I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
The object of the Bill is to continue for a further three years, including the present year, the greatly increased agricultural grant introduced in 1946, by the Rates on Agricultural Land (Relief) Act of that year. The Bill also proposes to make a change in the method of distributing the grant.
The system of allowances which began in 1946 and continued up to last year provided for an abatement of three-fifths of the rates on land valuations up to £20. Where the valuation of land in a holding was greater than £20, two types of additional allowances could be paid in relief of rates on the portion of the valuation over £20. The first was a supplementary allowance of one-fifth of rates and the second an employment allowance of 10/- in the £ of valuation where one or more menwere at work on a holding. The employment allowance was limited to £6 10s. per man, and the Act provided that these two types of allowance taken together were not to exceed the actual rates on the valuation over £20. In other words, a ratepayer could not get more in allowances than he was liable to pay in rates.
In February, 1952, when I was speaking on the Bill which was to extend the 1946 system to the year ended 31st March last, I told the House that I was examining the whole question of this form of rate relief, with a view to giving greater help by means of the agricultural grant to farmers whose methods of farming afforded maximum employment and who were best serving the needs of the community as a whole in regard to agricultural production. I said then that I did not see why this very large subsidy should be paid out without exploring what we might do to induce farmers to give more employment. The Bill now before you represents what I think we can fairly do within the framework of the present system, to use the agricultural grant in the drive for agricultural production.
The Bill proposes to merge the two types of allowance hitherto payable for land valuations over £20. The supplementary allowance paid irrespective of numbers employed will disappear and the employment allowance will be increased to a figure of £17 for each man employed on the holding. No change is being made in the three-fifths abatement in the rates on land valuations up to £20.
The Bill will apply the new scale of allowances to the current year and to the two following years. A three year trial period is necessary in order to give the revised system a chance of proving itself.
The other main provision of the Bill relates to the amendment of rates. That is necessary because the Bill will govern the making of allowances during the year which began on the 1st April last. When I spoke to the House on the Bill which applied the 1946 allowances to the year 1952-53, and to which I have already referred, I said that I would have liked to makethese changes for that year in view of the situation that existed. I was not able to do so then, but I considered it essential not to lose a further year, and although the necessary legislation could not be prepared in time, I wished to introduce the new system in the current year. This presented certain difficulties, since the extensive work of applotment of the county rate and making out demand notes has to go ahead as early as possible after the beginning of the local financial year if local finances are to be kept on an even keel. For this purpose county councils must know beforehand the general lines on which the agricultural grant is to be allocated for the year. The provisions of the present Bill show a departure from the circular letter issued to county councils in May last. The departure is, in fact, an extension of the new scheme and provides an employment allowance of £17 per man instead of £13 as suggested in the circular.
If the 1946 Act had been applied unchanged to the present year, it is estimated that the agricultural grant would have amounted to approximately £5,000,000. It is estimated that the grant under this Bill will not be less. The change proposed means, therefore, that the total amount will be distributed on an improved basis. Some will gain and some lose under the new system but, taking the country at a whole, losses and gains will balance out. The main difference, and the whole idea of the Bill, is that the farmer who will gain will be the farmer engaged in those forms of agricultural production which claim most attention, most supervision and care and, more important still, provide most rural employment.