HC Deb 02 November 1930 vol 134 cc328-36

(1) The minimum prices for the wheat and oats of the year nineteen hundred and twenty-one and any subsequent year shall be such prices for a statutory quarter as correspond to the following minimum prices for the wheat and oats respectively of the year nineteen hundred and nineteen (hereinafter referred to as "the standard year"): —

Wheat 68s. per customary quarter of 504 pounds.
Oats 46s. per customary quarter of 336 pounds.

and the corresponding minimum prices shall be fixed in respect of each year in accordance with the following; provisions:—

  1. (a) The Commissioners to be appointed under this Part of this Act shall as soon as possible after the completion of the harvest in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-one and each subsequent year ascertain the percentage by which the cost of production of the wheat and oats respectively of that year is greater or less than the cost of production of the wheat and oats respectively of the standard year.
  2. (b) In ascertaining the variation in the cost of production no account shall be taken of any variation of rent:
  3. (c) The corresponding minimum prices for the wheat and oats respectively of any year shall be such sums as are certified by the Commissioners to bear to the minimum prices for the wheat and oats respectively of the standard year the same proportion as the cost of production of the wheat and oats respectively of the year for which the prices are to be fixed bears to the cost of production 329 of the wheat and oats respectively of the standard year.
    1. (2) Any fraction of a penny in the average price or minimum price per statutory quarter shall be disregarded.
    2. (3) The foregoing provisions of this Section shall have effect in substitution for the provisions of Sub-section (1) of Section two of the Act of 1917.
    3. (4) The expression "statutory quarter" shall be substituted for the expression "quarter" wherever that expression occurs in the Act of 1917.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (1, a), after the word "ascertain," to insert the words: in consultation with the Minister, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland. Clause 2 lays down the; methods whereby the Commissioners who are to be appointed under Clause 3 are to ascertain the variations in the cost of production from year to year, and on the variations in the cost of production will depend the guaranteed prices. When the Bill was originally introduced, it was proposed to have three Commissioners, one appointed by the three Boards of Agriculture together, one appointed by the Board of Trade, who is intended to represent the interest of the consumers, and one appointed by the Treasury to look after the interests of the taxpayer. In the course of the discussions in Committee an Amendment was carried against the Government by one vote to increase the number of Commissioners from three to five, and put in one representing the Ministry of Agriculture of England and Wales, one representing the Scottish Board, and one representing the Irish Board. I cannot discuss this matter in detail at this stage. It will be my duty whim we reach Clause 3 to ask the House to revert to the original plan of three Commissioners, about which I will not argue at this moment. But we realise that if there are not to be specific Commissioners, representing different parts of the United Kingdom, there must be some kind of machinery whereby it shall be made quite clear that the respective interests of the different parts of the United Kingdom are properly taken into account, and in order therefore that that may be arranged, I propose to move this Amendment here, that the three Commissioners, in ascertaining the cost of production shall do so in consultation with the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries in England and Wales, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, Ireland. In that way the Commissioners will be brought into touch with the Departments responsible in all the three kingdoms. The sole object of my Amendment is to carry that out at this stage and I will speak further about the proposal to reduce the number of Commissioners from five to three when we reach Clause 3. In the meantime I cannot conceive that any hon. Member would wish to oppose this Amendment. It does not in any way commit the House to accept my Amendment or Clause 3, but it at all events assures that the interests of the different parts of the United Kingdom shall be taken into account.

Lieut.-Colonel A. MURRAY

It really is so difficult to follow this Bill that I must ask what may appear to be a very simple question. If we accept the Amendment, will that commit us to accept the right hon. Gentleman's reversion—


I have already said that will not follow. Accepting this in no way commits the House to accepting my subsequent Amendment.

Lieut.-Colonel A. MURRAY

I do not follow it.


Will the effect of the Amendment be that the action of the Commissioners in fixing prices could be debated here on the Minister's salary? It is a rather important point for us. If that is so, it would be an inducement to accept the Amendment. Perhaps the Solicitor-General could answer that. It would give the House better control if, by the Minister being consulted, he thereby assumed some responsibility for which he would have to answer to the House.


My right hon. Friend invites me to respond. My impression is that it would be possible, but, of course, that is not really a lawyer's opinion. It would be a matter of the practice and procedure of the House, but my impression, so far as I understand the procedure of the House, is that my right hon. Friend Is right.


I desire to impress on the House that I shall not henceforth be as prominent in the discussions on the Bill as I have hitherto been. It has only happened that the Amendments I was interested in came earlier in the Bill. I should like to ask what is the object of these Commissioners consulting the Boards of Agriculture. I view this with very great suspicion. I sat on the Agricultural Commission which considered very carefully questions about the guaranteed prices, and though agreeing with the majority report, I did so with very great mental reservations, which I do not suppose many hon. Members troubled to read. Having got the Wages Board established, and established for a number of years, the question we had to consider was whether the farmers could carry on their business and pay the wages fixed by the Wages Board independent of the profits of the farming industry, without some subsidy. The minority reported that they could, but that they ought to have a free market, and that there should be no control of the industry. With that report I was in agreement, but I differed from them on the ground that the farmers could not carry on their business without a subsidy so long as the Wages Board was in existence and wages were fixed without their consent or approval. The question then arose, how these guaranteed prices could be fixed, and I took the view, and I put it to the House now, that it is absolutely essential that these guaranteed prices should, if any confidence at all is to be placed in the fixing of the prices, be fixed by some body entirely independent of the Government. So strongly was I of that view, that I reported on a special mode for making the minimum guaranteed price vary according to the wages, and the wages only; the object of that being that the farmers who were going to grow wheat or oats would know exactly what they were likely to expect. They would know what the current rates of wages were while they were growing the wheat, and the price of wheat would vary on these wages and these wages alone. If that had been adopted wheat would have been grown in much larger quantity. The Government have accepted the proposition that the guaranteed prices are to be fixed by three Commissioners. The Bill provides for five Commissioners, but they are to be reduced to three. The prices are to be fixed according to the increase in the cost of production from a standard price which is fixed at 68s. for wheat and 46s. for oats. No variation is to be taken into account in the amount of rent. The Commissioners are not informed of what items or on what principle the 68s. figure is made up. They have already an ex tremely difficult problem to work out, which cannot be checked; which no farmer would be able to understand, and which under the Bill as it is drawn will never be ascertained until nearly two years after the farmer has made up his mind to grow his wheat. It is, therefore, a very indefinite problem that has to be worked out by the three Commissioners. The object of this Bill being to secure the growing of wheat by the farmers, it is essential, and the most important point in the Bill, that the farmer should have confidence in the fixing of the prices, which are going to be fixed a year and a half or two years after the wheat is grown, and that he should have confidence in the men who are going to fix the prices. A subsidy to the farmer is anathema to the urban dweller, whether workman or employer, and farmers must look with the greatest suspicion on the method which the Government have adopted of fixing these guarantees, the difficult problem that is being set the men who have to fix them and the appointment of these men. Farmers have no means of checking these prices. The one safeguard they have is the appointment of independent persons to fix them. It is now proposed to remove that safeguard, and these three Commissioners are to act in consultation, which means, I take it, by direction of a particular branch of the Government. Every farmer will look with more and more suspicion on these prices. I would ask the Minister to explain on what ground it is thought necessary to take away from the farmer the safeguard of three persons independent of the Government, and make them subservient to a Government Department.

Lieut.-Colonel COURTHEPE

I hope my right hon. Friend will think twice about pressing this Amendment on the House. If he does press it, I hope the House will reject it. He has not told us the motive of the Amendment, or what impression it is intended to convey. I ask him to consider what impression it will convey to the farmer, to whom this Clause is held out as an inducement as being of value. He will say, "Here is a Govern- ment who, if the prices fall, will have to pay these guaranteed prices to us. They are endeavouring to keep in their own hands the people to settle the amount to be paid." It will at once create distrust. I am not suggesting that the Ministers concerned would act in a dishonourable way, but it is not sufficient that they should have honourable motives—it is necessary that the farmers concerned should have confidence in their honourable motives, and by pressing this Amendment you would destroy that feeling of confidence and give the farmers generally the impression that the Government intend to trick them.


I hope sincerely that the Government will not press this Amendment. If they do the whole fixing of the guaranteed prices will fall upon a Government Department, and this will raise very serious doubts in the minds of producers of corn. There is a great want of confidence among farmers in the Board of Agriculture, and that is leading to a serious reduction in the wheat area. There are large arable farms throughout the country that should be producing a very large quantity of wheat and are not. I know of one farm of 700 acres, one-fourth of which should be growing wheat, which is not growing any wheat, at all owing to want of confidence as to the price to be given for wheat. It is this want of confidence which is being engendered throughout the country which we want to stop. You will deal a very severe blow to that confidence if you persist in the Amendment now before the House.


In Committee upstairs I moved an Amendment by which I sought to make the Commissioners consult the Agricultural Costings Committee. I had hoped that my right hon. Friend would have taken this into consideration. I know his argument at the time was that it was not a statutory Committee, but I think that something in the nature of an Agricultural Costings Committee would be a consultative body that could be consulted with greater freedom, and would be able to express themselves as being more perfectly acquainted with the cost of production than the official references to which he proposes to refer. Such a Costings Committee would ensure confidence among the agricultural community. I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have included this in his Amendment, but since he has not done so, it may not even yet be too late to ask him to reconsider his decision.


This Amendment is, of course, a prelude to upsetting the decision of the Committee upstairs, and, as such, I attach considerable importance to it. As the Bill loft this House it provided for three Commissioners, and upstairs it was altered, the Committee deciding to appoint five. The only objection put forward to the five Commissioners by the Government was on the ground of increased expense. If you pass this Amendment you will be still further increasing the expense. The expense of consulting three Government Departments situated in three parts of the United Kingdom, cither by letter or by having representatives where the Commissioners are sitting, will be far greater than by allowing the decision of the Committee to stand, and by having five part-time Commissioners instead of three. I hope the House will confirm the decision of the Committee.


We must consider this proposition apart from that.


I oppose it on the ground that it will add extra expense by consultations being required and also on the same, ground as that taken by other speakers, viz., that you will be placing it under Government Departments and interfering with the freedom of action of the Commissioners.


The right hon. Gentleman's action will cause keen disappointment in Scotland. Scottish farmers have never asked for a guarantee. They have always tried to produce a sufficient quantity of food without any subvention. It is essential that there should be confidence among all classes of the agricultural community. This Amendment merely proposes that the Commissioners shall consult the Board. Scottish agriculturists think that that is not sufficient. They will therefore be keenly disappointed if this Amendment is carried.


I agree with the hon. Member who has just spoken that the proposal of the Amendment is not so good, from the point of view of Scotland or Ireland, as the proposal to have the five Commissioners. At the same time, I think the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment has been, rather unnecessarily, unjustly and coldly received by the House. As I look upon it, if the Government are successful in reinstating the three Commissioners and getting rid of the five Commissioners, as they stand now in the Bill, surely it is better to have this Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman's than nothing at all. At any rate, so far as the Irish party is concerned, I think Ireland will have some small grain of comfort in feeling that these three Commissioners, one of whom is not to be appointed by them, apparently, shall at any rate be obliged to go to the Department of Agriculture in Ireland and obtain from it some idea as to the state of affairs operating in that country. Short of the original purpose. I consider that this Amendment is some slight sop to us, and I shall certainly support it.


I do not think that we need to consider the opinion of the Irish farmers at the present time. It is not that I have any want of respect for the opinion of Irish farmers. The Homo Rule Bill, we understand, is shortly to be passed, and I presume that the Irish farmers will look after their own interests, and they can pass an Act which will render this Bill nugatory. I want to remind the House of one thing. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Pretyman) asked the Solicitor-General whether, if this Amendment were accepted, the result would be that the House would have an opportunity in Committee of criticising the action of the Board of Agriculture on the Minister's salary. I think the Solicitor-General said that that would be so. If the House will look at the Bill they will see that that opportunity already exists, because the Bill says in Clause 3 that there shall be paid to the Commissioners such remuneration as the Treasury shall determine, and any such remuneration and the expenses of the Commissioners up to an amount sanctioned by the Treasury shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament. Therefore Parliament will have to provide the money which is necessary to find the salaries of these Commissioners. It will, therefore, be perfectly easy for the House in Committee of Supply to move to disallow the salaries of these Commissioners, and that would have practically the same effect as discussing the matter on the salary of the Minister. It is quite true that these salaries may appear in a Vote which does not, as a rule, come before the Committee, but, on the other hand, arrangements can probably be made to enable the Committee to discuss the salaries of these particular gentlemen. Therefore, I do not think there is any advantage to be gained in that way by accepting the Amendment. There comes the question, What is the use of the Amendment? This Bill, when it becomes an Act, is apparently going to last at any rate for four years, and we do not know who would be the Minister for Agriculture—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.

The remaining Government Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 19th October, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

Adjourned accordingly at One minute after Eleven o'clock.