HC Deb 25 February 1944 vol 397 cc1217-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Mr. Granville (Eye)

I desire to raise with the Minister of Agriculture a question connected with the negotiations which he is conducting at the present moment with representatives of the agricultural industry, of which question I have given him notice. As was implied in the question I put in the House on 3rd February to the right hon. Gentleman, the talks which have been resumed between the Minister and certain representatives, are, in my view, not only pursuing the wrong method but are too narrow. For those and other reasons which I will give now, I think they cannot lead to conditions of confidence in the industry, but only to another crisis. If they are to deal with the immediate problem and the post-war problem, any talks initiated by the Minister must represent all sections of the agricultural industry. I have no doubt that I shall be told that the Minister has said in this House that it is his intention to consult the Agricultural Workers' Union and other bodies on long-term policy, but "long-term" like "postwar" is a very ambiguous phrase, and ambiguity should be avoided at all costs by the Minister of Agriculture. From a realistic point of view, the talks will, in effect, deal with the very basis of the long-term or post-war policy in agriculture. On this point I arm myself with a statement made by the Minister himself, after he had journeyed down to Taunton, in the West Country, where he said: In the heat of argument, some farmers might have forgotten the vital and fundamental consideration of fitting a healthy and prosperous agriculture into a permanent place in the national economy, which was the Government's aim. I submit that in that statement the Minister has himself proved the point that the very basis of post-war, long-term or four-year-plan agriculture is involved in the talks which are now being carried on. I would suggest to him that it is no good starting these talks and then presenting the other interests in agriculture—there are other interests in agriculture, vital interests—

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Mr. Granville

It is no good having these discussions and then presenting these other interests with what will amount to a fait accompli either to accept or reject. My suggestion, therefore, to the hon. Gentleman, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, is that he will convey to his right hon. Friend my suggestion that there should be a conference of all the interests in agriculture to deal with the residue of the problem of the pledge and to deal with post-war policy. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture has had many successes, rout, frankly, his great success is not as a negotiator. I do not know whether it is his manner, or the manner of his pronouncements, but I wish the Minister in dealing with this question would take a leaf out of the book of Lord Woolton when he was Food Minister, and realise that, if you want to make a success of this great industry, it is important not only to preside over an efficient administration in your own Department but that it is vital to take all the interests and public opinion with you at each stage.

Each of these negotiations has taken place behind closed doors. I go so far as to say that I believe half of the Minister's troubles in dealing with this is because these past talks were carried on in a hole-and-corner atmosphere. I quote the late President of the Farmers' Union, who said: The Minister of Agriculture has indicated to us his intention to use figures not publicly available, the validity of which we do not accept. He said before that: In view the fact that all price negotiations have been conducted under conditions of strictest confidence, it is obvious that the farmers' case cannot be fully stated, and so on. Now the result of that is twofold. First, even to-day in the country, in the agricultural districts half the small farmers and a great number of the agricultural workers simply do not know where they stand and where their industry stands at the present time. They have to depend on what they hear in pronouncements of the Ministry of Agriculture over the radio or from what they can occasionally read in the Press. They were not present at any of these discussions in 1940, and in 1942 with the Minister of Agriculture and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. These were never carried to the branches, to the smaller organisations of the farmers. The result is that many of them are completely confused and uncertain about the position to-day. By this present method of negotiation, which I contend is a wrong one and which has produced half the difficulties, you get the very conditions of which the right hon. Gentleman is afraid. You get wages chasing prices and prices chasing wages and you store up future trouble for yourself in negotiations and you create a vicious circle.

The Minister of Agriculture has made a number of statements on this subject. One was to the effect that he personally had had considerable success as a big farmer. That statement gained a widespread circulation in the country districts. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, whatever he may know of war-time farming on a large scale, with unlimited capital, to remember that he is dealing with only one section of the industry at present. What does he know about those small farmers, and the smallholders and those farmers farming on marginal soil or on poor land? For 15 years I have seen this problem argued in the House of Commons. I represent a Suffolk constituency, and in that part of the country there are hundreds of these small farmers, who have had to struggle for the last 20 years to keep their heads above water. In a statement which the Minister made on the wireless, in February, 1942, he said: What is going to be the effect of these prices on farmers? It is bound to be uneven. Some of you to-day are doing very well. These new prices simply mean that you will pay a bit more to the Chancellor. For the majority of you these increased prices will just cover your increased costs. On the other hand I know some of you are farming difficult land. Despite the good prices we have enjoyed since 1940, you are just struggling to make both ends meet. I do not know whether the Minister consults the Central Landowners' Association and its kindred organisations, but I would like to ask him: does he propose to consult the county councils, who have a considerable say, and also the numerous smallholders' organisations, for which I believe there is one central body?

Then there is the case of what I would call the forgotten man in this agricultural problem—the agricultural worker. I think the Parliamentary Secretary ought to have a special interest in the agricultural workers. He has a long and proud record, speaking at that Box, from this side of the House, in the interests of the agricultural workers, and on numerous occasions in this House he has suggested that the agricultural workers should have the closest co-operation and a more direct voice in the future of this industry. Has the Minister ever consulted the Agricultural Workers' Union on future policy? Why does he leave out this essential part of the industry? We have the workers asking, as they are now, for an increase in wages from £3 5s. to £4. We have the farmers saying that if this takes place they will have to ask the Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a further increase in prices. Yet, from my reading of the speeches of Mr. Gooch, the President of the Agricultural Workers' Union, not once have they even been invited to any consultations for organising the industry on a proper basis and avoiding any spiral movements in prices and wages. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to consider whether he would not be doing something constructive for the countryside if he got these various interests round the same table, with the idea of producing a really effective long-term policy.

There is another aspect of this question, to which I referred in my original question to the Minister. I refer to the system of cost investigation, and I would like to ask who is now to supply the figures which are the basis of the present negotiations, because it is no good the small or struggling farmers or smallholders on poor land taking the speeches of the Minister of Agriculture with them in their pockets to merchants and bankers with whom they have mortgages or are in debt. That is not going to get them very far. You cannot write off this problem of cost investigation, and the basis of the fixation of prices, by quoting a series of global figures from Cambridge or Oxford dons. The Minister knows perfectly well that the National Farmers' Union are not organised to present a statistical case on this question. He said so in this House. That was really half the difficulty at the price negotiations. Every Supply Department in this country to-day, responsible in any way for production in the war effort, in conjunction with the Treasury, has made a special point of setting up an organisation for cost investigation.

I should have thought that, illustrated by the number of letters by accountants and farmers in "The Times" as to whether the small farmers were making a profit or not, the Minister's statement that before the war some farmers were getting less than £150 a year profit, in view of all this, the whole future negotiations between the industry and the Ministry, will depend upon getting some kind of complete and effective organisation which will give us from time to time an impartial set of figures, upon which we can work with some degree of reliability. Farmers' organisations are not in a position to do it. The right hon. Gentleman has to depend upon University dons to give him these figures. I should have thought that now was the time when, with the tremendous staff which he has gathered together in the Ministry of Agriculture, he could have set up an organisation for this specific purpose. Certainly, if you do that you ought to see that you invite the co-operation of not only one section but all sections and including the agricultural workers.

An old Suffolk farmer said to me that the speeches and answers of the Minister of Agriculture on this question, which has been agitating the whole of this part of the country for a long time, sounded like a shaky defence in a breach of promise case. It is my recollection that, whenever the industry of agriculture has succumbed to the charms of any Minister of Agriculture, she has always been jilted. This time, so far as East Anglia is concerned, we are going to ask the Minister, and may be the Chancellor of the Exchequer as well, to make good their promises and statements and to sign on the dotted line. Otherwise, we may have very seriously to consider in East Anglia whether we are going to secede in future at any rate from any one-sided negotiations.

This is a plea, again, for the little man in agriculture. It is a plea for the little man with no strong organisation behind him who depends upon the vital factor in agriculture—the question of price. We are looking to the Government to deal, not only with this immediate problem, but this post-war problem. When the men who are now in the Services come back to this country, and regard the array of pigeon-holed schemes for reconstruction which the Government have declared, and which are now in the hands of Lord Woolton, one cannot have the least idea what they are going to say about it, but there is one thing that I know they will want. If we are to get the soldiers, the sailors, the men from the Services, to go back again into the countryside and make their lives and their future in the villages on the broad acres of this country, after they have seen something of the outside world, one of the first things we shall have to secure for them a decent wage. We shall have to give them proper rural amenities and an agricultural industry which will have a real measure of security. As the hon. Gentleman himself knows, in some of these areas, including areas covered by the present by-election in Suffolk, as regards housing, water supply, drainage and reasonable human amenities, are to be found some of the worst rural slums in this country.

It is no good dealing with this problem on a patchwork or piecemeal basis. It is no good producing one crisis after another, nibbling at the problem here and trying to stop up another of the gaps there, until probably a General Election has to be fought upon a new policy. We had great hopes of the present Minister when he came into office. Some of us still have hopes that the right hon. Gentleman will act in a big way in trying to solve this problem. But I ask: Has the Minister the vision and the courage to plan a really bold agricultural and rural policy for the whole country?

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

What does the hon. Member expect the Minister to say?

Mr. Granville

If he has, I wish he would produce it.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

In view of post-war settlement, how can he?

Mr. Granville

The right hon. Gentleman has announced prices which are to extend until 1947. That is a beginning. This problem is not a sectional problem. It embraces the whole of the countryside and it has to be tackled as one problem. I repeat, has the present Minister the vision and courage to plan a really great future agricultural policy? The whole House and the whole country would back up such a policy. If he cannot do this then if necessary let him resign his job and come here in all honesty and sincerity and tell the House of Commons frankly why, and give his political reasons for so doing, and we should then respect him for his single-mindedness and sincerity.

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

I am rather afraid that my hon. Friend has exceeded slightly the area which I expected he would be covering. Were I to attempt to provide an effective reply to his speech and to announce a full, comprehensive and permanent policy for a prosperous agriculture in this country, I am afraid that I should require much more than ten minutes.

What I understood the hon. Member was to raise originally was the question of participation by the workers' unions in discussions with the agricultural industry as outlined by my right hon. Friend on the 26th January. He went on to suggest that there ought to be wide, comprehensive conferences which could get down to discuss meticulous details and provide a policy. I do not quite understand what sort of conference my hon. Friend means. I think perhaps I had better confine myself to the statements made by the Minister on 26th January and to indicate, as clearly as I can, what was in the Minister's mind and what the Minister intends to do.

My right hon. Friend asked me to make it transparently clear to-day that he regards it as very important that the workers' unions in any case should be consulted on every appropriate occasion. I am afraid there is some misunderstanding in the mind of my hon. Friend about the scope of the discussions that have now commenced and will continue for some little time. My right hon. Friend in his speech on 26th January foreshadowed three sets of consultations. First, with the universities and the National Farmers' Union on the collection of economic and financial data, that is, financial accounts showing profits of farms, and costs accounts showing costs of particular commodities. Second, with the National Farmers' Union on the application of that data to achieve the purpose of the Government when it gave its original pledge in 1940. Third, discussions with farmers and farm workers or their unions, landowners and others on future policy.

Mr. Granville

On future policy?

Mr. Williams

On future policy in the industry, and "future" starts from tomorrow.

Mr. Granville

Will the right hon. Gentleman make that absolutely clear, because discussions are beginning at the present time with the. National Farmers' Union. Does that statement of the case mean that agricultural workers will be given an opportunity to be consulted at these discussions?

Mr. Williams

If my hon. Friend will possess his soul in patience I will endeavour to give him a reply. He has occupied twenty-five minutes and left me only ten minutes in which to reply to the major point he raises, namely, with regard to the participation of the workers' unions in these various discussions. If he intervenes now, he will get no reply at all. Of the three sets of discussions outlined by my right hon. Friend on 26th January, the subject matter is different in each case, and, clearly, the participants in these discussions will not be exactly the same persons on each occasion. For example, neither workers' unions nor their members, have access to the farmers' books and accounts, which are almost the only source of information upon which costs and prices can be fixed, and from which financial data can be obtained. Therefore, with all the good will in the world, it is difficult to see how the workers' unions could assist in the collection of these facts and figures without which we would never know the costs, or the profits, or be able to fix prices in future. That is one set of discussions which are exclusively devoted to providing statistical data upon which future prices of agricultural produce can be fixed.

My right hon. Friend said on the 26th January that, so far as milk is concerned, there is a system established now. There are no disagreements between the Minister of Agriculture and the Milk Marketing Board on the figures of the cost of production of milk because, in the case of milk impartial experts have undertaken the job of providing the figures. The scheme was arranged by the Ministry, together with the Milk Marketing Board, therefore, the costs are accepted by both sides and there are no disagreements on the cost of production. What the agricultural workers' unions will be deeply interested in, as a major partner in the industry, is the policy which will be formulated after taking into account all relevant facts, including the financial data referred to.

Quite naturally, they will want to be satisfied that this financial data is reliable and representative and will not suffer from any doubts, such as we have had in the past. I would point out that my right hon. Friend said on 26th January: For the figures to be of any value they have to be representative of different types of farms and farming and if they are to be fully accepted by both sides they must be collected and analysed by impartial, expert economists. Therefore, the workers' unions need have no apprehension if these discussions are left to the farmers to supply the material, to the university economists, who will sift that data, and the Ministry.

When we come to the second problem—the application of the economic data to price policy—the workers will have a much more active interest since such a policy leads inevitably to a long-term policy. As wages are based upon prices fixed, the agricultural workers' unions will need access to all relevant facts. The Minister intends to make this data available to the unions. It is very necessary from their point of view, when applications are made for an increase of wages or in the event of the farmers making an application for a decrease. If the unions want to raise any point on current price policy my right hon. Friend has stated that he would be willing at any time to provide them with that opportunity. Finally, on long-term policy, which is of great importance to the industry, the unions will certainly be brought into the discussions. The Minister, if the policy is to be sound, and, I hope, permanent, will want all the co-operation and the maximum exchange of views with all sections — the workers' unions, the National Farmers' Union, the landowners—before the policy can finally be produced.

My right hon. Friend asks me to give an assurance to the House that on all these major points of price policy, or transition or long-term policy, he intends to take fully into his confidence all those who are involved in this major industry. I hope this explanation and assurance will satisfy the hon. Member that no one is to be left out of these discussions. My right hon. Friend feels, as, I am sure, we all feel, that the worker is the major factor in the industry. He has performed miracles, with the farmers, during the past four years and is entitled to a say in any future policy for the industry out of which his livelihood is derived. I must say that my hon. Friend seems to have a contorted view of universities and the economists drawn therefrom. I would remind him that there is only one source from which we can draw financial data, upon either costs or profit of farming operations, and that is from the farms. The only persons who can supply the figures are the farmers themselves and when they have undertaken to supply them, and the university economists have undertaken to analyse them, and make the financial data available, then, and only then, will it be possible for my right hon. Friend, or any Minister of Agriculture, to work out any transitional or long-term policy. If my hon. Friend is to have for the industry guaranteed markets and prices the basis of the fixation of those prices must be on a costing system which is agreed upon by the National Farmers' Union, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture. When the first step is taken the second and third will be possible.

Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)

May I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are a great industrial country dependent on our export trade for the prosperity of our industries? We hear a great deal about the prosperity of agriculture but we must bear in mind that a long-term policy cannot be settled at present. We must await a world settlement—in the meantime, farmers are doing very well, and are likely to do for some considerable time now—

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.