§ (1) The following minimum prices shall be fixed for the wheat and oats of the following years:—
|Crop for Year||Wheat Price, per quarter.||Oats Price, per quarter.|
§ (2) The average price for the wheat and oats of any year shall for the purposes of this Part of this Act be taken to be the average price for the seven months beginning on the first day of September in that year ascertained by adding together the 2054 weekly averages of the weeks included in I those seven months, and dividing the total by the number of weeks.
§ For the purposes of this provision, the weekly averages for any week shall be taken to be the average price per quarter for that week of wheat or oats, as the case may be, ascertained in accordance with the Corn Returns Act, 1882.
§ (3) The Board of Agriculture and Fisheries shall, as soon as may be after the end of March in any year, cause the average price of wheat and oats for the preceding year, as ascertained under this Section, to be published in the "London Gazette."
§ The CHAIRMAN
The Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Clough) would be quite inconsistent with the scope of the Bill. That in the name of the hon. Member for the Bridgeton Division of Glasgow (Mr. MacCallum 2055 Scott) to leave out Sub-section (1) would be equivalent to leaving out the Clause altogether. The Amendment in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Islington (Mr. Lough)—[after the word "years" to insert the words, "and the year ending the 30th day of June, 1917, shall be taken to be the standard year"]—I am not able to understand.
§ Sir MAURICE LEVY
I beg to move, after the word "quarter" ["wheat price per quarter"], to insert the words, "of 480 imperial pounds."
This is merely a drafting Amendment. I do not think it is desirable to wait till we get to the definition Clause to do this
§ Mr. PROTHERO
In Clause 11 (d) there will be found a definition of the word "quarter," which I think meets the hon. Member's case. As amended by the Amendment that stands on the Paper the expression quarter means in the case of wheat 480 lbs., and in the case of oats 312 lbs.
§ Sir M. LEVY
Why not put it on the face of the Bill so that they will know what they are paying a particular price for?
§ Mr. PROTHERO
It is put where it is for convenience. The word quarter is used over and over again, and instead of repeating the phrase about pounds it is more convenient to have the definition put in the Bill.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. D. WHITE
I beg to move to leave out
We have been assured over and over again that the guarantee cannot possibly have any relation to this year's prices. In the circumstances one fails to see why there should be a reference to this year's prices in the Bill. We have been assured over and over again by the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill—and I entirely agree with him—that there is no prospect of prices during the present year falling below the guaranteed minimum prices. Therefore, to keep in this year's prices is superfluous and unnecessary quite as much, so as the last but one matter we divided upon.
"1917 60s. 38s. 6d."
§ Mr. PROTHERO
The Prime Minister's pledge extended to 1917, and, although the pledge is, as the hon. Gentleman says, very unlikely to operate, it should 2056 stand. It must be remembered that it has already been acted upon in Ireland, Scotland and England, and the removal of it would have a prejudicial effect.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. KILBRIDE
I beg to move to leave out "45s."
and to insert instead thereof "55s."
["1920 45s. 24s.,"] ["1921 ["1922
It is the universal opinion in Ireland that the maximum prices for wheat and oats during the last three years are much too low. The object of the Bill is not only to meet the present emergency, but also to secure permanently that a very much larger area of land in the United Kingdom shall remain under tillage than was the case before the War. Everybody knows that the reason land was going out of cultivation was that the price of wheat and oats was not sufficient to make the growing of corn, except upon very special land particularly adapted for it, a commercial success. Consequently, the land went back into grass. You cannot expect farmers, for the benefit of the State, to do that which does not remunerate them. The general opinion in Ireland is that during the last three years of the guarantee, 45s. for wheat and 24s. for oats, are entirely too low to secure that any largely increased area will remain permanently in tillage. As I understand, the minimum price in Ireland means in the case of oats that the standard must be up to 39 lbs. a bushel. Taking the whole production of oats for the year in Ireland, the average standard is 36 lbs. a bushel. The proposal in the Bill deceives the Irish farmer, who thinks that he is to be paid on the standard of 36 lbs., and not on that of 39 lbs. That really makes the guarantee illusory. I understand that in the beginning it was suggested that the guaranteed price should be on a standard of 42 lbs. a bushel. Everybody knows that you cannot produce oats in Ireland weighing 42 lbs. a bushel, except special oats grown on highly manured land which the previous year has grown turnips or potatoes or some other kind of green crops. It must necessarily be a very small area on which such oats can be grown. Everybody knows that this year the overwhelming percentage of the oats grown is grown on lea land. Everybody acquainted with agriculture knows that lea land either in this country 2057 or in Ireland grows oats which are lighter to the bushel, weighing a less number of pounds than is the case with lands which have been run for some time and have been measured in the previous year. One of the objects of this Bill is to secure for the future, not for six years, but for very much longer, a much higher percentage of land remaining under the plough both in this country than in Ireland. In fact, at no future time should this country find itself in the predicament that it found itself last year. Never again should it be dependent upon foreign supplies. I understand that to be one of the main objects of this Bill, and the reason of this Amendment is that the prices in the last three years have not been sufficiently high to keep a large percentage of the land under the plough That is the general feeling in Ireland. And why should you make such an enormous drop in price in the third year? Every agriculturist knows that there is no difficulty in ploughing up land and getting a crop in the first and second year, but it is in the third year that all the expense is incurred in manuring and preparing the land. A great deal has been said about corn production by those who have never grown a barrel of oats, and who know very little about it except theoretically. They talk about this Bill as one of plunder, and use language so extravagant as to remind me of the language I used in the 'eighties against Irish landlords. I suggested to one hon. Member that the speakers must have been looking up the Debates of that period, so faithfully have they reproduced the phrases used in those times. It is said that the people want cheap food. Everybody in this country and in Ireland wants cheap food, and abundance of it, but I am quite sure that cheap food will not be produced in this country or in Ireland. The farmers of either country cannot, under present conditions, compete with the producers of foreign wheat; and if you want to put the land permanently under the plough you will have to enable the farmer to compete with the foreign producer.
This country has a drier climate than that of Ireland and can grow corn better than it can be grown in that country, where, owing to the humidity of the climate, it costs a good deal more to harvest either corn or hay. In my own experience I knew a man who came from the South of England to 2058 Ireland, where he tried the same methods as in this country to rave his hay. When in the rick he was obliged to get not only his own employés, but to borrow employés from his neighbours to pull the rick about to prevent it from going almost on fire. He had made no allowance for the moisture of the climate. An hon. Friend suggests to me that if he were an astute man living in Ireland in the days of the Land League he should have allowed the rick to go on fire and made a presentment to the Grand Jury under the Malicious Injuries Act for its value, and I have not the slightest doubt he would have got a very large award, on the ground that some malicious Land Leaguer had set the rick of a loyalist on fire. It costs a great deal more to save corn and hay in Ireland than it does here, because of the humidity of the climate. To bring about a permanent increase in the percentage of land remaining permanently under the plough the guarantee for the last two years is not sufficient. On the Second Beading the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board told us that the increased wage in a 5-quarter plot would amount to 15s. per acre, or a total of 75s. He will produce so much corn, whether it be wheat or oats. He will receive so much increased price under the guarantee. The right hon. Gentleman showed that the increased expenditure would be 75s.—15s. per acre. The increased receipts to be 70s.—proving that on the five acres under the prices in this Bill for the last three years the loss to the farmer would be exactly 1s. an acre. On that statement I interjected: "Does that mean that the farmer for the last three years under this Bill will be 1s. per acre worse off than ever he was?" and the reply was, "Certainly." On the Second Reading of the Bill the President of the Board of Agriculture told the House that in his opinion under the Bill it would be a very tight squeeze for the farmer to make both ends meet, but that he thought under favourable conditions that it might be done—but that it was very problematical indeed. Is the House of Commons to be seriously told that under a Bill one of the main objects of which is to keep a very large increased area of land permanently under the plough, in order to prevent this country from ever again finding itself in its present position, that it is quite problematical whether or not the farmers would be able to make ends 2059 meet? Why do not we take steps now to make it quite certain that from the business point of view the farmers will be able to do it? For these reasons this Amendment has been put down. We are now groping in the dark, and will be doing so till we see the Government's Amendments on the Paper. At any rate, there will have to be a change if you require to secure in Ireland a very real increased area to remain permanently under the plough. How is it that, in the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the production of corn is going to cost the farmer less in the last three years than in the first three years of the guarantee? Once you fix a minimum wage for the agricultural labourer I understand that that is not to continue only when the price is 60s.; but next year and the following even if the price falls again to, say, 24s. per quarter for oats! I should like the right hon. Gentleman, if the wages bill is to remain the same when you guarantee 24s. as when you guarantee 38s. 6d. a quarter for oats, to explain to the Committee and to myself, who is a working farmer, how it is to be done. I do not see how it is to be done. I believe that, unless under the Defence of the Realm Act or some other equally coercive and drastic Bill as that, I shall plough because I am not a philanthropist. I am very much of British shipowner and I have not seen very much philanthropy or that extreme British patriotism which has compelled wealthy men to sacrifice themselves on the altar of their country, and have no concern with dirty dross. I am very much of a British shipowner; I am not a philantropist, and yet I am not as big a plunderer as he is. I am satisfied to keep the land under cultivation if it pays me, and if I can make any kind of a decent agricultural profit out of it. I would like to know how I am going to make any kind of a profit whatever at the guaranteed prices that you will compel me to pay to the agricultural labourers and which we have no regard whatever to the fact as to whether food becomes half its present price or no. If we get back to the ordinary food prices in Ireland in four or five years I should have to pay more than 100 per cent. of the increase for the agricultural labourers.
I beg the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary, as 2060 practical men, to tell me how it is going to be done. Have they revised their Second Reading speeches? Will they give us another edition? The Parliamentary Secretary told us on the Second Reading that in the three years the English farmer under this proposal will lose a shilling per acre. The President of the Board told us that it would be an extremely near squeeze. They wanted to get the Bill through, and had to say something in favour of the Bill. If they had not been Members trying to carry the Bill they would have said, "We shall have to raise the prices." It is not a shilling an acre they will lose. It is more likely to be a loss of seven or eight shillings an acre. I have no doubt that the President of the Board himself would have made a very much stronger declaration than saying it would be a near squeeze. It would be a very nice thing for the farmer to make both ends meet. That would have settled, of course, what all practical agriculturists know, that instead of a near squeeze it would be entirely on the wrong side of the ledger, and how can this Committee honestly refuse to increase these prices and to make it a practical business matter and a commercial success to keep land under the plough when they know themselves that the price which is guaranteed for the last three years will not do it? I should like him to explain how it is that land can be worked cheaper at the end of three years with all the difficulties and expense of manuring. It is said we can go on growing corn crops for an interminable number of years, and that any form of manure is absolutely unnecessary. I knew a Scotchman who came to Ireland many years ago. He had been educated in a Scotch university. I think it was Aberdeen. I knew him well; he was a strong Radical in politics, and consequently I had very great regard for him. He came to show Irish farmers that you could continue to grow corn for any number of years, provided you put back into the soil the constitutent parts that the corn crop had exhausted, and he was undoubtedly a man with a practical and extensive knowledge of chemistry. He went on doing this for years and years, saying it was unnecessary to have any form of yard manure. He has returned to the original clay of which he was made, and his affairs at his death all came into the public Courts. Some of his relatives had dis- 2061 putes as to how his assets were to be distributed, but the assets of this highly scientific man, who was to show Irish farmers how land was to be cultivated on the highest scientific principles, that, farmyard manure was unnecessary, and that we could do with artificial manures alone, were found, at his death, unable to pay 20s. in the £.
§ Mr. KILBRIDE
Is it not a proof that your highly scientific farmer needs the Corn Production Bill, or something like it, to keep him out of the Bankruptcy Court? That is exactly my point, and I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I want to emphasise the point that unless you rectify this you are going, bye-and-bye, to put all these farmers, whom you want to continue cultivating the land, into the Bankruptcy Court. I do not want that. Apparently, my hon. Friend would be delighted. I want to see that this country will never be in the position of being absolutely at the mercy of the submarine and relying upon foreign production. I want to see it relying upon home production. My hon. Friend wants cheaper food and plenty of it, he can have it only on such terms as will pay to produce it. I do not want anything more than these terms, and I do not think anybody in this House expects farmers in the general interests of the community, to produce food on such terms as would not pay them to do so. You do not expect anybody in any other occupation to pursue it for the benefit of the public, when at the same time he does not get any kind of decent remuneration for himself, for his knowledge or the labour he puts into it. It is for these reasons that I would ask the President of the Board of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary if they cannot go the whole way, at any rate, to meet me on this question, for I challenge either of them to say, in view of the speeches they made on Second Reading, that, it is a sound commercial undertaking to ask the farmers of this country and Ireland to continue producing corn at the prices guaranteed for the last three years in this Clause.
The speech just delivered by my hon. Friend, would, of course, be quite appropriate to almost any of the Amendments we have had in Committee. It would be equally appro- 2062 priate on Second Reading or in discussion on the Financial Resolution. It was a most vehement version of the Irish case, but I would point out to him that we have to depend in this, House for our guidance, not on the experience of individual farmers, but on the findings of substantial authorities who have gone into the average cost of production of wheat and oats prevailing at present, and likely to prevail in the future
I cannot answer for the Irish Department. The representative of that Department is here, and he will be able to inform the Committee, if desired, of the steps taken in Ireland. But what we are entitled to ask here is what is the justification offered by the Government for having fixed on these prices? The difficulty of arriving at the cost of production of wheat is, of course, very great. The hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Colonel Weigall) this afternoon stated that last year, in spite of the very high prices which were obtained for wheat, he was unfortunate enough to make a loss on his wheat growing. I have no doubt from my past experience of the hon. and gallant Member that he spoke with authority and accuracy on that subject, but I think we are justified in inferring that there must have been peculiar circumstances to recount for the loss.
§ Colonel WEIGALL
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. The peculiar circumstances were these: a very late season on strong land, which meant a yield of under two quarters an acre.
Undoubtedly my hon. and gallant Friend had misfortune last year, but I am sure that even he, with his last experience, would not state that his own experience, wide as it is, would be sufficient justification for the prices inserted in the Bill, but that we must take a larger area and wider considerations.
If possible you must arrive at averages by means of committees, and they must be settled by Government Departments. The difficulty we have been in from the first day of the discussion of this proposal is that the Committees themselves have not agreed, and, so far as I know, they do not appear to have adopted any scientific means of ascertaining what 2063 was the average cost of the production of wheat and oats in any one of the four countries. The Milner Committee, for instance, recommended that the guarantee should be 45s. for the years up to 1919. There is no indication given in the Report as to what reasons they had for suggesting that 45s. would give the farmer such a profit as would lead to increased cultivation. The following year Lord Selborne's Committee was examining the subject, and, although they did not name a definite period for the end of the guarantee, they stated quite definitely that a guarantee of 42s. for wheat and 23s. for oats would be sufficient to induce increased cultivation. There may be this difference between the two Reports, that Lord Milner's Committee was only dealing with four years and Lord Selborne's Committee was dealing with an indefinite period. But whatever it may be, there is no evidence in the Report of either Committee as to what steps were taken to ascertain whether 45s. in the one case or 42s. in the other should be taken. What we do know is that the average price for the ten years before the War was 32s. for wheat and 19s. 6d. for oats. When the Government took in hand the present proposals they adopted the recommendations of neither of those Committees. They did not take Lord Milner's 45s. or Lord Selborne's 42s., but they adopted a new scale. I say nothing about the present year because that does not matter, but for next year and the year after they took 55s. What is the justification for this additional 10s.? Was it done by way of a bargain? Was there some haggling between those representing farmers and those representing the Department, or was there any scientific ascertainment as to the probable actual cost of the production of wheat in the years 1918 and 1919? I ask that question in particular because we were given these figures as far back as the 23rd of February last.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I must point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we are now dealing with the years 1920, 1921 and 1922. The Amendment is to increase the price with regard to those years from 45s. to 55s., and therefore we have passed the question of the preceding years.
I will not follow the example of the preceding speaker and follow the whole range of English and Irish 2064 agriculture. This Amendment applies to 1920,1921 and 1922, and I ask why is 45s. to be taken for those years? Is it the anticipation that the cost of production in 1918 and 1919 is going to be 10s. more than the cost in 1920, 1921 and 1922? The right hon. Gentleman knows that the tendency will not be for agricultural wages to go down, but up, and if we can have much influence on this Bill through Committee we shall do everything in our power to strengthen the provisions for keeping agricultural wages up. Does the President really suggest that he has on scientific grounds ascertained that there is likely to be a 10s. drop in the cost of production of wheat in 1920, 1921 and 1922? On these questions we have received absolutely no enlightenment. The figures were fixed in the middle of February last, and I ask whether any steps were taken before that date to arrive at a proper calculation on which a reliable estimate could be based, or, if no such steps were taken, by what means were those figures reached? Was there any failure to make a scientific ascertainment on the facts that could be collected, or have any steps been taken since to ascertain whether the shot made in February last was correct? We have had no justification by the President except the figures which the Parliamentary Secretary was good enough to furnish on the Second Reading when he laid before us a calculation which showed a balance on the wrong side. If that is so it is clear that my right hon. Friend has not been doing his duty to the farmer and he is providing legislation which will let him in for a dead loss. That cannot have been his deliberate intention, and with all due respect to him, I suggest that his calculations were made after the figures were put into the Bill and not before. Has the right hon. Gentleman attempted by the collection of accounts and the ascertainment of costs—by no means an easy thing in agricultural account keeping—to ascertain whether 45s. is or is not a scientific commercial figure? Or is it merely taken as a rough shot at what might satisfy agricultural sentiment? The Committee is entitled to have some information as to the means by which these figures were reached. It may be that the hon. Member from Ireland was justified in asking 55s., but I should rather question his demand, for my experience is that Irish Members always ask for a good deal more than they ex- 2065 pect to get. I have never known any proposal for which the United Kingdom taxpayer, Irish as well as British, was going to pay that was not pressed more strongly by the Irish Members than any other section of the House. Was the calculation offered by the hon. Gentleman incorrect or is the calculation on which the Government are now acting so sound that 45s. may be taken as the correct figure? I am sure that the President of the Board of Agriculture does not wish to overstate the amount, but the least that he can do in justification of the figures in the Bill is to give us some better reason than he has yet done for taking these figures for the last three years in preference to those recommended by Lord Milner's Committee, or those which have been put forward by private Members in various quarters of the House.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
I will reply at once to the question asked by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Runciman). I cannot help thinking that he is almost wilfully misunderstanding the object of this Bill and the prices it contains. Time after time we have stated that the object of this Bill is an insurance. Time after time we have stated that what we desire to do is to save the farmer against substantial loss. Time after time we have told him that the market prices are the temptation to the farmer and that nothing in these prices pretend to do more than to save the farmer against loss. Surely after these repeated statements the right hon. Gentleman is rather presuming upon the patience of those who have to urge this Bill upon the House when he asks whether these are prices which we think will be remunerative to the farmer. Of course, we do not. We have never pretended that they will. The same was said by both Lord Milner s Committee and Lord Selborne's Committee, neither of which pretended to state the cost of production. What they did state was the price which they believed would sufficiently secure the farmer against loss and encourage him to try to increase his production. I have said it again and again, but I may not have said it clearly enough. The object of this Bill is to fix such a sum as will in our opinions secure the farmer against substantial loss.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not misunderstanding my inquiry. I wish to know whether these 2066 prices are fixed on the cost of production, or whether they are merely a sentimental attraction? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman cannot resent that question.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
Not a bit. No, the cost of production in 1916, so far as I can make out, was far above the minimum price of 60s. fixed here. The reason for that was that it was exceptional, in fact it was one of the worst harvests ever known. I have got some figures from people who keep careful accounts. I find, for instance, on 4,000 acres of some of the best corn-growing land in the Eastern counties the actual cost to the farmer of growing his wheat, allowing for no profit at all, was over 60s., in fact 62s. 4d. I can confirm the statement made by the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Colonel Weigall), because I have known two cases where a man has actually lost money on his wheat at the price of 88s. That is for 1916. When we talk of production, of course it varies from farm to farm, and from season to season. You cannot lay down any general rule about it. The prices in the Bill were arrived at in this way: we wanted to fix a certain basis for the corn growing in the spring of 1917. We knew that wheat was a gambling speculation at that time and we wanted oats to have the preference. Oats as a spring-sown crop is the one crop in which the farmer has the greatest chance of success. We felt that the harvest of 1917 was a crucial one, and that if we put upon wheat a high insurance it might tempt farmers to go in for growing wheat. The result was that we put it at a price at which, I believe, in the majority of cases, a man in 1916 did not succeed in growing wheat.
We did, I frankly admit, put oats higher. What we did was to take 60s. as the price of wheat, then to see what the relative feeding values of wheat and oats were; then we took the average price for ten years, I think it was, for both. We took the relation between them on those ten years. Lastly, we took the gross returns per acre upon the two crops, and on those three calculations we based the figure at which oats stand; but, because we wanted the farmer particularly to pay attention to them, we put something like 2s. 6d. on to oats. Then we take the same three calculations for the next year, and for the next, and the reason why the prices fall is really this. Of course, if the War ends we think 2067 after a certain time fertilisers will certainly come down in price. I think there is no doubt they will, but at present they form a very heavy ingredient in the charges. We think, again, that blacksmiths' bills and the charges for teams of horses, which at present are very high, will fall, and such things as the cost of seed will fall. Our desire was to keep still the same sort of insurance at the back of the farmer even when prices are dropping in that way. The right hon. Gentleman called attention to the different figures which were adopted by the Milner Committee and the Selborne Committee. I remember, unfortunately, both those Committees, and I can assure the Committee that the difficulty of fixing the insurance in both cases was very great, and it really rather depended upon what the price of wheat was at that time. In the Milner Committee we once fixed it at 42s.—all the expenses of wheat production had not then begun to rise—and then it suddenly shot up. We then raised it to 45s., at which figure we finally recommended it. The Selborne Committee's figure is perfectly different. It is a figure proposed for the period after the War is over, when presumably prices will have dropped in the various ways I have spoken of, and it is a price without the minimum wage of 25s. There is the explanation of these different prices.
Would my right hon. Friend mind answering one question which I put to him, perhaps rather too specifically, whether there has been any inquiry by experts or by committees into the actual cost of production and the relation which it may have to market prices?
§ Mr. PROTHERO
There has been a certain professorial examination. There have been also practical accounts produced by farmers. It is almost impossible to say what is the actual cost of production, so great is the variation. You must have regard to the farm itself, to the character of the land, and every circumstance of the land before you can say within 5s. or 6s. Actuarially it is the most difficult thing in the world to get at the cost of production. I believe actuaries themselves acknowledge that. I have tried for years to get at the cost of production. I believe the only fair way is to calculate the total cost of the four years rotation and divide by four and say that that is the cost of wheat growing.
Mr. D. WHITE
In speaking of the cost of production in these calculations, such as they are, does my right hon. Friend include rent, or does he assume the land to be rent free?
§ Mr. PROTHERO
Rent is, of course, included in the cost of production, and I may say it forms an extraordinarily small ingredient in it. I do not know whether I have not inferentially answered the very amusing, eloquent and practical speech of the hon. Member for East Kildare. The Bill is not intended to maintain arable farms permanently; it is intended simply to secure the farmers, as far as we can, against loss; therefore, when the hon. Member complains of the 24s. I would remind him that he has the market price, and that at the back of the market price there is this insurance of 24s. I would also remind him that as to wages, the Irishmen are getting very much the best of it. Twenty-four shillings is a much better price in Ireland than it is in England, Wales, or Scotland, because there is no minimum wage of 25s. fixed in Ireland. That is a very important distinction, and it runs right away through all the prices that we have fixed as between the United Kingdom.
Mr. H. SAMUEL
There is only one point, which I can put very briefly. The President of the Board of Agriculture spoke of certain professional inquiries which had been made into this matter. We have heard from various quarters that there has been a Committee visiting farms and taking evidence on this very point, consisting certainly of two or three professors and one or two other persons who I believe have been appointed for the special purpose of ascertaining what is at the present time, under war conditions, the cost of the production of wheat, and it is very important that the House should know that when it is deciding what guaranteed price to insert in the Bill. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether that Committee has, in fact, conducted such an inquiry; whether it has reported, and if so, whether he could present the Report to the House, or on the first occasion inform the House of the conclusions at which it has arrived?
§ Mr. PROTHERO
They are carrying on their investigations at the present moment, and of course, if I may say so, in the midst of a great war like this, it is hardly the time to calculate the prices which shall obtain when the War is over, which is 2069 mainly the point here. When we get complete reports I should have no objection to bringing them before the House.
§ Sir C. SEELY
The statement we have heard from the President of the Board of Agriculture seems to me an unanswerable argument against this Bill as it stands. According to him, the price fixed will, in the case of good wheat land, be ranch above the cost of production.
§ Sir C. SEELY
That was the impression produced on my mind. I speak of the farmer with inferior land and a doubtful harvest, in whose case there will not be sufficient to guarantee him against loss. As I understand it, the object of this Bill is to induce people to put a larger acreage of land under tillage. If you want to do that, there is a perfectly simple plan—pay the bonus to the man who puts the extra land under wheat. The men who have their land at present under tillage have been doing fairly well under the lower prices, and will continue to grow wheat at the prices as they will stand after the War. What you want to do is to provide for inducing a man to put under cultivation land which is not now under cultivation, and I have every sympathy with the hon. Member for Kildare who has just moved this Amendment. As far as my recollection goes, when the land in Ireland which used to be under wheat went out of it, the average price of wheat was about 50s, and over. I think if you will inquire you will find that the price of wheat at the time that a considerable quantity was grown in Ireland very seldom went below 50s. in this country. Therefore, if you fix a price of 45s. for the wheat which is to be grown in Ireland on land which never grew wheat or which went out of wheat cultivation when wheat went below 50s., you are not acting reasonably or fairly to those people in Ireland whom you have induced during the last six months to grow wheat.
As I understand it all, the information we have is that people in Ireland have ploughed up a lot of land for wheat, whereas, people in England who had more knowledge of the conditions of wheat growing and more knowledge, perhaps, of the intentions of the Government, have not done it to the same extent. By this 2070 guarantee of 45s. you are not treating the people of Ireland quite fairly or reasonably, remembering that the country is not suited for wheat growing, and that there is, therefore, liability to very bad harvests, and that people are liable to suffer considerable loss as a result of the efforts which they have made. My right hon. Friend has got this Bill altogether on a false basis, as it gives a bonus to a certain number of people who do not require it, while at the same time it will mean a considerable loss to a large number of people who, trusting to the somewhat vague talk as to ploughing up land of every sort which has been going on, have ploughed up their land trusting to get prices similar to those which they used to get when the land was ploughed up before, which were, I believe, much nearer to 50s. than to the 45s. which the hon. Member for Kildare now wants to increase.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. P. MEEHAN
I beg to move, to leave out "24s.," and to insert instead thereof "32s."
This Amendment is similar to that which has been moved by the hon. Member for South Kildare, save that it deals with oats instead of wheat, and its object is to raise the minimum price from 24s. to 32s. The President of the Board of Agriculture has stated that the object of the Bill is to insure the farmer against loss, and at the same time to increase corn production. I find that my hon. Friend the Member for Kildare has at considerable length gone into the case for Ireland in connection with this proposal, but I have one or two points I wish to put. With regard to price, I would point out that 24s. per. quarter means practically a little over 15s. per barrel. If you take the present prices fixed by the Food Controller, it is something over 30s. a barrel. Taking everything into consideration, it will be seen that so far as Irish oats are concerned, the minimum price for the last two years is not a fair price. We are told that the average amount of oats per acre in the United Kingdom is five quarters. If you take five quarters at 24s. per quarter that works out at £6 per acre. At present in Ireland the cost of production of oats per Irish standard acre is £7 10s., and the insurance offered to the Irish farmer is £6, which is the average in the United Kingdom. The average in Ireland is higher, £7 10s. being the cost of production there. The figures I have 2071 given as the cost of production in Ireland are the figures for the present year. In those figures is the cost of seed. The minimum price is 24s., but as a matter of fact, seed has cost well over 30s. this year. I put these figures before the Committee to show that the proposed minimum price does not meet the case of Ireland.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
The hon. Member says that it costs him £7 10s. to grow oats and that the price suggested will only pay him £6. That is a very substantial insurance against loss, though it is not a full one. The Irish farmer has not only got that insurance, but he has got the play of the market, to get what better price he can. Therefore that is the justification for fixing the price we do. We give him a very handsome insurance against, I will not say the whole of his loss, but a very substantial portion of it, and he has got the temptation of prices in the market to stimulate him to cultivate the oats.
§ Mr. O'SHEE
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the question of minimum wage and said the prices in this Bill were in favour of the Irish farmer, because the minimum wage does not apply to farmers in Ireland.
§ Mr. O'SHEE
As I understand this Bill, that does not apply to England. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that we on these benches intend to move an Amendment that the minimum wage shall apply to Ireland, and that whatever minimum wage is fixed for England shall apply to Ireland. When we do that the argument that the Irish farmer is in a better position because he has to pay lower wages will not prove to be the case, because, if the House accepts that Amendment the position will be the same in Ireland as in England as regards the minimum wage. With regard to the profits which are alleged to be made by farmers, the agricultural labourer in England is the lowest paid of any class of labour. Mr. Green, in his book, has gone exhaustively into the subject of the agricultural labourer; and another book recently published on the same subject, shows that the wages in England of the agricultural labourer are disgracefully low. I dare say the same applies to Ire- 2072 land and that the wages have been lower still in Ireland. We hope to see a change in all that. If the farmer is to make a fair profit in the future, as I hope he may be able to do, this House I trust will take care that the agricultural labourer in Ireland as well as in England, will get a fair wage out of that fair profit. It is, I think, not right to assume that the agricultural labourer is not entitled to good wages just as much as any other labourer. I cannot understand why the criticism of those who oppose the Bill on the ground of an unfair bounty is not directed with a view to improving the Bill as regards the wages of the agricultural labourer.
I hope some improvement will be made in the Bill on that subject before it passes. I support the Amendment to increase the minimum price for oats in the last three years, from 24s. to 32s., and I desire the right hon. Gentleman to explain if he can, why he takes the standard for this year of 60s. for wheat and 38s. 6d. for oats; also why, in the grading down for the year after and for the three final years of the period of six years, he grades it down so much more in the case of oats than in the case of wheat? Oats is the chief grain crop in Ireland. Wheat is, I think, the chief grain crop in England. We who represent Ireland are, I fear, inclined to see in the differentiation of the lowering of the price for oats as compared with wheat a differentiation against Ireland.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I think I have explained that clearly. Therefore the argument he is now basing upon the difference in the system of grading is rather unfair.
§ Mr. O'SHEE
I was not aware that the right hon. Gentleman had given any explanation. I will read it, and not trespass upon the time of the Committee any longer.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. L. HARDY
I beg to move to leave out "24s."
I know that I can appeal to the sympathy of the right hon. Gentleman because my Amendment really carries out what he has 2073 publicly announced he would like to see. There is a very strong feeling, which I have been asked to express, on behalf of the Agricultural Committee of Kent, that the term in the Bill is too short to carry out the object of the Bill. If you want to get a large use of grass land in this country it must be gradually turned again to the plough. The land cannot be put down immediately. Six years is not enough to give that security which lies at the bottom of the Bill, and to which the right hon. Gentleman has alluded. We require a period of ten years in order that those who break up good grass land should themselves feel that that security, or insurance, is behind them to enable them to recoup themselves for the losses which will inevitably come from the sacrifices they are now making. If we look at the reports upon which, to a great extent, this policy is founded we have some justification for this Amendment. In the Milner Report that dealt with the special point, as it were, although it only went to four years, it was to encourage by voluntary effort the farmers who at that time were not in anything like the difficult position that they are in at the present time. At that time all the circumstances which have come so hardly upon them had not really come to fruition. They still had a considerable amount of labour, prices had not risen against them as they have now; circumstances were different. They were asked to make the voluntary effort by Lord Milner's Committee, and at that time only four years was suggested.
As time went on we know that a second Committee was set up, 18 months later, when circumstances were changed, and that Committee looked forward, of course, to a different condition from that which Lord Milner's Committee had done. That was looking to the war emergency, but Lord Selborne's Committee were looking to the future security of agriculture, and they put in a limit of time to the recommendations they made. Now we come to what is a war measure, but one which goes a great deal beyond anything suggested at the moment Lord Milner's Committee reported. This is one which has behind it a very great effort indeed. We have had the representation of the Board of Agriculture that 3,000,000 acres should be brought back to the plough, that quantities of land that the farmers cannot do themselves should be turned into arable land with the help of the State, not only through 2074 this Bill, but by equipment, by labour being found for them, and by other means. This forms a part, therefore, of a much larger whole than anything contemplated before, and on those grounds I think it very desirable that the term of years put into this Bill should be lengthened, as the right hon. Gentleman himself thought, in order to give that real security and assurance which is aimed at by the Bill, which is desired by the House, and for which I think the agricultural industry is entitled to ask in connection with this great movement that is going on. I do not wish to detain the Committee at this late hour, but I do press, and have been asked by practical agriculturists to press very strongly, the adoption of this lengthened term.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
I very much regret—and it is more than a formal expression because I personally regret—that I am unable to accept this Amendment. I believe that a long period like this which would enable us to carry out the work more carefully would have been better agriculturally than what we have done. It must be remembered, however, that we have to do it in a hurry, that we have to get a large harvest ready for 1918, and therefore although agriculturally it would have been better to proceed slower and therefore to have had a longer period we have been obliged to act quickly, and so have a shorter period. I am bound to point out that the Prime Minister definitely said that was so; I accepted that statement, it is in the Bill, and, much as I regret it, I cannot lengthen the term.
§ Major HUNT
I understand I cannot move my Amendment, which is somewhat the same as this, but I was asked by farmers particularly to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture whether he could not put in some extra years, and that Parliament should let agriculturists know three or four years before whether this guarantee would be continued or not. My Amendment does not bind the Government in any way and it gives a certainty to the farmers of knowing whether the guarantee will go on after the six years, or whether some other method will be taken to enable farmers to keep on growing wheat and oats, as we hope they will for the six years which has been guaranteed. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will accept the Amendment with the addition—"unless Parliament decides to cancel the guarantee for those 2075 four years before the 1st of August, 1920." It is felt very strongly by farmers that it would be an enormous advantage if they could know for certain what was going to happen in the future. If you leave it to Parliament to decide whether or no to cancel then the farmers will be given foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and I think there should be a chance for Parliament to decide in 1920, after having seen how this works. The necessity for as much food to be grown is likely to be more pressing in the future, and it is necessary for the welfare of any country that it should not allow agriculture to be sacrificed for the sake of the manufacturing interest.
§ Captain STARKEY
I desire to support the Amendment because I think in the case of grass lands the time is not long enough. My county war agricultural committee are anxious that this matter should be brought forward. If land is to be broken up it will require some time for the farmer to get a return; but it must be borne in mind that the land to be broken up is not the best land, it is the inferior land, and is grass land which was formerly arable, and which went out of cultivation because prices were too low. If prices drop again, the land, once broken up, cannot be converted into grass land again for a considerable number of years, and therefore all the farmer is able to do under this Bill is to get his profit during the five years during which this guarantee is to operate. That does not amount to very much, because in the first year that the grass land is broken up it is extremely probable that the crop will be very poor, and all the remaining four years it will not be possible to grow corn, as the land will have to be followed, so that if at the expiration of the time prices drop, the land will be in the same position as it was in the bad times, and it will go back again to grass. Under these circumstances I think the guarantee should be continued for a longer period.
§ Mr. PETO
The right hon. Gentleman based his objection to the acceptance of this Amendment, which he agreed in principle was an advantage to agriculture, on the statement of the Prime Minister on the 23rd February. It is true that in that statement six years was indicated as the period which the guarantee would last, 2076 but it is also true that in that statement the Prime Minister said that during the War farmers did not want to be bothered with agricultural wages boards, and that they wanted to know where they were, and so they would have to pay a flat minimum rate of 25s. a week. All that part of the speech is entirely departed from in this Bill. Surely, therefore, my hon. Friend is entitled to ask that something should be done to give a little more permanence to this guarantee. In the matter to which my hon. Friend has just referred, the breaking up of grass land, it is very possible that by the end of six years we may have got through a period of high prices, and there may be a really low level for wheat and oats again. The moment that happens, the grass land which will have been broken up will naturally be thrown back upon the owners in many cases as foul arable land which has got to be dealt with over again exactly as it was after the depression of the seventies. Therefore, for those two reasons I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to be in no way bound to the strict letter of the announcement on which he based himself, and to follow his agricultural instincts, which he clearly indicated when he said he was sure it was a sounder agricultural policy to have a moderate price such as 45s. and 24s. guaranteed over a large agricultural period than the six years. Therefore I hope this Amendment will be pressed.
§ Captain CLIVE
I should like to join in the appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to carry out what I believe is his own conviction that a longer period is desirable. My own experience in my part of the world—Herefordshire—is that farmers one and all recognise that they are going to make no profit out of the ploughing up of grass land. Some are doing it because they are compelled, and many others propose to do it as a patriotic duty. I do think, when driven to this sort of thing, they ought not to be left in the lurch at the end of six years, because this part of the Bill is the operative part, embodying the whole intention of the Bill. The other part is merely consequential and, as it were, a sop to the labourers, involving a minimum wage which is to continue indefinitely. One farmer showed me excellent grass land, laid down twelve years ago, which he was going to plough up, and his expression was that he would be glad to pay £5 an acre rather than have 2077 that land ploughed up. He is going to plough that up as a patriotic duty. I contend it is undesirable that all this should be put in the melting-pot again in six years and run the risk of going back to the bad old days when land went out of cultivation and tumbled down to grass, but that we should try to make this benefit a permanent one, instead of a merely temporary one as a sort of war measure. If the right hon. Gentleman will not accept this Amendment, I want to suggest whether it would not be possible to make this 45s. guarantee continue until Parliament otherwise determines. If that were in the Bill it would go far to establish confidence in the intentions of Parliament and in this proposal. That the guarantee should come to an end in six years is certainly very alarming to every farmer.
Mr. D. WHITE
As so many appeals have been addressed to the President of the Board of Agriculture I would like to say a word or two on the other side. The right hon. Gentleman has indicated that he is going to stand by the Bill, but if a series of appeals asking for an extension of time are made, and no voice is heard on the other side, we know from our previous experience on another Amendment what may happen. The speeches we have heard so far throw a considerable light on the situation. We are told that although this proposal is only for a period of six years, at the end of that time there will be complaints that the farmers are being left in the lurch, and that shows the danger of these subsidies. It also shows that there ought to be a limitation in point of time, so that at the end of the period fixed Parliament may consider the whole matter anew. One danger is the suggestion which has been made that this guarantee should continue indefinitely until Parliament otherwise determines. In other words, the six years period promised by the Prime Minister is not enough, and they are asking for more, and would probably ask at the end of the period that six years' notice should be given. Those are the difficulties. I would also remind the right hon. Gentleman of at some of us had down Amendments, and I moved one, with a view to limiting the amount beyond those mentioned in the Bill, but that was resisted on the ground that the Prime Minister had promised these amounts, and therefore they should be carried through. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will remember that if he 2078 decides to stand by the Prime Minister's proposals on one side he should also stand by them on the other.
§ Mr. O'SHEE
I am not in agreement on this point with the view expressed by the hon. Member who has just spoken. By this Bill we are doing a revolutionary thing in fixing wages of agricultural labourers and setting up wages boards. If the hon. Member is in favour of that he must be in favour of some guarantee that the farmers shall be able to pay the minimum wage or a fair wage as time goes on. I am sure that the agricultural labourers are not going to be satisfied with a minimum wage of 25s. a week, and they will demand higher wages. If you fix the minimum wage and set up wages boards with the right to fix a higher wage you must inevitably do something to enable the men who have to pay that wage to have a fund to pay it from, and you must guarantee prices. That is one of the inevitable consequences of this Bill. If you adopt the suggestion which has been made you will destroy the minimum wage and the wages boards, and I hope that will not be done. For good or for evil, this Bill makes a revolutionary change as regards the position of the agricultural labourers, and you must guarantee to the man who employs the labourers a fund.
§ Mr. CRUMLEY
The Controller commandeered hides at 9d. per pound whereas before the War they were 1s. and 13d. per pound. The wool came down in the same ratio. Not only that, but the Controller demanded two pounds per cent. on the weight of the wool. This year he is demanding only 1 per cent., which is quite irregular. According to an Act of Parliament passed by this House it is illegal for the buyer to demand more than the exact weight. In regard to the wages question, I think they should allow that to be settled in Ireland by the new Parliament which is about to be set up.
§ The CHAIRMAN
Order! order! That comes subsequently on Clause 4. The hon. Member can bring up an Amendment when we reach that point. We are only dealing now with the proposed price of wheat and oats.
§ Mr. CRUMLEY
I will try and keep myself within bounds. In regard to the price of food I suppose I am at liberty to continue that. I know of my own knowledge that last year a small farmer 2079 with four or five acres of land had ten or twelve hundredweight or a ton of hay to sell, and when he brought it into the market he was accosted by a policeman, and was summoned for exposing it for sale.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. PETO
I beg to move, after the word "price" ["the average price for the seven months"], to insert the words "obtained by the producer."
The Bill provides that a certain guarantee should be given where the average market price falls below the minima prices fixed in this Clause. The average price in the second paragraph of this Sub-section is intended to be the price as ascertained for the purpose of the weekly average, the words beingshall be taken to be the average price of wheat or oats, as the case may be, ascertained in accordance with the Corn Returns Act, 1882.I am informed that these average prices ascertained for the purpose of the Corn Returns Act are the prices of every transaction in the grains in question at the market; that would be not only the sales by the producer to the dealer or purchaser, but every further sale from one dealer to another. Of course, at times when the price is steadily increasing the effect would be if, for example, the producer obtained such a price as, say. 40s. for wheat, by the time it had changed hands two or three times the recorded price, according to the Corn Returns Act. would be perhaps 42s. Therefore, instead of the producer being paid 5s. difference, he would be paid only 3s. If the words I propose are inserted, all that would have to be done would be to keep a set of records—and I understand there is already the data for keeping such a record—of what you may term the original or first sale, the actual sale by the producer. That, I believe, is the real intention of the guarantee which was offered to farmers; it was that the average price they obtain for their produce should be reckoned, and not the price obtained after the middleman's profits had been put on. There may be, perhaps, half a dozen transactions on the same quarter of wheat or oats. Therefore I would ask the right 2080 hon. Gentleman whether he cannot see his way to insert these words so that the guarantee shall be paid on the right basis?
§ Mr. PROTHERO
We do not pretend that the Corn Returns Prices are mathematically accurate, but we do say that it is the best record in existence and it is very closely the average price paid to the producer. I think it would be in an administrative way possible to accept the suggestion, but the results would be practically the same. The difference would be extremely small. Take, for instance, the year I have before me, 1915. The index figure is 52s. 10d. for wheat and the price obtained by the producer is 52s. 9d. In oats there is a little greater difference 30s. 2d. and 29s. 9d., but prices vary in an extraordinarily small degree and I do not think the alteration is at all necessary.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the clause stand part of the Bill."
§ Mr. CLANCY
There were two points on this Clause in regard to which my hon. Friends associated with me would have moved Amendments, but they refrained, reserving them till the Irish Clauses are reached and we have the Chief Secretary present. Perhaps I ought now to mention to the right hon. Gentleman the points to which I refer. The first is, that we think the average guaranteed prices should be uniform for the whole period contemplated by the Bill. The reason we take that view is this: We are quite certain that the cost of production will remain uniform and is, indeed, likely to increase. It has been pointed out already that there must be some fund from which to pay this increased cost and the fund apparently would be the bounty given by the Bill. But the bounty instead of being increased with the increased cost of production will, according to the Clause which is now being put to the House, be actually decreased in the later years of the period. I do not think that is just, and the Irish Members with whom I have the honour to act will press this view upon the Chief Secretary and upon the Government when the Irish Clauses come on. The next point which we think it desirable and necessary to mention at this stage and which we also intend to press is that relating to the period over which the calculation of average prices is to extend. The period in the Bill as it will stand if this Clause be adopted—and it applies to Ireland— 2081 is a period of seven months, beginning with the 1st September. That may be suitable to England because in this country the majority of agriculturists being large farmers can afford to hold up their corn for seven months, if necessary, and they will also be able to do without the money for that period. I do not know whether there is or is not a particular period of the year at which corn, or the bulk of the corn, grown in England is sold in the market. It may be there is not; in fact, I am rather given to think that in consequence of the farmers being large and wealthy in England there is not a particular period at which the bulk of the corn is sold; but, in Ireland, the fact is quite clear and notorious, and, I think, nobody from Ireland will doubt what I am about to say, that the bulk of the corn is sold in two months of the year, namely, October and November. If that is the case, it would be clearly to the disadvantage of Ireland, as compared with England, if the period of seven months beginning with September were taken as the period of calculation. Therefore, what we intend to propose, and what we now suggest to the Government as an equitable thing to do, is to take the three months beginning with the 1st September as the proper period in the case of Ireland. That seems to me to accord with justice. Surely the proper time to take 2082 as the period of calculation is the period in which the bulk of the corn is sold. I am told that 90 per cent. is sold in the months I have mentioned. Although we have not and do not intend to oppose this Clause, and have not moved an Amendment, yet as regards these two points I wish to give notice that when the Clause comes on, applying the Bill to Ireland, we shall move Amendments to cover the two points I have mentioned.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.
§ It being after Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at Sixteen minutes before One o'clock.