HC Deb 07 August 1941 vol 373 cc2154-77
Mr. Robertson

I was drawing the attention of the House to the fact that the Government were the compulsory purchasers of wool and mutton and pointing out that they virtually became the employer, but that instead of giving a fair wage to the employee—the hill sheep farmer—they were taking a contribution of 10 guineas per week per farm. The figures are the Government's figures, not mine, and do not include the results of the hill sheep farms in the Highlands, Argyllshire, Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland, Orkney and Shetland. I am told that they are in a worse position than the Lowlands. By what authority and by whose authority is the hill sheep farmer compelled to work at a loss? We know that it is not the wish of Parliament or the wish of those whom we represent here. We know that the responsibility lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I am positive that he is not the instigator of this unworthy policy, and I am sure he disapproves of it. He must bring it to an end, and if he meets opposition, I hope he will take the matter to the War Cabinet. Winding up last week's Debate on the Scottish Estimates, the Undersecretary said: You cannot give a price for mutton and wool which will be sufficient for the products of the hill-sheep farm without making those prices excessive for other kinds of sheep." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July; col. 1498, Vol. 373.] I have not heard that any kind of sheep farmer in Scotland was doing as well as that statement implies, so again taking the latest figures of the Department of Agriculture in Scotland for the years 1938–39 and 1939–40, I found that the trading and profit and loss accounts for 29 sheep rearing farms, sheep rearing and feeding farms and Lowland sheep rearing and feeding farms were examined and revealed that the average loss on each of these farms over the two years was £303, or £151 10s. per annum. I have again allowed the farmer 4 per cent. interest on his capital and £300 for his own and his wife's labour and management. They could earn that by working for an owner management and more if they went into munitions. These figures prove that ho section of the sheep industry in Scotland is in a healthy financial state and that there is no justification for the Under-Secretary's statement. The hill farmer provides the foundation stocks of all sheep. He uses hill land which is unfit for arable. He cannot feed his breeding stock and their lambs until the latter are fat for the market. He must sell to the low ground feeder, who performs an essential service by taking over these surplushill stocks at the autumn sales. The price the feeder can pay must depend on the price he can ultimately realise for the wool and the mutton. These are fixed, by the Government, and is it not futile for the Under-Secretary to say that the trend of prices, as shown by the lamb sales, must be taken into account and that high prices may be created by the scarcity caused by the general death rate in the storms of last winter?

Let me assure my hon. Friend that so long as Government control of mutton and wool prices continues at anything like present levels, there is no possibility of hill farmers receiving prices from feeders or rearers which will compensate them for the appalling losses of ewes and lambs during the last winter. My right hon. Friend must know the gravity of the sheep position in Scotland, that all I have said to-day is true, and that I have not overstated a case which calls for immediate relief. That can only be done by making good the losses which have already occurred, by increasing the basic price for fat mutton by 3d. lb., a premium of 2d. per lb. for all lambs of 35 pounds weight and under, by raising the price of black-faced wool to 1s. 6d. a lb. and Cheviot to 2s. a lb. Because it is important to the nation's meat supply and, still more, to the nation's good name, I demand that the sheep farmer shall be adequately paid for his produce or released from control.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson), who has put with such clarity the case for the hill sheep farmer in Scotland. He has made an incursion into higher mathematics in the ingenious way in which he presented his case, and I am afraid I did not come armed with the necessary figures either to affirm or deny his statement that the hill sheep farmer was subsidising the Government instead of the Government subsidising the farmer. But I am certain that had I had an opportunity of looking at the facts and figures which my hon. Friend has given, I should not be placed in the position of denying what he said. This is a very serious matter. My hon. Friend, in his closing remarks, referred to what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said the other day, that lamb sales would no doubt show a remarkable increase in price over the figures which obtained for the corresponding sales last year. On Monday I had an opportunity of attending what is the largest market in the South of Scotland—at Castle Douglas —the occasion being the first lamb sale of the present season. Of course it is true that the numbers shown from the low ground farms were better than those from the rigorous climates of the upper districts will be. The numbers shown were not much below those of the corresponding lamb sales of last year. Indeed, there was a remarkable rise in price, but we must wait a fortnight or so until we have staged the first hill lamb sale when, although there may be a remarkable increase in price as compared with last year, the supply, I make so bold as to say, will show a very startling decrease indeed.

At the sale on Monday I was talking to two or three well-known hill sheep farmers and stock breeders of Southern Scotland. One of them, a personal friend of mine, not only farms extensively for himself, but also manages other big sheep farms, totalling between 50,000 and 60,000 acres, for owners who are not able to look after their farms themselves. This friend told me that he had been in the habit, in past years, of showing 1,000 head of lambs at the first hill lamb sale at Castle Douglas. He told -me that in a fortnight's time, at Castle Douglas, he will not have one to show from any of the farms, either his own or those of other people; and that in about two or three weeks' time, at Lanark, a very big sale at which in the past he has been accustomed to show some 550 head of lambs at the first sale, he will on this occasion be able to bring forward only some 250 head, rather less than 50 per cent, of the number he has shown in the past.

I also had an opportunity of talking to another friend of mine, who is very much interested and concerned in the sheep trade, and he gave me figures, in connection with hill-farming in the Border counties, in Roxburghshire, where he is trustee of and partly manages a farm— Penchrise, which marches with Lang-burnsheils, owned by the right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Colonel Elliot)—which bring out glaringly the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. With regard to comparisons over a period of years my hon. Friend gave the figures for 1938–39 and 1939–40. This friend of mine told me that a glance at his accounts over the years 1931–39 would show only in 1937 was there a profit of some £500 in a concern in which there is some £14,000 or £15,000 of capital. At that time, I was very much engaged in the hill-sheep farming industry, although I have gone out of it since, not because of the fall in prices but simply because, having a certain amount of low ground farming to do, I was unable to cope with the hill-sheep farm, which was far from my home. As I was in the hill-sheep industry at that time, I can speak with a certain amount of experience when I say I am certain that the figures which my friend gave me are absolutely true.

What is to be done? My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham indicated what he would do both in regard to stabilising and increasing the prices of mutton and lamb and of giving to the producers a reasonable chance of a living wage. Last Autumn, the Government gave to sheep breeders a subsidy of 2s. 6d. per breeding ewe. I think that what I have said, and still more what my hon. Friend has said, will indicate to the Secretary of State that this will not meet the difficulties of the case. Those who are very much concerned in the industry have told me that if the subsidy were increased to 5s. per breeding ewe, it would do no more than act as a very temporary palliative. With regard to black-faced and Cheviot wool, my hon. Friend has suggested that there should be an increase of 2s. 6d. in the case of the black-faced and 2s. in the case of Cheviot. We are debating this matter on the Motion for the Adjournment, a historic Motion which gives to hon. Members a chance to have grievances redressed. I am not so optimistic as to think that the Secretary of State will be in a position to redress our grievances. I realise that the task is a very difficult one, but I hope he will indicate what it is intended to do by way of palliative measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, in his interesting speech, only touched on the broader aspect of the question why the hill-sheep farming industry in Scotland has shown this continuous decline. It is a very old story. Hill-sheep farming in Scotland, as we understand it to-day, dates back only to the year 1800. There are many good judges who take the view that the decline has been largely due to the fact that those who originally went into that part of Scotland worked the land too hard, and proceeded rather on the lines of those who opened up the prairies in the United States and Canada, taking crop after crop from the land without measuring it correspondingly well, and thereby brought about conditions in which the crops that were formerly obtained are no longer obtainable. No doubt there is ground for that opinion. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will encourage those who own and occupy these vast tracts of land to do something to increase the fertility of the soil. Of course, one way to do that is to eradicate the bracken. That is an increasing menace, and one that is very costly to deal with. One remedy that ought to be very seriously considered—and I hope that consideration of it will lead the Secretary of State to put it into operation—;is the bringing back of an increasing number of cattle to the upper pastures. In recent years, an increasing acreage of the hill farms of Scotland has been devoted to afforestation, and this may in some measure relieve the strain that is placed upon the hill-sheep farming industry inasmuch as it will leave less of this kind of land available.

There is one thing which is seriously perplexing the minds of hill-sheep farmers, as it is the minds of those connected with any branch of agriculture, and that is the question of labour. All branches of the agricultural industry realise that, because of the scarcity and the difficulty of obtaining labour, they are up against a very difficult problem. At the present time, that problem looms very large in the minds of the arable farmers of Scotland, and indeed, of Great Britain, faced as they are with the most bountiful and bumper harvest they have had for many years. I understand that later in the Debate the question of fair wages, which I wholeheartedly support, is to be raised. The Government have control of all our purses. If they determine that the present wage is not enough for agricultural workers, by all means let them increase it, but at the same time, they should realise that if an industry is to pay adequate wages, it must be placed in an efficient position. It is for the Government to guarantee the prices, and then the farmers will gladly and willingly pay that higher wage which for the time being is considered to be a fair and living wage for all who man that ancient and most necessary industry.

Major McCallum (Argyll)

In the interrupted Debate last week on Scottish agriculture, I believe I was the only Highland Member who was lucky enough to catch the eye of the Chair, and I only had that good fortune immediately before my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State wound up the Debate. I count myself therefore very lucky to have the same good fortune again to-day. In replying to the Debate last week, after mentioning one or two subjects which affect Lowland farmers just as much as Highland farmers, the Under-Secretary went on to say: I should like to turn from the Highlands, which provide us with most of our troubles, to the Lowlands, which provide us with most of our food."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1941; col. 1499. Vol. 373.] These words, these ill-chosen words, if I may say so, of the Under-Secretary have caused the most profound astonishment in Argyllshire—I cannot speak for other parts of the Highlands. Quite rightly, my constituency feel that, if these words represent the views of my hon. Friend, as representing the Scottish Office, and if they represent the views of the Department of Agriculture, then there is no wonder that we in the Highlands can get no satisfaction in regard to the various difficulties with which our sheep farmers have to contend. That might have been so a century or two ago, when most of the troubles came from the Highlands and most of the food came from the Lowlands, but to-day we legitimately think that most of our troubles come from St. Andrew House and Whitehall. The fact is that most of the mutton, which Ministers have stressed the necessity of producing, comes from the Highlands of Scotland. I represent a West Highland constituency of 2,000,000 acres, which is the largest mutton-producing country in Scotland, and one of the largest mutton-producing counties in the British Isles. Some two-thirds of Argyllshire are occupied by hill sheep farms, and the farmers naturally resent these views of the Under-Secretary at a time when they have been called upon by broadcast, by requests in this House and by Ministerial statements to do their utmost to produce more and more food. They resent these expressions the more so because they are producing the food at an ever-increasing financial loss to them selves.

While it is true that during Scottish Debates Scottish Members limit themselves to 15 minutes on each subject, the fact is that Highland agriculture hardly gets its fair hearing. In the course of 12 months, except for to-day, they have had only five minutes to put forward their difficulties. We know that the Secretary of State has shown a most sympathetic attitude towards our difficulties in Argyllshire and he does us the honour to come and stay with us and take his holidays in my constituency. We realise that he has thus first-hand experience of these difficulties. While I should like to say, on behalf of the hill sheep farmers, who have been constantly suffering from these difficulties during the past 10 years, that we most gratefully appreciate palliative measures, temporary palliatives, for the industry, it is a long-term policy we require if the industry is to survive and a solution is to be found. It is this inability of the Department to realise that you cannot run a hill sheep farm, or, for that matter, any other kind of farm, from month to month and that you must plan years ahead, which causes the greatest concern among farmers in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie) have raised general issues, but I should like to come down to one or two particular points. As I have said, two-thirds of Argyllshire are given over to hill sheep farming. It is a mountainous county with poor soil. The ground is rocky, with only three or four inches of soil, in many parts and we feel, and the Agricultural Executive Committees feel that the ploughing-up policy is completely wrong. To insist upon ploughing up in North' Argyll an extra acreage of 2,000 last year, and 2,000 this year of poor soil which produces such poor crops is merely a waste of good grazing. Perhaps the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary will reconsider the question of ploughing up these extra acres. I would suggest—and I know this is the view of the Agricultural Executive Committees—that instead of ploughing up this poor soil, the Department should tell the farmers that their soil is better left for grazing. They should tell the farmers to fertilise their grazing—and here, may I say, we find the greatest difficulty in obtaining fertilisers—to make the land better for carrying the stock. I am sure that that would provide a greater return of foodstuffs for the nation; it would certainly be of benefit to the farmers, as against instructing them to produce crops on this poor soil.

There is another point of particular interest to our island sheep farming. Could not some scheme be established to set up grading centres in one or two of the main islands? The sheep which are frequently loaded into ships by ferryboats are often made to jump, or are thrown some six or ten feet from the deck of the ship into another barge or ferryboat to take them to the mainland. For too many sheep are stowed in the ships' holds, and by the time they reach the mainland it is obvious they have lost 50 per cent. of their condition. It is a tremendous hardship for island farmers. In islands, such as Istay and Tnull, which are big centres and which could be reached easily, it would be of great benefit if grading centres could be established. I know my right hon. Friend will say that if you establish grading centres you must also have slaughtering facilities. My reply is that in the interests of providing good food it is better to provide-slaughtering facilities and grading centres so that the sheep shall be in the best possible condition, than continue the present system.

Another thing from which farmers in the Western Islands suffer is the high charge for freights. That is another burden on the island farmer. How can he compete when he is compelled to sell food at the same controlled price as is paid to the farmer who is within five miles of Glasgow? When the island farmer has to pay these high freights, and let his produce after a sea voyage wait about at the ports, it is quite understandable that some sheep farmers say they will have to go out of business. As the last speaker said, the question of agricultural labour is to be brought forward at a later stage, but I would like to make one or two points in connection with the labour situation as it affects hill sheep farming. I would like to quote the case of a farm belonging to a neighbour of mine. It is an average Highland farm consisting of about 50 acres of arable and 600 to 700 acres of hill grazing, with 400 to 450 sheep and 20 head of cattle. One man and his wife are running that farm, and it is physically impossible for them to run it as it should be run and for the food to be produced which should be produced. It cannot be done without additional labour.

I am not blaming the Ministry of Labour—I know the Employment. Exchanges do what they can to provide labour—but there is not the labour available. Men brought up on the soil of Argyll and of neighbouring counties have been taken away to do work which might easily have been given to townsmen, and now there is not the agricultural labour available to assist on these farms. No doubt I shall be told that agricultural labour is exempt and will not be taken in to the Armed Forces or into munition factories. There was, however, a supply of agricultural casual labour in the Highlands. It was only casual in one sense. As soon as a man left one farm he was taken on another. Yet these men are told that because they are casual labourers they are not exempt. As a result this particular farm has had to get the assistance of a schoolmaster from Edinburgh. He has worked wonderfully well and done all that he could, but one cannot expect a farm of that description to be worked with casual labour of that sort.

Then we are told that farmers should engage women workers. On big farms in the Lowlands or Central Scotland where 10 men usually work, if three men are taken away, three members of the Women's Land Army can take their places, but in the case of such a farm as I am describing, which is a typical Highland farm, where only one worker is employed, if he is taken away a woman simply cannot properly take his place. I appreciate fully the work which women are doing, and I know estates where they are doing wonderful work, but physically they cannot do this heavy work. Again, we are told to employ military labour. A neighbour of mine at ploughing time applied for military labour and was told by the officer commanding one unit that his men would be delighted to do the work, but the next thing he was told was that soldiers are not allowed to go more, than three miles away from their unit. That means that practically no farmer in the Highlands can benefit from military labour. I hope my hon. and gallant Friend will give consideration to the question of how to provide the necessary labour which is urgently required not only on the sheep farms but on every other farm at any rate in the Western Highlands. To revert to the question of women workers, time and again farmers ask for women who are trained milkers and are told that the women sent have been taught to milk. But how are they trained? They are trained to milk with a rubber bag with four teats on it. Surely it should be possible at Auchincruive to provide a few old milk cows so that these women could be taught on the real thing.

The final point I want to make is in connection with cheese production. On several islands in my constituency there has been for years and even for centuries, in addition to sheep fanning, a large cheese-making industry. We are told that there is not enough cheese to provide a proper ration and that it is necessary to allow more cheese to miners and other men doing heavy work. The Island of Coll until fairly recently produced some 48 tons of cheese a year, but the cheese makers there now have to face not only high freights and transport difficulties— they always had to contend with those difficulties—but in addition have to sell at controlled prices. These farmers are required to transport their cheese from the farms to the pier, from the pier across the water to Glasgow, and then sell at the same price as the man on the mainland who is only a few miles from the wholesaler who buys the cheese.

I would suggest that the Department should ask the Ministry of Food to take over cheese from the makers on these islands and that the Department should pay the freights from the island to the mainland. If this industry could be resuscitated, you would have, not an enormous supply of cheese, but at any rate an increase in the supply which would help. We are told that shiploads of cheese and other kinds of food are coming across the Atlantic. Surely it would be better to increase our home supplies to the very utmost. If you could produce only half a shipload extra, it would minimise the risk to the lives of a certain number of our men.

I cannot help feeling that the Department do not understand sufficiently the difficulties with which we in the Highlands have to contend. One of the great difficulties is lack of personal reconnaissance. We never see a senior official from the Department. I would like with respect to give an invitation to the Under-Secretary himself. If he could come to that part of the country, I would be delighted to welcome him to my home, take him round my constituency at the time of the autumn sales and let him see for himself the conditions under which farmers there are obliged to work. A farmer does not make a living. If he exists, it is the utmost that he can do. I implore both my hon. Friend and the Department to give the utmost consideration and help that can possibly be given in formulating a long-term policy which will ensure the survival of this very important industry.

Major Lloyd(Renfrew, Eastern)

I welcome this opportunity of making my contribution to this vitally important subject. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) on having had the initiative to raise it, more especially as he represents a London constituency. The farmers of Scotland, and the hill-sheep farmers In Peebleshire and elsewhere especially, know very well how much cause they have to be grateful to him for his energetic services to their cause. We who are deeply interested in this vital problem are genuinely grateful to him for the struggle in which he is taking the lead, and we are pleased to follow and support him in the fight. I make no apology for the fact that I represent a very large urban constituency and am talking on the subject of the hill-sheep farmer. I daresay the number of hill-sheep farmers in my constituency could be counted upon the fingers of my hand. That, of course, is the whole trouble. So few people take an interest in the hill-sheep farming community because they do not represent rates. If they did, the House would be much fuller. That is why I am proud to stand up and support my hon. Friends on their behalf. The trouble is really an economic one. It is the relationship between the selling price and the costs of production. Why should there be one economic law for the farmer and another for the manufacturer? The manufacturer is given his costs of production plus a reasonable margin of profit, and he fixes his selling price accordingly, but the farmer's selling price in many cases has no relation to costs of production. It is fixed for him with regard to what the Government imagine that the consumer is willing to pay.

That is one of the root troubles of the farming community. The prices that the farmer is getting for his primary products, in the way of meat or wool, do not meet his costs, and he is making losses. That is not disputed. We were grateful to the Secretary of State for his obviously sincere and convincing remarks on the Scottish Estimates the other day in sympathising with the lot of the hill sheep farmer. He recognises that this is a very serious problem and that, while there are other problems, they are as nothing compared with the trouble that the hill sheep farmer is going through. His costs are going up. The basic price of mutton was fixed last year. Since then wages have risen steadily. He has had to pay very high wages to his shearers. I am not deploring that. I merely state it as a factor in the cost of production. The cost of dip and of fertilisers and foodstuffs has risen, along with many other factors in the cost of production. Railway charges in connection with the transport of sheep for wintering have risen. There used to be concessions, but they have now been withdrawn. The grazings are deteriorating because there are not enough cattle on the hills. Now another blow has been inflicted on him, because it looks as if he will not get any more high-grade basic slag. It is most unfortunate that this further nail should be driven into the coffin. Basic slag is a very valuable product for grazing lands which, goodness knows, are poor enough because, for lack of capital, the farmer has not been able to drain them as much as he might have done.

One need not talk about bracken. Everyone knows the trouble that the hill sheep farmer has to contend with through the encroachment of bracken. But there is another trouble from which he is suffering. He has been compelled to plough up some of his land. Much of it is very poor from the point of view of arable, but he was invited in many cases to grow oats. He can grow only a very poor crop, but he did it because he was told to, and, just at the time when he had nicely sown them, the price was reduced, so that his profit on the crop was very small indeed. That was another blow, perhaps not vitally important, but all these things count. Everyone knows what a tremendously bad winter and spring the hill sheep farmers have had through the loss of lambs and ewes. The Secretary of State admitted that many had had a loss of 50 per cent. The real trouble seems to be to define who the genuine hill sheep farmer is. I realise that the problems of some are not so difficult and intolerable as those of others, and that that is one of my right hon. Friend's major difficulties. But the man who has my sympathy more than any other is the man who has little or no arable land at his disposal, who has little or no low ground and practically no other source of income than hill sheep. He is the fellow who is just about ruined to-day. This class is in a very serious state indeed.

Another grievance from which the hill sheep farmer is suffering, among so many others, is that the Government appear to be pinching the skin, the head, the offal, the feet and the various unpleasant entrails vulgarly called "guts" from the sheep that he sells. They get a substantial price for this offal, and the sheep farmer feels that he should have the benefit of it. I do not know what price the Ministry of Food are getting for this offal, and it would be interesting if the Under-Secretary could give a figure. If he has not got the figure, perhaps he would ask his hon. Friend in the Ministry of Food to let me have it, because the sheep farming community have a feeling that they are being deprived by the Government of something which ought to be theirs when the carcase is sold. One could go on ad lib telling the House of the problems and grievances of the hill sheep farmer, but the facts are not in dispute. This is a seriously depressed industry. It is being ruined and is making very heavy losses. In practically no instance are fanners making profits. It is an intolerable situation which covers an enormous acreage in Scotland. Those who go to Scotland for their summer holidays will enjoy the beauty and loveliness of the scenery and the glens, but perhaps they do not realise while they are enjoying it what a bitter struggle the hill sheep farmer is having to make his living.

What is the solution of this problem? That is, of course, the crux of the difficulty. We all realise that it is not easy of solution. My sympathy goes out to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his attempt to solve it. I know that he is deeply sympathetic and will try and do as much as he can to give some substantial concessions to the hill sheep fanning industry before the autumn months come along. I hope that what has been said to-day will strengthen his hand for fighting the battle with others. He has to fight a battle with others, and if anything we say to-day will strengthen his hand in that battle I am glad. The farming community have officially put up in the form of a memorandum what they are asking for. It is a price solution, for, after all, it is a question of price. They want an increase of 3d. per lb. on the price of mutton and an increase of 2d. on small weight lambs under 35 lbs. in weight. I suggest that that applies to at least 90 per cent. of the black-faced lambs in Scotland. They want the price of black-faced lamb and Cheviot wool increased, the former to 1s. 6d. and the latter to 2s. They want, further, a substantial increase of the subsidy which was given last year of as. 6d. for breeding ewes.

If none of these things can be given, they want some assurance that costs. which are steadily rising, shall be reduced, for this might have the same effect. They want the costs of their production covered so that they can make even only the barest margin of profit instead of, as at the present time, in almost every case a substantial and ruinous loss. No doubt my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will state in his reply that some concession has recently been given in the form of an extra penny a lb. in the price of mutton, but that will come into effect gradually and they will not get the full effect of it until about 10th November this year. That will not be a very effective help to the average hill farmer. It will certainly be of practically no direct help to the black-faced sheep farmer because his crop of lambs will have been sold before that price is able to affect him. The penny will mostly affect the wintering people and those who are selling a rather different type of sheep on lowland ground. The black-faced sheep fanner will not get much benefit.

There are those who say that the hill sheep farmer is "grousing" unnecessarily because the price of lambs is going up and there will be a big boom in prices and that, therefore, he will do very well in the long run. Because the other day at St. Boswell's and elsewhere some of the heavier lambs got a substantially higher price, there are some people, who do not understand farming, who may draw wrong conclusions. They say that these higher prices will be universal and that they are a sign of the prosperity of the industry. That is a short-sighted and ignorant view to take, because the fact that prices rose and may continue to rise and be maintained at a high level is not a sign necessarily of the prosperity of the industry. It is a sign of the needs of the industry, of the parlous condition in which it is, of the shortage of supplies and of the death of the lamb crops that took place in the winter and spring. It is a poor contribution for any Government Department to make to say that because lamb prices may rise this year the hill sheep farming industry needs no material assistance and is in a state of prosperity. Let us get back to the proper economic basis. Why should the hill sheep farmer be on a different economic basis from any other industry? Unless Government Departments recognise the fact that the basis should be a cost of production plus a reasonable margin of profit, we shall not get anything better done for this much afflicted and distressed industry.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

I rise for the purpose of demonstrating to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland that there is support in this quarter of the House for the plea that is being made. The problem, as I see it, is a double one. With one part of it my right hon. Friend is unable to deal. It is a problem of maternity and child welfare. I refer to the heavy death rate that was incurred by natural causes during the storms and severe weather in the early part of this year. Hill sheep farmers particularly were subject to staggeringly heavy losses in their flocks. Ewes died off under those conditions to a very serious extent indeed and there were repercussions upon the productivity of the ewes that did remain alive, and after the lambs were born many of them died. But the other side of the problem is one that does come within the powers of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and those who have to share with him the responsibility of making the economic decisions upon which a solution, or an alleviation at least, of this problem depends.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Robertson) has spoken, and may I say that I have been very pleased indeed to find that the case has been put so well by all those who have taken part in the Debate. I am not posing as an expert in this matter, but I think the case has been put in a very admirable way, and while forcefully expressed has been put in a reasonable manner. The hon. Member for Streatham said that the position of the hill sheep farmer, who breeds the sheep, is reflected in the price ultimately obtained for those sheep. My comment upon that observation is to say that I do not think that we must look upon it as an inevitable process that the price obtained ultimately for the sheep does necessarily seep through to the hill sheep farmer. It is true that the ultimate price of the sheep does give a calculable basis for the hill sheep farmer, but it is not inevitable, in my judgment, that that price should in all cases reflect the position of the hill sheep farmer who parts with the sheep before they go into the market, where the final price is obtained by the sheep feeder. I am not going to attempt to put a concrete solution of this problem to my right hon. Friend, but I will say that here is another instance of the necessity for dealing with a very important part of a Scottish industry by exceptional means. I can assure my right hon. Friend, and I think it is a compliment to him, that he is looked upon in all quarters of Scotland as a Minister who is ready and willing to take exceptional measures when they are called for. We recognise that perhaps he is not alone concerned in making the necessary decisions which will be involved in solving this particular problem, but I want to assure him that he will have wholehearted backing in this House for any step that he can work out and complete backing in striving for a solution of this problem.

This is an important industry. It is an industry that has met very hard times in recent years. It is important but it is dwindling. I think it is very regrettable indeed that there should be the falling off in hill sheep farming in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that we have seen during recent years. I was told recently that not many years ago in the island of Jura there were 200,000 head of sheep, and that to-day the number is somewhere in the region of 11,000 or 12,000 breeding ewes. That is an indication of the way in which this industry has declined. I remember my right hon. Friend saying on one occasion that when we are out of the war and have an opportunity of going forward with things in the realm of peace he hoped we should not be succeeding to a graveyard or a cemetery, but succeeding to a going concern. I think to-day we are faced with a problem of that kind and we are asking my right hon. Friend—and I am leaving it with him—to work out what the solution shall be. But I am asking him: very earnestly to meet the needs of this important and vital section of Scottish agriculture by doing whatever he can and doing it quickly and effectively.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Wedderburn)

I am very glad that those of my hon. Friends who were prevented by the statement on the Russo-Polish Treaty from putting forward the views of Scottish agriculture during the Debate last week have now been given the opportunity of doing so. In our Debate last week it was not possible, within the rules of Order, to say very much about prices, but in the Debate on the Adjournment to-day my hon. Friends have had the advantage that they have been able, with greater freedom, to discuss the prices which ought to be paid for various agricultural products. The responsibility for those prices is, of course, a collective responsibility of the Government as a whole, and the Scottish Office must have its proper share in the responsibility for the prices that are fixed. As has been mentioned, my right hon Friend the Secretary of State has always been very much alive to the severe difficulties of the hill sheep farming industry in Scotland, and I think it is well known how deep is his sympathy for those engaged in that industry in their present plight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streat-ham (Mr. Robertson) raised not only the subject of hill sheep fanning but the whole question of mutton and wool prices, and it is therefore necessary for me, in the first place, to ask the House to distinguish between the type of farming which is carried on by the hill sheep farmer and that which is pursued by the Lowland farmer who feeds the sheep and sends them to the fat stock market. The Highland farmer can, as a rule, fatten very few and perhaps no sheep. He gets his return by selling store lambs and cast ewes, and of those two items the store lambs are, as a rule, the more important. The Lowland farmer, on the other hand, carries out the business of fattening sheep and bringing them into a fit condition for market, and he may carry out that process in two or three different ways. He may have his own flock of breeding ewes, and fatten lambs of his own breeding. He may buy from the Highlands every year a number of old ewes which are getting too old for the high ground but are still good for one more year of maternity and child welfare in the more grateful conditions of the Lowland climate. He may take one crop of lambs from these ewes and fatten them in the next winter. Or he may simply buy store lambs from the hill farmers and fatten them. He may combine all three processes at once, as I do myself. I have some breeding ewes; I sometimes buy black-faced ewes in the autumn from the Highland farmers and I sometimes buy store lambs.

The first question I am called upon to answer is in the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. I want to separate the problems facing the hill farmers from those of the arable farmers. I think my hon. Friend proposed to raise the price of mutton by 3d. per 1b. and also the price of wool, on the ground that these large additions to the present prices would benefit directly or indirectly the hill sheep farmers. But they would also add enormously to the rewards earned by the lowland feeder of sheep. He referred to the statement which I made in the Debate last week, when I said: You cannot give a price for mutton and wool which will be sufficient for the products of the hill-sheep farm without making those prices excessive for other kinds of sheep.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1941; col. 1498, Vol. 373.] I would remind my hon. Friend that only about one-third of the sheep in Great Britain and about half the sheep in Scotland are hill sheep. The greater number of breeding ewes are not hill sheep at all. If you wish to increase prices you have to bear in mind what the effect will be on the profits of the Lowland farmers, who have, on the whole, twice as many sheep as have the hill farmers.

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman cannot fully have understood by observations. I took the accounts of his own Department for hill sheep farms, and I showed, and I thought I had proved conclusively, that during the period of Government control there had been an average loss of £523. On the other hand, again taking the accounts of his own Department, the other type of farm to which he is referring, the sheep feeder and rearer on the low ground, were losing —151 10s. per farm during the two years of Government control. The hon. Gentleman is wrong in suggesting that any section of sheep farming is making money and that no section is losing. My submission is that they are both losing; and if, by any chance, some of the farms make some profit, is it not the duty of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look after them?

Mr. Wedderburn

I accept what my hon. Friend says about the profits of hill sheep farming but I cannot accept the statement that the Lowland farmer, who has twice as many sheep, is losing money at all. I do not want to weary the House with figures, but 1 have a number of accounts here of various mixed farms in Fife with a large number of sheep. They show that one of them last year made a profit on sheep alone of £398 upon 396 crossed lambs, and another £288 on 444 crossed lambs.

Mr. Robertson

Was there a wage allowed to the farmer?

Mr. Wedderburn

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Robertson

And interest on capital?

Mr. Wedderburn

The House no doubt remembers that the present prices were arrived at about a year ago and represented an increase of 2d. on the prices of 1940 and 4d. on the pre-war price. At that time, the Government decided to pay £34,000,000 in raising agricultural prices, and the whole price structure was carefully worked out. It has not since been altered much. Agricultural prices are however constantly being kept under review. No one could foresee what circumstances in the future might justify any rise in those prices. I do not wish to encroach upon the subject which, I understand, is likely to be raised next, but obviously if we decided to raise the minimum agricultural wage it would constitute a case for a review of the whole price structure. I have now to decide, upon the presents costs, which have, I agree, shown a tendency in some directions to rise, whether there is a good case for raising the prevailing price of mutton from is. 2d. to a higher figure. I must reply that, on the present basis of costs, I do not think a case has been made out for increasing the price of mutton. It was decided last year to deal with the hill sheep farmer by way of a special subsidy and I thought I had expressed the situation concisely in the phrase which my hon. Friend quoted.

The plight of the hill sheep farmer is the main subject of this discussion, and before I go on to deal with that problem I should like to deal with one or two subsidiary points which were put to me by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Argyll (Major McCallum). He stated that the 1942 ploughing-up campaign suggested by my Department was excessive. That is a matter which we are now discussing with the chairman of the execu- tive committees. I shall meet next week those in the South-West and South-East of Scotland, including those from Argyll. I can certainly tell my hon. and gallant Friend that the last thing we want to see done is unsuitable land ploughed up. The question as to how much land should be ploughed up will be decided by the local agricultural committees, and in making their decision they must have regard to the ultimate object—producing the greatest possible amount of human food. They know that that object will not be attained by ploughing up unsuitable land. My hon. Friend has suggested that instead of being asked to plough their land, farmers should be asked to put fertilisers on it and improve the quality of the grazing. Of course they can—and I hope they will—be required to do that in any case. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eastern Renfrew (Major Lloyd) again put a question, which I think I answered last week, about high-grade slag. I cannot add anything to what I then said. I said that we were hoping to arrange for the supply of high-grade slag to Scotland, and I pointed out that it is a question of transport. We must remember the difficulties which our transport system has to bear and try to arrive at the best solution in the public interest.

Major Lloyd

It is not a matter of transport between England and Scotland, and I do not quite see that transport matters.

Mr. Wedderburn

It does matter a great deal. The lower grades go by sea, whereas the high-grade slag has to go by rail, and there is a most tremendous strain on our rail transport.

Major Lloyd

Steamer freights are higher than rail freights.

Mr. Wedderburn

I am hoping very much that we shall be able to bring about the necessary arrangements for this high-grade slag to be supplied to Scotland again.

Major McCallum

Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that the advice of the agricultural executive committees will be taken, because my information is that it is not taken?

Mr. Wedderburn

I really do not understand my hon. and gallant Friend. It is the agricultural committees which say which field shall or shall not be ploughed up. All the Department does is to suggest to the agricultural committees what the quota for their district should be. We certainly do not wish to compel the committees to require land to be ploughed up which they decide is unsuitable.

Major McCallum

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I insist on this point, but I have received a very definite assertion that the agricultural executive committees have advised that only 25 per cent. of the 2,000 acres could be ploughed up, but that the Department insists that they should find the whole 2,000.

Mr. Wedderburn

That is no doubt a matter which will be discussed between myself and the chairmen of the agricultural committees when I meet them next week. My hon. Friend the Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie) suggested, I think rightly, that the history of the decline of hill sheep farming in this country goes a very long way back. I think it is true to say that for the last 150 years high-land grazing in Scotland has been gradually and progressively exhausted. It has not been possible to put fertilisers back into the land, and in more recent times the process of decay has been accelerated by the decline of hill cattle, which has also been a contributory factor to the spread of bracken. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eastern Renfrew and others have all asked for a long-term policy. I cannot say what the post-war policy of whatever Government may be in power at the end of the war will be, but I certainly hope that we shall have a Government which will seriously have the intention of establishing a higher standard of agriculture in the Highlands. I can only tell the House now, as I did last week, of two long-term measures which have been taken this year in the hope of assisting the hill sheep farmer. One is the subsidy for cutting bracken—the payment of half the cost—and the other the subsidy of £2 on breeding cows of Highland or Galloway breeds or first crosses of these breeds with a Shorthorn bull which are kept on the hills. I will not repeat the figures of the numbers of applications received under those two subsidies, because I have already given them.

We all recognise that the hill sheep farmer himself is in a most unfortunate condition; not only has he had a hard struggle for many years to make ends meet, but this year he has also had the exceptional misfortune of unusually severe weather, which has resulted in some cases in the loss of 50 per cent. or even more of his stock. My hon. Friends will be aware that last week the Secretary of State received a deputation on this subject in Edinburgh, and he is fully conversant with all the relevant facts of the case. The House will not expect me to try and give details of the subsidy to be granted. The appropriate amount of subsidy will, as was explained last week, be settled with the Treasury, account being taken of various factors of which one will be the price prevailing at the autumn lamb sales. As I pointed out last week, the high price which seems likely to prevail at the lamb sales is due to the fact that so many ewes and lambs were killed by the severe weather last winter. It does not therefore follow that because the hill fanner is receiving this high price he is doing better. On the contrary, he is really doing much worse, and is getting this higher price for probably only about half the number of store lambs which he was able to offer last year. The higher prices do not indicate that the situation is better for the hill sheep farmer. They indicate rather that the situation is worse.

Mr. Robertson

The determining factor at all lamb sales must be the price which can ultimately be obtained from the sale of wool and mutton.

Mr. Wedderburn

I do not think that that is the only determining factor. It is a difficult economic question to what extent the buyer of store lambs passes on the value of what he is going to get to the breeder from whom he buys the stores. It probably depends a good deal on the numbers offered for sale. This year, owing to the scarcity of hill sheep on the store markets, I should expect that most of the benefit of any higher prices would go to the hill sheep farmer. But the winter increase in price of 1d., which has been referred to, is not strictly relevant to this subject, because the justification for it is that the Government desire a greater use of sheep in maintaining the fertility of our land. We recognise that it is not going to be of great assistance to the seller of blackfaced lambs. The object is to get more sheep fed on turnips. in the Lowlands. The House will not expect me to give any indication of what I think this hill sheep subsidy ought to be. All I can say is that I am very glad my hon. Friends have had an opportunity of raising the matter, with much greater freedom than if they had done it last week. It is a good thing that these matters, which are of such importance to a great section of our people, to a very important industry, should be debated as frequently as possible in the House of Commons. I am glad that hot only my hon. Friends behind me, who are concerned with the areas which are affected, but also my hon. Friend opposite, who sits mainly for an industrial part of Scotland, should have spoken on this subject.

Mr. Robertson

I very much regret to say that I find the statement of the Undersecretary far from reassuring, and it is my intention to raise this matter on the resumption after the Recess.