HC Deb 19 May 1868 vol 192 cc579-91

rose to call attention to the inconvenience arising from the want of an authority specially charged with the duty of considering questions affecting agriculture and the food of the people, and to move for a Committee to inquire into and report upon the Functions of various Government Offices so far as they affect Questions relating to Agriculture, with a view to provide for the due consideration of such Questions by one Department responsible to Parliament. He had therefore to establish two points. 1. That there are subjects connected with land and agriculture requiring the attention of some public authority responsible to Parliament. 2. That there is primâ facie ground for an inquiry into the functions of certain existing Departments of the Public Service, with a view to consolidate their duties connected with land, and to make better provision for the discharge of those duties. His reasons for bringing forward this Motion were, first, because of the very active interest in legislation which was now growing up among agriculturists, and especially among tenant-farmers, evinced by the institution of Chambers of Agriculture; and secondly, because of the discussions likely to occur with reference to the land laws, between which and the cost of the food of the people there was, in the opinion of some persons, an intimate connection. On this second point he quoted the opinion of a very able writer in the volume of Essays on Questions for a Reformed Parliament. After speaking of speculations on the price of food in towns, the writer proceeded— Sound or not, these speculations point to one inference, which is—that there is the most intimate connection between the food supply of the cities and the freedom of the land. In whatever degree our agricultural system checks the outlay of capital, or militates against security of tenure, it tends to diminish the productiveness of agriculture and to raise the price of food in towns. He (Mr. Acland) was well aware that, however some persons might think the prosperity of agriculture bound up with excessively high prices, the county Members of this House were far too well-informed to sanction such a doctrine, or to give any countenance to the opinions that the owners or occupiers of land were jealous of the abundance of food for the people. He wished to clear the ground by stating what he did not propose. He did not pro- pose that the English Government should, as the French Government did, teach the practice and science of agriculture, or undertake duties which were here better left to private effort; but in one respect, perhaps, we might follow the example of our neighbours. The French Minister of Agriculture had under his charge a large number of haras for the breeding of horses, and had some authority to prevent unsound stallions from going about the country as they did with us, doing an infinite amount of mischief. He had taken part in the earnest endeavours of voluntary societies to do what could be done by such agency in the way of certificating sound horses in England, but voluntary effort had entirely failed to effect the desired object, and perhaps the Government might interfere with advantage. He would venture to say that if some noblemen would use their abilities —which in some cases were very considerable, and which were not used much to their own advantage on the Turf—in assisting the Government on this subject, they might render great public service to the agriculturists of England. Among the subjects requiring the attention of a provincial or central administration was our system of roads, whether national, county, or parochial. Another point was how we were to get cheap railways—branches from the main lines—carried into the rural districts, where there was no inducement for capitalists to take shares. It had been suggested to him by a county Member sitting on the other side of the House that it might be possible to get such railways with sharp curves and low speed constructed at a cheap rate by means of an assessment on the landed property of the district. He was not prepared to say that this was a practicable plan, but it was certainly one which deserved serious attention. Looking again at our systems of water supply, of drainage, of sewage, and irrigation, it was plain that these could be only carried out effectually when dealing with very large areas. Some attempts had been made by Parliament to deal with river basins, as in the case of the Thames and the Shannon; but the process was expensive, and the result unsatisfactory. The difficulties in the way of individual landowners, or even of the smaller towns wishing to enter upon improvements of this character, were almost insuperable. At the present moment there was practically a deadlock as to the taking of land for sewage. Towns were forbidden to pour their sewage into running streams, and yet the powers indispensable for the acquisition of lands by them for the purposes of sewage utilization were uncertain. There was a growing necessity for some administrative power to carry out the public Acts which had been passed. On this subject he would read the opinion of a very competent judge, the Secretary of the Local Government Department of the Home Office, Mr. Tom Taylor— All the larger questions of drainage involve most serious difficulties, both as respects the determination of drainage areas, the appointment of proper local authorities for superintending drainage schemes, assessment of their cost, &c, and these questions daily grow more pressing. It is difficult to see how they can much longer be dealt with without some central authority specially charged with the subject. To such an authority would belong the initiation and guidance of inquiries in connection with sewage and its distribution, and the granting powers for the taking of land for the purpose of sewage application. To this testimony he must add a statement which he had on the authority of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, and fully established by evidence to be in the hands of Members in a few days—that there is an intimate connection between the amount of phthisis or consumption and the want of drainage in large districts. The conflicting areas of local administration formed another great source of confusion. There were already in existence parishes, townships, hamlets, highway districts, ecclesiastical districts, Poor Law unions, burial hoard districts, registration districts, special drainage districts, under the Sanitary Act and Sewage Utilization Act, and no two of these were necessarily conterminous. A Parliamentary Return had been called for with a view of ascertaining what had been the effect of recent legislation on the subject of drainage, and out of 700 districts it was found possible to get answers only from thirty, in the other cases there being no correspondence whatever between the areas of drainage and registration. Then they had the action of the Inclosure Commissioners who discharged duties of very high importance, but were not directly responsible to the House; and also of the speculative drainage and improvement companies, who were usually responsible to the Inclosure Commissioners, but exercised powers of their own in the way of charging encumbrances upon posterity, one of them lie knew being subject to no limit of time. These various bodies he maintained should be made directly responsible to the House. The manner in which agriculturists, during the prevalence of the cattle plague, had been referred from one Government Department to another had impressed upon them very strongly the desirability of some better organization on all subjects relating to the cattle trade, markets, and fairs, Closely connected with the subject of cattle was the improvement of the veterinary profession — a matter to which no little importance was attached by farmers, who desired that effective measures should he taken for the education of properly qualified practitioners in the different grades. When the cattle police of the country, so to speak, depended upon the opinions of men in such a position, it became of the highest importance that they should be properly trained to the discharge of their duties. With regard to all the subjects which he had enumerated, he submitted that they were either clogged by obsolete customs, or by modern but incoherent legislation, or controlled by persons not practically responsible, or by high Ministers of State having many other duties and no qualified staff of assistants; or they were simply left to take their chance. To what quarter were they to look for improvement in administration or legislation? The questions on which he had touched had several aspects. On their economical side they would naturally look to the Board of Trade, on their sanitary side to the Privy Council; but, as regarded fiscal matters, to the Home Office, The advantage of the public lay in combining these several functions in one office responsible to public opinion, lie contended, without any disrespect to the persons at the head of these offices, that in none of these Departments was the fact recognized that special knowledge and training and experience were required to be at the disposal of the office in order to deal with land questions; nor is any one office specially charged with the consideration of these questions as a whole. He was far from advocating the creation of any new or costly Department; on the contrary, he believed that better administration might be obtained with considerably diminished cost. At present the country was called upon to bear the expense of the Inclosure Commission, the Cattle Plague Office, and the Statistical Office. He estimated that the amount voted by Parliament annually for subjects canceled with agriculture was for salaries alone above £25,000. If the Office of Woods and Forests, the Board of Works in Ireland, and some temporary charges were included the salaries would he over £70,000, and the aggregate official expenditure nearly £110,000. This amount it was the aim and tendency of his Motion to diminish, not to increase. He referred for the items to a paper which he held in his hand, but he would not trouble the House with all the details. Now having established the fact that there were subjects to be attended to and offices whose functions and expenses called for inquiry, he wished to state shortly what he considered to be the legitimate functions of Government as follows:—To remove obstacles caused by obsolete custom or inconsistent legislation; to protect those who cannot help themselves; to collect information, test its accuracy, and put it into a systematic and accessible form; to stimulate and supervise the discharge of local duties; and, finally, to raise an authoritative standard of competency for public duties. He had endeavoured to show, not with a view to class legislation, nor in the interest of any party, that there were important subjects connected with land, food, and health, which demanded the serious attention of that House, with a view to more comprehensive legislation, and more systematic administration; and that as matters now stood the profitable application of capital to land was impeded. He would ask the House to consider what that meant in its effect on the labouring population. The power of the labourer to pay for a healthy and decent dwelling depended on his wages; his wages depended on demand; the demand on the amount of capital available for agriculture. What he had urged was part only of a very large subject. That subject was not less than a re-construction of our provincial administration guided by the action of a well-informed Government, and supported by public opinion. He reminded the House that there was a growing conviction that something more than honest intentions were expected of a Government. They lived in an age not only of inquiry but of scientific progress; sound government demanded an accurate knowledge of facts, and science was but the systematic accumulation and knowledge of facts. He had shown that their present system was chaotic, and that it was not money that was wanting but organization, both central and local. At present they had in their public offices neither the special training, nor the knowledge, nor the experience, nor the distribution of labour, nor the presiding control needed to help the nation to help itself. If the Government would not agree to the appointment of a Committee in the present state of public affairs, they might appoint a Royal Commission which could continue its sittings in the autumn. The hon. Member concluded by moving for a Select Committee.


rose to second the Motion. He said, that this was a question which deeply interested his constituents, and in which he had taken an interest for a very long time. He disclaimed any desire to revive the old Board of Agriculture, which many said had been a failure, but from which, nevertheless, might be dated almost all our agricultural improvements before steam and cheap education had taught people to help themselves. We had no need of Slate assistance to do what agricultural societies did much better. We did not want such a Minister of Agriculture as in France, where the Government did everything and the public nothing; but what we wanted was local means of enforcing public regulations; and in order to make any sort of regulations certain, swift, and general, we must possess a better organization than we had at present. There were practical inconveniencies which he had experienced in his dealings with the Government administration with respect to the cattle plague. On the subject of the cattle plague he had a good deal of experience, because he represented the greatest winter-grazing county in England; he had the honour of being a Cattle Plague Commissioner, and the misfortune to be a farmer whoso herds had been ravaged by the disease. In his dealings with Government on this subject he had found that if he wanted to know anything about fairs and markets he must go to the Home Department; if about importations he must go to the Privy Council; while on the subject of statistics and cattle transit it was the Board of Trade that must be applied to. So much inconvenience, however, had been found to arise from this distribution of duties, that the Government of the day had thought proper to huddle them up together and to institute a body over which a colonel of Engineers and afterwards a philosophical doctor were appointed to preside. The result was that the only persons satisfied were the butchers of London, who were not very desirous of giving their cus- tomers a share of the benefits which the Government conferred upon them. Those diseases which had committed such ravages among our cattle were not of indigenous, but foreign origin. While for some years our losses from pleuro-pneumonia alone averaged more than 50 per cent of all the cattle that died, during 1866, when the traffic was suspended, our losses were only 1 per cent. Why, then, had we not some one to defend us, first of all, from further importations of those diseases; in the next place, from ourselves—for many farmers, when disease broke out among their cattle, were only anxious to get rid of them by sending them to market—then from dealers; and lastly from railroads, which starve the cattle during transit, and from steamboats, which half smother them in the holds: Only a few years ago there was death in the holds of our ships, disease in our railway trucks, and contagion in our markets. Now, he affirmed that diseased cattle meant ruined agriculture and dear meat, while healthy cattle meant prosperity to the farming interest and cheap meat to the people. As nine-tenths of the beef we consume, and nearly nineteen-twentieths of the mutton, was produced in these islands, lie hoped hon. Gentlemen opposite would give their assistance to secure that healthy state of things which he was anxious to bring about. One word as to statistics. It unfortunately happened that the Government was known to most of the rural districts only as the organization which sent the taxgatherer among them, and the taxgatherer too often guided his conduct by the rule that every man should be treated as a rogue until the contrary was proved. Yet the collection of agricultural statistics was intrusted to the taxgatherer, with what result the House could easily imagine. Partial information only was gleaned, and Returns were made at irregular intervals. In 1866 two Returns were made—one in February, the other in July. In 1867 only one Return was made, that of June. They were laid on the table in February, 1868, and as soon as the total was published by the newspapers in the autumn, the wool trade concluded there were 8,000,000 more sheep and 30,000,000 lbs. more wool in England this year than last. Wool consequently went down 6d. per lb., and remained down until it was discovered that one set of statistics was collected before the lambs were born, and the other after. It was necessary that these affairs should be conducted by a Department thoroughly conversant with rural subjects, and as the Government had suggested a Minister of Education, he hoped the prayer of his hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Acland) would be acceded to, and that at no distant day agriculture would be properly represented in the Administration. He hoped that the time had come when jealousy between town and country was gone; and the country districts simply asked to have applied to agriculture the benefits of enlightened legislation in order that they might increase the production of the country and cheapen the food of the people.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into and report upon the functions of various Government Offices so far as they affect questions relating to agriculture, with a view to provide for the due consideration of such questions by one department responsible to Parliament." — (Mr. Acland.)


said, he had listened with sincere pleasure to the two hon. Members who had preceded him. His hon. Friend (Mr. Acland) had raised most important issues, and he was sure his remarks on the subject of divided jurisdiction would lie heartily endorsed by urban as well as rural populations. The present system made reform of local taxation for sanitary and other improvements utterly impossible. Although it was not likely a Committee would be granted at this period of the Session, administrative reformers could congratulate themselves on one good result which had been gained; five years ago the speech of his hon. Friend would have called up against him charges of aiming a blow at local government, to-day his strictures and conclusions were acquiesced in by hon. Members on both sides of the House. His hon. Friend's experience regarding faulty Returns in agricultural subjects was very similar to his own in reference to local taxation; but the first step towards the remedy for all these defects was to define some uniform method of government for boroughs, counties, or areas generally in the country. Out of doors it was said that the House was indifferent, and not sufficiently industrious as to the question of local taxation; but he (Mr. Goschen) did not think there was a want of either zeal or industry on the part of the House. At present the governing I bodies varied so strangely that it was impossible to find an authority for any special purpose; immediately something new had to be done a new department had to be constituted; the present system had no elasticity, it was based on no settled principle, all was chaotic, and any one who contributed anything towards reducing this chaos to order deserved the thanks of the community.


deplored the absence of a department which could utilize by bringing into a focus the experience gained by the various agricultural societies scattered throughout the kingdom. Great efforts had been made by some societies to extend a knowledge of veterinary science, particularly in Scotland, where ineffectual attempts had been made to gain a charter for improving the means of veterinary education. Unless Returns were brought together they were comparatively valueless, and a central office would discharge a useful task if they collected and published in an accessible form the agricultural Reports annually received from our Consuls and Colonial Governors which were now scattered through the blue books. In the United States there was a Commissioner of Agriculture, who corresponded with the agricultural societies, collected information at home, and despatched agents to procure information abroad, as well as to bring home the seeds of new plants, which were given to fanners to experiment with. He likewise superintended entomology and other departments of science, as also the industrial arts; and two years ago the subject of his investigations was the question of a substitute for cotton. An officer of this kind would, he thought, be useful in this country, and one subject which would come under his cognizance would Le the adulteration of food, which was carried on to so enormous an extent. The Society of Arts was now conducting an inquiry into the various kinds of food and their qualities, and into the sources necessary for the supply of the English people. Now such an investigation would be more properly undertaken by a Government Department. Agricultural statistics, agricultural education, the produce of lands and rivers, enclosures, food, and the cattle plague might nil be included in the proposed Department. While, however, prepared to vote for the hon. Member's (Mr. Acland's) Motion, he thought it might be better at this period of the Session to obtain the appointment of a Commission.


said, he thought the administrative confusion manifested in the case of the cattle plague was an argument in favour of his hon. Friend's proposition.


said, he listened with anxiety to the proposal of the hon. Member for North Devon, and referring to the subject of local taxation the hon. Gentleman said that a Minister of Agriculture ought to have nothing to do with the matter of local taxation. Some improvements might, no doubt, be made in other matters connected with agricultural Returns, &c.; but the subject could be very well dealt with by the Board of Trade. He did not undervalue what had been said by the various speakers with reference to the cattle plague and its ravages in this country; but the insular position of this country afforded great facilities for preventive measures by the proper regulation of our ports with reference to the provision of proper quarantine sheds and layers for the cattle under directions from the Board of Trade, as a primary means of guarding against the introduction of the disease; but strange to say, objections had been raised to it in the Committee now sitting on the subject. The Royal Veterinary College had sent its professors in each of the two years, previous to the inroad of the cattle plague, to places on the Continent, to watch its progress, and had warned the Government and the public of its approach and of its incurable character. But the knowledge of the veterinary surgeons of this country had been disparaged. He could state from his own knowledge that the veterinary profession warned the country two years before any steps were taken to guard against the disease. He was connected with the Royal Veterinary College, and he knew that the professors were sent for two years to watch the progress of the disease abroad, and through the Royal Agricultural Society repeated warnings were given to guard against the disease, and yet for three months after the advent of the disease, because they could not cure an incurable malady which ought to have been barred out by the Government, they were spoken of in disparaging terms. In answer to what had been said ns to Scotland's needing a charter for the veterinary profession, he replied that Scotland had a charter which was obtained through the instrumentality of the Highland Society, and the only real grievance was that an attempt was made to get rid of that charter, and that a separate charter was refused by the Board of Trade. The veterinary knowledge of the country was extending, and what they wanted was a recognition of the status of educated veterinary surgeons, as distinguished from the uneducated farriers, by Parliament. The information and Returns as to the health of cattle ought to be considered with those relating to the sanitary state of the population.


remarked that within his own experience the difficulty of subduing an attack of fever in a country district had been greatly increased by the I numerous authorities that had to be consulted in each successive step. He thought that a Committee, or a Commission of Inquiry, should be appointed, not so much with a view to the establishment of a new administrative Department, as the revision and consolidation of the several Acts of Parliament which had been passed during the last ten years for the purpose of suppressing contagious diseases.


said, he would not enter into all the subjects referred to by the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Acland), many of which—such as the whole system of roads throughout the country, the cheap railway communication for the agricultural districts, and the water basins of the country — could hardly be regarded as having any connection with the Motion before the House. The whole of the blame attaching to the present state of things ought not, in his opinion, to fall on the Government, for it was to a great extent attributable to the action of the House, by whom the system of local management had been he strenuously upheld. In the question of health, for instance, a subject which had come before the House with great prominence of late years, there were so many conflicting authorities — the nuisance authorities, the sewer authorities, and so on—that any one desirous of stopping the progress of the disease did not know to what quarter to resort in order to put the requisite-powers in force. The attempt to gain for a central authority the necessary powers of enforcing such precautions as might be deemed necessary to the preservation of health had already been attempted; but the proposals had been so mutilated by the House, that when the measure was passed the lawyers decided that the House had done nothing but create an authority and withhold the power. He was now endeavouring to put into operation the 49th section of the Sanitary Act, but he proceeded with fear and troubling. The consequences, however, of not doing so would be so serious that he ran the risk of resorting to compulsory powers in a case in which nothing but those powers would be of any avail. Now, with regard to the necessity for a central authority, he would remark that where the direction of local affairs was under the control of a Board of Guardians all orders had to come from the Poor Law Board; when the nuisance authorities existed under the Local Government Act the orders came from the Home Office; and when it was necessary to employ a medical inspector, as there were no such officers at the Home Office or the Poor Law Board, his services could only be secured by application to the Privy Council. It was plain that such a system could not be worked with advantage to the country. Indeed, the whole question was one which had received, and was still receiving, what was called departmental consideration. For his own part, he thought that the Department which watched over the health of the population of this country might also extend its supervision to the health of the brute creation. The question of county finance had already been referred to in Committee upstairs, who might also with advantage, in his opinion, deal with another question of a most important character, and intimately connected with the subject of county finance — the question of roads. But the question of the conflicting local authorities must soon form the subject of legislation. The petty sessional divisions and other divisions of a similar nature, local boards for sanitary purposes, and municipal corporations, were so blended together that their united working was anything but satisfactory. As one result of this system he might refer to a case of great hardship which had occurred in the neighbourhood of London, The main drainage system for the conveyance of the London sewage to Barking had been executed under the direction of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Other places lying between London and Barking desired to have their sewage conveyed in the same direction, but to do so would interfere with the works of the Metropolitan Board, while the main drainage had not been so constructed as to be of advantage to any but the inhabitants of the metropolis, Now, if there had been a central authority these difficulties would, probably, not have arisen. But any proposal for the concentration of these various local authorities must, to be successful, emanate from the people them- selves, for until that was the case hon. Members would be compelled by their constituents to vote in support of the system of local management, for which there had always been displayed so strong a predilection. He quite admitted the importance of the considerations upon which the hon. Member for North Devon had dwelt; but the hon. Member would not, he trusted, press his Motion to a division, a course which, in his opinion, would not tend to secure the results at which his hon. Friend was aiming.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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