§ 1.53 p.m.
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
In spite of the very interesting subject which has occupied the last three hours of the Debate, we should be doing less than our duty did we not call attention to the very important pronouncement made by the Ministry of Agriculture yesterday. The Minister of Agriculture said a short time ago that he was a meat man. Yesterday's pronouncement on the top of similar pronouncements made earlier, indicates that whether he is a meat man or not his policy certainly is a meaty one. The extraordinary decision taken yesterday, almost in the last minute of the; last Cabinet meeting on the last day of Parliament, is of such vital importance that we, as an Opposition, think that a statement ought to have been prepared long before the last day, so that we should have had ample time to examine it in all its aspects before it was plunged upon the House, as it was yesterday. The reasons for that precipitate action seem to be found in the White Paper, to which I shall refer in a moment. I should like, firstly, to ask the right hon. Gentleman what was the position of the Dominions Secretary, when the Cabinet were discussing this further restriction and the policy embodied in this document. The right hon. Gentleman has been telling us in this House, and he went to Retford about a fortnight ago to tell them there, and from Retford to tell the world, that the door of conciliation was always open, that the Government were anxious for a settlement of the dispute, that no possible expression of good will was lacking, and that they were always anxious to send a message of good will to Southern Ireland.
Then comes the Minister's White Paper, with a totally new policy regarding that 1538 part of the Dominions, which I think is unprecedented in its effect, and which one must regard, after careful analysis of the document, as really a monstrous attack on the Irish Free State. Already punitive taxation has been imposed against the Irish Free State, but this is something even more than punitive taxation. When one thinks of all the sentimental utterances with regard to the Empire, and when one regards all the actions that have been levelled against Southern Ireland during the past few months, it seems to me that all these statements about conciliation are not only sentimental humbug, but more or less in the nature of poisoned arrows. I cannot but believe that the right hon. Gentleman, who, after all, to this House and to the country, is responsible for these proposals, must have been forced into them by the Cabinet yesterday; and, believing, as I do, that the right hon. Gentleman had pressure brought to bear upon him, and that the Secretary of State for the Dominions would not readily agree to these proposals, it is rather a problem to ascertain who exactly was responsible for that part of this document which relates to the Irish Free State. If one looks at the document, one finds in it the following statement;Many United Kingdom feeders have kept back their stock from sale owing to the low level of prices, while supplies from other sources have been pressed on the market.Surely, however, the right hon. Gentleman would not claim that the other supplies which have been pressed on the market are from the Irish Free State. It is well known both to the Minister and, I think, to every Member of this House, that, while the Minister has no power to limit imports from the Dominions, and while he has power to limit imports from foreign countries, imports from foreign countries over a period are down by approximately 500,000 cwt.; but, while imports from foreign countries are down by 500,000 cwt., they are up by 500,000 cwt. from various parts of the Dominions, but not from the Irish Free State. Nevertheless, the document proceeds to state:At present such cattle are imported into the United Kingdom from two sources only, namely, the Irish Free State and Canada. As regards the Irish Free State, an Order will be issued forthwith"—1539 to limit Irish Free State imports from now. Without so much as 24 hours' notice, or "By your leave, please," Irish Free State imports are to be limited from the moment that the right hon. Gentleman made his speech, and the limitation is as much as 50 per cent. The next stage is a reference to Canada, where there is not a restriction commencing from now. The right hon. Gentleman's own words are:As regards the Dominion of Canada, His Majesty's Government in that Dominion have been asked to co-operate by stabilising exports of cattle, both fat and store, to this market for the first quarter of 1934.Therefore, while the attack is made instantaneously upon the Irish Free State, Canada has at least been invited to cooperate, and such limitations as there may be in the case of Canada only commence to operate from the 1st January.
§ Sir WILFRID SUGDEN
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but may I ask him if he would give us to understand that he puts on exactly the same basis the extreme and magnanimous loyalty of Canada and certain uncertainties in Southern Ireland?
§ Mr. WILLIAMS
The hon. Gentleman can make what assumption he likes, but, so far, the Irish Free State is part of the Dominions, and the attitude expressed towards the Irish Free State in this Order and in these restrictions, as compared with the attitude towards Canada, is not only discrimination, but is discrimination of a violent character, and seems to me to be the very essence, not of Empire-building, but of Empire-wrecking. That is the first part of our indictment that this Order should have been produced at such a late hour in the Session. What are the imports from the Irish Free State? If the imports during 1933 were even comparable with what they were in 1932 or 1931, or if the imports were in any way excessive imports which were endangering the market for the British producer, one could understand the policy of the right hon. Gentleman; but in point of fact even this year the imports from the Irish Free State are very much below the imports during 1931. I am not at all sure that the average Irishman is not as loyal to the Empire as the average Canadian; I am not at all sure that whether a man is 1540 Irish or Canadian makes much difference; but I am convinced that this attack upon the Irish Free State is not only one that will not be welcomed in Ireland, and is not one of those expressions of good cheer that we look for on the eve of Christmas, but that it is bound to consolidate the position of Mr. de Valera as no other single thing could possibly do. From that angle we look upon this discrimination between the Irish Free State and Canada, and the expression in the last paragraph with regard to bacon, where the Minister is so solicitous with regard to the production of bacon in Northern Ireland, as not only the sort of discrimination which is calculated to disturb and irritate the feelings of Southern Ireland, but as probably a final blow to our otherwise good relations with that part of the Empire.
I do not want to discuss this matter in detail at this late hour on the Motion for Adjournment, because I understand that several other Members are anxious to raise other subjects. I want, however, while leaving the general details of the Order for a future occasion, to challenge the right hon. Gentleman's philosophy as expressed in the Order. The right hon. Gentleman has set out deliberately, with malice aforethought, to decrease imports, to decrease available supplies, with the professed object of increasing the price to the fanners, and, of course, restoring some sort of profit to meat growers in this country. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he still thinks that merely to restrict imports of comparatively cheap meat is going to bring about an increase in the consumption of comparatively dear meat? I cannot believe that that policy is bound to work out. The proposal is to cut down the imports from the Irish Free State by 23,000 head of cattle, and then, according to the right hon. Gentleman, those cattle which have been withheld by British farmers will be released and made available for the market. How is there going to be any effect upon prices at all if, by restricting imports from Ireland but releasing for sale cattle in England, the same number of cattle are going to be available? First of all, therefore, it seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman's price philosophy is not going to work out.
1541 But, assuming that it does, and that as a result of the restriction of imports there will be an increase in price, does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is going to bring about an increase in consumption? Command Paper 4470, issued a few days ago, gives the prices of British produced and Dominion and Argentine Beef, mutton and lamb. The average price difference between English and Argentine beef is approximately 2d. per lb., between English or Scotch mutton, as compared with New Zealand or Australian, the difference is approximately 5d. per lb. and between English lamb and New Zealand or Australian approximately 4½d. to 5d. If the right hon. Gentleman restricts imports of that cheaper meat and only the higher priced meat is available, is he sure that the consumers are going to purchase larger quantities? He has the power to restrict imports but he has no power to compel people to buy meat at a price that they cannot afford. People cannot afford to pay higher prices for English meat. We have 2,500,000 people unemployed drawing 15s. 3d. a week, millions of people on short time and millions of others whose wages are slowly decreasing. An increase of 2d. or 5d. a lb. makes beef, mutton or lamb an impossibility for them. They buy Dominion or foreign meat not because they prefer it but because they cannot afford to buy English.
I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman is going to succeed in the policy he is pursuing. The "Times" coined a phrase some time ago, and he has adopted it almost as his own. What we must ensure is that the farmer receives a price which will provide replacement value. We do not object to that, but the worker is entitled to a wage price level which will ensure him a replacement value in the form of food for the energy he expends whilst at work. If you force prices up to a point where he is denied the privilege of consuming beef, mutton, lamb or bacon, there is not going to be any replacement value there. It will be potatoes and bread instead of meat and the second state of the livestock growers may be infinitely worse than the first. With regard to bacon, as I read this Order it is more or less in the nature of a warning to Denmark and other countries that send bacon here. Three months notice is being given on this occasion, 1542 whereas on the last occasion restriction was introduced very rapidly indeed. But on the whole we are convinced that the policy announced yesterday by the Government was not only too precipitate, and dangerous from the Empire point of view, and will not ultimately help the livestock farmer, but it will certainly damage the prospects of the poorer section of the community, who will no longer be able to buy meat of any kind. For this policy to be announced on the eve of Christmas is the biggest crime of all. Unless and until the right hon. Gentleman will go to the retailing end and not rely, as the Under-Secretary for Scotland did the other day, too exclusively upon a consumers' council which has little or no power, or an investigation committee which only comes into operation when the consumers' committee first of all has a legitimate complaint—unless he will ascertain just what proportion of legitimate or illegitimate profits the retailers are making, this policy is not likely to succeed.
I had a letter this morning from an agricultural labourer who tells me that, despite all that the Government have done in direct or indirect subsidies, in the best agricultural land in any part of the country, that is, in the neighbourhood of Boston and Holland, a good many agricultural labourers are working short time. What beef, mutton or lamb are they going to be able to buy, the very men who make it possible to produce beef at all? It is because of the general poverty of the people that consumption is lower to-day than it would otherwise be. If we can find a means of increasing the spending power of the people, increasing the relative value of the small wages that they receive, that will help the farmers much more than these policies which are altogether too precipitate and extremely dangerous and are not going to be successful in the end. The "Economist" stated the other day that this and past Governments have already made to agriculture an annual gift of no less than £45,000,000, equivalent to every penny piece paid in agricultural workers wages, yet we are now pursuing the same policy which so far has proved a gigantic failure. We profoundly regret this very belated statement and we profoundly regret the implied attack upon the Irish Free State compared with the extreme solicitude shown to Canada and 1543 Northern Ireland. We are convinced that the policy will not succeed except in one particular. It will succeed in depriving the poorer section of the community of the joy of a meat meal occasionally.
§ 2.14 p.m.
§ Mr. GRAHAM WHITE
The speech that we have just heard will enable me to curtail my observations. I wish to associate myself with the protest that has already been made as to the late hour in the Session at which this statement of policy has been introduced. There is no time for adequate discussion and it is almost impossible to grasp, in the time available, the full consequences and implications of it. I would also enter a protest against what I consider the inadequate and in many ways extraordinary terms in which the policy of the Government has been conveyed to the House. As a representative of an industrial constituency I have no wish to minimise for a moment the difficulties of the agricultural and stock-raising districts. I would, on the contrary, express the greatest sympathy with them. I do not fail to recognise fully the difficult position with which the Ministry is confronted and that they have to come to this House with proposals to remedy a situation which is undoubtedly difficult. But the proposals which have been made, whatever they may do for the stock raisers of this country, include proposals which are very disadvantageous to other sections of the community. We are not given, in the statement of the policy of the Government, sufficient information with regard to that matter. In fact, we are left to surmise whether or not any consideration has been given to the disadvantages which will inevitably be created by the policy which the Government are pursuing.
We are told in the statement of policy that the situation is "unsatisfactory." That is the extraordinary word which is used. The Government say: "You must take it from us." Where are the people of this country whose situation is satisfactory? There cannot be many of them. It is difficult to know where they are situated. Whatever may be the situation of the stock raisers, which we sincerely regret, is their situation more unsatisfactory than that of the masses of the unemployed, and the great number of people who are in poverty and 1544 whose budgets are limited to shillings and pence, and to whom a small variation in the price of meat is a matter of the utmost consequence? Is there a situation more unsatisfactory than that of those who will inevitably lose their employment in the towns as a result of this policy? It will not be an adequate response for my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Birkenhead West (Lieut. Colonel Allen) and myself to say, if we are approached by constituents who may lose their occupation as a result of this proposal, that the situation is unsatisfactory for somebody else. They will say: "It is not nearly as unsatisfactory for them as it is for us." The Minister of Agriculture, in a recent speech in this House, referred with regret to the conflicting interests which exist between the town dweller and the country dweller, and he went on to express the view that if the difficulties of the countryside were fully understood in the towns, the townspeople would be willing to stand by the countryside in carrying out any satisfactory solution. I share that hope, speaking as a town dweller, but, if the clashing of interests and policy between the town and the countryside is to be avoided, the situation will have to be handled somewhat differently from the manner in which it is being dealt with at the present time.
The people of this country are very long-suffering. In the last few years they have given adequate proof of the fact that there is nothing which they will not stand if it is fully explained to them and they see that it is a just and reasonable proposal operating over the whole of the country, and all the cards are placed face upwards upon the table so that they can see the proposition. If it is desired to carry the country in a policy of this kind, a statement of the kind issued yesterday is just the way to create a clash of policy and feeling between the town and the countryside, which, I am sure, it; is the desire of the Minister and every Member of this House to avoid. Has any attempt been made to balance the good and the evil in this proposal? Has my right hon. Friend, like Robinson Crusoe, sat down and made out a balance-sheet in which he has put down what is good on one side and what is bad on the other?
1545 What is the cost of this change to the consumer? Is it to be compared with the benefit to the stock-raiser and the cattle-feeder? What price level is to be aimed at? All these things are matters of speculation. It may be that they cannot be anything else, but at least the Ministry must have had something in their minds at which they were aiming. Is it possible to help the situation in the long run by restricting consumption? I cannot help feeling that in many of the ingenious devices which are being placed before the country at the present time, the right hon. Gentleman is bound to meet with disappointment in the long run.
The world is in the remarkable state of having solved the problems of production, and it is nothing but human folly, manifested in ways which it would be out of order to discuss here to-day, which is preventing the solution of the problems of distribution. Devices which, instead of aiming at increased consumption, must inevitably limit the consumption of the articles with which it is proposed to deal under this Order will not be the final way out of this difficulty. Has any consideration been given to the amount of unemployment which will inevitably be created in the trades which are carrying on the importation and the killing of cattle, and the ancillary occupations of hide-dressing and the like which spring up in connection with the trade. In Liverpool, and certainly in Birkenhead, there will be an increase in unemployment arising directly from the operation of this Order. Has any consideration been given to these questions, and have they been set off in the balance of advantage and disadvantage? These are matters on which there ought to be some expression of sympathy with these people in the statement of policy by the Ministry. It is an unbalanced statement. It refers simply to the advantages which it is expected will accrue to the stock-raisers, with whom we have no quarrel, with whom we sympathise, and with whom we do our best to co-operate if possible. Has any account been taken of the loss of revenue? This is an aspect of this policy which, I think, would interest the Dominions Secretary. We ought to have taken the goodwill in the national balance sheet into consideration. I 1546 cannot think—and it is a very important item in adjusting the balance of good and evil in this matter—that the relationships with Denmark are likely to be improved by the further restriction of imports. It is very important in this connection that the incidence of this arrangement should be spread fairly over all the parties to it. We see that an agreement has been made with Canada, but Australia is not mentioned. Why have they not been brought into this matter? Why have not all the parties who could possibly contribute to it been asked to bear their share? Although not sharing the views of the hon. Member in regard to the Irish situation, I agree that the present situation with Southern Ireland is lamentable and cannot permanently govern the relationship between the two countries. Sooner or later we shall have to find a solution of our difficulties, and live side by side. What I feel most profoundly is that no attempt has been made in this matter to seek the possibility of arriving at a satisfactory solution and some reasonable form of modus vivendi with the people of Southern Ireland.
On the question as to whether the burden of sacrifice which will have to be borne by some people is being fairly distributed, I should like my right hon. Friend to give consideration to the question of the importation of stores. Looking at the figures set out in the statement of policy, it would appear that the greater portion of this burden is to fall upon the importation of fat cattle, upon that section of the trade where it will create the maximum amount of unemployment, so far as the information at my disposal goes. The importation of fat cattle from the Irish Free State has been reduced, in comparison with 1931, by approximately 100,000 head, and this further reduction which comes on the top of that is going to create a very difficult and serious situation for those who in one capacity or another have relied on this business to make their living. Could not the right hon. Gentleman give further consideration to the incidence of this matter and see whether in regard to store cattle some arrangement might be made which would, on balance, be less injurious. This matter is arousing much anxiety, and within the last few minutes I have received a telegram about it. I should like to know if anything can be 1547 done to lighten the incidence of this burden, which will hit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, West, and my constituency, as well as the constituency of the right hon. Gentleman.
We in Birkenhead in regard to our other industry have a privileged position. In regard to the materials which we use in the shipbuilding industry we enjoy an immunity from taxation under the Import Duties Act. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it would be possible to consider giving some privilege to the stock-raisers on the same line. I do not know what the money value of the tax on the stock-raisers has been under the Import Duties Act. It must be a considerable sum. It gave rise to a considerable complaint some months ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert) called attention to the matter and quoted the case of a farmer friend of his who had to find £400 more for his stock raising on account of those duties. Might not some considerable relief be given to the stock-raisers and cattle feeders by giving them immunity from taxation on the range of feeding stocks which they have to use for the purpose of their business? That matter ought to be considered. I hope that if my right hon. Friend looks into it and he finds that he could give relief to stock-raisers without raising prices, and still give some reasonable margin of profit to the raisers, he will come down to the House with some proposals on those lines. If it is legitimate for the shipbuilding industry to be given a privilege, I see no reason why it should not be legitimate, fair and reasonable for the stock-raising trade.
I will not occupy the time of the House further at this late stage before the Recess, but I wish to enter the protest that I have already done and to express the hope that wiser counsels may prevail and that we may next Session have more constructive suggestions. I hope that whatever suggestions are made the Government will convey all the facts to the country so that those directly concerned may not feel that they are suffering any injustice.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Lord WILLOUGHBY de ERESBY
I believe that it is customary in making 1548 a maiden speech to pray the indulgence of the House. I earnestly implore the House on this occasion to give me its fullest measure of indulgence. Not only am I one of the latest arrivals in this House but I believe I am right in saying that I am the youngest Member of the House. I have no doubt that I shall be severely criticised by many for throwing away the opportunity, which only occurs once in one's lifetime, of making a maiden speech. The subject before the House is one on which I feel most strongly and, although unprepared and at short notice, at a time when many have gone away for the Christmas Recess, I could not refrain from speaking in support of the action which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has taken.
I come from a constituency the inhabitants of which are all, either directly or indirectly, dependent on farming for their livelihood. In recent years they have suffered from a very lean time. I have on occasion recently attended their live stock shows. It is amazing the way in which they have carried on, in spite of the hard times. One cannot help regretting that the prices they are receiving to-day are, unfortunately, less fat than their stock. The way they have carried on shows that, in spite of the depressed conditions they have had to contend against, we in this country can produce and do produce the best beef in the world, and it is most praiseworthy. I am proud to be a supporter of a Government who realise the importance of agriculture in the prosperity of the nation and who have worked so untiringly to improve the conditions throughout the industry. I would remind the House that live-stock farming is not merely a key branch of the industry, but the keystone of the whole industry. Live-stock farming constitutes 70 per cent. of the whole industry, and any measure of prosperity that is brought to this branch of the industry must be of great help to the agricultural industry as a whole. This country cannot hope to prosper to-day without a prosperous agriculture.
Although I am afraid that I do not agree on all political questions with my relations by marriage, I am most grateful on this occasion to have the opportunity of helping in my small way to forward and advocate a policy which my father-in-law has done so much to help—namely, the protection and encourage- 1549 ment of live-stock farming. I know that any question so closely related and connected with the subject of imports as is livestock farming must always be controversial and must meet with a large measure of opposition, but I would remind those who are opposed to the policy of the Minister of Agriculture that British producers also buy British goods, and that the purchasing power of farmers and farm workers throughout the country has been steadily reduced during recent years. Any increase which is brought to their purchasing power must be ultimately reflected in every industry throughout the country. In conclusion I should like to say that a general review of the whole field of agriculture shows that since the present Government has been in office a considerable improvement has taken place. On the home front line the condition to-day is far more promising, and along the whole front there is a feeling that we are going to win—and that is half the battle. The index figure for agricultural wholesale prices to-day stands at 109, which is the highest it has been for 17 months. The sector of the front which has, unfortunately, suffered most from the opposing forces is the livestock farming industry, and I hope I have said sufficient to prove what a vital and important sector it is of the agricultural front. Now that the Minister of Agriculture has launched his counter attack I ask the House to support his action, which I am sure is in the best interests of the agricultural industry.
§ 2.37 p.m.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
May I, in the first place, congratulate my hon. Friend on his very admirable maiden speech, especially as it came so unexpectedly upon him. I remember that when I made my maiden speech I was full of trepidation for a long time before, and that I did not acquit myself as well as my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will be a distinguished ornament of this House and will add greatly to its debating power. The hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) is so charming and moderate that it is difficult to disagree with him. He asks for a balance as between town and country. We know the difficulties of the towns, and we ask representatives of urban constituencies to realise ours—they are very great. In the last 12 years 187,000 laboureres have left the land, they have gone in to the towns and increased 1550 the difficulties in the towns. The hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) referred to a letter he has received from a labourer in one of the richest districts in England, Boston, who is being dismissed, or is on short time. Why? The reason is because the price of the products will not pay his wages. That is the only reason. I beseech hon. Members opposite not to think that a farmer has a double dose of original sin. He would employ men if it was profitable for him to do so. All that the Minister of Agriculture is doing now is to enable the farmer to avoid a loss, I will not say make a profit. The beef situation, with which the Minister is now dealing is, in a most deplorable state. Instead of attending the all-night sitting here I was in North Devon at a number of cattle markets. Prime cattle made a reasonable price, but anything of second quality you could hardly sell it. In the "Times" this morning there appears the Smithfield official report:Supplies of all descriptions of meat were large and more than ample for a very poor demand.I ask hon. Members to have a little sympathy with those men who have carried on under most depressing circumstances for several years. This morning I received from the admirable statistical department of the Ministry of Agriculture figures showing that in 1926 the price of beef per live cwt. was £2 9s.; this year it is £l 15s. 4d., a drop of 22½ per cent. I would remind hon. Members opposite that wages are fixed, tithes are fixed, the farmers charges are fixed, but the decrease in the prices of this product is 22½ per cent. How these men have been able to carry on I do not know, if they were not enterprising and capable they would not be able to carry on at all. Farmers, enterprising and capable, are really being driven into the bankruptcy court. Can the House of Commons contemplate such a state of affairs? The hon. Member for the Don Valley referred to the Irish Free State. I am one of the few Members left who was in the House when the Irish Land Act was passed. It was a most generous gesture. It gave Irish tenants a loan on the British Exchequer at 2¾ per cent. How can my hon. Friends as representing the Labour party say that the Irish Free State is justified in repudiating a bargain of that description?
§ Mr. T. WILLIAMS
The right hon. Gentleman is scarcely entitled to put those words in my mouth. What I said was that the Dominions Secretary is frequently making statements in this House and outside of the conciliatory spirit, the ever-open door, the hope that an agreement some time would be reached; but that in this case, without a 24 hours notice, economic action is being taken against the Irish Free State which is bound to exacerbate feelings and destroy any desire for conciliation. I did not justify anything that Southern Ireland have done.
§ Mr. LAMBERT
I have not seen much reasonableness in Mr. de Valera's actions. I wish the hon. Member would go over there in the sweet spirit of reasonableness and persuade him to be a little more reasonable. I am sure that the British Government would meet him half way. Really, in this matter I cannot feel great sympathy with the people of the Irish Free State who have received benefits from the British Exchequer. This is not the time for a long speech. But I do congratulate the House, the Government and the agricultural industry that at last we have found a Minister who faces facts. We have had a lot of theories about land settlement, land tenure and the rest, but the right hon. Gentleman really comes down to the question of price. He has shown sound sense on that question. Give the farmers a fair price and they will produce. That has been shown in the case of poultry and pigs. Given a fair price the farmers can pay a reasonable wage to their labourers. I want to help the agricultural labourers. Hon. Members of the Labour party do the agricultural workers no good by constantly carping at the policy of the Minister, who endeavours to raise prices so that fair wages shall be paid. I congratulate the Minister that for the first time in 13 years the lag of agricultural employment has been checked. I hope that under his guidance the flow will set in the opposite direction and fertilise the land. Before the House meets again I hope that my right hon. Friend will have a long-term policy for agriculture. He must deal with the Ottawa Agreements. There is no doubt that at Ottawa agriculturists were sacrificed to the interests of industry. I hope for a long-term policy which will enable those who cultivate the land to earn a decent livelihood.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ Mr. COVE
I have become very interested in the Minister of Agriculture and his policy. Unless I am mistaken he will be the Minister who, sooner than any other, will reveal to the country the bankruptcy of the system he is trying to bolster up. It is true that if we are to run the present system there must be some consideration given to price. I am convinced that the present system of private production and private profit cannot run unless the system brings in a price that will provide profit and provide wages. As I understand the Minister, he is after that price. But mark how he is trying to get it. He is trying to secure his price, in all the schemes he has put before us, by the creation of scarcity. In order to get his profitable price he has set himself a number of other problems. As far as I can see he will be confronted with many difficulties. First of all he is forced to cut down what is after all the real wealth of the nation; he is bound to cut down the production of this and that product, and he is in the dilemma that while he is searching for a price he has actually to decrease the amount of real wealth throughout the land.
He has also to relate his policy and price to a demand for the products of the industry. If he has not got the demand his policy is bound to end in futility. The right hon. Gentleman recognises that, for a short time ago he told us in this House that we would have to deal with the problem of the necessity for expanding consumption as well as dealing merely with the problem of restricting supplies, and he added that it was ten times as difficult to sell as it was to produce. The right hon. Gentleman realises that the problem is a problem of demand. Has he dealt with it? How is he dealing with it? As far as I can gather, the only way in which he is going to deal with it is in the way of Sadler's Wells—lots of nasty food at a high price.
There is nothing in the right hon. Gentleman's policy dealing with a higher demand. As 'a matter of fact the higher he raises his price for agricultural products through quantitative restriction, the less demand he will have. If the industrial workers of the country were able to buy more goods, the money which went to the purchase of agricultural products 1553 at higher prices obviously could not be spent in the purchase of industrial goods. It cannot be spent in two ways. On the other hand, if prices are so high that the workers cannot buy the goods, there is a lack of demand for the goods, and the last condition of the right hon. Gentleman will be worse than the first. Instead of trying to solve this problem by raising prices, the right hon. Gentleman should have tackled it from the other end. This is where I probably part company with ray Liberal friends. They would agree with my suggestion that we should try to create a demand. But how is the demand to be created? Whence is it to come? Is it to come from higher wages? It can only come from higher wage3. Is it to come from an increase in the unemployment benefit? Are hon. Members prepared to say these things? I do not believe that the capitalist system can stand an increase in demand by an increase in wages, because under the capitalist system industry cannot bear it.
The policy of the right hon. Gentleman is inevitable, but it is inevitable under a capitalist system. Lenin forestalled the right hon. Gentleman. I was only the other day reading a book that Lenin wrote during his exile in about 1915. In describing the policy which the right hon. Gentleman is now putting into effect, he said that capitalism would be bound to do this in order to preserve itself. It would be bound to have quantity restrictions, because capitalism cannot stand the abundance which science can produce. I was also reading what Lord Balfour said, that it was the task of modern statesmanship so to ensure social stability that science would, unhindered and undisturbed, increase the standard of living of the masses to undreamt-of heights. The policies which the right hon. Gentleman is pursuing are hindering the progress of science, preventing abundance, and preventing science and all these technical powers that men have produced from coming into effect. The right hon. Gentleman, instead of being the Minister for Agriculture, ought to be the Minister for the Sahara Desert. He is trying to create a desert. He says that food, the goods which mean something to the well-being of our people, must be cut down, and he is restricting the production of all that is necessary for a decent physical standard of life. He is now forced to say: "Too much; we must cut it off," 1554 in spite of the fact that large numbers of our people have not sufficient to feed them properly.
I should like to refer the right hon. Gentleman to the book written by the distinguished relative of the hon. Member who made such an admirable maiden speech just now. In that book the writer says that willingness to pay for expensive foods is not the same thing as the capacity to pay for them. None of us here is not willing to pay for expensive foods if we can do so. The working classes are prepared to pay for the very best, provided that they have an income. That is the whole problem, and there is no income for the working classes in this policy. The right hon. Gentleman has said, as I Have quoted, that he realises this problem. I must confess that I have a feeling, which is shared by a number of us, that he is one of the dynamic Members of the Cabinet, and that we have to watch him very carefully.
The market for the bulk of British farm produce depends on good income and wages. The greatest part of the country's wealth is derived from industry and commerce. Are you sure that you are not damaging industry and commerce by this policy? The right hon. Gentleman himself is a little uneasy about it—or, at least, that is the way in which I interpret the last speech which he delivered here, which secured such a good press. The right hon. Gentleman himself is concerned that the policy which he is now pursuing may damage industry and commerce. An increase in that wealth depends upon an increase in the demand for meat, food, milk, butter and vegetables, which must in turn depend upon income. If that demand fails, all the advantages of the policy are lost. The author continues:Perhaps the most important to the British farmer as influencing his immediate plane are the year-to-year fluctuations in demand. So much attention has been paid to the effect of supply on price that there is a danger of losing sight of the importance of the demand factor in price determination.The Minister and the Government, if they are to make a real contribution to this problem, must therefore not pursue the policy of curtailing supplies nor of cutting down the real sources of wealth and well-being in the nation, but must 1555 follow the policy of increasing the power of our people to buy the goods which science and human ingenuity can so easily produce in great abundance.
§ 3.1 p.m.
§ Mr. TREE
I, too, pray the indulgence of the House for a second maiden speech on the same subject as the last one, but I feel, representing as I do the Market Harborough Division, which is primarily interested in the grazing industry, that this is a most opportune time to speak on the Government's behalf. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) has said that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture has not given the Irish people a welcome Christmas present. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he has given the people of the Midlands a most welcome Christmas present, and one of which they have been in great need.
The grazing industry had reached a point when it was on the very verge of bankruptcy. That is nothing more than a just estimate. Graziers have had two years of steadily falling prices, and they have been unable to get rid of the cattle that they have produced. Despite the fact that in the last quarter of the year the right hon. Gentleman has put restrictions on meat coming into the country, those restrictions have not proved adequate. As he said last night, farmers in the country had held back their stocks and waited until this time of the year, and the prices that they would then get would not be anything like enough to pay a fair profit. That would mean that when the time came next spring to borrow money from the banks in order to get fresh stores, the banks would not give them the needed credit, and that in another few months we should have a virtually derelict grazing industry, with unemployment in the Midlands in a very serious position and the fields going to waste. In addition to that, grazier farmers—and I do not think that there is any branch of the farming industry that is more efficient—not being able to make money out of grazing, were going into milk production and pig-breeding, and that in turn was making a glut in those industries. Only if each branch of the industry keeps to its own special branch of production can we have a fair all-round farming industry.
1556 The hon. Member for Don Valley has stated that the price to the consumer will tend to rise under the new restrictions, but I think he forgets that during the last two years, despite the fact that prices have fallen from 48s. per cwt. to the present rate of 30s. per cwt., that reduction has not been handed on to the consumer. I do not see why, because prices will under these new conditions tend to rise, that increase should in turn be put up to the ultimate consumer. There is a long way to go before the price returns to the level at which it stood two or three years ago. Although this is only a temporary Measure—it is to last, I believe for three months—it will get over the immediate trouble. I hope however that the Minister is going to bring forward a long-range policy for agriculture in the early days of next year, and I hope that such a long-range policy for agriculture will have the meat industry as its keystone. The question of meat and meat products is of the greatest importance to British agriculture, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will seriously consider it in relation to his general agricultural policy. I would like on this occasion to compliment the Minister on the restrictions which he issued last night. They will prove, I am sure, of immense help and benefit to the graziers of the Midland districts.
§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Sir PERCY HARRIS
I count myself as very lucky in being able to congratulate the hon. Member for Market Harborough (Mr. Tree) on his maiden speech. That is a constituency which a good many years ago I had the honour of representing and I have the satisfaction of feeling that in the representation of that division I have a very competent successor and one who has a promising future. The hon. Member put his case extremely well. I am sorry that the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) missed another very interesting maiden speech from another relative of hers. She will find, I think, that she has now two excellent supporters in the House. I do not know if they share her views on all subjects but time will show. No doubt they have studied the excellent book, which has been quoted from to- 1557 day, written by the Noble Lord her husband, who has done such fine work for agriculture. I cannot, however, agree completely with those two excellent maiden speeches.
Naturally, the hon. Members are satisfied with this proposal. This is a House—and I mean no offence in saying it—of sectional interests. Members more and more come here to fight for various vested interests, and local interests of their constituencies. It is inevitable and it is becoming increasingly necessary for Members to put forward in this House the claims of particular trades and industries and interests in various parts of the country. Each one is fighting for himself but in the meantime the greater interest of the community as a whole, of the general public, of the consumers is being sacrificed. I do not know whether this proposal has been before the Cabinet or not. I am glad to see the Lord President of the Council here, because I would like to know something about the reactions of this new policy.
Some reference was made in the opening of the discussion to the reaction on Ireland. The Dominions Secretary has very vigorously defended the policy of collecting revenue from the imports of livestock from Ireland in order to meet the engagements which they have failed to meet. This little policy has nothing to do with that. This is a direct attack on the interests of one of the Dominions that make up the Commonwealth of Nations. Little did we think that one of the first fruits of the Ottawa Conference would be an attack on the agricultural interests of the various parts of the Empire. The right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Member for South Molton (Mr. Lambert), is quite frank about it. He does not mind whether he ruins Germans, Frenchmen, Canadians, or Irishmen so long as Devonshire prospers.
§ Sir P. HARRIS
He does not mind ruining Bethnal Green either. He only takes an interest in his own particular section. That is the way to war and disaster, to breaking up the Empire, and to revolution in this country. I have taken the trouble to go down to my constituency to find out the reaction there already. This is a very grave winter for them, with much unemployment. Things 1558 have never been worse for them than in this winter of 1933. The streets are crowded with people anxious to make provision for their Christmas dinner, but with very little in their pockets, and the only Christmas message that the Minister of Agriculture has to send them is that he is conspiring artificially to raise the prices of the food that they have to buy. I say that that is a very serious thing to do to long-suffering people who have had to put up with hard times, short commons, and irregular wages for the last six or seven years.
§ Earl WINTERTON
How does the hon. Member get over the fact that the unemployment figures for the East End of London are lower than last year and that the index of living is lower also? Why does he say that this is the worst winter they have had?
§ Sir P. HARRIS
I say it because I know that we have 6,000 unemployed in Bethnal Green, and that it is not better there. Among the unskilled labourers and the workers in the docks, taking this winter as compared with previous winters, there is no improvement, and things in some ways, are worse. After all, while there is hope there is life, and as long as there is a chance of things recovering people will exercise patience, but every year that bad times continue, endurance gets strained and patience exhausted. I have always been able to say to the people down in the East End, "After all, things may be bad in this country, but at any rate you have a full cupboard and a full larder, and you are able to draw your supplies from the four quarters of the globe." Now the Minister of Agriculture comes down, with his clumsy hand, trying to lock the door and prevent the entry of commodities into this country. If my right hon. Friend thinks that in the long run he is going to bring about prosperity by his policy, I am satisfied that he is wrong. He is not even going to benefit those for whom he has taken this stand—the farmers.
I agree with a previous speaker that the only reason why the price of British meat has slumped is that people have not been in a position to buy British meat.
1559 In the poorer districts, not only of London, but of the great cities, they will always buy British produce in preference to imported if their wages permit them to do so. It is common knowledge that there is no better judge of a good joint of beef than a working woman. When they have a limited amount of cash to spend they take the trouble to buy the best, and it is a remarkable fact that up to a few years ago in many of the working-class districts they would not buy imported meat. This may be information to the Noble Lord opposite. West End housekeepers used to criticise their extravagance. They would always say that they would buy New Zealand lamb or Argentine chilled beef and express surprise that the working-class woman insisted on home-produced meat wherever she could. During the last two or three years, because of the long series of unemployed years and because they have exhausted their savings and have been on short time or unemployment pay, they have got into the habit of putting up with inferior substitutes like chilled beef, and now frozen beef, because even the price of chilled beef is considered beyond their means.
During the last few months the right hon. Gentleman has put another burden on them by his bacon policy. I have heard of the reactions of that policy on working-class women. I consulted large dealers in bacon and found that the immediate reaction of his policy of artificially increasing the price of bacon was to decrease the consumption and to divert expenditure from bacon to other inferior food substitutes. I want to know how far the right hon. Gentleman is going with his policy of keeping out tinned meat and canned beef. I am informed that as a result of the bacon policy there has been a diversion of expenditure on bacon to expenditure on canned beef. How far is he going in these restrictions and regulations by quota of the importation of canned beef? It is a cheap food. It is not food that people consume for choice, because it is an inferior substitute for fresh meat. They only buy it when they are hard up. Is the right hon. Gentleman's policy to force people first to use substitutes by artificially raising prices, and then to make the substitute more expensive? If he wants revolution 1560 and wants to drive the working-class into the hands of hon.: Gentlemen on the Opposition beaches, or, what is worse, to Communism, he is going the right way about it—
§ Sir P. HARRIS
The hon. Member supports that kind of policy. He defends it to-day because there is no vote, but I hope he will tell his working friends in the North of England.
§ Mr. DICKIE
I am perfectly prepared to go to my constituents in the distressed areas, where I have done all that is possible to justify every vote I have given in this House. I am not prepared to follow in the footsteps of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) in talking in this House in terms of revolution on a subject which admits of no justification for language of that kind.
§ Sir P. HARRIS
I hope that the hon. Member will go up to the North of England and tell his friends. I am not preaching revolution. I am trying to warn the right hon. Gentleman who is encouraging revolution by his policy. I have been using a qualifying influence, as every one knows, in the East End by fighting Socialism in every form in the last 12 years, and now the right hon. Gentleman is supported by his so-called Liberal friends opposite to make living more expensive for the working-classes. I have consulted the retail trade. The first person I selected was a well-known Conservative butcher, and he assured me that the reaction of this policy would have two effects: first, to raise prices, and, second, to decrease consumption. It may be argued that meat is not a necessity. I agree that it is not a necessity. There are plenty of substitutes. My hon. Friend seems surprised, but it is a common practice, when meat is expensive and when men are on the "dole," to give up meat and go in for cheese and even bread and margarine.
This is one of the worst day's work done by this or any other Government during the last 20 years. The Government come here with their proposal at the eleventh hour, when the House is about to go into Recess, with practically no figures and no facts, and without giving 1561 us any opportunity for discussion. There are none of the ordinary protections which we have when we are levying taxes. This is a tax, only instead of the money going into the Exchequer it will go into the pockets of privileged people. It does not matter to the consumer whether the artificial increase in price is caused by a tax or a limitation of supplies. As an hon. Friend of mine said, if we put on a duty, at least we bring some revenue to the Exchequer to assist in carrying on the country, but the whole proceeds of this particular tax go into the pockets of privileged individuals. I protest—and I am sorry to have to speak with such heat—against this most reactionary policy, which has been put into force without full opportunity for Debate. I believe it will do great mischief. I am prepared to go down to any part of the country and justify a tax or a scheme or a policy if it is for the general well being of the whole Empire, is going to consolidate us, and is for the well-being of the Commonwealth, but this action cannot be justified along those lines. It is a narrow, sectional, class proposal, and if my right hon. Friend opposite thinks that by this kind of policy he will strengthen the National Government and bring about National unity I can assure him that he is very much mistaken, because it is going to be resented by the working class in every industrial area.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Mr. R. W. SMITH
The hon. Member for South West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) told us, first, that we must look at this question from a broad point of view, taking the whole interests of the country into account, but when he was challenged on the fact that unemployment and the cost of living had gone clown he said that he did not look at it from the point of view of the country as a whole but of Bethnal Greed. I beg the House to consider the subject from the broad aspect and not from a sectional point of view, because it seems to me that those who have spoken against the Order have all taken the sectional view. There was the speech made by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. White). From the way in which he spoke one would think the Government had never considered the question, but when imports are decreased naturally the carry- 1562 ing trade is affected, one cannot help it. But has it not been the central policy of this Government to try to give our people the first place in the home market? And if we are to do that it cannot be expected that more goods will come in from outside.
A speaker from one of the Socialist benches said this would not be a happy Christmas for those in Southern Ireland, but surely it is much more important, at this time of Christmas, to bring a little cheer to our own great agricultural industry, and I congratulate the Government very much on giving the farmers of this country about the biggest Christmas present they ever had. I speak as one of those who, for the last few weeks, have been pressing the Minister to do something for the live-stock trade. I want to thank the Minister for what be has done, because I am sure that it will bring relief to many farmers.
We must not for a moment assume that this is the whole of the Government's policy, and I warn hon. Members opposite that the Government's policy will be on broad lines similar to what it has followed before. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I assume from those cheers that we may expect the support of hon. Gentlemen opposite. Cheers are either a sign of approval or of derision, and as they were not cheers of derision they must have been cheers of approval. On behalf of all those who have been pressing the Government in the interests of the stock-breeder, who is admittedly of vital importance to the country, I express our thanks to the Government for what they have done. The Orders are only for a short time I admit, but there are indications in the White Paper that the matter will not end here.
With regard to canned meats, I would like to point out to the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green that he should look at the matter from the broad point of view. Canned meat is by no means the cheapest form of meat that can be obtained by the people in this country. I should like him to come down to my part of the country, where I could take him to butchers, and Conservative butchers, who can tell him that they cannot even get a penny or two for sheeps' heads.
§ 3.28 p.m.
Lieut.-Colonel SANDEMAN ALLEN
I agree with what has been said by the hon. Member for Aberdeen and Kincardine (Mr. R. W. Smith). The opposition to the Government's proposal is rather inclined to be sectional, and any criticism that I shall bring to bear upon these Orders will be entirely from a sectional point of view. It must of necessity be so. The Orders are intended to help British agriculture, and with that I am, of course, in full sympathy, but I must stand up for my own constituency, which is being damaged by such Orders. I put it to the Ministry that damage is being done also to other interests, and that they should be good enough to bear that fact in mind when there are other favours to distribute, as it were, besides favours to agriculture. The business of lairages in Birkenhead, and on the Merseyside in general, is a large business, and damage is being done not only with regard to the employment of men but to the industry itself by these Orders.
I do not think that it has been made perfectly clear that this is not an attack upon Ireland. Ireland had an opportunity to safeguard herself under the Ottawa Agreements, but as she took no steps, as Canada did, to safeguard her position and to join the rest of the Empire in an agreement to assist the general good and welfare of the Empire, and especially because of the way in which she has looked upon us lately, she cannot rightly expect us to regard her in quite the same light as we regard Canada and those who have come to our assistance.
If I may return to the question of my own constituency, I should like to make some observations to the Government. The No. 3 Order, which we discussed the other day, helped the lairages of Birkenhead. The bringing of the duties upon both dead and live meat into line was of great assistance. But, after the Treasury, by doing that, has given us these crutches to help us along, the Minister of Agriculture sneaks up behind and "pinches" the crutches, and we do not feel quite so happy. The Minister evidently recognises that by the prohibition of imports of beef, meat offal and veal we are being put at a disadvantage, but that fact does not give us any advantage.
1564 From a purely constituency point of view, we are in a peculiar position. None of the things that the Minister has done in any direction has helped our port or the industry of Birkenhead; and none of the things that the Government have done from an industrial point of view has helped Birkenhead. Tariffs have helped Birmingham and other parts of the country, but not Birkenhead, while the policy that has been pursued by Mr. de Valera has been definitely detrimental to trade, industry and employment in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White). We have been most unfortunate, in that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was first giving out grants for distressed areas, we were below the qualifying level. Now, however, we have come into the distressed area qualification, but, because we did not qualify for the first grant, we are out of it in the case of the second.
There is another factor to which I should like to direct the attention of the House. We very much fear that the amalgamation of the Cunard and White Star Lines, owing to the building of the new steamer No. 534, will throw out of work a considerable number of men and women, employed not only on sea staffs but on shore staffs, who live in my division. We look upon that with grave disquietude. Indeed, I should like to say one or two words on that vital subject, because this will be the last opportunity of doing so. I understand that the Government have so far only made their arrangements with regard to one steamer, but I very much fear that they may go further and include two steamers, and I would like to draw the attention of the House to one or two matters in that connection. If the building of one of these gigantic steamers is subsidised, it will be necessary also to subsidise the running. These large vessels are very expensive luxuries, and they rely entirely upon rich American travellers and business men. If the Government think that the policy of Mr. Roosevelt is going in a short time to make America a rich country, we shall be delighted, and shall say that we ought to follow that policy a little more; but personally I am not so satisfied, and do not feel at all happy in that regard. I feel that if there were a little more of the blue ribbon of teetotalism we should 1565 probably not see so much of the Loch Ness monster, and that if there were a little less in the blue riband of the Atlantic we might hear a little less about this monster.
The blue riband of the Atlantic seems to be an attraction which has put the Government quite off the track in this matter. If you are going to put into that shell an engine which will enable it to beat, say, the "Rex," you are going to put in an engine for which it is not designed. I hope the Government have gone into that matter very carefully, and also into the question of what these large steamers are carrying in the way of passengers as compared with the smaller ones. I would like to see, instead of the construction of these enormous steamers, which have to be run at the expense of the nation, the construction of smaller vessels, which I think the figures will show to be much more popular. That construction could be spread round various shipyards. That is one way in which the Government could make up for some of the troubles that they are bringing upon us, and they have brought us very severe trouble. They have hit Merseyside pretty hard in a great many ways. They have hit them over agriculture and over the Irish policy. We are prepared to take a few knocks but we do want to be hanging about when the Government are dishing out mince pies. We want them to help us in some way and, if they help shipping, they help not only us but a great many of those magnificent people, the mercantile officers and seamen, who are the backbone of the country. I regret to have to bring up any criticism of the Government but I feel certain that they will understand that they have hit us very severely and I would ask the Minister of Agriculture to bear this in mind, especially when he is talking about measures that will in some way help us in our distress.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Miss MEGAN LLOYD GEORGE
I also would plead with the Minister of Agriculture to reconsider this new Order which has sprung fully equipped from his brain so precipitately and with so little notice. We have heard of Devonshire and of Bethnal Green, and I should like the House to hear something about Holyhead, which has been one of the victims 1566 of the dispute between this country and Ireland and which is to be further victimised by this new Order. Holyhead, like other parts of the country, has suffered from the trade depression and, in addition, has been penalised by direct Government action, by the Irish import duties. The town, which is wholly dependent on the Irish trade, has nothing to fall back upon. There is no other industry or trade to which she can turn. Of course, traffic has been decreasing to an alarming extent as a result of the import duties. Even the slight improvement in trade which has taken place, and which has given a gleam of hope to some other distressed areas, has not brought a crumb of comfort to Holyhead, which cannot be affected by any improvement in general trade conditions. If this policy continues, and if these Orders are carried out, it may well be that Holyhead will not only be a distressed area but may become a derelict area. One right hon. Gentleman has said he hopes very much that the Dominions Secretary will meet Mr. de Valera half way. I only hope he will meet him half way, at Holyhead. I may be accused of taking a local view of this question. When the national aspect of the question came before the House in the form of the Irish Import Duties, that was one of the very rare occasions on which I voted with the Government, and perhaps I may be forgiven for taking a local view on this occasion.
Many hon. Members have spoken of the great concern which is felt about the situation of the cattle farmers. Never before within the memory of living man have the cattle farmers in my constituency had to pass through such a time of distress. They need assistance, but I do not believe that they will get it in this way. I do not think that the measures which the right hon. Gentleman propose to take will greatly assist the farmers, because, first of all, the crux of the problem is not touched upon at all. The complaint of the farmers in this country is not against one Dominion or against the Irish Free State, but against the whole of the Ottawa Agreements. I do not need to differentiate. One might have thought that it was the Irish Free State which was flooding the British market, but, as a matter of fact, the imports of cattle from the Irish Free State have fallen sharply, whereas the imports from Canada have risen equally as sharply, and 1567 the imports from Australia and New Zealand have had an even more remarkable increase. But nothing, I understand, is to be done there. In fact, the Government have encouraged the imports from Australia and New Zealand.
If the right hon. Gentleman is to adopt this method of dealing with this crisis—it would not be the method that we should adopt—he should deal with the Ottawa agreements not piecemeal but wholesale. After all, the quantity which comes from the Irish Free State is comparatively small, and the gain will be comparatively small. Although the quantities which come from Canada are infinitely greater, the quantities which come from Canada and the Irish Free State are to be cut, I understand, by the same proportions, which seems to be hardly fair. I do not believe that this is the most effective way of putting this section of the agricultural industry upon its feet, and I make an appeal to the Government to deal fairly and justly with this distressed area of Holyhead.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ The MINISTER of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Elliot)
I am sure that, as the House is, within a short time, to adjourn for the Christmas Recess, it will be the desire of all of us to wish a speedy recovery to health of the Leader of the Opposition, whose absence from our Debates has been so much deplored. I am sure that every one in all parts of the House heartily joins in that desire. I know that there are other Members who have other subjects to raise, and, therefore, I wish to be as brief as possible. I should like, in the first place, to make a short reference to the circumstances of the present Debate, since more than one speaker has referred to the short time which the House has had to consider these important matters. This point was raised by the representative of the Opposition at the conclusion of my statement yesterday. The statement which was made by me yesterday on behalf of the Government was the culmination of close investigation, long discussion, and negotiation. Clearly, it was not a statement which could have been made without weighing up over weeks of consideration the pros and cons, for no one acquainted 1568 with Cabinet government could conceive that any Minister would be allowed to rise in his place and fling at the head of the House a statement which had not previously been canvassed to the last stitch by his colleagues.
It became clear during those deliberations that conclusions could not be finally reached until yesterday, and until that time it was not possible to say what announcement, if any, could be made. In view of the Adjournment to-day, it became a question whether the statement had better be deferred until to-day, after the Opposition leaders had been notified and copies of the statement had been previously submitted to them, or be given yesterday to the House, although this involved the seeming discourtesy of not previously informing the Opposition leaders, and the further disadvantage, as you, Mr. Speaker, have since pointed out to me, that an important statement of some length is better made at the conclusion of Questions, by leave of the House, rather than in answer to a Private Notice Question.
It seemed to me, that, in spite of these disadvantages, the House might pardon me if I made the statement at the earliest possible moment, with a view to having it in print and in the hands of hon. Members before the Debate on the Adjournment, in view of the difficulty which we all encounter in trying to follow a complicated statement involving numerous figures, verbally or from manuscript. I hope, therefore, very much that hon. Members in all parts of the House, and particularly on the Opposition benches, will take my action as merely directed towards putting the relevant facts before the House at the earliest possible moment. If I have transgressed, owing to excess of zeal, on the unwritten courtesies of the House, which are as real and as important as its written Rules, I hope that they, and you, Mr. Speaker, will extend to me, pardon.
What is the justification for the admittedly drastic steps we are taking? The justification is the supply position and the supply position alone. Let me repeat that there is not in these proposals any hostile or penal action towards any part of the world and certainly not to any parts of the British Empire. The position in regard to beef prices had become acute. The agricultural index number for fat cattle as compared with prices 1569 in 1911 and 1913 has fallen from 128 in November, 1930, to 115 in November, 1931, to 101 in November, 1932, and to exactly the pre-War level in November, 1933, although, of course, the costs, the chief of which are wages, remain considerably above pre-War rates. Prices of fat cattle in this country were low in 1932, and they have been consistently lower in corresponding periods of 1933. The prices this year fail to show the normal seasonal rise from January to June. There are causes which it would be possible to suggest such as the long-continued heat wave last summer and the quality of the cattle not being up to standard because of the long-continued drought.
But there is another factor, and it would be folly to neglect it, and that is the change in fashion, not merely, as hon. Members opposite have contended, through the diminished purchasing power, since it coincides with a rise of consumption per head of other forms of meat. The consumption of beef per head fell steadily all through the boom years between 1927 and 1929. We call them boom years, although I do not think they were exceptional in any way, or that they were up to the level of prosperity that we would like to see; but they were boom years in which hon. Members opposite take a certain amount of pleasure as compared with the gloomier picture which they depict to-day. Particularly was it so in the second half of 1929 and the first half of 1930, which hon. Members opposite have always pointed to as the real halcyon days of the British working-man. During that time the consumption of beef fell steadily from 69 lbs. per head in 1927, to 68 in 1928, 67 in 1929, 66 in 1930, 65 in 1931 and 61 lbs. in 1932. There was thus a continuing fall in the consumption. On the other hand the consumption of mutton and lamb rose from 27 lbs. per head in 1927 to 28 lbs. in 1928. It then went back again to 27 lbs. in 1929, went up again to 28 lbs. in 1930, to 30 lbs. in 1931 and to 32 lbs. in 1932. I will not weary the House with figures as to bacon but the consumption went up from 40 lbs. at the beginning of that period in 1927 to 49 lbs. per head at the end of 1932. It is clear, therefore, that all who press upon us the necessity for a long-term policy and planning for the industry are those in whose mouths it does not lie to condemn us because we draw the attention of suppliers of this market, by 1570 restrictive measures, to the fact that the fall per head in consumption of beef shows that it will be impossible for all suppliers of beef home, Dominion and foreign, to continue supplying this market on the same scale as before. The fact remains, that in spite of all the efforts which the Government have made prices remain far below remunerative levels and the position of the home beef producer is becoming desperate.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I find my position a little difficult. When I use language of studied moderation and say that the position is unsatisfactory I am attacked by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, East (Mr. White) because I do not use language strong enough. He says that unsatisfactory is very moderate term. We are all in an unsatisfactory position. To say that it is desperate, tragic and appalling, is not the language one would use in an intentionally understated case such as that I have put before hon. Members in the White Paper. There I say that it is unsatisfactory, and I mean that it is a position with which neither the Government nor I are satisfied, and that it is a position with which we desire to deal. It was pressed upon our attention by the Agricultural Committee of the House of Commons, by the Council of the National Farmers' Union, by the Council of Agriculture of England and Wales, including representatives of all shades of political opinion, by the Bursars of the Oxford Colleges in a very important statement since it came from men of the highest agricultural knowledge who have no axe to grind, and also, oddly enough, it came from the Council of Agriculture for Wales. The hon. Member for Anglesey (Miss Lloyd George) will agree that with a conflicting demand from her county I am in a quandary, but there are more counties in Wales interested in livestock than the single town of Holyhead which is, of course, interested in the transport trade.
Given that the position is unsatisfactory and that the measures to be taken to handle it were not sufficient, the question was should we act or should we remain seated, should we deal with the situation or should we leave it alone. Hon. Members of the Liberal party who say that the position is difficult and that the measures 1571 taken by the Government will bring difficulties to this or that section of the industry, put forward no alternative proposals except to suggest that we should wait until everything in the world becomes much more prosperous than it is to-day.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
But while the grass grows the steed starves. Let us consider the scale of the industry with which we are dealing. We are told that this may injure investments abroad and may injure revenues. What is the amount of capital invested in agriculture in England and Wales alone? It runs to £1,280,000,000 sterling. The amount of British capital invested in the whole of India and Ceylon is less than half, or £458,000,000. There is more than twice as much invested in agriculture in this country as in the whole of our overseas investments in the Indian Empire. The value of the meat produced in Great Britain runs to something like £40,000,000 a year. This is not a small industry; it is a great industry, and one which could not be allowed to founder as long as the Government felt that it could in any way improve the situation.
The state of the industry does not affect farmers only or the people on the employment side only. There are over 2,000,000 acres of land under public ownership in this country, for which the revenues are of the greatest importance to various public bodies. The university colleges alone own between 200,000 and 250,000 acres. They derive a big proportion of their revenue from that source, and the impending collapse of the beef industry would have dragged down a great proportion of the agriculture in this country, because, as has been repeated in two very able and interesting maiden speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Rutland (Lord Willoughby de Eresby), and Market Harborough (Mr. Tree), beef production is not the key of the door but the keystone of the arch, and the whole of the industry will collapse unless we get the livestock section on its feet. Accordingly, after considerable examination, we decided on the steps which have been detailed to the House. It has been said by those who have criticised us that 1572 the action was too swift. I am content to bear that accusation. I do not think it was too swift, but even if it were I should rather be blamed for over-swiftness than for over-slowness.
We have had the situation under review for months and in recent weeks I have repeatedly spoken of the necessity of dealing with it. It has been pressed on me by every section of opinion connected with agriculture and from many outside. This is no new policy. We have already dealt with the situation in the way that was open to us. The hon. Member for East Birkenhead asked, Why has not an attack been made upon the imports of beef from New Zealand and Australia; why have they not been reduced? We have, as part of the Government policy, signed agreements with many foreign countries and a good many parts of the Empire, and, of course, we are bound by our signature. Under that signature these imports do not come in for any regulation during the first part of this year. Surely, it comes strangely from the hon. and gallant Member for West Birkenhead (Lieut.-Colonel Sandeman Allen), who was complaining about the danger of the rise of the cost of living, that he should complain that we are regulating what is admittedly the highest-priced kind of meat, the luxury kind of meat, and not at the same time regulating, restricting, cutting down the lower-priced quality of meat which he himself says is necessary in the present state of distress.
Lieut.-Colonel SANDEMAN ALLEN
May I correct my right hon. Friend? He is referring to the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White). I pointed out that Ireland could have covered herself when the Ottawa Agreements were being made, but she preferred to take no part.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I am very sorry; I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for East Birkenhead. He asked whether the restrictions were being shared equally all the way round, and particularly whether New Zealand was being brought in, and, if not, why Australia and New Zealand were not brought in on this occasion. The answer is that we have signed an agreement which deals with those two countries, and under that agreement we are precluded from considering any proposals for dealing with the beef situation in Australia and New Zealand at present.
1573 Another argument was, why deal with this particular class of cattle imports. We had to deal especially with live cattle, the cattle for immediate slaughter, the cattle on which a reduction would bring the most immediate relief to the beef markets, since from the continuing decline in consumption per head it was clear that some relief for the beef market would have to be found. The other arguments which have been brought do not go so much to the root of the matter.
I have done my utmost to make it clear to the House that we are not animated in our proposals by any spirit of hostility to the Irish Free State. They are proposals to deal with an economic and not a political situation, and on economic and not on political grounds they will have to be challenged. The sectional interests have quite fairly put forward their point of view, as indeed they were bound to do. The hon. Member for West Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Anglesey in particular have put forward these views, although they have also been voiced by the hon. Member for East Birkenhead and others who have spoken. These hon. Members have said, "The carrying trade will be injured by the proposals which the Government are bringing forward." We have to weigh up the pros and the cons. These were all very carefully taken into consideration and, as the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Cove) himself said, I myself have drawn the attention of the House to the balance which will need to be worked out between home production and overseas importation. I am by no means to be taken as a fierce devotee of the absolute exclusion of everything from outside our shores.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
My hon. Friend says I am fast becoming one. Let us take the figure upon which he concentrated. Under those proposals no less than 88½ per cent. of the trade in Irish cattle will be absolutely untouched.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I know my hon. Friend is a quietist, and that he would sit still and await the impending doom about which he utters such gloomy prophecies. If that is the hon. Member's idea of statesmanship he will excuse us if we 1574 differ from him. These proposals leave 88½ per cent. of Irish trade untouched. That proportion of the trade will flow freely as before. I think the carrying trade ought to remember that they carry to a country whose prosperity is essential even to the carrying trade—
§ Mr. ELLIOT
The proposal is, as I have said in the White Paper, for a 12½ per cent. reduction on the figures of last year, which is to say that 87½ per cent. of the trade will continue. I said 88½ per cent. but that was my mistake. I have already pointed out that there are great quantities of oversea trade which will still persist in this and the bacon industry and the other industries affected by the Order—far more than are allowed in any other country of which we have knowledge to-day. The regulations which we are entering upon, in regard to oversea trade, concede the utmost liberty to exporting countries, as compared with Germany or other countries of Central Europe which have practically closed their own boundaries against foreign trade of any kind. This is still a great trading nation and whatever regulations we carry through as to foreign trade it will remain a great trading nation. The working out of the balance between town and country is one of the main problems of statesmanship in our immediate future, but it cannot be solved by ignoring the claims to prosperity of any section.
We were very glad to hear the speeches delivered by the hon. Members for Rutland and Market Harborough. The reference of the hon. Member for Rutland to his relations by marriage was one with which I am sure the whole House will sympathise. I have good reason to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Market Harborough spent many weeks campaigning in an area which is largely devoted to beef production, at a time when he could give very little pledge of immediate positive action for their benefit. It is worth while noting that two young Members of this House, given that greatest of all opportunities, the opportunity of a maiden speech, should have chosen to make their speeches on the Adjournment, in a relatively empty House, on the eve of a Recess because 1575 of the importance which they attach to this tremendous subject of agriculture. It is a sign of the times that it should be regarded as a subject to which a young Member might most suitably devote attention. I am sure the House will recognise it as a test of the temper in which Parliament is addressing itself to its most difficult task.
Our proposals are before the House. We have printed and circulated the White Paper. We have circulated in roneo form, the Order which is about to come into operation. It comes into operation on 1st January. None of the restrictions will operate until that time but, up to that time, cattle coming into the United Kingdom will be registered and counted. I think we may say that the technical men concerned are confident that they can carry out this very difficult task, that they can work out the numbers of fat cattle as against store cattle, and check into this country the scores of thousands of cattle which will enter, even under this Order, during the next few months. It is a difficult task, and it requires a great deal of organisation. It has not been lightly undertaken. We too knew the difficulties and the dangers which such a course entailed. We have faced those difficulties and those dangers, and I ask the House to give us its confidence and its support and to allow us to go forward with that policy.
§ Mr. HARCOURT JOHNSTONE
Has the right hon. Gentleman any estimate as to what the rise in prices, both wholesale and retail, is likely to be under the provisions of this scheme?
§ Mr. ELLIOT
As I state in the early sentences of the White Paper, the first thing that we have to do is to hold prices against a further decline, which, with the heavier weight of home supplies coming on the market, would almost certainly take place if we had not taken those steps. Therefore, I hope, first, the price will not further decline, and, secondly, I hope there will be a rise in wholesale prices. I do not see any reason why that should' bring about a rise of any size in retail prices, since the fall in wholesale prices has not been accompanied on the whole by any precipitous fall in retail prices. As for the size of the rise which is to take place, first of all it clearly will not be in the cheaper 1576 grades of beef, and, secondly, as for the dearer grades of meat, it must depend largely on the effective demand, but I cannot make any prophecy as to what the effective demand is likely to bring about in the way of a rise in wholesale prices of British fat stock in the months immediately to come.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Lieut. - Colonel MOORE-BRABAZON
I have been various things in the course of my life, but I have never been an agricultural labourer, and, therefore, I feel somewhat ill-equipped to criticise what has been said by such an experienced farmer as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. I do not know whether he is quite so happy in sucking straws as in dealing with test tubes. There is one point about which I was not satisfied. The right hon. Gentleman said that these duties were not penal, but I wonder what the position in Ireland would have been if the Cosgrave Government had been in power there and had paid their dues on the land annuities. The position relative to Irish cattle would have been very different then, but that is a point which I will not pursue. We are near Christmas, and at a time like this we have the great advantage of being able toTo talk of many things:Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—Of cabbages—and kings—And why the sea is boiling hot—And whether pigs have wings.But I would like to say a word or two about the present Government. We are now in the third year of their existence, and this Government, like all other Governments, is always surrounded by people who tell them in their presence that they are the most wonderful collection of people in the world, and that the country would fall to pieces if it were not for them. That is common to all Governments, and I am not blaming them for having that illusion. In part, I share that view. I think it is an extremely good Government, but we are coming now to a time when the country is getting tired of the monotony of the composition of the Government. If you will remember, Sir, when the Lord President of the Council choose the late Conservative Government, it remained exactly the same, without a single change from start to finish, and that is a very bad thing from the point of view of the country.
1577 The country like to see the team changed. They like a good shuffle up, and I hope that during the holiday not only the Prime Minister but the Lord President of the. Council will think of some reorganisation which will change the monotony of the present Front Bench and give us hope that perhaps a more vigorous policy in some directions may be followed. I am not complaining for a moment of the Minister of Agriculture, who is the most vigorous of them all, but I am perhaps reassured in this direction, in that the Postmaster-General has now become a member of the Cabinet. I only hope that that will be the presage to a "general post" within the Cabinet itself.