HC Deb 07 August 1941 vol 373 cc2151-3
Mr. Robertson (Streatham)

Last week's Debate on Scottish agriculture was brought to a premature end to permit my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to announce the satisfactory agreement between the Soviet Union and Poland. On the day following, I asked my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal for time to continue the Debate. He indicated that it was open to me to do so on the Motion for the Adjournment to-day. I was sent here to support the Government, and I do so whole-heartedly, because I think they have done, and are doing, great work. If I appear critical, it is because I think I have a good case, which I hope the Government will study, and remedy.

For almost a year I have been concerned about the unhappy situation of the hill sheep farmer. At the request of Peebles and South Midlothian fanners, I have spoken on the matter in the House and have asked several Questions. I have met representatives of the Sheep Breeding Association, and have listened with dismay to their complaints. I have written on a number of occasions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, to his predecessor, to the President of the Board of Trade when he was Minister of Supply, and to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. I have been granted interviews with some of these Ministers, at which I stressed the need for increased wool and mutton prices. I presume that other hon. Members have taken similar steps. During this period the half-crown subsidy for breeding ewes has been forthcoming, and in recent months an increase of 2d. a lb. for the 1941 wool clip, and in recent days the promise of an increase of 1d. a pound for mutton. These miserable and paltry concessions are unworthy of the Government, and they are quite inadequate to make hill sheep farming pay. The Secretary of State referred last week to the serious economic plight of the hill sheep farmer, and to the succession of difficult years and low prices. I presume that he was referring to pre-war years. I agree that the hill sheep farmers were then in a precarious state because of the amount of foreign meat that was imported, which was creating the glutted markets referred to in the recent food debates. That is not the case to-day. On the contrary, there is a great shortage of imported meat. If the hill sheep farmer had the same opportunities as were allowed him in the glutted days of peace, he would be obtaining high prices and all his problems would be solved. It isa sad commentary on our economic policy that farming has had to depend on the profits of war years to make good the losses of peace.

Until a month ago the fishing industry was allowed a free market; and even now, under Ministry of Food control, the producer receives eight times as much for the bulk of his catch as he did before the war. Similar control would yield the sheep farmer 8s. a lb. for mutton, but he only gets is. 2d. He does not want anything like 8s., but I am obliged to draw attention to the different kinds of treatment accorded to two food industries. Mutton is of greater importance than fish. It is the mainstay of the meat ration. Hon. Members will remember that the Prime Minister in the recent Production Debate spoke of the change in the diet of the heavy manual worker and the need for more meat in the heavy industries. The State is the sole buyer of mutton. Prices are fixed by the Ministry of Supply, without negotiation with the farmers. Representations are made by the farmers, but no attention appears to be paid to them. I have here a letter from the Ministry of Supply to the Scottish Farmers' Union. It is dated 18th July, and it says: The price of wool is fixed in consultation with the Scottish Office, and is fixed in relation to general agricultural policy, and not merely to the selling value of wool. Hitler himself could hardly do better than that. The farmers are plainly told that the price of wool is not their concern; that they are only the producers; that it is the concern of the bureaucrats in Bradford, the Adelphi and Whitehall. Do we buy our tanks like that? Do we buy Army boots, and say to the manufacturers, "We want your boots, but we are not concerned with your manufacturing costs; we are concerned with agricultural policy in regard to hides, and we are going to give you less than cost"? It is right that prices should be controlled, and, if necessary, subsidised, to keep them within the reach of the people. In this way, £2,000,000 a week is spent, and the cost is spread over the community as a whole. But it is wrong to fix prices below the cost of production, and to deny the right of negotiating prices before they are fixed.

I will submit evidence conclusively proving that the hill sheep farmer is subsidising the State. The net result of the Government price for wool and mutton in the two years of compulsory control has been serious loss to the farmer; and this, added to pre-war losses, has brought the industry to a state of bankruptcy. The Department of Agriculture for Scotland have investigated the profit and loss accounts of a number of farmers in Scotland. Thirty-six hill sheep farmers in South-East and South-West Scotland were examined for 1938–39 and for 1939–40. The average loss for each of these fanners over the two years is £1,046, or £523 per annum. I have allowed the farmer 4 per cent. interest on his capital. He could get that at least from a combination of investments in debentures, preference shares, and Government securities. I have allowed the farmer and his wife £300 a year in wages, for labour and management. For the privilege of risking his savings and of working long hours in all weathers, producing urgently-required mutton and wool, those hill sheep farmers have been permitted to subsidise the State to the tune of £10 10s. a week each.

In the face of these results, how dare we speak of subsidising the hill farmer? He is doing the subsidising. He is seeing his life savings dwindle and depreciate. By compulsory control the Government is the employer of the sheep farmers, using their capital, their land, their stocks, their skill, their labour; and what do they get in return? A fair wage? No. On the contrary, the Government are taking from them a contribution of ten guineas a week.

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