Motion made, and Question proposed.
That a sum, not exceeding £1,332,310, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1931, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Expenses under the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act, 1924, a Grant under the Agricultural Credits Act, 1928, Loans to Co-operative Marketing Societies, Grants for Agricultural Education and Research, Grants for Eradication of Tuberculosis in Cattle, Grants for Land Improvement, Grants-in-Aid of the Small Holdings Account, and other Grants including certain Grants-in-Aid; and the Salaries and Expenses of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ Colonel Sir GEORGE C0URTH0PE
Before speaking to the Vote or moving a reduction, I should like to ask your Ruling, Mr. Young, on a point of Order—whether it would be in order, as I believe it would be for the general convenience of the Committee, for the discussion on sugar beet to be included in the general discussion on the Ministry of Agriculture, although it falls under a separate Vote, which is also on the Paper to-day?
§ The CHAIRMAN
No. It has always been the Rule of the House that when a discussion on agriculture or any other subject is taking place, if the question is not covered by any other Vote, then it is in order when the Minister's salary is under discussion, but if there is a separate Vote, it must remain a separate discussion.
§ Sir ARTHUR STEEL-MAITLAND
On the point of Order. I gather that the Minister as Minister is responsible also for sugar beet. In these circumstances, if a reduction of the Minister's salary were moved, would it put a discussion on Sugar beet in order?
§ The CHAIRMAN
Everything for which the Minister is responsible will come under this Vate, provided there is not another Vote dealing with the particular question. There is another Vote dealing with sugar entirely.
§ Sir G. COURTHOPE
I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £100.
I move this reduction, not through any personal hostility to the Minister, but because he is for the time being responsible for the Ministry of Agriculture. In my opinion, agriculture to-day is in a more deplorable condition than has been known in recent history. Last week a number of very interesting points were raised as to the agricultural depression, but there are certain other features, and, to my mind, the most serious feature of the agricultural depression, about which little or nothing was said, and to those I want to refer briefly this afternoon. The first point I want to make is that the depression in agriculture to-day—I suppose it is common of any period of acute depression—has this very unfortunate effect, that while practically every section and branch of the agricultural and horticultural industries are depressed, the depression hits hardest those branches of the industry which are most intensive, most productive, and give most employment, in other words, those which are of the greatest national importance.
To-day, I believe it is true to say that there are only two considerable sections of the great group of industries which make up agriculture that are holding their own at all. One of those is hill sheep-farming, for the simple reason that its costs of production are practically nil; it has the lowest of any section of agriculture, an industry where 1,000 acres, or, in some cases, as much as 1,500 or 1,800 acres, give employment for one man and two dogs, a valuable industry, no doubt, but not one which we wish to see extended at the expense of the more intensive forms of food production. The other industry, of course, is sugar beet. I am not going to speak about the subsidy. I am only mentioning sugar beet to this limited extent, that sugar beet is reasonably prosperous because it is receiving a substantial subsidy which will be debated on a later Vote. Even sugar beet is in some considerable doubt as to its future position, because it is uncertain for how long a portion of the industry 423 will be able to hold its own and carry on when the next automatic fall in the subsidy takes place next year.
With those two exceptions, the whole of agriculture is depressed to a deplorable degree, and, from the national point of view, the depression is more serious than appears on the surface, for this reason. It is possible, and is an actual fact, that a great many farmers, probably the majority, during a period of depression, while they are not receiving profits from the sale of their products sufficient to cover the costs of production and reasonable living expenses, are still able to carry on for a number of years by the gradual exhaustion of the stored up fertility of their land. That is going on to-day, and it is particularly serious for the reason that while this deterioration, this destruction of fertility, is not very apparent at first, it is a thing that takes endless toil and many years to restore when once it has taken place. Principiis obsta: sero medicina paratur. It is a case of the old Latin motto, that it is very difficult, indeed, to get back, when times are better, to the state of prosperity from which the depression has led. I consider that it is the urgent duty of the Government of the day and of this House to bear that fact in mind, because it emphasises the importance of checking the depression, stopping the rot before the exhaustion of the stored up fertility of the soil becomes really acute.
It may be said with perfect truth—if I remember aright, the Minister himself said so in his opening speech on Monday of last week—that this depression is not peculiar to Great Britain. It is perfectly true that there is very general agricultural depression all over the world. There is very general over-production of foodstuffs all over the world, but, while that is true, it is equally true to say that the depression is felt more acutely in Great Britain than probably in any other quarter of the globe, for a variety of reasons. In the first place, Great Britain is a more convenient dumping ground than any other part of the globe for the surplus products of other countries. I do not think that anyone can dispute that statement. As a result of that, we are getting wheat and oats, meat and potatoes, particularly in the case of potatoes, produced under conditions we should never tolerate for one moment in 424 this country, coming in to render more acute the depression and the deplorable state of our agriculture.
I should, perhaps, define what I mean when I say that the potatoes are produced under conditions which would never be tolerated in this country. I believe it is a fact—it has often been stated, and, as far as I can ascertain, it has never been authoritatively denied—that a considerable importation, and the most damaging importation, because it comes about a month before our own products are ready, is produced by unpaid convict labour. This House should bear that in mind, because it brings it quite out of the ordinary range of fiscal considerations. It puts it right outside the ordinary bounds of a Government which is ruled by a Free Trade policy, and I urge upon the Government that this question of Algerian potatoes might very well be dealt with from quite other considerations than those of fiscal Protection or Free Trade.
There is another reason, and a very important one, why the depression hits this country the hardest of all, or, perhaps I should say, harder than many others. It is that we maintain—and rightly maintain—a higher standard of wages, hours, and living generally, and hygiene in the production of foodstuffs, than many of the countries whose surplus goods are dumped without restrictions here. All those conditions are right. Personally, I should like to see a much higher wage paid to-day, but we have, first of all, to get the industry into a condition to be able to pay even the present rate. I do not find fault at all with the attempts that have been made to eradicate disease from our flocks and herds. The hygienic conditions required in cow-Sheds, the attack on tuberculosis and all those things are all right, but they all add to the costs of production, and they all put us in an inferior position to compete with products coming from countries which do not add, by legislation, to the cost of production by imposing similar restrictions.
Thirdly, we are more hardly hit than other countries by depression, because our burden of taxation is far and away higher than that which is borne by any of our competing countries. All these considerations—the taxation, the standard of wages, the requirements of 425 hygiene, and so on, have this result, which is a very deplorable one, that our costs of production are fixed on an internal and purely national basis, but our produce has to be sold in an international market at international prices, and the two are hopelessly inconsistent. So long as you have internal national costs and international prices, you will never succeed in getting British agriculture out of the trough of depression in which it is floundering to-day.
There is one other topic, which I do not think has been mentioned before, although I think it has a very important bearing upon the depression of agriculture to-day, and a bearing which is more severe in Great Britain than in probably any other country in the world. I believe that, owing to our rapid deflation, we are suffering more acutely than any other country from the world shortage of gold. That is particularly shown in the failure—I maintain that it is practically a complete failure—of Part II of the Agricultural Credits Act, which was designed to provide that urgent necessity for agriculturists, short-term credits for the working capital necessary to enable them to raise and harvest their crops. I admit that that was not the fault of the Act.
I also admit that the agricultural charge devised by that Act was a most convenient form of security upon which a great deal of valuable credit circulation might take place. But although Part II creates a new form of security, it does not add a single penny to the fund from which agricultural credit is available. When you come to think of it that is a ridiculous position. Every year we are producing on our farms and in our gardens a vast amount of new wealth. If we take the figures published by the Minister of Agriculture, which I think are reasonably accurate, that new wealth varies from something like £225,000,000 up to nearly £300,000,000, according to the season. That is the amount of new wealth which is produced every year. What a preposterous thing it is that all that creation of new wealth should not give rise to a single penny of increase in the sum available for short-term credit for the people who produce that wealth.
The reason is obvious. It is no use their having the security if the money is not there. Under the existing system, 426 and so long as the world shortage of gold continues, the aggregate sum which the banks can advance on short-term loans, whether to agriculturists or to other people, is restricted and related to the amount of the deposits in their hands. Those deposits depend upon the currency, Which is limited directly by the reserve of gold. You may produce thousands of millions of new wealth each year, but, unless the gold reserve increases, and, consequently, currency and deposits increase, there can be no increase in the amount of money available for the banks to lend on short-term credit. I urge the Government to consider—I know that the Macmillan Committee are considering it—as a matter of great urgency, whether, without upsetting the gold standard for international purposes, and the general credit system, they might not give such negotiable instruments as the agricultural charges set up under Part II of the Agricultural Credits Act an internal value which would enable additional credit to be advanced upon that security, instead of upon the security of the deposits in the banks and indirectly of the gold reserve. To my mind it is inconceivable that the £250,000,000 of new wealth produced on the farms of Great Britain each year should not be just as good as gold as a basis of credit up to a reasonable proportion of its value. Short-term credit is required by the farmer, as a rule, during the summer and early autumn, at the very time when the deposits are the lowest, because the agricultural community, who in many cases are only able to make deposits during the autumn and winter, after they have harvested their crops, have withdrawn all that, and deposits are down. Consequently, the amount available for short-term credit is down also. They have withdrawn their deposits because they require money for their cultivation. It is true that a good deal of credit is available to a limited extent from the agricultural merchants, but very often—I do not blame the agricultural merchant because his position is one of uncertainty—the rate of interest charged for that credit is abnormally high. Another drawback is that that credit is definitely limited to the supplies obtained from that merchant, because the farmer cannot go to his seedsman or manure merchant and say, "Lend me £1,000 to spend in labour on the harvest." He will not get it. 427 He may get three months' credit for his manures or seeds, but that is all.
There is another form of credit which is worse still. Most of the agricultural merchants deal perfectly fairly with the farmers; it is only in exceptional cases that there are unfair charges; but there is an old form of credit which has sprung up under a thoroughly undesirable custom which is still in operation in some parts, more particularly, of the West of England. It is a custom under which, when the drovers of store cattle come round to the market towns to sell their cattle, if they cannot sell for cash, the price of each animal, regardless of what it was, goes up £1 a month. Let me give an example. You have a farmer who wants store stock. He buys 40 or 50 head of store cattle at ¤12 apiece, but it is six months before he can pay for them; and when he pays, he pays £18 apiece, or 16 above the original price, which is an increase of 50 per cent. The farmer is only just beginning to realise that in a case like that he is paying 100 per cent. interest for the credit which he gets. If the credit fund could be divorced from its relation to gold, and short-term loans could be made more readily available to the farmer, all that kind of ruinous credit would cease automatically, because the farmer who wanted to buy 50 head of store stock could go with his agricultural charge to his bank and borrow the money which he required to pay for those cattle at 5½ per cent. or 6 per cent., or whatever the rate was, and he could leave his charge there so long as those cattle remained on his hands, instead of paying 80 or 100 per cent. interest through ignorance. He would get his loan, probably, at not more than 5 per cent, or 6 per cent. I urge the Minister of Agriculture to go very seriously into that question—
§ Sir G. COURTHOPE
I believe not. I am told that in most of those cases there are no documents passed at all. Many of the drovers are illiterate, but the drover sells store stock to farmers in certain districts, and there is a system of trust which has sprung up. It is very seldom abused, but what is abused—I think not intentionally—is the rate of 428 interest. All these matters to which I have referred, and the consequent terrible depression that is pressing so hardly on the farmers, are having this result. The farmer, when he begins to feel the pinch, skimps the labour for the maintenance of his farm and he is being driven bit by bit to inferior forms of production. I do not say that all the country can ever be converted into hill sheep farms; but it is tending in that direction; it is tending towards a lower production of foodstuffs, a decrease in the employment of labour, and a general lowering of the capital value of the agricultural equipment of the country.
One particularly evil result of this tendency is shown in the dairying industry. A few years ago dairying was reasonably profitable. Arable farmers had begun to feel the pinch very severely, and a number of farmers started turning down their land to grass and going in for dairy farming. The result is that we have an over-production of milk. That is particularly serious, not so much because of the inadequacy of the price for the milk which is sold for direct home consumption as milk, but because of the inadequacy of the market for surplus milk. Everyone who has had anything to do with dairying knows that if a dairy farmer succeeds in delivering his contract minimum of gallons of milk day by day all through the year, at a particular time of the year he must have a considerable surplus, very often amounting to as much as 40 per cent. What we need more than anything in this country to maintain the dairying industry and keep it out of difficulties is a fairly steady and reasonable market for surplus milk? Why have we not got it? Because we threw our doors open to all the rubbishy stuff—the milk powder, condensed skimmed milk, and everything else—that any other country in the world chooses to send us. I am told, though I frankly admit, because I do not want to mislead, the Committee, that I have been unable to obtain anything like official verification of it, that in more than one case the countries that send us this condensed skimmed milk, which is really worthless from the point of view of nourishment, do not allow it to be sold within their own borders. I put that to the Committee with this qualification, because I have been unable 429 to verify it. I do urge that even the most rigid Free Trade Government should be able to place some restriction upon the imports—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I think that the hon. Baronet is now trenching on something which would need legislation, and, if that be so, it would not be permissible to discuss it on this Vote.
§ Sir G. COURTHOPE
Thank you, Mr. Young. I was afraid that I was getting a little over the mark; but I think that perhaps, without my enlarging further on this very serious importation, the Committee will have taken my point sufficiently. All these tendencies that I have mentioned—even the conversion from arable farming to dairying, and, still more, the conversion from dairying to ranching or anything like that—may save the individual farmer from ruin. They may enable a man who used to employ 40 or 50 hands to carry on, more or less, only employing five or six; but that is not what the country wants. If the country requires, as it does, a different standard of production, and a more intensive form of agriculture than the farmer would naturally give in view of the economic considerations which control him, the country must do something to help. The country must make it economically possible for that more intensive form of farming to be carried on. In other words, it must make that more intensive form of farming pay from the farmer's point of view.
Things are getting worse. It is quite true that Government after Government has been in office during the period of gradual decline. I admit that quite frankly. I admit perfectly frankly that I believe that every one of those Governments has been equally genuine in its desire to help, but each one of them has been equally cowardly in facing the real situation. Taking the last four years, when my own party was in office, I have not been able to find in the Parliamentary records any other period of four years in which so much time was devoted to agriculture, and in which so many Measures were passed—excellent Measures in themselves, but with what result? They were not big enough. The present Ministry are carrying on the work that was instituted by the last one in regard to the National Mark and things of that kind. That is excellent work, 430 but what is the good of it? It is not nearly big enough. This depression is culminating now. I do not think we have got to the bottom of it yet. It is infinitely worse this year than it was last year, and, as the present Minister is responsible for it now, it is he whom I have to attack, and whom I am attacking.
What has he done? He has done nothing worth doing, nothing big. He set up an Agricultural Conference, and I give him all credit for getting it together. I was a member of it, and I see other members of it in this House, but, because its deliberations were conducted in secret, my tongue is tied to a much greater extent than in the case of those who have talked quite freely in public about its deliberations and its conclusions, because, not having been there, they knew nothing about it. I was there, and I do know what happened, but I can say nothing about the work of that Conference except to refer to the published Reports. A very important Report was published, with the sanction of the Cabinet, in March last. It gave a certain amount of summary of the work that the Agricultural Conference has done, and some of its conclusions, and it gave, in my opinion, a very important and adequate lead to the Government as to what was required to be done at once. I will read some extracts from this Report, and will then make my point that, in spite of the unanimous recommendation which was made to the Government, they have done nothing.
This Report, which was published officially, and may have been read by many hon. Members, contained this most important statement:The representatives decided to concentrate on the proposals which would make it possible for a capable farmer on average land in this country to make ordinary farming pay. It was agreed that the key to this problem was the profitableness of cereal growing, as the decline of cereal growing had caused a reduction of the arable area and a change in the system of farming, which had resulted in increased competition in other branches of the industry, with a consequent decrease of the financial returns in those branches. Proceeding on this principle, the Conference has considered various methods of improving the price which the British farmer receives for his wheat.Then the Report sets out that, at the meeting on the 28th February, the Conference passed unanimously the following resolution: 431This Conference views with the utmost concern the present position in arable agriculture, the increase in unemployment amongst agricultural workers, the amount of land going out of cultivation, and the lack of confidence created thereby. The Conference, therefore, desires to place before His Majesty's Government its unanimous opinion that measures should be taken to assure to farmers a remunerative price for cereals. The Conference has under consideration various proposals for securing this object, but further detailed examination of them is required to enable it to make final recommendations. Meanwhile, the economic condition of arable agriculture is deteriorating, and aggravating the unemployment problem. In order to avert further deterioration, there is urgent need for an immediate pronouncement calculated to restore confidence to the industry in the meantime.That was on the 28th February—
§ The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Noel Buxton)
I really do not think that my hon. and gallant Friend need feel tongue-tied in any way in regard to the deliberations of the Conference.
§ Sir G. COURTHOPE
I thank the Minister very much for saying that, but I can make my point quite well on this report, and it is a little difficult to refer to secret discussions.
As far as many of us are concerned, we have every intention of pressing the Government to tell us quite clearly what has occurred at this Conference, so that my hon. and gallant Friend need not run away with the idea that we shall be content with any statement that the Conference was secret. We want to know what it is doing, and why it has been delayed for so long.
§ Sir G. COURTHOPE
On the 28th February, this resolution was passed, and it was forwarded to the Government through the Minister of Agriculture, urging the necessity for some immediate pronouncement. The urgency arose because the spring seed-time was coming on, and we all felt, from the reports which had been received from the National Farmers' Union and other authorities, that, unless something was done at once to restore confidence, a very large area of land which had been prepared for spring sowing particularly in the Eastern Counties, would remain unsown, and we considered, in the general interest of the country, and particularly in the interests of agricultural employment, that it was very important 432 that that land should be sown and that the necessary' encouragement to sow it should be given.
Has that encouragement been given? Not at all; and now the seed-time is past, and that land remains unsown. Whether we shall ever get it back remains to be seen, but one thing is quite certain, and that is that it will need a great deal more help, financial and otherwise, from this or some other Government, to get it back, once it has gone out of cultivation, than would have needed to keep it in arable cultivation if the necessary confidence had been inspired. Other recommendations are referred to in this memorandum, such as the supply of home-killed beef to His Majesty's Forces, the use of home-produced meat and flour in public institutions, and so on, but I do not want to weary the Committee by dwelling too long on these points. It is sufficient for my purpose to say that this Conference made unanimous recommendations of great urgency, that the urgency was ignored, that nothing has been done, and that the time for doing anything effective, as far as this year is concerned, has gone.
Then it became a matter of public knowledge that, while this Agricultural Conference was sitting, the Government set up another Committee, consisting partly of Members of the Cabinet and partly of experts from outside, to consider very much the same problems, and we were given to understand on the Floor of this House that a report had been drawn up, in the form of a White Paper, setting out the agricultural policy which it was proposed to pursue, and that that White Paper would be available to the House immediately after Easter. Where is it? Hardly a day passes on which it is not asked for. No one can doubt that it is in existence, and I am entitled to put this question to the Minister, because I do not doubt his personal willingness to publish this policy and put it into effect. If he supports this policy and his colleagues do not, why does not he take a stronger stand? To-day we have seen one Minister withdraw from the Government because he cannot get his policy carried out, and we should expect that any other Minister who takes a strong line in the interest of such a great industry as agriculture would not remain a Member of a Cabinet which refused to 433 carry out what he considers, if he does so consider it, to be an essential policy for the industry which he represents.
At all events, neither as the result of the Conference nor as the result of the Cabinet Committee, has anything been done at all. As I have said, nothing has been done of a big nature, and this is essentially a question of big remedies for big troubles. They have got to be dealt with on big business lines, quite apart from petty considerations of party advantage or anything of that kind. Last week I was very much interested and delighted to hear a short speech on this subject from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). It seemed to me to be an attempt to initiate a general move in the political rather than the party world to lift agriculture out of the realm of party strife. The right hon. Gentleman proposed a conference, and, although from my experience I have not much faith in conferences, yet as a gesture, as a move in the right direction, I welcome it, and I hope that, if I rightly interpret it as a move in the direction of getting agriculture away from party strife, it will be pushed on, not only by the right hon. Gentleman who made the proposal, but by the leaders of both the other parties as well. I am quite sure that, if we are to deal with the depression in the agricultural industry in an adequate manner, we must get away from the prejudices and shibboleths which restrain our actions now.
I have been, quite rightly, warned off the Protectionist issue, because that would inevitably involve legislation as well as change of heart. I have advocated the change of heart, but I must not advocate legislation. There are, however, certain things which this or any other Government could do without further legislation. I believe that they could place restrictions upon competitive articles produced under conditions of labour less favourable than those which we ourselves maintain. I believe that they could equally impose restrictions upon the import of articles produced under less satisfactory hygienic and sanitary conditions than those which we impose. I urge them to do that. I have already mentioned the question of credit, and I believe that they could deal with that by a few strokes of the pen.
434 There is another thing that I want to press upon them. I have already referred to it briefly in connection with potatoes. The principal trouble, not only with potatoes but with many classes of vegetables and fruit coming from abroad, arises from the fact that they are ready for the market just before our own products, and, I urge upon the Minister the adoption of a policy which is associated more prominently with the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Sir B. Eyres Monsell) than any other, and that is that, while potato imports should not be subjected to fiscal interference or anything of that kind, there should be a restriction during the first months of our own products coming into bearing.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am in doubt whether this would not mean legislation also.
Commander Sir BOLTON EYRES MONSELL: I think that what my hon. and gallant Friend is advocating could be done purely by administrative action. The matter is one that concerns my constituents in the Vale of Evesham. The difficulty they have is that the foreign crop, say of asparagus or cherries, comes in about a fortnight before ours are ripe. Whether the crop is a profitable one depends on the early prices, which are high always, and the foreigner invariably skims the cream of the market. What my hon. and gallant Friend is advocating is that, by an administrative order, the competing foreign crop should be kept out until our own crops have the advantage of the fortnight's high prices.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The Minister must not keep me in doubt about this. If he has power to do it, the hon. Baronet may proceed. If not, it is as much out of order as fiscal policy.
§ Mr. N. BUXTON
I think that the right hon. Gentleman refers to powers that are conferred on the Ministry to deal with cases of foreign produce which may bring in disease.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The Minister has certain powers, but I do not think he has power to keep out commodities other than those that have already been laid down in legislation. I do not think there is any power to keep out cherries or asparagus.
We were expressly told by the Prime Minister that a White Paper on agriculture was not desirable, and that the normal opportunity of discussing policy was on the Estimates. As we have had that direct invitation, are we not justified in dealing broadly with policy, even if it might involve legislation?
§ The CHAIRMAN
No. It has always been held that matters of policy do not enter into these Estimates. Their purpose is to criticise those responsible for administration. Questions of legislation have always been barred.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
We have the statement of the Minister himself, when he was asked for a statement of policy, that he is taking administrative steps which will enable such a statement to be made. Those administrative steps surely come entirely within the rules for discussing these Estimates. Is it not right, therefore, that we should be able to ask as to those administrative steps, and as to the results of them, in arriving at the policy though not, of course, to discuss any legislative matter that may be involved?
§ The CHAIRMAN
The Minister may be going to state what steps he is taking but, as he has not told us, we are not at liberty to discuss the import of fruit.
§ Mr. N. BUXTON
The right hon. Baronet is mistaken in attributing to me any statement implying that it would be in order to discuss policy on Estimates.
While not wishing to controvert your Ruling, Mr. Young, which seems to me to be in accordance with what has always happened in Debates on the Estimates, I submit that it has often been the practice where, there is a general desire, which I think exists now on both sides, to have the widest possible latitude in discussing the operations of a particular Ministry, and it has sometimes happened that the Chairman of Committees has indicated that he will allow rather greater latitude than the actual letter of the law allows. As a rule, when that is done, it is based on some statement that has been made by a responsible Minister. The statement was most distinctly made by the Prime Minister at Question time that there would be an opportunity to raise the 436 whole matter of the Government's agricultural policy on the Estimates. I think it has very often been done.
§ The CHAIRMAN
If I were to accept that, then every Estimate would lead to a general discussion. I do not think I can do so.
This would not always arise. Frequently the Chairman of Committees, or Mr. Speaker, says, "I take it it is the general wish of the House that there should be the fullest discussion on this point." It is true that, if anyone objected, the Speaker would hold that such a Debate should not take place. This is not a usual occasion. It is rather a special occasion. Short of moving a Vote of Censure, it is impossible for the Opposition to discuss the policy of the Government on agriculture without being allowed reasonable latitude.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I, myself, have on occasions agreed to such a general discussion, but it was when such discussion would save time on other topics down for consideration in connection with the one then being considered.
§ Sir G. COURTHOPE
I do not dispute your Ruling, Mr. Young, but I do not think this point very much matters. I think that, in the Statute giving the Minister the powers to which he has referred, he will find repeated more than once the rather vague phrase "or otherwise," which appears to give a very wide power. We have objected more than once to these powers. All that I ask is whether he could not put a wide enough interpretation upon those words to deal by administrative action with this case which I have brought to his notice. It would be an effective method of dealing with this very damaging form of competition. Whatever means the Government see fit to adopt to deal with the matter, they must not let the land go back. In the national interest it is imperative that it should not be allowed to go back. A farm is not like a mine OT a factory. Many factories can be closed down and, so long as the machinery is kept greased, no harm is done. Two or three years later you can open it again and go straight on with your output. Many mines can be closed down, so long as you keep the water out, without any serious injury. But a farm is not like 437 that. You cannot close it down and then start work on it again where you left off. You have the terrible loss of fertility from the failure of the flow of water through ditches and drains, and there is the growth of weeds and the thousand and one other difficulties against which the farmer has always to contend. If once you let a farm go back, it takes years of labour before it will pay you again. It is almost true to say that our agricultural land is an artificial thing. It has been made by countless years of labour. Once let it go back into its original state, and you have to go through weary years of heavy expenditure.
More important even than the land are the people who work on it. What is to happen to them if you let them go? It has been difficult enough for many years to make it worth while for the boys and young men of the country districts to learn to work on the land. People are apt to speak of agricultural labour as if it was an unskilled job. It is a very highly skilled job and an efficient agricultural labourer has to be a very highly skilled man. He has to learn his job from his youth if he is to be any good. If you once let arable agriculture go, as it is going very fast to-day, and let the families who have provided agriculture with its labour in many cases for centuries drift into the towns, do you think you are going to get them back? I do not. You will have to start afresh and train up a new peasant population, and it would cost the country untold gold and untold labour and trouble to do it. You may, by a stitch in time, save the situation to-day. If you let it get much worse, it is going to take a generation to accomplish.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
We who are interested in the agricultural situation welcome this further opportunity of pointing out to the House and the country the very difficult crisis into which arable agriculture is drifting. I have been brought up to understand—and I believe that it is true—that agriculture was the largest single industry in the country, employing the largest number of workers. I do not want to make any political point, but, if hon. Members look at the newspapers this morning, they will find that the drawing of unemployment pay occupies by far the greatest number of persons in the 438 country at present. It is a very startling fact that there are three people drawing unemployment pay to every two engaged on the land. I do not think this House can spend its time better than in drawing attention to that serious fact. Undoubtedly, the cultivation of the land is declining and our food imports are increasing. I congratulate the Ministry's officials on the publications that they put out from time to time. I have here a very admirable document which reflects very great credit on those who have compiled it. We are producing less and importing more food than before the War. Before the War we produced 23 per cent. of our wheat, and in 1927–28, which are the latest figures available—they will be worse to-day—it went down to 20 per cent. We imported before the War 47 per cent. of our total consumption of meat, and that has gone down to 40 per cent. Of butter, we imported 13 per cent. before the War, and 11 per cent. in 1927–28. Cheese has also gone down; and the one article of food that has increased its production in this country is margarine, of which we produced 47 per cent. before the War and 76 per cent. in 1927–28. Our dependence upon foreign foodstuffs was never so great as to-day. A few days ago we were discussing the Naval Treaty, and hon. Members rightly expressed a considerable amount of anxiety as to the number of cruisers for guarding our food supplies in time of war. It would be very much more to the point of we grew more food at home. Some little time ago I asked the Ministry what it would cost the country to guarantee to the farmers a price of 55s. a quarter for their wheat, and the answer was that it would be something under £3,000,000. I thought to myself that it costs £7,000,000 to build a battleship, and that that sum would more than guarantee to the farmer 55s. a quarter for his wheat for two years. I have heard of people having a, squint in the eye, but we seem to have a squint in the brain in this matter.
We have had all sorts of theories, and that is why I am glad these discussions are taking place. We have had the theory that if you only take the land out of its present ownership, and if you have public ownership, all will be well. I think that even some Liberals have 439 advocated county ownership. But the real, basic consideration in agricultural cultivation is prices. We had the other day a very interesting speech from the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell), who made his maiden effort here, and a very admirable maiden effort it was. If he were here, I should have liked to congratulate him on the good sense which he displayed. He then said, quite explicity, that he was engaged in another industry but that he was a director of a co-operative society that had been engaged in farming. These were his words:On everything that we have sold, apart from milk, we have lost money in the past 10 years. … We were not short of capital; we had any amount of it. It was not that we had not a market for our produce, for our shops are our market, and we took our goods to the doors of our customers. The fact was that for everything we produced we did not receive an economic price."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1930; col. 1516, Vol. 238.]That really sums up the agricultural situation, that the cultivators of the land are not getting an economic price. I am glad hon. Members opposite have had this opportunity of listening to these facts, because I know it is their habit to say, "Only put the land in the hands of a public authority, and all will be well." Here is a co-operative society, with plenty of money, and admirably directed, as it would be by the hon. Member opposite, which has failed absolutely to make farming pay. I do not propose to make any political points, but we had promises made at the General Election. I suffered from them myself, because I knew too much about agriculture to make those promises, but my opponents were not so particular. I remembered in my constituency that farming had to be made to pay, and hon. Members on this side too, in 1924, premised that agriculture had to be restored to prosperity as an essential balancing element in the social and economic life of the country. Well, there has been no progress; there has been recession, and things are going back.
The real point was given by the late Minister of Agriculture, when he said that during his first season at the Ministry of Agriculture the price of wheat was 52s. 6d. a quarter. The other day I sold wheat in Devonshire at 35s.
440 a quarter. That is no fault of the farmer. It is a great drop. The Ministry's statistics give us some of these facts. I believe that another volume is being issued soon, but here they say:It will be seen that in each of the past three years the gross value of the output has been lower than in 1924–25. In 1924–25 the average return was £6 7s. per acre. In the following year"—that is, a year of Conservative administration—this sum was reduced by 7s. an acre and the year following by another 7s. per acre"—so that in two years the value of the farm crops dropped by 14s. an acre. Now, owing to the very steep drop in agricultural prices, I should not be surprised if it does not amount to another 7s. an acre. That means that the farmer is receiving for his produce, through no fault of his own, £1 an acre less than in 1924–25. That is the real point that we have to meet. The costs of production to the farmer have not decreased. We talk of Free Trade, but there is no Free Trade in agriculture to-day. Wages are fixed, but they are not a whit too high. Everyone who knows the agricultural labourer knows that he is a skilled man and that he deserves every penny, and even more, of the wages that he receives. Rent is the same as pre-War, and as regards upkeep, someone has got to keep up the buildings. I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer said yesterday that capital had to be replenished every 13 years. If you take the upkeep of agricultural buildings, it has doubled since the War.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
I am only speaking from my experience in my own part of the world. I willingly accept my hon. Friend's correction, but if he would take a general view, I think he would find that rents are about the same. It does not, however, greatly affect my argument. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope) has really touched upon a point here which has far too little been discussed in this Parliament. 441 I had the fortune or the misfortune of not being here from 1924 till the last General Election, but during that time the producers in this country, to borrow a metaphor of W. J. Bryan, of America, have been crucified on a cross of gold. We were told last night that the French had reduced their National Debt by one-fifth. We are told that agriculture is depressed all over the world, but here is a quotation from this morning's newspaper:Rush for shares. Over-subscribed 150 times. The French share of the capital of the Bank of International Settlement established at Basle under the Young Plan was offered to the public to-day. It was almost, immediately over-subscribed 150 times. Here in provincial centres queues of people, chiefly peasants eagerly seeking shares, assembled outside the bank long before the hour of opening.It would take a very attractive loan in this country to get peasants in the country districts to stand outside a bank to subscribe to it. In fact, they have not the money, and there is the difference. The French had their crisis five years ago, but we still have to go through our gruelling, and we are not at the bottom of this yet. The producers have been sacrificed to the bankers, because our bankers wanted to have their foreign investments paid in gold, and they have got it, but how has it affected the agricultural industry? I said just now that under the régime of the late Minister of Agriculture wheat was 52s. 6d. a quarter and that to-day it is about 35s. The farmer in 1925 could pay £1 of labour, or £1 of rent, or could purchase £1 of feeding stuff for three bushels of wheat. To-day he has got to produce four bushels to liquidate the same debt. That is the real point, and the worst of it is that the costs of production have not been decreased. Our expenses are the same.
Take the price of bread. The President of the Board of Trade gave us same figures the other day—and, in fact, it is general knowledge—showing that the price of wheat to-day is about the pre-War price; but the price of the loaf before the War was between 5d. and 6d., whereas to-day the price of the 4-lb. loaf is between 8d, and 9d. That means that there is 3d. added to the cost of the loaf, though wheat is at the pre-War price. Since I have been asking questions on this subject in this House, I have 442 had some correspondence from the bakers, and I cannot help thinking that there is too big a lag between the cost of the loaf and the price of wheat. The Government say we shall have a consumers' council and fixed prices. I welcome the inquiry, but fixing prices is, in my judgment, quite hopeless.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
If my hon. Friend goes into the difficulties of fixing prices, all sorts of things will come in. For example, what is a new laid egg? A baker gave me some figures as to the cost of producing a loaf of bread. He said that in 1913 the average price of flour delivered to the baker was 29s. 6d., and in 1929 it was 37s. 6d., and yet, for all that, I do not think that the country millers are doing well. I know a country miller in my part of the world—a very capable man—who is giving up. He said, "I have been in business for the last 10 years, and I have not made any profit, and I shall not go on." Where the money is going, I do not know. The baker said that the average price of salt was 22s. in 1913 and 95s. in 1929, and that coal had risen from 22s. to 38s. Then take wages. The average wage of a foreman in 1913 was 32s. 6d., and to-day it is from 75s. to 85s. A journeyman in 1913 received from 28s. to 30s., and now he receives from 60s. to 70s. The rounds-man with his barrow received 26s. before the War, and to-day he receives from 50s. to 55s. I am wondering whether the producer is getting his fair share of these profits. We go on. He says that rents show an increase of from 25 to 40 per cent.—that is, in regard to shops—and rates pro rata, while oven and other repairs cost 50 per cent. more than in 1913.
The fact we agriculturists have to come back to is that our costs of production have not decreased whereas everything we have had to sell has fallen in price. People who talk about farmers being unskilled men, really do not know what they are talking about. Agriculturists are capable of holding their own with any business men in the country. If any man does not believe it, let him go down to a farm, take it, farm it, and make a profit. I said the other day, in the presence of some of the right hon. Gentleman's advisers, that if I had my way I would not let a single man draw a salary 443 to advise farmers how to farm unless he had made farming pay for at least three years. By jove, there would be a clear out!
Take milk. The production per cow has increased enormously, and, if you look at milk prices, the farmer to-day gets 3d. per quart for his milk delivered on rail. Hon. Members know well—I know, because I have always been farming—that it takes about four years to get a cow to the milk-producing age. After four years the farmer receives 3d. a quart and the distributor who distributes the milk probably within six or seven hours receives another 3d. There is something wrong. I should like the Minister to go into this matter. An hon. Member the other day said that we wanted more pure milk. I agree with him, but it is all a question of price. I happen to be the chairman of an agricultural college in Devonshire and we produce there certified grade "A" milk. The man who goes in to milk the cows puts on a white coat, washes his hands, washes the teats of the cows, "milks" the milk through a very small aperture into a container, which is sealed up. All this adds to the cost. Some time ago I was in Nottinghamshire where a friend of mine, a fairly wealthy man—he does not make his money out of farming—is engaged in this business. His dairyman said to me, "Well, Sir, you know, of course, it is the expense. People would rather pay a penny a quart less for a little more dirt than pay a penny more for pure milk."
We are told that meat production is to be the future salvation of agriculture in this country. I confess that in the West of England our cultivation of arable land is being enormously reduced. We have adapted our land to growing sheep and cattle. I remember that when I first started farming we were growing about 40 acres of wheat per year. This year we have grown nine, and next year I do not know whether we shall grow any at all, because it is almost impossible at the present price to grow wheat. We are told: "Oh, yes, you have a great deal of stored up fertility in the land." We have, but you cannot utilise it all at once. Sir William Haldane has said that there is going to be a scarcity of meat. I am very dubious of these prophets of scarcity. I remember a few 444 years ago Sir William Crooks saying that there would be a scarcity of food products, but the world is now overflowing. Those who tell us that we must produce more meat should consider what Sir Edmund Vestey has said. The Vestey family know a very great deal about meat. He gives us an entirely different opinion. I am told, in regard to the prices of meat from Australia, that the bottom has dropped out of the market, and it will not surprise me if meat prices do not follow wheat prices in this country. If they do, I do not know what will happen to agriculture.
Wool has gone down. The price of wool has dropped tremendously, and at this point, Mr. Young, I hope you will allow me to say, when we are hearing a great deal about Empire Free Trade, that it does not matter to the farmer Whether the product conies from the Argentine or whether it comes from Canada; it is the price which the farmer receives which is the real point for him to consider. I should like to reinforce the appeal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). I want to see this agricultural question lifted out of the rut of party politics. We shall have to do it at some time. We have had an experience given from the other side of the House of public ownership. That is no good. [An HON. MEMBER: "It has not been tried."] I really thought that it had been shown by the speech of an hon. Member on the other side that a co-operative society could not make farming pay. If a co-operative society under very skilled management, with shops to dispose of the produce, cannot make farming pay, co public authority in the world can ever do so. I know too much of the work of public authorities. I was a member of a board of guardians when I was very young, and I have been a member of a county council for many years, but I would not trust any public authority or Government Department to produce a barrel of apples. As I have already said, I want to see this question of agriculture lifted out of the rut of party politics, for this reason. I have been observing what has been going on here with regard to Safeguarding. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is perfectly—
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am afraid that references to nationalisation, Empire Free Trade, and Safeguarding are apt to lead us to a wider discussion than the Vote will allow.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
I am really talking about an administrative matter. I want to get all political parties to agree, if they can, on an agricultural policy. I make the suggestion seriously, because I believe that it is the only way out of the difficulty. It is no good at all when you have one party producing a policy which may probably be reversed at the next General Election. We had this sort of thing to contend with in 1920. The Corn Production Act was passed here—I remember it well—amid the applause of all parties. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Well, it was criticised, but it was passed by a large majority. The following year it was repealed. That was one of the very worst things that could happen. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who was responsible for it?"] What does that matter? If my hon. Friend is going into this political question to see who is responsible, it will not get us any further. I want to get on.
§ Mr. ALPASS
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a thoroughly practical agriculturist. He has been criticising the suggested failure of the Government. He is suggesting a conference of the three parties, and I should like him to tell the Committee, and especially hon. Members on this side, what definite concrete proposals he would suggest.
§ The CHAIRMAN
Concrete proposals from the Opposition do not come into this discussion. The right hon. Gentleman's suggestions should be made to the Ministry of Agriculture and not on this Vote.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
I could give my hon. Friend many suggestions. In this matter, we have to cease to be politicians and think of the countryside. If I were called upon to go into a conference, I should cut straight across party loyalty in order to save British agriculture from decay.
§ Mr. BEN RILEY
I wish to congratulate the party opposite on having had the enterprise to put down this subject for discussion on the second day. I agree, apart from the question of party 446 politics, that the question is a vital one. I was interested in the argument of the right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) that the solution of the problem with which agriculturists are concerned, is the question of prices. I suppose that, in a certain sense, we all subscribe to that view, but I suggest that although the problem may be one of price, the complaint is not with regard to the price paid by the consumer but the price which the producer receives. The real problem that the agriculturist has to face—and he is going to get very little further unless he does face it—is not simply the question of price as in-cheated by the retail price, but the question of how to cut out as between the producer and the consumer the excessive tribute levied by the middleman. The argument of the right hon. Member for South Molton is an argument for the necessity of applying and working out organised marketing.
§ Mr. RILEY
I will deal with that point, but I want first to illustrate the point that I am making by referring to a question which was put last week by the hon. Member for Holderness (Mr. Savery), regarding the average price ruling for potatoes at Leeds, Hull and Doncaster for the month ended the 30th April last. The reply was that at Doncaster the price realised by the growers, on the average, on sale to wholesalers ranged from 20s. to 25s. per ton, while at Hull and Leeds the prices obtained by the wholesalers in selling to the retailers ranged from 40s. to 70s. per ton. An hon. Member opposite, who happens to be a farmer, told me that he and a brother, who are farming together, some two months or 10 weeks ago sent six head of cattle to be sold at the Ashford market, in Kent. They realised £11 10s. per head. They were bought by a dealer who sent them the same night to the Romford market, in Essex, where they were sold next day for £15 per head. The dealer who bought the cattle at Romford came from Derby, and he sold them at Derby for £18 per head. They then passed on, I understand, to the butcher who would probably realise £27 to £28 per head over the counter.
That is the problem to be faced. It is not that the retailer is paying too 447 little, but that the producer gets too little. These facts emphasised the importance of organising marketing and eliminating the tremendous disparity between the retail price and the price that the producer gets. I congratulate the present Government on having pushed forward the system of organised marketing. On the previous occasion when this Vote was under discussion the Minister pointed out that in the organisation, grading and marking of eggs substantial progress had been made, that in 1929 an additional £500,000 had been realised as compared with previous years, and that there had been a diminution of 200,000,000 imported eggs. I suggest that those are the practical lines on which to go. The agriculturists must get down to their own problem and face it as business men.
I should like to deal with the question of the utter stagnation that exists in regard to the agreed policy or the agreed necessity of doing all that can be done by administration to promote extended land settlement. Let me call the attention of the Committee to some striking facts. The Minister of Agriculture, in referring to the question of unemployment, pointed out the other day that in Biggleswade, a purely agricultural district, returns were furnished recently showing that there were 800 unemployed agricultural labourers in that area. He also said that, taking such returns as had come in, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 unemployed agricultural workers. That figures out, as the right hon. Member for South Melton has said, to three unemployed men to every two working upon the land. Side by side with that position of things we have the statement which was made by the Minister of Agriculture, less than a fortnight ago, that from 1926 to the end of last year the machinery of Parliament has only settled 390 men upon holdings in this country. It seems to me one of the most staggering situations that apparently nothing can be done to get a substantial move on in placing men on the land under circumstances that would be beneficial to themselves and the country. There seems to be an attitude of helplessness, and that we are doing nothing. What are the reasons? The right hon. Member for South Molton decried 448 the suggestion of public ownership. I am surprised at that, because he is a member of a party which, with the Conservative party, has been doing something during the last 20 years to meet the agricultural position by the policy of public ownership. He is probably aware that to-day the county councils are the owners of 500,000 acres, which have come under their control during the last 20 or 22 years.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member cannot pursue that point unless the Minister is responsible for the work of the county councils.
§ Mr. BEAUMONT
The control of the Ministry over county council action and the need of the counties to keep in touch with the Ministry is so very close that it is, in my opinion, hardly possible to distinguish.
§ Mr. W. B. TAYLOR
As a county councillor and vice-chairman of a small holdings committee, one finds that it is impossible to get county council schemes through without the co-operation and definite aid of the Ministry, which shares in the administrative work.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I can well understand that the Minister may have schemes submitted to him, but if we are to enter into discussion of the administration of the county councils, we shall be getting wide of the Vote. The hon. Member is in order in suggesting that the county councils have not been sufficiently active, but he cannot go into details.
§ Sir A. STEEL-MAITLAND
Under what Vote can such a discussion come regarding the subject which the hon. Member has raised?
§ The CHAIRMAN
In so far as the Minister is responsible for the activities of the county councils, it comes under this Vote, but if the hon. Member goes into details with regard to county council administration, that is out of order on this Vote.
§ Mr. BEAUMONT
Surely, it is germane to this issue, inasmuch as the Minister can withhold grants if the county council administers badly. Therefore, I submit that this matter comes under the control of the Minister.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I hope the hon. Member will understand that I do not object to any remarks that he may make in pressing upon the Minister of Agriculture to increase the number of small holdings.
§ Mr. RILEY
I will call the attention of the Committee to the facts of the case. What is the reason for this apparent stagnation which has afflicted the country for the last four or five years with regard to the promotion and the extension of settlements of people upon the land, with a view to increasing agricultural prosperity? It is not because the system of small holdings has not been successful. An hon. Member opposite suggested that the system had been a ghastly failure. I should like to quote the words of the Minister of Agriculture in his own Government, who, in connection with the Small Holdings Act of 1926, said:Undoubtedly, great success has been obtained in stock farming, probably owing to the amount of individual attention which smallholders are able to give to their holdings.In the same speech he quoted from the report of a judge at a prize distribution in the Lindsey Division of Lincolnshire, in connection with small holdings. The judge said:On visiting the holdings"—he was referring to the South Lindsey small holdings—fifty in number, it was pleasant to find that, with one or two exceptions, they were farmed in such a way that the tenants could not help but be successful.That is testimony which was quoted by the late Minister of Agriculture. In 1926 the late Government with a view to promoting small holdings introduced a Bill which later became an Act of Parliament. 450 They estimated that by their programme and policy they would establish 8,000 new holdings in the course of four years, that is, 2,000 new holdings per year. That was the defence put forward when the Bill was before Parliament. The actual result is that 390 new holdings only have been established since 1926.
§ Mr. RILEY
I shall answer that question later. At the present moment the arrangements do not encourage or facilitate the promotion of small holdings. The figures are very striking. From 1908 to 1914 14,000 statutory holdings were established, that is, 2,000 per year. From 1919 to 1926 16,000 new holdings were established, or at the rate of 3,000 per year. Then the legislation and policy under which these holdings were created was brought to an end and a new policy was started under which only 390 new holdings have been established in the course of four years. What is the reason? It is not because there are no applicants. The late Minister of Agriculture when introducing the Bill in 1926 said that there were waiting on the application list 6,000 approved applicants—and the Act has only produced 390.
§ Mr. RILEY
My right hon. Friend is operating the Act of the late Government. Let me quote from the Reports issued by the Ministry of Agriculture. In their Report for 1927 they say:The unsatisfied demand as revealed in the returns remains large, and there is no doubt that there is, in addition, a considerable latent demand from men who only come forward when suitable land in the locality is known to be available.It is said that the reason why there is a stop in the establishment of small holdings is because they are not successful. That is not true. Again, in the same Report for the year 1927 there are these words:So far as can be ascertained councils have no serious anxiety as to their ability to re-let any existing holdings that become vacant without reducing the aggregate amount of their rent roll. Recent experience has shown that when any small holding is available for letting the council can 451 take a choice of at least three or four, and often as many as 10 and 15, thoroughly satisfactory applicants.Why is it that nothing is being done? At the present moment there are between 6,000 and 8,000 applicants waiting, the majority of whom have been approved, and yet less than 100 per annum are being satisfied. The reason is because the late Government passed an Act of Parliament—
§ Mr. RILEY
—which has put obstacles in the way of these holdings being established. They have placed on the county councils the liability of meeting expenses which should be borne by the nation, because this is a national problem. They have the responsibility, they have to ask the local ratepayers to find a certain amount of money, whereas the burden should rest on the nation as a whole. The conditions of land settlement should in my opinion be thoroughly overhauled so as to give the Ministry or some independent body the power to initiate and set going a policy which will offer better facilities for obtaining small holdings for people who are suitable for agricultural settlement.
The Debate of last week and the list of speakers which you have before you, Mr. Chairman, this afternoon testifies to the interest which hon. Members take in agriculture. The speeches which have been made show that there is a very considerable basis of agreement on all sides of the Committee and I hope that this measure of agreement will encourage the Minister to overcome his shyness and let us into some of the secrets of his policy. The Debates have also shown that a great number of industries are covered by the single word "agriculture," but for the sake of brevity and general convenience I propose to classify all those branches of agriculture into two divisions. First, those tranches which are firmly established and which can be said to be doing well or reasonably well, or not too badly, and where there is a general measure of agreement as to future policy with regard to them. Their future progress and prosperity depends mainly on increased research and better organisation 452 which, of course, includes drainage, marketing and standardisation. On the other side you have the less fortunate branches of industry, those which are particularly hard hit by foreign competition. The reason for their failure is that they are unable to get an economic price for what they produce. In regard to these branches of the industry we feel we ought to have had a long time ago, and certainly must have in the near future, some idea from the Minister as to what he proposes to do to assist them.
Let me deal with the first of the categories first. This category includes dairy produce, poultry and pigs. The Ministry deserves great credit for the work they have done in encouraging better organisation and better trade methods with regard to these particular branches, and great credit is also due to the Minister for the industry he has shown. The credit for the origination of most of these schemes goes to the right hon. Gentleman who administered agricultural policy in the last Government, but the present Minister of Agriculture, in this instance, has not erred from the path of righteousness and in anything he can do to assist and encourage agricultural organisation, I am sure that all members will be very happy to co-operate. There is only one fear, and that is that the word "standardisation" may be used so often that it will lose a lot of its meaning. I make no apology for speaking on that subject for one or two moments because I have preached it so often in the days before it had received the official blessing. There is the danger that standardisation may become one of those blessed words, like Mesopotamia and rationalisation, which cover a multitude of sins and which every speaker talks about when he is at a loss for something else to say. But standardisation is a very definite subject, and it is going to be the basis of the future prosperity in many of these branches of agriculture.
I would recommend everybody who is interested in agriculture to read the speech made by Mr. Street, an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, at the Farmers' Club. He points out the absolute necessity for progress in the marking of goods and their standardisation, and he shows that the very accessibility of our markets should be of the greatest advantage to British farming is in some ways a disadvantage, 453 because our produce has to compete in these densely populated areas with the selected goods which come from abroad. The fact that farmers are just outside these very easy markets does not encourage them to improve their marketing organisation. If they were a long way from their markets they would obviously have to combine and send their produce by rail in the cheapest form, but being just outside they are likely to become slack in their methods of marketing and deal with it in a slipshod and haphazard fashion. The fact that the densely populated areas have admirable railway or sea connection makes them an excellent target for the well organised products from abroad.
Standardisation has two particular advantages. The first is that produce can be bought by description and not by inspection; and that is going to cut out a great deal of the waste which goes via the middle man at the present time. If a retailer can ring up the farmer direct and order something, knowing exactly the quality he is going to get, there is no need for him to go into the market and inspect it first. That is a great saving of time, trouble and money. It will also give the wholesaler an opportunity of buying in bulk. At the present time variations in quality are too great to allow them to do so, and, finally, and most important of all, standardisation is the foundation of all successful advertising. If we are going to compete with the dairy produce from abroad, which is coming in in large quantities well advertised, we shall have to do some advertising on our own. Many of us who live just outside London and are continually going up and down will have seen vans with the words "Good Best Danish." That is very good advertising, and I believe if we go on the lines that are now being laid down by the Ministry we shall have in a short time the words "Good Best British" instead of the words "Good Best Danish." At present we cannot advertise British butter as such because there are so many varieties of quality and grading. It is only when we have some uniformity of character in our products that we can hope successfully to advertise them.
I am afraid that in discussing this particular category of agriculture and the method of dealing with it I am knocking 454 at an open door. Probably it would be more worth while to devote attention to that form of agriculture which we can roughly describe as arable agriculture. I have personal connection with it only to a small degree as a farmer myself, and there is practically no arable agriculture in my constituency; but anyone who is interested in farming has always friends who know perfectly well the deplorable state of British arable agriculture to-day. The bad part of it is that the capital of these arable farmers is being gradually diminished. They are the experts, and if once they are driven out of farming owing to lack of capital you will never get them back and you will lose from agriculture the men who know the most about it.
The time for drastic action has undoubtedly come. The days of Couéism, the belief that it is going to right itself, are past. I agree with previous speakers that every Government has to take some measure of blame. It is much the same as the case of the doctor and the patient. A patient is ill and the doctors naturally hope to cure him or her by moderate methods, by rest cures or medicine or something less drastic than an operation. When the time comes for an operation the doctor is blamed for not having taken a serious enough view of the situation beforehand. That is what is happening in arable farming to-day. We have been trying to doctor it up by small doses and by a rest cure. The time for that has past and the time for drastic action has come. If such action is not taken arable farming will cease altogether, and those who are now engaged in it will have to turn their attention to other forms of farming.
Remember that if you are going to do something for arable farming it is bound to cost money. You have somehow to bridge the space between what it costs to produce and what you are going to get for your production. If you do not do that it is certain that you are going to see an end of any form of successful arable farming in this country. I think we are entitled to ask why the Minister has not told us anything of the ideas that he has in his head. It might not have been possible for him to produce the whole of his policy, but we do know that he has considered the matter and has put forward some proposals to the Government. Why have not those proposals 455 seen the light of day? Is it owing to cowardice? Is it because the right hon. Gentleman's investigations have resulted in a policy which is unpalatable to the Members of his own party and particularly to the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Or has he found that he has come to an end of his resources and that he is unable to make any recommendation at all?
Whatever his conclusion I consider that the Committee is entitled to have the benefit of them. We all realise perfectly well the great difficulties with which he is faced. We are prepared to put aside a lot of our party prejudices in order that we may see British agriculture brought to a prosperous condition. If the right hon. Gentleman will only let us into his confidence we will do whatever we can to assist him in formulating a policy or in putting through a policy that we believe will bring prosperity to the agricultural industry. At the present time, as far as I can see, the Government's agricultural policy is as barren as their industrial policy. They have duped the agricultural electorate to the same extent as they duped the industrial electorate. In fact they have done nothing but betray a great industry.
§ Mr. BLINDELL
It is rather a good thing for the industry of agriculture that at last the House has been given two opportunities within 10 days for a full discussion of this very important matter. As a result of the discussion we shall probably find that the Government, and the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, will be brought to a knowledge that up and down the country there is a serious measure of, not distress, but fear of disinterestedness on the part of the Minister with regard to the acute position of the agricultural industry. To say that the industry is depressed is to state the fact quite moderately. In many parts of the country and from many points of view there is real cause for alarm at the position. In spite of all the political parties having at various times professed to take specific care of the industry, in spite of their profession of being interested in it above any other industry, in spite of their lauding agriculturists from the housetops as the saviours of the nation, in spite of all the promises made by all 456 parties, the industry to-day is undoubtedly going further down than it has been for a quarter of a century.
I believe that the politicians of this country and probably the leaders of the parties fully realise that each and everyone of us have professed to take agriculture under our wings but have sadly disappointed the industry, and I could imagine that politicians would be quite pleased to get the subject out of the realm of politics and to deal with it from an industrial and economic point of view entirely. If the Committee desires to do something of that kind I hope that all Members of all parties will give full expression to that point of view, so that the offer which was put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) last week shall be pressed upon the Minister of Agriculture and the Cabinet until there is no other course open to them than to take the initiative in calling together a conference of the heads of parties in order to try to hammer out a policy that will save a great industry from destruction.
In the House last week the reply by the Prime Minister to a question was very evasive. I suggest that on this question of the help that the Government are likely to offer to the industry as a whole, the industry is positively tired of evasive answers. The offer made by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs was that so far as he and his party were concerned they were quite prepared to discuss with the leaders of the other two parties the great question of the prosperity of the industry, to waive aside all political theories and to enter the conference with a free mind, ready to discuss every reasonable proposition that could be put forward. The Prime Minister was asked whether he would call such a conference, and his answer was to the effect that the Government were willing to discuss but they would not go so far as to call the conference. I suggest to the Minister of Agriculture that if he believes, as I think he does, that this is not a political question and that it cannot be settled by political action only, but that the three parties together probably could do some good, he should impress on the Prime Minister the necessity for the Government itself taking the initiative in calling the leaders of the 457 parties together. Then we can see whether something definite cannot be done for the industry.
I know that from time to time the political parties have presumed to make very rash promises to the agricultural industry. I am rather afraid that the agriculturists have pinned their faith to political action as a means of getting them out of their difficulty rather than to action that they, as an industry, if united, might take themselves. On this side of the Committee speaker after speaker, with the notable exception of the Noble Lord who has just spoken, and in the country Conservative speaker after Conservative speaker, has said that the one thing that will save agriculture is the introduction of a system of tariffs. Mat may be right; I do not want to argue it; but I do say that I would like to know whether those speakers mean a system of Protection or tariffs for agricultural products or for—
§ The CHAIRMAN
The question before us is not what Members of the Opposition mean by these things. We are discussing a Vote of the Ministry of Agriculture.
§ Mr. BLINDELL
As a new Member I may get out of order, but I am always willing to come back straight away. The other two parties cannot be exonerated from blame in the matter. Take my own party. We stick tenaciously to Free Trade and ridicule the idea that tariffs will save the industry. By members of the Socialist party nationalisation of the land has been put before the people as the one thing that will save agriculture and put it on its feet again. The immediate solution, the inducement held out to the agricultural community at the last Election by the Socialist party, was not only nationalisation of the land—in some parts of the country that was dropped altogether—but stabilisation of prices. In my own Division the candidate who opposed me told a body of smallholders that nationalisation of the land was not intended to apply to smallholders, and it did my candidature a tremendous lot of good. As I say, the immediate solution that was put forward was stabilisation of prices. Here the farmer was going to get what he wanted, a definitely fixed price for his produce.
I ask the Minister, if that was a part of his party's policy before the Election 458 what steps has he taken during the past 12 months to give effect to that policy? So far as I can see no effort whatever has been made, and the Minister himself, when questioned on this very point, has always given evasive answers. To-day we do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman believes in that policy. If he does believe in it, he has never yet told us in any definite form whether he thinks it possible to put the policy into operation. If it can be put into operation he can capture the farmer to-morrow. If he can guarantee to the farmer an adequate price for his produce the right hon. Gentleman can capture his sympathy and support straight away. Before the last Election it was so easy; the farmers were told it could be done. On behalf of the farmers in my Division I want to know why that policy has not been put into operation and why this thing that was so easy before the Election has become so tremendously difficult.
What is the position in this industry, which is one of the greatest in the country and one in which we are all taking such a tremendous interest now? I believe it was the Minister himself who told us—and certainly it was stated in the House of Commons—that 400,000 acres of arable land have gone out of cultivation during the last two years. There are 100,000 fewer men and women employed in this industry to-day than there were in 1921, in spite of the fact that we have such a serious problem of unemployment confronting us. The majority of those 100,000 people, who ought to be employed in the agricultural industry, have simply drifted to the towns and aggravated the unemployment situation there. I believe that the industry is languishing because of the prices which are obtainable for its produce. I refer, specially, to the potato section of the agricultural industry, though indeed I should not call it a, section of the industry, because it is a distinct industry of itself. I believe that during the last four or five months the price of potatoes has been the lowest recorded for 20 years although there are increased charges of every kind on the producer.
There are 40,000 men unemployed in that industry to-day. These are men who have been born on the land and who want to live on the land. They are men who know their job, and the reason why they are not living on the land is because they 459 cannot live on the land. The work is not there for them and efforts are not made to provide them with the work. No encouragement is given to them to stay in the countryside, and yet here we are, talking about solving the problem of unemployment, while we are actually creating a new army of unemployed in the countryside. If we tackled this problem and brought forward schemes which would give work to these 40,000 men, we should, at any rate, be helping to solve the general problem of unemployment. All this time, the State—and by the State I mean not only the Government, but all of us—looks on. We wonder what can be done, but no practicable agricultural policy is produced from any side of the House of Commons, and, in my judgment, we shall never get such a policy until the question is taken out of the political arena altogether, and we put aside party squabbles, and set about the job in a businesslike way.
When one asks what is the cause of the present position of agriculture, one is told by certain sections that arable farming is decaying and the land is going into grass, on account of the free importation of foreign foodstuffs. If that is so, we ought to face up to it; if not, we ought to cease talking about it. A lot has been said about German bounty-fed wheat coming into this country. Now the importation of German bounty-fed wheat affects East Anglia, the district from which I come, more than any other part of the country. The farmers there know the full force of this competition which is subsidised by a foreign Government, but I do not want to overstate the case. I do not say that if we solve the problem of German wheat, the farmers are going to be put on the road of prosperity again. If we solved that particular question to-morrow, we would not have solved all our difficulties. I admit that it would help, but it would not deal with the general position. I think we ought to look at this matter dispassionately and deal with it as business men and if there is not such a tremendous amount of importance to be attached to this factor in the situation, then we are doing a disservice to the agriculturists of this country by unduly emphasising it and inflating its importance.
460 The total consumption of British wheat in this country last year was 134,639,000 cwts. and the total importation of wheat from all countries was 103,056,000 cwts., but of that total, the importation of German wheat represents less than 1,000,000 cwts. I would like the Government to deal with the importation of German wheat, and, as I say, I believe it would help if they did so, but even if that problem were solved straight away it would not dispose of our difficulties. Constantly preaching that the dumping of German wheat has forced down prices is, I believe, doing a real disservice to the agriculturists of this country. Hon. Members in dealing with this question ought to state the full facts to the people and they ought not to lead people to believe that it is solely the dumping of German wheat which has forced down prices.
§ Major BRAITHWAITE
But surely the hon. Member knows that even a comparatively small importation of this kind affects the general price.
I quite agree, but I do not agree that the importation of that quantity has been the sole cause of the drop in wheat prices in this country. I have already said that it is a contributory factor, that it is something which ought to be stopped. In my judgment anything that is subsidised against our manufacturers or our producers, ought to be stopped. But to say that that will meet the case and give the farmer the price which he wants is overstating the case and in my judgment we ought to be very careful. [Interruption.] I know that it has not been said in the House of Commons, but it has been said outside, and there is an impression abroad in the agricultural constituencies that the dumping of German wheat is a paramount consideration in connection with this matter. I say that it is not and that you will not deal with the position by dealing with that one matter. I am not in a position to talk about policy, but I have one suggestion to make to the Minister which I think would help cereal growers in this country. I think it is quite a logical and reasonable demand to make on Behalf of the agricultural community that, in order to help them with their wheat, and to get them to produce more wheat, the Minister should insist on all British-milled flour containing a percentage of British-grown wheat. I 461 believe that would help and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider the suggestion.
I am particularly interested in the potato section of the industry which, as I have already indicated, is really an industry within the agricultural industry and is an industry of major importance. It is an industry which represents £30,000,000 per annum. It provides the working class with probably the cheapest and most nutritious food that is provided 'in this country. Last year there were 500,000 acres under potatoes and the annual production is in the region of 5,000,000 tons. It employs more men per acre cultivated and more men per £1 sterling invested than any other section of the agricultural industry; and for all these reasons it is an industry which we should seek to foster. No section of the agricultural industry has suffered more during the last two years. Never before have prices been so bad. Never before have the potato growers of this country produced more and never before at the end of a season have they been in such tremendous financial difficulties as they are in to-day on account of the bad prices. Again, I do not accept the suggestion that the cause of their difficulties is foreign importation. I know that at this period of the year there is an importation of potatoes which seriously affects the sale of the old crop produced at home, but there is one way in which the British public can put an end to that situation and that is by demanding British potatoes.
A fortnight ago I put a question to the hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Compton), the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee, as to how many foreign potatoes were being consumed in the House of Commons, where Members are so deeply anxious and concerned about this industry. [Laughter.] It is all very well for hon. Members to laugh, but I should like to know the gentlemen who are eating foreign potatoes. A little bit of example is worth ever so much precept, and I wish the Chairman of the Kitchen Committee could debar Members of this House from the luxury, if it is a luxury, of foreign potatoes when we have an abundance of our own production. The hon. Member's answer on that occasion was that there was a demand for foreign potatoes and perhaps it is also the case that in the country there is a demand 462 for foreign potatoes. But as regards the main crop, the importation does not affect the position. We have in this country a consumption of 5,500,000 tons a year. It is computed that we consume 9,000 tons per day, yet the total imports over the last 12 months only amount to 300,000 tons. If it were possible to keep out the lot it would not materially affect the position as far as the main crop is concerned, but there is a distinct difficulty. These potatoes come in at this time of year and they compete unfairly with our own production. I say that quite frankly. It may be said by hon. Members above the Gangway that I am bordering on Protection, but nothing of the sort. I am bordering on Free Trade common sense.
The point which I want to make is this: With regard to potatoes, very special circumstances have to be taken into consideration, and a fair judgment must be given on those circumstances when we are discussing this matter. There are special circumstances over which we have no control—circumstances of climate and all the rest of it. [Laughter.] I am glad that I have given the Noble Lord on the Front Opposition Bench something to laugh at and I shall be very pleased to listen to him later on when, I am sure, he will have something very illuminating to say. In regard to potatoes, the real trouble during the last two years has been the question of price, and not the question of production. South Lincolnshire has produced a super-abundant supply of really good potatoes; indeed, the abundance of their supply has in a measure been their undoing. The tremendous difficulties in my Division are due to the prices obtained by the producers. The difficulty is to assure for the producer of the potatoes at least a price which will compensate him for what he has had to lay out to produce them. In the past two years, many farmers and small holders have got less than half the cost of production.
It is useless to say that the public have to pay a big price, because the truth is that the public have had cheap potatoes, for the retail price in many parts of the country during recent weeks has been less than one halfpenny per pound. [An HON. MEMBER: "In places it is over a penny!"] There may be a demand for a specific service which has 463 caused the price to rise, and if you ask for a service you ought to pay for it. In all parts of the country, however, potatoes can be bought at less than one halfpenny per pound. The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. T. Snowden) asked me during the Debate on the Consumers' Council Bill last week to tell the House the difference in the price received by the producers of potatoes, and the price that the consumer has to pay. My answer is this: If the consumer of potatoes can buy an ample supply at less than one halfpenny per pound, he has nothing to grumble about. Even at that price the producer, if everything had been right, would have got much more than he has been getting during recent weeks.
It is not altogether a question of large profits being made, although I daresay that some people have made profits. The real trouble is that there are tremendously loose methods of marketing of potatoes, and the reorganisation of the marketing system is the most important factor in the solution of this problem. Covent Garden, Birmingham, Leeds, Leicester, and all the markets have been glutted with good potatoes, and on top of the glut more potatoes have been pouring in, with the result that the price has been forced down, and the poor producer has not received what he ought to have received for his production. A compliment ought to be paid to the Minister of Agriculture and to those who are working with him for the marketing section which he is pushing forward with all the speed that he can command. During the last few years the Ministry have done exceptionally well and instead of trying to get a big policy to put things right by a stroke of the pen, they are taking a line which, if pursued persistently, will make a tremendous difference to the prosperity of agriculture. The schemes for marking, grading and packing are all good things, and the Minister can do a great work in urging those schemes on to the industry. Inside the industry there is a strong and solid belief that production is all right, but inside and outside the industry they do not understand how to market their wares properly.
I am sorry if I am trespassing a long time on the time of the Committee, but the question of potatoes is 464 one in which I am closely interested, and which tremendously affects my Division, and if something is not done for the potato industry, there will be no industry left. Those people cannot go on planting and planting and tilling and tilling unless they can get an economic price. At the end of last year I, with some other gentlemen in the industry, decided to make a determined attempt to improve the marketing of potatoes. We were convinced that outside political action, but inside the industry, much could be done to improve the condition of the industry. We called a conference; it was a wonderful conference, and nothing like it has ever been held in the industry before. All sections of the industry were gathered together—producers, wholesalers, retailers, consumers, workers, and allied traders—and they were all of one mind, determined to evolve some system of marketing that would give to the producer an economic price. The hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) made a reference last week to this conference. I am sorry if I interrupted him during his speech, but I did not realise that it, was his maiden speech. I entirely disagree with him, and I think the Committee will, too. He said:The fact was that for everything we produced we did not receive an economic price. Conferences have been mentioned. A huge conference was called in Lincolnshire, but I would not take the trouble to go, because I knew before I went that the subjects that were to be discussed would not touch agriculture, and that whatever was discussed and decided upon would die a natural death."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1930; cols. 1512–3, Vol. 238.]I am thankful that Members of this House do not approach the problem in this spirit. Why did not the hon. Member go to the conference? If he did not want to go, he could have left alone the men who were attempting to do something for the industry. The real position was that he did not know what was going to be discussed. Although he would not go and believed the conference doomed to failure, the Minister of Agriculture thought that it was worth while to send his representative to see what happened. A good deal happened. Very many forward steps were taken, and the first real attempt was made at establishing a marketing board for this section of the agricultural industry. If that board had been allowed to function 465 to-day, there would have been a different state of affairs than there is in the potato industry. [Interruption.] I know that there is a difference of opinion in this matter, but it is useless talking about the difficulties of the industry unless one makes an effort to help the industry on to its feet again.
The National Farmers' Union and the organised body of the wholesale potato merchants did not give all the support that they ought to have given. As a result of the conference, three sections of the potato industry were called together by the National Farmers' Union, and the Secretary to the Ministry of Agricuture attended one or two of the meetings to discuss marketing. I have not been able to get to know, although I put a question down, what was done by these three sections in association with the Ministry of Agriculture. I urge the Minister to get the whole of the sections connected with the industry together; if he did, I am certain that the industry would evolve a marketing scheme that would be of benefit to the industry. If the potato industry could solve the problem of marketing, they could solve the difficulties in that industry almost entirely. The difficulties are not created by profiteering, but by a very loose method of marketing, which the Minister of Agriculture ought to be able to assist the industry to put right.
Small holdings have been mentioned. I am sorry to hear the Minister state that during the last four years only 319 new holdings have been established in this country. In my district we have a whole army of smallholders, and they are fine agriculturists. Most of them, until this slump, were doing exceedingly well. Out of a rent-roll of £40,000 a year the Holland County Council have only about £1,000 rent owing to them. In our district we have a waiting list of between 000 and 1,000 men anxiously waiting for holdings which they cannot get. I hope that the Minister will take note of that. In my Division a large number of smallholders are holding land under the Commissioners of Crown Lands, and there is what is known as the Crown Colony of ex-service men, while at Sutton Bridge there is another colony of smallholders who are holding land under the Crown. Both of these bodies of men have recently petitioned the Minister of Agriculture, 466 asking him to give them special consideration with regard to the Lady Day rent.
I hope that I have said sufficient to convince the Minister that this year these men are entitled to some special consideration with regard to their rent. I look upon the Commissioners of Crown Lands as model landlords. From what I know of landlords, especially those connected with the soil, I know that they are usually good enough to give consideration to their tenants in bad seasons. I ask them as model landlords to give sympathetic consideration to the petitions which the Minister has received, and to let these men know at the earliest possible moment what the Ministry are prepared to do to help them over these difficult times. Among the smallholders are men who have grown nothing but potatoes, and- who have lost 30s. or £2 per ton on every ton that they have produced. They cannot pay their rent, and if they are forced to pay they will be driven out of business. The wisest course for Members to adopt with regard to the agricultural industry is to accept the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and to get together in order to take the industry right out of politics and try to get a real policy which will bring the industry back to prosperity.
I am sure the Committee will be glad to hear one thing which I can tell them at the outset of my speech, and that is that its length will be rather less than the average length of the speeches which we have had this afternoon. The potato growers of this country will be exceedingly grateful to the hon. Member for Holland-with-Boston (Mr. Blindell) for the full exposition he has given of the real difficulties and the real grievances under which they suffer. Everyone appreciates the sincerity with which he has put his views, but though I followed his speech very closely, I am still left in considerable doubt as to what exactly is the remedy he seeks. We are stopped from discussing the question of a tariff, but I understood the bon. Gentleman's somewhat drastic remedy was to prohibit the importation of potatoes at a certain period of the year. All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman, in putting forward those views, was departing somewhat not only from the 467 general policy of his party, but from the views expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) earlier in the Debate. However that may be, no one, and least of all any of us who have had experience of the industry, will deny that the situation in regard to potato growing is very serious indeed, and those who are anxious to arouse public opinion in the country to the really critical condition of the agricultural industry will welcome such a speech as that of the hon. Member's.
When we had a discussion on agriculture in the House the other day my right hon. Friend the late Minister of Agriculture, with a generosity of which I am afraid I am not capable, described the Minister as a good man struggling with adversity. I thought that was a rather euphemistic statement. I should certainly describe him as a good man, but I should say that he was struggling with adversity caused partly by economic circumstances but very largely by the mismanagement and misunderstanding of agriculture which is inherent in the Socialist attitude towards it. I will quote an example of that. We have heard a great deal this afternoon about keeping agriculture out of party politics, but we know that the party opposite did not keep agriculture out of party politics at the last election. I have here a voluminous number of documents published at one time or another by the party opposite, but I will quote only one phrase from the pamphlet "Labour's appeal to the Nation":Labour is deeply concerned about agriculture which, having been the plaything of both the older parties, is now facing a very critical time both for farmers and workers. Farming must be made to pay.Those words were used at the last election, and I am glad to see that the Parliamentary Secretary, apparently, still agrees with them; and yet this was the answer which was given on the 25th November last by the Minister of Agriculture in reply to a question put by my hon. Friend beside me. The Minister said:I cannot accept the suggestion that the agricultural industry on the whole is in such distress as to demand special and immediate relief."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th November, 1929; col. 974, Vol. 232.]
§ Mr. N. BUXTON
Perhaps the Noble Lord will be good enough to give the context, in which I spoke of the severe depression which existed.
I have not the context with me, but I remember the observation perfectly well; but how can his statement that he cannotaccept the suggestion that the agricultural industry on the whole is in such distress as to demand special and immediate relief.be squared, to use a convenient if vulgar phrase, with the statement that Labour is deeply concerned about agriculture, that it is facing critical times, and that it must be made to pay? Everybody knows that if there were critical times in May of last year they are doubly critical to-day. There has not been a speaker in either of these two Debates—let the Government note this fact—who has not said how serious the position is. I say in all sincerity, and with no desire to embarrass him, that I read with the greatest interest the very earnest speech on the subject which was made by an hon. Member opposite in this House and another speech which be made in the country.
We are prevented by the rules of Order from discussing the only two remedies which, in my opinion, can do any good, Protection or a subsidy, 'because either of them would involve legislation, and I will make only this observation on them. We have had speeches this afternoon, of course within the bounds of Order, but perilously near the boundary, in which it has been suggested that no one of the political parties is prepared, on an occasion when remedies can be discussed, to put forward any remedy of a drastic character. That is not so. The party which sits here above the Gangway is pledged to a subsidy on wheat for milling purposes. What alternative remedy, or what lesser remedies besides those two which I have mentioned, and both of which are rejected by the Government, can be applied? First of all, there is the proposal for what is generally known as mass buying, which figured very prominently in the election literature of the Government. I understand that I can refer in detail to that, because it can be held that it could be introduced through administration. Again and again the hon. Member for East Leicester 469 (Mr. Wise), who is well known to be a great authority in this subject, has by speeches here and in the country, and by means of questions, put forward his views, but it is an astonishing fact that we have not had one word from the Government to say whether they contemplate putting this very fundamental reform—whether it would be an efficacious reform is a different matter—into operation. We do not know what the views of the Government are on the matter.
Then conferences have been suggested. It was said by the last speaker that there might be a conference of parties at which agriculture should be discussed on an entirely non-political basis. I would like to discuss that aspect of the case, because it seems to me we are all rather liable to get into a confused condition of thought about it. How can you discuss the question of agriculture apart from political views? The thing is impossible. On every question of the day—unemployment, the coal industry and now the agricultural position—people come forward and say, always to assenting cheers, "This is a matter which ought to be discussed apart from political views." How can you do it? We are sent to this House by political parties to represent the point of view which those parties have, and how can we discuss matters of primary importance apart from the political views which we are here to represent? Farmers themselves are much to blame. Again and again at farmers' dinners I have heard them say, "Agriculture ought to be treated as a non-political subject," and then a little later a farmer will say that he quite agrees with the previous speaker and what is wanted is to get Parliament to take more interest in agriculture. How can you get Parliament to take more interest in a question of fundamental importance without bringing in political opinions? The fiscal question, which we cannot discuss now, is bound to come into such a discussion.
No doubt during the War national questions were to a certain extent discussed on a non-party basis, but, after all, during war you may be able to do what you cannot necessarily do in peace time. The hon. Member could not have chosen a worse example for his ease. What was done for agriculture in the War? There was a general agreement that agriculture, in return for what it had had to put up with and had had to forgo in the way of profits, should be given substantial assistance by the State, but the party, or rather the Government, of which the hon. Member's own leader was the head, as soon as the emergency was over, and in a manner which I think was most—
§ The CHAIRMAN
The Noble Lord is getting out of order. I think he has quite answered the question which he wanted to answer, and he must get back to the discussion.
I venture to submit that while we cannot discuss fresh legislation—this is rather a substantial point of Order—we are entitled to discuss the effect of past legislation on the industry and the policy of the industry. I think that has generally been held to be the case.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member below the Gangway was asking the Noble Lord how certain things were done during the War.
I admit that probably his interruption was out of order as was my reply. I will return later to that question of what happened during the War, because it is very pertinent to the consideration not only of the position of the agricultural industry but the position of the Liberal party in regard to it. Let us be quite frank in this matter. I suggest that it is ridiculous to say that we can ever have a solution of the major problems of agriculture on a non-party basis. The thing is impossible. All one can do is to get some party in the State to adopt a policy which the industry itself says it wants adopted.
Let us turn from this to the conference composed of groups of different sections of the industry. Obviously, that offers a much more hopeful chance of reaching a solution, for this reason: if the political parties in this House are faced 471 by the unanimous decision of a conference representative of all elements in the industry, it will be far harder for the Government of the day, whatever its political complexion, to refuse to accept those conclusions than it would be for them to refuse to accept the conclusions of almost any other kind of conference. We are entitled to ask the Minister to give us a little more information about this agricultural conference which is supposed to be in existence. My hon. and gallant Friend, the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope), with a meticulous regard for the conditions which govern such conferences, and for which I give him credit, said he was not at liberty to disclose what had occurred. I have no doubt that is correct so far as the deliberations are concerned, but it does not in any way stop me from asking the Government to tell us what they are going to do about the unanimous resolution passed by the conference, and, secondly, to tell us why it is that at the most critical period of the existence of the industry this conference, which was given a great deal of advertisement, and sent off under very distinguished auspices, the Prime Minister himself making some statement—why it is that nearly six weeks—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ten weeks!"]—ten weeks—bave elapsed since its last meeting? It is an astonishing situation. If it had been a question of the coal industry we should long ago have had indignant protests over the fact that the conference had not met for ten weeks at the most critical period in the industry. I sincerely hope we shall have from the Minister some clear exposition of his views not only on the subject of the resolution but why it is that the conference has been for so long in abeyance. Turning now to another matter, one of the lesser things which the Minister could carry out without requiring legislation, we still have had no adequate answer as to why the Government have refused to put into operation what my right hon. Friend pledged himself and the late Government to do if we were returned, that is, the purchase of British meat for the Forces. Here we have an astonishing situation. From the Free Trade point of view, it does not matter whether you purchase British meat or foreign meat, but the 472 Government have rejected that argument, and they are encouraging private consumers to purchase British meat. We have heard the right hon. Gentleman, with such ferociousness as his gentle nature would allow him to display, make a reference to certain restaurateurs in London for having done the same thing as his colleagues the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Minister of War had done, namely, refuse to purchase British meat. He said he hoped that his efforts would make them see where their duty lay in this matter. I would like to say that I hope his own colleagues will also see where their duty rests in this matter.
I am obliged to the hon Gentleman the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for that interruption. It was the next subject for reference which I have down on my notes. The only answer we have had from the hon. Gentleman on this subject was that he proposed to apply exactly the same policy that my right hon. Friend applied while he was in office, and that was greeted cheerfully by his supporters behind him. Assuming that is the answer which the party opposite seem to think adequate, I do suggest that to say that during four years we did nothing, which incidentally was certainly proved to be true, and that that is a good reason why the present Government, who have been in office 11 mouths, have done nothing, may be popular with their own supporters, but it is not an argument which is likely to be popular with the farmers and agricultural labourers in the country. Are they prepared to say to these people: "We have done nothing during the 11 months we have been in office, but, as the late Government had done nothing, we tell our supporters that, and they are satisfied, and thus we have been able to score against the Tory party"? That sort of thing will not satisfy the agricultural electors. The right hon. Gentleman can only use that argument if he wishes to suggest that my right hon. Friend and the late Government did not intend to carry out their solemn promise. We made no such promise in the 1924 election, and during that Parliament we said we were not going to do so, but we said we would do this if we were returned to power 473 again. I say that we have had no adequate explanation from the Government why they have not done it. According to a reference made by an hon. Member this afternoon, practically the only decisive action of any sort which they have taken was to repudiate it. It is a serious charge, for its practical and psychological effect would be very great, and I ask the Minister to reconsider it.
The hon. Gentleman who spoke from below the Gangway, and other speakers, particularly the right hon. Member for South Molton, paid a tribute to what the Government had done in the matter of marketing. I thought that that tribute was due rather to my right hon. Friend, who, in face of great opposition, was not only instrumental in passing the Merchandise Marks Act, but also carried out a number of useful and important marketing proposals. We are entitled to some credit for that. While it is true that the measures we took have not made agriculture prosperous, no one can deny that those measures were useful in themselves, and they have been supported by the present Government with enthusiasm.
I should like to leave the Government for a moment, for I do not think we will get information to-day on their policy, even if the circumstances of the Debate did not make it slightly difficult. I should like to turn to another matter—the attitude which the party below the Gangway is adopting towards agriculture, and towards the policy of the Government. It is a matter of some importance to know that this Government is being kept in power by the support of that party. I do not wish to say anything hard on them. I deprecate the use of words comparing them in any way with any foreign nation, but I am bound to confess that the party which has put itself into their peculiar position reminds me of the Eskimos, who are said to be able to put up with any amount of cold providing they have a sufficient supply of blubber.
§ Mr. KEDWARD
Does the Noble Lord mean the supply of blubber by the two Noble Lords, Beaverbrook and Bother-mere?
My reference had no personal application. What, I ask, is the attitude of these allies of the Government? We have heard from time to time 474 speeches by the leader of the party below the Gangway drawing injurious comparisons as between British farming and Danish farming. Some of these comparisons are based on inadequate knowledge of the circumstances. One of the statements which the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal party makes is that Denmark is one of the poorest agricultural countries in the world. That is not true. I have made extensive tours in Denmark and I find that much of it consists of very rich land indeed. The well-instructed agricultural correspondent of the "Times" has pointed out that the altitude of the land in this country, on the whole, is higher than that of Denmark. That is to say, there is more arable land here than in Denmark, which is difficult of cultivation. Another reason for this fallacious argument is that Denmark is a country which organises for export, and it is easier to organise for export than for your home market. I think, therefore, it is rather unfair for the right hon. Gentleman to use this comparison and it vitiates a great deal of his argument.
It is untrue to suggest that farmers are uninstructed and foolish people. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) generally makes two points when he speaks upon agriculture. One is an attack on the landlords and the other is a suggestion that farmers themselves are hopelessly inadequate and out-of-date. I do not think that is true. I dare say they can learn, like anyone else, where there are new ideas to be obtained, but the accusation is not true. The right hon. Gentleman has also given it to be understood that one of the difficulties of this country is the fact that land is not available. In my opinion, speaking of the south of England, I doubt whether anywhere in France, Holland, Denmark, Germany or countries adjacent to this country you will find so much agricultural land in the market as there has been in the south and west of England during the last 10 years. It is an astonishing fact that land in my constituency has been selling as low as £8 per acre. That is much lower than you can get for good land in Kenya. It is less than you pay for land in many parts of the world. Whatever the causes, the price of land is not one of them. Nor is inaccessibility 475 a cause. Land is available in large quantities at cheap prices.
The main grievance against the Leader of the party below the Gangway is that he was primarily responsible for the greatest blow which was ever struck at the agricultural industry, and that is the injury that was done by the abolition of the Corn Production Act. I myself, and I believe some of my colleagues, gave a general support at the time to that Act—[Interruption]—I cannot give way to any more interruptions. I know all parties have to share the responsibility, but the primary responsibility is with the Leader of the Liberal party, who is constantly saying that no party is prepared to come to grips with the agricultural problem. [An HON. MEMBER: "That was during the War."] I know that there was a national agreement during the War. [An HON. MEMBER: "The Tory party joined in it!"] It does not matter whether the Tory party joined in it or not, because it is a fact that the Liberal Leader was the principal villain of the piece.
We have been told that before the War we produced 23 per cent. of our food supplies and that now we are producing only about 20 per cent. The present state of arable cultivation of land in this country is testimony to the terrific decrease which has taken place in agriculture. I will not follow the remarks which were made about the naval defence of our food supplies. I will only say, in passing, that it seemed to me that the hon. Member suggested that it is possible to grow so much of our food supply in this country that it would not be necessary to provide a navy to protect it. In reply to that argument, I have no hesitation in saying that, under any circumstances, we should still have to import a large proportion of our food supplies from overseas.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton has spoken on this subject, and, if I may say so without making any invidious comparisons, he made a most instructive and instructed speech. At the end of that speech, he declared that there was something wrong with our present system and that the cultivator of the land was not getting an economic price for his produce. The right hon. Gentleman stated that that was at the root of the trouble, and that 476 unless you can get an economic price for your products, you cannot carry on at all. While I do not share the views of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton in other respects, I agree that we must get a more economic price for our agricultural products.
The right hon. Gentleman made reference to the prosperity of the French peasants. For two successive summers I spent my holidays in a remote part of rural France, and I discovered that, although the agricultural wage earners in this country get better wages, the standard of living of the French peasant is higher than any other peasant population. You cannot go through the French country districts and see—or it is very difficult to see—a French peasant who is not well fed. They are undoubtedly prosperous, and they are saving money. There are many reasons for that, but it would be out of order for me to go into all of them. One of them is that the French peasant believes in very hard work, and he realises that the industry of agriculture demands of those who get their living by it a harder task than perhaps is demanded by any other industry with the single exception of mining. In France hard work is not merely a means to an end, but it is considered to be a fine thing in itself. I fear that that is not the policy of the Government or of the First Commissioner of Works because the right hon. Gentleman, speaking the other night on the unemployment problem, said:According to the Scriptural story, work was imposed as a test, and mankind has been trying to use the brains that God Almighty gave him to get rid of the test at the earliest possible moment. I am very glad to think that mankind is slowly but surely reaching that desirable end. None of us want to go to manual labour. I ran away from it myself at the earliest possible moment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th May, 1930; col. 167, Vol. 239.]If you want to compare the success of the French peasant system with the agricultural policy adopted in this country, you have only to realise the difference between the point of view of the French peasant and that of the First Commissioner of Works, which represents a wholly different philosophy. The French peasant has advantages which the agricultural workers of this country 477 have not, but it would be unfair and out of order to carry the comparison too far. One advantage which is enjoyed by the French peasant is that he has not to fight the apathy of the most urbanised people in the world towards the welfare of agriculture. The apathy of the people of this country towards agriculture is astonishing. For 25 years I have been a Member of this House, and every occasion upon which I have listened to a Debate on agriculture I have never seen the House full. I have never heard anyone deny that the agricultural industry was in a bad way, and yet years roll on and nothing is done on a big scale.
Unless human nature changes and unless you get people to take an unselfish view, unless you get the people whom Kipling calls "the little street-bred people" to take an interest in fields which at the present moment seem to convey nothing to them except something in which to throw orange peel as they pass them in chars-a-banes—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"]—well, not all of them, but thousands of them. As one interested in the country, I ask in Heaven's name why these people make the countryside into such an awful mess? I do not know any people who make the countryside more untidy than the British people when they go on holiday, and I only wish that they would be more tidy. Hon. Members know that we are the most urbanised people in the world. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who made them so?"] I should say it was the Free Trade system and as much as anything else the policy of Mr. Cobden. It is against that system that we are struggling to-day. [Interruption.] However that may be, it does not absolve the Government of the day. No Government has ever given less sympathetic attention to agriculture than the present Government has done. The only Government which has had the courage to remove from the agricultural industry the greatest burden which, in the old days, that industry had to bear—that is the rates—was a Conservative Government. [Interruption.] The hon. Member who interrupts me knows that perfectly well, and, if he does not know it, he should read the literature on this subject. The present Government have done nothing for agriculture, notwithstanding what they promised in their pamphlets.
478 We have been told by hon. Gentlemen opposite that the reason for all these difficulties in agriculture is one of markets and things of that kind. I have here the figures relating to co-operative societies in which hon. Members opposite are so deeply interested. There are 150 co-operative societies, and they own between them 57,978 acres, and the losses which they have made are astonishing. Those societies made a profit of £26,889, but that profit was reduced to £4,000 when the interest charges had been paid. They made losses amounting to £61,762, and the total losses reached £164,000, after allowance had been made for interest. Instead of attacking the landlords and the middlemen, surely it is worth the while of hon. Members below the Gangway to study the history of co-operative farming, which, without the intervention of the middleman and with assured markets, has made these enormous losses. Why have they made those losses? It is because under the present fiscal system of this country it is utterly impossible for arable farming to be made to pay.
§ Mr. W. B. TAYLOR
I should like to bring the Committee back for a minute or two to the Vote that we are discussing, and to say at once that I rise in opposition to the reduction which has been moved. I do so because the Vote includes the provision of money for the work of the Ministry along administrative lines, and, as we have been told definitely from the other side on several occasions since the Debate commenced, this Government is but carrying out their policy, and, therefore—
§ It being Half-past Seven of the Clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means under Standing Order No. 8, further Proceeding was postponed, without Question put.