheme. I should like the hon. Gentleman to say to what extent the policy has been to reduce the number of farms which got these various forms of marginal assistance and what the general effect has been.

Last year, I questioned the definition of "crofter", which is an old vintage, complicated subject. With their usual skill, the Government avoided the question and wrote me a letter afterwards saying that it was all very difficult and that they would give attention to it. I take it that the attention has emerged this year in the Scheme in an attempt at redefinition. The Government have not, however, made the situation much better, because the Scheme states that 'crofter' means a crofter within the meaning of the Crofters (Scotland) Acts 1955 and 1961. We all guessed that.

The trouble is that in the Crofters (Scotland) Act, a crofter is defined as a man who has a croft, and the old definition applied to crofts. I do not, therefore, know whether this carries us much further. No doubt, the Under-Secretary will explain this with his usual lucidity.

It will be seen also from the Scheme that 'agricultural unit' means land, other than land occupied by any person as a crofter or as an eligible occupier"— those people, of course, get grants under a different Scheme— which is occupied as a unit for agricultural purposes, together with any other land, including land held in common, used in connection with such land for the purpose of grazing. Bearing in mind that this is a definition of a holding which is not a croft, I shall be grateful to the Under-Secretary for an explanation of exactly what this means.

I remind the hon. Gentleman once again that the people who have to make sense of what we pass in this House are busy people who do not want to employ lawyers. It would be a great advantage if, one year at least, we could have a simple definition of what a crofter is. This might also be supplemented by a definition in simple terms of an eligible occupier.

I take it that the purpose of all this is simply to keep the two Schemes apart and to prevent a man who applies under one Scheme from applying under another Scheme at the same time. I am not Sure, however, that where a man holds under different forms of tenure, this definition will make the position much easier. With those questions and remarks, in general I accept that this may be an improvement on last year's Scheme, but I hope that we shall have answers to the points which I have raised.

9.48 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks.)

I should like to point out to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland an anomaly which appears to be arising. In the North Riding of Yorkshire, about 1,000 applications have been made for schemes and I understand that about 300 of them are likely to be approved. A man who is milking 50 cows and who has a large amount of land is probably in a position to qualify, because the word "predominantly" is continuously repeated. It is questionable what "predominantly" means. As I see it, it should mean 51 per cent., but I believe that the Ministry interprets it as being 60 per cent. of the income of the holding.

Obviously, it would be unwise to encourage farmers in that area to grow cash crops, but, at the same time, people who farm these smallholdings often eke out their income by the monthly milk cheque. The cheques for rearing sheep and cattle come in probably once a year from the store sales.

I think that a fairer method could have been found than this division of 60 per cent. and 40 per cent., and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would consider that a reduction of half an acre per dairy cow or something on those lines would be fairer, because then the man milking 50 cows and getting winter keep grant would be penalised and the small man milking 10 or 15 cows would probably be able to get some assistance from this grant. I think that it would overcome a good deal of the hardship with which they are faced, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would consider thinking about this at least for another year.

9.50 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

The Prime Minister, I think, said that winter keep was engraved upon his heart. Certainly anyone who took part in the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election found that this was a burning issue at that election, and quite clearly the farmers of Kinross and Perthshire at that time thought they were getting a raw deal from the Government, and they were very vocal about it. It seems to me from the figures the hon. Gentlemen has given us that probably, although the farmers have accepted this increase and have said that it comes somewhere near what they were expecting they are still not getting too good a deal out of this.

The hon. Gentleman said that the total cost for the whole of the country—I think I have the figures correctly—would be between £1½ million and £1¼ million and that one-half of that would go to Scotland. In other words, the total going to Scotland is now £750,000. This is part of the scheme which replaces the M.A.P.—the marginal agricultural production—grants. It seems to me that this is well below the amounts being paid out under the M.A.P. schemes, and therefore it would appear that the farming communities in the diffifficult areas—and we should remember that they are difficult areas—are suffering as a result of the change in the system.

I would ask the hon. Gentleman how many are eligible for this grant. He has given us the figure of 14,500. How does that compare with the number receiving grant under the M.A.P. schemes? It is important, because it is with this that the comparison is made. We ought to know exactly what is happening.

It is important to examine it, too, because the hon. Gentleman also said that, although the figures for each of the three grades had been increased by £1 per acre to £2 10s., £3 10s. and £5, the average would work out at approximately £3 per acre. That means that not very many people can be getting £5 per acre. It also means that many must be getting £2 10s. per acre. That is bound to be so, if two of the categories are over £3. I have not had time to work this out mathematically. One could work out mathematically what the proportions would be. At a first look at the figures provided by the hon. Gentleman—and this is the first time we have had these figures given us—it would appear that the average is now working out at £3, and it appears that a lot of farmers are going to get only £2 10s. an acre. They are getting £3 an acre in England and Wales. I wonder what the reasons are why farmers in Scotland—the majority, as far as I can see from the figures given—are to get only £2 10s. an acre while south of the Border, no matter what the farm is like, the farmer will get £3 an acre. It appears to me to require some justification. There may be a good reason for it; I do not know. Looking at it, it appears that we ought to have some explanation of the facts.

Apart from that, like everyone else, we welcome what has been done. I do not think that the Government have yet dealt with the matter properly, but we welcome it so far as it has gone.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

I was a little surprised at the way the Scheme was introduced by the Under-Secretary. He said that the reason for its introduction was to make perfectly clear the purpose for which the winter keep grant was being provided. That is not the reason at all. The reason is that the Government abolished M.A.P., and this is a substitute for it. Hon. Members should realise that what we are discussing tonight is what is replacing M.A.P. for an important section of the farming community.

I am delighted at the attendance in the House tonight. Nothing fills the House quite so much as farming and grants. That subject always ensures a good attendance of the farming Members. I remember the story of the minister who, whenever he wanted to keep his flock awake in church, introduced the word "grant", such as in the phrase "God grant unto us". At the word "grant" all the farmers sat up in their seats.

I want particularly to consider the question of farmers in the farming communities and in the uplands. They do not regard the scheme as being very satisfactory. When it was first introduced we had a tremendous protest meeting in Inverness of the farmers in the Highland crofting constituencies. They were very angry. I will not go over what they said, but if anyone is interested he should read the Scottish Farmer for October last year.

The farmers made it plain that they felt that they had been done by the Government by the abolition of M.A.P. and the introduction of the winter keep scheme. As a consequence of it, they felt all the poorer. They said that it would make it impossible for many more of them to continue farming in the upland areas and that it would increase the drift to the South because it would mean that there would be no prospect for the younger people in their areas.

As to the increase in rates mentioned by the Joint Under-Secretary, I was very much surprised, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the average would work out at about £3 per acre. That seems a very low average indeed. The Scheme says that the minimum to be paid to any farm is £2 10s. per acre, rising to £3 10s. and £5 in the top class. The Under-Secretary has apparently made an estimate and says that the Scottish farmers will probably get an average of £3 per acre.

That is very low indeed. When one considers the problems of the farmers in the crofting counties and on the upland farms, I do not think that it will deal with their situation at all. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will be able to break down the figures and tell us more exactly how the money will be distributed. I know that 14,500 have been classified.

There has been considerable complaint about the classifications of a large number of farms. In the Midlothian area, farmers in adjacent districts are in different categories and this has caused some ill-feeling. Indeed, some farms adjacent to each other are in different classes. As a result, some farmers are to receive substantially more than their next-door neighbours. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us how this has been divided. I take it that the figure he gave represented the increase to be paid under this Scheme and not the total sum.

Mr. Stodart indicated assent.

Mr. Hoy

Even so, I wonder why we are to have such a low average as £3. That is very puzzling. How have these farms come to be classified and what does the figure of 14,500 represent in the different categories? The farming community would welcome this information.

When the Scheme was being drafted—this all stems from the Price Review—what representations were received from farmers in areas most acutely affected? I am thinking particularly of the Highlands and Islands, where the farmers were very angry with the Government and said quite plainly last year that when the Government abolished M.A.P. and introduced a Winter Keep Scheme they had betrayed the farmers in those areas. Before we finally approve the Scheme, we want an assurance that the Government have the agreement of the farmers most acutely affected.

10.3 p.m.

Mr. A. C. Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

When the winter keep system was inaugurated last year, replacing the old M.A.P. Scheme, great concern was shown. Indeed, anxiety was forcefully expressed by deputations which waited upon Ministers. If the Government had had their way, M.A.P. would have been abolished almost overnight. The rundown period which afforded the Government an opportunity to bring in the upland farmers was brought about by continued pressure from this side of the House. I, too, am concerned with the pertinent point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). Obviously, if the average payment is only £3 an acre, a greater proportion of the grant will be paid at £2 10s. per acre than at the higher rate.

When there is a grant of £3 per acre in England and Wales, we should be told why there is a discrimination in respect of payments for Scottish upland farms. I do not want to do the job of the Scottish National Farmers' Union and this is a matter which it must have put before the hon. Gentleman forcibly, but I should like him to tell us what negotiations there were about this feature of the Scheme. He said that it would be difficult to estimate what success the Scheme would have, but could he say how many payments he expects to be made? Can he say how many payments to Scottish upland farmers will be made at the rate of £2 10s. per acre as against £5 per acre? That would be an interesting figure.

Another matter which has caused concern in upland farming areas is the withdrawal of the M.A.P. Scheme from upland dairy farms. I understand that these dairy farms are not to have the advantage of the Winter Keep Scheme. Why should they be excluded? The Under-Secretary will recognise that a fairly wide range of dairy farms in hilly upland areas are ceasing their production of milk, so that rural communities in these areas may have to get their milk from Glasgow or elsewhere and not locally. At certain times of the year, householders in these areas will find it very difficult to get milk.

I understand that the payment of the ploughing grant no longer disqualifies the farmer concerned from the receipt of winter keep grant. Did the Under-secretary include the ploughing grant in the figure of £1,500,000 to £1,750,000?

Mr. Stodart


Mr. Manuel

It is not £750,000, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East, thought, paid out in winter keep, but £750,000 containing a proportion of the ploughing grant.

Mr. Stodart

In addition.

Mr. Manuel

So that the figure is £1,500,000, or £1,750,000, and the ploughing grant will be additional to that total figure?

Mr. Stodart

Let there be no misunderstanding. I have checked my notes and found that the figure I gave was £1,500,000 or £1,750,000 as the addition of the increased rate and the introduction of the ploughing subsidy, not the cost of the whole Scheme.

Mr. Manuel

To clear up the matter, can the hon. Gentleman tell us what he estimates the annual output will be for the ploughing grant? He should be able to tell us that on the basis of past records.

I think that we must be told what proportion of the ploughing grant will be paid to the upland farmer to enable us to make a proper assessment of the viability of these small farms in Scotland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will assure the House that in his negotiations with the sub-committee of the Scottish N.F.U. he was able to get the members of that sub-committee to agree that this average £3 was sufficient to keep farms viable in these difficult areas. If they were of the opinion that £3 was insufficient for that purpose, quite obviously we are at a disadvantage with an all-round figure of £3 per acre for winter keep in England and Wales.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Stodart

With the leave of the House, perhaps I might reply to the points which have been raised. We have had a predominantly Scottish debate, but I do not think that we need apologise for that, considering that four-fifths of our land area consists of mountain, hill, or heath.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) asked whether I could assure him that hill farms generally will be better off than they were under the M.A.P. Scheme. From all the calculations that we can make, the answer is that they will be, because not only are they eligible for the Winter Keep Scheme, but eligibility for that will bring to many who were previously outside it qualification for hill cow subsidy.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether any farms which had been getting M.A.P. had been excluded from the Winter Keep Scheme. The answer is that some have been, although I cannot give a precise figure. It may well be that, thanks to the new varieties of cereals which have been introduced, some farms are now growing substantial and profitable cash crops of barley, and even wheat, where in the old days it was impossible to do that. The numbers are small, but if the right hon. Gentleman wishes me to do so, I shall do my best, if the figures are available, to let him have them.

Mr. Manuel

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that they will be excluded from the Winter Keep Scheme?

Mr. Stodart

I shall come to that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall not neglect the various points that he made.

There is no policy of reducing the number of farms which qualify for this kind of help. At the very peak of M.A.P., 10,000 farms were receiving assistance from that Scheme. As I have said, 14,500 are qualifying for winter keep.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me to try to define a crofter. I have discovered, and so has the right hon. Gentleman, that according to the Scheme it means the tenant of a croft—or perhaps that is the definition in the Act which I looked up. There are fairly substantial definitions of a crofter in the 1955 Act, and I have no doubt that the Land Court would assist the right hon. Gentleman if he was in difficulties.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) was the first of two or three hon. Members to ask about the average. This Scheme is in its earliest stages, and, as I think I told the hon. Member, it is difficult to give any accurate figures because the cropping returns are not yet in.

It may interest the hon. Member to know that of the 14,500 farms, 3,000 have been graded A, 4,000—and I am giving the roundest of round figures—have been graded B, and 7,500 graded C. What I cannot give, because we do not yet have the information, is the number of acres on these individual farms for which winter keep is being applied for, but the hon. Member and the House will realise that the C grade is almost certainly likely—because of the very geographical nature of the place—to have fewer acres on which to grow this winter keep—being high up the mountain side. I think that he will find there the reason for the discrepancy that worries him.

The best calculation that we can make in these early days is that the average will work out at about £3 an acre. I think that the hon. Member has already taken the point that the figure I gave was of additional cost. The total United Kingdom expenditure on winter keep is estimated to be £3.1 million, of which Scotland is getting £1.7 million, or just over half.

Mr. Willis

How does that compare with M.A.P.?

Mr. Stodart

England got no M.A.P. at all in the later stages, going for the small farmer scheme instead.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) described winter keep as a substitute for M.A.P., but I firmly believe it to be a great improvement. M.A.P., while being extremely useful when it was introduced in 1949, stimulated production without discriminating between what was best suited to a farm and what was less suited. It really paid comparatively little attention—and I do not criticise it for doing so in days when food was in short supply—to the cost of production. The general virtue of winter keep is that it stimulates farmers to produce what their farms are best suited for.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) referred to the production of milk on the upland dairy farms. On these high, outlying farms—not so much because they are outlying, but because they are high—the problem is the high cost of production. I estimate that it probably costs about 20 per cent. more to produce a gallon of milk on those high farms than it does on the low ground. The average receipts of these upland dairy farms under M.A.P. was £90 per farm; the average increase they will get from the increased milk price will, we reckon, be £200 a farm. They will be that much better off as a result of the increased price of milk. I fully realise that what he has said about supplies in the remote areas is a point of substance, and I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is watching this matter with considerable care.

As this has, to a considerable extent, been a Scottish debate, perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) will allow me to reply to him in writing, as I will gladly do.

This is a completely new Scheme. It has involved the classifying and reclassifying of thousands of farms in nearly every county of Scotland and in many counties in the United Kingdom. I do not deny for a moment that there have been teething troubles. Indeed, it would have been strange if there had not. But the Scheme as I recommend it to the House is, I think, very fair and I hope that all people, not only in the House but outside it, realise its importance to all who depend on this country for so much of their food.

In Scotland, we sing with some deep intensity and feeling a Psalm which begins: I to the hills will lift mine eyes from whence dost come mine aid. It is to these hills that people, whether they live in the town or in the country, must look for much of their food. These Schemes will make the contribution of those hills in my belief much more substantial. I have pleasure in commending them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Winter Keep (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Scheme 1964, a draft of which was laid before this House on 23rd April, be approved.

Winter Keep (Scotland) (Amendment) Scheme 1964 [draft laid before the House, 23rd April], approved.—[Mr. Stodart.]