§ Order for Third Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."1504
§ 1.57 p.m.
§ Mr. CHARLES BROWN
We cannot let this Bill pass its Third Reading without making another protest against what we regard as its inadequacy in some respects to deal with the problem with which it is supposed to deal, and without making one or two comments on what we regard as some unsatisfactory features of the Bill. Its passing marks another phase in the manifold activities of the Minister of Agriculture in seeking to deal with the problem of agriculture as he finds it. His activities, of course, have met with the general approval of most hon. Members who represent agricultural constituencies, but when the Bill has reached the Statute Book I am not certain whether the Minister will have satisfied the agricultural Members of the House completely, because even when the provisions of the Bill are in operation he will find that their demands are as clamant and insistent as they have ever been during the right hon. Gentleman's tenure of office. But we must pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's efforts, although we think them in some respects misguided and in others misdirected. At any rate the right hon. Gentleman does things. Sometimes, from our point of view, he does them in the wrong way, but no one will be able to say that he sat idly by while British agriculture went to ruin.
So this Bill marks the right hon. Gentleman's latest effort to deal with a part of a problem which he himself has described as the economics of glut. In this case the commodity concerned is milk. He has told us that far more milk is being produced than can be consumed under existing conditions, at least in forms which mean an economic price to the producer. Granting for the moment that the Minister has made out his case for a temporary subsidy for manufacturing milk, because the surplus is so large—I do not want to suggest that he has not done that—it by no means follows that it is a justifiable course to subsidise manufacturing milk for the next two years. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has made out any case for subsidising it for two years. He agrees, and I think the Under-Secretary for Scotland agrees, as to the desirability of increasing the consumption of liquid milk. There is general agreement on that point. Everyone who has taken part in these Debates has told us that that is one of 1505 the best things we can do. If that be so, we are bound to ask ourselves whether the proposals of the Bill are calculated to further that object as quickly as possible. We on these Benches do not think that they are. They may result in the consumption of milk in other forms to an increased extent, rather than in the increased consumption of liquid milk.
The Minister at one time or another has taken justifiable pride in having turned the milk industry into what he calls an organised industry. The chaos, confusion and anarchy which prevailed have been to some degree ended, and the right hon. Gentleman has now great pride in informing us that the industry is organised. If this organisation is to be assisted by taxpayers' money it should be assisted, on the Minister's own showing, to increase the consumption of milk in the form which, it is generally agreed, is the most desirable, both for consumer and producer. The general agreement about that is that we should increase the consumption of liquid milk. That is the main object which the Minister ought to have in view. It is argued very forcibly that it is necessary to subsidise manufacturing milk in order to prevent the price of liquid milk being increased, with the consequent probability that consumption would decline. That is the way in which the Minister seeks to justify the subsidy to manufacturing milk.
We all know that any rise in the price of liquid milk would tend to reduce consumption by the poorer paid workers, who already consume far too little liquid milk. How ironical it seems that we should have available a large supply of a nutritious and valuable food and that those who are in the greatest need of it cannot afford to buy it. On the Minister's own showing he dare not do anything which would raise the price of liquid milk because he fears a decline in consumption. So he prefers another method of dealing with the problem. When I hear him speak I cannot help recalling some of the studies in which I was interested in days gone by and am still interested to some degree—studies in connection with the long struggle that man has made through hundreds of years to gain ever increasing control over his food supplies. He has had to make long and arduous efforts to do that. Now as the Minister of Agriculture frequently 1506 reminds us, the object of that quest has been more or less achieved. Scarcity in regard to vital commodities is not known in these days and all the right hon Gentleman has to deal with are surpluses.
I think it was an American economist who said that the old world forged ahead of the new world when the people in the old world had learned to domesticate cattle and had passed on to a meat and milk subsistence. But it was a long time before they made that meat and milk subsistence sure. Now they have made it sure, and it is a great tragedy that to-day, when meat and milk exist in great quantities, those who need them most in the civilised communities of the world cannot get them. There are surpluses but they are not available for those who are in most need. That is, indeed, a tragic situation. If we felt sure that what the Minister is doing in this Bill was likely to make it more possible for those who need these surpluses to get them, we should have no objection to the Bill. As the Bill stands, we have some decided objections to it.
We feel that the subsidy in respect of milk used for manufacture is not justified over a long period like two years. In view of the fact that everybody agrees on the need for increasing the consumption of liquid milk I put it to the Minister that he should turn his attention to devising some scheme which would bring increasing quantities of liquid milk within the reach of the poorer paid sections of the people, and particularly children and nursing mothers. I ask him to give his attention to that matter long before this period of two years expires. Then I do not think that Clause 9 of the Bill and the machinery created in other Clauses of the Bill will satisfactorily meet the problem of what the Minister has called "cleaning up our herds." I have sat for some eight or nine years on the agricultural committee of a county council—though probably some of the agricultural Members of this House may think that I ought not to have occupied such a position. I have also been a member of the health committee of that county council. It is, of course, the health committee which supervises matters in relation to the milk supply, and that committee employs veterinary surgeons who inspect cattle and deal with cattle diseases. I have always noticed that the 1507 veterinary surgeons and their reports to the health committee are not infrequently attacked at the agricultural committee by the agricultural members of the council, who do not always appear to regard the activities of the veterinary surgeons with favour.
Listening to speeches on this subject in the House, I have been reminded of a country squire who is a member of the county council to which I belong and of the manner in which on one occasion he swept aside arguments in favour of more drastic inspection of the herds in the county with a view to the prevention of dirty milk. He was a big burly gentleman and he waived the critic on one side saying, "Look at me. I was brought up on dirty milk." While that attitude of mind prevails on the agricultural committees of our county councils, the Minister will not get very far by means of the machinery proposed in this Bill. I do not say that that attitude is widespread and general. I hope the example which I have mentioned is an isolated one, though I fear it is not. But if that attitude of mind prevails to any extent, then, unless the Minister devises some form of machinery other than that proposed in the Bill he will not get far with the process known as cleaning up the herds. I know all about the premiums to be given for clean milk and the other inducements, but the Minister will have to change the attitude of mind and the whole outlook of many people in the agricultural industry on this problem.
With regard to the money that is to be spent under this Bill it should be noted that in the period covered by the Bill we are to spend £5,500,000 of the taxpayers' money. We are entitled to ask: Are we likely to get full value for it? Will the economic and social life of the nation be enriched by this gift? I call it a gift, though I know it is said to be a loan. There is talk of it being repaid, but the Minister has pointed out that in certain circumstances it may not be repaid, and the probability is that it will not be repaid. We must ask therefore whether we are likely to benefit, from the social and economic point of view, as a nation by this expenditure, or whether the chief advantages of this gift will go to a relatively small section of the community? That is a very important question and 1508 one which we have a right to put to the Minister. In this Measure, as in so many of the Government's other proposals, I fail to detect any great benefit which is likely to accrue to the mass of the working population of this country. It may well be that the £5,500,000 which is to be spent through the instrumentality of this Bill will bring nothing like that advantage to the mass of the people, which it could bring to them if it were devoted in some other way.
I hope it is not intended that this money should merely go into the pockets of farmers and landlords. When one considers the various Measures proposed by this Government one cannot help feeling that they are putting money into the pockets of farmers and landlords and manufacturers, and even ensuring that investors shall receive their interest regularly. But those people are not potentially larger consumers of milk. If the Minister looks out over the life of the community to-day to see where he is likely to find potentially larger consumers of milk, it must become apparent to him that the market which he wants is among the great working-class population of the country. We do not feel that, primarily, the proposals of the Bill are likely to achieve what the Minister says he desires, namely, the greater consumption of liquid milk by the mass of the people. Therefore, we must make our final protest before the Bill receives a Third Reading.
§ 2.14 p.m.
§ Mr. de ROTHSCHILD
I do not propose to detain the House very long, but we do not want this Bill to pass to another place without adding a few more words to the comments which have already been made on these proposals. As to questions of detail, I should like to address some remarks to those in charge of the Bill on the subject of Clause 3. Some of my hon. Friends and I moved an Amendment to make certain alterations in this Clause, and the answer which we got was not altogether satisfactory. The point of it was that Clause 3 is there to regulate, apparently, the supply of milk for cheese. I hope that before the Bill goes from this House to another place it will be amended, and that the true purpose of the Clause, as explained to the Committee by the Under-Secretary, will be made quite clear to anybody who 1509 reads the Bill. As regard the general point raised, the House is well aware that we agree fully with the Clauses which deal with the advertising of milk and the giving of milk to school children.
The right hon. Gentleman has said before that this Bill proposes to lift the burden off the industry. I am afraid that he is not going to lift the burden very far. All that this subsidy is going to do is to add something just over a farthing for every gallon of milk produced. I do not think that that is going to help the farmer very much. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that when he set up the Milk Board it was with the idea of doing really three things. The first was to correct the unremunerative price which is being paid to the producers; the second was to reduce the high price which consumers were paying, and consequently provide a remedy for the low consumption; and the third object, to my mind, was to regulate the quantity and also to regulate the unreliable quality of the supply. The result has been that the price is lower than ever. The producer has made very little out of it, the consumer pays more and consumption has not increased. As regards quantity and quality, both are more chaotic than ever.
The remedy, as far as we are concerned, does not consist in the subsidising of manufactured milk. That merely means an increased quantity and does not have any influence whatever on quality. We advocate the greater distribution of free milk in the schools. We were very pleased the other day when the right hon. Gentleman said that six-sevenths of the sum put at his disposal was to be spent on that object, and we hope that with the help of the Government the supply to the schools will tend to increase whether by means of subsidy or some other means. To our mind, the costs of distribution are still far too high. The whole of this scheme as well as the bacon scheme are based on the requirements of the distributors. The first thing considered is the margin which the distributors want, and then attention is paid to the consumer, but the distributors always seem to come first. We on these benches hope that the right hon. Gentleman will do something to curb the appetite and the rapacity of the distributors.
1510 Then with regard to the question of disease in herds. This is an administration Measure, and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture is not going to approach this problem in a defeatist spirit. We have heard from those benches and from other parts of the House that enormous sums are to be spent. The sum of £50,000,000 has been mentioned. That seems to us to be perfectly fantastic, and I think that if the right hon. Gentleman tackled this subject in the same way that things were tackled during the War at the Ministry of Munitions, where I had the pleasure of serving for a short time, men of push and go could be found able to tackle this business and get it through quickly. I would like to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the new discoveries which are being made. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to the inoculation of calves as regards T.T., and I hope that he will make an inquiry into the new system of inoculation to prevent foot-and-mouth disease—a system which, I believe, has been very successfully tried in Belgium. There is no disease which threatens the dairy farmer more than foot-and-mouth disease.
This is an era of subsidies. After we leave this subject another subsidy is to be discussed. It can be pointed out that subsidies benefit only one section of the population. The subsidy which is put forward by the right hon. Gentleman on this occasion is one for the manufacturers of milk. It is a subsidy to a section of the population. A uniform pool price which is brought about by subsidy can only lower the grade of the milk, but the subsidy which is given to provide in schools free milk of pure quality is one which will benefit the whole nation. It is not a subsidy which is purely sectional, to provide profit for one part of the population. The health of the whole nation, or a very large part of it, would benefit if a large number of school children were given free milk of a pure quality, and I hope that the Minister and his Department will carry further that policy.
§ 2.23 p.m.
§ Mr. HOROBIN
This is the first Measure which the Minister of Agriculture has introduced since his unfortunate absence from us which we deplored at the time, but we are all glad to see him here again. He is certainly none the worse 1511 for his absence; in fact, he is asking for a little more money than usual, and none of us would like to cavil at another million or two, or an extra committee or so on this auspicious occasion. I feel sometimes that he has an unfair advantage in the fact that his very great personal popularity among all sections of the House is inclined to blunt the weapon of our wrath. I, myself, feel rather like the character in one of Shakespeare's plays who said:An I had but one penny in the world, thou should'st have it to buy gingerbread.The Minister has, by this time, persuaded all of us, I imagine, that the agricultural industry in this country is faced with a very important problem—the problem of how to quarter itself on the taxpayer as quickly and widely as possible. Before the last Election, that process was usually described as Poplarism, and as I live close to Poplar, and in a borough which had its guardians removed by his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I amused myself during the time this Bill has been going through by looking up the accounts there. I see they were got rid of when they had an actual deficit of something less than £1,000,000. It is time that Poplar got away with a bit more, but they spent at least one term in the jug to get it. Both Sir Alfred Woodgate, who was sent down there, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sent him there, are alive still, and I hope I shall live to see a visit by Sir Alfred Woodgate to the Ministry of Agriculture in this connection.
I must call attention to this one further example of the way in which the bad joke of one year becomes the sad reality of the following in these matters of planning, subsidy, and interference with industry. Not very long ago my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, in a speech outside this House, made some reference—dealing with meat, I think it was—in which he said that before his policy came to fruition the country would have to put up with a terrible lot of very nasty and dear food.
§ Mr. HOROBIN
My right hon. Friend's memory is worse than his conscience. He 1512 said that before his policy came to fruition the country would have to be put up with a lot of very dear and nasty food, and when I referred to that in a speech in this House he was kind enough to say that as I made a considerable number of jokes, I ought not to be hard on him if he made one, but he promised never to make another, yet here is his very practical joke now on us. Here we are dealing with this nasty and dear food, this dirty, tuberculous, subsidised mess that we have been discussing for so many days. I must point out that the reason for this glut is very simple. It is that this milk is too dear and too dangerous for the ordinary consuming public. We have a tremendous lot of talk about the glut of imported milk products coming into this country, and we were given the impression that butter, cheese, and all sorts of things were being piled up and could not be disposed of. That may well happen some day when the Board really get into their stride, but at the moment it is not happening; all this "glut" of milk imports is going into the bellies of my constituents and of other people's. For the first time in their unhappy lives they are getting every day enough or nearly enough of these milk products, and the truth about all this talk about glut is that the unhappy consumer, having had to put up with an attempted blockade by the Germans 15 years ago, has now to put up with a more successful blockade by the farmers of this country.
§ Mr. HENDERSON STEWART
Is the hon. Member not aware of many cases where farmers have no market for immense quantities of milk?
§ Mr. HOROBIN
Because they are trying to get a price that people cannot pay. I do not need to go to any academic or Socialist person for an example of the opposite policy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had a similar problem to face not very long ago. He is in charge of a very pleasant liquid food. He found that the consumption of beer was going down, and he hunted about through musty precedents and discredited whimsies of the 19th century to find out how he could increase the quantity of beer consumed. Did he set up a Marketing Board or a Committee? No. He reduced the price and made the brewers themselves improve the quality.
§ Mr. ELLIOT
My hon. Friend knows that the Chancellor reduced the taxation, thus making it possible to improve the quality.
§ Mr. HOROBIN
I do not think my right hon. Friend could make many people in this House or outside believe that it is the same thing to set about increasing the consumption of beer by reducing the heavy taxation which has made its price too high, and to set to work to give public money away and, therefore, presumably to increase the taxation somewhere else. I know the right hon. Gentleman belongs to the opposite school in these matters. He has found a better way; his eyes are on the future, on the generations still unborn, whose principal amusement will be paying interest and sinking fund on his loans. We have had some little experience of my right hon. Friend. It cannot be a coincidence this everlasting recurrence to subsidy and borrowing. Everyone will remember the obvious gusto with which he came down to that Box on one occasion, his first considerable occasion in this Parliament, when he appeared to borrow at one fell swoop £150,000,000 for the Exchange Equalisation Account. It is true that that account was put into very capable and very formidable hands, and that the Bank soon began to report that there was profit in the account. The right hon. Gentleman promptly lost his interest in it and became Minister of Agriculture. Since then, we have seen appear here that astronomical vagueness that seems always to afflict agricultural planners. He has not been allowed to be very astronomical, but he is at least vague, as anybody who tries to discover an estimate in this Bill will soon find. Almost the only function of these marketing boards, and certainly the chief attraction for the Minister, is that they provide a magnificent opportunity for going on borrowing. If I may adapt a quotation:A primrose by the river's brim,A prior lien is to him,And it is nothing more.I would not like the House to overlook the fact that, although the right hon. Gentleman is very fond of borrowing, his views on what constitutes the responsibility of repaying are very hazy. When the Unemployment Fund gets into a deficit, it has to repay the uttermost farthing. 1514 Forty years in the wilderness for them, paying full rate of interest. But the right hon. Gentleman and his friends do not spend 40 years in the wilderness. They have a look at the "wilderness for two years, and if they do not like the look of it, they are then carried straight over Jordan on the taxpayers' backs. Let the House remember that if they do not repay, somebody has got to. The loan will still have been incurred and the 40 years' interest and sinking fund will still continue. It is only that our agricultural friends will not have to bear the burden of it; though they will have got the cash. It is not only a question of terms of repayment because the question of security also is involved. If these marketing Boards go on borrowing why cannot they do what others have to do, namely, go to the city and put up a proposition that would appeal to the ordinary investor? We are always being told that there are enormous sums of money idle in the City awaiting investment. Then why is it necessary in this Bill to put in provisions of the kind that we find here? For the very simple reason that they cannot get it in the City. If they went to the City, the people there would want to know what was the security for repayment. They would require all the ordinary information that good companies give, but the right hon. Gentleman is coming to the House of Commons, the guardians of the public purse, and anything will do for the House of Commons. He comes here with the sort of proposition that would be thrown out after five minutes' consideration by people who have to handle other people's money in the City. Apparently, it is quite good enough in the House of Commons; we are only handling public money. We are not sure whether it will be £2,000,000 or £5,000,000; anything will do, and it goes through on a Friday afternoon probably without a Division.
Before leaving the financial aspect, there is another point which is worthy of the consideration of the House. At the very moment when this Bill is going through the House the City has issued, and has obtained large public support for, a very big Canadian loan involving something like £500,000 in interest and sinking fund repayments for the life time of practically every one in this Chamber. Half a million pounds worth of Canadian cheese, Canadian wheat, Canadian agricultural 1515 products of one sort or another—they are not likely to be manufactures—has to come into this country without a penny of exports to pay for them for the life time of every Member of the House; and this at the very time we are entering upon a course which, it is almost public property, must lead to an attempt to obtain a reduction—
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I do not mind my hon. Friend arguing in connection with this Bill but he argues a course which is not a course of the Bill. I am sure his acute mind will have grasped the fact that in this Bill we do not propose a reduction of Canadian cheese. That is the difference between it and the course of restriction to which be has taken so much exception.
§ Mr. HOROBIN
I do not think I have made my point very clear. I was referring to what is common knowledge, that, as part of this scheme of quantitative restriction, efforts were in fact being made to obtain a reduction of—
§ Mr. ELLIOT
I am sure my hon. Friend will search in vain throughout every Clause and line of the Bill for anything about quantitative restrictions.
§ Mr. HOROBIN
It is not in the Bill but it is the clear implication of quantitative restrictions. I will not pursue it, but I think the point I have in mind is clear. These points are of considerable importance and should be considered before we part with a Bill dealing with perhaps the most important food of the country.
Leaving the financial part of the Bill, I think it is only fair to remind the House of the very grave dangers of setting up and entrenching what, in fact, are huge trusts and monopolies, especially in the foodstuffs of the people. The Cooperative Societies will be all right. There is a very well known and esteemed co-operative official in charge of this very Board. The big distributors will find a way round or over it. After all, money talks, and when it has something important to say it does not have to shout as a rule. How, on the other hand, is the small man affected? I am in the position of other Members of continually getting circulars from independent creameries and small 1516 distributors and so on, saying that there is happening what has happened where-ever such things have been tried here or in the United States, and that they are being ground out between the upper and nether millstones. I can bring to the House some confirmation of these views which is not yet very readily obtainable in this House. I do not want to refer to what has been happening here or to what has been happening in the United States, because, as the House probably knows, I have made some rather derogatory criticisms on a previous occasion and I might be held to be biased. But there has been recently published in one of the Dominions one of the most interesting reports I have ever read, and it is extraordinarily relevant to the Bill we are discussing. With the permission of the House, I will read one or two extracts from the Report of the Commission, which was presented to both Houses of Parliament by the Governor-General of South Africa a month or two ago. The Commission heard a great deal of evidence, and I think their experience and conclusions are in some ways almost uncannily relevant to our problem. They say:The Commission is of opinion that a price controlling body composed solely of producers is, due to its inherent weakness of representing the supply factor only, not fundamentally equipped to exercise that essential restraining influence in regard to price policy. Bearing in mind the human element it is hardly conceivable that any body of producers of any agricultural product, having full control, will bring themselves to fix a price which is not higher than that which would have ruled had the ordinary forces of supply and demand been allowed free play. Otherwise why fix prices? The very factor which makes for strength in a co-operative concern, viz., democratic control, equal say in the affairs of the association, is a source of weakness to such organisation as a price fixing machine.They go on to say:Placing the control of an industry in the hands of producers by legislative enactment virtually amounts to conferring the power of taxation of the consuming public on a small body of producers' representatives, who are, generally speaking, constitutionally unfit to exercise such power in the best interests of both producer and consumer.I will read a further sentence:In view of the considerations advanced in this and the previous chapter regarding the harmful effects of control measures and price fixation and the disastrous experi- 1517 ence of other countries with control legislation of this nature, the Commission finds itself unable to support the principle of sale through one channel by means of boards of control. The Commission is of opinion that the competitive marketing system, although in its application in South Africa not free from undesirable features, has proved itself capable of fulfilling the functions of marketing efficiently and the Commission feels that, assisted and strengthened by co-operative marketing organisations of producers, the system holds promise of even greater efficiency in the future. The competitive system automatically adjusts supply and demand and by means of price acts as a healthy and essential check on production and supply. The introduction of an artificial system of price control which is intended by producers to maintain prices at an artificially 'fixed' level must necessarily eliminate this essential check on supply and lead to maladjustment and ultimate collapse of prices. The granting of arbitrary price fixation powers and complete control over an industry to a statutory board of control, whether composed of producers or of impartial individuals, runs counter to our traditions, the philosophy of our Government, the spirit of our institutions, and all principles of equity, and the Commission considers that it is an economic experiment from which this country has every right to be spared.Is it surprising, therefore, that their conclusion was:Compulsory co-operation and sales through one channel"—this is practically their name for a marketing board—with the object of fixing and controlling prices of agricultural products should not be sanctioned by legislation and the existing provisions in the Co-operative Societies Act in this respect should be repealed.That is the experience of one of their own Dominions. The extract I have read will bring to the mind of the House the extraordinary similarity with the dangers that may be found to happen or to have happened in our own case. For my part I cannot see that the policy of which this Bill is an essential part has either so far proved a success or is likely to prove a success, and it has very grave dangers, both financial and economic, to which this House ought to give very serious consideration.
I have spoken rather longer than I intended, but I have one final word to say and that is to the Minister. I do not know whether there will be a Division, but I myself have thought very carefully over what ought to be one's action on this Bill. On the one hand the House might say that Members who continually 1518 speak against and oppose these Measures one after another as they come forward and yet do not vote against them are merely taking up the time of the House with objections without pushing them to a necessary conclusion, and I think the House would rightly resent that attitude; but I myself, and those who think like me, have to bear in mind that our primary duty is to support the National Government and that this agricultural policy is, though an important part, only one part of its policy, and the Minister may claim, and rightly claim, his quota of credit in the general policy of the Government which has been such a resounding success. It is with considerable hesitation that I have decided that the proper thing for those of us who feel acutely these dangers, both financial and otherwise, is still, while expressing them and pressing them on every occasion, to show by our votes that, however serious we consider this danger, it cannot possibly be allowed to over-ride our sense of appreciation of the general success of the Government's policy. If there is a Division, therefore, I shall support the Minister this afternoon, and for the reasons which I have given, which I hope will commend themselves to the bulk of the Members of the House; but I am sure that he will do one the credit of admitting that the criticisms which we have raised are of substance and are genuinely felt and I deign to hope that gradually our words and, what is far more important, the pressure of events may lead him to think that the reconsideration of this policy is becoming urgently due in the interests of our financial stability and in the interests of the agriculturists themselves, who have nothing to gain by a recurrence of their experience with the Corn Production Act; and above all, it is due in the interests of those poor consumers in industrial districts to whom so many Members of this House will have to give strict account at the next election.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ Mr. JOHN WALLACE
There is one point in the Bill on which I have a question to put to the Minister of Agriculture. In Clause 6 particulars are given of the payments to be made by the Treasury to the Government of Northern Ireland. It may be that I do not fully understand the purpose of this Bill, but I would like to know why it is necessary 1519 to pay any subsidy at all to Northern Ireland, which has a Parliament of its own, and whether my right hon. Friend expects that when we come to a final reckoning there is any chance of that money being repaid. That is dealt with in Sub-section (2), paragraphs (a) and (b), and I shall not go into that at the moment, but I should like to know first, why this money should be paid to Northern Ireland, and second what are the prospects of repayment. I understand the primary objects of this Bill are threefold: (1) to increase the consumption of milk, (2) an improvement in the quality of milk, and (3) an effort to make a reasonable economic price for the producer. It may be possible that in time these objects will be achieved, but, while it is quite possible that we may increase the consumption of milk and raise the standard of quality, it does not seem at the moment as though the effort to secure a proper economic price to the consumer is likely to succeed.
In Scotland the administration of the scheme has given rise to the greatest possible dissatisfaction. I am not aware that my right hon. Friend is personally responsible for the milk marketing scheme in Scotland, because I know how that body was elected, but I can assure him that the full blast of criticism in Scotland is not falling upon the Milk Marketing Board, but upon his own devoted head, and that he is getting the credit for all the troubles which exist in the milk industry, especially in the east of Scotland.
If the primary object was to secure an economic price for the producer surely the achievement of it has signally failed. In matters of this kind I like to come down to bedrock, and I will quote one particular case, and one only, under the operation of the scheme in Fifeshire, to which I would draw the particular attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. This milk producer has written to tell me that since the scheme came into operation direct losses have been suffered by him in respect of levies. I will not give the whole of the figures, but he has suffered losses in sums varying from £18 to £46 from December of last year to May of this year. He further draws attention to a single contract on which his loss for 1520 the period April to December will amount to the sum of £91. The reason is that the price has been reduced to 9d. in place of 1s. 2d., through the levy which he has to pay to the Milk Marketing Board. There must be some proper explanation of the condition of things which I have attempted to describe. The result of this experience, which is multiplied over many producers and producer-retailers, is that there will be an almost immediate break away from the whole of the scheme, and various associations have already arrived at decisions with that end in view. I am quite aware that an investigation has been promised by the Scottish Office and that the inquiry is now being made, but in the meantime these people are finding it impossible to make ends meet, and where previously they were making a reasonable profit, to-day they are suffering a definite loss which may land several of them in the bankruptcy court.
I know that the Minister of Agriculture has had to face problems which are as serious as those which ever confronted any Minister of the Crown, and he has brought his great abilities to bear upon what is a very difficult and involved problem. He admits that these marketing schemes are more or less experimental. We all wish him success and we appreciate the fact that he has taken his courage in both hands and rather than do nothing has embarked on a definite policy. It is a policy which some of us mistrust. I do not like this particular form of the planning of industry, but the House is bound to give this Bill a fair chance, and I certainly will not vote against it. I am bound to say that when I read the Bill first and tried to understand its involved complexities, an old Moorish proverb came to my mind which roughly translated runs, "When choosing a wife or buying a horse, let a man close his eyes and commend himself to God."
§ Mr. WALLACE
I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman keeps his eyes open all the time, but I must say that a devotional attitude similar to that in the proverb would not be altogether inappropriate in regard to this Bill.
§ Mr. WALLACE
I speak, of course, for myself, but the right hon. Gentleman can depend upon it that I am still able to interpret their views satisfactorily.
§ 2.55 p.m.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. Skelton)
We have had a brief but interesting Debate, and I do not overstate the position from the point of view of the Government in saying that the criticism shows a marked diminuendo. Take, for instance, the attitude of the hon. Gentleman who opened the attack on the earlier stages—it was an almost terrifying attack—upon the first main expense of the Bill, namely, the money for assisting milk used for manufacturing purposes. That tremendous attack is now reduced to a complaint that the money is to be spread over a period of two years and not one. That shows a very marked increase of appreciation on the part of hon. Members opposite as to the merits of the proposal. In so far as other speeches have attacked the proposal, they have done so on lines that it would be more useful to have reduced the prices of milk to the consumer. That attack has been cancelled by the statement of the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. de Rothschild). It is perfectly correct that there will be, as a result of the pool for manufacturing milk, a certain reduction in the levy of one farthing per gallon, which will, of course, reproduce itself at the end of the day in the retail price of milk.
As the knowledge of hon. Members has increased in regard to the Measure, the more they apparently feel that we are not very far from dealing with the situation in the right way. There may be differences of view as to what proportion of the total sum can be spent and upon what particular item, but in concentrating upon reinforcing the finances of the milk scheme by contributing a higher price to the lowest price milk we are stabilising and underpinning the whole of the financial position. By attacking the situation at that point we are giving the most direct reinforcement to the financial basis of the scheme. I think it is obvious to the whole House that if you allowed all the milk which is at present used for manufacturing purposes to bring into the pool only some such sum as 3½d. per gallon, there would be a depressing effect upon the milk sold for 1522 liquid purposes. It would bring down the price to all the producers to an even lower figure than at present. By strengthening the weak element, we are ensuring that the milk which is sold is not at such a low figure as to endanger the whole finances of the Bill. By reinforcing the finances of the scheme at the weakest point we have adopted the simplest and the soundest scheme. The House might have said that we are not doing enough, but if hon. Members recollect that we are blazing a fresh trail and marking out fresh ground in two vitally important directions the value of the simple propositions of this Bill will be realised—as I think it is being realised.
Take the other main proposition, concerning the increased supply of milk to school children at very much lower prices. What has surprised me in the speeches throughout the Debates to which I have listened, is the suggestion that the supply of cheap milk to school children is an old-established principle of the Government of this country into which we have cut and, which we have reduced to an intolerable extent. The fact is, of course, that these proposals focus the attention of the country for the first time upon it, and give assistance to the very valuable work of increasing the supply of milk at cheap rates to school children. There we strike into new ground, and the whole House will agree with it. We were prepared to bear the criticism that we might have spent a little more money, but we know that we are entering absolutely fresh ground and doing what has never been done before.
With regard to the cleaning up of herds, it is a new thing to see what can be done by giving a premium to cleaning up herds, and by reinforcing the present law, which establishes penalties and even slaughter for tuberculous animals, by the method of premium, encouragement and persuasion. I should have thought that that would commend itself to the House, for the reason that everybody in this country is more easily led than driven. I should have thought that it would also have been obvious from every point of view that gradually to eliminate tuberculous herds from this country without the sudden destruction of animals which have a certain cash value, was a much less expensive way, both for the State 1523 and for the individual. I share entirely the views of my right hon. Friend that only by some such Measure as we have introduced shall we be able to get the social and economic interests of the community concentrated upon the cleaning up of herds.
The last two speeches hardly dealt with the Bill at all, but concentrated on various defects, either theoretical or practical, in the existing Milk Scheme. I do not think it would be proper for me to go into details, but, as the topic has been touched upon, I would point out that these schemes have been in operation for but a short time. There is a wide measure of agreement that agricultural production places itself in so many separate categories that some organisation is required if it is to be properly conducted. There is, indeed, the widest measure of agreement that marketing schemes are essential. It is not surprising, however, at a moment when most of these marketing schemes are in their first year, or their first two years, and when they are introducing to the farmers themselves—because it is they, and not the Government, who run the schemes—an entirely new way of conducting their business, that certain difficulties should show themselves.
Take, for instance, the scheme with which this Bill is concerned, and the statement which has been made by a responsible farmer that, so far as the English marketing scheme is concerned, it has already benefited 75 per cent. of the milk producers. If that statement can be made so short a time after the starting of the scheme, is it too much to expect, after a little more experience, after the details have been more fully understood and the difficulties more successfully grappled with, that the view with which the House entered into the policy of marketing, both in 1931 and in 1933, that such a policy was essential for the agricultural industry, will be thoroughly justified? It seems to me that the future of the milk industry under marketing schemes is safe, and that what is now needed is in the first place to bridge certain temporary difficulties, and, secondly, to extend the opportunities for the consumption of liquid milk by making it both cheaper and less dangerous. These are the objects to which we have 1524 directed ourselves in this Bill, and I, for one, am satisfied that it is a Bill the Third Reading of which can be commended to the House with a perfectly clear mind and conscience, as being in line with the general agricultural policy of which this Parliament has approved, and as dealing in a practical, realistic, and yet progressive way with the difficulties and troubles of the moment.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read the Third time, and passed.