§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 13th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ Mr. RENDALL
I desire to call the attention of the House for a very few moments to a matter which seems to 1508 me to be of rather more than local importance, and I do so in pursuance of the notice I gave the President of the Board of Agriculture last week. I then asked a question with regard to certain events which have taken place on the Berkeley Estate in Gloucestershire. The particular events were these: Two or three weeks ago the landlord of the Berkeley Estate of 23,000 acres gave, through his agents, notices to quit to all the tenants farming the 23,000 acres. They are to quit in April of next year. The question I put was as to whether the right hon. Gentleman thought, in the circumstances of the time, it was a justifiable thing to do, whether it was likely to produce peace, quiet, and harmony among the farmers and agriculturists generally in this county, and, if not, whether he proposed to take any course to try to obviate any results that might accrue? The answers the right hon. Gentleman gave, I think I may say without undue prejudice, showed rather more sympathy for the landlord than for the farmer. He told me that the reasons which were given, and which I have no doubt are true, for proposing to return to the rents which were paid for these farms some twenty-five years ago were on account of the very heavy Estate Duties on the incoming landlord, and largely increased taxes. But the right hon. Gentleman left out another item mentioned in the notice, namely, "Other capital charges." Those three words which are contained in the letter that accompanies the notice to quit may mean anything and may mean nothing. It may be that there are heavy mortgages on reversion which the new comer has to pay on coming into the property. They may, of course, be camouflage of a desire to get a little more rent from the tenants. I do not wish to judge the matter in any way because I have no knowledge of the reasons, but I have a communication from the chairman of the executive committee of the Farmers' Union of Gloucestershire, and those words have very much concerned the tenants, who feel they are being made to pay something for reasons which are not made clear.
Further, the right hon. Gentleman told me that the tenants will be able to continue at the rent which they paid a quarter of a century ago. That is not what the tenants say. It is quite true they are offered to be allowed to remain, with no fixity of tenure and no guarantee of 1509 security, and there is a great sense of insecurity and uncertainty. At the present moment, as we all know, the President of the Board of Agriculture, the Food Controller, and everybody all over the country, are making the farmer plough up land and do his utmost to increase food. Then comes an apple of discord like this thrown among a large body of farmers, and I think that sort of thing—certainly it is thought by many to be likely—will cause a great deal of unrest, dissatisfaction, and feeling that the future is very uncertain for these men. One has to realise that this increase of rent proposed in regard to these farms amounts to anything from 40 to 60 per cent. That is a very big increase. After all, only three or four years ago, according to the legislation which existed in this country, a farmer's income was supposed to be one-third of his rent, because it was on that amount that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of that day, and for many years before that day, taxed him. Until recently it has been supposed to be equal to his rent—that is, the amount on which the farmer has been taxed. Consequently, if that is accurate—and certainly it was thought to be accurate by the Government until a few weeks ago—it means that you are calling on the farmer by this proposal, by asking him to pay 60 per cent. extra rent, for more than half his income in increased rent. Let us look at what a 60 per cent. increase means. It means that a rent of £600 will be raised to £960, and that a rent of £300 will be raised to £480. Those are rather large figures, and if you have regard to the fact that rates and taxes have largely increased, it is probably true to say that a 60 per cent. increase in rent will probably amount to an 80 per cent. increase by the time everything else has been added. That means that amongst these tenants a man who has been paying £600 a year will pay something like £1,080, and that a tenant who has been paying £300 will pay £540. It is not surprising, having regard to the circumstances, that the farmers in Gloucestershire should feel very strongly about this matter, and they have passed the resolution, which, perhaps, the right hon. Gentleman has seen, to this effect:That the Gloucestershire Farmers' Union expresses its surprise and regret at the serving of notices to quit on the agricultural tenants of the Berkeley Estate in this time of national crisis, and also at the request made to them to pay very largely increased rents, seeing the great 1510 demands now being made upon farmers, and strongly advises tenants not to sign the suggested new agreements, and pledges itself to support them in every possible way.That shows the spirit in which these notices have been received. Into the general merits of the question as to whether there is good ground from a purely economic point of view for raising the rents I have no intention of entering, as I do not think it germane to the subject. We are at war, and these farmers are asked to produce food at a time when, if starvation is not likely, it is undoubtedly possible, when meat is rationed, when bread is likely to be rationed—both things expected to be produced by the farmer—when everything the farmer sells is under control, and his profits are limited by order of the State, and when every speaker and every paper calls upon him to do all he can to produce food—and none more eloquently than the President of the Board of Agriculture himself—when all this is going on how can you defend, in the fourth year of the War, this sudden notice to the tenants that they must pay an increased rent. It seems to me to be striking a blow in the face of the pilot steering the ship to land in the middle of a raging storm. For a thing of that kind to happen—and they look to the President of the Board of Agriculture for support at a time like this—is most serious. It seems to me that there must be some limit put somewhere, for there seems to be no limit at all upon the landlords in the country. The landlord in the town, even under the Bill we have been discussing this afternoon, in regard to the great majority of property, is forbidden to increase rents or to eject the tenants. The reason for that is that the State must be served, and the Defence of the Realm Act requires that these conditions and limitations of the power of the landlord should be made by law. It seems to me rather hard, therefore, that persons like farmers who are being asked to make such sacrifices, and who are asked to produce food which is so very important to us, should not have under the Defence of the Realm Act any protection. This demand for increased rent is merely a term for profiteering. If you look at the definition of profiteering, you find that this increase of rent which is asked for, in so far as it exceeds increase of outlay or increase in the cost of repairs, is profiteering. Profiteering is so much extra profit obtained in war time over what 1511 could be obtained in peace time, and not caused by any increase in the price of materials or labour. If that be a correct definition, it seems to me that the whole of the rent demanded as a result of war conditions, but does not arise from any extra cost of labour and material, is profiteering. The only defence for profiteering—and it is a bad one—is that the person who makes the profit works very hard, and does something very important and advantageous to the State. I do not think that is a defence, but it is the only one that it is possible to make. The landlords, however, cannot make that defence.
The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the farmers have introduced in another place a measure relating to war restrictions on agriculture, and it gives security of tenure during the War. That Bill has been brought in as the result of the work of the Farmers' Union, of the Central Chamber of Agriculture, and of the Federation of County War Agricultural Committees. The right hon. Gentleman has been urging, and rightly urging, those Committees to turn out farmers who were not farming well and who were not doing their duty on their farms. I am sure we all support him in his effort to get the War Agricultural Committees to act up to their duties, but while he is urging them to turn out the farmer who is not farming properly, surely he must do something to protect the farmer who is farming properly? I think that is a duty which devolves upon him during the War, and while the present strain on the farmer continues. While such claims are being placed upon the farmer, no farmer should be at the mercy of a landlord who finds that he has to pay capital charges. I must add this sentence from a letter sent me by the chairman of the Gloucester Farmers' Union. He says "that the service of these notices and the demands governing them have caused consternation, that the tenants are placed in a position of insecurity and uncertainty which cannot but have a prejudicial effect on the food production of this estate and throughout the country." These notices and the facts connected with them have become national property in the last few weeks, and they will become still more known throughout the length and breadth of the country. The result must be that if the Board of Agriculture and Parliament looks upon these notices quite calmly as 1512 the perfectly natural thing to be done during the War, other landlords will feel that it is good form and not unpatriotic to give similar notices, and we shall have practically the whole farming community having to face an enormously-increased rent, amounting to over 50 per cent. That cannot be for the good of the country, and, quite apart from the economic merits of the case, as to which I express no opinion, I do say that at a time like this it is altogether against national interests. So I appeal most sincerely to the right hon. Gentleman not only to say something which will alleviate the fear of farmers, but to do something which will effectively deal with the situation.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
I am obliged to the hon. Member for bringing this matter forward, and I should like to state it from the landowner's point of view as he has stated it from the farmer's point of view. Does he realise this, that the President of the Board of Agriculture represents the relations of the State to agriculture, and not only the interests of the farmer, and that he has also to consider all sides of the question, the interests of the landowner as well as the farmer? The case, as I understand it, is this: Lord Berkeley is the owner of 23,000 acres, of which some 3,000 acres are woodland and cottage property, the remaining 20,000 acres being let in farms to his tenants. He has recently succeeded to the estate, and he finds himself called upon to pay immediately a sum which is nearer a million than three-quarters of a million.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
If I may tell the story in my own way, I shall be much obliged. The money representing this call is mortgages which are called up and Death and Estate Duties. Lord Berkeley has no choice. He is not a willing seller; he is most reluctant to sell. He is not certain that he is going to sell this property. The terms in which his agent wrote to the tenants show that on the face of it. He said that, in consequence of the heavy Death Duties and other capital charges for which Lord Berkeley had to provide, it might become necessary that some portions of the estate should be sold, and also that the agricultural tenants of the parts of the estate not sold should revert to the rents which prevailed before the agricultural depression. It is uncertain, then, whether the estates are going to be sold 1513 at all. Lord Berkeley owns, as the House is probably well aware, London property as well. It is a question whether he is going to sell parts of his country estate and parts of his London estate, or whether he will be able to meet these heavy charges by the sale of one property alone. But the mortgagees are pressing him for payment, and the Government is pressing him. What is he to do? What can he do? He has got to sell something in order to meet these enormous, these crushing calls. Twenty thousand acres is grazing land. During the War there have been added 750 acres of grass.
Now farmers who have made the most profit during the War, apart from potato farmers, are the tenants of grazing districts. Their expenses have risen far less than those on agricultural land, and these tenants of the grazing land on the Berkeley Estate are tenants of some of the richest grazing land in the whole of England. They, therefore, would have been, under any circumstances, making very large profits. But when you remember that they are holding at rents lower than in the 'nineties, I confess I do not believe that my hon. Friend is representing in any sense the feeling of the farmers of England if he represents to this House that these Berkeley tenants do not know perfectly well that they ought to pay, as they have paid, very much higher rents to their landlord, and that in these circumstances, considering the position in which their landlord is placed, that they will not be prepared to pay them. I do not believe that any body of British farmers would back up the Berkeley Estate tenants with those facts before them if the Berkeley Estate tenants refused. Let us consider what I have said about the difference of prices. I am sorry to say I have only here the prices of 1893, and I give you at once the fact that those are lowest in the years round about, but, in any case, remember these men are holding under rents calculated upon this basis; they have received abatements to meet these prices. The price of wheat in 1893 was 26s. 4d.; in 1917, 75s. 9d. The price of barley in 1913 was 25s. 7d.; now it is 64s. 9d. The price of oats in 1913 was 18s. 9d.; now it is 49s. 10d. You may say, "All that is perfectly true, but these men are grass farmers; those prices do not touch them." That may be. But take now the price of meat. In 1893 beef was 4¾d. per 1b. and mutton 5d.; in 1917 the price of beef was 12⅜d. per lb. and mutton 13¾d.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
The wages-bills of grass farmers are lower than those of the arable farmer. If these men were extensive arable farmers there would be something to be said for them. One man is employed on 100 acres of grass to four on arable land. Therefore, the wages question is the least important. The hon. Member says that he is told by his constituents that food production will be prejudiced if anything happens to these farmers. I very much doubt it. Will anybody in this House pretend that if these men are given notice to quit they are not going to overstock their grass land than understock it in the last year. Therefore, you will get more food production, and not less.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
It does not apply to arable land. Are you going to tell me that a man is not going to stock his land, that he is going to see his grass growing and let it waste by under stocking it because he has notice to quit? If a man is a good farmer he will, supposing he has got an arable farm say to himself: "I will get the last ounce out of that land in the last year I am there." I do not say it is good for the arable land. It may damage it, but for actual food production possibly the result will be that he will get more. If he is a bad farmer, what he will do will possibly be to put some fertiliser upon it that will give it a stimulus for a short time. Neither of them will damage the land in a year's time more than it will recover. Yet whether he is a good farmer or a bad one the chances are he will get just as much produce and rather more off the arable land in consequence of the notice to quit. In the old days what happened was that the farmer went in for a heavy outgoing valuation by fallowing. If he was going out he had an additional amount of fallow land for which he was compensated by the incoming tenant. But I ask, with the pries of wheat at 75s., is the arable farmer going to indulge largely, in the production of fallowing? I do not think he is. Although I willingly admit that if there were any circumstances which showed that giving notice to quit necessarily reduced production, I think 1515 the Government would be bound to interfere, but I very much doubt whether any such effects can be proved. I have read pretty carefully the arguments on which the resolution of the Central Chamber of Commerce proceeds. They all assume that the farmer would be so disturbed by a notice to quit that he would not put his back into it and raise the amount of produce. The argument is that that is not as a fact the result. Therefore I cannot say, and while I am willing and ready to advise that if food production is seriously prejudiced some abnormal measure should be passed, I am not prepared, on the evidence that has been given, to advise the Government to give security of tenure even during the War. I have to consider the case of the landowner as well as the farmer. Every restriction you impose upon the free sale of land—a principle which many hon. Members have always advocated—that is, the principle of free trade in land—ought not to be lightly interrupted. Every security you give diminishes the selling value of the landowner's land. The landowner, I was going to say, has been hammered, but at any rate he has suffered as much as any other class, and therefore I am reluctant to restrict the selling value of his land. I dare say what I am saying quite frankly and straightforwardly may not be popular. I have been asked at agricultural meetings whether I am disposed to grant this security of tenure, and I have always said "No." What I do think is a real grievance is the land speculator, and anything I can do to stop him I shall be glad to do.
There is one other thing. If a farmer has ploughed up grass land he has done it at the sacrifice of his immediate profits. I hope the House realises that this great effort which farmers have made in ploughing up their grass land is a sacrifice of their prospects of profits in the immediate future. The first year they lose money, and the second year they get it back. Supposing a tenant, after ploughing up grass in the first year, gets notice to quit. He is a sufferer if he is turned out before the second year, and if any measure can be devised to help him I am prepared to consider it.
§ Mr. RENDALL
The Chairmen of the Gloucestershire Farmers' Union say that they have to plough 10 per cent. They have ploughed 5 per cent., and are now 1516 ploughing the other 5 per cent., and they are in the position of not reaping the profit.
§ Mr. PROTHERO
If that were the case, they would come under the principle which I was trying to enunciate; but, as far as that goes, they have got a real grievance, and one which ought to be redressed, and I am quite prepared to do my best to do it. Let me, in conclusion, point out what is the position which is taken up, inadvisable as I think, by the Berkeley tenants. They will not apparently buy themselves—
§ Mr. PROTHERO
As to that, let me say that Lord Berkeley is only too glad to let his tenants have an opportunity of buying their holdings and doing it outside the auction. But, as you are aware, there are mortgagees to be consulted, and he has got to make a proper price for his land. The tenants must not expect that they are going to buy on the basis of rents calculated on the prices of the 'nineties. But they will have an opportunity of buying—
§ Mr. PROTHERO
I think I must go on. The position which the Berkeley tenants seem to me to take up is this: "We will not buy the land, and we will not let anyone else buy it. We want to go on exactly with the old rents, and we will not allow Lord Berkeley, who, mind you, has got to pay in every case enormously increased amounts for the upkeep of the estate, to get our help to pay those extra charges." I do not think it is fair, and I believe, if the Berkeley case were stated to any body of British farmers, that they would say, "In the first place, wait until you know 1517 whether you have to go; in the second place, if you are going and you have a chance of buying, buy; and, in the third alternative, submit like men to a rise in your rents." I hope that I have not spoken too warmly. I meant to tell the House exactly the truth as it seems to me and to express my view that the security asked for at the present moment—that is to say, making notice to quit inoperative during the War—is not a wise thing. I think the farmers of this country who at the present time are raising the cry of food production and endeavouring to appeal to townsmen on that question in order to obtain for themselves the privilege of sitting at their low rents are playing with fire, and are steering a course which will be disastrous to British agriculture.
§ Mr. E. DAVIES
I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman has adopted the attitude he has taken up to-night. I feel sure that his speech will be read to-morrow with great concern by all the farmers of the country. It would not be wise on my part, not being a farmer, to enter upon a discussion as between the right hon. Gentleman and the National Farmers' Union. We have been told that insecurity of tenure does not detrimentally affect the cultivation of land. I remember that some eight years ago the Government appointed a Committee of Members of both Houses, which sat under Lord Feversham, to consider the position of the tenants of landed estates, in view of the sales which had taken place, and the whole of the evidence given by the farmers was to the effect that the insecurity experienced by tenants was producing a detrimental effect upon the cultivation of the land. I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman cannot see his way to go so far as the unanimous recommendation of that Committee, which was that the tenants should be entitled in any event to two years' notice on the sale of the land, so that they could make some arrangements for the future.
1518 The right hon. Gentleman in discussing this case to-night forgets that the tenant has some interest in the land over and above renting it during the notice to quit. For instance, he is entitled to compensation for the improvements he has effected upon the land, and also for the manurial value. It is generally admitted that at present the compensation given by the Act of Parliament is insufficient, and for that reason to deprive the tenant of possession of his farm is a rather more serious matter than the right hon. Gentleman seemed to think. More than that, the evil is much more widespread than the right hon. Gentleman seemed to imagine. It is not by any means confined to the Berkeley Estate; it is prevalent all over the country. It is to be found, for instance, in Shropshire, from where I had a letter the other day stating that a small estate had been put up for sale no less than three times in two years. In Anglesey notice to quit was given to the tenants on three estates, in each case not with the object of realising the land for the payment of any duties or mortgages, but with the sole object of raising the rents. Every war agricultural committee in the country will agree that the insecurity which has been caused by these notices has undoubtedly hindered the cultivation of land. The evil is now being dealt with by some of these committees, by the committees themselves taking over possession of the land and cultivating it through their own agents. That is rather an unwise course to take. I would appeal again to the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether he cannot, at all events during the War, put into operation the suggestion made by Lord Feversham's Committee and provide that tenants shall not be dispossessed without obtaining from the landlord at least two years' notice.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Eleven minutes before Eleven o'clock.