§ Postponed Proceeding resumed on Amendment to Question [11th February].
§ "That this House regrets the rise in the price of the Necessaries of Life, and calls upon the Government to use every endeavour to prevent a continuance of this unfortunate consequence of war, which is causing much hardship, especially to the poor."—[Mr. Ferens.]
§ Which Amendment was to leave out from the word "Government" to the end of the Question, in order to add, instead thereof, the words "to prevent a continuance of this unjustifiable increase by employing the shipping and railway facilities necessary to put the required supplies on the market, by fixing maximum prices, and by acquiring control of commodities that are or may be subject to artificial costs."
§ Mr. ROWNTREE (resuming)
I desire to suggest that one way of overcoming the difficulty in which we find ourselves to-day, is that there should be great efforts made to raise wages in the ranks of low-paid labour. I desire to point out that if the Government intend to take any effective steps, they must be first of all willing to put into practice this policy for themselves. They have already shown their willingness to do that by what they have encouraged the railway companies to do with regard to their men. I should like to 1237 say in that connection, that I am very glad indeed that the railway men have agreed that the largest amount should go to what is known at the "bottom dog." That is a principle which I believe we want to look at during the present crisis, especially in connection with this question of the rise in food prices. We want to keep in mind constantly that the hardship is greatest where the wage is the lowest. If the Government are able to do that throughout their ranks, then municipalities would do the same, and I feel perfectly certain that an appeal from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the great industries of the country would be found to have a good effect and would operate quickly. Some firms have already granted a bonus of this kind, and I am sure if this were put as a patriotic duty at the present time, it would be responded to.
I am convinced that this matter must be attended to quickly, or else we may have industrial strife, which at the present time is the last thing we want. I am certain also that if the same kind of appeal was made to the farmers, they, too, would respond. Before the War a large group of hon. Members opposite agreed to the principle of a Wages Board for agricultural labourers, and I think most of us on the Ministerial side of the House have also come to the conclusion that this was absolutely necessary. To carry out what some hon. Members have suggested would need legislation, and it would take a long time to get into operation. These rises in wages are wanted quickly, and if such an appeal as I have alluded to was made to the farmers, from the standpoint of patriotism, I think they would respond. We want to remember in this connection that such a policy as I have recommended would mean sacrifices, and might mean lower dividends, although of that I am doubtful, because I believe there is nothing more true than what was said by an hon. Member a short time ago, that low-paid labour is dear labour, and if men are not getting sufficient to support themselves in a state of physical efficiency that is the reason why you get poor and dull labour. I am inclined to think that if you could translate this new spirit that is abroad in the country into action, and if employers of labour and farmers, recognising the fact of this increase, would meet their people before even they asked for it, it might do as much as anything to perpetuate that truer union which we want in the community to-day. 1238 Even if that did need a sacrifice, it would be nothing compared to the sacrifices which two or three million men who have gone to the front are prepared to make. We have raised a great Army for France on the voluntary principle. We have raised it largely by the efforts of the Government and of Members of this House. We have asked of them the largest sacrifices you can ask of any set of men. Is it not possible, on the same voluntary principle, to get this question of wages adjusted in a manner satisfactory to the whole community?
The Members of the two Houses of Parliament, I fancy, are responsible for more than half the land of the kingdom, and I am perfectly certain, if they took the same interest and evinced the same zeal in trying to get wages raised for those who remain at home as they have done in getting large armies together, that it would have immediate results. I notice that an hon. Member suggested that we should give up our £400. There is no doubt a good deal in that suggestion, but I expect that he and many others have given far more than their £400 away. It would be far more effective, I believe, if we ourselves realised that we have a duty in this matter, and, if we ask the Government to lead, that we are bound to try and follow and use our influence wherever we can to get these wages raised. I am perfectly certain, even if the sacrifice be considerable, that the reward would be great. We want, of course, to preserve national solidarity at the present time. We want, if we can, in these days, to enlarge the frontiers of life. We want to make more real our common citizenship. It is a fairly easy thing to talk about on the platform, but it is a far more difficult thing to carry out in practice. We want to realise to-day the tremendous hardships under which great masses of the people are labouring at the present time during this great crisis, and we want to go out boldly to meet the problem, and to make real and practical and effective the spirit of solidarity which has swept over the country.
§ 9.0 P.M.
§ Mr. PETO
I want to bring the House back, if I can, to the practical issue that is presented to Parliament at the present moment on this question of labour and wages. I do not differ for a moment with what the hon. Member has said with regard to the importance of raising agricultural wages, and I certainly agree with 1239 every word which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain) said on the subject earlier in the Debate, but as a practical measure at the moment it would not materially affect the question of agricultural produce whether wages were raised by 1s., 2s., 3s., or even 4s. per week. The practical problem which we have to face is that, as a matter of fact, in many districts the men are not there. Of course, recruiting has not been on the same scale in every agricultural district, but at any rate in those with which I am best acquainted recruiting has been on an extraordinarily high scale. During the three months at the end of last year, I had the opportunity of travelling through France up to the frontier of Belgium, and, being a keen agriculturist myself, I naturally spent long hours of tedious journeys watching agricultural processes as they were being carried out during and after harvest. I saw throughout the country, without exception, old men, mere boys, and women doing the work men would have done if they had not been called to the Colours and were not almost to a man fighting out common battle. I was very much impressed by what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his short statement on the financial arrangements between the Allies when he told the House that it was absolutely necessary in an alliance for each of the Allies to bring their whole resources to bear upon the common object and I think it is not fair that we in this country should be talking about such a question as the rise in agricultural wages, and looking at that as a solution of the problem at the moment, when we know that our Allies are meeting that question, as they are bound to meet it because of the enormous proportion of their men serving at the front, by getting every available source of labour to produce the food absolutely necessary to carry on the War. I would, therefore, ask hon. Members whom I can see are in opposition to the proposal that we should do all we can to recruit labour, both from the young and from women, at the present moment to realise that it is not any question of trying to pinch a bit off wages or anything of that kind that induces the farmers to feel that they must ask the education authorities to help them, and to realise that we have got to bring to our assist- 1240 ance every possible means we have of cultivating the land. I wish to say a word or two with regard to what seemed to me an omission in the speech of the President of the Board of Trade. He dealt exceedingly ably with the present problem of food prices, but he did not deal with that part of the very eloquent and able speech of the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Prothero), in which he pointed out quite clearly that whatever food prices might be to-day, there are certain inevitable causes operating which are bound to make the scarcity far more felt throughout Europe, and not only in this country during the later months of the War, however many they may be, and for a good many months after peace is declared.
I should have liked to hear more, and I hope we may do so, from the hon. Baronet who represents the Board of Agriculture, with regard to what is going to be done to induce a larger production of spring-sown wheat, not in this present season which is almost passed, and which, owing to the exceptionally wet weather is a problem that, to a large extent, probably, cannot possibly be met—but what is going to be done to increase the production of foodstuffs, not only this year but next autumn, and in the following spring, seeing that the season of 1916 is likely to be a time when, according to many of the best judges of these agricultural problems, there will be the greatest scarcity and when there will be the most concentrated demands on the restricted area of wheat production. I am sure the Government will have to take a long view on this question. They will have to look not only at the question of what encouragement can be given and what interference is possible with regard to the immediate problem which naturally affects all parties in the House, but they must look forward to the fact that they have to make provision for a time of scarcity which, probably, compared with the present, will be very much more intense.
Then, I would like the hon. Baronet to consider this. A great deal has been said on the question of wheat production and practically the whole Debate has been confined to that problem, but any increase of area for spring-sown wheat at the present time must be taken from the arable area of the country, and must mean a corresponding diminution in barley and oats and other spring-sown crops which may be sown if the farmer cannot get his wheat 1241 in. The period of spring sowing for barley and oats is longer than that for wheat, and most fanners hold that wheat is of no use if it is put into the ground after the 10th March, whereas they have nearly another month for sowing both barley and oats. At the present time, dealing with the question of prices, what is causing trouble and is going to cause trouble with regard to meat production is that we are shut off from our ordinary supply of cheap barley, which comes from Russia. Barley-meal is already at almost prohibitive prices, and if we are going merely to take so much arable land from the cultivation of barley and put it into wheat, what we shall get in bread we shall lose in meat. I am sure that aspect of the problem has not escaped the hon. Baronet's notice, but I mention it particularly, because it has escaped mention in the Debate so far. I want to know that the hon. Gentleman is taking serious note of the fact that, not only are feeding-stuffs in the form of cake dear enough, and likely to be dearer, but we are shut off in respect of feeding barley more than anything else from our normal ordinary sources of supply. Therefore, in dealing with the wheat problem for the larger period of time to which I want him to devote attention, he must look at the question, not from the point of view of what can be done in turning arable cultivation in this country from the production of one cereal to another, but in bringing into cultivation a larger area of practically unproductive grass land. I do not suggest that that can be done in ten minutes, or in the present spring sowing season, but it can be done before next autumn, and it will have to be done if the people of this country are to be fed in the time of scarcity which will be accentuated in 1916.
I would like to say one word with regard to coal. The President of the Board of Trade dismissed the question of sea-borne coal for London with practically a wave of the hand. He said that almost all of it was used for gas production, and for the production of electrical power. That is true, but the right hon. Gentleman seems to have entirely overlooked the fact that gas production is very closely connected with the consumption of coal among the very poorest people in London, because gas cooking is becoming more and more general, and the saving in coal, as well as the saving of putting smoke into the atmosphere, are things which in every way ought to be encouraged. Gas cooking is probably one of the cheapest forms of cooking that is now used. The rise in 1242 freights for gas coal to London alone, I am told, means a rise in the price of gas of 8d. per thousand feet. It does not matter whether you have it in meal or in malt. If the coal becomes dearer, the poor person will be far worse off, and I do not think it is for the President of the Board of Trade to say that the shipowners of this country are not responsible for the scarcity and dearness of coal in London, because sea-borne coal happens to be used for the production of gas and electric power.
It does not seem right in a subject like coal to say that because certain classes are used for one purpose and not for another the general price is absolutely unaffected by anything which affects one quality or the other. I wish the hon. Baronet the Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) had told us in the interesting speech he made, who he really thought was getting the enormous difference in price between what the coal owners are receiving on their contracts made in June last and what the consumer in London is paying. The conclusion is pretty obvious, but the hon. Baronet did not tell us that the whole of this enormous additional cost, represented by at least 10s. per ton on most qualities of coal, must be going into the hands of coal merchants and distributors in the trade. I also very much wish that the hon. Baronet had told us, when he informed us what the contract prices last June were, and what the coal owners who are lucky enough to have a little surplus coal beyond their contracts to sell, are now getting for it; what he thought would be the contract prices on the 30th June next if the Government do nothing to regulate the supply of coal and the distribution of it.
There is no doubt there must be a certain shortage of labour for coal production. I have been asked, as have other hon. Members, to go down and address recruiting meetings in essentially coal areas. I have regarded the position with a little misgiving, for I do not know to what extent it is in the general interest of the country to urge more of our colliers to leave their employment and enlist in the Army. If the hon. Baronet replies perhaps he will give us a little idea of what is in the general interest, both with regard to coal production and food production. If he does that, he will be serving the House very well, because it is a little difficult for hon. Members to be asked to go down and make impassioned appeals to 1243 the wage-earning classes of this country to go and enlist when, at the same time, we are debating for two days in this House a problem which is absolutely connected, and not only connected with, but dependent upon the supply of labour for the production of food and the production of coal.
I know something has been said about the employment of Belgian refugees who happen to be coal winners in their own country. There may be something to be done in that direction, but it would be very natural for people in this country engaged in the industry to say, "If anybody is to dig coal why should not we, and it anybody is to fight for their country, why should not the Belgians." Of course the Belgians have done magnificently so far, but I want to know whether there is any real reason why we should urge more of our working classes connected with these essentials of life to join the Colours, and whether it is still more important that we should get more recruits than that we should find some means of increasing the effectiveness of the labour we have. I beg hon. Members who are looking at this I question from the agricultural labourers' point of view of the raising of his wages by 2s. or 3s. a week to bear in mind that we must do in this country what our Allies are doing and utilise the services of every available man, woman, and child. Men who are over military age and women must help in every possible way. I believe that even the children from the schools, if old enough, can assist in the agricultural work which has to be done. I hope hon. Members will look at things from that broad point of view, and will realise that what is best for the education of our children in times of peace may not necessarily be best in war's emergencies.
§ Mr. BLACK
Representing an agricultural constituency, I should like to say how profoundly grateful I am for the tone and substance of the speeches which have been delivered to-day, particularly with regard to the position of the agricultural labourer. The hon. Member for Oxford University (Mr. Prothero), who is an old electoral opponent of mine, will, perhaps, permit me to say how greatly I value the contribution he made to the Debate and his suggestion and powerful appeal to the farmers and landowners of this country to make an immediate advance in wages of at least 2s. a week, and, supported as it was a little later by the right hon. Gentleman 1244 the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain), I hope it will produce effective, widespread results. At this moment the House cannot do better than to give sympathetic attention to the question of the agricultural labourer. Last week the railway men of the country had a substantial advance made in their wages, and the principle adopted in that advance was that the lowest paid men should receive the largest percentage of the increase. I sympathise with that practice, because it is the poorest paid man who, at this moment, is the most heavily penalised. When it is applied to the agricultural labourer, whose wages for the most part are invariably lower than those of the lowest paid men employed on the railways, the argument applies with still greater force.
Will the House consider the position of the agricultural labourer whose wages amount to 15s. a week, with a wife and family to keep and food prices ruling at the rate they now do? His position is pitiable in the extreme. One previous speaker referred to the fact that wages had been appreciably raised. They may have been raised—indeed, they have been raised a shilling a week in many parts of my own Constituency—but I am sorry to say that does not apply all over the country. While wages have remained practically stationary, everybody here knows that everything the labourer has to buy now costs him more. Meat as an article of food in the labourer's cottage is becoming less and less possible, and bread, of which he must actually eat more at this moment because he cannot afford other things, is now costing nearly double. The House will agree with me when I remind them that no body of men in the country have joined the Colours in larger proportions than have agricultural labourers. In village after village in my own Division every available man has already gone, and in the case of the wives and families of those men, with the War Office allowances now ruling, the families are actually better off with the breadwinner away than they would be if he were at home. What about the men who have remained—men whose work is equally necessary for the national welfare? They are considerably worse off now than they have ever been.
Labour in the agricultural districts, as the last speaker pointed out, is undoubtedly scarce, and, at the same time, 1245 is grossly underpaid. The hon. Member (Mr. Peto) supported the suggestion that boy and woman labour should be employed and that young boys should be taken from school in order to supply the deficiency. I notice in the newspapers to-day that the Farmers' Union of Nottinghamshire passed a resolution asking the Board of Education to liberate boys of eleven years of age and upwards from the schools in order to supply the deficiency. I do not venture to say that the object of trying to secure boy labour in the villages is to keep down wages. I do not think that is the object; but I am perfectly certain that that will be the effect of it, and I hope the Board of Education and education authorities throughout the country will think very seriously and very long before they allow this practice to be largely adopted. Among agricultural labourers trade unions are almost unknown. The labourer is isolated; he is helpless and he is almost inarticulate. He silently suffers year in and year out from an insufficiency of the bare necessities of life.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain) this afternoon reminded the House that among the men from our villages who had joined the Colours he had noticed, and others more directly associated with agriculture have noticed, that when the men who have joined the Colours have had the advantage of a few months' training, coupled with good food, their appearance, physique and efficiency has been improved remarkably. I therefore venture to add my humble appeal to farmers and landowners generally in the country to give sympathetic consideration to the appeal which has been made by the President of the Board of Trade and the other speakers to whom I have referred. This is a time for prompt and generous action. Sixpence to 1s. a week advance will not meet the case to-day, and while I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford University that an advance of 2s. is a good deal better than nothing, yet I agree with the President of the Board of Trade that something more than that is required to meet the necessities of the case, and that an advance of from 3s. to 5s. is immediately necessary. Apply the principle, adopted in the case of the railway men, of the lowest paid men getting the largest advance to agricultural labourers, and I am perfectly certain the money will not be lost. The men who 1246 receive the money will be better workers and more satisfied and contented workers, and their employers will be among the first to gain the advantage.
§ Mr. CHARLES BATHURST
I had not intended during the War to participate in the deliberations of this House, because I feel that I am better employed elsewhere; but as chairman of the Central Chamber of Agriculture I felt bound to attend this Debate to utter some protest against the unfair suggestion which has been so admirably refuted by the hon. Member (Mr. Prothero), that British farmers were holding up wheat and thereby taking advantage of the necessities of the nation. I have never during the time I have been a Member of the House listened to a more interesting and instructive speech than that delivered by the hon. Member, and I think Members in all parts of the House must agree, and I am glad to note that the President of the Board of Trade has certainly shown that he agrees, that the case sought to be made as against British farmers in this regard could not be established. Various commodities have been mentioned in the course of this Debate, and except in the case of coal and shipping freights the rise in the price of commodities has been almost, if not entirely, in direct ratio with the extent of our dependence on their supply from abroad.
The case to-day has been chiefly made as regards wheat, flour and sugar. The establishment of maximum prices by the Government and Government control can only be effective in the case of those commodities which are produced mainly, if not wholly, in this country or in respect of which there is a national monopoly. I will put on one side coal, shipping freights and railway rates. I am not sure that I should not be prepared to include amongst agricultural produce meat and milk, because we have to congratulate ourselves on the fact that they are produced mainly, if not wholly, within our own national borders. In regard to all these articles it is possible for the Government to exercise some control and to regulate prices, and as regards coal, I may say straightaway that I should like to support the appeal made by our chief authority upon the coal trade, at any rate the chief authority amongst coal-owners in this House, that the Government should seriously consider whether the time has not arrived to fix maximum prices so far as our coal is concerned. It seems to me that it is not the 1247 British producer who is at present exploiting the needs of the nation. If there is a fault to be laid at the door of any individual, I fancy it is far more likely to be found amongst certain classes of middlemen, distributors and speculators.
As regards coal, in my own district, the Forest of Dean, the average price to-day at the pit's mouth is something like 9s. 4d. a ton, but I find on inquiry that the price charged for the same coal in London and elsewhere is at least three times that amount. I am talking now of good house coal. It seems to me that there never has been a greater disparity between the price of coal at the pit's mouth and that charged to consumers in London and other large towns, and surely it is a matter that the Government ought to investigate before the increased price of coal becomes a positive national scandal. As regards shipping, I fail to be convinced by the argument used by the President of the Board of Trade. Shipping has always been to some extent a monopoly, but the Government have made it an even greater monopoly during this War than it was before. I do not complain. I think the action they have taken is a very proper action to take, but once having constituted it a monopoly or increased its character as a monopoly, surely it is the duty of the Government to limit and control its undue demands.
The right hon. Gentleman's argument, as far as I could gather, in this respect was that any interference on the part of the Government would tend to create an unfair preference as between different merchants. Surely the British consumer must be taken into account before we come to consider such trifling matters as some slight preference as between various merchants, and to my mind, that is not a final or wholly convincing argument with freights going up at the very rapid rate at which they are rising to-day. As regards wheat and flour, it is common knowledge that about five-sixths during last year, and in normal years about four-fifths are obtained from overseas, fortunately for us in recent years, to a larger extent than formerly, from British Possessions. But there remains the fact that the bulk of the wheat and flour which are consumed in this country are obtained from abroad, and, therefore, nothing that the Government can do in fixing a maximum price for wheat or flour 1248 is likely, materially, to affect the prices that the public have to pay for the bread that they consume in this country.
As a matter of fact, the bulk of the wheat that is coming to our shores to-day is coming from the American continent, and, rather unfortunately, there is an enormous amount of speculation in wheat in America at present, a tendency which is likely, to my mind, to be increased when the, to us, more serious months of April, May, and June come to be reached. In the meantime, we are informed, I hope not accurately, that the United States Government is contemplating restricting the exportation of wheat, owing to the high price of that commodity in their own country. There is also the possibility—I will not put it any higher—in consequence of the vain-glorious boast or threat of the German Government of some at least of our ships carrying grain being interfered with on the high seas, and so deterring or frightening shipowners from sending the normal amount of grain across the Atlantic. In any case the position, to my mind, is not a very satisfactory one and cannot be cured by the Government taking control of our Home supply of wheat and flour.
The Government appionted last August an Agricultural Consultative War Committee, of which they did me the honour to make me a member, and I do not think I am abusing any confidence when I say we unanimously reported that we feared that the greatest shortage in the matter of cereal grain, and particularly wheat and flour, was likely to occur in the late spring and the early summer of this year. What have the Government told us we have to rely upon during those months? The Australian crop, we are told, was a failure. The continued supply of wheat from America is, to say the least, somewhat doubtful. The Argentine crop, which fortunately is a good one, is likely to be deflected to a very large extent to those countries of Central Europe which for the first time in their experience will become very largely dependent upon an oversea supply. A large amount of Argentine wheat which in past years came to our shores will undoubtedly be deflected owing to the temptation of excessively high prices in other countries than our own. That applies not merely to the Argentine, but to every neutral producer of wheat.
1249 The redeeming feature of the situation, we are told, is the unusually bountiful supply which may be expected from India. That supply is estimated, as I understand, at something like 5,000,000 quarters, but I may remind the House that the Prime Minister, in referring to this matter, referred to it as a somewhat delicate matter. I most entirely agree. I think it is extremely probable that a very large proportion of the whole Indian supply will be absorbed in India itself, and will not reach this country at all. In any case, there are the six months before our own 1915 harvest is carried. There are the months of May and June, and possibly part of July, when this country may have to face, unless some action is taken by the Government, a more serious shortage than it is facing at the present time. What is the Government doing to put us as a nation in a better position than we are in at the present time, and are likely to be in during the spring and summer months? The President of the Board of Trade told us that the first necessity in this country is to have supplies coming in. Well, I would venture to suggest to him that the first necessity in war time is to produce our own supply. Surely next to the sailor and the soldier the home producer has the most patriotic task to perform of any man in this country. The farmer's position to-day is neither a very easy nor a very remunerative one. In spite of all that may be said or suggested from the Benches below the Gangway on the other side, farmers as a whole are not having a very prosperous or a very comfortable time at present. The President of the Board of Trade told us that the farmer's natural inclination is to grow wheat—that is to say, to sow spring wheat during the next month or six weeks.
The farmer is not a capitalist nowadays. Unlike thirty or forty years ago, capitalists do not go in for farming. It is not sufficiently productive. The farmer is a sufficiently cautious business man, and he is not prepared to risk very much of his small capital on expensive new departures in the agricultural industry. The growing of a great amount of grain is a considerable matter, and the Government might do something before he enters upon what may turn out to be a bad speculation. It was urged upon the Government by the Consultative Committee last autumn, and it was urged also by most of the leading agriculturists in the country, that what they might have done was to have given 1250 some financial inducement to the farmers in the truest interest of the country to sow more wheat, and the manner in which it was suggested that that might be effected was to guarantee them a minimum price for their wheat of 40s. per quarter. It was not asking very much. It was simply to secure them against unforeseen loss. Well, we make the same request to the Government to-day, but we do not ask them to guarantee the farmer or to give the farmer anything like the high price obtainable for grain, but we do ask that if the British farmer is to assist in the most patriotic way in protecting the interests of the Nation, he shall be guaranteed against loss in the matter of putting in spring wheat by a guaranteed minimum price of 40s. per quarter. What the Government are inclined to say—and I think the right hon. Gentleman already said it to the House—is that farmers know that with the price as high as it is there is no great risk of its being seriously depressed, while there is a possibility of getting a good deal more. That is not a consideration that will actuate farmers in putting in wheat at the present time. They have no excess capital to spare on a speculative enterprise of this kind. All they ask is a minimum price of 40s. a quarter should be guaranteed to them if they do the nation's work by sowing a large additional amount of wheat. I do not think that any hon. Member would say that that is an unreasonable demand, and I, for my part, although I am not authorised to say this, think that some guarantee might be given in regard to other cereals which are of no less importance to the country. After all, spring wheat is a somewheat uncertain crop. It is generally not a very heavy crop. It is liable to mildew and other troubles. On the other hand, barley will be in great demand, particularly if exports from Russia are not forthcoming in the next twelve months. The same applies to oats, which, after all, is a very valuable human food, of which we do not make sufficient use in this country. It is largely required at present for horses at the front.
§ Sir WILLIAM BYLES
If the Government is not to lose a farthing by the guarantee of 40s. per quarter, how would the farmer profit by getting the guarantee?
§ Mr. C. BATHURST
The whole mistake which the hon. Member makes is to imagine that the farmer desires to profit out of the public necessity. What the farmer wants is to be assured that if he 1251 enters into an entirely new enterprise involving additional capital he shall not lose by the transaction, and it is not asking very much of the nation and the Government to assure that to him. Another suggestion made to the Government was that they should do all in their power to prevent the export of milling offals. Whatever may be happening as regards wheat growers—and I wish we had a great many more of them—after all livestock is the sheet anchor of the British farmer to-day. As a result 62 per cent. of the whole of the meat which we consume is grown at home, and, as the Prime Minister told the House the other day, the increase in the cost of home-grown meat during the past twelve months has amounted to only 6 per cent. as compared with 66 per cent. increase in the case of wheat—a fact which, by the way, is the very strongest argument in favour of growing the food of the people as much as possible at home, because you can ensure that there is no inflated price, and if there is an inflated price it is in the power of the Government to control it. Stock owners at any rate are making a very narrow profit out of their industry to-day. The smaller stock owner is making no profit at all. There is no more unfortunate feature in British agriculture at the present time than the fact that the poorer stock owners, the small owners particularly, and the small pig owners, are running their immature stock on the market and selling it for what it will fetch because they simply cannot afford the food—it may be the feeding cake or the milling offal—necessary to feed that stock.
When the right hon. Gentleman referred just now to the case of bacon, I hope he will admit this, but I am sure that it is the fact. One important cause for the non-increase in the price of bacon as compared with food-stuffs is undoubtedly the fact that a very large number of immature pigs has been placed on the British market, with the result that there has been a surplus in the market, and the price has been depressed. I should feel far happier if I could say that the price of bacon had been maintained or substantially increased, because I am quite sure, unless something unforeseen happens within the next two or three months, that bacon, which, after all, is in more demand among our poorer industrial population than any other class of meat, stands a great chance of being beyond the power of our poorer industrial population to purchase. At any 1252 rate, I am quite sure that the present price of bacon is no guide to what the price is likely to be in the next few months, bearing in mind the increasing shortage of pigs in this country, particularly amongst small owners. More wheat does not mean less meat. As Denmark, Belgium, and other enterprising countries have found, more wheat means more meat, more potatoes, more barley, more oats, more human food generally, produced throughout the agricultural areas of the country. It is quite a fallacy to suppose that you want grass in order to raise meat. The very worst land upon which you can raise meat in any large quantity is that which is under so-called grass. I say so-called grass because I have always held that the greatest disgrace to this country, and the most obvious illustration of the neglect of our great national industry, is the enormous area of what looks like grass, but is not grass at all, but valueless, unnutritious weeds. This is not the time or the occasion to talk about the ploughing up of the grass in order to produce to a greater extent the food of the people. That ought to have been provided for in peace time. No one will contend that there is a large amount of second-rate pasture in this country under so-called grass which ought to be ploughed up, and if you afforded to agriculture the encouragement given by other enlightened countries it would be ploughed up to provide human food at the present time.
Quite apart from that, if a financial guarantee were given by the Government with a view to farmers growing more spring wheat in order to provide against possible unfortunate eventualities during war, we should double the quantity of spring-grown cereal crops and provide quite another 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 quarters of wheat and other cereals that might come in useful for human food before this year is out. I would remind the House, as a matter of interest as regards wheat and other grain and flour, that we provide today at home £10,000,000 worth out of £58,000,000 worth—that is to say, roughly about one-sixth of the whole, whereas the meat produced at home amounts to £78,000,000 worth out of £129,000,000, or just over 60 per cent. That is largely due to the enlightened policy of successive Governments in keeping disease out of the country. As regards poultry and eggs, we provide £15,000,000 worth out of £25,000,000, or just over 60 per cent. of the whole, and of dairy produce we provide £42,000,000 worth out of £75,000,000 worth, or 55 per cent. 1253 As to the sufficiency of meat, after all it is very satisfactory to feel that we have so much meat in this country to fall back upon if we do not put immature stock on our markets, but we must depend upon our capacity to feed our farm animals. Again I ask the Board of Agriculture not to allow these milling offals to drift away to Denmark and other countries, but to have them kept at home to provide further food for our farm stock, and thereby more food for our people. I would wish that the Government would do something to impress upon the public generally the importance of food values. There is an enormous waste going on to-day owing to the fact that we do not make the best possible use of the most nutritious food that we have. I was in an Army camp at Eastbourne last Saturday. Curiously enough, it was a camp run entirely by doctors—the Royal Army Medical Corps camp. I found in every kitchen all the potatoes being peeled, the cooks being blissfully unconscious of the fact that by far the most nutritious part of the potato was to be found immediately under the skin which was being removed, and it was no doubt given eventually to the pigs or allowed to rot.
The same sort of thing is happening, as we all know, in the case of the bread that we eat. As a result of the modern milling process, we remove from the wheat far and away the most nutritious portion of the grain, in the way of middlings and the germ, and then hand it over to the pigs as the best of pig food. Wheat would go at least 50 per cent. further if we could only induce the people of this country to realise what is the most nutritious portion of the grain and to see that our mills do not take it out before the flour is transferred to bakers to be converted into bread. Exactly the same applies to rice. I wish to goodness that we had some figures as regards rice. So far as I know, not a word has been said about it in the House. It is most important that we should know what rice is coming from India and other countries, and, if it does come, I hope that the Local Government Board, which has made a report upon this very subject, will impress upon the public the enormous importance of not, at any rate, using the polished rice, which may look very attractive, but has half the flavour and most of the nourishment taken away from it, whereas, if they eat the unpolished rice, which has that valuable nitrogenous skin left upon it, they should obtain far better value for the money which they pay 1254 for it, and far better nourishment. At any rate I should like to say in conclusion that if this War teaches us nothing else, it will teach us the appalling risks that are involved in so carelessly neglecting our agricultural industry in this country, and taking no steps in time of peace to provide for the possibilities of war. I hope that we shall get through this War without our population suffering in the matter of a serious shortage of food, but if we do, in my humble opinion it will be little short of a miracle. I believe that our greatest danger to-day is not a lack of ships, is not a lack of soldiers, is not a lack of ammunition, but is a lack of that reserve supply of food which only our home agriculture can provide.
§ Sir HARRY VERNEY
I hope I may claim to have been a good listener to the two days' Debate on behalf of the Department which I have the honour to represent in this House. I listened to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Peto), and also to the hon. and learned Member for Wilton, who never addresses us without adding to our knowledge of agricultural matters. I also listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University (Mr. Prothero), who made three suggestions, and I ventured to interrupt him to tell him that all three were already under our consideration. He asked that we should issue as soon as possible a leaflet as to spring wheat, and suggested that it might be to the advantage of the public to issue it before the summer. I may inform him that the leaflet was published this morning, and will be found in the "Journal of the Board of Agriculture," of which I will send the hon. Member a copy, and other hon. Members can buy a copy for 4d. I do not propose to go over the whole range of the Debate, partly because I am very sensible of what it would mean to the Members on the Back Benches if they found their time taken up by a Member of the Front Bench. I want to say one word with regard to coal. As has already been hinted by the President of the Board of Trade, the Government are to hold immediately an inquiry into the causes of the rise of the cost of coal sold by retail for domestic purposes, and any useful suggestion which may result from that inquiry, if practicable to carry it out, will be carried out.
§ Sir H. VERNEY
That matter will be considered by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. NEVILLE
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the importance of the matter, as the gas companies are interested in the question of the price and supply of coal.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Sir H. VERNEY
I admit that. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham asked about sugar, and my right hon. Friend requests me to state that the subject of sugar is one of which the Home Secretary will be in charge, and, if the House desires it, the right hon. Gentleman will state the facts as to sugar, and submit his action to the discussion and judgment of the House. But he ventures to suggest, as my right hon. Friend mentioned to-day, that it would be more in the public interest if that Debate could be postponed until next month. I now come to my Department of the Board of Agriculture. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition complained that the Departments did not make sufficient use of expert advice and of the advice of business men. I hope that charge will not be brought against the Board of Agriculture, which has conferred with the hon. Member for Wilton (Mr. C. Bathurst) and with expert and skilled farmers in regard to agricultural matters. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition said that under-secretaries were generally put on committees, but the under-secretary whom I know best has quite failed to get himself put on any committee. If anybody is to be attacked in connection with wheat it is not the farmer, who depends upon his stock, upon his being a milk producer, and upon growing vegetables, potatoes and other produce. In regard to prices, take potatoes—with or without their skins—and it will be found that the price is now less than it was in July. Again, take the milk producer. I think, that there is no doubt, that up to the 1st February there was no rise in the price of milk in London since the beginning of the War.
In the case of milk and potatoes the farmers have control of the market in this country, and we have the fact that potatoes are lower in price, and that milk has not been raised in price. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Yes, it has."] If I am wrong with regard to milk, I would point out that I have only given the figure up to the 1st February in London; in other towns, since 1256 the 1st February, there has been a slight rise. Now take the question of mutton. There has been a great rise in the price of mutton. Taking the average price in the month of July and average price in the month of January, Australian mutton was raised by 30 per cent., and English mutton by 2 per cent. Where we have controlled the whole market it will be seen that the price is only raised by 2 per cent. I only put that in order to show that the farmer is not as black as he is painted, and it has been stated many times this afternoon in regard to the question of wheat that the English farmer cannot be said in any sense to control the price of wheat in this country, for the price of wheat in this country is affected by the wheat imported from abroad. The hon. Member for Oxford University referred to the case of a farmer growing wheat. Up to the middle of November the price of wheat never reached 40s., and one-third of the total supply of English wheat was sold, and, therefore, one-third of the supply of English wheat was sold at a price below that which is suggested by the hon. Member, and which I think everyone will agree is not an extravagant price, considering the many obligations farmers have.
There are many large farmers who have made large prices over the sale of their wheat, but still it is to be remembered that one-third of the total supply was sold at under 40s., in many cases by the small farmers, while the large farmers who grow wheat were making higher prices. I think the House will come to the conclusion that the farmer is not to blame for the price of wheat. It has been the business of the Board of Agriculture to investigate all cases brought to our notice. We have investigated comparatively few cases where farmers have been supposed to have been holding wheat, and I may say in hardly any case has there been found to be any truth in the suggestion that he was holding it to any large extent. There was one case in which a farmer was holding up wheat for a price which has certainly never been reached, and there were isolated cases where it was held chiefly owing to the weather, or owing to inability to get a threshing-machine, or to things of that sort.
On the whole, the figures collected by the Board of Agriculture show that more wheat rather than less has been put on the market as compared with the average for 1257 this time of year. The last thing I should wish to do, or I think any Member of this House would wish to do, would be to persuade farmers to put all their wheat on the market at once, and so leave us entirely dependent on what we import for the following month's supply. If the farmer may be absolved from the charge of withholding wheat, we come to what I venture to regard as the gravaman of the charge against him—namely, the question of wages. It is extremely difficult to generalise about the question of wages, because individuals can get up and say that the facts as stated are not so in their particular district. I think, however, there can be no doubt that there is a small general rise in wages of agricultural labourers since the War. There was one case brought to our notice of a farmer paying 5s. a week more, and a good many cases of farmers paying 2s. per week more, and an immense number in which they are paying 1s. per week more. I think it was the hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mr. Leslie Scott) who asked that we should collect information on this subject. We are collecting all the information we can as to the present position of the agricultural labourers' wages. The hon. Member for the Attercliffe Division (Mr. Anderson), whom I may be allowed to congratulate on one of the most interesting speeches of this interesting Debate, asked why it was that Labour Exchanges were not being consulted with regard to the finding of labour. Here, again, the Board have ventured to forestall the criticism, and as I stated in answer to a question recently, committees are being formed in conjunction with the Labour Exchange and with the Chamber of Agriculture, of which the hon. Member for Wilton is President, and with branches of the Farmers' Union with a view to ascertaining definitely whether there is a shortage of agricultural labour and how it can be met.
The hon. Member for the Exchange Division suggested the employment of women, and other hon. Members suggested the employment of children. As far as the Board of Agriculture controls these matters, their fixed policy is that the employment of children shall come last, and that all other forms of labour, adult labour, shall be resorted to before we come to that last and, as I think, worst experiment of the employment of child labour. What really solves the difficulty of the question of labour is the question of 1258 wages. It comes back to the question of how much the farmer is able and willing to pay to get his labour. It certainly applies in the case of the labour of women. If the conditions and the wages are decent, then I believe that the women will help, as all other patriotic people would help, at this time to assist in cultivating the land. It is our business, as it is our conviction, to prove to the world what has been said before, namely, that there is nothing so expensive as low-paid labour. Low-paid labour is dear labour. I think hon. Members will sympathise with me a good deal when I say that it is not easy to see exactly what the Department can do. We have every means of finding out what are the farmers' circumstances, and what they can and cannot afford to pay. Perhaps I may say this, that stimulated by the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University, and the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, the Board of Agriculture will bring the force of their influence to bear to raise the status and wages of the agricultural labourer.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
The speech of the President of the Board of Trade was received to-day with evident approval, and almost with enthusiasm, in almost all quarters of the House. I take it, therefore, that the House is satisfied with the statement of the Government in this matter. The speech of the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon left the position precisely where it stood when the Prime Minister sat down last week. The Prime Minister last week made a very long statement, but one which I think might conveniently be summarised under three heads. First, he said that the state of things, however bad it might be, is not so bad as it was expected to be in the sober judgment and well-informed knowledge of people six months ago. The second point was that, bad as things might be, there was the time in the history of this country when things were quite as bad, and the third point of the Prime Minister's speech was that if the people of this country, the poor people of this country who are suffering from the present high prices of the necessaries of life, would only continue to starve until June, it was possible that some relief might be afforded to them then. I desire to deal with each of these three points. The Prime Minister says that things are not so bad as they were expected to be at this time after the War broke out. In making that statement the Prime Minister condemned the want of foreknowledge 1259 and lack of action on the part of himself and his Government. If things were expected to be worse than they are to-day, why did not the Government take some drastic action six months ago in order to make impossible such a condition of things as has in a measure come to pass?
It is quite true that they did take some action. About a month or six weeks after war broke out they appointed a Cabinet Committee, which I should have thought was the last body that ought to take such a matter into consideration. This Cabinet Committee sat for five months, and surely there never was such an instance in history of a mountain, after groaning and moaning, bringing forth such a miserable mouse as we had in the Prime Minister's statement last week! I said just now that the speech of the President of the Board of Trade adds nothing to the statement that was made by the Prime Minister last week. I wish the Members of the Government and of the Cabinet had had the opportunity which I and my colleagues had last week of facing great audiences of working classes in different parts of the country. I am quite sure it would have been a revelation to them. They would then have discovered that the cheers with which the speech of the right hon. Gentleman was received this afternoon do not express the opinion of the working classes of the country in regard to the attitude of the Government on this question. A reference to the Prime Minister's speech was received with howls of execration and indignation. The general opinion was that there had never been a more glaring instance of starving people asking for bread and being offered a stone.
The speech of the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon offered no evidence whatever that the Government propose to take any action to try and reduce the price of food-stuffs. One might have been excused from gathering from one-half of the speech that things were better now than they were twelve months ago. He read out a long list of articles, all necessaries of life—cocoa, coffee, potatoes, lard, bacon—which were either no dearer in price or cheaper than twelve months ago Then, to the surprise of every Member of the House, I think, except the hon. Member for Stockton, who supplied the information, he gave a list of retail prices which he said are ruling at the present time in the borough of Stockton, or some town in the North of 1260 England. The right hon. Gentleman represents a great industrial centre in my part of the country. I wish he would go to Dewsbury, collect a meeting of the women of the Co-operative Guild, women who know something about the cost of housekeeping, and read out that list of prices as the prices ruling to-day. If he will do that I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he will get the time of his life.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to distort what I said. I never said that they were the prices ruling in this country or in any one town. I gave them as an instance showing how fallacious it was to take percentages, and as an indication of the prices that were being paid over an individual counter.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
I have not the least intention to distort anything the right hon. Gentleman said. But there are Members present who heard the right hon. Gentleman's speech, and I do not think that I have in any misrepresented or misconstrued what he said. I say he gave those figures as the prices at which those articles could be obtained a day or two ago in some town in the North of England.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
Does the hon. Gentleman belie the figures which I have given to the right hon. Gentleman?
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
I have no means of knowing anything as to the accuracy or inaccuracy of the figures. But I will tell the hon. Member what I will do: I will produce a list of prices from towns in the North of England showing figures very considerably higher than those submitted this afternoon. I was about to deal with the third point of the Prime Miniser, that the ruling prices are of only a temporary character, and that by June there is likely to be a lowering of prices. I think the hon. Member for the Wilton Division (Mr. Bathurst) answered that very effectively in the extremely valuable speech which he contributed to the Debate. He is a member of some Agricultural Consultative Committee which the Government appointed some time ago, and he informed the House that that Committee has told the Government that, instead of the price of food being likely to be 1261 lower in June the probability is that it may be considerably higher. Every authority who has spoken this afternoon has agreed that instead of looking forward with hopefulness to a lowering of prices, the certainty is that prices will go still higher, unless the Government is prepared to take some drastic action. My hon. Friend the Member for the Attercliffe Division (Mr. W. C. Anderson), in the extremely interesting speech with which he charmed the House this afternoon, drew attention to the Prime Minister's references to the state of things at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. My hon. Friend said that these remarks had only an academic interest. The Prime Minister himself appeared to attach a great deal of importance to them. Indeed, he said they were important, and, therefore, seeing the Prime Minister does attach importance to these figures, I want to make some reference to them, and not merely for the purpose of pointing out that the Prime Minister's figures were totally inaccurate, that his facts were wholly wrong, that he never mentioned matters of paramount importance, but I mention them because they have an important bearing in relation to certain proposals which have been put forward in this Debate for dealing with the prices that are now ruling. The Prime Minister, dealing with the prices ruling at the period of the Franco-Prussian war, said:—We certainly ought to take these into account: the cost of commodities was as dear for those years as they have become from recent advances.The Prime Minister is older than I am, but I, unfortunately, can just remember the period of the Franco-Prussian War. I have a vivid recollection of that period as one of wonderful prosperity for the working classes. If you take a workman to-day, say a workman in the West Riding trade, or the cotton trade, or the coal-mining industry, who can remember those times, he and his fellows will tell you that those were most prosperous times that the work people of this country ever remember. Put prices rose during that period. Prices of certain commodities certainly did rise, but the average prices during the period the Prime Minister took, that is between 1870 and 1875, were lower than for any five years of the previous twenty years. In this five years period they were 5.5 per cent. lower than they were in the previous five years.
There was a very substantial increase in coal. At one period of this five years it 1262 rose by 112 per cent. over the prices ruling at the beginning of the war. But food prices during that period rose very little. The highest point they reached during those years was 8.6 above the prices ruling at the beginning of the war. If we include coal, with food prices, the rise during those five years, from the beginning of the war to the end of that period, was 11 per cent. only. The Prime Minister was not content with confining himself to the period of the Franco-Prussian War. He said that high prices continued to rule until 1885. The Prime Minister was totally wrong. Really, I should recommend the Prime Minister, were he present, to get a new "devil," because it is evident that the person who made this investigation for the Prime Minister is not to be relied upon in such matters. In 1885 prices were only 7 per cent. above the prices ruling in 1900. Now I come to the bearing of all this upon the present condition of things. In 1900 prices were 9.5 per cent. above the figure for 1885. In 1913, a year before the War, prices were 16½ per cent. above the figure of 1900. The Prime Minister himself admitted that recent prices, or rather the recent increases of prices, have added about 25 per cent. to the cost of commodities. Now, adding that 25 per cent. to the 16½ per cent. increase which had accrued before the outbreak of war, we get this astounding result: that the cost of living to-day is 41½ per cent. higher than it was in 1900. What makes the recent increase of prices such a hardship on the working people is that this increase has come upon a condition of things which had already reached an unbearable point. The condition of the working people before the War broke out, so far as wages and the purchasing power of wages was concerned, was worse than it was thirteen years before.
Now what does this 41½ per cent. mean? It means that the real value of a wage of £1 a week in 1900 has been reduced to 14s. 1½d. a week. I mention all this, I repeat, to show its connection with a matter which has occupied a good deal of attention in the Debate to-day, and that is the matter of wages. I have pointed out already that during the period of the Franco-Prussian War there was an increase in the price of living, though a comparatively small increase, amounting only, if we include coal, to 11.6. What were wages? In no period of the industrial, or the modern industrial, history of this country have wages risen as rapidly as they did during that period. Between 1870 1263 and 1875 wages rose by no less than 26.3 per cent. What is the position to-day? The cost of living is 41.5 higher than it was in 1900, and wages have risen, according to the latest Board of Trade returns, by 5 per cent. That is the position of the working classes to-day. It is upon that that we base this demand that something should be done in order to mitigate such a condition of things. It has been assumed in the course of this Debate that there is very general employment in the country, and that if wages have not risen the working people are earning fairly well because of the regularity of employment. I represent a constituency to which that does not apply. I have had figures submitted to me in regard to the state of employment and the earnings of the cotton operatives in the town of Blackburn, and for three months, ending the middle of last month, the average percentage of unemployment was 32. That is to say, during those three months one-third of the cotton operatives who had normally been employed were out of employment and receiving no wages whatever; and then, in regard to those who were employed, owing to short time and inadequate work, the earnings of those workmen were only 75 per cent. of their normal earnings.
Hon. Members can imagine what that means. I know of a number of men who since last October have never earned 15s. a week, and some of them only brought 7s. home. An hon. Gentleman who sits on the Back Benches excited the pity of the House a little while back by talking about the wages of the agricultural labourers being only 15s. a week. We all deplore that, but it should be remembered that the cost of living in a country district is less than in a large town like the constituency I represent. I agree that the agricultural labourer with 15s. a week is entitled to our sympathy, but the men in our large industrial centres earning less are equally entitled to our sympathy. I think the President of the Board of Trade offered us very cold comfort this afternoon. I agree with the hon. Member for Wilton (Mr. C. Bathurst) that this question divides itself into two categories—causes beyond our control and causes within our control. I was delighted to hear a good old Tory like the hon. Member—who is associated with the Tory party, but a Gentleman I always have great difficulty in looking upon as a Tory 1264 —say that those commodities which are produced within the confines of our own shores might have their prices regulated by Government action, and I invite the President of the Board of Trade to get what consolation he can out of that. If we had been discussing this question of the State regulation of prices not governed by monopolies in normal times, I should not have supported the Motion for a maximum price, because I believe that, under normal conditions, it would not be practical. If we had been debating a paper currency twelve months ago I do not believe there would have been half a dozen hon. Members who would have supported it, and the difficulties of establishing such a system would have been regarded as insuperable. Nevertheless it has been done under exceptional conditions, and what was done in regard to that matter in order to save the financial credit of the country in those exceptional circumstances without prejudicing the condition of things under normal States, might equally be done in regard to the price of the necessaries of life.
I listened, as every hon. Member who was present listened, with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Oxford University, and I congratulate the House of Commons upon the acquisition of a Gentleman who can speak with such authority on all these questions, and say what he has to say in such a charming manner. There were, it appeared to me, a few inconsistencies and contradictions in his speech, but I have no time now to refer to them. I think he minimised the effect which the supply of home-grown wheat has in regulating the prices of the Home market. It is a well-known fact that a slight increase in the amount or value of a commodity brought into the Home market often has a very considerable effect upon prices. I do not say that the Government can regulate the price of wheat in Chicago or New York, but the Empire is one, and I believe that this War has brought the Empire together much more closer than it has ever been brought together before. In looking at this question and the possibility of controlling the price of wheat, we ought to regard the Empire as a whole. We do get a considerable amount of wheat from the United States of America, but Canada is rapidly taking the premier place in the supply of wheat for the United Kingdom. Why should we not regard Canada and the United Kingdom as one wheat area under 1265 existing conditions? We cannot regulate the price of wheat in the United States, but our Government, with the assistance of the Canadian Government, certainly should regulate the price of wheat grown in Canada and the United Kingdom. If the price of Canadian wheat and if Canadian patriotism means anything at all, then the Canadian wheat grower ought to be quite satisfied if he gets a fair remuneration for his work so long as the War lasts. That could be done, and I am quite sure that the fixing of a price for such a large percentage of the world's wheat crop would have an appreciable effect upon prices.
The President of the Board of Trade, this afternoon gave us no hope to expect that the Government intend to do anything in regard to the question of freights. The increase in freights is to a fairly considerable extent responsible for the increase in the prices of commodities which come to us from overseas. More than one speaker this afternoon has expressed the hope that when the Argentine crop comes there may be some break in prices, but I am afraid that there is not much substantial reason for that hope. Hon. Members are no doubt aware that within the last few months freight rates from the Argentine have risen from 10s. 6d. to 77s. 6d. per ton. I have not been able to verify the figures, but I am told by men in the trade that a 10s. increase per ton in freight rates means an increase of ½d. on the 4lb. loaf. There has been an increase of 67s. per ton upon goods brought from the Argentine. Therefore that represents an increase of 3½d. in the price of the 4lb. loaf. Yet the President of the Board of Trade tells us that the Government can do nothing in this matter. We were told a few days ago that the Government have chartered something like 1,500 vessels for transport purposes.
There are, I believe, about 10,000 ships in the British mercantile marine, and, if the Government commandeered 1,500 in order to supply the needs of our Army, they could quite as easily commandeer what is needed of the rest in order to bring the food of the civil population at a reasonable cost. With regard to coal, I said that the only crumb of comfort offered to us this afternoon was the promise of another Committee, another Committee which no doubt will sit for another five months and then present its report to the House of Commons; but so far as I understood the right hon. Gentle- 1266 man, they propose to deal only with retail prices. He appeared to think that the middleman was the only culprit in this matter. I believe that the middleman is to a considerable extent responsible for this. Of course he is selling coal which he is getting at contract prices made before the War. But what is going to happen when these contracts are over? Then the advantage will be with the mine-owners. I could give the House quite a number of instances where a dealer who has not been able to get coal under contract at prices made before the War, has had already to submit to most extortionate increases from the coal-owners. A case which appears to be well authenticated was given in the London papers only last week of Yorkshire coal which had risen at the pit head from 13s. 6d. to 21s. Do the Government seriously tell us that they cannot do anything in this matter? We are told that it is a matter of supply and demand. I went to the Post Office the other day to buy a penny stamp, and I found that penny stamps were still a penny. If the demand for stamps doubled they would still sell at a penny each. Then with regard to railway rates: they have not risen. Why not? Because there we have overcome the operation of the laws of supply and demand. The same thing could be done with regard to coal. It might mean that the Government would have to give the mine-owners some such guarantee against loss as I understand they gave to the railway companies, but the public would be great gainers thereby.
When dealing this afternoon with the question of freight rates the President of the Board of Trade said that freight rates were governed by the desires of those who wanted to ship goods, and if there was a demand for leather and not for wheat the rates would be charged accordingly. I have heard of people who asked for bread being given a stone, and now when we are asking for wheat the right hon. Gentleman offers us leather. In regard to wages, there seems to be unanimity in this House that wages ought to go up. But how are hon. Members going to secure that? The hon. Member for York (Mr. Rowntree) faced this question, and gave it up in despair. He has no hope that an institution which is already in existence for regulating wages in ill-paid industries will be able to deal with this matter. I am referring to the Trades Boards. The hon. Member seemed to be under the impression that it would take 1267 a long time to get these Trades Boards into working order to deal with this matter. I do not agree with him that it would require much legislation. Surely in view of the importance and urgency of the matter, if legislation were required, the House would be unanimous in passing it. I think Trades Boards might to some extent be utilised for this purpose. The hon. Member for York seemed to think the only thing that we could rely upon was the generosity of the employers. In 1871–75 the generosity of the employers did raise wages by 26.3 per cent. Why has it not been done now? The employers are far better able to raise wages to-day than they were forty years ago. Profits were never higher than they are now. They were never higher than they have been during the last three years. As a matter of fact in the five years—1870–75—the increase in the assessments to Income Tax rose by about £41,000,000. In the last five years they have risen by £130,000,000, and employers now can very well afford to raise wages. The profits they are making to-day are sufficiently large to enable them to do it and yet leave them a reasonable return on their capital.
Are they going to do it? If they will not do it of their own free will they will have to be compelled to do it. There is a spirit growing amongst the working men of this country which does not bode well. I am quite sure, from what I know of working people, that if they were convinced that the present cost of living was due to unavoidable causes, hard as it is to bear, they would be willing to add to the many sacrifices they have already made in this great crisis. But they do not believe that. What they do believe, and with good reason, is this—that a gang of unscrupulous exploiters are taking advantage of the present situation, and of the needs of the nation, in order to fill their own pockets. As that idea grows, it bodes no good. I warn the Government, therefore, that if they refuse to give attention to this matter and to take some practical steps to deal with it they are raising within their gates an enemy more serious than the enemy our soldiers are fighting in the field. There are no difficulties in the way greater than those that the Government overcame seven months ago in the interests of the financiers and stock-jobbers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] There may be difficulties in the way of fixing maximum prices. If one 1268 had said twelve months ago that it was a practicable and possible thing to fix minimum prices on the Stock Exchange, if anybody in this House had raised that proposal, he would have been looked upon as well qualified to be inside a lunatic asylum. Yet it has been done and is being done, and the only thing that is needed is that the Government shall have the will to do these things.
§ Sir ALFRED MOND
I do not propose to follow the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Snowden) in the many statements which he has made. I would only like to enter some protest against his misrepresentation of the Prime Minister's speech when he said the Prime Minister told the people of this country that if they could only starve till June, all would be well.
§ Sir A. MOND
The Prime Minister did not use those words, neither did his speech amount to those words. It was extremely wrong for an hon. Member with the great eloquence and great position of the hon. Member for Blackburn to make any such statement. I would further point out one slip he made which is commonly present in his calculations. He said the cost of commodities and food had gone up by 41 per cent.; he then deducted it from the cost of living, and then deducted that from the wages. That is an obvious fallacy. The cost of living is not the cost of food. The cost of food represents only 60 per cent. of the cost of living. Serious and unfortunate as the matter has been, it is better to bring these things to reasonable proportions instead of making them worse by exaggerating them. The cost of living has not gone up by 40 per cent. Rent has not gone up and, in fact, a large number of commodities have gone down. On the other hand, I also think a word of protest ought to be uttered against the hon. Member's misrepresentation of what the Government did to save the financial credit of this country at a time of grave crisis. As one, who was somewhat closely connected with the industries of the country, and not with financiers and stock-jobbers, in regard to the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I can only say that if the Government had not taken that action there would not have been a single 1269 factory in this country working at this time; no food would have come into this country, and all exchange would have stopped. Such misrepresentations of fact are so dangerous at a time of great national crisis that I cannot imagine a single responsible man making such a statement. Is this the kind of fare upon which working men are supposed to be fed by their responsible advisers? Speeches of this kind are the sort of speeches that will be read with delight by people who are battling with difficulties far greater than those with which we are faced.
I do not think the Government, have by any means exhausted all that might be or could be done on this question. Things may have to be done on a very much wider scope than they have yet been done, but I have not yet heard from representatives of the Labour party one practical proposal. They seem to hanker after the idea that we can fix the maximum prices of commodities we do not control, even if we have to bring in Canada. If the price of food goes up so high that people cannot afford to buy it, I can only think of one practical way in which to let the people have it cheap, and that is for the Government to buy dear and sell it at a loss. That is a practical possibility at any rate, though I would not advocate it, and it would effect its purpose. On the other hand, I think on the question of coal a good deal can be done, and ought to be done, and I believe some of the coal difficulty is due to the question of railway freights and the detention of railway wagons. I will ask the President of the Board of Trade if he could look into the question, which was brought to my notice, of a very large number of railway wagons which are held up by the military and naval authorities, and I am informed very often unnecessarily held up for many months, thereby producing a shortage of trucks and a shortage of coals.
I want to ask, too, if the Government is appointing a Committee to deal with the question of domestic coal, whether it would not include in this category the question of industrial coal? The question of industrial coal is becoming not an alarming but a serious one. I am speaking of the question of quantity. Those who are interested in industrial concerns are finding that they cannot obtain even the coal they have contracted for, and the reasons given for that are several. Firstly, 1270 of course, under our voluntary system, we have to take such people as want to go, and we have enlisted a very large number of colliers without much regard to whether we have left enough at home to produce the coal necessary to carry on our industries. I read in a newspaper the other day that several important steel works at Sheffield had to close down because they could not obtain coal. Then, again, we hear that the large number of absentees from the collieries is causing also a shortage of coal, and the question of the suspension of the eight hours day seems to me one which may have to be seriously considered. Then, further, you have this question of the difficulty of railway companies obtaining enough trucks. There, again, some organisation may be required in this direction. It is obvious that as we are conducting a great War we must organise in a very different way from what we have been in the habit of doing. For instance, has the Government drawn up any schedule of factories which it is considered of first importance to keep going?
Have the railway companies any instructions to avoid a shortage of trucks, or are we going on in a way which may lead to the result of important firms having important Government contracts being closed for want of coal, while firms carrying on industries which are necessarily not of any importance for immediate war purposes are able to continue? If it has not been done already, it would be worth while to make a schedule of those industries which the Government absolutely require, and then to enter into consultation with those who are managing the railways to make it certain that those companies have the necessary coal. I say that because one company with which I happen to be connected, supplying some eighty firms which have Government contracts, was lately in the position of not being able to fulfil its contracts, as the railway companies found great difficulties in sending the necessary trucks. As this came to my notice I have no doubt similar cases occur, and it may be necessary for the Government to commandeer coal for the railway companies, and such factories as they require to be kept going. All these things are not alarming, but they are all becoming serious, and as we have had so many examples of Commissions being appointed after we have got into trouble I should very much like to see some Commission appointed to go into these questions before the trouble begins. 1271 That is one point which I certainly think those connected with industry will require to go into.
There is another point which has not been dealt with in this Debate at all, except by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Snowden), who described the pitiable state of things in constituencies where work was very bad. Undoubtedly the cotton trade is suffering very much. On the other hand, the Prince of Wales' Fund, amounting to several millions of pounds has not been subscribed to be hoarded up, but for the purpose of dealing with unemployment in the country. I think it is very unsatisfactory when this large sum has been raised, and when a great deal more could be raised, to deal with distress, that the money should be hoarded if people with low wages are seriously affected by the increase in the cost of living. Surely it is obvious that the money should be used to alleviate distress. The money was subscribed to alleviate distress, and there should be no suffering where suffering can be avoided by the use of that money. Nobody wants any poor person to suffer during this War. Everybody is perfectly prepared to make great sacrifices, and it is most discouraging to find the fund administered by a sort of Local Government Board system, under which human suffering is not recognised unless it is officially notified distress. Is the money to be locked up to be used at another time?
§ Mr. NEVILLE
I wish to address myself to the question of the interned steamers. The Government have professed a desire to help people in the Metropolis who depend upon coal carried by water, and they have told us that they propose to put vessels at their disposal. Coal is the raw material of gas works, electrical works, and a large number of other works. As to the freights to be paid, the Government do not regulate the rates, but say that the freights will be the market rates. Among the people affected by the supply of coal are the poorest of the poor in all parts of London—people who take their service of gas by the penny in the slot system. If the gas companies and others have to pay the market rates for freights, they will have to pay whatever they are asked to pay.
§ It being Eleven of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.