HC Deb 06 March 1941 vol 369 cc1109-23
Lieut.-Colonel Boles (Wells)

I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead there of: in the opinion of this House the Army Agricultural Scheme should be given every encouragement, in view of the urgent necessity for producing food in this country and saving shipping tonnage. The object of the Army Agricultural Scheme is to assist the national production of vegetables, through the cultivation of land and gardens requisitioned for military purposes, by units in occupation. The original scheme dated from 1939, and was a hobby, or welfare, scheme, run by the welfare authorities. The produce was to be used to supplement the rations; and, therefore, units grew what they could in small quantities around their barracks, and consumed it. The scheme in that form took a good hold, and was popular. Some units worked extremely hard, and produced a lot of stuff. They were reluctant, therefore, to come under the new Army scheme which was gradually evolved. An attempt was made to run the two schemes on parallel lines. Instructions were given that the new Army scheme was not to disturb the welfare, or hobby gardening scheme. That was found to be impossible, and the hobby scheme had to lapse.

The story of the scheme is rather a long one, and it begins in the old traditional style. Once upon a time there was a preen and happy land, upon this land descended a blight, in the shape of a military occupation—,no hostile occupation, which might have been very much worse; but, nevertheless, it was a blight, for, as a result, many thousands of acres became sterilised. In accordance with tradition, there arrived a Print Charming, who proceeded to exterminate the blight, or, one might say, to de-sterilise the land. He arrived in the nick of time —,almost too late—,for the land was in a very bad way. It had had probably a year or more of military occupation, and considerable organisation was required to bring it back to the green and happy state in which it had been before. He started gradually and evolved this agricultural scheme. He had almost rescued the maiden from the wilderness, when the ogre appeared, first in the shape of a small cloud on the horizon. This cloud gradually spread over the country, and the scheme, in consequence, was hindered.

It was not until January, 1940, that the germ of conscience of the great machine really started to move, and then only through the requisitioning of private gardens—, that is to say, the requisitioning of the gardens of houses which already had been requisitioned by the military. The principle hitherto had been that these gardens were not to be requisitioned, but were to remain the property of the owners, who were, of course, separated from their gardens and unable to cultivate them. That was obviously an unsatisfactory arrangement, and it began to be realised that these gardens might be made of great value. It was not until May that authority was obtained for the supply or requisition of any tools or to buy seeds for the season. Even then, it was only done by the welfare organisations. They had a certain amount of encouragement no doubt, but the scheme was still only a welfare organisation scheme, a garden scheme, and not an agricultural scheme. In February, 1940, we see the first signs of this cloud which is appearing on the horizon: It is regretted that no public money can be made available for this purpose. That showed the way the wind was blowing and how this cloud was gradually creeping up from the horizon. The Army, as usual, came to the rescue and improvised something, and some vegetables were grown. Still the scheme was in the hobby stage. In June, 1940, one command realised that something else had to be done, and there was issued a sort of scheme which authorised, unofficially, the purchase or requisitioning of tools, and the supply of seeds. On 22nd October, 1940, it became evident that at last the War Office was moving in the matter. A letter was issued which said that the War Office were just giving birth to a series of instructions on welfare in general, and gardening was included. In October the gardening scheme was purely a welfare sideshow, and there was nothing agricultural about it. On 23rd October it was realised, in one command at any rate, that not sufficient attention had been paid to the gardens, and, although the season was too late for very much to be done then, that something more must be done in the future.

By the end of October, 1940, a bigger idea began to germinate in the minds of the authorities. In fact, somebody had a brainwave and looked up the 1919 report of the Army Agricultural Committee. This was very helpful and rather satisfactory, and it gave certain figures, which showed that the area in cultivation was 6,428 acres, the money advanced £12,319 and the profit £68,000. That, incidentally, was divided up between the State and the units in the proportion of 30 and 38. One would have thought that a profit of that sort would have given courage even to the Finance Department. It is a large sum of money to be got for very little outlay at an extremely small risk, and if the Finance Department had been able to back the scheme, then the result in acreage under cultivation now would have been at least 50 per cent. higher. However, the scheme was started, and in the middle of November, 1940, an agricultural officer was appointed by the War Office— and that was a move in the right direction— to organise the scheme and to find out the acreage available for planting.

It appeared that one Command said they had at least 10,000 acres available for agricultural cultivation. As far as I can ascertain that was the only Command that had any idea of the amount of land available. One other Command said they had 35,000 acres of sterilised land but did no know how much of that could be brought into cultivation. As it was then the middle of November it was getting too late to plough up the land. A little later in that month one Command asked for a loan of £ 10 per acre to get on with, for the purchase of tools, seeds, etc., but no authorisation was given. Obviously, the scheme could not work with one agricultural officer at the War Office, so eventually one D.A.Q.M.G. and one clerk per Command were sanctioned. A Command had, roughly, 20,000 acres over which this one D.A.Q.M.G. and his clerk had to tramp in their efforts to organise cultivation. It was, of 'course, a Herculean task and the War Office and its agricultural officer soon realised that unless the Command was sub-divided into areas nothing would be done. So, on 3rd December the War Office unofficially sanctioned one staff captain per acre. The selection of these men was difficult because it could not be done at a moment's notice. It was said that they must have 75 per cent, tact and 25 per cent, agricultural knowledge and that they could have the advice of the war executive agricultural officials in the case of difficulty. Nevertheless, they were difficult people to find.

Early in December one Command issued a scheme but before very long there was a plaintive wail from one area commander who said that he was facing a liability of £ 1,000 and asked to be reassured. The answer was "No." There was no authority, in fact nothing but the unofficial appointment of the agricultural officer at Command headquarters. On 13th December I heard of an appeal for advice by one of the areas and the reply was that a staff captain had not yet been appointed. By the middle of December, it was only a mouse-like nibble at the problem, when a proper scheme might have been fruitful, had it started earlier. There was an acknowledgment by one area of £ 200 which was to be used for outlying units but the main area plots of the garrison were without anything at all. To give an idea of the size, the garrison plots area amounted to 24 acres, whereas the small outlying posts had probably not a quarter as much.

The question of staff was becoming extremely important. One command was driven to desperation and decided to appeal to the better feelings of the War Office in an attempt to get their staff appointed. They said that they thought the delay in the authorisation of the staff was placing in jeopardy the whole scheme for food production on War Department land during 1941. They then gave their ideas on the subject of the staff, and concluded with the statement that if the question of food production was not to be taken seriously, and that they recommended that the scheme should be abandoned, a decision which they would regard as deplorable. They felt that they had nobody behind them either financially or with weighty military authority. The disappointment of the War Office agricultural expert and the command's agricultural expert was only unofficial. There was no A.C.I. There was no establishment. Presumably, the establishment was held up while the finance people were looking into the question of how much it would cost.

Again, we see the cloud that overhangs the scheme, and which, every now and again, stops any little advance which some individual with a little determination and energy tries to make. However, on 21st December, the War Office provisionally authorised the staff and the payment of £ 10 an acre, a great advance. They also gave their sanction. for 100 men from the Pioneer Corps to be used as gardeners, and the payment of these men at the rate of £ 150 a year from the profits of the scheme. That was very good as far as it went, and the command went ahead. They still wanted the A.C.I., and they hoped that the establishment would be set up. They were promised as early as January that the A.C.I, would be produced.

The labour question is, of course, extremely difficult. Obviously 100 men per command could not do a very great deal. What could be done would be that the men should be skilled gardeners and have a certain number of soldiers under them. I am not sure that the Pioneer private would have the necessary authority over a group of Regular soldiers to get the job done. In theory the plan might easily work, and in some cases it would work very well indeed if the men were of the right type. In any case 100 is really far too small a number. Units change from one station to another, and it is essential, as far as the agricultural part of the scheme is concerned, that continuity should be preserved. It so happens in some cases that a fresh unit does not take over the barracks which have been evacuated. The result is that the land which they have taken so much trouble to dig and plough has no one there to cultivate it when the time comes.

There are also the gardens of requisitioned houses. The owners could do nothing about the gardens they left, and the R.E.'s took over a certain number of gardeners for the purpose of mowing and trimming. These gardens were in no way utilised for cultivation until recently, but even now they are not always being used. If the scheme is to be a success, there should be some civilian gardener permanently stationed on the spot. I know that here again we are up against finance, which extends even to the little gardens at the back of our houses. If only someone was there to tend the land, it could produce the stuff we want. Surely these civilian gardeners are worth their weight in gold, and yet we find there is no means by which they can be paid. It is obvious that a civilian gardener has to be paid more than the minimum wage. He has to be paid something which is comparable with what he received in peace-time, and he has to receive it week by week, or at least fortnightly. There is no means by which this money can be made available for civilian gardeners and the result is that to a very large extent they are wasted— either they go off to some other job or they are left as spare labour in the local village. The county war executive committees have been extremely helpful in regard to this scheme. They have taken over large areas for ploughing, and they give both advice and machines with which to carry out the work. Another method of dealing with this land has been to let it off to farmers, but in some cases that has been impossible. Obviously civilians cannot be allowed to wander about in certain areas, and the ground in this case has to be cultivated by the military. In one Command there are 7,000 acres let to farmers in this way which are now in production. In that case it would be very hard to achieve production by any other means.

Assuming that we produce the food, the question which then arises is that of disposal. A far as I remember, in the last war, when this gardening scheme was produced on a smale scale, the produce used to take very long journeys. It used to go off to some central depot where the N.A.A.F.I. used to buy it and then drive it all the way back again to a unit close to where it had originally come from. That was an extremely wasteful procedure. That mistake has been avoided on this occasion, and arrangements are made by under-drawal of rations by which units are able to consume the produce on the spot. N.A.A.F.I. buys it and repays the unit. The actual food goes from the garden to the nearest breakfast table, and N.A.A.F.I. pays the unit for it in the long run. That is a far better arrangement. The rest, from the bigger areas, is taken to central N.A.A.F.I. collecting places and is bought by them at the market price. It is a very good scheme, deserving of every encouragement. It requires more backing from the finance Departments, and it requires more skilled labour. May I plead that if it is continued, if necessary for another year, it should be given more elasticity? If that could be done, the areas under cultivation would be more than doubled. Everyone has entered into the scheme with enthusiasm and in nearly every case has done his level best to produce food from the land In some cases, where they had to leave and go to other stations, they have with great regret left the plots which they have cultivated with so large an expenditure of labour and time.

Sir Dymoke White (Fareham)

I beg to second the Amendment.

Mr. T. Smith (Normanton)

In these days, with the necessity of growing food wherever we can, this scheme is bound to contribute substantially to our general food production. When I was asked to speak on the Amendment, I had difficulty in finding anyone who knew anything about it. After listening to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, I know a great deal more about it than I did before he spoke. As I understand it, land under the control of the War Office is not necessarily developed by them. If land can be let to farmers or market gardeners who can cultivate it better than the military, that is being done, and I think it ought to be done, but every encouragement is being given to soldiers occupying houses with gardens to cultivate them, and assistance is being given in more ways than one. None of us would oppose an Amendment of this kind. I read the report of the Committee in 1919. I made the amazing discovery that in 1918 agriculture was prosperous, at least the Army Agricultural Scheme was prosperous. I read that the good work of the Home Forces had resulted in the cultivation of 6,458 acres and the realisation of £ 68,000 profit, of which £30,000 was paid direct to the State, the balance being the profit of the units concerned. After that I knew a little more about agriculture than I thought I did. I had always heard people say that during the war years there was not much money in agriculture. Undoubtedly this Committee did exceptionally good work, and in cultivating 6,458 acres and making a profit of £68,000 it justified its existence, and I am satisfied that my hon. Friends who are interested in this scheme will do what they can to support it. There is no need for me to say anything more, because none of us will oppose this Amendment.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for War (Sir Edward Grigg)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Colonel Boles) for having moved this Amendment, since it enables us to make a statement regarding the progress of this scheme, and, if he will allow me to say so, a rather more accurate statement, because I am afraid he must have gone for his information to sources which were not altogether well informed. I can see that he had some difficulty in escaping from the state of mind which causes all of us who have served in the Army to attribute purblind-ness to the Financial Department of the War Office. It really is not justifiably exposed to the criticism he has made. The delay has not been due in the least to the Financial Department of the War Office, which has, indeed, given the fullest possible assistance to this scheme from the moment when it was first brought forward. The reason the scheme was not proceeded with much earlier— it was in the minds of the Army Council more than a year ago— is that the duties of the Army were very considerable at that time, and that the amount of land which had actually been taken over in the earlier part of last year was comparatively small. The great requisitioning has taken place in the period since the retreat from Dunkirk and with the concentration of the troops in this country. I think the War Office began to deal with the question as soon as it was reasonable to ask the Commands and lower formations of the Army to turn aside from their very urgent and essential tasks to what is after all, from the point of view of an Army, a task which is not so essential.

The actual scheme was accepted in principle by the War Office at the beginning of October last year. An agricultural officer was then appointed. It was his duty to make recommendations as to the way in which the scheme could be practically carried out, and he did it with great promptitude. The result has been the appointment in each Command of a D.A.Q.M.G. for agricultural purposes. These are not younger men who might be concerned with more active duties, but older men with special experience of land and agricultural questions.

The organisation therefore is an agricultural officer at the War Office and an agricultural officer in every command. There is, still further, a staff captain for agriculture in every one of the areas into which commands are divided. The scheme was not only considered by the War Office but was strongly recommended by the Select Committee on Expenditure set up by this douse. My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn) showed great interest in the matter, and the report of the Select Committee quite rightly called attention to it. I should like to thank the Committee for helping us in the matter. The House may like to have the names of the officers who have been appointed, as hon. Members may have reason to get into touch with them in their constituencies. They are, in each command: Northern Command— Major H. B. Hall, Fellow of the Land Agents' Society; Southern Command—Major Sir Christopher Ligthton, a retired member of the Land Agents' Society; Eastern Command — Major R. M. Cobb, Fellow of the Chartered Surveyors' Institution, and a land agent practising in Kent; Western Command—Major E. H. Walters, a Fellow of the Chartered Surveyors' Institution, and a practising land agent; South-Eastern Command— Major J. S. Gates, also a Fellow of the Chartered Surveyors' Institution and a land agent; Scottish Command— Major G. D. C. Beaver, a factor in Inverness-shire and manager of a large agricultural estate. I think hon. Members will see from that list that the officers have had experience in dealing with these questions. The staff captains appointed under those command agricultural officers are also men of special experience on agricultural questions. The general instructions which are given to these officers are: To ensure that all land which can be cultivated is cultivated; to encourage new vegetable gardens where they do not exist, and expressly to arrange that, in requisitioned houses with gardens attached, if the owners cannot continue cultivation, the soldier occupants shall do so.

Mr. J. J. Davidson (Glasgow, Mary-hill)

Is the War Office sure that the factor of an estate will be able to make the fullest contribution to this effort and also keep in mind his duties to the owner of the estate?

Sir E. Griǵ ǵ

These are Army officers. They have this experience behind them. They are serving as Army officers and I gave their background in order to show their special qualifications.

Mr. Davidson

It may be that I did not make my meaning clear. Is this factor separated from his factor's duties when he is doing this job?

Sir E. Griǵ ǵ

I understood the hon. Gentleman's question, but I am not quite sure of the answer, and perhaps he will permit me to give him the answer a little later. In regard to. the principles on which they are to proceed, my hon. Friend who spoke just now quite rightly said that farmers should cultivate the land wherever possible. We prefer this to be done, wherever farmers can be found to take it over. In the Southern Command upward of 6,000 acres have been released for cultivation by farmers since the beginning of the war. In other commands the same thing is going on. There is no desire to undertake this duty if those who are normally engaged in it are prepared to carry on, but where we cannot find a farmer to do the work the Army is doing its best. The labour is done mostly by the troops, and in order to ensure that the work may have continuity— obviously formations and units move— we have sanctioned the appointment of 100 men per command as full-time agricultural workers. They will be set aside and will be kept solely for this work. In order to reassure my hon. and gallant Friend, J may tell him that these hundred men are men of experience and need not necessarily be in the Army.

With regard to finance, there is a Treasury advance of £ 10 per acre. I may say that preliminary advances were made before the final advance was sanctioned, so that there was no undue delay. The sum of £ 10 per acre compares with £ 1os. per acre in the last war, and I think it is justified because the cost of seeds and other things has gone up. Full advantage in most Commands, and I think in all Commands, has been made of it. The £ 10 advance is to be repaid from the sale of produce, and full-time men are to be covered by this scheme at the rate of £ 150 per head. When that and the other overhead charges have been paid the profits of the scheme will be divided equally between the Army and the Treasury. I believe the scheme will turn out to be extremely satisfactory.

Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, Northern)

Is it the local unit or the Army as a whole which gets the financial advantage?

Sir E. Griǵ ǵ

The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes.

Sir Richard Acland (Barnstaple)

But that is a private institution, is it not?

Sir E. Griǵ ǵ

All profits made by those institutes go to the benefit of the Services. I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Maryhill (Mr. Davidson) an answer in reply to his question about factors. The answer is that they are not now in private employment; they are simply officers in the Army. The main crop which the Army will grow on the land which it is cultivating will be potatoes, and there are hundreds of tons of seed potatoes already available. The produce will be sold to the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, but I can tell my hon. and gallant Friend that units may retain the produce for their own use if they wish to do so, though they must in that case under-draw Army rations to the same extent, the Institutes crediting them with the full value of what they have supplied to themselves. I believe that over 10,000 acres have already been cultivated. That compares very favourably with 6,000 as the total in the last year of the last war, and we hope to have quite double that amount under cultivation next year. Much of the requisitioned land has been let to farmers, and I would like to emphasise that wherever that is possible farmers rather than the Army will be asked to do this. I should like in particular to thank the county agricultural committees, which have been extremely helpful.

I may say that the scheme is not confined to this country. A good deal is being done in this way by that extraordinarily versatile Force, the Army of the Nile, which is now growing quite a proportion of its own potatoes. In the last war it was found that potatoes could be grown, in the deserts, in the ditches round bell tents, the precipitation during the night watering the potatoes. That scheme is being re-adopted in the present war.

I do not know whether there is any other point on which hon. Members would require information. If so, there is just time to give it. I would like once more to thank my hon. and gallant Friend for bringing up the subject and thereby enabling me to give an accurate account of it. Armies are historically like locusts, and I am afraid nothing is ever credited to them except the doing of a very serious amount of damage. That is quite inevitable, but I am glad to say that where it is possible they are trying to eliminate waste and indeed to add to production. This scheme is being pressed in all the regional Commands; it is, I think, generously financed, it is well equipped with an administrative framework, and I hope we shall get good value for the energy and foresight which are being put into it.

Mr. T. Smith

I would like to ask two questions. The hon. Gentleman has been good enough to give the House the names of the officers in the Commands. Could we also have the name of the officer specially appointed at the War Office in connection with the scheme? Secondly, may we have an assurance that there is the fullest co-operation between the county war agricultural committees and the officers included for this purpose and the Ministry of Agriculture, in order to avoid the disequilibrium of production which has been a very big bugbear in agriculture generally? I think we ought to have an assurance that there is the fullest co-operation and no overlapping through two separate Departments dealing with the same matter.

Sir Irving Albery (Gravesend)

When the hon. Gentleman said that 10,000 acres were already under cultivation did he mean that that is in excess of any land handed back to the farmers, or is such land included in it?

Sir E. Griǵ ǵ

To take the last question first, it is in excess of any land handed back to the farmers. The 10,000 acres are cultivated by the Army itself. I think I can give my hon. Friend a complete assurance in regard to overlapping. We are working in the closest possible cooperation with the county war agricultural committees and with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mr. Davidson

As the right hon. Gentleman referred to the profits of the scheme going to the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, may I ask whether the War Office have any control over what happens to those profits?

Sir E. Griǵ ǵ

I am afraid I may have misled the House. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that the profits of this scheme will be held by the War Office for the benefit of the Army. There is no question about that, but what the exact machinery will be I do not quite know.

Lieut.-Colonel Boles

In view of the hon. Gentleman's reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. Main Question again proposed.

Sir R. Acland

I have one point to put in regard to the main Question before the House. It may seem rather pert to be talking about the Army after only having been in it for six weeks, but after six weeks of experience in one unit the following things seem to me to be true: I would like to pay some compliments; it may be different in other units, but in the unit I am in we are extremely comfort- able, and I say that as one who is fond of his creature comforts. We are very well fed, I cannot subscribe to the "spit and polish" criticism, and the story about the bullying N.C.O. being dead is really true. In fact, when the Secretary of State was talking about the proper relation between the officers and men I could not help feeling that what he was describing was in fact the relation between the non-commissioned officers and men. Our principal sergeant instructors are, in very truth, the friends and confidants of the men in their charge. I am sure that the officers very much want to carry out the desires of the Secretary of State. It might be carefully considered whether, for example, it would not be a good thing for a number of officers to stroll into the N.A.A.F.I. of an evening, and sit down and drink coffee with the men. That is an interesting question. What put up the reputation of our officers most was when three of them came out and did P.T. with us for an hour.

It cannot be too strongly borne in mind that the primary motive power in the private soldier's mind is a steely determination to learn his job. So long as he is taught the relation between what he is doing and the killing of Germans, he is extremely happy. As soon as we shift from that, he is extremely unhappy. The general lecture which teaches us the relation between killing Germans and what we have been doing on the square is very good in itself, but it does not survive the effect of one hour of presenting arms or sentry-go drill. At the end of that period the troops are just a little restive and-angry, and morale is inclined to go down a little. Whatever the private soldier is asked to do, it should be an instruction to the man who instructs him that it should be then and there explained what is the relation between that job and the business of beating the Germans. You can explain the business of presenting arms in terms of killing Germans; but if you apply this test to everything, you will find that a certain number of things which are now done are unnecessary.

I wish the Secretary of State would simplify kit inspection. I am all in favour of kit inspection, and of enforced cleanliness and tidiness. But if you are not using an overcoat, you can hang it up on a peg. I know it looks very nice to see it made into a neat roll; but that is a peace-time job. There are several ways of folding blankets. There is a way which is complicated, and which involves the co-operation of two men, so that the blanket does not show its edges; but that is a peace-time method. When we moved from our basic training to our technical training, we found that the whole kit layout was just a little more difficult. By the time we had laid out our kit we were extremely angry. It had just begun to give us the impression that "The N.C.Os. know their stuff, but these officers come around and make us do these things for the sake of doing them." The most popular War Minister we have had up to the present is unquestionably the right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha). If the present Secretary of State desires to surpass him at one bound, he should send around the instruction, "This is the kit lay-out, and any non-commissioned officer who departs from it will be fired in a week." It would have a marvellous affect on the troops.

I want to make two points very briefly. Fatigues arc absolutely destructive of technical training; We get only a month of technical training between basic training and the firing course. When you get gun detachments broken up day after day by fatigues it is destructive, and I beg of the Secretary of State to enrol what I would call a Guard and Duty Corps from among the less ambitious of our soldiers so that during these vital times when we are learning our technical stuff we can go on day after day learning it stage by stage and not have this business of fatigue. My last point is that honestly you owe it to the private soldier to speed up these hardship forms. I think that the Army is a great deal better than I thought it would be, and I believe that the Under-Secretary feels the same, but if he would go into the Army hardship claims department and see that no claim takes more than five weeks between the claim being lodged and the result being made known, it would bring about a great improvement.