Orders of the Day — Agriculture

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1966.

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Photo of Mr Gerald Fowler Mr Gerald Fowler , The Wrekin 12:00 am, 3rd November 1966

I am coming to that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to reach it in my own time. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is getting late."] I am well aware of the time, but I have been speaking for only 10 minutes. The hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) spoke for 25.

The cause of the situation is essentially that we had a record number of pigs last year which led inevitably to lower returns to pig producers and hence we have a lack of confidence not in the Minister but in the future of the market. It is a precisely similar situation to that of the livestock trade. Again, it is irrational, because the National Plan provides for an increase in pig meat production of 125,000 tons by 1970 and this is within the capacity of the industry. The bacon agreement guarantees that share of the home market and, furthermore, the middle band was raised by 400,000 at the Price Review. By July, the average return to producers was 2s. 3d. higher than last year so there is no reason for lack of confidence in the pig trade.

These factors should provide conditions for reasonable expansion but crises of confidence are not always rational. They are often quite irrational. One sees this in the crisis of confidence in sterling. That is why I am glad that my right hon. Friend announced in his Harper Adams speech, in my constituency, that he will raise the middle band by 400,000 by the end of March and that yesterday and today he gave an assurance that it can be increased by one million above the present rate without fear that the flexible guarantee will operate against them.

I think that this should lead to restoration of confidence but, as I have said, conceivably it may not be enough because one is dealing with an irrational phenomenon. I would like my right hon. Friend to implement the rise in the middle band now. I do not think that it would make much financial difference. He should bear in mind the consideration that it could make a difference to confidence.

While I accept the Minister's arguments today for not giving any subsidy to the curers—they were powerful arguments—perhaps he would be prepared to make available or to arrange some system of credit, short-term or middle term, for curers who find themselves in extreme financial difficulties because of the present short-term situation.

The problem in the pig meat market is, of course, partly that import prices for bacon, particularly from Denmark, are lower at the moment than our own curers can produce bacon for. I do not think that the answer is to impose levies, as the Opposition presumably wish, simply because, in this situation, we would be forbidden to do so by the terms of the International Bacon Agreement, which was signed, I remind them, by the Conservative Government.

In any case, in the case of pig meat, levies would mean a general price rise. Furthermore, if we were in the Community inevitably Denmark would be as well. We would not benefit in any degree in terms of our bacon trade through protection from Danish imports and, furthermore, there is no internal support inside the Community for pig meat. Entry into the Common Market without renegotiating agricultural policy would lead to the collapse of British pig farming.

I want briefly to refer to cereals, simply because I want to re-emphasise a point made somewhat halfheartedly by the Opposition earlier today, namely, that in July stocks of animal feedingstuffs were very much higher than at the same time last year. We must increase our meat herds, both pigs and cattle, in line with the increase in cereal production, or we shall face a serious situation with cereals in a year or two. We cannot go on stock piling for ever. But it is worth pointing out that balance would be much more difficult to achieve without renegotiation of the agricultural policy of the Common Market, were we to enter the Market, because of the individual commodity character of the approach of the Market countries to agriculture.

There has been some discussion today of the rundown in the labour force in agriculture. I want to make one comment connected with the old problem of tied cottages. The Minister of Housing and Local Government is trying to persuade local authorities to encourage redeployment by accepting people from other areas on to their housing lists and housing them rapidly without giving undue pointing weight to residents of long-standing.

There is a similar problem in moving from agriculture. Some people omit to put themselves on housing lists and find, when they want to leave agriculture—and inevitably we will find that many thousands will continue to do so over the next few years—that they are not in a position to be rehoused rapidly by a local authority. Publicising the fact that they should put themselves on a list is all very well, but some still do not, and I wonder whether the Minister could urge local authorities to give some priority to those moving out of agriculture on to their housing lists.

In connection with the price freeze, landlords of agricultural land have been urged to keep agricultural rents steady. The N.F.U. has said the same thing and so has the landlords' association. Some are still not responding and, of course, it will not make the situation for the tenant farmer, in already difficult conditions, any easier if he finds that his rent is being increased. I hope that over the coming months of the freeze my right hon. Friend will be able to give more publicity to this problem and to the desirability of keeping rents steady.

Agriculture faces a serious problem and action is urgent and I hope that it will come before the Price Review. However, after listening to today's debate, I do not think that the answer will come from the Opposition. I do not believe that we should accept the Conservative answer to the recurrent problem of British agriculture, an answer which is the imposition of import levies and rushing into the E.E.C. without satisfactory terms and without an attempt to get satisfactory terms, just as we saw last time when right hon. Gentlemen opposite attempted to enter the Common Market.

I refer hon. Members opposite to an article in The Times of 28th October, by Mr. G. T. Williams, President of the N.F.U. and a constituent of mine, in which he points out that the cost to the consumer of entry into the Common Market in his calculations and those of the N.F.U. is certainly not the figure given by right hon. Gentlemen opposite today and not even that given from these benches, but something very much higher. He points out that if there were an increase in cost to the consumer of this order, or anything like it, there would be a great growth of consumer resistance to the more expensive agricultural products and a corresponding fall in the country's dietary standard.

I cannot accept this as an answer. Today, we have talked about pigs. Hon. Members opposite on occasion put me in mind of the swine of Gadarene in their haste to rush over the precipice into the Common Market. We must hope that they do not have the opportunity to impose their collective death wish upon British agriculture.