HC Deb 03 December 1951 vol 494 cc2186-96

Motion made, and question proposed,

"That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Butcher.]

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

As we have now disposed of the problem whether a box of matches should contain 47 or 50, I want to detain the House for a while to deal with a matter of, perhaps, equal importance, and that is the fact that this country is to a very large extent not paying its way.

Of all the problems that face Great Britain at present, the trade gap is the most important. It must be realised that the Government consider that it is tremendously important, because they have decided to cut the importation of food to the extent of £160 million. I do not think that any Government would have taken that step just before a Recess of two months and handed out a lot of ammunition to the Socialist Party to use in the two months unless it was a very grave problem.

I am not going to suggest that this is a matter which has happened during the lifetime of the late Government. It is something which has been going on for 30 or 40 years, but in the past the gap has been closed by our investments abroad and by invisible exports. The two world wars have very largely dissipated our investments abroad and we are faced with this problem of having to pay our way in future.

I would suggest that one of the best ways to reduce the trade gap is to produce more food from the land of Great Britain. I think that we in this country are still keeping in our minds the idea of cheap food that obtained in the 19th century will return again. The cheap food of the 19th century will never return and it is about time that this country made up its mind to forget that time. Even as late as the debate on the Gracious Speech the ex-Minister of Food held out hopes of the amount of food that could be brought to this country if the development of our Colonies and Dominions were extended.

I think that sort of thing is doing a great deal of harm. It is comparable to the statement made by the Socialist Party about two or three years ago about the tremendous output of food coming from Africa. But there are many millions of underfed Africans and if they have to do the work necessary to produce that food they will desire better feeding themselves. It is time that we realised that surplus food from Africa does not exist. We have had debates on the development of these Colonies over the past two years and we have squandered money on various schemes—such as groundnuts in Gambia—and I hope that we will not try any more of them.

If we do not face this problem, this country will face starvation or migration on a very vast scale. There are two ways of closing the trade gap—one is by an increase in the export trade and another is by more production from our agricultural land. We say that an increase in our export trade is a complete gamble. To-day, we are facing increasing production in many countries. We hear com- plaints from industrial representatives of competition from Japan, Germany and other countries and that competition will increase. What this country is faced with is not an increase in export trade but the possibility of a decrease. It is, therefore, about time that we made up our minds to alter the present economic set-up of this country and paid more attention to agricultural policy and less to industrial policy.

Little mention of agriculture was made during the debate on the Gracious Speech, although in that Speech a vigorous policy was promised. I hoped the Minister of Agriculture would have made a vigorous speech then, pointing out what he proposed to do to carry out the proposals in the speech. Possibly my hon. Friend will give us some idea when he replies as to what he proposes to do. We must face the fact that there has been a decline in agricultural production in the last 12 months. There has been a decline in arable land and in horticulture with a drop in egg and milk production. Primarily the reason is that the late Government did not face up to the rising costs of production.

The November Price Review was held after the increased cost of production had risen to £75,000,000, but only £44,000,000 of the increased cost was recognised in the Review. In fact, I understand that when the negotiating committee started they were only prepared to admit 7 per cent. of the increase, but in the end they did get 16 per cent. The impression has been that it was a Review based on a great deal of guesswork, with the help of so-called experts. In the February Price Review I hope that we shall have more practical men, knowing agriculture, dealing with it.

In the last agricultural debate I was accused of having attacked the guaranteed price system. I did nothing of the sort. I said that I had no confidence in the guaranteed price system attempted by a Socialist Government. This is the reason. In the 1947–48 Act it is stated that guaranteed prices will be given for those things that in the national interest should be produced, and we never knew from the ex-Minister what they really meant. It is only lately that the last Government's intention has come to my mind.

The machinery of the Price Review starts in this way: before the N.F.U. and the Ministry of Agriculture start negotia- tions a committee is set up, comprising officials from the agricultural department of the Ministry of Food, the Treasury, the central economic planning staff, and the economic section of the Cabinet Office. That committee decides the production target. How? What is it that, in the national interest, agriculture should produce? Because that target is set up by people who have no interest in agriculture I have no confidence in the body, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will make no use of it in the next February Price Review. I hope he will decide to carry out the Conservative pledge that first place shall be given to the efficient English farmer.

The cause of decreased production was the refusal of the Government to face the increased cost of production, and the increased prices announced last Thursday will not stop the decrease for very long. That is only playing with the problem. Costs have risen by £40 million, and the prices suggested will in no way cover that. When the Price Review committee starts to work they should recognise the increased costs and make adjustments accordingly. It is difficult, because the prices that enable the big mechanised farmer to make a profit are insufficient for marginal land.

Great play is made sometimes about wealthy farmers going about in Rolls-Royce cars. The farmer in a big way, carrying on a great industry, has as much right to a Rolls-Royce as the chairman of one of the nationalised industries; but I was sorry to see, last Thursday, the great difference of opinion that divides the industrial and agricultural sections of the House. It is sad to see that split, and I hope that when Parliament sits again we shall have a day given up to a full-scale debate on farm prices to see if we cannot break down the idea that farmers are "feather-bedded." That idea does a great deal of harm. The industry is losing confidence, and without confidence we cannot get the increased agricultural production we want.

We have to remember that the increased production must come from the marginal land, and if a right price is given the production will come. And if some of the big farmers do make money, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will take care of it. Increased production can come from three sources. One is the 16 million acres of land still scheduled as rough grazing; another is common land; the third is land not being farmed efficiently at the moment. I do not know how many people realise that a third of our land is still scheduled as rough grazing, and it is about time we tackled the problem.

I think that we ought to make this a battle operation and start with at least 5,000,000 acres to see what can be done. I have seen many instances in England, Wales, and Scotland of what can be done by individuals. I could give the House details, but that is not necessary because I am sure that my hon. Friend knows as much about these particular cases as I do. I went round Scotland two years ago to see these marginal lands, and I was horrified to see the thousands of potential crop-producing acres. That land was doing nothing.

The next source is common land. My hon. Friends tell me that I am touching dynamite in suggesting that anything should be done with this. I do not think I am, and I have no hesitation in saying that the time has come when our common land ought not to be wasted as it is at present. I do not want to do any harm to the common holder, or to anyone else. What I am suggesting will do the common holder good. I know that it will be necessary to pass an Act of Parliament. We have had many Acts of Parliament in the last six years.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not, in an Adjournment debate, introduce subjects requiring legislation.

Mr. Baldwin

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker.

I shall content myself by suggesting that the commoners, the agricultural executive committee for the county, and the rural district council ought to be called together so that they could deal with any common land under their jurisdiction. No action could be taken which would suit every common. Every one must be treated on its merits. But there is common land today which is not worth a shilling an acre, while over the fence there is land which is producing £20 to £25 worth of food an acre. It is criminal to allow that land to lie idle.

I am not suggesting that all commons ought to be done away with. We must leave the holiday-maker sufficient verge at the side of the road upon which he can throw his bottles, cigarette packets, and his paper bags. The rest of the land ought to be brought into production. Why should we be under-fed while such land is producing nothing? I could give many instances of what was achieved in production from common land during the war.

This is the third time that I have raised this matter on the Motion for the Adjournment. I hope that this being the third time, and, with the help of a Conservative Government, something will be done. I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend will not tell me that I am asking for the impossible, for these are times when the impossible has to be tackled. We have to do things, not to say that they cannot be done. Two or three years ago I broadcast on this matter. This was followed by a fan-mail from all over England saying how right I was, and giving examples of what had been done on common land.

Under-farmed land is another touchy matter. The 1947–48 Act was passed to give security to the good farmer. It has given security to the good and the bad farmer. It is time that the agricultural executive committees were instructed that they must watch the farming and see that they do not uphold bad farming. The fact that this security is extended to the under-average farmer will be that in the course of time the tenant farming system will be done away with, and thus the possibility will be removed of young farmers being able to start farming. Nowadays, because of the rigidity with which this Act is interpreted, few farms become vacant. The result is that every time a farm becomes vacant the owner sells it with vacant possession, and gets a fantastic price. The Parliamentary Secretary ought to tackle this position.

In reply to a Question a few days ago the Minister of Agriculture said there were over 1,500 farmers today still under supervision. I suggest that the taxpayer of this country cannot afford to provide nursemaids for those farmers under supervision. They should be told that they will have a period, one or two years, in which to bring their farms back into production, and if they are not able to do it without having someone there telling them how to, it is time they made way for someone else.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will not take the same line as the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) took on the occasions when I raised this matter with him, by reminding me of the marginal land scheme and the Livestock Rearing Act. I know about this legislation, but what we want behind these Acts is a little more jet propulsion. If we tackle our land like a battle operation, we could feed 40,000,000 people now. I think we can increase production by 200,000,000 tons a year. That would make a tremendous contribution towards closing the trade gap. Some time ago I had the pleasure of showing some farmers from overseas around the House, and they told me they were astounded to see the waste land in this country. They thought we must be mental—and I did not argue with them.

Not only is it important from the point of view of closing the trade gap, but it is tremendously important from the defence point of view. It is no good spending £4,700,000,000 on armaments and training men unless we have the reserves of food in this country with which to feed them. Twice in our lifetime we have nearly faced defeat by starvation and we are heading for another defeat if war comes again. It comes like a bolt from the blue, and our shipping could be put off the seas. If we have not a reserve of food, the war will be over so far as we are concerned.

11.42 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) for taking the interest he has in this matter of feeding the nation. We all know how deeply he feels about the problem of food production and farmers' problems generally. Although I cannot agree with everything he has said, at least I sympathise with his general interest and endeavour to get the greatest possible production of food.

The first point he made was with regard to the machinery of the Annual Price Review. He called attention to what he regarded as a serious decline in the volume of food production. I think my hon. Friend, in his anxiety, has perhaps a little overstated the position. It is true that the September returns have shown some sign, in one or two aspects, of a slowing up of the expansion programme. But it would not be true to say that they threw up a situation where there was a serious decline. The system of guaranteed prices and guaranteed markets for the main agricultural products is, I think, generally agreed by everybody to be the basis of our farming economy today, and to be the best basis.

It is not perfect, of course. But no system devised by human beings would be perfect. It has been running now for some years and was given statutory effect in 1947. I would say, by and large, that during these years there has been a general development of our farms and the volume of food produced on them has increased.

I agree that the system has been under strain for the past two or three years while prices have been rising continuously and so steeply. Nevertheless, with all the defects we may attribute to it, it is a system which is serving us well. I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend that it is to the advantage of the farming community to keep it in action. In the settlement of the Special Price Review which my right hon. Friend made last week, surely he showed that he understood the need for farmers to recoup, where a sudden substantial rise in costs has occurred, in order to maintain the status quo.

In the short time available I cannot go as deeply as I should like into the philosophy underlying the system of guaranteed prices and markets. I must pass on to the next important point which my hon. Friend raised—that about the use of commons. A number of these commons have been brought into production and have yielded useful crops during the past 10 or 11 years. In the past few years the less productive of them have been allowed to go out of production and the requisition has been removed, but there are still some 13,000 acres of common land under requisition and in useful production.

I can relieve my hon. Friend of his anxiety about the immediate danger of their going out of cultivation. The power to keep them under requisition flows from the Defence Regulations and lasts until 1954. My right hon. and gallant Friend is now considering the desirability of extending the requisition beyond the end of next year, and in the meantime I can assure my hon. Friend that his point about the potential food production of the commons is very much in the mind of my right hon. and gallant Friend.

Turning to the question of marginal land, I bear in mind my hon. Friend's caution that I should not remind him about the Hill Farming Act or the Livestock Rearing Act. Surely that caution is a little unfair, however, because a lot of useful work has been done under those two Acts to bring into production a good deal of marginal land. There have been no fewer than 5,373 schemes that have either started or are now being considered for a start, and these cover no less than 41 million acres. That is quite a substantial start.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

Under a Labour Government.

Mr. Nugent

Let credit be given where credit is deserved. This is bringing land into production for the good of us all, and surely there is everything right in acknowledging it.

The point I want to make to my hon. Friend is that, to my mind that is a very substantial start. What we have to bear in mind in any of these schemes for bringing marginal land into production is that for their development a great deal of labour, of machinery, of seeds, of fertiliser, as well as the building of dwelling houses and roads, is necessary.

Mr. Baldwin

I do not doubt that figure of 4½million acres, but could my hon. Friend explain why we still have 16 million acres scheduled as rough grazing? That figure has stood for many years; it does not seem to reduce. Are we getting a little more land reclaimed somewhere?

Mr. Nugent

The whole of the 4½million acres is not rough grazing. Some is marginal land which was not classified as rough grazing. The figure for rough grazing used to be 17 million acres. It may be that there has been some reduction in that direction. My hon. Friend knows that a very large part of the 17 million acres of rough grazing consists of the hills and mountains of Scotland, where we could not possibly grow any- thing by any amount of cultivation. It throws the picture completely out of perspective to suggest that the greater part of that could be brought into cultivation.

Before my hon. Friend interrupted I was making this point: by all means let us recognise that there is still more scope for bringing more marginal land into production, but in saying that let us recognise that we must have a reasonable assurance that we shall get a fair return in food production for the scarce resources we must engage in order to do the work.

Perhaps I may conclude briefly with a few remarks on the problem of under-farmed land. Here again, we have a difficult problem. We all recognise that a certain number of farms are under-farmed, could be farmed better and could produce more, and all responsible members of the farming community, I am sure, would be with us in wishing to see those farms produce to their maximum. The system which we have, which is well and fairly operated by the county committees, of trying to bring up those B and C farms is the best that can be devised at present.

In operating it they must give the tenant or the owner-occupier a fair chance. I am sure that public opinion in the country, and hon. Members in the House, would demand that. It means that in practice the committee must first have a period of supervision. They must then give the farmer every chance to show whether he can improve, and they must always bear in mind that eventually they must go before the independent Agricultural Land Tribunal if the tenant appeals against an order for dispossession. With this kind of safeguard it is not possible to proceed very much faster than we are now proceeding, but if we can find a way of doing so I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall adopt it.

In conclusion, may I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestions for getting greater production and assure him that my right hon. and gallant Friend is actively considering the whole problem—and, indeed, will be fortified by the suggestions which my hon. Friend has made.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.