HC Deb 15 November 1944 vol 404 cc2077-88

5.58 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

I wish to raise a matter about which I gave notice some time ago, namely, the failure of the Government to announce their long-term policy of agriculture. We are now in the last few months of the sixth year of war. The problems of the post-war period press heavily upon the Government and the House, and in most fields of our life the Government have announced their long-term post-war policy. They have done so, for example, in the fields of social insurance, workmen's compensation, full employment, education and the export trade. Their policy for civil aviation is now under discussion in Chicago, and shortly we shall be debating post-war monetary policy in this House. Health services, too, have also been covered by a Government White Paper. How have we fared in regard to agriculture? Last October those Members who are interested in the subject forced the Government to give us a day's Debate on agriculture, but the Debate was vitiated from beginning to end, because the Minister of Agriculture told us that he had been forbidden to talk to the House on the subject of a post-war policy for agriculture. We returned to the attack towards the end of January, and another day's Debate took place in which the Minister went a little further than he did last October. In the January Debate he did announce that the system of guaranteed prices would be maintained until and including the harvest of 1947. It is true that he did not say what prices, and that he said nothing about the problem of subsidies, but he did indicate—

It being Six o'Clock, the Motion far the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. W. Brown

—that the system of maintaining some sort of guaranteed price would continue until the harvest of 1947. About post-war policy he had not a word to say. Hon. Members on all sides of the House have tried to extract from him since then some declaration of policy, but every time the reply we have received is that he had nothing to add to what he had said. The obvious retort to that is that if you add nothing to nothing, the result is still nothing. Farmers are feeling very strongly that there are all kinds of immediate agricultural problems which are not being properly handled or properly settled. There is, for example, the problem of milk production. An astonished agricultural community learned from "The Times" the other day that the cause of our low milk production this year has been the bad weather. If something goes wrong with our war effort, or with our milk production, it seems to be the custom to blame the weather; whereas, if everything goes well, that is a victory for the Government.

There is the problem of the tuberculin test, which is thoroughly unreliable and in connection with which many farmers are losing money, because it has turned out to be inaccurate in actual practice. There is the problem of freeing our herds from disease. They are to the extent of 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. infected with tuberculosis, and are producing milk of such quality that the American Army refuses to allow its soldiers to drink it. There is the problem of compelling the farmer to produce wheat under the Ministry of Agriculture, and of the farmers finding themselves confronted with a new test which was devised by the Ministry of Food, and which they had never heard of before. There are all kinds of immediate and urgent problems which are worrying the farmers of this country. But their main pre-occupation is the failure of the Government to give them any kind of statement of what is in the Government's mind regarding the long-term policy for their great industry.

I am not in the Government's confidence, and that, if I may say so, is one of the weaknesses of the Government. I do not know why we have not yet had that statement of policy. I can think of a number of possible reasons that might be advanced for that failure. It might be argued that British agriculture cannot be considered in vacuo because what we do about British agriculture, affects the Empire in general and the Dominions in particular, and we cannot proceed regardless of the Empire in this matter. If that is the Government's reply, I want an answer to these questions: Have we, in fact, approached the Dominions on this matter? Have we had consultations with them, and if so, who were our representatives? How far have the conversations gone and has anything emerged from them? If so, what?

The second possible reason that the Government may advance is that agriculture is only a part of our total economy—an important part, but only a part—and that it must be considered in relation to other vital parts of our economy, in particular the export trade. Very well; if that is the answer, I want to point out that the Government have already declared themselves on the problem of the export trade. It is said that we must achieve an increase of 50 per cent. in the volume of our pre-war export trade. [HON. MEMBERS: "How?"] That is not for me to answer, not yet. But nobody has yet told us the equally important answer to the question: What percentage of our food are we to produce in our own land after the war?

I want to remind the Government that the export field, the importance of which I do not in the least minimise, is one which is by no means within our exclusive control. Our overseas investments have largely disappeared. The process of industrialisation in countries hitherto devoted to primary products has been enormously accelerated by the war, and will not be undone by its end, and in a large part of the export field we operate at the moment by kind permission of the United States of America. As long as Lend-Lease continues to operate any idea that we shall be free agents in the matter of export trade is obviously a fallacious one. But at least we can control our own home-based agriculture. I am one who holds that for three reasons—military, economic and social—agriculture should occupy a permanently enlarged place in the total economy of this nation. In this field at least we can operate in our own right and without kind permission of any other Government in the world.

The third possible reason that may be given to me is that the Government fear to announce their agricultural policy, because of its conceivable effect on the country. Ever since the election of 1906, which, as the older Members of the House will remember, was fought on the cry of "The big loaf" and "The little loaf,"—the cry of the big loaf coming from these benches and that of the little loaf from those benches opposite—and my party, I being only 12 years old at the time, not being able to contribute effectively to the discussion—the Tory Party has feared the cry of "dear food" and its effect on the electorate. I affirm as a general principle that fear is the worst of counsellors. Lord Baldwin feared that if he told us the truth in 1935 he would have lost the Election of 1935. He won the Election, but he very nearly lost the Empire as the result of fear. The only way to lead the British people is to tell them the truth, and, indeed, one of the chief reasons for the success of our present Prime Minister has been his capacity for stating unpopular truths. If the British people are told and they take no notice, then at least we are not responsible, but if we do not tell them the truth in the first instance we are responsible.

What is the truth about the cry of cheap food? The answer is that that food was never cheap if one takes into account all the factors that need to be taken into account. If one adds to the price of food the cost of maintaining in idleness hundreds of thousands of men who might have been employed on the land by a prosperous agriculture; if one adds the scores of thousands of industrial workers kept in idleness who might have been occupied in producing equipment and machinery which a prosperous agriculture could have used; if one adds the cost of increased vulnerability in matters of National Defence because of our excessive dependence upon overseas food; if one adds the cost of ships and cargoes sunk, in the course of two wars, transporting food to this country; and, finally, if one adds the lives of the men who went down in those ships, the picture of cheap food takes on a very different complexion indeed.

The fourth possible reason is that there is division in the Cabinet on this issue. This is a predominantly Conservative Administration, and in the last 100 years the centre of gravity inside the Conservative Party has undergone a radical change. A hundred years ago, or more, it could have been held legitimately that the Conservative Party represented, broadly, the interests of the landed community in Great Britain. In the last 100 years that party has fallen more and more under the control of big business and high finance—so high that some of it smells. It has fallen more and more under the control of shipping, insurance, and other interests; and agriculture now occupies a low position in the list of loyalties of the Conservative Party. Nor has that drift inside the Conservative Party been made good by any much greater preoccupation with agriculture by the parties of the Left in this country.

But if there is division in the Cabinet and the Government cannot make up their mind, I beg the Minister to tell us so, and we will make up the mind of the Government for them. For we are in no mood to let this position go by default, when all sorts of international commitments are being entered into which cannot but affect the position of agriculture. The Minister is not here to-night, but I understand that there is probably a very good reason for his absence. I turn to him not to attack him, because I confess to liking him on personal grounds, but to exhort and encourage him. I believe that he wants to do the right thing by agriculture, and he possesses a quality which is rare enough in the decadent political life of our time, the quality of courage, which Barrie once described as "the lovely virtue." If it be the case that the Minister is pressing inside the Cabinet for an adequate agricultural policy, and is being frustrated by other interests, let him display the courage with which I credit him, and resign. Many a political career in Britain has been based upon a timely resignation.

We want a declaration of policy Oil agriculture from the Government. I hope that when we get it, it will be of a nature which will enable us to end the scandal of the milk situation. I hope that it will be of a nature which will remove the cloud that hangs over the whole of the countryside—the cloud of fear that what happened after the last war will happen again after this war. I hope that it will be of a nature which will enable the farming community to plan for years ahead, without fear that the bottom will be knocked out of their market arbitrarily any day. I hope that it will be of a character which will give us some hope that the era of ruined farm buildings, miserably inadequate water supplies and miserably inadequate electricity supplies, will be ended. I hope that it will give us some reasonable assurance that the farmer will have security, and that the farm labourer will have reasonable wages and, above all, decent housing. I am reminded that one of the hopes we have is that there will not be so many forms to fill up. We want that declaration of policy to envisage the land of England being used to its full capacity to produce fresh food for our people. Whatever the policy is we want to hear about it. We do not want to wait until the far-off, dim, and speculative future. If I may cull an analogy from the industry I have been talking about, we do not want to wait until the cows come home for this declaration of policy. It is long overdue, and we want it now.

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

Much as I should like to provide affirmative answers to many of the questions which my hon. Friend has put, I am afraid I had better confess at the outset that that may be somewhat of a deferred pleasure. My hon. Friend asked why the Government cannot, or do not, produce a long-term policy, covering not only what is known as the transition period but a period in the perhaps more distant future. It is a perfectly proper question for any hon. Member to ask. It is not quite so easy, however, at any given moment, to give the reply. I would, at the outset, like to say to my hon. Friend that, as far as I understand, there is no division in this Government. It is quite a happy, contented little party, and there are no divisions whatsoever, particularly on the question of long-term agricultural policy. Secondly, I would like to say that while there may be lingering doubts in odd places in different parts of the country in the minds of those farmers who suffered so acutely from the conditions imposed upon them between 1921 and 1939, on the whole, so far as my personal experience goes, they are not nearly as worried as my hon. Friend would have us believe. They would have a perfect right to be apprehensive if the Government gave no indication whatever as to what the future intentions or attitude of His Majesty's Government were to this industry of theirs.

The four-year plan already referred to by my hon. Friend provides a firm basis for the immediate future, and I am not at all sure that every hon. Member in this House, or even farmers in all parts of the country, really appreciate the value of that four-year plan, both for the immediate future and for the working out of any policy for the more distant future. May I remind hon. Members of what that means? It means, in effect, that the Government have given a guarantee that for all the milk, all the fat cattle, calves, sheep and lambs produced up to the summer of 1948, there is not only an assured market but there is an assured market at price levels not less than the prices ruling when the guarantee was given. To give a four years' guarantee for the major products from our farms is no small step in the direction of the provision of a long-term policy, and I hope my hon. Friend will accept that this is a starting point that will ultimately lead to that happy state of affairs which he visualised in his peroration.

Major Woolley (Spen Valley)

What is the four-year plan in relation to such things as pigs, cereals, sugar beet? Have we got any plans for these things?

Mr. T. Williams

If my hon. and gallant Friend will give me an opportunity, in the short time at my disposal, I will endeavour, as far as one can, to state what the attitude of the Government is and how they are moving from one stage to another, which I hope will ultimately blend into a long-term policy for agriculture.

Mr. Snadden (West Perth)

Surely, my right hon. Friend wants to be fair. Will he not agree that the only reason why the Government gave a guarantee for the livestock products he mentioned, is simply because there is a world shortage of livestock?

Mr. T. Williams

I do not object to my hon. Friend having his point of view, but he must allow me to have mine. The four years' guarantee may have some association with the known shortage of meat for years ahead, but it also has a very definite agricultural aspect since we will sooner or later move, from wartime expediency, from production for direct human consumption, to those commodities for which our soil and climate are infinitely more suited. Some time ago the Government gave the Minister power to enter into discussions with the industry on long-term poicy. Those discussions have been taking place, and are continuing. There has been useful interchange of ideas and information between my Department and representatives of the industry. Views have already been received from almost every organisation in the country, except the Civil Service Clerical Association. We have had policies produced by the Councils of Agriculture for Engand and Wales, the Royal Agricultural Society, the National Farmers' Union, the Central Landowners' Association, by all political parties in this House—and the latest emerged only this week from the Liberal National Party. We have had one policy from the Parliamentary Scientific Committee.

No doubt hon. Members are studying these various policies from the various parties, political and otherwise, and I am sure they are bound to derive a great deal of benefit therefrom. If they have studied them, they are bound to agree with me on at least two points. First, there is a large measure of agreement on the most important general principles; and second, a point which is very relevant, they are almost united in recognising that it is not possible at present to decide in detail how to translate these principles into practical policies. For example, there is a general demand for economic stability—a well-known and much abused phrase. There is a general demand for guaranteed markets and prices, but all these bodies more or less recognise that the precise way to achieve this depends on certain postwar circumstances and to some extent, as my hon. Friend suggested, on international agreements.

But the Government have indicated at least the broad line of their attitude by their acceptance of the Hot Springs Resolutions and I hope that hon. Members will not forget what the Hot Springs Resolutions mean to agriculture in this country, if they are faithfully observed. May I remind hon. Members of one or two of these Resolutions? Resolution 2 states that every practicable step should be taken to raise the level of nutrition, to improve the efficiency of agricultural production and distribution and for co-operation between Governments to achieve these ends. The Government have accepted the obligation to fulfil this resolution. Again, Resolution 15 recommended various principles which should govern long-term policies of agricultural production. The three leading principles are first, that the inherent natural and economic advantages of each area should be developed; second, that balanced mixed rotational farming should be encouraged in order to maintain the fertility of the soil and to stabilise both agricultural employment and returns to farmers; and third, that production within a properly balanced agriculture should be directed in particular to increased supplies of milk, meat, fruit and vegetables, the products essential to better nutrition.

The Government have announced their acceptance of these Resolutions and indicated that they intend fully to subscribe to them. Therefore, the Government have given a general indication of the road along which they think we ought to travel in moving towards a lasting and, I hope, prosperous long-term agricultural policy in this country. Surely, the Government, after their announcement in 1940, showed that they could not be unmindful at the end of this war of a healthy and well-balanced agriculture. During the war—and here I come back to my hon. Friend's point—there has necessarily been some lack of balance because of the imperative need to grow the utmost possible quantity of such crops as wheat and potatoes at the expense of certain classes of livestock. The first step leading to the transition and ultimately to a long-term policy must be to remedy these unavoidable distortions by extending our new leys, by increasing feeding stuffs, by expanding our herds and our flocks while maintaining adequate food crops for direct human consumption. This steady change of emphasis, based on the four years' guarantee, places agriculture on the right course for a peace-time agricultural policy. It is a course that is best suited to the soil and climate of this country, and it fits in absolutely with the resolutions passed at Hot Springs to which I have referred. The practical application of this was of course the guaranteed market and prices for livestock products. It shows that the Government are in full sympathy with the objects of my hon. Friend.

The thing for which the hon. Member rightly asked, but which he must know is not easy to provide at this moment, is that final definite conclusions should be reached for our future agricultural policy. There are, however, many movements that will change fundamentally the general economic situation of many countries immediately after the conclusion of hostilities, and it is certain that the changes will continue not only during the transitional period but perhaps for five, ten, or even 15 years. I am not suggesting that our long-term policy will be put off until then, but what I am suggesting is that before final conclusions can be reached when we can write our long-term policy on the lines of an Act of Parliament, within the four corners of which policy we must remain, we shall definitely have to watch very carefully the situation as it develops during the transition stage. Only then shall we be able to fit agriculture firmly and squarely into a new world pattern on the lines indicated in my hon. Friend's speech.

I hope I have said sufficient, at all events, to indicate this: Not only by word, but by action, have the Government indicated that never again shall we revert to where we were before 1939. I watched the 250,000 agricultural workers leave the farms. I know something about the housing shortage and the abominable social conditions generally on the countryside. Therefore, I am as anxious as anybody, and I am sure my right hon. Friend is as anxious as any hon. Member of this House. No Minister has worked harder to try, not only to make agriculture aware of its own responsibilities, but to make urban Britain also aware of its responsibilities to agriculture. I can assure my hon. Friend, and all hon. Members in this House, that every action my right hon. Friend takes is a direct lead into what we ultimately hope will be a long-term policy which will mean a policy of prosperity, not only for the producers of food, but for workers and their wives and children on the countryside.

Major York (Ripon)

Would it not be possible, if the Government cannot produce their long-term plan, at any rate to produce reconstruction plans such as are being got out in other industries? Would they not, for instance, get out their plan for new farm buildings, and so on?

Mr. T. Williams

I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that new farm buildrngs have not been overlooked by the Minister. Indeed, my hon. and gallant Friend must know that the Minister set up a committee expressly to examine the best kind of agricultural buildings many months ago.

Major York

It is no longer sitting.

Mr. T. Williams

When building operatives and building materials are available, I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that, if the Minister is still the Minister, he will put up a very hard fight to ensure that agriculture gets its share of both men and materials.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

The Government have been negotiating since January with the National Farmers Union, the Agricultural Workers' Union, and so on. Is it the intent of the Government to issue a White Paper on the result of those talks before they announce their post-war policy?

Mr. T. Williams

I am afraid that is one of the few questions to which I could not give an intelligent reply. All I can say is that the discussions have been taking place, are still taking place, they are very harmonious, and I think a large measure of agreement has been reached.

It being Half-past Six o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.