HC Deb 18 April 1928 vol 216 cc183-6

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to encourage the production of wheat by compulsory milling of certain proportions of home-grown wheat by millers. I am sure that all Members of the House realise the gravity of the plight of agriculture, particularly arable agriculture, and I am sure that any Measure which is not, contentious will have the support of all parties in the House. The object of this Bill is to encourage greater production of wheat. It would increase employment in agriculture, it would make the country more self-supporting, and it would build up a reserve of wheat. It. would increase the demand for English wheat. It would not and does not entail any payment of subsidy by the State. Arable agriculture is, of course, the largest labour-employing section of agriculture, and anything that we can do to give employment at this time of lack of employment, I am sure, will meet with the approval of the whole community. In my opinion the only possible way to tackle the agricultural problem is from the wheat side. In the year 1918 we had 2,636,000 acres growing wheat, but in the last nine years the figure has declined to 1,706,000 acres, a drop of nearly 1,000,000 acres in this one cereal. That 1,000,000 acres drop represents employment for nearly 100,000 men in agriculture. Therefore, it is important that something should be done to increase wheat production and to absorb people into this great industry.

In 1918 we imported 2,800,000 tons of wheat, and last year the importation reached the alarming figure of 5,500,000 tons. I feel sure that, with the depression in agriculture, a Bill such as I seek to introduce would be of some use. The Bill has for its object the securing of a definite proportion of the milling market for wheat in the country, and' if the Bill be passed the farmer will have a basis of support which he has not now. The farm labourer will also have greater security of employment and more regular employment than he has to-day, because the farmers will have this market upon which to fall back. I am satisfied that in no way could the Bill increase the price of flour. Years ago the flour mills of the country were situated in and around the country districts where the corn was grown. In modern times the tendency has been to move the mills to the ports, and the difficulties of transportation have driven the British farmer further and further out of the milling market. My Bill, which entails no subsidy by the State, will not increase the price of flour, hut will give greater security to the farmer and farm worker, and I hope the House will favourably consider the Measure.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has just spoken very vigorously and tersely for the agricultural labourers. I find it necessary to speak on behalf of the flour-millers, and the labourers working in the flour-mills, of whom there are a great many in my constituency. This Measure would injure flour-milling in this country. It is true that the Government are not asked for a subsidy, but the millers would have to subsidise the farmers if this Measure went through. If you insist on the millers taking a certain proportion of English wheat, and if you do not regulate the price—and I am certain that the hon. and gallant Gentleman does not propose to do that—then the millers can be charged just what the farmers choose to "soak" them for. The result of that would be that more flour will come into this country in sacks and there will be less milling in the ports and cities. A further result will be that the price of offals will go up and thus you will hit the farmer also. By a Measure of this kind you make things no better in the long run for the agricultural community. These pettifogging proposals, dealing piecemeal with one trade at the expense of another, without tackling the great basic difficulties of agriculture, will never do any good to farming in this country.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman talks about the million acres of land which have gone out of cultivation. That is only too true, and there are 100,000 agricultural labourers out of work in consequence. I have again and again begged and implored the Conservative Government to do something in the matter but they will do nothing. It is absurd to bring in these pin-pricking Measures to try to cure a great evil of this kind. It is like putting a plaster on a cancer. The flour-milling industry is going through a very hard time, and there is a great deal of unemployment in that industry. From the narrow point of view of the wheat farmer, there may be something to be said for this Bill, but we have to look at the matter from the point of view of the community as a whole, and I hope the House will not give a First Reading to this Measure. I make a final appeal. I see the Secretary of State for War in his place. The Government themselves do not use English wheat for the forces. They do not use English wheat for the prisons and workhouses and other Government institutions. They could do a little to help the farmer by using British wheat, but they will not do it. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman would address himself to that side of the question, and try to ginger up his own Front Bench Members, he would do a great deal more good than by taking up the time of the House with Measures of this kind.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Major Braithwaite, Colonel Sir Arthur Holbrook, Lieut.-Colonel Ruggles-Brise, Mr. Dixey, Mrs. Philipson, and Mr. Forrest.