HC Deb 16 June 1920 vol 130 cc1403-15

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a Bill which has come down to this House from another place. The object of it is perfectly simple, and anybody who reads this Measure can see precisely what is intended. The object of it is for a period of two years to control the export of fertilisers under the present Order which will be continued. The principal aim of the Bill is that the farmers of this country will be secured in a sufficient supply of the principal fertilisers with- out which the position of agriculture in the country will be positively disastrous. The Bill applies to the principal fertilisers, and only the principal fertilisers—sulphate of ammonia, super-phosphate of lime, basic slag and potash. The export of these has been prohibited for the last three years. The prohibition and the control will go on to the date of the termination of the War. It is most important, however, that we should have power to continue the power for a further period. How important it is I can show by means of a few simple figures. Take sulphate of ammonia, which is probably the fertiliser most affected in the matter of control, and most important from the point of view of returning nitrate to the soil. The present agreed price as between the Ministry and the trade is £23 10s. per ton. The export price to-day is about £50 per ton, because of the shortage of this and other fertilisers on the Continent and elsewhere. Unless we have the power to control the export, there will undoubtedly be a very large export for the sake of the profit to be obtained, and we here should go short of the fertiliser. The same thing applies in the case of super-phosphate of lime, basic slag and potash. There is a shortness in this country of basic slag which is most important for improving grass lands. We are trying to increase the supply of basic slag, but our efforts will be entirely frustrated if free exportation is permitted. This is purely a temporary Measure.


Will the right hon. Gentleman give us some particulars with regard to super-phosphate of lime, basic slag and the other fertilisers—figures showing the old prices, and the estimated export prices if left free for export?


I can only say that in each of these cases the export price would be very considerably higher than that paid at home. Under these circumstances we regard it as important to continue to control the export. We do not need to prohibit it for a single moment. What we propose to do is to secure that the farmers at home have a sufficient supply, month by month, and any surplus will be exported under licence. I may mention one particular point with regard to superphosphate of lime. The raw material, the phosphate rock, is obtained from Algeria and other colonial possessions of France, and the French Government have allocated a cer- tain amount to this country. They retain, of course, a certain amount for themselves, and they allot a certain amount, in addition, to other allied countries. There is an understanding that this phosphate rock which they send here shall be for the use of our farmers at home, and, that being the case, we might get into great difficulties with the French Government if, after having turned the phosphate rock into superphosphate, we allowed it to be exported. In any case, the amount of phosphate rock allotted to us will only be just about sufficient to make enough superphosphate for our own requirements, and it would be a misfortune if its export were permitted, at all events uncontrolled, as would be the case unless this Bill goes through. I hope, therefore, that, having regard to the fact that, firstly, it is a temporary measure, secondly, that it is only to continue for a further period of two years what is the practice at the present time, and, thirdly, that, in order to maintain the fertility of our land, we must have these fertilisers, the House will give this Bill a Second Reading.


I have no objection to the principle of this measure, provided that the circumstances on which the right hon. Gentleman bases his case are sufficiently urgent to justify it. The whole community has become by this time very suspicious of, and restless under, the continuance of the system of licences. We all know that it is of the utmost importance that our exports to America should be as full and as free as possible. No matter how minor the quantity may seem to be, it undoubtedly operates in readjusting the exchange in our favour. I should like to ask my right hon. Friend one or two questions in further elucidation of this proposal, since it continues the system which he and everyone else, I assume, desires to get rid of as soon as possible, namely, the licensing system. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether this proposal is founded upon the report of any Committee, Departmental or otherwise, which has considered this question, and, if so, who are its members and what report they made? I should also like to hear something of the scope of the proposal. In the second place, while, as my right hon. Friend properly says, this is a temporary measure, does he not think that two years, until the 31st December, 1922, is too long a period? I should have thought it would have been quite sufficient to ask for another year. Happily, in many respects, the conditions are changing not unfavourably. I am very jealous, as I am sure the House is also, of giving more time for the operation of these very objectionable licences than is demonstrated to be absolutely necessary. As far as I can gather from what my right hon. Friend said, he made out no case for an extension for two years. As far as I am concerned, I am prepared, on what he has said, to agree that a case has been made out, perhaps, for one year, since I appreciate the importance of what he said as to the condition of agriculture, and the necessity for full and adequate supplies of the fertilisers necessary to keep the land in such condition that we get the highest possible production from it. I suggest that, when my right hon. Friend comes to reply, he should tell us, first of all, is this simply the result of a discussion with his chiefs, or has he consulted the experts of the trades concerned, or has he had a Departmental Committee to inquire into it; and secondly, agreeing, as he does, with what I have already said as to the objectionable character of licence system, will he, when it comes to the Committee stage, favourably consider the proposal to limit it to one year instead of two?


I have no desire to handicap the farmers in any way. They are to be encouraged in every shape and form. But at the same time, while doing everything we can for the farmers, we have to see that we are not discouraging the manufacturers. There are in Lancashire several manufacturers of super-phosphate who have a very big export trade, and I rather think some of the regulations now in force materially affect them and cause discontent. It is very difficult for any Government Department to estimate what is the correct quantity of any material that is required. I have an idea that price generally is the best determining factor of how much is required for home consumption. This afternoon we have had a Bill before us for taking over phosphates in an island in the Pacific, and we were led to believe that there was a tremendous quantity of superphosphates in that area and that our farmers would be amply supplied. It seems to me to be unnecessary that we should put further restrictions on the exportation of superphosphate from this country. One would think if there are ample supplies the market price ought to regulate itself and the farmers here ought to determine how much superphosphate they are prepared to buy, and it would be a big help to this country if our chemical manufacturers in Lancashire can be helped and encouraged to export more. It would be a good thing for levelling up the rate of exchange, and I fail to see how the farmers are in any way handicapped by exporting superphosphate, because it is inconceivable that farmers in foreign countries can import superphosphate from us and pay the freight on it and then send wheat back to this country and undersell the farmer here. One would think we have superphosphate on the spot in this country, and we ought to be able to pay the market price and then undersell the foreign wheat grower. These points, I think, ought to be elucidated by the Ministry, and I think the time ought to be as short as possible for the operation of these restrictions.


I think we shall all agree that the licensing position ought to be brought to an end as soon as possible; but, on the other hand, I am afraid certain industries themselves, owing to the world shortage, recognise that some restrictions must continue. When a trade which can make a much bigger profit through export is agreed amongst itself that restrictions are still necessary, the House may feel satisfied, if that is the case, as I understand it to be pretty generally with regard to superphosphate, sulphate of ammonia, and the other chemicals provided for in the Bill, that there is, at any rate, a primâ facie case made out by the Government. I understand from those interested in the manufacture of these chemicals in the North that, although they could get a much bigger price if they exported freely, they realise that the needs of the home consumer are greater than those of the foreigner, and they are prepared to make this sacrifice in order to meet the abnormal conditions at home. I believe a working arrangement has been come to amongst the majority of the manufacturers of these by-products, and that they are in general agreement with the Bill as it is framed. We all object to licensing, but at the same time the abnormal conditions which have prevailed convince most business men that it is in the interests of the country as a whole, and it is not unduly handicapping trade in particular, that this measure should be passed. Therefore, I hope the House will give a Second Reading, and if there are any adjustments to be made in Committee, the Government, I am sure, will favourably consider them. I am advised that the trade as a whole are absolutely in sympathy with the measure, although it is one which is going forcibly to curtail the profits that they might otherwise make.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

It is not often that I differ from the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, but in my constituency, which exports these artificial manures—I do not know why hon. Members laugh when I am trying to say a word on an important matter affecting my constituency—I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that they are getting near the breaking point with regard to these restrictions on trade. These export licences and the like are applied in the most clumsy and irritating manner, and really we have had quite enough of this sort of thing. The Bill is unnecessary for at least another twelve months. The Defence of the Realm Act, which gives full power to prevent the export of anything from this country, will remain in force until peace is ratified and ratification is deposited, and nobody knows when that will be. At any rate, it will not be for a good many months. That being the case, I see no reason for this Bill. It should be left over for another six months, and, if necessary, brought in then. We are going to have an Autumn Session, when the situation will be more apparent, and the Government should wait till then.

I have another serious objection to the Bill. The policy of the Government is only consistent in one thing, namely, in providing artificial protection for the farmer at any cost. That means that the non-agricultural population have to pay through the nose. This is one more example of that policy. Surely, we realise that it is extremely unlikely that we shall ever be able to subsist on that which we grow ourselves. We must rely on cheap food from abroad. This attempt entirely to grow our own food has been shown in the past, when we had a much smaller population, to be a total failure. Before we can get the prices of food down we have to be able to import food from abroad. If the Government think that they can make this country subsist entirely on home-grown food, they are living in a fool's paradise. That being the case, if phosphates are wanted abroad and they can be manufactured here and exported, it will pay us much better to allow free trade in chemical fertilisers of this sort. If the British farmers want to buy local produce, they have the option of paying for it, less insurance and freight, and that alone, I should think, is all that they need. The Continent of Europe is crying out for fertilisers and chemical and artificial manures. Apart from the question of humanity in getting these people on their feet cultivating their own countries again, it is to our direct advantage that they should once more produce food and sell it to us. A great quantity of our sugar, wheat and meat, in fact everything, as hon. Members know, came from Europe, and they have to come from Europe again.

What is happening to-day? We are getting our food mainly from two sources: from the British farmer, who is paid handsomely for it, and from North and South America and, to a certain extent, from the Colonies. The price of that food is represented in every housewife's budget to-day, and one of the main causes of discontent in the country is this continual rise in the price of food. This is one more step taken by the Government artificially to raise the price of food. There seems to be a sort of idea that it would pay us to weaken the agricultural production of Europe, apparently in the interests once more of the British farmers, who have not done badly—I have no special grudge against them—in the last few years. This Bill is unnecessary. The powers exist already. It is extremely questionable whether it ought to be passed without further discussion. I am not satisfied, and I will vote against it, and I trust other hon. Members will support me.

Mr. T. DAVIES (Cirencester)

We have had several deputations from farmers' associations before the Agricultural Committee of Members upstairs, and one of the most important points they have put before us was that they must have a sufficient supply of artificial manures to carry them through. I am glad to say that I can back up what the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Trevelyan Thomson) has said, that the manufacturers of these artificial manures have met the agriculturists in a very fair-minded way. They recognise that the industry requires a good deal more artificial manures than can be produced here, and they are doing their level best to meet the situation. A statement was made to us upstairs that they are willing to agree to restrictions, because they see that the agricultural community require these artificial substitutes. The right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) thought that if this was done for one year that would practically be sufficient. Anyone who looks forward to the wheat supply for the next three years is perfectly certain that we shall not get enough during the next three years. We know very well that there is a world shortage, and nobody can expect to get any substantial wheat supply from any European country for the next two years.


I should not like it to be thought that I was guilty of suggesting that I have sufficient knowledge on this question to be able to dogmatically state that twelve months is long enough. I only say that it is a long enough period for this Bill, and then we can see where we are, and there is not the slightest doubt that my right hon. Friend could then come to the House again and seek renewed powers to meet the circumstances then prevailing.


If you want to produce wheat in this country you must give the farmers confidence in regard to two things: in the first place, that he will be able to produce by getting all the artificial manures he requires; and secondly, that he will be able to get a remunerative price when he has produced it. These two things stand together. If the country expects the agricultural community to produce wheat in much larger quantities next year and the following year, we must remember this, that the farmers will not put their land under corn, but will put it under grass, unless they get a guarantee that the artificials which they want will be supplied, and at such a price that they can afford to get them. There is no other way in which you can get an increased food supply. I do not care whether it is the farmer, the labourer, or any other worker. None will work unless they have a proper prospect of results for their labour. The labourers and the tradesmen want proper wages. The farmer will not grow wheat unless he is certain that he will get a profit from the wheat. The only way to get him to do that is to make it absolutely certain that the things which he requires to enable him to produce are there, and that he will be able to get them, and also get a fair price for his produce. At the present time the Government is paying from 25s. to 30s. a quarter to the foreigner over and above what they allow the home farmer to get. That is acting as a great deterrent to the farmers. I am glad that the Government have acknowledged that there is great danger of a famine next year. And to encourage our farmers to put more land under wheat they have agreed to remove the restrictions on price next year and let English farmers enjoy the world market price. But I want people to disabuse their minds of the idea that we want to go in for an old-fashioned system of protection. If I thought that for a single moment, I would not support this. I do not believe in protection or in these licences, but exceptional circumstances demand exceptional measures, and the policy which the Government outline has the approval of the manufacturers of artificials and of those engaged in agriculture, and the proof is that we have had deputation after deputation upstairs begging us to do the very thing which the Government want to do. I hope that the House will support the Bill.


There is a definite and urgent need of a large supply of fertilisers. A great deal of the land has been impoverished during the last few years. No arable land can be maintained in this country unless it is refreshed and assisted from time to time by a wise and plentiful use of artificial manure. I cannot understand the attitude of the hon. and gallant Member for Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) who apparently desires these fertilisers to be sent abroad, so that we may go abroad and buy the foodstuffs which we require. It is better to keep the fertilisers in this country and produce the utmost amount of food of which we are capable. It is no argu- ment to say that we produce too little. We want to produce fertilisers so as to produce more food. The whole principle of this measure is highly objectionable, but there is no other way, and as the English agriculturist and consumer should not be deprived of the utmost amount that can be grown in this country, I sup port the Bill in spite of the objection to the principle. From the point of view of those who oppose the Bill and who may say that they want to find employment for the people of this country, I would suggest that if we produce by means of fertilisers more food from the land which is capable of producing it we should find employment for the people on the land. I would suggest that the Government when they reach the Committee stage should consider the advisability of being more definite as to what they are going to do under these Orders, and as to the fertilisers which they mean to restrict and that they should give some definition of fertilisers. The Bill is too vague in its details. I would suggest that in taking those very wide powers to act by Order in Council they should, in the interests of everyone concerned, be more precise as to what they intend to do.


I would appeal to the House to give the Second Reading now. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman opposite in objecting entirely to control and licences, and I regret to have to come to the House and ask for this Bill, but it is absolutely necessary. The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) speaks of the necessity of cheap food. The only way to get cheap food is to make the best use of the land you have here. If you are going to starve it of fertilisers, and allow those fertilisers to go abroad, it would be a most short-sighted policy. This is practically an agreed Bill. The trade particularly interested is the trade in sulphate of ammonia. We do not want to hurt the trade. Firms representing 86 per cent. of the output have agreed to this Bill. They have willingly said that they will take £23 10s. a ton for sulphate of ammonia and postpone the opportunity of exporting, at something like £50 a ton, if the Government will deal with all alike, and will divide the profits on the exports equitably among the traders concerned. That is the proposal, and that is what we are going to do. Because 14 per cent. stand out to get a larger profit, that is no reason why the House should support them. We ought to support those who are willing to take a smaller profit. I am asked, Has a Committee reported in favour of this? Strictly speaking, a Committee has not, but a Department of the Ministry, all through the War, has been dealing with this question of fertilisers. We ploughed a great deal of extra land, and the nitrogenous fertilisers were cut off. nitrates, for example. The principal nitrogenous fertilisers were cut off. We developed a sulphate of ammonia trade under a special department of the Board, and we have, by a system of equalisation, supplied sulphate of ammonia in place of nitrates to farmers all through the country by agreement with the trade. The whole of that arrangement could be upset at once if export was largely allowed, as it would be if this Bill did not pass. My right hon. Friend (Sir D. Maclean) asked me whether two years was not too long a period. We have only powers for two years, but if circumstances changed, we certainly should not want to exercise those powers. We should be quite content to terminate the use of the powers in one year, or even in a shorter period, if we could do so and at the same time not starve our farmers of these fertilisers. In any case, I put it to my right hon. Friend and to the House that that is a point which can be settled in Committee. I am quite prepared to consider any reasonable suggestion. I cannot say more than that. The cry often heard, and heard most from the Opposition side of the House, is that we must not protect agriculture, but must introduce science and the best method possible for making full use of the soil. We cannot do that without fertilisers. In the circumstances, and to meet a sudden emergency which I hope will shortly come to an end, I appeal to the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Captain W. BENN

There is no point in the claim as to urgency. The Government is fully armed with the necessary powers, under the Defence of the Realm Act, to carry out whatever policy it seems right to them to carry out. No one will make it a charge against me of unduly delaying proceedings if I insist on the right to examine this proposal, which has been before us exactly half an hour, and is low down on the Order Paper. The speech of the right hon. Gentleman made it perfectly clear that this Bill is a proposal for giving further assistance to farmers. The farmers are going to get the world price for their wheat. We are giving more financial assistance to the farming industry. There is, no doubt, excellent reason in the minds of those who favour this proposal for doing so, but the urban districts are being taxed to do this. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] Of course, they are. We have here the contest between town and country which is characterising the policies of Central Europe. You are prohibiting exports and you are thereby diminishing exports and are affecting our foreign exchanges. Do you suppose that the right hon. Gentleman can put his finger into the business of exports and imports without the people suffering. You cannot do these things without creating all sorts of reverberations. What about the production of fertilisers? The production will be diminished, because the people are not going to continue making them if they know that the markets can be stopped by the right hon. Gentleman. Do not these considerations bring home to the House that it is not obstruction to desire that there should be Debate on a Bill like this, brought before the House without notice? It is a very important subject, and well worthy of the attention of the House. I fully realise the importance of having a free supply of fertilisers. We had a most amazing Debate on this subject this afternoon on a proposal that we should throw overboard our pledges, in order that we should seize on one source of fertilisers for the use of ourselves and our friends. The right hon. Gentleman told us, also, that they had an arrangement with the French Government as to the supply of fertilisers, and that this Bill is a counterpart of the bargain. We ought to know what this understanding is, and, as this is not the place to find out, what is the place? Quite apart from this matter, there is a great deal too much done nowadays by Orders and Departments and far too little by Debate and the judgment of this House. What is the bargain that has been struck with the French Government in return for introducing this Bill? The Defence of the Realm Act gives all the powers which are necessary at present. We do not know when the end of the War may be declared. It may not be for at least a year. Until that time the right hon. Gentleman can make whatever arrangements he pleases. [HON MEMBERS: "Divide!"] It is quite useless to attempt to interfere with the course of my arguments. I have asked the Board of Trade under what powers they are prohibiting exports and I find that they have power independent of this House or of this Bill. They can prevent export of fertilisers or anything else by the exercise of the Royal Prerogative, and they are doing so. They have exercised that power in times of war and in times of peace—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned. Debate to be resumed to-morrow.

The remaining Orders were read and postponed.

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