§ MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £2,958,010, 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 Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, including Loans to Agricultural Co-operative Societies, Grants for Agricultural Education and Research, Grants-in-Aid of the Small Holdings Account and the Cattle Pleuro-Pneumonia Account for Great Britain, and certain other Grants-in-Aid; and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
§ The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Noel Buxton)
The Estimate for which I now desire to obtain the sanction of the Committee aims at accomplishing two purposes. One is in connection with the monies due on account of compensation for foot-and-mouth disease, and the other is to make preparation for the grant of loans to farmers' co-operative societies. The expenditure relating to foot-and-mouth disease has been discussed at some length during the last 10 days, and I only wish in connection with it to announce some further facts, but in connection with the second proposal, for which a token Vote appears in the Supplementary Estimate, I desire to say a few words. At the outset, however, the Committee may like to hear the latest figures in regard to foot-and-mouth disease. The total number of outbreaks up to and including 27th February is 2,759, and they have involved an estimated gross sum for compensation of £2,989,000. The amount actually paid out up to 24th February is £2,088,000. The money to enable those payments to be made has been obtained as to £1,750,000 from the Local Taxation Accounts under Section 18 of the Diseases of Animals Act, 1894, and as to £400,000 by way of advances from the Treasury from the Civil Contingencies 740 Fund, pending the passing of this Supplementary Vote. The remaining £83,000 has been obtained from balances in hand at the commencement of the outbreaks.
I have one announcement to make which will interest the Committee, and which I have only been able to make since yesterday, and that is in regard to the Committee for research, the formation of which I adumbrated last week. I am glad to be able to tell the Committee that the following gentlemen have agreed to serve:
—I regret to say no relation of mine, for I should be very proud to have one so distinguished—
- Chairman, Sir Charles Sherrington, G.B.E., President of the Royal Society.
- Dr. J. A. Arkwright, of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine.
- Dr. W. Bulloch, F.R.S., Professor of Bacteriology, University of London.
- Professor J. B. Buxton, Director, Institute for Research in Animal Pathology, Cambridge—
The terms of reference are as follow:—
- Captain S. R. Douglas, F.R.S., Director of the Bacteriology Department, National Institute for Medical Research.
- S. H. Gaiger, Esq., F.R.C.V.S., Animals' Diseases Research Association, Glasgow.
- Sir John McFadyean, Principal and Professor of Comparative Pathology, Royal Veterinary College.
- Professor C. J. Martin, F.R.S., Director of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine.
- Professor Robert Muir, F.R.S., Professor of Pathology, University of Glasgow.
- Sir Stewart Stockman, Chief Veterinary Officer, Ministry of Agriculture.
- Mr. H. G. Richardson and Mr. W. G. Wragg of the Ministry of Agriculture will act as Secretaries.To initiate, direct and conduct investigations into foot-and-mouth disease, either in this country or elsewhere, with the view of discovering means whereby the invasions of the disease may be rendered less harmful to agriculture.4.0 P.M.
I am sure the Committee will agree with me that we are very fortunate in having secured such a body of distinguished 741 gentlemen to deal with this question. As to the second item in the Supplementary Estimate, namely, that referring to co-operation, the object which we have in view is to undertake a new method of helping farmers' societies. Whereas in the past propaganda in this matter has been assisted by grant, the object now is to assist it by loan. At present we are dealing only with a token Vote, because there will probably be no expenditure this year and the main provision of £200,000 is included in the Estimates for 1924–25. It is just possible, however, that something might be spent in this year, and it was thought proper to insert a token Vote, so that the principle involved in this new form of action might be approved by Parliament. I would like very much, if I could, to interest the whole House in this new form of proposal to help farmers who want to combine. As everyone knows, this Government works within limitations which are rather severe, but this is one of the things that I think we can do with the approval of the whole House. The word "co-operation" has been used perhaps ad nauseam in connection with agriculture. I was myself, rather more than 20 years ago, on the Committee of the Agricultural Organisation Society, and I know very well how farmers regard it. I think a more correct expression to use is that we are giving assistance to combinations. We want to help farmers to combine in a way that they understand, and in whatever way they think best appropriate for the purpose that they have in view, and particularly, I think, in connection with marketing. We, on these benches, may be of opinion that there are other ways in which we could help farmers still more, but those we are not at liberty to pursue. Personally, I think, that public trading by methods adopted during the War would be of very great help to farmers. I should be out of order if I went into that matter. Wheat control, I think, would be a very great benefit to them. The Chairman, however, will not allow me to pursue that method. My point is that we have selected the proposal which is most likely to have general support, and which will be of the most benefit to farmers on the whole, especially in many parts of England where the need for combination has been felt, as has been lately 742 pointed out with great force by the Linlithgow Committee.
Hon. Members are familiar, to a great extent, with the cogent arguments as to the somewhat unnecessary spread which exists in regard to many kinds of agricultural produce between the price received by the producer and the price paid by the unfortunate consumer. We have rather more middlemen and rather higher middlemen's profits in this country than prevail in some other countries. We want to help farmers to eat a little into those profits in so far as they are not necessary. Nobody says that the middleman has not got his use, or that he should not have his legitimate profit. Perhaps I need not dwell on these matters, because the Linlithgow Committee has made them known. If you could, by greater combination, bring down the cost of production, you would not only be helping the farmer, but you would be helping the consumer, and you would be helping, also, the farm labourer, because you would help to bring under cultivation land which at present it does not pay to plough.
There are two ways in which you might be able to deal with the trouble of inefficient marketing. Some of us here would like to see more power taken for local bodies to establish municipal markets. That is a form of Socialism which has, I think, supporters among all parties, in the House, and even among my hon. Friends on my right. But for the present that is not practicable. The other possible method is that of voluntary combination, and it is that we want to help in connection with this Vote. Nobody, not even my hon. and learned Friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Sir L. Scott), who, I believe, will succeed me, contends that it is the panacea for all the troubles of the farmer, but it may go a long way in some parts of this country. We are always being told about Denmark. Everybody realises that conditions in Denmark are very different from our own. The Danish farmer must export if he wants to sell, and it is far easier to organise combinations for an export trade than it is for a trade which has innumerable outlets in great towns, which exist close to the farmers in this country in an unparalleled degree. Exporters must combine. But you do find that the industrial countries of Europe are taking 743 to combination very much more than our farmers have yet done. Belgium, a highly industrial country, does very much more than we do, and of course, the other countries of Europe which are less industrial have long ago organised themselves in associated bodies to get the advantage of other markets. In England, very great progress has been made since 20 years ago, when I served on the Agricultural Organisation Society, and everyone recognises the splendid work that has been done by some Members of this House. I hope that some of them will speak in the Debate to-day. In England, progress has been made with regard to co-operative insurance, but not much in regard to credits. Let us hope that with the Agricultural Credits Act which we passed last year we shall get a move on in that direction. We are not, however, dealing with that matter, and must not pursue it now, because this Vote is aimed at another proposal.
I should just like to explain the proposal. On 12th February the Prime Minister mentioned that the Government intended to support co-operative enterprises controlled by farmers, and especially trading and marketing bodies. The Linlithgow Committee alluded to the great opening that existed for such undertakings, and urged the need for State assistance to societies engaged in the sale, preparation or manufacture of farm products by providing advances towards capital expenditure on buildings, land, plant, or equipment. The Committee also urged that there should be at the Ministry a Standing Advisory Committee to deal with applications for advances to these societies, and said that the Committee should consist of people with knowledge of agricultural conditions, and also experience in finance and commerce. I propose to adopt both those recommendations, and I hope very soon to be able to announce the composition of the proposed Advisory Committee. The terms and conditions will be settled after discussion with the proposed Committee, but, in general, I can give the Committee to-day some idea of the plan proposed.
Firstly, the societies will be registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, and they will have, for their object, such agricultural purposes 744 as the Ministry might approve. Their capital must be mainly subscribed by farmers. Subscribers would take shares, of which 5s. at least must be paid up, and the rate of interest would be limited to 5 per cent.
Secondly, in the case of existing societies, loans would be made only for the purpose of improving or extending premises and plant, and they would not exceed half the sum required for such improvements. In the case of new societies, the Ministry would advance not more than half the total capital considered by the Ministry to be necessary to work the society with efficiency, or than the amount of share capital subscribed by the farmers, whichever might be less. In no case—this is an alteration which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has sanctioned since my time began—would an advance to such a society be more than £10,000. The previous decision was £5,000.
Thirdly, interest would be charged on these loans at 5 per cent., and the loans would be repayable by instalments over a period of 20 years or less. The first payment might be deferred, say, for 2½ years, so as to enable the society to have sufficient time to get established. The Ministry would, of course, impose certain conditions as to the audit of the accounts and their right to inspect books or to appoint a representative on the committee of management.
There might, of course, be larger undertakings which would need more money, and the Act under which they would be dealt with would be the Trade Facilities Act. While, under this scheme, advances would be limited to £10,000, there might very well be agricultural concerns which could go to the Committee under the Trade Facilities Act and get larger amounts. I am sure that that Board of Trade Committee will be very glad indeed to receive applications under that head. It is possible that some hon. Members may doubt whether farmers will be inclined to take advantage of this kind of help. There is a doubt as to what amount of success has been met with in the past by agricultural co-operative societies. My view is that we cannot attempt to impose the co-operative system or any other system upon the farmers from above. The idea of this plan is to let them build them up from below, and it 745 may well be that many societies will be started, as they have been in the past, without wanting to come to the State for help at all. It seems to me to be a very appropriate form of action for the State to go out of its way to offer financial help to bodies which would be of great value to the farmer and to the public. Therefore, the Government has decided that its stimulation of this form of combination should be by way of loan to those who have shown that they want to help themselves rather than by propaganda. I hope that the National Farmers' Union, which has now begun to enter into economic action—for instance, with regard to contracts for sugar beet—will be inclined to take up this form of help, and also, perhaps, that the Industrial Co-operative Movement will take a very great interest in the idea of bringing together the organised consumers and the organised producers.
There is one other proposal which I wish to adopt from the Linlithgow recommendations, and that is the appointment of advisory marketing officers. Some form of assistance is absolutely necessary for those who want to form co-operative societies. I had a hand once in forming a society among the tenants of two properties, and I could see that in adopting the rules and getting the legal and other formalities out of the way some advice is absolutely necessary. I hope that these advisory officers will find that they are in request and that their help is valued by the farmers. These advisory officers will make it their business to encourage the establishment of co-operative enterprises by farmers and to provide technical advice and assistance. They will do that as part of the educational work of the Ministry, which, as we know, takes so many forms.
Before concluding my remarks, I would like just to indicate the kind of enterprises which I have most in view. We have seen lately in the papers accounts of two or three bacon factories. There is one that I know in Hertfordshire, which I do not think has got into the papers, but it is a very successful concern. I mean the Hitchin bacon factory. They have been of enormous value to several hundred farmers, and they have paid seven per cent., which is not so bad, considering there was a bonus as well. We have in view bacon factories, milk 746 collecting depots, and creameries, of which hon. Members will remember that the first interim Report of the Agricultural Tribunal of Investigation last year so cogently showed the need. They pointed out, I remember, the increasing production of fresh milk in this country and the great need of methods of dealing with the growing surplus of milk, which has become a serious problem, and I trust that many societies will be assisted to deal with that matter.
§ Mr. BUXTON
Yes, by loan. The Tribunal pointed out that the prevention of wastage or loss through this surplus milk lay in the plan of associations of farmers putting up milk collecting depots at local centres, that where a farm is not big enough to go in for the manufacture of milk products on the individual farm, such societies would help them to put up suitable plant, and that there was a good market in the conversion of surplus milk into dried milk, preserved milk, butter, or cheese. Some of these societies have already been started, often as the outcome of the dairy schools which the Ministry has assisted in so many counties, and we may at least hope that some successful invasions will be made into the colossal import of milk products which we buy now from abroad—namely, about half our butter and nearly three million cwt. of cheese, valued at £15,000,000, and over two million cwt. of condensed milk, valued at £6,000,000, making a vast field which there is a chance of cutting, into. Roughly, the same financial proportions apply to our consumption of bacon. We are importing about 50 per cent. of the pig flesh products consumed in this country, so that there is plenty of room for development on that line.
There are signs, also, in connection with marketing, grading, and packing in the fruit industry, and with egg collecting, of a very rapid adoption of more up-to-date methods of collection and marketing. We all know that things have got to move slowly. It is no good supposing that sudden changes will take place, especially in the country, where we all fall into a more conservative frame of mind than sometimes is the case in the towns. These things will move by degrees, and I only hope that we have 747 struck a method by which genuine help will be given to practical people to work out things in their own way.
The Ministry will help in connection with bacon factories by its work for improving the breed of pigs. Several factories have come up against the difficulty of the excessive variety of pigs which are brought to the factory. That has to be dealt with, and it will take time, but things are moving, and we may see before very long the extraordinary economy that some of us have seen in Denmark, where they combine milk production with bacon production and run separated milk in a continuous stream from dairy to pig-house, reducing to extraordinary cheapness the production both of bacon and of milk products. I hope to see that economy in this country too. Egg collecting will follow, I hope, on the same lines. I have I think sufficiently indicated the sort of ideas which we have in mind, and I trust that no great flaws can be found in them, and that I shall have general support. I think we may really hope that we shall be able to stimulate a change of method which will be of general value to the farmer, to the labourer, and to the public.
§ Sir L. SCOTT
I think we shall all agree that the Minister has put forward proposals which will gain general assent from the different parties in this House. The proposals have been put forward in a laudably non-party spirit, and they are essentially non-party proposals. They are proposals, therefore, which we can all approach from the point of view of the interests of the industry itself as a whole, without consideration of any party predilections. I should like at once to say that I regret the absence to-day from our counsels of the right hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Acland), who succeeded me some two years ago, when I became a Law Officer, as leader of the agricultural co-operative movement, and who was particularly anxious to be present to-day. I am sure that all hon. Members will feel deep sympathy in the cause of his absence from this Debate. The proposals that are made are in essence an extension of the principle of the Trade Facilities Act, applied to the form of business combination which is suitable, and is alone suitable 748 to the agricultural industry It is impossible really to appreciate the proposals that are made, taken merely by themselves, and I, therefore, welcome the general expressions of opinion on the subject of agricultural co-operation which have fallen from the lips of the Minister.
It is impossible to form an opinion as to whether these proposals are good or bad without forming a perfectly definite opinion on the subject of agricultural co-operation. This is, I think, in the technical language of the House, a New Service that is down in this token Vote, and consequently the Committee has a little larger liberty of discussion than on an ordinary Supplementary Estimate. That is fortunate because the decision as to whether these proposals are on right or on wrong lines must depend very much on the view one takes of agricultural co-operation. I very much agree with the Minister's expression that co-operation is not a panacea for the ills of agriculture. It is essentially a method, and a method which is one amongst many methods, by which the industry can be helped. Those who are not actively concerned in agricultural co-operation rather than those who are, have used the word, I think, in an exaggerated way. It is like that blessed word Mesopotamia in the mouth of some, and I think much harm has been done to what is, as the Minister said, the cause of agricultural combination, by exaggerated attribution to the system of agricultural co-operation of results which it cannot achieve. But although it is very easy to exaggerate, although those of us who have been actively concerned in co-operation have always deprecated exaggeration, it is none the less a very important factor in the limited sphere in which it can be useful.
Those Members who are particularly interested in industrial co-operation will be the first to realise that agricultural co-operation has many points of difference, and that when we are discussing agricultural co-operation we must not be understood as implying either praise or criticism of the methods of industrial co-operation. We know that industrial co-operation has served a great purpose in our community, and with that, I think, we can leave it out of this Debate for the time being; but agricultural co-operation is, I venture to think, the only means by which the small farmers of 749 England and Wales can be brought into commercial combination. Agriculture essentially consists of two quite separate avocations. It is farming and it is business. A man may be a good farmer and a bad man of business. A man may be able, as a small farmer, to farm well, but yet, standing only on the commercial basis of his small farm, he may be quite incapable, however much business instinct he may have, of achieving successful business results by reason of his very smallness. In that respect, my own view is that agricultural co-operation, the combination of farmers on the business side of agriculture for commercial purposes, is the only way there is—and I say that deliberately—of keeping the small man on the land. Those who happen not to have examined the statistics closely do not as a rule realise what a very high percentage of the farmers of this country are small men. I took out the figures to-day from the last agricultural returns, just to see what they are, because they are vital to the consideration of this question of agricultural co-operation.
There are altogther 414,000 agricultural holdings of over one acre. Of these, 66 per cent. are under 50 acres, 88 per cent. are under 150 acres, and 97 per cent. are under 300 acres. A farm of from 150 to 300 acres, from the farming point of view, may be regarded as a substantial little farm, but from the business point of view, the man who runs a farm even up to 300 acres is a small man, and, on the business side of farming, I say that 97 per cent. of our farmers are small men. In these days of commercial and industrial combination, when every trade dealing in things that the farmer wants to buy is combined into large commercial units, when every trade that wants to buy the things the farmer produces is equally combined—as, for instance, the millers, to take an example—it is essential, if the farmer wishes to bargain on terms of equality, that he should put himself in a position of comparable strength with the combinations with which he has to deal. That principle has been realised to the full in the industrial co-operative movement, and it is vitally necessary that the farmer, if he is to remain an independent man on the soil of this country, and not give place to a series of largo factory farms, should combine with his fellows for buying what he requires and 750 selling what he produces on a large scale. If you think of it, the joint stock method of combination is inevitably inappropriate. You cannot make it work, and, at the same time, keep the farmer, whether he owns his farm, or whether he is a tenant farmer, on the soil, running the farm as his own farm. The only alternative to the co-operative system is that of large factory farms run by limited liability companies, owning and cultivating large areas of land, and displacing the individual farmer as an independent man upon the farm, and managing it by means of a comparatively small number of managers.
Therefore, if we value—as I, for one, value immensely—the contribution to the strength and health of our national fabric, so to speak, made by the existence upon the soil of a sturdy race of independent small farmers—and it is a view in which all parties in this House can agree—it follows necessarily and inevitably that you must adopt this system of agricultural co-operation, because there is no other method by which they can carry on their business. That is the true position, as I see it, of agricultural co-operation, the necessity for the management of their business on terms of equality with other businesses in these days of hard competition. It will not get over agricultural depression. It will not, by itself, produce a large margin of profit which the farmer sees to-day going into other pockets. I doubt whether these large margins are easily available, and the last Report of the Linlithgow Committee, I venture to think, is extraordinarily sane in the views that it expresses on the possibility of economies by means of co-operation. How much the profits are in the wholesale trade, how much the profits are in the distributing trade before you get to the retailer, who is next to the consumer, it is impossible to say, but that Committee has expressed the opinion—and I see no reason to quarrel with it—that those profits can easily be exaggerated. While not asserting that co-operation is a panacea, while not asserting it can do everything, on the other hand, I think it is important to realise that it is a very valuable aid to the business side of agriculture, and that it ought to contribute, if properly developed, substantially to the farmer's income.
751 Looking at it from that point of view, I venture to say that it is a sound policy that Parliament should do what it can to encourage agricultural co-operation, and that the proposals made to-day, being proposals which, undoubtedly, will be of assistance in that direction, should therefore be welcomed. Comparison with Denmark and other foreign countries where co-operation has flourished is often made, and it is said, if it can be done in Denmark, it can be done here. That is true, but it is also untrue. The circumstances are different. In a country where agriculture depends entirely for its market on export, the farmers are driven, by an economic lever they cannot resist, to combine together in order to bulk, grade and market their goods for export purposes in the only way they can be marketed, namely, by combination. In this country we have not got that lever. That lever is absent, too, in the United States, but I think here we suffer from additional difficulties which are absent from the United States, for many of our farmers in this country are men whose forbears have cultivated the same farm, and there is a conservatism of practice—I use the word "conservatism" with a small "c"; I make the other parties a present of the small "c"—a conservatism of practice that makes it very difficult for them to adopt new methods, and an independence and individualism of mind that make it extraordinarily hard for them to combine. And, by reason of the difference between the home market and the export market, it is much less easy for them to see the necessity, from a business point of view, of making the combination, which often, at first sight—indeed invariably from time to time—presents the appearance of an immediate sacrifice. It is very difficult to forego the catch-bargain, and not go against your society when you get the opportunity of a slightly additional profit by being disloyal to your society.
Those facts are relevant to this Debate, and for this reason. Co-operation in this country is still essentially in an educational stage, and this House ought to bear in mind it is in an educational stage, and therefore consider proposals to help it as semi-educational proposals. I regard these proposals as having, to some extent, that characteristic, and, from 752 that point of view I very much welcome them. I think co-operation has made some progress during the last 20 years. To-day there are, including allotment holders, 175,000 members in the societies affiliated to the central body, the Agricultural Organisation Society, and there was a total turnover of £11,000,000 in 1922, and considerable progress has been made. But those of us who have been actively concerned in the movement have been faced with the difficulty of a vicious circle. The farmer has always been saying, "If you can show me what you can do for me, I will then give the support and put up the capital," to which the answer from the Society manager or Committee has been, "If you will give us your capital and support, we will then be in a position to show you what we can do." That is a reason why loans of this kind from the Government are particularly useful at the present time. I do not want to look a gift horse in the mouth in any way, or criticise it. As the proposal has been put forward, I regard it as wholly good, but I would like to say one or two things by way of question as to the limitations proposed. I think we can take it that the knowledge of industrial and commercial business possessed by the farmers of this country as a whole is not yet so advanced as to make it likely that all societies given loans of this kind will use that money successfully and wisely without further advice. Our own experience, at the A.O.S. undoubtedly, is that such societies fairly often want additional advice, and are liable to go wrong unless they get it—the technical advice of those who understand the running of milk depots, and so on—technical advisers who can give their advice, and do give it, and for which very grateful letters of appreciation are continually being received by the society in consequence of the success attending the following of their advice. In many cases the success is very striking. The right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) is a critic of agricultural co-operation, but if he desires them at any time, I can show him very remarkable instances.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
No; I was rather fearing my right hon. Friend was suggesting that the Ministry of Agriculture could teach farmers how to farm.
§ Sir L. SCOTT
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the very last thing that I, and, I believe, any of my friends on these benches, would desire. We take the view that farming is much more likely to be successful if farmers do it themselves, and I, for one, deprecate any unnecessary interference by a Government Department in the management of their business. I do not deprecate the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry of Agriculture does extraordinarily valuable work for the farming community, but I do not think the farmers want to be managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. This is the sort of letter we get as showing the need of following up advances of money with advice. The Lincolnshire Co-operative Bacon Factory started without expert advice, and later asked the A.O.S. for it, and got it, and were put right, whereupon the chairman wrote:I wish we had got in touch with you sooner; we would have saved a lot of money.That is the sort of thing that we are experiencing. As regards the particular proposal made, I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that the limit of advance would be £10,000. If that be so, I would ask him to reconsider that limit. I believe that for a £500 a week factory, which is the minimum size of factory likely to pay, the minimum cost of setting it up is £25,000. The Minister will not treat me as an expert on these figures. I merely ask him to give us the opportunity of going into this question, and to say to the House that the limit which is indicated will not be treated as an absolutely rigid limit, if he be satisfied that the sum to invest for an economic concern is rather larger. As regards the rate of interest, money on the security indicated, that is to say, half of the total capital invested on the security of a mortgage on the concern when constructed, could, I should have thought, be obtained to-day from the banks, on terms which are competitive with the 5 per cent. offered by the Minister. When the Credit Bill was in this House on Second Reading, on behalf of the co-operative societies, I said I thought the proposed rate of interest asked for then would kill the scheme. It has proved so, practically. Consequently the Government have recently said that they will find the money at a half per cent. above the bank rate—
§ Sir L. SCOTT
At the bank rate. A prohibitive rate of interest might very easily kill this scheme, and that again is a matter which I ask the right hon. Gentleman carefully to reconsider. In the White Paper I observe that loans are to be made for the acquisition, extension, improvement, and equipment of premises. Did I understand the Minister in his speech to say that loans might, under certain circumstances, be made for working capital?
§ Sir L. SCOTT
That may be very useful in certain cases, though as a general rule I cannot help feeling that the working capital should be found by the farmers. I think these are the only criticisms that we on this side desire at the moment to make on the proposals themselves that have been made; but there is one point which is important, and that is that under the Industrial Provident Societies Act the limit that any individual can invest in a concern is £200. That was the limit imposed in 1893 when the purchasing power of money was much higher than it is to-day. I would suggest to the Minister that the question of that limit is one that deserves consideration.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. A. V. Alexander)
I would suggest that the hon. and learned Gentleman should support the Bill dealing with that subject.
§ Sir L. SCOTT
I am sure if it be limited to that proposal the hon. Gentleman may count upon my support. There is one other question which is vitally necessary in connection with the sort of agricultural society contemplated by these advances. The societies concerned are societies dealing with products. The essence of the success of a factory of the kind is that it should be able absolutely to rely upon a continuous supply of contracts. Again, I am not expressing any legal opinion on the subject of contracts by members of the societies to give their society the whole of their output, as is done in Denmark, but the point is one which requires consideration from the legal point of view, on account of a decision of the House of Lords some two or three years ago. I should ask the Minister to 755 have an open mind as to whether or not any relaxation of the stringency of the law against contracts "in restraint of trade"—so called by lawyers—is required in connection with this matter. Lastly—and this is merely a note of caution—it is not enough in these matters of advancing money to groups of farmers to encourage them to set up a factory, or whatever the institution may be, without the most elaborate consideration both as to the permanent sources of supply that that factory may count upon and as to the very best means of carrying it on. The whole subject is one bristling with technical difficulties. I ask that the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the great importance in this matter of calling in both the best agricultural brains in the agricultural community and also the best available expert advice in order that these concerns, established by money granted under these grants, may prove successful. With these few words I desire, from this side, to welcome these proposals.
§ Mr. HERBERT FISHER
I do not now propose to travel, nor, indeed, am I qualified to travel, over the wide field of suggestions and proposals contained in the interesting speech of the Minister of Agriculture. I rise for the purpose of making one suggestion, and one suggestion only, to the right hon. Gentleman. In the earlier part of his speech he announced the composition of a Committee which he is about to set up to investigate foot-and-mouth disease. It was a very distinguished Committee, and will servo under a very distinguished Chairman. The right hon. Gentleman is certainly to be congratulated on securing the assistance of so many eminent men of science. I doubt, however, whether the reference to this Committee is sufficiently wide, and I would make a suggestion in this matter that the right hon. Gentleman should reconsider the reference. It appears to me that the Committee will, under the terms of reference which he had announced, be precluded from considering two points to which I think they should be invited to direct their attention. The first is the source of the infection and the second is the ratio between the number of veterinary experts in this country and the livestock in this country.
756 The second of these points is, I think, a point of some importance. I had occasion, not very long ago, when considering the needs of the veterinary department of one of the Universities which I represent here, to go into the figure of the supply of veterinary surgeons in this country in relation to the livestock of the country. I was very much impressed by the fact that Britain, which leads the world as a producer and breeder of stock, should be, in the matter of veterinary surgeons, so far behind other countries with smaller financial and economic interests in the breeding of live-stock. It would be well, I think, if the Committee which the right hon. Gentleman is about to establish should be asked to report on this aspect of the case.
§ Mr. ROYCE
I should like to join with the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating the Minister on the steps he is taking in the matter of promoting co-operation amongst agriculturists. The farmer is undoubtedly an individualist. The right hon. Gentleman will have a very considerable amount of difficulty, I am quite sure, in bringing co-operation into active operation amongst the farmers of this country. The farmer, as I have said, is an individualist. In 99 cases out of 100 the most successful of the farmers is the greatest obstacle to the introduction of anything in the nature of an innovation. Since these men have tremendous local influence the difficulties of the Ministry are greatly increased, and the right hon. Gentleman must realise what he is up against at the present time when limited liability has become a business habit in this country followed by the transformation of limited liability companies into trusts and combines, which, as a natural consequence, has sounded the death knell of individualist effort in the matter of the sale of any product. I am rather surprised to find my right hon. Friend on the opposite side so thoroughly converted to a system of collectivism. It strikes me as being rather remarkable, coming from that side of the House; it is nevertheless welcome. The farmer, then, acting in his individual capacity, cannot hope to compete with the rings, trusts and combines with which he is met in every possible direction. Everything he has to buy he has to buy from an organisation of that kind. It does not matter what it is, whether it be his agricultural machinery or what not. A few 757 years ago a farmer could get from an agricultural engineering firm one of their particular types of plough. To-day you have the ring. The same remark applies to manures and to practically everything the farmer has to buy. The same thing occurs in a greater or a lesser degree with everything a farmer has to sell! Things of this kind are up against him in every possible direction, so that anything the Minister can do in the direction of—
§ Mr. ROYCE
I am not suggesting how he is going to break the rings. That is a subject which raises some doubt in my mind as to what the Minister will accomplish. It is the immediate benefit with which I am concerned; that is what I wish to speak about in connection with the proposals of the Minister. The immediate benefit to agriculture seems to me to be rather more remote than the great majority of us wish. I want to be perfectly frank. I hoped when the Minister came into the House with proposals to benefit agriculture that he would propose something more heroic than what he has put before us to-day. He suggests that he may bring inferior land under cultivation and he talks of benefit to the farmer and the agricultural labourer. I am not quite sure which is the prospect of benefit to the latter—and he seems to me to be the man who ought to receive the greatest possible consideration at the present time. When I hear of regular wages for dock labourers; when I hear of regular weekly payments in other directions; when I contemplate the amount that these people hope to receive—and have a perfect right to receive; I am tremendously impressed at the position of some of the casual agricultural labourers in our villages. Many of them are receiving, and have been receiving, during this last winter not more than an average of 15s. per week. I should have liked that these proposals should contain something that would have benefited that class, and have benefited them immediately. I do not want to go outside the discussion—I am quite sure I should be pulled up if I did; but that is really one of the troubles that presses on my mind in connection with the agricultural problem and the agricultural situation in this country.
All these schemes are good, excellent, notwithstanding what the right hon. 758 Gentleman opposite said—and he has tremendous knowledge of this subject—but I say that a great many of the proposals are only some slight enlargement of the work that he has been associated with for a good many years, and he has not made very large progress with it. That is the worst feature. I notice that some of the proposals have been practically carried into effect. The Agricultural Organisation Society sent expert men throughout the length and breadth of the country, capable men, with instructions to organise their friends the farmers and to promote Co-operative Societies, but on his own statement to-day he has not got very far. Though, as I said before, I welcome the proposals made by the Minister I must at the same time express my regret that the proposals are not of the nature that will confer immediate benefit on the agriculturist. There are arable areas—and it is arable areas which are in the greatest need at the present time—where the farmers can manage fairly well, but on the lighter lands it is a very great problem indeed. I do hope the Minister will regard his present proposals only as an experiment leading up to what he will do in the immediate future. I hope he will bring forward proposals which will have a more immediate effect on the farmer, and especially on the agricultural labourer. He has our very best wishes, and everything personally that I can do to forward his proposals will be not only a pleasure but a duty. While expressing that, I hope that something in the nature of proposals that will confer benefit on that section of the agricultural community, the agricultural labourers, who are suffering perhaps more than any other class of workers in this country, will be brought forward.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
Rather agreeing with my hon. Friend who has just sat down, that the proposals of the Minister of Agriculture to-day are only little ones, I still welcome them so far as they go. I do not think they will remedy the agricultural depression in the arable areas. As far as I can understand them, however, the Minister's proposals are destined more or less to help those who help themselves. If that be so, personally and as an individualist, I welcome them. It is common knowledge to those of us who live on the land, sell 759 our produce in country places, and see the prices that have to be paid for that produce by the consumer in the large centres of population, that there is an enormous disparity in the prices. Where the farmer is hit and where the labourer is hit is that the farmer has to sell at the cheapest price and the labourer has to buy at the dearest price. The farmer is only able to pay a low wage, and the labourer has to buy with that low wage provisions and other necessaries of life at a very high figure. I understand the proposals of the Ministry of Agriculture are designed in some degree to eliminate the middleman. The middlemen have been engaged in a war orgy of profit, and have not got back to normal. The middlemen in this country are not, like the agriculturists, subject to foreign competition. One has to remember, however, that they are charged very heavy rates and taxes which they have to put on the prices of the produce they sell. If the Government would turn their attention in that direction, and reduce rates and taxes, I would be very grateful. More than that, may I suggest to the Minister of Agriculture that if these co-operative societies are to be made a success, we want some reduction of railway rates. Railway charges to-day are very high and very hampering, especially in the West of England.
We are told often that the farmer is backward. I really must protest, as I have protested here before, against any reflections on the business capacity of the general run of farmers. There are some poor farmers, as there are some poor business men, but the farmers as a whole stand out well as good business men; otherwise they would not have produced the finest stock in the world. I have noticed that all those people who are able to tell the farmers how to manage their business are not able to manage farms profitably themselves. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that, in making those proposals of agricultural co-operation, he should consult the Farmers' Union. Do not let him imagine that the heads of the Farmers' Union are not very fine business men. I met the President of the Farmers' Union the other day, and I was immensely impressed by his business capacity. I doubt if there are many men of greater business capacity than the 760 present President of the Farmers' Union. He pointed out to me the difficulties of co-operation. This question of distribution depends so much upon management. The consumers in these days require so much; they require mutton chops brought to their doors one by one, and their eggs and everything delivered. It is the middlemen who supply the consumer. If co-operation is to be a success, it must be managed well. The real difficulty is to get good managers for those co-operative societies. If an individual middleman or shopkeeper sustains a loss, he has to suffer it himself, but if the manager of a co-operative society incurs a loss, it falls on the society.
I would like the Minister to give us, if he is able to do so, some particulars about the Danish methods of co-operation. I understand that the Danish agriculturists export to this country very largely, under a system that is a very different system from that of our farmers, who sell individually. The farmers are individualists, and the most successful farmers are the most rigid individualists. After all is said and done, that is only natural. Has the Minister any information in his Department about the Danish method of co-operation? What are the costs of production? What are the wages paid? What are the taxes and rates paid by the Danish agriculturists compared with our farmers? The Minister suggested something about a Committee of the Board of Agriculture. I am very suspicious if we are to have more officials of any Department created. I am not sure that we have not got far too many at the present moment. The difficulty about officials is that they must find some work for themselves to do.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
I beg your pardon. I think the Minister said that he proposed to appoint a Committee of the Board of Agriculture to work out those co-operative plans. If that be so, I submit, with great respect, that my suggestion to him is in order. I understand the interest on the money lent is to be 5 per cent. My suggestion to the Government is that, if they want to do something for agriculture, they should lend the money at less 761 than 5 per cent. Personally, I will give them my support if they will advance it at a little lower rate. After all, if a man has security, he can go to the bank and borrow at 5 per cent. However, if it is 5 per cent., plus red tape, plus circumlocution, that is a very different matter. I know what the difficulties are of getting any money, as the White Paper puts it—on terms and conditions approved by the Treasury.The Minister of Agriculture says that we import an enormous quantity of dairy produce and pork. Although I may go outside the scope of this discussion a little, let me suggest to the Minister in regard to the housing problem that he should place houses in the country districts where a man can have a bit of land, and be able to own the land. I believe in people owning something for themselves. It is really very important, if you want a regular supply of food, that you should have a number of small men living in the country who have a cottage and a bit of land attached to it which will give them an interest in the rural districts. Personally I welcome the proposals of the Minister of Agriculture. I do not think they go far. Still, they may be a good beginning, and I do hope that the Minister will in this matter keep the agricultural end up, because the agricultural districts are at a disadvantage. The urban Members outnumber us by 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 to 1, and it behoves us, as agriculturists, and the Minister of Agriculture, to enable farmers to help themselves, thus increasing the amount of home produce that is being grown, which will in turn help the consumers in the towns to get good wholesome British produce.
§ Sir HENRY CAUTLEY
In so far as this proposal is going to bring the assistance of public money to any branch of agriculture, I welcome it, but I am bound to say that, with the exception of the benefit to individual small farmers or smallholders dealing with the very small part of agriculture, I cannot see how it is going to deal with our principal troubles. I wish to ask whether, in the Minister's view, this Bill is going to be directed in its application to the whole process of marketing? I have here the Report of the Linlithgow 762 Committee, and on this subject I would like to read three passages. On page 28 of that Report, it says:At the same time by carrying co-operation into the sphere of distribution, producers hope to improve their returns by the extent of the profits of the middleman. The middleman, however, is an experienced specialist who is already in the field, and not likely to surrender his living without a struggle. Farmers' organisations seeking to displace him must, therefore, be in a position to improve on the efficiency of his service. Though they may push their sales with all the energy of self-interest they are confronted even at the first stage, with well-organised and skilful wholesale traders, who as a general rule, perform their functions on relatively small margins.The Report goes on to say:If it is the intention to control the marketing of produce until it reaches the consumer, or at any rate, the retail distributor, the farmer should disabuse his mind of the fallacy that the margins of the distributors displaced represent so much additional profit for him. They are mostly made up of essential service and labour charges, and it is only a relatively small proportion which is available for appropriation, even assuming that the society is able to perform the distributive services more efficiently than the middleman whom it supersedes. Co-operation is unlikely, therefore, to secure to the producer any really important part of the existing distributive margin. In most cases it is only the wholesaler's services and so the wholesaler's profits that can readily be taken over.And lastly, in the conclusion on page 32, the Report says:Our view with regard to the future development of agricultural co-operation in this country is, therefore, that the more ambitious schemes of co-operative marketing and distributing produce by farmers direct to consumers, though admirable in their conception and intent, are fraught with considerable risk.I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentlemen who preceded me that, so far as we are concerned with the interests of the producers on the farm, the great difficulty we have is to save these retailers' profits between the producer and the consumer, and yet this Report tells us that co-operation is no good for that purpose. If that be so, how is this proceeding going to benefit agriculture? What is the difficulty we are up against? It is that arable cultivation cannot be conducted at a profit, and it is by arable production that the men who work for weekly wages on the land are employed It is common knowledge now that on 763 every 100 acres of arable land, at least four men are employed.
Let me take as an illustration of the immediate position with which the Government has to deal, the condition of Norfolk and Suffolk. Nobody knows better than the Minister, except possibly the hon. Member for Southern Norfolk (Mr. G. Edwards), the conditions under which arable cultivation is being carried on in the Eastern Counties. How will this proposal help them, if it is confined to marketing, as the right hon. Gentleman told us it was? How is this Measure going to help the farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk to sell their wheat and barley or improve their present sale? How is it going to help them to sell their cattle or sheep?
Is this the only remedy for the conditions prevailing where we know that the wages of the men have been driven down even lower than 25s. per week, and where the farmers are unable to make a profit, and are being driven out of the farming business? Is this the only thing a Socialist Government can put before us as likely to assist agriculture? This is simply trifling with the question, and it is the work of amateurs. It will benefit the small grower and the small farmers who do not employ many workmen, but I ask any of the hon. Members opposite who represent the aristocracy of labour, how will it assist the wages of a single man working on small wages, or how will it improve the profits, out of which wages come, to a single farmer in the Eastern Counties?
If you take the Lincolnshire farmers, how will it help the farm workers there? Is this the only thing we are going to have from the Socialist Government to help us to set the agricultural industry on its feet? I am speaking solely to-day as a farmer, and solely on my own behalf. I have farmed as a tenant farmer for over 35 years, and I have never known the position of arable farming so bad as it is at the present time. I regret, with all the sincerity I can command, the meagreness of the Measure that has now been put forward to help agriculture.
§ Mr. PATTINSON
In this Debate we have heard a good many opinions expressed on both sides of the House, but one thing which has struck me most is the lack of interest taken by hon. Members 764 in the greatest industry of this country. I do not think we take enough interest as a nation in this industry, and I may say that I can see no direct profit to the farmer, or even to the agricultural worker, from the suggestions which the Minister put before us this afternoon. Still, I am business man enough to know that very often you may get your profits out of your by-products, and often the main portion of your business, though not profitable alone, may become profitable if you can attach to it another industry such as may be attached to agriculture by co-operation.
One of the great troubles in agriculture is that at no time has the farmer been able to build up a reserve fund, and he is short of capital at all times. Personally, I would like to do a great deal to my own farm, but I cannot see that I am going to derive any profit from what I would like to do. If credit could be extended to farmers for the purposes of liming our heavy wheat land, and providing manures, we should be conferring a real benefit upon agriculture. An industry that cannot pay a good living wage—and in that I include the services of the farmer as well as the workmen—is a bankrupt industry, and that is the position of agriculture to-day. The Minister of Agriculture has laid before us, this afternoon, something that has never been laid before us on any previous occasion. At any rate, it is a real attempt to do something, and I congratulate him upon it. By co-operation and by co-operative movements we can do a great deal, and I hope that the small amount of money which the right hon. Gentleman has suggested for this purpose will be increased.
An allusion has been made to bacon factories, but I was rather surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that a bacon factory could not be profitably carried on with less than 500 pigs per week. I hope we shall have on this subject propaganda by real experts who have the interests of the Industry at heart. I am sure we are all very much pained to see our workmen living on a wage which is not adequate. The shortage of capital is the main reason why this industry is not prosperous to-day. A good deal has been said about the middleman, but why does the farmer always go to the middleman? He goes there for credit. My right hon. Friend the Member for 765 South Molton (Mr. Lambert) said it was very easy to go to a bank and borrow money. I think it is due to the Committee that he should tell us the name of his banker. We know that we all in the House of Commons have the interest of this industry at heart, and I do not think that any of us should pour cold water upon the scheme of the Minister, but that we should encourage it, not only here, but in the districts where we live, by pointing out its advantages to the farmers, and also the landowners, who do not have the opportunity of studying commercial problems. Farmers, and many landowners also, live in an isolated condition. They have no knowledge of great commercial businesses, and they look, naturally, with a great deal of suspicion on any commercial enterprise of this kind. I think they are wrong. I think there is much to be done, and I trust that the Minister will receive the support of every agricultural Member of the House; and I hope that, if we have a Debate of this kind again, we shall receive more support than we have received this afternoon.
§ Mr. LAMB
The last speaker complained about the lack of interest that is being taken here in this very important Debate. I can assure him and the Committee that, whether his suggestion be true or not, there will be no lack of interest in the country itself to-morrow morning when people are able to read the speech of the Minister of Agriculture, to-day. I listened carefully to what he said, and I believe—especially after the statement of the Prime Minister on the 12th February with regard to co-operation being considered by the Government to be the best means by which they can help agriculture—that the Minister's statement to-day on the question of co-operation will be read with very great interest. Another thing which I believe will be read, not only with interest, but with great satisfaction, is the statement that he made that they were going to rely, not so much upon force from above, as upon growth from within—upon giving assistance to the farmer from the industry itself. Certainly we do not want too much control from above. If the Minister will confine himself very largely to meeting the desires of and assisting growth from within the industry itself, his statement to-day will be received with great satisfaction.
Reference has been made to co-operation in Denmark. We are always 766 receiving information and advice as to why we should follow on the lines of the co-operation which has admittedly been so successful in Denmark. To my mind, the principle of co-operation is in itself sound, but a principle is only valuable in so far as it is practicable, and it is only practicable is so far as it can be put into operation under the existing conditions. The hon. Baronet the Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley), in an interjection, referred to rings; but rings represent the carrying of the principle of co-operation to an excess, and an excess in any principle is a far greater evil than it is a good. The conditions in Denmark are very different from what they are here. Why has co-operation been a success in Denmark? In the first place, Denmark is a small country, and is almost entirely an agricultural country, very largely free from the conflicting interests which exist in this country owing to the presence of the industrial element. Denmark, in addition to being an agricultural country, is dependent very largely, if not entirely, upon the export trade, and to get into the export trade co-operation is compulsory. In this country the conditions are almost entirely the reverse of those in Denmark We are an industrial nation, and the interests of the industrialists are almost entirely opposed to those of the purely rural areas. Again, we are not an exporting nation as far as the agricultural industry is concerned, with the exception of pedigree stock, and I may say that the pedigree stock from this country, which is produced very largely by private enterprise, is acknowledged to be the finest in the world.
The basis of co-operation, however, is loyalty, and the conditions in Denmark impose loyalty, while the conditions here do not. Here we have an alternative market, and the farmer, quite naturally, when the opportunity arises, takes advantage of the alternative market which is sometimes, I am sorry to say, placed at his disposal by means which are not altogether legitimate, owing to the efforts of some people to cut out the co-operative societies. He takes advantage of this alternative home market, and there is no society in existence which can carry its members in adversity if they are not going to have the advantage of carrying them during periods of prosperity. We should 767 be in a much better position if, before trying to force or assist co-operation, we were to concentrate our efforts upon trying to alter the conditions in the country so that co-operation will have a better opportunity when it is once started. Under existing conditions the possibilities for co-operation are strictly limited, and to-day we cannot look upon co-operation as a cure for the great depression which exists, particularly in the arable areas. It certainly will not help them very much under present conditions. At any rate, I cannot see any hope that it will retain the existing area of arable land, or help the agricultural worker. After all, it is the agricultural worker whose interest must be considered, perhaps first, in this case, because this country will receive from agriculture as a whole any type of agriculture which it is prepared to demand and pay for. If he is compelled, for economic reasons, to farm his land in any particular way, the farmer himself will accommodate himself to the circumstances. The man who is going to suffer, and suffer first, is the agricultural labourer.
Reference has been made to the National Farmers' Union. I may say that it is a very democratic body, and, until that body as a whole has had the opportunity of considering the statements of the Minister to-day, I am sure I am not entitled to speak for the National Farmers' Union as a whole, but I think I may refer to the speech made by its President when he was elected to the chair at the last meeting. His reference on that occasion to co-operation was distinctly sympathetic, and I can say as a fact that that reference has been accepted with pleasure, and I might say with enthusiasm, throughout the whole of the National Farmers' Union, which has branches in every county of England and Wales. They are not allowed, under their rules, to trade, but they have already expressed their sympathy with co-operation. They have had conferences with co-operative societies, trying to devise and help and see where difficulties arise. They have also, as has been already mentioned, organised bacon factories in various parts of the country. Again, and I think this is very important, they have undertaken to take charge of the co-operative interests of the growers 768 in the beet industry, a duty which it would be absolutely impossible for the individual grower to undertake for himself. Again, with regard to the sale of milk, they have taken co-operative measures to influence the system under which milk is sold collectively, which is, after all, a form of co-operation. They have also recently appointed a full-time official to look after the collective railway rate interests of agriculturists throughout the whole community.
All this shows that in various ways they are taking an active interest in co-operation for the benefit of the agriculturist. I have no doubt whatever that any suggestions made by the Ministry which are likely to benefit the industry will receive very sympathetic help from the National Farmers' Union, and, without giving any pledge, I believe I am also entitled to say that they are prepared to assist in bringing the farmer as a producer into contact with the industrial co-operative societies as distributors where they possibly can. I also think it advisable that I should say what I do not think the Farmers' Union will do. I am confident that they will not actively come or be brought into competition with the Agricultural Organisation Society. One reason, possibly, why the National Farmers' Union in the past have not taken up co-operation more vigorously is the existence of the Agricultural Organisation Society, which we know has existed very largely by State aid. At the same time, as I have said, any suggestions which may be made will, I am sure, receive the very careful consideration of the National Farmers' Union. A second thing which I think they would not do is this: they would not advise farmers to run into schemes or suggestions made by anyone without giving those schemes very careful consideration, because if there is one thing from which farmers and agriculturists in this country have suffered in the past, it has been going headlong into various schemes suggested by various individuals without giving them due consideration in detail. Any real suggestion for progress in the industry will receive their very sincere co-operation, and I feel confident that, in regard to whatever the Ministry may suggest, if there is any chance of the industry or the community benefiting from it, the National Farmers' Union will be anxious to do all that it possibly can.
§ Mr. FINNEY
I wish to make a few brief remarks on the programme for helping co-operative agriculture which has been put forward by the Minister. It is, no doubt, well known to many people that agriculture has always been one of the topics on which people, whenever they have thought about it, have got excited, but, whenever it has happened that they have had to attend to some serious matter connected with it, their enthusiasm has evaporated very quickly. It is rather strange to find that to-day, when we ought, perhaps, to be lamenting the disappearance ofa bold peasantry, their country's pride,one sees so many empty spaces in this Chamber. I welcome the suggestions of the Minister, although like my hon. Friend the Member for the Holland Division (Mr. Royce), I am only too well aware that they will meet with the great spirit of individualism which curses so many of our most successful farmers. They always seem to associate the word "co-operation" with those multiple shops which show an unfortunate taste in mahogany and mirrors. But they must be brought to understand that this is purely a matter of their own choosing, a question of voluntary association, and also that they will actually get—there must be no doubt about it—assistance from the State. I do not want to press the point, but agriculture has been let down before, and it is not the easiest thing in the world for an agriculturist to map out his programme and then find himself dropped in the middle of it and not get the credit he expected. It is certain that amongst the best of our agriculturists, among probably some of the younger ones who have gone through some sort of educational training there is a great desire to go in for this movement, but in my constituency, which is much more a grazing than an arable area, I have found innumerable instances of such people going in for pig keeping by methods of dry feeding, for poultry, and for butter making, and they know the important points of grading their products.
That is one element which must be paid attention to. It is no good a man going in for co-operative agriculture if he proposes merely to throw his products haphazard on the market. With regard 770 to the marketing of those products, the farmers themselves must be prepared to pay a very good salary to a man thoroughly equipped with a business mind and with knowledge of business methods. It is very little good coming along and saying, "There is a relative who might do it for £2 a week, and you are paying this man £10." The relative might, but he might make a mess of it. They have to pay a well-equipped man a decent salary in order to carry out the very difficult task of marketing these products for the group that is in co-operation. I hope, too, that attention will be given to smallholders who desire to join this movement. There is nothing more important to-day than to encourage the development of small holdings wherever the land is suitable for it. I know in my own district some very unsuitable land which was made into small holdings, but although I was very much against it at the time it has proved very successful indeed up to a certain point, and applications for more land are still pouring it. That must not be lost sight of in this general plan of co-operation. It is important to give the smallholder attention. It is there where we need to encourage people, both from the point of view of arresting the depopulation of the rural areas and of giving some outlet to the farmers' sons other than the usual practice of emigrating to the Colonies. I need hardly say I, too, have felt disappointment with the proposals enunciated in that they did not seem to me to give much relief to the sorely pressed farm labourer. Norfolk and Suffolk have been mentioned, where there is a very terrible condition; but surely there are points about that which might on closer investigation be taken up. Surely I am right in thinking that in those areas too many white crops have been grown in succession in certain places. Apart from that I will not press the point, but there, again, it is important to realise that not only must the labourers be given a chance of having their wages adjusted adequately and equitably, but that some assistance should be given by helping them to have a certain amount of land on which they can take part in rearing pigs for the co-operative bacon factory. That ought not to be lost sight of. In the main this is a preliminary or prelude to what I hope will be a more courageous and more comprehensive 771 agricultural policy, and I welcome it.
§ Mr. BLUNDELL
The hon. Member who has just spoken has fallen into the rather common error of teaching farmers how to do their business. If we had in this House at present all the hon. Members who have made great play with co-operation in their election addresses what a House we should have to address. But the point that is too often mistaken in dealing with farmers is that people who are well acquainted with business methods attempt to teach the farmer as a producer, and do not attempt to teach him where he does require instruction, and that is in the best application of business methods in dealing with his products. As one very deeply interested in the co-operative movement I do not propose to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Sir L. Scott), who has stated so fully the views of those engaged in the agricultural co-operative movement. I shall only follow him in saying that, like him, we in the movement most cordially welcome the proposals that the Minister has put before the House. But I, unlike my right hon. Friend, represent a rural constituency and I think therefore I should not be doing justice to them if I did not say that the right hon. Gentleman's statement will be received with a good deal of disappointment in the rural districts. We in the agricultural co-operative movement have never rated its claims too high. We have never pretended that it was a panacea for all agricultural ills because, as the Prime Minister said with such emphasis last night, we know what we are talking about. We know that while the farmer cannot sell his produce at the price it cost him to produce it neither co-operation nor any other remedy can put agriculture on a prosperous footing and something else is required besides co-operation.
When the Prime Minister put forward his proposals at the beginning of the Session I hoped very much that the Minister of Agriculture would not try to find a soft place in the same sand to bury his head in; and would not, with the Prime Minister, seem to think that all was well in the agricultural world because the Ministry of Agriculture were going to teach people to keep accounts better. I 772 very much fear from what the right hon. Gentleman said on 14th February, when he waived aside the fact that there were 3,000,000 acres less of arable land than immediately after the War and 100,000 fewer labourers on the land, that he is hiding his head in the sand like the Prime Minister. But these proposals so far as they go we who are interested in agricultural co-operation welcome very cordially, we think they are on the right lines, and we will do everything in our power to assist the Minister to carry them out successfully.
The criticisms that are levelled at agricultural co-operation seem very often to be wide of the mark. For instance, we hear a great deal about Denmark, and those who think that co-operation is boomed too much as a panacea for agricultural evils say, Yes, Denmark is an exporting country, and we are an importing country, and therefore what has been successful in Denmark cannot be expected to be successful in this country. What has really made co-operation a success in Denmark is the fact that they have a very much higher standard of rural education than we have in this country and, further than that, as far as bacon production is concerned, they have produced a standard pig. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that we had in this country every sort and description of pig, and each county or little group of counties keeps one kind of pig, and no other. It would be very well worth the right hon. Gentleman's while to try to educate the farmer up to a standard pig. It does not very much matter whether it is black or white, provided the measurements are right for bacon production. In my opinion, the real reason why Denmark has been more successful in co-operation, apart from the advantage of being an exporting country, which undoubtedly counts, is that they have a higher standard of education and they have been successful in producing a standard pig. One of the methods by which they do it is by subsidising breeders to supply pigs of a given quality at a standard price to those who wish to feed them for the bacon factory. If something of that sort could be started in connection with our bacon factories here, it would be a very great help in the direction of regaining a portion of the bacon trade. Another criticism that is 773 levelled against the co-operative movement is in connection with combines and rings. An hon. Member has asked how is co-operation going to break rings. There are various methods of dealing with rings, and it is not always necessary to break them. If you are big enough you need not bother about breaking a ring. You can get inside. And what those in the co-operative movement think is, if once we can get big enough and get the weight of agricultural opinion in the country behind us, we shall be able, if we cannot break the ring, to get inside it and enjoy the same advantages as those who are inside it already. I think there will be a great deal of disappointment in the rural constituencies that the right hon. Gentleman's proposals do not go further, still we welcome them as far as they go and we will do our best to help him to make them a success.
§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Mr. HUGH SEELY
I did not expect the Minister to explain away the short-comings of his policy by saying it is a legacy from the people who have now gone away. It was not at all what I think people engaged in agriculture expected. The whole question of agriculture to-day is, that it is in very great difficulties and wants actual assistance. This is not help to the people who are in difficulties; this is a new policy and a scheme for the whole agriculture of the country when it reaches better days. A great deal can be said for all this co-operation, but, actually, for the farmers and the agricultural labourers it will not help at the moment. It is chiefly a matter dealing with another principle altogether and another part of the community, namely, the middle men. It is a very big question. It is not confined to agriculture, and if you brought co-operation into agriculture you would have to have it in a great many other things. It should be approached on broader lines, and we should have a good deal more information as to how it is going to work, who is to appoint the officials and whether it really can be a success. Farmers really are in great difficulties, which have reached such an extent that, whatever happens now in the way of good seasons, I do not think it possible that they could bear up against the load of debt which they have got into on the arable farms. They want actual help and actual credits, so that they can really 774 afford to go on and live. The question of the housing of the agricultural labourer also comes into it. That is a very big part of the question how you can help the farmer of to-day. In this scheme I do not see the help which is really wanted in the devastated agricultural districts in this country, particularly by the farm labourers. The scheme of co-operation largely deals with the middleman, and on that a good deal has been said as to Denmark, pigs, marketing of produce and so on. In regard to those matters possibly a great deal more help can come from hon. Gentlemen opposite, because they understand them more than we do here. What we want at the moment from the Government, and I think we ought to get it, is a great deal more help for the agricultural labourer, who, at the moment, is in great difficulty and is so badly paid that he cannot, in many cases, see his way to clothe or even feed his children properly. That is the help which the farmers want, and which the agricultural labourers want at the moment. I appeal particularly for those who need help and not for those who do not need it so pressingly.
§ Sir DOUGLAS NEWTON
I think the ratepayers as a whole will welcome the provision made in this Vote by which the limit imposed under Section 18 of the Diseases of Animals Act, 1894, is this year removed, namely, the limit of £140,000 which can be paid to the credit of the Local Taxation Account for the purpose of dealing with animal diseases. I think hon. Members will permit me to make one or two observations in regard to these financial proposals and their incidence. I should like, first of all, to point out that foot-and-mouth disease during the past two years has not been a heavy charge upon the taxpayers. If we except 1921 and 1922, for nine years we only spent three-quarters of a million sterling. In 1913–14 the expenditure was less than £6,000; in 1916–17 only £39, and in 1917 nothing at all. That, I think, vindicates the policy which has been pursued by the Ministry of Agriculture. It justifies the barbarous policy of slaughter which we have had to pursue because, at any rate, it has had this result that the disease has remained epidemic and has not become 775 endemic. That has been a great gain to the country. There is one matter upon which I should like to have an assurance from the Minister of Agriculture, for it is not clear to me. I have been examining the details as set out on page 6 of the Vote, and in that statement are these words:It is proposed that, on the removal of this limit"—that is the £140,000 limit—the amount contributed by the Local Taxation Account in respect of foot-and-mouth disease should be restricted in this financial year to the amount by which that part of the Estate Duty for this year which is payable into the Local Taxation Account exceeds £2,757,000.That means, that anything in excess of £2,750,000 paid as an Exchequer grant contribution into the Local Taxation Account will be taken for the purpose of dealing with this outbreak. In the speech which was made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture last night, he said, in the clearest terms:The amount that will be taken from the Local Taxation Account for this purpose is specifically limited to £250,000, because we do not want to make unfair encroachments upon it. If it turns out that a smaller amount is required, then the £250,000 will not be taken, while if the amount required exceeds £250,000, then no more than £250,000 can be taken from this fund."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1924, col. 558, Vol. 170.]Which is right? Is the Parliamentary Secretary right when he says that in no circumstances will more than £250,000 be taken, or is the White Paper right which says that the difference between £2,757,000 and the receipts under the Estates Duty Grant will be taken? Which of these statements are we to follow? It is very important to have a perfectly clear statement on matters of finance, and on matters of this kind. Under the Estate Duty Grants in 1921–22 there were distributed to the local authorities £2,465,000, and in 1922–23 the amount had risen to £3,512,000. That is an important asset of which the local authorities have been obtaining the benefit in the past, and we ought to have some reason put before us as to why the Estate Duty Grant is going to be tapped in this way, and we ought to know whether there is going to be a limit on the amount that is to be taken from that source.
776 If the Estate Duty Grant this year amounts to the same figure as it did last year, not only will £250,000 be taken from this account, but something like £750,000 will be taken from the account. That is a serious matter as far as local authorities are concerned, and it is a matter upon which we want more information. The local authorities do not want to be milked, and they do not want to have their hen-roosts robbed and to suffer in these directions. I am not saying that this Fund should not be tapped, but I want a perfectly clear statement as to how much is going to be taken from it, and whether it is £250,000 or more. If this Grant is going to be tapped, the local authorities should be consulted in the matter. I think the principle of stereotyping should only be applied to what is withdrawn from the Grant and not in the way which appears to be done in this case. I do hope we shall have a clear statement as to which of these two sets of figures which have been put before the House are to be acted upon in future.
§ Mr. RHYS
May I claim the indulgence of the House on the occasion of my maiden speech. I welcome the co-operative proposals of the Government, but I should like to see a further step taken. I am particularly interested in the poor wage that is paid to the agricultural labourers, and I did hope to see from the right hon. Gentleman opposite something more than he proposes. We must give these labourers not a sweated but a living wage. Co-operation is right in principle. I can speak from some knowledge of it, because we have had it in operation in connection with the milk trade in my own district, and the farmers have found that it works very well in milk distribution. The class of farmer who is the hardest hit at the present time is the farmer who bought his farm directly after the War, during the boom period. The established dairy farmer before that time had something put by to tide him over the rainy days, but the farmer who took his farm at the very high prices obtaining in 1919–20 is feeling the slump very much, and he is very often a young farmer. Special consideration should be given to his case.
With regard to the policy of slaughter, it seems to me that it is the only one that can be adopted. Isolation cannot really be of great benefit: it is almost 777 impossible to thoroughly isolate. There is no doubt that the disease is carried by birds and in other ways. There was an outbreak in Kent last week, miles away from any other outbreak, and slaughter has, no doubt, been effective in stopping the outbreak from spreading. Isolation is not, therefore, a safeguard. The administration of the Ministry of Agriculture as far as slaughter goes is, if I may say so, rather open to criticism, and I hope that a real inquiry is to be made into the working of the Ministry, and that we shall not be put off simply with an inquiry into the cause of the outbreak. We ought to go very carefully into the actual work of the Ministry.
I am very interested in seeing the interest that is taken in the question of agricultural labourers' wages by hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway on the opposite side of the House, especially after the policy which they adopted during the Election, which, it seemed to me, meant that the labourer was going to get a sweated wage. That line of argument may be outside the scope of the Debate, but I am glad to see the interest that is being taken in this question, and I hope that steps will be taken to give the labourer a proper wage. We were taunted with being the party which professed to take an interest in agriculture; but as far as the party on this side of the House are concerned, I think we can claim that we have done more for the farmer and the labourers than any of the other parties.
§ Mr. HOPE SIMPSON
I should like to know from the Minister in regard to Item J.2 which states that there is to be a saving of £25,000, whether he will tell us in what way the £25,000 will be saved.
§ Mr. HOBHOUSE
I wish to make a few remarks on the question of co-operation. We welcome the proposal of the Minister of Agriculture in regard to co-operation very warmly, but we must realise that co-operation cannot cure all the ills from which agriculture is suffering. The difficulties that are due to world prices, to the excessive burdens on land, and to the lack of up-to-date methods in agriculture, cannot be cured by co-operative organisation. But I think that it is wise to consider for a few minutes the practical advantages which co-operation may bring, and which it 778 has already brought in different parts of this industry.
In the first place, co-operative organisation, by competing with existing distributive organisations, can raise prices for the producers. That is so in the case of milk. I know a case in which an existing co-operative society, running in competition with another organisation, raised the price of milk for the farmer by 2d. a gallon. Then there is a gain to agriculture in co-operation by going into the sphere of distribution. In the third place a portion of the distributor's profits can be made to flow into the channels of the industry, by the collection and bulking of produce through the co-operative societies, as has been done successfully with fruit and vegetables. That is a distinct gain to agriculture and enables this country to compete with imported fruit and vegetables, and thereby obtain a bigger return for the producers in this country. Furthermore, fresh outlets for agricultural produce can be provided by co-operative concerns, where they are successful. I believe that that is the case in Cornwall, where it is not possible, owing to the great distance to send the milk to our large centres of population, butter is being made on co-operative lines with great success.
Dealing with this question of co-operation, I do feel that we must keep in mind the four essentials that were laid down by the Linlithgow Reports in their very able summary as to the distribution and prices of agricultural produce. In the first place, it is essential that there should be competent management for co-operative concerns, which means more especially that such managers shall be adequately remunerated. The second essential is that there shall be loyalty to the co-operative organisation shown by members of that organisation, and in practice that is best arrived at by having a definite contract or undertaking by the members to supply at least the major portion of their produce to their own society. Thirdly, it is suggested by the Linlithgow Report that co-operative societies should be combined or federated into district societies. I think that I am right in saying that co-operative dairying, which has been successful in Scotland to a greater extent than it has been in England, obtained its success largely owing to the fact that in that country it has federated itself by districts. Finally, 779 co-operation needs, as all business concerns need, sufficient capital.
That brings me to the remarks of the Minister of Agriculture with reference to the proposals now before this Committee as to the help which he is prepared to afford to co-operation. I believe that the suggested amount, £200,000, is a sufficient beginning. But should co-operation go ahead at anything like the fast rate at which we should like to increase the speeding up of co-operative bodies it seems to me that a much bigger sum than £200,000 will be required. Reference was made by the right hon. Gentleman to the use which could be made by applying the funds of the Trade Facilities Acts. I would ask how much in fact has been applied for in the matter of money for agricultural concerns from that account. Then there is the question of propaganda. I think that the Linlithgow reports made it clear that what is required, even as much as credit, for co-operative concerns is intensive propaganda. It takes a great deal of propaganda to get things into the heads of some of our country people, who live far away from centres of population and who do not read a great deal.
I would suggest that this question of propaganda should be pressed through every available organisation, the Agricultural Organisation Society, the National Farmers' Union, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and every other agency which desires to see co-operation in agriculture. Then there is the question of assistance in the matter of providing trained organisers. It is all to the good that there should be advisory marketing officers appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, but I think that it would be worth the right hon. Gentleman's consideration to think over the question of providing a small number of trained managers who would start the new societies on right lines. I conclude by saying that co-operation, to be successful, must be varied in its forms and operations, to suit the varying needs of the locality, and the varying nature of the produce which is going to be marketed.
§ Lieut.-Colonel WINDSOR-CLIVE
The Prime Minister in the course of a speech has recommended co-operation as the best means of developing and stimulating the agricultural industry. I think that co-operation is a very popular prescription 780 with regard to a great many matters. The right hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool in the course of his speech just now compared the word "co-operation" with that blessed word Mesopotamia. I think that that blessed word Mesopotamia has lost something of its sanctity to any who have had to spend much time in that country. I hope that those interested in co-operation will not expect too much from it. I agree that up to a certain point it will be beneficial, but it cannot be regarded as enough. The Minister of Agriculture, I think, recognises that. I think that in the direction of buying rather than of selling it is likely to be most useful. For instance in the purchase of raw materials and fertilizers. On this question I would suggest that it would be well to consider the possibility of using as fertilizers some of those large amounts of waste products from our towns. Many of them would be of use as fertilizers. Most of them are now destroyed and cost a certain amount of money to destroy.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I think that the hon. Member is going somewhat wide of the Vote which we have before us at present.
§ Lieut.-Colonel WINDSOR-CLIVE
I was trying to suggest means of co-operation which I thought would be of value. If co-operative buying can enable farmers to increase the yield from their land, without a corresponding increase in the cost of production, that will be a very great help. As regards co-operative selling, I think that we cannot take it for granted that because that has been a success in a country with a large food export trade, it must necessarily be a success for us. The many difficulties of establishing it in this country are dealt with in the Report of the Linlithgow Committee. It goes into such matters as the reluctance on the part of the farmers to engage in it, and the good organisation and efficiency of the present wholesale traders' association. Of course, it may be urged that the reluctance of the farmers is no argument, and that they ought to learn to appreciate its advantages. I think that that may come in time, but it will not come all at once. I think that co-operation will be of use, but I am very doubtful whether it will put the farmer in a position to maintain the existing acreage of arable land, and 781 if it does not do that it will not prevent the unemployment which is now threatening the agricultural labourers.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of AGRICULTURE (Mr. W. R. Smith)
I wish to answer the point which has been raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton) as to how far the sum of money concerned is liable to be increased from the local taxation account. I regret that yesterday in the statement which I made, owing to a misunderstanding with regard to the figures, I stated that there was a maximum of £250,000 fixed in regard to this. I now find that the statement made in the White Paper is correct, and that there is no maximum, but that the amount that will be taken will be that sum which comes into this fund this year in excess of £2,757,000. It is expected that that amount will not be greatly in excess of £250,000. The exact amount cannot be stated as the fund is not yet closed. On that point having regard to the various other encroachments made on this fund for this purpose unless this step had been taken the whole of this giant would have come on local taxation beyond the £140,000 fixed in the Act.
Major G. DAVIES
In rising to address the House for the first time, I do not forget the wise words spoken by Mr. Speaker on his recent re-election to office, when he informed us that it was more difficult to listen than to speak. Therefore, I shall not crave the indulgence of the House. I am one of those who felt disappointment at the proposals outlined by the Minister of Agriculture, because I had hoped to have heard something that would have had more definite and immediate repercussion on the position of the agricultural labourer. We all feel that some immediate treatment should be devised. I do not wish to deal with the proposals of the late Government in this respect, except to say that they did hold out some immediate prospect of dealing with the subject, whereas the proposals of the present Government do not seem to bear on any immediate solution of this trying question. Those of us who live in rural and agricultural constituencies know the difficulties which face, not only the farmer, but the agricultural labourer, in making both ends meet, and we feel the vital necessity of 782 some definite proposals from the Government which will enable us to deal with this matter. What is the point at issue? It is the efficiency of the agricultural industry; it is the dealing with this crisis; it is the assisting of those who are passing through the crisis to get a share of comparative prosperity. Unless that is done, all these things that we want to do, such as raising the remuneration and improving the conditions of the agricultural labourer, are impossible under present conditions.
It has been pointed out from this side of the House that co-operation was the only apparent alternative to such a solution as having large and extensive farms and what might be called big factories—everything done on a large scale. I have had the experience of seeing one of these agricultural problems worked out on precisely those lines. Our aim is efficiency, and if the present condition of lack of organisation or co-operation means lack of efficiency, economic forces will compel us to try to follow the lines of least resistance in order to discover the best way of dealing with the problem. While the method of co-operation outlined by the Ministry may assist to a certain extent, it is not the line which is consonant with the efficiency of the industry, looked at merely from that point of view. As is well known, the bulk of the farmers of the country are farming on a small scale, and a very large number farm on a very small scale. From the business point of view that means enormous overhead costs of administration. On each farm of, say, 100 acres, you have an administrative body in the person of the farmer and his more skilled employés. When a man has a small dairy farm, with a workman to look after it, he could increase the number of stock that the farm's stockman is looking after if his farm were larger. There may be another adjoining farmer who has such an additional man. I am not now talking from the point of view of providing labour, but from the point of view of efficiency.
If we wish to develop on the lines of the greatest efficiency we must diminish these overhead charges. The logical outcome of that is to go in for farming on a large scale, the elimination of unnecessary hedge-rows and ditches, and the placing of the whole thing on a basis which would justify enormous capital expenditure on tractors and similar 783 implements, which the small farmer is not justified in buying. But on the other side there comes the interest of the State, which is something greater than the efficiency of the industry, taking the long view. Is it better to have these large farms, with comparatively few employed, or that there should be a numerous, self-supporting and independent peasant population in the country? From the point of view of the welfare of the State, that is the ideal of each one of us. The difficulty is how to identify it with the forces of economic development in the world as we see it to-day. One of the great difficulties of co-operation is this: In many cases it is a three-fold business. It has been said to-day that people are prone to try to teach the farmer his business, and that the farmer knows his business better than his would-be teachers. But co-operation is not farming—it is another business. If you want to run a co-operative business efficiently, you want the most efficient business man to run it, and he is not the farmer.
Take the case of co-operative bacon factories. There is the man who produces the pig; there is the man who makes it into bacon; and there is the man who ultimately distributes the bacon to the consumer. These three businesses are different businesses. The difficulty in co-operation, from the farmer point of view, is that we all have different ideas as to what is the best and the only right thing. Therefore, without control of the small farmer who is to be a co-operative member of a society, without control of what he shall do, he will produce whatever he favours. Then we are thrown back again for efficiency to the question, How can there be some form of economic control of the farmer to compel him, even against his wishes, to fall in with what those who have had greater opportunities for scientific training indicate are the best lines for him to follow? These are large and very broad questions, and, as has been indicated to-day, any form of co-operation, before it is actually put into operation, wants to be thought out from many points of view very carefully.
I do not think that any great or immediate result is likely to come for the farmer or the farm labourer. That is 784 why I am so disappointed. All these matters of scientific development, better types of wheat and other cereals, more scientific fertilisation of the soil, new methods as the result of experiments at Rothamsted—all these are excellent and vital, but they must take time and they may take months or even years. Meanwhile, we are faced with the crying problem of the crisis in the agricultural industry. While I shall give my support whole-heartedly to the proposals of the Minister, I deplore the fact that something more definite has not been given to us to-day.
§ Captain BOWYER
May I, with great respect, congratulate my hon. Friend who has just spoken upon his very admirable speech? I feel certain that agriculture and the interests of agriculture have gained a very valuable recruit and an accession to their forces in this House. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Boston (Mr. Royce). I followed him with the greater interest the further he proceeded with his speech, but just at the moment when he had my attention most concentrated, unfortunately, he sat down. He was saying, contrary to the views held by most of those who sit beside him, that the most successful farmer was the individualist.
§ Captain BOWYER
The hon. Member went on to say how little actual help the agricultural worker seemed likely to get out of the proposals of the Government. That is a view which appears clearly from the speeches made this afternoon, and it is shared on all sides of the House. But the hon. Member did not proceed to say what should be done, and that was the matter to which, most of all, I wanted him to address his mind. It is so true that one cannot represent a great agricultural constituency without being appalled, as one travels about, at the rates of wages with which the agricultural workers have to be content.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member is now travelling rather wide. We are dealing with the question of co-operation.
§ Captain BOWYER
I was only mentioning that matter apropos the fact that 785 the agricultural worker does not seem likely to get much out of these proposals. The right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) made a very interesting speech, and commented on the fact that money would not be advanced at a lower percentage of interest than 5 per cent. That seemed to me to offer a very interesting subject for discussion, because, as he said, there are always the banks with which the agricultural community can deal. Many farmers have told me that they prefer to deal with a bank rather than with any credit scheme, because with a bank they get one thing, and that is absolute secrecy and confidential treatment. But if the right hon. Gentleman recommends that the Government should advance this money at a lower rate than 5 per cent. I can see that the Minister of Agriculture will be up against the dictum of the Prime Minister the other day, that the Government is against a policy of subsidies. It is quite clear that if you advance money at 3 or 4 per cent., in effect, it is subsidising the industry.
The more I read about co-operation and the more I listen to speeches on it, the more astonishing to me becomes the difference between the theory and the practice on the subject. In theory, of course, there is nothing so satisfactory or so obviously right as co-operation. But in practice how different it is! I remember about four years ago, soon after I first came into the House, I went to my constituency and tried to start a co-operative movement among the farmers in one portion of the division. Very skilful speakers came down and addressed a very well-attended meeting, but in the end the result was practically nil. Man after man who came to the meeting said, "Well, I always dealt with such and such a man"—naming the middleman who supplied him with fertilisers and so forth—"and my father did so before me." It seems that every farmer is a conservative, and is suspicious of making any change in his methods of farming. The Linlithgow Report brings out the difficulties so clearly, that I may quote one sentence:The application of co-operative organisation to farming generally is indeed far less straightforward and simple than is popularly supposed. One difficulty is the independence of the farmer himself, who, by tradition and environment, is accustomed to depend upon his own efforts. The British farmer is intensely individualistic; he does not 786 willingly surrender his own judgment, or delegate his authority to others.If I may, as shortly as possible, make a suggestion to the Minister, it will be on these lines. Much as I welcome any scheme on the lines of co-operation, I would point out to him certain considerations, indicated in a letter received by me, within the past hour, from the Buckinghamshire County Branch of the National Farmers' Union. They represent what, in their opinion, is the greatest help which the farmers can receive in the difficulties against which they are at present fighting, and it is quite true that if you want to help the industry as a whole, the farmer is the pivot man, because how can the farmer pay good wages to the labourer unless he himself is keeping his head above water? The letter to which I refer is as follows:I am instructed by the Executive Committee to call your attention to the following resolution.—'In order to prevent unscrupulous persons from selling chilled meat as fresh meat, or imported meat as English, and to protect the consumer generally and in the interests of the British grazier and feeder, the Government should be asked at once to promote legislation, either to provide that all imported meat should be properly stamped with the country of origin in sufficient parts to prevent fraud, or that, preferably, legislation should be passed forbidding the sale of any imported meat, frozen, chilled or fresh, in the same shop as English meat.'If you wish to help the man who is producing something in agriculture, surely one of the first steps to be taken is to see that other people do not delude the public, that they are producing that which he produces, when, in fact, the article which they put forward is not home produced at all, but comes from abroad.
§ Captain BOWYER
I recognise, Sir, that I am on the verge. I will not develop the subject any further, and I thank you for allowing me to go as far as I have gone.
§ Viscount WOLMER
While we, on this side of the House, welcome anything the Government can do to help co-operation in agriculture, we do not believe the agricultural problem is to be solved in that way. Co-operation has been tried in countless instances in this country, and, on the whole, the 787 result has been exceedingly discouraging. There have been some successes, but far more failures. If the Government can do anything to help it, so much the better, but I shall put to the Committee one instance in which co-operation has been tried on an exceedingly big scale, with results which are not very encouraging. I do not know if the Committee realise that the co-operative societies, with which hon. Members of the Socialist party are so much identified, are probably the biggest farmers in the country, and are certainly among the biggest landowners in England. I saw the accounts of the "Co-ops.," as they are familiarly termed, up to the year 1921, and from these figures it would appear that in 1921 they owned 60,000 acres, and were farming 72,000 acres, and on their farming operations in that year they incurred a loss of £350,000.
Mr. T. WILLIAMS
Does the Noble Lord mean that that is the actual amount lost by the Co-operative "Wholesale Societies, or is it accounted for to any extent by depreciation?
§ Viscount WOLMER
Depreciation was counted in, but that simply means that the accounts were properly kept
§ Viscount WOLMER
I cannot answer that question off-hand, but I am certain the accounts were kept in a proper manner, and that every depreciation which should have been written off, was written off, as every other farmer, who keeps his accounts properly, must do. When we speak of the farming losses of the last few-years we include depreciation, and any sums that were owing to the reserve fund and the like were, no doubt, properly accounted for. I do not suppose there is the slightest difference between the way in which these accounts were kept, and the way in which any farmer, who understands his business, would keep his accounts. It strikes me that the loss of over £5 an acre, by a great organisation farming on a huge scale, with the accumulated experience of years behind it as well as some of the ablest minds in the country, is significant, and if they have not been able to make farming pay during these difficult years, surely the Committee need be 788 under no illusion that the problem of agriculture is to be solved merely by assisting co-operation. Agriculture does not pay because it is taxed in a way in which agriculture is not taxed in any other part of the world. It is taxed, as no other industry in the country is taxed. It is taxed on its raw material, which is land, and it is taxed three times over on Schedule A, Schedule E and the rates. These adverse conditions have to be overcome if agriculture is to be made prosperous. I do not deny that co-operation may help, and I welcome it. After the Linlithgow Report nobody can say that co-operation will not help. But although it will help, it will not suffice to make agriculture prosperous, and until agriculture is prosperous, the agricultural labourer will not receive a fair wage. At the present time he is living on a sweated wage, because the industry is in an unfair position, and is subjected to difficulties which are unknown in other industries, and it is the agricultural labourer who suffers more than anybody else.
§ Mr. BUXTON
The Committee have given to these proposals a very kind reception which I acknowledge with great gratitude, and I think I might now ask hon. Members to allow the Vote to be passed as there is very urgent business yet to be taken. It is not, however, for me to press the Committee, and I am entirely in their hands. In making this suggestion I wish to answer some of the questions which have been addressed to me on points of fact, and, as I acknowledge with thankfulness, have not been in criticism of my proposals. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Sir L. Scott) asked whether we could not increase the limit of £10,000, which is proposed under this scheme. I point to the fact that applications for larger sums will be welcomed and carefully considered by the Committee under the Trade Facilities Act. I was also asked whether there had been any applications under that Act so far. There have been three applications for a bacon factory, a sugar factory, and an auction mart respectively. The hon. Member for the United Universities (Mr. Fisher) raised a point in connection with the Committee of Research on the question of foot-and-mouth 789 disease, and I shall take a very careful note of his suggestion that the reference should clearly include the question of the source of infection, and his other point in regard to the ratio of veterinary surgeons to stock will receive a very careful consideration. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) referred to the necessity of consulting the farmers' organisation. I have taken an early opportunity of meeting the leading men or the National Farmers' Union, and I shall take as many opportunities of doing so as they will give me. I welcome heartily their willingness to discuss matters fully.
The hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Pattinson) raised an interesting point as to the liming of heavy lands, and asked if there was any scheme of contributing to help the farmers in this respect. We all know that nothing is more wanted than more lime on the lands of this country, but apart from this scheme of co-operative help, we must not forget there was a scheme initiated last year for credit societies, and these should be the means of raising capital for such purposes as this—although there are many other purposes very urgent at the moment, such as the re-stocking of farms denuded by foot-and-mouth disease. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Simpson) mentioned a point which arises from the wording of the Supplementary Estimate with regard to the anticipated saving of £25,000, which was thought to be somewhat mysteriously included under the head of "Improvement of Cultivation of Land." That relates to money provided in respect of land which was forced to be cultivated during the War, and for which an unnecessarily large provision was estimated. I was also asked whether it was not possible to reduce the rate of interest upon these loans. I should point out that these loans are not on all-fours with the loans made under the Trade Facilities Act. These are long-term loans, and we all know, whereas bankers on the whole are financing farmers for short term purposes in a very adequate degree, to raise a mortgage is much more difficult now than it was before the War. Solicitors are not so keen on that kind of business, and these advances at 5 per cent. are such as a great many men would have difficulty in obtaining from 790 private sources, and whether the rate will be reduced or not it is a contribution. I note, with regret, that disappointment is felt by some hon. Members that I have not to-day brought forward a scheme for the immediate alleviation of the farmers' difficulties, but I would point out that we are only dealing with one particular proposal, and that I should not be in order if I were to go in detail into other proposals which I hope I may sometime be able to unfold.
I found myself yesterday at the Shire Horse Show in the happy position of being described on all hands as a better friend to heavy horse breeders than my predecessor. I am glad to have been able to have done something in that direction, and I may be able to give other items later on. Farmers are being helped by co-operative societies in Norfolk and Suffolk. The Ipswich Society is actually helping many hundreds of men to pay a better wage, or to employ more men, than they would if that society did not exist.
§ Sir GERALD HOHLER
I have been induced to rise on this occasion by this question of foot-and-mouth disease. It seems to me that it has been played with long enough. There has been a wholly new development in Kent within the last two or three days. It would seem, from information I have been able to obtain, that cattle have been imported somewhere from the Midlands into Chatham, and that they have come from a district where there is, or has recently been, an outbreak of the disease. If that be so, I desire to charge the Board with apparent negligence in this case. There you have, as it seems to me, a clearly preventive case which ought never to have broken out in a wholly new district, and which is calculated to do great damage to the farming industry there, and you are increasing the expenditure which is being made on this cattle disease. I want the Minister to tell me whether it is true, as is reported, that these cattle came from a district in the Midlands where the disease recently broke out, and, if so, to tell me what steps the Board have taken in the matter. I should also like to know how long it is since the disease broke out in the Midlands from which these cattle were brought to Chatham. What steps has he taken, or have been taken, to ascertain 791 the history of the cattle? Had the outbreak actually occurred before the cattle were sent to Chatham? What has been done in reference to the trucks? What has been done in reference to the new district in which it has broken out? Has anything been done, and, if so, what, to disinfect the farms?
I want to impress upon the Minister that, while he is pursuing his policy of slaughter, he is allowing new outbreaks to occur throughout the country to an alarming extent and at very great expense. I want him to bear in mind that we are just at the period when all the spring fairs and sales are beginning. Cattle begin to change hands now. They are coming out of the sheds, and are going out on to the pastures. What proposals has the Minister seriously in hand to try to prevent the contagion spreading in this way right throughout the country? If these cattle came to Chatham from an area which had been recently infected, surely the Minister should be in a position to tell me how long it is since there was an outbreak in that area. Has he taken steps to close that area for a longer time, so as to prevent the chance of the disease spreading? In sum and substance, as far as I can see, nothing is done effectively to deal with these cases. From an older centre where there has been disease, the disease is allowed to spread to fresh centres.
§ Mr. BECKER
I have listened to this Debate all the way through with very great interest, and it seems to me that the Members who represent farming constituencies are unanimous on this matter. Farmers, when they are unanimous, are generally so for a very good reason. Farmers generally are unanimous when they can see a prospect of making money out of the matter about which they are unanimous. I represent a residential constituency in which the people have to pay anything from 8d. to 1s. 4d. for a cauliflower. As far as I can see, this scheme of co-operation is brought forward for the purpose of allowing the producer to get more money for his goods, and so that he can sell his goods in the best market. It has been said many times in the House this afternoon that Members do not take any interest in agricultural Bills, and that the House is also empty when questions of agriculture arise. I 792 think it is because the agriculturists do not attempt to look at the question from the point of view of the housewife. They look at it purely and simply from the point of view of how much money they can get out of the public, and out of the Government, and out of anybody else.
Here we have a scheme backed by the Government, and I can see visions of the time when they will pour out untold millions. There was a time when it started off with a nominal sum of £10. I wonder how many noughts will be added on before this scheme is finally thrown up. The object, as one hon. Member has already said, is this. "Why trouble to break the ring? Why not build the co-operative societies big enough, and then you can get inside the ring?" The general trend of this whole Debate is, "Why not get together and put prices up?" It is very desirable that farmers should have more assistance than they are getting. They are not getting enough for their produce, I admit. The arguments I have heard to-day, as far as I understand them, are that by this scheme of co-operation you can save the wholesaler's profit. I do not know much about it. I have only listened to the Debate, but is not this a place to come and learn? Is it not a place to listen to a Debate and join in from your own point of view, and take the facts? I admit that I do not take many facts from the other side of the House.
You are trying, by Government support, to build up a vast number of uneconomic or economic co-operative societies all through England. You are going to make a man take his eggs to market. You are going to sell them through one channel. What is the ultimate object of all this? Supposing this principle is carried to its logical conclusion. I think the Minister himself will agree that, if this is carried out in its entirety, the whole agricultural produce of England will be sold through co-operative societies. What would be the position then? It would be exactly like a trust. It would be exactly the same as the worst system of American trusts. The object is to force prices up, to aid co-operative societies to sell cheaper than ordinary firms. Are not co-operative societies always putting their prices up a little and trying to get the topmost price? They sell you an imitation of somebody else's stuff, saying it is just as good, at ½d. less. The object of the co-operative 793 societies is to force up prices to their utmost ability so that they can pay the greatest dividends. If the farmers all co-operate in their selling, they will co-operate with the object of getting the best price possible. So we find a Socialist Government doing their utmost to induce the simple farmer, who is prepared to carry on year after year and sell in the cheapest market, to co-operate. They come along and say "The farmers are selling too cheaply. We are going to get them to co-operate. We are going to send experts down from the Ministry of Agriculture to show them how to do it." What are experts? They are men who have made a failure probably, in this case, of farming themselves. They will come along and rig up the prices. Here the Government are deliberately going ahead with a scheme, under the nice name of "co-operation"—it is a charming name and sounds so nice and innocent—in order to induce the simple farmer to drive his prices up against the consumer, and they are taking the taxpayers' money and lending it to the farmer at what I consider a cheap rate of interest.
This is not the way to help agriculture. I would rather give the money than lend it. I would rather subsidise wheat or something like that. If that meant £5,000,000 or £10,000,000 a year, you know where you are; but you do not know where you are going to land yourself with this scheme. What is going to be the result in 10 years' time? Dotted all over this country will be sausage factories, bacon factories, and so on. All over the country will be found these tiny factories all having borrowed money from my right hon. Friend, and none of them being able to pay the money back. Then we shall come here with a similar Vote to this, "Money lost on co-operative societies." Is it going to benefit the consumer? Is it going to benefit the farmer? It is too small a thing anyhow. It is not the kind of thing that is going to reduce the price of food to the consumer.
In my constituency during the last Election I heard Gentlemen opposite say, Why not smash up the trusts? Well, why are you not doing it? Why are you not going for the milk trust? Why not come up against the big people, who really are strangling the farmers? Why potter about doing little things? Why not "bust" these trusts, break them, go for 794 them? I think this co-operation is simply imitating the trusts. In the name of Socialism, which he represents, surely the right hon. Gentleman should come along and really help the farmers by attacking the big monopolies that hold up the food of the people. I have to pay about 10d. or 11d. in a shop for a cabbage, and that is what the Government should try and deal with. You have converted me by talking about it for so long. Cut into these men, and do not come along with these two penny ha'penny little things. How many Labour Members have spoken on this question to-day? They are shy of it. It is ludicrously stupid. I hope I am not being unfairly critical, but is there not something greater for this Government to do? It is not going to be in long.
§ Mr. BECKER
I wanted to show that this is such a little thing for the Government to do. The Minister makes a statement about how he is going to run egg-selling centres and pig factories, and the people to-morrow morning will read it in the papers and say, "How wonderful! Now everything will be all right." It is hailed by everyone in this House as one of the most wonderful movements ever brought in to help the starving working men on the land and the poor downtrodden farmers, but it is a very little thing. What can be the object of getting the Wholesale Co-operative Society to come in and assist, as I have heard to-day that it should? The Co-operative Wholesale Society is just as much a trading concern as any other. The object is simply to get the best price possible, and I make this last appeal to the Minister, when he is dealing with this question, to bear in mind, that before he lends a single penny to any factory or to any centre or any market, before he thinks of lending any of the taxpayers' money for any of these sort of stunts, he will take care to see that prices to the consumers of stuff sold through these centres will be materially less than those of similar goods from other sources. How can such a scheme be justified if the prices to the consumer through these organisations are not going to be cheapened?
795 That must be the guiding feature, and I hope and trust—I am speaking purely for myself, of course—that in this question of Government-controlled co-operative societies, which are the thin end of the wedge of Government control of every other society, the Government will see that the consumer gets the advantage of all this expensive system, which we are going to work of officials and inspectors and others who are going to come and look after the farmers. I feel convinced that the people will be grateful to the Government if, by this co-operative movement, they can reduce prices to the consumer and not force them up, as it seems to me will be the inevitable result of the present proposal.
§ Sir G. HOHLER
I would like to ask the Minister to answer the questions which I raised just now, and which I consider were of great importance.
§ Mr. W. R. SMITH
There is very little information to give the hon. and learned Member on this question. This outbreak, to which he referred, is one of the unfortunate experiences that have arisen. The cattle when they left appeared to be very healthy and suitable for moving, and no trace of the disease was discovered till they had reached their destination, and the Ministry, as far as humanly possible—
§ Sir G. HOHLER
Could the hon. Gentleman tell me if it is true that they came from an infected area? That is my information, which I got locally last night.
§ Question put, and agreed to.