§ 1.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-West)
I desire this afternoon to raise the matter of the annual review of farm prices and the economic position of agriculture generally with a view to asking the Minister of Agriculture whether it is not possible for him to publish in one form or another a greater amount of information relating to agriculture, on which those engaged in the industry and those concerned about the industry, whether as producers or as consumers, will be able to form sound opinions.
Since the passing of the 1947 Agriculture Act, the House and the Government have assumed a great deal of responsi- 2440 bility for the guidance of this industry, for what crops it shall grow, what stock it shall produce, and the prices that shall be paid. In those circumstances, this House should be entitled to a report, periodically, of the development of the industry and, among other things, the costs of production in this country, so that the information gathered for the purposes of the annual review of farm prices shall be made available—as much of it as possible—to the Members of this House and, through this House, to the whole country.
In peace-time, in a democratic country the greater the amount of information that can be made available the better it is for the country as a whole. It may be necessary that certain negotiations should be conducted behind closed doors. It may be that every item of information cannot be made available to the general public but, in a matter such as this, I am sure it would be wiser on the part of the Government to give too much rather than too little information.
This is not now a matter for the farmers and the Government. The farm workers are directly interested in the prices at which the crops they produce are sold. We cannot carry on a system of guaranteed wages to farm workers without a system of guaranteed prices. I think, therefore, that the farm workers are entitled to more information than is now available and so, also, is the country as a whole. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture whether he can, in consultation with his right hon. Friend, either as a supplement to the Economic Survey, or, following the example of the Scottish Department of Agriculture, by producing an annual report to the House, or by a periodical White Paper, collate information—which may already have been given in answer to questions in the House, or in statements made by the Minister, in the House or at Press conferences—in such a way that ordinary reasonable people will be able to see the work of this Parliament or the previous Parliament in respect of the agricultural industry and gauge the progress that has been made and its effect.
I have noticed that the recent figures published in relation to the number of regular workers engaged in the industry 2441 show a decline. Such a trend, if continued, would lead to very serious problems. I think it absolutely essential that agriculture should be able to produce as large a share as possible of the food our country needs. That being so, I have been of opinion for some time that the Ministry should give to the House, some form of report or review, taking into consideration the economic conditions of agricuture, so that the House can form a sounder opinion.
I think this has been made absolutely essential since the speech made in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) on 16th May. I am sorry he is not here in his place today. I have had conversations with him during this week, and I took steps to try to inform him that I would refer to that speech today. Since that speech, I think it is imperative that fuller information should be given, because of the circumstances of his speech. After all, he made the speech after he had been Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food during the period of the negotiations relating to this year's review of prices. That being so, he spoke from information that had obviously been obtained arising out of these negotiations. In that speech he challenged the whole principle of guaranteed prices for British farm produce and he made out his case——
§ Mr. Dye
There were hon. Members who said it was a good speech. It was obviously carefully prepared and well delivered, but I think it was based, as most people who know anything about agriculture believe, on quite false figures. Some said it was a courageous speech. I thought courage was necessary in dealing with the truth, rather-than in culling from statistics a few facts with which to bolster up a particular point of view.
The hon. Gentleman called in question the whole principle of guaranteed prices, and he criticised on several grounds the recent review of farm prices. He said that it cost the taxpayer too much, that 2442 the farmers' representatives got the better of the argument with the Government's representatives in this annual review of prices, that it led to inefficiency, and, as he described it, "feather bedding." He said that higher prices for home production led to demands for higher prices from foreign suppliers of food and feedingstuffs, and that a continuance of the system of guaranteed prices would lead to national ruin. This system he described as the Achilles heel of our national economy, and, in recent years, according to the hon. Gentleman, increasing mechanisation in agriculture has not led to lower costs and, therefore, cheaper production, but to higher profits for the producer and higher prices for the housewife.
Those are the six points which emerged in his speech, in which he condemned the system of guaranteed prices. With regard to the first point, it must be clear to everyone who knows anything about agriculture that, in recent years, we have been paying for the past neglect of this industry. There was a lot of headway to be made up before our land could be made fully productive. The hon. Gentleman has confused the subsidies paid to keep the cost of food to the British housewife well below the level of world prices with the subsidies paid to assist the development of British agriculture.
The State has had to tell the farmers, in some cases, what to grow, and, therefore, it must provide the means of enabling the farmers to produce these crops and sell them. The increased prices announced in 1947 had, as their purpose, the provision of sufficient money not only to pay for the crops, but also to enable farmers to develop their land and increase their stock so that in later years there could be a progressive development in output. Therefore, it meant that more money had to be put into the industry than was necessary for the annual turnover.
With regard to the second point, the basic costs of production are agreed in the negotiations between the representatives of the farmers and of the Ministries of Agriculture and Food. The information upon which the facts are based is supplied by departments of universities which are concerned to provide the facts relating to costs of production. It has been accepted that this year the estimated 2443 increased costs of production are divided as between the farmers, who have to bear two-thirds of the increased cost, and prices or subsidies, which have to supply one-third. This shows how the industry is now able to take up a greater share of the increased cost of producing food in this country, and it therefore indicates its greater efficiency.
The hon. Member for Wednesbury has been quite unable to distinguish between a feather bed and what is, I think, one of the foundation stones of the national prosperity. British agriculture is an essential part of our national economy, and if it is prosperous the people who are dependent on it are in a better position to buy the goods produced in the other industries of the country. Therefore, it is one of the foundation industries which are fundamental to our national well-being. The greater production of our own agriculture will not in any way assist foreign countries in negotiating prices for the food which we buy from them; on the contrary, the greater our production here the stronger our bargaining power in dealing with countries which have food to sell to us.
The British housewife, in recent years, has been getting food more cheaply than the housewives of any other nation with a similar standard of living to our own, and I cannot see that the hon. Gentleman's argument that the cost of food in this country has risen is at all acceptable; on the contrary, our prices of food in this country have been lower than the prices in other countries. Now, increasing quantities of food, as well as a greater variety, are becoming available, so that the housewife, if she so desires, can go from shop to shop or stall to stall and make her choice. That is how we want it, and how everybody would like it to be.
If we look at the principal items of our production in this country, we can, for instance, take the case of milk. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the price of surplus milk before the war as being 5d. a gallon, and he said that it could be produced today at 9½d. a gallon. When milk was cheap, there was poverty, and many people could not have even cheap milk. Today, nearly twice the amount of milk is being consumed in this country as in 1938, which is the year the hon. Gentleman quoted. As for it being produced 2444 today at 9½d. per gallon, that is an utterly ridiculous price. It is far better that the producer should be paid a fair price and that we should have these national arrangements to encourage and enable people to consume more milk than ever before.
Next, the hon. Gentleman mentioned potatoes and also spoke of wheat. Nearly the whole of the time since the end of the war—and it is certainly true at present—the British farmer has been paid a lower price for wheat than that which has ruled in the market in the United States, the very home of mechanised agriculture.
Therefore, it cannot be argued that the Government are paying a higher price for wheat, that they are encouraging inefficiency, or that they are "feather-bedding" the agricultural industry in any way. The figures quoted by my hon. Friend from a letter with regard to potatoes were quite fantastic. Having seen the letter, I would say that it was not written by a genuine farmer. It probably came from a man, perhaps an elderly man, with a grudge against the agricultural industry. I believe that my hon. Friend left out two sentences of the letter. Of course, I can only repeat them from memory, but they said something like this:We farmers do not care anything about the country, but only about what we can get out of it.Had my hon. Friend read that portion of the letter, he could not possibly have ended his speech as he did "Who dies if England lives, and who lives if England dies?" That letter was not typical of the farming community, nor of the spirit of that community. Therefore, I do not think it can be accepted as in any way a genuine contribution regarding the cost of production of potatoes, or, for that matter, of any other product.
To avoid misunderstanding, I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us in what way the Ministry can make more information available to the House and the country so that reasonable people may not be misled by gross misrepresentations of the position with regard to agriculture. The National Farmers' Union, who are parties to the negotiations, must, of course, make some kind of a report to their members, and, in fact, have done so. I think that we in this House are entitled to expect a 2445 report on the annual review of farm prices which goes further than just giving the prices arrived at. I hope it will not be argued that it would be impossible for the Ministry of Agriculture to draw up for the guidance of the House a report on the economic conditions of the industry which will enable us to give adequate consideration to every aspect of agriculture. I trust, therefore, that my hon. Friend will be able to indicate to the House this afternoon what steps can be taken to avoid further misunderstanding about the annual review of prices.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Nugent (Guildford)
I have listened with interest to the views put forward by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye). I will deal only with the fresh point raised in his speech. Regarding his request for an annual report on the agricultural price review, I think that, in principle, we are entirely with him. It is obviously desirable, both from the producers' point of view and from that of the consumers, that the fullest information should be given so that, as far as possible, everyone may know what has happened. The producers would then be satisfied that they are getting a fair return, and the consumers that they were getting good value.
But when we consider how that is to be done, we realise that there are tremendous difficulties. This price review system has grown up over the course of the last 10 years. Like Topsy, it just grew. It started with the control of prices in 1940 in order to prevent prices from rising in a time of scarcity, and then there was some sort of review from time to time—sometimes not yearly—until 1944. In 1944 my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) announced that a system had been devised for carrying out this annual price review, and it began in 1945. Since then the system has been gradually evolving, but all through those years the main concern was, of course, to see that although farmers received an adequate price, it was not excessive. The public are naturally very interested now to see that prices do not go too high, in fact, some hon. Members opposite think they ought to be reduced.
I mention these historical facts because I wish to draw attention to the main feature of this review. It has grown up 2446 quite empirically and has served its purpose admirably, though it is not exact enough to be called a science. The commodity prices, of course, come out of it and are fixed, and everyone knows what they are. The livestock prices are fixed for the current year from 1st April and the cereal prices run from the harvest in the following year so that the farmer may know what to plant that year in order to harvest it the next. Minimum prices for livestock and livestock products are fixed four years ahead in order to give stability to the industry, but there is no exact system for costing each commodity. In fact, the global total for the profitability of the industry has first to be worked out; it is really the foundation stone of the whole system. It is worked out by a very complicated, intricate method which it would be quite impossible to publish. Indeed, many of the people in touch with the system really do not understand it all. It requires economists to work out this very complicated method.
The broad approach is to take the picture of the national farms. There are so many million acres of grain in the country, so many livestock, so much milk and eggs, and so on. A picture is then built up of the profit and loss account of the farming industry for the whole nation. That is done by using figures available to the Government, many of them from confidential or semi-confidential sources which possibly could not be published. Then—and this is a very important point—they have to estimate what will be the application of those figures in the coming year. On the income side, they have to estimate what is going to happen to this harvest. They know the acreage, but they do not know what the weather will be, and therefore their figures can only be estimates; that is all they can be for the coming year. They have the guidance of what has actually happened in past years, but the figures for the coming year upon which they are going to negotiate can only be estimates.
There is then a system of checking these figures against the farm surveys. On the Government side, they have figures that come from the universities, their circles of farms, and on the farming side figures that come from the N.F.U. farm survey of about 5,000 farms. They then proceed to raise this sample to the national size which, again, is quite a complicated 2447 thing to do, in order to check that result against the picture they have from the Department's net income calculation. In practice, surprisingly, that comes out remarkably well and provides a very good check. That is how the global total is fixed. Obviously, it is quite complicated and it takes economists on both sides about three weeks to do it.
When they have reached that stage, the negotiations themselves start. Figures are brought in for the increased cost of producing the product of the industry and, on the other hand, what increased profitability may be expected. The Government can then declare what their target figures are in acreage, livestock and so on for the year, and on which product to put emphasis in order to encourage the production of that particular product. Negotiations then commence as to the extent to which the industry is to be recouped for extra cost by way of wages, feedingstuffs, transport and so on, and to what extent the industry has increased its profitability.
I have indicated, in broad outline, how the total global figure is arrived at and then broken down to its various commodities. Additions and substractions are then made on commodity prices to give the emphasis desired in the national interest. It is clear that what this system of fixing prices does very well is to determine the trends of profitability. If we look back over past years, we will see that it has served its purpose extremely well. But to say that, in any particular year, the figures used are absolutely accurate for what is going to happen in any year is quite wrong. No system in the world can do that. It will be seen, therefore, how easy it would be to give a totally wrong impression. I am not going into any more detail because it would only confuse the matter further. However, I think I have made it plain how difficult it is going to be to give a really adequate picture of the negotiations in a particular year.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman who is to reply is going to find some way of publishing something which will show the public what has happened. It seems to me possible to give pictures of the past years accurately, and that would be a great reassurance to the public of what is actually happening. But even there, 2448 there are many pitfalls, because if critics who are not disposed to be fair-minded tear some particular piece of information out of its proper context, they may give a totally false impression.
For instance, the total profit of the industry last year was £283 million on a gross output of something like £850 million. It would be easy to say that that shows a very high profit margin. In fact, of course, it is not the whole story. The rest of the story is that there is a very large volume of inter-farm sales and the real output in the industry, including inter-farm sales, would be at least 50 per cent. higher than £850 million. Therefore, though this figure remains the same, the profit margin would not be very much more than half the percentage margin that £283 million gives on £850 million.
I give that as just one example of the many snags that there would be in putting out the story of these negotiations. It would serve neither the farming interest nor the consumer interest if publication of this kind gives a false impression. We all hope, on this side of the House, that it will be possible to publish some kind of picture which will give the public in general, and this House in particular, a clear idea of just what happens.
The farming community has a good story to tell. They are anxious to serve the national interest in producing what the nation wants, and at a reasonable figure. But it is really going to be impossible to give the actual cost for any particular commodity at any particular time. Take, for instance, wheat. It is most essential in the public interest to increase the acreage of wheat. Therefore, a price incentive is put on it of £5 a ton in order to extend the acreage and get wheat grown on land otherwise not productive to grow it without making a loss. Quite obviously, on marginal land the profit margin would be small, but on good wheat land it would be big, and it would be quite easy to find an instance where a big profit was made. In looking at any particular commodity one must have proper regard to volume as well as price.
It is clear that it is going to be very difficult for the experts who provide this report to make it sufficiently comprehensive to cover the whole picture and make it still comprehensible to the people who 2449 wish to understand it. I am not going to take up any more time, because the Minister wishes to answer; but we hope it will be possible to give that information, because we feel this price review is the foundation stone of the agricultural industry. We feel that it really is serving a useful purpose and is bound to be looked at more and more closely in the coming years if and when prices in world markets fall. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the public should have full confidence in it. We hope that the Minister will find a way of publishing something which will give a balanced picture, which is fair to the producing interest and the consumer interest and maintains and develops confidence in the system.
§ 2.27 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)
I feel at this moment rather like Burke, I believe it was, who was once on the hustings and had to follow a fellow candidate. When his time came to speak I understand that he addressed his constituents, "Ladies and gentlemen, ditto," and sat down. What he had the courage to do, I, probably, have not the courage to do, but, nevertheless, I feel rather as he must have felt at that moment. There is, of course, not very much between us in the speeches that have been made. Nevertheless, it might be useful if I took occasion to put on the record, as it were, some considerations that enter into the price review and comment upon the suggestions that have been made.
I do not propose to spend any time dealing with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans), whom my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye) quoted at some length. There have been hon. Members of this House who have given 10 or a dozen figures in the course of a speech and who have distinguished themselves by getting nine wrong. The distinction that the hon. Member for Wednesbury will carry into history is that he managed to get the whole 10 or dozen wrong; and it will be a long time before anyone catches up with him in that record.
I do not share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West, that if all the available information 2450 were put into one large tome we should then be sure that when the hon. Member for Wednesbury made a speech he would get at least one figure right. Once, when I discussed with an hon. Member why he had not obtained the facts from me before speaking, he said, "Facts have an awkward way of interfering with speeches." I had a feeling, when I listened to the hon. Member for Wednesbury, that that was what he felt, and that he would have taken great care to avoid reading any tomes that would have brought out any facts which interfered with his speech. I do not think we in the farming industry can ever expect to be wholly free of people who still cling to memories of the Manchester School. This is a very old business, and I do not think that we should want to be wholly free from it, so long as we can put up a case in defence of ourselves when the attack comes. It is probably just as well that it should be stated or even overstated from time to time, and then we can put ourselves right.
All the figures which were quoted today have been answered specifically by my right hon. Friend and by others concerned with the industry, and I think very little purpose would be gained by going over them again. I agree with the hon. Members for Norfolk, South-West and Guildford (Mr. Nugent) that at a time when all taxpayers are probably accepting a greater measure of responsibility for this great industry it is very necessary that they should understand the basis on which their responsibilities are worked out and the reasons for them, and that they should feel satisfied, from the knowledge available to them, that they are not being asked to do something which is wrong.
I do not think that there is any lack of available material. The present Minister of Agriculture and others who have from time to time been associated with him have made speech after speech in this House. We have had many Debates, and speeches have been made in the country, in which all the arguments both for the system and for the various component figures which are taken into account in the price review have been deployed and repeated. I think the information is there. It has been said that the Government would be wiser to give too much information rather than too little. I want, if I can, to dispose of any suggestion that we weigh it out and see on which side 2451 of the narrow dividing line we ought to take our stand.
Much of this defence of the price review system and of the prices which are then fixed consists of arguments and not figures at all. It is a matter of policy, and if one accepts a policy one is led on to accept certain figures. All that can be given which is of value, and which, it must be understood will not produce great tomes which nobody will read, has at one stage or another been given.
I should like to say a word about the way in which the price review is conducted. Here is a perfect example of how much information can be available and yet not known even by hon. Members to whom it is made available. In the first, second and third Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts for the Session 1948–49, presented to this House, there is, on page 327, what I think is probably a classic statement of the way in which the price review is conducted, the way in which figures are arrived at, what they mean and so on, by the Permanent Secretary to the Department who was called before the Committee. To hon. Members who are interested, I would commend the information in that book, the examination of Sir Donald Vandepeer, the answers he gave to the Committee, and some extra information that was sent to the Committee and which appears in appendices.
The fact that the evidence was given on the Ministry of Food Vote ought to be additional evidence to my hon. Friend that no matter how much is said or printed, it would not have affected the speech of the hon. Member for Wednesbury. The evidence was given on the Vote of the Department with which he was for a time associated.
§ Mr. Brown
Well, there they were. We are asked that more information should be given. It is no use giving it unless hon. Members will read it. The information was certainly available and was printed. If it was not known, it is a commentary on the fact that we all have so much to read that it is very difficult 2452 to select the right things to read at the right time.
§ Mr. Ian L. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)
The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn attention to the Committee report with which some of us are familiar, but I think he will agree that it deals much more with the machinery aspect of the matter than with the picture of the economic situation of the industry at any given time. What I personally feel—I am not entitled to speak on behalf of anybody else—is that it should be possible to devise some means not only of explaining the machinery but of giving a general background picture of the economic state of the industry as a whole, year by year.
§ Mr. Brown
We are very glad to learn that the hon. Member agrees with the other two hon. Members who have spoken. That is, roughly, the point that they have been making, and which I myself am trying, stage by stage and point by point, to stress. However, I thought I had a point which I should use, and I used it; it did go a bit further than the machinery aspect. There was a good deal of explanation of the meaning of the figure.
The first thing I ought to say about the conduct of the price review is that it is absolute nonsense to talk about the N.F.U. being the arbiters and fixing the price. They do nothing of the sort. The responsibility for fixing the level of farm prices is laid by the Agriculture Act on the Government, and the Government exercise that responsibility. The discussions between the interested parties proceed on a basis which I shall try to set cut in a moment, so that they are clearly available and on record for hon. Members who may wish to make speeches on this subject in the future. In the light of the discussions which take place and the figures which are available, recommendations are made to Ministers. The Ministers, exercising their own free and unfettered responsibility, as the custodians of the citizens' interests and not of any particular interest, decide how to deal with those responsibilities, whether 2453 to accept those recommendations, whether to modify them in the light of special national considerations, and so on.
As a rule, and certainly in practice up to now, when the Government announce their decisions, they set out the chief considerations that have been present in their minds and which have led them to make their decisions. For example, in the announcement of 23rd March, which dealt with the last price review, they indicated that the chief considerations were the impact of cost changes, the aggregate level of farm incomes, the agricultural production targets, the policy of restraint applied to personal incomes and the national economic position.
I list those considerations to show that the reasons for the prices being what they are were given quite clearly to the people. The argument is that the Government ought to report to the people what they are doing, and, in fact, they did so. My other reason for giving those considerations is to show that more than one thing is taken into account. It is not merely a question of drawing up a list of figures showing costs of production of this, that or the other crop, even if that could adequately be done in a country whose farming varies so enormously as ours does, as regards the holding situation, the quality of the land, and so on. It is not just that which determines the level of prices. There are other considerations, such as the production target and the level of income which is necessary to finance the expansion.
If we published a list of figures by themselves we might obscure these other more important factors which lead to a particular price level being fixed. Therefore, it seems to me to be right—although it need not always be so—that, at the moment, as a matter of practice, when the Government announce a price they do so on their own responsibility and give a general idea of the considerations which led them to their decision. Of course, those considerations will vary from price review to price review. That is another problem. The August, 1947, price review took into account a different set of circumstances. Prices were fixed with a whole lot of different considerations in mind. Although that is probably the great virtue of the system, I did not like the description of the system as something which, like Topsy, "just grew." After all, 2454 for five years we have had a Government which believes in planning, and things do not "just grow" in those circumstances.
However, it is a great virtue of the system that it is flexible enough to deal with a wide area of varying circumstances and conditions and that, over the last five years, when the industry has had to accommodate itself to very considerable varying circumstances in the national economic conditions, we have had the great chance to test this flexibility to the full. We have had to accommodate ourselves to our own internal changes in the industry, which perhaps have been greater in the past five years than in any other five year period. Certainly, the changes have been greater in the last ten years than in any other period of ten years. We have also had to accommodate ourselves to changes in the food and agricultural situation abroad, and they have been very considerable and violent.
It is almost impossible to give a standard description of a price review either in general terms or by reference to its statistical basis. The statistical basis, as well as the general considerations, may vary considerably from one review to another, according to the changes with which we are attempting to deal. The common feature of the price reviews is that there is a mixture of statistical study—drawing together as much data as we can—and negotiation between the interested parties. The function of the statistics is to ascertain the upper and lower limits within which negotiation should take place.
As I think has now been made quite clear—and I hope that it will be clear even to distinguished journals like the "Economist" and others, as well as to hon. Gentlemen in this House who occasionally favour us with speeches on this subject—the data is not prepared by one or other of the interested parties and used as a blanket to drop over the head of the other one, but is data furnished by independent and impartial agricultural economists employed by the universities. Figures are then studied and digested by the statisticians of the Agricultural Department and of the Farmers' Union, before the review begins.
We usually manage to begin the reviews in the situation in which the statisticians have agreed on their analysis and 2455 presentation. It is not ever thus. There have been occasions when the issue has had to be fought out on the Floor of the House, before we had the sort of Government which we have had for the last five years. Now, a rather better supply of material is available. We now manage to get this independently furnished and subsequently agreed statistical basis, and it is on that basis that the work is done.
I should like to mention the seven stages. We cannot pretend that this is not a somewhat complex and complicated arrangement, although there is nothing more complex, complicated or confidential about this arrangement than there is about almost any wage negotiation in which I have ever taken part. For ten years before I came to this House I used to negotiate wages. Those negotiations were complex and complicated, and nothing would have confused or frustrated me or my battalions more than to have had some widespread and un-selective publication of matters discussed in the negotiation. The same considerations apply here.
The review begins by the Government communicating to the representatives of the farmers the production targets which we hope to reach. That gives us the chance to discuss the prices to be fixed against the background and in relation to the output we hope to achieve. Thus, we can measure the degree of attraction which the prices will offer.
Secondly, consideration is given to the statistics to which I have referred—the statistics of aggregate farm incomes—and to the distribution of those incomes among sizes and types of farms. That is most important. I think that probably it is the one great point which the hon. Member for Wednesbury completely missed, and which he probably did not realise existed—the difference in the distribution of incomes between sizes and types of farms. Consideration is also given to a comparison of the income of farmers with those of others in the rural communities—sand and ballast merchants, for example—and to a comparison of the prices of like domestic and imported produce. Perhaps I ought to mention especially the examination of the figures and of the aggregate net incomes, because they give the sort of evidence which shows whether a general level of farm prices is too high or too low.
2456 The third stage is to study all the changes, if there have been any, in regard to farm costs since the last review. When we have got this stage over, we are able to proceed to a general conclusion about the general level of farm prices, whether they need to go up or down and, roughly, by what amount they need to move either way.
The fifth stage is to take the global total which is arrived at, and to subdivide it among the various commodities by reference, first, to the individual commodity production target; second, the cost change for that commodty; and, third, profitability data for farming types in this connection. During this sub-division, the actual global total becomes more precise and definite.
The sixth stage is that, at that point, the results of the review so far are reported to the Government. The Government are then able to take, as I emphasise that they do take—and they alone do it—the final decisions in the form in which they are then published in the Press announcements. That having been done, the seventh and final stage is the preparation by the commodity interests of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Food and other parties concerned, of the detailed price schedules incorporating the grades and the seasonal differences.
If one sees it done in that way, one gets a better picture of how much has to come into review; how little the actual statistics, important as they are, finally determine the ultimate picture; how easy it would be to give a completely incorrect and misleading picture merely by publishing one set of the data that is relevant without being able to publish the other; how hopelessly inaccurate it is to suggest that the negotiators, much less one side of the negotiators, fix the ultimate price; and how right it is to emphasise as much as we can that the Government do this. The Government accept their responsibility, and justify themselves to the people by their policy on agriculture which is announced and defended at intervals in this House.
I now turn to the question, which very properly has been raised, of why we cannot bring together in one convenient form or in some convenient place, as much of this picture as we can, so that it is easier for hon. Members and others to con- 2457 sider the position without having to dive into one volume for certain information and into another for other information. I have the greatest sympathy with the aim of that exercise: there is a good deal to be said for it.
First, I would draw attention to the amount of information which is, in fact, already published. The Government's production targets, which are our first stage, are published, as we all know, at various times in various ways, in particular in the agriculture section of the Economic Survey which appears almost concurrently with the price review. Second, there are the figures for the aggregate net incomes and the total wage bill, which is another part of the figures taken into account. They are published in the Budget White Paper which, again, is published at about the same time. The comparison of the prices of home-produced food and imported food have been given on several occasions by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food, and they are on record in recent issues of HANSARD.
Fourthly, the distribution of farm incomes by sizes and types, and this other and statistical evidence which is considered, is published by the universities which collect the data. We have in preparation at the Department a collected version which is used for a slightly different purpose in connection with the farm management analysis. So most of these figures are published and available. There are also the agricultural statistics booklets, particularly the output section, which are rather in arrear at the moment but which are being published, and which it is our hope to bring up to date and thereafter keep on an annual basis.
Therefore, very nearly all the information that can be made available is, in fact, available. The great danger of issuing a special price review White Paper is that of presenting in a misleading context what is often already available, since that would take on the appearance of being the whole of the reasons for the price review and would complicate and probably completely hide those other perhaps more important considerations that have to be taken into account.
In that connection the Scottish report would not do what has been claimed by my hon. Friend. It is a general report which may have a lot to be said for it, and we will consider it. My right hon. 2458 Friend hopes to consider doing something of the same sort, although that is not quite what my hon. Friend was asking for. I hope that in the light of what we now know about how this is done, and about the amount of evidence that is published, my hon. Friend may feel that his point has been met. The Minister will, however, consider, in the light of the expression of views, how much more we can properly do in this field without getting into those difficulties; whether we cannot, by an annual report or in some other form, bring out all these matters together in some convenient form. I will get into touch with hon. Gentlemen and let them know what we are able to do in that respect.