HC Deb 22 February 1940 vol 357 cc1652-6

8.21 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

I beg to move, in page 6, line 9, to leave out "amendments," and to insert "amendment."

The next Amendment on the Paper—in line 16, to leave out paragraph (b)—is, of course, linked with this. I am not sure that we are very concerned about whether these Amendments are rejected or not, but, since paragraph (b) removes any limitation upon the amount of oats that may be produced to qualify for the subsidy, that implies, at least, that there ought to be not only more land available for sowing with oats, but seed oats to sow. I move the Amendment in order to get some statement from the Minister, as to whether seed oats are likely to be available for those who wish to sow them. We know that there is a great shortage of feeding-stuffs, and that sheep and pigs are being killed off, or have died off, all over the country, because of the absence of feeding-stuffs. Because of that, many farmers who have oats available, and would have sold them in other circumstances, prefer to keep them for feeding-stuffs, and, because there happens to be no control of prices, some who are willing to sell are asking such a high price that sowers are unwilling to purchase from them. Unless the Minister of Agriculture, in association with the Minister of Food, takes a very keen line on this, we shall find large areas being ploughed up, and the very cereal that it is desired to have sown will not be available next season.

I do not expect that we shall get this Amendment accepted, and we have no desire to delete paragraph (b), but we are very anxious to hear what the two Government Departments are doing to ensure that seed oats will be made available. I know that the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Food have said that they are relying on the good will of merchants to do the right thing. There are occasions when we can rely upon the good will of sections of the community, but I am not sure that in war-time we can place much reliance on the spoken word of an interested party, particularly if higher profits can be obtained by not fulfilling a promise. We are anxious that, as far as seed oats are available, they shall be, as nearly as possible, equitably distributed, and that the price in this uncontrolled period shall not be allowed to reach such a point that farmers are denied the privilege of making such purchases as they require for newly-ploughed land.

8.26 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Colonel Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith)

The hon. Member did not tell me that he was going to raise this question, so I cannot give the latest information, as I should have liked to do, from the seed front; but he knows that, since the beginning of the war, we have had our seeds advisory committee in operation, consisting of experts, growers, merchants, and everybody concerned with the trade. I have no doubt that we shall be able to provide the necessary seeds for the farmers to sow their increased acreage. That is the information we have received from these people, who ought to know. As for prices, I have explained to the House before that the merchants have given us an undertaking that, if there are any temporary shortages in any districts, owing to factors which cannot be foreseen at present, they will, on representations being made to them, see that sufficient supplies are sent to those areas to enable a fair price to be charged. In addition, as I have told the House, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food and I have obtained a certain quantity of seed oats from overseas, which have been tested, and which will grow. We have taken every step which is open to us to ensure that these supplies will be there when required, at as reasonable a price as we can secure.

Mr. T. Williams

I am very glad to know that there are supplies available, but can we take it that, should those with oats for sale attempt to exploit the shortage position, the Government will not hesitate to use the powers at their command to fix a price for seed oats, as they have done for feeding oats?

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

Naturally, we shall watch this position very carefully; but there is a danger that if you arbitrarily fix your price for seed oats, you will stop the whole flow of seed oats to the growers. When there was a suggestion that the price should be fixed, that is what happened; and it produced what might have been a very awkward situation. That, I want to avoid. I want to ensure that the farmers get oats at a reasonable price, and yet that we do not stop the flow of oats to the market.

Colonel Burton

Is the assurance which my right hon. and gallant Friend has received in regard to seed oats given by the same experts as caused him to mislead the people of this country?

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

No, Sir.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies

I would ask the Minister to be a little more specific. He said that a suggestion was made about controlling these oats; it went further than that. It emanated, apparently, from the Ministry of Food that control should be exercised. Apparently the Minister thought otherwise, and he decided that they should not be controlled. The farmer is, apparently, to be left in a position in which this seed matter is being watched with the very greatest care by the Ministry. How will that ensure to the farmer that a supply of seed oats will be forthcoming? Price is of vital importance, but even more important is it that the seed should actually be there. Can the Minister assure the House that the oats are available and that they will be there when required? Those who have seed oats have had experience of a shortage of feeding stuffs, and even if they feel that they have a surplus stock of oats that they can part with to their neighbours or to anybody else, they are loath to do so lest there should be that shortage of feeding stuffs, in which case they could not feed their own animals.

What is to be the position in that matter? It is not good enough to say to the House that the matter will be wached. Already we have lost, so far as ploughing is concerned, about eight weeks. In my own county the contractors would have ploughed ordinarily about 200 acres, but less than six acres have been ploughed. That means that the time left for us for sowing is very short indeed. What assurance have those farmers that, if they go on with their ploughing, the seed will be there? It is not enough to say, "I shall watch it. I hope that you will get it at a reasonable price." Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman answer the question which was put just now from the Opposition Front Bench? Will he, if the occasion arises, exercise his powers to see that the oats are forthcoming and will be in the possession of farmers for sowing? Will he exercise those powers and not wait? Time is of vital importance in this matter.

8.34 p.m.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

Hon. Members have not suggested what form action should take. [An Hon. Member: "Control."] I have apologised for not being able to give the latest information. I did not know that this question was to be put. The position, I understood, was that the merchants had large stocks in hand but that orders were not coming through. If my hon. and learned Friend who has just spoken, or the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) would put down a Question, I would be able to give the very latest information on the matter. I can give hon. Members the assurance that we are taking all the necessary steps, but we do not want to go into the danger of stopping the entire flow. The hon. Member has recognised that there is that danger. If the Question is put down I will try to give the House the very latest information.

Mr. T. Williams

In view of the Minister's statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.