HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1549-53

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

12.17 p.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

The subject to which I wish to call attention today is one which will, I feel, arouse interest in all quarters of the House as it affects very largely ex-Service men and women. It is the matter of land settlement, and I feel that this is a problem which has, in no way, yet been tackled by the Government, and a problem which requires immediate attention. I propose to divide what I have to say under four headings: first, the actual need for some plan; secondly, our experience as a sequel to the first world war; thirdly, what schemes are in existence; and fourthly, a few recommendations.

As regards the need, it falls under two headings. The first is how to supply sufficient labour to the land in order to maintain agriculture in its present state, or even in a better one, and secondly, how to provide land for those men who wish to take up their own holdings when they come out of the Forces. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture that it is no use singing "The Yeomen of England" to the wide open spaces, when the only men there are either Germans or Italians. It is no use relying on the 10,000 men coming out under Class B, to fill that gap, because all that those men will do will be to bring the figures up to what they were before the war, or to help in that respect. I think it just as well to look at a few figures which are important. If we go back to 1878, which is probably the beginning of the agricultural decline, we find that agricultural workers then numbered 898,731 not including farmers, bailiffs, foremen or shepherds. That figure steadily went down, and the highest it ever reached after the first world war, was 587,000. By 1938 we have the rather pathetic figure of 381,704. I believe that the revival of agriculture during this war has put the industry in a state in which it is going to need a great many more men than the 381,000 which it had before the war, and I believe that that problem cannot be tackled too seriously.

I pass on to the experience of what happened after the first world war. In 1916 there was a Report of a Departmental Committee which had been asked by the President of the Board of Agriculture to report on resettlement on the land of ex-soldiers and sailors. I think 1916 is rather a significant date, in that it was well before the end of that war. The report was published in two parts and a very lengthy minority report was issued. The minority report said that there were three obstacles to be overcome. The first was how to ensure the return to the land of as many as possible of the men formerly engaged in agriculture. The second was how to fill the gap caused by the war; and the third, how to create in the industry a new and increased demand for labour. Today the Government are lucky, compared with the Government of that time, because only the first obstacle remains. Very largely, the demand for labour has been overcome and everyone at present in agriculture is crying out for men. We may well be deeply grateful that the gap as a result of the last war, is by no means as great as it was after the First World War. The biggest problem, as the minority report foresaw, was, and still is, to assure the return to the land of as many as possible of the men formerly engaged in agriculture.

I know I run a risk in mentioning here a subject, to deal with which would require legislation, but I mention it as a matter of interest and think it is worth considering. The biggest bone of contention between the two reports was whether or not a minimum wage should be imposed. The minority were so afraid of an exodus from the land, let alone an inadequate return to it, that they strongly recommended the wage. On the other hand the majority were against it, on the ground that it might lead to many farmers laying down too much land to grass in order to save labour. Hon. Members who are senior to me know that both these things have been the result of the first world war. Farmers did cut down their men and, nevertheless, there was an exodus from the land. I will not put before the House today a summary of what was in the majority report, but I recommend that report to hon. Members because it contained many things which, read in a modern context, bear closely on the subject.

In 1924 the Agricultural Tribunal of Investigation made its first report and pointed to the fact that, in 1919, after the last war, 3,485 smallholdings were provided. In 1920, that figure had been more than doubled and from then onwards it dropped back again until in 1922 the figure was just over 1,000. The annual loss on that scheme worked out at £800,000, and I think it is that scheme which is, at present, frightening the Government from taking any action regarding smallholdings and supplying the need for men going on the land on their own. I would like to ask the Minister if he considers the present conditions of agriculture such as he would like to maintain as normal conditions. If the present conditions of agriculture are what he aims at, as being normal, I would say that the argument against smallholdings very largely falls to the ground, because one of the things which that committee in 1916 recommended, was the establishment of smallholdings for ex-Service men with experience in agriculture. Those who were not to have land of their own, were the inexperienced. The Minister knows what did in fact occur, and I will not try to draw his attention further to it. I honestly suggest to him that the mere fact that a great many ex-Service men after the last war did fall by the wayside, is no reason today to curtail any plan for smallholdings. If he does say that the state of agriculture at the moment is one that he wishes to maintain in the years to come, I believe that the smallholder has a part to play in it.

I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could say today why he left out the phrase "well balanced" in his agricultural statement recently. That statement originated with my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) some while back. It was reiterated by the present Lord Privy Seal on 11th February, 1942. The words "well balanced" have since been left out, and it is well to remember how the Scott Report appreciated that particular phrase—" a well balanced agriculture." They defined it as follows: The continuance and revival of the traditional mixed character of British farming. Does the Minister agree with that? If he does, will heexplain later why he left out the words "well balanced "? I hope he will give us a reason to show that agriculture, in a well balanced form, has a place for smallholdings.

I come to the third point, which concerns the various schemes existing at the moment. I think the right hon.Gentleman has received resolutions from certain county councils showing that they are very anxious about the establishment of ex-Service men on the land in smallholdings. I therefore suggest to him that, as soon as he possibly can, he should issue some statement on the Government's policy about smallholdings. The statement he has made in reply to questions so far, would point to the fact that not only is he against the extension of smallholdings but that he would, given half a chance, abolish those which are already there. I would like him to give an absolutely categorical statement, and show the way the wind is blowing for these people. There are other schemes in existence and I hope some of them may be made available to the ex-Service men. In particular there are the Land Settlement Association estates. The working of these estates during the war has been remarkable. The figures I have been given show that anything from £ 500 to £ 1,000 has been made by a holding as small as four acres during the war. These men have been working on a centralised buying and marketing basis.

One of the biggest bones of contention in the matter of smallholdings is that of co-operation. There are in this country many people who look upon any form of co-operation as automatically implying that they become members of the Co-operative movement, and I think some of them do not want to be members of that movement. Therefore, it is the duty of His Majesty's Government to point out to these smallholders that while it is the opinion of the Government that smallholdings, to be successful, should be worked on a centralised buying and marketing basis, it is not essential for the smallholders to become members of the Co-operative movement in order to achieve that end. There is also, of course, the Welsh Land Settlement Scheme, which works on a purely co-operative basis and comprises five big farms—

12.31 p.m.

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