HC Deb 15 November 1945 vol 415 cc2333-42
The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I am now able to indicate in broad outline the general principles on which the Government's agricultural policy will be based. As stated in the Gracious Speech, the Government will develop to the fullest possible extent the home production of good food, with due regard to the recommendations of the Conference on Food and Agriculture at Hot Springs. The objective will be to promote a healthy and efficient agriculture capable of producing that part of the nation's food which is required from home sources at—

Mr. McKinlay

On a point of Order. Can we be let into the secret? Will the Minister speak a little more loudly?

Mr. Williams

The objective will be to promote a healthy and efficient agriculture, capable of producing that part of the nation's food which is required from home sources at the lowest price consistent with the provision of adequate remuneration and decent living conditions for farmers and workers, with a reasonable return on capital invested.

To this end the Government propose to establish as an essential and permanent feature of their policy for food and agriculture, a system of assured markets and guaranteed prices for the principal agricultural products, namely, milk, fat livestock, eggs, cereals, potatoes and sugar beet. The annual price reviews instituted in February, 1945, will be continued, together with the provision for special reviews in exceptional circumstances. After these reviews, prices for cereals, potatoes and sugar beet will be fixed by the Government 18 months ahead of the harvest. The existing system of fixing prices for fat livestock, milk and eggs will be developed so as to cover the period after June, 1948, when the existing guarantees would otherwise cease to operate. These branches of food production entail advance breeding and other commitments for the farmer, and, in order to give the necessary continuous assurance of reasonable stability of prices, the Government propose to institute a new system of overlapping four-year periods with biennial reviews.

For example, in February, 1946, minimum price levels will be considered and fixed for the two year period ending June, 1950, and in 1948 for the period July, 1950, to June, 1952. These minimum price levels will apply to milk, fat cattle and fat sheep, for which guaranteed mini- mum prices have already been announced until June, 1948, and to fat pigs and eggs. Actual prices for all these products will continue to be fixed in advance for 12 monthly periods after each successive February review.

All prices, minimum and actual, will be fixed with due regard to the need for the greatest possible efficiency and economy in methods of production. Account will also be taken of any modifications in the character of the agricultural output which may be necessary to meet changing national requirements. If it should become necessary to apply a quantitative. limitation to any section of the assured home market, this would be announced 18 months before the harvest in the case of crops—that is, after a February review—and at least two years in advance in the case of fat livestock, milk and eggs after a biennial review. Thus, farmers will always know the prices for cereals, potatoes and sugar beet well before the time comes for sowing those crops. For fat livestock, milk and eggs they will know minimum prices three or four years in advance, and actual prices some three to 15 months in advance. In all cases they will be given ample notice of any quantitative limitation which may be imposed on the assured market. The actual method of affording to the farmer an assured market and a guaranteed price will be worked out for each commodity with due regard to the system to be adopted by the Government for the procurement, distribution and sale of all those foods—home produced and imported—which play an important part in the nation's diet. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Food has already announced that detailed plans will be worked out by the Government, in consultation with the interests concerned, to give effect to this policy. Methods other than that of direct Government purchase, for example, the deficiency payment system of the Wheat Act, will not be excluded.

Legislation will be required to amend the statutory provisions with regard to wages regulation in the light of the wartime experience of central wage fixing machinery. As a corollary to the provision of this substantial measure of security of markets and stability of prices, the Government propose to take appropriate steps to ensure that agricultural land is not only properly farmed but properly managed and equipped, and to promote improved efficiency in the production, marketing and distribution of home food products. Free technical advice will be made available to agriculturists to improve their farming efficiency. In order to deal effectively with the minority of farmers and landowners who fail in the responsibilities attaching to the occupation and ownership of land, the Government propose to seek powers in permanent legislation to exercise certain necessary measures of control. Such farmers and landowners will be subject to a period of supervision during which compulsory directions may be served, and in the last resort will be dispossessed if, after a reasonable period, it becomes evident that they are unable or unwilling to improve. There will, however, be a right to make representations to an independent tribunal before a tenancy is terminated by the Minister, or an owner occupier or landowner dispossessed.

Systems of marketing and distribution will come under review as part of the detailed investigation announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food, to which reference has already been made. Powers will be sought to enable the Agricultural Ministers to acquire land by voluntary negotiation, or compulsorily in cases of dispossession or where public ownership is the only means of securing the full productive use of the land. The Government propose to set up a commission for the purpose of managing and developing for agricultural use land acquired under these powers in England and Wales. Local bodies will be required to assist in the execution of this policy and to provide the industry with local leadership and guidance. In England and Wales county committees similar to the County War Agricultural Executive Committees will be constituted on a permanent basis. Their primary duty will be to promote efficiency, working for this purpose in close association with the National Advisory Service which it is intended to establish in England and Wales on 1st October, 1946. They will act as the local agents of the Minister in the exercise of the proposed powers of control, and undertake certain executive services. They will also be responsible for the schemes already in existence for the training of ex-Servicemen as skilled agricultural workers.

It is proposed that these committees should continue to be appointed by the Minister, but that they should be reconstituted to consist in part of persons selected by the Minister from lists of names submitted by the different sections of the agricultural industry, and in part of a smaller number of persons selected by the Minister from other sources. It is hoped that the experience of many of those who have rendered such valuable service during the war will continue to be available under the new constitution. Members of the staff of the English and Welsh committees who possess the appropriate qualifications will have an opportunity to enter the National Advisory Service. The services of others, including many of the non-technical staff, will be required in the continuing local organisation that will be preserved by these committees. Somewhat different forms of local organisation will probably be found desirable in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The world food shortage is extremely serious. For the time being, therefore, compulsory directions to grow sugar beet and potatoes must be served, and supervision exercised where necessary, over the laying down of grass, so that this process keeps in step with the anticipated increase in livestock, with the requirements of home grown feeding stuffs and with the continued need for a large tillage acreage. As the world shortage of food passes, the Government intend to leave farmers normally to grow the crops which their experience, supplemented by guidance from the Advisory Services, indicates are most suited to their own land. They intend, however, to seek permanent powers to serve compulsory directions on any farmer whenever necessary in the national interest, but these powers will normally be used only in exercising control over farms under supervision or to supplement the methods of steering production already described, should an overriding need in national food supplies or national diet render this necessary. The controls exercised over the distribution of fertilisers, feeding stuffs, machinery and other farm material will be lifted or modified when supplies are sufficient to ensure free and equitable distribution.

This outline of the Government's plans for a gradual transition from the organisation and methods necessary to promote maximum food production in wartime to a permanent policy appropriate to more stable conditions will need to be worked out in detail with a view to the submission of legislative proposals to Parliament. This will be done in full consultation with the organisations representative of land owners, farmers and workers. The Government hope that, with this assurance of their intentions, all sections of the industry will attack their immediate tasks with enthusiasm and confidence.

Mr. R. S. Hudson

While generally welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's statement, I think the House will agree that we shall need a considerable time to digest its implications, and I imagine that when that time has elapsed the Leader of the House will feel inclined to let us have the necessary time for debating the matter, before legislation which is contemplated is actually introduced.

Mr. Morrison

I recognise that the important statement by my right hon. Friend, together with the statement made recently by the Minister of Food, which has some relationship to it, will warrant a Debate in the House. We are in a little difficulty concerning the time table, and therefore I would ask for some consideration on whether it can take place just yet. I fully recognise that there is a reasonable case for a Debate, and we will meet the point.

Mr. Hudson

I quite agree. This is a statement of real transcendent importance, and not only the House but possibly people outside will want full time to consider its implications. I do not think my hon. Friends and I would wish to press for an immediate Debate by any means, but possibly later on, even when we resume after the Recess, there might be a Debate.

Mr. Wilfrid Roberts

While congratulating the Minister on producing his long-term policy, which seems to be full of interest, and adding that we would like a Debate within a reasonable time, may I make this suggestion? I suggest that this statement should be published as a White Paper in order that it may have full consideration by a wider public than it will get if it is published only in HANSARD.

Mr. Williams

We shall gladly consider the suggestion. In view of the fact, however, that it will appear in HANSARD, and that appropriate steps are being taken to give it the maximum publicity, it may be that a White Paper will not be necessary.

Mr. Alpass

In view of the fact that under this policy which has been announced, farmers are to be given security of livelihood by guaranteed prices, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is equally necessary, if not more necessary—especially from the standpoint of efficient cultivation—that the farm workers should be given security in the possession and occupation of their houses, and that the most effective way of doing that is by the abolition of the tied cottage?

Mr. Williams

I am sure my hon. Friend will understand and appreciate that this is a statement of general priniciples applied to agriculture as an industry, and that it is not necessarily, for the moment, concerned with housing and other matters that may be of some importance to the industry generally.

Col. Sir Charles MacAndrew

Does it apply to Scotland as well as to England?

Mr. Williams


Mr. Kendall

Can the Minister state which body or organisation will have the right to submit names for prospective membership of these committees?

Mr. Williams

Obviously they will be those who are most closely identified with the industry—the farmers, workers and landowners.

Mr. Stokes

In view of the very comprehensive arrangements which are being made for our future nutritional welfare, and in view of the Lord President's declaration that this Debate, when it takes place, will be coupled with the activities of the Ministry of Food, could I ask the Lord President of the Council to bear in mind that a number of people would like an opportunity of discussing the wisdom of the Government, in doubling the rations of the country, while Europe is starving? Could I have an answer? If not, I shall come back again with the question.

Mr. Stubbs

While accepting the general policy as outlined, I am rather amazed that no mention has been made of smallholdings on the one hand, and, on the other hand, land for ex-Servicemen and the subject of tied cottages. Would the Minister say what provision will be made for that?

Sir Ronald Ross

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for parts of his speech, may I ask him if there was due consultation with the Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland; and, secondly, what is the position of farmers who grow flax?

Mr. Williams

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the views of the Northern Ireland representatives of the farming industry were taken fully into account, and they are 100 per cent. behind this policy.

Mr. Snadden

Assuming that we are going to have a Debate, I think it would be of great interest if the right hon. Gentleman could let us have some figures concerning the financial activities of the war agricultural executive committees in regard to the land which they have taken over. He has mentioned land commissions. I myself do not take exception to that, but it would be of interest to know the financial position, how the Government progressed financially during the war, and whether they have made profits or not.

Mr. Williams

Surely the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the object of my predecessor and of his predecessor during the war was to get the maximum amount of food in the shortest space of time, and questions of balance sheets were not necessarily the most important in their minds. Therefore, any accounts of the county executive committees which were operating in the tense moments of wartime are not comparable with the announcement now made, which refers exclusively to peacetime.

Mr. Gooch

The right hon. Gentleman has indicated that farm workers will benefit under his proposals, but may I ask that he will be more specific, and state what benefits will be coming to them, or are they still to be left to struggle for better conditions?

Mr. Williams

Surely my hon. Friend must appreciate that the best thing any Government can do to assist the agricultural workers is to ensure that there is a healthy, well-balanced, prosperous and stable agricultural industry, and I hope the announcement I have made shows that that will be the case.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

Whilst thanking my right hon. Friend for setting up machinery providing that there will permanently be a right of appeal in cases of conviction, something which we have wanted for a long time, may I ask him whether he can amplify what he has said about giving ample notice to farmers, so that no farmer should, if possible, suffer loss?

Mr. Williams

If my hon. and gallant Friend will read the statement in HANSARD he will see that for ordinary crops notice would be given at least eighteen months in advance, and in relation to livestock between two and four years' notice would be given in advance.

Mr. Watkins

Will the Minister make an announcement upon the Government's policy on afforestation?

Mr. Williams

I hope to be able to make an announcement on afforestation in the very near future.

Mr. David Eccles

As the Government's policy is to give guaranteed prices for the major farm products, may I ask whether the policy also includes an assurance that those prices will be raised to cover any increase in wages which the Agricultural Wages Board may give from time to time?

Mr. Williams

No, I am afraid I could give no such guarantee.

Mr. Osborne

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider a suggestion that he should discuss with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the possibility of making financial arrangements, so that the ambitious lads in the villages should have an opportunity of becoming farmers themselves, instead of farm workers, making the same opportunities available in agriculture as are provided in industry?

Mr. Williams

My hon. Friend will readily understand that we are already a nation of small farmers, and I am afraid this is not quite the moment to contemplate another large dose of small holdings on the same lines as after the last war.

Mr. Bowles

On a point of Order. This is almost becoming a Debate. It is a most unsatisfactory result of having these long Ministerial statements. Almost half an hour has been devoted to this. May I ask, having regard to the demands there have been for a discussion of the Pro- cedure of the House, whether the Leader of the House will consider suspending the Rule for at least two hours this evening?

Mr. Herbert Morrison

I will consider that as we go along. I hope it will not be necessary.

Mr. Boothby

May I ask whether the proposals of the Government include the re-organisation of meat marketing, and in particular the position of Smithfield market and of slaughter houses?

Mr. Williams

That is implicit in my references to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food.