HC Deb 04 December 1916 vol 88 cc614-8
30 and 31. Captain C. BATHURST

asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture (1) if, in view of the failure of autumn wheat-sowing over a large area of England and Wales and of the prospects of substantially reduced supplies from overseas during the next twelve months, the Board has, in conjunction with the other Departments concerned, embarked upon a really big scheme for ensuring the sowing of a largely extended area of cereal crops and potatoes at home during the coming spring; if so, will he state, for the greater confidence of the public, what is the scheme; and (2) whether the Board has been in communication with the Admiralty and the Board of Trade with a view to the purchase by the Government, and consignment to this country from the American continent during the next six weeks, of several thousand motor or steam ploughs and tractors to be lent or hired out to British farmers to enable them to sow a largely extended area of cereal crops and potatoes in the early months of next year, and BO discount the certain prospective shortage of English wheat in 1917–18?


I will reply to these questions by stating what has been and is being done, since the short harvests abroad, the de- velopment of submarine activity, and the bad weather of the last two months have made it clear that a very special effort must be made to maintain home food production.

  1. 1. It was arranged that farm workers should not be taken into the Army until 1st January in the case of ordinary labour, and 1st April in the case of men employed on milk production.
  2. 2. The organisation for assisting agriculture through War Agricultural and Women's County and District Committees has been reviewed and strengthened, and the different bodies have been brought into closer cooperation.
  3. 3. All urban authorities are being given powers of taking unoccupied land compulsorily, whether within or without their areas, for allotment cultivation, and are being urged to use these powers energetically at once.
  4. 4. The War Office is being assisted in working out schemes for contracting with farmers for the cultivation of certain crops next year, seed and manures being supplied if necessary.
  5. 5. Arrangements are being made for the employment of German prisoners to supplement the labour left on farms, the previous conditions as to areas and numbers having been withdrawn. This is being pressed forward very actively, and it is hoped, through local agencies, to bring pressure upon any farmers who may not be willing to employ this or other available types of labour, so that the maximum amount of labour may be employed upon the existing arable area.
  6. 6. It is believed that more prisoner labour may be made available than is required on farms, and, if so, this will be employed on bringing under cultivation such areas of land as are likely to yield a crop next year.
  7. 7. We hope to make arrangements with the Ministry of Munitions for increasing the output of implements and machinery. As to obtaining motor ploughs and tractors from America, British firms now have more on order than can be supplied, though arrangements have been made for their-shipment, or than they have labour to assemble after they have been de- 616 livered, but inquiries are being made whether the output of tractors suitable for British conditions can be quickly stimulated, and they will be procured if possible.
  8. 8. The labour question with regard to the position of the essential skilled men now on farms after 1st January is still being considered with the War Office, and the President of the Board is of opinion that it will not be safe to take more men, except in cases where there are still men above the agreed scale, or on substituting capable men with agricutural experience. He believes that it will be necessary to supplement this source of labour by giving home-service men extended furlough for seeding operations if production is to be maintained. He is, however, willing and anxious to arrange that if labour now likely to be taken in January is left, this shall only be done where the farmer will guarantee to cultivate certain areas of the most essential food supplies.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether these matters he has just read out to the House have been agreed upon since the President of the Board of Trade made his statement with reference to food in the House some weeks ago; and, if so, why they were; not communicated to the House?


A good many of them have been worked out since that date.


Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is the estimated lessened wheat area sown this year compared with last?


I think I said in answer to questions last week we should not be able to give an estimate until a few days later. Our crop reporters are reporting now as to the areas sown last month. and I will give the information as soon as I get it.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say what sort of farmer will accept the custody of, say, five German prisoners unguarded, and will the Department endeavour to arrange for a better distribution of German prisoners for agricultural purposes?


I hope a great many patriotic farmers will endeavour to do their best, because the question of food production is extremely important.


Take five prisoners!


Has the right hon. Gentleman got War Office sanction for the retention of labour on the farms after 1st January that he has indefinitely adumbrated in his answer?


I am afraid I read my answer too quickly. I said "the labour question with regard to the position of the essential skilled men now on farms after January 1st is still being considered with the War Office." I wish I could make a statement on the subject.


Is the right hon. Gentleman in a position to give any information with regard to artificial aids to farmers, foreshadowed in the right hon. Gentleman's speech the other day?


I have said all I can say. I do not quite know to what the hon. Gentleman's question refers.


Is the Board of Agriculture making any attempt to determine minimum wheat areas?


If my hon. Friend refers to a project in which I think he is engaged, having for its object the pooling of farms and the labour available, we do not think that would increase the wheat area at all.


Are we to understand that his Department and the War Office are still at variance on the question of the retention of agricultural labour after 1st January; and can he give any indication as to when those conferences are likely to arrive at a decision so that farmers can get on with their work?


As the hon. Gentleman knows, a census is being taken, and it is not unreasonable to wait until the preliminary results of that census are known.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is now 4th December?


Has the right hon. Gentleman had any communication with the Irish Department of Agriculture with a view of offering the same facilities to Ireland as those contained in the answer just read to the House?


We are in communication with the Irish Office in the matter.

73. Sir E. CARSON

asked the Prime Minister if the Government will give an early day for the discussion of the Motion with reference to food production standing in the name of the Member for Dublin University and other Members? ["That immediate steps should be taken by His Majesty's Government to effect a large increase in the production of food in the United Kingdom and the other countries of the Empire"?]

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I am aware of the interest taken on this subject and of its great importance. I am hoping that some important decisions may be announced upon it at an early date, and if there is still a desire to discuss it I will try to arrange accordingly.