§ Mr. MURROUGH WILSON
I beg to move, at the end of the Question, to add the wordsBut regret that in the Gracious Speech from the Throne no reference is made to the urgent necessity for relieving agriculture from some of the disabilities which press unfairly on the industry and which, combined with the depression from which it is suffering, threaten to reduce the food supply of the Country and to create further unemployment.The question may well be asked, and it has been asked me, why at the present time, when all trade is suffering, when industry throughout the country and the world is at a very low ebb, a special Amendment of this kind referring to agriculture should be moved to the Address? Reasons can be shown that whereas industry has suffered, agriculture has doubly suffered, and whereas the burden of taxation and other burdens have pressed heavily on industry in general, the circumstances are such that they have pressed to an increasing and a far larger extent on the industry of agriculture, which has found itself unable to shift those burdens or to avoid them in the same manner in which other industries have been able to do. There are two sets of circumstances which are pressing unduly on agriculture at the present time. One, over which we as members of this House have no control, is due to world-wide causes, and another, which is pressing even more heavily upon 480 agriculture, has arisen owing to the action of this House and the legislation passed by this House, which has had a severe and dire effect upon the industry. It is not difficult for anybody to understand why agriculturists in this country feel that they are not only neglected by the Government but that the policy of the Government appears to be antagonistic to their great industry.
Only 18 months ago we were told that it was the express wish of the country that agriculture should be put on so secure a basis that the food supplies of this country need never be feared for again. During those 18 months apparently the whole policy of the Government has been reversed, and not only that but the idea of obtaining security for agriculture has lapsed. Apparently now the position is that the Government have no intention of attending to the wants of agriculture, of fulfilling the pledges, small or great, which they gave even in previous years before the idea of raising agriculture to a high level ever became known. The effect upon agriculture has been extraordinary, almost disastrous. One has only got to consider the effect on the different classes who are engaged in agriculture, and are thereby affected.
Farmers themselves were assured that in future agriculture would be secured, that they need have no fear for the future, that security was so essential to the State that they might depend upon receiving every facility from the Government to insure that security. The result was that farmers invested every penny they possessed, and in a great many instances more money than they actually possessed by borrowing on mortgage or from the bank in their industries, and now owing to the present state of affairs and the way in which agriculture has slumped the whole of their available capital is adversely affected, and they are faced with an extreme financial crisis. Big farmers may probably find ways in which they can look after themselves but other men, smallholders and ex-service men, have been induced to go on the land and invest their capital in agriculture, and now find themselves in an extremely precarious position. Therefore it can be said truthfully that the effect of the Government action during the last 18 months has been to put agriculture in a far worse position than if Parliament 481 had never started to interfere with the industry. There is another set of circumstances which probably affect all the world—the effect of general depression—but in that case too, it can safely be said that, whereas other industries have suffered, agriculture has suffered far more.
Agriculture is in a peculiar position. It is the bedrock of all other trades. Whereas other trades and industries are able to shift burdens, agriculture has no means of doing so. The great burdens which are shifted by other industries finally find their way to a very large extent to the back of agriculture. The reason is not far to seek. Other industries can get out of their troubles. They can, as one sees at regular intervals, announce bargain sales, sales to take place at short notice, to get rid of stock, cut their losses, and buy in again at lower prices. Unfortunately, agriculture cannot buy in at a lower price. It has to grow the stuff it is to produce, instead of buying it and cutting its loss, as other trades do. That is one of the reasons why agriculture is severely affected. The agricultural industry is still trying to produce goods, but the cost at which it can produce goods has not fallen at anything like the rate at which the prices which it can secure have fallen. It is dangerous perhaps to quote actual figures, but, roughly speaking, it may be said that whilst the cost of producing goods through agriculture has fallen something like five points, the actual price which can be obtained by the agriculturist has fallen by something like seven points, with the result that agriculture is faced with continuous deficits, deficits which, if continued, may sooner or later bring the industry into bankruptcy.
It may be said, and I think that it is said, the farmers can afford it, that they made money in the past and had a very good time during the war, and that therefore it is rather early for them to cry out. It is equally right to retaliate by saying that it is not only farmers who made money during the War, but that other trades made money during the War, and there is a very great distinction. If farmers made money during the War, they were making money for the first time in 35 years, a state of affairs which did not apply to any other trade. Consequently, so far as the effects on in- 482 dustry as a whole are concerned, the injury to agriculture is more than to other trades, and therefore the agricultural industry is calling attention to its crisis at the present time. In those circumstances it is only natural that there was intense disappointment throughout the country that no mention of the agricultural crisis was made in His Majesty's Gracious Speech, and that apparently there is no intention of doing anything for that great industry. Not only that, but there is no sign of any policy of the Government in regard to agriculture, and many of us were almost inclined to believe that a letter written by a previous Minister of Agriculture, Lord Ernie, in the "Times" a. short time ago was correct. In that letter he said that apparently the Ministry had no policy and there was only one policy before the country, that is one which I believe is proposed from the benches opposite by the Labour party.
I hope that there is no question of the Minister of Agriculture taking up the policy which is proposed by hon. Members opposite, a policy which carries control to an even greater extent, and a, far worse extent, than any control which was ever suggested even by the Agriculture Act. Whatever other step may be found to remedy the present state of affairs in agriculture, that is not one which will have any support among the agricultural community. Personally I congratulate the authors of that policy on the humour which they have shown in introducing it. They produced a scheme by which farmers are to be controlled, controlled in forms of cultivation which certainly they do not like, and when the farmers have lost all their money by farming in a manner which they do not appreciate, they are to be insured against loss in a society which is to be at the cost, as I understand, of the industry of the farmers themselves. It is a delightful idea. I can only suggest that perhaps the treasurer of the Labour party would like to invest the funds of that party in the scheme.
There are two other policies; the policy which has been developed at length by the Land Union and the policy developed by the National Farmers' Union. If the Government are in any doubt as to what line to take, I would suggest that they read what has been issued by these two Unions and on 483 that base a policy which would be of some use to agricultural interests inasmuch as it would have been drawn up by practical men. It may be fairly argued and would be argued that the policy is too long. If the Government find that the policy is too long they should select such portions of it as refer to the pledges which they themselves have given or which their predecessors had given to agriculture in the course of the last 10, 15 or even 20 years. They might start by considering the Agricultural Rates Act. Let them look back to the reasons for which that Act was brought in. It was brought in at a time when agriculture was depressed, when it was agreed on all sides that agricultural land was unduly taxed, and a grant was made from the Imperial Exchequer. Probably it will be said that doles cannot be given. This should be no question of doles. It would be merely a question of paying towards the rates a certain amount of that expenditure which now falls on local rates and which is for all intents and purposes for Imperial purposes.
There are many rates levied and the money raised is spent on subjects which are of no use to the agriculturist. I will mention only one and that is the question of the upkeep of roads. At present there is something like £50,000,000 of money to be spent annually on roads. Something like one-fifth of that amount is paid by the motor users and the remainder comes to a very large extent out of the pockets of ratepayers in the agricultural districts. If you ask agriculturists what they think about the present method of the upkeep of roads and the present state of the roads in the country districts, they would say candidly that they would prefer to go back to the old[...] state of affairs. The roads are made for motor traffic; consequently they are totally unfit for use by agriculturists, who hardly dare drive a horse on them and when they do so stand a good chance of being run down by [...]buses and motorcars. There are other promises of the Government which could be equally well resurrected. There is the Merchandise Marks Act. As recently as last Session a promise was made to the agricultural community that that Act would be brought up to date.
484 We have a strong case. Agriculturists throughout the country are disappointed that the Government has made apparently no attempt to meet their difficulties and that there is no recognition of the fact that agriculturists have difficulties. If nothing is done the words of the Amendment indicate almost exactly what is likely to be the future of the country. I cannot believe that the Government can sit still now and not realise that within the next few months, or at any rate within the next year, something has to be done or else wages are to be driven down even lower than they are at present—no one in the agricultural districts will venture to say that those wages are not almost too low already—or, failing that, thousands more men will have to be driven out of agriculture into the ranks of the unemployed.
§ Mr. TOWNLEY
I beg to second the Amendment so ably moved by my hon. Friend.
I know that the subject of agriculture is of extraordinarily little interest to dwellers in towns and apparently to those who represent towns in this House. That I have always looked upon as a matter for extreme regret, for the prosperity of the towns depends to a large extent on the prosperity of the country. No country will ever thrive unless it has a prospering agriculture. The backbone of every State is agriculture. You draw supplies of food from it, you draw from it your healthy population. In peace you draw your pleasant walks; in war you draw your men. A country that lets its agriculture fall is bound in the end to fall itself. Allusion has been made to the way in which agriculture has suffered during the last few months, not only on account of the general depression in trade but also in consequence of the repeal of the Corn Production Acts. Whether the Agriculture Act which embraced the Corn Production Acts was a good or bad Act I am not proposing to argue now, but undoubtedly it did lead agriculturists to invest large sums of money in their land, both large holders and small holders.
The repeal of the guarantee for produce was a staggering blow to agriculture. At that time the Minister of Agriculture made probably the largest gamble in futures of wheat which was ever made in the world, at any rate since the great Leiter[...] corner. When he made that 485 gamble I am bound to say that as far as this House was concerned he laid his cards on the table, in a way that few men engaged in that process would have done. He warned us on the advice of his experts—they must have been able men—that there was a possibility and almost a likelihood of wheat falling to 45s. He based the deal that he made on 65s. The result to the farmers was a welcome payment because it was quick, but it was only about one-half of what would have been received had the Government carried out the policy laid down by the Act. That struck hard at many farmers and it has struck harder at many labouring men. Farmers have received their part payment for the work that they have done. There is no gift in it. They paid the money into the banks from which they had borrowed. They were looking to the next half of the payment to meet the labour bill. The next half has not come and there is a dead loss. The labour bill is an exceedingly difficult thing to meet now. It is a curious fact that whenever this House has interfered with agriculture, for the relief or betterment of agriculture, the effort has almost always been a dismal failure. It is true that agriculture is much better when it is left alone.
The Prime Minister speaking in the House the other night said, in a reference to France, that confidence breeds calmness. I can assure him that in the agricultural world confidence breeds capital. There is nothing we want in agriculture more than confidence. We want to know where we stand and we want to be allowed to carry out our work according to our own ideas. The hon. Gentleman referred to the "disabilities" of agriculture. That is the word which is used in the Amendment to the Address. It is a rather difficult word to my mind. The great difficulty that we have is passing on our liabilities and our burdens to the public in the way in which ordinary traders can. People often say, if you get high prices for wheat the working classes will have to pay high prices for their bread and that high prices for wheat mean starvation in the towns. Does it always mean that? I do not think that when the farmer loses in the money which he gets when he goes to market, the consumer gets anything approaching the right reduction in the amount he has to pay for his bread.
486 I have been engaged in farming operations for many years and I have kept a little record of what I sold my wheat at and what I bought my bread at. I find that in May, 1896, I sold wheat at 50s. 6d. a quarter and I paid 6½d. for my bread In November last year I sold wheat at 48s. and I paid 10d. for my broad. I admit, of course, that the cost of producing bread, the cost of labour, coal and other things has risen very largely but not enough to cover that difference. If the farmer was badly hit the workman and the townman did not get a quid pro quo. If wages in the farm did fall and fall all too fast one of the reasons why they fell too fast, was because the cost of living did not fall in proportion to the amount which the farmer received. I see also that one of our other staple products, barley, fell 40 per cent. in 12 months but there is no difference in the price of beer and there is precious little difference in the quality, and I am quite certain that the labouring man working on the farm complains almost as much of the quality as of the price. Does not this show that there is something wrong and that we might have a helping hand held out to us, either in seeing that our products are put upon the market at a reasonable price in proportion to what they cost us to produce, or that we bight have some help from the State?
We have other industries as well which we might call subsidiary industries, such as the growing of tobacco on some of the lightest land and of sugar beet on rather better land. What are the disabilities under which we suffer in regard to those? Heavy Excise duties. I am not going into the question of Protection or Free Trade. Let us leave that on one side and let us study our home industries. Surely when we have got a budding young industry like that of sugar beet in which the Government itself has invested large sums of money, it seems absurd that there should be an Excise duty put upon that industry amounting to something like £40 per acre. Nothing gives more employment to labour than the production of sugar beet and nothing cripples labour more than these heavy Excise duties which stop that production. I am quite aware of the fact that the Minister of Agriculture cannot give us relief in this respect. That relief we should be more likely to get from the Chancellor of the 487 Exchequer, and as this matter is, to my mind, one of importance financially to the country as concerning something we should produce here and not buy from abroad, I regret we are not honoured with the presence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to-day.
Turning to another question, that of the rates, I ask the House to consider how rates have risen—all through the country, I admit, but also on agricultural land. I looked up my old rate books last night—I have been an overseer in my parish for a great number of years—and I turned back to the year 1895, which was the year before the Agricultural Rates Act was brought in. There I saw that the rates were 2s. in the £ and I notice that in November last I was asked to collect a rate of 12s. in the £ or six times as much. The Agricultural Relief (Rates) Act did step in and in the case of the 2s. rate paid 1s. on agricultural land, but it does not pay 6s. or half the present rate by any manner of means because we have to refund so much of it. I want the House to bear in mind what that means in regard to the price of wheat. I will not go into details, but I will tell the House this, that the 2s. rate equals 1s. a quarter on wheat and that the 12s. rate equals approximately 4s. 6d. a quarter on wheat when you take the average land of England rated at about £1 per acre producing about 4 quarters of wheat. This is a rate imposed upon agricultural land, which is the farmers' raw material, and this increase of the rate means a difference of something like 3s. 6d. a quarter on wheat. There, I think, we have just right to ask for relief. Roads have been mentioned. Not only roads but education now cost the farmer infinitely more money. I do not for a moment complain of the amount for education. That is not the point. I do not complain of the rate charged upon farmers' houses and buildings. What I do complain of is the excessive burden which is put upon land purely as land. What are you going to do to remove it? What is your policy? We do not ask you for a policy of building us up and all that sort of thing. As I said before, we suffered too much in the past from it. We were promised at the last election that agriculture would not be let down. When and how is that promise going to be 488 redeemed? The duties upon wheat are ruled out and will remain ruled out until you persuade the town dweller it is better for him to pay more for his bread and have a thriving population in the country, rather than that he should pay a low price and always compete with men coming from the country districts into the town. That is ruled out, I admit, for the present. What is the alternative? Do you propose to let large portions of England go out of occupation, because that is what you are doing? The great wheat supply of this country must be drawn, or should be drawn, from what is practically the worst land in England capable of growing wheat, and if you are not going to grow wheat on this land, you are going to grow nothing, and that is not going to employ labour. You have in this country the greatest asset you can possibly possess, in the wheat-growing areas, where you should employ your men. It is for the Government to tell us whether it will in any way help us in these matters. Cannot they help us in the matter of imported flour? Cannot they let us have some help in the way of getting into this country and keeping in it the offals from the wheat that is brought here?
With regard to agriculture, I venture to say it is the little things which matter. It is all the little things over the farm that go to make up the difference between profit and loss and goes to make up the question as to whether a man can or cannot employ extra hands upon his land. Not only are there the railway rates, which are big, but which are out of the control of the Government, but there is also another small matter, and that is in regard to the parcels post. There is a large area of England devoted to the cultivation, especially in my own constituency, of market garden produce, and there are small men as well as big, and small men who live far away from the station cannot afford to send their goods to the station, but the rural postman passes by their door or close to them, and they could give him their parcels, which would thus go straight to the consumer. It would be a matter of very great advantage to the consumer as well as to the producer, if he could have some reasonable parcels post rates for these small parcels. It would help all parties, and, as I say, it is the small things in agricultural life that matter.
489 The Mover of the Amendment alluded to the Labour party's programme. I have read it with interest and naturally with the attention that it would deserve. I am afraid I cannot subscribe to it, but I suppose its main article really is the nationalisation of land. How are you going to make land pay better than it does now by handing over the ownership of land to the State instead of keeping it in private hands? Surely during the War we saw quite enough of Government conducting industries in various ways. We see now county councils as large landowners up and down the country, but are they better than the old landlords of the past? I doubt it. If you nationalise land you will find the State a much harder landlord than the landlords we have now. I want to see the whole land of England put to the very best economic use possible. I want to see good wages paid to the men on the land, and I want also to see low cottage rents. When you talk about high wages, I am also talking of high rents. I live where wages may be said to be low and where the cottage rents are 1s. a week and even lower. The result of their paying 1s. a week instead of 3s. and 4s., as in some parts, is that when a man wants to go and work on his own land and take two days off, or if he is sick, his rent that is going on is 2d. a day instead of, say, 1s. a day, and that is a matter of very great importance to the cottager.
Here I would like to say a word as to the smallholder and his rents, and especially house rents. In speaking on the Second Reading of the Agricultural Repeal Bill I asked the Minister of Agriculture what he is going to do with the smallholders and their rents, and as nothing has been done and no steps have been taken, I venture to repeat that question to-day. What are you going to do with the smallholder, and what are you going to do with his rent? You have bought your land for them and put them on that land. You bought it at a very high figure. That was a matter of market price and cannot be discussed now perhaps, but you have built and are still building very expensive buildings upon those lands, out of all proportion to the value of the land. It may be that it was necessary for the smallholder to have buildings. All I can say is that I have cut up hundreds of acres into small holdings in my time and have spent extraordinarily little money on buildings, but 490 there is one thing in which the Government can help the smallholder. They put up houses for these men, and they are charging them in their rents interest on the full cost of those houses.
§ Mr. TOWNLEY
Well, approximately. I suggest that those men living in those houses are just as much entitled to the benefit of the housing scheme as any other man in the same village or town, and that those houses ought to have been put upon the basis of the housing scheme, which would make a very material alteration in the cost they have to pay. In seconding this Amendment, I can assure the Minister and the Government that it is moved in no hostility to them. We are fully alive to the grave difficulties that beset this queston, but we are also fully alive to the still graver dangers of having a large number of unemployed men throughout the country. Many of us feel very deeply the position of the agricultural labourer. We had all hoped that his position was being permanently raised for the better, and we were all prepared to help in that. Many years have passed since I first tried to get the half-holiday for the agricultural labourer, and we have steadily worked in that direction, but our hopes are now dashed to the ground, and in appealing, as we do to-day, to the Government, we not only appeal on behalf of the occupiers of the land, but even more whole-heartedly in order that we may be able to better and improve the condition of the agricultural labourer.
§ Mr. ACLAND
We have listened, I think the House will agree, to two very well phrased, very moderate, very cogent speeches, and if the Debate keep up the standard that has been set by those speeches, we shall all have a great deal upon which to congratulate ourselves. I hope to avoid, as both the Mover and Seconder have avoided, any note of bitterness or of personal controversy or criticism. There is no doubt the agricultural industry, though it is licking its wounds in a quiet sort of way and not making a great public fuss, is feeling awfully let down by recent actions of the Government, and that the position there is very, very difficult—I think quite as difficult as in connection with any other industry in the country. The tragedy is that both sides of the agri- 491 cultural industry, the employer and the employed—one has almost to leave out the land owner now in talking about the agricultural industry, because he is getting squeezed out of existence so rapidly; I think it is a great pity, but there it is—but with regard to both sides, each of them has an equally reasonable position as against the other, but the two positions do not meet and do not agree.
If one talks to a farmer who has, as farmers are increasingly having, a good idea of his accounts and how his balance sheet stands, he will tell you this, as of course they have told me and many other Members here present. He will say, "This is my position. I am getting about one and a third times to one and a half times what I was getting before the War for the things that I sell." If the main product is in the form of crops, it is nearer one and a third times; if it is in the form of stock, and includes milk, it is up to one and a half times—that is, in cash, and not allowing anything for the change in the value of the sovereign. He will say he can prove that with regard to raw materials, feeding cakes, and fer-tilisers, he is having to pay at least one and a half times what he was paying before, and even more. Therefore the farmer says to the man whom he employs, "If I am only getting from one and a third to one and a half times what I used to get, how can I be reasonably expected to pay at least twice what I used to pay in remuneration for my labour?" He wants to pay it, but he does not see how the arithmetic will work out when he is only getting a much less proportion for what he sells. That is quite a reasonable position, and nobody can say it is unfair to labour at all, but the worker's position is equally reasonable. He says, "The cost of living is still practically double what it was before the War, and if I am not to get into a worse position, let alone any talk about a better position, than I was in before the War, I ought to have at least double the cash wage that I had before the War." This is true, more particularly because before the War a great deal, as we used to hear in this House, quite rightly was given in the form of privileges, so-called and actual, whereas now the payments in kind have to a very great extent disappeared and are not being at all largely revived.
492 The worker will say, "I never thought too much of myself, but I was told of my value in the War. I was told, quite rightly, that agriculture ought not to come at the very bottom of all the industries, but was really a skilled industry. I did think—and I had reason to think—that, after the War, at any rate, there would be some improvement on the pre-War standard of living. That was what I reasonably had to look forward to, but now the farmer says that he cannot pay the double wage, and I say, equally truly, that, unless I get at least a double wage, I ant worse off than I was before the War, when, by common consent, I was getting less than I ought to have got." Let me put the figures roughly before the House. I am thinking now of rather low paid districts, East, South and West, and some parts of Midland England. I suppose anybody before the War would reckon up the cash equivalent of what was given at less, say, than 17s. 6d. a week. There was the wage of 14s., 15[...] or 16s., plus the value of the privileges. Now the amount to correspond with that, if the man's standard is to be the same, ought to be 35s., or, giving an extra shilling for the improved standard of life, 36s. Taking the very moderate figure of wages to-clay at below 34s., you are really reducing a man, his wife and children, if he has a family to support, to a lower standard of life than he had before the War. I say that the farmer on the whole is doing his best, but all those getting below that sort of rate, 34s., are doing even worse than before the War. In many counties there is a tendency even now to get clown as low as 30s., and in those districts no one can deny that the standard of life is actually lower than the pre-War standard for a man, his wife, and family.
That position has been met in a very good spirit. I am surprised at the excellence of the feeling between the different classes in the industry. I think the farmers on the whole have done their very best to try to keep up a decent rate of wages. I think the workers on the whole have realised the farmers' difficulty, and have shown wonderful forbearance in putting up with the heavy cuts in wages which have come one after another, and with which the progressive falls in the cost of living have not kept pace. But there is this disturbing element, that they now feel a great lack of security. It is difficult to judge, but I have been a 493 member of the Wages Board all the time, and I think if the Wages Board had been continued, the minimum rate would now be down to 34s. or 35s.; but that would be very different from the present rate, because that rate was a secure rate, and until there was a further movement of the rate, men could feel that they could depend upon that rate, because it was statutory and recoverable, and was actually recovered in many instances all over the country. But now there is no feeling of security. "Security" ought surely to be the motto put over the doors of the Ministry of Agriculture as the watchword of the industry. Young men who came back to the land, and have now got to stay on the land, undoubtedly, because their chances of getting employment in the towns are negligible, are feeling that wage rates are breaking every few weeks, and this lack of security, owing to there being no real standard of wage, will induce them to move from the country and get work elsewhere if they can. The temptation, where there is no legal rate, is very great to that small minority of farmers who are, perhaps, inclined to be mean and unfair. They say, "There is no rate. I have been hit hard. It may be my Farmers' Union have recommended 34s. or 35s., but if I pay 30s., I can get the work done. So why should I not pay 30s.?" And so they do pay 30s., and if a man in one village knows that in another village a man is paying a lower rate, then he thinks it is very tempting to him to come down to the lower rate, too. That is the danger of having a system where it is really go-as-you-please, and where the worst farmer tends to set the standard for the others. Under the Wages Board system, it was the best farmer who tended to set the standard for the others, because the best farmers had agreed to pay the statutory rate. I believe farmers are right, not only as Christians but as men, in trying, on the whole, to keep, as they do, the rates as well as they can. But they are right in their own interests also. I believe the, greatest lesson we all have to learn from the War is the truth of the marvellous saying in the New Testament,Be ye members one of another.I believe that no parties in industry, no parties in nations can hit one another without also hitting themselves. I believe 494 that if nations try to keep one another down it rebounds against them. I believe if the working man, as was the case, rather, with the coal miners in the War, try to get specially high rates for themselves because of the needs of the community, it rebounds naturally against them, and they go through, inevitably, a very heavy period of unemployment as they are doing now.
I believe it will be just the same in the case of the minority of farmers who are trying to cut down the rates recommended by the general body of farmers. I believe you will get insecurity, and a feeling of unrest, and, as soon as the younger men, the more adventurous men, find it economical to move, they will tend to drift back to the towns or overseas, and in those districts agriculture will tend to be only a residuary industry, manned by the people who are too old to move or too unadventurous to move. That is what we do not want. We are all absolutely agreed upon this, that we want the very best of young men engaged in agriculture, which is a skilled industry, and ought to include the very finest of the young men with the very best brains, energy and ability, just as much as any skilled industry like engineering. What is to he done? It is very tempting to suggest the expenditure of more money in various ways, but it seems to me that the Ministry of Agriculture at the present moment needs more protection against having to give up some of the assistance, small as it is, to the industry, than admonitions to increase their already scanty aid. I will follow the good example set by not being too long, and I shall stick to the point and try to give arguments why there should not be a still further reduction in the assistance given to agriculture, rather than to suggest means of further increasing it.
As I came into the House to-day I was given a copy of the Report of the Geddes Committee—or to give it its correct title, a "Committee on National Expenditure" —and I have been trying during the last half hour to look over it in a very cursory way. I find that the Minister, to do him justice, has been doing everything that any Chancellor of the Exchequer could reasonably ask in his Estimates which he is to submit to Parliament. That is quite apart from the Geddes cuts. I think the figure of reduction generally talked about was reasonable, 495 for the public Departments it is 20 per cent. We shall see that already, without any axe or other surgical instruments, the Minister of Agriculture has proposed to reduce his Estimates from £4,000,000 to £3,000,000—within a few thousands—which is not 20, but nearer 25 per cent., and the total reduction really, without Appropriations-in-Aid, is very much bigger.
§ Mr. ACLAND
Over 30 per cent. It seems to me that that shows that the Minister has been fully falling in with the spirit of the times, and the talk of economy. One would have thought that this Committee would have regarded that as a sufficient cut. Not at all. They recommend a further reduction, if my arithmetic be correct, of something like £327,000. I say, if my arithmetic is correct, because the first thing that anyone will see if they try to look into these figures and reconcile them, is that apparently the cuts in the Report do not arithmetically fit. I have only had a little while to look into the Report while I have been sitting here and listening to other speeches, therefore I may be wrong; but I am going to commit myself to one or two rather definite statements, and it will be very interesting to see whether I am correct or whether this wonderful Committee of business men are correct in their figures.
There are two things in regard to the grand total. First of all the Committee recommends under three different headings that three different sums should be cut—£100,000, £114,000, and £87,000, or £301,000 together. Then they make a general omnibus recommendation that Estimates should be cut down by £285,000, and give no indication whatever where the £26,000 by which these two totals disagree is to be found. There seems to me to be, if I may very humbly venture to suggest it—for it is almost inconceivable that the arithmetic can be wrong—there seems to me to be a much more glaring instance of astounding failure in the first rule of arithmetic, namely, addition, in one of the recommendations under the heading "Livestock Administration," and in regard to the reduction of disease, the improvement of livestock and light horse breeding. It is actually recommended—those Members who have not already seen it will be astounded— 496 that £87,000 should come off the figure given by the State for these things. They are composed, if I see it rightly, of £32,000 to which the Ministry at that time committed itself in regard to cattle disease—although now it would not be £32,000 taken off, but something like £300,000 or £400,000 added—still I am taking the figures as they are here. There is £32,000 which the Ministry itself gave at that time to the Committee, and which the Ministry reckoned might be taken from the figures dealing with cattle disease, and the recommendation that £34,000 should be taken off livestock improvement., and that means a total scrapping, which I consider a most retrograde step. In my opinion you are wrong in scrapping that, though I am not going into that now. Then £2,000 is to be taken off administration and horse breeding. The figures altogether amount to £58,000. Then they recommend, as I have said, that the total under these headings could be reduced by £87,000. Now £58,000 from £87,000 is £29,000. The only clue one can get to where that £30,000 is to come off is in regard to the encouragement of light horse breeding, and it must be contemplated, if these figures have any meaning at all, that light horse breeding shall be entirely scrapped.
When we come to the paragraph dealing with light horse breeding, the Committee say:The fact that the annual show at which the premiums are awarded has been already advertised for next month as usual makes it impossible to do more in 1922–23 than to reduce the charge somewhat further, but we think the scheme should then be dropped from this Vote.The Committee recognise that you cannot scrap this £30,000 on light horse breeding all at once. That is my suggestion on a cursory reading of that part of this Committee's report. I shall he very much surprised to see whether I am right or wrong.
There is another thing that I have noticed on looking this report through. What does it really come to? We shall want to know this from the Minister in regard to agricultural education and research. We were told a great deal about the determination of the Government—quite rightly—to do as much as they could to help agricultural education and research, which was one of the terms—I think my right hon. Friend will not disagree with me in this, and I do not want 497 to use the word offensively—of the scrapping of the last agricultural Bill. We were to get £850,000 for England and the balance for Scotland for agricultural education and research. I am perfectly certain that the two Ministers of the two Departments I see opposite for England and Scotland have no intention whatever to go back upon that definite pledge to the country that, whatever might be said or done in regard to the rest of the industry, there should be that extra money for agricultural education and research. Very well. But, again, if I read the report accurately it means that that fund should be spent gradually, not a considerable part of it at once as capital on helping in the foundation of farm institutes or other things of that kind which need capital expenditure, but that it shall be all invested as a permanent fund and only the interest on it shall be used in any particular year. Combined with that recommendation that there shall be a heavy cut in the total grants, there is another £114,000. I suggest that if you are going to have a cut of £114,000 on agricultural education and research, or are going to have, at any rate, a very considerable modification of what was anticipated in the manner of dealing with the £850,000, the result will be, if you do not take care, that, instead of having more as everybody expected to give to research and education in the coming year, you will actually have less, I am certain my right hon. Friend would regard that as being a breach of every Parliamentary pledge and understanding that has ever been given.
I know that desperate things will have to be done in connection with the Geddes Report, but after all this understanding with regard to educational research is only four months old and I cannot see how the Government can go back upon that. Agriculture is now hampered enormously by the very high cost of transport, railway charges and postal rates. On this subject I should like to give a case in point. I have a friend who is a timber merchant, and we were trying to put our heads together in order to see whether we could give a little more employment. My friend had heard of a contract in the Midlands for beach blocks for pavements, and it worked out at 2s. 10½d. per cube foot delivered in the Midlands. I am sure hon. Members will be astounded to hear that of the 2s. 10½d. per cube foot no less than 498 1s. 8½d. was for transport. There was 2d. for felling, 6d. for haulage to his mills, 6d. for conversion into beach blocks and this and other expenses left only ½d. to be divided between us as profit. Until these things are put upon a reasonable basis, attempts of this kind to provide employment for the people in the country districts will be absolutely impossible. I would like the Minister for Agriculture to inform me whether I am right or wrong in regard to what I have said about the Geddes Report.
§ Sir W. BIRD
In addressing the House for the first time, I am sure that I shall be afforded that indulgence which is always accorded to a new Member. I represent a very large agricultural district, composed almost entirely of farmers, and I should not be doing my duty to them if I did not express some of the views which they hold at the present moment. If the farmers do not express their dissatisfaction in words, and if the agricultural labourer is inarticulate, it is because their whole time is now occupied with the difficulties of the industry, and they are unable to express what they feel. The farmers in my constituency feel that they have been thoroughly let down by the policy pursued by the Government. Before the War there was always a distinction drawn in legislation between those who work in towns and those who produce food in the country, and naturally those in the country districts require a remunerative price for what they have to sell. Before the War the country was often told of the danger of starvation which would face us in case we lost command of the sea, and it is within the memory of everyone how very nearly we came to that danger during the War, and how near we came to that prophecy proving to be true.
After that the Government suddenly woke up to the fact that we are an agricultural community, and the farmers were patted on the back. We were told that never again was agriculture to be allowed to go into the slough of despond in which it found itself so frequently. The farm labourer was to come into his own and have a better outlook, and with a great flourish of trumpets we passed the Corn Production Acts. Even at that time I told the farmers in my constituency not to put too much trust in the Government when they deal with any industry. Soon after that the price of farmers' 499 produce fell very much faster than the wages which they were compelled to pay. At the present moment in my district the agricultural labourer's wages have come down to 32s. per week, and taking into account the present cost of living, that amount is far below the wages they were getting before the War. I cannot see how even this low rate of wage can continue to be paid if we have to contend with the vast importation of foreign foodstuffs which is going on at the present time.
Perhaps I might be permitted to ask the Government to continue for a little longer the bonus which they gave last year. I think it would be a great help to agriculture if some small registration duty could be put upon the importation of foreign corn and a higher duty on the importation of foreign flour. We should then get the benefit of the employment necessary for the process of grinding, and the resulting offal would help to produce more home grown food. If something of that sort could be done I do not think it would be felt by the consumers. It need not be a large sum, but it would be something, and it would show the agricultural community that they were not being entirely let down. I cordially support this Motion. I was very much impressed by the speech of the hon. Member who seconded this Motion. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Camborne (Mr. Acland) expressed the view that the rate of wage should he fixed, and he made a reference to the young men who were coming into the industry. My anxiety is more for the older men who have been on the farms all their lives—men between fifty and sixty years of age, who are too young for the old age pension, and who are being displaced by younger men who can do a better day's work. For some reason these old people do not receive the dole, and there is nothing between them and the workhouse. It is a very sad position, and I can assure hon. Members that at the present moment agricultural life is worse than it has ever been before. It is said that farmers are always complaining and that they are never satisfied, but this year, owing to the unprecedented drought, has been an extremely difficult one. The right hon. Member for Camborne said that the prices of produce to-day were, roughly speaking, one-and-a-half times what they were before the War 500 I am sure he is mistaken. The price of wool is rather less than it was in 1914, while the cost of shearing and preparing it has nearly doubled. I should like to mention another grievance of the farming community. There are a number of fashionable seaside resorts to which chars-a-bancs are run in competition with the railways. These vehicles carry 30 or more passengers, they are of enormous weight, they run to and from their destination at rather less fare than the present heavy railway charges, and they cut up and destroy our little country lanes which were never intended for such traffic. Whereas the rates in my district before the War were from 6s. to 7s. in the £, last year they were 18s., and there is no sign of their falling[...] The rates paid by many a farmer represent almost another rent. With that they have to face the continued importation of free food from places like the Argentine, where they have little or no taxation and where they enjoy all the benefits of civilisation under which we live. They can therefore always compete successfully with the British farmer and they are likely to be in a position, when freights go down, to send food into this country at very much lower rates than they do now. I beg the Government to take agriculture under its wing and to do something for the agricultural interest, otherwise the poorer land in this country will go out of cultivation and a large number of most worthy men will be thrown out of employment I feel very strongly on this agricultural question, and I can assure the Government that, although the farmers and agricultural labourers may say little that is disagreeable, they think a good deal.
§ Mr. ROYCE
I must congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Sir W. Bird) on the speech he has delivered, and on the contribution he has made to the consideration of agricultural questions. The Mover of the Amendment made some reference to the agricultural policy of the Labour party. That policy, such as it is, is before the country at the present time, and I am quite sure the Labour party would be very glad of the assistance and experience of some of our hon. Friends opposite. I notice in the appeal issued by the Landowners' Association they suggest there should be unity, and that if the landlord, the farmer, and the labourer were to combine for the purposes of defence and attack they would constitute a force which 501 would have to be reckoned in the country. I quite agree, and I would rather like to encourage the idea. May I suggest that hon. Members opposite who represent agricultural constituencies should come over to this side of the House? They would, perhaps, introduce a leaven which would be beneficial to all parties, because when all is said and done, notwithstanding the superior manner in which the proposals of the Labour party are received in some quarters, they certainly are proposals, and at the present time I do not think that any other political party here has put forward any proposals or has any policy. I would quote the fact in regard to this policy of the Labour party that it has received the commendation of an expert agriculturalist, who was at one time Minister of Agriculture in this House, and who cannot be accused of any special leanings in the direction of the party I have the honour to be associated with. I refer to Lord Ernie, Both the Mover of the Amendment and the Seconder complained that the agricultural industry had been let down by the repeal of Part I of the Agriculture Act. I quite agree. I think that agriculture has been let down by the repeal of Part I of that Act, but I would like to bring to the notice of the hon. Member for the Richmond Division (Mr. M. Wilson) and of the Seconder of the Amendment (Mr. Townley) that they helped to bring about the repeal of that Act.
§ Mr. ROYCE
Again I should like to withdraw what I said. I can only wonder, under the circumstances, that the two hon. Gentlemen remain where they now are. There is another matter which I should like to bring to the special attention of the Mover of the Amendment. He spoke of the great disservice the Government has done agriculture by its action with regard to Part I of the Agriculture Act, but he said nothing about the Railways Act. The hon. and gallant Member was very careful to make no reference to the influence of railway rates on agriculture. I am rather surprised. He is very intimately connected with railways, and 502 no one has a greater knowledge than he himself of how agriculture is affected by the railway rates we have to pay at the present time—the highest war rates—while at the same time agriculture is acknowledged to be suffering very severely indeed. What is more, there is no prospect, so far as I can see, of any reduction. I rather wondered, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman did not make some reference to railway rates. It is not only in connection with what we have to send in the way of produce to the markets, but everything that agriculture needs in the way of coal, road material, manures, feeding stuffs—all those things that the farmer wants, as well as those that he sells, are subject to these oppressive charges, which are absolutely out of proportion to the services rendered. I say, therefore, that in all probability this is one of the greatest bugbears with which agriculture has to deal, and I trust that the hon. Member will at the earliest opportunity use all the influence that he undoubtedly possesses to bring about an amendment of the conditions.
With regard to the Agricultural Rates Act, if it was a sound principle at the time when the Act was passed—and I think there is something in it that is worthy of consideration—the tremendous rise that has taken place in local rates would, in my opinion, if the principle be a good and sound one, justify the giving of further consideration to the subject. I am quite in sympathy with that, because there is no doubt that in country districts, where roads are costly to maintain and various other county expenses are heavy, agricultural land in that respect is not specially favoured. On this question of rating, however, I think the Government have lost a great opportunity in not promoting what they originally planned, and what would have been of real service to agriculture, namely, a system of light railways. It would save in many directions, but especially in the upkeep of roads. In the division which I represent, it is estimated that within the next five or seven years they will have to spend some £400,000, and this year they are spending £40,000. A largo proportion of that sum could be saved, and saved not only for the locality but for the nation, if light railways were constructed. Therefore, I say that the Government have made a very grave blunder in not proceeding with 503 these reproductive works. Not only would they have afforded employment during the period of depression, but they would have been of inestimable and permanent value to agriculture.
The subject, mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cam-borne (Mr. Acland), of the young men on the land, brought to my mind the suggestion contained in the King's Speech that a considerable sum of money is to be applied for the purpose of sending people across the sea—Empire Settlement, it is called. It was alluded to in more than one speech yesterday on the subject of unemployment. Reference has been made to the policy of the Labour party in relation to agriculture, but I must say that, whatever defects the policy of the Labour party may have, the policy that has hitherto been pursued by both political parties in this country in relation to agriculture has not been a success, if we may judge from the expressions we have heard this morning, and so it is possible that the Labour party might make some improvement in that respect. There is one thing, however, that the Labour party would not do: they would not send a number of young men across the seas to the great detriment of this country. However much it may benefit the young men. and however much it may benefit the country to which they go, there is no question that this country loses something by losing those men. Instead of sending those young men across the seas to grow food for this country on inferior land, I think we could probably find them something to do in growing food a little nearer home. [HON. MEMBERS: "How?"] We shall show you how when we have the opportunity, and I do not think it will be very difficult to demonstrate. Some progress, at any rate, has been made in that direction by those institutions which have already been started under what partakes of the nature of Government administration. I refer to small holdings. Something has been done in that direction already, and we would increase the impetus that has already been given, and would take much of the land that is now under very bad grass—the sort of grass that was described by the hon. Member who seconded the Amendment—and turn some of that land into arable land and put people on it to grow something.
504 As regards the subject of labour and unemployment on the land, I trust that an opportunity will be afforded to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. G. Edwards), who, at any rate, knows as much of the conditions of the agricultural labourer as anyone in this House, or anyone in this country; and, that being so, I do not propose unduly to occupy the time of the House in presenting to it his position. It is, however, sufficiently bad. I know that last year a good many farmers were bound to lose money, and I know also that, if the farmer does not get the money for his produce, he cannot pay it out to the agricultural labourer. The Labour party know that quite well; you cannot get something out of nothing. To that extent, therefore, we are in full sympathy with the farmer; but many instances have already been disclosed in connection with the repeal of Part I and the abolition of the Wages Board, and we feel that many are taking advantage of the situation to depress wages unduly. This, no doubt, was what caused my hon. Friends opposite—who were quite prepared to make Sacrifices as far as the guarantee on corn was concerned—to be so enthusiastic in repealing Part I of the Agriculture Act. They wanted to get rid of the Wages Board. They were quite prepared to suffer in other directions, but they wanted to have the Wages Board removed. I think they made a grave mistake, and that their efforts, when the Government announced its intention of repealing Part I, were entirely misdirected when they proceeded to assist the Government in that, having in view the abolition of the Wages Board. I think they ought to have attempted to amend it I never thought that a central Wages Board was the best thing for the settlement of agricultural wages, but I did, and do, think that local boards with statutory powers might accomplish it. The very diverse conditions of agriculture would render the action of a central Board unsatisfactory, but if, in suitable areas, three farmers were set on one side of a table and three labourers on the other, with an independent chairman and provision that when they had arrived at a decision it should have the force of law, I think it would be satisfactory to all the parties concerned. Therein I think the hon. Gentlemen opposite have made a very grave mistake, and have lost an opportunity to do real service to agriculture. As there are so many Members 505 who desire to speak, I will bring my remarks to a close, but I would assure my Friends that in any approach that may be made in the direction of combined action, either politically or for the improvement of agriculture, we on this side of the House will be very glad to meet them half-way. I fear, however, from all that has preceded, that the idea underlying this offer of alliance is not so much to do what we want as to get us to do what they want, and I am sure we shall not get very much further on those lines.
§ Captain FALCON
As one who seldom intervenes in Debate, I should like to lend my support to the Amendment which has been moved to the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech from the Throne. I doubt very much whether even now the Minister of Agriculture really realises the situation as it exists in the country districts at the present time, and I want to do my utmost to bring to the attention of the Minister the feeling of despair and despondency almost that prevails in those areas. It is easy enough for those who live in the rural districts to understand this feeling; all those interested in agriculture feel they have been let down by the present Government's agricultural policy. But perhaps it is not so easy for them as for us here to understand the difficulties in which the Government are placed. I realise that circumstances compelled the Government to adopt the course they did in repealing the guarantees, and I do not think it would be right or that the country would expect that they should re-adopt such policy. Though we realise, as we must, that it is by our commercial industries that the wealth of the country has been largely obtained, and that therefore they claim a great deal of attention from the Government, I submit they ought not to claim the whole of their attention. If we derive our wealth from the commercial industries, we derive our stability from the agricultural industry, and for that reason alone the Government ought to pay attention to the pressing needs of agriculture, and come to its rescue in this time of need. The hon. Members who moved and seconded the Amendment referred to the position with regard to rates, and I should like to add my word to their appeal. I have taken the trouble to read what took place in the Debates on the Rating Bill of 1896, and what I understand is being asked for 506 to-day, and what I should like to ask, is that the position with regard to the rating of agricultural land should be put on exactly the same footing as it was by the Act of 1896. We are asking for no new policy, and no new proposal; all we are asking is that the policy as laid down by that Act should be made effective. The Minister of Agriculture must know that, owing to the increase of rates, the policy laid down by that Act is hardly effective at all. I do urge, in common with other hon. Members, that this small measure of assistance should be given to the agricultural industry.
I should like, further, to call attention to a matter on which I have received a great many resolutions from boards of guardians, and that is the Ecclesiastical Tithe Rent Charge (Rates) Act. This is a vexed question, and much prominence has been given to it in the Press recently. From one rural district I have received figures showing how this Act works. Out of 41 parishes in that district 32 are affected, and in those 32 parishes, in order to make up the amount of rates rendered necessary by this Act, an extra rate has to be charged. This rate falls largely on the poorer ratepayers; it affects the poorer ratepayers very much indeed. An extra rate, which varies in the different parishes, but in some cases is 2s. or 2s. 2d., and even 2s. 3d., is charged. I am sure it was never intended that the Act should work in this way, and I am also sure the clergy can hardly wish that their rates should be paid by their poorer brethren. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will look into the matter, and if he desires it, I will give him the particulars from this rural district. If the Act cannot be repealed, at any rate, it should be amended so that where two benefices are held by the same person he should show the two combined in his return, and not escape the rates he might have to pay in the separate parishes.
I have read, and I expect most Members have read, the very excellent report for which the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Pretyman) is largely responsible, and which I understand is going to be dealt with later in the Debate. It shows the real crux of the position in agriculture at the present time, which is, that the wholesale prices and the retail prices have not come down proportionately. In my view, that is largely responsible, almost entirely responsible, 507 for the present position with which we are faced. It is only natural to expect that, owing to the alteration in the value of all materials and goods during the War and afterwards, it must take time to readjust the position.
Therefore, in the meanwhile, I do urge that some of these small matters, such as rates, should be taken into consideration. The constituency which I have the honour to represent is one which grows a great deal of barley, and I would urge that some consideration should be given to the growing of barley in this country which, after all, is not quite in the same category as wheat. It does not come in for food. There, too, when one notices the drop in the price of barley, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is felt very largely in those districts that, at any rate, the price of beer should not be what it is at present. I am glad to see on the Front Bench the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He has a great deal to do with these affairs, and I do suggest to him that in this respect the Treasury should be bold and should reduce very considerably the tax on beer. I am sure it would benefit those who grow barley. It will certainly benefit the working man, who is entitled to beer, and good beer, and I am sure that by reducing the price of beer the Revenue would not be the loser in the long run. I do urgently impress on him that he should take that into consideration and do all he possibly can to reduce the present tax on beer.
One other matter—and I think it has already been raised—and that is with regard to the ex-soldiers who have been put on the small holdings. As has already been pointed out, a great many of them at present are unable to pay the rents which have been put upon them. I am sure it is within the recollection of everyone that these ex-service men were put on the land in reward for the services which they gave to their country, and if it is found—as it is found at the present time—that they are paying too high a rent, then I think the Government should come to their assistance and give instructions to the county councils, who are largely responsible for the administration of the Act, that they should receive the true rent on the value of the land at the present time rather than on the value of the land at the time it was taken over and the purchases were made. I will not 508 detain the House any longer, but in view of the almost desperate straits to which agriculture is reduced at present, I give my earnest support to the Amendment.
§ 1.0 P.M.
§ Mr. G. EDWARDS
My complaint against the Government is based not so much on their sins of omission as on their sins of commission. They are largely responsible for the terrible state of chaos which now exists in this very important industry. I do not think that in the whole of my long life I have ever known such times of depression as exist at present in this industry. I want to remind those hon. Members whose names stand on the Order Paper in support of the Amendment that from these benches last year, when the Minister of Agriculture introduced his Repeal Bill, they were warned of what would be the result of that Measure. I was looking over the short speech which I made when I seconded the Motion for the rejection of that Bill. I find that I remarked that, if the Bill were passed, many of the farmers would be absolutely ruined and especially those who took their farms in 1919, who entered into business at a time when the prices of many of the goods which they had to buy were at their highest, and on the promise that the Corn Production Act, as a guarantee, would remain in force for some few years. Not only did those men take their farms, but many bought them on that promise during the great land gamble of 1919–1920. Again, it has been stated that the county council were rightly compelled to obtain land for these ex-service men. They obtained that land at such a high figure—the Government charged 6½ per cent. on the money—that many of the men will be absolutely ruined. I have received scores of letters from these poor unfortunate men, making pathetic appeals. I ask if something cannot be done to assist them.
What class are bearing the brunt of this burden on their shoulders? On whom does this great axe fall? It falls on that class to which I have the honour to belong—the agricultural labourer. I do not think that in the history of this country, or even in the history of any other industry, has there ever been such a severe cut in wages as there has been in this particular class. Within three months 16s. per week have been taken from their wages—in some instances more. In that part of the country from 509 which I come the Farmers' Federation have now given notice to reduce their men's wages to 28s. per week. That is a cut which has no right to take place: that cut is much greater than the corresponding fall in the cost of living. I am in the fortunate position of knowing exactly to what extent the cost of living has come down, and I am not at all guided by any figures that have been produced by Government Departments, but I am guided by what I have to pay out of my own pocket. I find that in 1914 the cost of the purchases made by my housekeeper were 6s. 1d.; the same amount of goods went into my house in December, 1921, at a cost of 16s. 3d. I can produce the bill. If that is the case, what should be the wages of the agricultural labourer to-day? He received 15s. as the ordinary weekly wage in 1914, and with extras the wage amounted to 17s. On that basis, having regard to the cost of living to-day, he should receive 40s. in wages. We maintain that the present condition of things has no right to exist, and we pointed that out to the right hon. Gentleman and the Government when the repeal Bill was before the House. That Bill was a gross betrayal of a long-suffering class. We have the so-called Conciliation Committee in place of the Wages Board. Up to the present the so-called Conciliation Committee has been an absolute failure. There are 61 Conciliation Committees which have been set up in the country, but only half of them have come to any agreement, and only three agreements have been registered. There is an absolute deadlock in many of the Committees.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
When I reply I will give the actual figures. The figures given by the hon. Member, inadvertently no doubt, are not correct.
§ Mr. EDWARDS
I give the figures as I have them. The important point is that there has only been registration in three cases. If I am wrong I will withdraw and apologise. At Market Harborough the farmers met on a day when the workers' representatives were unable to be present. The workers' representatives notified the farmers that they could not be present, but the farmers met and came to an agreement of their own, fixing the rate of wages. In north-west Norfolk and other districts the Conciliation Committees arrived at a decision, but it has 510 not been carried out. The Farmers' Union expressed regret, but could take no action. That proves that the Farmers' Union has no control over their own members and are unable to force an agreement when once it has been arrived at. In these circumstances, what chance has the labourer? He has either to go on strike, in which case we should be accused of being extremists and direct actionists, or he has to accept the reduction. Up to the present, he has accepted the reduction. No other class has accepted reductions with such patience as the agricultural labourer. He has permitted himself, as in the past, like a sheep that is tame to go to the slaughter, but there are limits to this patience. We have endeavoured to keep him within reasonable bounds, but I can see the clouds already appearing. Already the thunders of discontent are rumbling among this long-suffering class, and I ask the Government in this serious situation what action they propose to take.
I deeply regret that there is no mention of the important industry of agriculture in His Majesty's Gracious Speech. I assure hon. Members opposite that they will have my strong support in regard to many of the things which they advocate as necessary. The rating conditions of the land are absolutely unfair and unjust, and the charges on the means of transport are excessive, and if hon. Members opposite will take steps to press the Government to deal with the railway companies they will have our strongest support. I ask the Minister of Agriculture, and I ask hon. Members opposite, to give up their opposition to the Wages Board, and to let us have a system set up whereby the labourer can be sure of a living wage—that is all we ask—a wage that shall not go beyond a certain point, but which will enable the labourer to live decently and to bring up his family in decency and comfort, as God intended he should. We ask that agriculture should be put upon a sure and secure basis. I hope that the time will soon come when prosperity will again come to this important industry, the most important industry in the world. I hope the Government will take steps to secure to the labourer his proper share in the industry and secure the same rights to the farmer, so that the days of concord may prevail.
§ Mr. W. SHAW
I add my appeal for a reduction of the rates and burdens 511 on agricultural land which press so heavily upon it. There is another disability which, in my part of the country, agriculturists feel presses very hard upon their industry. This is a disability, the removal of which will not interfere with the cuts proposed in the Geddes Report. I refer to the embargo upon Canadian cattle. Ever since this embargo was imposed in 1892 people in my part of the country have never ceased to agitate for its removal. It is now generally admitted that it was put on in conditions which do not exist now. It was said that disease came from Canada. It is now admitted on all hands, it was admitted among others by Sir Daniel Hall before the Royal Commission, that Canadian herds are freer from disease than any other herds in the world. We have continued our agitation against the embargo since 1892, but it was only after the Minister of Agriculture had been defeated at a by-election in Dudley that we got a Royal Commission to inquire into the facts of the case.
The Government in appointing the Royal Commission chose its members, I suppose, because they felt that they were the men best fitted in the country to weigh the evidence submitted to them, and to give a correct and reasoned judgment upon the matter. It seems to me that the Report has been treated with contempt. It looks very much as if the Government and the right hon. Gentleman never intended to accept the findings of the Report unless they were in favour of maintaining the embargo. Therefore I am strongly of opinion that the whole cost of this Commission should be now added to the expenses of the by-election at Taunton which brought the right hon. Gentleman back to this House. I have been very much disappointed with the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman on this question. He has repeated throughout the country that he was entirely opposed to the findings of the Commission, and these findings do not appear to have been properly represented to the Cabinet.
In reply to a question by the hon. and gallant Member for Daventry (Captain Fitzroy) the right hon. Gentleman in his reply based the refusal of the Cabinet to act on the recommendations of the Commission on the statement that agriculturists in England and Wales were 512 practically unanimously opposed to the removal of the embargo. But this was not what we had the Royal Commission for at all. The Royal Commission was to inquire into the facts of the case and give a reasoned judgment regarding them. Surely the right hon. Gentleman did not require a Royal Commission to find out the opinion of the Farmers' Union of England upon this question. He made a great point of the farmers being opposed to the removal of this embargo. We are told that there are 100,000 members in their union. That is not a very large proportion of the farmers of England. The other day I had a review of a report of the Live Stock Defence Committee sent to me, and it says that there are 293,000 small farmers in England alone, so that 100,000 is not a very large proportion of the entire number of farmers. In addition, no one maintains that the Farmers' Union is unanimous on this subject, and no one claims that all its members are experts on this question of stock. The President of the Farmers' Union, their principal witness produced before the Commission, is a market gardener, and I suppose, therefore, has no great experience of this question.
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that there is a feeling throughout the country that the Government pay far too much attention to trade unions, that they are prone to allow themselves to be intimidated by trade unions. I do not know whether it is the policy of the Government or the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman that whatever a trade union recommends as a policy for its industry, is the policy which should be adopted, or whether they are of opinion that the quintessence of wisdom rests only with the English Farmers' Union. Another point. The right hon. Gentleman stated yesterday that the Royal Commission did not promise any great reduction in the price of meat. The moderation and the modesty of the report recommends it to my good sense and I think should give it increased credit. Nobody but a fool would dare to dogmatise on economic questions of this kind and to state a figure as to what the reduction would be. The only opinion you can express is as to the tendency which this policy will have. There are so many factors which come into the question that you cannot dogmatise as to the effect upon the price of beef. 513 If prosperity were great in the country the demand for beef would be greater. This and other factors would tend to militate against a fall in the price of beef.
It is impossible to put a figure on what the reduction might be, but it is said that the promises are not sufficiently great. No policy of this kind can rest upon promises. If prophecies could insure the success of a policy the Agricultural Act, which the right hon. Gentleman piloted so ably through this House, would have been a success. If he would look at his speeches on that question he would see the difference between prophecies and results. I think that in a very few months the right hon. Gentleman must have found out the worthlessness of his promises or be would not have retained his position and come down and practically wiped off the Statute Book a great part of that Agricultural Act. This is a question about which people in Scotland feel keenly. They feel keenly about it in my district. I myself think that they have an excellent case. Every agriculturist knows that you cannot keep land in a high state of fertility unless you are feeding a lot of stock. That has been recognised since the days of Solomon. "Where no oxen are, the crib is clean but much increase is by the strength of the ox."
We must have a large and certain supply of store cattle if we are to have the land in full cultivation, and the farmers of this country who are feeding and keeping the land in a high state of fertility should not be penalised. Breeders in my part of the country do not wish it. But I understand that the English breeders wish to maintain this protection. The feeders have now to buy their stores or raw material in a market which is restricted to Great Britain and Ireland, while they have got to sell the finished article, beef, against world-competition. They have frozen meat, chilled meat, and the fattened cattle coming in at the ports. That is a great injustice. I cannot see how it can be applied, especially as the men who are breeding the cattle and keeping the land in a high state of fertility are the most progressive and the most energetic part of the agricultural population. Surely the agricultural policy of this country is not to be framed in the interests of the remote districts and the least fertile parts. We shall be told that if we had this embargo removed the numbers 514 of cattle bred would be reduced. No similar result has followed the importation of horses. Horse breeders have to compete not only with the horses that come in but in recent years also with motor transport, yet the number of horses in the country has increased since 1896. There might be a small decrease in the number of cattle reared in certain parts of the country, but on the whole I do not think there is any great decrease to be expected in the number of cattle bred because of the removal of this embargo.
I would ask the Minister of Agriculture to tell the House how Ireland will stand in this matter. Under the Treaty the Irish Free State was likened to Canada. Are cattle from the Free State to be allowed to come in here, or is the embargo to apply to them? If the Minister is intimidated by members of the Farmers' Union in England, I hope he will consider the advisability of giving Scotland a free hand in this matter by repealing the 1896 Act so far as it applies to Scotland. We can then get back to the position where we can increase the amount of land under the plough in Scotland. All over the world the Scottish farmer is recognised as the ablest, as the most enterprising man in the industry, and this is borne out by the fact that since 1915 only 200,000 acres of land have gone out of cultivation in Scotland, while millions of acres have gone out of cultivation in England, notwithstanding the power and the educative effect of the Farmers' Union. If we cannot get the whole thing repealed, I trust that as far as Scotland is concerned we may be relieved from this embargo, which is doing so much injury to the agricultural progress of Scotland.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
I shall not follow my hon. Friend into the subject of the cattle embargo, beyond saying that I am sure the Minister of Agriculture is aware that agricultural opinion generally throughout the United Kingdom, including a very large proportion of those in Scotland, is strongly in favour of the retention of the embargo. It is impossible, in a matter of this kind, to separate the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
You cannot separate Great Britain in a matter of this kind. The subject is really outside the terms 515 of the Amendment. The opportunity we have for debate is extremely short in proportion to the importance of the subject. I am sure that all of us who have put our names to this Amendment have done so not on what would have been a quite sufficient but a narrower ground, that of the industry of agriculture, but on purely national grounds. It is from the national point of view that this Amendment is moved, and I hope it is from the national point of view that the Minister and the Government will consider the suggestions put forward. I am not one of those who join in blaming the Government for everything that has happened. After all, agriculture is not the only industry which is suffering, nor is this the only country in which all industries are suffering. The main causes of depression and trouble and unemployment throughout the world are economic and outside the power of immediate remedy by any Government. It does not do much good to accuse the Government of being responsible for all our troubles.
So far as the Agriculture Act and the repealing Measure are concerned, I repeat what I have said before, that the mistake which the Government made was not in their repealing Act, but in the passing of the original Act. The mistake was in a want of prevision, in that as in many other matters, which they share in common with every one of us. They could not see that the condition of things which prevailed in 1920, and part of 1921, was purely ephemeral, due to evanescent causes, and for this House to legislate on the assumption that those conditions were to continue was simply to pass laws for a fools' paradise which was bound to end. It was a mistake to think that wages and subsidies which seemed all right in that atmosphere could continue to exist when we got back to the ordinary conditions of competition as before the War. The test of that is this: speaking from the national point of view and not from the agricultural point of view, would we be better or worse to-day as a nation if we had Part I of the Agriculture Act in operation? Of course we should be worse. How could we find a subsidy of something like £50,000,000? What would be the conflict of interest between the national purse and the agricultural industry? An hon. Member who spoke from the opposition side said there was agri- 516 cultural chaos. Had that Act continued, and had an attempt been made to carry it out under present conditions, the chaos would have been not agricultural chaos, but chaos in the whole of our national finances.
I would like to say how pleased everyone on this side is to see the general support the Amendment has received from all quarters of the House. The hon. Member who spoke from the Labour Benches spoke strongly in favour of the suggestion made from this side of the House. The hon. Member for the Holland Division (Mr. Royce), who is a good friend of agriculture, did refer to the policy of the Labour party, and suggested that if some of us on this side introduced a little leaven—he did not say what sort of leaven, but I suppose he meant the leaven of common sense—into the party opposite, it might help us all. I think a little of that leaven must have penetrated to himself, because nearly the whole of his speech was devoted to supporting the proposals put forward in connection with the Amendment. With the references to the Wages Board, and to the deprivation which the agricultural labourer suffered from the loss of the Wages Board, I am afraid I cannot agree. It was very well put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne (Mr. Acland) when he said that with the Wages Board the labourer had lost his security. But there I join issue with him absolutely. The labourer has merely varied the form of the security. What security would the labourer have through a Wages Board imposing a wage which the farmer was unable to pay? He would have a nominal, a totally unreal, a shadowy and imaginary security, that he was to receive a certain wage, but would have a complete insecurity of receiving any wage at all. I suggest that of the two forms of insecurity, it is far worse to run a most serious risk of getting no wages at all than it is to be inscure in getting just exactly that amount of wage which can be got. The Wages Board is always fallible, and unfortunately is subject to a certain extent to political influence. The real trouble is the political atmosphere which is introduced into purely industrial matters. You have a political element introduced into the deliberations of the Wages Boards, and I am not throwing stones at them at all. The political atmosphere is there, and however much 517 the individual member may restrict himself to purely industrial and economic considerations, he cannot get away from the political atmosphere. You have it introduced at a time when the industry cannot afford to go one inch outside the consideration of the menace to its existence, under present economic, fiscal and industrial conditions.
I wish to suggest to the Minister, as certain remedies have been advocated here to-day, that they are succinctly put forward in a report which has been issued by a committee appointed by the Land Union, which has spent many weeks in going into the whole question. That report has been in the hands of every hon. Member of this House, and they will all have seen the proposals which it makes. I claim two things for these proposals, first that they have no political flavour whatever, and secondly, that none of them involve the spending of national money. We are not asking for grants, for money to be spent on the industry, but what we are asking is that our burdens should be lightened. The largest item in that connection is one which has been already referred to, and that is the carrying out of the principles of the Agricultural Rates Act, 1896. That involves no increase in the national burden. It is merely an adjustment as between ratepayers and taxpayers, and it is an adjustment in the direction of the fullest equity—that national burdens should be mainly borne by the nation at large, and should not be placed in quite an undue proportion upon local ratepayers, who derive no special benefit or advantage from them whatever. That is not a new principle. It is a principle which was admitted by the Act of 1896, and all we ask is that that admitted principle, and the implied pledge which that Act gave to the agricultural industry, should be carried out. We ask that the grant which was then given, on the basis of the deficit created by the reduction of the rates on agricultural land by a half of the general rate payable by other ratepayers, should be made up by an equivalent grant from the Exchequer. The present grant represents probably not more than 20 per cent. of the present deficit. That grant is based upon a deficit which existed in 1896, when rates were about one-quarter or one-fifth or one-sixth of what they are to-day. I also endorse what was said by my hon. 518 Friend the Member for Southern Norfolk (Mr. G. Edwards) when he spoke of the Ecclesiastical Tithes Rate Act. I propose, with the leave of the House, very shortly to introduce a small Amending Bill to secure that where an incumbent has two livings and where the joint income of the two livings exceeds the amount which would entitle him to exemption from rates, he shall not, as he can now—owing to what I believe was an unintentional flaw in the existing Act—claim to be separately treated on each living. In that way he entirely escapes payment of rates, although his total in come may be well past the limit under which remission can take place. I propose to introduce a short Bill by which where a man has two livings the total income shall be treated together and not as two separate incomes from individual parishes. Under the present system the rates in poor rural districts are frequently increased by as much as 2s. in the £.
I know the Minister of Agriculture will justly and properly say that the reduction in the national burden which we ask for in the Report of the Committee on Income Tax and Death Duties is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The whole of these proposals have been laid before the Chancellor of the Exchequer by the Land Union, by the Central Landowners' Association, and also in respect of Scotland by the Scottish Landowners' Association. He has had the whole particulars before him since the time began for the preparation of his Budget and there can be no suggesting that these proposals are brought forward too late. I trust that the Minister of Agriculture will be able to give us some assurance that these matters will be favourably considered. In Scotland the position is even worse, as far as landowners are concerned, than it is in England, because in Scotland the landowner bears one-half of the rates as well as the whole burden of taxation, and if I had time to quote the figures put forward by the Scottish Landowners' Association, they would show a state of things which is unjust to the individual, injurious to the whole agricultural industry and ruinous from the point of view of national finance. There are hon. Members here representing Scotland who would have been only too glad to speak on this matter and who would have spoken with great authority in putting it before the House. May I suggest that these things from the national point of 519 view are really costly, for this simple reason. If agriculture and the ownership of land have now been driven down to such an unprofitable level that the amount of revenue obtained from them is extremely small in proportion to the whole revenue of the country, the only result of keeping these burdens of taxation upon owners and occupiers and the whole industry of agriculture and landowning is that such little wealth as remains in that industry is being constantly reduced, and the higher you raise your taxes the less you get. We ask for a repetition of the sound finance which made famous perhaps the greatest Finance Minister who ever sat on that Bench—I mean the younger Pitt. He was wise enough to see that after a great war, after the French Revolution, when a similar condition of indirect taxation prevailed, the only way to get more revenue was to reduce taxation, and so industry revived, and he got more wealth and more profit out of the taxes. The present system is piling on taxes which reduce the available wealth upon which all taxes can be raised, and it can have as its only result national ruin. What is happening to landowners to-day is merely a sort of forerunner of what will happen to the whole nation if that policy is followed. It has gone much further with the agricultural industry and with landowners than it has gone with any other industry, for the simple reason that they are poorer, and from the nature of the industry which they carry on and of their property the burdens which are imposed in this industrial country hit them much harder and are much heavier in reality than they are on any other part of the community. Therefore the process has gone far, and the nation, if it looks at what is going on in agriculture and landowning, can see what is going to happen later on in other industries too if that policy continues to be followed. All that we ask is that there should be an adjustment in time before we are ruined.
I wish to say only one more thing, and that is as to the position of the agricultural labourer and why he is at a lower level of wage rates than workers in any other industry. It is due to one simple fact, and that is that under economic law everybody who has to carry on an industry has to follow the line of least resistance. He has got to make both ends meet, and 520 he can only do that in two ways in a time of depression and falling prices like this. Either he has got to keep his prices up in order to pay his wages, or he has got to force the wages down in order to be able to sell at lower prices, and which he does, and how far he does either, is not a question of goodwill, is not a question of whether he is selfish or unselfish or wise or unwise; he is practically compelled to follow the line of least resistance. Take the railway companies and the agricultural industry as an instance. Both the railways and agriculture are equally in the vortex of general depression. Both, a year ago, were at the same level of high prices and fares—high prices for agricultural produce and high rates for railways, high wages for railway workers and for agricultural labourers. The depression strikes both, but what has happened? Railway rates remain at their War level, at the very top; railway wages are lowered a little, but still they are very high in proportion to pre-War wages. In agriculture prices have fallen by 50 or 6[...] per cent. and in many cases are down below pre-War level. Look at wool. Figures are given, in the report, of wool at greatly below. I have a flock of 250 black-faced sheep in Scotland, and I got back £19 11s. 6d. for the whole of the wool of that flock after the railway rates were paid. The wage of the agricultural labourer is down from 46s. to 30s. Why[...] Because each has followed the line of least resistance. The railway companies have been able to keep up their prices, and it has been more difficult for them to get wages down than it has been to keep fares up, whereas exactly the reverse conditions have prevailed in agriculture. Prices have been forced down. The farmer has nothing to say to them. He cannot touch prices. They are world prices, and therefore it is an immeasurable thing, which he cannot touch. Therefore, because prices have fallen, his line of least resistance, and the only line which it has been possible for him to follow, has been to pay less wages to the agricultural labourer, and thus the burden has been passed on, not by the fault of the farmer, but by economic pressure, to the agricultural labourer. That means that the burdens which are placed on agriculture are being passed on to the agricultural labourer and that he is suffering.
I will conclude by pointing out and suggesting to the Minister that these 521 remedies for which we have asked in this Report involve the consideration by the Government of the questions of flour, of barley, of sugar, of Income Tax, Death Duties, and rates, of railway charges, and of the marking of imported produce. This last is a most important point, for it is only fair that when people desire to buy good quality home-produced stuff they should know what they are getting, and that the producer of the food should have the opportunity of getting the price which the consumer is willing to pay for it. There is the further suggestion that under the Unemployment Grant the chalk and lime which are so important for all second-class land, which is woefully deficient in thorn at the present time, should be made available at a price which the farmer can afford to pay. All these are remedies which in themselves are not much, but in the aggregate they would amount to a very great help to the whole industry, and I hope we shall get an assurance from the Front Bench that there will be a real attempt to put these proposals into effect. We are not here really to raise a Debate. We are here because the industry is to day in the most critical and perilous position. The hon. Member for Southern Norfolk, who speaks with authority from that part of the country, said that never in the history of the industry so long as he remembers it—and he is one of the oldest Members in this House—had it been in such a condition as it is to-day, and I think that will be endorsed by everyone who knows anything at all about the industry, while there is not a single hon. Member who represents an agricultural constituency in this House who does not feel it to be his duty to ask for these things which we have put forward, not as going to remedy all the evils of the industry, but as the minimum practical measures which are necessary to preserve us from disaster.
That is all we ask. They are all within the possibility of the Government to carry out. None of them involve any national expenditure. Some of them might involve a slight apparent reduction in revenue, but, for the reasons which have been given, I believe they would result eventually in an increase instead of a reduction of revenue. I desire to say to the Government, as far as I am concerned, that these proposals are put forward seriously, that they are put forward on this, the very first opportunity in this Session, with the firm determina- 522 tion to press them. I trust the Government are prepared to give us an undertaking—at least, so far as the Minister of Agriculture can give it—and I am sure we have in him an able advocate who has the interests of our industry really at heart; of course, his personal position is not in question. The question is what the Government as a whole are prepared to do, and I say as an individual, and I believe I am speaking what many of us think, that we are determined to press this on every occasion in this House; and when it comes to the Budget and to important Measures being decided in this House, I am certain it will be the attitude of the Government towards these absolutely necessary remedial measures which are to save our primary industry from destruction which will decide our attitude. We desire to put this forward as a vital and most serious question, and we ask that the Government should give their attention to it and should not consider, when we have had three or four hours' Debate on the first Friday afternoon of the Session, that they are going to be able to go away and forget all about it We mean to press it, and we mean to drive it home, and I hope and trust that we shall be knocking at an open door and that the Government realise what the position is, but if they do not it will be our duty to make them do so.
§ Major HOWARD
I have no wish to follow my Scottish friend so far back as Solomon or Adam, as I have neither the wisdom of one nor the age of the other, but, as a farmer and representative of an agricultural division, I should be lacking in my duty to the House and to my division if I did not say what I thought about the present position of agriculture. We were very much disappointed, in reading the Gracious Speech from the Throne, that there was no allusion to agriculture. We had not much to say if we were forgotten in the matter of interference, because there is not much to be said in favour of the interference we have had in years gone by; but if they had forgotten us in the matter of the burdens they have put upon us, we felt that we were in a very seriuos position. I can assure the House that we agriculturists—and I have been farming for 35 years for a livelihood—regard our position as very desperate. We have frankly lost hope unless the Government can hold out some hand, though not to assist us by doles. We do not want doles. 523 I voted against the repeal of the 1920 Act for the reason that farmers had been led to believe by that Act that certain things would happen; that they would be guaranteed against any loss if they paid wages settled by the Wages Board, and I think to repeal it so quickly without giving farmers sufficient notice was too bad, as they were not given time to shape their undertakings to the new conditions which would arise immediately upon the repeal.
We thank the Government very much for the subsidy they gave us on 1st January. It helped us, but it did not go far enough, and prices fell rapidly, and we have been left with very high wages, which make it absolutely impossible for us to make ends meet. The right hon. Gentleman said something about making ends meet, and that there was not a great deal of friction. I can assure him that, in spite of all our exertions, we are unable to make ends meet. It is not that we as farmers ask for any dole. I think that would land us in a worse position than we are in at the present moment, if that be possible. We have to cease to look behind, and must look to the future. It is no use grousing about the Government letting us down. We have one of the best Ministers of Agriculture. I know he has had a very difficult task, and he has done the best he possibly could, but there is a great deal more to be done in relieving us of the burden. Take, first of all, the rates. I have been connected with rating authorities for the last 30 years. The Act of 1896 was passed, and agriculture was relieved of half its rates, but the whole rates before that Act was passed were less than one-third of half the rates at the present moment. In other words, although we are only paying a half-rate, we are paying three times as much as we were paying before the passing of the Act of 1896. I have a little business in addition to farming, and its annual turnover corresponds very much with the annual turnover of one of my farms, and employ about the same number of men. The rates on the place where this business is carried on, and on the cottages in which the men live, is less than one-quarter of the rates I pay on the farm of the same value, and the cottages in which the men live. That is only one case 524 out of thousands. Then when we come to the reason why rates are so high, let us take highways, for instance. When I first became chairman of a highway committee highways cost about £25 to £45 a mile. Estimates submitted to my county council, of which I have the honour to be chairman, a week or two ago were £146 per mile. I admit the Ministry are going to pay 50 per cent. of that, but, nevertheless, it means a large increase on what we paid before. Why is it necessary upon these roads to spend such a large amount of money? It is not for the benefit of the farmer. I have always been an advocate of improved roads, but the burden should fall upon the proper shoulders, that is, upon the shoulders of those who want the roads. How does it affect the farmer? Every time I want to send my horses over a first-class road I have to call in the blacksmith and have the horse-shoes roughed, because of the danger of slipping on the road. Yet I am called upon as an agriculturist to pay considerably more for the upkeep of these roads than even before the Ministry of Transport paid the 50 per cent. In this matter of roads the Ministry can help us.
Then come the railway rates. We have heard a great many explanations as to why railway rates are high. I think the Government might at least bring considerable pressure to bear upon the railway companies to get them to charge the same per ton mileage for home-borne produce as for sea-borne. At the present moment, it is much cheaper to send sea-borne goods 100 miles over our railways than to send farmers' produce a quarter or even one-eighth of that distance. The railways make the excuse that they get larger quantities when the produce comes oversea. The farmers' men load the produce on the company's own trucks, whereas, in the other case, they have to load it themselves. Therefore, I do not think the railways should complain if the Government bring considerable pressure upon them to give us fairness in rates compared with overseas goods. As farmers, we ask for nothing but fairness. We ask for no favours, and if they will only give us fairness, making the burdens bear some proportion to the position of the industry, then, I believe, we shall be able to carry on the industry successfully. As a countryman born and bred among agricultural workers, and one who has done everything that has to be done on a 525 farm, and can do it to-day, I say that the economic wage which the industry can pay is not sufficient to keep the workingman in the proper state in which he ought to be kept. That is our difficulty. We appeal to the Government most earnestly that, if they have no sympathy for the farmer—and perhaps he has deserved his unpopularity, though that I do not know of—to do what we ask out of sympathy for our working men, remove our burdens so that we can pay an economic wage—though we cannot do any other—not for long—which will be sufficient for the agricultural labourer to live in a proper manner like his brother working man in other industries. The agricultural working man is no less skilled than the working men in other industries. He is, indeed, far more highly skilled than many men in a good many industries. Sitting on these Benches yesterday was an hon. Member who showed me some accounts. He had just come from the docks and he showed me that for a day of eight hours dockers received as much as £1 11s. I do not know that anything like the skill of an agriculturist, even of the least competent, is required in earning that wage.
I welcome the suggestion that has come from the Labour Benches, and particularly that suggestion that there should be union between the landlord, the farmer, and the labourer. I stand midway between the two. I am a tenant farmer, but I welcome and I hold out my hand both to the landlord and those who represent labour, and suggest that we should get together as a body. It is by that unity which was mentioned by the hon. Member for the Holland Division (Mr. Royce)—who said that we wanted unity in the industry—it is that unity that will do a great deal to help to solve a lot of our troubles; then we should be able to bring —though I hope it will not be necessary —sufficient pressure upon the Government to see the serious position in which this great industry, this oldest industry, and not the least important either—though I would not like to say that it is the most important—should be placed in, and the need for the relief that we suggest, so that it may take its place amongst the other industries. Then one may hope that there will be unity and peace in our countryside instead of the strife that seems so much in prospect at the present time, and so that we do get some relief 526 from the burdens that afflict us and may be able to pay our men as we desire to pay them.
§ Captain FITZROY
I am pleased to see that we have at this moment responsible men on the Government Bench, because I want to emphasise one of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Pretyman), and that is that we do not move this Amendment just in order to get up a Debate. We realise, as Members representing agricultural constituencies in this House, the anxiety which exists at the present time in the industry—and I am glad to say is recognised in other quarters of the House—and that it is of importance from the national point of view that this industry of agriculture should not be allowed to go under. Probably one of the most pleasing aspects of this Debate has been that it has shown in all quarters of the House, no matter whether on these benches or the benches opposite, or the Labour benches, that there is a general unanimity in regard to agricultural questions. We have had most valuable speeches made from the Labour benches, demanding that something should be done. We have had a speech from the front Opposition bench, all in the same strain, and that encourages me to think that when there is in this Horse unanimity on this question, it will be carried still further into the country and we shall have unanimity in the industry itself.
A lot has been said to-day in regard to the Agriculture Act, 1920, and its repeal. I lament the repeal of Part I of the Act. It failed in its object chiefly because, although it tried to realise that there were three classes engaged in the industry, it treated each of those classes as if it was an independent unit. That very process of treating each of those classes an as independent unit inevitably meant a conflict of interest with that particular class and the other two classes. I want the Government to realise in any policy which they adopt in regard to agriculture that they must look upon the industry as a whole, and that if they can bring prosperity to that industry, each class engaged in it will themselves benefit thereby.
Two or three remarks were made by the hon. Member for Southern Norfolk (Mr. G. Edwards) who so admirably represents the interests of the agricultural 527 labourers in this House. He called attention to the Conciliation Boards which had been set up. He found some fault with the way in which those Conciliation Boards had been conducted. I must say, and I think the Government will agree, that the way these Conciliation Boards up till now have done their work in the interests of the agricultural industry is admirable. I know there are one or two cases in which friction has been caused and where agreements have not been arrived at. Speaking generally, however, I think they have done their work well. I think it reflects the greatest possible credit on the agricultural labourers, the way in which, without in any way upsetting the industry, they have accepted the inevitable reductions in wages. It looks well that we have in the industry as well as in this House realised that the interests of all classes in agriculture are affected, and that they depend upon the prosperity of the industry. One thing with regard to the Conciliation Boards themselves which I can only speak about from my own personal point of view. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. G. Edwards) complained that in only three cases, I think it was, the Conciliation Committee had registered their award. I believe that is true. Speaking, however, on behalf of the farmers, I cannot endorse what was said by the right hon. Member for Camborne (Mr. Acland) that many farmers have not carried out the agreement come to. I do not think that is the case. The cases are very few where farmers have not carried out the agreement. In the vast majority of cases the agreements have been loyally carried out. This in itself has no doubt rendered the registration of these awards to a certain extent unnecessary. For my part I want to say here and now that I think it would have been better if in some cases these awards had been registered, because farmers are always careful, and wisely so, to get their interests protected. As this is the only real safeguard that the agricultural labourer has that proper wages shall be paid, it should be realised he is after all the weakest member of the community in the industry, and has a right to have his interests protected as well as the farmers themselves; to that extent I think the farmer would have done better if, in more cases, they had registered the award.
528 I should like to say that in the Amendment which has been moved to-day the demands which have been made on the Government on behalf of the agricultural industry cannot be described as extreme. They are really the limit, the lowest limit of what we think the Government ought to concede at the present moment. There is no Protection asked for. The agricultural industry is not asking for preferential treatment as against any other industry in the country. All we say is that, if the agricultural industry is really of national importance, then the disabilities and burdens of rates and taxes and railway rates which weigh so unfairly upon it ought, as far as possible, to be removed by the Government. That is the only demand we make. I am glad the Minister for Agriculture has returned to his place. I should like to repeat what I said a few minutes ago, that this Debate has been raised not for the sake of having a Debate, but we have moved this Amendment because we mean to press these demands on the Government in order that our grievances may be removed. This Motion on the Address is the earliest opportunity we have had of doing it, but we shall press these demands whenever the time may be opportune. I realise that, as regards most of the demands we are making, it is not within the power of the Minister at the moment to say whether or not he can concede them. If he were to do so he would probably be anticipating the statement which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to make later in the Session. But the right hon. Gentleman ought to be in a position to tell us that, in the Cabinet, he will back up our demand. He is there as the representative of the agricultural industry. If he will tell us that he realises we are suffering under burdens which ought to be removed, and that he will do his best to use his influence with his colleagues in the Cabinet to secure a reduction of the burden and to meet the request which we are making to-day—if he will take up that attitude I, at any rate, will do my best to secure support for him in carrying those demands to fruition. If he cannot say that he realises that the burdens of which we are complaining are very serious and can be removed, and that he will do his best to see that they are removed, then we cannot support him and we shall have to go into the Division Lobby against him. If, on the other hand, he will give us an assurance that he will do 529 his best for us in his position in the Government, we will not go into the Lobby against him. I hope he will give the assurance for which I am asking.
At this late hour of the Debate I do not wish to repeat anything which has been said by previous speakers, although I would like to endorse the proposals put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Pretyman) as enunciated in the report of the Land Union. I wish to call attention to two points only. I am afraid that, however desirable it may be that the Government should come to our aid with financial assistance in any respect, we are not very likely to get it. While the Government perhaps is not prepared to assist the local ratepayer by subventions out of the taxes—and perhaps on the whole that is not a very good plan, because it is not conducive to economy—there are two ways in which it might help us. I do not believe that the local bodies in the country districts, either county councils or district councils, are by nature extravagant. A great part of their expenditure is forced upon them, wither by Act of Parliament or by Government officials at Whitehall. If you charge a member of a local body with extravagance, he invariably tells you that the extravagance is forced upon the local body. That is quite true, and that is where the Government might help. It would be a very good thing if, in almost every Act of Parliament dealing with the duties of local bodies, the word "may" were substituted for the word "shall" which is now used. If the local authorities like to spend money on various luxuries and measures of civilisation, well and good. But if they wish to save money it is very unfortunate that they should be forced to spend it. The Government can check the exuberance of their officials at Whitehall in forcing upon rural authorities expenditure which is not desired in the country districts and which is not desirable.
Again, I would be so bold as to ask the Government to consider the desirability of relieving the local authorities of the entire cost of the roads. We have a means now through the Road Board of obtaining money from those who use and too often destroy the roads, and I think that means should be used to the full. It is an old adage that those who pay the piper should call the tune and it is a very fair counterpart to suggest that those 530 who have the benefit of the tune should, as far as possible, be called upon to pay the piper. By a system of taxing all vehicles, including horsed vehicles, the whole of the money required for the upkeep of the roads could be obtained. These people use the roads and they destroy the roads, and it is extraordinary how little of that usage of the roads is to the benefit of the locality. The county of which I have the honour to be a member (Wiltshire) includes the main high-way from the West of England to London, and practically the whole of the traffic between London and the West, passes over some part of its roads. How little that traffic is of any benefit to the inhabitants of the county is illustrated by a recent experience of mine. It is my duty as a county magistrate to sit on the bench, and we often have to dispose of charges of excessive speed by heavy motor vehicles. A dozen cases recently came before us. We had knowledge of course as to the place of residence of the drivers and owners of the lorries in question, and we found that only two out of the whole number were in any way connected with the County of Wiltshire. The others were not paying rates and taxes for the benefit of the county, but they were the users and destroyers of the roads. These are two directions in which the Government might afford us some relief, and action upon either of them would throw no additional burden on the general taxpayer. I think the Minister of Agriculture might press upon the Treasury the desirability of putting the cost of the roads upon those who use them. As for the agricultural labourer, many of the reforms indicated by previous speakers would no doubt assist, the worker, but all reductions in the cost of production do not directly assist him. It is not easy to see how the Government can directly assist in this matter. One sees rumours in the Press that it is possible there may be some revision of taxation shortly, and if that he so I suggest to the Minister of Agriculture that he should raise his voice in the Cabinet on behalf of the agricultural workers, and the best way to do this would be by urging a reduction in the taxation on beer, which is more heavily taxed at the present time in comparison with pre-War taxati[...]than any other article. At the present, time the agricultural labourer cannot afford to drink beer, and whether other people may think that that is a desirable 531 state of things or not at any rate the agricultural labourer thinks that beer to him is not only desirable, but necessary.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I am sorry to intervene at this moment and thereby preclude some other hon. Members from addressing the House. I understand, however, that some sort of an arrangement has been made whereby time will be given for another Debate on the. Amendment standing in the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Bradford (Captain Loseby), and for this reason I wish to finish the Debate on this Amendment by about 3 o'clock.
I do not complain that this Amendment has been moved; in fact I think the circumstances entirely justify it. We are very well aware, both in the Government and at the Ministry, of the present depressed condition of agriculture. I do not suppose that a period of depression has ever arisen in the history of agriculture with such terrible suddenness as that which has taken place on the present occasion. I remember only a year ago that my first duty as Minister of Agriculture was to go to the Cabinet and make arrangements whereby farmers should get the full 95s. per quarter for their wheat which they had been promised. Would they not like to get that price for their wheat now, because it has fallen to 45s.? The price of oats, barley, livestock, dead meat and wool has fallen in like proportion, and there has come down upon the industry with appalling suddenness this great depression affecting all classes. Although it is true that other trades are suffering and that industry generally is in a bad way, and we have a great deal of unemployment, this sudden fall hits the farmer harder, probably, than anybody else. In other industries you have large amounts of capital invested. You have aggregations of capital and you may have big resources, but that is not so with the farmer. As a rule the farmer has practically every 1d. he possesses invested in his business. He has not the resources that other traders have, and the result is that at the present moment, as I realise very fully, he is at his wits' end to know which way to turn. The man who is hit the hardest of all is the farmer who bought his own farm. Some of them bought, no doubt, out of profits, but 532 others, unfortunately, bought by loans borrowed from the banks. In many cases they had to buy, otherwise they would have been turned out at the time when so many sales of land were taking place Hon. Members must realise that the average farmer is in grave difficulties to-day, and it is our duty to study every means whereby we can help him in his present difficulty.
I want to make two observations on this point. First of all it is not true to say that this sudden slump is the result of any action on the part of the Government. I thought I detected in the speech of my hon. Friend who moved this Amendment that all this depression was due to the fact that the Government, had repealed the Corn Production Acts. Really, that is a position which cannot be maintained. Agricultural prices are governed by world prices. It is one of the great difficulties of the agriculturist that he cannot regulate his prices by the cost of production. He cannot pass on the additional cost of production to the consumer as other manufacturers can because his prices are governed by prices in Chicago, New York, and other places, and he has very little voice in the matter at all. Therefore you cannot hold the Government responsible for the great slump that has occurred all over the world. In saying that I am not suggesting that it is a wise policy or one to be repeated to carry a Measure one Session and to repeal it the next. I think that is a most undesirable practice, but I quite agree with what one speaker has already said, namely, than the mistake was not in repealing the Acts, but in passing them in the first instance.
One hon. Member says. "Why did you do it?" I would answer, "Why did you repeal it?" Did anybody contemplate that this country would have to pay a subsidy under those Acts amounting to a great many millions a year to the agricultural interest in respect of wheat and oats? What we expected would only amount to a small annual insurance actually turned out to be a large sum of money. We got rid of the subsidies and we also got rid of the rest of that policy, and I am certain that the soundest plan we can adopt is to interfere with industry as little as possible. So long as we lay down general conditions under which an industry can carry on its work successfully we do far better not to interfere, 533 but leave it to work out its own salvation. My hon. Friend who seconded the Amendment made the matter perfectly clear. He did not, I think, altogether agree with the proposal, because he said that the policy of the Agriculture Act had been a dismal failure, and he said that agriculture had better be left alone. That is the policy we have adopted since the Corn Production Acts Repeal Act. We have thought that the duty of the Government was to confine itself to its proper function, namely, assisting agriculture so far as it can outside, and not interfering with the farmer in the conduct of the farm—that is to say, to put it back on its economic basis, and let the farmer put his land to the best economic use. I am certain that he will do it very much better than some control of the farm instituted under the auspices of the Labour party or anybody else, and, so far as the Government are concerned, our duty is to see that the industry has a fair chance.
What, therefore, are we doing? We are trying to help in every way that we can. We are endeavouring—and it is a very difficult job at the present moment with this terrible outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that we have—to protect our flocks and herds from disease and the risk of disease. We are promoting agricultural education and research, in order to give the farmer a chance to obtain the best possible education for the purpose of applying the greatest amount of science and the newest discoveries to his farm. We are promoting such things as the improvement of livestock—our schemes for the improvement of livestock have had a very great effect up to the present—and we are promoting co-operation. With regard to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne said with reference to certain cuts proposed by a Committee of which we have heard, generally known as the Axe Committee, I cannot go into those matters now, because they are sub iudice, but I shall be very sorry if there is any kind of interference with the work we are doing in these directions at the present time.
I have spoken about the position of the farmer; let me now say a word about the labourer. Nobody sympathises more than I do with his present plight. Wages were advanced largely during the War. They have come down since, and they have had to come down. With the enormous fall in prices it was a question, not of paying 534 this or that wage, but of paying any wage at all; and surely it is far better, although I do not like cuts myself, that the labourer should be receiving a lower wage than that there should be wholesale unemployment on the farm. In this matter I think both sides have approached the difficult problem in the right spirit. There has been no undue desire on the part of farmers to cut down wages. They have been put into the most impossible position themselves, and have had to make reductions, but I know that in most cases they have done so gradually, and they have done so recognising the position of the labourer. The labourer's position has been more difficult, because the fall in wholesale prices has not been reflected to the same extent in retail prices. The farmer has had to say, "With the prices I am getting for my produce I cannot pay more than so-and-so." The labourer's reply is, "With the prices I have to pay for my food I cannot take less." On the whole there has been conciliation and give-and-take, and the matter has been fairly well settled in the greater part of England and Wales. I think the hon. Member for South Norfolk said that Conciliation Committees were a failure. I do not think they are. On the whole I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Daventry (Captain Fitzroy) that they have done their work extraordinarily well. Conciliation Committees were a new idea in agriculture, and it takes time to get them going. What is the position? The whole country is covered. There are 58 Committees, and of these 44 have made agreements. I do not say that all those agreements are current at the present moment, because some—
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I am coming to that. Some have been for short terms and have expired and have not been renewed, but they are being renewed in most cases every week at the present time. Thirty of these agreements are in operation. As for the question of registration, it is quite true that the number registered has been rather disappointing. Only five have been registered—not two, as I think my hon. Friend said. Why has that been the case? Because, generally speaking, once the agreement has been made, all employers have abided loyally by it. If that were not the case I should hear of it, because I hear practically all complaints on this score and 535 every other score, and I have watched these Conciliation Committees very carefully and reports come in every week which I have seen myself. There have been very few cases in which the agreements have not been carried out, and farmers generally have made it a point, of honour that the agreements should be carried out. I have here a letter sent by the Dorset Branch of the National Farmers' Union to all their members a few weeks ago, after they had just concluded an agreement for four months. I will only read the last paragraph, which says:The County Executive Committee, therefore. appeal strongly and confidently to every farmer to honour the agreement in the spirit in which it is made, regarding it as of as much moral validity as a statutory minimum wage.That is the right spirit, and in that spirit these agreements are being carried out generally. Now I will come to the third element in the agricultural hierarchy—the other partner in the business, who is perhaps the hardest hit of all. I mean the landlord. I know that hon. Members opposite have a policy for exterminating landlords.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
No, my hon. Friend has not read the pamphlet of the Labour party, because the first item in this wonderful Labour party pamphlet, which is going to regenerate agriculture, is the abolition of the landlord. It is no use regenerating him after you have abolished him, and that is what is proposed. The abolition of landlordism may be a very nice catchword, and a fine cry with which to go to the country, but if you attempt to do it in the case of agricultural land you will take away from agriculture the best friend that it has. I venture to say that a resident landlord living on his estate, looking after his estate, providing money for every improvement and repair that has to be done at a much lower rate than any banker would, the man who cultivates part of his estate and manages the whole of it, is a great godsend to the whole countryside where he lives; and the fact that many of them have had to disappear, owing to high taxation and rates and the cost of repairs, is a great misfortune to rural life in this country. What is proposed as a substitute? I suppose a 536 Government Department is to own all the land. I suppose a Government Department is not only to own the land, but is to manage the land. It has to do all the work which is done to-day by the landlord and his agent. I do not know what Department. I suppose my Department. I should be very sorry to do it. I think a Department would be a very bad landlord. I was talking the other day to a farmer who has bought his farm. He said, "I have been a tenant on three estates under three landlords. I am now my own landlord, and I am the worst landlord I ever had." I told him I knew one worse, and that would be the Government.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
We are getting rid of Government estates and Government farms as quickly as ever we can, and I cannot say I have found that the tenants on them were always entirely contented. But just think what it means. You would not be able to put up a new gate, you would not be able to do a bit of repairs to a roof without getting Treasury sanction. Take another case. Every landlord finds periodically that he has to take in hand and farm part of his estate. Who is going to do it? Is the Government going to do it? I have seen a good deal of what is called farming from Whitehall from the inside, and I certainly do not want to extend the operations all over the country. I hope hon. Members opposite will not think I am using a rude expression if I say it is not by quack remedies of that sort that you are going to mend agricultural depression.
My hon. Friends have put forward certain proposals for relieving the burdens which press very heavily at present on land. I know perfectly well what those burdens are. My hon. Friends do not expect me to give any definite answer to-day. I could not do so. They are really not matters that come primarily under my Department. They are all matters really for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] I have no doubt he is doing business of great importance.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
That is hardly here or there, but even if he were here you could not expect him to anticipate his Budget to-day. My hon. Friends sent me the proposals they were going to make. I at once communicated with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I had this answer with reference to his position in the matter:Following the promise given during last year's Finance Bill of sympathetic consideration to the whole question of the burdens on landowners, the Chancellor has recently received influential and representative deputations from the Central Landowners' Association, and the Scottish Landowners' Association, and has also had an interview with the right hon. Member for Chelmsford on behalf of the Land Union. The whole question has been placed before him in the fullest possible way, and he has their representations regarding taxation under careful consideration.I have spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the matter, and I am very well aware what the points are, and I will do everything possible to see that these matters are considered in the fullest way. I have spoken of various proposals, such as Death Duties on settled property, the question of repairs of owners' dwelling-houses, and so on, which affects owners, but do not let anyone suppose that because they affect owners only directly they are therefore not of great importance to the agricultural interest generally. After all, the owner, if he is taxed out of existence, cannot properly look after his estate.
The question of rates is no doubt very difficult. Land in my opinion has always had to bear a greater burden of rates than it ought to have had. I am speaking of agricultural land. The position is this. The occupier of agricultural land pays on an assessment which is altogether disproportionate to his income, and secondly, he is not benefiting by the objects on which the rates are spent in the same degree as the town dweller is. On the first point, take this case. You may have a farmer whose rateable value is £250 a year, and you may have a shopkeeper in the immediate neighbourhood who is paying rates on an assessment of £30 a year. Each of them will be making precisely the same amount of money, yet the farmer has to pay on an infinitely greater rateable value. Then again, such things as main roads, sewers, and lighting do not benefit the occupier of agricultural 538 land in the same degree as they do the dweller in the town. In the past Parliament has endeavoured to deal with this question in various ways. There have been large Exchequer grants from the rates, which amount at present to £29,000,000 a year. There have been differentiations in the poundage in favour of agricultural land. There was also the Agricultural Rating Act, but that does not meet the whole Bill. By the Agricultural Rating Act the occupier of agricultural land only pays upon one-half of his valuation, and the Treasury make up the difference as it was when the Act passed, amounting to about £1,300,000 a year. Rates have gone up enormously since then and the Treasury grant has not gone up. It was stereotyped. It may be argued that all ratepayers suffer from that and that the man who is not an agricultural ratepayer suffers more than the agricultural ratepayer because he has to pay on the whole of his assessment, but in a great many country parishes the farmer is practically the only ratepayer. At all events he is by far the biggest ratepayer. And what is the result? Whereas rates have gone up generally four times since the Agricultural Rates Act passed, the rates on agricultural land have gone up four and a half times, and there is a distinct grievance there which I think demands some remedy. Here again this is a matter which can only be dealt with broadly when the whole question of rating. is taken into consideration. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] At all events it can only be dealt with on the Budget and not in a Debate like this. All I can undertake to do—and I give the undertaking —is fully to represent this matter to my colleagues in the Cabinet.
There are one or two other smaller points which have been raised which I will endeavour to reply to. The Seconder of the Amendment raised the question of what he called smallholders' rents. We have set up in the country in the last two years a large number of smallholders—ex-service men—who have been placed on the land, and I am glad they have been placed on the land. But he complains that the rents we are charging are altogether too large, and he says we have built houses very expensively and we are-charging a rent which is an economic rent on the outlay on the house. That is not the fact. If an economic rent were 539 charged on the new cottages which have been built, it would be about £65 per annum. Unfortunately, this land settlement had to be done at the most expensive time, when building materials were very expensive. In no case do we charge more than £26 a year rent for one of these cottages. In other words, the benefit which would go to the people who occupy the houses built under the Housing Act goes to an even greater degree to the ex-soldiers who have been settled on the land in these cottages. It is laid down in the Act that the rent charged is not to be an economic rent, but such a rent as these men can reasonably be expected to pay. We have taken that as a criterion, and I am very unwilling at this moment, when agricultural values are more or less in a state of flux, that there should be a general reduction of rents.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
The loss falls primarily on the county councils, who in turn are recouped by the Government. The loss actually is entirely paid by the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "The taxpayers!"] There is, of course, a valuation of the land. I repeat, at this moment when agricultural values are very uncertain, I am most anxious not to have a general reduction of rents, but we recognise that in this particular year, first of all with the drought and then with the fall in prices, a great many of the smallholders have suffered severely and we are endeavouring to meet every one of these cases on the merits by temporary abatements pending future reductions of rents.
Then I have been asked about Excise Duty on sugar beet. That again is a revenue question. I am always very willing and very anxious to see experiments carried out in the cultivation of beet and the manufacture of sugar in this country, but when we are asked to limit the Excise Duty on sugar beet may I point out that that is nothing more or less than granting a subsidy. That is an important question and under the circumstances we shall have to consider whether it is a policy which we ought to embark on. It does not matter whether you charge duty and give a subsidy, or whether you limit the duty. If sugar is made here and if the duty is limited, there will be so much loss to the revenue. That is a matter to 540 be considered in connection with the experiment which is now being carried out.
One other question, and that is the Canadian cattle embargo. I am bound to say that of all the extraordinary remedies for agricultural depression, to suggest that we should remove the Canadian cattle embargo is the most extraordinary. Here is a question on which nine out of every ten of the farmers in England and Wales, half the farmers in Scotland, and in a large degree the breeders, in fact, practically everybody interested in agriculture, say that to remove the embargo would be to strike a very serious blow at agriculture. Whatever may be said about this question, I think to suggest it as a remedy for agricultural depression is somewhat out of place. I do not think this is an occasion when I ought to occupy the time of the House in arguing this question, but I will merely say that one paragraph in the Report lays down specifically that if the embargo were removed, it would be very difficult for the crofters and smallholders in Scotland to carry on their business. What is true of the crofters and smallholders in Scotland is equally true of the thousands of farmers and smallholders in England and Wales, many of whom would be put out of business if you were to remove the embargo.
Speaking generally about the agricultural industry, it is not true, as has been said in some quarters, that the Government is neglectful of agriculture. It is not true that we pay small account to its needs. At this particular moment we are being held up to scorn in certain newspapers because, in connection with the Canadian cattle embargo, it is said we have sacrificed the interests of the public generally to those of agriculture. I do not believe that. At this very moment that charge is brought against us. Then again, at present, in connection with this very serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, it has been my duty to tell my colleagues that it is necessary, even at considerable cost to the country, to continue this policy of slaughter in order to stamp out the disease. I have been given the freest possible hand, with every means, to carry out that policy. If, after that, by saying that we are neglecting agriculture, these people mean that we have not got an agricultural policy in the sense that agricultural policy was used last year or the year before, if they mean 541 that we have not got a policy of protection for agriculture, or a policy of subsidies, if they mean that we have given up the idea of control, and that we think that farmers can cultivate their land better by their own knowledge and experience than at the dictation of Government officials, then in that sense we may be accused. But I do not think that anybody really wishes that we should go back to the former policy. But, in so far as we can relieve these burdens which unduly and unfairly hinder the progress of the industry to-day, I can assure the House that the Government is thoroughly sympathetic. So far as my position is concerned, I have always endeavoured, and I shall always endeavour, to represent to my colleagues the case for the industry, and to see that that case is met.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
We certainly do not propose to take away from Ireland the privilege which she has always enjoyed.
§ Lord R. CECIL
I understand that a general agreement has been reached on another matter which is to come before the House, and therefore I will not detain the House more than three minutes. In the first place, I should like to express my great gratification at one-half of the speech of the Minister of Agriculture, in which he pronounced a eulogy of the landlords of this country. I believe myself that it was well deserved. I have only one regret, and that is that the Prime Minister was not here to listen to that eulogy. I have always taken the same view, broadly speaking, about rural landlords. There was a time when the Prime Minister made his great crusade against them, and it would have been gratifying to have had him here now to listen to the Minister of Agriculture. But the real thing I rose to say was this: I heard with satisfaction the promise of the Government favourably to consider the rating grievances as regards agricultural land. I am quite satisfied that the grievances are very real. Many of my constituents have spoken to me most seriously on the subject, and the favourable consideration by the Government of this question will 542 be a very great satisfaction to those who are interested.
Hon. Gentlemen who have taken great interest in this subject for many years will know how often we have been promised favourable consideration of the rating difficulties on agricultural land, and what little has accrued from that promise. We are, however, a hopeful race, and we trust very earnestly that something will be done to remove this grievance. I am not an expert on this subject, and I can only speak what my constituents constantly and most urgently press upon me. They assure me, and I believe it to be perfectly true, that the condition of the agricultural industry is very serious and that it is more than likely that if nothing can be done to assist it materially, large quantities of land which are at present arable, will become grass land. That is a serious thing in itself. It is still more serious in a time when unemployment is a great evil, because undoubtedly the conversion of arable land into pasture means an immense loss. I hope the Government will bear that carefully in mind and that they will not allow delays to intervene in any remedial measures which they may have in view, but will realise that the position of agriculture brooks no delay, in a very real sense, and that they will bring forward whatever measures they think necessary, as speedily as possible.
§ Mr. M. WILSON
Before I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment, I should like to endorse what has been said by the Noble Lord in regard to rating, and to ask the Minister whether we are to understand that there is going to be a definite review of the whole question of agricultural rates, with a view to bringing the Agricultural Rating Act into harmony with the changed conditions at the present time. I speak on behalf of all who are interested in agriculture when I say that we want something more than an indefinite promise, and that we want something definite. If not, I shall be obliged to divide the House.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
My hon. Friend will realise that it is impossible for me to make a statement which can only be in anticipation of the Budget. I agree with much that he has said, but what he is suggesting will involve a very large additional Exchequer Grant. At this particular moment, when we are con- 543 sidering the Report of the Geddes Committee, and when the whole question of the finance of the country is under review, it would be, obviously, impossible, even for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he were here, to make any such statement, must less can I make it. All I can say is—and I speak for my colleague the Secretary for Scotland, who is responsible for agricultural problems—that we are well aware of the great difficulties and the hardships involved, and we will make representations, but we cannot at this stage go beyond that.
§ Sir R. WINFREY
We have listened to a very interesting speech from the Minister of Agriculture. I am sorry that he did not refer to two matters, one of which is the increase that has been made in the rents of small-holding tenants. He told us that he was against any reduction of rent at the present time. In the county of Norfolk, not only is the Ministry not reducing rents, but they are increasing rents. There is a rent roll of something like £30,000 a year, and they are increasing rents by 25 per cent. This is not a time when smallholders should be asked to nay increased rent equal to 25 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman said that he will not agree to any decrease of rent, and surely in that case he ought to prevent any increases of rent taking place. It is a very great grievance that smallholders in the county of Norfolk should be asked to pay an increased rent of 25 per cent., and therefore I put in a word on their behalf.
§ Mr. PRETYMAN
May I ask my right hon. Friend to give us a clear understanding of what his last reply meant? What we are asking him to do is to give an undertaking that the Cabinet will consider this question of the Agricultural Rating Act, 1896, grants being brought up to date, and that we should not be put off with the suggestion that it is to be considered as part of the whole question of rates.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN
I am quite prepared to give that. I had already appointed in my office a small committee to inquire into this very question, and I propose shortly to circulate a Memorandum on this subject dealing with the one point of the rating of agricultural land and not with the general point.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question again proposed.