HC Deb 11 February 1941 vol 368 cc1326-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."[Mr. Grimston.]

Mr. De la Bère (Evesham)

I desire to raise the question of agricultural production. If the Minister of Agriculture has failed, he has failed because he has antagonised the human element throughout the agricultural industry. I am sorry to say what I have to say to-day because I like my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, but it is not an hon. Member's place to let his likes or dislikes dictate to him what he shall say on the Floor of the House. The Minister of Agriculture has lectured, scolded and patronised. It is no use his doing that unless he provides the material, and by material I mean the man-power and capital to do what is required to produce every ounce of food from the land. My right hon. Friend has not done this. It may be argued that he is not responsible for the recent call-up and that that is the responsibility of the Minister of Labour. It may be argued that he is not responsible for the uneconomic price of pigs and that the Minister of Food is responsible. It may be argued that my right hon. Friend cannot help the niggling way in which the Treasury cavils over every penny for agriculture. It is not right to argue in that way. My right hon. Friend was put in office, not to adorn that office, but to solve the problems which have to be solved. For my right hon. Friend to have told us at five minutes to one o'clock yesterday that he did not want, towards the end of the war, to hear children cry, "I am hungry," and not to have taken every step to see that this did not take place, is unthinkable. He has not done so because, I suppose, he feels he will not have to he in office very long and that in the end he will go on to something better. That kind of thing will not do to-day.

This morning I did not want to he late and I took a taxi-cab. The driver did not seem to know the way to the House of Commons as well as I did. After a slight and friendly altercation I said, "I suppose you are not interested in the House of Commons?" The taxi-driver said, "No, Sir. Down my way there is only one thing that interests us, and that is food." That may sound somewhat irrelevant, but it is not. In every part of the country, in every village, in every town, in every house, the one thing that interests the housewife to-day is food. With war as it is, it is not the slightest use our trying to go on along the old peacetime lines.

Why is nothing done? Nothing is done because it would cut across certain fundamental issues. Those who guide the country refuse to recognise that in wartime you may have to cut right across all fundamental issues. I will instance one only. The banks are still charging 5 per cent. on overdrafts to agricultural borrowers. The amount of money outstanding in February, 1940, was £53,000,000. Why do not the banks reduce that 5 per cent. to 3 per cent.? They would then give approximately £1,000,000 a year as working capital to the farmers. Why is it that the farmer dare not go to his banker? Because he is already too heavily in debt. He must have money and must have men if he is to do anything to-day. The Minister of Agriculture has boasted that we have ploughed up millions of acres. All credit to the farmers; they are the men to take the credit for it. It is a worthy thing to have done, but it is not sufficient of itself. They require men and money, and substitute labour will not do. The Women's Land Army have done good work, and I do not want to belittle them, but they have their limitations, and it is useless to suggest that we can take men from the land and replace them by substitutes.

It is a case for putting more men back on to the land. Before the war thousands of labourers had left to go to the towns to earn better money. Since the war thousands more have gone into the workshops to make munitions. The land is more denuded of labour than it has ever been in the history of the country. Therefore, it is no use the Minister of. Agriculture suggesting that he is providing the most modern of tractors, that he is providing the most modern returns. We may multiply the most modern tractors, we may multiply the most modern forms, but the human element is and will remain the key to the situation, and it is because the Minister of Agriculture has antagonised the human element throughout the country that I say that he has failed and should resign.

Mrs. Tate (Frome)

When we consider agriculture to-day I do not think we can say that it has altogether failed, but in so far as it has not failed there is not a Member of this House or a farmer or farm worker who would not say that the fact that it has not failed is due, first and foremost, to the farmer and the farm labourer, and, secondly, to the late Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. and gallant Member for Petersfield (Sir R. Dorman-Smith). To-day the farmer is being (ailed upon to make terrific sacrifices in every direction. He has innumerable difficulties and innumerable irritations, difficulties which many in the country would find almost too great. I agree with the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) that the Minister's attitude towards farmers has in many instances been exceedingly unfortunate. No one would belittle the tremendous gifts of the present Minister of Agriculture. He has very great mental capacity, very great power of expression, very great forcefulness and a great desire to do well in any Department of which he has charge, but he has not an understanding heart and mind. He has a most unfortunate manner. I think he has not learned that, however much you may be able to bully in private life, you cannot bully the yeoman of England, nor can you bully the soil of this country. You cannot do the impossible.

This war may all too easily be lost on the food front, yet the Minister of Agriculture, only a few short weeks ago, went into the West country and said to the farmers there that they must give up tens of thousands of the workers on their farms. If they really have to do so, it may mean that hundreds of thousands of people will go most woefully short of food. The present Minister of Agriculture has come out in the new light of a staunch supporter of my sex. I do not think there is any truer feminist in this House than myself, but not for a moment would I claim that the average woman can ever compete with the skilled male agricultural worker. She may in certain instances be able to do as good a job as a man, but agriculture is not one of the jobs for which she is most fitted. She will go to the land and she will do her best, but you have no right to ask the farmer to give up his skilled men. I beg of the Minister, whom I sincerely wish well, to think again when he speaks to the farmers, to speak for them and to work for them with greater sympathy and greater understanding and to remember that the farmer and the farm-worker are the aristocrats of this country, the true yeoman stock of England, and that they will not stand for his bullying.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. T. Williams)

Before any more compliments are paid to my right hon. Friend it would be well to say that the attacks which have been made by the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) and the hon. Lady who has just spoken are merely general attacks and that no specific weakness on the part of my right hon. Friend has been mentioned by either of them.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)

On a point of Order. Is it not the custom, with Debates upon the Adjournment, that the Minister who is to reply waits until the case has been made out?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)

It is the custom of this House that the Member who is called upon by the Chair is the one who shall speak.

Sir H. Morris-Jones

Is it the case that when a Front Bench member of the Government rises, it is the custom to call upon him?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Such a point is not one on which the Chair expects or desires to be advised by a Member.

Mr. T. Williams

I hope to give the hon. Member ample time to state his case. I would make this general observation to the hon. Member who first spoke: Whatever he may say or think about my right hon. Friend, it is the fact that, for the last cropping season, my right hon. Friend not only provided all the labour that the farmers required but, by supplementary schemes, the excess of labour that the farmers were willing to employ. My right hon. Friend has also been responsible for providing more machinery than this country has ever known.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

Is the Minister referring to skilled and male labour?

Mrs. Tate

Is the Minister sure that the responsibility for that is all upon his right hon. Friend, and not upon the previous Minister?

Mr. Williams

I am sure that all the supplementary schemes from May, 1940, were produced under the régime of my right hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I wish to take none of the well-deserved glory from the predecessor of my right hon. Friend, and I hope it will be understood that nothing I may say in any way reflects adversely upon my right hon. Friend's precedessor. Although general charges have been made, the only thing that emerged out of them, and the sort of conversation that ensued, were the two questions of labour and credit. If I deal now with those two questions, any other points in the minds of hon. Members can be dealt with on some other occasion.

Mr. De la Bère

Under credit, does my right hon. Friend include capital, as credit and capital are indivisible?

Mr. Williams

I have said something about that matter before. My hon. Friend has a great talent for exaggerating problems that do not exist. With regard to credit, or capital and credit, the problem which he raises so frequently does not exist to-day, whatever may have been the position nine, 12,or 18 months ago. What are the facts? There is no single way of meeting all the financial requirements of farmers because conditions vary from farm to farm and from district to district. Present arrangements include grants for ploughing, draining, ditching, the provision of lime and basic slag, and so forth. But it is recognised that even they are not enough, and the Government have asked the farmers to extend their business. They are still further extending their business. They are not only told to extend their business; they are actually directed to do so. They are told what they have to produce and almost how much to produce. Therefore, it automatically becomes the responsibility of His Majesty's Government to see that credit or capital and such facilities are available in order that farmers may catty out the directions given.

What has happened? Apart from the grants already referred to the Government took steps to provide a guaranteed market for almost everything the farmer produced. They also provided guaranteed prices for everything the farmer produced, not only for the duration of the war, but for one year after, and the big factor with regard to credit or capital, namely, uncertainty, has been completely removed at least for that period. I would remind the hon. Member that the prices are intended to provide for financial accommodation, whether for three, four or five per cent. I do not intend now to enter into a discussion about five per cent. While guaranteed markets and prices have been provided, my right hon. Friend interviewed representatives of the large banks. They readily undertook to provide liaison officers to go between the farmers and the county war agricultural executive committees, and any farmer with a complaint against a bank for not advancing appropriate credits can complain to his agricultural executive committee, who in turn have access to the banks through the liaison officers.

Mr. De la Bère

He is too heavily engaged.

Mr. Williams

We understand that these arrangements are working very satisfactorily indeed. In addition to the financial accommodation of the banks, there is the Agricultural Requisites Scheme, which was initiated exclusively to deal with cases of difficulty. Under the terms of the Agricultural Requisites Scheme, farmers can obtain fertilisers, feeding-stuffs, machinery, implements, services for ploughing and cultivating. I know that it was a tubercular child that we introduced last February, but since then the Agricultural Requisites Scheme has grown up. It is now a healthy adult, and it is rendering a real contribution to the war. It may interest the hon. Member when I tell him that a large number of persons have taken advantage of the Agricultural Requisites Scheme, and in one case of a farmer who is responsible for a very large area of land an advance under the scheme has touched even five figures, and more and more farmers are taking advantage of that facility. Increasing numbers of small farmers are taking advantage of that scheme to tide them over from harvest to harvest. It seems that the hon. Member is scarcely keeping pace with fast-moving events.

I would like to refer to a point which was mentioned by the hon. Lady the Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate). Recently I addressed two farmers' meetings as wide apart as Hampshire and Yorkshire, where as many as 500 farmers turned up, and I would say to the hon. Member that they were all very intelligent farmers in both counties. They questioned me for between 40 and 50 minutes, and they put some very sensible questions. Of course, there was a certain amount of irritation; what section of the community is free from irritation in 1941, whether on farm, in factory or anywhere else? During 40 or 50 minutes' questioning there was not a solitary question with regard to credit. If the industry was being shipwrecked on the rocks of credit, believe me, I should have heard all about it. The general answer, therefore, to my hon. Friend with regard to capital and credit is this: The farmers' needs are being met partly through the ordinary credit channels, partly from Government loans, partly by Government grants, but perhaps mainly through the mechanism of controlled markets and fixed prices. If, however, the hon. Member or any other hon. Member knows of any specific case in which a farmer is unable to do his job because he cannot obtain accommodation from the banks or through the Agricultural Requisites Scheme, I or my right hon. Friend will he very happy to look into it.

Mr. De la Bère

Is my hon. Friend aware that farmers dare not ask for additional credit owing to the already heavy interest burdens they have to bear; and that my right hon. Friend had over a week's notice of this agricultural Debate on the Adjournment?

Mr. Williams

My hon. Friend evidently has information other than that in my possession. All over the country there is a tendency for farmers' mortgages to decrease rather than increase, because for the first time for some years they are not doing too badly.

With regard to man-power, I am sure we all recognise its importance, especially to agriculture. You cannot provide a skilled agricultural labourer in a training establishment in three months, six months, or even six years. But since the Government have called upon the industry to cultivate every acre, they must, as far as possible in the present circumstances, provide both the machine-power and the man-power so that they will be able to do the job. The Government does appreciate this very grave problem but has to decide between the requirements of the Services, and the production of food, shipping, etc., and secure the best balance they possibly can. I can say to the hon. Member and to the House that the plan for raising the numbers essential for the Fighting Services is still under discussion, and many details are still to be settled. I can, however, say that in relation to the total employed in the industry the men withdrawn will be a very small proportion indeed. Secondly, the arrangements proposed will guarantee the retention on the farms of every man who is really indispensable; and, thirdly, due regard will be paid to the special circumstances of agriculture as regards seasonal operations and calling-up dates. Service requirements are putting a terrific strain upon every industry in this country. Substitution and training are now universally accepted as being assential, and I both hope and believe that agriculture will be able to play its part in this moment of national crisis.

Mr. Price (Forest of Dean)

I am sure that the last remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary in regard to the calling-up of agricultural labour will give a great deal of satisfaction in the agricultural world, because there is no doubt that although the Minister, as I think the House will agree, has done well in his position, he made one of his worst mistakes in putting grave fear into the minds of farmers up and down the country in that speech of his which seemed to indicate that very heavy inroads would be made on agricultural labour. I think it was quite an inexcusable speech, having regard to what has finally turned out to be the case. No farmer wishes to escape his liability to provide for the Fighting Services what labour he can possibly dispense with.

Mr. T. Williams

Was it not the essence of wisdom for my right hon. Friend to warn the industry, so that they might not lose their skilled men by standing them off for more than a fortnight, and so that they might train such men as they are able to lay their hands upon?

Mr. Price

If that was what the Minister had said, I could not have made any objection; but he was not clear enough, and his speech was interpreted throughout the country as meaning more than that.

Mr. De la Bère

It created a needless feeling of insecurity.

Mr. Price

Quite so. It created a feeling of insecurity, which is only now ended by the speech of my hon. Friend The farmers are all seeing where they can dispense with men who may have to be called up, and where they can use members of the Women's Land Army instead. But this is where all informed agricultural opinion feels so strongly. You cannot use women in highly specialised and key posi- tions, where men who have spent all their lives in the industry are essential. Particularly in the stock-raising districts, and for milk production, you cannot put people who have been engaged in farming for two or three months to replace men who have been doing such work all their lives. If I had to lose such men off my farm, I should have to give up that sort of agriculture altogether, and turn to something else. I am glad that we now know better what the position is, and I am sure the farmers will do their best to train and use the Women's Land Army where it is at all possible.

In regard to the provision of capital and credit, which was raised by the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère), I do not take the view that there is any great feeling in agriculture that production will be held up on account of insufficiency of credit. I think it is, in the main, true that the greater security resulting from these guaranteed prices will put the industry in a position where it will be able to meet the new requirements; but I think the small men—those in the West Country, for instance, with farms of from 50 to 100 acres—who have been entirely engaged in stock-raising, and who have not for many years engaged in arable production, cannot, without serious difficulties, be expected suddenly to grow potatoes and other things. My hon. Friend says that he has been addressing farmers in various parts of the country and has had no complaints. He has probably been in touch with big farmers.

Mr. T. Williams

And small farmers.

Mr. Price

All I ask is that the Department should keep its ears to the ground for the complaints of these small men, and that they should find out from the war executives in the counties whether the needs of the small men are really being met. These small farmers may have difficulty in finding out the proper means of getting credit facilities and I assistance. That is the weak spot, about which there may be complaints.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House. Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.