HC Deb 08 December 1949 vol 470 cc2181-218

8.2 p.m.

Major Sir Thomas Dugdale (Richmond)

I beg to move, That this House accepts the recommendations contained in the Eleventh Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, expresses its concern at the large losses shown to have been incurred by some county agricultural executive committees on their trading services, and regrets the delay in taking steps to reorganise the Ministry of Agriculture and the county agricultural executive committees so as to promote efficiency and to achieve economy in both public expenditure and manpower. The House will remember that the report we are discussing this evening was published a few weeks' after we separated for the Summer Recess, and this is the first occasion that this House has had an opportunity of discussing it. A very remarkable coincidence has followed from the decision to have this discussion, because today a document has been issued which is the Departmental reply to this Eleventh Report of the Select Committee on Estimates in regard to agricultural services. We can assume that if we had not asked for this Debate, we very likely would not have this document before us at the present time.

This report comes from one of the House's own Select Committees and consists of Members from all parts of the House. It was eight years since the Estimates of the Ministry of Agriculture had been considered by a Select Committee of this House. During those eight years much has happened, and hon. Members will also agree, in whatever quarter they may sit, that this Eleventh Report has caused great anxiety to many Members in various parts of the House. I do not propose to deal with all the subjects dealt with in the report, but only with certain aspects in the hope that the Minister of Agriculture may be in a position to amplify and enlarge upon what he has issued today in this document and that he will tell the House exactly what he proposes to do, and in some cases why he has not done something about it before.

Because I believe it is the most serious passage in the report, I want first to refer to the question of the accountancy of the county agricultural executive committees. From the paragraphs dealing with this subject, it would appear that the method adopted up to now has not been wholly satisfactory, and I am convinced—and I know that my view is shared by many other hon. Members—that we shall never get a true picture of what is going on in our county committees unless we can get these accounts published county by county. I cannot find anything in the document published today to show that the Minister agrees with the recommendations of the Select Committee.

It is some years since this question was first raised. As far back as 1946, my hon. Friend the Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bé re) asked for a Select Committee of the House of Commons to examine the war agricultural executive committees' activities and at that time the Minister replied that he was asking them to prepare the accounts up to 1st April, 1946. With that in our minds let us see what the Select Committee say in their report.

In referring to the accountancy of the county committees, they state that the presentation is "unco-ordinated and confused." Members who were charged by this House to consider these problems were given a summary of the income and expenditure accounts of the separate counties for each of the trading services in the financial year 1946–47 and 1947–48. The members of the Committee have agreed to treat these particular documents as confidential for the reasons set out in the report, which, as far as I can make out—and I was not a member of the Select Committee, so that I have not had an opportunity of seeing these trading accounts—were mainly because of the bad way in which the accounts had been kept and the many and varied ways in which they had been made up, so that it was impossible to compare like with like. That in itself seems to be the complete answer to the point which we put to the Government and particularly to the Minister of Agriculture—that to get this matter straight and to know where we are, it is essential that we should have the accounts before us county by county.

More than that, surely it is not a very good procedure to have a few hon. Members, however much all of us may respect them, having the privilege of seeing these trading accounts, while the rest of the hon. Members are unable to study them and do not know what the position is. They are denied this information which has been given to members of the Select Committee. However much we may respect their views—and they have expressed them vigorously in this report—in the national interests and for the future well-being of the work of our county committees it would be very much better if the whole House were able to inspect these accounts.

It is accepted by everybody at the present time that in any modern business cost accounting is essential. It would appear to be abundantly clear from the paragraphs dealing with the county committees' accounts that under the present system there cannot be a proper check upon expenditure. Therefore, there cannot be any proper cost accounting. It is essential in these matters that there should be most careful cost accounting. If such accountancy is necessary for a private firm, how much more necessary is it in a Government Department which is responsible to the public for the expenditure of public money?

Further, and I think hon. Members will agree that this is also an extremely important point, there has been a large rise in expenditure in recent years. From paragraph 3 of the report, I estimate that the rise in expenditure from 1939 until the year 1948–49 for agriculture and general services, and food production services, has been in the neighbourhood of £47½ million. Is this increased expenditure by our county committees justified? How are we to tell, or how is the Minister of Agriculture to know, whether it is justified or not, if there is no proper method of accountancy to judge between like and like among the different counties? To give one example—I am not in a position to know which county is referred to, because I have not seen the accounts—we are told in paragraph 9 of the report that one county lost as much as £350,000 during 1947–48. That is a very large sum of money. The report goes on to express the view that the methods of accountancy vary so much in different parts of the country that we cannot compare them. That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)

Would the hon. and gallant Member agree that geographical factors also vary?

Sir T. Dugdale

Yes, certainly. I accept that point, but we are not in a position to know. If hon. Members had an opportunity of seeing the accounts and if the accounts were all made up in the same form, we could take them into consideration instead of reading the very direct statement that one county showed a deficit of £350,000 in one year. The committee make recommendations in paragraph 10 and at the end of paragraph 11—I am not going to weary the House by reading out those paragraphs—as to the form of future accounts and of their publication. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light upon this question when he replies I hope that he will be able to go further than he has gone in this document that was issued this afternoon.

I want to refer to a few specific points in the report, not necessarily in the order in which they appear there. I start off with the Minister of Agriculture and the Ministry themselves. Perhaps one of the most damaging paragraphs in the report is paragraph 102, which deals with the administrative organisation of the Ministry. I know that the Minister has said in this paper today—[Interruption.] Does the Minister agree with paragraph 102, which in effect contends that the machine of which he is in charge, is not a suitable machine to do the work?

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

I do not agree.

Sir T. Dugdale

The Minister will be able to tell us about it when he replies. Does he agree with the facts stated, and in particular that the Land Management Division should be re-organised? If he agrees with it, why has he done nothing about it before, and if he does not agree I hope that he will give us very definite reasons for the conclusions which he has reached. The report says very definitely: Your committee consider that the time has now arrived when the Ministry, and in particular the Land Management Division, should be reorganised in order to promote efficiency and achieve economy both in public expenditure and manpower. Those are very definite words with a very definite meaning. I see, from the paper that the Minister has issued this afternoon, that he is proposing to set up a committee to look into the whole position and to review the development of the organisation of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries since 1939. I ask the Minister to explain one point to us.

The wording of the paragraph appears to be unusual in a document of this kind. That wording is as follows: The Minister has, at the request of the Permanent Secretary to the Department … That seems a different form of wording from that which is usually employed in setting up a committee of this kind. The Minister usually sets up the committee and gives it terms of reference, and it carries on with the work with which it is entrusted. These peculiar words are of interest to the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us exactly the meaning behind them, what it is proposed the functions of the new committee will be, and whether they will consider, among other things, the various remarks made by the Select Committee in paragraph 102 of the report. I know how confused administration is bound to get in these ever-changing days. One hears about horizontal and vertical organisations and it all becomes extremely confused. Unless it is clarified, we do not get where we want to at the end of the day.

Turning from that paragraph, I would say a word about "Lands in Possession," on page XXI. This is a serious portion of the report. The report shows that there are profits from lands in possession, but in fact, the figures are unreal, as is explained by the writers of the report. According to the Committee, the year 1947–48 brought not a profit but a loss of £1,417,504, incurred by lands in possession. Losses on a comparable scale are to be expected for 1948–49 and 1949–50. Going into further detail, this is equivalent to an average loss for the years 1947–48 of £6 per acre on lands in possession. I say again that we find the same very curious anomaly between different parts of the country. We find that in some counties they have been able to balance their accounts, while other counties have lost between £12 and even up to £20 per acre. Purely from the point of view of trying to learn about these things, I suggest that the important point is that it would be much better if we could really say where we were in these matters and could have accounts so as to be able to compare like with like.

Although the Minister must agree that this is a most unsatisfactory position, I think he will also agree that there is something more in it than accountancy.

How much better would it have been if for some time during the last four years he had been able to derequisition some of this land in possession and give a chance to our young farmers to obtain either farms or small-holdings from this land which they could farm for themselves. I would refer specifically to the last sentence of paragraph 84 on this subject, when the Committee used these words: Your committee consider that decisions as to the future of this land should have been made before now. There is something on this subject in the paper that has been issued, and no doubt we shall hear further from the Minister, but I think it the greatest pity that this land in possession has not been derequisitioned before, so as to give people who are now wanting land the opportunity to farm it. I believe they would do it at a profit and not only help themselves, but save the taxpayer a considerable amount of money.

Now I turn to the trading services. As a number of my hon. Friends wish to speak on this subject, I do not propose to weary the House with every detail. However, I would like to refer to two—the machinery service and the gang labour service. Between 1946 and 1949, the machinery service cost roughly £1 million a year. In 1947–48, 10 counties had a deficit from the working of the machinery service, again varying enormously between different counties—£40,000, in one county and £110,000 in another. If we could see these things and study them—and this is the theme running through the whole of my remarks to the House—we should be able to do our best to help the Minister to put right anything that is wrong and so make progress. I cannot find in the report evidence to show that the Minister has tried to encourage private contractors to provide the necessary services, which I think the Minister will agree would appear to be the most satisfactory method of dealing with this question.

I hope the Minister will agree with the various recommendations made by the Committee gradually to eliminate the machinery service, except for special work such as land reclamation and work dealing with marginal land. I know that the Minister will reply on the machinery service by saying that there is this problem of marginal land. There is that special problem, and we accept that. It is my view that, as far as marginal land is concerned, the county committees responsible for giving machinery service should be reimbursed at an economic rate to start with in order to keep the accountancy right. Since it is in the interest of the nation that the maximum production from this land should be secured, the financial difference between what is economic from the point of view of the farmer and what is economic from the point of view of the operation of the county machinery service, must be made good to the individual farmer through a marginal production scheme or some similar scheme. Then I think we can get the two problems related to each other. Once we can get the machinery service working economically from the county point of view, we shall be able to help the marginal farmer through a marginal assistance scheme.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Burslem)

What about those jobs which the contractors are unwilling to do? Apart from the problem of marginal land, there are many small jobs for which the farmers have no machinery, and the contractors are not willing to do them. What is the answer?

Sir T. Dugdale

I admit that there are those special cases. Perhaps the hon. Member is thinking about special machinery for drainage. What we have to try to do is to make it economical. If we are to assist, and perhaps rightly assist, any section of the agricultural industry, let it be done by a scheme whereby it is known by everybody that that section is being assisted, and do not hide it away in a machinery service.

Mr. J. Lewis

Assuming for a moment, as the hon. and gallant Member will agree, that there are a large number of small farms where farmers cannot afford to purchase their own plant and equipment, and have no buildings in which to store it, surely in those circumstances the service rendered by the county committees has been found necessary, at least in the past?

Sir T. Dugdale

I agree, but we have to make it economical. If we cannot make it economical let us know where the assistance is coming from. I should like to encourage co-operation between the farmers themselves. That does happen in many places, and I think it would continue to develop if they did not think that this particular service would continue for all time.

Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)

Would not the hon. and gallant Member agree that the solution is to create bigger farms—to merge smaller farms so as to create economic units?

Sir T. Dugdale

I could not follow the hon. Member on that. We are very nearly in agreement on this point; it is only on the methods by which we do it that we disagree. I hope the Minister will agree with the Committee in what they say in paragraph 31, where they deal with the question of surplus machinery, and say that the method of sale should, and must, be by public auction. I am certain that unless that is laid down firmly, it is open to possible abuse, which is very undesirable.

I wish to say one word on a subject about which there may be considerable discussion, and that is the gang labour service. In this service, again, a very big loss has been incurred. I give this one figure which comes from the report. If we add together the administrative operating costs and the expenditure on hostels. the gang labour service has cost the taxpayer approximately £3 per week for every man employed. I wish to say at once that there is no doubt that this service has been of considerable value in the past in connection with food production. But surely the time has now come when it must be gradually reduced, not just wiped out overnight, but gradually reduced; because as constituted at present it is not an economic service to the community, if it ends in a loss of £3 per week for every man employed.

I hope that the Minister will give careful attention to this point and that he will do all he can to help farmers by providing hostel accommodation during the peak period of the year to accommodate people for seasonal labour. I ask him to keep his eyes upon this £3 per week per man and to devise ways and means of reducing it. Unless something is done, it will become an accepted fact throughout the countryside, a great deterrent to the economies of other people in all walks of life, and bad administration by the Minister of Agriculture. I hope he will attend to that matter.

There are many other matters which one could raise on this report, but I think that the mere fact that the Government have issued this document today has justified the request by hon. Members on this side of the House for this Debate. This report from Members of the Select Committee is full not only of interesting information but of interesting recommendations. Our main purpose in raising this question today is to give the Minister of Agriculture an opportunity to tell the House and through the House the country, his views on the recommendations and his intentions about the future in reference to the problems raised in the report.

Mr. John Morrison (Salisbury)

I beg to second the Motion.

8.32 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

The first line of this Motion which can only be regarded as a censure Motion, whatever hon. Members opposite may say, states: That this House accepts the recommendations contained in the Eleventh Report … and so on. If the House were to accept this Motion with those words in it, it would mean that we were accepting a part of the Eleventh Report of this Select Committee on Estimates and rejecting part of the Tenth Report of the same Committee which was issued earlier. I give this as only one illustration—I could give others—to show that the Motion could not be accepted with the word "recommendations" in it. Recommendation 24 states: The Ministry and the County Committees should do more to help farmers who can recruit their own seasonal labour, by helping to provide temporary accommodation or domestic staff. But in the Tenth Report published about the same time, the same Committee say in paragraph 12: The Ministry of Works are the proper body to requisition or construct buildings for hostels, and your Committee recommend that no other Department should exercise these powers. Which report shall we approve? Whatever sub-committee may have examined one part of the problem, the main Committee are responsible for the reports.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

Can the right hon. Gentleman make clear the difference between a sponsoring Depart- ment asking the Ministry of Works to provide accommodation? What is asked for in this Eleventh Report is that the Ministry should get these hostels, which should be run by the Ministry of Works, to provide accommodation for farmers in which they can put seasonal labour.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Member's interjection is like "the flowers that bloom in the spring." It has nothing to do with the recommendation. The recommendation distinctly states that the Ministry of Agriculture should help to provide temporary accommodation, whereas the other recommendation said, "Hands off; leave it to the Ministry of Works." I leave it to hon. Members to make up their minds which they would like to do.

I welcome this Debate and I am sorry that there is not more time so that many more hon. Members could participate. I am afraid that I must apologise in advance for the time I shall take, because I must reply to a good deal of publicity which has been given to this report, and certainly to the extravagant language used both in the report itself and in the newspapers which copied a good deal of it. I welcome this Debate because it provides me with an opportunity to throw further light on matters raised in the Eleventh Report and to give some background which may very well be overlooked by hon. Members here and the general public outside.

I shall, of course, challenge some of the references in this Motion, but I should like to say now, lest I forget, that the Motion expresses regret at the delay in reorganising the county executive committees, which were only set up two years ago. As the Committee were sitting seven, eight or nine months ago, they suggest that I ought to have reorganised the committees almost before they had been set up.

I wish to express my appreciation for the time and care which the Committee gave to the study of the problems. [Laughter.] Hon. Members can perhaps reserve their laughter until the whip cracks, as one of my hon. Friends said some time ago. Their recommendations, for what they are worth, have been examined in detail with the object of drawing the greatest possible help and guidance from them. That is the pur- pose of an Estimates Committee—to try to help any Government Department whose estimates they are examining to improve in efficiency, but not to put down censure Motions on the Order Paper after they have access to the facts.

Our observations have already been submitted to the Committee. As this Motion has been put on the Order Paper, I wish to say at the outset that I am very largely in agreement with the main recommendations of the Committee. Indeed, almost half the recommendations had been put into effect before this Committee started to sit, and at least another 45 per cent. were recommended by my officers when they were giving evidence to the Committee. If there is variance over some points of detail or presentation, I am no less grateful for the painstaking way in which the Committee carried out their examination.

When the report was published, it was the criticisms which, perhaps naturally, hit the headlines; but the report itself is not entirely adverse, as hon. Members who sat on the Committee will appreciate. The Committee themselves say in one of the opening paragraphs—paragraph 6: … wherever they criticise they have also had in mind the great value of the work which has been, and is being, done by the Ministry and the County Committees. Later in the same paragraph they say that they: … appreciate that much credit is due, in particular, to the voluntary members of County Committees. These men have worked without financial reward, many of them throughout the stress of war and the almost equally difficult post-war period of transition, with zeal and enthusiasm. I could not express too plainly my full agreement with those sentiments, but it would hardly be consistent to maintain at the same time that many of the activities for which these zealous and enthusiastic members have been responsible were badly done, mistaken and wasteful, for the two things do not quite fit. Later in the report, in discussing the individual services, the Committee again express appreciation of the value of these services and, to some extent, the difficulties under which the Committees worked. For example, of the machinery service they say that— as a result of the organisation set up"— that is, the wartime organisation— increased food both for animals and for human consumption was obtained by more intensified cultivation of land already fertile, by cultivation of marginal land where the growing of arable crops in normal times was uneconomic, and by reclamation of waste land. That is the Committee's observation, and they must have felt it or they would not have written it.

In the next paragraph, they record the Ministry's decision that the machinery service, which was never intended as more than a supplement to the efforts of farmers and private contractors, should be progressively reduced. That is the view of the Ministry, not of the Estimates Committee, but they point out that the urgent need for food production still remains. They note the view of the Ministry, with which they presumably agree, that without this service cultivation on a large area of land must have suffered. Although the Select Committee are critical of the financial losses sustained, it may be of some interest to the hon. Baronet if I tell him and other hon. Members that last year executive committees were responsible for cultivating no less than two million acres of land. Therefore, had there been no machinery service, it is fair to say that the amount of food produced would have been much smaller as a result.

Similarly, with the gang labour service. In their conclusions under this heading in paragraph 50, they express the view that the gang labour service has been of considerable value to food production, but they go on to say that it is a wasteful method of providing labour—and I will comment on that later—and that, if any further expansion is needed, the necessary labour should come from a fuller and more efficient employment of these men. Once more, while the Select Committee are greatly concerned at the financial losses on this service, they warn the Ministry in paragraph 41 against such increases in the charges as would lead to farmers refusing to employ committee labour.

These few extracts show that, while the Committee were, naturally enough, concerned over the financial aspects, they recognised something of the value of these services and perhaps of the difficulties under which they have been operated. Of course, there is a wider view at which the House may like to look, and perhaps the simplest thing for me to do is to give a broader picture of one service. I select the labour service which figured so much in the headlines in the various newspapers.

The employment of pool labour by these committees began early in the war when the agricultural industry was given a production task which far outran the supply of labour available at that time. These labour pool's consisted of both men and women. Mostly the women were recruited through the Women's Land Army, and the men were gathered from all sources, including young men awaiting their call-up, older men whose own occupations had gone as a result of the war, conscientious objectors, aliens who had previously been interned, Irishmen, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. The only way—I repeat the only way—to get these men into useful agricultural work was through pool employment.

Even if there had been enough accommodation for them, it would have been futile and fantastic to expect individual farmers, knowing nothing whatever about these men, to be willing to take them all at once into individual employment. That could only be done by, first giving them some acclimatisation and training, and by hiring them out in parties to work for farmers. They would thus become capable of being selected by individual farmers and of being absorbed into the farming community. At the end of the war, committees had some 25,000 of these pool workers, of whom about 10,000 were men and the rest women. They also had at their disposal a very large number of prisoners of war, of whom, at the peak in 1946, getting on for 100,000 were working more or less regularly in agriculture, and a further 50,000 were on tap at seasons of heaviest pressure.

When the war came to an end, two things were obvious. One was that for a long time to come there could be no thought of reducing agricultural production. The other was that, within the next few years, some of the sources of wartime labour must definitely disappear. German prisoners would be due for repatriation, and the Women's Land Army could not be expected to continue at anything like the war-time level. Early in 1946, therefore, this problem of labour for the land was given very careful con- sideration by a group of officers of the Agricultural Departments and the Ministry of Labour under the chairmanship of the then Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for West Birkenhead (Mr. Collick). They concluded that while every effort must be made during the next few years to stimulate the flow of British workers—and especially young people—into agriculture, special steps must be taken to fill the immediate gap. One result was to encourage the entry of more Poles into the industry from the Polish Resettlement Corps. Another was the offer made to suitable German prisoners, when the time came, to defer their repatriation.

In 1947, two decisions were taken which had a big bearing on this whole problem. One was that some scores of thousands of the old displaced persons—now known as European Voluntary Workers—should be given an opportunity of resettlement in this country. This was really a social problem arising out of the war. The other was the announcement by the Prime Minister in August of that year of the agricultural expansion programme, which showed that, so far from agriculture being able to look forward to an easier time over the next few years, the demands to be made upon it were heavier than during the war.

To absorb this new labour involved a vast amount of detailed work. During 1948 we had, with the ready help of the Ministry of Works and the co-operation of county committees, to find, prepare and furnish large numbers of additional hostels spread widely throughout the country to take these new men. In addition to the factors mentioned earlier as deterring farmers from taking immediately into their own employment the mixed bag of extra workers that were brought together during the war, there were the further factors that most of these newcomers spoke little or no English, that their habits and customs were different from ours, and that they naturally had no experience of British agriculture. They could never have become absorbed except through a start with committee employment and hostel accommodation. By the end of September, 1948, there were 30,000 foreign workers in the employment of committees.

The intention from the start was to use committee employment and hostel accom- modation as the stepping stone to real absorption and resettlement. That takes time; but very useful progress has been made. There has, of course, been a considerable wastage from among these foreign workers for personal reasons or because they were unsuited to the work, and so on; but each month sees some hundreds of them transferring from committee employment into private agricultural employment.

We did not, however, give our attention solely to foreign workers. The Select Committee drew attention in their report in paragraph 44 to the efforts that have been made to resettle in agriculture some of the men thrown out of work in the Special Areas. When the Government decided two or three years ago that one method of tackling the problem of the pockets of unemployment in those areas was to offer the men transfers elsewhere, there was every reason why the Ministry of Agriculture, with the prospective shortage of labour on the land, should play its part. Meetings were held in South Wales, Merseyside, on the Tyne and elsewhere, and, with the help of the Ministry of Labour, some thousands were selected for employment with the county committees.

Moreover, a few of these committees took into employment men who could not leave their homes and transported them daily to agricultural work. The cost of that transport this document calls "losses." That is what the hon. Baronet said throughout his speech, and I shall refer to it again. It is true that a big proportion of the fellows about whom I have been speaking did not stay the course, and the experiment as a whole was truly expensive; but it matters little whether the cost came from the pocket labelled "Ministry of Labour," by way of unemployment benefits and national assistance, or, as was the case, from the pocket labelled "Ministry of Agriculture." They were not actually losses in the sense that this report documents. Agriculture has, in fact, found in this way many hundreds of useful recruits, even from our unemployment areas, some of them miners with pneumoconiosis, and all the rest, and they have found a new life, and I hope most of them a new hope. The scheme, however, has now served its purpose and is not being further continued.

A somewhat similar point is made in paragraph 45 of the report, in which reference is made to what are described as "schemes to relieve agricultural unemployment." During the winter of 1947–48, some regular workers, chiefly in the Eastern Counties, who had been stood off from private employment, were taken on to the committees' strength. The numbers were actually small, being only 1,400 over the whole country. The abject, however, was not to relieve unemployment, as seems to have been imagined, but to conserve the agricultural labour force. The House will recall that the agricultural expansion scheme had just been launched. Although some individual farmers seemed to find temporary difficulty in providing full employment for all their men—and I regret that some were not more farsighted—there was not the slightest doubt that as the expansion programme developed there would be an urgent need for all the skilled labour we could find. I was most anxious—and I stand by what I did then—that I should not allow these men to drift to other industries if we could keep them on the land.

Therefore, it was not merely a matter of taking them on to the pay-roll. Committees were authorised to do that only in so far as useful work could be found for them, and, if useful work could be found, even German prisoners had to be put in "cold storage" in order to find work for skilled British agricultural workers. They were employed largely on drainage and defence clearance work, which were definite benefits to agriculture. Last winter this same problem scarcely arose at all, and there were only a few individuals taken on. I agree that, as a matter of policy, it would not be desirable that regular farm workers should be taken on by agricultural committees. Indeed, employment should be all the other way—from committees to private farmers, rather than from private farmers to committees.

I hope that broad picture will help to bring out this vital point. Gang labour services are naturally treated in the report as a trading service; but it has been and is something much wider than a trading service. In one sense it was an emergency service, arising out of the war, for supplying the smaller farmers in particular with labour which they did not need and could not afford throughout the whole year, and for which, in any case, they had not the necessary houses, even if they could do with the workers permanently. It was also an employment agency providing the means of entry for strangers into employment through the committees. It has also operated as a vast group of training centres—62 in number. Every county has done its own training, giving newcomers to the industry that initial experience without which they could not hope or expect to find permanent employment in agriculture. I want to emphasise this particularly to the members of the Estimates Committee. It is not usual to expect emergency services, employment exchanges or training services to pay their way. I think that paragraph 40, where they say, Your Committee have been greatly concerned at these considerable losses, is a gross abuse of the British language, because one does not expect employment exchanges or training centres to pay their way. It is not surprising, in fact, that this service, combining something of all of them, has been unable to show a clean balance sheet. I am anxious that all avoidable losses should be avoided, and our aim has been to reduce the net loss to a minimum; but it would be regrettable in the extreme if the only comments that the House saw fit to pass on this enormous mass of work that has been done by men of good will throughout the country on this vital job—the zealous and enthusiastic men to which the report refers—were that the trading account fails to show a balance.

The main recommendation which the Select Committee made regarding the pool labour service is that notice should be given at once that it will be progressively reduced with the object of ending it in three years' time, but they also make the reservation that it may be necessary to retain some mobile labour for reclamation schemes. Their main recommendation involves important issues of policy and finance, but it had already been decided, long before this Committee started to sit, to act broadly along the lines of their recommendation. The situation and outlook as regards the supply of labour have changed greatly since the days immediately following the war and hon. Members must bear this in mind. It has been a problem both during the war and in the days succeeding the war: in the inter-war years, from 1921 to 1939, we were losing approximately 15,000 skilled workers a year.

I am glad to be able to say that that situation has been completely changed. In June, 1945, the number of male regular agricultural workers, the backbone of the labour force, was only 448,000; in 1946, it was 477,000; in 1947, it was 491,000; in 1948, it was 506,000; and the June returns for this year show over 520,000. Thus we have not only stopped the drift from the land, but we have turned it into a drift to the land and this labour force has contributed towards that to some extent. The need for maintaining a large supplementary force of regular labour and for retaining the training and placing facilities has, therefore, been greatly reduced.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

As the Minister appears to be leaving the point about labour, may I ask whether it is not a fact that in the last year, between September, 1948, and September, 1949, there was a fall of 18,000?

Mr. Williams

No, I do not think that is the case. The hon. and gallant Member has been looking at the Ministry of Labour's figures instead of the Ministry of Agriculture's figures. [Laughter.] Perhaps hon. Members will permit me to proceed. The figures are based on different calculations and I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that the fact is that there was a further increase between June and September, rather than a decrease of 18,000, and that the figures I have given are the real figures. We recruited a lot between 1939 and 1945 but the figures have gone up from 448,000 in 1945 to 520,000—and that is the essential feature. We are not losing agricultural workers at the rate of 15,000 a year; we are gaining agricultural workers at the rate of 10,000 or 15,000 a year.

I repeat that the need for maintaining a large supplementary labour force is not nearly so strong now as it was, but the need must and always will vary with localities. All county committees have already reduced their labour force very materially; indeed, the number of committee employees today is less than half what it was at the peak autumn period in 1948, and some committees are actu- ally thinking of closing down this service altogether by 1950 or 1951, although others will probably find it necessary to carry on, though with reduced numbers, for a few years longer. The hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) must not assign any credit to the Select Committee for what we did before the Committee started to sit. That is all I want to say to him.

I am not prepared to give a precise date when this committee pool labour will finally be abolished, but I agree with the Select Committee that it should be reduced to the point where we can merely service those smaller farmers who are unable to provide for their own needs. It is already clear that after 1952 there will be little more than the remnants of the service left. It is quite likely, however, that, county by county, where conditions vary enormously, the numbers will vary, too; and it may very well be that we shall require some for reclamation schemes in the future.

Just one word about the machinery service. The hon. Baronet referred to this. As I have said so much about gang labour, I think it is unnecessary to weary the House with so much detail again as that in which I dealt with labour. The machinery service grew up in an exactly identical way to that of the gang labour force. When arable cultivation had to be increased so enormously during the war, farmers had not enough machinery to do the work, nor money enough to buy the machinery, even if the machinery had been available, which it was not. The fullest possible use had to be made of the limited supplies of machinery in the country, and means had to be found to supplement the efforts of the smaller farmers. That was the origin of the county machinery service.

Now there is no longer a shortage, save in a few specialised machines that we import from North America. But there is still a need amongst poor farmers who cannot afford to fit themselves out with all the tools they need to maintain the highest possible level of production; and there is a need, too, which contractors have not yet fully met, for services requiring specialised and very expensive equipment. The hon. Baronet asked me what we had done about encouraging contractors. I can tell him and the House that at several mass meetings of farmers which I have addressed, I have encouraged the contractors in every part of the country, wherever they care to step in. It is only where no contractors are available that the county executive committees are bound to do the job if we are to get food production.

The big increase in the last few years in mechanisation has gone a long way to meet the needs of farming generally, and it has tended to offset the need for more labour by increasing the productivity of existing labour, and we have reckoned that half the additional production of the expansion programme will come from greater efficiency. I am glad to be able to say that we can report satisfactory progress in that direction. Now already the machinery services are being steadily reduced, and every possible step is being taken to improve efficiency and economy. Again, I will not commit myself to any precise date when the last machine will be sold, nor undertake that reduction will take place uniformly county by county. The principle that committees have been instructed to observe is that they should limit themselves to work which could not be done in any other way.

The hon. Baronet referred to lands in possession. Here I cannot escape the feeling that the Select Committee did less than justice to the county agricultural executive committees, which did such good work in very difficult circumstances. Much of the land taken over was derelict or semi-derelict when taken over. It was land that, for one reason or another, was derelict. Perhaps, it was of poor quality soil; it may have been in small, scattered sites; it may have been that the cost of reclamation was prohibitive, so that the ordinary farmer would not look at it. In paragraph 80 of this document, the Estimates Committee, when reviewing the cost and so-called losses, states: … no individual farmers could escape bankruptcy if they sustained such losses. Of course they could not; but no individual farmer would look at such land as the county agricultural executive committees had to take over. We just had to take over this land if the nation's food supply was to be increased, and the only way to do it was through the county agricultural executive committees. In the nature of things, reclamation and cultivation are always costly. Some of the land, however, that we took over, after a comparatively short space of time, was brought into a condition in which tenants would look at it, and it was handed over to the tenants.

The part of the county committees in the whole business was to do the donkey work and suffer what the Estimates Committee called the loss; but a good deal of this land had to be farmed by county committees covering the years that the Select Committee have looked at, and it was on land not yet good enough for tenants to take over that these losses were made. Before the Select Committee started their investigation, a small working party in my Department had gone fully into this matter and found that the position varied enormously between county and county. There were no doubts at all that some committees made better arrangements than others for direct farm work, but I am convinced from personal experience that the financial results were due largely to varying conditions in the counties rather than to differences in efficiency. It is not necessarily true that the greater loss in any county is due to less efficiency: it may be due to more initiative, or to greater efforts to produce the maximum food for the nation.

Following the report of the departmental working party I have just referred to, and later the report of the Select Committee, suitable instructions have been sent to committees asking them for more attention to be paid to the financial results and to applying measures for increased efficiency. The accounts for 1948–49 show a loss of only about half those of the previous year, and that sort of improvement will continue. The Select Committee say that the only satisfactory remedy is to decide on the future derequisitioning of this land, or for it to be purchased from the owners. With this I agree. In fact, a review of all requisitioned land was put in hand early last year—again before the Committee came into existence—and a good deal of it has already been released. There is a large number of individual cases still to be dealt with, but we are dealing with them as fast as we can.

Perhaps the hon. Baronet will be interested in these figures. In September, 1948, we had 339,349 acres under requisition, in 6,000 separate parcels of land. Since the order went out for committees to examine these places to see which ought to be purchased and which ought to be derequisitioned, 70,000 acres have been derequisitioned, 126,000 acres have been approved for release, 11,000 acres have been approved for purchase; and decisions are outstanding on another 132,000 acres. That may mean 2,000 separate parcels of land. It is not an easy job for county executive committees to go through such a large number of pieces of land as 6,000.

Let me now say something about the form of the estimates and publication. I do not propose to deal in detail with the paragraphs and recommendations of the report of the Select Committee on the form of the estimates for the trading service. The Committee were anxious that we should bring out as clearly as possible the whole cost of our service, including administration and other overheads, not only in the account but in forward trading estimates year by year. I ask the hon. Baronet and others to note what that means. We are putting the main recommendations on estimates and estimating into effect, with one exception. That exception is in lands in hand, for we do not see how we could possibly make a worthwhile estimate for land in possession or being used in many bits and pieces scattered all over the country. The farmer has, of course, definite ideas in his mind on how he will try to make a profit on the subsequent year's working, but the farmer does not prepare estimates in the form of a time-table of a public service; nor does he have such a scattered and varied lot of holdings to deal with as we have.

Sir T. Dugdale

Are there no figures county by county?

Mr. Williams

No, no more than the reply of the Department which the hon. and gallant Member quoted this afternoon.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

The right hon. Gentleman says "No more than the reply." The reply does not deal with the presentation of accounts county by county. It talks of a combined account. Will that combined account show the results in each county?

Mr. Williams

Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will read recommendation 4 and the reply to it; he has the Departmental reply before him, and I do not think that I need waste the time of the House in reading a long paragraph which gives accurately the reasons why we are not prepared to accept that part of the recommendation.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my question. Does the combined account envisage issuing the results county by county?

Mr. Williams

I do not think that is possible or practicable. Therefore, I do not commit myself to it. I turn for a moment to paragraphs 52 to 64 dealing with pest control. These have been studied in detail by my Department, and I shall refer only briefly to the general question of the cost of this particular service. While I recognise the dangers of inflated administrative cost where functions are divided, I do not think there is the slightest risk of this happening in this particular case, as referred to in recommendation 27.

Local authorities under the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act, 1949, carry the responsibility throughout their districts of seeing that the provisions of that Act are implemented. I see no clash of interests or danger of overlapping because committees may maintain the service for the destruction of pests on farms on a purely voluntary basis—farmers need not call in the county executive committee if they do not desire to do so—and on a repayment basis. It will be for the benefit of food production, whereas if recommendation 27 of the Committee's report were accepted, there would be no service available for destroying rats and mice in agricultural areas. The county executive committee would be reduced to dealing with harmful birds, foxes or moles, but would have no power to enable their trained technicians to deal with rats and mice and, in many counties, rabbits.

I know that the cost of pest control may seem high, but it covers a wide variety of activities—the control of infestation of food arriving in ships or kept in store in this country, contract services for farmers to keep down pests of all kinds, grants to urban and rural district councils, inspection and administrative work and instructional and research work at my Department's laboratories in London. Some reference was made to the sounder economy in Scotland than in England and Wales. I need only remind hon. Members of that Committee and the House that the instructional work and research work of the laboratories is a charge on the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and not on the Secretary of State for Scotland. That is quite a proper thing, but I think it is well to remind members of the Estimates Committee of that fact.

Nevertheless, while we are repeatedly searching for further economy, we must not overlook the colossal waste of food in this country due to pests. The figures were given when we introduced the Prevention of Damage by Pests Bill earlier this year. Recommendation 27 was fully discussed in Standing Committee and finally on the Report stage, and the proposal was rejected by the House. Therefore, to accept that recommendation would not only compel me to abrogate Section 101 of the 1947 Act but also to turn down a decision of this House.

I will how deal with the National Agricultural Advisory Service and the Agricultural Land Service—and finally with the administration and organisation of my Department. The two services, although comparatively new—I speak of them as established and, I might say, cherished institutions—like most of our institutions, are objects of criticism as well as of affection, but that is only because they are achieving results fairly quickly. The difficult requirements of the expansion programme have called for a more rapid development of food production than any Member contemplated when we were debating the Agriculture Bill. The Agricultural Land Service was started only in 1948, and I think the Select Committee were a little ungenerous when they suggested that little has so far been attempted by it. I do not know what they expected it to do in six or seven months—they do not give it a chance. Surely a service of this kind was entitled to find its feet. I am satisfied that it is already settling down and doing a great job. I think it was less than generous of the Select Committee to cast reflections upon the Agricultural Land Service.

In common with some other Departments, the Ministry of Agriculture, due to the nation's needs, have had to expand their functions and organisation rapidly since 1939. The staff of something like 3,000 has grown to 18,000, largely due to the two services I have mentioned, and the decision of the House to continue permanently the county agricultural executive committees. I have no doubt at all that the main lines of our expansion have been soundly laid. While that may be true, it may well be that all the decisions we have taken may not be the best. Therefore, in answering the question as to what we are doing in regard to paragraph 102, I can say that, in accordance with Government practice, we thought the time had come to review the development of the Department, with particular reference to the working of our agricultural executive committees, their decentralised activities generally and their relationship to headquarters office, and whether any changes are necessary.

The committee which will undertake this review will be composed of Mr. John Ryan, C.B.E., vice-chairman, Metal Box Company, Limited; Mr. J. R. Bickersteth, E.L.A.S., chairman, East Sussex Agricultural Executive Committee; Mr. G. S. Dunnett, deputy-secretary, M.A.F.; Mr. F. Grant, O.B.E., undersecretary, M.A.F.; Mr. H. G Purcell, J.P., British Oil and Cake Mills, Limited, and Mr. J. R. Simpson, C.B., Director of Organisation and Methods, His Majesty's Treasury. That outside committee will, I believe, be of infinite value to us, and I await with interest any recommendations they may make for improvement to our organisation.

I think I have dealt with all the topics touched upon by the Select Committee's report. I should like to acknowledge the very useful service the Committee did in examining the various subjects so closely. But my Department did not wait either for this Debate or the Committee's report. We put into effect in 1948 many of the suggestions they have made, and other recommendations were in train during the time the Committee were taking evidence. I associate myself fully with the statement in the sixth paragraph of the report, in which the Committee say that: Whatever they criticise, they have in mind the great value of the work which has been done and is being done by the Ministry and the county Committees…. Much credit is due, in particular, to the voluntary members of county Committees. These men have worked without financial reward, many of them throughout the stress of war and the almost equally difficult post-war period of transition, with zeal and enthusiasm. I am sure the House will agree that criticism must not blind us to the great value of their services.

I hope I have said enough to satisfy the House that this Motion is merely playing politics, and is not justified by the facts. I also hope that the House will do with the Motion what I think it ought to do with it.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, Northern)

I am very glad, as Chairman of the Estimates Sub-Committee, whose report is under discussion, to have an opportunity first to thank the Minister for such compliments as he offered to the Committee and, second, to say that although I listened carefully to his speech I could not find that on any important point his description of what the Ministry have done differed fundamentally or seriously from the description in our report. Nor can I say that the right hon. Gentleman's rather long speech seemed to contribute very much more than his succinct reply to the report, which has been published today. From the point of view of Chairman of the Committee, that reply seemed a reasonably satisfactory reply to receive from a Minister. Looking through it—it is difficult to judge each recommendation—it seems that the comments of the Minister on about three-quarters of our recommendations are very satisfactory indeed.

There are one or two points on which the Minister is definitely at variance with the Committee, which is not surprising, but there is only one major point, which I will come to in a moment, on which there is any difference between the right hon. Gentleman and the Committee. That is one of the reasons why I deprecate the fact that this Motion has been put down which is, in effect, a censure Motion on the Minister. I deprecate it because the Minister's reply seems satisfactory, except on one important point which is not referred to in the Motion. I also deprecate it because, although I am a relatively new member of the Estimates Committee, I believe that if two members of the Sub-Committee seize a report at the earliest possible moment, before the Secretary of State for Scotland has replied, and put down a Motion which amounts to a censure Motion, it is likely to make the work of the Estimates Committee very much more difficult in future.

I regard the Estimates Committee as a body which represents the taxpayers. When we look critically at expenditure we do so as Members representing the taxpayers. If the Minister seems unnecessarily sensitive on some points I am sorry, but I think that only shows that we have been carrying out our duty well, and a duty which has not been carried out for a long time. That does not justify, however, making political use of the Committee. I am informed—and this is rather a compliment to the Committee in some ways—that only two reports of Select Committees have been debated during this Parliament. There is no precedent for a report being used as the basis for such a censure Motion. We always like precedents in this House, and there is perhaps nothing against them. I just draw the attention of the House to the fact that it is a new development. Of course, it is very near a General Election and as one can understand, that affects what people say. I regret that the House will be divided tonight, because it has been a tradition which has survived since the war that agriculture was not a matter of direct party conflict, and this Motion tonight is a reflection upon the work of these county committees which are new to peace time, and from which I hope for considerable results.

I should like to turn now to some of the Committee's recommendations. The Minister of Agriculture would have avoided some of this trouble if he had not given the appearance in the past of trying to conceal facts from the House of Commons. If he had been more willing to publish the results of the trading activities of the county committees he would not have created in the minds of Members of Parliament the feeling that something was being kept from them. Members of Parliament always resent that. The Minister is making a mistake in not accepting the recommendation to the affect that the accounts of the county committees should be published. I do not believe he will escape from this sort of criticism until he or some other Minister of Agriculture agrees to the publication of these accounts.

It is no use his saying that he can provide these accounts for select Members of Parliament on the Public Accounts Committee or on the Select Committee on Estimates. There is nothing binding on the confidence of Members of Parliament in those Committees, and if they are furnished with information I do not think they are entitled, as a general rule, to keep it to themselves, particularly as they are a special body of Members who take it on themselves to judge on behalf of the taxpayer whether the money has been wisely spent or not. If he gives this information in future, as suggested by the Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, he cannot question making it public generally. I believe it will be much better to make it public. He would help to raise the morale of the county committees who do not know what they are doing themselves and how they compare with other committees.

It is quite possible for the information given to us on the Committee and studied by us to be given to the general public so that a generally informed public in the counties can themselves judge the activities of the committees. That is my great criticism of the reply of the Minister both verbally and on paper. I would remind him of a saying attributed to the Duke of Wellington. He was being threatened with some publication which it was thought he would not like, and he made the famous exclamation "Publish and be damned." I wish the Minister would take up that attitude in giving us all the facts. I do not believe he has got a lot to hide, if he will put the system of accountancy into order. That is the last object I want to deal with.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale) did not fully realise the implications of the recommendations in this report on the alteration of the form of the estimates from the form of the accounts. I should like to point out that we were recommending something which is new in the Estimates and in the form in which Government Departments keep their accounts. It is a very complicated form that we have recommended, but I believe that it is one which is required by Government Departments which undertake training activities. The old system of the Estimates and the Appropriation Account was laid down in Mr. Gladstone's day, I think, and it suited Government Departments which were purely administrative. When we have Government Departments carrying out trading activities like a private business, the present form of accounts does not suit at all. We were recommending in this report that a precedent should be established, and that the Ministry of Agriculture accounts should be presented to this House and to the country in a new form which would give us a better understanding of what is happening, and would give within the Ministry, and I believe to the Treasury, a better control over the expenditure and income.

I am not going to vote against the Ministry of Agriculture tonight because I am not going to record a vote against the new county committees. I believe. they are doing good work which I wish to see encouraged. This report of a committee with which all parties are concerned is, in some respects, a compromise. There may be wording which particular Members would have expressed slightly differently. I am not going to vote in favour of the Motion interpreting this report as a wholesale condemnation of the Ministry of Agriculture. My intention was never that. I regret to see that this report has been made use of in this way. My impression of the report is that it is a serious attempt to examine what was wrong. There have been things wrong. The report gives credit for what has been done well. It sets out figures of crop production and increase, and it recognises the difficulties under which county committees have been working. I believe that those committees have been doing good work and I do not propose to register any condemnation of them.

9.33 p.m.

Mr. Scott-Elliot (Accrington)

As a member of the Estimates Committee who took some part in the preparation of this report, I should like to submit two propositions. The first is that the Estimates Committee, together with the Public Accounts Committee, has a special position in this House. Members in the Estimates Committee work in a rather different way. They put their minds into a common pool and they work together. They drop their political prejudices, or endeavour to do so, and they report objectively. They may not always be right in what they say, as has been shown in this Debate. We do not claim to be omniscient. We do our best, and our object is to help the Minister.

My second proposition is that the Motion is tantamount to a Vote of Censure on the Minister. Hon. Members who are familiar with the working of the Estimates Committee will recognise that the phrase "to express concern" about some administrative point, is a not unfamiliar one upstairs. It is fairly often used in an endeavour to help a Minister and his Department. To express concern on the Floor of this House, as the Opposition are doing, is to express a vote of "No confidence" in the Government. Presumably, therefore, the Opposition feel that my right hon. Friend has done an extremely bad job and is worthy of the censure of this House.

Let us examine the Motion as it stands in the light of the report and of the departmental reply. The Motion asks the House to accept the recommendations of the Select Committee. If I understand English that means that it asks the House to accept all the recommendations of the Select Committee. But, as has already been referred to by the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond (Sir T. Dugdale), my right hon. Friend has put in a departmental reply in which he accepts most of the recommendations which have been made by the Select Committee, but not all. When he has not accepted a recommendation he has, in my opinion, generally given very cogent reasons for not doing so. Does the Opposition therefore feel that the Estimates Committees, set up for a limited period to inquire into a limited range of subjects, actually know better than the Minister who is doing the job? It is a preposterous point of view to put forward, and I think on that ground alone this Motion must fall.

But that is not all. What is the next point? The Committee expresses concern at the large losses made by county agricultural committees. This is a grossly misleading statement and I would draw the attention of hon. Members who were not on the Select Committee to the qualifying references which we make in paragraphs 6, 7, 8 and 37. I commend these to the attention of hon. Members, otherwise they will be lead to imagine that we recommended something and made state- ments which we never made at all. I think I can fairly say we recognised that the services under discussion were absolutely essential during the war and during the period of transition following the war.

We recognised the need to recruit E.V.W.s to take the place of German prisoners who have been repatriated. I can go so far as to say that we agreed that although outwardly the apparent loss of a county committee might appear to be very large, the fact that it had a large loss against its name did not necessarily means that it was doing a bad job. We recognised all these things but in their Motion the Opposition do not recognise that. They do the exact opposite. The Opposition Motion is a complete oversimplification of the report of the Select Committee.

The Opposition in their Motion regret delay. Perhaps they did not read, or perhaps they did not know, that a departmental reply was coming along, and that my right hon. Friend would be able to prove, as he has proved, that where we made certain recommendations he anticipated some of them by anything from six months to a year before we made those recommendations. That is nothing against us. We were working together and seeking to help the Minister.

What are we to deduce from all this? We can only deduce that if the Opposition are doing this kind of thing for party purposes the influence of the Estimates Committee is likely very seriously to decline. The hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) has already referred to that point and I believe that the hon. and gallant Member for Richmond was not very happy about his position. His speech was not in accord with the Motion before the House.

I shall listen with interest if he happens to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to what is said by the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) who was a Member of the Select Committee and who has now, together with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) put his name to the Motion on the Order Paper. I have very considerable regard for the Estimates Committee. It is deplorable that the Opposition, by putting forward partisan Motions of this kind which cannot be substantiated, should do such damage to the work done patiently and without much publicity upstairs by Members of the Estimates Committee.

I should like to make a few comments of my own, and I hope that they will be more constructive than those of the Opposition. The point to which I wish to refer has been mentioned already by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cumberland. It is that apart altogether from the boards of nationalised industries. Government Departments are to an even greater degree becoming engaged in forms of trading. It may be quasitrading like these county agricultural committees, because I take the point made by my right hon. Friend that they have other functions such as the placing of workers in employment and the training of workers. I acknowledge both those points, but there are other Departments—it may be the Ministry of Food or the Forestry Commission—which are engaged in genuine trading. Where a Government Department is engaged in genuine trading, I believe that the existing cash accounts militate against efficiency. I believe that a trading account based upon commercial methods is badly needed and that only by this means will we be able to secure a really high degree of efficiency in the working of Government trading Departments.

I very much regret what the Opposition have done tonight. I am satisfied with the Departmental reply, and if the Opposition are so ill-advised as to call a Division I shall have great pleasure in going into the Lobby in support of my right hon. Friend, who in the past four years has done a remarkably fine job of work which I hope that he will continue to do in the years to come.

9.43 p.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

We have listened to two remarkable speeches by the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) and the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Scott-Elliot). Both seem to forget that it is the duty and function of this House to examine matters of importance brought before it by the Estimates Committee. When I heard some of the remarks made by one who sat with distinction as chairman of that sub-committee, it seemed to me that he was at times trying to deny what he had himself written in the report. The hon. Member for Accrington said that here, after all, the Minister must know better than the Estimates Committee.

Mr. J. Lewis

On a point of Order. The hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) is Chairman of this sub-committee. Is it in Order for the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) to accuse the hon. Member for North Cumberland of seeking to divest himself of responsibility for the function he exercises under the authority of this House?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of Order for me. It is a point which the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) can answer for himself.

Mr. Turton

The hon. Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Lewis) has done his best to try to curtail this Debate by his interruptions. In the very short time which remains, let us try to see what this House has to consider. This Motion is no great sweeping indictment of the Minister of Agriculture, but it is an indictment as is shown in the report, on two very important matters. One is that these accounts are confused and uncoordinated. The second is that £14 million of the taxpayers' money has had to be spent in order to balance these trading services. Those, as I see the position, are the two indictments.

The Minister of Agriculture, in a very lengthy—it had to be lengthy—but very comprehensive speech, referred to the question of accounts and made his great objection to what the Estimates Committee recommended. He said that it was not practicable to give the accounts county by county. I ask him and I ask the House to think a little about what he said on that matter. Every hon. Member of that Committee was handed in confidence the accounts of the counties, county by county. We are now in the embarrassing position of having that knowledge, but of having to guard that knowledge because it is our honour to do so. It is a very invidious position. The Minister and his officials have prepared these accounts, and we, in our Committee, rightly asked him to publish them, not only the accounts that relate to the past that we have in our private keeping, but also the accounts to be published in the future, because we believe that it would be a good thing for the taxpayers and also for the good of the country.

I always feel on this subject that where the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) has really lapsed, is in his indictment of all the counties. Even in these accounts, we see some counties have suffered grievous losses, and, after all, £14 million of the taxpayers' money in one year is no small matter. Again, £350,000 have been lost by one county in one year, and we could not give the name of the county.

Mr. T. Williams

I hope the hon. Member will drop the word "losses." It is an abuse of the English language.

Mr. Turton

I know that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) once said that pounds, shillings and pence were meaningless symbols. It is a great pity that the Minister of Agriculture now takes that view. What the taxpayers realise is that they have to pay for one particular county a very large sum, and in another county—[Interruption.] I listened to the Minister with the greatest patience while he put forward his views, and I hope that I shall be allowed to put forward my views without constant interruptions by the junior Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Lewis).

There are some counties carrying on these operations without suffering losses, and I want the House to realise that. The great drawback to this position of unpublished accounts is that the country does not know which counties are carrying on these trading services at a profit and which are carrying them on at a loss. I hope the Minister will think again on the question of publication; and I think it was regrettable that in his speech he evaded the question of publication county by county. He never said that he would not do it, but merely talked about combined accounts.

Let me, in the short time that remains, try to deal with this question of a loss of £14 million. Let me concentrate, because there is so very little time, on one or two of the services. I only want to say this about the machinery service. The Minister said that some counties had a loss on machinery. I hope that, when I give my illustrations, Members opposite will not interrupt or say that I am betraying a confidence, because I am only going to quote figures given in the evidence and in the report.

One county, the West Riding of Yorkshire, had a loss of £110,000 in one year, while the two neighbouring counties, the North and East Ridings, either made no deficit or hardly any deficit. They nearly balanced their accounts. Why is that? It is because of a difference in methods between the three counties. One county is allowing the machinery, which belongs to the committees, to be handed out to agricultural contractors, with the result that the work is done by them and is economic. When the committees have operated their machinery services, they have recorded these very large losses, and I am sorry that the Minister and the Ministry have not realised that fact. I cannot give all the illustrations that I should like to give, not merely because of the time, but because I cannot quote figures not published in our report.

The Minister said that he was doing all he could to encourage agricultural contractors. He said that he was doing it on every platform on to which he went. But it is not only on the platform that these young men want encouragement. They want practical encouragement; they want to be allowed to get agricultural machinery, and they want to know when they set up in business that they will not be knocked out by the county committees. When we read the evidence, we find that a Mr. Weighell—Question 2040—said that he found many young men coming back from the war who had been in R.E.M.E. wanting to start up in the agricultural contracting business but who could not get the machinery, and who also dare not start up because of this competition from the county committees. I hope that the Minister will give more encouragement than he gives on the platform.

I will now turn to gang labour, and I want to make one thing clear because the Minister, in a surprising interjection when my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) told him that according to the figures in September this year there were 18,000 fewer employed than last year, said that they were only Ministry of Labour figures, and that his figures were correct. But my hon. and gallant Friend was actually quoting the September return figures which showed a drop of 18,000 from September, 1948, to September, 1949, at a time when the Economic Survey of 1949 stated that we should have an increase of 10,000. I make that point because it would be unfortunate if the Minister's statement made it appear that there were more agricultural workers than there really are. It would appear that he was wrong in accusing my hon. and gallant Friend of inaccuracy, and in accusing the Ministry of Labour of being inaccurate, because the September return shows the same figure.

The Minister said that in the years 1946–49 we were dealing with pockets of unemployment and that now we need no longer carry out the policy of gang labour. I believe that the indictment is not to be laid at the door of the Ministry of Agriculture, but at the door of the Government. Unemployment should be dealt with by the Ministry of Labour and not by the Ministry of Agriculture. I do not believe that these agricultural committees should be switched from their main job of producing food in order to deal with unemployment. I deplore that part of the Minister's speech in which he tried to excuse these very large losses—after all, £6 million in a year is a very large loss—by saying that we were dealing with pockets of unemployment.

I will give one illustration. Out of 1,651 men trained for agriculture, only two went into the industry. That is a great and costly failure. That particular county was paying out £113,000 in wages. Those expenses are mentioned, the others are not. Their income for the year was £20,000—a recovery rate of less than 20 per cent. Again, we find that in the county of Norfolk the recovery rate of gang labour in 1946–47 was 18.6 per cent. That is a grievous loss. If the other counties balance their accounts it is wrong that the county of Norfolk—

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

Were they prisoners?

Mr. Turton

—should only recover 18.6 per cent.

Mr. Davies


Mr. Turton

I cannot give way.

Mr. Davies

These were prisoners.

Mr. Turton

I hope the hon. Member will not interrupt again.

Mr. Davies

I have not interrupted except on this occasion. Qualify it. Tell the truth. I challenge the hon. Member.

Mr. Turton

The Minister told us that in recent weeks he had made certain decisions on this matter, but the Select Committee has been looking at the Estimates not only for 1946–47 and 1947–48 but for 1948–49, and the curious fact which that brings out is that the acreage which has been farmed direct by the committees has increased during these years and the losses have been immense. The Committee said losses have been £14 to £20 an acre; in fact, in one county, represented by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely, the loss was £29 per acre in one year. There were good reasons for it.

I ask the Minister to make earlier decisions in this matter of land in possession. There are many young farmers who would be willing to take over land now being farmed by the committees, and if these lands were advertised there would be replies from a very great number of people. We are led to the conclusion that the Minister has been confused by the large increase in his staff and has stopped the county committees from doing the job they are very well qualified to do—encouraging good farming of the land of England. I believe that they have had their minds distracted from the running of these things on economic lines by the masses of forms and directions they have received from different bodies. I appeal to the Minister to get these committees re-organised at the earliest possible moment.

9.58 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Reid (Swindon)

The Motion before the House criticises not merely the Ministry but also the voluntary members of the county agricultural committees. These committees took over from the war executive county committees which carried on during the war, also as volunteers, and which spent money regardless of loss. They had to do so. That system survived for some time and it takes a good deal of time to organise the thing on a proper basis.

I am not going into what the Committee reported and the criticisms it made. I would merely say that this Motion was put down before the Minister had had time to reply. That is an extraordinary thing to do. The Minister's reply this evening satisfied me completely. He is trying to meet us in every way; he has accepted a lot of our recommendations and has agreed to experiment with recommendations where he is not quite certain whether they are sound or not.

However, I did not wish to speak on that point. I wanted to point out that we sat on this Committee and worked not on party lines; we worked candidly and put a tremendous amount of trouble into our report. Then, when we had finished, what happened? We found that the Conservative Party had put down a Vote of Censure on party lines, even though the Committee had never worked on party lines during the whole of its sitting. When we examine this Motion, what does it mean? It means that the party opposite either are advancing it simply for propaganda purposes or are trying to force the Minister to accept views which which he does not agree—

It being Ten o ' Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.