HC Deb 01 August 1918 vol 109 cc772-81

For Sub-section (3) of Section eleven of the Corn Production Act, 1917, the following Subsection shall be substituted: (3) This Part of this Act shall not, except as hereinafter provided, come into operation until the termination of the present War, and the powers under the Defence of the Realm Regulations exerciseable by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries with a view to maintaining the food supply of the country with respect to matters dealt with in this Part of this Act shall continue to operate until that date:


I beg to move, at the end of paragraph (a), to insert the words, Provided also that, for the purpose of this Sub section, the words 'according to the rules of good husbandry' shall be taken to mean only the efficient cultivation of the land and the preventing such land being fouled with weeds. I move this because, as the Bill stands, the farmer would either have to reduce his quota of acres under corn or he would break the law and be liable to the intervention of the war agricultural committee, who could dispossess him of his land temporarily, in order to carry out what I recognise to be the principles of good husbandry. I cannot help thinking that this is a very unjust position in which to put the farmer. The rules of good husbandry in some localities means that you must take two straw crops in succession, but in all localities, all counties, to take three straw crops in succession is an outrage on the rules I have mentioned. At present, however, it is impossible for us to produce our quota of corn without, in some instances, having to take three straw crops in succession from the land. Provided suitable manure is judiciously supplied, there is no injury whatever to the land. If this Bill is passed without my Amendment, the farmer so acting, though he is acting in the interests of production, his quota of com, will be liable to the intervention of the War Agricultural Committee, and be dealt with accordingly, because he "will not be farming in accordance with the recognised rules of good husbandry." I cannot help appealing to the right hon. Gentleman—I know he is always anxious to deal justly with agriculturists—to avoid putting us in such a position that we must either break the law or reduce the output of corn. It may, and will be said, that, generally speaking, the war agricultural committees would not take action in that case. Probably that is so in the majority of cases; but I say it is unfair to expose the farmer to the caprice of an individual executive authority here and there. Surely when we are making a law we ought to make it so that it can be carried out without, at the one end, a breach of another law, and, at the other end, causing a diminution of the production of corn? Just now the feeling amongst the farmers is very sensitive on this point. The Corn Production Bill was a compromise, rendered necessary by the need for largely developing the corn supply of the country. I regret that any steps have been taken to interfere with the Bill, which was an agreed Bill. I trust the right hon. Gentleman, if he cannot accept my Amendment to-night, will arrange when the Bill goes to another place, to, at any rate, relieve farmers from a danger which is a very real one. I am very anxious, as anxious as is the right hon. Gentleman, that the land should be cultivated to its highest possible capabilities. In order to achieve that the confidence of the farmers must surely be maintained. It would be deplorable at the present, when we want all possible production, that any other result should accrue.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I trust my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will accept this Amendment. I do not advocate it as the best Amendment that can be brought forward, because I agree with my hon. Friend that far and away the best thing would be to have left the Bill as it was when it came down to this House. The hour is late, and I do not want to raise the controversy which I raised on a former occasion. But I am sure that all the Members of the House who have studied the Corn Production Bill and the amended Bill will agree with my hon. Friend when he says that from the first the Bill was an agreed Bill passed only a short time ago—not yet a year—which ought never to have been altered, at any rate, not without the consent of the farming interest. It is a very great misfortune that an alteration has been made. What does the Amendment propose? It merely defines what good husbandry means. Good husbandry, as it will be in the Bill if this Amendment is not accepted, may be taken to mean an infinite variety of things. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is hardly fair on the farmer to single him out and make his industry a special industry subject to restrictions and interference which have not been imposed upon any other industry. I do not want to make any accusations against the war agricultural committees. They may be most excellent people, but that does not alter the fact that it is not fair on any man who is engaged in business to put the management of that business in the power of any single body of people without any appeal whatever. All that my hon. Friend asks for is that if the Board of Agriculture, or the War Agricultural Committee acting on their behalf, say that a certain farm is not being cultivated efficiently, the House should at any rate define the words "good husbandry." I should have thought it would be far better to have in some way provided that, where interference is made, there should be a right of appeal from the arbitrary decision of any given body of men. We all know of many instances in the past where landlords have hesitated to turn out a tenant because he was only farming badly. The President of the Board of Agriculture will agree that there have been many instances where landlords have not turned out a tenant who has been farming badly, because, for many reasons, they do not wish to turn off an old tenant. Where they have exercised their rights they have been generally abused for doing it by a number of people. Really, the right remedy for this is to leave the matter in the hands of the landlord. He will look after his own property and the interest of the tenant. If that is not to be done, and State interference seems to be substituted for the landlord, a thing which I very much regret, for goodness sake only give power of appeal and appeal only to a single arbitrator, or, at any rate, so define what is meant by good husbandry so that there can be no dispute upon the matter when the powers given under this Bill become law!

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Prothero)

I quite recognise that this Bill takes away from the landowner and the occupiers of land certain securities which they were given by Act of Parliament, and it is only for good reasons connected with the emergency in which we are now living and the absolute necessity for prompt action in certain departments of agriculture that makes us wish for the alteration. In limiting my request to land which is being badly cultivated and wanted for allotments, I am asking for two things which are very essential to agricultural progress at the present moment, because, in the first place, the only means by which we can increase agricultural production on large farms is, in the present state of depleted labour, by improving the farming; and, secondly, the only way we can increase the output of food is by increasing the number of allotments. Those are the two points. This is really a verbal Amendment, and it raises none of the points to which the hon. Baronet and the hon. Member who moved it alluded. It is merely a question whether "according to the rules of good husbandry" is better than the words "the efficient cultivation of the land and the preventing such land being fouled with weeds." The words "good husbandry" are already in the Corn Production Bill, and this Sub-section, which will be incorporated with the Act, will contain a definition for this purpose. Further, may I point out that the preventing of land being fouled with weeds is only one of the many points in which the rules of good husbandry might be broken, such as the cleaning out of ditches. It is very difficult if you merely state one single case to do anything but hamper us in dealing with bad farms. It is quite true that the rules of good husbandry are different in various parts of Great Britain, but I do not think any difficulty will exist in doing perfect justice to both good and bad farmers. I think it is a far more dangerous thing to attempt a definition of such a phrase as "the rules of good husbandry" than to leave it as it stands, because it is generally understood. It would be quite good husbandry to take three corn crops in succession provided that you not only use the proper manure, as the hon. Member for Tavistock (Sir J. Spear) suggested, but also keep your land clean; but it would not be consistent with the rules of good husbandry to take two or three corn crops in succession without taking those precautions. I do not think that there will be any difficulty in interpreting these words, and I regret that I cannot accept the Amendment.


Will the right hon. Gentleman issue an instruction to the agricultural committees that they are not to consider rotation of crops?



Captain Sir C. BATHURST

I am relieved to hear that the right hon. Gentleman does not propose to accept this Amendment, because I am quite certain that it would limit in a most undesirable way the action of the agricultural Committees. There are some distinguished agriculturists who, for twenty-five years, have had the same land tinder successive crops of corn, yielding not 32 bushels to the acre, but something like half as much again, simply because they took the trouble to supply fertilisers am large quantities, thereby maintaining the fertility of the laud. They found great economic advantage from the process. Why I take exception to the limiting words is that it ought to be more and more the object to make the land yield the maximum amount of food, and the fact is that nearly all our arable land has been greatly neglected during the last twenty-five or thirty years, which was largely the result of agricultural depression. I am quite certain that grass land has been even more neglected, and requires more careful attention to increase the amount of food that is raised from British soil. I hope, I have always hoped, by these words which the right hon. Gentleman interpreted, or allowed to be interpreted in the amended Bill, that special instructions will be given to war agricultural committees to concentrate their attention more largely upon the remaining grass lands, with a view to their proper cultivation, attention being given to harrowing and to the supply of suitable fertilisers, in order to make grass land produce at least 50 per cent. more in the way of animal food. I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman has not accepted this Amendment, and this is one respect in which I hope, that during the War at any rate, there will be right of appeal by those who imagine that they have a grievance against the war agricultural committees.


I observe, from the interjection of my hon. Friend (Sir J. Spear), that the right, hon. Gentleman has made some sort of compromise between the position which he has taken up and that of the Mover of the Amendment. I venture to suggest that, if my right hon. Friend has made the compromise that the agricultural committees are not to consider rotation of crops under the usual instruction as regards "good husbandry," he might undertake that the matter of drainage, which is so difficult to deal with on account of labour, shall also be excluded from the circular to be issued, and also as regards ditching and other matters which are similarly restricted by the difficulty of obtaining labour. If my right hon. Friend, who has a practical knowledge of the subject, and in whom, I am sure, my hon. Friend (Sir J. Spear) has the utmost confidence, would undertake that in the circular he is going to issue to the war agricultural committees he will include these points and such other points as might reasonably arise from the circumstances of the War as compared with the times of peace and the rules of husbandry in the times of peace, and if the right hon. Gentleman will give an undertaking to do that, it might possibly be at the discretion of the hon. Member for Tavistock to accept such an undertaking as satisfactory.


I quite accept the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that the difficulty about the corn crops will be dealt with in the way suggested by him. I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Colonel ROYDS

I beg to move, at the end of paragraph (b) to insert, (c) Before possession is taken under the said power on or after the said date, of any land for the purpose of securing any change in the mode of cultivating or in the use of the land other than the conversion of the land into gardens or allotments, notice of intention to take such possession shall, unless the notice is served solely for the purpose of securing that the land shall be cultivated according to the rules of good husbandry, be served on the owner and occupier of the land if they can reasonably be ascertained, and the proviso to Sub-section (1) of Section nine of this Act shall apply as if the notice had been served under the powers conferred by that Section; and. The effect of this Amendment is that before compulsory possession is taken of any land under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act and the Regulations thereunder, reasonable notice is to be given to the owner and occupier, and that both of them have a right of appeal to an arbitrator appointed by the President of the Surveyors' Institute under the provisions of the Corn Production Act. There is one important exception. There is no appeal when land is taken for the purposes of allotments. Personally, I thought that it would have been much better that there should have been an appeal in all cases where land is compulsorily taken for agricultural purposes under the Defence of the Realm Act, because we are encouraging tenants, large and small, to do all they can to increase food production, and it would give them an additional feeling of security if it were made clear that they were not liable to be turned out of any portion of their holding under the powers of the Defence of the Realm Act Without their having the liberty to apply to an arbitrator such as one appointed by the President of the Surveyors' Institute. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is quite adamant on that subject. He thinks it right and in the interests of food production at the present time that there should be no appeal in the case of land required for allotments. I have, therefore, handed in an Amendment which provides for an appeal in all the other cases, but does not provide for an appeal in the case of allotments. I have submitted the Amendment to my right hon. Friend, and I understand that he is prepared to regard it somewhat favourably. I am influenced very much in the position I have taken up by the fact that in paragraph (c) of this Bill reasonable provision is made for compensation where possession of land is taken for allotments or any other purpose. I should like to have seen an appeal provided in all cases where possession is compulsorily taken under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act, but my right hon. Friend is not prepared, I understand, to concede the whole point. I earnestly hope he will see his way to accept the Amendment in the form in which I move it.


My hon. and gallant Friend showed me this Amendment before moving it, and I am prepared to accept it. It gives me the powers without appeal which I desire to retain, namely, the power to enforce specific acts of cultivation according to the rules of husbandry and the right to obtain land for allotments and field gardens. I think the powers we possessed of acquiring land without appeal were very large and vague, and my hon. and gallant Friend has hit a blot in our proposals when he suggests limiting our powers in that respect to the acquisition of land for gardens and allotments. I think that is a desirable thing to do, and I am prepared to accept it. I am very glad that he has put in the provision that the notice is to be served on the owner and occupier of the land "if they can reasonably be ascertained." That is a very important point, because there is a very considerable estate in Sussex which was bought by a land company and re-sold to some thousand purchasers, and at present there is neither owner nor occupier of that land. If we had had to wait to serve notices upon owners and occupiers, or even upon occupiers alone, we should not have been able to cultivate it, but to-day it has been taken in hand by the East Sussex Agricultural Committee, under the supervision of an excellent farmer, and instead of being derelict land it is growing some of the best corn, in the whole country. I will, therefore, accept the Amendment, and am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for having moved it.


No doubt this is a concession, but it is a very slight one, and it has not in any kind of way altered my objection to the alteration of the Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."


I want to ask with reference to the point that the whole of the cases where compensation has been claimed have been brought within the new proviso, and are to be treated by a single arbitrator. I know that a considerable number of these cases have been undoubtedly running on for some time. They have had all the trouble of making their claim to the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission, and they would have come up for hearing at a comparatively early date. I know one or two cases where the tenant was entirely expropriated from his holding in April last year, his farm, stock, and implements and everything being taken over, and he has not received up to the present any money at all, which must be, of course, a very serious matter for a small farmer. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to take the very earliest opportunity of instructing the war agricultural committees to take into consideration these claims, and to be sure that they come on at the very earliest moment. Many of the claimants are not very conversant with these matters, and they are extremely confused by being told that they are being changed from one procedure to another. Some help will undoubtedly have to be given to them by the Board of Agriculture. I hope that as soon as the Act becomes law the right hon. Gentleman will see that their claims are carefully and as early as possible dealt with.


In the present state of the House, with not more than fifteen or sixteen Members here, it would be useless to divide against the Third Reading, as I should have done if there had been anything like a full attendance. I would not like to expose the Noble Lord to the risk of finding that forty Members were not present if we divided against the Bill. Therefore, I content myself in making a protest, and I hope that in another place some more effective measures will be taken.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the third time, and passed.