§ 1. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £303,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will 1333 come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1926, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, including a Subsidy on Sugar and Molasses manufactured from Beet grown in Great Britain, Expenses under the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, Loans to Agricultural Co-operative Societies, Grants for Agricultural Education and Research, Grants for Eradication of Tuberculosis in Cattle, Grants for Land Drainage, a Grant-in-Aid of the Small Holdings Account, and certain other Grants-in-Aid; and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew."
§ 2."That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £12,700, 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, 1926, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade, and Subordinate Departments, including certain Services arising out of the War."
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."
§ Mr. NOEL BUXTON
When this Estimate was before the Committee a long Debate arose on the question whether the Vote for the sugar-beet subsidy ought to be passed without an assurance from the Minister that he recognised the obligation to associate the subsidy with the question of agricultural wages. It was argued by myself and others that it was incumbent on the Minister to use all his powers in order to bring to the labourers, as well as to the farmers, the advantages of that subsidy. I hope, Mr. Speaker, you will allow me to develop that point, because at the time the Minister was diverted from his argument, and since then one or two new considerations have arisen, and notably, there have been conferences of labourers in the lowest-paid counties during the last few days, and there is a possibility that there may be widespread agricultural strikes. Ought the Vote to be passed unless satisfaction is given to the House that the implied promise that the sugar-beet subsidy would be of benefit to the workers as well as to the farmers is shown to have been fulfilled? One of the main arguments in support of the policy was that it would benefit wages. No one denies that the sugar-beet policy has been of general benefit in the arable areas. The right hon. Gentleman opposite has publicly stated that it is not only a partial 1334 benefit but a general benefit. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if the benefit is general it is fair to argue that it ought to be reflected in the wages fixed in the arable areas. We are faced with the fact that in certain counties the wages—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I have been examining the Estimate. It must be remembered that this is a Supplementary Estimate. As far as I can see, there is no item in it on which this argument could be founded. I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman must wait for the Vote on Account, or for the Vote which contains the Minister's salary, in order to raise his point.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
I wish to say a word or two on the same part of the Estimate, although I expect the Minister will think he has heard a great deal from me already on that subject. As I said to him while this matter was in Committee, those of us who are specially concerned with the consumers' point of view will never let this matter alone until we think we have sufficiently protected them as well as the general taxpayer. I want to reply to a point made by the Minister in the Debate when the Vote was in Committee. He said there was no real point in my argument that the giving of this subsidy—we are voting a further sum to-night—would create a vested interest which would require the Government to maintain a tax upon sugar. I have looked at his speech as reported in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and find he said:May I point out that the Government are entirely free to reduce the Sugar Tax right down to the stabilised preference, which is a very small figure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1926; col. 1813, Vol. 191.]I am quite well aware that on the basis of the scheme, which was worked out during the Labour administration of 1924, instead of giving the whole of the subsidy by a remission of Customs Duties a fixed subsidy was laid down, and an Excise Duty was charged upon the home produce. That is evidently responsible for the statement the Minister made in Committee, but the real fact is—and he has had enough experience at the Treasury, as well as at the Ministry of Agriculture now, to know it—that when a Chancellor of the Exchequer is faced with the alternative on the one hand of increasing a direct subsidy from the Ex- 1335 chequer to a given commodity or allowing an Excise Duty to remain on, the pull all the time will be on the side of maintaining the Excise Duty. So far as the present Government are concerned, that has been made perfectly plain to us by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for although he made many speeches when he was in the Liberal party, and not in the Tory party, about the wickedness of broadening the basis of taxation, he has made it perfecly clear, in his speeches during the last 12 months, that he is predisposed now in favour of broadening the basis of taxation rather than otherwise. Therefore, I submit that this additional Vote to-night will still further increase the bias of the Treasury in favour of keeping on the tax on this great and important food commodity of the people.
The second point I want to make is that when the British Sugar (Subsidy) Bill was going through the House in 1925 some of us, fortunately, insisted that the companies who were to receive this enormous subsidy—that is the only adjective to be applied to it—should be required to submit audited accounts to this House. Having secured that important concession—quite a new departure in that direction—I am rather surprised that more Members have not taken notice of the results. I find—
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member also forgets that this is a Supplementary Estimate. I see that the House voted on the main Estimate £1,000,000 for the beet-sugar subsidy. This is an Estimate for an excess of £250,000, but that does not entitle hon. Members to go back over the whole matter, which was discussed on the main Estimate—the argument for or against a beet-sugar subsidy.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
With great respect, Sir, I want to put this point to you. I take it that this additional sum of £250,000 is in respect of the current financial year, and that it arises from the action of the Government in developing still further the policy of having more factories erected and larger acreages put under sugar beet; and therefore I think it is in order for us to discuss the effect of the policy which has led up to this increased acreage, and the wisdom of voting this additional sum.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
As far as the increase is concerned, that certainly would be all right, but the hon. Member seemed to me to be going over the whole field which we debated on the main Estimate. He must confine himself to the increase.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I wish to keep within your ruling, Sir. The point I want to make is that this increase is not justified having regard to the results of the companies published during the current financial year and laid before this House. If you agree that is in order I can pursue my argument.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member cannot cover the whole field. He must confine himself to arguments against the increase.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
I shall be very glad to do that. I think the increased subsidy is on an uneconomic basis, and that the voting of this money will encourage people to go into an industry which cannot finally be successful. The Minister of Agriculture, during the Committee Stage, indicated that he did not agree that finally this industry was bound to be uneconomic. On that occasion I quoted an extract from the "Public Ledger" stating that capitalists would be able to recoup themselves for the whole of their capital expenditure out of the subsidies. I see from the report of the Home and Colonial Stores that several factories have been largely subsidised by the Government, and it is stated that out of their profits they should be able to set aside a sum by the time the subsidies end equal to the capital invested. That is a statement made by the chairman of a company who speaks from very great experience on the whole question of sugar beet production and of the marketing generally of sugar, and he is perfectly well aware that a subsidy voted on this basis will enable the owners of the factories who receive the subsidy to recoup themselves entirely for their capital expenditure during the period of the subsidy. I think that is a most amazing position for us to be in.
There is another point I want to repeat, and it is of considerable importance. 1337 We would very much like to see, if there is to be any gain from this subsidy, that it should go to the basic industry itself; that is the agricultural industry. I see from the results of the working of two companies which have been published that the subsidy received works out on the sugar percentage basis at 51s. to 52s. 6d. per ton, and yet during that season a considerable proportion of the beet was only able to produce for the farmer 44s. per ton. Under long-period contracts they might get more, but a subsidy voted on this basis is going to provide the factories with the whole of their raw materials for nothing and give them a bonus on the raw material as well.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Order, order! That is a question which does not come within the Supplementary Estimate, and I could not allow the Minister to reply to those arguments.