§ Sir RICHARD WINFREY
I beg to move, at the end of the Question, to add the words:But humbly represent to Your Majesty that, having regard to the insecure and gravely unsatisfactory position of the great industry of agriculture, to the constantly decreasing population in rural districts, to the high cost of living, the low returns from the labour and investment in land, to the existence of an economic wage frequently lower than a living wage, to the inequitable incidence of rates and the unfair burden of transport, and the urgent need for credit facilities and co-operation, it is of immediate importance that Your Majesty's Government should institute an inquiry for the purpose of formulating a policy which would establish security, stability and confidence in the industry, and so secure the greater productiveness of the soil and ensure the contentment of those concerned in the industry.I think this Amendment will receive a large amount of sympathy from all sides of the House, because Members generally begin to realise the serious condition in which agriculture is placed at the present moment. Since my Amendment was placed on the Paper, the Government have informed us that they are about to set up a Departmental Committee to make some inquiries. The Terms of Reference of that Committee have not yet been published, at least I have not seen them, but I understand that the Committee is to be confined to the question of the middlemen's profits in agriculture. In other words, the Committee will try to narrow the gap between what the producer sells for, and what the consumer has to give. So far so good, but it does not go far enough, and I shall not be satisfied if the Government cannot meet us considerably further than that.
The depression in agriculture has this year very much extended and deepened. I am not going to paint too gloomy a picture, because I am one of those who farmed through the dark days of the early nineties, and I realise that the depression is not so great or serious up to the present moment as it was in those days. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes!"] That is my view. Fortunately, owing to the good years which the farmers had during the last two years of the War, and the 1587 two years afterwards, the old hands in agriculture have up till now been able, to weather the storm; but the new men who have come to agriculture during the last three or four years are to-day struggling with losses which I fear must-bring them to the ground, unless some immediate alleviation is found for their position. Some hon. Members will remember the previous agricultural depression. It lasted a very long time. I think it began in 1885 or 18S6, and went on for 10 years. During those years we were selling wheat at less than 20s. a quarter. For two or three seasons in succession the whole of our potato crops were spoiled by the wet seasons, and we had a deplorable condition of affairs. In my judgment, we have not, thank goodness, reached that state up to the present time, and I am very hopeful that if the Government will come to the assistance of agriculture we shall avoid getting into the slough of despond in which we were in those years.
May I remind the House of what Parliament has done for agriculture since 1917? In that year, owing to the menace of the Gorman submarine, and the daily losses of our ships that were bringing food to this country, it became absolutely necessary and vital that we should try to produce more food in this country, and the result was that Parliament passed the Corn Production Act. That Act was a step in the right direction. It is true that it was a War measure, and only passed for a period of five years. It set up War Agricultural Committees which were, to some extent, to control the industry. It gave power to those committees to have grass lands ploughed up, and 2,000,000 acres of grass land were so ploughed up. As the result of that great effort, although we were short of labour at the time—all honour to the agricultural community for the way they put their backs into it at the time—we were able to boast that in the 1918 harvest we were able to produce more food than we had done in time of peace. We did that by giving the farmer and the labourer some security against losses. We said to the farmers: "If we insist upon you ploughing up your grass land against your wishes, and insist upon you growing certain crops which otherwise you would not have grown, we must give you some security." Therefore, we put in the 1588 Act a minimum price, and we said, "If wheat or oats fall below that price we will pay you the difference." The price was for wheat, in the first year, 60s., coming down to 45s., and the price for oats was 38s. 6d. in the first year, coming down over the five years to 24s.
That was the security which we gave to the farmer. Fortunately prices remained high and the farmer never had to ask for any guarantee under that Act, but there it was. Then we said to the labourer, "We must give you security also," and we set up the Agricultural Wages Board which resulted in giving the agricultural labourer a satisfactory wage. After the War the farmers, I think, made a great mistake. They started agitating for fresh legislation. The Farmers' Union and other bodies passed resolutions in favour of immediate legislation. I ventured to say in this House, "Let the Corn Production Act run its course, and then you will see what it is wise to do for agriculture." It would have come to an end this year, but some of us were over-ruled and the Government set up a Royal Commission to inquire as to what permanent things we should do in the way of legislation for agriculture. That Royal Commission represented landowners, farmers and labourers. By a majority of one it reported in favour of immediate legislation. The Government accepted their Report and passed the Agriculture Act.
That Act was based on the same lines as the Com Production Act. It was a guarantee to the farmer and the labourer, but it differed in this important particular, which I think brought the Act on the rocks. Under the Corn Production Act we—I say "we" because I was partly responsible for that Act—had definite figures, as to the guarantee which I have given, and the Government knew from day to day and from week to week exactly how they stood, but under the new Act the whole machinery was altered. That Act provided a guarantee for the farmers, but in order to arrive at that guarantee it was provided that the Government should send Commissioners throughout the country to ascertain what had been the cost of production of a quarter of wheat in a different area. I do not think that these Commissions were ever set up, but the Act went on to say that they were to take the cost in 1919 as the standard. It was assumed, according to the Report of 1589 the Royal Commission, that a quarter of wheat cost 68s. to produce in 1919. That was to be the standard, and these Commissioners were to go all over the country and ascertain what the cost of production was in that particular year as compared with 1919.
I always felt that this could not be worked. The cost of production in various counties varies tremendously. It varies even in the same parish. How the clever men of the Board of Agriculture ever thought out such a scheme I do not know. In the early stage of the operation of this Act the Chancellor of the Exchequer very rightly said to the Minister of Agriculture, "What subsidy do you want for the farmers?" The Board of Agriculture could not tell him. They could not tell even within millions. They could not say whether they wanted £5,000,000, £10,000,000 or £20,000,000. They said, "You must wait until after we set up these Commissioners and get their Report. It will be Christmas before they Report. Then we shall be able to tell you what we want from the Exchequer." The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, "That will not do for me. I have got to make up my Budget early every year, and I must know there or thereabouts what the Board of Agriculture require," and so that ill-fated Act of Parliament was wiped off the Statute Book. That is a very brief history of the doings of Parliament; with regard to agriculture during the last five or six years. Agriculture has been very seriously let down.
As to the present position, I do not want to paint too lurid a picture, but, to put the case in a nutshell, in my judgment we are suffering from a rapid fall in prices while there is no corresponding fall in the cost of production. While I say this, I want the House to realise that although agriculture is in an unfortunate position we are not yet by a long way so badly off as we were in the 'Eighties and 'Nineties. Wheat to-day makes 43s. a quarter. Lord Selborne's Committee only supported a subsidy up to 40s. a quarter. Compare that with the price even in 1896, after we had got through the worst time of depression, when wheat was selling at 26s. a quarter. Oats to-day are 27s. a quarter, while in 1896 they were 12s. to 14s. a quarter. The barley position is the most serious. At present there is hardly a market at all for malting barley. Good 1590 samples of barley at present are making anything from 16s. to 24s. a coomb. Maltsters all over the country are, buying freely malting barley from California, Chili and Denmark. I fear very much that there is a ring of buyers who are depressing the barley market, and owing to the present condition of agriculture farmers are obliged to sell to get ready money. So at present barley growers in Norfolk and other parts of the country are in a. very serious position.
Turning now to livestock. Good agricultural horses, which during the War brought from £100 to £120, can be bought to-day for £50, and second-rate horses, worth £50 then, can be bought to-day for £10, but farmers do not have many horses to sell. Beef to-day is 13s. a stone, and it was 7s. in pre-War days. Good wether sheep to-day are worth £5 compared with 50s. before the War, so that there is no tremendous fall in the price of beef and mutton. In potatoes the slump has come most of all. We have got excellent crops of potatoes, because, owing to the Corn Production Act, thousands of acres of good grass land were ploughed up. In those areas represented by the hon. Member for the Holland Division (Mr. Royce), he will tell you that magnificent new land is being used for potato cultivation, and the result is that we have got a million tons more potatoes in the country to-day than I think we have ever had previously in our history. Therefore, the drop in the price of potatoes is a very serious matter indeed. During the War we controlled the price of potatoes. The control prices were, I think, from £6 to £8 a ton. The moment the control was taken off prices went up actually to £14 a ton. To-day potatoes cannot be sold for more than £2 at most. The price is from 30s. to 40s. a ton for good sorts of potatoes. Owing, I daresay, to the announcement in the newspapers that I was to move this Amendment, various cases have been sent to me. I have got to-day a case from the Spalding Division of two ex-service men who are farming on our colony at Holbeach. They sent 15 tons of potatoes to Manchester and they got back 2s. 6d. I have a case in my own division in Norfolk of a smallholder who sent 10 tons of potatoes to the London market. They realised £29, and he got home £16 after paying carriage and other costs. That 1591 is some indication of the slump in prices.
Turning to the cost of production, the price of artificial manures is double what it was in pre-War days. With linseed cake it is the same. Steam ploughing is very necessary for those potato-growing districts, and costs 22s. an acre as against 10s. to 12s. an acre in pre-War days. On railway carriage there is an increase of 75 per cent., plus a flat rate charge which brings it practically to double what it was in pre-War days. Then as to rates, I have received this morning from someone in Bedfordshire a letter which says that the writer lives in a bungalow and farms 75 acres of land. He sends me his demand notes, which show that they are asking him 15s. in the £ rates on a smallholding in Bedfordshire. No doubt that is exceptional, but roughly we may say that rates are from 10s. to 12s. Tradesmen's bills are double, coal is high, and shoeing horses cost three times as much as before the War. All those costs—and I could enumerate others—are beyond the farmers' control. The only thing which the farmer can control with regard to the cost of production is labourers' wages, and that, of course, recently he has dealt with. Now look at the matter from the point of view of the three partners in the industry—the landowner, the tenant farmer and the labourer. The landowners of the old school—who, I regret to say, are becoming fewer—will do, I am sure, as they have always done, and meet the tenants by reductions of rents, and they will very soon get back to pre-War rentals in all cases where the rent has been increased. I could give cases where, and rightly so, the rents were increased. Therefore the men who are tenants in those conditions are lucky men.
But I have to deal with another class, and that is the comparatively new landowner, the man who has bought his estate during the last few years. What is his position? I will quote the case of one such in my constituency. Ten years ago, just before the War, he purchased 1,800 acres of land for £40,000. There are upon it a manor house and farm houses. These are the figures which he has given to me: He says: "My gross rentals are £2,500 a year. I am letting my land at £1 8s. an acre, and my cottages at £4 direct to the working 1592 men, because I do not believe in tied cottages. After I have paid all my outgoings, tithe and all the other charges, I get a net rental of £1,350 a year. But my average expenditure for repairs during the last three years hag been £1,340. In other words, I have not a penny interest on my £40,000 investment, except the manor house and a few acres of land upon which I live." Fortunately he has another business and he can make things go. But fancy the position of anyone who has invested £40,000 in land and has not an alternative business upon which to fall.
I come to the next class of owner, the occupying owner. His case is very serious. Thousands of acres of land have been put on the market during and since the War. I am not blaming anyone for that, but it is the fact that hundreds of tenants have been obliged to buy their holding or be turned out. Very often they have had to buy in the open market, and very often they have had to give very heavy prices for the land. That class of man is in the most serious position of all. What is to be done with him? The men who bought during 1920 and 1921 say, "We should never have touched this if it had not been for the Agriculture Act." I say to the Minister of Agriculture that to all that class of occupying owner the State owes something. The State has "let them in." The men bought because of the Government guarantee, and therefore they have a right to expect some assistance from the Government. I think it can be done. These men have heavy mortgages on their property, and they very often have heavy bank overdrafts. It is the duty of the State now to lend such men money at a reasonable rate of interest, and to place them in a more secure position. That is the only reasonable course which can be taken.
I come next to the tenants. First of all I want to deal with the ex-service men. The ex-service men have been abominably treated by the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Coalition Government!"] That may be. But one Government has to bear the sins of the last Government, as new Members will find as they continue in this House. £20,000,000 of money was provided to place these ex-service men on the land. After the Land Settlement Act was passed the county councils were forced by the 1593 Ministry of Agriculture to go into the open market in 1919 and to buy land at its highest War price. In my own constituency for land which in pre-War days was selling for £40 an acre, they bought land for £70 and £80 an acre. Then they started to equip it. They were warned that if they would buy land at such high prices there would be gigantic losses to the nation and that the ex-service men would suffer. But the county councils went on. That land was equipped in many cases: with houses and buildings just when everything was at its dearest, just when the Addison scheme of housing was in progress. Money was poured out by the county councils. When the ex-service men came to settle upon the land the Ministry of Agriculture, in order to reduce the loss as much as possible, and in order that it should not have to defend the heavy loss in this House, forced the county councils to charge these men excessive rentals, sometimes twice the rental that the land was letting for in pre-War days. I have in my own constituency men who to-day are struggling with land at £4 an acre—land which we were glad to lot at 30s. an acre before the War.
It is a disgraceful state of affairs. I can quite understand that the Minister of Agriculture will say, "Ah, yes; but we have instructed our Commissioners to go round and give these men abatements of rent." That is true, but they are doing it in a most niggardly way, and unless the matter is tackled properly there are thousands of ex-service men who will come to grief within the next six months or year. I do not think the House wishes that that should be the result. Let us cut our losses. It makes one's heart bleed to see the waste of public money, but it was done by a Government Department with their yes open. They insisted upon county councils buying this land at excessive prices. The nation will have to bear the loss and these men must get their land at something like reasonable rents. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who got the money?"] New Members of this House do not seem to understand. This £20,000,000 has been invested in lands and buildings. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who got the money?"] We want the men to have the land at a fair rental. The land is vested in the county councils.
I come to the pre-War smallholder. There are thousands of men who were put upon the land tinder the Allotments and 1594 Smallholdings Act of 1908, men who got established before the War, some of whom were flourishing. After the War the Ministry of Agriculture said, "Although you are paying a rent equal to the repayment of interest and sinking fund on what the land cost, that is not enough. We must put up all your rents." In order to minimise the loss on the ex-service men's land they raised the rent of all the pre-War smallholders also. I do not think that that was a proper thing to do, and unless some active steps are taken with regard even to the pre-War smallholders they will come to grief.
Let me pass to the tenant farmer. First and foremost, what he complains of is the burden of rates. All local authorities during the War got the fever of extravagance, and I am afraid that many of them are not yet repentant. But there is a move in the rural districts for cutting down expenditure, and it will go on. The incidence of agricultural rating should be dealt with, as has been promised repeatedly. I have been a Member of this House for 17 years, and almost every year during that time one Government or another has promised that it would deal with the incidence of local rating. It has not been done to this day. I ask the present Minister of Agriculture to consider whether he cannot deal with it effectively. There are two main burdens in rural rating, and they are largely responsible for the enormous increase in our local rates. They are education and main roads.
I have always held that you must treat rural education rather differently from town education. We in the rural districts are educating our boys and girls not to stay with us. They do not stay with us; they leave us, and rightly leave us, and go into the towns or to the Colonies, and help to people the great centres. Every year certainly half the children whom we educate do not remain with us. In these circumstances we have a right to ask for a greater grant from national sources than that we now get. With regard to main roads, I am quite sure that during the General Election hon. Members have seen what is going on. We have great transports coming along out of the large towns, linking up one city with another and using our main roads, and often some of our rural district roads as well. That sort of thing will go on 1595 and increase. But it is not fair to put the burden upon the local ratepayers. We have a right to ask Parliament to see that we are fairly treated. We ask for no more.
I do not want to over-draw the picture. Therefore, I must put in a word here and say that, so far as I am concerned, I make no complaint about Imperial taxation. I think the farmer is a very lucky man with regard to Imperial taxation. I have always thought so and I think so to-day more than ever. In the last Budget the farmer was given tremendous assistance. To-day the farmer pays Income Tax only on his rental value. If his rent is £l an acre he pays only as if his profits were £l an acre. If he gets no profits at all, he goes to Schedule D—he need not go on the three years average—and he escapes Income Tax altogether. The result of that is that there is not a farmer now farming 200 acres or under who is paying one penny of Income Tax. He is absolved from all those wretched brain-racking forms, with which others have to deal. He is in a favourable position in regard to Imperial taxation, and it is only right that the fact should be taken into account. Now we come to the most difficult problem of all, and that is the problem of the middle man's profit. How is it that the farmer down in Lincolnshire is only getting one farthing a pound for his potatoes and you are paying a penny a pound for them up here in London? Then there is the question of the price of bread. I was constantly asked during the last Election, how was it that bread was being sold at 8½d. and 9d. per loaf when wheat was only 45s., whereas in pre-War days, when wheat was 45s., the 4-lb. loaf was sold for 5d. or 6d.? It is all in the cost of production. I do not say that the baker or anybody in the trade is getting a bigger profit than they did before the War. The whole matter wants looking into, and I hope it will be looked into by the Committee. The moment a sack of wheat leaves the farmer and goes to the miller it is a question of the miller's costs of grinding. Those costs have gone up considerably as compared with pre-War days. Wages and all the things used in the mill are at a higher figure. Therefore, when the miller has produced his sack of flour, that sack of flour has cost more than it 1596 would have cost in pre-War days, even though the miller has only paid the same price for the wheat. When that gets to the baker what happens? I have here a very interesting statement of the costs of producing bread as they affect the baker. Yeast cost 3s. 6d. for 7 lbs. before the War and it is now 7s. 7d. Salt cost 40s. a ton and is now 74s. Flour per sack was 25s. before the War and is 43s. to-day. Coke per ton was 18s. and is now 30s. Bread-makers' wages were 28s. and are now 70s. Deliverers' wages were 24s. and are now 60s. The keep of a horse per week was 10s. and is now 17s. 6d. Lighting cost 2s. 6d. per thousand feet before the War and now costs 4s. 2d., while rates have increased by 50 per cent. Each item which enters into the cost of making a loaf of bread is practically double what it was in pre-War times. That completely answers the question as to why bread is 8½d. a loaf instead of 6d., as it used to be when wheat was 45s. previously.
What is the remedy? The remedy is organisation. That is a gospel which has been preached for a good many years to the farmers, but it is easier said than done. Fifteen years ago I tried to establish an agricultural trading society among my smallholders. I became president and chairman, and was responsible to the bank for a considerable overdraft. At one time I thought I should have to pay up. We have gone through 15 years of vicissitudes, but I think we have put that society on a proper basis. I think it is going to be a success. There is a large turnover and we sell everything collectively and co-operatively, and we buy things in the same way. But it all depends upon management, honesty, and integrity, and these are things that it is not so easy to get. I have had considerable experience, and I recognise the difficulties, but still it has got to be done. We must have more organisation in agriculture. The Wholesale Co-operative Society have tried it. There are two or three hon. Members here representing the co-operative movement who will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the Wholesale Co-operative Society bought large tracts of land in the Isle of Ely and the Isle of Axholme, and started farming. They had the organisation, yet I venture to say every farm which is being farmed by the society is losing money at the present time. Therefore they have to make their profit by selling their produce 1597 to the consumer. What they lose on the swings they get on the roundabouts. That is what the farmer will more and more have to do.
I personally have more faith in Government assistance in this direction of forming agricultural trading societies than in expenditure on teaching science in agriculture. Mark you, I do not want to decry the teaching of scientific agriculture. I think it is very necessary, but in that respect you only teach a few, and you certainly will not teach the present generation. The farmer wants immediate help. He is a poor co-operator. He prefers to paddle his own canoe, and if he makes a mistake he grins and bears it. That will not do. Every business is the better for good organisation and we have to teach the farmer that he must have organisation. Farmers' unions, I am glad to say, have made very considerable progress. They are much better organised, they are bringing a larger body of farmers into their organisation, and there is machinery ready to hand which, I am sure, will assist the Ministry of Agriculture in bringing about the desired co-operation.
I come to the question of the labourer, the most difficult problem of all. What is the position with regard to the labourer? His wages are being reduced to, I think, below pre-War level, when you fake into account the cost of living. It wants careful working out, but I think there are five counties, including Norfolk, in which these wages are 25s. a week, and, I understand, when compared with the present cost of living, that means less than the pre-War rate of wages. It is quite true, also, that wages were very low before the War. In the winter before the War in my constituency men were getting 14s. per week, and we had a strike in East Norfolk as to whether they should have 13s. or 14s. The condition of affairs is so bad that I see different boards of guardians in Norfolk propose to meet together to see how they shall assist the labourer who has a large family and is being paid 25s. per week. They are seriously contemplating in Norfolk a subsidy from the poor rate to such men.
I have no immediate remedy. I have tried to state the case, and I have done so, inadequately perhaps, but I have not exaggerated, and I ask now that we should have an all-round Government in- 1598 quiry. I am glad to see the Prime Minister here. We do not consider that an inquiry into the middle man's profits is enough. It may be said, and, I believe, is going to be said, that the problem is so urgent that we cannot wait. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] That is what I thought was the view of hon. Members. Well, if we cannot wait, we must know from the Government what they propose to do. I have indicated some directions in which I think the Government can give immediate relief. They can give immediate relief to the occupying owner by lending him money at a reasonable rate of interest. They can give relief to the ex-service man and the smallholder by reducing rents, and there are other ways. In 1913 I was a member of a Committee which made an exhaustive report on the land position. I attached my name to that land inquiry Report. It was an exhaustive, painstaking, and impartial inquiry, and had we not had the War, I believe my right hon. Friend the late Prime Minister would, before now, have attempted legislation on the lines of that Report. I recommend the study of that Report to those who desire that the British farmer and the agricultural worker should be placed in a sound and secure position. That Report still holds the field. I was reading through part of it the other day; I withdraw nothing from it, nor have I much to add to it. There is another report. The landowners and the farmers and the labourers, I am glad to say, are coming together in my county, and have formulated a policy. I have it here in my pocket. I would ask the hon. Members to get it and examine it carefully, and I think the Government ought to examine it. I have no difficulty in subscribing to the joint proposals which come from these three classes in my own county. I say, in conclusion, that this is no party question. It is in the interests of the whole nation that the oldest and the premier industry should flourish, and I appeal to the Government to help it.
Mr. LLOYD GEORGE
I beg to second the Amendment. I rise in a position which I have not occupied for at least 17 years to second the Amendment which has been placed before the House with such consummate ability and great knowledge by my hon. Friend (Sir 1599 Richard Winfrey) who spoke last. I join with him in urging the Government to broaden out their inquiry, whether they like to prosecute this particular inquiry in order to deal with an urgent problem or not. That is a matter which they can best judge for themselves, but I am going to urge that they should have a wider and deeper inquiry into the whole position of agriculture in this country. My hon. Friend the Mover of the Amendment has stated the case from the point of view of those who are actually engaged in the industry. I should like to place the question before the House from the point of view of the contribution which the industry makes to the production of food and the employment of the people, and I say that from both these points of view it is disappointing. Last week we discussed in this House the gravest problem of unemployment with which we have been confronted in this country, certainly for a century. In its actual dimensions, in its prolongation, I think it is more serious than any employment crisis we have ever witnessed in this land. Something just short of 1,500,000 people are out of work. Many of them have been out of work for two years. No one here can predict that this figure will be reduced to 1,000,000 in a twelvemonth, and I should like to meet the man who would pledge his reputation to the prediction that you have not got, under present conditions, a surplus of at least half-a-million people which cannot be absorbed within the next few years into the work and industry of this country. I am putting it at a low figure. That is a very serious problem, it is a very serious outlook, and it demands remedies of a very drastic and a very far-reaching character.
I had come to that conclusion before I left office. I had been dealing with the problem of unemployment in this country for two years. I had been dealing in the main, I admit, with expedients, based on the assumption that it was a temporary crisis, a temporary evil which would pass away when the world recovered and you had a restoration to normal conditions. I had come to the conclusion for some time that that was not the case, and that it would be idle merely to deal with something which, in my vision, is a permanent problem with temporary expedients and temporary 1600 shifts. For that reason I had called the attention of my colleagues, as right hon. Gentlemen there know, to proposals of a more permanent character. I had invited an expression of opinion from the Ministry of Agriculture. Those proposals were formulated. I am not urging those proposals. On the contrary, I had come also to the conclusion that it needed a little more investigation and a good deal more consideration, but I do urge that the time has come for putting before the country some proposals of a drastic, far-reaching, and wide character, which will deal with this problem of surplus labour as if it were going to be one of the permanent features of our economic life for a good many years to come. The expedients we discussed last week were, in the main, temporary. The proposals of the Government, at best, covered 10 or 12 per cent. of those who are out of work. I am not complaining, because they were proposals which had been formulated by the Government of which I was the head, find, therefore, I am not putting it as a criticism. In fact, I am not here to criticise, and I think I can promise that, from beginning to end, I shall avoid criticism or attack. But I am going to make suggestions, and I am going to give my reasons for the conclusion which I had come to for a long time, that this is the only hope— the only hope—of dealing with a problem which is one of the most serious with which any Government can be confronted.
The expedients were of a temporary character. As far as Labour was concerned, they covered only 12 per cent, as a maximum; the rest was a question of allowances. I listened to that Debate for two days, and I read the speeches which I did not hear, and I was very much struck that even from my hon. Friends on the Labour Benches there were no proposals which seemed to me to cope with the whole of the difficulties and to promise a solution.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Hon. Members have not yet, some of them, learned what is debate. It is a clash of arguments. I shall soon be calling upon some hon. Members on this side to give their view of the case, but that cannot be done by mere negative or by interruption. That would spoil all debate.
Mr. LLOYD GEORGE
I think I may claim that, whether my speech is a helpful one or not, it is not going to be a provocative one. That is not the object of it. I was dealing with the only hon. Member who, I thought, approached the problem of solution in a way which I regarded as hopeful, the hon. Member for the Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden), whose speech impressed the House very much indeed, and I must say that I was one of those who was very deeply impressed by it. I do not think that, surveying all the proposals which have been put forward, there is anything on the horizon which gives promise of a solution except a far-reaching, drastic dealing with the whole problem of agriculture. I am not deprecating the suggestions which have been made about Empire development. On the contrary, that was also one of the proposal? which we intended to put forward. Schemes had been formulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Swansea (Sir A. Mond), and I am sure they were helpful. I am very glad the Government have taken them up, and I am sure they will prosecute them with the whole of their power. But it will 1602 not solve the problem of unemployment, however successful it is. Other countries have been confronted with the same difficulties. They have grappled with them, and some of them have grappled successfully.
In the Amendment which has been moved by my hon. Friend there is a reference to the problem of rural de-population. There is no more serious feature in the life of Britain than that fact, which is covered by a single phrase in the Amendment. At the beginning of the last century 35 per cent, of the population of this country was engaged in— lived on—agriculture. I think the last figures indicate that something around 9 per cent, depend on agriculture. There is no country in the world in that predicament except ours. It is a peril. I have constantly called attention to what I regard as the top-heavy economic and social construction of our society. It is an inverted pyramid, the point, upon which it is resting, crumbling away from decade to decade until it is becoming finer; the base, which is in the air, broadening out and becoming heavier, and I am afraid of what may ensue. Those are the figures of rural de-population, and my hon. Friend in his statement showed that we are not quite at the end of it. European countries were confronted with the same problem. It is a problem that ought to have been attended to here 50, 60, or 70 years ago. I am not going into the question of the very mistaken policy when cash and cheapness dominated the statesmanship of England for a very long time, and, if I may say so, one of the- greatest misfortunes of that period came from the fact that the championship of agriculture was associated with a perfectly hopeless cause, a cause which involved the raising of the price of food for the people. That is one of the misfortunes of agriculture. The consequence was that agriculture is a more neglected industry in this country than in any other civilised land under the sun. If Members of the House of Commons will take the trouble—and I have no doubt a good many of them who take an interest in this matter have done so—to look at the figures, the statistics, of the population engaged on the land in countries with the same difficulties and the same problems as ours, and compare those figures with the figures of the popu- 1603 lation engaged on the land in this country, they will see the extent to which we have neglected efforts for solving the problem.
I will just give two or three figures which will show what the position is. In this country, out of those who are engaged in occupations of various kinds, only 9.2 per cent, are engaged in agricultural pursuits. France one does not quote, because it is more of an agicultural country, but it is worth noting that the figure there is 42.7 per cent, of the population, and that that gives a stability to France, a power of recovery to France, which no other country in the world probably possesses. But take two countries which are rather similarly situated to ours, great industrial countries, Belgium and Germany. Belgium produces more factory stuff, goods manufactured in the factories and workshops, per head of the population than this country. In spite of that fact, 22.7 per cent, of the occupied population is engaged in agricultural pursuits-—22.7, against 9.2 here. Take Germany, whose industrial development was one of the phenomena of the end of the nineteenth century, whose imports and exports very nearly overtook ours— 35.8 per cent, of the population is engaged on the soil; and it is worth while following why that was done. On the Continent of Europe military exigencies forced statesmanship to grapple with this problem in time. You have the same process of rural degeneration, the same flight from the land to the towns, the same allurements in the city, not merely higher wages, but the amenities of life, drawing the population—the same hæmorrhage of the soil. They did not allow it to bleed white, as we did in this country. Their soldiers said, "This is a serious problem. Sturdy, vigorous, robust, enduring people were reared on the soil; those have vanished, they are flocking into the towns; you will have a population grown under the unhealthy, depressing conditions of industrial life." [An HON. MEMBER: "C3!"] Yes, a C3 population, of which we had a higher proportion, I am sorry to say, than any of the combatant nations. They therefore said, "As a military problem, you must stop this."
I am not sure it is not a military problem here. Those who were engaged in 1604 directing the great struggle, when there was a real danger of starvation, when our ships were sunk by German submarines at the rate in one month of 700,000 tons, know the anxieties with which we were faced, because we would have been starved out in a single year if we had not been able to protect our ships. The seas were trackless and the cavalry of the sea was only numbered by hundreds, and the lines of communication were very long. Thanks to the resourcefulness, the gallantry, the skill of our sailors, thanks, also, to the assistance we had from our scientific men, whose services have not been sufficiently appreciated, we were able to face that menace. I am not going to say that it will ever occur again. I hope not. I hope there will be no more war. Mankind has had its lesson. Yes, but it has had it before, and if we are going to base the security, the life of the country, upon the assumption that, under all conditions, at all times, the passions of mankind will not wrest the lever out of the hand of reason, it is rather a precarious security for any land. And it is rather ominous That even now there is one Power that insists on building submarines, in spite of the protest of every other Power in the world.
I do hope that even that lesson will not be forgotten when you come to the question of food production in this country. But that is not the chief ground on which I am urging this to-day. I am urging it rather on the ground now of finding some means of healthy productive employment for the surplus population of this country, and to secure the restoration of the rural life which has even fed our industries for two or three generations, without which it would have been impossible to continue our industries, and to make them prosperous. I say that other countries have considered this problem and have found their remedies. There is no country in Europe, except Russia, where the proportion of labour to the 100 acres is as low as ours. That is a very serious fact. Let me give the figures. Take the numbers employed on 100 acres of cultivated land in this country. It is 4.5. Go to Denmark, with no great market except across the seas. We have the greatest markets of the world at our own door. In Denmark there are 7 per 100 acres, France 10 per 100 acres, I Belgium 16 per 100 acres, and Germany 1605 18 per 100 acres. Now the comparison with Germany, I think, is the most fruitful of all. I pointed out that in the eighties Germany discovered this flight from the land. There was a great patriotic appeal made to all sections of the community to come in and remedy this evil. Landowners came in, farmers came in, labourers joined, banks came in, soldiers assisted for military reasons, and the State played its part. There was a great combined patriotic effort made to rescue rural Germany from the fate of rural England.
When the experiment began, the soil of Germany was inferior to ours. Take the produce of German soil in the 'eighties and compare it with ours. I recommend my hon. and right hon. Friends to peruse a very able document produced by Sir Thomas Middleton during the War. Unfortunately, it was during the War, when people were engaged in other tasks, and therefore it did not attract the attention it ought to have attracted. He gives the reasons for the development in Germany, and most of the figures, although not all, I get from that document. He points out that in the early 'eighties the produce of German soil was inferior to ours—considerably inferior. He then gives the produce after 25 years of that joint great patriotic effort, which was made to revive German agriculture, and the contrast is a very remarkable one. In the 'eighties the produce is considerably inferior to ours; 25 years later it has exceeded ours by 50 or 60 per cent, for the same number of acres. This is how he sums it up, and it is a very remarkable summing up. On each 100 acres of cultivated land, the British farmer feeds from 45 to 50 persons; the German farmer feeds from 70 to 75 persons. The British farmer grows 15 tons of corn; the German farmer grows 33 tons. The British farmer grows 11 tons of potatoes; the German, 55 tons. The British farmer produces four tons of meat; the German, 4¼ tons. The British farmer produces 17½ tons of milk; the German, 28 tons. The British farmer produces; a negligible quantity of sugar: the German farmer produces 2¾ tons.
That is a very remarkable testimony to what can be accomplished by a great, earnest, serious patriotic effort to lift an industry from a condition of depression to a condition of productivity, where it enriches its own land, and where it 1606 provides profitable employment for a large population. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why did you not do it?"] An hon. Member asks why I did not do it. In the first place, during the War I made my effort. I was not satisfied with it. [An HON. MEMBER: "Nor anyone else."] If I were satisfied with it I would not be here. If the hon. Gentleman who interrupts wishes to be offensive, that really does not help debate. That agricultural effort, which included compulsory cultivation, a very remarkable principle to introduce, increased the amount of food produced in this country from food for 14,500,000 to food for 19,000,000 people. When the hon. Gentleman is able to do by one act as much as that, I will listen to his criticism. [An HON. MEMBER: "That is not the whole story."] In addition to that, in Germany there are the great German forests, which provide employment for a population of 500,000. What I want the Government to do is this. I make my proposals. I do not ask them to accept those proposals. My right hon. Friend will find them there. I do not put them forward. On the contrary, I think they require further investigation. We were in process of investigation, but I felt, the more we investigated them, that it required a more thorough and complete sifting of the whole problem, and what I am really urging the Government to do is to have an inquiry into all these methods which have been adopted abroad, and into the whole position and conditions of agriculture.
My hon. Friend sitting below me has pointed out that, bad as things were, they are better now. He pointed out some encouraging features in the present depression. I am going to point out some discouraging features. I remember going through all the old agricultural depressions; I was then practising as a solicitor in a rural district, and all the farmers there came to me with all their troubles, and I knew far more about their financial position than their landlords. In those days the rates were comparatively low. The Income Tax was something like 8d. in the £. The landlord was in a better position to assist. He could afford to give his 10 per cent., 15 per cent, or 20 per cent, remission, and what he did very often, when he did not remit, was not to press, and the remission of 25 per cent. did not always represent his contribution.
1607 On the contrary, there were rents which he absolutely forgave; that was, he never pressed for them. He is not in a position to do it now. His Income Tax then was 8d. in the £; he now pays half his income away in Income Tax. His rates are treble or quadruple what they were, and I know landlords who are not getting a quarter of their income available for their own use.
The other point is this. As my hon. Friends associated with agriculture know very well, the landlord used to return anything from 10 per cent, to 20 per cent., according to whether he was an improving landlord or not, to be put back into the land in the way of repairs and improvements. I had a good deal to do with that when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, after investigation, we fixed the amount at 12 per cent., which, on the whole, was fair as an average. He has no longer money available to put into the land. What is the result? Who is going to do the repairs? Who is going to make the improvements? Who is going to provide new buildings and repair old ones? Who is going to do the necessary drainage? There is no one to do it. The landlord can do it no longer, the farmer cannot afford it, and certainly the poor labourer cannot contribute. The banks are not prepared to do it, because in the old days, when you had little proprietary banks, where the banker—it was the case when I started down in Wales—knew every farmer, and he lent money until the bad times were over, because he knew the man was an honest man. You have got now a system of a different character. There is no one to do it. What is the result? The land will become more and more derelict, more and more neglected, and, therefore, it is an urgent problem which I am pressing upon the Government. I know it is said that unemployment is a temporary problem, that you have only got to wait until the world settles down, until the exchanges are restored, until the purchasing power of the world is filled up from its present depleted condition, and then there will be a boom. It is said that if you engaged in great agricultural schemes, it would involve the diversion of a good deal of labour on to the land, and the moment 1608 you have the boom in industry those labourers will quit their tasks and go back to where they can get better wages and live in an atmosphere to which they are more accustomed. I do not believe it.
If that were true, there are two alternative risks. One is the risk that when you have the boom the schemes which have been started may be left derelict. Even then there will be employment provided and it is better than tramping every week to the Exchanges to draw the allowances. In addition to that, however, some good will have been done, some improvement will have been effected. The other risk is this: Supposing trade does not absorb your surplus population, suppose you still have some years hence hundreds of thousands of willing workers with no work for them, those years will be years of misery. More than that, they will be years of peril; because this surplus population living on allowances is a source of irritation to the body-politic which at any moment might develop into a formidable fever. Therefore the risks of not doing things are greater than the risks of making a mistake. But is unemployment a temporary state" [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] If the House will bear with me for a moment I should like to give the conclusions to which I have come, because they bear upon this problem of finding employment in agriculture. I am not doing it in order to engage in another investigation. I want it to be a contribution to what we are discussing. It is assumed that the moment the world settles down, when the threads of the exchanges are bound together again, that all will be well.
Mr. LLOYD GEORGE
I do not say it is assumed by my right hon. Friend, but there are those who do assume it, and perhaps I may be permitted to argue with them. It is assumed that the moment the world settles down and you get restoration of prosperity that all will be well. Are you quite sure? What is the position now? We have two formidable trade rivals, Germany and the United States of America. The United States cannot sell to the best advantage because her exchange is too high. Every man who buys in America has to buy dollars, and dollars are the most ex- 1609 pensive commodity in the world at the present moment. Therefore, there is that detriment to their trade. Go to Germany. The German exchange is low. That means cheap labour in Germany. You might have imagined that that would have enabled Germany to flood the markets of the world with cheaper goods than our own, and cut us out. She is not doing it. Why? We are selling this year 70 per cent, of the commodities which we were selling before the War. Germany, in spite of her cheap labour and low exchange, is selling 40 per cent. Dr. Rathenau told me at the beginning of the year they were only selling 25 per cent. Why? Does the world know? The first reason is that the material for manufacture is more expensive because of the low-ness of her exchange. The second reason is the fluctuations in the exchange which make it impossible to do business.
I heard the other day of a man whose firm wanted to buy a couple of machines which the Germans produce better than we do. He could buy them at £1,000 less than the price here. He saw the quotation. It was filled with conditions dealing with the exchanges, labour conditions, and the peculiar aspects of German economic and industrial life. He did not buy the machines. His firm preferred to pay the £1,000 more here for inferior machines, because they were certain to get delivery. That is the second reason. The third reason is the prejudice against the German salesman. It still exists. These three things will pass away. Sooner or later the German exchange will be stabilised, and that is what matters. It is not the figure at which it is stabilised. It is the fact of stabilisation. The prejudice against the German salesman is wearing thin even now. It will ultimately disappear.