HC Deb 27 May 1937 vol 324 cc431-7
Mr. Attlee

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture whether he is now in a position to make a statement with regard to agricultural policy?

Mr. W. S. Morrison

I am glad of this opportunity to make a statement. The Government have very carefully considered the position of agriculture from the points of view of the welfare of agriculture itself, national Defence, and the importance of maintaining continuity in our agricultural policy that is designed to ensure maximum supplies for the con- sumer consistent with reasonable remuneration for the producer. The Government have in the past initiated proposals for dealing with particular agricultural products. This side of the Government's policy will continue and I hope shortly to announce proposals for the future of the milk and pig industries. There are, however, certain fundamental matters with which I wish to deal in the following statement.

In regard to Defence, I should like at the outset to stress the following considerations. The two objectives—of producing the maximum quantity of food to meet our requirements in time of war, on the one hand, arid of the efficient development of our agriculture in time of peace, on the other—not only demand very different methods, but, to a natural extent, are opposed to each other. In particular, a drastic policy of food production for war purposes would entail the ploughing up of an extensive area of our grassland for the purpose of growing cereals and other crops for human consumption. In peace time, however, livestock husbandry, which is the foundation of our agriculture, is naturally based on a grassland system on account of the physical and climatic advantages which favour it. The Government have had to determine where, between these two objectives, the path lies which, on balance, it would be wise to follow.

In the opinion of the Government, to put agriculture on a war-time footing with all the regulations, the regimentation of the farming community. and the heavy costs that it would unavoidably involve, would not be practicable at the present time; nor in their opinion is the situation such as to require the adoption of this course in time of peace. The Government are equally satisfied that considerations of national defence would not justify a policy in peace time of stimulating agricultural production to such a pitch that the country would e faced with a highly artificial situation which would, sooner or later, have to be liquidated if the emergency did not arise. Such a policy would be costly to build up and costly to close down. Moreover, farmers themselves will have a vivid recollection of the disorganisation and uncertainties which followed the repeal of the Corn Production Acts in 1921, and the Government have no wish to put them in such a position again.

Having regard to these considerations, the Government are satisfied that the best course in the general national interest is to continue their efforts to improve the general prosperity and efficiency of home agriculture, and in particular to promote an increase in the fertility and productivity of our soil. The proposals which I shall now outline are so designed that should an emergency arise we should be in a position immediately to take advantage of improved fertility but, should it not arise, we should be increasing the productivity of our land and stock by means which are consistent with, and not opposed to, the normal development of our agriculture on economic lines in time of peace.

To achieve this object, the Government propose that the following measures should be taken:

Liming.—One of the most serious deficiencies of the land of this country arises from failure to maintain the old practice of applying lime to the soil. Due to the long depression, farmers have been unable to bear the cost. The result has been felt not only in diminished fertility, but also in the lack of elements essential to healthy plant and animal life. The Government propose to assist farmers in raising the fertility of the soil by increased use of lime. They also consider it desirable to secure increased application particularly to grasslands, of basic slag which, like lime, is available from home sources and has an enduring effect upon the soil. They propose that for a limited period of years the cost to the farmer of lime and basic slag should be reduced by approximately 5o per cent. and 25 per cent. respectively. The object of these proposals is not only to make good past exhaustion of soil fertility in many parts of the country, but to build up reserves of fertility, valuable in peace time, and immediately available to meet the heavy demands upon it which might be made in time of war.

Wheat.—It is proposed to raise the limit of the "anticipated supply" under the Wheat Act, 1932, from 6,000,000 to 8,000,000 quarters and thereby to stimulate an increase in the wheat acreage. In present circumstances this involves no cost but will give valuable additional insurance to wheat growers in the United Kingdom.

Oats and Barley.—The Government propose also to introduce a scheme in respect of oats and barley which will be in the nature of an insurance against low prices. It will apply only to those growers of oats and barley in the United Kingdom not receiving benefit under the Wheat Act. For the purpose of the Oats Scheme there will be a standard price of 8s. per cwt., and a national standard acreage will be determined. A payment will be made to the grower in respect of each eligible acre. This payment will be calculated on the basis that, on the average, about 6 cwt. per acre are sold off farms. The payment will, therefore, be equal to six times the difference between the standard price of 8s. per cwt. and the average market price over a period. If the total acreage eligible for subsidy exceeds the national standard acreage, the rate of payment will be reduced proportionately. In the case of barley the principle of a national standard acreage will also apply, and it is proposed that payment will be at the same rate per acre as that for oats. At the prices prevailing for oats at the present time no payment would be made, but it is estimated that if prices were to fall to the lowest level of recent years the Exchequer liability in any year, in respect of both oats and barley, would not exceed £1,750,000. In no case will the payment exceed £1 per acre.

Drainage.—It is proposed to extend the system of Exchequer grants for land drainage. In England and Wales grants will be given for works to be carried out by the lesser drainage authorities concerned. In Scotland the rate of grant for drainage under the scheme administered by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland will be increased. It is hoped that with the aid of these grants it will be possible, in any one year, without interfering with the labour required for agriculture, to undertake essential works costing up to £450,000.

Grassland Improvement—In a policy aimed at raising the fertility and productivity of our soil the improvement of our grassland must be an objective of fundamental importance. Grass forms one of our greatest natural resources and it is in the national interests that it should be more fully and profitably utilised in time of peace and be a reservoir of fertility for an emergency. By the Livestock Industry Bill at present before Parliament and the arrangements for regulating supplies of livestock and meat to this market the Government are seeking to promote the prosperity and efficiency of the livestock industry. The Government believe that this measure and those now proposed for drainage and for the increased use of lime and basic slag will lead to a marked improvement in the grassland of this country. The Government are also alive to the potentialities of dried grass as a possible addition to home-grown supplies of feeding stuffs. They are accordingly encouraging further experiments in grass drying.

Eradication of Animal Diseases.—The Government also propose to initiate a large-scale and more comprehensive campaign for the eradication of animal diseases in Great Britain. Our object is to improve the health of our livestock and increase agricultural productivity by seeking to eliminate what is perhaps the worst of all forms of wastage and economic loss in agriculture. In the first instance, efforts will mainly be directed to the eradication of diseases among cattle. The scheme will involve an additional charge on the Exchequer of about £6000,000 per annum for the first four years. It will, however, involve centralisation of public veterinary services and as against the increased cost to the Exchequer, the expenditure by local authorities will be reduced by about f£170,000. Parliamentary authority will be required for these proposals. The Government are anxious, however, to lose no time in developing the existing schemes of control of disease and, accordingly, I am arranging at once to amend the Attested Herds Scheme under the Milk Act, 1934, by providing additional assistance in England and Wales, as has already been done in Scotland, to owners of dairy stock who are desirous of eradicating tuberculosis from their herds. This revised scheme will become operative on the 1st June next.

In the opinion of the Government the proposals which I have outlined by increasing the productivity of our agriculture, not only will enable it better to meet the situation in the event of war, but will be a substantial aid towards raising efficiency, lowering costs and establishing the industry on a sounder economic foundation in time of peace.

The necessary legislation to give effect to these proposals will be introduced at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. De la Bère

May I be allowed to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. T. Williams

While it would be indiscreet on my part and on the part of any hon. Member to question the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman, might I ask him whether an estimate has been made of the total annual cost when all these schemes have been brought into being?

Mr. Morrison

I have an estimate which is necessarily rough in the circumstances. We reckon that land drainage will cost about £140:000 a year, the lime and basic slag proposals, roughly, £1,000,000, the prevention of disease £600,000 and oats and barley, the provision for which will vary from year to year, a maximum of £1,750,000.

Mr. D. Grenfell

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain whether the proposal for assisting to supply lime and basic slag contemplates the fixing of prices, and whether during any given period he contemplates the provision of lime and basic slag at the percentages lower than present prices?

Mr. Morrison

I cannot give a long explanation of a complicated scheme, but the House may rest assured that arrangements will be made to ensure that this assistance in regard to lime and basic slag will pass directly to the land. Some system of price control of that character will be undertaken.

Sir Francis Acland

I; it contemplated to do anything for the really small men in agriculture, namely. the allotment holders, from the point of view of extra security of tenure in their plots?

Mr. Morrison

That is a different matter, but if the right hon. Gentleman will give me notice of it I might make a separate statement at some other time.

Sir Ronald Ross

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the scheme in general, and particularly that part relating to lime and oats, will apply to the United Kingdom as a whole?

Mr. Morrison

I understand that already the Government of Northern Ireland have made representations to His Majesty's Government on that matter, and it is now under discussion.

Mr. Bellenger

With reference to that portion of the statement dealing with land drainage, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, when the Government introduce legislation, they will at the same time give consideration to certain features of the existing Land Drainage Acts, namely, the method of assessment of drainage rates?

Mr. Morrison

That is a separate matter again, but I will bear it in mind.

Mr. H. G. Williams

Can the right hon. Gentleman make any statement about poultry?

Mr. Morrison

I cannot at the present time.

Mr. T. Johnston

Having regard to the Government's motive for increasing the productivity of our soil, have they taken into consideration the desirability of increasing the market by arranging for increased consumption in the home market?

Mr. Morrison

The whole policy of the Government in recent years has been directed to providing the consumers with more wealth, and there has been a great increase.

Lieut.-Colonel the Marquess of Titchfield

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is proposed to introduce the legislation before or after the Recess?

Mr. Morrison

I hope to introduce it at the earliest possible moment.

Colonel Baldwin-Webb

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what plan he has for the poultry industry?

Mr. Morrison

That is a different matter, and I have already stated that I am not in the position to make an announcement now.

Mr. Paling

In view of the necessity for subsidising this industry, is it not time for the nation to take it over in its own interests?