HC Deb 05 December 1944 vol 406 cc365-72
The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. R. S. Hudson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I desire to inform the House of new arrangements for fixing agricultural prices. I would like to emphasise that these arrangements were decided upon before the recent meeting of the Agricultural Wages Board. I am afraid it is rather long but it will govern procedure for the next four years. In my speech in the House on 26th January, 1944, I said that there were three questions relating to the fixing of agricultural prices by the Government which the Government were willing to discuss with representatives of the industry:

  1. (1) The collection of economic and financial data which would be acceptable both to the Government and the industry as a basis for price discussions.
  2. (2) The procedure for using these data.
  3. (3) The means of relating the system of guaranteed markets and fixed prices to the four-year production plan, including the harvest of 1947.
After discussion with the National Farmers' Unions of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the Workers' Unions, agreement has been reached on each of these questions. The economic data to be used for price discussions between Departments and the National Farmers' Unions will be based on financial accounts relating to different types of farming and sizes of farms, and statistical material relating to costs of production, collected by means acceptable to the Government and the industry. These data will be made available to the workers' unions who will be given an opportunity of expressing their views. In February of each year there will be a review by the Agricultural Departments in consultation with the National Farmers' Unions of the general financial position of agriculture in the United Kingdom, based on the above economic and financial data and any other relevant statistical material which is available.

The price decisions reached by the Government following this review will apply (a) as regards crops, to the prices of crops from the harvest of the following calendar year: i.e. following the review in February, 1945, prices will be fixed for the crops from the 1946 harvest: (b) as regards milk, to prices from 1st October of the current calendar year: and (c) as regards livestock and eggs, to prices from 1st July of the current calendar year. It is contemplated that during the period of the four-year plan, ending in the summer of 1948, some change will be necessary in the character of our agricultural output to meet changing national requirements in the transition from war to peace. Broadly, the change will mean a gradual expansion of livestock and livestock products and a reduction from the high war-time levels of certain crops for direct human consumption.

The Government have already announced their desire to encourage a sub- stantial increase in milk production and a revival in the rearing of cattle and sheep for meat production. To this end an assured market and guaranteed minimum prices are being provided for milk, fat cattle, sheep and lambs, and calves produced during the four years up to the summer of 1948. Actual prices will be considered at each annual February review, and subsequently fixed by the Government. The shortage of feeding stuffs occasioned by the war has necessitated a substantial reduction in pig, poultry and egg production. It is the intention of the Government to encourage an expansion of production of these commodities to the fullest extent permitted by the supplies of feeding stuffs which can be made available. A market will be assured throughout the four-year period for all fat pigs and eggs which are offered for sale. Prices will be considered at each annual February review and subsequently fixed by the Government. An assured market will be maintained for cereals, main crop potatoes and sugar beet up to and including the crops, harvested in 1947. The prices of these crops will be considered at each annual February review and subsequently fixed by the Government.

It is recognised that in the event of an important change in the situation such as might arise from a sudden and substantial change in costs it may be necessary to conduct a special review. The economic and financial data to be provided for the purposes of either an annual, or a special, review will include an appreciation of the economic and financial effects of any such substantial change in costs. There will be no automatic adjustment of prices; all relevant data will be taken into account and—except that no downward adjustment will of course be made in the guaranteed minimum prices for milk, cattle and sheep—the prices of all the above products will be subject to adjustment upwards or downwards. Account will also be taken, in fixing these prices, of any changes that may be required during the four year period in the character of the agricultural output. It must be contemplated that, concurrently with a relaxation of pressure—when this becomes possible—for the maximum production of certain crops, e.g. cereals and potatoes, prices of those crops will be reduced.

In the event of any modifications being considered necessary, to meet the changing circumstances of the transition period, in the present methods and marketing machinery by which these assurances are implemented, discussions with representatives of the farmers and of the trades concerned will take place. Separate consideration will be given to the case of fruit, vegetables, early potatoes, wool, flax and hops.

The Government have also decided that there will be no change in the acreage payments or the general level of prices for the principal crops from the 1945 harvest, namely cereals, potatoes and sugar beet. This decision does not preclude minor adjustments in seasonal, area and grade prices which may be considered desirable after discussion with producers' representatives. Details of the prices for individual commodities will be given in separate announcements.

Mr. Barnes

With reference to the very important statement which the Minister has just made, I feel that the new procedure will be generally welcomed in the House and by all parties interested in the stability of British agriculture. However, I think the Minister will appreciate that the statement is of such importance, and so far reaching, that hon. Members would desire to read it carefully before making definite observations. I would like to express appreciation of the new procedure which seeks, for the first time, to ascertain facts upon which we can apply a price regulation, and I would like to ask the Minister whether, in addition to consulting the National Farmers' Union and the workers' unions, he would take steps for consumer consultation on the basis of this procedure?

Sir Joseph Lamb

While thanking the Minister for his statement, and while I know that the industry will appreciate it as a concrete statement, may I ask if he will continue the discussion with the industry with regard to a long-term policy? This, of course, is a four-year programme. I would ask him to continue the discussions with the industry, particularly in relationship to other industries in this country and the Hot Springs Resolutions.

Earl Winterton

May I support my hon. Friend in asking that question? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will make it plain that this is only an interim policy. Will he also be a little careful about the point put by the hon. Member for East Ham South (Mr. Barnes) because there is an understanding between agriculture and the Government not to bring in all other interests in the country?

Mr. Price

In view of the importance of the statistics and costings, on which the prices are to be based, may I ask the Minister whether the agricultural research stations, universities and economic departments will be asked to furnish figures, together with the Farmers' Union?

Mr. W. J. Brown

The Minister has made a very important statement and many of us feel that we would like to consider it further. There were six Amendments on the Paper dealing with the subject of agriculture and I understand, Mr. Speaker, that, at your discretion, you decided not to call them. I do not quarrel about that—I do not envy anybody the job of deciding what Amendments should be called—but if we are not to have a Debate on the King's Speech, would the Minister indicate how we are likely to get an opportunity of discussing agriculture at an early date, including the very important announcement made to-day?

Mr. Boothby

I would ask the Minister to bear in mind the desirability of framing a comprehensive cereal policy dealing with wheat, barley and oats, and thus keep a balanced relationship and not to make sharp differentiations between them in price.

Mr. Edgar Granville

May I ask the Minister whether it is his intention to publish any of the accounts to which he referred as a basis of the figures, and whether these accounts, received from the various branches of the Farmers' Union, were current accounts, or referred to bad years before the war?

Mr. Henderson Stewart

The Minister said in his statement that special consideration would be given to fruit and vegetables, in other words, horticulture. Do I understand that the statement refers only to agriculture and does not include horticulture?

Mr. Turton

As it is clear that we cannot discuss this important matter by way of question and answer, may I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether we shall have an opportunity before Christmas of discussing the important statement which has been made by the Minister of Agriculture?

Mr. Clement Davies

It is obvious we cannot deal with the many topics involved by way of question and answer, and I am sure the Minister of Agriculture would desire a Debate. If it is not possible to have another day, could not the House sit on Monday so that agriculture could be debated properly?

Mr. Hudson

I would venture to remind hon. Members, including those who put questions to me, of the great difficulties we were in last year——

Earl Winterton

On a point of Order. May I ask whether we cannot have an answer from the Deputy Prime Minister to the questions which have been put to him? How can we discuss a matter of this kind by question and answer? We are entitled to ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will give an extra day for agriculture. The questions had been put when the Minister rose. Cannot we have an answer from the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mr. Hudson

A number of Members put questions to me on the statement——

Earl Winterton

But we want a Debate. Several of my hon. Friends have asked a perfectly reasonable question whether we can have a Debate. May I ask you, Sir, whether we shall have an opportunity of putting that question afterwards to the Lord President of the Council?

Mr. Speaker

Certainly, the noble Lord can put the question.

Mr. Hudson

I am at liberty to answer questions that were put me on my statement. Hon. Members will remember the grave difficulties we were in last year over the question of price fixing because there was no agreed basis. The farmers' organisations put forward certain accounts, we put forward others, and there was no accepted basis. We spent 11 months negotiating with all sides of the industry to try and get some agreed method of collecting statistics. These statistics will be collected by impartial persons, that is, by the advisory economists attached to universities and colleges. In the Bill which I brought forward, and which the House was good enough to pass recently, setting up a national advisory service, I specifically excluded these men from the national service in order that there should be no question that they were absolutely impartial and were appointed and employed by the universities and colleges. These are the men who will be responsible for collecting the data on a large scale. The provincial centres will be at liberty to publish their data, and the collected data will also be published. This is purely a procedural matter and is the first big step towards providing a means of getting an agreed policy. I want to preserve the distinction between this, which is pure machinery, and the question of policy. You cannot settle policy until you have machinery, and this is the first step towards getting permanent machinery going.

Mr. Granville

On a point of Order. In view of the fact that on Friday there are to be Debates on Burma and rural housing, and in view of the interest there is in agriculture, may I ask, Sir, whether you will reconsider the allocation of subjects to be debated on Friday?

Mr. Speaker

It must be recognised that other hon. Members attach great importance to Burma and rural housing.

Mr. Loftus

Everything will depend, I take it, on costs of production as certified by these experts. Will those costs be purely financial costs, or will they take into account the maintenance of the fertility of the soil, which may multiply the purely financial aspect?

Mr. Evelyn Walkden

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether he recognises the importance of this issue in relation to housewives with their shopping baskets, to the value of the £ in the workers' pay packets, to the question of subsidies, and to everything that is connected with the post-war dietary of the nation and the prices that workers will have to pay? Whether we disagree with the proposals or not, they ought to be debated, and I would like to ask whether we can have an opportunity for a discussion?

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

It is really very unusual, when a Minister is waiting to answer specific questions, to have a sudden demand for a statement on Business. If the noble Lord had waited a moment I should have been prepared to get up, but he has no precedence over other hon. Members in putting questions. The Amendments to the Address to be called are a matter for the Speaker. It is obvious that there are claims for other Debates, and a claim for a Debate on agriculture should be put through the usual channels and addressed to the Leader of the House in order that it can be considered before the Christmas Adjournment with other subjects which other Members may consider of importance.

Earl Winterton

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's rebuke, and may I ask whether he is aware that the whole agricultural interest has been demanding a Debate for months past? He must have regard to that. Although a few hon. Members who represent agricultural constituencies apparently do not want a Debate, the great majority of them do, and other hon. Members as well. The right hon. Gentleman must have regard to the urgency of the matter.

Mr. Attlee

Certainly, and these matters will be taken into account through the usual channels. They have not come to me personally.

Sir J. Lamb

I do not wish to appear ungrateful for the Minister's statement, but he did not answer my question. It was whether my right hon. Friend would continue discussions with the industry with regard to long-term policy?

Mr. Hudson

That does not arise out of this particular question, which is a question of machinery.

Mr. MacLaren

May I ask if the statement we have heard to-day commits the House in any way specifically to a policy without our making any decision? Is it purely machinery? If it is purely machinery, one can understand it, but if there is something more to it and the House is being committed to something in the nature of a definite policy, surely the statement should be discussed by the House.

Mr. Hudson

As I explained, it is purely machinery.