HC Deb 28 May 1869 vol 196 cc938-46

MR. READ, on rising to put a Question to the President of the Board of Trade on the subject of agricultural statistics, said, that some time ago his hon. Friend the Member for South Leicester- shire placed on the Paper a Motion to the effect that statistics should be collected every fifth year instead of annually. That Motion came on for discussion at a very late hour one evening, but the debate was adjourned, and the Order unfortunately becoming a lapsed one, no day was open for it before the 30th of June. His hon. Friend, in the course of his statement, objected to agricultural statistics on the ground of their expense, which amounted, he said, to a cost to the country of £20,000 per an- num. The acreage, as given, his hon. Friend admitted to be fairly accurate; but he was opposed to the constant worry to which the farmers were subjected, and expressed it to be his belief that if they were allowed a few years' rest they would be more willing to give information, and that the Returns would be furnished much more correctly. He, however, felt quite sure that the mere fact of the large increase in the acreage of wheat last year would be cited as a proof that annual agricultural returns were necessary. We had, he believed, within two years experienced the greatest variation which we could have in the acreage of wheat. In 1867 there was a very low, and in 1868 a very large, acreage, but our experience of those years only served to show that the greatest extent of difference in acreage we were likely to have was 8 per cent, and an increase of acreage of 1 per cent would only give two days' consumption. What was the difference caused by the yield? One bushel per acre made a difference of 500,000 quarters; and taking the difference in the yield between a really good harvest and a really bad one at fourteen bushels per acre, or 7,000,000 quarters of wheat, it would amount to about our average importation, or 121 days' consumption. That difference might be produced in the yield, whereas the greatest difference which would be produced by the difference of acreage was 20 days' consumption. It was not so difficult, he might add, to guess the acreage as the yield, and the wonderful accuracy of the estimate given by Mr. Caird in The Times of 1850, showed how easy it was to ascertain the acreage. There were several important matters connected with the question, which ought, in his opinion, to be agreed upon before agricultural Returns could be expected to be of any great value. The average yield of this kingdom was estimated as low as twenty-six bushels per acre, but it had been put by an equally good authority as high as thirty-two bushels. Then the consumption of wheat had been put as low as five and a-half bushels and as high as eight bushels per head. It was contended by some that in dear years there was a great economy in the consumption of bread by the poor; but he, on the contrary, maintained that in every dear year there was a larger consumption of bread by the poor, and for the following reason:—Let him suppose that a man earned only 15s. a week, the average wages of a working man. If that man spent 10s. on bread when wheat was very dear, he would naturally have but little left to spend on beef or other articles of consumption; whereas, if bread was very cheap, and he only spent. 6s. on it, he would have a much larger sum remaining to spend on meat, and the more meat he ate, the less bread he would require. He had been informed on Saturday last, by a baker in Norwich, that flour was, this time last year, £1 a sack dearer than it was at present, and yet though there was, he believed, a slight increase in the prosperity of Norwich, the consumption of bread was now considerably less. When statisticians estimated the consumption, of bread by the poor, they entirely left out of consideration the fact that, when wheat was very cheap, there was an immense consumption of it by the farmer for his cattle, and also for malt, while there were other circumstances which must enter into the calculation which were beyond control. Hon. Members bad heard the evening before of there being five quarters in one year, but the fanners begun and finished, last year, two harvests in fifty-one weeks; and there were such things as good and bad harvests, as well as large and indifferent crops, for the best corn might be destroyed by a wet harvest. The farmers had, in his opinion, great cause to complain of certain statistics which were collected by the Government. He referred to the corn Returns, which were taken in 150 of the chief market towns in the kingdom. He made inquiry of the Board of Trade as to what corn was returned in the averages furnished, and he was informed, in reply, that it was the opinion of the Board, that none but English com came into the Returns. On the next Saturday, however, he went to the Norwich market and there made inquiries of the three principal dealers in corn as to their practice in making their Returns. The first told him that he returned everything he bought, including the foreign trade; the second that he never returned his foreign trade; and the third said that he believed he was liable to a penalty for not returning the grain which he bought from the merchant, but that he made it a rule never to make any return of that which he had not obtained direct from the grower. That man though he may have laid himself open to a penalty, was, he felt sure, right in equity, and he would ask the President of the Board of Trade to have the Returns made out only of that corn which was directly bought from the grower. Of all figures, those which dealt with agricultural statistics were, he believed, the most contradictory, if they were used without due consideration. From our live stock Returns Mr. Caird made out that we derived from foreign sources one-fifth of the meat supply of this kingdom. His hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, in the excellent speech which he had made about a month ago, had placed the figures at one-twentieth, and he could not help thinking that he was right, and that Mr. Caird was wrong. The imperfect statistics which we had were. he might add, used to the disadvantage of the farmer. In l886. the statistics were taken in the month of March, and in 1867 in the month of July. The consequence was that an immense increase in the number of sheep was made to appear, because one Return was made before the lambs were born, and the other after. The gentlemen in Bradford, thereupon, acting upon the assumption that there were so many more sheep and pounds of wool, tried to pull down the price of wool, and for two or three months they succeeded. It was said that we must be worse off for meat than they wore in France, because in that country, with 37,000,000 people, they had 14,000,000 cattle, while in the United Kingdom we had 30,000,000 of population and only 9,000,000 of cattle. But it must be remembered that the cattle in France were chiefly milking cows and old working oxen, and were not to be compared in quality with our own. Then it was said in France 17,000,000 acres of wheat were cultivated annually, and in England only 4,000,000. But people who dwelt on this fact sometimes forgot that we grew twenty-eight bushels of wheat an acre, while in. France they only grew fourteen. He denied that these statistics were a guide to the farmers in their business. Farmers could not and ought not to be speculators. The small fanners must sell in order to realize their rent; and if the large farmers had sold their corn directly after harvest last year, taking-advantage of the high price, the result would have been to bring down the price, and instead of attending to their autumnal tillage and providing green crops which had saved their herds from starvation, they would have employed horses and men in delivering and thrashing corn. Well, then, these statistics were no guide to merchants, the majority of whom were not even aware of their existence. The merchants thought much more of the flying correspondence of The Times, of Mr. Caird's estimates, and Mr. Lawes' experiments, and such reports as appeared in the Gardeners' Chronicle or the Mark Lane Express. They looked at the number of vessels afloat with corn cargoes; and when it was known that contracts for foreign corn were made three, four, or even six months in advance, it would be seen that the acreage of England had nothing to do with these speculations in corn. It was curious, but true, that it was of more importance to us to know the yield of corn in France than the yield at home. In the corn-growing districts of the two countries there was practically the same climate, and both were buyers in years of short crops. But there was this remarkable fact—that here one bushel per acre made a difference of 500,000 quarters, while in France it made a difference of 2,000,000 quarters; and that sometimes France sent us as little as 30,000 quarters of corn a year, and she had repeatedly sent over 2,000,000. The statistics of Ireland, which were collected annually, showed a gradual decline of cereals in that country. A similar decrease had occurred in Scotland, and was made equally clear by statistics which were returned at long intervals. According to statistics furnished by the Highland Agricultural Society, 243,000 acres of wheat were under cultivation in Scotland in 1857, while the Board of Trade Returns showed only 110,000 acres in 1867. Thus there was a wonderful decrease of no less than 133,000 acres during these ten years, and it now appeared that Norfolk grew 85,000 acres more of wheat than they did in the whole of Scotland. He had always advocated agricultural statistics if the country demanded them, but he did wish that they should be accurate, and should also be collected with as little trouble as possible. In a paper read by him last year before the statistical department of the British Association, he said— I question the use of those Returns beyond strictly statistical purposes. The yearly variation in the acreage of crops will not cause anything like the difference in the amount of wheat grown as a week's rain or a summer night's frost, and I do not believe that estimates of the yield of the growing crops, even if given by farmers, can ever be thoroughly relied on. My own impression is, after the accuracy of the present Returns has been tested for a short series of years, Agricultural statistics need only be collected at given intervals, to be, in fact, a regular stock and crop census. He would now ask whether it was the intention of the Government, after the present year, to continue the annual collection of Agricultural Statistics?


Sir, the speech of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Read) has given us some interesting facts; but I do not know exactly to what they lead with regard to the Question he has put to me. I should judge that his argument was rather against agricultural statistics at all, because his object seemed to be to show that they are not of much use to his friends connected with the land, and do not enable the farmers to decide when they shall buy, sell, or speculate. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the statistics collected by the Government are, and must necessarily be, a very bad guide for the weekly or monthly transactions of persons engaged in trade. That is true of statistics with respect to cotton, as well as of statistics respecting corn or cattle. I know that the statistics the cotton trade get from the brokers in Liverpool from week to week are more to be relied upon than anything that can be furnished to them by the Government. I say, that after a long experience, I believe that the efforts now made to help the transactions of persons in the cotton trade by statistics are efforts of no value. Probably, however, if we take a wider view and look to the desirableness of having information from year to year of the progress of manufactures and agriculture, then it may be important to have those statistics, and there is certainly no intention on the part of the Government to discontinue the collection of agricultural statistics after the present year. The hon. Gentleman was not, perhaps, in the House when Mr. Caird brought forward this question some years ago. The Government of the day was not favourable to his Motion, and. as I recollect, the Motion for agricultural statistics was carried contrary to the opposition of the Government. I believe that the hon. Gentleman himself is not more intelligent on the question of agriculture, or was more the friend of agriculturists, than Mr. Caird. The proposal for the collection of these statistics was. therefore, introduced to the House on very high authority; it was supported by a majority of Members sitting on both sides of the House; it was enforced upon the Board of Trade of that time, and the Board of Trade since then had endeavoured, through many difficulties, to obtain the information required. I am surprised at one phrase that has been used by the hon. Gentleman. He said this incessant annual application to the farmers was a subject of irritation and even of torment. That was a very strong phrase for such a matter. It has not been found a subject of irritation to farmers in Scotland. They are, perhaps, as intelligent as those in England, and many of them farm as extensively. In Ireland the statistics have been collected for many years with much greater minuteness than either in England or Scotland, and we have had no complaint from the farmers of Ireland respecting any difficulty in the matter. I am of opinion that as the farmers of England become a little more accustomed to giving the facts required they will give them with less unwillingness, and that from year to year the collection will be more accurate, and, as far as those statistics can be useful at all, they will be more useful. It is true that the effect of the seasons of rain at a proper time, or sunshine at a proper time, is much greater than the effect produced by the difference of acreage. But that fact was known at the time when Mr. Caird proposed to collect the statistics and when the Board of Trade undertook the collection of them. It does not follow, however, that the question of acreage is not important because it is not so important as the question of the seasons. There is a universal belief, not only in this country, but in almost every country in the world, that it is of great advantage that all the facts connected with the industry and production of the country should, as far as possible, be known; and it would be foolish for us to shut ourselves out from a source of information which, though probably of no great advantage in guiding the market transactions of farmers, must be of great importance to thoughtful men who look from year to year at the progress of the country. The question, therefore, of discontinuing these Returns has not been mooted by the Government, and I hope, with the assistance of the hon. Gentleman's friends, that they will become more accurate and more valuable from year to year. The hon. Member for West Essex (Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson) has asked a Question about the Report of the gentleman sent down to investigate the cause of the Abergele accident, and it would be well if the hon. Member had previously stated what he would ask me about. The main portion of his observations seemed to bear upon a paragraph in the Report, which I do very much regret should have appeared in that Report at all, because, in common with the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) I think it is a paragraph that is not just to the railway to which it refers, and not just to any body of directors managing any railway in the kingdom. The paragraph is this— Lastly, I fear time it is only too true that the rules printed and issued by railway companies to their servants, and which are generally very good, are made principally with the object of being produced when accidents happen from the breach of them, and that the companies systematically allow many of them to be broken daily, without taking the slightest notice of the disobedience. Now, it is impossible for any person to travel in the kingdom without observing the sobriety, steadiness, the intelligence and activity of the servants of the railway companies. Therefore, to impute that there is a system of intentional neglect on their part is a charge against them and the railway companies which, I think, ought not to have been made, and which, probably, was made by the gentleman who drew up the Report under feelings of great excitement produced by the terrific accident he was sent to investigate. I will tell the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Essex what the Board of Trade has done. The Report contains a paragraph to the effect that if the block telegraph system had been in use and strictly carried out the accident could not have occurred. According to the block system the line is divided into portions, and a train is not allowed to enter any portion until by the telegraph it is known that the preceding train has passed out of it. That regulation was found exceedingly useful, and the Board of Trade, thinking it was one which ought to be universally adopted, has, in consequence of the accident, sent to all the railway companies in the kingdom a circular with a statement of several accidents which clearly might have been prevented if the block system had been established on the lines where they occurred. The circular was intended, not to menace railway directors with any intention on the part of the Government to propose legislation, but for the purpose of bringing the subject under their consideration, in the belief that they were anxious that their lines should be worked safely. When the answers to the circular come in, I hope the result will be to put a stop to some of the risks to which passengers are now subject. I think it is wise not to entertain exaggerated views in consequence of the accident referred to, and I also think that people are not just to railway directors and servants, who I feel every day I travel are entitled to more credit than they receive for their care and attention.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.