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Agriculture (Fertilisers)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th June 1957.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Draft Fertilisers (United Kingdom) Scheme, 1957, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28th May, be approved.—[Mr. Amory.]

7.37 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Champion Mr Arthur Champion , Derbyshire South East

We welcome this annual Order, which the Minister has formally presented to the House. I can understand why he has done it formally, because every year the Order receives a welcome from hon. Members on this side of the House and from hon. Gentlemen opposite. However, this year there are considerable alterations and I think that the Minister might have told us something about them.

The rate of subsidy for sulphate of ammonia is up by 30 per cent., and that in a single year. I wonder why that is so and why nitrate of chalk has gone up 35 per cent. over the same period. Is this due purely to an alteration in world or British prices, or is it as a result of the decision of the Minister to try to stimulate further the use of these fertilisers? As for the rest, so far as I can see the prices remain the same as last year, or at least the subsidies remain as they were in the 1956 Order.

Is the Minister satisfied that the prices being charged, which to some extent of course he is subsidising, are not pushed up unduly as a result of the operations of great trusts? I am not sure to what extent such operations are carried out. I fear, however, that rings, or perhaps "trusts" is the better word, are operating to push up prices and, to some extent, dip their hands into the taxpayers' pockets because the subsidy goes up every time the price goes up and the taxpayer has to pay. I am not sure about these things, but I believe that it is the job of the Minister to be certain when he is bringing an Order of this nature to the House. He should make inquiries and inform hon. Members. I regard these matters as very important, bearing in mind the amount which, as the Minister said today, this subsidy is costing and the difference between the amount this year and last year which, I believe, is represented by an increase of about £6 million. I believe that is the figure which the right hon. Gentleman gave me today, and it is an important increase. I therefore hope that the Minister will tell us and will satisfy me on the questions which I have now put to him.

7.40 p.m.

Photo of Sir Henry Legge-Bourke Sir Henry Legge-Bourke , Isle of Ely

In reply to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), may I say that I hope no one will suggest that this is dipping into the taxpayers' pockets to their disadvantage, because fertilisers simply encourage better production per acre, and I am sure that even the hon. Member himself will be only too glad to encourage that.

Photo of Mr Arthur Champion Mr Arthur Champion , Derbyshire South East

Did not the hon. and gallant Gentleman hear me say that I welcomed this Order? Having welcomed it each year, it is obvious that I like this form of expenditure.

Photo of Sir Henry Legge-Bourke Sir Henry Legge-Bourke , Isle of Ely

I heard the hon. Gentleman welcome it, but I think it is unfortunate that he used a phrase which might give a completely false impression to the taxpayer as to what is in fact the object of the Order.

Photo of Sir Henry Legge-Bourke Sir Henry Legge-Bourke , Isle of Ely

I rise only to protest once again, or to express disappointment, that potash has been left out, because if we are to do anything for British horticulture, which is most important and to the support of which we as a party on this side are fully pledged, it is very difficult to see any way of doing it except through a fertiliser subsidy for potash. It is therefore rather disappointing once again to see that the Order does not include potash. I regret it, because I believe that the monopoly in the production of potash which has been feared by the Minister in past years is now considerably less than it was. In fact, from the evidence which I have, there are very considerable sources of supply from Israel, amongst other countries, which to some extent would compete with European production. It is most unfortunate that we have not yet found it possible to support horticulture in that way.

7.43 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Derick Heathcoat Amory):

May I reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) on potash first? The reason is that our potash is all imported, and a very big proportion of it is from one cartel. The amount at present available from Israel is a very insignificant proportion of the total. At present, it would be very difficult to give a subsidy on potash fertilisers since we have little assurance that the effect would not be an immediate or subsequent increase in the price of imported potash. I should like to assure my hon. and gallant Friend that it really is not true to say that horticulturists get no benefit from the other fertiliser subsidies. They are important to horticulturists, and we are quite satisfied that they are obtaining very considerable benefits from the existing subsidies.

It is also a fact that if we take the three main fertilisers—nitrogen, potash and phosphate—the proportion of potash fertiliser used, according to my advisers, is nearer the optimum than in the case of either of the other fertilisers. It is also increasing, without a subsidy, faster than either of the other two at the present time.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) raised a very relevant question, and I agree with him that I ought to have referred to it. The point he raised was that of the comparatively sharp increase in the subsidy on nitrogen, and he asked what was the reason for that. Broadly speaking, the reason is that we believe that we shall get more benefit from a still more rapid increase in 'the rate at which nitrogen fertiliser is used than in the case of either of the other two. It is very important, as the hon. Gentleman knows, for the further improvement of our grassland.

We have increased this subsidy on previous occasions, and we would have been willing to do so even more if the productive capacity had made it possible. But the increases in productive capacity in this country are now going ahead and we thought that this year it was safe to stimulate and provide an incentive for a further improvement in consumption which, the year before, we had not thought it wise to do.

The hon. Gentleman then asked me whether I was satisfied that the fertiliser manufacturers would not recover the value of the subsidy in increased prices. We have no price control at present over the prices charged for fertilisers in this country, but we keep a close eye on them. I can say that, in general, the prices charged for fertilisers in this country compare very favourably with the prices current in the countries of Western Europe. The hon. Gentleman also knows that the Government have referred the case of the fertiliser manufacturing industry to the Monopolies Commission, which has the matter under consideration at present, but which has not yet made its report.

Question put and agreed to.