HC Deb 15 February 1927 vol 202 cc843-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary Sum, not exceeding £450,000, 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, 1927, for a Subsidy on Sugar and Molasses manufactured from Beet grown in Great Britain.

The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Colonel Guinness)

The reason for this Supplementary Vote of £450,000 for the Beet Sugar Subsidy is that, during the current season, a very high rate of production has been reached. It is not realised, perhaps, by the Committee how difficult it is to foresee, when the Estimates have to be closed in the Spring, what the Sugar Beet Subsidy will amount to for the following season. When we close the Vote the crop has not been sown; sowing takes place at the end of April and even sometimes into May. Besides the difficulty of estimating the acreage, we have this year achieved a much greater yield—about an extra ton per acre on 130,000 acres under beet cultivation as compared with last year. In addition to that, the demand of the factories on the Vote has been increased by the better sugar content of the crop, which this year is estimated at about 17 per cent as against 16.3 last year. This year, again, the season has been very good, and little damage has been done by frost. The manufacturing processes have advanced much more rapidly than last year, and we shall have to find a much larger proportion of the total subsidy out of this year's Votes and less after the close of the financial year. This money, which the Committee is asked to vote to-night, is evidence of the success of a policy which was adopted with the general agreement of all parties. Therefore, I hope that even though it involves a very considerable sum of money the Committee will not grudge the Vote for which I ask.


While supporting the passing of this Vote and the principle involved in the Sugar Subsidy Act, I hope, before the Vote passes, that the Minister will give us some information on the effects, as far as he has been able to gauge them, of the working of the Act up to the present. Does this demand for an increased sum over the former Estimate indicate that the Act is succeeding in the objects which the House had in view in passing it? The Committee will recollect that a great deal was made on both sides of the House of the advantages which would accrue, above all, to agricultural labourers; second, to the standard of agriculture in this country; and, third, to national wealth by the development of resources hitherto unused. In my view, it was a very great experiment, and one of the greatest Measures perhaps undertaken by the House since the establishment of the Ministry of Agriculture. A quarter of the period laid down by the Act has already passed, and we can take a certain stock of what will be the effect at the end of this avowedly temporary Measure.

Take the benefit to the worker first. The Minister, though he cannot give us exact figures, will be able to tell us interesting things as to what has been the effect, both on the agricultural worker and on the workers in the factories who may or may not have been drawn from the country. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed h[...] firm belief that the Measure would be of great benefit, especially to the workers, and that it would provide more work in the country and stem the flight from the land. The plan appears to be developing according to intention. The acreage has gone up, since the passing of the Act, from 16,000 to 130,000 and, as the Minister indicated, the yield has gone up in proportion. I think 13,000 tons were produced three years ago, and it is now 130,000 tons. The country is now producing, instead of a negligible fraction of its sugar consumption, about five weeks' consumption, which is a formidable thing.

What has been the effect on the agricultural worker? A year ago there was a discussion in the House as to the disappointing fact that the agricultural worker was not benefiting by the demand for labour in the factories. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that things have changed in regard to that, and that the factories have taken on the agricultural workers to a great extent. It is very interesting that the figures of the Ministry show a considerable increase in the number of adult male regular agricultural workers. The increase appeared to have been from 1925, 441,000, to 1926, 455,000. How far is that very striking change due to the establishment of the sugar industry? We know that the non-employed, non-agricultural workers have been absorbed in several towns. It was always the case that the Kelham factory absorbed the unemployed in the neighbourhood of Newark; and at Spalding, for instance, the unemployed of Boston have been mainly utilised in running the Spalding factory. We may regard the great part of the expense, I hope, ultimately as a remunerative investment; but, at all events, as diminishing the expenditure on unemployment relief to a very considerable extent, because some 8,000 men have been employed in the factories.

We do not quite know how much employment has been given by the purchase of machinery made in this country. The Act allowed the Minister to relax a little the obligation to purchase British-made machinery for the factories, and I do not know whether the 25 per cent. allowance was fully utilised. It would be interesting to know, but a great deal of employment has certainly been given in the production of machinery for the factories. I recall the Minister of Agriculture saying, about a year ago in a speech to farmers, that the factories and the sugar subsidy had been a boon which ought to he reflected in the level of wages on the farm.

8.0 p.m.

I am afraid that that argument has not been repeated lately, and I wonder how far the great boon conferred by the sugar subsidy has had that effect. It seems to me that the Minister might have used this argument more strongly, and it would have justified it if he had used it with regard to the miserable wages which, in spite of public regulation, still prevails in several counties, and asked, as the Wages Act allowed him to do, for a reconsideration of wages in those counties where they are lowest. He could have employed the argument that the sugar subsidy has in very large areas made it more possible to pay a better wage. He cannot contend that the level of 30s. which still prevails in several counties is sufficient, and that it really satisfied the standard laid down in the Wages Act. If it is claimed that the sugar subsidy has helped the farmer, it follows that the farmer is in the better position to help the labourer and the argument must be used both ways. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The really vital thing in this very great undertaking—one of the greatest educational undertakings ever made in this country with regard to agriculture—is this. Does the Minister see a prospect of continuity of the successful establishment of the industry? The facts are beginning to give us some guidance on that point. In about seven years factories and farmers will have to face a world price, and they will have to compete with foreign standards all round. We know that they will be very unwise to count on any prolongation of the subsidy.

The foreigner has several advantages over the home grower, and one of the greatest of these is that he gets cheap labour, very often imported labour. For example, in East Prussia you find Polish labour employed on the great estates. We in this country have got higher standards of living to maintain, and we must do so not by reaching, but by exceeding the efficiency of the foreigner, with the help of one or two great advantages which we have got and which he has not got. We have the advantage that we have come later into the field and that we are putting in the latest machinery. The Ministry tile other day issued an extremely interesting summary of the situation on the wireless. One point made there was that we had the advantage in point of climate. It is the case that here and there our production is extremely good, and I do not suppose that the Dutch or the Germans could readily surpass the results obtained, for instance, by a farmer in Suffolk who grew 18 tons to the acre with a percentage of 17 per cent. I believe we are going to secure a great advantage in adopting the new system of all-year sugar extraction, and anyone will realise, who has visited Eynsham, the incredible economy that will result if that system is made practicable. It would appear that the future is regarded with confidence by investors. A very considerable amount of capital has been put into the business by people who know that the subsidy will undoubtedly drop to a low level in a very few months and disappear in a very few years. For anyone to think that the subsidy will continue would, to my mind, indicate almost insanity, because it is incredible that the British people will tolerate anything more than a temporary educational grant of public money, taken from every pocket in the land, for the special benefit of one industry. If anyone encouraged the idea of a continuance of the subsidy he would be the worst friend of the industry. The most helpful thing that the Minister could do would be constantly to urge on the factories and on the farmers that he will help them in every conceivable way to increase their efficiency so that they will be able to face the world at the end of 10 years, on a basis of free competition, standing on their own legs.

I would like to ask the Minister what he thinks of the educational effects, so far, on farmers and their methods. The reports and experiences that I have gained are very encouraging in that direction. I always regarded this effort as being, above all, an educational effort, an extremely costly but an extremely valuable contribution to agricultural education. It may be said that we are spending too much on this educational effort. While it is a prodigious amount, yet I might say that, in my own view, so long as you are not able to control farmers and the letting of land as you would by the public ownership of land, you will always have to pay very heavily for educational improvement. We have spent enormous sums on educational grants in agriculture, and the result has not been very great. A county organiser was telling me the other day that certainly not more than 5 per cent. of the farmers in his county pay any attention at all to the demonstrations or the lectures or the educational work of any kind for which Parliament is giving all the time extremely large sums. My view of the matter, when it was first discussed, was that the cost of such a contribution as this to education, though it will be certainly more than double what our educational grant was before, might be worth three or four times as much, because it would not be neglected by the farmers, and the gratifying thing is that it has taken effect on a very wide scale. I have observed that in Lincolnshire and other counties there has been a great stir of farming, scientific and mechanical interest, bringing things more on to the level of the highly-developed Continental agriculture. Machinery is becoming much more familiar. The farmers are getting the men trained, which means that they will earn more money, and a new spirit has been introduced. I hope the Minister will tell us what he can by way of evidence on these points, especially as to the educational effect on the farmer, and the effect on the standard of life and the degree of employment of the agricultural worker.


The last thing I wish to do is to try to queer the pitch for anything the Minister may wish to say in answer to the questions which were addressed to him, but, as I am rather deeply interested and a great deal mixed up in this industry, perhaps I may be allowed to say one or two things on the same lines as those dealt with by the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. In the first place, has this industry helped agriculture and agricultural labourers? Well, I do not think I am over-stating the case when I say that in the Eastern Counties it is the one thing which is saving the arable farmer. Everyone who has studied agriculture knows the terrible difficulties of the arable farmers in the Eastern Counties during the last few years. I believe the sugar-beet industry is in the process of saving him from practical extinction, and the measure of the success of the sugar-beet industry is not the crop and the acreage of the sugar-beet crop this year, but it is the very much larger acreage of the arable land which is affected by the sugar-beet grown in rotation. There are many thousands of acres, probably hundreds of thousands of acres now under straw crops this year because the farmers who farm these acres have adopted sugar beet as one of the crops of their rotation. The profit they make on the sugar beet will enable them to grow their wheat or barley.


And pay higher rents.


That has not been the effect. It has been the experience that he has been able to pay a somewhat higher wage.

Motion made, and Question, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again," put, and agreed to.—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.