HC Deb 28 February 1924 vol 170 cc795-804

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1924, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, including Loans to Agricultural Co-operative Societies, Grants for Agricultural Education and Training, certain Grants-in-Aid, and certain Services arising out of the War.

The SECRETARY for SCOTLAND (Mr. W. Adamson)

I might explain that this Vote is taken out of its place on the Order Paper to enable us to get the Vote to-night early, and I may say that, owing to the kindness of the other parties in the House, who have consented to this arrangement, we are able to move the Vote at this stage.


Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to interrupt him for one moment, in order to make it clear that the arrangement is that the intervening Votes, starting from the Colonial Services down to the Northern Ireland Grants-in-Aid, will go down for Monday; that after this Vote we take the Post Office Vote, and, of course, the Ways and Means Resolution in Committee, and that then the Government will adjourn the House?


I think that is the arrangement. This is a token Estimate, which asks that an additional sum should be taken under each of two sub-heads amounting to £5. The first of these subheads, "M.M.," relates to loans to agricultural co-operative societies, and it is designed to assist agriculture Such loans were recommended by the Linlithgow Committee on the distribution and prices of agricultural produce. It is proposed that the loan should be made by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland for the acquisition and improvement of premises and for working capital. Provision for this purpose will be included in the Board's Estimate for 1924–25. In the meantime, in order to enable the necessary arrangements to proceed, this Estimate is submitted, in order to obtain the approval of Parliament for the principle. In the case of new societies, it is proposed that the loans to be granted by the Board should not exceed half the total capital considered by the Board to be necessary for the working of the society or the sum which would be advanced by a willing lender on the security of heritable subjects possessed or acquired by the society. The loan will not exceed the lesser of these amounts. In the case of existing societies, the amount of loan will not exceed half the sum estimated to be spent on the proposed improvements or extensions of the premises and plant.

The second sub-head, M2, relates to agricultural organisation societies. A Note appended to the Board's Estimate for 1923–24 stated that the maximum grant to the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society would not exceed two and a half times the income from other sources. After examination, it has been found inadvisable to fetter the maximum grant in this way. It is now proposed that while a society must make every endeavour to secure income from other sources, the grant from the Board of Agriculture should not be restricted by the foregoing condition. The desirability of encouraging the work of agricultural organisation in Scotland at the present time is generally recognised, and this token sum is inserted under sub-head M2 in order to bring the alteration in the Note on the Estimates for 1923–24 to the notice of Parliament. These two small token Votes raise matters that are very important to agriculture in Scotland, and I hope that the Committee will agree to my having this Vote, because, as I understand it, unless I can get it to-night, it is lost for a considerable time to come. These two matters are of such importance to agriculture that I hope the Members of the Committee will see their way to give me what I am asking.


I was very much interested in the speech, short as it was, of my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland, and I think I can speak for my colleagues in Scotland in saying that we too are anxious that he should get this Vote. We are deeply interested in the co-operative movement in Scotland, and also in the organisation societies. My right hon. Friend said that this is indeed an important subject, and so it is. I can quite realise that, owing to the fact that my right hon. Friend has only recently come into office, he has not been able to give us a fuller account of the work done under these two sub-heads. I am not going to press him for a full account at the present moment, but I will promise him that when the real Estimate comes to be discussed we shall demand a fuller and more complete account of these two important movements. But there is one question I should like to ask him under sub-head M2. I see there is only one organisation society mentioned, the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society. May I ask my right hon. Friend if that is the only organisation of this kind which is receiving a Government grant? I understood there were at least two more of these organisation societies, and I should like my right hon. Friend to explain why it is that this society alone gets so large a grant from the Government, and why other societies, if there are any, do not get a grant at all.


I confess I do not share the satisfaction with the statement of my right hon. Friend who moved this Vote. I am not concerned with regard to the past; nor, in one sense, is he. He is not responsible for it. But I am concerned, and I think everybody interested in agriculture in Scotland is concerned, to know how much money is to be spent in the promotion of agricultural societies and agricultural organisation societies, and also how it is to be spent. There is a general assumption on the part of those who have not had much experience of agriculture, that, to my mind, exaggerates the possibilities of doing good by establishing co-operative societies. All that can be done is to the good. The more that is done the bettor. Undoubtedly it helps, both as regards purchasing and selling, that farmers should combine, and make the best they can in combination as regards the terms for purchases, or as regards the prices they get for their produce. It is often supposed that the difficulties which have hitherto made the progress of agricultural co-operative societies so slow, are on account of some inherent quality in the mind of the farmer which makes him unwilling to combine in any co-operative movement. It is quite true that the farmer is an individualist, but the difficulties are much more serious than that, because I am sure in Scotland, if the farmer were satisfied that the difficulties in connection with co-operation could be satisfactorily overcome, they would be very willing to give it a trial, and to proceed to develop it as far as they possibly could. But the difficulties really are, so far as the question of marketing produce is concerned, dependent on the business conditions which anyone who endeavours to carry out the co-operative movement for the sale of farm produce has to face.

In the first place, the farms are very different in situation, in soil, in climate, in their distance from a market, in the particular markets where they sell their produce, in local markets or in markets at a distance. That creates a really great difficulty in establishing anything like a comprehensive co-operative scheme for dealing with their produce. In addition, it is very difficult to deal with most farm products by pooling them. In the case of milk, the farmers in a district can send it to a creamery or central stores, and it can be tested and valued, and a standard can be fixed which will regulate the distribution of the money received for the common supply of milk. It is also possible, I daresay, to have eggs graded, and prices fixed, which would be satisfactory and fair to the different people who provide them. And, of course, with regard to dairy produce and eggs, there is not the same difficulty with regard to marketing. You can arrange to sell them either in the nearest market or in the most suitable market, which usually, in Scotland, up to now, is not very distant. But when you come to the other products of a farm, you find much greater difficulty. How, for instance, can you pool the potato crop—a very large element of farm produce in Scotland—sell them, and distribute the receipts among the farmers? I do not know whether it has ever been done, and I do not see how it can be done, because the qualities of the different classes of potatoes vary so enormously. The same with regard to beef, mutton and other products, if you are to give satisfaction to the man who is producing the very best quality.

I do not put this forward merely for the purpose of discouraging any effort that can profitably and well be made for dealing with such things as can be marketed by co-operative effort. I rose, in the first place, for the purpose of getting a more complete statement of what the Secretary for Scotland is going to do, how much money he is going to spend, and what effect he thinks it will have on agriculture in Scotland. I do it for another reason also. I would like to impress upon him and the Committee that it is hopeless to base a reform such as is needed to put agriculture in a satisfactory position upon the efforts of co-operation. They will be slow of growth. As everyone connected with the co-operative movement knows, it will take a long time before you can secure the management which is essential to make a scheme of co-operation a success. The subject in Scotland presents so many difficulties that I venture to say the best brains and the best organising minds that can be got for the purpose are needed, and that means dealing with the problem on a large scale. Otherwise you cannot expect to get the business capacity which is necessary to make it a success. That means the co-operative movement must develop gradually, until it reaches a point at which you can hope to secure the right kind of management, and the extensive organisation, and make your arrangements in all the large markets to which your products will have to go on a really big scale.

I would like to say, also, although I cannot develop it, I think, that the first fundamental principle of Scottish agriculture for securing a really well-founded system of general co-operation is that you should give to the farmer security of tenure. He must be assured that if he puts his energy, enterprise and capital into the development of his farm, he will reap the benefit himself, and not be liable to be evicted. Farming is a business, and people cannot reasonably be asked to spend their money, and a large part of their lives, in building up a highly productive concern, in establishing connections for the sale of their products, unless they are insured against the risk of being deprived of all that on which they have spent their money and energy. You must have security of tenure and fair rent, if you are going to pursue farming on business principles. I believe, also, before co-operative farming in Scotland can secure very substantial improvement, you have to get a much more complete system of technical education for those going into farming. At the present time you have colleges, but no schools to which the sons of farmers and other people wishing to take up farming can go, as in other countries, to learn the technique of farming, and get to know what methods are adopted in other parts of the country, or in other countries. If you give a man security of tenure, and give a young Scotsman a thorough technical education, I think you can trust him to get the most out of it. There are other elements in any complete and comprehensive programme for agriculture, but I would not be in order, probably, in pursuing the subject. All I want to say is, that I am disappointed the Secretary for Scotland has not given us more information to enable us to form an idea as to how his scheme is going to work out. I also warn him not to get into his head the idea that he can completely reform the agriculture of Scotland by giving grants to co-operative societies or agricultural organisation societies, however deserving they may be either those which exist, or those which he is going to bring into existence.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir JOHN GILMOUR

I only desire to say a very few word on this Vote, but I should like to assure the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Scotland that I welcome, not only the provision he is making now, but also the general tone in which he addressed himself to this important subject. I can imagine nothing of greater importance to agriculture in Scotland than that we should do what we can to develop what is, perhaps, only one side of the great agricultural industry, but to those of us who, for a number of years, have been working hard to try and spread the knowledge of agricultural organisation, and what it might mean, particularly to the smallholders in our county, it is indeed most refreshing and encouraging to find that the somewhat hampering restrictions that have hitherto been made on grants should now, in a Measure, be removed. May I say, in regard to that, that this is, as I know from personal knowledge, largely the outcome of the work of a late Member of this House, the much respected and lamented late president of the Organisation Society. His work for agriculture, and, indeed, for many other things in Scotland, is known to Scottish Members, and I am sure it is only right that such work should be acknowledged. I have listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Forfar (Mr. Falconer) has said with regard to the difficulties of spreading agricultural organisations. All the same, those of us who are interested in this subject mean to pursue the policy, and it is because we welcome that, that I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman upon this present Motion.


I want to thank hon. Members, and particularly the Scottish Members of the Committee, for the restraint they have put upon themselves in order that we may get this Vote to-night. There are one or two criticisms, however, that were made and one or two questions asked to which I should like to reply. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) asked me if there was only one agricultural organisation society which was to be given the benefit of the grant. That is so, because, I understand, there is only one agricultural organisation society in Scotland. I understand that the Smallholders' Organisation Society is now defunct. My hon. Friend the Member for Forfar (Mr. Falconer) complained that I had not given sufficient information on certain matters, and asked how much money was to be spent on the development of the particular ideas to which he referred. I cannot tell him how much money will be spent at the moment; that will be provided for in a later Estimate. I trust we shall be able to get a substantial amount, for I am convinced that the development of the ideal referred to is one that will be welcomed in agriculture. My hon. Friend went on to deal with the necessity of developing co-operation in agriculture with a view to securing the best results. I agree. I think that in agriculture it is desirable for the best brains to be put into any scheme of co-operation and organisation, and I think that the agricultural communities are able to produce sufficient business capacity to make the co-operative ideal a success in agriculture just as it has been in other matters. He also suggested that in order to make agriculture successful we should have security of tenure. I agree; but that raises a different question, and a question that does not arise on the Vote that we are now busy with. He then went on to say further on that point—


Has my right hon. Friend nothing to say about security of tenure?


All that I want to say further in answer to questions is that I am as anxious as hon. Members can possibly be that the farmer shall have security of tenure.


I hope not only for farmers. What about the working men?


That raises a different matter.


I think the right hon. Gentleman must not pursue that subject.


The subject is an important one, but I bow to your ruling; and I can only hope that the Vote for which I am asking to-night will help those concerned. I think that is all the points that have been raised, but Major Entwistle, with your permission, I should like, in addition to what I have said, to make an intimation here that I consider to be of importance to agriculture in Scotland—to a portion of Scotland. Numerous questions have been put to me, and a deputation approached me as to what we were prepared to do in the way of meeting the need for seed-oats and seed-potatoes of the people who live in the Highlands and Islands, due to the distress that has arisen in consequence of two or three bad years, and the consequent destitution and poverty which exists. Unless seed is provided a greater disaster will follow. Hon. Members will perhaps remember what I have already said, that the Treasury have consented to grant—


Is this in order on a Supplementary Estimate?


On a point of Older. I submit that my right hon. Friend is perfectly entitled to speak about this matter, which is a very important one. What is the good of talking about co-operation if there is no seed to co-operate with next year?


If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will restrain himself for just a few minutes I shall be finished. I have intimated that the Treasury have consented to supply seed-oats and seed-potatoes at £1 a ton less than the cost, plus the cost of transit. Since then representations have been made to me, and I have made inquiries that have convinced me that that is not sufficient. I have made further representations to the Treasury on the question, and I am very glad to say that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has informed me within the last few minutes that an Estimate for the coming year of £100,000 for the supply of seed-oats and seed-potatoes for the people of the Highland and Islands has been agreed to. I know, Sir, that I was not strictly within the limits of my Vote, but it was very important that the people should know at the earliest possible moment the announcement I have made, and I have taken advantage of this Vote to make the intimation.


May I, on behalf of the Scottish Members—if not out of order—take this opportunity of expressing our thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said.


Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us where be considers the Highlands stop?

Question put, and agreed to.