§ Mr. BIRD
I beg to move, "That, in the opinion of this House, the time has arrived when it is urgently necessary for the Government to make such provision as will avoid the danger of starvation and enforced capitulation should war unfortunately occur."
In moving this Resolution, I may point out that a century has elapsed since Great Britain was threatened with an invasion, and, in fact, its very existence was threatened by a foreign Power. Within those 1213 hundred years former conditions have entirely changed, and new perils have arisen from which our ancestors were exempted. Whatever immunity from invasion our insular position confers is to an extent counterbalanced by the fact that we are compelled to import 60 per cent. of our food supplies owing to our vastly increased population. Formerly we grew all the food, or nearly all the food, which we needed. In 1903 a Commission on Food and Raw Material Supplies in Time of War was appointed by Mr. Balfour, of which His Majesty the King was a member. Its Report was issued in 1905, and it is a most businesslike Report, in all respects worthy of the able men whose signature it bears, most of whom I am happy to say are still serving their country, among them my right hon. Friend the Member for the Wimbledon Division of Surrey (Mr. Chaplin), who desired me to say how sorry he was that a long-standing engagement would prevent him taking part in this Debate to-night. Notwithstanding the gravity and urgency of some of the recommendations of this Report, no action whatever upon it has been taken, so far as I can learn, by the present Government, who assumed office shortly after this Report was issued. Surely, one of the first duties of every Government is to take such precautions as human foresight can suggest to provide a supply of food for the people in time of war. This duty the present Government has entirely neglected to perform during its nine years of Ministerial inaction, except, of course, for the gradual increase of the Navy, and the relative proportion of our food raised in these Islands has diminished, while the risk of our food supply from abroad being cut out or interfered with has more than doubled. From figures which I propose to lay before this House I think that I can show that this Motion is of infinitely greater consequence to the industrial classes than to any other section of the community. It is they who will feel most bitterly the pinch of want in war time. Before even the capture of a single ship by a hostile Navy, the very threat of war would send up the price of bread almost to famine level. Therefore, I appeal for support to hon. Members below the Gang-way opposite, who claim specially to represent labour, and for these reasons:—
Great Britain occupies a unique position in regard to its dependence on food from abroad. This will be seen from the following figures, comparing the imports of 1214 wheat of Great Britain, Germany, and France with the population. Taking the years from 1908 to 1912, we find that in a population of 45,000,000 the average yearly import of wheat into this country has been no less than 150,000,000 cwts. In the case of Germany, with a population of 65,000,000, the imports of wheat per annum were 46,000,000 cwts. And in the case of France, with a population of 39,000,000, the yearly import of wheat was 14,000,000 cwts. If we examine these figures, we find that Germany, with a population half as large again as ours, imports two and a half times less wheat from abroad than we do. The total value of the agricultural produce, including sugar, imported into the United Kingdom in 1913 was close upon £250,000,000. This is an increase of £45,000,000 within the last decade. On most reliable evidence if is stated that the stock of wheat in the United Kingdom in September, which is the most favourable month of the year, represents only about sixteen weeks' supply. For the remainder of the twelve months, after this has been worked off, no more than six weeks supply can be relied upon. I think that these figures are sufficient justification for our demand that the Government should give this problem its immediate and most careful consideration. At the time that this Commission was appointed we had fleets patrolling the ocean highways in all parts of the world. In those days the incomparable supremacy of our naval forces was unchallenged. What is the position now? Owing to the calculated aggressive augmentation of fleets of other Great Powers, and one in particular, our distant fleets have been recalled and concentrated in the North Sea to protect the heart of the Empire from invasion. No longer does British commerce possess that efficient protection which it formerly enjoyed, and this at a time when our commerce is nearly doubled and our dependence upon outside sources of food supply has immensely increased.
Our rivals have discovered the weak point in our armour, hence the feverish haste with which enormous navies are being built up by the leading Powers of the world. A new factor to be considered is the amazing development of science as applied to warlike operations. Of these latest methods of destruction and annihilation we have little or mo experience. We are, however, painfully aware that, if applied successfully, the most powerful battleships in a few moments may be sent 1215 to the bottom of the ocean. With airships above and submarines below, to say nothing of 15-inch guns and a few torpedoes thrown in, life on a battleship whilst in action will not be without zest and excitement. If by any catastrophe we lost the control of the seas, then we are face to face with starvation or enforced capitulation within a comparatively brief period. Personally, I have confidence that in actual naval fighting we should still maintain our old supremacy. But bearing these facts in mind, we are now confronted with the problem of how to secure a reserve of wheat stored in this country, and amunting to a six months' supply, which, I believe, the greatest authorities state to be the very minimum on which we can rely.
This is a subject upon which the Royal Commission accumulated valuable and most reliable evidence. Their Report was adverse to anything in the nature of national granaries, both on account of the enormous cost and the frequent disturbance of the ordinary course of the wheat market. The remedies suggested were many and various. Out of these practically three only were regarded as worthy of serious consideration. They were, first, the provision of storage, rent free, to the importer or farmer, or any holder of wheat. Secondly, an inducement to the farmer by way of bonus to keep his grain in the rick up till June, or, at any rate, for a longer period than at present. Thirdly, a scheme of national indemnity against loss from capture by the enemy of foodstuffs coming to these shores. There are many serious objections to the second and third alternative, but time is not sufficient for me to state them. The provision of free storage, however, has many points in its favour, both on account of its moderate cost, and, above all, that it would not interfere with the ordinary course of trade. Often, in the wheat market, profits are exceedingly fine, hence free storage is a material consideration. The Royal Commission had much testimony laid before it bearing upon the magnitude and certainty of the British market, and that large consignments of wheat might be expected to flow into this country, with free storage at the disposal of the importer. Such was the confidence felt by the directors of the Trafford Park Company at Manchester that they made a firm offer to provide grain storage for 500,000 quarters of wheat on the banks of 1216 the Manchester Ship Canal upon exceedingly moderate terms, the proposal being that the Government should reimburse them the amount which they otherwise would have charged. The managing director of this company, Mr. Marshall Stevens, writing under yesterday's date, states:—The question as to whether the grain warehouses would be sufficiently used, if provided, has been solved by the largest cash buyer or wheat in Chicago, and another well-known large operator in wheat. These two gentlemen have offered to supply sufficient grain themselves to keep two-thirds of the storage full if they had the whole of the storage allocated to them free of warehouse rent.I could give the names of these gentlemen to the Government if desired. If the experiment proved a success free grain warehouses could be erected at other ports where grain arrives. So far as my knowledge goes, there is no Department of the State upon which the responsibility rests for safeguarding the food supply of the people in time of war. The only Minister I can think of sufficiently heroic to undertake that position would be the President of the Board of Trade, whose well-known energy we all admit, and whose absence I regret at this moment. Coming to my own suggestion, perhaps land upon which wheat is grown might be relieved of some of the taxes to which it is now subject as an encouragement to increase the acreage of corn-growing, or, if that were insufficient, some other inducement might be held out. We are up against a great national peril, and no academic fiscal objection must be allowed to prevent us from adopting every possible and reasonable precaution. It is also worth while considering whether it would not be possible by some small subsidy to induce British shipowners to construct a few specially powerful, if I may so call them, greyhound grain-ships, capable of accomplishing the voyage here in very-fast time. These ships should be sufficiently speedy to escape any predatory foreign merchant craft specially armed for the purpose of intercepting our wheat supply. There could be no better safeguard against panic than the announcement in war time of the arrival of another of these greyhound grain-ships.
With regard to the countries from which we obtain our wheat supply, Canada stands out as rapidly becoming one of the most important. The ocean route to this country is the most easily protected by our fast cruisers from fear of attack. We could also rely upon the active co-operation of 1217 our loyal fellow subjects in the Dominion. After all, it is to the strength and efficiency of the Navy that we in these islands must look for the safeguarding of our food supplies and the protection of our general commerce. Any stores of grain we may be able to accumulate must be regarded as the means of avoiding possible panic and supplementing the temporary shortage of our supplies oversea. Looking at another aspect of the question, dwelt upon to a great extent by the Royal Commission, according to the evidence tendered to that body by Mr. B. T. Hall, Mr. G. D. Kelly, and Mr. Charles Booth, and Mr. Rowntree—men intimately acquainted with the less prosperous in the labour world—the price of foodstuffs would be doubled under the stress of a great war. It is quite possible, unless some provision were made in the matter of food supply, that 8,000,000 of the working classes of this country would be plunged into semi-starvation, or brought nearly to that stage of misery. In the meantime, it is the duty of every Member of this House to bring this matter under the consideration of his constituents. We shall also enlist the valuable aid of the Press in creating such a state of public opinion upon the urgency of the question of our food supply in time of war that the Government will be unable any longer to neglect this important subject. I beg to move.
Mr. SHIRLEY BENN
I beg to second the Motion.
From the crowded condition of the benches, I cannot help feeling that the House of Commons hardly realises the importance of this subject, or the responsibility which rests upon it. No one can foretell what the result may be in the next European war in which we may unfortunately find ourselves involved. We, of course, with the courage and assurance of our race, are quite prepared to assert that no matter what may be the vicissitudes of war in its earlier stages, the final result will find neither the British Empire dismembered nor the British race disintegrated. We all dislike war. We hope it may never happen, but we cannot help agreeing with that dictum of Napoleon's, which said, that "no war can be carried on without running risks." The day may come, however, when we may find ourselves saying, in the words of Nelson, "Is the honour of the people of our country worth the risk. If so, in God's name, let us get to work." 1218 Owing to the complex condition of European politics, we may wake up some day and find ourselves involved in a great European war much against our wish, but surely, with such a chance before us, it is our duty in these times of peace to make such preparation to meet the dangers which we know must ensue if war comes on. Of all those dangers, I regard the question of food supply as the biggest. The moment war breaks out, and almost on the declaration of war, food prices are bound to jump up. At the present time, in what I believe the Chancellor of the Exchequer calls prosperous times, the working classes find it extremely hard to make both ends meet, but if war should break out, and prices jump up, I cannot see how they could possibly manage. Seventeen years ago the danger, not of starvation through inability to pay the prices, but of absolute famine to our country, owing to our losing for the time being the control of the sea, was considered of such importance that in this House a Motion was moved by Sir Henry Seton-Karr, seconded by the hon. Member for Chester (Mr. Yerburgh), and carried unanimously, and it read as follows:—That in the opinion of this House, the dependence of the United Kingdom on foreign imports for the necessaries of life, and the consequences that might arise therefrom in the event of war, demand the serious attention of Her Majesty's Government.A Royal Commission was appointed, and reported in 1905, and I think Members of all parties were thoroughly interested in the Report. The Liberal party has been in power almost ever since, and, as far as I can gather, it has taken absolutely no steps to provide for food in time of war. My reason for saying that is an answer that was given to me by the Prime Minister on the 9th March, in reply to a question which I put to him in regard to granaries. The reply was:—The Government have various aspects of the question of food supplies in time of war, including that suggested by the hon. Member, under consideration, but at present a final reply cannot be given.I should like to give a few reasons why price of food is bound to go up the moment war is declared. In the first place, we have a precedent for it. If we go back to the last great European war in which we were engaged, the Crimean War, we find that it is recorded that in 1853 the price of wheat was 53s. 3d., and after war with Russia was declared, in 1854, the price of wheat is recorded as 72s. 5d. Some people, of course, may say that we were fighting against a great grain-producing country. My answer to that is 1219 this, and I ask the House to recollect the facts, that at the time the population of the United Kingdom amounted to 27,000,000, and the total amount of wheat and flour imported amounted to less than 3,000,000 qrs. To-day our population amounts to 45,000,000, and we are importing in the neighbourhood of 28,000,000 qrs. Can it be wondered at that prices should go up if the supply is curtailed. Let me mention a few reasons why, regardless of sentiment, and regardless of precedent, we must expect the price to go up. In the first place, in case of war, the grain-growing countries might perhaps prevent the exportation of wheat. Russia prevented it in 1891 to other countries on account of the poor harvest. A country might say, if we are not in the war now we may be in it next year, and if our peasants should be called to the colours our crops will be neglected, and we will have a short supply, and it is better for us to horde up our grain. We may therefore find the difficulty that from some of the large exporting countries that grain was not allowed to be shipped.
In the second place, freights would go up enormously. The very moment war was declared, if we were interested in it, shipowners would find out where their steamers were, and until they knew what the war insurance was going to be, they would cable their captains to lay their ships up and await instructions. Those who had tramp steamers on the ocean would endeavour to charter them for transport or coal carriers, or try to get for them cargoes that steamers belonging to belligerent Powers had been chartered to carry, but were unable. My experience, even in the Russo-Japanese war, was that freights jumped up to an extraordinary amount without what seemed to be any just reason. Then there would be the effect on owners of wheat abroad. Some of them might say, "We are not going to ship our wheat, we will wait for higher prices." Others might agree to sell, with the result that speculators would buy and hold the wheat in order to procure higher prices. Then we come to the question of insurance. To-day the insurance on wheat coming from America amounts to about three-eighths of one per cent. If war occurred, and a war insurance was put on, we might have 25 per cent., 30 per cent., or 40 per cent. insurance. During the Russo-Japanese war 25 per cent. was paid on ships sailing from America to the East, 1220 and that was a war where there was no very great risks. It is interesting to consider what the result would be on the price of wheat simply as the result of a war insurance. Wheat to-day in America is about 34s. a quarter. The rate of freight amounts to 1s. 9d. or 2s. per quarter. The insurance amounts to less than 2d. per quarter. Therefore you have a value of about 36s. per quarter. Adding 25 per cent. for war insurance, the price would jump immediately to 45s. That is provided we got the wheat at its present low price, and provided we got low freights—things which are both impossible in case of war.
Again, we would have, not only the extra cost, but the great risk. It would not matter what the insurance was, if the goods were not delivered. Grain coming from South Russia would have to pass through the Dardenelles. There is no reason why the Dardenelles might not be mined, and merchant ships prevented going through. Grain coming from the East in vessels passing through the Suez Canal and traversing the Mediterranean would have a very hard time in a narrow sea like that from submarines, mines, and torpedo-boats. Grain coming across the Atlantic might be sunk or captured by merchant ships armed by foreign countries, or by explosives dropped from aeroplanes. The dangers to transportation in the next war will be greater than they have ever been. Some people may say, "We are living in a civilised age; food for the people will not be considered contraband." We need only recollect that in the Declaration of London it was agreed that foodstuffs, if going to any port which was considered a base for supplying the enemy's forces, would be contraband. I trust that there is no port in England which, in case of war, will not be defended. If it is defended, it will have to be by the armed forces of the Crown; and if the armed forces of the Crown are there, I defy anybody to say that under the Declaration of London foodstuffs coming to Great Britain would not be contraband.
But whether they were contraband or not, it would make absolutely no difference. In the next war we are likely to see the Great Powers of Europe ranged in one camp or another; and those who are in the camp which is succeeding, those who know that they are going to conquer, will naturally say, "We must bring this war to a conclusion as quickly as we can. We believe that the best way to do it is by 1221 starving out the people with whom we are fighting. We know that we have signed an agreement that foodstuffs are not to be considered contraband, but we are quite willing to do what is fair; we are quite willing to go to a Prize Court after the war is over, and to pay the full price of the ship and cargo. We are quite willing to do what is right, but we are going to starve the people whom we are fighting." That is the position, as I see it, as far as the next war is concerned. I should like to quote what Prince Bismarck said regarding the taking of ships that were not carrying contraband, and that he had no power to take. I refer to the sinking by the Germans of British ships at Rouen at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, when they took and sunk them in order to prevent French gun-running up the Seine. When Prince Bismarck was spoken to about it he maintained that the measure in question, however exceptional in its nature, did not overstep the bounds of international warlike usage, because, he said:—The report shows that a pressing danger was at hand, and every other means of meeting it was wanting. The case was, therefore, one of necessity, which even n time of peace may render the employment or destruction of foreign property admissible under the reservation of indemnification.People who would do that once will do it again. I want to speak very briefly on the question of the Royal Commission Report. As my hon. Friend has stated, it was a very strong Commission. Our present King, then the Prince of Wales, was a member. It dealt very thoroughly with the subjects brought before it, but the three matters that were discussed most of all were the provision of storage room rent free to the farmer; an inducement to the farmer by way of subsidy to keep his grain in the rick for a longer period than at present; and a scheme of national indemnity against loss from capture by the enemy of foodstuffs coming to these shores. On the first point the Commission reported:—We have thought it our duty to consider whether any measure could be devised to minimise the risk of panic, and to maintain, as far as possible, a steady level of prices in time of war. It may be conceded that a large stock of grain existing within the United Kingdom would be a powerful, if not, indeed, the most powerful, or, as some may think, the only adequate means of attaining this end. The existence of larger stocks within this country might go far to allay the natural apprehension among the poorer classes that war might mean scarcity, or a serious and protracted enhancement in the price of bread. It is also, perhaps, worthy of consideration that the knowledge in foreign countries that the United Kingdom was provided, so far as food was concerned, against any sudden emergency might defeat any calculation which takes for its basis the possibility that the United Kingdom might, in face of salvation, consent to an ignominious peace.1222 As I shall say a few words presently on the question of granaries, I will say nothing further on that point for the moment. The second point I should like to refer to is the inducement to farmers by way of subsidy. Surely we ought to endeavour to get more grain grown here in England. If only on account of our food supply in time of war, it would pay our country to give a bounty to get that wheat grown, and to have it at home. Thirdly, concerning the scheme of national indemnity against loss from capture by the enemy of food supplies coming to these shores. That seems to me to be very nice for the shipowner, and very nice for the man who owns the cargo; it might induce the shipper to forward his goods; but I should like to know, if anyone can tell me, what good it would do to the country to have this free insurance? What we want is to have the goods delivered here in England! That suggestion seems to me, from the standpoint of getting the food into England, simply useless. I should like now to make a suggestion—and I do so very humbly. I do so after having given the subject considerable thought, and after examination of all the authorities I can find. The hon. Member for Chester in 1897 wrote a very valuable article in the "National Review," showing the price it would be necessary to pay to get granaries erected. The easiest way of having a supply of wheat here in England would be for the Government to build granaries capable of holding 10,000,000 quarters of wheat.
They should build them in the seaports: London, Southampton, Plymouth, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, and Hull; in fact, all round the coast. Having built them, instead of buying the grain to put into them, they should say to the corn merchants and the farmers of England, "We will give you free storage provided you undertake to keep in store at all times three-quarters of the capacity of the granaries: if you will keep three-quarters of the capacity, which would mean 7,500,000 quarters, the Government will agree to advance you the money on it free of interest, and all that they ask is that in case of war they shall have the right to requisition that supply at the price it was when it was put in, plus a profit of, say, 5 per cent. to the corn merchants and farmers." The modern silo granaries are capable of not only cleaning and drying, but of handling this stuff as quickly as it can be handled. If we had 7,500,000 1223 quarters of grain at all times here in England, if, as I hope our home supply would be greater, we could feel, if war broke out, that at least for three months we were not in danger of starvation. The cost, of course, is large. Some people may say, "Oh, it is too large for the Government to undertake." According to the estimates that Mr. Yerburgh has made the cost of putting up all these granaries, of the machinery, of the arrangements for handling or cleaning, would be about £4,000,000. Working expenses, including the wages, superintendence, inspection, central administration, coal, materials, printing, etc., would be about £208,000. Depreciation, including repairs to the buildings, machinery and insurance, would amount to £195,000. The interest, taking it at 3 per cent. on the wheat, which I have taken at 36s. per quarter, would amount to £405,000. In all it would be a charge on the country of some £900,000 per year. But that would go to decrease the cost of handling the wheat hero in England, and would give us a supply here. If the Government could see their way to put out that amount of money they could very easily recoup themselves by a registration tax on foreign wheat brought into this country at 1s. per quarter. I should like, in conclusion, to say that while in peace time party politics engender bitter feelings, whilst some of us feel that the Government is destroying things that we love, that they are trying to pass legislation on noxious nostrums, that we do not think will ever pay, while the Government, on the other hand, might say that the Opposition is frustrating, or trying to frustrate, legislation which is based on heavenly inspiration, there is one thing about the people of Great Britain, and that is, that when an enemy appears all party politics are dropped. We then stand together as one man against the common foe. Surely this is the time when such a state of affairs should exist? So far as providing a food supply to our people is concerned, we should look upon it as a grave matter and one to be attended to. I hope that the House will see its way to say to the Government: "It is time for you to be doing something; do not waste any more time thinking and considering, but get to work, and let us have a food supply here for our people." If you do this, you will find behind you not one party, but the whole House of Commons as one man.
I do not think anyone, least of all one who is a soldier, can deny the vital importance of the question which has been raised by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, because it strikes at the very room of this country in time of war. A great deal of what I have listened to from the last two speakers is borne out by the Royal Commission of 1905. But I think the question divides itself rather into three different categories. If this country retains, as the Mover distinctly said he hoped it would—and, of course, we all hope it will, and think it will—control of the sea, this problem can in no sense arise. If, on the other hand, we lose control of the sea, I think that almost whatever steps we take we are bound eventually to be driven to the situation of having to capitulate to a hostile Power. We might be able to defer for some time that dreadful calamity, but although our storage system, whatever that might be, might stave off the evil day for a time, once we cease to control the seas surrounding this country I feel that eventually disaster will inevitably arise. There is the other problem, which, I think, is perhaps one that needs review. That is the problem that arises when we retain partial control of the seas, in which our Fleets are only able to neutralise force of the hostile Power. Looking at the Royal Commission Report, it seems it me that the Admiralty clearly say, "Under circumstances such as that, when we have not lost total command of the sea, it will be practically impossible to blockade the seas surrounding this country."
It becomes then a question not of what stores of food we have in this country, but how long the stores which are here will last, and what powers there may be, or what circumstances are, by which the food supplies of this country are renewed? I think it is quite true that in the event of our being totally cut off from foreign nations, the wheat supply produced in this country is a very small and negligible quantity. It is true that in August just before the harvest the yield amounts to about seven weeks' supplies in the country. It must not be forgotten that in case of the absolute inability to bring supplies from abroad, although we might not have wheat, there are other cereals which would lengthen the period before the total supply was used up. But perhaps a more important question is a question of the industries in this country. If we could not 1225 get raw material, in addition to the rise in the cost of food which of course is admitted, we should be in most dreadful straits with regard to our industries. I noticed that figures were given in this Report which show that the supplies of raw material for our industries do not, in the main, exceed above six or eight months' supply. Cotton is limited to six months, wool to eight months, iron to two months, leather to nine months, and petroleum to six months.
But I think it must be remembered when we are taking into consideration the amount of food actually in this country that we have always at sea in ships coming into these ports a large quantity of food supplies which we ought to be able to account for in time of war. We have a consistent stream of food coming in in addition to the food stuffs in this country within a week's sail of this country. That means additional supplies for something like a fortnight, or slightly more. The Admiralty view, if I may judge from the Report of the Commission, is that although the shipping will be to a certain extent in danger, they do not anticipate that anything like a very large addition to the risk of the shipping will be shown. I think they put the figures at about 5 per cent. above the normal loss as that which may be experienced in time of war, and after all, that is not a very large amount. I am prepared to think that the ship-owners in view of the increased prices which they will get for their wheat in this country will keep their ships at sea in the hopes of getting through and selling their grain at higher prices.
With regard to the two proposals mentioned by the hon. Members opposite, the most important, I think, is the proposal of national indemnity; but it would be, of course, putting a very costly charge on this country to undertake a system of indemnity for all ships. I have not got the figures of the total shipping which carries grain at the present time, but in 1903, the latest return I have been able to get, it was estimated that something like 9,000,000 tons of cargo shipping was plying at sea, and if that was valued at £10 a ton it would amount to £90,000,000 of total cargo, so that if the Government paid a State insurance on cargo, as well as shipping, it could certainly pay on double that total value, which would amount to from £180,000,000 to £200,000,000 of shipping and cargo, which would have to be insured. That would mean that the Government 1226 would have to pay a rate of 1 per cent., which would amount to £2,000,000 insurance on that shipping, and I feel sure that the rate of insurance would be higher than 1 per cent. The Motion recommends this proposal of State insurance, but I think it would be very costly. I am inclined to think that the high prices which would rule in this country, although one naturally dislikes the idea or thought of food going up in price—but I believe the high prices that would rule in that emergency would in reality induce shippers to bring their grain to this country quite apart from the national indemnity suggestion. Then with regard to the plan for granaries. There is a suggestion that the Government should erect or should subsidise granaries. I think the cost that would fall upon the Government would be really prohibitive in either case. The hon. Member who moved the Resolution mentioned that in the case of merchants being induced to store their corn in Government granaries, the cost would be to this country about £4,000,000 additional expenditure, and about £1,000,000 a year in insurance.
Mr. SHIRLEY BENN
I said £4,000,000 initial for building, but I said that £900,000 would cover the interest on that.
I beg pardon. I rather gathered the initial cost would be about £4,000,000, and that upkeep and interest and insurance would mean a very large increase per quarter in the cost when that grain did come into the market, and I am not sure that is really a good solution of the question. I honestly think the best policy to pursue is the policy advocated by the Admiralty, and that it is not the best policy to lay up stores of corn, but to have a Fleet which is sufficiently powerful and sufficiently concentrated to absolutely defeat any Fleet that may be brought against it. And if I might venture to repeat something I said about a fortnight ago, in which I think I was unintentionally misrepresented about the Mediterranean, there is a tendency rather to diffuse our shipping throughout the world, and I cannot help but thinking it is an unwise policy. I admit that in foreign seas we must maintain such ships as may be necessary, but every ship taken away for a foreign part of the world is so much more endangering the loss of a decisive battle which must be fought and on which the whole existence of this country and the food supplies of this country is dependent. These expedients, though they may be palliatives 1227 do not seem to be a real remedy. I am strongly of opinion that the suggestions contained in this Motion would involve the country in very large cost. The main cost this country has to bear is to maintain its position in the world, and to maintain the people of this country in sufficient food and raw material in time of war, and to see that the Fleet of this country should keep and maintain the safety of the country by winning a decisive battle against a hostile fleet, and retain absolute and entire control of the seas.
§ Mr. COURTHOPE
I want to suggest a line of thought to those considering these matters, which I think is too often overlooked, and which I cannot help feeling we would all do well to remember every now and then. I will endeavour to do so very briefly and without using any figures at all. Whether we consider that the danger with respect to our food supply in time of war is not a very serious matter, or whether we consider it is a matter of critical and national importance, as the Mover and Seconder of this Motion contend, whatever may be our pet remedy to which we attach the greatest importance, we must all agree that one of the most desirable, if not the most desirable, line upon which to meet this question is to endeavour to secure an increase in our food production at home. I will not trouble the House with any consideration except that of food. I may take it for granted that we should all for this and other reasons desire to substantially increase the acreage of wheat at home.
Attention called to the fact that forty Members were not present. House counted, and forty Members being found present—
§ Mr. COURTHOPE
I take it for granted that we all wish to increase the wheat production of this country. In my opinion a very great mistake is made by those people who do not consider carefully the question of wheat production, and the causes that have brought about a decrease in arable cultivation in this country. In this matter some people think of nothing else but the market price of wheat, and hardly admit any other consideration, but I think I am right in saying that in order to ascertain why a balance on a profit and loss account is on the wrong side, you 1228 have to consider all the items in the account. I claim—and the highest authority in the country support my contention which is no new or original one—that the principal cause of the decline of arable cultivation, and consequently of wheat production, has not been the fall or uncertainty in the price of wheat, but the impossibility for the farmer to grow wheat successfully without a cleaning crop in his rotation, and the further impossibility of growing a cleaning crop on a large scale without any loss. It is more the burden of the growing of cleaning crops than the price of wheat which has been responsible for the decrease in arable cultivation. If I may assume for the moment that there is at least a justification for this opinion, which is held by many notable agriculturists, I would suggest that in considering how to meet this problem of our food supply we should attach the most careful consideration to this question of cleaning crops. I know quite well that it is possible to clean land without a root crop. But if you ask 100 farmers about the cleaning of their land, you will find ninety-nine will insist upon a root crop for the purpose. This is very largely the result of habit or custom which has grown up, and if I may put it in this way, it is due to the ultra-conservative nature of the English farmer, whatever his polities may be. I know education will do a certain amount of good, but not all that is needed.
I do not wish to enlarge upon this point, but it suggests many possible lines. It is now some ten or twelve years ago since I first began to devote serious attention to the question of wheat supply. Very rapidly I hit upon what I consider one of the alternative methods of dealing with it, and during the whole of the intervening-years I have devoted the greater part of my time to an endeavour to establish the best industry in this country simply for that purpose. I attach even more importance to the introduction of the sugar-beet industry with the object of eliminating loss from the rotation and thereby increasing wheat production, than I do to all the employment it gives, and the production of a necessity of life at home. I sincerely believe that if this and other crops could be introduced—and they might very rapidly be introduced if a policy of official encouragement were adopted—the immediate effect would be a great increase of arable cultivation, and an inevitable increase in the production of wheat. I would 1229 point out to those who find some difficulty in accepting the proposals for a bounty on wheat production or wheat storage, or a still greater objection to a protective duty as a means of increasing the production at home that the question of the cleaning crop, or of the other years in the rotation, at once offers a profitable and promising field of study. I would further say, without criticising in any way the many alternative methods of dealing with this question—and I do not think to deal with it satisfactorily any one method will be anything like sufficient—that we want a policy which will be felt through a number of different channels, but of all the possibilities, whether alternative or running side by side, this, I think, is the best. There is, to begin with, a reasonable expectation that it might be very cheap; I mean cheap to the taxpayers of the country, who would have to bear the cost of any Government support that was given, whilst most of the others are very costly. It has the additional advantage of promising benefit to the country in many other ways, besides that of securing of food supply in time of war. Employment, rural population, and many other matters would all be assisted. Therefore, I think this proposal is preferable to all. I will not apologise for having introduced a rather new line of thought or for having left the line that was taken by my hon. Friend who moved and seconded this Motion. I hope to hear from the President of the Board of Agriculture that he and his colleagues not only will devote, but have devoted and are devoting attention to this aspect of the question and are endeavouring by studying the whole, rather than one item of the farmer's profit and loss account, to encourage a policy which will bring back a great acreage into arable cultivation.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
My hon. Friend who has just sat down has made a suggestion, but I do not think that it will solve the question brought forward. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Pembroke (Major Guest), if I may say so, hit the nail on the head. You may propose what you like in the way of an indemnity or a granary, or you may make suggestions such as my hon. Friend has made, but the real question is to keep the command of the sea. If we keep command of the sea, we can keep command of our food supply. We have not got command of the sea, as we hold that we used to have it in days gone by. We have 1230 brought all our fleet round our coast, and we have denuded the trade routes almost altogether of cruisers. Although our people require more food, and there is more food and more raw material water borne, our defences are a great deal less than they were. What is the use of arming at all if we cannot feed our people? That is the first necessity of all. The report of the Royal Commission has shown the danger that exists, that danger has increased enormously, and it is still growing. We have no machinery for the distribution of food in this country. Supposing four ships chartered for Bristol or Liverpool, food ships or raw material ships, were put down by the enemy. You have no machinery to get food, and that food would be short. We are very short of food; we are much shorter of food than people generally make out, particularly if you have not got any machinery of distribution to carry it from one place to another. We have no machinery for distribution, and that, in my opinion, is a weak point.
We must prepare this question of feeding our people in time of peace. You cannot possibly do it in time of war. What on earth is the use of suggesting an indemnity? That is not going to feed the people. It is only going to feed the shippers who are gallant and plucky enough to send their cargoes of grain to sea. It is no method of feeding the people in anyway whatever. The most nervous people in the whole world are the shippers. They are always running in and out of Lloyd's, and the moment they embark a cargo they get a telegram to say it has arrived. If two or three were put down, they would not ship, and up would go food to famine prices, and you would not be able to feed your people all through not thinking this out before in a time of peace, instead of leaving it to the last moment and to a time of war. The hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite spoke about raw material. Of course, food is the most important, but raw material is almost of the same importance. Where are men to get their wages if we do not get the raw material punctually and with certainty, particularly if the price of food rises, as it undoubtedly would? The hon. Gentleman rather wishes things to remain as they are. He said, "Trust the Admiralty." That is a thing I never did in my life, and, without being egotistical, I may say that I have generally been right. Here is a glaring danger staring us all in the face. We are more 1231 and more dependent upon food water-borne to feed our people, and we have less defences to command that food. Less than ten years ago we had a four-Power standard, and we had Fleets on every sea. Our trade routes were adequately protected, and our naval bases were adequately protected, gunned and manned. That has all gone. What do we do now? We argue in naval defence whether we have one or two heavy battleships more than another Power. There is, therefore, this tremendous question of how you are going to feed your people in time of war. There is no organisation whatever for doing it. The Admiralty has done one thing—they have armed merchant ships. That is a very good proposal, but it does not give us anything in the nature of the security we had when we had cruisers on the trade routes. Our merchant ships will only be able to protect themselves against similar ships of the enemy. They will never be able to do anything against cruisers. Not only are our trade routes unprotected, but there is also the oil route, this new gambling experiment we have had in the Fleet. I hope I am not out of order.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Maclean)
I am glad the Noble Lord sees that he is running near the line. His recent remarks certainly are far more suited to the Naval Estimates than to the Resolution before the House, and I do not think that we can call upon the Minister for Agriculture to reply to the remarks of the Noble Lord on the Naval question.
§ Lord C. BERESFORD
With great respect, I submit it is a question of the protection of our food routes. There is only one method to secure that, and it is to have an adequate Fleet at sea. The other methods suggested are agricultural methods, but they are not practical methods. The only method is to have an adequate Fleet at sea to guard our trade routes. To feed our people now with certainty that is what is required. We certainly are not capable of doing it in the event of war. The danger has increased enormously, while the defence to meet that danger has decreased. As to the other schemes, I would like to see national granaries, because you would then have in your country so many quarters of wheat to meet the case of a sudden emergency, and it is the sudden emergency that you must be prepared for. 1232 You therefore get back to the point that we want more ships abroad, and that we shall have to secure the command of our trade routes, and secure it against any sudden outbreak of war.
§ Mr. HUME-WILLIAMS
It is somewhat surprising that when the House of Commons is called upon to discuss a question which is apart from politics altogether, and is merely a question of national importance, we do not seem to get a very overflowing attendance of Members, at any rate, on the Government side of the House. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about your own side!"] If comparisons are to be made I think that it will be found that the Opposition compares not unfavourably with the Government side. I venture respectfully to congratulate the Mover and Seconder of the Motion on having brought this question before the House and before the country. Everybody must admit it is one of increasingly urgent importance. A Royal Commission sat on it and reported in 1905. We are now in 1914. The Noble Lord who has just spoken (Lord C. Beresford) pointed out with great truth that the crux of the question now, as then, is the subject of transport to our shores. It is almost obvious, in an island home such as ours clearly unable to provide a sufficient food supply for its ever increasing population, with a great part of the daily food coming from over the seas, with 45 per cent. of the meat consumed coming over the seas, with the present condition agriculturally—it is quite obvious that the real crux of the question is the safety of the transport which brings our daily supplies to our shores. In the Report of the Royal Commission of 1905 that is pointed out in clear and precise terms. In section 90 of their Report—I am not dealing with the Memorandum or recommendations, I am dealing with the Report of all, including His Majesty the present King—we find these words:—However ample may be the sources of supply, and however anxious the country of origin may be to sell, it is obvious that the quantities which the United Kingdom will obtain and the prices which will have to be paid, must ultimately depend on the safely and sufficiency of the transport available.If that was true in 1905 it is still more true in 1914. But the conditions of transport have changed in those ten years. We have seen practically a revolution in them. There is the danger of explosives from above and beneath. There are wireless telegraphy, submarines, and the increased power of explosives, and all these add a 1233 hundred-fold to the dangers of transport. When I was a boy one used to read the stories of Jules Verne about people who dived under the sea and men who fought in the air. We looked upon him as an agreeable teller of fairy stories. But the picture of yesterday is the fact of to-day, and the dreams of now are the events of the future. Indeed, if it was dangerous to transport in 1905, and if the question was then urgently demanding the consideration of the country, it is surely still more urgently crying out for it at the present time. Therefore I welcome the Debate we have had, and I venture to think it is of great, and indeed, supreme importance, apart from the arena of party politics altogether. Let us consider for half a moment what the effect would be if there were, under existing conditions, an outbreak of war, with our present supplies of food. Here, again, I turn to the Report of the Royal Commission of 1905, and I do not think that I can improve on the words which were uttered at that time, and which, if true then, are equally true now. In paragraph 253 of the Report I find these words:—But we do regard with much concern the effect of war upon prices, and especially, therefore, on the condition of the poorer classes, for they will be the first to feel the pinch, and it is on them that the strain of increased prices will chiefly fall.If that paragraph stood alone it would render this question one of urgent importance, and one demanding the attention of the Government. The Noble Lord who has just spoken pointed out, with great truth, that the question was really, not only one of the increased price of food, but also of the contemporaneous shortage in the supply of raw material, which must of necessity affect the amount paid to the wage-earners of the country, because if you had an outbreak of war and you had difficulty in controlling the transport of food, that difficulty would be still greater in the transport of raw material, and the result of that would be to immediately affect the output of manufacturers, and consequently to affect the wages of the wage-earning classes; and then contemporaneously you would have the increase in the price of food. Here, again, I turn to the Report, and I find this question adequately and eloquently put forward in these words:—The effect of war will not make itself felt only in an increase in the price of food, but the same causes will naturally operate to raise the price of imported materials for industry, and also to increase the cost of exporting manufactured articles. The British manufacturer may, therefore, have to struggle at one and the same time against increased 1234 cost of production and additional expenses in placing his manufactures on the foreign market, and it seems almost certain that, under these conditions, some markets must be lost.They go on to say that he can only meet this—either by reducing his output if higher prices lead to restricted consumption, or by diminishing his expenses through a reduction in the wages of those in his employ. Obviously, either of these alternatives must press heavily upon the working man.So that, look at it which way you will, the persons who will suffer first and last are the working classes of the country. Surely this Government, which affects to be a democratic Government, and which has the interest of the working classes so near to its heart, must see that the time has at last arrived when this question of the food supply should, and indeed must be, taken into their immediate consideration. In 1905 this question was considered by the Royal Commission to be urgent, and they unanimously passed recommendations which they thought should be immediately undertaken. Let me read to the House what they said:—Having regard to the importance of complete preparation being made in peace to provide for the exigencies of sudden war, we desire to express the hope that there will be no undue delay in taking this step, and in completing all arrangements necessary; for the effective operation of any such scheme will depend upon knowledge during the apprehension of war that it is ready to be promptly put in force.The Royal Commission then reported that those schemes, more particularly the schemes to which hon. Members who had spoken have already drawn the attention of the House, such as the provision of free granaries, should be given an immediate trial, that a small Departmental Committee should be at once appointed to make regulations to put the three schemes into effect, and to give them a trial in order to see whether they would meet what everybody then recognised as being an immediate danger to the whole of the country. That was in 1905. We are now in 1914. Nothing has been done; not a step has been taken. Since 1906 this Government has been in office with an adequate working majority for all their interests. One Bill after another to meet party interests has been passed, and this, a crying national necessity, has been left absolutely untouched. The time has arrived when at last the Government should see that these recommendations, already nine years old, which have the authority of perhaps the finest and most representative Royal Commission of modern times behind them, should be given a trial. Those who think that the danger is remote and that it does not press, and, therefore, 1235 that the Government need not take it into their immediate consideration, live in a fool's paradise.
War nowadays is not announced, like a Government programme, for the coming week. It breaks out unexpectedly if it breaks out at all. You go to sleep one night in peace, and you wake up the next morning and find you are at war. You wake up one day and find that Tunis is involved in war, and you wake up the next day and you find there is a revolution in China. Equally suddenly do you find an outburst in the Near East and the Balkans. Is there any man in this House who does not know and believe that during the crisis in the Balkans this country was within measurable distance of being dragged into war? These things occur with dramatic suddenness. It is very difficult to make the man in the street, the ordinary man who does not take the trouble to read and understand, apprehend that the danger is immediate. There is truth in what the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth said, that, if you want to avert these dangers, you must prepare for them in time of peace. When war has once broken out, it is then too late to try to make the preparations you have left unmade, for the danger is already at your door. If this question is going to be undertaken at all, now is the time for it to be undertaken. I confess, speaking not as a Member of the Opposition, but as a patriot and an Englishman, that I deplore that this question has been left untouched for nine years, despite the unanimous recommendations of the Royal Commission, and I cannot understand why the time of the country has been occupied with all sorts of controversial Bills, while this question of supreme national interest has been left to await a Debate of this kind at this time in the House of Commons. If the Government really have the interests of the nation at heart, instead of those of their own party, they will see that the time to undertake this great question is now, and not in the future.
§ Colonel YATE
It was laid down a minute or two ago, when the Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Maclean) was in the Chair, that this was an agricultural question and that the Minister for Agriculture would answer it. It is a matter upon which I have been putting questions to the Prime Minister for the last three or four years, and he has continually replied that 1236 it was under the consideration of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I had hoped that to-night, when this great national and vital question was being raised, the Prime Minister would have told us what were the conclusions of the Defence Committee on the subject, and that he would have given us some assurance that the matter had not only been considered by them, but that some practical solution had been arrived at. All will acknowledge that in a case of this sort the essential thing to be considered is that should war be declared against us at any time we must be faced with a most serious rise in the price of foodstuffs. If we are suddenly confronted with a starving population, the situation might speedily get beyond our control. The starving millions will not starve quietly. We have the Poor Law organisation in this country, but that is only accustomed to deal with about 2½ per cent., and it might be stretched to deal with 5 per cent. of the population. On the outbreak of war, the Poor Law authorities might find themselves suddenly confronted with 30 per cent. of the population on their hands, and we have not the slightest organisation of any sort to deal with that large mass of people. As the Noble Lord (Lord C. Beresford) said, we have absolutely no preparations made in this country for any distribution or organisation of any sort. The first material thing is so to arrange with the Poor Law institutions throughout the country that they should be able to take in hand the large access to the number of the population with whom they would have to deal, and that they should be so organised as to be able to expand from a peace to a war footing in the least possible time.
I do not want to dilate on any of the questions that have been raised. We want something practical to be done. Various suggestions have been made. We have had it suggested that all food supplies in the country at the time of the outbreak of war should automatically become the property of the Government at market prices. Then there is the question of stimulating the cultivation of wheat in this country by a bonus. The details of that have no doubt been considered by the Minister for Agriculture. We have never had any consideration given to the Report of the Royal Commission on the question of the storage of grain that I know of. Granaries have been suggested, and another question that 1237 I brought to the notice of the Prime Minister was the question of increasing those mercantile elevators and silos which are now, I believe, working most successfully at Liverpool as a commercial undertaking. Some little encouragement might be given to increase these. If we get wheat stored in this country and at the seaports, another thing ought to be done, and that is that an Export Duty should be put on wheat offals. We want to have all the offals kept in this country and not exported abroad, as is so largely done now. We are losing greatly in the country by the export of offals, and we ought to do every to prevent it.
Another question which has been raised is the encouragement which should be given by the Minister for Agriculture to the more scientific methods of wheat cultivation. It is shown that the Manitoban wheat fetches a higher price in our markets than home-grown wheat, and experiments have shown us that varieties of wheat can be grown which would give a higher market price. That is another suggestion which the Minister for Agriculture might see if he cannot further. Finally, of these suggestions that I am bringing to notice I should like to accentuate the fact that the municipalities and boards of guardians should draw up a scheme for distributing food in time of war. Another question that has been suggested is the Channel tunnel. I formed one of a deputation to the Prime Minister on this subject, and I supported the suggestion simply because nothing whatsoever had been done by the Government in all these years to help in any way to increase the supply of food in time of war in this country, and I supported it because it might possibly give us an extra route by which we could import food in time of great emergency. Whether that would be possible or not I cannot say, but it was on that ground that I urged it. I said our dangers had enormously increased. What with mines laid round our ports and in the Channel, we might find our fleet hemmed in at a most critical time. What with aeroplanes and submarines, and all the other dangers we have to take, we require every road by which we can possibly get food, and for that reason I advocate the Channel tunnel. The Minister for Agriculture, I hope, will give the whole question his consideration. It is a vital matter for the nation. It is under the consideration of the Defence Committee. I hope the right hon. Gentleman 1238 has the authority of the Defence Committees to speak on the subject, and to tell us exactly what is going to be done, and that without any delay, while we still have peace.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Mr. LEE
We are all very pleased that the Minister for Agriculture should be sufficiently restored to health to take part in our Debate, but I must demur altogether from the suggestion that this matter is merely a departmental one with which he is solely concerned, and that it is not one of the greatest matters which could possibly be brought before the House of Commons. This question of our food supply in time of war was referred to by the Royal Commission, which was personally one of the strongest which has ever been got together in this country. At the opening of its report it says:—We consider that it is a subject—the right solution of which involves literally the life or death of at least half of our population?In the event of even a temporary stoppage of our food supplies in time of war, it is at least as important as any with which the House of Commons has been called upon to deal in the course of the present Session. I think we have some cause for complaint at the way in which this Debate has been treated by the Government side of the House. An opportunity was deliberately taken by a prominent Member on the Government Benches to try to count out the House. That attempt was supported and abetted by a large number of Members of the Coalition who were actually present within the precincts of the House, and waited at the doors in the hope that the Debate might be brought to a premature end. There were Members of the Government actually present in the House who deliberately abstained from coming into the Chamber in the hope that the Debate might be burked, and, while that may be all within the Parliamentary rules, it is not creditable to the Government or its supporters that a subject of this importance should be attempted to be treated, I am glad to say, unsuccessfully, in that contemptuous and unpatriotic fashion. I make an honourable exception, of course, in the case of five Members of the coalition, who have attended throughout this Debate. They have been constantly here, and I am sure we welcome the interest which they have taken in the Motion. But what is much more important than the action of the House to-night is the 1239 action of the Government with regard to this matter. This question was thoroughly investigated by a Royal Commission ten years ago, and at frequent intervals since, to my own knowledge; questions have been addressed to the Government as to what steps they are taking with regard to the recommendations of the Commission, or with regard to their policy in the matter. We have always been put off with the same kind of answer—"the matter is under careful consideration," and "all due steps will be taken,"—and we have been informed two or three times in the last few years that the matter has been engaging the special attention of a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence. We, of course, have been deeply interested to know that this matter is receiving consideration. We feel that we are entitled to-night to ask what is the result of these deliberations of the Government? I understand that the right hon. Gentleman who is to follow was a member of the Sub-Committee in question, and I trust, and I am sure we are entitled to expect, that he will have been authorised to speak on behalf of the Government and to inform us of the conclusions which have been arrived at. But in the meantime we cannot help expressing the view that this subject has been consistently and unaccountably neglected by the Government, and whilst we know that it is one of a purely non-party character, which can bring neither votes nor political profit to one side or the other, it should not on that account be considered as unimportant by the present House of Commons.
Whilst we have been waiting and perpetually put off by this statement extending over the whole period the Government have been in office, there is no doubt whatever, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friends to-night, that the dangers referred to by the Royal Commission have been, as a matter of fact, constantly increasing. Our home supply of food has been decreasing. The amount of our imports from abroad has been increasing, and, therefore, our dependence upon foreign supply has been increasing. Meanwhile our relative naval strength has been steadily waning. That cannot be denied by the right hon. Gentleman, and if the question was urgent in 1905, it is surely much more urgent to-day, and I think we are entitled to ask the Government now to state what their policy is, as this is probably the only opportunity we 1240 shall have in the course of this Session. I am speaking at a disadvantage in having to precede the right hon. Gentleman who may have a great deal of importance to tell us. In the absence of any official policy adopted by the Government, I suppose it is natural for private Members of the House, who cannot have access to official knowledge of these matters, to press their own individual solutions of this problem. Personally I doubt very much whether there is any one road to a solution of this question—that is to say, any road which is really practicable under the circumstances. Of course, there is is one absolutely complete solution if it could be obtained, and that is that we should grow all the food in this country which our population would require, even in the case of a prolonged war. I am sure the Minister for Agriculture will have, at any rate, a theoretical sympathy with a policy of that description, but we all know that it is a mere counsel of perfection, because, so far from our growing a larger proportion of the food we consume, we are growing less. Although the right hon. Gentleman may not agree with this, I am sure it is an opinion which is held by many hon. Members on this side, that the actual policy of the Government is not to encourage, but to discourage the growth of agriculture in this country, and to treat the agricultural industry as an undesirable thing which ought to be persecuted by every means of oppressive taxation which can be devised even by the most ingenious and fertile of Chancellors of the Exchequer.
If we have to reject that solution, there is the second best solution referred to by my Noble Friend the Member for Portsmouth (Lord C. Beresford) and others, and that is that we should maintain our Navy at such a strength that all our trade routes over which our food supplies arrive in this country should be rendered secure against attack, but the Government have, if not in theory, at least in fact, rejected that solution, and there is no prospect, so far as I can see in the proposals made by the First Lord of the Admiralty, that our trade routes would be secure in time of war. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Major Guest) enunciated what I thought was a most dangerous heresy, for he suggested that it was really wrong that we should attempt to retain command of the trade routes by ships operating on them. On the contrary, he suggested that we should draw all our ships back to 1241 Home waters in order to defeat the main fleet of an enemy. A most important thing in strategy is to defeat the main fleet of the enemy, but if our ships were collected for that purpose, our food supplies on the trade routes might be interrupted and great suffering might be caused to the population, although we were about to conduct a successful battle against the main fleet of the enemy. I protest against this solution. While it may be sound on strategic lines, it does not contribute in any way to the safety of our food supplies in time of war. I do not wish to enter into the question whether our naval strength is adequate to our needs.
Take the specific case of the Mediterranean. It is well known that a large proportion—I am not prepared to state the exact figure, but it is something like 50 per cent.—of our food supplies come to this country via the Mediterranean. We know that at the time the Report of the Royal Commission was drawn up we maintained such an overwhelming naval superiority in-the Mediterranean that the British Fleet absolutely dominated that sea, and that our trade routes through that sea were, humanly speaking, absolutely secure. Now we know that the situation is very different to-day. We know that, so far from our having a predominant force in the Mediterranean, the Government is not proposing even to maintain a one-Power standard in that sea, and yet ail the time the proportion of food stuffs which we receive via that route is steadily increasing. It is perfectly clear that if we unhappily engaged in hostilities with the Triple Alliance, we could not count on a single ship bearing food supplies coming safely by the Mediterranean route. I do not think the point of the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite has ever been more effectively destroyed than it was by the preface to a pamphlet written by my Noble Friend the Member for Portsmouth. I am sure he would be too modest to quote it himself, and if he will allow me I will do so. He says:—The Mediterranean—a trade artery which supplies 60 per cent. of our foodstuffs—has been evacuated. Why? In order to provide adequate defence in Home Waters for the heart of the Empire in Home Waters. To efficiently defend the heart, the arteries are left undefended. Cutting the arteries would be as fatal as a stab in the heart.I venture to support every word of that. I think it could not be more forcibly or better put. I quite agree with him that of course, apart from the impossibility of 1242 growing everything that we require for ourselves, the only effective solution is that which was laid down by the Royal Commission, and every responsible body that has considered the matter, namely, that we should retain sufficient command of the sea to guard our trade against any interference. I now come to minor solutions. They are not solutions at all; they are palliatives, but I think many of them are well worthy of consideration. There is the question of Government granaries. I do not wish to do more than just refer to it. It has been dealt with by other Members to-night. There is the solution of free storage, which was supported by my hon. Friend who moved the Resolution, and for which there is a great deal to be said.
Then there is the other system of storage—to encourage the farmer to maintain surplus grain in the rick during the season of the year when our Home supply falls to the lowest point, and encourage him to do so by a system of bonuses, under a scheme which has been very lucidly explained, in a pamphlet, with which, no doubt, the House is familiar, written by my hon. Friend the Member for Wilton (Mr. C. Bathurst). I will not go into that now, beyond saying that his conclusion, with which I am inclined to agree, is that a system of bonuses of that description would not cost more than £1,000,000 a year at the outside. Finally, there is the solution, which has also been referred to this evening, of a national indemnity. All those suggestions are well worthy of consideration, and, if combined, might do a great deal, in the absence of the big solution to which I have referred. But if one had to choose between them, I would, personally, be inclined to favour the last two schemes, encouraging the farmer to keep more corn stored in the rick, and a national indemnity. The former has an advantage over the free storage system that you would get the corn better distributed over the country, and avoid the whole of the very heavy initial cost of putting up free storage granaries. However, that is only a personal opinion. On the last point, that of the national indemnity, I am not suggesting that there should be a system of free national indemnity to all shippers for all goods which are on transport and which might be lost in time of war. I think that that would be an impossible system and would lead to the greatest abuse.
1243 But the proposal was considered very carefully by a highly qualified Committee, presided over by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Worcestershire, three or four years ago. It was really a Treasury Committee, and I venture to say that it looked at the matter from the severe Treasury point of view with regard to this question, as all Treasuries used to do up to the reign of the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. It deprecated increased and uncertain expenditure. It also deprecated formidable burdens on the taxpayer, and no doubt it was taking the proper normal and judicial Treasury line. But it cannot be suggested for a moment that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer could make seriously any objection to a proposal of this kind on the score that it would either be expensive, or that it would throw any additional burden upon the taxpayers of this country. If the thing is good surely the Chancellor of the Exchequer would find the money as gladly as he has for any other of the attractive schemes which have been laid before us in other directions. I think that the question of national indemnity is of real importance, because the danger, as I apprehend, to our food supply in time of war is not so much the danger or the sense of actual loss as the apprehension on the part of the community and the shippers as to what may happen, an apprehension which leads to panic among the people, and nervousness among the ship-owners and insurance companies, with the result that the food prices and insurance rates go soaring upwards, possibly quite reasonably, but, still, they do go up. As a result, even though they may not be unreasonable, the price of food is placed beyond the reach of the poorest section of the community, and the insurance rates are put so high that they can scarcely be taken advantage of. It is true that both prices and rates may steady down later on in the course of the war, after the conditions are better understood. The real danger will come at the beginning, when the Government of the day is faced with a starving, or half-starving, population, when it is faced by panic pressure of many kinds, demanding that this and that step shall be taken, even though it be a surrender of national interests; and I do think, in view of that danger, that it might be well worth while on the part of the Government to consider a scheme of national insurance, not in the sense of 1244 national indemnity for all losses, but a scheme under which the Government would itself insure the shipping which was bringing our food supplies in return for payment of the premium, which would be fixed according to the zones of risk from which the shipping is coming.
That scheme, as a matter of fact, was put forward in considerable detail by Lord Sydenham, who was a prominent Member of the Treasury Committee. It had this advantage, that, whilst the Exchequer ran a risk—I do not believe a very great risk—of having to pay heavy losses, there would, at any rate, be the certainty of the premiums coming in, and that would, at any rate, eliminate the factor of panic, which might make insurance impossible in the ordinary sense. If the panic is eliminated, then the shipping would go on, the food would come in, and I believe that would not only prevent a shortage but the rise of prices to a very considerable extent. That, I am aware, is a highly technical question, and one with which I am not competent to deal in a commercial sense. But I have read very carefully the Report of this Committee, and I shall be very glad to know whether the Government have any views with regard to this particular matter. Whatever views we may hold with regard to the proper solution of this question, it is quite clear, and it is becoming increasingly urgent, that something has got to be done.
The peril, as I said just now, is increasing. The amount of food which we grow at home is not only decreasing but is bound to decrease rapidly in the near future on account of the new land policy of the Government. I do not want to attack that land policy, but no one knows better than the President of the Board of Agriculture that it is leading to more and more arable land going out of commission, and more and more land being laid down to grass. It is bound to have that effect. I have already referred to our relative waning naval strength. I trust the right hon. Gentleman is going to tell us what is the Government's solution, for, after all, so long as the Government is in office, that is the only thing of great importance in this discussion. The Committee of Imperial Defence has been sitting for a long time, and we want to know the conclusions at which it has arrived, or, at any rate, what action the Government are going to take upon those conclusions. It is ten years since the Royal Commission reported. Surely ten 1245 years is too long a time for a Government to make up its mind! And I put this demand before the right hon. Gentleman in no party spirit whatsoever. I am perfectly certain that if the Government will produce any practicable solution it will be supported in every quarter of the House—just as much on this side as on the benches behind it. But I do think we are entitled to demand that this grave question, which, as I say, affects the lives of a very large section of our population in the event of war, is one which has got to be faced and met without any further delay.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Runciman)
I agree with the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken in one point, even if not on many others, namely, that it is impossible to deal with this great question by any one single solution. It is far too large and complex for any Government or any succession of Governments, to devise one single scheme which will at once free us from the whole of the perils by which we must constantly be faced in time of war while we are dependent on distant parts of the world for providing us with our food supply. The peril with which England is faced is not English only, it is one common to all the Northern European Powers.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed. It is a peril which is faced by all the Northern European Powers. It is impossible to quote any one Northern European Power which would not be starved if its oversea supplies were completely stopped.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Neither France, Holland, Belgium, nor Germany could feed themselves, nor could the Continent feed them if their food supplies were stopped. That is just as well known to German, French, and Dutch strategists as it is well known to us, The difference between the Northern Continental Powers and ourselves is that our peril is greater; and that is the reason why our means of defence are so much greater than theirs. In the main the question centres round the strength of the Navy. I agree with the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth that if we are unable to keep open our means of communication all the other palliatives will obviously fail. But when it is suggested 1246 that we, the present Government, have actually weakened our Naval strength, I fear that I cannot agree wth him. This is not the occasion on which we can embark on a discussion of the comparative strength of the cruisers of the battle fleets of the Great Powers, but I would certainly, and with confidence, say this, that there never was a time when our trade routes, our main trade routes, were less likely to be menaced on the West of our Island than at the present moment. The concentration of naval supremacy in Northern Europe has undoubtedly freed us many parts of the world from hostile perils with which we were formerly faced. When it is suggested, not only that we have weakened the cruiser supremacy which formerly was ours, but that actually within our own shores we have done something to reduce the output of our farmers, and that British agriculture has been injured by the present Government in the last few years and that the fall in the crops of wheat was entirely to be laid at our doors, there I am afraid I cannot agree with any of the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken. Whatever may be the reason for the fall in the output of wheat in this country, it is certainly not the doing of any one Government. Indeed, I think that we may, certainly in the last few years, challenge comparison with any of our predecessors in the assistance that we have given to British farmers. A larger amount of our national resources is now distributed to their aid and a complete system of national organisation has been at work for their benefit. That is shown in almost every part of the country by the renewed and active interest taken by the farming classes in themselves, and by what has been done by county councils and colleges, and by the Board of Agriculture, which has aided all. The discussion of the problem to-night has centred mainly round the supply of wheat. I think that even the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Courthope), who made reference to the growing of sugar-beet, had in his mind all the time an increase in the output of our wheat crop. A large increase of arable land is what he mainly desired. I believe that in the great and patriotic efforts he has made for the spread of beet growing in this country he has been prompted by the desire not only to start a new industry here, but also to increase the interest of farmers in arable farming. Even on that topic I do not think the Government is likely to confess 1247 that it has failed more signally than its predecessors. We are the first Government that has given any assistance to beet growing in this country, and the assistance given to the organisation with which the hon. Gentleman has been connected will, I hope, prove successfully that the experiment made in Norfolk and in the Eastern counties can be followed with profit in other parts of the United Kingdom.
In discussing our perils, such as they are, it is a mistake to centre them all round the subject of wheat. The objects of those who wish to increase our food supplies, if they were restricted to the supply of wheat, would indeed be narrow. As a matter of fact, wheat, though an essential part, is now only a comparatively small part of the diet of our people. I noticed that in some of the figures with which we were favoured earlier in the discussion attention was drawn to the small proportion of wheat grown in this country; but no reference whatever was made to the amount of meat, poultry, eggs, rabbits, game, fish, dairy produce, fruit and vegetables produced all over the United Kingdom. It may be quite true that of the total amount of wheat consumed here in one form or another only about one-fifth is grown in this country. But if the whole of these food products is taken, you will find that, certainly in value, well over one-half is grown in this country. That is a much more sanguine estimate, I imagine, than many people would be prepared to make; but I make it on the authority of one of the best statisticians in this country, whose services we have at the Board of Agriculture—Mr. Rew, the head of our Statistical Department. In a discussion which took place at the British Association, on a paper written by him some few years ago, his figures were not controverted, and I think they may now be taken as being absolutely correct. The problem we have to face is the continuance and the keeping open of our trade routes for the supply of one-half of the food of our people. The keeping open of those trade routes is purely a naval question, it is true; but there may be other means of adding to the resources on which we have to depend, or of reducing the risks by which we may be faced.
One or two hon. Members have suggested schemes which were discussed by the Royal Commission in 1904, and 1248 reported upon in the following year. I notice, for instance, on looking through their report that every suggestion made here to-night was made before that Commission, and everyone was rejected. It was a strong Commission, and they heard admirable evidence from men of all shades of opinion and in every walk of life. They came to the conclusion that you could not deal with the problem by national granaries, they dismissed the idea of freeing us from risk by inducing merchants and millers to hold larger stocks; they produced great objections to the scheme for the free storage of wheat; they declared that even the last suggestion received with favour by hon. Gentlemen opposite, that farmers should be introduced to keep their grain in the rick for a longer period, may be dismissed as impracticable; and they finally came to the conclusion arrived at by the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth, not for the first time to-night, but throughout the whole of his public career, that our first and most essential condition of safety in the matter of food supply lies with the Navy. Everyone of these palliatives may be dismissed as impracticable or useless.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The only one that I have not mentioned is that of a national indemnity, and that I propose to deal with. Let me first of all deal with the proposals which have been mentioned to-night. I think the hon. Member for Plymouth referred to the question of granaries. I will not deal with all the objections to them, but state only one which, in the opinion of the Royal Commission, was sufficient to make the scheme of national granaries impracticable. That was that if the grain is to be turned over sometimes—I do not mean merely handled inside the granary itself—the Government must embark on dealing, and if it had to buy and sell wheat it will probably be the largest buyer and seller of wheat in the country. It would be impossible for the Government to embark on these great dealings without disturbing the markets, except only on one condition, and that was that they ought to buy and sell at stated intervals, which were well known beforehand, and this would merely mean from the point of view of the Exchequer, that they would have to pay not only the—
Mr. SHIRLEY BENN
The right hon. Gentleman is not quoting me quite cor- 1249 rectly. I distinctly stated that I was opposed to Government buying, and that what I wanted to see was advances, on behalf of the 7½ million quarters of wheat, to the farmers and corn merchants, if they would keep that amount in store all the time.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Yes, that is the second stage of the scheme for national granaries. When the Government have discarded the first, the supporters of the scheme fall back on the scheme of free storage. The hon. Member goes further than that. He would not give a bonus for this storage. It would be not only the interest on the capital involved for the total amount of insurance, but would, in fact, give full indemnity to owners against any risk or loss which they might incur for having to store in large quantities. The Royal Commission thought in the first place that that inducement would not be enough to grain merchants. I believe Mr. Bridges-Webb was strongly of opinion that that inducement would not be strong enough to owners of wheat to keep their wheat for any length of time in storage. The Royal Commission went on to say that if there were free storage provided it would merely mean that there would be diminished stocks in private hands. It is perfectly obvious and well known that if there were any space in the free stores, the private owner would not be likely to go to the expense of the storage of his wheat in private granaries; therefore you will give more accommodation in the national stores and diminish the stocks which were held in private hands.
Finally, the Commission held the view that nothing could be done one way or another, and that the expense in regard to this scheme would be of no substantial advantage to our stocks of wheat in this country. On the question of inducing the farmers to retain some part of the wheat in their ricks it is obvious that the cost must be large. First of all, you must provide for the cost of complete inspection. It is clear you must measure the amount of grain in the rick. You must provide the farmer with interest on the value of the wheat which he is induced to retain, rather than sell and turn into hard cash. You would have to give him compensation for such losses as the loss which comes from burning or deterioration from the weather. You would have to pay him insurance, and the amount, I believe, which is estimated as the probable cost of inducing him to keep the grain in the 1250 rick would be at least 5s. per quarter for six months and 12s. for twelve months. Nothing less than that would be likely to induce them to do it. What I know now of the farmers leads me to say, unhesitatingly, that even at the rate of 7s. per quarter there are many farmers who would not then keep their corn when they wanted to turn it into hard cash. They would use their wheat very much as a savings bank, and turn it into cash when needed, and it would be very difficult to prevent them adopting that custom. These schemes as they were discarded by the Royal Commission leave only one for which they had a kind word to say, and that was the subject of national guarantee. A national guarantee with an insurance against all risk has always had many attractions. I believe it was Lord St. Aldwyn who said that he never could understand any shipowner being opposed to it. I think he was quite right, for any form of national guarantee undoubtedly would put money into the shipowners' pockets. I have no unkindly feelings towards shipowners, but I should hesitate to make myself responsible for any scheme that was going to pay hard cash into their hands out of the National Exchequer. I therefore look on any form of national guarantee with a very critical eye, and I think I am only doing what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Worcester did when Chairman of a Committee that dealt with this topic. I want to see a scheme that will hold water before I should be in favour of saying a word for it. I believe the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Worcester, who presided over the Committee in 1908, came to the conclusion that none of the proposals put before him could in the first place be so devised as to avoid the Exchequer suffering. That is to say, it placed to some extent a premium on dishonesty. If dishonesty did exist amongst shipowners, here was an opening for them. They might be able by manipulating their vessels in time of war, to get the whole benefit of the protection under a national guarantee at national expense, while they might dispose of some of their most unsuitable vessels at the national expense, and during the whole of this time you would not insure for yourselves a fuller supply of raw material or foodstuffs for this country, and what the total cost would be no one could say. When the right hon. Gentleman inquired into the question he found 1251 that, not only was the scheme unworkable, but that it was too costly, and I believe these two grounds alone induced him and his Committee to send in an unanimous report to the Treasury against any system of national guarantee which had been placed before them. I have no knowledge whether he is still of the same frame of mind, but I have no doubt that if he looked into the question again now as he did in 1908, with the same materials as before, he would arrive at the same conclusion.
The Government, however, have not been prepared to take a purely pedantic view, nor are they prepared to lean purely on the findings of 1908. They have now under consideration a new scheme brought before them, and it has been examined by experts and an impartial Committee. The Committee of Imperial Defence is now considering some of their findings, and they will no doubt come to a conclusion in the near future. I am not saying anything as to what the decision of the Government will be, because it is perfectly obvious that vast business transactions of this character, of a highly technical character, must not be jumped at with rashness or undue rapidity, but must be carefully examined from the point of view of the Exchequer, and also from the point of view of the commercial interests that will be largely affected thereby. I said there were many directions in which the Government had shown activity, and I repeat again, that although the hon. Gentleman and the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth may believe that our naval strength is not large enough, I can say that, so far as ancillary measures are concerned, we have left no stone unturned. I should like to assure hon. Members that instead of our having neglected the entire subject since 1906, we have, first of all, inquired into the question which was left open by the Royal Commission, and we have gone further. In the first place, we have not overlooked the fact that, so far as our food supplies are concerned, it is essential we should have many defended ports in the world, not only for the purpose of enabling vessels to load and unload with safety, but also to provide them with places of refuge if their trade routes should be menaced by the enemy's cruisers, and so that they would be able to take full advantage of them until the trade route was clear. The Committee of Imperial Defence have been at work on this topic for several years, and 1252 they have been in communication not only with the authorities at home, but they have made arrangements with the representatives of the Dominion Governments across the seas. Much has been done with the Crown Colonies, and the matter is still under review, and will remain continually tinder review, so long as the conditions of our trade vary and the strength of our possible enemies may from time to time be altered.
§ Lord C. BERESFORD
Is it the intention, of the Government to restore those naval bases which have been dismantled?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I can only say that the whole subject is constantly under review, and we shall take action in the matter when they make recommendations which commend themselves to the Government. Another direction in which inquiries have been made, largely on the suggestion of the Royal Commission, is the sources from which we mainly draw our food supplies. It is obvious that the Admiralty cannot direct their cruisers in the direction where they are likely to be of the most service to traders and ship-owners if they do not know definitely along which route the largest number of our vessels are constantly passing. I was surprised at the small information on which responsible men have been inclined to act. Now we have reduced this matter to complete accuracy and we have ascertained definitely where most of our British ships are likely to be found in case our food supplies are threatened. We know now to what extent they may be liable to danger in various circumstances, and the whole of this information is now at the disposal of the Admiralty, and they can act on it as seems to them necessary. We have also conducted inquiries into the question of the sources of alternative supplies in the sense of keeping open the routes for our merchants in time of war, when some of those sources may be closed owing to us being at war with some Power that supplies us with large quantities of our food, and we have had to consider to what other sources we can turn. The Committee of Imperial Defence, with the assistance of the Customs and the Board of Agriculture and our experts, have made full inquiries into this topic, and our information upon this subject alone is much more complete than ever it was before.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am speaking of our supplies abroad. In another direction we have been making inquiries, and that is with regard to the possible dislocation of our trade in time of war, which might prevent our food supplies coining into this country just as certainly as if they had been captured on the high seas, Suppose we were at war with one of the great European Powers, and some of our ports were rendered incapable of British ships taking advantage of those ports. Clearly it would be the duty of the Government to do what they could by means of some national organisation to provide other inlets for our food supplies, and other outlets for the materials we wish to send abroad. We have not waited for war to break out before making an inquiry into this. An inquiry has just been completed which will provide those who control our main lines of communication with fuller and better information than they have had before as to the possible expansion of our ports on the safer side, whichever it may be, and this will enable us, if our ports are closed along the whole of one coast, to keep open so many ports for the conduct of our commerce on the other side as will save us from starvation or famine. That is an inquiry of great value which has been exhaustively carried out. We have had the assistance not only of the representatives of the Government departments, but of the port authorities as well. And then, combined with that, and closely related to it, the Committee of Imperial Defence has conducted an inquiry into internal means of communication, and how far these and the distribution of food supplies might be affected in time of war, if by chance our railways were largely occupied for naval or military exigencies, or if many of our ports which link up with our railways were put out of action. There, again, we have the assistance of outside authorities as well as of those who are connected with Government departments, and sufficient material has been produced to show that in time of war we need have no anxiety, if the arrangements are carried out, for the distribution of such foodstuffs as we have within this country without interruption to the main centres of population. That brings us back really to the main point: What are the principal perils which we are likely to suffer? Undoubtedly our stocks in this country are greater than most people imagine. I believe that I am well within the mark when I say that in farms alone there is something like two 1254 or three million quarters of stuff available which could be brought into the market.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am talking of wheat—I should say something like three weeks' consumption in the hands of farmers alone which could be brought into the market in time of war. [An HON. MEMBER: "What time of the year? "] Practically any time of the year. It does fluctuate, but it fluctuates far more with respect to the markets than it does with respect to the seasons. About three weeks' consumption is now to be found in our port granaries, and something like four or five weeks' consumption in second hand stocks. Then, I think, we should be fully entitled to take, at all events, a proportion of foodstuffs on passage, say some six weeks. That makes altogether about sixteen weeks, and sixteen weeks gives us breathing time. Certainly, if we did not have something like sixteen weeks' breathing time, I should look upon the situation as being much more perilous than it is.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
A little less to July, August, and September than at other times, I agree, but very little less. At that time of the year, of course, the harvest of the world has not been gathered in, but, being a Free Trade country, we are able to draw our supplies from every part of the world, and so we keep them on a much more even basis than, for instance, does France. It is not a question merely of foodstuffs, and I think we should be very short-sighted if we looked upon it as such. It is a matter of raw materials as well. It is not only a matter even of foodstuffs and raw materials, which have to come into this country: it is also a matter of our manufactures and many of our raw materials which have to go out. If you cannot get food in, certainly people will starve in the long run; but, if you cannot get raw materials in and your manufactures out, people will not have the money with which to buy-food. If we cannot keep open our means of communication, not only for foodstuffs, but for our general trade, we shall certainly be in a state of general starvation. For that reason I think, as we rely to a large extent on the widespread resources of our mercantile marine, we must look mainly for our security to the Royal Navy.
§ Mr. CROFT
I think we are entitled to complain that on a subject of tremendous military importance as this which we have been discussing this evening neither the Secretary for War nor the First Lord of the Admiralty have been present, and that criticism specially holds good when we have the President of the Board of Agriculture admitting that this is eventually a naval question. Yet the First Lord has absented himself, I believe, nearly the whole of this Debate. I should like to say one word with regard to the idea that this is solely a naval question. It is primarily a naval question, but not entirely. One fact which has been overlooked has been that on the outbreak of war you are going to have your trade food supplies cornered by operators in the United States, who at present have, unfortunately, so great a hold over the wheat supplies of the world. There is going to be an enormous increase of prices. My hon. Friend (Mr. Wiles) dissents. However good your sea protection may be it must be obvious to the hon. Member, who ought to know something about this, as I have stood on the Corn Market with him for many years, and we know that everyone who is operating in the United States will say, "It must be good for us to hold the wheat. We know that prices will go up." The shippers will be nervous, and the result will be that you will have an immediate rise of 10s. to 15s. per quarter to start with. There is not a single American business man who would not immediately seize that opportunity, and the hon. Member knows it perfectly well.
§ Mr. CROFT
No, what I was saying was that on an outbreak of war it must be admitted that those who control the wheat supplies of the United States will get control of the Canadian supplies. The right hon. Gentleman said the Government rejected the idea of an indemnity on the ground that an insurance of that description would be far too costly. But, after all, it will only take place after an outbreak of war, and then surely the question of cost cannot be considered, in the face of the very much bigger question which is going to be a deciding factor in the war—namely, whether our food supplies will hold out. The right hon. Gentleman says we have got sixteen weeks' supply, but that is not the point. The point is that 1256 prices are going up immediately to a prohibitive figure, and the result will be that the working classes are going to be driven to a state of desperation very early. I hope my hon. Friend will divide. It seems that the Government have been holding the question under review, and have been considering it for ten years. It is really as urgent and important as the Battle Fleet. It is one of our lines of defence, and it is an extraordinary thing, when we have pointed out to us the danger in which the country stands, no steps should have been taken by the Government.