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Orders of the Day — Agriculture (Calf Subsidies)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th March 1968.

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Photo of Mr James Hoy Mr James Hoy , Edinburgh Leith 12:00 am, 13th March 1968

I can hardly congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) on that speech. His peroration was like his opening remarks. It was not true. I did reply to the point he mentioned, but I will not go into that again tonight. If he was not listening, he cannot blame me for that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the way in which he opened the debate. Hon. Members have raised a number of questions about subsidies and I shall do my best to reply. Calf subsidies are a well tried method of support for the beef industry. That may be a reply to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr). While he may not like it quite so much, it will command the respect of the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills). The extended arrangements for the later payments on carcases have been in operation for more than two years, during which time there has been ample opportunity to consider the views of those concerned in the industry and to iron out the minor administrative problems which invariably arise when new subsidy arrangements are introduced.

Equally, the provisions of the new Supervision and Enforcement Order follow closely those which have operated for many years now for the protection of fatstock guarantee payments and the calf subsidy Stage A. We do not take these precautions because we mistrust the farmers, although some may not behave as they should. I remember when I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee that a well known farmer from near the hon. Gentleman's area in Scotland got 110 per cent. of his costs, which did not meet with our approval. This was quite legal, but there was a loophole in the law which had to be closed.

I stand by what I said in Committee about confidentiality. I also asked for an explanation of the words "approximately equivalent" so that I could answer in simple terms. Stage B subsidy can only be approximately the same as Stage A, although we intend the rates to be generally the same on the average, because the ages of the qualifying cattle presented at Stage B may vary. It means no more or less than that we can ensure equivalence only to this extent.

The important powers to delegate to the Commission under paragraph 2 are permissive, and we intend to delegate only the duty of certification and not that of payment. The person consulting records must be directly authorised by or on behalf of the Minister, and we intend that Ministry officers should do this work. I give the same assurance of confidentiality here, except in cases of prosecution, when we would obviously have to disclose these matters.

The hon. Member for Torrington spoke about "punch money" for ears. Ears must be taken on the spot if malpractice is suspected. This must apply to Commission officers doing the certification and to anyone else authorised by the Minister, such as an inspector on his own staff. The proper officer will normally be an officer of the Commission, who is best placed to notice anything wrong, but if he suspects the need for investigation he will pass the case to the Ministry; our officers will inspect the records and go on from there.

Some thought has been given to whether the system might be altered, since some think that we should dispense with the calf subsidy and add an equivalent sum to the fatstock guarantee, but we think that the subsidy is better in that everyone, from the producer onwards, will get his share. Under the other system, the producer would get less and the man at the other end would get more. These suggestions are very difficult.

Stage B is not used as much as Stage A because any calves suitable for rearing for beef will usually be certified live, since the money is paid then, which is a great attraction. Farmers are aware of the possibility of getting it if it is on the hook. This has not been used a tremendous amount, but it is getting better known. In 1966–67 we spent approximately £24 million on the Stage A scheme and only about £700,000 or three quarters of a million on Stage B. I agree that it is one of the schemes which might be used to greater advantage.

The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) asked about bull beef. We agreed to give a three-year trial to bull beef production. Two years have been completed and we are conducting a review of the progress made. After consultation with the agricultural organisations, we shall announce the action beyond the end of the third year approximately a year from now. If the scheme needs amendment, we shall come to the House again, but I think the hon. Member will agree that it is much better to look at it in that way.