§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Sir John Gilmour)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The Bill has been prepared to give fulfilment to the undertaking which I gave to the House, on behalf of the Government, on the 26th November last, when I said:Recognising, however, the special importance and urgency of the cereal situation, the Government have decided to apply the principle of a quota to home-produced wheat of milling quality and to introduce legislation in time to enable a scheme to become effective for next year's crop. The scheme will be designed to secure for producers a certain market and to enable them to obtain an enhanced price, subject to a statutory maximum for wheat of milling quality. No contribution from the Exchequer by way of subsidy will be involved, and it is not intended to encourage the extension of the cultivation of wheat to land unsuitable for that purpose."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1931; cols. 493–4, Vol. 260.]I added that I should enter into negotiations with the interests concerned and that I should initiate the discussions forthwith. I need not detain the House very long in giving the reasons which have led the Government to bring this proposal before the House. It will be within the memory of hon. and right hon. Members that for a considerable period men of all political parties and of all agricultural circles have been concerned with the calamitous state of the cereal industry in agriculture. This question was brought prominently to the notice of the Noble Lord who was Minister for Agriculture in the Labour Government, Lord Noel-Buxton. He set up a committee of inquiry into the agricultural position of this country. As a result of the inquiry, there was initiated at the Ministry of Agriculture certain researches into the possibility and practicability of proposals which had been submitted to him by the Agricultural Conference on the general question of a wheat quota. The investigations which were initiated under Lord Noel-Buxton were continued under Dr. Addison, and I think it is well known that Dr. Addison became convinced not only of the necessity of deal- 960 ing with this problem but that it could and should be dealt with by a quota plan for home-grown wheat. It is perhaps fair that I should say that those investigations and researches into the possibilities of a quota scheme have been of material assistance to me in the work to which I had to set my hand when I took over the Ministry. The scheme which I am submitting is perhaps in some material respects very different from the form of the proposals which might have been made by Dr. Addison, but the question of assisting wheat growers did reach a much more definite stage than mere consideration by the late Labour Government.
It will be remembered that, as a result of some discussion in this House, the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Snowden, announced on the 1st August, 1930, that as soon as the conclusions of the Imperial Conference were known the Government would undertake whatever practicable steps could be devised to put cereal growing in this country on an economic foundation. The Imperial Conference was held in October, 1930, but time and circumstances did not permit of any action being taken as a result of those discussions. I hope that whatever difference of opinion there may be between us upon details, that this Bill may be of some material advantage to agriculture as a whole. In the ordinary efforts to improve agricultural marketing there has been evidence in this House of a considerable measure of co-operation between men of all parties for the benefit of the industry as a whole; is it too much to hope that we may look for some measure of co-operation and agreement in dealing with this problem now?
I can claim, I think, that this Bill is agreed to by the interests concerned. The trades and industries have given Parliament a lead of no inconsiderable value, which I hope will be fully appreciated by hon. Members. That arable farming Should have suffered such financial misfortune as it has, and particularly wheat, which is the pivotal crop, is a matter which we all deplore. The assistance which we seek to give involves some form of regulation of the interests concerned, whether it is the farmer, the miller or the corn merchant, and, as is natural, these interests look with suspicion upon regulations which interfere 961 with the ordinary course of their business. I can assure the House that all these interests and industries have met me in the friendliest manner, and, after the removal of earlier differences of opinion and misunderstandings, the negotiations that I initiated have proceeded in a spirit of good will and helpfulness.
At the outset I made it clear that the Government laid down four definite conditions. First, an enhanced price; secondly, a secure market for home-grown wheat of millable quality; thirdly, no subsidy from the Exchequer; and, fourthly, no encouragement to the extension of wheat cultivation to land unsuitable for the crop. Subject to these four conditions I have been willing to consider every suggestion and to modify my first proposals in such a way as to ensure that the machinery adopted shall work efficiently and with the minimum of interference with the trade and industry. I and my officials entered into these negotiations at once. We had numerous interviews with representatives of farmers, millers, corn merchants, flour importers and representatives of the cooperative movement. The proposals were also submitted to the representative organisations of bakers and biscuit manufacturers, whose views were subsequently received in writing.
It might appear invidious to mention names in connection with these negotiations, but I feel that I must express my indebtedness to Mr. Armstrong, a member of the Council of the National Association of British and Irish Millers, who, with the authority of the Millers' Association, came into consultation with myself and my advisers at all hours, reasonable and unreasonable, and on every occasion with a desire to work out the details of a generally acceptable scheme. I must also not forget the valuable help given me by Mr. Herbert Smith, secretary of the National Union of Corn and Agricultural Merchants; and may I also mention the hon. and gallant Member for Maldon (Colonel Ruggles-Brise) whose keen interest in and conscientious advocacy of a quota scheme for home-grown wheat is well known in this House and outside. If I look back through the records of the Ministry I find present in the mind of a former colleague of ours in this House, Colonel Royds, the seeds of some scheme of this 962 kind. After the main proposals had been agreed to as a workable scheme by the representatives of the interests con cerned at a conference on 12th January, I was able to obtain the help and assistance of many of these gentlemen in an informal committee to help me in drafting this Measure, and I and my Department are indebted to them for the help they have given.
Before passing to the details of the proposals in the Bill, may I discuss briefly the main ideas which have been covered at different times by the term "wheat quota," in relation to home-grown wheat. Some of the earlier advocates of a wheat quota principle had in their minds that Parliament should require every miller of flour to include in every lot of wheat milled by him a specified proportion, or quota, of home-grown wheat. This is commonly referred to now as the physical admixture plan and would, of course, apply to the gristing of wheat passing through a mill. A quota system of this nature is in force in some important European countries. It exists in France, in Germany, in Italy, and, I believe, in other countries, where the supply of home-grown wheat forms a large percentage of the total quantity of wheat milled and is fairly well distributed in all parts of the country concerned. The physical admixture plan would not be practicable or justifiable in the United Kingdom, because a very large proportion of milling is done in towns remote from the wheat-growing areas. A requirement to use British wheat would, accordingly, involve a wasteful transport of wheat say from the eastern counties of England to Liverpool or Glasgow, and it would mean taking it away from country mills which depend on the wheat grown in their locality as the raw material of their industry. It would also mean taking it to port mills in all parts of Great Britain and Northern Ireland where, indeed, English wheat is not normally used. Physical admixture in every grist would necessarily, as I said, destroy the trade of country mills, and also alter the character of established brands and types of flour. Futhermore, it would in practice, I think, be found impassible to ensure any scheme of that kind, and it would almost always be necessary to have a Government in- 963 spector continuously in every mill. Difficulties would also be created in the application of a physical admixture plan to imported flour—difficulties of such a kind as would give rise to dissatisfaction in the Empire overseas, from which much of our flour is received.
When this difficulty was realised, we came then to proposals that the quota scheme should require millers and importers of flour to be bound to purchase, but not necessarily to grind, a prescribed proportion of home-grown wheat, and to produce evidence of purchase in the form of wheat certificates originating with the first sale of the wheat. This plan, as the House will see, would overcome the difficulties associated with the physical admixture plan I have just described, but the chief objection urged against it is that it interferes with the free market for wheat as between farmers, merchants and millers, by requiring millers to purchase wheat which, as they are not required to grind it, they may not want at all, and it would have led to unnecessary trading, and would have caused, in certain circumstances, grave difficulties. It might be associated, in addition, with a somewhat unwelcome trading in wheat certificates.
It is to avoid the objections which have been raised to either of the alternatives that I have described, that I am bringing forward in this Bill a scheme which, while achieving the same financial results for the wheat grower as either of the other plans, reaches that result by a more direct method. The first and second methods were both intended to secure an enhanced price for British wheat for the British farmer. In the absence of an Exchequer subsidy, the price was to be found by the flour millers and importers, and it was to be averaged over the price at which they would sell all the flour which they handled. The addition to the market price of British wheat was to form an item in the millers' or importers' cost of production or cost of importation, as the case might be. The Wheat Bill we are now discussing recognises this fact, and, without regard to purchases of home-grown wheat or of home wheat certificates by millers and importers, it frankly imposes upon them, in Clause 3, a charge called a "quota payment," the principle and method of calculating which 964 are described in Clause 3. This payment, in effect, commutes the cost of an obligation to buy a quota of home-grown wheat, at an enhanced price, for its estimated equivalent in cash. The amount of the quota payment will show the result of distributing, over the whole supply of home-milled and imported flour, the extra charge which millers and importers would have to pay for home-grown wheat, bought at the standard price of 10s. per cwt. if a physical quality plan had actually been put into force.
I trust that these preliminary remarks may have made plain to the House the method by which we have approached the solution of this problem, and I will now turn to the contents of the Bill. The essentials of the Government plan are contained in the first three Clauses of the Bill, and fall under two distinct headings: first, the provisions to secure for wheat growers a standard price and a market for home-grown wheat of mill-able quality, which are found in Clauses 1 and 2. Secondly, the provisions for accumulating, by quota payments from millers and importers of flour, the fund necessary to enable wheat growers to be paid the standard price, which are contained in Clause 3. The remaining Clause and Schedules deal with necessary questions of procedure, machinery and interpretation, which, as I have indicated, have been worked out in consultation with the interests concerned.
I turn now to the standard price to be secured for the wheat growers which is contained in Clause 1 (1 and 2). The intention of the first and second Subsections is that every registered wheat grower in the United Kingdom shall be entitled to receive in respect of his certified sales of millable wheat, of his own growing—and I wish to emphasise the words "of his own growing"—a payment called a "deficiency payment." That payment will be payable to the grower at the end of each cereal year, but provision is made in Clause 4 (2) for enabling the Wheat Commission to make payments in advance to registered growers during any cereal year on account of deficiency payments which will become due in respect of wheat actually sold. The deficiency payment will represent the difference reckoned on the growers' certified sales, between the "ascertained 965 averaged price" of home-grown millable wheat and the "standard price" specified in Clause 2. The standard price is 10s. per cwt., which is equivalent to 45 shillings per quarter of 504 lbs. at the farm. With regard to the incentive which remains to market good wheat with market judgment, I would like to make it quite clear to the House that the standard price does not represent what every wheat grower will receive for his wheat. All growers will receive the same deficiency payment per cwt., but each grower will be able to market his wheat to the best advantage. The better quality wheat will still command a higher price in the open market. It will be able to secure a better price in the end, and that which is below average quality of course, will naturally get less.
The question of the standard price, has of course, required very careful consideration. I think the House will agree that it would render this Bill of little use to wheat growers if we fixed the price too low, so that the great majority of growers could not produce wheat without loss. It is true that farmers here and there are able to produce wheat without loss at a much lower figure, largely as the result of a complete mechanisation of farm work. Though mechanisation is increasing, and though its exponents are very vocal, it is only a very tiny fraction of the arable farms of this country that are mechanised in the true sense of the word. I gather, moreover, from a bulletin which has been published recently by the University of Oxford Agricultural Economics Research Institute, that not even those farmers who have already fully mechanised their methods would say that at the present time they could produce wheat without a loss at present prices. It is, of course, greatly to be hoped that those who have adopted mechanisation will have their enterprise rewarded in the course of years, and that it will provide experience upon which arable farmers generally can draw, but I think it would have been indefensible for this Government to defer action until this experience is gained, or to fix a low standard price on the assumption that mechanisation had already proved itself to be the solution for the wheat growers' difficulties.
On the other hand, the Government could not fix so high a price that wheat 966 cultivation would be extended to land unsuitable for wheat production, and for an excessive amount to be required in quota payments from millers and importers of flour, and ultimately from the consumer. After careful examination of the available data, the Government have come to the conclusion that a price of 45s. per quarter is reasonable, in view of the present level of production costs, and the standard price has accordingly been fixed at 10s. per cwt. in Clause 2 (2). It is provided, however, in Clause 2 (2) that there shall be a review of the position in three years' time—that not later than 1st March, 1935, the Minister shall appoint a committee of three persons who, after considering general economic conditions and the conditions affecting the agricultural industry, shall report to the Minister as to the desirability of making any alteration in the standard price. If that committee make a recommendation that the standard price should be altered, the Minister may, by the procedure of a Provisional Order, revise the price with effect from 1st August, 1935. The procedure by a Provisional Order ensures that the matter shall again come before Parliament in the form of a Bill to give effect to the Provisional Order.
We now come to the problem of obtaining a secure market for home-grown millable wheat. The House will appreciate that a plan designed to ensure an enhanced price for millable wheat actually sold by farmers must, if it is to be of real value, be accompanied by some provision to ensure that if a farmer produces millable wheat, he shall be able to sell it. The earlier forms of quota schemes proposed to achieve this object by imposing upon flour millers an obligation to buy home-grown wheat as and when it is placed on the market. The value that is attached by flour millers to a continuance of the traditional free market for home-grown wheat has led to an alternative solution of the problem, which has been agreed to by the representatives of all concerned, and is found in Clause 1, Sub-section (3), of the Bill.
The Wheat Commission may make a representation to the Minister in June of any year after 1932 that it is expedient that stocks of home-grown millable wheat grown in the previous year and remaining unsold shall be bought by the Flour Millers Corporation, which is constituted 967 by the Second Schedule to the Bill, from the registered growers. On receiving this representation from the Wheat Commission the Minister is empowered to require the Flour Millers' Corporation to buy the unsold stocks on the basis of such prices as are specified in the Order. There is a proviso that Orders made by the Minister in any single year shall not require the Flour Millers' Corporation to buy more than 121 per cent. of the anticipated supply for that year, as defined in Clause 2, Sub-section (3). I believe that this limit is ample to cover the conditions under which wheat is marketed in this country. I am advised that the existence of this obligation will considerably strengthen the position of farmers as sellers of wheat. The arrangement leaves the millers and other buyers of home-grown wheat free to buy wheat and the growers free to sell wheat throughout the year in accordance with their market judgment, but the home wheat grower will be placed in a stronger position than hitherto.
§ Dr. SALTER
Does this Clause give a guarantee to each individual farmer that his unsold stocks shall be purchased, or only 12i per cent. of the unsold stocks in the entire country?
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
I would ask the hon. Gentleman to wait and to hear the whole of my statement. There is, of course, a need for limitation upon the quantity of wheat to which the standard price will apply in each cereal year. The Government have decided that it is necessary to impose a limit in each cereal year upon the total quantity of wheat in respect of which deficiency payments may be paid to registered growers. The first reason is a financial or budgetary one. At the begining of each cereal year the Wheat Commission must frame a budget, an estimate of its expenditure and receipts. The fundamental figure will be the anticipated supply of home-grown millable wheat, which is defined in Clause 2, Sub-section (3). The Minister is required, after consultation with the Wheat Commission, to prescribe, about the beginning of each cereal year, beginning on 1st August, the quantity of homegrown millable wheat of their own growing which he anticipates will be sold by registered growers during the year. The Minister is also empowered to vary this 968 estimate by Order before the end of January following, when he naturally will have at his disposal a great deal of further information of a more detailed character, both as regards the acreage and harvest results, and also the climatic influence upon those crops and the millable quality of the grain.
In making these estimates the Minister is required to assume that 74 per cent. of the home-grown millable wheat will be used for seed. That sets aside what will come out of the total estimated amount. The quantity so described as the anticipated supply is, by the proviso of Clause 1, Sub-section (1), to be the maximum quantity for which- the deficiency payments are provided by the Wheat Commission, by the collection of quota payments from millers and importers of flour. If registered growers market a, larger quantity of certified millable wheat the effect will be that the deficiency payments will undergo a reduction proportionate to the excess of actual sales over the anticipated supply.
I turn to another point which it is necessary to mention. The second reason for fixing, by the anticipated supply, a limit upon the quantity of millable wheat to rank for deficiency payments is that it will constitute one of several safeguards that must be used to prevent the exploitation of the scheme by dishonest persons. Farmers, merchants and millers are as honourable a class of men as any other class in the country, but in every flock there are black sheep, and it is this type of person who may be disposed to resort to fraud in order to secure deficiency payments to which he is not entitled. Action of this sort would increase the recorded sales of certified mill-able wheat, and, if such practices became at all common, the certified sales would tend to show an excess over the anticipated supply. Of course, if so, all registered wheat growers will be penalised by a reduction of their deficiency payments. Such a possibility will, I hope, lead to the development of a spirit of co-operation between all the interests concerned in all the local districts—between wheat growers and corn merchants and the Wheat Commission. I shall have something more to say about that later.
In addition to the provision that the quantity of wheat ranking for deficiency payments shall not exceed the anticipated 969 supply the Government consider that it is in the public interest that there should be a maximum limit imposed as regards the quantity that in any year may be prescribed by the Minister as the anticipated supply. This limit is stated in Clause 2, Sub-section (3, a) as 27,000,000 cwts., which is equivalent to 6,000,000 quarters of 504 pounds. The limit of 6,000,000 quarters has been adopted for two reasons: The first is to carry into effect the Government's intention not to encourage the extension of wheat cultivation to land unsuitable for the crop. The House will agree that it is impossible to define in an Act of Parliament what is the land upon which wheat may be cultivated. In practice the matter is settled by the answer to the question, does it pay to grow wheat, the prices being what they are and the production costs what they are? If it does not pay, growers will find a use for the land in other directions. At any rate we shall hope to show no loss.
It is on these lines that the Government have approached this problem. One check against the undue expansion of the wheat area is found in the standard price of 45s. a quarter. The other is the maximum quantity of 6,000,000 quarters. If growers market certified millable wheat in excess of this quantity in any year, then their deficiency payments will automatically be reduced by the Wheat Commission. On an average of seasons, going back over a considerable period, it is probable, after a deduction has been made for the seed wheat that I have mentioned, that 85 per cent. of the home wheat crop could be certified as millable. In some seasons, of course, this figure might even be higher, but in a season like that through which we have just passed it may be very considerably less. Six million quarters represent 85 per cent. of the average wheat crop upon nearly 1,800,000 acres. The Government do not regard it as reasonable to provide the guarantee of the standard price for a larger quantity than 6,000,000 quarters.
By way of illustration of what I have said, I may point out that if registered wheat growers market 6,500,000 quarters of certified millable wheat, the practical effect, on the basis of a price deficit of 15s. per quarter, will be to reduce the standard price to just under 445. per quarter. If 7,000,000 quarters are marketed the effective figure of the 970 standard price would be just under 43s. a quarter. For 8,000,000 quarters, and with a price deficit still of 15s. a quarter, the effective standard price would be reduced to 41s. 3d. a quarter. The operation of this pro rata adjustment, if the quantity marketed exceeds 6,000,000 quarters, will thus form a natural and valuable safeguard against an unnecessary increase of the wheat area. The standard price itself will be subject to revision, as I have already said, in three years' time.
Now I come to the limits of the burden upon the consumer of flour. The second and equally important reason for adopting this maximum of 6,000,000 quarters is that it places a definite and, as I believe, a reasonable limit upon the amount of charge which must be borne by the consumers of flour as a result of the quota payments. For the first time for 90 years Parliament is being asked to agree to a policy which in the interests of home agriculture will require flour consumers to pay a special charge that will be highest when flour is cheapest and lowest when flour is dearest. The Government do not contemplate that there will be a permanent increase in the price of bread as the result of the Bill, and are satisfied that with a maximum limit of 6,000,000 quarters provided, there is no danger that a permanent general increase in bread prices will result. I shall have something more to say about that later.
I want to say a few words about the problem of millable quality. This is a matter which has excited some attention, and the method by which it is to be ascertained has been discussed in a good many quarters. I believe that the matter is not really so difficult as it might appear. I would remind the House that through out the world wheat is produced for the purpose of milling into flour. So far as the crop is sold for other purposes they are of minor importance. The milling industry is adapted to many types and qualities of wheat, particularly in this country, owing to the circumstance that there comes into this country wheat from a great variety of other countries, and there is no milling industry which has greater experience of dealing with this problem than ours. I think it is probably the case that there is very little wheat, either home-grown or imported, 971 which cannot be used by some millers for milling flour. Actually a fairly substantial part of the home-produced wheat is fed by farmers to their own poultry or purchased by poultry-keepers for feeding to poultry. This wheat is frequently of the best millable quality, for I think it is certain that poultry-keepers have learned that the best wheat is the cheapest for them in the long run. The qualities of home-grown wheat are well understood by country corn merchants and millers, who have had long experience in dealing in wheat. Accordingly, I do not anticipate any great difficulty in being able to define a standard of millable quality which will exclude clearly unsuitable wheat while drawing the line fairly for wheat growers.
It is at this point that I should like to refer again to a matter which I have already mentioned. For the purpose of ensuring that the prescribed standard of millable quality shall be duly observed, for dealing with disputes and for supervising the issue of the wheat certificates which will be required by registered growers for the sale of their wheat, and so on, the Wheat Commission must necessarily count upon public-spirited co-operation from experienced farmers and corn merchants in every corn market. Whether registered wheat growers decide to organise themselves into a Marketing Board under the Agricultural Marketing Act is a matter for them to decide, but I am bound to say that unless there is a good deal of voluntary organisation on the part of growers and merchants, the administration of this scheme will be certainly more costly than it need be. It is in the interests of the growers that they should co-operate actively with the Wheat Commission in all local matters. I have been assured in advance, by representatives of both farmers and merchants, that the Wheat Commission will be able to count upon their loyal cooperation in dealing with these local matters. My object in mentioning the matter this afternoon is to ensure that the need for this voluntary organisation shall be made known, both in this House and in the country generally.
I pass from those matters which concern chiefly the wheat grower to those matters which concern the miller and the importer and consumer of flour. This section of my subject is dealt with in Clause 3, which provides for the payment 972 of quota payments by millers and importers of flour. I have in my review of the development of the idea of the wheat quota, already explained to the House the essential principle upon which quota payments will be based. This principle is set out in Clause 3, Sub-section (1). It is applied by a formula in Clause 3, Subsection (4). I think I might repeat my summary of the effect of Clause 3. The quota payment, in effect, commutes the cost of an obligation to buy a quota of home-grown wheat at an enhanced price, for its estimated equivalent in cash. The amount of the quota payment will show the result of distributing, over the whole supply of home-milled and imported flour, the extra charge that millers and importers would have to pay for homegrown wheat, bought at the standard price of 10s. a cwt. or 45s. a quarter, if a physical admixture quota plan had actually been put into force. The quota payment will become due when the flour is delivered as defined M Clause 3, Subsection (2), and a refund of quota payments will be allowed for exported flour.
I turn to the definition of "flour". Flour is defined in Clause 18, Sub-section (3), where it is made clear that substances separated in milling such as wheat offals, bran and the like and mixtures of flour with non-wheat substances in certain proportions are not deemed to be flour. Provision is also made for the exemption of millers who grind wheat-meal solely for the feeding of animals and poultry. There are mills in the country districts where the entire work is confined to those purposes. Apart from this, all wheat flour whether used for baking bread, for pastry for household or manufacturing purposes is to pay quota payments and the payment will be the same for the importer as for the miller.
As to the probable amount of the quota payments, it is intended in the course of any cereal year, starting in August and running to the July following, to keep the quota payments at as uniform a rate as possible. Slight variations no doubt will have to be made, probably not more than two or three, but such variations will take effect just as promptly as any variations or changes in Customs Duties made by Resolution in the National Budget. Provision is made in Clause 13 for the seller of flour to re- 973 cover from the buyer the amount of any newly imposed quota payment and vice versa. At the present time the "Gazette" price of wheat is about 5s. 9d. per cwt. or nearly 285. a quarter. If this were the average for the next cereal year 1932–1933 there would be under this scheme a deficit from the standard price equal to 4s. 3d. per cwt. Next harvest seems likely to give a supply of millable wheat, taking it at 85 per cent. of the probable crop, which would be equivalent to a quota of about 16 per cent. of the flour supply of the United Kingdom. On this basis the quota payment would be equivalent to about 2s. 6d. per sank of flour of 280 lbs.
Of course, the House will understand that any calculations made at the present date will not necessarily be valid in August or September, but it will be understood also that a change in the price of flour does not necessarily produce an immediate change in the price of bread. Bread prices change when flour prices reach a certain point. Intermediate changes in flour prices are borne, as to increase or reduction of cost, by the baker. The wholesale price of flour will probably be increased by the amount of the quota payment, but it is very doubtful whether it will have any appreciable effect upon the retail price of flour. So far as bread is concerned, I understand that an increase of 2s. 6d. per sack of flour corresponds to an increase of just over one farthing in the production cost of the four-pound loaf or one-eighth of a penny for the commercial two-pound loaf. It will be understood by the House that there will be times when this extra item in the production cost of bread will affect the bread price, that is to say when costs approach a point where the bread prices change by one-farthing per two-pound loaf but a quota payment of 2s. 6d. per sack would not justify a permanent increase of a farthing per two-pound loaf.
I have had very careful calculations made in my Department on this subject, and, taking as a basis the London prices of flour and bread and the probable effect upon bread prices if the Wheat Bill had been in operation in the cereal year of 1930–1931, the deficiency payment would have been at the rate of about 17s. per quarter of wheat and the average quota 974 payment would have been equivalent to 2s. 1d. per sack of flour. Using the Food Council scale of flour and bread prices as a basis, it is estimated that the effect of the quota payment would have been to increase the cost of the 2 lb. loaf, above the actual recorded selling price by one farthing during 11 weeks of the year. In the other 41 weeks there would have been no noticeable effect. Those who are disposed to criticise the proposed addition to the price paid by the consumer of flour should give careful consideration to two matters. The first consideration is that it is only when flour and bread are cheap that the quota payment on flour is really noticeable. To-day United Kingdom consumers of flour and bread get them at lower prices than any other country in the world except that possibly Belgium. If and when wheat prices rise the amount of the quota payment will be automatically reduced. The second consideration is that the cheap bread of this country has hitherto been secured by the sacrifice of the interests of the farmers and the workers in the agricultural industry in favour of the interests of the people in the cities.
The Wheat Bill contains no proposals that interfere with the importation of wheat into the United Kingdom. Let me make that clear. The consumer of bread and the poultry-keeper will continue to benefit from cheap supplies of imported wheat. Does the consumer of flour and bread in the United Kingdom understand at what cost and at whose cost, he has in recent years received the benefit of cheap flour and bread? It may perhaps help to bring my point home if I refer to the facts which were mentioned in a paper on "The Wheat Position and Outlook" read before the British Association in September last by Sir Albert Humphries, a distinguished member of the milling industry. It was shown that the production cost of Canadian wheat delivered to a British mill was from 38s. 8d. to 45s. 10d. per quarter, of Argentine wheat about 34s. 6d., of Australian wheat about 47s. per quarter, at par of exchange; and Sir Albert Humphries pointed out that the price in Great Britain at which all these wheats had been selling was about a half of these costs. The same conclusion could be drawn as regards Russian wheat, for instance, for which, however, costings estimates were not very reliable. In all 975 countries wheat production for export has been, and still is, a terribly bad commercial proposition. The British household has gained at the cost of those countries. Is it not thoroughly reasonable that our home city dwellers, who have every reason to be thankful for the cheapness of imported wheat, should be prepared to offer a helping hand to the wheat-growers of the home country, who find themselves facing a very disastrous position chiefly because the United Kingdom is the world's greatest free market for wheat? The Wheat Bill is the Government's answer to that question.
I turn now to the administrative machinery of this Bill. I need not at the present stage, I think, elaborate the details of administrative machinery that are dealt with in Clauses 4 to 19 of the Bill and in the First and Second Schedules. It may suffice to describe them in somewhat broad terms. A Wheat Commission of 14 persons is to be constituted, representing the interests of farmers, millers, corn merchants, flour importers, and consumers. These members may not receive salaries. An independent chairman and vice-chairman are contemplated, who may receive salaries, if this is considered necessary, in order to secure the best appointments. The estimates of the Commission's administrative expenses, their staff, and salaries, will he subject to prior approval by the Minister.
The Wheat Fund into which quota payments are to be paid and from which deficiency payments and administrative expenses are to be defrayed, will be kept at the Bank of England and controlled by the Wheat Commission. The method of operating payments into and from the fund, and the investment of moneys belonging to the fund, will be governed by regulations prescribed by the Minister with the approval of the Treasury. The accounts of the fund will be kept in a form to be approved by the Treasury and will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, whose report will, of course, be laid before Parliament. There is provision to empower the Wheat Commission to make by-laws for giving effect to the provisions of the Act, but these by-laws will require approval by the Minister before they can come into effect.
976 There is, of course, the necessity to ensure that the Wheat Commission will be able to obtain reliable information, and it is empowered to get suck for the purposes of this Act. It is necessary for dealing with deficiency payments and to investigate complaints, and they must also be able to require from millers the production of certain records to enable the Commission's auditors to verify the quantities of flour delivered from time to time, in order to assess the quota payments due to be made to the Wheat Commission.
A Flour Millers' Corporation is to be appointed by the Minister, in the first instance, and afterwards elected by registered millers. No miller is obliged to register with the corporation, but only those who do register will be entitled to vote in the election of the members of the corporation. This corporation is charged with the statutory duty of dealing with any stocks of wheat that it may be required to purchase by order of the Minister, after he has received a representation from the Wheat Commission in June of any year—that is, the purchase of remaining stocks on the farms. Any loss on that transaction will be recoverable by the corporation from millers—not only registered millers, but all millers—in proportion to each miller's output of flour in that year.
Then there are a series of regulations Which the Minister has to make, prescribing the standard of millable quality; the determination of the ascertained average price of home-grown millable wheat at the end of each cereal year (this price settles the amount of the price deficit which is the basis of deficiency payments); the estimation at the beginning of each cereal year of the anticipated supply; the amount of quota payments and their variation from time to time; the investment of the Wheat Fund, and the form of the accounts of the Wheat Commission; and the requirement that the Flour Millers' Corporation shall purchase unsold stocks of wheat at the end of a cereal year. The fact that the Wheat Commission is dealing with matters affecting the business affairs of farmers, corn merchants, flour millers, and importers makes it necessary that decisions shall be able to be taken promptly. For this reason, the regulations and by-laws come into effect as soon as made or approved by the 977 Minister, but all orders, regulations and by-laws must be presented to Parliament, and either House will have the power to annul any of them within the usual period. The machinery of the Bill, at first glance, may appear cumbersome, but I would remind the House that it has been devised with the advice of those business men who are familiar with the procedure and the technical points of their own business. It has been accepted by all parties concerned as workable in its machinery, and it is as an agreed piece of machinery that I commend it to the House.
In conclusion, so far as the policy of the Bill is concerned, I have no hesitation in saying that it provides the only method of implementing the promise of the Government, as well as of the late Government, in regard to wheat-growers, without appreciable cost to the consumers of flour. I think a small Customs duty upon wheat would not provide a remedy for the position of the home-wheat grower, but it would raise the price of the raw material of our important and rapidly developing poultry industry. The quota principle avoids both these difficulties and ensures that the whole of the charge collected from millers and importers of flour will pass direct to the purpose for which it is intended.
It is to me a cause of no small satisfaction that in a question which involves some interference with and regulation of trade and industry, I have received so much good will and constructive assistance from the national organisations representing interests to which the necessity for any regulation is naturally regrettable and indeed sometimes distasteful. In particular, the National Association of British and Irish Millers has provided every evidence of its desire to co-operate in framing, within the terms of the conditions announced by the Government, a scheme which it could recommend to its members as sound and workable. Moreover, I have asked them for an important assurance on behalf of their members, and I am glad to be able to inform the House that the executive committee of the association have informed me that they will recommend to their council meeting, to be held on the 3rd March next, that the members of the association will not pass on to 978 their customers more than the actual cost of their obligations under this Bill.
I have also been examining, in consultation with the Millers Association, the possibility of assisting stock and poultry feeders in this country by applying some measure of restriction to the export of milling offals or wheat-feed. There are, it appears, certain difficulties arising out of our commitments under international treaties. I have, however, received a written assurance from the Millers' Association that their executive committee undertake, so long as a duty is imposed on imported flour, to recommend to the members of the association, and to do their best to secure, that wheat-feed shall not be exported to any foreign country except under licence to be issued by the association, in accordance with the spirit of the undertaking, to the extent that may be necessary to secure a market for any seasonal accumulation of stocks. It is possible, of course, to exaggerate the importance and value of this declaration, but it is at least a really happy gesture on the part of this industry.
I need say little more. I am confident that the spirit of constructive co-operation which has made it possible for me to present the Wheat Bill to this House will not die away. That spirit is typical of the change in the national attitude to agricultural affairs. That spirit will, I know, continue to operate when the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament. It will ensure the efficient administration of the Act for the welfare of agriculture, the prosperity of which is rightly regarded, in every part of this House, as an essential element in the welfare of the nation. Before I sit down, may I say to the agricultural community that this places in their hands an opportunity which, if they do not use and operate it to their own advantage, will be to their own detriment, and may I add that in this problem of trying to stimulate the position of the wheat grower, our object is not limited alone to the farmer, but is also directed to the worker, without whose able assistance and technical knowledge no scheme devised by any Government could ever possibly work. I commend this Bill to the House, and I hope that it may be found to contain the seeds of prosperity to the agricultural industry, which we all desire.
§ Dr. SALTER
I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words:this House, being convinced of the urgent necessity for a comprehensive programme of agricultural re-organisation, including nationalisation of the land and an improvement in the conditions of the agricultural worker, expresses its dissatisfaction with a Bill the sole objects of which are to provide wheat growers with a secure market and an enhanced price which makes no provision for adequate organisation of wheat supplies through an import board and a national marketing board, and will not make for the development of agriculture upon lines best suited to this country, protect the farmer against increased rents or the consumer against price exploitation, nor secure through a central wages board adequate wages for the agricultural worker.5.0 p.m.
The Minister has been working at this Measure for a long time, and has ultimately produced a Bill which is one of the most complicated and intricate that has ever been submitted to this House. Even that devoted supporter of the Government, Mr. Garvin, in last Sunday's "Observer" was moved to call it old-fashioned, cumbrous, and complicated; and the more one really looks at the various Clauses, the more difficult it becomes really to comprehend some of them. I should doubt very much whether anyone but a skilled and trained lawyer can understand some of those paragraphs. The Bill proposes to set up a most elaborate and costly machinery. The Minister did not tell us what the various wheat commissions and flour corporations would cost in administrative charges, but there are obviously to be offices and large staffs, and inevitable expenses of a pretty heavy kind. In the end, the Bill must lead to a practical State control of milling, corn dealing and arable farming. I would like to call the attention of whoever is to reply to what the trade papers themselves say on the point. Here is the "British Baker" for the last week in a special leading article on the Bill:The Bill may be described as a step towards the Socialist State or more precisely perhaps the Fascist State. It is the thin end of a new wedge. The thick end is the disciplined, controlled and ordered trade and commerce that are essential to a Socialist or a corporate State. We are not concerned "—says the article— 980with the general controversy of security versus liberty or controlled production versus ordered economic planning, but it must strike everyone who reads this Bill that any narrow trade interest fades into complete insignificance before such major issues as are now raised.I hope the right hon. Gentleman's supporters will appreciate whither he is evidently leading them. Objectionable as this Bill is to us in its final form I have to say that in other ways it is distinctly workable. I do not think any thanks or credit are due to the right hon. Gentleman for that. His own first proposals were simply hopelessly impracticable, and the way the people in the trade who understood the whale business from A to Z received them made the right hon. Gentleman get very angry with them. He showered insults upon them. He bullied them right and left. He told them that they were would-be dictators and called them all sorts of other nasty names. When the actual facts were examined, his own advisers had to tell him that the experts and the millers, and so on, were quite right, and that his own proposals were not workable. Then, of course, he found that withdrawal was inevitable, and he produced another scheme. That scheme was impracticable, and he modified it, and he has modified it repeatedly since, until we have the result in the Bill which is now before us.
The object of the Bill is set forth in the explanatory Memorandum on the front page. The object, it says, is:to provide wheat growers in the United Kingdom with a secure market and an enhanced price for home-grown wheat of mill-able quality, without subsidy from the Exchequer.The farmer has a subsidy of from 15s. to £1 a quarter, the difference between the market price and the standard price of 45s. per quarter. The landlord will get his enhanced rent all right. He is sure of his subsidy, but the Bill is very careful indeed not to say who is ultimately to pay the subsidy. The right hon. Gentleman this afternoon admitted, more incidentally than specifically, that it is ultimately the bread consumer who is to pay the price. He qualified that statement by saying that the price was not going to rise. He left it quite indeterminate as to who was to find the subsidy in that case. Again, I want to say that the people in the various trades, the milling trade and corn trade and the baking trade, have 981 no doubt whatever. In the "London Corn Circular" of a week ago appeared this statement:If any Member of the Government imagines that the complications involved in the scheme will successfully mask from the public that it is the bread consumers who are going to pay for the whole of the increased cost of wheat involved in the quota scheme, he is cherishing a vain hope.The baking trade papers also emphasise this. In the issue of the "British Baker" of 19th February the secretary of the National Association of Master Bakers in a speech made this statement:The millers and bakers are not at enmity with the Government in their suggestion that the farmers of this country should not be impoverished, but what they do say is that the public should not be gulled. It should be made plain to them that if the Government was going to pay 10s. or 15s. per quarter more than the world price, then the consumer had to pay the piper. It was no use in telling the public that they were not going to tax wheat in the grain and to try to make them believe that the price of their foodstuffs was not going to be increased. It was not the case, and it was very, very unfair to the baker. The baking industry would be made to gather the tax and the public would not be told clearly and emphatically that it was they who would have to pay more for their bread.If the right hon. Gentleman will consult the trade papers he will see that the whole of the baking industry is extremely apprehensive on this point. They regard the precise terms and proposals of the Bill as simply a dodge on the part of the Government to throw the whole of the obloquy on to the bakers of collecting the tax from the bread consumer, so that the Government could ultimately escape any responsibility in the matter. They have decided that they are not going to allow the Government to get away with it, and they are going week by week to hammer and harp upon the fact that the price of bread will go up as soon as ever the Bill comes into operation. It is clear that it must be so. The difference between the market price and the guaranteed price is to be collected by the Wheat Commission from the millers, and despite what the Minister has said this afternoon about 2s. 6d. on the sack of flour representing this amount, all the trade papers calculate the amount at a much higher figure. The lowest figure that I have seen is 3s. Most of the trade papers say 3s. 7d. or 3s. 8d., and some of them sug- 982 gest 4s. If you take the figure merely at 3s., that is equivalent to 18 per cent. ad valorem duty. Everything else is to be taxed at 10 per cent. duty, but bread if you please, or the flour essential in the bread, is to be taxed at the rate of 18 per cent.
The millers are to collect the tax from the baker. They will pass on the price, in spite of the assurances which the right hon. Gentleman gave us this afternoon from the millers. The millers, being human, and being ordinary commercial people, will almost certainly collect a little bit more. They do so at the present time. Equally, the bakers, when they have to collect the enhanced price from their consumers, will, being human, probably collect a little more, unless the Food Council should step in and obtain some powers to prevent bakers doing anything of the sort. When it comes down to the lowest point, the consumer, having no one else to whom they can pass on the tax, will have to pay it himself and look as pleasant as he can. Incidentally, he will have to bear the whole cost of the administrative machinery. It will not be the farmers who will ultimately pay that; it will be the consumer alone who will bear the whole brunt of the cost of the administrative machinery. It is the bread eater who is actually going to pay this tax. All the trade concerns have no doubt whatever in the matter. I have read a quotation from the British Baker and from the London Corn Circular. I could give the right hon. Gentleman half a dozen other similar quotations, all emphasising the fact that the price of bread is going up and that the bread eater will have to pay for the subsidy to the farmer.
I want to turn for a moment to the question of who are the persons and the classes who are going to bear the brunt. This is a very harsh and very cruel tax, because it will hit worst and hit hardest the very poorest people. They are to be singled out specially. I want the right hon. Gentleman to follow me particularly on this point. It is the very poorest section of the whole population who are being singled out and are being compelled to bear the main burden of this new tax. The price of bread is going up by the amount of one halfpenny per quartern as soon as the provisions of this Bill are in full operation. The whole of the authorities in the different trades concerned, 983 from millers and corn merchants down to the bakers and the big wholesale associations, all agree on that. It is perfectly useless for the right hon. Gentleman to pooh-pooh the suggestion and say that the price of bread is not to be raised. The Home Secretary, when he was addressing the House on the Import Duties Bill, himself admitted that the introduction of the Wheat Bill would lead to a further tax on foodstuffs.
Who is it that eats bread in these days? It may be said that all of us eat bread, but it is the poorest who eat most. Bread is still the cheapest all-round food, and the poorer the family, the more bread they consume, and relatively they consume less of other articles of diet. I happen to be able to give the House very definite figures of this matter, because for 20 years I have been the responsible head of a very large machine bakery which supplies bread to 60,000 people every single day. I happen to have kept, and have available, a large mass of statistics on this point. Before the War the average consumption of bread in this country per head per week was 5 lb. During the War a rationing arrangement came into force, and the rationed allowance was 4 lbs. per head per week. After the War, the standards of living in this country went up considerably, with the immediate result that there was a fall in bread consumption, and until right down to 1927 and 1928 the average consumption per head per week was not more than 3½ lbs. throughout the whole country.
Lately a change has come over the scene. There has been the general depression and trade stringency, an enormous increase in unemployment, a reduction of working-class wages, and so on, with the result that bread eating has increased and is increasing rapidly at this moment, though not uniformly over the whole country. It is increasing almost exclusively in the working-class quarters and the industrial centres, and to-day the average consumption in those areas is over 4 lbs. per head per week. It has gone up half a lb. per head per week in the last 12 months. In the poorer quarters of London—and I can speak with considerable knowledge of the actual accounts kept by very big bakeries in London—it is now averaging from 5 to 5½ lbs. per head per week, and in the case of many families is as much as 6 to 984 6½ lbs. per head per week. Many working-class families in the poorer quarters have really enormous bread bills. I have here an extract from the accounts of one big bakery in South London which has over 40 rounds. I find from this that on every one of those rounds there are families consuming 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42 and even 44 loaves per week. That means that their bread bill is considerably over 10s. per week. These are the very poorest people. The bakery which I control is serving families who at the present time have bread bills of 12s., 138. and even 14s. per week.
§ Dr. SALTER
There are six or seven growing children, and a father who is doing heavy manual work and eats with corresponding heartiness. Those families will have bread bills as high as 13s. or 14s. a week. I say definitely that there are hundreds of thousands of families in this country whose bread bills are over 10s. per week at the present time, almost all are the very poorest of the poor, and yet it is they who will pay this subsidy. If the Government proposed to find the money for this subsidy out of general taxation, we should still object, but such a scheme would be very much fairer and more decent than these proposals. Under this Bill the poorer the person the more he has to pay, both relatively and actually, in consequence of his consumption of bread. A working man with a large family, who may be out of work, who may be in receipt of Poor Law assistance, or with nothing but his unemployment benefit to depend upon, will have his bread bill increased by anything from 8d. 10d. or is, per week. There are consumers buying from my own bakery who will have to pay as much as 1s. 3d. and 1s. 4d. per week extra as a consequence of this levy upon flour.
The poorer section of the population are being specially singled out to pay this tax. The well-to-do part of the population consumes, on the average, only about 1½ lb. of bread per head per week. I have here the accounts of a number of West End bakeries, and find from them that in a number of families of four or five persons the bread consumption does not exceed ½ lb. to ¾ lb. per head per week. They have as a substitute dairy produce of all kinds, fish, 985 fresh fruit, vegetables and so forth. In their case the increased tax will be perfectly negligible. In what one might call a comfortably-placed middle-class family, a professional family with a household of four or five persons, the increased cost of bread will not exceed 1d. or 1¼d. per week. In the case of average working-class families of the same size there will be an extra cost of 6d. per week, and the very poorest families will have to pay 10d. or 1s. We on this side say that that is not fair or right. It is a grossly unjust form of taxation. I go further; I say that it is sheer cruelty. It is a stomach tax with a vengeance.
It is all part of the whole policy of the Government to relieve the rich at the expense of the poor. If the Government have definitely decided to subsidise the farmer and the landowner, they should do it squarely and honestly by a direct grant from the State Exchequer, and not try to evade responsibility, as they do under this Bill, by imposing a tax which is not directly levied by this Parliament but through a caucus of millers, corn dealers and other people. Those are the people who will decide what this tax is to be. When hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite talk about being short of money or hard-up, they are thinking in pounds or, possibly, hundreds of pounds; but the people for whom we are speaking this afternoon, when they talk of being short, are thinking in shillings, and quite probably in pennies. A shilling a week, or a shilling a clay for that matter, may make precious little difference to hon. Members sitting on the benches opposite, but it is a very serious thing indeed for hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, of people in this country at the present moment, with their reduced wages and shrinking purchasing power. Such wages as they have to-day, or such allowances as they may be receiving from the State, will, on the admission of the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday, have a very much smaller purchasing power in the future than they have at present, because he was quite frank enough to say that shortly prices are certain to rise all round.
In a newspaper the other day I saw an account of a conversation in a railway train between the author of the article concerned and an old gentleman who was 986 sitting opposite to him. The old gentleman said:What harm will a penny on the loaf do? What difference will it make to us?Of course, he was quite right; he was comfortably off; it will riot make any difference to him; but it will make a very serious difference to the well-being of the people who to-day have to pinch and screw merely to get sufficient food, and have no overplus out of which to meet the expenses of clothing, household necessities and so on. The same article gave a whole series of illustrations of conditions at the moment as gathered from various police courts and coroners' courts. Some of them were very tragic reading, indeed. One woman, giving evidence in a coroner's court in relation to the death of her sister the previous week, said that twice a week she went to a popular restaurant and spent 4½d. on a meat meal, and that was the only meat she had during the week. For the rest of the time she lived on tea, bread and margarine. I do not want to introduce a lot of sob stuff into the Debate, but instances of that kind could be multiplied over and over again. Those of us who live in working-class quarters and are in first-hand touch with conditions to-day know perfectly well that that represents, without any exaggeration, the conditions of enormous numbers of people. In another case a person stated:I buy two loaves of bread a week, half-a-pound of margarine, a bit of tea and sugar, and that is all I have.That, again, was a statement given in evidence in a coroner's court with regard to the death of another person who was living with the witness. Such cases could be multiplied over and over again. We say that the Government are giving a subsidy to one section of producers, farmers, because they are depressed, and will make other sections of producers, equally or even more depressed, pay that subsidy.
Some of the people who will have to pay the subsidy are living under conditions which I can only describe as utter destitution. There are 250,000 miners who have been out of work for two or three years—[HON. MEMBERS: "Far longer!"] —who not only cannot get work to-day, but have no prospect in any future that can be foreseen of ever again getting work at their trade. Those are the 987 people, heavy bread eaters, who are going to pay the subsidy to the farmer because the farmer is depressed. There are hundreds of thousands of textile workers who will never be employed in the textile industry again, because by the admission of everybody they are superfluous to the industry as it is to-day and they will have to pay. The Bill states that its object is to providean enhanced price for home grown wheat of millable quality, without a subsidy from the Exchequer.There is to be no subsidy from the Exchequer, but a subsidy from the most hopeless and most depressed classes in the nation. I am surprised that the Government are not ashamed to bring in a Bill of this sort. I should think there is not an bon. Gentleman opposite who is not abashed at voting for a Measure like this, which will inflict such cruelty and suffering. I am astonished that at this time of the day such proposals can be seriously put forward.
My next point is that in this Bill all safeguards for the agricultural labourer and for the consumer have been deliberately dropped. Dr. Addison's scheme, adumbrated by him last year, did contain 'safeguards for the agricultural labourer; but there are none whatever in this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman, just as he was sitting down, uttered a pious hope that the labourer, whose skill and work contributed so much to the success or otherwise of the farming industry, would not be forgotten. I think that those were the actual words he used. But there is not a word in this Bill which affords the slightest safeguard for the agricultural labourer's wages, or ensures that he will share in the advantages which the farmer is going to obtain. The Government are transferring large sums, of money from the consumer to the farmer and the land owner, first of all by their general tariff Bill and now by this subsidy, but they make no proposal that any part of it shall be paid to the agricultural labourer. His cost of living is to be increased, but be is to have no improvement in his wages. If he gets it he will have to fight for it. He will have to go before a wages board, or else go on strike. There is absolutely no assistance for him in this Bill. We say that if the remuneration of the farmers is to 988 be guaranteed by the State, surely the remuneration of the man who is the very backbone of the industry ought to be improved.
Farming in this country has always been a sweated industry. It was a sweated industry in the palmy days before the repeal of the Corn Laws and is a sweated industry to-day, and so far as this Government are concerned it will remain a sweated industry in the future. There are few people except those who actually live in the country and are in first hand touch with agricultural labourers who understand the depth of misery to which large numbers of them have been reduced. In Suffolk and several other counties a man in full work for 58 or 60 hours per week receives a wage of 28s. The irony of the situation is, that all that the man, whose labour and skill are going to produce the wheat the value of whose product is to be enhanced by this Bill, will get out of it will be that his bread will be dearer. That is the most ironical situation that can possibly be pictured. On this side of the House we are going to demand that this Bill shall be so amended that when the subsidy comes into force, the labourer shall have his share guaranteed in an effective way. We want to accomplish this by a strengthening of the powers of the Central Wages Board and in other ways, and Amendments will be moved from this side to ensure that the rural worker receives his proper share of the subsidy.
I wish to raise a number of technical objections, but before dealing with them, I want to make a reference to the interference which the Bill will create with the biscuit trade. Relatively speaking, biscuits are luxuries, and, like most luxury trades, the biscuit industry has been hard hit by trade depression, and its sales are down. There is also a good deal of unemployment in the biscuit trade. I do not complain that in times of difficulty luxury articles are taxed, but the biscuit trade possesses a very extensive export trade, and that aspect of the question has been completely overlooked by the framers of this Bill. In 1927 the biscuits exported from this country were valued at £1,340,000. The biscuit trade has been steadily decreasing since that time, partly owing to trade depression, but this Bill is going to inflict upon that 989 trade another serious blow. The Government have already, by tariffs, increased the cost of the ingredients of the biscuit, and now the biscuit manufacturer will have to pay a tax of 3s. on every sack of flour which he uses to manufacture biscuits.
It so happens that the biscuit-maker uses British flour chiefly. I understand that between 80 and 85 per cent. of the flour ingredients of certain classes of biscuits has a home-grown origin, and in some cases the percentage rises as high as from 90 to 95 per cent. of British flour. The levy may be 3s., 3s. 6d., 3s. 8d., or even 4s. upon a sack of flour, and this will be a very serious matter for the biscuit-maker, so far as his export trade is concerned. English-produced biscuits have now to face a very stiff proposition in the neutral markets of the world in competition with French and German made articles, which are largely made from subsidised flour. In future, the British producer will be handicapped by having his own cost of production increased by these subsidies, and also by this new form of taxation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer or the President of the Board of Trade—I forget which—amused the House a week or two ago by telling us that the Abnormal Importations Act had increased the cost of negro obsequies on the Gold Coast. Secondhand frock coats and top hats, said the right hon. Gentleman, were imported here from America, refaced in Stepney and exported to the West Africa. The mourner in that part of the world now has to pay more for his funeral adornment. It may interest the right hon. Gentleman to know that the burial ceremonies in that part of Africa are not complete without the consumption of a considerable quantity of Messrs. Peak, Frean and Company's biscuits, and therefore these men will not only have to pay more for their adornments, but more for articles like biscuits. But, levity apart, the increased cost of the production of biscuits resulting from this Bill will, in certain markets, completely knock out our trade, and we shall in future be undersold by our rivals.
I would like to make a reference to an extraordinary provision in Clause 3 (1), which reads:provided that if any miller satisfied the Wheat Commission that his output during any cereal year will not comprise any flour other than wheat meal, and that the whole 990 of that flour will be used only as an animal or poultry food, the commission may in accordance with the by-laws of the commission grant him a certificate (hereinafter referred to as provender miller's certificate') exempting him from liability to make quota payments in respect of his output of such flour during that year.The result will be that this miller's product will be made cheaper by the amount of the tax. The farmer who grows the wheat from which the miller grinds his flour is to get the subsidy just the same. The net result is that the bread consumer, whether he is a labourer working for wages or a person who comes under our Poor Law system, has to subsidise not only the farmer but also the user of the miller's cheap flour. The consumer of bread will have to subsidise the pig breeder, those who keep hunters, racehorses, and polo ponies, the turkey farmer, the landowner who rears pheasants, the dealer who rears peacocks, the dog-biscuit manufacturer, the keeper of pekingese, fancy chows, the owners of Great Danes, Alsatians, and racing greyhounds.
There is an extremely strange industry which happens to be practised in my constituency, and that is quail fattening. Quails are imported into this country, and they are fattened here for the market before they are sold. The object is, as in the case of the Strasbourg goose, to produce a fatty degeneration of the liver and muscles of the quail in order to make the flesh abnormally white. These wretched birds are kept in crates in which they can scarcely move, they are deprived of water and forcibly stuffed twice a day with linseed oil and the special wheat meal which the Minister of Agriculture is going to exempt from the tax. Surely die right hon. Gentleman did not realise that poor people are to be penalised for the benefit of these merchants. Apparently pigs and peacocks are to enjoy a free breakfast table, but not human beings.
The agricultural policy of this Bill has been wrongly conceived, and it is absolutely reactionary. It is an attempt to revert to a condition of affairs in English life which has long ago passed away and and which can never be restored. During the last 20 years there has been a great technical revolution in wheat production and bread production. A great change took place at the time of the industrial revolution from hand-spinning and weaving to factory manufacture. In the case 991 of wheat production, the producer on the small farm, the men who in the past have been the backbone of the farming industry of this country, are working with horse ploughs and simple instruments, and they have been knocked out completely by the large scale cereal cultivator on the mechanised prairie farm on the other side of the Atlantic, where they farm 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 and, in some cases, even 10,000 acres.
In Russia there are instances of single farms comprising 300,000 acres and even up to 500,000 acres. The multiple plough, the combine-harvester and tractor have completely transformed the corn growing industry in all parts of the world. In 1916 there were 30,000 tractors in the United States; in 1928, 850,000; and today there are over 1,000,000. In 1916, in the United States, there were only 270 combine-harvesters, while in 1929 the number was 37,000, and this year the total is over 50,000. The American exports of these machines were 1,700 in 1925, and over 11,000 in 1929. In Western Canada there were only two in use in 1922, but there were close upon 8,000 in 1929, and there are 10,000 to-day. I suppose that we could count on the fingers of one hand the number of combine-harvesters in use in this country to-day. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I do not know whether there are any agricultural Members present. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Probably they are of a small and old-fashioned type. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The reason for this is that the size of the farms does not make it profitable in this country to use such extremely expensive machines, which cannot operate satisfactorily except over a large number of acres. What such machinery requires is a great, free expanse of prairie land with no hedges, ditches or trees, and no intersecting roads. It needs also a different type of surface soil from that which we have in this country.
I spent five weeks of my holiday last summer in Russia, and I stayed for two nights on one of their big State farms, a farm that is over 300,000 acres in extent, and is worked from one centre. Down in the middle of this great steppe, a new town has been planted, including a block of workmen's dwellings, with the usual amenities that are now found in a new Soviet town, a great power station, and a great engineering works to repair 992 machinery and so forth. From the power station radiate in different directions light railways going 30, 40 or 50 miles out to the borders of the farm. The agricultural labourer goes down in the morning at eight o'clock, gets on to one of these electric trams, and in half an hour he has travelled 30 miles in a straight line. At the end of his journey he finds sheds and buildings, with these great combine-harvesters and other agricultural machinery. He mounts his tractor, and he can drive, with this machine, a combine-harvester, thresher and plough 20 or 30 miles in a straight line without interruption. We went up into a tower where we could overlook part of the farm, and as far as the eye could see in every direction we saw nothing but one great waving sea of wheat, with no hillocks or anything else to impede the free run of the machines. How can any small farm in this country, with the sort of climate that we have, however efficiently managed and however mechanised up to its possibilities it may be, compete on a level with wheat production on a scale like that? It is, of course, impossible.
Mechanised farming means to-day very cheap production, but it also means the reduction of employment. It has meant an extraordinary reduction of employment in the United States. The last figures that I saw showed that, in the two years preceding the last cereal year, 58,000 men had been displaced from farm labour in the United States, merely by the introduction and more extended use of these combine harvesters on the great cereal farms. I submit that it is hopeless to talk about going back to wheat growing in this country on anything like an extensive scale in competition with the great prairie farms of Canada, the United States, the Argentine, Australia, Russia, and even Hungary. You may have the most efficient management, you may have the latest machinery and all the rest of it on your English farms, but you cannot handle the grain here in the same way in which it can be handled on this vast scale abroad. Abroad they have a straight run from the field. The grain is threshed on the field, it goes straight from the field to the district elevator, from the district elevator it is conveyed to the terminal elevator, and so on to its final destination. In this country we have stacking, thatching, storing, carting, and all the rest of these charges, to 993 superadd to the rest of the costs of production, and there is no possibility of competing, so far as grain production in this country is concerned, with the great nations abroad. Figuratively speaking, we only grow wheat in halfpennyworths and pennyworths in this country, and an industry cannot be made to pay on that basis to-day.
The right hon. Gentleman, I take it, assumes in this Bill that the cost of production of wheat will be under 45s. per quarter. There is no doubt, of course, and it is very well known to every Member of the House, that the cost of production of wheat in this country varies very much indeed, according to the situation, the nature of the soil, and so on. I have been looking into the files of the "Farmer and Stockbreeder" lately, and I have noticed several letters in that journal giving the costs of production of wheat in different parts of England. The accounts have been checked and certified by the Agricultural Economic Research Institute at Oxford, and one may take them, therefore, as being reliable. The figures vary from about 32s. up to 55s., and one statement that was made in one of these letters was that a good average figure was about 45s. to 46s. per quarter. It is perfectly certain that there are plenty of farmers who can, even to-day, with all the difficulties to which I have been referring, produce wheat at a cost very much below that figure, and Lord Astor, in a letter to "The Times" the other day, stated that some farmers under the Government's present scheme will make almost a fabulous fortune—will receive a most extravagant sum under this subsidy scheme—whereas others who may be equally efficient and even more up to date will get nothing or practically next to nothing at all.
The cost of production of wheat in this country may be assumed to be, on the average, somewhere between 35s. and 45s. per quarter. I was at the Empire Parliamentary Association the other day, when we were addressed by one of the ex-Ministers of the Dominion of Canada, and I endeavoured to get from him a statement of the actual cost of production of wheat in Canada. I found him extraordinarily reluctant to make any statement on that point, but, if you exclude the cost of transport from Canada to this country, and deal exclusively with the cost of production to the farmer himself. I think 994 it will be found—I could give various references in Canadian and other papers —that the cost of production of wheat in Western Canada is approximately from 15s. to 20s. per quarter, and nearer to the lower figure than to the higher. The figure stated for the Argentine is 14s. per quarter, while in the case of Russia, although, as the Minister has already said, the figures are not entirely to be relied upon, it is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6s. or 7s. per quarter. [An HON. MEMBER: "For labour!"] I am not going to enter into an argument on that point, but when you have a cost of 40s. in this country, 15s. in Canada, 14s. in the Argentine, and 7s. in Russia, it is quite evident that this nation cannot afford to produce wheat on any large scale in the present circumstances.
There is a scope for properly adapted mechanised farming in Great Britain, but not on any scale which would be comparable with wheat growing abroad, or which could provide for the bread supply of this country. In any case, if mechanised farming is going to be adopted in this country for this purpose, it will reduce the total volume of unemployment, and not increase it. The late Labour Government intended to make some experiments in this direction, and their Agricultural Land Utilisation Bill included a Clause which would have enabled them to establish some large-scale mechanised farms, and to test this thing out in our own country, in our own climate and on our own soil; but the right hon. Gentleman and his friends did their best to throw that provision out—[Interruption.]—and the experiment now will not be conducted; that is the point. Members of the other House threw out that Clause, and the present Government has no power to conduct experiments which would have proved extraordinarily useful to the farming industry in this country.
The position that we take up is that wheat farming for the purpose of bread-making in this country is wasteful and uneconomic, and that this is an attempt artificially to bolster it up. It is about as hopeless as King Canute telling the tide to retire. You cannot possibly stop the progress of social and economic evolution by Government edicts or Bills, and the displacement of English wheat for bread-making purposes by more suitable 995 wheats grown abroad will go on, whether this Bill goes through in its present or any modified form or not. That stalwart supporter of the Government, Mr. Garvin, to whom I referred just now, addressed some words of wisdom on this subject to the right hon. Gentleman in a leaderette last Sunday, and I do not think I can do better than quote them verbatim. After calling this Bill a very old-fashioned and cumbrous Measure, he wrote:It prejudices instead of helps all the broad purposes of a national policy for the land. To an overwhelming extent the future of British agriculture depends on livestock very much, including poultry, on dairy produce and green stuff, on fresh milk, fresh eggs, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit for the home market. In that direction and no other lies the true policy of the future, and not only the prospect but the certainty of doubling our present agricultural wealth.… Money now to be sunk in the wheat subsidy, as in the extravagant beet dole, might have been devoted with incomparably greater national advantage to a general policy for agriculture.… Small wheat growers should be helped to turn over to the more profitable branches instead of being paid to persevere in an obsolete struggle.The whole facts of the situation bear out the truth of what Mr. Garvin has written in this regard. It is a hopeless and an obsolete struggle. The right hon. Gentleman, if he will forgive my saying so, reminds me of Mr. Gandhi. That is the only comparison that I can think of. Mr. Gandhi believes that the ultimate economic salvation of India is to be found in a return to hand spinning and hand weaving; and here is the right hon. Gentleman, in exactly the same way, wanting to go back to an absolutely out-of-date agricultural procedure in face of what is happening all over the world. It cannot be done and it will not be done, whatever the Bill may suggest. Neither India nor Great Britain can go back to more primitive methods, and what was suitable in 1832, or even 20 years ago, is not suitable, and cannot be adapted, to the needs of to-day.
This is a subject to which I have de-voted a great many years of attention, and I am now going to another side of it, of which I have very extensive practical knowledge. The Government do not clearly understand the nature of the change they are pro-posing. The whole basis of the scheme ultimately is that English- 996 grown wheat shall be milled into flour for making bread. There is not a word in the Bill to that effect. As the Bill stands, not a grain of English wheat is required to be milled into bread flour, but that is the ultimate purpose of the Bill or it is nothing at all. If there is any extension of the wheat area, if there is much more millable wheat grown than is grown to-day, it will be essential, in order to dispose of flour so milled, that it shall be incorporated in bread and, whatever the right hon. Gentleman may or may not say about it, that must be the ultimate objective of the Bill. There can be no other. The Government have entirely failed to realise the tremendous changes that have taken place in the milling and baking industry in the last 20 years, or even since the War. English-grown wheat is totally unsuited for modern breadmaking, and is not used for that purpose except to an absolutely infinitesimal extent. It cannot be used under modern conditions except, perhaps, under the stress of war conditions, but that is another matter. Home-grown British flour is used to-day almost exclusively for biscuit making and for selling over the baker's or grocer's counter for making pastry and cakes.
I find the most astonishing ignorance among Members of the House on the subject. It is true that a certain number of bakers make special breads in which they incorporate sugar, fat and milk, and turn out a product which they call English farmhouse bread and for which they charge an extra 1d. a quartern. I agree that a certain quantity of English flour is so used, but it is infinitesimal. I doubt very much whether any of the right hon. Gentlemen on the opposite bench have eaten any bread made of English flour, or containing any proportion of English flour, for years. The bread supplied by the Kitchen Committee of this House contains not ½per cent., or any percentage of English flour. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Harrow (Major Salmon), who controls the largest bakery in the Kingdom, Messrs. Lyons, does not use any English flour for bread. They use English flour for confectionery and cakes and pastries, but not for bread-making. The great town millers and the port millers do not mill English flour separately or mix it with foreign or colonial flour except, again, for the purpose of manufacturing specialities.
997 The total wheat production in this country, according to figures given by the Minister of Agriculture yesterday, was under 4,500,000 qrs. He said he had not any figures to show what proportion of that was millable or what proportion of it was actually converted into flour, but his estimate was that it was 65 per cent. Of the 4,500,000 qrs., 500,000 are required for seed. That reduces the amount to 4,000,000 available for all purposes. Figures published by the corn trade show that 35 per cent. of that is not milled at all but is used for poultry feeding, and 30 per cent. is extracted as wheat feed or millers' offals for cattle foods, dog biscuits and the like. That leaves us with considerably under 2,000,000 qrs. available for milling into flour for all purposes, and the biscuit trade takes over 50 per cent, of that. That, again, is admitted. The biscuit trade themselves declare that they take over 50 per cent. That reduces it to 1,000,000 qrs. all told and, of that 1,000,000 qrs. of English flour so milled, 500,000 are taken for making confectionery and pastries. That leaves less than 25 of 1,000,000 qrs. for conversion into bread. I have consulted people who have been engaged in the flour trade all their lives, and who know the whole subject thoroughly, and they say definitely that that is an over-estimate of the total amount of flour milled from home grown wheat which is used for bread-making purposes. A simple mathematical calculation will tell you how far that will go as far as bread making is concerned.
§ Mr. HANNON
May we have this quite clear? Does the hon. Member say that, out of 4,500,000 qrs. produced last, year, only 250,000 qrs. are of millable quality?
§ Dr. SALTER
No, I did not say anything of the kind. I said 250,000 qrs. were converted into flour for bread making purposes, and of the English home-grown flour milled, 50 per cent. is taken by the bread making industry and 50 per cent. of the remainder is used for pastries and confectionery, leaving only 250,000 qrs. for conversion into bread. As four quarters make five sacks of flour and one sack only makes 90 quarterns of bread, you can see that the total amount of English flour used for bread making purposes will only make 18,000,000 quartern loaves in a whole year. Taking the average consumption of bread per 998 head at four pounds per person per week, means that English flour supplies bread for 860,000 persons out of 44,000,000. [Interruption.] The hon. Member is introducing an entire irrelevance which has nothing to do with the argument, because the levy under the Bill is not upon the English flour but upon the whole of the flour imported and the whole of the flour used, whether Colonial or foreign. The figures I have been giving are, if anything, an over-estimate of the amount of English flour used for breadmaking, and it means that only one-fiftieth of our total national needs in bread production can be accounted for under this head. It may interest the right hon. Gentleman to know that several firms of millers at the present moment are actually advertising and giving written guarantees that, if the Bill becomes law, they will undertake not to put any English flour into the blends supplied by them to their customers, because English flour is not suitable for breadmaking and is not wanted by the bakers for breadmaking, except for those specialities, for which an extra charge is almost invariably made.
I said just now that a revolution had taken place in regard to cereal farming. An exactly similar revolution has taken place in regard to both milling and baking. Fifty years ago bread was made almost wholly from English wheat. The wheat was stone ground in a number of small country mills. The resulting flour was baked, generally in a stone oven, in farmhouses or cottages or small country, bakeries. That bread was hand-mixed and hand-kneaded and the dough was fermented with brewers' yeast, the average time taken in the process, I am informed by people who were in the trade a great many years ago, and followed the old-fashioned method, being 12 hours. The whole of that has passed away. There may be a few belated survivals here and there, but we have travelled a very long way since those days. More than 90 per cent. of the flour now used for breadmaking is scientifically blended, so as to include exactly the right proportions of the different specific glutens which are to be found in the wheat obtained from different parts of the world. It is made by machinery in great batches.
There are plenty of machine bakeries in London and in our great towns which turn out 50,000 to 70,000 loaves a day. 999 There is one bakery in South London, the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which turns out 25,000,000 loaves a year. How are they able to do such a thing? Because the whole process has been mechanised from start to finish. The flour goes in at one end of the factory and comes out at the other as the finished loaf, without being touched by hand from beginning to end. The old-fashioned brewers' yeast has gone. It may be used in these ancient survivals to which the hon. Member behind is attached, but it is not used in modern breadmaking factories. Specially selected yeast derived from yeast factories attached to distilleries are the yeasts used to-day, and they are very rapid in action. They save several hours in the fermentative process. To meet our requirements, bread making to-day is largely a matter of mass production as is the case in other branches of industry. To meet the requirements of these new mass production methods of bread making, a different kind of flour is needed from that which was used 50 or even 20 years ago. English-grown wheat is quite unsuitable for this purpose. It is soft, moist, and what the bakers call "weak," and deficient in the proper variety of glutin. That is to say, it is deficient in the particular quality and proportion of wheat required for making bread.
§ Sir ERNEST SHEPPERSON
Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that it is absolutely essential to have a certain proportion of the soft wheats of England to mix with the hard wheats of Canada in order to get a decent sample of bread?
§ Dr. SALTER
I will give a detailed answer to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I have something to say upon this point, and I am going to say it. Even the latest varieties of home-grown wheat, like the different species of yeoman wheats, for example, are not suitable for general use. The yeoman wheat can be grown only on certain classes of soil in this climate, as every agriculturist knows. You cannot get more than an average yield of 24 bushels to the acre of yeoman wheat, as compared with from 32 to 50 bushels of the old English soft wheats? Hard wheats, like Canadian wheats and so on, 1000 will not grow in this country. You may sow them here, but they revert after two years, or, at the outside, three years to the old yeoman soft wheat. Considerably less than 10 per cent. of the flour milled in this country is ground in country mills, and the flour produced has too weak a glutin content to be of the slightest use for modern bread production on mass production lines.
I should like the House to realise the extent to which the mass production of bread thus advanced in this country at the present time. Most people seem to think that bread is made by the little baker down the back street. That may be the case in a number of provincial areas, but the estimate of the trade is that over 65 per cent. of all bread produced in this country is to-day made in great machine bakeries. If you draw a line from Chester to London in the area east of that line 85 per cent. of all the bread produced is made in machine bakeries, and in Manchester 95 per cent. —so the Secretary of the Master Bakers' Association told me—is made in the big bakeries. In order to achieve mass production in this country, not only must there be special machinery, special yeast and special factory organisation, but special flour as well. All sorts of flour will not do.
I come to the point raised by my hon. Friend opposite. You may put English wheat or any old wheat you like into flour, and you will produce something which may have the semblance of a loaf, but it will not be edible. [Interruption.] I know what I am saying. I repeat that it is not edible, or, if it is edible, it is very indigestible, and the sort of product which would he rejected with contumely by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. It is not a product which you ought to call upon the public or expect the public to eat. It is true that under the stress of the War we had some rather remarkable forms of bread. We had potatoes put into bread in those days, oats and so on, but no one will suggest that under present-day conditions the public should submit to being compelled to eat the sort of bread we had to eat during war-time. The hon. Gentleman opposite suggested that, in order to get a suitable flour for bread production, it was essential to have a certain proportion of soft English wheat milled along- 1001 side the hard Canadian wheat. I quite agree that a certain percentage of a soft wheat is required. As a matter of fact, practically all ordinary bread made in this country is made from what is called straight-run flour. I understand that about 98 per cent. of all bakers in the country, and 100 per cent. of the machine bakeries, use 50 per cent. hard wheat drawn from Canada, Russia or United States sources, 30 per cent. mild wheat or fillings, Argentine or Danubian, and 20 per cent. of soft wheat, but always soft wheat from Australia and not from Britain. In the town mills to which I have been referring, no soft English wheat is used at all, and if my hon. Friend opposite cares to consult any of the biggest firms in the baking industry, he will find it set out in the way I have described. I do not know of a bakery which uses a flour containing English wheat. I do not know of a baker—
§ Mr. GEORGE HARVEY
On the spur of the moment, I can give the hon. Member the name of one—Rivers, of Chelmsford.
§ Dr. SALTER
I cannot tell the House the name of one baker, and I know all the great bakeries. I have already admitted that there are certain small bakeries which turn out specialities.
§ Dr. SALTER
And they advertise that flour for certain specialities; the hon. Member knows that himself. The object of the policy of the Government is to attempt to force the inclusion of English flour into bread making. If the right hon. Gentleman really means to do that, he will upset the whole of the baking trade. I noticed that when he was telling us, at great length, about the people and the interests he had consulted, he talked about the millers, the corn merchants and so on, but he did not refer to the baking trade. I say definitely that the baking trade, if they are to be compelled to use a proportion of English flour, will have to readjust the whole of their methods, alter their machinery and readapt themselves completely at very considerable expense, and they do not see the slightest reason why that should be done. When they have done all that, they know perfectly well that their product will be a bread which is not as satis- 1002 factory, digestible and nourishing as the bread which they produce to-day. You cannot grow in England to-day a wheat suitable for the production of modern bread. You can do it in order to produce the sort of bread which was obtainable 100 years ago. You can do it by the methods in vogue 100 years ago, but you cannot do it on the lines of modern factory production. You can do it for biscuits and pastries, but not for bread. The suggestion is pure reaction and an attempt to reintroduce a process which was outgrown a good many years ago.
Our position on these benches is that English farmers should turn to the particular branches of agriculture for which our country and our soil are admirably adapted and specially favourable, such as poultry farming, stock breeding, meat production, pig rearing and so on. There is an immense unsatisfied market at their door for these particular products. With the modern knowledge about vitamins, people are more and more demanding fresh food, fresh gathered fruit and green vegetables. We import 3,000,000,000 eggs a year, and there is no reason why the whole of those eggs should not be produced here. It would be very much better if the farmers of this country would turn their attention to these things rather than attempt an absolutely impossible test in competition with the great prairie farms overseas. We wish to see the Measures which were passed by the late Labour Government, the Agricultural Marketing Act and so on, developed and worked by the present Government, and arrangements made for collecting, distributing and organising. Money spent in that direction, whether by means of a subsidy or in other ways, would be very well spent indeed. In my judgment, the Bill puts the clock back. [Laughter.) It is an attempt to put the clock back, anyhow. It is going to perpetuate antediluvianism, and will do nothing whatever for British Agriculture except harm. There will be nothing whatever for the agricultural labourer. You are going to spend from £5,500,000 to £6,000,000, money taken from the poorest people of the country to subsidise the farming community, and that section of the farming community only which produces a mere 3 per cent. of the total agricultural values of this country.
The obvious question arises, if you are going to subsidise the wheat farmers in 1003 this country, are you going, in a similar way, to subsidise the oat farmer, the barley farmer the hop grower, the apple grower and so on, all of whom are exposed to competition in almost precisely the same way as the wheat farmer? I see that the appetite of the farmers for money has ben whetted by the presentation of this Bill, and they are already clamouring for a lot more. The National Farmers' Union have issued a statement in relation to the Bill. The first thing that they demand is 8,000,000 quarters instead of 6,000,000 quarters as the maximum of what the Bill calls the "anticipated supply" of wheat for each year. The next thing they demand is that the whole of the administrative costs of the Wheat Commission should not be borne by them, but should be shunted on to somebody else. Finally, they say,The Committee also hope to secure an amendment of the Bill to delete the proposal to empower the Minister of Agriculture to prescribe a standard for millable wheat. The unanimous feeling of the meeting was that the term 'millable wheat' is well understood to-clay by sellers and buyers throughout the country, and that no need exists for the prescription of a standard.6.30 p.m.
In other words they want the full subsidy for any old wheat of any old quality they may happen to grow. The speakers at their meeting practically said so. Finally—[Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen opposite continue to taunt me, I shall commence again. This is a subject on which, like the brook, I could run on for ever. I will admit that the House has been very indulgent to me, and I thank hon. Members for having listened. I will reserve to the Committee stage a great many points which, otherwise, I should have dealt with now. To confine attention to so small a section of farmers is to ignore the real nature of the great problem before the English countryside. What we want is organised planning on a nation wide scale, organised control of land, and organised co-operation among agricultural producers, so that this country may be enabled to supply the£120,000,000 worth of dairy produce, pig products and so on which we yearly import from abroad, and which, if produced here, would completely rehabilitate the industry. There are hundreds of difficulties and hundreds of questions which will have to be raised at some time during 1004 the progress of the Bill. The Bill appears to me to cause the maximum of expense with the minimum of sectional benefit. It leaves out of account altogether the interests of the working people who are engaged in the farming industry. In view of the fact that it ignores the twin revolutions of post-War times, large-scale wheat production on the one hand and mass production of bread in factories on the other, and also in view of the fact that it encourages a reversion to an obsolete, out-of-date system, I have very much pleasure in moving the rejection of the Bill.
§ Lord BURGHLEY
Several interesting points have appeared out of the splendid Marathon performance which we have just witnessed. The hon. Member started by saying that many people have described this as a Socialistic Measure. Nevertheless, we find him moving its rejection. I hope that we may draw the conclusion that we have made a great convert of someone who is going to out-Herod Herod and who, although he may like a Bill which has been described as a Socialistic one, would rather vote against it, because it has been so-called. He blamed the Minister of Agriculture for the first scheme that was brought forward. It would be interesting to know whether that scheme was not a relic of the late Socialist Government. He said that the cost of the administrative machinery would be borne by the consumer. The Bill emphatically says that that will not be so, because the costs are to be deducted from the deficiency payments. If the consumer was going to carry the costs, surely that would be an extra charge, and not one that was going to be deducted.
I welcome the Bill as the first stage towards a more prosperous agriculture. I believe that the majorities by which it will be passed through all its stages will show that the industrial side of the community are now beginning to appreciate the difficulties of the agriculturists, which in so many ways differ from their own. At last, the people of this country are beginning to realise that to bring about prosperity we must start with the soil and build up. In the words of the, Canadian proverb—Unless the fields are under cultivation, the factories will not smoke.1005 I have read the Opposition Amendment with no little surprise. During the last Election the Socialist candidate in my constituency impressed on the agricultural labourers the excellence of the quota. We also remember that the Minister of Agriculture in the Labour Government heartily recommended the quota. Now, however, when a practical scheme, a scheme which will work, a quota scheme, is brought forward, we have the opposition opposing it. It would seem that the old proverb that the leopard cannot change its spots is entirely without foundation, but the ease with which the leopard of the Socialist party changes its spots is only equalled by the kaleidescopic rapidity with which it does it. The Amendment contains the old hack of nationalisation of the land. Surely, hon. Members do not expect any sane person to believe that a Government Department in Whitehall, tied up with red tape, will be able to run the great mass of industries which go to make up agriculture better than those who have learned, not in text books but by hard and, in many cases bitter experience, trying to make a livelihood out of agriculture, in open competition with produce which is sold below the cost price.
In the Amendment we are greeted with a Gilbertian spectacle. The Opposition plainly stated in 1929 that agriculture must be made to pay. Now, when a practical scheme is forthcoming, they inveigh against it because, in their own words, it will give the growers a, secure market and an enhanced price. In fact, it will make it possible again for one branch of agriculture to pay. The Alice in Wonderland spectacle is completed by the underlying statement that they would like to see the lot of the agricultural labourer improved, but for two years the whole agricultural community waited for the Labour party to fulfil their promise to make agriculture pay. There is not a farm labourer in this country who does not realise that his wages depend on, whether or not agriculture is prosperous. And now, when a Bill is brought forward which will help agriculture towards better times, and is, therefore, a movement towards better terms of employment, the Opposition express their dissatisfaction with it, thereby showing to the agricultural labourer once again what help they may expect from the Socialist party.
1006 The latter part of the Amendment is the outcry that everyone must be defended from everyone else. The principle seems to be the old one that,—Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.For some unaccountable reason the Opposition have omitted to include the very real need of a safeguard for the landlord, the tenant farmer and the farm labourer against the possibility of future meddling by the greatest flea of all, the Socialist party. However, for their peace of mind, let them remember that there is a wages board in existence that watches over the interests of the farm labourer. As fox "the grinding heel of the landlord," on the tenant in the agricultural community, which has been one of the pet theories of the Socialist party ever since it came into existence, if they inquire in agricultural areas their minds would be entirely disabused of that illusion. In almost every district many farmers are either paying reduced rents or, in some cases, no rents at all, and if it bad not been for the capital of the landlord enabling them to keep going, the bankruptcies, distress and unemployment among farmers and farm labourers would have been far worse even than is the case now.
The Bill will be welcomed by all classes of the farming community. Owing to the catastrophic fall in the price of wheat, the balance of farming has been entirely upset. Land that included wheat in its rotation of crops has been growing other produce and competing in markets for which it is not so suitable, but with the favourable repercussion in the righting of the balance of farming by schemes of this sort, the cut-throat competition in other branches of agriculture will be put right. The laying down of land to grass, with its accompanying increase of unemployment, will, I believe, cease. In part of my constituency there are acres and acres of arable land lying derelict because of the cataclysmic fall in the price of cereal crops, which has gone on until the whole world is growing them at a loss for their export trade. I believe that under this scheme much of the land will come again under the plough, and that there will be work for those agricultural labourers who have been through such heart-breaking times of unemployment for a considerable period.
1007 This scheme has the great advantage of running itself without making any charge on the Exchequer, and without being run by a Government Department, with all the delays, red tape and inefficiency which, alas, that so often means. The mover of the Amendment mentioned a story that he heard in a railway carriage about the rise in the price of bread, which would mean 1d. on a loaf. The price of 45s. a quarter will not bring that about, and I very much doubt if 120s. a quarter would. The whole of his case rested on the fact that the price of bread is going to rise considerably. I do not think he has proved his case. The figures given by the Minister of Agriculture proved the opposite and that if the whole of the price is on 15 per cent. of the wheat used in the production of bread, if there is a rise of 20s. a quarter and the whole is passed on to the consumer, one-eighth of a penny on a 2 lb. loaf is all the rise that will be justified. If that be so, all that is likely to happen will be that if the price of bread is going to rise anyhow, it will rise a week or two earlier, and if it is going to fall anyhow, it will fall a week or two later. I would emphasise the point that as the price of wheat rises so the quota deficiency payment gets smaller and smaller, until it finally disappears. On the other side, this Bill will bring hope again to many farmers, and some of them who have been trembling on the brink of bankruptcy will now be able to carry on and instead of a steadily increasing amount of unemployment among farm labourers we may confidently expect a decrease.
There is one point upon which I should like some information from the Minister of Agriculture, and that is as to how the average price for the wheat sold will be arrived at. If it is arrived at by taking the prices each week and then at the end of a year dividing them by 52, much unfairness may arise. Account should be taken of the quantity of wheat sold at each price. I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will be able to reassure us on this point, because he knows that after the harvest the great bulk of the English crop comes on to the market and the price is therefore comparatively low. At the other end of the year in June, with the demands of the biscuit makers and others still there, the price is apt to rise out of all proportion to the amount 1008 that is sold. Although a small amount is sold prices rise considerably and the bulk of the farmers who have sold at the lower prices will not get sufficient to make up to the standard price. The argument that farmers should hold up their crop longer is not a good argument. It is absolutely impossible in practice. In the case of poorer land capital and credit is already exhausted, wages have to be paid every week, the longer wheat is kept the lighter it gets, and there are the heavy depredations of vermin. I welcome the Bill as a great step in the right direction. The farming community are grateful. The good resulting from putting one branch of agriculture on a paying basis will be felt throughout the whole of the industry and the country.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
The speech of the Noble Lord shows that we have received into this House a real accession of debating strength. It was a very charming, lucid and logical speech. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate and the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Dr. Salter) might very well take it as an example. We are accustomed to lengthy speeches, but we have had a most generous allowance this evening, indeed, unless we have a quota for speeches the wheat harvest will be upon us before we pass this Measure. I do not propose to follow the hon. Member for Bermondsey in his somewhat discursive remarks. I understand that his agricultural experience consists in his constituents fattening quails. That it not a large agricultural operation.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
In that case I am sorry that the hon. Member has been so misled as to condemn this Bill root and branch. He asked: What is the agricultural labourer getting out of this? I take that point. During the last 10 years agricultural labourers have been driven into the towns to swell the ranks of the unemployed. In 1921 there were 995,000 agricultural workers in Great Britain. In 1931 there were 828,000, a decrease of 167,000, and yet we are told that this Bill is not necessary, that no Bill is needed, that we must have some kind of organisation or reorganisation. I have heard those words so often that they do not convey anything to me. As to the wages of agricultural workers, they have been reduced. 1009 I regret it. There is no finer body of men in the world. The Minister of Agriculture has been good enough to send me a list of the wages paid in England and Wales, and I notice that in Oxfordshire and Suffolk the wages of agricultural labourers have been reduced from 30s. to 28s. per week, and in Gloucestershire and Berkshire from 30s. to 28s. 6d. That is far too low; and yet the farmers cannot afford to pay more. I see that the hon. and learned Member for Bristol, East (Sir S. Cripps) smiles. I cannot understand why.
I am glad we have been spared this afternoon the idea that our farmers are thoroughly inefficient. I am always indignant when I hear that remark. There is no body of men in the country who could have farmed the land with anything like the same success. The hon. Member for Bermondsey said farmers must organise and devote themselves to stock farming and milk producing. Advice to the agriculturists is as prolific as advice to the politician. Everyone knows how to be a politician, and everyone knows how to be a farmer. A successful farmer does not generally give gratuitous advice to his neighbour because he knows how farming differs in various parts of the country. In this country the farmer has to contend with the most extreme climatic conditions and with the tremendous fall in the price of commodities. In 1925 a farmer could pay £1 in wages and rent and household expenses with three bushels of wheat; but to-day it will take six bushels.
Why should the farmer be penalised? He is the man who is producing the food of the country. Wages are fixed, not high enough I agree, but higher than the farmer can pay, tithes are fixed; but the price which the farmer obtains for his produce has been tumbling down all the time. People with fixed incomes have had an advantage. Why should the holders of War Loan or the receivers of transitional benefit be able to buy so much more for their £1 or their shilling and the farmer suffer? The British farmer is the equal of any in the world. That is proved by a statement issued in the report of the Imperial Economic Committee. The world production of wheat per acre is 14.9 bushels. In Europe it is 17.9 bushels; hut when it comes to the inefficient English farmer, to 1010 whom the hon. Member gives so much advice, it is not 14.9 bushels or 17.9 bushels, but 32.9 bushels per acre. It shows that the British farmer knows his job.
We have been told something of the great wheat areas abroad. It is true that there have been increases abroad, and in Europe. In fact, in Europe every country has had a slight increase in wheat acreage except Great Britain, where it is 34 per cent. less than it was before the War. In 1913 our wheat acreage was 1,750,000 acres, last year it was 1,247,000 acres. We are only supplying one-seventh of the wheat necessary for the bread of this country. I say to the House of Commons as earnestly as I can that that is a very dangerous position. Bread is vital. We spend money on armaments, but what if these armaments cannot protect the food ships coming into this country? I want to see more food produced in our own country, and I think the Government is taking a step in the right direction to increase our wheat production. Any country which neglects the land will have a difficulty in surviving. I say to hon. Members opposite, to their constituents in the mining areas, to those men who go down into the bowels of the earth to dig up coal for foreigners to consume that it would be much better to make the cultivation of the land profitable and enable them to cultivate patches of land in their own country; a far more agreeable occupation. Again I notice that the hon. and learned Member for Bristol East is amused. I do not quite understand his amusement, but I suppose it is there.
There has been a great decline in arable acreage. We want to encourage country industries. In my own constituency in the last few years two country mills have been put out of operation. They have been driven out by the competition of the mills at the port. I would rather see country industries fostered, more people engaged, rather than all the congestion in the ports. I understand that some of my hon. Friends take the view that there is some consideration of Free Trade in this matter. I do not see the Secretary of State for Scotland in his place. He was taking me to task the other day and said that I had forsaken the taber- 1011 nacle of Free Trade. I do not know much about tabernacles. I suppose it is some kind of place of worship, and generally there is a verger attached. The verger of the Liberal party in the last Parliament did not take us into the tabernacle; he kept us out. My difficulty was that, when I came here, I was told not to vote but to abstain. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on that bench consider themselves to be immaculate fiscal virgins. I am reminded of a story that the late Lord Fisher was fond of relating about how the late Sultan of Turkey conferred upon a lady the Order of Chastity in the third degree. That is the Order which I would confer upon my hon. Friends. We have had Russia mentioned by the hon. Gentleman opposite. It is true that there are miles of smiling corn there, but what does Mr. Wells say about Russia?She has attempted to evoke an exhaus-tive1y planned economic organisation of more than 100,000,000 people to buy and sell to one merchant. She crushes recalcitrant merchants and shoots disingenuous and inefficient officials.The hon. Gentleman talked about Free Trade, but, if we import this wheat from Russia, how can we send anything back when there is this Government and this grinding tyranny there and their own people are actually starving for the grain which is exported abroad? There is no question of Free Trade in the ordinary sense.
My right hon. Friend thought that he had fixed a reasonable price, but I do not know where he got his figures of 45s. a quarter or 5s. 7½d. a bushel. In 1920, under the Corn Production Act passed by the then Coalition Government, the price of wheat was fixed at 68s. a quarter. If you were to take the tithe of to-day—you will fund it in a letter in the "Times" this morning—then at 45s. a quarter the tithe would be £81 instead of £100. In France and in Germany the price of wheat is much higher. I can tell my hon. Friends opposite that there will not be any unsuitable land cultivated with wheat at 45s. a quarter. I would prefer it to be more than 45s., and it ought to be. I would ask this Government, in conclusion, that, whatever they do, they should make it permanent. The 1012 Lord President of the Council has said, that, if there was one industry which has been harassed and humbugged more than any other, it is the agricultural industry. In 1920 we had a Bill guaranteeing farmers prices. Many farmers purchased their farms upon the strength of that guarantee. A year afterwards they were let down. I do not want that to recur, and I hope it will not occur again by any legislation that this Government passes. I am not wildly enthusiastic about this Bill because of the price, but it is an important step on the right road, and I hope that, before this Parliament ends, we shall have such legislation as will secure to the efficient cultivator of the land a decent livelihood. At the present moment many thousands of frugal, efficient farmers are living on the sufferance and credit of their landowners, their bankers, and their merchants.
§ Major GWILYM LLOYD GEORGE
While I share the concern of my right hon. Friend at the condition of agriculture, I cannot share his enthusiasm for this. Measure. I shall not be accused of being particularly stupid when I say that this is one of the most incomprehensible Bills that I have ever seen. When I read it the first time, I thought —if I may vary a famous saying—"I do not know what effect it will have on the farmers, but by God it frightens me." On the back of the Bill I find that it truly is a National Bill. There are the names of two Conservatives, a Socialist, and a Liberal. There is in the Bill itself some Conservatism and some Socialism, but I fail to see any Liberalism, and I am afraid that Liberalism's contribution is about as strong here as it was on the Import Duties Bill. It is very nice to find in a Bill brought forward by what is, in effect, a Conservative Government the purpose,to provide for such millers being required to purchase unsold stocks of such wheat.If that is not Socialism, I do not know what is. Last week on the Import Duties Bill, when we tried to put in safeguards to prevent the consumer being exploited, we were told by the hon. Member for Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) that industry objected to interference. What does he think of this Bill? If this is not interference with industry, I do not know what is. The Memorandum of the Bill says that 1013 its object is to secure a market for British wheat at an enhanced price and with no subsidy. As a matter of fact, British wheat at the moment has a secure market. We heard to-day where British wheat goes and that a large proportion of it, if not all, has a secure market. We are told that we are going to have an enhanced price and no subsidy. With great respect that is sheer nonsense. How on earth can you have an enhanced price and no subsidy? We were told this afternoon that it was not to be paid by the Exchequer but by the Wheat Commission. It is true that a subsidy is paid by the Exchequer, and it is also true that this payment is paid by the Wheat Commission, but the fact remains that both an Exchequer subsidy and the deficiency payment come from the same source, the man who up to date has not been consulted in this Measure or in any of the other Measures passed, the consumer in this country.
If, by passing this Measure, we really felt that agriculture was going to be put on its feet I do not think many of us would object if the consumer had to pay for a short time, because, if it put agriculture on its feet, it would be worth doing. But this Measure does nothing of the kind. It disregards entirely the real situation of agriculture in this country. We heard to-day that wheat forms about 4 per cent. of the agricultural products in this country. We know that, according to this Bill, the farmer says that he cannot produce wheat efficiently under 458. a quarter. Therefore wheat is apparently uneconomically grown in this country. This Measure encourages agriculture in this country to go in for an uneconomic branch and to increase it. The world price to-day for wheat is very low indeed, and, judging from the report which was issued the other day, it is likely to continue low for a considerable time. It is, of course, extremely dangerous to prophesy as to wheat prices, but the indications are that wheat prices will continue low. The reasons given are the improved methods of farming in many parts of the world, owing to mechanisation, and the opening up owing to research of new areas hitherto impossible for wheat growing. According to this report, there is in Canada a belt 100 miles wide which is to-day available for wheat growing and which was not available before. You have 1014 new areas and new methods and you have also a new factor, the development of wheat growing in Russia, a development which is bound to have an enormous effect upon the price of wheat in the world. The likelihood, therefore, is that there will not be a great diminution of supply in the near future. We can, therefore, take it that this subsidy will be for all practical purposes a permanent one.
The right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) put forward the plea that it was essential for this country that it should supply wheat for its own defence in war. He knows perfectly well that that is impossible for this country under any condition. It does not matter how much you develop wheat in this country, it is recognised on all hands that it will not be sufficient to support the whole country. Even during the War, with all the intensive cultivation that went on, our increase was not more than 33 per cent. This country will have to rely upon outside sources and to talk about making this country self-supporting is to speak of the impossible. Yet here we are encouraging the growing of this commodity, which is admitted to be an uneconomic proposition in this country and which we know can never make us self supporting. The Minister suggested that this was a Measure to put wheat-growing on an economic foundation. We shall not see wheat put on an economic foundation if Bills such as this are to be brought forward. The fact is that the taxpayer is being asked to come to the assistance of the industry. If there was some hope of this Bill putting agriculture on a better footing, the taxpayer would not complain. It is interesting to find that the report I have referred to lays down, as one of the reasons why the price of wheat has fallen throughout the world, State interference and other kinds of interference in America, Canada and Australia. The report stated that the entry into the market in America of the Federal Farm Board has had the effect of bringing down the prices of wheat and that the same thing has happened with the Wheat Pools of Canada and Australia. Yet, despite this, we have the State again interfering in this industry in this country.
Why cannot we face the facts about this country? Primarily this country is a 1015 stock-raising country. The whole group of cereals together do not take up more than 20 per cent. of our total agricultural produce, and wheat is only 4 per cent. I am not sure if it is not under 4 per cent. Is there no scope for helping agriculture in stock-raising and dairy farming in this country and doing it without any subsidy at all Take the poultry imports last year, amounting to £20,000,000, the butter imports £46,000,000, bacon £30,000,000, and cheese £9,000,000. Those are the imports into this country, mostly from foreign countries. Up to date the present Government have done everything possible to hinder the stock-raising farmer and the dairy farmer of this country. For butter by far the most serious competitors of the British farmer are the Dominions. Our imports of cheese come almost entirely from the Dominions. Bacon is a free market.
What the farmer who raises these things wants to buy he has to pay an enhanced price for. Why should we not go in for what pays? In the long run we shall have to do so, and that remark applies to everything. There is no industry that can possibly survive unless it pays its way. The fact that we are going through bad times now is another matter. The things that we shall have to go in for are the things that are most likely to make a profit. We shall have to face that fact. Up to now no one has tried to do it. About 60 years ago Denmark was faced with exactly the same problem as faces this country to-day. She had to decide whether she was to go in for grain growing or not. The Danes came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do was to encourage the imports of cheap feeding stuff and to concentrate on dairy products and stock farming. What has been the result? Sixty per cent. of our bacon last year came from Denmark. Thirty per cent. of our butter came from Denmark. And yet no one can say that Denmark is a better country for stock raising than Britain.
Take the case of the poultry industry of this country. In 1930 its products were worth over £226,000,000 sterling. The wheat product was worth only £7,000,000. It is no good saying that the poultry industry does not employ men. It does and must do. The tendency in wheat growing is for fewer and fewer men to be employed. But there are certain 1016 things in stock farming that no machine can do, and you must have men for them. I do not believe that the question of employment in wheat farming is really half as serious as some hon. Gentlemen try to make out. All that we are doing with poultry farming is to make certain things dearer by taxing feeding stuffs, and this extra charge the poultry raiser cannot afford on his small margin of profit. It is the same with bacon. These are the articles in producing which we could compete with foreign countries, and compete without any tariff at all. But how can we hope to compete with wheat? We have seen that it is the great prairie countries of the world which are our greatest competitors. If we are going to try to make this country effective in competition with the great prairie countries, what does it mean? Mechanisation is what has made great wheat production cheap in those countries. Is it proposed to have mechanisation here? The units are much too small here, unless it is proposed to level the hedges and fill in the ditches, and has anyone worked out the capital cost of that work? It is useless for us to try to compete with the great wheat-growing countries of the world. Why are the Government always bolstering up the uneconomic branches of agriculture? We are spending £6,000,000 on sugar beet, and the subsidy under this Bill will be another £6,000,000. That is £12,000,000 sterling in a year, to be put into a very small proportion of our industry, when the sum could be spent with far greater effect in developing those sections of agricultural industry which are profitable and which could he made more prosperous.
Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman aware that in some parts of this country it is quite impossible for a man to farm at all without having a wheat crop? In my constituency that is so.
§ Major LLOYD GEORGE
That is quite beside the point. Nearly every farmer puts down a certain area of land to wheat because he wants it for his own farm, but I am talking about a commercial proposition. There are several counties where they prefer wheat growing, but I am far from believing that nothing but wheat can be grown there. I know 1017 people farming in those counties who have found other things just as profitable. I know one farmer who, if it had not been for his poultry, would have made a loss on his farm, and that was in a county where apparently only wheat could be grown. We ought never to have tried to compete in sugar-beet growing. We are spending in agricultural subsidies, as I have said, £12,000,000. Who is to pay? This time the Minister cannot say that it will be the foreigner. The man who will pay is the man who will always pay—the consumer. It is no good the Minister trying to get away with the idea that this expenditure will not be passed on. Of course it will. Put this £6,000,000 on to the miller, or whoever it may be, and he will pass it on to someone else. It is always passed on to the man who is never asked to give his opinion on any of these questions, and that is the consumer.
Why not have a straightforward tariff? We should then know where we were. It may be because certain Ministers object to the taxation of food. I gather that that is the reason. Under this Measure the tax is greater than a 10 per cent. tariff on imported wheat. It means something like 18 per cent. How is it that Ministers can sit there opposing the taxation of food and yet supporting this Bill? A good many things have surprised me since the National Government came in, but the way in which Ministers have different standards for different Bills is the most surprising thing of all. I do not know whether I shall be out of order, but I think I am entitled to ask the Secretary for Scotland, what about the Empire? I assume that this quota business is to be the basis of discussion. I assume that there will have to be a quota for the Dominions. Last year we took one-quarter of our wheat from Canada, and one-fifth from Australia. If they get a quota are they also to have a guaranteed price? If they do not get a guaranteed price they will not say thank you for the quota.
There is a further point. Do the Government realise that they are tying their hands with this quota? Let me explain. If you give a quota to the home farmer and to Canada and Australia, you have definitely fixed quotas. The day is coming when Russia will have developed. What we want is trade, no matter where we get it. If you have fixed quotas of this sort and the Argen- 1018 tine or Russia comes to this country and says: "We want to get rid of some of our wheat and we want to take in exchange certain articles from you, but we must have a better quota," where will the Government get the extra quota from, if they have already fixed certain percentages with the Dominions? Much as I object to a tariff I think a tariff would be far better than this proposal, because a tariff you can move up and down, but once you have fixed this quota you can do nothing. You are tying your hands beforehand and may lose quite an appreciable amount of trade.
I oppose the Bill because it adds to the burden of taxation of the people of this country. We have already had £30,000,000 put on in the Bill affecting imports. We are putting on another £6,000,000 now. It is difficult to realise where the equality of sacrifice comes in. In round figures £36,000,000 is to be paid by the consumers of this country. Yet this Bill does not touch the real problem of agriculture at all. There is plenty of scope in the agricultural industry without having footling Measures of this sort. We all know the enormous difference there is to-day between the price that the consumer pays and the price that the farmer gets. There is plenty of scope there to give the farmer a much better price while the consumer will pay a much lower price, without paying subsidies to anyone or having tariffs of any kind. There are hundreds of instances that come to light daily. But this Bill does not touch the matter at all. The real objection I have to the Bill is that it puts another burden quite unnecessarily on the people of this country. Many years ago, when the Corn Importation Bill was passed, Sir Robert Peel said, after his Government had been defeated:It may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of food will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brows, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is not leavened by a sense of injustice.That Bill was directly responsible for raising the standard of life of the people of this country. The present Government, in introducing this Bill, have the doubtful satisfaction of knowing that they have taken another step towards reducing that standard of life.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Captain HEILGERS
As this is the first occasion on which I have had the honour of addressing the House I must ask the indulgence of hon. Members. My reason for venturing to take part in the Debate must be that I am a farmer farming more than 1,000 acres in the Eastern counties, and that I am also intimately connected with wheat growing. This Bill will be a real message of hope to the farmer and the farm Worker. We need this help. In the Eastern counties we are in a desperate position. To give the House a measure of the help that we need I would quote a statement by a director of one of the five big banks. He said that out of 73 farmers whose accounts he had kept since 1922, 26 had failed completely, and the remainder had lost one-third of their capital by 1926, one-half by 1929, and three-quarters by the end of 1931. The position of the farmer is reflected in the position of the farm worker. In my county the farm workers get only 28s. a week and in my own village there are nearly 40 men out of jobs. I would like to reinforce the point which has been made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert). The British farmer is efficient. In our country we grow, per acre, twice as much as Canada, three times as much as Australia and the Argentine, 50 per cent. more than France, and 25 per cent. more than Germany, and the only country in the world which grows more than we do is Holland. I rejoice that it has been found possible to retain the ordinary system of marketing. That system puts a premium on efficiency, because the farmer who bows the best corn will be able to market his corn at the best price. I am afraid that that price is not going to be very remunerative. It will involve no great margin of profit to the farmer. I have been selling my wheat recently at 28s. a quarter. Last year I sold it at 22s. 9d. a quarter. The reason why farmers are jumping at this opportunity of selling their wheat at 45s. is not so much because of the profit as because they have grown so tired of selling at an enormous loss. This Bill means that there will be one more crop besides sugar beet which the farmer can sow, knowing that it will not be a gamble, but that he will get a definite price and a definite market for it. I have tried to show, first, that the farmers in East Anglia, the 1020 wheat growers, are desperately in need of help; secondly, that those wheat growers are efficient; and, thirdly, that this Bill will not hand over an unreasonable profit to them.
I turn to the consideration of the question: Ought we to encourage wheat growing in this country? There has been an active propaganda in favour of the idea that the agricultural future of this country lies in the production of livestock. The Noble Lord the Member for Basingstoke (Viscount Lymington) and many others have told the country that the only hope for our agriculture lies in the raising of cattle. Surely the answer is that certain parts of the country are suitable for raising livestock and certain parts, particularly our Eastern seaboard, are suitable only for cereal growing. We arable farmers have been going down and down and down for 10 years, but the grass farmers have only begun to feel the draught in the last two or three years. The reason for that lies in this fact, that we in the Eastern counties had not turned from the uneconomic growing of wheat to raising the very things which are normally raised in the West, to the production of beef, of milk, of vegetables, but by doing so we are to-day taking the bread out of the mouths of the farmers in the West. If only we can restore, as I think we shall by this Bill, wheat growing to its normal prosperity, then we shall restore the balance of agricultural production, and the farmers in the West will get an equal chance with the farmers in the East.
There is another point to which I would direct the Minister's attention. I foresee disaster next August and September unless there is some quantitative monthly restriction of supplies. The farmers will throw their wheat on to the market in unheard of quantities. The millers and merchants will not be able to absorb the supplies; the price will be greatly depressed; the English mills which are accustomed to a regular monthly average of English wheat supplies will shut down in October because there is no more English wheat to come in, and, eventually, the Minister will find himself when 1st June comes with a very much bigger surplus than 12½ per cent. I would also like to ask the Minister whether it is not possible to have some representation of the baking interest on the Wheat Commission. They are vitally 1021 interested in this matter, and they alone have been omitted from the Commission.
Finally, may I ask, is it really the case that the consumer is so frightfully worried about this question? If there is a rise of one farthing, and I hope there will not be, what is it going to mean to the consumer? I took the trouble recently to ask 12 men and women in my constituency, all weekly wage-earners, what was the price of bread. Not one of them could tell me within a halfpenny the actual price of bread that day. I think hon. Members opposite are apt to forget that the wicked producer is also the blessed consumer, and that if we producers are made prosperous, if we have a little money to spend, then there will be more boots and shoes bought from Northampton, more textiles from Manchester, and more woollen goods from Bradford. I should like to express the thanks of East Anglian agriculturists to the Minister for this Bill which, I believe, will mean a real revival of the agricultural industry in the East of England, and which is the right hon. Gentleman's first great constructive Measure for agriculture.
§ Major NATHAN
My first duty is to offer on behalf of the House congratulations to the hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Captain Heilgers) on his first participation in our Debates, and to express appreciation of the contribution which he has made to the discussion on this Bill. I approach this subject from an angle entirely different from that of any other hon. Member who has, so far, spoken. I am here as a townsman, representing a working-class constituency in the heart of the industrial area of London. I desire to tell the House how this Bill strikes me, as a townsman speaking for townsmen. It occurs to me that, disguise it as one may, this is a further flagrant breach of the pledges given by certain Ministers that no taxes would be imposed on food. I recall the admission made by the President of the Board of Trade only a few days ago that he had pledged himself that the staple foods should not be taxed, meaning by the staple foods wheat and meat. Whether the machinery is a quota payment or a tax the result is the same. Under this Bill, the consumer is to be mulcted in anything from 2s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. in respect of every sack of flour consumed 1022 in this country and the amount may well be more.
Not only are the Government proposing by this Bill to tax bread, the importance of which in the family budget is in inverse proportion to the family income, but the Bill marks another encroachment upon the constitutional rights of Parliament. Parliament is being asked to delegate the authority to impose taxation to an outside body over which it has virtually no authority, and that taxation is to find no place in the national accounts presented to Parliament each year. The Government are giving the consumer no safeguard of any kind against the milling industry passing on to him a great deal more than the amount necessary to enable the quota payments to reach the wheat producers. The whole elaborate and almost unintelligible machinery of this Bill has one very simple and easily understood object, namely to turn the milling industry into a sort of private monopoly which is to act as a taxing agency for conveying from the consumer this dole to the hands of the farmer. The "hungry 'forties" of last century will in the records of history be followed by the doleful 'thirties of this century. These proposals, indeed, recall some of the worst features of the farming out of taxes which took place in by-gone days. And we have all this at a time when wheat is being produced more plentifully and more cheaply than ever before.
The House is being asked to connive at a camouflaged means of imposing a tax on the staple food of the poorest of our people, on the ground that this form of assistance is vital to the recovery of agriculture. Approaching this matter from the outside, I ask myself, is it vital? I yield to no one in the view that a progressive and profitable agricultural industry is essential to a sound national economy. Nor do I yield to anyone in the hope that our agriculture, our industry and our commerce may be united in a strong and well-balanced economic whole. But this Bill impedes the development of the best and most lucrative elements in our agriculture in favour of the most uneconomic element, wheat growing. I ask the question: Why wheat? While the area of agricultural land in this country has actually increased during the last 80 years, the area of land under wheat has declined con- 1023 sistently. When the War broke out it was 50 per cent. less than in 1871. Since then, it has followed its curve of evolution in decline and since 1923 it has gone down by 30 per cent. to 1,250,000 acres in 1931.
The reason is simple. A decline in the wheat area is inevitable when wheat is produced so much more cheaply and effectively abroad. We have had the advantage that our bread prices have fallen. History unhappily proves that a profitable industry of growing wheat at home has as its inseparable companion high bread prices at home. We import 87 per cent. of our wheat supplies. That we do so and shall continue to do so is one of the penalties which we pay for being a highly industrialised nation. It has already been pointed out that the value of wheat in 1929–1930 was some 3 per cent. of the total value of the agricultural produce sold off our farms. With the fall in prices, and a greater fall in the price of wheat than of other agricultural produce, the likelihood is when the figures are ascertained it will be established that during last year the proportion of the value of the wheat sold to the total value of agricultural produce sold, was not very much more than 2 per cent., or something between 2 per cent. and 2½ per cent. This Bill proposes to give the farmer a subsidy of anything from 80 to 100 per cent., though even if they produced wheat without having to pay for their labour at all, they would not be able to compete with the wheat coming from oversea. What is the moment that the Government choose to introduce this Bill? It is within a few days of the presentation by the Imperial Economic Committee of a report on "The Wheat Situation, 1931."
§ Mr. TINKER
Will the hon. and gallant Member look at the Government Bench to see who are the representatives of the Government there now?
§ Major NATHAN
There never was a more damning condemnation of the policy of any Government than is to be found in the evidence adduced by the Imperial Economic Committee in this report, and never did a report show up in more startling fashion the fatuous futility of any Government Measure. The immense strides in technique in recent years, the improvements in inventions, the opening 1024 up of vast new areas, and incidentally the reduction of the demand for labour, have created a situation, so this committee finds, in which wheat can be produced at a price unimagined only a few years ago; and I suggest that in certain cases the price for the future is likely to be something in the neighbourhood of 18s, or it may be even 16s. How can we in this country, with our limited means of competing with the great areas oversea, hope to make wheat growing an economic proposition?
The Government know the facts set out in this report, and yet by this Bill they are attempting to stabilise the price of wheat at something in the neighbourhood of 45s. The absence of any proper provision for a declining scale of shelter removes any incentive to the farmer to increase his individual efficiency, and the vital need to improve standards of farming, to improve marketing and mechanical equipment, is completely ignored. I submit with confidence to the House that wheat growing in this country is an anachronism and that the only policy for this country in the realm of agriculture is, positively, to encourage mixed farming and live stock and, negatively, boldly and courageously to face the facts and adopt a conscious bias away from wheat.
The Bill is nothing more or less than a piece of window-dressing, by which the price of bread will, I maintain, no doubt be increased by anything from a halfpenny to a penny the 4 lb. loaf. Hon. Members speak simply, if I may say so, as if the levy would not be passed on to the consumer, but millers are not philanthropists, and there is a very sound commercial sense of not taking a loss when they can pass it on. They will pass it on to the baker, and the baker will pass it on to the consumer, and every time it is passed on there will be an increase in price. Lucky indeed shall we be if, even on the figures given by the Minister, the increase is not nearer a penny a loaf than a halfpenny. What is there to stop prices increasing? There is no Consumers' Council, and the Wheat Commission will have only two representatives of consumers out of a membership of 14. Is a body constituted like that likely to have the interests of the consumers very deeply at heart? Is that the sort of body that is likely to scrutinise the profits of the millers and the bakers 1025 with any but a favourable and a sympathetic eye? Down the whole chain, from the ploughing of the land to the sale of the loaf over the counter, there is in this Bill nothing which protects the interests of the consumer.
One may say—I have heard it said in this Debate to-day—What, after all, does an extra halfpenny or a penny mean to anyone? To some of us, it may mean very little, but to the working man with a reduced wage, and to the unemployed with a drastically and pitiably reduced dole, the extra halfpenny or penny may mean his doing without sufficient bread at all. The constituency that I represent is what is called a 100 per cent. working class constituency, and I have learned to know the value that a difference of a penny makes to the working man in East London. It means nothing to many, but it means everything to him. This National Government has already taxed his margarine, his tinned meat, his fruit, his potatoes, his tomatoes, his vegetables, his butter. The Minister of Agriculture has said that there is to be a pig meat quota, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has more than hinted at the quantitative limitation of all meat beside pig meat. Before the country knows where it is, it will be faced with a whole series of these clumsy Protectionist devices at the cost of an intolerable increase in the indirect taxation borne by the industrial wage-earner. The Government indeed are preparing to make the lot of the working man to-day as miserable as it was in the heyday of Protection 100 years ago.
It is not as if there was not experience to guide us. There is foreign experience, where wheat is taxed, where flour is taxed, where there are wheat quotas. With a wheat quota of 97 per cent. in France and of 60 per cent. in Germany at the beginning of 1931, the internal prices of wheat were, in England, 23s. 3d. per qr.; in France, 85s. per qr., or 178 per cent. higher; in Germany, 61s. 3¾d., or 164 per cent. higher; in Italy, 53s. 3d., or 126 per cent. higher. These costs are reflected in the quality of the bread and in its price. England at the same time provided a four-pound loaf of high quality at 5½d. to 6½d.; in Germany it was ls. 5¾d. for a comparable loaf, in France 8½d. for a, loaf a the poorest 1026 quality, and in Italy 7½d. to 9½d. for a loaf of poor quality. Indeed, the higher the quota or the levy, the more rubbish the baker puts into his bread. This is the kind of treatment meted out to the consumer on the Continent. The Government, ever eager to adapt themselves to continental practices, seem inclined to adopt the same treatment to the British consumer.
It must not be forgotten that the farmers themselves are not going to escape scot free. After all, they consume some 50 per cent. or so of all the wheat grown in or imported into this country, in the shape of poultry feed, or cattle feed, or as consumers themselves. I cannot see how the poultry farmer, for instance, can avoid paying more for his soft home-grown wheat, or the cattle breeder for his offals; and they, of course, will soon be passing these extra costs on to the consumers of their products. Nothing has been said to-day about the export trade in flour, and yet we have a not unimportant export trade in flour. It amounts to over 4,000,000 cwts. a year. The bulk of it goes to the Irish Free State, Scandinavia, and the Channel Islands.
§ Major NATHAN
No, I said of flour. These exports are sold against keen foreign competition, and if the business is not to be lost, the British miller cannot put up his price. Hence we shall have, under this Bill, the anomalous position of British mills supplying oversea countries with cheaper flour than that which they are permitted to supply to the British consumer at home. Here, for the National Government, is a curious example of the dumping which we so self-righteously deplore on the part of other countries. Disguise it as you will, the result of this Bill cannot but be to tax bread. The menace of inflation to the standard of life, which in his broadcast four months ago the Prime Minister so graphically described, has been met and overcome. It has given place, at the hands of the National Government, to as great a menace, which needs a descrip- 1027 tion equally graphic, but more poignant—the taxation of the elementary necessities of the people. The wolves of Protection are prowling in the highways and the byways of the land. Is it too much to ask that the most savage and the cruelest of them all, the bread taxers, should be kept from the doorstep of the poor?
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. ROSBOTHAM
I desire to support the Bill wholeheartedly, and I do so from the tenant farmer's point of view. I shall not endeavour to take the House right round the world and to make a display of the mechanism of farming in other respects, but I shall try to concentrate on the countryside. I welcome this Measure because it secures a market for home-grown wheat of milling quality at a paying price, and I should say that that price is based on the cost of production. I myself have never been in favour of a high price being fixed as a standard price of wheat, and I consider that 10s. per cwt. is a very fair one and is satisfactory, and, at the same time, not extravagant. The proposals in the Bill provide for the best wheat land to be brought into cultivation, and those who are fully acquainted with the different kinds of soil know perfectly well that the best wheat-growing land is not suitable for intensive cultivation. We have been asked to go in for intensive cultivation in this country, but our land is not entirely suitable for it. This land must remain in rotation, or it must be put down to raise grass, or else let go out of cultivation. This Bill will aim at keeping wheat land in cultivation, restore the large acreage which has become practically derelict, and bring it back to wheat-growing. The estimate given is, I notice, 1,500,000 acres. Last year we had 250,000 acres under wheat cultivation. The lamentable fact about that is that it is the lowest acreage since 1866, so that that shows how we are drifting from our own wheat cultivation. One of the objects of this Bill is to put more land down to wheat, and to bring more wheat into rotation. That will have the effect of more land being sown with oats on soil suitable, not the wheat land but land that will grow oats and barley, and will make for a more even rotation of the land of this country. The Bill is not intended for land suitable 1028 for market gardening and intensive cultivation, so that the production of potatoes and vegetables should not be stopped for wheat growing. As one goes through the country and from information that one receives the indications are that preparations are being made for an increased acreage this season for vegetables and other products of that character. I quite understand why in the Bill a limit is placed on the quantity; the object is to prevent the land which is unsuitable for wheat being sown, and thus creating a loss to the cultivator. At the same time, attention must be directed to bringing back into cultivation the 2,000,000 acres which we have lost in recent years.
If experience proves that 20,000,000 cwts. in any cereal year are not sufficient, I hope that powers will be given, either to the Wheat Commission or to the Minister, to increase the quantity. I notice in the Bill that the cereal year is fixed from 1st August to 31st May. I venture to predict that in practice that will not work out very well. In my opinion it is one month too early; 1st September to 30th June would work out better. A question was put in the House to-day in regard to Scotland, which, as its produce is later, will get no benefit from the Abnormal Importations (Customs Duties) Act. The reason I am saying this is that the date is rather early for the northern counties of Britain, and that an effort should be made to arrive at a date that will be suitable for the whole of Great Britain. It will be very inconvenient to have two days. The national duty of any country is to encourage its wheat cultivation. One of the arguments in previous Debates on this subject has been to the effect that we could do without wheat cultivation and go in for intensive cultivation. The main reason against that is that wheat is one of our principal food supplies, the food of every class, rich and poor alike. That is why we should aim at growing a certain quantity of wheat in our own country.
It is to be hoped that we shall never have war again, but in case of war we want to have a certain amount of wheat growing in our own country for our own protection. The hon. and gallant Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd George) said that even during the War, with intensive cultivation, our increased acreage was not more than 33⅓ per cent. It is 1029 a slow process to increase the acreage of wheat cultivation in this country, and we ought to be prepared in the event of war. Another reason why we should grow wheat, is the possibility of scarcity in other lands. Climatic conditions in other lands may be such that there will be a scarcity, and it is in the national interest that we should keep up wheat acreage in our own country. One of the main reasons I put forward in support of this Bill is that it is our duty to our own countryside to keep our land in cultivation in order to maintain a happy and a healthy rural population. There is a great danger in these days in losing our skilled agricultural workers. It is said many times that anyone can go to work on a farm, but to be an agricultural worker is to be a craftsman. It is craftsmanship to grind, to plough and to thatch and to do many of the ordinary farming operations. It is our duty to try to maintain the agricultural working population, and to maintain the craftsmanship of Britain.
The criticism has already been raised against this Bill that the money will go directly into the landlords' pockets. That is not correct, but if nothing is done very soon—it is the object of this Bill to do something at an early date—all the land in this country will be in the hands of the landlords, and out of cultivation. I think I am correct in saying that about 50,000 acres of Crown lands are out of cultivation or looking for tenants. I know from my own experience that Crown lands are reasonably rented, that the buildings are well looked after and that occupiers have security of tenure as long as they farm according to the rules, and pay the rent. There you have actual State ownership and nationalisation, yet the Amendment that we are discussing objects to the Bill because it does not go into State ownership and nationalisation.
The occupying owner is suffering very much in these days. The owner of a farm, who bought it after the War when the estates were unfortunately broken up, is placed in the position that he has to do his own repairs, to pay under Schedule A, and to do his draining, fencing and other matters of that character. Nationalisation would not improve that. State ownership is not the remedy for the present time. It will 1030 take a, period before we get anything of that character, and we want something done immediately in view of the 18 per cent. decrease of agricultural workers in recent years. There is unemployment in the agricultural areas, and in the arable areas more particularly, and the workers are not under the Unemployment Insurance scheme. The agricultural worker is of the type that, if he gets out of work, he will look for it somewhere. He goes into the town or the city, and as soon as the employers there see the agricultural worker they know that he will work; he gets the job and he puts the town or the city man on to the unemployment list. We want to prevent that. The agricultural worker will find employment in the city or the town when other workers will not get the job.
There are better hopes under this Bill for higher wages for the agricultural worker. What arguments have the representatives of the agricultural workers to give to the agricultural committees in these days, when there is such depression in agriculture, and when prices are falling? Under the operation of this Bill, representatives of agricultural workers will have more arguments with which to go to the committees and there to state that things are now better, and that the agricultural worker is entitled to another 2s. a week, or whatever it is; and there will be a chance of getting it. The independent members are there to give an honest decision, but what can the independent members do when there is no argument in favour of an increase in wages, but all the arguments are rather in favour of a decrease?
I hope that no limit will be placed on the duration of this Bill. That has already been mentioned by the right hon. Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert). If a limit is placed on the duration of the Bill, that will immediately destroy the confidence of the cultivator. We all have memories of what happened with the Corn Production Act, and we do not want a thing like that to occur again. The wheat grower will have to wait for his money for a long period, at least 12 months from the time of sowing to the time of reaping, from reaping into the stack, and until the day of threshing comes. Bad trade is the reason for low prices, and produces the low cost of production, so that reasonable people will expect a slight increase in prices with 1031 increased prosperity. Another objection to the Bill that has been raised is that flour will rise in price. "Bread will be dearer," is the cry. We are being continually told that the cost of living will rise, but somehow or other the cost of living does not rise. I think sometimes that hon. Members who say that the cost of living is going to rise wish that it would, and they seem disappointed because it is not doing so.
Under present conditions, agriculture is a sweated industry. How are the cultivators and the agricultural workers to continue under such conditions Trade union policy is founded on the principle that a living wage should be the first charge on industry. We do not deny that, but, we ask where the living wage is to come from when there is no money in the industry in arable agriculture Friends of the agricultural worker will support this Bill. Home-grown wheat has been produced for several years below the cost of production, and some people argue that we should give up wheat-growing altogether. Against that, it has already been pointed out this evening that great empires which have neglected agriculture, and particularly their wheat culture, have fallen. The present Government, I am confident, are showing that they will act up to their responsibilities, and restore our great national industry. That is one of the objects of the introduction of this Bill. Dr. Addison, speaking at Wendover in June, 1930, said that the main reason why agriculture was so depressed in some branches was that the producer of food did not in many cases get a fair price. If that is so, I say that he cannot pay wages.
No Minister ever worked harder in this House than Dr. Addison to do something for agriculture. He worked hard for the wheat quota, and I was one of those who had the honour of working with him. Commander Kenworthy was at Fakenham in June, 1930, which was the time of the Norfolk by-election. He was the inspired prophet of the Labour Government to go down and announce its agricultural policy at a meeting. I was on the platform with him, and although I was a farmer and was in close contact with Dr. Addison, the secret was so great that it had to be entrusted to this inspired prophet to pronounce it on the platform at Fakenham. He gave the 1032 agricultural policy under five headings, of which No. 3 was organised marketing on the lines of the Coal Bill. I want hon. Members to note that. An organised Marketing Bill was passed. I helped, both in the House and in the Committee to place that Marketing Bill on the Statute Book. The fourth heading was, "Help for arable farming by either import boards or compulsion on millers to use a certain quota of home-grown wheat, or possibly both." That was the inspired agricultural policy. The commander went on to say:The Government's agricultural policy, which will be officially stated soon, will knock Mr. Baldwin's latest gambling proposals into a cocked hat.This Bill is an agreed Measure, and does not embody the compulsion referred to in that speech. Clause 15, I am very pleased to see, provides that the Wheat Commission shall have power to transfer all their operations to marketing boards. That is a wise provision. I am one of those who have great faith in the Agricultural Marketing Act, and in that Act we have the safeguards that the consumer shall not be exploited and that the producer shall get some of the difference between the price he is now paid for his produce and the price at which it is sold in the shops. I am sure marketing boards would carry out their work on economical lines.
The principle of the Coal Mines Act is a quota. The object of that Measure was to secure a paying price. I voted in every Division for that Measure. We have the same principle in this Bill—a quota to give a paying price. What is suitable for the harvest under the ground is suitable for the harvest on the surface of the ground. In both cases the principle is worthy of support. To be consistent, those who voted for the Coal Mines Act must vote for this Bill. With a quota of 15 per cent. of home-grown wheat at a fixed price of 45s. per qr. the maximum increase in the price of the 4-lb. loaf should not exceed ⅓d., at the very most, if all the charges are passed on. I think the medical profession agree that the loaf is worth more if there is English wheat in it, and so it will be worth ⅓d. more with the 15 per cent, of English wheat in the flour. This is a striking fact. The price of the 4-lb. loaf to-day is, on the average, 2¾d. more than in 1913, yet wheat is cheaper. No 1033 doubt the Wheat Commission will require to know why there is that large difference in price.
The Bill provides a paying price for home-grown wheat and at the same time imposes no tariff on imported wheat. We welcome wheat coming into this country in large quantities and as cheap as possible. It is cheap because the cost of production in other lands is much less than it is in our own. We cannot expect to compete in wheat growing with countries where they have large tracts of land, mechanised labour and a better climate; but what we do wish and what this Bill aims at is to bring back prosperity to our countryside and to maintain a happy and healthy rural population. If Britain desires to be successful in her industry her first object must be to maintain a prosperous agriculture, and thus to secure a valuable national asset—a healthy, happy and contented rural population.
§ Mr. GEORGE HALL
The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Rosbotham) will pardon me if I do not follow him in the very interesting speech which, as we expect from him, he has made upon the topic of agriculture. He has practical knowledge of agriculture and speaks with authority. The only comment I desire to make is that one would imagine from his speech that all agricultural production in this country will benefit as a result of this Measure instead of about only 3 or 4 per cent. His general observation was that the Bill was really what the agricultural population of the country have been looking for for some time. We were not impressed by some of the other remarks he made. Most of the hon. Members taking part in this Debate find themselves in the same difficulty as the hon. Member for West Bermondsey (Dr. Salter), who described the Bill as intricate and cumbersome. One can understand why it is so intricate and cumbersome, because the Minister himself told us that he was assisted in drafting it by the members of the trade—the wheat growers, the millers and the corn dealers; but the most important section of the people, those who will be affected more than anyone else by the Bill, that is, the consumers, were not consulted at all. The right hon. Gentleman said this was the kind of Bill that Dr. Addison would have introduced—or at any rate 1034 that it had the same underlying principle. I doubt very much whether Dr. Addison would have brought forward such a Measure; in his case it would certainly have had very many more safeguards. We are rather curious to know why this small branch of agriculture has been singled out for consideration.
Wheat represents only from 3 per cent. to 4 or 5 per cent. of the total agricultural production of this country. That fact in itself cannot justify such a Measure. The Minister referred to the fact that in a discussion he had with the interests concerned he laid the general basis under four heads: One, and the most important, was an enhanced price for home-grown millable wheat; the second, a guaranteed market; the third, no subsidy; the fourth, no extension of wheat growing to land which is not suitable for it. Yet at the same time he has informed us that he is making provision for an extension of the present acreage under wheat, which is somewhere between 1,250,000 and 1,300,000 acres, to something like 1,800,000 acres. So there must be an extension, and, as I shall endeavour to point out in my short speech, it will be an extension of the acreage in those districts where wheat is grown very largely in this country, and this will, at the same time, deprive those farmers of the production of some other commodities. The Minister for Agriculture cannot have it both ways. We have all been very interested in the discussion which has taken place upon this Measure, but I think it has been generally agreed that it is too expensive to protect the wheat-growing farmer in this country by means of a tariff, because it has been estimated that to raise the price of wheat to a level which would be remunerative to the British farmer it would be necessary to have a duty amounting to between 82 and 100 per cent. I think that is a proposal which the most ardent Protectionist would not take very much notice of.
We were led to believe by the Government that they would not only not tax food but that they would not introduce any legislation which might be regarded as being in the same category as a tax on food. A fortnight ago I quoted a speech which the President of the Board of Trade made at St. Ives during the General Election. Almost all the Press in the country said that the President in that speech made a definite statement 1035 that he would not be a party to food taxes. When that statement was quoted in the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that he did not say, "Food taxes" but "Meat and Wheat" and that in no circumstances would he be a party to the taxation of wheat and meat. We on these benches would like to know the difference between the proposals in the present Bill in regard to taxation and the provisions in the Import Duties Bill which is now an Act of Parliament. These proposals are open to exactly the same criticism as the food taxes. Either this Bill will give no advantage to the wheat growers or it will raise the price of bread to a higher point than it would otherwise be. The estimated cost of these proposals has been placed at between £5,000,000 and £6,000,000, and we are told that the Exchequer or the local rates is to bear no part of the cost. Who is to bear the cost? It must mean an increase in the price of bread. That brings me to another quotation from a speech made by the Home Secretary at a meeting held in Torquay in 1930 when he said:The quota is Protection. But it is shame-faced Protection. It is furtive, not daring to disclose itself. Lord Beaverbrook and his food taxes are at least bold and straightforward. I have more respect for a pirate than for a pickpocket.The right hon. Gentleman is now sharing the bed of the pickpocket. He denounced the Import Duties Bill from the Treasury Bench and he said that he was not going to agree to taxation upon food. Only 18 months ago the right hon. Gentleman said that the proposals in this Bill were Protection. I should like to ask the Home Secretary what is the difference between putting a tax upon the food consumer in this country amounting to anything between 15 and 18 per cent. and placing a 10 per cent, tax on the other commodities under the Abnormal Importations Act?
I notice from a statement in the "Times" that the Home Secretary is proposing to support this Measure, but I cannot understand his consistency. On this question, the Secretary of State for Scotland has come right out of his shell, and his name appears on the back of the Bill. I understand that the Home Secretary is 1036 going to take part in this Debate, and explain why he is supporting this Measure. Not only can I not understand the attitude of the Liberal Ministers, who are Members of the Government, but I cannot understand Liberal Members of Parliament continuing to sit on the Government benches and supporting a Measure of this kind. The Tory policy has been put into operation since the election, and it has been carried out by a so-called National Government.
§ Mr. HALL
Yes, but we intended to put in safeguards quite different from those in this Measure, and the Measure which we put forward did not contain the same vicious principle as that which is contained in this Bill. British agriculture is not a uniform industry. East Anglian arable farming has very little likeness to West Country grassland areas, or to the grazing of sheep on the Southern Downs, or on the hilltops of Wales. The economic conditions suitable to one part of the country would be disastrous in other parts of the country where other methods are adopted. I agree that cheap corn is a great advantage to those who have to buy feeding stuffs, but the difficulty of the proposals now before us is that they concenrate on the kind of farming which has the least chance of emerging as successful economic farming, and they do not deal with the kind of farming which holds out the brightest prospects for die future. The British wheat grower is clearly at a disadvantage with the competition of the wheat growers in the new world, who possess a, more favourable soil and climate, and grow their produce on large prairie farms with a minimum of labour and a maximum of machinery. Consider for a moment the changes which have taken place in agriculture during the last 20 years. In 1913 we had 1,790,000 acres under wheat in this country, and at the present time we have about 1,300,000 acres. In Canada in 1913 there were over 11,000,000 acres under wheat. In Canada last year it is estimated that they had 26,000,000 acres under wheat, and what can be said of Canada can be said of Australia, the United States and Argentina, and it can also be said of some other European countries.
1037 What is as important in this country as the extension of wheat growing is the introduction of mechanised methods for the purpose of sowing and harvesting wheat. Along with other hon. Members of this House I was privileged in 1928 to visit Canada as one of the delegates of the Empire Parliamentary Association. We visited the prairie districts, and we saw how wheat was produced in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. There we saw the wheat combine-harvester at work, and we saw how it was possible to produce wheat under the most modern conditions. We may think what we like, but it is impossible to produce wheat under similar conditions in this country.
I do not want to deal too fully with this question of the application of the machine to wheat growing, because it has been dealt with already, but it may be interesting to give one or two figures. We are told that the labour requirement for fully mechanised corn growing is approximately one man per day per acre, whereas the average figure in this country at present is probably five or six man-days per acre. Costs in North America are something like 24s. per qr., while in some areas, where the farms are as large as 30,000 acres, it is expected that it will be possible to produce wheat at a substantial profit at less than 17s. a qr.; and it must be borne in mind that the wheat can be brought from these wheat-growing lands to this country at a cost of ¼d. or 1d. per 4-lb. loaf. It is almost impossible to compete with wheat grown. under conditions such as I have seen, not only in Canada but in Russia. On the black belt of the Ukraine they are adopting methods as modern as are adopted in the Dominions.
Not only does the combination harvester deal with the harvesting of crops, but there are also mechanised methods of sowing. It is estimated that one person with a large tractor-drawn drill can sew from 70 to 80 acres a day, while one man ploughing with a 50 horsepower tractor can plough 18 acres per day. In Manitoba, in 1915, there were estimated to be 35,000 wheat farmers, many of them operating half-section farms. To-day we are told that that number has been reduced to 14,000, and these men are handling more acres and doing the work better than it was formerly done by the 35,000 farmers in 1038 1915. It is estimated that the agricultural production of America has increased by 25 per cent. during the decade since the War, and 3,000,000 men have left the agricultural industry, because agricultural production can be kept up, owing to the adoption of mechanised methods, by a smaller number of people. That is the position which the people of this country must face.
The subsidy proposed under this Bill is not a subsidy for a short period. It is not a subsidy for the three years during which a committee will meet to consider whether it is necessary to continue the subsidy. As far as we can see, with the present methods of wheat growing in this country, the subsidy is going to be a subsidy in perpetuity. We shall have to pay, according to the figures given by the Minister of Agriculture, something like one-third of the cost of production of wheat in this country as a subsidy to keep the wheat industry going. One might ask why wheat has been singled out for this form of subsidy. Wheat only represents 3 per cent. of our total agricultural output. What of the other crops? Will there not be a tendency to turn as quickly as possible, and wherever possible, from other crops to wheat? There is bound to be a, demand for similar support from the growers of barley and oats. Why should they be left out?
It must be remembered that we produce some 66 per cent. of our barley, and about 85 per cent, of our oats, and our barley crop is almost equal to our wheat production. The acreage under wheat in the year 1930 was 1,325,000 acres, while the acreage under barley was 1,600,000 acres; and the same applies to oats. In Wales, the acreage under oats and barley is five times the acreage of wheat. Of the 5,000,000 acres of land in the whole of Wales, only about 22,000 acres are under wheat, whereas over 200,000 acres are under barley and oats. The farmers of Wales are as much entitled to a subsidy for the growing of barley and oats as are the farmers of East Anglia entitled to a subsidy for the growing of wheat.
The difficulty is to know how and where to draw the line. Is this issue to be decided by the question of price? We find that the barley growers are suffering as much as the wheat growers, and they have suffered for a very much longer period. According to the information 1039 given in the Agricultural Statistics for 1930, wheat was sold during the first seven months of 1930 at 18 per cent. below the pre-War price, and barley was sold at 16 per cent. below the pre-War price. Barley, in the year 1929–30, was sold at 6 per cent. below the pre-War price, whereas wheat was sold at 16 per cent. above the pre-War price. Last year was the first year since the War when wheat has been sold at less than the pre-War price. That cannot be said of the other agricultural commodities, and what can be said in favour of the extension of this subsidy to wheat can be said in favour of its extension to barley, oats and, more particularly, to wool, because the price of wool is much lower as compared with pre-War than is the price of wheat.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked, during the discussion on the Import Duties Bill, why he did not include meat in that Bill. He said that he did not see how a duty of 10 per cent. on meat would give adequate protection to the stock-breeder, and in any case the imposition of a duty was not the only means by which assistance would be given. He was questioned by a Noble Lord behind him as to what he meant by that, and whether it indicated the possibility of a quota for meat, and I think the Noble Lord was satisfied that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had an idea that there was a possibility of an extension of this principle of a quota to meat. There is also the question of its possible extension to bacon and other commodities.
No industry in this country has benefited more from State assistance since the War than the agricultural indutsry. There has been the Agricultural Rates Act and there has been de-rating, which has relieved agricultural land of making any contribution whatsoever to local rates. There has been rural housing; there has been the sugar-beet subsidy; and no part of the country has benefited more as the result of the sugar-beet subsidy than have the East Anglian counties. Where there has been a falling off in wheat acreage, there has been an increase in the area of land devoted to sugar-beet. In 1930, out of the 347,000 acres under sugar-beet, 219,703 acres, or 63 per cent. of the area planted, were in the four counties of 1040 Lincoln, Norfolk, Suffolk and the Isle of Ely. There they are going to benefit to a, very great extent as to part of the £6,000,000 which the sugar-beet subsidy is to cost the taxpayers during this year. With all the assistance that the agricultural industry has had since the War, they are still asking for more. They will never be satisfied. The proposals in the Bill are estimated to cost from £5,000,000 to £6,000,000 a year. In five years, if it is carried on at the same rate as in these proposals, it will cost the consumers of bread from £25,000,000 to £30,000,000. The subsidy will have enabled some farmers to continue growing wheat when they should have turned to other branches of agriculture and who at the end will still have to be carried financially by the public. It will continue to put additional profits into the pockets of other farmers who make a profit already on some other commodities for which the grain is only a by-product. There is no promise that this plan will increase employment in agricultural districts. After the expenditure of this large sum of money, with no guarantee that the rural population will increase, the country will be saddled with a, costly scheme which it will have to continue from year to year.
Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister when be replies to answer these questions? Is he going to attach any conditions to the granting of this subsidy, such as the promotion of improved methods of cultivation? What control is there to be over bread prices? Is that to be the special consideration of just the two representatives on the Wheat Commission out of 14. Is the Agricultural Wages Act to be amended so that the farm worker is to be assured of a share of the benefit? Is the farmer to be protected from the landowner against increased rent? To what extent is it associated with proposals designed to develop alternative and improved methods of production? In order to get on a sure foundation of prosperity, British agriculturists must concentrate on the kind of farming for which our soil and our climate are most suitable. There is almost an unlimited possibility of expansion for milk and milk products, meat, pig products, eggs, poultry and vegetables. We import nearly three-fourths of our butter, two-thirds of our bacon and one-half of our eggs from countries where the land 1041 is worse than ours and where the only alternatives are those which they have created for themselves. What a chance for the British farmer without any increase in price to the consumer! The prosperity of British farming might be assured if the producer received his fair share, for which the consumer pays. I was very interested in an article attributed to the Noble Lord the Member for Basingstoke (Viscount Lymington). He said:Our soil, our climate and our wonderful market favoured live stock production rather than the growing of cereals for sale off the farm. A great future lay before us if we could grow cheap food for live stock by mechanised methods. Wheat, oats or grass cut in the green state about nine inches high were a far more valuable food than if these crops were left to mature. By growing such crops we would be saved from all fear of bad weather at harvest, for the crops would be cut green. Food for live stock could be grown to the value of £30 per acre by this method and the new mechanical methods reduced the cost of growing it. By uniting live stock production with mechanisation of their food production, Britain could find work for another 500,000 men on the land. If we were to use our climate to grow green crops, we could compete in beef production with the Argentine or anywhere else and need never mention the word tariffs again.The same thing was said by a Mr. Dudley, who has mechanised 500 arable acres at Linkenholt, near Andover, Hants. He says he uses two men and two tractors to cultivate his whole farm and has brought his ploughing costs down to 2s. 6d. an acre where 20s. was sometimes allowed. Mr. Dudley agrees on the great possibilities of uniting mechanised or op production with livestock and states that he would employ more men on his farm by using the cheap corn he produced to feed pigs than ever he could by the old methods. Mechanised farming, he believes, would eventually lead to more employment and better wages. There you have statements from men who are actually employd in agricultural production. It has been estimated that the farmers get for their total produce something like £220,000,000 to £230,000,000 a year, out of which rent, wages and other costs must be paid. The ultimate consumer, we are told, pays something between £900,000,000 and £1,000,000,000. That means that, out of every £10 which the housewife pays over the counter, only £3 goes to the agricultural community. Allowing for the high cost of transport and distribution 1042 and for the wastage of perishable goods, the proportion that goes to the producer is far too low. We are of the opinion that, by improved marketing methods, agriculture can be made a prosperous industry.
The Minister said the increase would be passed on to the consumer, but he hoped it would not be passed on permanently. In the consultations which he has had with the millers I have no doubt he had an indication that they must pass it on. I have here a statement by Mr. S. Stephens, of Plymouth, the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the National Association of Master Bakers, Confectioners and Caterers. At a council meeting of the association in London on 27th January, he said:The millers had to pay into a central fund their proportion of the expenses of carrying on this organisation. He had yet to learn that the millers were a bit more philanthropic than the Income Tax supervisors. They would not pay it out of their own pockets. They would pay it out of the bakers' pockets and the pockets of the consuming public. Whatever charges were made would eventually find their place, as they ought to, in the price they had to charge for the loaf.So the right hon. Gentleman in his agreement with the millers has agreed to collect between £5,000,000 and £6,000,000 as the result of an increase in the price of bread to the poorest of the poor people to assist just 3 or 4 per cent. of the agricultural industry. The agricultural industry is not the only depressed industry. I come from a coal mining district. [Interruption.] The hon. Member certainly does not know the operation of the Coal Mines Act or he would not make such a statement as that. We asked when it would be possible to put on a central levy to assist the export trade.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Captain Bourne)
I do not think that we can enter upon a discussion of the coal question on this Bill.
§ Mr. HALL
I must apologise; I was drawn by the interruption. These proposals contain a subsidy in perpetuity for a small branch of the agricultural industry, and it is to be levied in a most vicious form by a body who will not have to come to ask Parliament to decide the amount to be paid, but who will have powers which will enable them to force an increase in the price of bread. I ask hon. Members, before they give these 1043 powers to the Wheat Commission which is to be set up, seriously to consider -the effect it will have upon the working classes of this country.
Lieut.-Colonel SANDEMAN ALLEN
I am sorry to have to inflict yet another maiden speech upon the House, but there are several remarks which I wish to make in the course of this Debate. Before I start to make them, I would like to recall to the memory of hon. Members the speech of the hon. Member for Bermondsey West (Dr. Salter). In that short sketch of the cereal situation to-day, he pointed out to us that homegrown wheat could not be used for making bread, but he completely forgot that about two hours previously he had mentioned that he wished to increase the mechanisation of farming in this country and went into rhapsodies over Russian methods. If you cannot have British wheat in this country, why, under the Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Act and so on, bring in mechanical methods in order to produce it with greater rapidily. That is what occurred to me, but I may be misinterpreting his intentions.
We are here to-day to pass a Measure for the assistance of British agriculture. If you come to anybody's assistance, there must be something wrong. In order to find out what is wrong with British agriculture it would be as well to look into the history of the last two years, because any doctor wants to see the medical history sheet of his patient before he can cure him. Some years ago, when taxation had not reached the height which it has reached today, the landowners put a great deal of their money back into the land in the form of research and improvements and so on. It was possible in those days, when taxation was not so high, but from that period until to-day agriculture has been more or less neglected, not only by landowners, but by others who were capable of helping, and to-day the only helper who can give agriculture a hand is the Government.
The steamship and the refrigerator brought in a period of reduced prices, and it took agriculturists rather by surprise, and they were not able to adjust themselves to the reduced prices quickly enough. Again, the brains of agriculture, for some time, were tempted away into 1044 industry, to the factories where money was more easily made, and the finer types for some time were attracted away to the Colonies, where there was a chance for easier money to be made by those who applied their industry, and agriculture was not behindhand during the Great War in giving up her men. And so you have a certain number of stalwarts left and a certain number of people who need considerable assistance, not only in marketing but in running their job. Agriculture missed its opportunity when the population in this country increased for those reasons. To-day we are faced with agriculture not only in the depressed condition to which it would have been brought ordinarily by Free Trade, shall I say, but we are also in the extraordinary position of world depression, and we have to do something to assist agriculture. I would ask the Government why they have chosen wheat for this particular purpose. Wheat is only one crop, and, although the Government, and a great many experts claim that it is a vital part in the whole system of agriculture. I cannot say that I agree with them. I am not speaking as an expert, but I can produce an equal number of experts who would agree with me that wheat is not a vital crop in this country, or the key part of agriculture. As a food its inherent qualities will find for itself a market among the biscuit makers. It creates its own market. I will run roughly through some of the things given by farmers as reasons why it should not be considered a key crop. You find that corn of a non-millable quality provides equally good straw for bedding, and that barley and oat straw will do for the strawberry beds or the side issues of straw very well. Incidentally, the farmer has not taken into account the price he gets for his straw, or the value of his straw, in the price obtained for his wheat, and that brings up the value of the wheat slightly more than it is at the present time.
In regard to crop rotation, I am not at all convinced that, except in a very few farms in this country, wheat is essential. There are parts of the country where wheat is not used at all in crop rotation. You can use oats or barley. But there are certain farms where wheat can be used, and, as I say, you have your assured 1045 market because you have in the Fen country, for instance, the finest soil in Europe for the production of wheat. Imported offals are quite as good as home-produced offals, and for fodder, wheat of non-millable quality will do. Incidentally, I rather fear that if you increase wheat of millable quality you will discourage wheat of non-millable quality which is valuable for animal feeding purposes. At any rate, you are going to put up the cost to the animal husbandry side of agriculture. In my opinion, the future of agriculture in this country lies in animal husbandry. We cannot compete with the prairie lands in wheat, but I agree that we have to do something to assist agriculture. The only thing with which I quarrel is the method to be employed. We have got to the doctors dilemma. The question is, What are they going to do The right hon. Member for Molton (Mr. Lambert) welcomed the Corn Production Act of 1920. What happened there? It was a question of acreage, and a bounty was paid upon acreage. The result was that the farmer sowed wheat and then said, "Here is my wheat sown," received the certificate, drew his bounty and placed his sheep upon the land to feed. Unless we are very careful we shall have that kind of thing again.
The Government have decided to work the matter on the quota plan, plus a subsidy. The right hon. Gentleman said distinctly that the consumer was going to pay, but later on he pointed out that he did not think it would go to the consumer. I do not think it will of necessity go to the consumer, but if it does not go to the consumer the Treasury will have to pay 25 per cent. of the subsidy, because it goes as an expense against Income Tax, which is 5s. in the £. That is 25 per cent. of the amount to be found. Either the consumer will pay or the Treasury will pay by loss of Income Tax. You cannot have it both ways. Money does not come from heaven. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am glad to get that "Hear, hear" from the Opposition benches, but I do not in the slightest degree agree with their methods or ideas of running things. I congratulate the Home Secretary on coming forward and doing something to help agriculture. Last week he was straining at the gnat of 10 per cent. and almost making himself sick over it. This week he slips the camel 1046 down like an oyster. I hope it will not give him the hump. There is no getting away from the fact that somebody will have to pay for this, and probably it will be the consumer.
The Minister of Agriculture said that the trade have agreed to work the scheme. They have agreed to work it, because they are a thoroughly loyal body of men, but they do not approve of it and they certainly will not approve of it. What they fear is its further extensions. There is no doubt that the freeness of the world wheat market in Liverpool has gone a long way towards keeping the price of bread down in this country. The Minister of Agriculture pointed out that the average cost of production in Canada was approximately 40s., in the Argentine 37s., in Australia about 47s. and yet the price at home was half of that. That was the highest tribute that he could possibly pay to the organisation of the Liverpool corn trade and the way they have carried out their work in an unhampered trade. Therefore, I beseech the Minister not to hamper trade in any way. I am quite prepared and the Liverpool merchants are quite prepared to give this assistance to agriculture, but we do ask that it shall be of a temporary nature. I have no time to go into the merits and demerits of the various types of agriculture, or how to carry them on.
I intend to back the Second Reading of the Bill and to vote with the Government, but I am afraid that unless some steps are taken to introduce an Amendment to limit the Bill to a period of five or seven years, I shall have to vote against the Third Reading, and there will be others with me. I very much regret having to say such a thing in a maiden speech. The quota system is a complicated method. Look at the French quota system which is in vogue at the present time. Since the 30th January there have been two alterations in the amount of the quota—two alterations in approximately four weeks. I have seen this Bill described as "The House that Jack Built." One of my grumbles is that it does nothing to help "the cow with the crumpled horn." It never gets so far as the cow but simply sticks at wheat. What is going to happen if prices rise? I am told that the quota will disappear. Very good, but does it disappear for good? If prices rise, will it still be there? The 1047 whole of my complaint about the system is that it is nationalisation without tears. When I was a small boy I was brought up on "Reading without tears." You have registration, the formation of a wheat corporation, a combine of millers and a combine of importers.
What is to be the composition of the Wheat Commission? In the First Schedule there are two representatives of the consumers, and of the people who buy there are two representatives, but there are no representatives of the bakers or biscuit makers. Surely, the bakers and the biscuit makers may be described as consumers. Are the consumers, the actual eaters of bread, and the buyers to have representatives while the biscuit makers and the bakers are to share their place with the consumers? Will the Minister of Agriculture enlarge the representation of consumers and bring in both the bakers and the biscuit makers? The Commission is supposed to be a neutral body. It is a neutral body and I welcome it as such. The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Rosbotham) said that he welcomed Clause 15. I should like to see Clause 15 taken out of the Bill. If a board is established under the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1931, for the purpose of regulating the marketing of home-grown wheat, Clause 15 transfers the functions from a neutral body, the Wheat Commission, to a board of producers under that Act. What is the use of putting that power into the hands of a man who wants to sell his goods? You are asking for a rise in price. That is the idea of Socialism. In Clause 5 (2, e), the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1931, says:The price at, below or above which,That gives a body of producers a chance to raise prices just as they like.
This Bill is supposed to have been born in the urban district of Malden, but it was conceived either in Leicester or Swindon. I have been told quite definitely that Load Noel Buxton was the godfather. Better a poor plan than no plan at all. Let us make the best of it. I do, however, ask the Minister of Agriculture to bear in mind some of the things that I have brought to his notice and to act upon them, so that we may have some workable plan which is going to be of temporary assistance, but of temporary assistance only, while the 1048 farmer can switch over or improve his methods of functioning.
§ Sir E. SHEPPERSON
We who are fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to live in this country suffer from rapid changes of climate. One day we have a north-easter blowing, and it is perhaps hailing or snowing. The next day it is sunny, genial and warm. Our tempers are apt to reflect these changes of temperature and atmosphere. There is no industry that is so directly affected by atmospheric changes as the industry of agriculture. It is not only the physical atmosphere that is liable to rapid change but the political atmosphere also. I am reminded that I am following a maiden speech. I should like to say that, as an agriculturist, I am voicing what all my fellow agriculturists would say when I tell the hon. Member for West Birkenhead (Lieut.-Colonel Sandeman Allen) that we welcome him as one of our company who is prepared to put forward the interests of British agriculture on every opportunity. I should like to congratulate him on his maiden speech, on behalf of my fellow agriculturists.
I was referring to changes in the political atmosphere. Last week in this House I, a mere agricultural worm, was wriggling most severely under a cold douche of water thrown upon me by the Import Duties Bill. I can assure the House that it was somewhat cold, but to-day the political atmosphere has changed and I am now in the happy position of being able to sun myself in the genial smiles of the Minister of Agriculture. I want to assure him at once that I wholeheartedly support the principle of this Bill, which gives a guaranteed price and market to the pivotal crop of agriculture—wheat. I should like also to congratulate the Minister in having overcome the numerous difficulties before a scheme of this description could be shaped for practical application. We all know that there were difficulties, but the grit and determination of the Minister has overcome them. In this he has shown a feature of his character which has won our admiration and given to us a feeling of confidence that he will win through in other branches of agriculture in due course.
I am pleased to express my gratitude, to him for this Bill because I fear that, 1049 the other day he may have considered me somewhat deficient in the virtue of gratitude; a virtue which we all hope our friends possess and particularly our constituents. The problem was very difficult, but he has overcome the difficulties in this Bill and has conveyed the methods to us in words which I submit are of great simplicity. I will read the simple language of the Bill:For the purpose of meeting the expenditure to be defrayed by the Wheat Commission under this Act, every miller and every importer of flour shall be liable to make to the Wheat Commission in respect of each hundredweight of his output of flour, a payment (hereinafter referred to as a 'quota payment') of an amount calculated and prescribed in accordance with the provisions of this section so as to represent, as nearly as may be, a sum equal to what would have been the price deficit in respect of the quota of home-grown millable wheat which would have been used in the production of that hundredweight, if the anticipated supply of such wheat for the cereal year in which that hundredweight was delivered had been used at a uniform rate per hundredweight of flour in the production of the estimated supply of flour for that year.At any rate, hon. Members on the Liberal benches will know from those simple words that the most unintelligent of their electors cannot convey into them any idea of a tax upon food. The purpose of this Bill is that production on suitable land should be made to pay. Wheat is the pivotal production of arable agriculture. The acute depression in this side of the industry has led to a repeated fall in the world's price of wheat. The fall has been about 50 per cent. in the last two years, and to-day the price of English wheat is 25s. per qr., or 30 per cent. lower than it was before the War. In his opening speech the Minister of Agriculture made a remark about the costs of production. The fact is that the receipts of agriculture in regard to wheat are some 20 or 30 per cent. lower than they were before the War. When the price of wheat fell the farmer in desperation turned his attention to other arable crops, and those other arable crops were quickly over-produced until nothing paid. To-day he is in dire straits not knowing what to do with his land.
If we can restore wheat as a paying proposition the over-production of other arable crops will diminish, and, naturally, the demand for these crops will catch up 1050 with the supply. The farmer will get the same economic level of return for these crops which this Bill will give to wheat. The Bill by making wheat a paying proposition will restore equilibrium to the arable crops and revive arable agriculture. The restoration of arable agriculture will reduce the attack now being made by the arable side of agriculture on the stock farmer, which will lead to an increase in the employment of labour. I should like to remind the House that arable land employs five men for every 100 acres, whereas land under grass only employs one man for every 100 acres, and the further arable agriculture is increased the more money return is coming into the land. Even at the present low prices of wheat at four quarters to the acre, and 25s. per qr., there is a production of £5per acre, but land under grass cannot produce more than £2 10s. per acre. Therefore, I submit that arable agriculture is the form of agriculture which provides the greatest return to the land, and produces the greatest amount of money which can be distributed between the farmer, the labourer and the landlord.
There are those in this House and in the country who consider that wheat cultivation is not necessary in this country. I should like to suggest to those who hold these views that they should consider the climatic conditions of England. In regard to stock farming, how is it possible to keep stock except under cover during our winter; and how is it possible to keep stock under cover unless their bedding is of straw, and the only possible straw for cattle is wheat straw. An hon. Member opposite has said that wheat should be grown in the part of the 'world most suitable for that style of farming. I absolutely agree with that statement. The most suitable land for wheat growing is that part of the world which produces the greatest yield of wheat per acre. Where is that part of the world? Let us look at the globe. Take Australia and the Argentine. There the average production during the five years 1923 to 1927 was 6¾ cwts. per acre. Go to the United States; they beat Australia, for their average production was 7¾ cwts. per acre. Canada produces 9½cwts. Let us come to the continent of Europe. France produces 11 cwts., and Germany 14¾ cwts. I say emphatically that the part of the world that is best able to produce wheat should grow wheat, 1051 and that part of the world which produces the greatest yield per acre is England, for our average production is 17½ cwts. per acre. In the eastern counties we have a yield of over 1 ton per acre. If we are going to make it possible for this country to grow the most suitable crop then we should make it possible for this country to grow wheat.
There was a letter in "The Times" of yesterday by Lord Astor, who somewhat criticised wheat growing in this country. He said that it was not essential. I should like Lord Astor to realise that arable agriculture is absolutely dependent on the maintenance of wheat growing. Whatever the future may be, to-day if the cultivation of wheat goes under, arable agriculture will go under with it. If arable agriculture goes under, our foreign food bill will increase. An acre under wheat will produce grain to the value of £5. Lord Astor said stock farming would help the trade balance rather better than arable cultivation. An acre under grass would only save the country from purchasing imports valued at £2 10s., whereas an acre under wheat saves the country from buying from the foreigner £5 worth of wheat. Even at the present low prices, an acre under sugar-beet will save the country from buying £10 worth of sugar from abroad. If the House wants to help to redress the adverse trade balance, the best way is to encourage arable agriculture. We are in the position, as a country, that we are buying from foreign countries more than we can afford to buy. Out of the £11,000,000 or £12,000,000 worth of imports coming into this country, nearly £500,000,000 of them are foodstuffs.
The adverse trade balance has to be rectified. How can it be rectified? Hon. Members opposite do not tire of telling us that if the working-class family finds it is spending more than it is receiving it has to cut down its expenses. No family can go on buying more goods than the amount of money which it is receiving, and, when it finds its expenses are more than its receipts, it has to cut down buying from abroad and grow more foodstuffs in the garden, keep fowls and grow vegetables, and so buy less. It is exactly the same with this country as a nation. We have been buying in the past too much foodstuff from abroad, and we cannot afford it. We must be like the man in the cottage and grow more in our 1052 own country and cultivate more land, so that it is not essential to buy so much from abroad.
§ Sir E. SHEPPERSON
In answer to that, I should say the intention of this Bill is to encourage arable agriculture of which wheat production is one unit. If wheat is made a paying proposition, it will assist not only wheat products, but the other branches of arable agriculture, and we shall therefore produce more of our foodstuffs in this country, and it will not be necessary for us to buy so much from the foreigner as we do at present. What does this Bill do? I am confident that the House will forgive me if I at once admit that some of my colleagues of restricted rural intelligence cannot grasp exactly what this Bill will do. I am aware it is easily understood by other hon. Members in this House who are endowed with a greater intelligence than I can ever hope to attain and to them it is probably as interesting as an Edgar Wallace novel. They will experience the same thrill of constantly coming across the unexpected in it in their attempts to solve the problem. Mine is only a very simple deduction, and it is that the grower of the wheat is 'eventually to receive for his wheat 45s. per qr. or 10s. per cwt. Is that so in the Bill or is it not? I have read it and a slight doubt arises in my mind. Has the author of the Bill deliberately put me on the wrong scent?
I sell my wheat at the present figure of 25s. a qr. That is not 45s., but something more at a later stage is to go on. There is the deficiency payment. Will that bring the figure up to 45s.? How is that payment to be made? There is to be the Millers Board and the Wheat Commission, and these gentlemen are all to be paid. My first query is: When these have had their pickings, will there be any left for me to get my 45s. The deficiency payment is to be made up to 45s. on the average price. The Noble Lord the Member for Peterborough (Lord Burghley) in an excellent maiden speech asked the Minister what the average price would be. Will it be the average price taking the recorded prices of wheat 1053 each week during the whole year and will these 52 weeks be averaged up and the average price taken from them? If that is the case, I would point out to the Minister that the large proportion of British wheat—50 per cent. of it—is delivered between September and December, and 75 per cent. is delivered before March. During the Autumn the wheat prices in this country, with that surplus on the market, are depressed some 10s. below the average normal world price. When May, June and July come British wheat has already been sold, and there is very little left on the market. The shortage of the supply of British wheat increases the price then to some 10s. above world price. I ask the Minister whether the average will be the average of the wheat prices throughout the year or whether it will be taken as a quantity average and the small number of quarters taken in the summer time will not therefore unduly increase the average price during the whole year? That is rather an important point about which we should like to know.
I can honestly say that I accept the Bill from the Minister as a genuine help to arable agriculture. On behalf of arable agriculture in the country I desire to place on record my thanks to him for the Bill. He knows there will be criticism. We all know what those criticisms will be for we have heard them already. It will be the old, old cry of "Your food will cost you more!" We have had the big loaf, and the little loaf, and it will be the same old bogey—and it is a bogey. To-day I am selling wheat at 25s. a qr., which is 9d. a stone. This wheat of mine is ground into flour and any wastage in the grinding is sold back to me as offal, and I pay more for the offals than I receive for the wheat. What does the miller or the retailer charge for the offal? I was told the other day that he charges 1s. 2d. a half stone. I demurred and said that there must be some mistake for I could not and would not believe it. That is 2s. 4d. a stone, and yet I am only receiving 9d. a stone for my own wheat, so that the consumer is being exploited to the extent of 300 per cent. profit on the price. I could not believe it. I went yesterday to a retail shop and bought myself half a stone of flour, and I have here the receipt for it. I was charged Is. 2d. Hon. Members opposite 1054 have attacked to-day the exploitation of the consumers by the retailers. I can endorse the facts as to that exploitation. It is occurring now. In that shop I paid 300 per cent. more than the cost of production. From what shop did I buy that flour? From the Peterborough Co-operative Stores. I beg the Minister not to be intimidated by the cry of dear food. I have thanked him and I do thank him, on behalf of arable agriculture, for the Bill. We may suggest to him constructive Amendments, but in the meantime, in congratulating him on his courage in surmounting difficulties, may we trust that he will show a similar determination in surmounting the difficulties of the meat problem?
§ Mr. MACLAY
In addressing the House for the first time I would ask for the kindly indulgence of hon. Members. At the outset I would say that I regret exceedingly to be speaking against the Government which I was returned to support, but I am unable to sit still and see pass into law a Bill which in my opinion will do more harm than good to the country as a whole. My objections to the Bill are on two main grounds. My first is that it will mean a rise in the cost of bread. The argument is getting a little threadbare to-day, but it is a good argument that will stand repetition. I am advised, and I think we can take it as correct, that if the Bill passes we shall see a rise in the cost of the 4-lb. loaf of approximately a farthing to a halfpenny, which means a halfpenny at least. The House may be tired of the old story as to the danger of a rise in the cost of living, but unfortunately it is a true story, as those of us who come from industrial areas know only too well. The tariffs already imposed will mean an additional burden, and this one halfpenny on the 4-lb. loaf, although it may seem small to us, is going to be further additional burden.
I do not pose as a champion of the poor. I speak on my own behalf. I object to paying anything more for my bread than is necessary, especially when the extra cost is to be an uneconomic subsidy to those who in my opinion do not deserve it. Free Traders dislike intensely the tariffs imposed lately, and especially those tariffs which have been imposed on food, but many of us admit that there is some possibility of compensation in the way of increased em- 1055 ployment coming out of the tariffs and so making up for the increased cost of living. But in this wheat quota Bill I can see no such redeeming feature. For that reason, amongst others, I shall oppose it. If this subsidy was given by a direct tariff or as a direct subsidy, the country would know exactly where it stood, but unfortunately it is to be done by this roundabout and complicated method which will hide the true position. If it was done by the direct method, I believe the country would raise an outcry against it.
The only advantages of the scheme that I can see will be a very slight seasonal increase in employment, and an uneconomic benefit will be given to a section of the farming community which represents only about 4 per cent. of the total output of agriculture. Against these we have the disadvantages that the whole community will have to pay more for bread, that there will be set up a complicated and expensive piece of bureaucratic machinery to make sure of that fact, that flour importers and millers and farmers will have their ordinary business made more complicated and difficult, that we are to have the equivalent of taxation without the responsibility of control through Parliament, and that at the end of three years or so we are to see agricultural interests, so far as wheat is concerned, in no better position. To me the disadvantages overwhelm the advantages, especially when the main burden of the scheme is to be borne by those who are least able to bear it.
My second main reason for opposing the Bill is that I believe the British Isles, generally speaking, are totally unsuited climatically and by reason of soil and the lay-out of the farms, for wheat growing at competitive prices with other countries; further, that when British wheat is grown it is not entirely suitable for bread making; and that, therefore, it is a short-sighted and wrong policy of any Government to encourage British farmers to persist in and concentrate on growing an uneconomic crop which they can never hope to make profitable. It is my belief that the Government committed themselves to the scheme at a time when they did not foresee the extent to which the country would allow them to help the farmers in other directions by tariffs. 1056 Let me read what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said on 16th February:What farmer in February of last year could possibly have expected to-day he would see given to him not only a certain 10 per cent., but also a possible additional duty upon his oats, eggs, poultry, butter, milk, cheese and canned meat."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1932; col. 1602, Vol. 261.]The Government could not have foreseen that. Neither did many Liberal Free Traders at the last election foresee such a possibility. I think the Bill is a mistake from a policy point of view. The true way to help agriculture, as has been said repeatedly, is by schemes of no-operation and marketing, and if we must give subsidies, we should give them on those things which Britain has some chance of producing in a short time in large quantities at an economic price. Surely if a disinterested person were asked his opinion on this Bill he would begin by pointing to the obvious fact that other countries are producing wheat in surplus quantities at low cost within and without the Empire, and he would surely question the advisability of a great industrial nation like ours shutting out obvious supplies of cheap food in order to help the uneconomic growth of wheat in this country. There can be no monopoly in foreign countries, no price rings, owing to the width of the market. The question of making ourselves independent in war time seems hardly to the point, because it cannot be done to any great extent.
I am aware that East Anglian farmers and others are hart hit just now, and that many of them are on the verge of ruin, and I know the difficulties there will be in changing from one branch of agriculture to another. All I would ask them to consider is whether, by such a subsidy as this, they can ever hope to be able to grow wheat at an economic price compared with the rest of the world. I do not know whether it is stubbornness or tradition which makes them persist, hut I cannot see why the whole community should be penalised in order that they should grow an uneconomic crop. If they have to be helped, let the help be given by some method which is likely to make them self-supporting in a short time instead of being a burden on the State for an indefinite period.
1057 There is one aspect of the Bill to which attention ought to he drawn. We have heard lately of profit-sharing schemes and we know that Labour are unwilling and very often unable to take part in those schemes because they cannot share in the losses. In this Bill the community are being asked to engage in a loss-sharing enterprise. I can find no provision in it to the effect that when the price rises above 45s. the community will be allowed to take part in the profit-sharing. I would also like the Government to make it clear to the farmer that an uneconomic subsidy cannot last indefinitely. I regret, that I have not the oratory to expose the weaknesses of this Bill. I regret the absence from these. Debates of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). I feel that if he had been here to-day he could and would have made hay of this Bill and, indeed, Free Traders have missed his expressions of opinion during the last few weeks. In conclusion may I repeat that I regret having to oppose the National Government on this Bill but, in connection with the main issues on which the Government was returned, namely, economy, peace, disarmament and the settlement of war debts and reparations, they will have my unswerving support.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
I like the hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Maclay) regret the absence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). There is no doubt that we should have had a pantomime if the right hon. Gentleman had been here. We may be compensated however when the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is equally an opponent of food taxes and of subsidies direct and indirect, rises to reply and to support on this Bill, the Government of which he happens to be the leading Free Trade opponent. The right hon. Gentleman's speech should certainly be in the nature of pantomime in view of the speech wee heard from him only a few days ago in favour of Free Trade. I should be lacking in my duty however if I failed to express the general feeling of the House in reference to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Paisley and to compliment him upon his effort. His contribution augurs well for his future and we shall look forward to many similar interventions in our Debates.
1058 The hon. Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) in his inimitable manner treated us to one of those interludes which are very helpful in a pleasant Debate such as we have been having to-day. He told us at first that he was bathing in the sunshine of the Minister's smiles but a few minutes later he discovered that there might be some flaw in this Bill and he went on to swim in doubts as to the deficiency price and the meaning of some of the Clauses and Sub-sections and paragraphs of this Measure. I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will reply to the important questions which the hon. Member submitted to him. Will he tell us, for instance, not only for the benefit of hon. Members but for the benefit of the farming community, whether the references to price in the Bill mean that the individual farmer will receive the difference between the average price and the standard price. Will that price be given to an area to which wheat growing is peculiar or will it be one universal price for the United Kingdom? Our reading of the Bill so far is that any farmer in any part of the country who produces wheat, may receive anything at any part of the year, but that there is no absolute guarantee of 45s. to any single farmer in any part of the country. That is one of those peculiar questions arising on this Bill which the right hon. Gentleman will, no doubt, be able to answer very readily.
This Bill I regard as a masterpiece of unscientific legislation. It is the worst Piece of legislation, I has been introduced into this House at all events in the last 10 I do not think that I reflect upon the Minister if I say that I doubt whether he knows very much about the machinery for carrying out the purpose and intention of the Bill. We should like to hear some simple explanation of the complexities of the Bill but such explanation was not forthcoming from the Minister. While the Bill itself is complex some of its intentions are very clear indeed. We regard this Bill as the worst possible form Protection, without a single redeeming feature. We are willing to concede that in certain circumstances some sections, or the whole of agriculture might be assisted. But any assistance which would be given by the Labour party rind which would have been given if they had had the power when the bottom fell out of world prices, would be assistance 1059 to prevent excessive losses where efficiency was the order. We should never contemplate providing perpetual profits to agriculturists who pursued the methods and policy of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers of 100 years ago.
This Bill following upon similar Measures for the same purpose leads us to believe that there is going to be no end to subsidies, direct and indirect, to the agricultural community. It would not be out of place on this occasion, in order to get the situation in its proper perspective, to examine what has happened in the last few years. We have relieved agriculture of rates equivalent to a grant of £10,000,000 a year. For the past six years we have been making large contributions to agriculture in the shape of the sugar-beet subsidy, equivalent to£30,000,000 or a further £5,000,000 a year. We have passed a further Act which is going to put anywhere from 10 per cent. to 100 per cent, duty on butter, cheese, milk, eggs, fish, fruit, vegetables and various other commodities. On top of that, we are invited to give, unconditionally, a further £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 to one small section of the agricultural community. What do the right hon. Gentleman who is going to reply and his colleagues think of themselves, as politicians who gave definite promises not to support any taxes upon food, when his right hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), speaking in this House on 4th February stated:But still quota arrangements will involve an increase in the price of the loaf by perhaps one halfpenny an the 4 lb. loaf." —[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 4th February, 1932; col. 323, Vol. 261.]Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this Bill constitutes an indirect tax upon food? I hope he will give us an unequivocal reply to that question, for it seems extraordinary that they should be opposing the Import Duties Bill, which has now passed through this House, and yet be supporting another Bill which, although not directly taxing imported food, is indirectly taxing the food of the Poorest of the poor; and the poorer the people may be, the heavier will be this particular tax. It is generally understood that the poorer the family, the less the possibility of their buying meat, the more bread is consumed, and the effect of this 1060 Bill will be to place the biggest burden upon those least able to bear it.
Hon. and right hon. Members have made reference to a farthing on the loaf, to a halfpenny on the loaf, and to £5,000,000 and £6,000,000 per annum, and, so forth, but this is what it actually means. If the right hon. Gentleman really wants more people to be working on the land for the purpose of maintaining our rural population, if he wants to produce more wheat in this country, if he wants more arable cultivation, then, if he were to advertise for 5,000 farmers and advise them to recruit six agricultural labourers each, tell the 5,000 farmers to rent 200 acres each and to guarantee to the landlords £1 per acre for rent, making £1,000,000 in all for 1,000,000 acres; if he were to give the 5,000 farmers the same salary as that received by a Member of Parliament, namely, 360 per annum; if he were to give to each of the 30,000 labourers £100 per annum in wages, that would cost approximately £5,800,000, he would get 1,000,000 acres of land under the plough, he could perpetually pension off 5,000 farmers and 30,000 labourers at bigger salaries than they are reputed to be obtaining to-day, and yet the expenditure would not be so heavy as the expenditure under the terms of this Bill.
The quota scheme as originally intended has been absolutely dropped, and I want to take that statement one point further, and to say that the Bill does not guarantee that a single grain of British-grown wheat will be consumed by any Britisher during the next 10 years. There is not a guarantee of any description under the terms of this Bill that any miller will be compelled to buy a single grain during any year, and the patriotic cry of "British wheat in the British loaf" has been entirely cast on one side by the right hon. Gentleman, perhaps because of the persuasion of the millers, or the bakers, or somebody else. The fact remains that under the teams of this Bill, and despite the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has taken great care to say, in Sub-section (3) of Clause 1, that he may invite the millers to buy 12½ per cent. of the surplus remaining over after any one cereal year, even that provision still leaves the miller not obliged to buy a single grain of wheat during any one year. Therefore, this is no longer a 1061 quota Bill. Instead of the right hon. Gentleman suggesting, as he has done for several months—and he actually maintained that position to-day in the House—that this is a wheat quota Bill, he ought to change its Title and make it a bread tax Bill, and he ought not to feel very happy that be has been obliged to do it in an indirect fashion.
In the right hon. Gentleman's speech this afternoon, he said something about 85 per cent. of the wheat produced in this country being of millable quality. The right hon. Gentleman, in consultation with the Wheat Commission, will determine what millable quality is, but is there anything in the Bill which would prevent 100 per cent. of the wheat produced in this country being regarded as of millable quality in the future? At all events, the view that we take is that, having produced a Wheat Commission which is obviously packed by the interests concerned—four producers of wheat, three millers, one importer of flour and two merchants, all more or less interested in exacting the maximum amount from the miserable consumer—we see no reason why every acre of wheat produced in this country will not be regarded as millable; and the consumer is going to be called upon to pay the price. Although we have Sub-section (1) of Clause 11 and Subsection (1) of Clause 18 referring to mill-able quality, they give us no indication as to how the right hon. Gentleman will determine what is or is not millable quality. Will he be good enough to tell us how he intends to describe, prescribe, order, or regulate what will and what will not be wheat of millable quality? The right hon. Gentleman said, referring to the small increase on the loaf, that it was one of those provisions where only when wheat is very cheap shall we be called upon to pay a dearer price for the loaf. That is a poor thing with which to salve one's conscience.
I ought not to make reference to a maiden speech but I cannot resist referring to the speech of the Noble Lord the Member for Peterborough (Lord Burghley), who, if I may say so, made a very naive intervention in the Debate today. He referred to the nationalisation of land as something in the nature of "Alice in Wonderland," and in the next two or three sentences he proceeded to say that world prices bad crashed, while 1062 in the next sentence or two he talked about the cut-throat competition between the arable and the dairy farmers in this country. I do not know if the Noble Lord knows how full of contradictions his speech was.
This is a problem which definitely arises as a result of cut-throat competition in all the wheat-producing countries of the world, and we are constantly proclaiming from these benches that the problem of the world is very largely because the world is not ordered. There is no sort of co-operation. It is all cut-throat competition, and it is always "the Devil take the hindmost." The Noble Lord might also notice that we are dealing to-day with a problem that has arisen out of private enterprise. It might be possible, even with nationalised land, to exact better tribute from the soil than we are exacting to-day. An hon. Member who spoke earlier in the Debate glorified the fact that the Minister is going to extend the area of arable cultivation. He could not have read the Bill, because one of the things that the Minister sets out to do is to avoid any extension of wheat cultivation. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] The Memorandum to the Bill states:without encouraging the extension of wheat cultivation to land unsuitable for the crop.[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I know it says "unsuitable for the crop," but if wheat can only be grown on the very finest land in order to make it an economic proposition, surely the intention and purpose of the Minister in fixing a maximum of 6,000,000 qrs. or 27,000,000 cwts. is an indication, not only of what he feels about the suitability of the land, but of what is the view of his expert advisers, namely, that to exceed a certain area in existing circumstances would be doing so under uneconomic conditions.
I wish to make a brief reference to Clause 3 (1), in which the provender miller's certificate is provided for. Here the Minister says, to the millers, who may be a subsidiary company of one of the big milling companies, that if they can show that wheat meal alone is being produced and that the whole will be used only as animal or poultry food, they can secure exemption from paying the quota price for any of their wheat. That 1063 seems a very curious Sub-section. What it means is that the farmer will receive deficiency payments, and yet there will be no encouragement to the farmer and no excuse to the miller to increase the price. The curious result is that the more food that goes to the pigs, the higher will be the tax on the children's bread. I hope that the Minister wilt tell us something about that, because it seems to us a very curious position, indeed.
There is a new departure in the Bill. The Secretary of State for Scotland is a stickler for tradition, and I know that he will have something to say on this point. Through the machinery of the Bill, the Minister sets up a milling monoply which will in future dominate the whole situation. We are to have a Wheat Commission, a millers' corporation, Customs officials and other bodies, as well as the Minister's own Department, all doing something in connection with this Bill. All their expenses have to be paid by the consumer. An hon. Member said that the cost would be paid by the farmer, but that is a very ingenious argument. The cost can only be paid for by the farmer, to the extent that he will not receive the difference between the average price and the standard price, because these expenses will be met out of it. The consumer has to pay the price. He is to be called upon to meet this extraordinary charge for this extremely new departure. If the right hon. Gentleman is justified in making this departure in this case, why ought not the unemployed to pay for the running of the unemployment insurance machine? I do not see any limit to that development.
Looking at the Bill very carefully, we observe many things that the Minister has to anticipate, or specify, or prescribe, and we wonder where his part is going to end. He must anticipate the home crop, anticipate what is a millable quality, anticipate the quantity milled, anticipate the consumption, anticipate the world price, anticipate the quota price, and anticipate the deficiency price. It would almost appear that His Majesty's advisers would have him believe that he is not only the Encyclopaedia Britannica but also Old Moore's Almanac. If he carries out the 1064 anticipations in this Bill, he will be the greatest prophet of all time.
Price-fixing and arithmetical calculators do not dispense, however, with the central fact that the right hon. Gentleman has shed the mantle as the opponent of doles, for in the most cold-blooded fashion he is providing a dole of £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 to a small section of agriculturists under the terms of this Bill, while there is not a solitary safeguard of any kind in the Bill. There is nothing to improve the standard of cultivation, to eliminate the waste of antiquated marketing, or to give encouragement to the farmer to devote land to more profitable use, and no safeguards for the consumer or against the landlord reaping the benefit, and there is not a safeguard for the agricultural labourer. It seems to us very curious that while the Minister dismisses six inspectors whose duty was to see that the agricultural labourer received what he was entitled to under the terms of the Agricultural Wages Act, 1924, he proposes to give from £5,000,000 to £6,000,000 per annum out of the cansumers' pockets to a small section of farmers. We are totally dissatisfied, and shall oppose the Bill upon those lines if upon no other.
I might, in passing, when thinking of the possible farthing or halfpenny that may be imposed upon the consumer, bring to the notice of the Minister the wheat price and price of the 4-lb. loaf for 1913, and compare them with the prices for 1931. I should like him to make some observation upon this comparison. In 1913, the wheat price was from 31s. 6d. to 32s. and the price of the 4-lb. loaf was 5¾d. In 1931, the wheat price was 21s. 6d., or 10s. less, and the price of the 4-lb. loaf was 6¾d., or a penny more. If the Minister had set about his business properly, by inserting safeguards to prevent further exploitation on the part of the miller or baker, or jointly, against the consumer, there would have been room for economies, even with existing prices. We see no reason why such safeguards should not have been introduced.
What is the real justification, however, for the Bill with which we are dealing? Admittedly prices are very low. The world over the price of wheat is well below the price of all other foods, and we admit that something might very well 1065 be done to prevent excessive losses to the efficient farmer, but without providing perpetual profits to the indifferent and apathetic farmer. But, we ask, Is this the right way? Members representing wheat-growing constituencies declare that wheat is a pivotal crop, that without wheat the area of arable land will continue to decrease. We do not see any danger even in that. We are not content to believe that wheat is actually a pivotal crop, and that more people will be employed on arable land than might be employed in producing fruit or in dairy farming. We are not content to believe that wheat is a means of national defence, or that the competition with dairy farmers will bear examination.
I want to be as argumentative as possible on this subject in the few minutes remaining to me. First of all, we say that wheat is not a prime crop, but more often than not is a mere byproduct. Some of the reasons why wheat is grown are: (1) for the profit on the grains sold for milling, (2) because it is a necessary crop in the rotation, (3) because the straw is needed for livestock, for thatching, for some other purpose, (4) because there is a special market for the straw in training stables, and cardboard manufacture, (5) because even the best grains may be economically fed to livestock, especially poultry. Among those five reasons for producing wheat, in four the grain figures as a by-product. I want to ask whether in fixing the price at 45s. consideration was given to the economics of the other three parts of the rotation. For instance, if the cows, which use the straw, or the poultry, which consume the wheat, are profitable, why should the consumer be called upon to make wheat-growing a paying proposition too, as distinct from all the other operations on the farm?
There appears to be no earthly reason Why wheat-growing, apart from all the rest, should be regarded as a separate entity when, in point of fact, it is only one of the many operations performed on the arable farm. We see no reason for this unconditional dole of anything up to £6,000,000 per annum. We say that wheat is no longer necessary for rotation purposes. Modern methods have shown that beyond a shadow of doubt. In Scotland they have 85 per cent. of arable cultivation, but only 2.6 is under wheat. The Scottish farmer has been able to 1066 manage very largely without producing wheat, and we understand that, broadly speaking, the farmers of Aberdeen are much more prosperous than the farmers of Essex, Lincoln or elsewhere in the South. While it may not be possible at once to transfer Aberdeen methods to the West and South of England, certainly the change-over ought to take place, for meat in the daily diet is of equal importance with and perhaps more important than wheat.
We say that arable land does not necessarily provide more employment. Indeed, where mechanisation is adopted arable land provides for less rather than more employment as compared with dairy farms. Dairy farmers in the West of England employ 35 labourers per thousand acres, while arable farms in the same neighbourhood employ only 28 labourers per thousand acres—that is, on a mixed farm. As guaranteed profits under the terms of this Bill are bound to bring some mechanisation, what is going to be the result? The Noble Lord the Member for Basingstoke (Viscount Lymington) some time ago wrote a book in which he said:At an optimistic estimate we might double our wheat output, not necessarily by increasing largely the acreage of land under arable cultivation but by producing wheat twice in four years, under mechanisation, instead of once, as under horses. This would have the effect not of giving more employment but, under modern methods of mechanisation, which is the only way in which we could compete in wheat growing, of de-populating the land.The Noble Lord suggests that mechanisation on wheat farms will mean depopulating the land. May I quote in this connection the report of the Empire Marketing Committee which sat a short time ago. Dealing with the wheat problem they declared:Our conclusion on the facts stated in this section is, in the absence of some unexpected information, that they establish the expectation over a long period of years of a serious struggle, possibly a protracted and painful struggle, between those farmers who adopt the new technique or otherwise, and are able to reduce costs, and those who fail to do so. Such a struggle implies a low level of prices.Therefore, arable cultivation in the future, instead of providing more employment, is probably going to provide less employment. With regard to the point raised by the Noble Lord, is he not aware that to-day we are importing, 1067 excluding cereals, £230,000,000 worth of dairy produce, meat, and so forth. Is it implied, because more people go into dairy farming, fruit and vegetable production and so forth, that they are going to be worse off and not better. What the Noble Lord fails to observe is that the farmer, whether in the arable, vegetable or fruit section, and the rest has failed to understand and appreciate the benefit of co-operative marketing. If they would do that there would be no doubt about the transfer from one method to another proving beneficial both to the farmer and the nation, and to the trade balance.
I want to say, in conclusion, that we subsidised beet-sugar for six years, and the result has been that we have almost put the West Indies into the bankruptcy court. I ask those who are strong in their demand for unifying the Empire to examine this question in the light of what has transpired on the question of sugar-beet. We have paid approximately £30,000,000 in subsidies for sugar-beet, and that industry is no better off to-day than it was when the subsidies commenced. The shareholders in the factories are better off, and they have had their share of the profits. They have cash reserves equal to their total capital, and yet the industry is unable to stand on its own legs. We feel that after the passing of this Bill the arable farmer will be no better off. The farmer will accept the subsidy extracted from the consumer, but he will not become more efficient, neither will he transfer from one method of production to another. If the Government, instead of giving full-blooded doles and subsidies, would help agriculture to help itself on right lines, whether by means of an import board or a marketing board by which the Government might find opportunities for more employment instead of less, and for greater efforts in a co-operative direction in order to prevent excessive losses to agriculture, Members on this side of the House would be quite willing to examine proposals of that kind. We want to see greater efficiency for the millions of money now being spent, and we want to see the consumer safeguarded. We want to see that the landowner, who now pays little attention to the land, is prevented from taking the benefit in regard to any scheme which is advanced. Finally, we want to 1068 see that the labourer, who at present gets very little for his services, safeguarded and protected by a real wages board which will secure him a fair share of the money that is exacted from the taxpayers' pocket.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Major Sir Archibald Sinclair)
The Government can certainly congratulate themselves on the Debate that has taken place to-day. There has been a large measure of approval of the Bill, and a number of speeches of helpful criticism, for, of course, when you have a case which you think is a very good case, it is a great help to have what appear to other people to be its weak points brought out, so that they can be adequately met. The Debate has also been rendered notable by three maiden speeches. There was the speech of the Noble Lord the Member for Peterborough (Lord Burghley), to which the hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) paid the well deserved tribute of showing how great an impression it had made on his mind. There was the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Captain Heilgers), who spoke as a practical farmer farming 1,000 acres, and who, therefore, will always be assured of a respectful hearing in this House; and there was the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Maclay), to which I shall have to reply on one or two points in a moment or two, and to which I listened with great admiration. As I have the unusually heavy task of replying to-night to the whole day's Debate, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not enter into all the points which have been raised. A number of them were points which can quite well be dealt with, and more adequately dealt with, in Committee, and I think that the House will expect me to address myself to the main general criticisms which were directed against the Bill.
The hon. Member for West Bermondsey (Dr. Salter) opened his speech with a powerful, well informed, closely reasoned, exhaustive, and, indeed, majestic criticism of the proposals which the Government are bringing before the House. His speech fell into two parts, the one a criticism of the Bill, and the other a scheme for the Physical admixture of home-grown flour with other supplies—a scheme which, as my right hon. 1069 Friend said during his speech at the beginning of the Debate, he had considered, but had discarded. The practice of bakers in refusing in some or in all cases, as the case may be, to mix British flour with their imported flour—that practice, whether it be right or wrong, whether it be as prevalent as, or less prevalent than, the hon. Member believes, will not be interfered with by the passage of this Bill. The hon. Member says that the Bill is very complicated. He says that the more one looks at the Clauses the more difficult it becomes to comprehend them. Nevertheless, he paid it the tribute of saying that it was work-able. When, therefore, he came to throw doubt upon my right hon. Friend's calculations with regard to the effect of the Bill, I could not help recollecting that passage in which he had warned us that, the more he thought about the Bill, the more difficult he found it to comprehend. I could not help suspecting that perhaps, after all, my right hon. Friend's calculations, carefully checked as they have been by the officials in the various Departments, were more likely to be accurate than those of the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member who has just spoken, for example, compared the price of wheat in 1913 and 1931 and said that, whereas it had gone down, the price of bread has gone up. But, of course, he ignored completely all the costs of manufacture and transport and all the 'other costs that go into the loaf, which are far more important than the value of the wheat in the total.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey said the extra cost was more likely to be 3s. or 4s. than 2s. 6d., but he did not give any reasons why my right hon. Friend was wrong. He did not criticise his calculations. It will be interesting, when they have had time to read his speech, to see exactly why and where they differ from him. Then, indeed, their criticisms will carry weight, but the mere assertion that, instead of 2s. 6d., it is going to be 3s. or 4s. carries us nowhere, for my right hon. Friend has made it clear that the 2s. 6d. was a careful calculation made on the basis of 26s. for the now anticipated supply for the coming year. There is at present a tendency for the world price of wheat to rise, and it nearly always rises towards the end of the year, 1070 and, as the world price rises, so that additional burden upon the sack of flour will diminish proportionately to the rise, so that 2s. 6d. is not an under estimate but is a maximum. It was said, quite rightly, that the cost of bread is a heavy cost upon the poorest families. Wealthy families use hardly any bread. But the hon. Member was comparing loaves of bread. He forgot the flour that is used in wealthy households in making scones and cakes. The hon. Member for North-East Bethnal Green (Major Nathan) did not find that my right hon. Friend's speech gave him a sufficiently sure foundation for criticism, and he did not like that figure of an ⅛d. on the 2 lb. loaf so he just quadrupled it. He said ½d. on the 2 lb. loaf, but he gave no reason for supposing that my right hon. Friend was wrong.
§ Major NATHAN
I will give my right hon. Friend the reason at once. The ½d. is the lowest coin of commerce.
§ Sir A. SINCLAIR
I do not think that is quite good enough. My right hon. Friend made it clear that what would happen would be that, if you applied this scheme to conditions in 1930–31, it would have averaged out in this way, that the coin of commerce would have been added to the price for nearly 11 weeks out of the 52 and in the other weeks there would have been no addition, and the average for the whole year would have been ⅛d. My hon. and gallant Friend was not even satisfied with that. He delivered an additional draught from his vials of wrath and suggested that rubbish would be put into the loaf. It is reassuring to the Government when Members have, in order to construct a case against the Bill, to exaggerate as much as my hon. and gallant Friend did. The hon. Member who has just spoken and the hon. Member for Paisley both referred to the possibility of the world price of wheat rising to 45s. and asked how we would then distribute the profit. When the world price of wheat rises to 45s., the quota ceases to operate, and there is no longer any charge upon anyone. Suggestions were made that the tax amounted to 18 per cent. The actual tax amounts to ⅛d. on the 2-lb. loaf now selling at 3¾d. In other words, it is a tax of, at most, 4 per cent. The hon. Member for West Bermondsey and also the hon. Member for Paisley both referred to the necessity of safeguards for the agricul- 1071 tural worker. Their great safeguard is their wages committee. It will be functioning, and inspectors of the Ministry of Agriculture will all be functioning. The hon. Member referred to the appalling conditions of the Suffolk farm workers. They will be protected by the County Wages Committee. He had no constructive measure to propose for this purpose. What did his own Government do? What did Dr. Addison do? Did his scheme contain any protection for the agricultural worker? The hon. Gentleman can make no suggestion, but merely stands there wringing his hands over the powerlessness of our farmers and agricultural labourers to compete with those of foreign nations.
There was my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pembroke (Major Lloyd George). He wept over the absence from this Bill of any element of Liberalism, but surely those of us who have tried to plan our great industries, including the industry of agriculture, have for years past been full of the inspiration of Liberalism, and no one has done more than the hon. and gallant Member himself until recently, when he seems to have been corrupted by his present communications. No one has done more to assist in that way, but now he is shocked at the taxpayers being called upon to come in and help the industry. The Bill places no burden upon the taxpayers, but he is shocked at the very idea of bringing in the taxpayers to help to reconstruct industry. And I do not think that you will get radical reconstruction of industry until you get some help from the taxpayers of this country. He is shocked at the thought of Government interference; he deplores Government interference in the industry in this Bill. We Liberals have always intended that very thing. The hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bermondsey deplores the State control of milling, corn growing and arable farming. He said that I was smiling at him. I was not smiling at his statement, but at his objection.
§ Dr. SALTER
The right hon. Gentleman is misinterpreting the position. I was supporting the idea and calling attention to his supporters and the direction in which he was leading them.
§ Sir A. SINCLAIR
He was certainly objecting to the amount of State control 1072 of the industry. Some of the hon. Members who have contributed to our Debate to-day have been answering a case which nobody has made. Nobody has suggested, as far as I know, in supporting the Bill, that it is along the lines of cereal farming mainly that the revival of agricultural prosperity will come. There have been a great many suggestions that that is our idea. It is not, and it is not my idea, and I do not think it is the idea of my right hon. Friend. I do not think that cereal farming can be or ought to be maintained at its present level of importance in our agricultural system as long as the old methods of production, and of marketing are employed. I have never disguised my belief when speaking in this House on the problems of agriculture that when the present world depression has passed, and world prices for primary productions have begun to rise, the main expansion of agriculture in this country will take place along the lines, first, of live-stock farming for which our cool, moist climate producing the best grass in the world is pre-eminently suitable; and, secondly, the production of those commodities in which freshness is a primary element of value, and in which the farmer starts with a substantial advantage in the home market.
I am not one of those who regard wheat as a key crop, for it amounts to far less than 4 per cent. of the total value of agricultural production in this country, but I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Paisley that our land is altogether unfit to grow wheat. On the contrary, it produces the best crops of wheat in the world, and it must be remembered, for it is another important point, that the decline in the acreage devoted to wheat has far-reaching effects upon other branches of the agricultural industry. When arable land is laid down to grass the balance between winter and summer keep for stock is upset. There is a rush for stores in the spring and a consequent glut in the markets in the autumn, and the health of livestock may be affected. It is broadly true that the extension of grass lands under the present non-intensive methods, produces unemployment, increases the number of stores while decreasing the demands for them in the autumn, and makes it more difficult to keep livestock in normal health.
In Scotland our wheat production is less than 1 per cent. of the total agricul- 1073 tural production, but the Scottish farmers put the wheat quota in the very forefront of their demands in their agricultural policy. I cannot claim to be a practical farmer, but I cannot help doubting whether they are well-advised, and I have always said so publicly, in attaching so much importance to wheat farming. We cannot, however, underrate the importance of the fact that these practical men do ascribe the importance that they do to the wheat crop. The hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) suggested that it is only a matter of dealing with 4 per cent. of the total agricultural crop. Some people talk about agriculture as if it was one big industry. Then they realise that it is a great many industries, all different, and all with problems of their own. In the third stage, they begin to realise that all these different branches are to a large extent mutually dependent.
Speaking in this House two years ago, I said that my part of the world had largely escaped the worst effects of the slump, but I said that if the slump went on and if cereal farming continue to be in such a bad way, it would have its repercussions even on my part of the world. Unfortunately, it has turned out to be so, and we are now ourselves in the very trough of the slump. Therefore, while I would not for one moment assert either that wheat growing is a key crop or that the present methods of cereal farming can be or ought to be perpetuated, or that cereal growing is one of those branches of agriculture which has a great coefficient of expansion, it yet remains true that these various branches of agriculture are to a very great extent interdependent, that the repercussions in one branch will spread to all, and that there for the plight of the cereal farmers must engage the attention even of those who are most convinced that it is along other lines that the greatest development in the industry must come.
The hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. G. Hall) asked for guarantees of improved efficiency, and argued that in this Bill we are subsidising inefficiency. He emphasised the fact that there is very little hope of producing wheat in this country under the existing conditions at present world prices. If it was true that we were building up a kind of protective 1074 wall and nursing an inefficient branch of the industry, I should regard that as a deadly criticism of the Bill. It is obviously inexpedient and impossible to maintain indefinitely the existing system of farming at the cost of the consumer and the taxpayer. This Bill, however, does not stereotype existing conditions of farming in this country. On the contrary, it is a temporary lifebuoy thrown to the farmers who have been caught at a more serious disadvantage than other farmers by the slump in prices. It is intended to check the decay on the wheat farms and prevent them becoming derelict while the necessary process of adaptation, which we fully realise is necessary to the new economic conditions, is proceeding.
When we were discussing in this House the Measure which yesterday received the Royal Assent there was a good deal of argument as to whether or not it was permanent, and even those who argued that it was permanent did so in a relative sense. But no one can argue that this Bill is permanent in any sense. Even the principal protagonist of the Bill, Mr. Francis Blundell, who is recognised throughout the country by all sections as one of the leading authorities on agriculture and one of the great protagonists of the quota system, has declared that he does not regard this Bill as a permanent Measure. Only recently by correspondence in "The Times" he urged that there should be no limit imposed but that in his view it would be unreasonable that it should extend beyond a period of 10 years, which is rather longer than I should give it. It is clear that my description of this Measure as a temporary lifebuoy, on the authority of one of the principal protagonists of the Bill, is by no means inaccurate, and farmers will be ill advised if they regard it in any other light.
But not only is it unnecessary to regard the Bill itself as permanent but a provision is made in the Bill as it stands for a revision of standard price at the end of three years, having regard to all factors including the economic position of the industry. That gives a guarantee that it will not be allowed to go on protecting an industry which is refusing to make itself efficient or in which large numbers of people will be able to reap huge profits at the expense of the con- 1075 sumer. That safeguard exists, and at the end of three years prices will be open to revision. Of the many difficulties which have beset farmers since the War there is no doubt that the principal difficulty has been the increased charge for wages, which cannot be estimated at less than 100 per cent. since the War. This is the most crushing burden the farmer has to face although it is true that in the main competing countries, Canada, the United States and Australia, still higher wages are paid.
Hon. Members make a great mistake in talking about the inefficiency of the farmers, for there is no better farmer in any country in the world. Nobody who knows their general level of efficiency can suppose for a moment that the costs of production under the present system will be reduced to a figure comparable to those in some other countries. The British farmer produces two or three times as much per acre as the Canadian, American, Argentinian or Australian farmer, but his economic salvation can only come from producing more per man. The labour costs of fully mechanised corn-growing in other countries is approximately one man-day per acre, whereas the average in this country is probably between five and six man-days per acre. What are the new factors which in those countries abroad have resulted in this immense reduction of costs? There is firstly the application of the results of scientific research; that is only beginning in those countries abroad, and it will be a factor of increasing importance in the maintenance of low costs in future years. But the chief factor is the institution and development of mechanisation, a process which is only beginning.
Attention has been called by several speakers to the very valuable report issued by the Imperial Economic Committee. It is pointed out that while the amount of mechanisation in Canada and the United States is increasing rapidly, it is barely in its infancy. In 1924 there were five combined harvesters in use in Western Canada, but in 1929 there were 7,255, though only a, fraction of the crops is being reaped by these methods. In Russia, which is the only European country which has adopted mechanisation, the tractor horse-power in use increased from 100,000 in 1924 to 2,000,000 in 1929. In my judgment, it would be 1076 unsafe to seek consolation in the hope of a contraction of wheat-growing areas, for the unused wheat-growing areas of the United States, Canada, the Argentine and probably Russia also, are very great. It would be idle for cereal farmers in this country to rely on a substantial and early rise in the cost of wheat. The report of the Economic Committee, presided over by Sir Sidney Chapman, says:On such figures as these it is impossible to forecast even approximately the course of world prices for the coming 12 months.In these circumstances, farmers must take to heart the exhortations which my right hon. Friend addressed to them in the concluding words of his speech when he said that this was the farmer's opportunity. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Bethnal Green talked of wheat growing as an anachronism, while the hon. Member for West Bermondsey referred to obsolete methods by which our farmers are handicapped, and asked that more modern methods should be used. He referred to the number of combine harvesters in this country, and said that there were not as many as there were fingers on one of his hands. There are more than the fingers of both hands. Then he said that if there were any, they must be out of date 'and not much good. As a matter of fact, combine harvesters can hardly be out of date, because they have been in only a short time. As a matter of fact, they are fully up to date, and they are being used in, this country.
If hon. Members would study some of the reports which have been issued about mechanisation in this country, and also the reports issued by Professor Orwin in a pamphlet called "High Farming," they will see that progressive farming-has managed to make cereal farming pay even in present conditions. It is apparent that the respite which this Bill will secure for the cereal farming industry cannot be more than temporary. But the permanence of any benefits which it might afford to the cereal farmer will depend on the promptitude the resolution and the courage—it does demand a little courage to be a farmer in present conditions—the promptitude with which they, or many of them, set about the reform of their systems of working in cereal farming, or take up other branches of the industry.
1077 This is not a Bill for stereotyping existing conditions. An hon. Member asked me what safeguards there were to ensure that cereal farmers applied modern methods. An incentive is far better than safeguards. The Bill calls out all that is best in the farmer. There is the greatest possible incentive in the Bill to progressive farmers to use up-to-date methods, to reform their systems of farming and to get the greatest amount of profit possible out of the Bill. The same thing applies to marketing. If they could reform that system, if the they have a producers' marketing board which is provided for in Clause 15, there again they will have still greater advantage out of this Measure, and the whole of that time they will be putting their industry on a secure foundation.
What are the alternatives? I cannot believe that any Member of this House contemplates the possibility of standing aside and doing nothing and allowing these cereal, farms gradually to decay out of existence. I believe quite as much as the hon. and gallant Member for Pembroke in the radical reorganisation of British farming, but he knows that that would require money. Capital is the life-blood of industry, and agriculture has been drained of its life-blood during the last 10 or 20 years. The capital is not in the industry now. Nor can the State find the money that is necessary. Then I say, let us give this temporary help to the industry and allow it to tide over this very difficult transitional period.
We are not stereotyping existing conditions, but providing an incentive to change. Let me appeal to the House not to fall into either of the two common errors which we often hear in agricultural Debates—not to under-estimate the extraordinary difficulties of the farmer's situation in this period of falling prices, or the courage and resolution and success with which he is facing them. No one has been hit so hard by falling prices as the cereal farmer. On the other hand, do not let us under-estimate the intrinsic importance of agriculture as an element of national health and well-being and also of our national economy. We are too apt to think of the vast stretches of agricultural land in the great new countries of the globe and to regard this country as agriculturally insignificant. 1078 But as a matter of fact the number of people in Great Britain engaged in agriculture is greater than in any of the Dominions, substantially greater than in Canada and very much greater than in others.
The value of the agricultural output in recent years has been only slightly less than that of Canada, greater than that of Australia, and consider ably greater than that of any of the remaining Dominions. Therefore, I believe that, when conditions change and the tide of prices begins to flow again, there is no industry in this country which will be able to play a greater part in our industrial revival than agriculture. It is in the hope that this Bill will help to bridge the gulf and provide at an imperceptible cost to the consumer some encouragement and incentive to the farmers, that I commend it to the House to-night.
§ Motion made, and Question, "That the Debate be now adjourned," put, and agreed to.—[Captain Margesson.]
§ Debate to be resumed To-morrow.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.