§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I beg to move, at the end of the Address to add the words:But humbly regrets that in His Majesty's Gracious Speech from the Throne no announcement is made of real provision for the needs of the agricultural industry and population.I was surprised to find that his advisers were content to allow His Majesty only to make a perfunctory reference to any provision for British agriculture. The only references are two. We are promised a Ministry of Ways and Communications, with a view to increasing and developing the industrial and agricultural resources of the country by improved methods of transport, and again, "You will be asked to consider measures for increasing the industrial and agricultural output." In the whole of that long speech that is the only reference that is made. While I recognise that improved transport will be of assistance, it is of really no value to meet the perilous position which I am going to point out. The position of British agriculture was completely changed by the passage of the Corn Production Act in 1917. Up to that time agriculture, and those engaged in it, were left to carry on their industry as best they could, but from the passage of that Act agriculture became a subsidised industry, unable to stand on its own legs or rely on its own resources. Since the passage of that Act agriculture depends entirely on a subsidy, and as far as I can see in the future, at least for the next few years, it is going to become more and more dependent on the subsidy. The scheme of the Corn Production Act was this: For the first time there was introduced into agriculture a minimum wage. No man can be employed in agriculture unless he receives this fixed wage. Wages boards were set up, and the wage has been 485 fixed on an average for the farm worker at about 35s. throughout England and Scotland. It varies from 30s. to about 41s., while the experts in agriculture, such as the cowman, stockmen, horsemen, and men of that character, receive on an average 6s. or 7s. more than that minimum. In return for the minimum wage the farmers receive guarantees fixed according to the price of corn. The guarantee varies, but for the year of the harvest that is to come he is to be paid for every acre of wheat he grows on the basis of four times the difference between the average selling price for the country of a quarter of wheat and the price of 55s. as fixed by the Corn Production Act. In other words, for every acre of wheat the farmer grows, he is deemed to grow four quarters an acre, and the State guarantees that he receives 55s. a quarter for it. For every acre of oats that he grows he is for this year to receive 32s., And he is deemed to grow five quarters per acre, and is really guaranteed five quarters of oats per acre at a price of 32s. It is quite true that the guarantee has not hitherto become operative, the reason being that owing to the War, owing to the shortage of shipping, the enormous increase of freight and insurance, and the increased cost of wheat in all countries in the world, the price has never got anywhere near the figures I have named as fixed in the Corn Production Act. The Government, in order to protect the consumers, fixed a maximum price for cereals under the Defence of the Realm Act. The existing controlled price, which has been in operation for some time, taking wheat alone—I only propose to deal with wheat, the other cereals vary in proportion—is 75s. 6d.
The House will note that although the Government fixed the maximum price it has never guaranteed to the farmer a market for the corn which he is ordered to produce, and we are already seeing the effect of the termination of the War. Already freights have gone down something like two-thirds of what they were just before the War finished. Insurances have gone down enormously; the price of wheat is going down all over the world. To-day, owing to the purchases of wheat by the Government, foreign wheat, and owing to the fact that the Government are getting rid of the foreign wheat they have bought, the small farmer in England is unable to sell the wheat he is ordered to grow. Only the bigger farmers can sell the wheat, 486 but they cannot get the maximum price. What is the peril to which I refer? Wages are increasing, and I perhaps ought to say something about wages. The wages are fixed under the terms of the Corn Production Act, and the section under which they are fixed reads: —The Wages Board shall, so far as practicable, secure for able-bodied men wages which, in the opinion of the Board, are adequate to promote efficiency and to enable a man in an ordinary case to maintain himself and his family in accordance with such standard of comfort as may be reasonable in relation to the nature of his occupation.The wages boards, so I am informed, are acting quite irrespective of what the price of wheat is. Whether they do so or whether they do not is really immaterial to my argument. The main point is that I the Corn Production Act was passed in 1917 and the wages boards did not come into operation until 1918, when the cost of everything had enormously increased. They have fixed an average wage for the whole country, which works out at about 35s., whereas the Act of Parliament, when it was passed, contemplated a minimum wage at somewhere about 25s. The wages boards are at present engaged in raising wages, and I am very glad to see that agriculture wages are being brought somewhat into consonance with the necessities of a decent livelihood; but my particular point is that the wages boards are at present engaged in increasing these wages by giving them half-holidays and less work, and there is already a demand throughout the country taken up by the men's section of the wages boards to increase the minimum wage which has already been fixed. At the same time that there is this increase the guarantee that is given under the Corn Production Act goes down next year from 55s. to 45s. for wheat and from 32s. to 24s. for oats, so that we shall be getting very nearly to the pre-war prices for these cereals.
Seeing that the maximum price as fixed cannot be obtained at the present time, seeing that little farmers cannot sell their wheat at all, and that the big farmers cannot get their maximum price for the wheat they are called upon to grow, what are the prospects for the future? Wheat prices are steadily going down. There are large surplus quantities in the Argentine, in India and Australia. There are large, harvests in view and freights will go down more than I have already mentioned. New ships are being brought into existence every week. Other ships are being taken away from war service and added to the 487 ordinary transport of goods, and I feel perfectly convinced that in a year's time we shall have wheat down to 45s. and the only thing the farmer will have to rely upon to enable him to pay his wages is the subsidy, which I recognise, and I am sure the House recognises, has to be paid by the town man and the taxpayers of the whole population of this country. As to the prospects of the wheat market, I would like to read something that appeared in the "Times" a week ago, on 7th February, expressing the views of Sir James Wilson, of Edinburgh, formerly British delegate for the whole of the British Empire at the International Institute of Agriculture held at Rome. He tells us that according to the statistical position on the 1st August, 1918, there were no less than 10,000,000 tons of wheat ready to be sent to Europe from the Argentine, Australia, and India. He tells us that the existing harvests are as good as they ever have been known throughout the world, and he finishes with these words:The price of wheat in Britain must soon be allowed to fall to the level established by the law of demand and supply, and it may therefore soon, perhaps by June, fall to 60s. per quarter, or even, if the propects of the very large world's wheat harvest becomes assured, to less than 50s. a quarter. By September English wheat may be selling at 40s. a quarter.He puts the price rather lower than I do, but he bears out what I have put before the House regarding the wheat market and that within a year's time we shall have wheat at something like 45s. a quarter and the farmer depending entirely upon the subsidy. What I suggest to the Government is—and I hope very strongly that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture will agree—that immediate steps should be taken to revise the Corn Production Act and to revise the prices, otherwise the whole of the farmers of England and the whole of British agriculture—and I am not speaking in an exaggerated way—are heading for catastrophe and disaster. The mere fact that the minimum wage of 25s. was contemplated, that the Act gave a guaranteed price of corn at 55s., and the existing fact that the minimum wage is at least 35s. when you take the whole country and has a rising tendency above 35s., makes a prima facie and absolute case for revision of the whole of the prices fixed by the Corn Production Act. If it was right to fix a price of 55s. and a minimum wage of 25s., it is clear that the 55s. must be 488 increased when the wage has been increased from 25s. to 35s. I tell the House, on the best advice I can get, that it is impossible to grow wheat at anything like the 55s. with the present price either of labour or commodities, and of everything that the farmer has to buy.
I am concerned here not with the whole of agriculture, though the Amendment which I put down was backed unanimously by the whole of the Agricultural Committees which we have in this House, but I speak more particularly for my own county, the east part of Sussex. I have figures which were taken for Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset shire, and Wiltshire which show that a quarter of wheat cannot be grown at anything like 55s. at the present time. In addition to the rise in wages the prices of all commodities have risen and are still rising. Even since the 1st of January this year there has been a rise of at least 5 per cent. in every implement and machine that a farmer has to buy. I do not conceal that it is extremely difficult to take out the cost of any article which the farmer produces in the course of his industry, as the cost necessarily varies and may be greater at one time than another or greater in the case of one place than another. For instance, when a farmer ploughs and reaps a field he might have a small crop or he might have a crop out of all proportion to the average crop. What has been done is this. The National Farmers' Union of East Sussex called for returns, from farmers all over the county. They took the first twenty-three of them and they averaged out the cost of an acre of wheat, and it worked out at £16 4s. They then took the first six of the first twenty-three and went through every detailed item of the cost in each case. I have the figures in my pocket now. They held meeting after meeting to consider them and see if they were correct. The instructions I gave were to make sure they could stand cross-examination by experts. The figures for the six that I have referred to were £15 16s. 4d. an acre; but taking the whole twenty-three and assuming that there were 4 quarters to the acre, the cost works out at 81s., or at 3½ quarters to the acre it works out at over 90s.
These are the present figures for the growing of wheat certified by the National Farmers' Union and taken from figures collected with the greatest care from all over the county. In my own district twenty-five of these returns were received 489 by the local branch of the National Farmers' Union, and they worked out at £15 5s. for the acre, and if you take this as a basis it will work out at over £4 a quarter. The Peters field branch of the National Farmers' Union, at a meeting of farmers representing Hampshire, Dorset shire, and part of Wiltshire, took out the figures for the cost of growing a quarter of wheat, going into the minutest particulars and differentiating between heavy, medium, and light land, and they arrived at the result that the cost of growing a quarter of wheat on heavy land was 73s., on medium land 71s. 6d., and on light land 85s. If this is so, how is wheat growing to continue? Something must be done. The country has been stirred up during the last three years of war to the fact that we must grow corn in this country. Under the stimulus that has been applied land has been brought into cultivation which can never grow wheat economically. But this applies only to a very small portion. A great deal that has been brought into cultivation should be kept in cultivation. We must grow wheat. We must grow it for our own protection. We must also grow it as part of the farming and agricultural rotation. We must keep men on the land. But I am not going to argue the question from the national standpoint. My interest is the industry and the farmers engaged in the industry. I leave it to others to urge the national claims of agriculture, but I do tell the House, and townsmen in particular, that unless this matter is taken up the land which is growing corn must go out of cultivation, except a minimum that must be grown for ordinary farming rotation; but, otherwise, the land which has been ploughed up at great expense, and even the old corn land, will go back as it did in the bad times in the 'eighties, into grass.
The expense of cultivation not only in labour, but for every item on the farm, has gone up by 200 or 300 per cent., and the expenses are such that this cannot go on. I cannot believe that the Prime Minister realises the position. From the speeches that he has made, and from his own up-bringing, I know that he has sympathy with agriculture and with people who live by the land, but I do urge that we should have some assurance that this matter will be taken into consideration, and taken into consideration quickly. I have for a long period recognised that 490 the agricultural workers' wage is totally inadequate for the responsibilities he has to undertake. I became a Tariff Reformer solely for the purpose of raising the agricultural workers' wages. We were defeated in that policy, and by whom—by the Labour party in Great Britain, who wanted cheap food for the towns. The Labour party now, since they want, I take it, an accession to their political strength, have suddenly evinced a very active and earnest interest in the agricultural labourer in the country districts. The one fault I have to find, and the only one, is that there is an attempt to bring too much industrialism into the farms of England. The services they are rendering, I think, are good, and I am glad to think that on behalf of agriculture, so far as I can speak for it, I am able to claim the whole of the Labour party now in support of the interests of agriculture. The wages of the workers and the profits of the farmer are both dependent on, and are non-existent without, the guarantee of the Corn Production Act, and, what is more, on an alteration and increase of that guarantee. Remember that that does not really affect the principle of cheap food. The Prime Minister has decided, and decided rightly, that agriculture is to remain a subsidised industry. He has also decided, and in my view rightly, that in this present period of great industrial unrest the one line of action to take and the policy to be adopted is to reduce the cost of living at all points. I hope that the Government will pursue and carry out that policy. The mores that is done, the more necessary it becomes that wages are kept up in agriculture by means of the guarantee and by means of an increased guarantee. The party opposite—Irefer to the Labour party, have got a great opportunity of coming to the assistance of the workmen on the farms of England by voting for an increase of their wages and at the same time an increase of this guarantee to make that increase of wages possible, and at the same time by telling their supporters in the towns that the guarantee is necessary, and that a subsidy must be paid by the townsmen of England.
§ Colonel FITZROY
I beg to second the Amendment.
I should like to emphasise what has been said on this subject, and I welcome the opportunity of bringing forward the agricultural question in the 491 Debate on the Address. I can assure the House that keen interest was felt and keen disappointment expressed at what I may call the meagre reference to the agricultural question contained in the Gracious Speech from the Throne, and also keen disappointment expressed lest possibly there might not be an opportunity to bring forward the question in the Debate on the Address. We quite recognise that there are at the present moment most important questions for consideration by this House, but at the same time we claim that, after all, agriculture is still the chief industry of this country, and that its claim to attention by this House is every bit as great as are the claims of any other industry, if not greater. Although we quite acknowledge that at this moment there are questions of great urgency for the consideration of this House, we claim that the urgency of the agricultural problem which confronts us is every bit as great.
It is not so very long ago since this country was threatened with an extremely dangerous state of affairs as regards its food supplies. I doubt very much if anybody really realised what the menace to this country really was except those actually acquainted with the position. That menace was primarily caused by the submarines of our enemies, but it was chiefly caused by the neglect which the agricultural industry received in the past from every Government in this country for the last twenty-five years. It is quite true that at this present moment hostilities have ceased, but I should like to express one word of warning, and it is that although hostilities have ceased we are not to suppose that the possibilities of war have been for ever removed. There is a great danger at the present time that people of this country may be deceived. I do not mean that in any bad sense, by ideas as to Leagues of Nations and so forth, into thinking that the danger of any future war is removed. That is not the case, and should war ever come again not only does the submarine menace remain, but science would probably have developed that arm so as to make it more dangerous than ever. Realising that fact, as the nation did realise it in the time when the danger was present, they took action. What has been done so far to meet our difficulty is the passing of a measure in this House to enforce the ploughing up of additional land, and the Corn Production Act. The first of those two 492 measures, passed in order to increase the produce of corn in this country, was only a war measure and could only be passed as a war measure. You could not go on indefinitely forcing agriculturists or any other industry to do that which they know is not to their advantage from an economic point of view. The second of these Bills, the Corn Production Act, was supposed to give a security to the farmer for the corn which he produced on the amount of increased arable land that he has been forced to plough up, and at the same time the Act is supposed to give security to the agricultural labourer that he will get a sufficient wage. That is what the Government has done up to now to deal with the agricultural situation. The Corn Production Act fixed the price of corn for four years on a declining scale. The Wages Boards which were started under the Corn Production Act have fixed the prices of the agricultural labourer's wage on an increasing scale. If you take these two things one with the other, it is quite obvious, I should think, to the meanest intelligence that the prospects are that the industry which is so dealt with must come to disaster.
The unfortunate farmer is always accused, by those who are misinformed, of profiteering. I have heard people who ought to have known better say that the farmer has been the profiteer during the War. I believe it was perfectly true that, at any rate for the first two years of the War, farmers made a very large profit. That was chiefly accounted for by the rapid rise of the prices of his produce, whereas the cost of his labour, machinery, and the things which he used on his farm did not immediately go up in price. But I do not think I shall be wrong in saying that for the last two years, certainly for the last year, the farmers of this country, though there may be instances where the contrary has occurred, by no means made profits out of their industry. There is a good deal of misunderstanding on this question, and I am afraid it is very often encouraged by misinformed people who write in the newspapers. I see it said: "How can it be true that the farmers of this country have not made large profits when the price of land, as we see by the sales that have taken place, has so enormously increased?"
I am often asked that question, and it seems at first sight as if it was so, and that the profits had been made, and 493 that the very large demand for the land made it look as if it was a most profitable industry. But the increased prices which land has been fetching lately are very misleading to those who do not take the trouble to find out the causes. In the first place, the increase in the price of land is often reckoned by the larger price that it fetches now compared to what it would have fetched, say fifteen or twenty years ago. No consideration whatever is paid to the price it used to fetch forty years ago. I know an instance of some land, 2,500 acres, which forty years ago was purchased for £80,000. About twelve years ago the owner endeavoured to sell that piece of land, and the beat he could obtain for it was £30,000. He has recently sold it for £13,000. Anybody who had not been informed on this question would naturally infer that the rise from £30,000 to £13,000 showed an increase in the value of the ground. It is quite true there is an increase in the value from what it was twelve years ago, but if you take that as a basis you are taking a basis when land was absolutely at its lowest, and you ought to take a mean average between the two. But the increased value which is being obtained for land is, in my judgment, due to three different causes. People accuse landowners of giving a high price for their land, but seem to forget that the land is just as much affected by the value of money as is any other commodity which is bought and sold. As the purchasing value of money is now about half what it was ten years ago, obviously the land is affected by these economic changes, and its price must be larger than it was a short time ago.
There is another reason why landowners get higher prices for their land than some people think they ought to have. The unfortunate landowner has had for many years in this country to bear the weight of much abuse and criticism, but if there is one thing more certain than another it is that owners of agricultural land, at any rate to tenants of long standing, let them retain their land at very much below the rent which might have been obtained. If a farmer comes along and gives what appears to be a much higher price than the rent he has been paying seemed to justify, it is because for years he has been farming it below its value as a rentable concern, and that is shown conclusively by his being willing to pay a high price in order to remain upon it. One other reason 494 for the sale of land at good values, and in my mind one of the most satisfactory is that it shows conclusively that a very large community in this country are anxious, even at a high price, to remain and work on the land, which, in my humble judgment, is still the best occupation a man can possibly have. I am the very last Member of this House who would wish in any way to reduce the wages of the agricultural labourer. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman who preceded me in this Debate that he has been, in my judgment, shamefully treated in this respect in the past. I had the honour with some Members of this House several years ago of sitting on an agricultural committee with the view of doing what we could to increase the agricultural labourer's wage, but we found we were up against such impossible obstacles, and the Government of the day would render us such very small assistance, that our efforts at that time were not as successful as they might have been. I say emphatically that the lowness of the agricultural labourer's wage in the past has been entirely due to the lack of consideration given to agriculture as an industry by successive Governments in this country, and for no other reason whatever. It is obvious from the events which have taken place in the last two or three years that the taxpayers, and especially those engaged in industrial occupations in the towns, must begin to realise that they cannot have it both ways, that either the agricultural labourer's wage must go down or else the land of this country must go out of cultivation They must realise that they have got to pay the actual cost of the production of the things that they want, and that until they do so we shall constantly have this agitation between town and country, which is so very much to be deplored.
I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks that although I realised fully there were many urgent and most urgent questions which needed the consideration of this House, yet I thought the agricultural question was, if possible, more urgent, and certainly as urgent as any question to which we could give our consideration. I say so for this reason: Agriculture is an industry in which you cannot turn the tap on hot or cold at a moment's notice. You cannot produce ploughing-up schemes just because you want to increase the amount of cereals grown in this country at the 495 moment. You must have a definite policy, so that those engaged in the industry can feel secure for some period of years. For instance, we have to know now—not after the 31st March—what the policy as regards agriculture is to be in order to prepare for the next succeeding four years the way our crops are to be grown. I do not want to weary the House with technicalities, but anybody who has been engaged in farming operations knows that on many lands it is absolutely necessary, in order to keep your land clean and to grow a good crop of wheat, that you should have some portion of your farm lying in fallow every year. How in the world is a man to know, unless he knows before the 31st March, what are the prospects for the year afterwards, what portion of land he should keep in fallow and what portion he should not? If he leaves the land in fallow and the prospects of a crop of wheat are withheld from him, he loses what might have been for the moment a profitable crop, and the land produces nothing for the country. Therefore, you must have a policy, and the Government must tell us what it is at the earliest possible moment if the best products of the land are to be secured. I see in the Gracious Speech from the Throne it is said that the Government have in view measures for increasing the output of the land. Unless they tell us what their policy is in regard to the land, I can assure them that they are not fulfilling the words of the King's Speech by doing their best to increase the output from the land.
It seems sometimes almost childish the sort of things one has to say to those who refuse for some reason or other to take an intelligent interest in the operations of farming. Farmers are business men, and work their industry for a profit. They are not philanthropists, whose object is to supply the townspeople with cheap articles of food. What an irony it is to suggest that you are going to settle men on the land to occupy small holdings when you do not hold out to them a reasonable prospect of making a profitable livelihood out of it! During the time that I was in France during the recent War, owing to the movements of the Division to which I was attached, I had the opportunity of occupying as billets a very large number of houses which were really small holdings in France and Flanders, and I had every 496 opportunity of studying the methods of the most industrious people who occupy those holdings. What seemed to me the chief thing with regard to them was the tremendous amount of work they had to put in in order to make a profitable occupation of their small holding. There was no question of a six hours day, with the possibility of a strike if they did not get fifteen minutes for luncheon. That sort of question did not arise among these industrious people in France and Flanders. What impressed one more than anything else was that men, women, and children who were engaged in small holding work in that part of the world worked something more like a sixteen to eighteen hours day than a six hours day. I should be the last to discourage any man who had the inclination, the training, and the desire to occupy a small holding. If he could get one in a suitable district, I should be the first to encourage him to take it. But I can assure the House that it is not doing people any good to hold out to them the prospect that they are going to have a good time of it and leisure if they are given small holdings, unless, at any rate, the Government will do more than they have done in the past to encourage the agricultural industry and enable men to make a profitable livelihood out of it. What does it come to? That if you are going to secure the agricultural labourer's wage at what it is now the Government must tackle this question without a moment's delay. I do hope the hon. Gentleman who now represents agriculture—and I am sure we are ready to give him every assistance we can in the arduous job he has got before him—will get into touch with the Noble Lord who at present presides over the Board of Agriculture, and that they will put their heads together, with the best advice they can receive, and reconsider the Corn Production Act, so as to make it an Act which will give ample security to the tenant farmer and those engaged in agriculture, so that they can put their money into the industry with the prospect that it will give a profitable return, and also give that security to the agricultural labourer in working to the best advantage of the State, with the sure knowledge that his wages will not be cut down in the near future.
§ Mr. ROYCE
I should not, at this early stage of my Parliamentary career, have intruded in this Debate but for the fact 497 that I have the honour to represent, in all probability—I hope it will not be controverted—the most important agricultural constituency in the Kingdom. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] In a very large measure I agree with the Mover and Seconder of this Amendment, but. I joined issue early in the Mover's speech when he dismissed, as being of very secondary and practically of little importance to agriculture, the question of transportation. That, in my opinion, is one of the most important, if not the most important, matter that those desirous of benefiting agriculture should at once take in hand. I have my own opinion, and I trust and believe it is shared by all the occupants of these benches, that the first step in this direction that should be taken is to nationalise the railways. If the railways were worked in the interests of the country, rather than in the interests of shareholders, agriculture would be among the very first things to benefit by the change. I know there are many difficulties in the matter when approaching the subject of agriculture, and what is good in one part of the country is not necessarily good in the other. The question that has been largely brought before the House this afternoon is that of corn-growing. Corn-growing is of supreme importance. It is, in all probability, the most important in many counties, but in the county I have the honour to represent it does not occupy the same prominent position that it does in other counties in this country.
I should like to say, while on the subject of transportation, that the question of improved transport communication has justly received attention in His Majesty's Speech, and I do hope that the subject will be approached in no niggardly measure by the Department concerned. We, in the county I have the honour to represent, have already a scheme which will make a demand for something like 100 miles of railway. I have no doubt many other counties will have as great, or even larger, demands, but in this connection I should like to suggest that careful consideration should be given in the matter of the administration of these lines when built, and I suggest that it would be well for the Department to take into consideration whether they should not form part of the county council administration rather than of the regular railways of the country. It would be found, I am sure, of great advantage, 498 especially in agricultural districts, if the administration of these proposed lines were purely local rather than general. We have a scheme by which we propose that all these lines should be devoted purely to the carriage of agricultural produce and imports necessary for the industry, and that passenger traffic should take no part in connection with it. Under these circumstances, there would be no difficulty whatever in placing these lines under the control of the same authority, say, for instance, that now administers the roads. Another matter brought forward by the hon. Gentleman opposite—and I think it reflects somewhat, on the party with which I have the honour to be associated—was the remark with regard to agricultural labourers having votes. I take it that this party would be altogether unworthy of its name as a Labour party unless it took into its fold the interests of that large, and largely inarticulate, class, the labourerson the land, and I am quite sure that, when the hon. Gentleman made that reference, he had not in his mind the desire to impress the House with the belief that the Labour party, at any rate, wore indifferent to the claims of the agricultural labourer.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
I said just the reverse. I said I claimed the support of the whole Labour party, because they were showing such an interest in agriculture.
§ Mr. ROYCE
I accept the correction, and I am very glad to know that hon. Gentlemen opposite have the interests of the labouring classes so much at heart. Another subject that is of vital interest to agriculture is the provision of houses. This is really a subject that requires immediate attention. I was greatly interested to hear the Prime Minister in this House state that bricks, doors, and window-frames had been ordered, and it is most interesting to know these steps have been taken. It is a very easy process to order things, but it is quite a different process to provide them, and, so far as I have been able to ascertain, I have seen no movement, say, in the direction of making bricks—a very important matter, which takes time. This should be tackled at once in the interests of agriculture. Then, with regard to this same scheme of housing, it seems to be delegated to local authorities. I should like to say that there is not anything like adequate provision being made by these local authorities, and the sooner something in the nature of a 499 Commission is appointed to inquire into the local projects for housing the people the better it will be for the improvement of the housing of the working classes, and especially of the labourers in the rural districts. It is a matter that requires immediate consideration, especially in those districts which come somewhat out of the cognizance of the ordinary local authority. I mean the isolated rural districts. Some steps should be taken to make provision for housing the workers on the land in those districts.
Another great advantage to agriculture, I am sure, would be to relieve it as soon as possible from some of the trammels that are at present imposed upon it by the various Departments of State. The sooner agriculture is freed from these restrictions the better it will be for its interests. I realise that at the present time, while the State subsidises the produce, it is necessary that it should have some control in the matter of marketing that produce; but I note in that connection that no provision is made for the marketing of corn. In our county we have made provision for the marketing of one of our principal articles—the potato. But the present system is not working quite so satisfactorily as it might do, and there is much ground for the discontent engendered by the fact that the State, having taken over the potato crop on the 1st November, and having failed to remove it within a reasonable time—and, so far as I can judge and learn, by the end of the season, at the present rate of progress, not more than 40 per cent. of the total crop will have been moved—has taken the attitude it has taken. When you realise the extraordinary value of much of that crop, I am sure the House will agree with me that some investigation into this matter is absolutely necessary.
Agricultural Members have been furnished with a statement from the various local farmers' and other unions. But it is not only the farmer as a farmer who is concerned in this matter; there is the small holder who is being particularly hard hit. When the Department concerned refuses to take over potatoes that have gone bad for the reason that they have not been removed in time, then it becomes a greater hardship still and requires consideration. Agriculture has been well served during recent years by the Noble Lord who is now at the head of the Department. Agriculturists throughout 500 the country will, I am sure, be only too glad to recognise that fact and wish that he may long continue at the head of his Department. So far as the Department is concerned, I must acknowledge the debt of gratitude that agriculturists owe to it. But take the matter further. I do especially hope that Members in this House who take an interest in agriculture will cast their eyes and extend their vision just a little bit beyond the mere corn growing whose claims have been so very badly put forward, and believe that there are many other matters relating to agriculture which require consideration. Reference has been made to establishing the soldiers on the land. It is of imperative importance when you put these men upon the land that you must give them an opportunity of making a living upon the land. Here, again, the question of local administration is of supreme importance. I am not sanguine of the provisions indicated by the Board of Agriculture for making provision for land for soldiers. Soldiers, too, are not the only ones, although they ought to take first place in receiving adequate land for their requirements. There are a number of other people in the country who are craving for a bit of land. There are labourers and others who want a little bit of land to cultivate for their own use or for purposes of marketing. The present provisions for the acquirement of that land are altogether inadequate.
This is a matter I should like to commend to the Minister concerned, so that greater facilities may be given for the acquisition of land. It might, and probably will, be said that the local authorities have ample opportunity and powers to acquire land, but the class to which I have referred—the labourers—have no opportunity of getting on those bodies, for the simple reason that they cannot afford to lose their day's work and pay to attend to the duties. The question of making provisioin in this matter for payment for services rendered on public bodies is one I commend to the notice of those concerned. It would very largely facilitate the acquisition of land for soldiers and others if a larger labourer representation was on the various local councils. You will get that labourer representation on the councils immediately adequate provision is made for paying the men who cannot afford to lose the days to attend the various meetings. I am sorry to have so imperfectly indicated some of what I regard as the measures that will be 501 of advantage to agriculture. I do, however, assure the hon. Gentleman opposite that the Labour party are intensely interested in agriculture and more than interested—they are devoted to the interests of the labourer upon the land.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I am sure the House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman who moved this Amendment to the Address, which, I am sure, has been done, not with the object of attacking the Government, but with the abject of giving a much-needed opportunity to tills House to consider at the earliest possible moment what is the present position of agriculture and what ought to be the future policy of the Government and the country towards agriculture. I should like, if I may, to congratulate the last speaker who spoke from the Labour Benches in such a sympathetic spirit. We are very glad to feel that in the Labour party there are representatives who understand the nature of agriculture, and who labour in agricultural districts. I think he was perhaps a little optimistic in hoping that the nationalisation of railways was going to be a cure for agricultural ills. I rather doubt whether our experience of the national management of railways would lead us to believe that it will result in lower fares or lower freights, and I imagine that that is the only direction in which agriculture could benefit from a policy of that description. I am afraid we who are here to-day to speak on agricultural questions will feel that we must look beyond that policy and ask for something more immediately advantageous to agriculture than the nationalisation of railways. I do not want again to go over the ground which has been so admirably covered by the Mover and Seconder of this Amendment. They have made it perfectly clear that the policy, or rather the enactment of the Clauses of the Corn Production Act as it stands, do not meet the necessities of the agricultural case. They have made that perfectly clear, and also that the figures in that Act of the prices fixed for corn will not enable the present minimum wage to be maintained. That is the fundamental point. They have also made it perfectly clear that the country has to decide the policy it is going to adopt in its natural desire to reduce the cost of food, and at the same time to maintain the wages of the agricultural labourer at a minimum. That is really, to my mind, the plain object of this Debate, 502 and the reasons why it is so important that this Debate, even for some short two hours, should be held at this early period of the Session, so that this House and the country should at the earliest possible moment understand the main outlines of this question and see what it has to decide.
There is a certain confusion, I think, in the public mind as to the bearing of increased production. There is a certain amount of loose thinking on a very fundamental fact. Many people suppose that increased production necessarily means more profitable production. That is not so. It is perfectly clear you are not going to get an increased production in agriculture or any other business unless the industry is profitable and prosperous. There are two main factors which make for prosperity in agriculture or any other industry: one is the cost of producing the article and the other the price which the article fetches, and upon those two factors the profit depends. It does not follow that because a number of units per acre increase that therefore the production is more profitable. That will not happen unless the price of the extra units produced more than cover the extra cost of the intensive methods adopted. That is where intensive cultivation has failed in the past. Every practical farmer knows that you cannot produce a single instance in the long history of agriculture, and it seems odd to think that we are at this stage discussing such elementary matters which are not very fully understood by everybody in regard to one of the oldest industries in the world. But that, unfortunately, is the fact. All agriculturists know that there is no instance, so far as I am aware, in actual practice where an intensive cultivator has succeeded over a long period of years in making a real success of his cultivation, and the reason of that is because agriculture, unlike other industries, cannot be run by rule of rote, and it has to face uncertain conditions which will overwhelm sometimes the best human calculations. That is what the farmer has to face. Intensive cultivation is going to cost a great deal more than ordinary cultivation and there is no certainty that you are going to get a crop that will pay, and if you do not the loss is very much greater than under the ordinary system. That is where intense cultivation has broken down.
The need of the country for increased production cannot be merely met by asking for intense cultivation, because it will break 503 down for the reasons I have suggested. Therefore the only way to get increased production is to make ordinary agricultural operations prosperous, and that is what we want to do through the amendment of the Corn Production Act. But that Act does not endorse the position. We have not only the Corn Production Act but we have under D.O.R.A. certain maximum prices fixed at which agricultural produce may be sold, and what has hitherto operated to govern prices has not been so much the Corn Production Act but the Regulations under D.O.R.A. Certain prices under the Corn Production Act have been quoted by my hon. Friend who moved this Amendment. The prices under D.O.R.A. are 75s. 6d. wheat, 47s. 6d. oats, and 70s. barley, and it is on those prices that the wages of the agricultural labourer has been fixed. Now it is obvious, if those wages are to be maintained, that the prices here fixed cannot be departed from. I have a circular here which was issued by the Board of Agriculture on 14th December last and I want to call the attention of the House to it. It commences:Important Notice to Farmers.—Prices Guaranteed for Next Year's Harvest.—The Board of Agriculture understands that much confusion exists among the farming community as to the exact meaning of the announcement made by the President of the Board of Agriculture in the House of Commons, in which he agreed that the prices paid to farmers for controlled cereals harvested in 1919 will not be lower than those now current. With a view to removing any misunderstanding that may exist the Board now inform farmers that the price to be fixed for the 1919 crop of the cereals at present controlled will in no case be less than the prices at present in operation for the 1918 crop. In other words, the commencing prices for the 1919 crop will be at least as follows.: …4.0 P.M.
Then the prices I have quoted are given. That is a notice intended to make it clear to the farmers what prices they are going to get for the coming harvest. But does that make it clear? What does this notice mean? I must press my hon. and gallant Friend to try and make it clear what this notice means. Does it mean that the farmers are going to get those prices or not? Remember that the prices which this circular quotes are not guaranteed but maximum prices above which corn may not be sold, and not below which it must not be sold. Therefore, if this circular only means that, it means nothing of any advantage to the farmer, because there is nothing about guaranteeing them a 504 market. I wrote to the President, whom I congratulate upon going to another place, although we were sorry to lose him here. I wrote to him and asked if a market was going to be guaranteed and, if so, by what means? I pointed out that this was a fundamental matter to the farmers, and I got the following answer:The Government decided that the prices of controlled cereals for the harvest of 1919 should be the same as those current for the harvest of 1918. By what administrative steps the Food Controller or the Board, or both, will carry that decision into effect I cannot yet say. But we have seven months for the consideration of that problem.I do not think there is seven months, because the farmers have to make their plans now, and it is important it should be done now. The reply continues:If the world prices fall substantially it may involve a considerable loss.If that means anything, it means that the Government are going to maintain prices at the cost of the taxpayer, but it does not say so definitely, and I press my hon. Friend to tell us definitely now, for the information of the agricultural industry, whether the Government intend or do not intend to make this circular which they have issued officially really effective, and whether the farmers are going to get these prices or not, and whether they are going to have a market guaranteed? This is not a question for the future. When I wrote to the President of the Board of Agriculture I pointed out that, so far from it being unnecessary to deal with it now, the actual prices obtainable at this moment for the cereals mentioned were below the prices fixed. Therefore the Food Controller urgently pressed light land farmers about six months ago, both before last sowing time and this sowing time, and for two years running during the last stages of the War, not to grow wheat but rye, which was being largely used for bread, and which was a substitute for wheat. The light-land farmers put in large quantities of rye, which is an unprofitable crop to grow, in order to meet the requirements of the Food Controller, and they did it on the promise of a price of 75s. When the Armistice came rye was no longer wanted, because people prefer white bread, and the Food Controller, who is chiefly concerned with the interests of the consumer, and does not care so much about the grower, simply issued an Order to the millers to take no more rye, without a word to agriculture or to the farmers. 505 When we took our rye into the market we were simply told that there was no market for it; the Food Controller had forbidden them to buy it, and we must take it home again. Later we were told it could be used for vinegar, and eventually those of us who took our rye into the market got 68s. instead of 75s. It is not a large matter, and I do not say it is a thing about which the whole of the agricultural industry should make a row. I only mention it as a kind of barometer showing the sort of way in which agriculture is treated. I am reminded that it also shows that the guarantee is not there now. The circular which I have quoted says, "75s. for rye," but we have actually been selling rye at 68s., and sometimes we had to take it home again.
There is also a difficulty in selling wheat. You cannot get your wheat sold. A notice was issued to farmers asking them not to thresh their wheat. That was a very thoughtless thing to do. Why do farmers thresh wheat? Can a farmer thresh his wheat at the moment someone in high authority says that he ought to thresh it? I suppose when we have agriculture nationalised we shall have a threshing day once a week. Everybody who farms knows perfectly well that there are reasons for threshing wheat quite apart from national requirements. A farmer must thresh his wheat when he wants straw for his stock, or money with which to pay the wages of his agricultural labourers. He must thresh wheat when he can get the threshing machine, and, above all, he must thresh wheat when God sends a day on which wheat can be threshed. All these factors are quite independent of Government Departments, and to issue an Order that farmers are to thresh wheat really only excites a feeling which perhaps I had better not describe. I would ask my hon. and gallant Friend when he replies to deal with the question of policy on corn prices not only from the point of view of the Corn Production Act but also from the point of view of this circular and the prices which are referred to in it.
One of the most important matters in the cost of production of agricultural produce is the question of feeding stuffs, and one of the farmers' greatest difficulties now is the cost of feeding stuffs. I venture to suggest it is the duty of the Food Controller, who controls feeding stuffs, to do what he can to help the farmer to get his feeding stuffs cheap. I should like to point out it is not satisfactory that 506 the Food Controller, whose main duty is to the community as a whole, and who therefore has no real special interest in agriculture, should have absolute control over feeding stuffs which go to maintain, the agricultural industry. I assume the Board of Agriculture cannot have very much say in the matter, because I have here a circular issued on the third of this month by the Food Controller to merchants who are importers of feeding stuffs. The House of Commons knows that the prices of feeding stuffs are strictly controlled and that they are maximum prices. Freights are coming down, and the opportunity is coming when it may be possible for merchants and importers of feeding stuffs to get consignments at a price lower than the controlled price. In fact some merchants have been able to make bargains and have obtained parcels of feeding stuffs from foreign countries for importation into this country at prices considerably lower than the maximum prices fixed by the Food Controller. I have in my hands a notice which has been issued by the Food Controller to importers. It informs them that he is prepared to take over parcels of feeding stuffs which they import. Such parcels are to be offered to him, and if they have been bought at less than the maximum price he may requisition them, take them over, pay a commission to the importer and resell them himself at the maximum price. That I cannot think is to the advantage of the farming community or of the country. Surely if merchants can import and sell at a price lower than the maximum price they ought to be allowed to do so. It amounts to this, that you have a Government Department which is employing a very large staff and occupying very expensive offices costing the country a great deal of money. I notice from the remarks that one hears occasionally that these Departments think it is quite all right if they can make their Departments pay and if they do not cost the country anything. All they need do is to sell at a profit above the value of the goods, and, with the money, run the Department. This, I think, is most objectionable. It means that independent taxing authorities are set up. It is nothing else but indirect taxation. The Food Controller buys at one price, sells at a higher price, credits himself with the difference, and the money goes to cover the cost of the Department. I do not believe that the House intended that that should be done. It is done under the 507 Defence of the Realm Act, and I am sure it was never contemplated that that Act should be used for that purpose. If a test action could be taken in the Law Courts, I believe it would be found to be illegal.
We have another case in which agriculture has suffered in exactly the same way. It is the case of wool. The War Office commandeered all the wool of this country as well as that produced in Australia. They commandeered not only all that was necessary for national purposes but the whole of the crop and resold part of it for civil use. In regard to the Australian wool, half that profit was returned to the Australian farmers, but when the British farmer asked for similar treatment, although his wool had been requisitioned at below cost price, he was refused any share of the profit at all, and that, I suggest, was direct taxation of the British farmer unauthorised by Parliament. The sum of all these matters again, as in the case of the rye, has not ruined any farmer, but it is not the spirit in which agriculture must be met by the Government if it is to be successfully carried on, And I suggest that we must have, on behalf of the Government, and not merely of the Board of Agriculture, sonic reassuring statement, because I tell the House that I resigned my office in the Government because I felt so seriously on this agricultural question, and mainly because I felt that the Board of Agriculture requires the strongest possible support in this House if it is to deal successfully with other Government Departments in regard to the needs of the agricultural industry. The Minister of Agriculture does not get his way, in my opinion, as often as he ought to get it, and it is not quite sufficient for us merely, to get an assurance from my hon. Friend below me that the Board of Agriculture agree with us and will do their best. We want an assurance from somebody speaking with high responsibility for the head of the Government that the Government do realise fully that if the agricultural labourer's wage is to be maintained it can only be maintained in the manner that has been pointed out by my hon. Friends the Mover and Seconder of this Amendment. If the Government will tell the House that they are really facing the problem and that they realise that, as the Prime Minister told us in September at Manchester, the maintenance and increase of agricultural production is one 508 of the most vital elements in the prosperity of this country, and that they are prepared to make some sacrifice to carry that out, that is the real point. You cannot have it both ways. The people of this country cannot have cheap home-grown food without any subsidy to agriculture and at the same time see the agricultural labourer paid a living wage. The thing is impossible.
It is not for agriculture, although it may be the principal industry in the country, to lay down the law to this great community and to say they must have this price or that price. All we claim is to state the facts to the country so that they may realise it and decide it for themselves. It is not a question of morality or of what we wish for, but of what is possible, and you may have the finest politicians and schemers in the world but they cannot get corn grown at a loss. It is impossible. We do not hold a pistol at the head of the country at all. We only ask that the country shall realise the fact, and that if they want the agricultural labourer to be put into the position that he ought to be put in, they can only do it through the industry at which he works, and that if they want that industry to support the labourer and the farmer and the whole of the organisation upon which agriculture depends, it can only be done by making some sacrifice. Before the War they were never willing to make that sacrifice, and agriculture struggled on as best it might. I do not feel very confident that after the War they will make that sacrifice either. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. Our duty here, as representing agriculture, is merely to make it perfectly clear to them what the facts are, what the possibilities are, and then leave them to decide for themselves; only do not blame the farmers if they cannot make land pay and cannot increase production, not because of their fault or of the fault of nature, but because under the present world conditions this country has determined that it is not worth the sacrifice to enable them to do it.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of FOOD (Mr. McCurdy)
I only rise to reply to one or two points of my right hon. Friend in which he criticised, somewhat severely and somewhat unjustly, the recent circular issued by the Ministry of Food, and which he erroneously supposes is intended as an intimation that if feeding-stuffs are now 509 imported into this country it is the intention of the Ministry to requisition those feeding-stuffs at such reduced prices as they may now be imported at and then to resell them at a profit at the maximum price allowed by the Maximum Prices Order of 1918. My right hon. Friend is misinformed as to the purpose and the meaning of the Order in question. The position is this: In 1918 there was a considerable shortage of feeding-stuffs, and at that time it was regarded as necessary—and I do not think my right hon. Friend criticised the expediency of the Order at that time that there should be a requisition Order the effect of which was that all imports of feeding-stuffs into this country were, in fact, on account of the Government, and that if any private importer chose to import feeding-staffs at his own risk they were subject to being requisitioned by the Government without any guarantee to him that they would be requisitioned at a price which would give him any profit on the transaction. The result was that all imports of feeding-stuffs were in fact made on behalf of the Government. At present the situation is somewhat changed, Freights are lower and there is a possibility of feeding-stuffs being imported at lower prices, and the whole object of the circular to which my right hon. Friend has drawn attention is not to discourage but to promote and encourage the importation of feeding-stuffs by importers, and for that purpose it commences by giving notice—a passage which appears to have escaped my right hon. Friend's attention—that until further notice the Food Controller will, at his option, either release foods from the operation of the Requisition Order or pay a price on the basis of cost with the allowance of a reasonable profit as provided by the Defence of the Realm Regulations, in no case such price to exceed the maximum price. The operative words of the Order were that it is intended from now onwards to release importations of feeding-stuffs from the operation of the Requisition Order. That is not only the object of the Order, but actually the way in which it has been put into operation. There have been no requisitions under this Order, and no requisitions are contemplated to be made under it. With regard to the Clause which appears to excite my right hon. Friend's apprehension, and upon which he bases the entirely mistaken view that the purpose is to take advantage of the 510 Order to purchase imported goods cheaply and sell them at a profit, which was never in their minds at all, the latter part of the Order is merely by way of precaution, because the situation with regard to food and feeding-stuffs is not yet so wholly satisfactory that the Food Controller would think it right to wholly abandon the power, if necessary, to maintain or reimpose for some time the safeguards that exist. The purpose of the Order is not the imposition of restrictions. The main purpose of the Order on the face of it is to release restrictions so as to promote the free importation of feeding stuffs.
§ Major HENNESSY
As one of those who has farmed a considerable acreage of land for many years I should like to say a few words on this great question of agriculture. I am one of those new Members who are, so to speak, shivering on the bank of the river hesitating whether they should take the great plunge and make their maiden speech. I have come to the conclusion that it is very cold standing on the bank and that very likely if I take the plunge the water will not be any colder. The House is well aware that the War has taught us many great lessons, and possibly not the least of these is the lesson which most agriculturists knew, but which was very little recognised, I may even say totally ignored, by the Government in the past from whatever party they were drawn. It is essential for the future welfare of Britain that agriculture should be placed in the position it deserves, and not only should it be placed there, but legislation should be passed which will enable it to remain there. I should like to briefly sketch the conditions which are essential, in my mind, if agriculture as an industry is to flourish in this country. The first question is how to obtain land. There has been a great deal of nonsense spoken and written on this question by those who knew nothing, or next to nothing, on the subject as to the impossibility of working men obtaining land from the landowner. As a case in point, I might perhaps be allowed to quote an instance that occurred at one of my election meetings. A statement was made by a member of my audience, a railway man, that a hundred 511 men in that locality were trying to get land, but could not get any because the local landlord refused it. Such a statement as that, unless it could be denied, would be a very strong argument against the so-called tyranny of the landlord. Unknown to my railway man friend, the local landlord, the owner of the land in that district, happened to be amongst the crowd in the room, and after my meeting was ended he asked permission to question the man. After a very little while the hundred men who had asked for land was reduced to a dozen. In a very short while the number was further reduced to five, and finally to one, and when challenged to name that one, although he was even asked, if he liked, to send up the name on a bit of paper to the landlord, no name was forthcoming.
I only quote this instance to show what a lot of exaggeration is being talked on this subject. We all know that there have been instances of landlords refusing to part with their land, but I think that, if these cases were investigated, it would be found in nearly every case that the reason of the refusal was that the claimant either required a good piece of land, which very likely was situated in the middle of another holding, or because the claimant was undesirable either through lack of experience or of financial backing. My experience has been—and perhaps I may be allowed to speak with a little authority as being a member of the Small Holdings Committee of the Hampshire County Council—that when a landlord can be assured that there is a genuine demand for his land, and there is plenty of evidence that the land will be properly cultivated, he rarely, if ever, puts obstacles in the way of the county council authorities. Therefore I think that the question how to obtain the land is one which is capable of being solved quite easily. All that is required is that the county council should be given more power to acquire land and that the Government should back them up financially as they have done in the past.
The next question is that of getting men back on the land. I am not one of those enthusiasts who indulge in the parrot cry of "put the soldier on the land." I am much too good a friend of the soldier to invite him to face certain disappointment and certain ruin—for that is inevitably what would happen to the demobilised soldier, unless he had previous experience 512 as an agriculturist, if he were dumped on the land. As far as I am aware, every county council has a county agricultural farm or school. I would suggest that those farms should be further developed so that soldiers who are desirous of learning the science of agriculture could do so under the very best auspices, and in this connection I would like to mention the good work which is being performed by the Village Centres Association. We now come to the question of how we are going to make it possible for the embryo agriculturist to make a living. The first condition which is essential is that greater and cheaper facilities for transport should be forthcoming. Every soldier knows what an important part light railways played in France in the organisation which in the end made victory possible for our troops. May I put it in this way, so as to avoid lengthy detail, that the light railways made it possible for the producer of shells to reach the consumer—the guns—with the least possible delay. Is it not equally essential that the producer of our food supplies should reach the consumer with a minimum of delay, and, I venture to suggest, with the least amount of expense? If the small holder is to make a living out of the land it is essential that he should devote the whole of his time to the cultivation of that land, and that he should not waste many valuable hours in the course of the week on the road in order to get his produce to the market. Therefore, it is essential that greater facilities, by the development of either light railways or canals, should be provided.
I come to another point which I think is also most essential if the small holder is to make a living. That is that a greater measure of security than the Corn Production Act now provides should be arrived at in order to ensure that farmers have at least a fair chance of making a living, since, if the farmer is to be denied the chance of making a profit, how in the world can he pay his labourer higher wages. Fix a minimum wage by all means, but make it possible for the farmer to earn sufficient to pay that wage. This, I know, was a highly controversial subject in the past, and one which I would hardly dare to touch upon in my maiden speech, did I not venture to think that as our eyes have been opened to so many things owing to this War, that our views on this subject have been considerably enlarged. There has been much talk in 513 the newspapers lately about the eager-faced new Members of this House, and about the new spirit which prevails in it. I think probably that the newspapers are right, and that the Members of the House are anxious that every topic which is brought before it should be discussed frankly, honestly, and without fear of the results which that discussion might entail among certain sections of the community, both in this House and outside. We must recognise frankly that there are only two conditions possible as regards agriculture. If it is to flourish, and if British labour is to secure the produce from Britain's soil, then the farmer must have some measure of security. If you deny that security, then agriculture is bound to decline and in time fail altogether.
The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Sir A. Griffith-Boscawen)—[imperfectly heard]
I think it will be convenient, as the hour is getting late, if I were to say what I have to say in reply to the Debate this day, though I am sorry to curtail the eloquence of hon. Members and to cut in immediately after my hon. Friend's excellent maiden speech. I feel in responding a grave responsibility in having to represent here this great industry; but I can assure my hon. Friends that the interest of agriculture and of everybody engaged in it—the landowner, the tenant-farmer, the agricultural labourer—is very near to my heart, and that, as far as I am able, I will endeavour adequately to represent their views. I am very fortunate in having as my chief my Noble Friend the President of the Board, who, I think, has the confidence and support of the great bulk of agriculturists all over the country, and to whose excellent work and attention tributes have been already given this afternoon. I am not surprised that my hon. Friend has brought forward this Motion, and I make no complaint. I think they were perfectly entitled to do it. I fully realise the great importance of the question. I realise its urgency.
The position of agriculture at the present moment is altogether extraordinary. For years past, up to the time of the War, it is not an exaggeration to say it has been neglected by successive Governments. Then came the War. Then we suddenly awoke to the fact of the grave danger of being dependent, as we were, upon foreign 514 imports. Then came the realisation of the importance of food production. After all, what is food production but agriculture? Then came that wonderful stimulus, the work done by the Food Production Department and the Agricultural Committees. A splendid response was made by all classes engaged in agriculture, which went a long way to saving the country and winning the War. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton shire has told you, you cannot turn on the tap, hot and cold, of agriculture in a few moments. Whether the revival of agriculture, which has been produced by war conditions and largely by the action of the Government in consequence of war conditions, is to be maintained, or whether we are to allow agriculture to lapse back into the position which it occupied a few years ago, we can imagine no question of more importance to the country.
It was raised in a rather different form in another place the other night, and there was a short, and I think, very important leading article in the "Times" newspaper yesterday, calling attention to the same point. The War, it pointed out, had brought most people to some dim understanding of our position. The real danger, it said, was of a falling-off from the war standard. It was unthinkable, but it might happen all the same, unless every effort was made to go one better. I can assure my hon. Friends that the Government, my Noble Friend, the Board of Agriculture and all of us are fully alive to the position and are anxious to do everything we can to maintain agriculture at its present standard, or, rather, to make it go beyond its present standard, certainly not to allow it to slip back to the position it occupied a few years before the War, and that for the very reasons we have heard this afternoon, which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Northampton shire (Colonel Fitzroy) described as platitudes. Of course we all hope very much that there may be no more war, but we should be very unwise to allow ourselves to feel so secure that once again we are going to be dependent upon foreign importations of foodstuffs into the United Kingdom. Then there is the social aspect of the question. We have heard about our C3 population. I do not think the C3 population came from the villages or fields or farms of England; it came much more from the large towns. Then there is the other point mentioned 515 by several speakers, that we are looking forward to a big scheme of land settlement. I myself have given notice of a Bill to carry that out. There could be nothing more ridiculous than to invite people on to the land, to place ex-soldiers on the land, and then to make the conditions of farming such that they would simply lose whatever little capital they have. No policy could be more ridiculous than that. Well, then, what is the position? There is the Corn Production Act. It was passed for six years. So far as the guaranteed prices go, it has never really been operative, because higher prices have always ruled. We heard a great deal about that guarantee. The position has been made greatly different by the very large increases in wages. The minimum inserted in the Corn Production Act was 25s. We all know that in no county is it less than 30s., while some have a minimum of 35s. and even 40s. Of course, there was correlation between the guaranteed prices of produce of cereals and the minimum wage, but that balance has been upset, as we fully realise. The question therefore arises, and is put to me by the Mover of the Amendment and others, Should there not be an extension and an amendment—that is what it comes to—an extension of years and an amendment of the Corn Production Act? I am not in a position to make any definite announcement this afternoon, but I need hardly say that the Government are very well aware of the position. They realise precisely what has happened. They realise that if wages continue to rise and the prices of wheat go down, say, to 45s. well, only the best land would be kept for wheat and a great deal of land would have to go back to grass which has been ploughed up in recent years. The whole question is, When is it best to come to some definite decision on the matter? How do we stand now? The whole question of world prices is uncertain. Nobody really knows what the price of anything is, the value of money has so changed. It may change again. A fixed guaranteed price this year might be too low. In that case the farmers would suffer. It might be altogether too high. In that case the State would make a heavy loss. The Government have not come forward—and I do not think they are prepared for the moment to come forward—with a definite amendment of the Corn Production Act, but they have fixed the price of 516 cereals for this year at a figure a great deal above the guaranteed prices under the Corn Production Act. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Pretyman), in his excellent speech, asked what was actually meant by certain statements made in this House and elsewhere. He asked whether this price was a maximum or a minimum. Perhaps the best thing I could do would be to read the words of the question and the reply. My right hon. Friend (Mr. G. Lambert) on the 19th November askedif the President of the Board of Agriculture is able yet to say whether the prices paid to farmers for controlled cereals harvested in 1919 will be not less than those now current?and the answer was:Mr. Prothero: Yes, Sir; the answer is in the affirmative.Some confusion arose as to the meaning of that. The Board of Agriculture for Scotland was not clear as to the meaning, and they asked a question. Certain telegrams passed between the Board of Agriculture for Scotland and the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries in this country. I will read them:(1) Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to Board of Agriculture for Scotland.Prices to be fixed for next year's controlled cereals will not be less than those now current; in other words, a minimum is guaranteed.(2) Board of Agriculture for Scotland to Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.Wire received. Does statement mean that maximum prices for controlled cereals now current will be guaranteed minimum prices for next year's crops?(3) Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to Board of Agriculture for Scotland.Your interpretation of statement as to cereal prices for next year is correct.I think that makes the matter perfectly clear, and I have nothing to add to the information given in those telegrams.
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
I am not in a position to make a definite statement, but I can say this: I know the matter is now being considered by my Noble Friend.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman say whether the Board will consider what will be done with the remainder of this season's crops?
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
As regards that, I understand the difficulty is in disposing of the wheat. The reason 517 for that is that no one expected the War would come to an end last year. The Wheat Commission would have been guilty of a grave dereliction of duty had they not made provision. They arranged to buy a large amount of American wheat. Owing to the Armistice, that wheat has come in very much mores quickly than was expected. The millers are the only people who have storage on a large scale, and they find themselves with this wheat. There has consequently been a difficulty for the time being of disposing of the English wheat. I hope that shortly that matter will right itself, and that English farmers, encouraged to grow this wheat, will be able to dispose of it. Many topics have been raised. I have little time left to deal with them. But I should like to recognise the interesting maiden speech made by the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Royce). To him, I should say, we realise the great importance of transport for agricultural produce. It is a matter for the new Ministry. We of the Board of Agriculture do all we can to encourage the creation of new facilities, both by motor lorry, in some places, and of a grails or light railways in others, for the transport of agricultural produce; for the collection, so to speak, of the produce at the door of the farm, or a near collecting station, so as to facilitate the marketing of the farmer's crops. As to housing, I know the difficulty as well as anybody, but I am afraid that is a matter for the Local Government Board. I know they have the matter in hand. Preliminary steps have been taken, and I hope before long that the shortage of houses in the rural districts will be fully met. As to potatoes, that is a question for the Ministry of Food. They bought up the entire crop. They are responsible for what is done, and the price paid.
§ Sir A. GRIFFITH-BOSCAWEN
I am sure they will do justice. But it would be very unwise if I were to endeavour to detail the actions of other Departments. In conclusion, I can only say that I fully realise the gravity of the situation. My hon. Friend may take this from us: in the nation's need we realised for the first time the national importance of agriculture. We asked the farmers, who had been neglected all these years, to help us. We do not mean to allow agriculture to 518 drift back into the hopeless position it was a few years ago. It is true that before the War there was a slight revival. That has been carried much further since the War. I can assure my hon. Friend that my Noble Friend and myself will not be behindhand in reporting to the heads of the Government what we regard as being of supreme importance to agriculture in the national welfare.
§ Mr. CAUTLEY
Before asking leave to withdraw my Amendment, I should like to ask my hon. Friend to consider the practicability of issuing an Order to the millers to mix with their foreign wheat a certain percentage of this year's English wheat. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the sympathetic way in which we have been received, and I ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question again proposed.
§ The following Amendment stood on the Paper in the name of Sir HERBERT NIELD:
At the end, to add the words,
But respectfully regrets that no reference is made in the Gracious speech to an intention to introduce and pass legislation prohibiting or restricting the immigration of enemy aliens, and enforcing the repatriation of such enemy aliens unless for special reasons they may be entitled to claim exemption, whose presence in this country is, and must continue to be, obnoxious to the nation by reason of the unexampled barbarities inflicted upon our countrymen and those of our Allies in defiance of all rules of civilised warfare.
§ Sir H. NIELD rose—
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I venture to make an appeal to the House. I think the Government have given ample time for the discussion of the various questions. The pressure of business is so great that I would ask the House to agree to the Address now.
§ Sir H. NIELD
After that appeal I shall not proceed, but I desire to enter my strong protest against the exclusion of such a subject as the one I wished to bring forward.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, as followeth:
Most Gracious Severeign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks
to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
§ To be presented by Privy Councillors or members of His Majesty's Household.