HC Deb 26 May 1930 vol 239 cc949-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]


I desire to call attention to the reply which the Minister gave to a question which I put to him to-day. I make no apology for keeping the House here to-night a little longer than it otherwise would have been kept, because I think that anybody who has listened to the dreary round of question and answer on the subject of agriculture in the last six months, and who has listened to Departmental debates on the Ministry of Agriculture Vote during the last fortnight, cannot but have been impressed by an appalling sense of futility in face of a situation of real urgency. It may be that the country will have found it more instructive than edifying to note the difference between the election speeches and aspirations of the party opposite towards agriculture and their actual efforts while they have been in the saddle during the past year, but that does not remove, and cannot remove, the increasing sense of despair which is surrounding the industry, and is actually coming over those who are in charge and those who are working on the land.

If a managing director had come down to a company meeting with a report of his activities such as the Minister has given us on his Departmental Vote in the last fortnight, I doubt very much whether the shareholders in a dying firm, or the employés in a firm which was on very shaky ground, would have been happy to receive such a statement as that things were not so bad because the agricultural labourer, when he was hoping for a living, was going to get spiritual recreation by the establishment of a few more village halls. Again, I doubt very much whether the farmer—the wheat grower—will be very happy to be told that a certain amount of research is going on into, for instance, the diseases of calves, when he knows that the whole carry-over of the 1929 crop is waiting for the psychological moment to be dumped on these islands because the rest of the world cannot afford to keep it any longer.

Surely, after this masterly expenditure of activity in trifles, one has a right to draw attention to the shadows that are approaching from other nations., to the policies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Germany, France, Switzerland, the United States and Russia. Even our own Dominions are all preparing great State-aided policies for agriculture, and we are standing aside saying that the matter is having consideration. A fortnight ago I asked the Minister at Question Time if his attention had been drawn to the policies for assisting agriculture in those countries which I have just mentioned, and whether he could give similar protection or assistance to agriculture in this country.


The Noble Lord must realise that that suggestion would need legislation.


I accept your Ruling, but the question that I asked the Minister to-day would have needed legislation—


That is a different thing from raising the question on the Adjournment.


I apologise if I have gone beyond the bounds of order, but I wanted to draw attention to the reply which the Minister gave to me. It was in reference to someone else's question, and he did not even carry out my suggestion. The actual question to which he referred me was by the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin): Whether he will obtain such information and particulars of the schemes recently adopted in New Zealand, Switzerland and Norway under which the home farmer secures the first call on the home market at a stabilised price, and the balance of the home requirements are obtained from abroad. The Minister's reply was: I am taking steps to supplement the information already in my possession regarding the schemes referred to by my hon. Friend and, when my information is complete in detail, I will consider whether any useful purpose would be served by publication."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th April, 1930; col. 2627, Vol. 237.] That is hardly an answer to the question I asked, and it is an illustration of the way the whole fundamental question of agriculture is being treated. Again, we have continually, from these benches, raised the question of dumping. Alter all, we realise that dumping by Germany at the moment may not be as serious as the popular Press make it out to be, but we can see again the shadows approaching and we have the Minister saying representations will be made. Surely what we want is a little more force and a little more personality in the representations. It is better than the pieties that take place at Geneva as to a tariff truce to have a little of the Palmerston touch in our diplomacy. To-day the right hon. Gentleman himself said there is a world depression in agriculture. The rest of the world has realised that there is a world depression, and it is not because it is Germany to-day that we are fighting, but it may be the United States or France or any other country in the world to-morrow, and it probably will be. That is the answer, that other countries have realised that there must be a balance between industry and agriculture if there is going to be any prosperity, and the Minister says active consideration is going on. Surely it is time we gave up splashing bravely at the shallow end of the swimming pool and saying how well we can swim. It is time we really got down to something fundamental, something we must do to face the situation. If there is going to be any hope for agriculture generally, there must be something done for the arable farmer, and there must be something done in the way of extension of the present credit schemes, which work very well as far as they go but which were designed, not to meet an emergency, but for a smoothly running agriculture. The man who puts his crops in to-day has no guarantee that he may not be ruined to-morrow, simply because of the continued inactivity, not necessarily of hon. Members opposite, but the sort of apathy which has fallen over the whole country. Indeed, any policy which deals with our agricultural situation must surely take in the fact that our Empire must be linked with it.

There is another question. Again and again we have been told that the decline in the wheat acreage is responsible for the present price of potatoes and for the despair in the potato market. That may or may not be true, but what is far more true is that there is no method of dealing with our surplus in agriculture. It is no good growing potatoes when one year the same land will yield five tons to the acre and next year 11. It is no good growing oats, for instance, when one year one acre will yield seven sacks and the next year 20, as has happened on my own land. You have to have some machinery for dealing with gluts, and it is no good dealing with them from a sort of broad, vague, view of marketing unconnected with producer or consumer, because marketing, after all, however much the Minister may fall back on it and congratulate himself is like some sort of amoeba, the most elementary organism, floating in the Gulf Stream of drift.

One of the few things that came out in debate on the Minister's Vote was the reproduction by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) of his story of the old village as he once knew it, with the old-fashioned houses and the old-fashioned mill. I am not old enough to have got that glamour of the past so strongly upon me, but I would not suggest, and do not hope to see, housing conditions and the villages of 50 years ago obtaining when the country is set on its feet. I want something better. The right hon. Gentleman likes conferences; they are the tight-rope walker's pole with which he balances on the knife-edge between the Liberal and the Labour party pits. While I welcome anything that may bridge agricultural difficulties, I know that a conference of that sort is only shelving the responsibility for the moment, putting it on the next man, and probably, in the end, accentuating the difficulties. We have seen conferences and we have seen even a Coal Commission. They have not got on with anything except putting things off. We cannot afford to put things off when another bad harvest will ruin the land, and when we are faced with the whole of the carry-over of the Canadian wheat pool and, if we can credit rumour, something like 100,000,000 dollars' worth of American wheat waiting to be shipped over to this country. We know perfectly well that where two or three farmers are gathered together, there are there as many differences as there are farmers. There is not wanted somebody gathering a multiplicity of views for which he can blame everyone but himself. A singleness of purpose and of mind is wanted.




Yes, it would be better to have a Mussolini organising the agriculture of this country than to see it go to ruin, as it is doing to-day. It wants leadership, a clear balancing of the differences between arable and pastoral agriculture, getting them in a sane light, and going through with it with bravery, courage and singleness of will and purpose.


I join heartily with my hon. Friend in this attempt to call the attention of the House to the seriousness of the problem and the inactivity of those responsible for agriculture in this country. It is not enough to come down to this House and say, as Members opposite do, "You had five years in office; what did you do about it?" That does not matter. The thing that matters is, what are you going to do about it now? Those of us who went through the last election, though we did not believe any very great good would come out of this Government, did hope that something new would come out of it. But nothing either new or old has come out of it. Those of us who sit for agricultural constituencies and who feel that in agriculture lies the salvation of this country, those of us who agree with the First Commissioner of Works, who said that it was to the land we had to look for salvation, are appalled by the apathy and the lack of interest in this House when the question of agriculture is debated.

It would not be in order for us to put forward on a Motion for the Adjournment any new schemes requiring legislation, but we call upon the Minister and the Government to do something. This policy of laissez faire, of postponement and of consideration, is absolutely futile. Though it may be true to say that we had five years in which we might have done something, it is equally true that the right hon. Gentleman has had more than five years in which he might have thought of something. This fiddling with the policies of developing research and assisting marketing are absolutely useless. We have nearly 2,000,000 unemployed to-day and the land is crying out for development and we can, apparently, do absolutely nothing to put matters right. It is a pitiful sidelight on the way this country is governed, that we can do nothing to correlate those two facts.

I am going to make this appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. I beg of him not to waste time muddling about with a three-party conference. If no one party can settle upon an agricultural policy—and no one party has yet—how are three parties going to do it. Without wishing to be in any way unduly offensive, the Conservative party have had a try at it, and the Socialist party have had a try at it, and there is only one thing that could make it worse, and that would be the entry into the field of the Liberal party, because we know that when they have attempted to deal with agriculture disaster has resulted. I am glad to have had the privilege of speaking now rather than in the debate upon the Minister's Vote, because it would not have been wise to have reduced that Vote, but rather to have increased it. We want the best people we can find at the head of agriculture. I cannot help feeling that if, when the Government set up a special committee of three—it has not been very successful with regard to the unemployment problem—and they had turned their attention to the agricultural problem the volume of unemployment would not have been so serious. I hope that the Minister is going to arrange for a policy of less talk and more action.


I am sure that the House will agree that the two hon. Members who have spoken on behalf of agriculture have presented a very weak case. I should like to draw attention to the action of a Conservative Minister in 1921 in withdrawing Part I of the Corn Production Act doing away with the payment of prices to the cultivator and the provision of a living wage to the agricultural worker. The War put up the price of land and estates and the owners of estates took advantage of that fact and put them into the market and sold them at an enhanced price, with the result that it caused great insecurity. The tenants of those farms had either to buy them, or borrow money, or get out. That was the beginning of the disaster in agriculture. Not content with that, the Landowners' Association had a meeting and decided to raise rents by 33⅓ per cent. They did that on the top of insecurity.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."


If right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Members opposite are so anxious to do something for agriculture, why do they not persuade the owners of the land to drop the rents to the extent of the 33⅓ per cent. by which they advanced them. All that the late Conservative administration could boast of was that they de-rated the land. We were only paying on one-fourth of our land at the time that Act came into force, but the assessments of the farmhouses have now been put up, and that has almost taken away with one hand what the Government gave with the other. I know perfectly well that the arable farmer is in a bad way. Farmer friends of mine are in financial difficulties to-day. What claims can the Conservative Government put forward that they tried to help the farmers in any shape or form? They never did anything to help them, and the farmers are reaping the results of neglecting legislation in past years. What about the Drainage Bill which is now being held up in another place? Does that show any sympathy with agriculture or any intention to do anything for agriculture? Day by day we have discussions in this House on other subjects. What about the discussion to-day? Would it not have been better to have postponed the discussion on India and to have discussed agriculture? We have spent a full day discussing India, which is a most delicate subject and the least said about it the better. Why could we not have discussed agriculture? Today has been a day wasted which might have been spent on agricul- ture. Many owners of land are more concerned with preserving game and sport than in promoting agriculture. I know some parts of England that are almost entirely given up to the sport of fox-hunting and the rearing of foxes.

The Minister of Agriculture has been twitted about the Three-Party Conference. The Conservative party failed to get a conference, where the present Minister of Agriculture has succeeded.


Will the hon. Member say why the Conservative party failed and the Labour party has succeeded? Was it not that our opponents refused to join the conference while in response to the appeal of your Minister we on this side of the House were too public-spirited to refuse?


The Conservatives failed to get a conference because the agricultural worker had not confidence in the Conservative Government.


Does the hon. Member think that the landowners have any confidence in the Labour Government?


The agricultural workers have no confidence in the Conservative Government. What happened after they had struck out Part I of the Corn Production Act? In Norfolk, the wages of the agricultural workers were brought down to 23s. and a strike took place, which lasted six weeks, on the point whether there should be an increase of one shilling a week. How can you expect the agricultural worker to come into a conference after treatment like that? We are taunted with not being organised. It is the intimidation which exists which has prevented the agricultural worker from organising. We are in a minority in this House and are taunted with having done nothing. You had a majority of 200; and what did you do? The Minister of Agriculture is calling agriculturists together to see what can be done. It would be better to try and do something inst earl of wasting the time of this House. What happened last Friday afternoon? The Scottish Small Holdings Bill was talked out by hon. Members opposite. It gave security of tenure to the smallholder. That is the kind of thing hon. Members opposite do, and I protest against the question being raised in this manner at this hour of the night.


I do not apologise for not following the remarks of the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Rosbotham), whose remarks were archaic and irrelevant. It is time that we stopped wrangling on the agricultural situation. The time has come for a definite lead, and my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Viscount Lymington) asked for a Mussolini who would do something for the industry now. We who represent agricultural constituencies know the position. My own constituency is probably the most depressed arable area in North Essex, and they feel that something must be done. The right hon. Gentleman on the last occasion we discussed agriculture said that there were few bankruptcies. I agree that there were few appearing in the Press, but the fact is that, if the last harvest had not been the best on record, most farmers in my division would have been absolutely ruined. I know that ruin is now absolutely staring them in the face. We have made repeated attempts to introduce a new spirit into agriculture. We have repeatedly asked the right hon. Gentleman to do something which will meet the immediate emergency, but no argument seems to have the slightest effect in trying to get a square deal for agriculture.

I understand that questions of future policy cannot be raised on the Adjournment. I am not raising any questions of policy, I am only dealing with the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman, which is one of absolute negation. It may be regarded as our daily outing to the sea. We go to the sea and what do we see? We find the right hon. Gentleman like another Canute, trying to prevent wave after wave of foreign imported produce coming into this country. We have heard a great deal about the imports from other River Plata and Germany, and other sources. We have not heard much about the imports of French wheat, which is being sold at 31s. per quarter of 480 lbs., and have a most depressing effect on the English market. Those wheats compare extremely favourably with ours. They are practically the same form of grain. The effect on the market is extremely depressing. No less a person than Mr. Haslam, Chairman of the Farmers' Club, who writes monthly in the farm crops reports of the Essex Farmers' Journal, has for the last six months been offering warnings as to the situation in the grain markets of England. In the history of England they have never been worse than they are to-day. Yet there is absolutely no suggestion from the Minister and no administrative action which can possibly remedy the situation. When you realise that 30s. a quarter, or a very little over, is the ruling price for that sort of imported grain, it is easy to see what a serious position our arable farmers are in.

One of the administrative actions to which I take most exception is the absolute inadequacy of the Minister's treatment of bounty-fed imports from foreign countries and the so-called representations which are said to have been made. Foreign countries have done much more in the way of administration in dealing with treaty decisions, and I am certain that a study of international law will reveal possibilities of dealing with commercial treaties in a very much more active manner than the right hon. Gentleman has shown. Agriculture has waited some 84 years since the repeal of the Corn Laws to get equitable treatment from the towns and from the House of Commons. Entirely brushing aside all the arguments about one party or another, it is time that we had active administration at the Ministry and some remedying of the price to the farmer in the extremely difficult circumstances in which he finds himself at the present time.


Hon. Members on both sides have expressed the anxiety which all feel in regard to our agriculture. Everyone, of course, is concerned for the depression which prevails in the cereal areas, and everyone welcomes a practical suggestion from any quarter. The Noble Lord made a very practical suggestion. He touched on the question of the potato crop and market. There you have a problem which is capable of solution by action in the sphere of marketing organisation. The Noble Lord is a practical farmer, and if he will devote himself to it he can make a great contribution towards a solution of the potato trouble by organising opinion among producers as to the value of combination for marketing advantage.

Hon. Members have, as usual, according to their weekly—I might say daily—wont, demanded an announcement of policy. It would perhaps be rude if I made an allusion to the prevalence of parrot disease, and said that the frequency of these demands does suggest that there is something more required than the make-believe of party indignation on this question. The desire for action everyone ought to welcome. Nothing is more appropriate. But is it not absurd to pretend that any party is indifferent to the position in agriculture or to the intense desirability of finding some common ground on which to act? We are dealing in this Parliament after the fashion, not very adequately yet, of a Council of State, because of the peculiar composition of this House. When I see these simulations of party fury, may I not remind the House that the party opposite have a certain record in this matter of agriculture, considerably longer and more firmly established in the public recollection than ours? I seem to remember that not so very many months ago they had an extremely bad name with the farming community, and it is natural, of course, that they should try to obscure the record that attaches to them.

But what reality is there in the cry that this Government has been guilty of intolerable and unparalleled delay in announcing the policy? I remember that the late Government came into office in October, 1924, and what was the date when their policy was first announced? It was February, 1926, and there are many months still, therefore, before hon. Members opposite have a case against the present Government for delay. Now we find that, whereas we are cold-hearted, they are the established friends of the farmers. It would, no doubt, be convenient for the reputation of the party opposite that certain facts should be forgotten—the fact, for instance, that the late Minister of Agriculture, when he stood for election on his appointment as Minister, was officially and violently opposed by the National Farmers' Union. The party opposite, of course, found the problem of agricultural action so complicated that it took time to think what to do, and it took 4½ years to find that there was no large Measure to be pro- posed which could meet with the approval of the party. They found, in regard to the heroic remedies proposed, that protective tariffs were impossible and subsidies were futile. I recall that the present Leader of the Opposition, speaking on 18th April last year, said: Protection is obviously ruled out and subsidies would be of no use unless it could be guaranteed that the subsidies would be continued for an indefinite term of years and no one can give that guarantee. We all remember the fate of the Agriculture Act under the Coalition Government. That might happen again with subsidies and, if it did, the last state of agriculture would be worse than the first. Those are very sound views and are held by the present Government. If those views are sound and serious, as advanced by the Leader of the Opposition, what reality is there in the claim that we, in our turn, can solve this knotty question all at once? Action outside Protection and subsidies is a complicated matter, and the Labour policy, which has been published in detail, commands no majority in the present House. Other plans must be found which do command a majority, on precisely the same lines as those necessarily followed during the time of the late Government. Expert examination has been pressed on dealing with the restricted proposals which are possible outside the sphere I have named, and the many vested interests affected by such proposals have also to be examined. It is a long business to complete such an examination, and the need for ample discussion is illustrated by what happened at the agricultural industry conference. That conference sat for nine days, in nine successive weeks. Whole days were given to the exhaustive study of proposals brought forward by one or other of the elements of the conference, and there was no restriction set to the proposals brought forward.


I think the right hon. Gentleman carefully laid down before the conference precisely what they were to discuss. Therefore, the agenda which they were permitted to consider was closely delimitated by the right hon. Gentleman.


Yes, but I went back on that and removed all restrictions to the discussion. You had there the most eminent, and also the chosen representatives of responsible elements in the industry, and yet it is very remarkable that no agreement was reached between the three parties on any single definite proposal. That is very indicative of the difficulty of the situation. Let all the parties prove their desire for action by trying to state what measures do command a majority in this House, and I trust the words we have heard this evening are not final in regard to the acceptance of the Prime Minister's invitation.


What grounds can the right hon. Gentleman give for having a party conference if he himself proceeds to assent to the idea, which he has just done, of ruling out practically every suggestion that has come before him?


Not at all. I greatly regret that common ground was not found by the Conference, but there may well be measures to be found in the programme of one party or another which could, in these difficult times, command the assent of Members in any party. Let us see what practicable proposals can be found which do command a majority. The Labour policy needs no elaboration here, because no policy is more exactly detailed in print than that policy, which has been before the country for many years. That policy, unfortunately, does not command a majority, and it is hardly for a minority Government to carry controversial proposals. Whatever may be thought of nationalisation, national ownership, the extension—


I called one hon. Member to order for proposing something that would need legislation. I think that defending things that need legislation is almost as bad.


I had better confine my remarks to the records of the past. It appears to me that the rival policy put forward, the action of the Conservative party in the past, has been characterised by one remarkable feature. It has been a succession of sudden changes of policy, one might say of rushes to the head, of serious attacks of subsidy complex. In 1923 we had a sudden proposal for the £1 an acre subsidy. In 1929 we had an equally sudden proposal for the provision of meat for the Forces, and now we have another attack, the proposal for guaranteed prices. There is nothing worse, I think we shall readily admit, if we are not talking party policies, but serious agricultural policy, than sudden changes, as we have already been reminded by the allusion to the repeal of the Corn Production Act. Farmers do not want a repetition of that betrayal in any form whatever, and rather than a sudden access of subsidy mania, I trust once more that we shall endeavour to get together under the Prime Minister's auspices and find common ground.


The right hon. Gentleman made a very remarkable speech. I do not know whether I heard him aright. He mentioned the agricultural conference which he said had come to no conclusion. That conference put forward certain recommendations to the Government, but the right hon. Gentleman now says that he is against protective duties, subsidies, and guaranteed prices. Does that mean that he has rejected the proposals made by the agricultural conference to him? That is the only conclusion to which I can come. Then, having succeeded in getting the conference, having succeeded in getting recommendations out of that conference, and having rejected those recommendations, he turns round and says, "Now let us have, not an agricultural conference, but a three-party conference." He has rejected everything, and what is to be the basis of this three-party conference?

Then he says, "Of course, we have a policy; it is well known, for it has appeared in print over and over again." I will not compete with the right hon. Gentleman in attacks of psittacosis; I agree that it has been printed over and over again. Why has it not been produced? The right hon. Gentleman says, "We have not a majority in this House," but he seems to be able pretty constantly to have a majority of 90 or so, with the aid of his friends below the Gangway. The real truth is that the policy lacks a majority in the House, and one of the Members who would most bitterly oppose it would be the Minister of Agriculture himself. The Labour party's policy is one in which not one of the leaders of the Labour party any longer believes, and I do not believe that anyone on the back benches believes in it either. If they did, the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Rosbotham) might have made a profession of faith instead of talking about the past and the sins of somebody else. I was in some doubt as to the merits and as to the prospects of a three party conference, and I am still in some doubt, but after this evening, after the right hon. Gentleman has fully explained that he has no policy except a criticism of what other parties did in the past, and that he is perfectly determined to reject any possible solution, including the solution which the Agricultural Conference has come to—[Interruption.] Well, I began by asking the right hon. Gentleman whether I had misunderstood him and now I will sit down after asking him whether I have misunderstood him.


Can we ask, in the minute that remains, does he accept it?


Accept what?


The recommendations of the Agricultural Conference.


Which one?


The last.


I should have thought it unnecessary to repeat that the Agricultural Conference did not arrive at a unanimous report on any agricultural policy.


Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that he will not accept any decision of a Conference which is not absolutely unanimous?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'Clock.