§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Williams (Don Valley)
I am not sure that I ought not to commence by pleading for the indulgence of the Committee, because it seems so long since I harangued the Committee that I feel nervous, despite my lengthy service to the House. This is the second opportunity which hon. Members have had of discussing agriculture and food production generally during this year. The first was on 2nd February, when there was a comprehensive debate, but I cannot say that either hon. Members or the farming community learned very much of the Government's long-term intentions. On the other hand, if I read the debate aright, the speeches of the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture created much more confusion and less confidence in the minds of the farming community.
In what I should call a very contradictory speech on the part of the Joint Under-Secretary of State, he said that there was no intention of interfering with 607 the main features of the 1947 Act. He proceeded to extol the virtues of free competition, and literally attacked fixed prices and the present forms of stability. He said:The efficient farmer should be glad no longer to be insulated against the free air of free competition.He did not say what form of competition, or whether it was the competition of home producers or competition from abroad. He continued:Fixed prices have hampering effects upon enterprise. The stability experienced over the past seven to 12 years arose as a result of the war…. But it is not the kind of stability by which men seek opportunities of developing skill and enterprise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1521.]I could understand those sentiments coming from the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers), but, coming from a responsible Minister, they seemed to me to be not only contradictory but highly inflammatory, for, in my village innocence, I thought that fixed prices from 12 months to four years ahead were the very basis on which confidence was given to the farming community, so that they could plan ahead and aim at increased production. We did what we did so that they could plan ahead with confidence both in regard to breeding and cultivation, devoting their time to actual farming instead of wasting their time watching market fluctuations. But the Joint Under-Secretary of State told us on 2nd February that fixed prices were having a hampering effect on enterprise, and that, in fact, the kind of stability they had during the previous several years was not the kind of stability that enterprising farmers wanted.
I should like to ask the Minister of Agriculture, or the Joint Under-Secretary if he is to speak, whether the National Farmers' Union subscribe to that point of view. Certainly the county delegate of the National Farmers' Union branch in West Sussex does not, for he was reported in the June issue of the "Southern Farmer" as saying:The Government are sliding out of their responsibilities to the farmers. They have no intention of keeping their promises to the industry.That is a very serious statement coming from a county delegate, but can anyone blame him, after the statement of the 608 Joint Under-Secretary on 2nd February? After all, the county delegate returns to the county branch, and the county branch reports to the individual farmer, and therefore they have taken the hon. Gentleman at his face value in his peroration, disregarding his assurance that there should be no going back on the main features of the 1947 Act. It could have a very disastrous effect upon food production in this country.
I sympathise with the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough), who had to face such criticism when he attended a National Farmers' Union county meeting. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Horsham, having paid me a very well-deserved compliment, referred to the 1947 expansion programme, and said:The expansion programme was based exactly on the principles that we—the Conservative Party—wanted to introduce and promised to the industry since 1917.That is a very tall statement indeed, but in any case Conservative Governments were in office between the wars for 17 years five months and four days, and they did nothing about it. They left it for a Labour Government, which believed in this kind of policy, to apply that policy when they got the power.
§ Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)
Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene, as he has mentioned my name? Perhaps, if he goes a little further in his reading, he will see that I also drew attention at a meeting of farmers to the gross mishandling of agriculture by the Labour Government between 1929 and 1931, and at the end, secured a complete vote of confidence in the Conservative Government.
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Gentleman is not reported as having made that statement in this journal to which I have referred, so that I cannot quote him extensively. What I remember he did say was that the very root and branch of the Conservative Party depended upon agriculturists and horticulturists, and that it would be heaven help the Conservative Party if they lost the rural vote.
§ Mr. Williams
I should think that the "Southern Farmer" is a responsible and respectable paper, but I have no authority to speak either for or against that organ of opinion. It is clear, however, that the hon. Member was not very happy when he attended that N.F.U. meeting, and the cause of his unhappiness clearly was the fear expressed by the county delegate that the Government were going to let them down. I concede that the Joint Under-Secretary had declared that there was no intention of departing from the main features of the 1947 Act, but he also made the statements to which I have referred, and he went on:We believe that the policy on which we are embarking will lead to increased efficiency and to the benefit of agriculture."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1521–22.]That is a very interesting statement, and I hope we are going to hear much more about the new policy this afternoon. We want to know, for instance, whether, if fixed prices are hampering, they are to be abolished, and, if the present forms of stability are stifling enterprise, they are to be done away with. We are entitled to have a categorical statement from the Minister. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman or the Joint Under-Secretary going out into the counties and telling the farmers that there is no intention of interfering with the basis of the 1947 Act with its controls and guarantees, and then coming here and denouncing the present forms of stability. Hon. Members and the farming community generally are entitled to know whether the Joint Under-Secretary was really speaking for the Government.
Then, we are also entitled to know what is meant by—the policy on which we are embarking.So far, all we know about that policy is the suggestion of more de-control and the fresh air of competition, as the Joint Under-Secretary put it. It is all very reminiscent of many speeches to which I used to listen in the '20s and '30s from Conservative back benchers, when agriculture was very seriously depressed and production was at its lowest level. It is because I fear the words contained in the peroration to that 2nd February speech that I think the statement of the hon. Gentleman was positively dangerous, and I hope the Minister will clarify the position today.
610 We are all anxious to see farmers aiming at maximum production, but I have been in the House long enough to know that it is a remote possibility unless there is a fairly large measure of confidence that enterprise, investment and long-term planning are not to be frustrated by uncertain markets and prices. The Minister did not help matters by some of his statements on 2nd February. Perhaps on that occasion he had too much to say and too little time in which to say it. I hope he has all the time he wants this afternoon and that he will use that time to clear the air. On that occasion he said:I now come to what, I think, is in all our minds at this time, more perhaps than any other particular question, and that is the step that the Government are taking to try to introduce greater freedom into agricultural economy. I say at once that I make no apology for this move towards greater freedom. We believe fundamentally that by getting rid of some of the present rigidities we shall enable the healthy wind of enterprise, initiative and freedom to sweep away the cobwebs of 12 years of control. Far from being anxious about this, we believe that in this way we can hope for greater agricultural production, which is as important today as it has ever been in our history."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1597.]That statement is clear enough on general principles, and I hope the Minister will be as clear today in telling us exactly what he meant by it.
In a subsequent statement the right hon. Gentleman repeated that there was no intention of interfering with the main lines of the 1947 Act. Will the Minister, therefore, be good enough to tell us exactly what he meant by the statement I have quoted? Phrases like "sweeping away the cobwebs," "getting rid of rigidities," "the healthy wind of enterprise" are all very nice and they are all good old Tory sentiments, but we want to know exactly what the Minister means. We must know because he says that "it," whatever it is, will lead to greater agricultural production which, of course, we all want to see, but to think in terms of one cobweb removed meaning more grain or one rigidity dispensed with meaning more meat, all sounds too simple for me.
The right hon. Gentleman quoted my speech in the House in January, 1947. I stand by every word I uttered on that occasion. We all knew that circumstances would be bound to change at some time. Therefore, Sections 3 and 4 of the 1947 Act prepared the way for any necessary 611 variations in fulfilling Part I of the 1947 Act; whether a deficiency payment, or an agricultural commission, or a marketing scheme is no matter. We expect from time to time that changes will take place, and we shall not quibble about them so long as they come after proper consultation with, the producers' organisations. What we are concerned with is this either synthetic or real enthusiasm for free enterprise and the hostility against fixed prices or present forms of stability.
Therefore, this debate is timely if for no other purpose than to allow the right hon. Gentleman to make it transparently clear whether or not the statements made by the Joint Under-Secretary about not interfering with the 1947 Act, or the attack on fixed prices and so forth, really represent the point of view of the Government. In the absence of such clarification, both we on these benches and producers will be justified in suspecting the motives of the Government, which would be tragic from the point of view of food production.
In winding up his speech on 2nd February, the Minister deprecated a Division. He said that for 12 years we had controlled the industry as a combined operation. At least I think I can claim that I steered clear of politics during my responsible years far more than some hon. Members sitting opposite. They never lost an opportunity of condemning the then Labour Government for not buying cereals that did not exist or for not spending dollars we did not possess. They helped materially to reduce the tillage acreage in this country which we are now struggling to restore. In their publication "The Right Road for Britain" they were not entirely non-politcial when they said:The Socialists have left vague the guarantees they are prepared to give the British farmer. Their promises may in time prove worthless.I warn the right hon. Gentleman, who unfortunately is not a member of the Cabinet, that unless he keeps a sharp eye on this new-found enthusiasm for free enterprise, free competition and the so-called wind of competition, he may find himself forced into a new Corn Production Repeal Act before he realises what is happening. In any such case the damage to our economy could be disastrous.
On the general question of food production, I want to ask one or two ques- 612 tions. There is provided annually by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland a report on the major features of agriculture. I want to know whether the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for England and Wales, may not feel disposed to produce a similar annual document for the benefit of hon. and right hon. Members. I have seen the Scottish production and it is a useful document which might well be copied by the Ministry of Agriculture.
We know that the Government have restored the fertiliser, calf-rearing and ploughing payments and we are anxious to see all these three succeed. They were expedients that we ourselves tried, not altogether unsuccessfully, but we shall be entitled, when the ploughing grants come up for ratification, critically to examine the actual results. We want to know not only how many acres of grass beyond a certain area have been ploughed but the net improvement in the total tillage acreage.
Those three actions seem to be both the beginning and the end of the constructive efforts of the Government. It is true that last year they produced a White Paper, Cd. 8556, in which they outlined a programme by which they hoped to increase production by 60 per cent. over pre-war by 1956. I am not satisfied that we could not do much more than that if we were to use all the legislative power now in our hands.
That White Paper was published 12 months ago and it would be interesting to learn what has happened during the past 12 months. When we were discussing it, I said that almost everything depended upon sub-paragraphs (a) and (c) of paragraph 12, namely, grass improvement and utilisation and, of course, an increase in tillage acreage. The right hon. Gentleman said last June that it would be far easier from then on to increase tillage than it was, say, back in 1944. Can he tell us what the increase is over last year, not just the area ploughed but the total net increase in tillage acreage?
I remember that paragraph 9 of the White Paper said:The Government will not only encourage but, where necessary, will require that full productive use is made of the land.Have any steps been taken to fulfil that promise? Apart from encouragement by members of the Agricultural Advisory 613 Service and county executive committees, have any specific steps been taken to fulfil the promise made by the Minister that he would require all land to be fully used? The right hon. Gentleman has ample powers if he cares to use them. We were very generous in providing powers for him when he came into office. He can use Section 98 of the 1947 Act against the farmer who fails with his tillage area. He can use Section 84 to ensure that full productive use is made of land. I should like to ask him whether either of those powers has been used, and if not, why not?
Then I should like to ask how many areas or cases, if any, have been referred to the Land Commission and with what result. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, he has power to invite the Land Commission to examine any area which it is thought is not rendering its contribution. If their report recommends compulsory purchase, the right hon. Gentleman has the power to proceed. There used to be statement after statement from the Conservative benches when we were in office that there appeared to be no sense of urgency in the Government nor was there any sense of urgency in the counties. I am certain that that extra one million acres of tillage for coarse grains will not be available unless there is a greater sense of urgency than appears to be the case now and, of course, unless and until the right hon. Gentleman uses all the powers at his disposal.
The 1947 Act laid the foundations for both stability and confidence. The Hill Farming Act and the Livestock Rearing Act are two very useful supplementary Measures. I know from figures given by the right hon. Gentleman a week ago that there are about 6,000 schemes either in operation or contemplated which have been or might be approved, in all touching some five million acres. That should be a very great help, once the schemes are completed, in providing the meat we want. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what has happened to the schemes during the past 12 months. Has the Government's dear money policy had any effect on the promotion of new schemes?
Although the number of improvement schemes is encouraging, there must still be large areas where nothing is being done. Those areas were mentioned 614 during a debate in another place yesterday. There was another statement made by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in another place that we must contemplate over the next 60 years the loss of about two million acres of good agricultural land. If that is true, and I fear that it may be, it is clearly our bounden duty to make use of any other acres that may be available at least to tone down the loss of this good agricultural land.
Here is an opportunity to demonstrate what useful improvements can be made. The Land Commission could be invited to inspect large areas not yet covered by voluntary schemes covering 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 or even 5,000 acres which could be compulsorily acquired and radically improved under State direction. After all, Parliament was not ungenerous when it offered to hill farmers 50 per cent. grants for all the improvements they made. If large areas of hill land are still not being fully used, I submit that it is now time that Section 84 of the 1947 Act should be used to acquire some areas of land.
The Minister has the power and the country needs the food. We in this Committee are entitled to expect some action. I should like to ask the Minister whether ways and means have been found of speeding up procedure for placing dilatory farmers under supervision. We know how difficult it is has been for county agricultural executive committees where they have had a person under supervision who has made some slight improvement but who, the moment they turn their back, has quickly slipped back to where he was before. I know that it is not easy to find ways and means of improving this procedure but it ought to be done if possible. Again, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether means have been found to prevent a landlord from giving notice to a good tenant farmer year after year, forcing him to face the agricultural tribunal at no small expense to himself and no little worry.
These weak spots in the Act of 1947 could emerge only after experience. This is no criticism either of the Minister, the Government or of anybody else, but if as a result of this experience we find that there are weak links we ought to try to repair them as soon as possible.
This may be the last opportunity for a discussion on food production during 615 this Session. I should like to emphasise that despite the Chancellor's apparent complacency and the heavy stocks of wheat that are building up in America, we still need the maximum amount of food from our own soil if our economy is not to remain in danger. This can be expected only if there is a large measure of confidence in the countryside. We ask the Minister to make it transparently clear that there will be no slipping away from the main features of the 1947 Act. They can talk about anti-fixed prices, cobwebs or rigidities in the good old Tory style for as long as they like so long as they will assure the Committee and the country that the guarantees and controls that matter so much are to remain to encourage farmers to carry on with the job.
That variations to carry out guarantees will have to be made we already understand, and we do not complain so long as they are put into effect after consultation and the farmers are not merely told, as was the case with eggs. We shall be content and ready to examine them all as and when they come before us. We ask the right hon. Gentleman to use with proper discretion the powers we provided for him. A fair deal for farmers and consumers should be his watchword. Even so the right hon. Gentleman must never lose sight of the fact that the old world has literally slipped away. Cheap food imports have gone for all time. The world population continues to increase and this nation is the most vulnerable on earth from that point of view.
The Conservative Party boasted when they were out of office about what they would do when they got into office. I am asking for something new from the Conservative Party. At least we are entitled to expect that they will fulfil one of their promises, or otherwise be prepared to face the music when the day arrives.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Sir Thomas Dugdale)
I think that first the Committee would like me to express our pleasure at seeing the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) in his place on the Opposition Front Bench. As we expected, we have listened to a most instructive speech on 616 the subject—with Which the right hon. Gentleman is well acquainted—of agriculture which he controlled in the interest of the nation for many years until the present Government came into office. This is a most opportune moment for us to have a debate on agriculture. It not only gives the right hon. Gentleman opposite an opportunity to make his comments to the Committee, but it also gives me an opportunity to make abundantly clear some of those problems referred to by the right hon. Gentleman for the benefit of the farming community as a whole.
I am extremely glad that the right hon. Gentleman saw fit to re-affirm once again the speech he made on 27th January, 1947, because it is very germane to the whole of this problem. I think we want to get it absolutely clear that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee are in agreement concerning the principles underlying the operation of the 1947 Act. Therefore, to put it on record, I referred to it, as the right hon. Gentleman said, in the debate on 2nd February this year, although the right hon. Gentleman was unable to be in his place at that time.
I wish to refer to the passage in the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman on 27th January, 1947, which I think is so important, and in which he said:The actual provision for any commodity may be a guaranteed fixed price, a deficiency payment related to the standard price, such as we had in regard to wheat in pre-war days, an acreage payment, such we have for both wheat and potatoes today, or it may be a subsidy, or a price calculated according to a formula relating prices to feedingstuffs.The right hon. Gentleman went on to say:Whichever method is applied it will be after careful consideration in the light of all the circumstances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 630–1.]I am in entire agreement with the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman at that time, and I hope, in the course of my remarks today, to convince the Committee that we are not at variance with that statement and with the other statement in the February debate to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, when I said that our economy was moving into ways of greater freedom for producers. But before turning to that side of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I will discuss the state in which the industry 617 finds itself at the present moment and the progress we are making in our production drive.
We have not at present the results of the 4th June census. As the Committee know, it takes a certain time before all the results are analysed, but no doubt as soon as we have them we shall all be studying them very closely. It will then be possible to assess some of the factors in the situation more carefully. I have asked for special efforts to be made on this occasion to get out the summary of these results as soon as it is feasible. The right hon. Gentleman will know perfectly well that it is not entirely in the hands of the Department itself. All these returns have to come in from all over the country, and then they have to be collected together and analysed before we can see the significance of them. But we are trying to do it as speedily as possible.
I think we have enough evidence to show what is happening to production, and I will devote the first part of my speech to that. I then propose to say something about the discussions which we are having with the leaders of the farmers on the problems arising out of the removal or the prospect of the removal of war-time controls. That is really what the right hon. Gentleman asked about. I will deal, in passing, with other questions, leaving some of the questions asked by the right hon. Gentleman to be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary when he winds up the debate.
The first and main thing to be said about production is that it has been increasing, is increasing and is likely to continue to increase. That is something which hon. Members on all sides of the Committee can welcome.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
The rate is very good, as I shall show.
The basic conditions which called for programmes for expansion of production at home both under the previous Government and under the present Government are the result of long-term factors in the general economic situation. That does not mean that any and every increase in production, whatever the cost, is either 618 worth while or necessary. I think the Committee should bear that in mind. We all know that in agriculture, as in other industries, increases in productivity and production must go together if our standards of living are to be maintained and, we hope, increased.
In this respect, agriculture continues to serve the country well, and our object—to achieve by 1956 at least a level of output of 60 per cent. above pre-war—remains firm. I underline the words "at least." That is the figure we gave in the White Paper a year ago. The evidence of the course of production, in particular the agricultural returns, enables us to compare the rate of increase in production with what is necessary to achieve at least the desired level by 1956.
The figures for March, 1953—and here I must point out to the Committee that they refer only to England and Wales, because the Scottish figures have not yet been collected together—which are the latest available, were collected this year for the first time from a one-third sample of farms instead of from every farmer. This change was made in agreement with my Statistical Advisory Committee, which includes representatives of farmers, and there is general agreement that the reform will reduce the number of returns that each farmer has to make without substantially affecting the usefulness of the figures collected.
I now come to particular commodities. Let us turn, first of all, to livestock increases and let us take the figures for meat. As compared with a year ago, the number of calves in England and Wales alone in March last was up by 146,000. We can relate this to the 1952 White Paper. This must be compared with the figure given by way of example in the White Paper for the increase in the number of calves being reared.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to paragraph 12 of the White Paper, which gave illustrations of the way in which the 60 per cent. increase in food production might reasonably be achieved with the resources in prospect. There was, first, to be an increase in the production and utilisation of grass by some 15 per cent., and an increase in the numbers of grass-eating animals, including an increase to be obtained over the four years of up to 400,000 per annum in the number of 619 calves being reared in the United Kingdom. I admit we have still a considerable way to go, but the Committee will see from the figures I have given that in the first year we have got about half way. I hope we shall achieve the other half well before the end of the four years because, as the Committee know, it takes a considerable time for a calf to be converted into beef for the dinner table.
I wish now to deal with sheep. The March figures show an increase in England and Wales alone of well over 300,000 ewes, and it seems clear from the figures that the potential breeding flock is continuing its steady increase. I think all who have been in country districts during the spring and early summer gained the impression at lambing time this year that the results of the lambing season were well above normal. Evidence of lamb marketing since then has strengthened that impression. It may be reasonably assumed and expected that the numbers of sheep may be increasing rather more rapidly, and we shall be very pleased if that is so.
I will now deal with pigs. Here again the story is good. The figures also confirm the general impression that there has been a great increase in the number of pigs during the last 12 months. There was in fact an increase of more than 200,000 pigs and of these 54,000 were sows kept for breeding. There was an increase within this number in the number of gilts-in-pig of more than 25 per cent. This shows a very strong position in the pig industry.
The Committee will be glad to have noted the agreement reached with the farmers' leaders following the last Annual Review that the grading standards for pigs should be improved. In the agreement with the farmers' leaders we have given warning to the industry that in a year's time the standards required will be comparable with those before the war. The announcement of this agreement was made on 24th June this year, and is a matter of great importance to all pig producers. I advise them most seriously to study it.
In the White Paper following the 1952 Review—the document which the right hon. Member and I have already referred to—we forecast that a programme of the 620 kind we illustrated might lead to an increase by the fourth year in meat supplies of some 250,000 tons, mainly pig meat, with further increases, mainly beef and mutton, to follow. Already, in the second year of the programme, we have achieved breeding herds of pigs sufficient to carry the production of pigmeat to the level envisaged in the 1952 White Paper.
Before leaving the subject of pigs, which interests the Committee because the increase has been so marked, I must again emphasise how important it is for the pig producer now to do all he can to conform to the higher standards of grading and also to take advantage of the derationing of feedingstuffs and every other opportunity in order to reduce costs of production wherever he can.
I will sum up in respect of total meat supplies. The Minister of Food made a statement the other day about the meat supplies of the country. Supplies this year are expected to reach a total of nearly 1,900,000 tons. The pre-war consumption levels, he said, would indicate the need for 2,300,000 tons in 1954 but, as the Minister also said, this may not be a conclusive guide to what will in fact be demanded by the public in that year. It is not therefore, impossible that the pre-requisites for the end of meat rationing may be satisfied during 1954. But, if they are—I wish to emphasise this—this, in my judgment, will not affect the general shape of the production objectives set before British agriculture. It is important that the Committee should realise that. As we said in 1952, we shall still want a large increase in the production and utilisation of grass and an increase in the number of grass-eating animals of at least the order indicated in the White Paper.
Leaving the main items of meat production, I wish to say a word in regard to poultry. Here again we see a large increase. The number of poultry over six months and under six months old shows a substantial increase in the March returns. I accept at once, and am not making a debating point here, that those figures would not have been influenced one way or the other by the actual course of events following the decontrol of eggs at the end of March. But, naturally, we have been watching events very carefully 621 and I think that as the story unfolds it is becoming more and more clear that the fears which some people—very understandably—felt have not in fact been fulfilled.
The National Egg Marketing Organisation on which farmers and traders with the agricultural Departments and the Ministry of Food are associated, has been doing a very good job with the co-operation of all concerned. These arrangements are, of course, interim arrangements and we are ready to consider any further suggestions of permanent arrangements which producers wish to put forward. Meanwhile, the arrangements we have made have been working extremely satisfactorily on the whole, to the benefit of producers and housewives throughout the land.
I now wish to say a word about the progress we are making in regard to milk. For milk production the guidance which the Government gave in 1952, and have confirmed this year, is that we should maintain the number of dairy cows, with an expectation of a continuing increase in yield per cow. The total production of milk seems still to be increasing and we shall continue to watch the returns very carefully. In connection with milk production, I think the Committee would like to know the latest position in regard to the eradication of tuberculosis from our cattle. I am very glad to report that satisfactory progress is being made. In Great Britain 41 per cent. of the cattle are now in attested herds, as compared with 34 per cent. a year ago. Within that figure, of course, the proportion of dairy cattle in attested herds is very much higher.
Large areas of Wales and Scotland have already been completely freed from bovine tuberculosis, and these areas are being extended, and a new area is being started in the North-West of England. There is no doubt that the progress of the attested herds scheme and the success in controlling certain other animal diseases, notably contagious abortion, have greatly contributed to the increase in milk yields which has taken place in recent years. I think we can say that from the production angle the picture is good in relation to the herds of our country.
622 I now turn from animals to tillage. Of course, the March returns are particularly deficient so far as giving the Committee very accurate figures in regard to tillage is concerned. For real information about the increase in tillage we must, as I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree, await the 4th June returns. I will, however, try to give such information to the Committee as I can. The March figures for England and Wales included farmers' forecasts of cropping, though I think hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree that very often these forecasts are lower than what is actually achieved.
The forecast for England and Wales shown in the returns include an increase of more than 200,000 acres of wheat this year, but it is estimated that the total increase in the tillage area in the U.K. may be appreciably less than this figure, mainly because of a reduction in the barley area, and incidentally, and this must not be forgotten—I am trying to put these figures absolutely fairly—because of the losses due to the East Coast floods.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I have not got it but I will try to get it for the right hon. Gentleman, although it is difficult; it is guesswork at the moment.
There is no doubt that owing to the climatic conditions, which were suitable for wheat, many people went in for wheat at the back end of last year and the spring of this year who before have grown barley. There is this big step up in the wheat acreage of 200,000 acres but I think there will definitely be a reduction in barley. We cannot really ascertain that until we get the 4th June returns.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Has the Minister any idea where the coarse grains will be coming from for the pigs and calves in view of this reduction in barley?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
The coarse grains will be there. If we get a big increase in wheat we shall be able to afford to buy an equivalent increased quantity of coarse grain from overseas. So long as we get the cereals, they are in the national larder, whether they be for human or animal consumption.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I do not think I will go into the argument as to where they might come from, but I think they will be there. The actual achievement may, of course, as in previous years, be considerably better than the forecasts.
At the same time—this is an interesting point for the Committee—evidence is accumulating that increases in yields are being obtained at a greater rate than we thought possible even in 1952. With the new types and strains of cereals there is so quick an increase in yield that there is virtually revolution in that field and it is difficult to assess exactly what the yield will be at the end of this harvest. The whole question of the balance between tillage and grass and the possibilities of increasing yields of grass and crops is of course a matter for further careful study in the light of the June returns when they are available. I am satisfied, however, that there is no reason to vary the broad objective put before the industry in 1952, namely, an increase by way of improvement in grassland and an extension of the tillage area amounting to at least 60 per cent. above pre-war.
Turning from the production side to the means of production, I should like to say a few words about manpower. We cannot get or continue to get increased production without an adequate labour force. In trying to estimate the industry's needs, we must take account both of the increase in mechanisation and in output per man and of improvement in farm management, all of which are methods of economising on manpower. Although the number of regular workers continues to fall, the Committee should recognise that there are still 24,000, or more than 4 per cent., more than there were before 1939. The number of casual workers is rising, and this helps to cope with the problem of seasonal work.
The loss through the call-up is often exaggerated. The Committee should realise that it is now only about 6,000 men per year, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Labour has stated in an announcement today, the period of suspension of call-up during the harvest this year has been extended by 624 three weeks and will now run for 14 weeks, which is from 10th August to 14th November in England and Wales and a week later in Scotland. This is a useful concession, but the decisive long-term factor will be the ability of the industry to attract the regular men and women it needs, and, what is more important, to keep them there.
It is curious but it is a fact that there are more young people coming on to the farms today than perhaps ever before. We hope that the industry's decision to launch an apprenticeship scheme in the autumn will stimulate the flow. I hope that it may do good, it cannot do harm; indeed I am hoping that it will do a great deal of good. If we are to keep these young people in the industry, however, we must continue to raise the standards of housing in rural England. For this reason the Government's recent decision, which I only refer to this afternoon, to allow for a further £1½ million of capital investment for the extension of rural electricity and a further £½ million for rural water supply schemes will, I am certain, be welcomed in all parts of the Committee. I think that as time goes on that will make a big contribution towards dealing with our problem.
Another, shall I say, hindrance to production was referred to at Question time today, namely, pests. Therefore, another way of increasing production is to lessen the waste caused by pests; I refer particularly to rabbits, pigeons and crows—the carrion crow being the worst of all. It is my intention to intensify the campaign against these pests, and I am glad to be able to inform the Committee that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed to two measures, small in themselves but important, which I think will be of considerable help.
Farmers and landowners are responsible by law for getting rid of pests on their own land. That cannot be said too often. Unless we rub it in they are inclined to think that somebody else is responsible for getting rid of their pests. I repeat that farmers and landowners are responsible by law for getting rid of pests on their own land. But there is a growing recognition of the benefits to be gained from concerted action over a wider field—through area clearance schemes or organised shoots of pigeons, rooks and crows, and through grey squirrel clubs.
625 To help in the drive against harmful birds half-price cartridges will be provided from 1st September for organised shooting of rooks, wood pigeons, carrion crows and other bird pests. Area clearance schemes for rabbits are being frustrated by the difficulty of getting at the pests in infested scrub and overgrown woodlands. Again from 1st September, grants of up to 50 per cent. of the cost are to be made available for scrub clearance if it is rabbit infested and forms part of an area clearance scheme.
Final details of these small measures, not important in themselves but important, I hope, in their effect, have still to be worked out and will be announced later, but farmers who are interested should apply to their county agricultural executive committee, who will be responsible for the local administration of both these schemes.
§ Mr. C. N. Thornton-Kemsley (Angus, North and Mearns)
Can my right hon. Friend say whether these schemes apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland says not yet, but they will.
My last words before that interruption were about the county agricultural executive committees, and I want to say a word about their work, because in the execution of the food production drive we rely to a very large extent upon the work of many hundreds of members of county and district agricultural executive committees. They are in their own locality local agents of the Minister of the day, and I often think that too little value is placed upon the enormous amount of first-class unpaid service which they give to the community in the district in which they live. I want to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the work of these men, drawn from all ranks of the farming industry and representative as they are of the best elements among landowners, farmers and agricultural workers.
Just to see how much we owe to them and to the whole farming industry we have to look again at this year's White Paper, which gives the indices of net agricultural output. The figures given in the White Paper this year for the last three years are: 1950–51 143, 1951–52 626 149, and 1952–53 151. The last figure is provisional. It has not yet been possible to make a final estimate, but recent marketings of fat stock have been higher than was forecast and suggests that it is possible that the final result will be rather better than 151. At the rate at which production is increasing we should confidently expect to pass the 160 per cent. figure by 1956. The increase in efficient production is, after all, the best way of making sure that the income of the industry is satisfactorily maintained and that the consumer is getting value for his money.
Having said that, I turn to the other main heading of my speech this afternoon, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman. But before I deal with it I think it might be helpful if I say something about the topic of imports and home prospects and the large supplies of North American grain, because there are some people in the country who are thinking that the existence of large supplies in North America reduces the need for us to expand our tillage acreage. There may even be questions whether some time or other North America grain will flow out and depress price levels of a wide range of primary products.
I am convinced that there is no reason to be found in such considerations for any relaxation of our drive for expanding food production in this country. Our whole economic position would have to alter before we could contemplate purchasing unlimited quantities of grain from North America. It is true that our balance of payments has been improving steadily and considerably, but we still have a very long way to go.
Taking a still wider view of the balance between agricultural and industrial production in the countries with which we trade, I do not think that we can afford to relax our production of food at home. In fact, I am certain of it. We must continue to improve both in the quantity and in the quality of our production. As I said before, our task is not one of increasing production at any cost, but of creating, in the words of the Agriculture Act of 1947,a stable and an efficient agricultural industry.For that reason I see no cause to revise the general guidance given to the industry 627 about the expansion of production in the White Paper of 1952, confirmed and repeated in the White Paper of this year.
That brings me to the second main heading of my speech, and that is the discussions we are having with the farmers' leaders about the application of Part I of the 1947 Act as and when wartime controls are relaxed. The question that springs to mind is—how do we propose to reconcile the inevitable and desirable move towards a freer economy with the guarantees of security given to the agricultural industry in Part I of the Act? Members of the Government from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer downwards have repeatedly spoken in specific terms to emphasise the Government's adherence to the principles of the Agriculture Act, 1947.
The Government are not proposing and will not propose anything that will give any grounds for arousing fears that the Act of 1947 will become a dead letter. They fully accept the obligation in the words of the Act,of promoting and maintaining, by the provision of guaranteed prices and assured markets … a stable and efficient agricultural industry.Let there be no doubt about that. I repeat it, and I hope it will go on record once again in these early days of July, 1953.
§ Mr. T. Williams
Am I to take it from the right hon. Gentleman that fixed prices are not hampering, as the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland suggested?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I will come to that subject in a moment.
What we have to decide is the methods by which this obligation should be discharged. The best way to illustrate that is to quote to the Committee the position commodity by commodity. I come, first, to cereals and the problem of cereal marketing. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I remind hon. Members that the arrangements for the forthcoming 1953 harvest were settled long ago, and are in good order, for the implementation of the prices fixed for this harvest, following the 1952 Annual Review. The right hon. Gentleman, of course, knows this, but many people get confused on these difficult questions.
628 As hon. Members will recall, we have been discussing with the farmers and all interests concerned the arrangements to be made for the 1954 harvest, to implement the prices which were announced for it last March. In the White Paper published in the spring of this year, we said that we wereanxious that permanent marketing arrangements should replace the interim ones before the 1954 harvest and prices for cereals have been fixed on that assumption.Accordingly, discussions on the arrangements to be made have been going on for some considerable time. The problems are inevitably complicated and difficult, as many hon. Members will appreciate.
To mention just some of the complications, the marketing of wheat, barley and oats each presents a quite separate and intricate problem. Indeed, before 1939 there were different arrangements for each of these commodities. As however, we are in the middle of discussions with the leaders of the farmers, the House will not expect me today to give any indication of the kind of detailed plan which, we think, is likely to emerge. I can, however, say that, in the light of discussions that have taken place so far, I have good reason to hope that we shall be able to make a statement very soon of, at any rate, the outline of the scheme which we think will be required to succeed the arrangements that have, as I have stated, already been made to deal with the 1953 harvest. Then will be the time, as the right hon. Gentleman said, for himself and his hon. Friends, if they still think fit, to criticise us for the methods by which we are dealing with the matter.
So much for cereals, and now a word about milk marketing.
§ Sir Robert Boothby (Aberdeenshire, East)
Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of cereals, can he say a word about the International Wheat Agreement? Are we right out of that? Is there no hope of our being able to come to any agreement, or is there still a possibility of our doing so?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
The International Wheat Agreement is not within my field. I would not go further than ask my hon. Friend, who studies these matters, to read the reports which have been made. There is nothing further on this question than the reports which have been published.
629 Now I come to the question of milk. We have another very large problem on our hands: that is, the problem of the marketing of milk and the action to be taken on the long-standing application—I think it dates back to the time in office of the right hon. Gentleman—from the Milk Marketing Board of England and Wales for the restoration of their full powers. Here, again, the Government have not been idle. We have been very active, although I quite accept that from what has emerged in statements in the House, we might be accused of having done nothing. We are, however, in constant discussions on these matters.
Early this year, at the opportune moment, the Government were able to authorise the start of consultations with the Milk Marketing Board and with the three Milk Marketing Boards in Scotland, together with the three National Farmers' Unions for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and with the trade interests concerned in milk manufacture and distribution. Hon. Members will agree that it is, clearly, necessary to consult all these interests before decisions can be reached. Consultations have been, and are, proceeding, and I shall make a further statement as soon as possible. At the moment, however, I cannot foresee when all the necessary consultations are likely to have been completed.
I should like now to say a word about meat marketing. I have already referred to the announcement made last weekend by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food regarding meat. As that statement suggested, the problems of the decontrol of meat, including pig-meat, have been receiving a good deal of attention by a good number of people. Indeed, a great many people have been talking about the arrangements to be made when the present controls can be brought to an end. Naturally, the Government have also been studying this problem.
The Committee will remember that, in an answer on 24th June, the Minister of Food stated three requirements that must be satisfied before meat can be completely derationed and decontrolled. He said that whatever arrangements were in force, home producers should receive a guarantee of price and an assurance of market for their livestock, whether cattle, sheep or pigs. I hope that this gives the 630 right hon. Member for Don Valley the assurance which he seeks that we have not overlooked the 1947 Act and our responsibility under it. The issues involved in this field are, as, I think, hon. Members in all parts of the Committee know, large and complicated.
Let me give an example. In round figures, the value of home produced meat as it leaves the farms is about £320 million per annum. To combine efficient and orderly marketing with satisfactory guarantees and assurances to the producers for so huge a volume of perishable produce, in so many cuts and qualities, obviously presents a tremendous task. It would be rash for me or for anyone to commit himself to the details of a particular way of dealing with this problem without the fullest study and concentration. Here, again, as soon as the time arrives, bearing in mind the assurances given in the House by the Minister of Food, either my right hon. and gallant Friend or I will make a statement to the House.
The course of policy indicated by the general trend of developments shows that the marketing plans are all inspired by a determination to restore freedom of choice to producers and to consumers, and to restore direct contact between the two. We are not keeping the farmer behind the farm gates and the consumer constricted by a ration book, with a mass of officials deciding what the farmer shall produce and what he shall get for it and what the consumer shall eat and how much he shall pay. The conception of our approach to the problem is that more and more the farmer and the consumer should get into direct touch one with the other and make their own decisions and their own bargains.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
All the material at our disposal was considered. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman may find a little guidance if I continue my speech. I should like to refer to marketing schemes directly.
I made clear last November, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), our attitude towards 631 marketing boards. In discussions with the farmers' leaders at the beginning of this year we said that, in our opinion, in suitable cases the marketing Acts of 1931 to 1949 provided an effective means through which the guarantee of prices and assured markets could be operated. On the same occasion we re-affirmed our intention to continue the system of annual reviews of the economic position of the industry, with a view to ensuring realistic and economic price guarantees designed to encourage the required production, as laid down in the Agriculture Act, 1947.
Difficult financial and marketing problems have to be faced in operating these arrangements in a free market. It is inevitable that before decisions can be reached each commodity must be considered on its own merits with full regard to the particular conditions of its production and distribution. That is inevitable, because agricultural products vary in their nature and usage. Even wheat and oats have to be dealt with by different methods. It is a complete illusion to believe that it is practicable, just by taking thought, to determine a formula which applies to all commodities indiscriminately. That is a kind of longhaired planning in which the present Government are not going to indulge. I am not accusing right hon. Gentlemen opposite of it.
We are dealing with great sums of money and the livelihood of many thousands of hard-working people who are producing and trading in commodities vital to the life of the people, and in great variety to meet many tastes and needs. We are therefore proceeding by the sound British method of ascertaining and considering carefully, in full consultation with all the affected interests, the hard, practical facts which must govern how we can deal with each commodity. Producer-controlled marketing boards are not bodies which can be expected to handle public funds just as if they were bodies directly controlled by the Government. The very fact that they are controlled by producers introduces special problems. This does not mean that they cannot be the channel through which a guarantee of prices and assured markets can be operated. All the time our commitments under Part I of the 1947 Act hold.
632 I am afraid that I have detained the Committee too long on this very important subject. I would end my review of our problems in this field by saying that we must have careful and practical discussions on these problems commodity by commodity, and these discussions are bound to take much time. In such a period there is bound to be anxiety and speculation, which may disturb some producers. Until the necessary studies and discussions have been carried to a conclusion it is impossible for the Government to do more than reiterate their ability and determination to implement adequately the guarantees under the Agriculture Act.
I ask the Committee, and indeed producers throughout the country, to consider that the more sincerity and weight there is in our assurances the more essential it is to see that the new arrangements for supporting farmers' incomes are sound and workable. Circumstances may arise at some unknown future date in which these arrangements will have to carry the burden of very considerable payments. Guarantees would be worth nothing if this were not so. It is therefore in the producers' own interests for us to ensure that the arrangements that we make can be smoothly, justly and properly administered, and can be well defended against hostile criticism from any quarter.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)
In face of the serried ranks of members of the National Farmers' Union opposite, I may be a little diffident about dogmatising about the Minister's speech. As one with a county constituency of about 500 farmers, I must say that much of what the Minister said over the last hour or so is most welcome to people like myself.
I want to pick up some points which have been mentioned and comment upon them. What the Minister said is welcome to me, and so were the assurances he gave about the stability of the future of the farming industry. He will recall that one of the leaders, the county delegate of the Warwickshire Farmers' Union, said some short while ago that this Government had not got a clue in their farming policy. We shall see. Perhaps he was a little pessimistic about the Minister.
All sides of the Committee will agree that there is need for much more capital in the farming industry. Where are the 633 farmers to get it, and on what terms? Some farmers I talk to in my constituency are most concerned about the policy of this Government. Many of them have been staunch supporters of the Government and many still are, but have been somewhat disillusioned over the last two years. I have farmer constituents who have mortgages in the thousands and they recall with some nostalgia the happy days when we were in power and they got money slightly more cheaply, at 2½ per cent. Now they have to pay something like 5½ per cent. That is a considerable change in the situation.
The Minister will no doubt remember that the secretary of the county farmers' union in Warwickshire, Mr. E. K. Lax, has commented upon this matter. He has gone beyond that and said that the farmers today are not merely paying more for their money but are having difficulty in getting their money at the banks. I hope that the Minister will note this point and will do what he can with the banks to make money easier for the farmers in the Midlands. That is very important, because with the mechanisation that has taken place in the last few years many farmers are heavily committed to capital outlays. As one not versed in such bucolic matters, I suggest with some diffidence that there is a case here for a land bank or central State fund, such as operates in New Zealand and Sweden, which will allow our farmers more money on easier terms than they are afforded at the moment. The small farmers are feeling the pinch today.
My second point is the need for capital investment in the countryside. I will not talk now about "time and motion study" on the farm, but there is an enormous need to improve the amenities and the lay-out of many of our farms, particularly those which have buildings half a century or more old. If we improve the amenities and make life pleasanter not merely for the farmers but for their wives and, what is even more important, for their sons and daughters, we shall have taken a major step to check the exodus which has been continuing, despite the figures given by the Ministry.
Farms could be more economically planned. Yesterday we had a debate on education and the Ministry of Education 634 were given encomiums for their planning and designing of schools. I should like to know whether the Minister of Agriculture has a section in his Department for the design and planning of farms. It may be that he has and that, like the Ministry of Education in the case of schools, he is sending out bulletins to farmers with suggestions on how they might better plan the lay-out of their farms.
We have heard about the electrification of the countryside, and I was very happy to hear of it. We have also heard about the extra £1 million that is being spent on piped water. But this should not be just a matter of piped water to the farms. It is just as important to have piped water taken to schools and houses so as to eliminate earth closets and other abominations which make living so intolerable for farmers and their families. There is also the need to provide better bus services. For example, there is a service only once a week from the hamlet of Cosford in my constituency, to take farm workers and their wives to the market town of Rugby. We have had enormous difficulty in holding farm workers in that area because of the poor transport facilities.
When the Minister talks about the importation of Canadian wheat at a cost of thousands of pounds, I hope that he will mention to his colleagues these matters of education and transport which mean so much to farmers and their families who live in the remote countryside. I hope also that he will whisper in his colleagues' ears something about the countryside's legacy of old schools. The rural areas have never had a square deal in the matter of schools. We have schools for children aged five to 15 in South Warwickshire, but we have not had a modern school built there for many years. One can still say that in that area there is no secondary education in the full meaning of the term. A few scholars travel to grammar schools in Warwick and Leamington, but the 1944 Education Act is virtually not in existence there. The children are still in old elementary schools, now called "secondary modern," but they are not really secondary schools. I plead with the Minister to fight for better amenities and more comfortable living conditions for the people of the countryside and the country towns.
635 I should like to refer to two aspects of the 1947 Act upon which the Minister touched in his speech. We need much more food and we must go high above this moderate target of a 60 per cent. increase over 1939. I believe in the 1947 Act, and I was glad to hear that the Minister also believes in it. I was glad to have the assurances which he gave to the Committee. We want long-term legislation and we need the pledges which the Minister has given on behalf of the Government. We want no sudden changes to let the farmers down, no more than we want sudden changes to let down the miners or the steel workers or any other section of our community.
While I do not believe that all farmers are "feather-bedded," if I may say so in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans), I do believe that townspeople expect the farmers to give an adequate return for the guarantees which the Government have provided. There is an obligation upon the farmers to be efficient. In the old days bad farmers got out because they went bankrupt. In this more modern climate of State planning and help numbers of farmers go out by the more democratic method of being evicted, if that is the right term, by their own fellow-farmers, plus the officials of the county agricultural executive committees.
I should like to know how many farmers are being evicted each year. Does the Minister, in the light of his experience, think that the number is too high or too low? I add the caveat that I, and many like me, would warn him against victimisation by county committees. Terms like "witch-hunting" have been used in the Midlands. We do not want small farmers to be pushed out by a committee consisting of their wealthier brethren in the county plus officials of the Ministry.
But these committees must do their job and must dispel any shadow of doubt in the minds of people in the towns that there is inefficiency in this the largest industry of ours. There is much misunderstanding between town and country and much more need of mutual confidence between the two. The Minister will know of experiments which are being 636 carried out in the Midlands to secure a better feeling between urban dwellers and those who live in the countryside. The British Thomson-Houston Company in Rugby, for instance, are sending out parties of their executives and workers to farms in Warwickshire. They have visited in particular the very fine farm of Mr. Weatherall of Pailton, the chairman of the local National Farmers' Union. Warwickshire farms are also adopting urban schools, for example, in Coventry.
As a result of all these efforts a better feeling is being created between the farmer and the engineer on the floor of the shop whose wife is buying agricultural produce in the markets. The sons and daughters of the shop stewards are acquiring greater knowledge of conditions in the countryside 10 or 20 miles away. If we secure in this way a more closely knit society we shall weather more successfully the difficult conditions of present-day economic life.
The Minister has given us a large number of figures about the increase in the number of pigs, sheep and cattle. He was happy to give us these figures and we were happy to hear them, but I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies to this debate he will be able to dispel an impression which I have received from talking to some of my constituents. They are concerned at the way in which the 1947 Act is working out in the matter of price emphasis. It may be a temporary means of obtaining more meat next year or in two or three years' time, with the deliberate knowledge that this would be in the Government's favour if and when there is another election. Be that as it may, the Government are placing the emphasis upon beef and cattle production, as the figures prove, whilst milch herds tend to suffer by comparison.
Some time ago I mentioned a figure in the House which I believe is still correct; I said that herds of beef cattle are making a profit of something like £1,200 per 100 acres, but I am told that milch herds are at the moment losing something like £40 per 100 acres compared with what they were making some time ago. I should like to know whether it is correct that we are swinging this way and that farmers with milch herds elsewhere are dissatisfied. Is that the case in East 637 Anglia, for example? If so, I think it is deplorable that they should be in that situation, because we shall need milk not merely next year but for many years to come.
This nostalgic obsession that many people have for the roast beef of old England is misplaced. Indeed, I think it is dangerous. The days of cheap beef have gone. We cannot afford it. If we emphasise the production of beef so much in this way, our farming costs will rise; and for my part I should be happier if milk farmers were not to suffer in this way. In this vital matter of assuring our food supplies, it is not a question of emphasising beef or milk for any political end, and for getting votes. Our food production and agricultural policy are as vital as our foreign policy. It is not a partisan matter at all. It is very important in this field that we should think only of the nation's food. Since to me farming policy is as serious as our foreign policy, I hope that the impression to which I have referred will be dissipated at the earliest moment.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Phelim O'Neill (Antrim, North)
May I ask the indulgence of the Committee on rising to address it for the first time? I think it is right and proper that in any of these general agricultural debates some Member representing Northern Ireland should intervene, because we who represent agricultural constituencies in Northern Ireland undoubtedly represent more actual farms and farmers than any other hon. Members.
We are a community of small family farmers, almost all of us owning our own holdings. Nearly all of us till our soil with our own hands, the soil which in most cases has been tilled by our fathers and grandfathers before us. We are essentially the biggest collection of family farmers in the United Kingdom. Our agricultural industry is our very life blood, and the whole prosperity of our province fundamentally depends on our agriculture.
Generally speaking, the main problem from an agricultural point of view with which this country is faced is to increase production in order to improve our balance of payments position; secondly, 638 we must never forget and must always keep a watchful eye on the cost of living which bears so heavily on us all. It is necessary for us to produce from our own fertile fields as much of our food and animal feedingstuffs as we possibly can, and at the same time make sure that our agricultural products appear on the market at the lowest possible price.
The 1947 Agricultural Act was surely devised to reconcile these two somewhat conflicting problems, and in my view it has worked exceedingly well. I am very glad to hear the Minister undertake to continue its main provisions of guaranteed prices and assured markets. My view is that if we are to increase our agricultural production by a further 15 per cent. it is mainly to the smaller farms throughout the United Kingdom that we must look. Surely by now the factory farms and broad acres, with all their advantages of mechanisation and availability of capital, must have very nearly reached the peak of their production.
I feel that it is mainly, though of course, not entirely, to the small farmers that we must look to obtain the increase of production which is so vitally necessary to us all. In general, the small farms are located in more distant and remote parts of the kingdom, far away from their markets in the urban districts.
I must frankly say that we in Northern Ireland have been somewhat perturbed by the only scheme which is so far in operation, namely the interim egg scheme. It seems to me that this scheme, if anything, tends to benefit the broad acres and those who are near their markets, to the disadvantage of the smaller people who have a long distance to send their goods. Since the interim egg scheme was introduced, our farmers in Northern Ireland have, generally speaking, received 3d. a dozen less for their eggs than in other parts of the United Kingdom. This is a very serious matter for us, because in Northern Ireland the poultry industry is not just an ancillary one. It is one of our main agricultural sources of income.
I should like to quote a few figures to show of what vital importance our poultry industry is to us. In 1950 we exported across the Irish Sea 48 million dozen eggs; in 1951, 43 million dozen 639 eggs; and in 1952, 41 million dozen eggs, in round figures worth an annual sum of £10 million to our farmers. It can readily be seen that it is a very serious matter if the price we receive lags behind that which is received in England.
I and my hon. Friends have received a good many letters on this subject from our constituents, and small farmers do not readily take to the pen. They write letters only when they feel very deeply about something. Here is a typical example—from a letter which was received by one of my hon. Friends the other day:As our representative at Westminster I wish to draw your attention to the very law price we are getting for eggs compared to what producers are receiving in England. Our eggs have been 3s. 6d. a dozen for quite a few weeks now, and this with meal 5½ times the prewar price. This price is no use at all. If prices do not improve we will be obliged to sell out. I bought four tons of hard coal nuts last week. The price was £42 2s. delivered.There is a postcript to which I would ask the Minister to pay attention, because he can hardly disagree with it, and it sums up in seven words the whole of our problem.P.S. Our farms cannot be moved to England.We have had to bear the burden of incoming freight for a very long time. Our coal—as evidenced by this letter—our agricultural machinery and many of our fertilisers and feedingstuffs, all of which we import across the Irish Sea, cost us slightly more than they do anywhere else except in a few very remote parts of Scotland. We have always cheerfully borne this burden because we have felt that we have been fairly treated in receiving parity of price with our English, Scottish and Welsh friends, but, being of a somewhat canny nature—many of us emanate from Scotland—we are perturbed at the pattern which has been set by the Government's interim egg scheme. I agree that this is only an interim scheme, it has not been running for very long, and that we should not judge it too rapidly, but many people in my constituency are gravely alarmed at the thought that this scheme may set the general pattern for future schemes which the Government have in mind.
I would ask the Minister three questions. First, can he tell us when this 640 interim scheme is likely to be replaced by a permanent and more just arrangement? Secondly, supposing the interim scheme is still in force when the next Price Review takes place in the spring, how are prices to be calculated when different parts of the country obtain different amounts for their commodities? It seems that the price for the fortunate producer near his market must either be too high, if the person at the other end of the scale is to get a reasonable price or, alternatively, if the fortunate man living near his market gets the right price for his eggs, giving him a reasonable margin of profit, the unfortunate man at the other end must get too little. This seems to be fundamental in any scheme where parity of price does not exist. I should be extremely grateful if the Minister could explain exactly how price fixing can be arranged where parity of prices does not exist.
Lastly, if he can possibly do so, I should like to be assured about something which is causing grave anxiety throughout Northern Ireland. Our potato crop is a most vital one. Owing to our soil and local conditions, it is virtually the only root crop that we can satisfactorily grow. I want to know if the Minister can give us an unqualified assurance that, whatever scheme the Government may ultimately have in mind for this commodity, we shall receive a fair price. I should also like him to give us an undertaking that our crop will be moved gradually throughout the winter months, and not solely in the late spring and early summer.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Desmond Donnelly (Pembroke)
It is always a great privilege for a very junior Member of this House to have an opportunity of congratulating someone who has just made a maiden speech. It is a very great privilege to me to congratulate the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill) most warmly for the admirable speech he has made.
I may have shifted my carpet bag from Ireland to the mountains of Wales, and changed my name to "Donnethly," but I still have a warm feeling of affection for the people of Northern Ireland. That feeling of affection was recently accentuated, because the other day someone came to see me who had been one of my constituents in the constituency of Down, 641 where I had fought the by-election of 1946. He asked if I could get him a seat in the Gallery. His reasons for staking his claim and asking for me was that he had voted for me on no fewer than 32 occasions in the same by-election.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North also speaks for a Northern Ireland constituency, although the pleasure of doing the same thing for his constituents is yet to come, because I understand that he was fortunate enough to be returned unopposed. He has a distinguished name in this House and there is a particularly warm feeling for him among all those who knew his father. How glad we are to see the tradition which his father set in this House—of which he was such a distinguished Member for many years—carried on by the hon. Member this afternoon.
I now turn to the speech of the Minister of Agriculture. Having said all the pleasant things, I shall start on the unpleasant ones. I listened to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks very carefully, and I could not help thinking that he was suffering a little from Abingdon champagne. I thought his remarks were more than a bit too cosy and rosy to give one a real appreciation of the difficult problems facing the agricultural community today.
It is perfectly true that we are making an improvement here and we may be giving some assistance there. We all welcome the statement made by the Minister of Fuel and Power the other day about rural electrification, but the plain truth is that a good deal more has to be done to change the whole pattern of British agriculture if we are to achieve economic independence of foreign aid. Depending on the pattern of British agriculture and the production of British agriculture is the whole extent of British influence in the world and also the extent of British independence in foreign policy. Very often when I speak to some of my friends in the Labour movement, not in this House, they ask for some Socialist initiative on foreign policy, but I point out that that initiative must inevitably be based on much greater food production in this country, because we cannot pursue an independent policy of any kind unless we have economic security behind us.
The position of British agriculture is far from satisfactory. There are more than 10 million acres of poor grassland 642 which need rejuvenation—nearly one quarter of all Britain's agricultural land. The quality of British farming is very unequal. As we travel through the countryside we see, here and there, the well-kept farm building, the well-kept fields, of some particularly prosperous farmer, but that is still an outstanding sight against the grey hills. Here and there we see the successful, efficient farming unit, but these are all too few today, and British farming is far too unequal to give us a sense of complacency. Agricultural investment still has far too low a priority.
There is far too small a connection between the money which goes into the agricultural industry and that which goes into capital investment in the industry and is finally reflected in increased production. Far too few of the best scientific brains in this country spend their time on agricultural problems. A great deal more can be done in that respect, although we have begun to make some progress since the war. Very few of our best young people are going on to the land today. Far too few of the young lads with the best initiative and the most enterprise are finding their way on to the land and we are a long way from any situation in which we could have any feeling of complacency.
Without going into the technicalities, it seems to me that the problem of trying to get a substantial increase in agricultural production falls under three main headings. I believe that the Government's target of a 60 per cent. increase over 1939 levels is far too low. I should like to see an increase of 100 per cent. by 1960. We want to set out sights high if we are to make an impression on the problem.
The first point is that we must have more people on the land, because there is no substitute for human manpower on the land, however much we achieve in the way of technical advances. The problem of the proportion of people in this country engaged in food production, in relation to the other industrial workers of Britain is becoming increasingly acute. I have some figures which may interest the Committee. In 1881 there were 1,593,000 farm workers in Britain. In 1952 the figure had fallen to 800,000. In 1881, just after the beginning of the agricultural depression, the proportion was 1,250 people in agriculture for every 643 10,000 workers. In 1911 that had fallen to 818. By 1921 it had fallen to 675 and by 1939 to 360 per 10,000. By 1946 it had gone up a little to 433, but by 1952 it had fallen to the all-time low of 353. It is still going down. Unless we can arrest that trend in agriculture, we shall not get the full production we are all so anxious to get and to which we are so ready to pay lip-service whenever the opportunity arises.
Part of the reason for this drift from the land lies in the provision of amenities, and we are only too ready to see what we can do to improve the amenities in the countryside. Nevertheless, I believe something much more fundamental is involved. In village after village, the lad who is the bright lad, capable of the most initiative, ready to work hard eventually gets fed up and leaves the village to go to the town because he has no opportunity of getting out of the rut of being a farm worker and of becoming a farmer in his own right.
The smallholdings policy has made some impact on the problem but it does not really meet the situation. Every time a smallholding is advertised in my part of the world, there are over 100 applicants for it. That gives some idea of the land hunger which exists. Until we are prepared to face this question of opportunity on the land, we shall not attract people on to the land, nor shall we keep on the land those whom we ought to keep there—those with the most initiative and energy and readiness to work hard.
The right hon. Gentleman has not dealt with this question to my satisfaction this afternoon. He spoke of the farm apprentices scheme, which is one step in the right direction—we all welcome it—but a great deal more can be done about agricultural education in the rural areas. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was at the Ministry of Agriculture, he was undertaking a scheme of county agricultural colleges. We have not heard very much about that of late. I suggest to the Minister that he should look into this situation again, because British farming in the future, more than ever in the past, depends on the technical ability and the modern methods 644 employed by the young people who are coming on to the land.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) said, a great deal more can be done in giving financial assistance to agriculture through the banks lending money not on the ordinary bank security but on farming enterprise and on the farming prospects and potentialities of a farm. We may make one or two mistakes, but if we are not prepared to risk making mistakes we shall never do anything. It is important to ensure that there is equality of opportunity and a feeling that the sky is the limit for the British farm worker if we are to get the flow on to the land of the agricultural workers we need.
That brings me to the fundamental question of land tenure. This is a Committee of Supply, so that it is not in order for me to deal with legislation, but it is permissible for me to mention that this problem cannot be solved without a radical alteration in the system of land tenure—and I shall have a few words to say about that later. I hope I am keeping in order.
Coming back for a moment to the question of the farm worker, although there has been an announcement in today's newspapers of a rise in agricultural wages, the problem is still not met. I was looking at some comparative figures between the wages of farm workers and the national average wages for weekly employed workers. In 1938 the national average was 53s. and the farm workers' wage was 34s. In 1946 the national average had risen to 101s. and the farm workers' wage was 80s.—just over 20s. behind. In 1952 the national average was 151s. 11d. and the farm workers' wage was 113s. Today's increase makes some difference, of course, but it still means that the farm workers' wage is lagging far behind the average industrial workers' wage in Britain.
This is not an average industry; this is a priority industry. Upon this industry depends the standard of life of the people in the whole of the country, and it concerns the people in the towns just as much as those in the countryside. I cannot see the problem being met by the piecemeal methods which the Minister talked about this afternoon. I warn the Committee 645 that there must be a much more comprehensive approach than we have had so far.
Let me turn from the question of men to the second point, which is method. There is a good deal of apprehension in all parts of the country, in the rural areas as well as in the towns, at the large sums of money which have been going into agriculture and the fact that these large sums have not to the same extent been reflected in increased production. Net farming profits in 1937 were £37 million and in 1951 were £294 million—an increase of 400 per cent. Output in those 14 years has risen by 40 per cent. so that the increase in incomes has exceeded the increase in output by 10 times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) speaks for a great many people in this country when he talks about the apprehension which exists in the towns and, as I said, in the countryside, too, about the large sums of money which are going into agriculture. The hon. Member for Wednesbury is a good friend of mine, and I have always felt that if he had stuck to the straight stage instead of going on to the political music hall, he would have made a substantial impact on this point which he has been making for some time. Nevertheless, he does speak for a large section of the British nation, and the farming industry would be well advised to pay attention to the increasing apprehension as a result of the large sums going into the industry not being matched by comparable increases in production.
Obviously the first difficulty that arises is that of framing the guaranteed prices system to make it possible for the marginal farmer on the uplands of Wales or Scotland to live without at the same time "greasing" the fat cattle farmer in the plains of Devonshire. Farming is not like a factory. The costs of production vary so much in any part of the country. Land fertility, the vicissitudes of the weather and other circumstances vary, and it is very difficult indeed to frame a guaranteed price system which makes it possible for the marginal farmer to live, and the midland farmer to live, without, to use a phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury, "feather-bedding" some people.
This is where much of the apprehension arises in the minds of many people 646 who have great good will for agriculture, who have great good will towards the people of the rural areas such as those I represent. I think it is important for us who represent the agricultural interest to recognise the dangers implied in those criticisms, and to see that we meet the arguments that are raised in them, for unless we do we may have to face a political agitation, in which, in the last analysis, the strength will lie with the people in the towns, because they have the enormous preponderance of votes, and the people living in the countryside will go to the wall.
I do not see how we can deal with this problem of avoiding giving some people too much while making it possible for others to live without a system of differential rents or a graduated land tax. Those are two possible arrangements.
§ Mr. Donnelly
My hon. Friend says particularly the latter. Some of us in the Labour Party believe in land nationalisation, and it is the birthright of the British Labour movement. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby says some do not; but some do, and it may be assisted by some such system. However, coming back to the two possible proposals, a system of differential rents or a differential land tax of some kind based on the fertility of the land, I would say that it is important for us to remember what an artificial situation has grown up so far as agricultural land is concerned, largely due, perhaps, to the economic situation that exists in the agricultural industry today.
There was a very interesting article in the "Statist" of 28th February based on a report of the Land Owners' Association which was produced in conjunction with the Ministry. It said:The average gross rental in England and Wales in 1951 was 33s. an acre, which is 1s. 6d. an acre less than it was in 1872, when the £ was worth three or four times what it is today.That gives some idea of the artificial situation which has grown up. The article also said:An economic anomaly, of steady persistence, is the low level of farm rents. The proportion which rent forms of a farmer's costs has fallen by a half over the last 30 years until it is now only some 6 per cent. Yet the sale value of farm land has been steadily rising.647 That brings us to the problem of seeing that tenant farmers' interests are safeguarded, and that when farms become vacant opportunities are given to good, capable, hard-working farm workers, or to the lads who have grown up on the land and who have experience and knowledge of working it, to obtain them, and not to be outbid for the farms. We ought to see that those who take the farms are men capable of farming them to the best national advantage. Land is a limited monopoly. It is becoming an increasingly limited monopoly, and the longer that situation goes on the more difficult it will be for us to see that every acre of agricultural land is efficiently farmed. A farmer who farms inefficiently at the moment may be doing himself a financial injury, but in the years ahead he will be perpetrating an economic crime against the nation, and it is in the nation's interest to see that the farms are farmed efficiently.
§ Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, Southwest)
Is the hon. Gentleman advocating putting on a land tax? I gather that in "Challenge to Britain" there is a proposal to re-rate agricultural land. Does he not think that these things are bound to affect economic food production?
§ The Temporary Chairman (Sir Gordon Touche)
The hon. Gentleman, of course, will not advocate anything which involves legislation.
§ Mr. Donnelly
I could not agree more. Sir Gordon. I was not advocating anything that would, but just looking at these matters. I thank you for your intervention, Sir Gordon.
In talking about the guaranteed price system and the political implications I am not attacking the guaranteed price system at this stage, because that would involve legislation, too. I am having a look at the matter. What I am saying is that we must get a closer tie-up between the money that goes into the agricultural industry and an increase in capital investment in the industry, and, therefore, an increase of production in that industry. At the moment there is a feeling that a lot of that money is going into Rover cars and in going to hunt balls. I should like 648 to see a great deal more of it going into new farm buildings and farm machinery, and the use of fertilisers, for greater farm production.
As to the use of fertilisers, I would quote some figures to show how we compare with other countries. Here the use of fertilisers is expressed in pounds per acre, excluding rough grazing land. For nitrates the figures are: Holland, 63; Belgium, 38; Norway, 27; Germany, 23; the United Kingdom, 14. For phosphates: in Holland, 46; Belgium, 39; Norway, 30; Germany, 27; the United Kingdom, 30. For potash: in Holland, 59; Belgium, 74; Norway, 36; Germany, 43; the United Kingdom, 16. Those are very disquieting figures. We must to some extent have high farming because that is the only way we shall achieve the targets hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the Committee nodded their heads about earlier on.
§ The question of capital investment is something to which little attention has been paid by right hon. Gentlemen opposite. Capital investment in farming has been steadily going down since the war, taken as a percentage of the national income, and it must be borne in mind that this is the industry on which the future survival of British economic independence is dependent. It has to be considered in the context of that situation. In 1948 we spent .81 per cent. of our national income on capital investment in agriculture; in 1949, .74; in 1950, .73; in 1951, .73; in 1952, .71; and it is still going down pro rata. That is something for which Ministers must answer.
§ I think it springs from the fact that the Minister of Agriculture has not sufficient status in the Government. The Minister of Agriculture should be a member of the Cabinet. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley was a member of the Cabinet, and he exercised a profound influence on the national economy. The present Minister is either answering to some overlord in another place or else he is making patchwork speeches here, trying to cover up some of the administrative difficulties in the Ministry. I have no ill-feeling against the medical hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) when I say that we want a Ministry of Food Production. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be only too happy to leave the cares of his office and deal with the 649 problems which arise from eating too much food instead of having to deal with the problem of getting that food.
§ We cannot deal with this problem without increased capital investment, raising the status of the Ministry of Agriculture and putting the Minister of Agriculture into the Cabinet. It is no good his sheltering behind the overlords and other people whom we cannot get at here. This is the House of Commons and we are the people who should have the main responsibility for this policy and give him the necessary position, status and support when he gives this particular industry a special priority.
§ The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture mentioned the agricultural committees. Inevitably the agricultural committees are just as much a part of the Government's administrative system in relation to farming as are the Ministry of Agriculture in their status in the central Government at Whitehall. A great responsibility rests on the agricultural committees. We cannot farm from Whitehall, and the less farming we have from Whitehall the better. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. Members opposite are beginning to learn a few things. They have been carried away by their own propaganda in the past.
§ Mr. Donnelly
We spent £20 million on groundnuts. What about the £295 million which went into British agriculture and which did not show a comparable return in production? The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) may talk about groundnuts, but he should bear in mind the fact that farmers' incomes have gone up by 400 per cent. They have gone up largely at the expense of the British nation. The British nation has a right to know where the money has gone. The hon. Gentleman should remember that he may not be getting that money in the future because the industry is not satisfying the country's needs.
To come back to the question of agricultural committees, although we pay tribute to these committees which have done good work and pay tribute to the members of the committees who have given their services freely and without any financial remuneration, many of us 650 are profoundly disturbed about the work of some of these committees. Some of them are fast asleep and a lot of them have members who are fast asleep. I think that a good breath of fresh air should be brought in. We should have another look at this matter to see whether or not we cannot improve some of the personnel, and whether or not some of the people who have served a long time on these committees would not be glad to relinquish their office. It is very important that these committees should be reviewed closely from time to time. Many of their members have been there for a long time, have lost a sense of reality and are out of touch with new trends in the industry.
Coming to the next question, which is equally vital, and which I mentioned earlier on, I do not believe that we can get the necessary output in agriculture without new incentives which will bring new farm workers into the industry because of new opportunities. I do not believe that can be done without a radical change in our land tenure system, and I do not believe that we can get increased output until we have increased incentive for those farming the land. Far too many are dog-and-stick farmers. I believe that if farm rentals could be brought more closely into line with the economic situation in the agricultural industry, we should get greater incentive. I agree that it is outside the scope of this debate on a Supply Day to advocate new legislation, and I had some difficulty in restraining hon. Members opposite from getting me to advocate new legislation earlier on. I do not believe that any of this can be done without the nationalisation of rented farmland and I do not believe that we can get increased production in the agricultural industry without increasing the capital investment in the industry.
I do not believe that we can get that capital investment or that public opinion will stand for it until there is a closer tie-up between money going into the industry, and money actually invested in the industry. That brings me back to the question of the nationalisation of rented farm land. I do not believe that we can get increased production in agriculture without a complete change of the national approach to the agricultural 651 industry. I do not believe that we can get it until we recognise that the Minister of Agriculture and the agricultural industry is as important as the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs or the Leader of the House of Commons.
This is the most vital industry of all at this moment. Dependent on it is not only the standard of life of the people of Britain but also the influence which the people of Britain exercise in the world. If we look at this industry and give it the priority necessary it will respond. I believe that the problems facing it should be regarded as a stimulating and not as a depressing factor. I believe that the men in the industry have the indigenous skill and capacity, and that, if given a lead by the Government, we could put British agriculture in a position in which it has never been before. It could lead the world and play a large part in increasing British interest in the second half of the 20th Century, with beneficial results to the whole world.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Sir Albert Braithwaite (Harrow, West)
It is a long time since I took part in an agricultural debate. Having changed from an agricultural constituency to an urban constituency, it may seem a little strange for me to do so, but I have always had the most intense interest in the production of food in these islands.
The more I move round the world, the more I feel that it is necessary that we should endeavour to increase in every possible way the means of feeding ourselves out of our own resources. The 1947 Act has done a great deal for the farming community. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) that the incentives and the drive in agriculture are not there. I am quite satisfied that they are building up steadily, and that the scientific end of the industry is improving every year.
We know that there is a lot to be done. There have been a lot of things to be done in this country since the war, and it is remarkable to me that agriculture has made such a wonderful improvement over what it was. I am a practical farmer. I farm nearly 4,000 acres of land, and so I do know something about what I am saying. I know a great many of the 652 difficulties with which the industry is faced. I am more than conscious that the new conditions in which we farm today are going to show very substantial help to this country in increased production and in increased efficiency.
I want to ask the Minister of Agriculture, quite plainly, to be more specific about what he wants in the form of added production—the different items that he wants. We have had all this talk about the improvement of cereals and about the improvement of red meat. Those are things, of course, which we have to build up, but let us be a litle more specific to our own farming community. We are prepared to give a guarantee to Australia for nine years for a supply of meat to this country at a specific price. We are not prepared to give it to our fanners beyond 1956.
§ Mr. S. N. Evans (Wednesbury)
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not saying that we have given Australia a guarantee which settles the price of meat nine years ahead?
§ Sir A. Braithwaite
I certainly am. We have given Australia an undertaking that she can produce the meat and we will give her an economic price for nine years. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] After all, we have a Price Review here every year.
§ Mr. Paget
We have given a guarantee to our farmers in perpetuity in Section 1 of the Agriculture Act.
§ Sir A. Braithwaite
Prices are changed every year in the Price Review. Let us be fair. I urge the Government to take the matter item by item, as the Minister said, and let us know for longer ahead than we now know what we are to get for a certain commodity.
Capital investment is a very serious item in the cost of production in farming today. One cannot go into a modern farm with hand labour, as used to happen in the old days, and expect to make it pay. One now has to provide all sorts of machinery, including drilling machinery, drying and preparing machinery, tractors of all kinds and cultivators of all kinds, in order to make a success of the land. The capital cost today is staggering.
I propose to give the Committee some idea of what it costs to produce certain items. When we talk of millions of pounds of agricultural production it does not mean anything. It means more when 653 we break it down into the items. To re-seed one acre of high-quality ley costs £12 to £15, to rear a two-year-old store beast costs £40 to £50, to produce an eight-score bacon pig costs about £18, and to produce a sheep costs £5. These figures are out of all relation to pre-war figures. What we have asked for by 1956 will impose upon our farmers an increased financial turnover of not less than £60 million to £70 million a year, and that cannot be done unless more money goes into the industry.
Where shall we get the money? The Chancellor had to make regulations about the bank overdrafts which farmers had to have. Farming advances in 1951 totalled £203 million, but by May of this year they had dropped to £198 million. That means that there is £5 million less in the industry in 1953, when we want an increase, than in the previous year. At the same time the only source of long-term credit for the industry is the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, and the Corporation's rates of interest have risen from 4½ to 5½ per cent., which adds to the cost of production. What is the Government going to do to provide more capital for the farming community?
The farmer turns over his total investment only once in every 17 months. Most industries turn over their capital three or four times a year. The farmer has to wait a very long time. When we ask him to raise beef cattle, it is three years before he gets anything back again. How is he to finance himself during that time? What steps are the Government taking to enable the farmer to obtain the necessary credit to carry through the operation? These are pertinent questions which the Minister will have to answer if our agricultural production is to be improved to the extent that we desire, and I believe that in another five years' time our agricultural production ought to be double what it was pre-war if we handle the problem properly.
I cannot believe that there will again be a surplus of food in the world, and, therefore, we shall have to rely very largely upon what we ourselves can produce here. Because of the increase in economic independence of other countries and the improvement in their standard of life, the commodities which were years ago sold on the open market are not now available. We are now realising that we 654 must ourselves produce what we want. The British public are entitled to a change from the starchy foods which they have had to eat for so long. We need to produce more meat, more sugar and more of the vitamins that really count in building up the sound bodies that we expect our people to have.
My only excuse for intervening is to urge upon the Government the need for a proper financial plan for the agricultural industry instead of leaving it just to drift along until we find that we have not accomplished the things that we have set out to do. I have nothing but commendation for the work that was done by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) and for what has been done by my right hon. Friend in building up the industry to what it ought to be.
However, I do not want the farmers to be given too hopeless a task. We ought to give the farmers more help. We should leave the farmers to make their profit, for we certainly do not want that end of the business taken care of, but we should give farmers credit, and they will then find a way to achieve the productive effort that the nation expects of the agricultural industry. I hope the whole country will realise the vital necessity of preserving our great industry and of making it stronger now than it has ever been in our history.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Mr. S. N. Evans (Wednesbury)
I am always lost in admiration for the propaganda ability of the N.F.U. leaders and their members. If they were half as good at producing farm-fed beef as they are in producing farm-fed propaganda, we should all be living like fighting cocks.
I cannot understand all this talk about the industry being short of capital. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), whom we are all glad to see back here today, said in May, 1950, that about £1,000 million had gone into the industry since the war. I should have thought that that was a fairly high rate of capital expansion compared with any other industry, for instance, the coal industry.
There is also the constant moaning over the increase of 1 per cent. in the terms charged for credit. Good 655 gracious me, who with a thriving business bothers about 1 per cent., which is £10 in £1,000? I am not discussing the merits of the increase of 1 per cent., but the idea that the increase is having an adverse effect on production seems to me to be ludicrous.
I agree with much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly). I thought at one time that I had got a new recruit, but then he deviated the other way. I agree with him that this agricultural problem has to be seen against a wider background. We live in a continuing state of crisis. The balance of payments problem continues to reduce every other political issue to strictly secondary status. Therefore, I agree entirely that the necessity for a vigorous, efficient British agricultural industry cannot be overemphasised.
Whether this industry is going to be stable and prosperous in the years to come depends, however, on a much more vigorous initiative from inside the industry itself. No British Government, Labour, Conservative or any other, can improve the lot of the farmer indefinitely except within the limits of the farmers' willingness to step up productivity per acre, lower costs and pass on the result of those lower costs in the shape of lower selling prices. Anybody who pretends that there is no potential field of conflict between the industrial worker and his wife and family and the interests of the farmers does an ill-service to the study of this subject.
There is a very wide field of potential conflict between the industrial worker, who depends for his livelihood on the production of goods which are in competition with goods from other countries in international markets, and the agricultural community. The price of these goods largely depends on the cost of the contents of the housewives' shopping basket, and that in turn depends very largely on the cost of home produced food. Let us make no mistake about this; when we sit down with Dillon of the Irish Republic and Peron of the Argentine, as I have with both, about the first thing that they say, no matter what commodity is discussed is, "How much are you paying the British farmer?" That becomes 656 the yardstick of the argument. Therefore, the price paid to the British farmer is not only felt in the matter of the food we produce here at home, but it also reflects itself in the price we have to pay overseas.
I have said before, and it is necessary to repeat it, that this industry has been the favourite son of the national economy for a good many years now. For 12 years it has not had to fear its ancient enemy, foreign competition. It has enjoyed a completely sheltered market. It has enjoyed guaranteed prices for unlimited quantities of produce. Never in the history of this country has any industry enjoyed such a privileged position. Furthermore, in the four years from 1948–49 to 1951–52 there has been a subsidy to stimulate production and, it was hoped, lower prices. Together with that subsidy was provided a subsidy so that the pledge of guaranteed markets for unlimited quantities might be honoured. Those two subsidies amounted to £1,200 million, £320 million of which was to stimulate production, efficiency and an increased acreage yield. The remainder, as I have said, was to stabilise the cost of living and to honour the pledge about guaranteed markets for produce. That total represents £300 million a year.
I do not know what £300 million represents in Income Tax—I suppose it is about 2s. 6d. in the £—but £1,200 million in four years is an awful lot of money. I have got a very healthy respect for money. I find it a most inconvenient thing to be without. Therefore, I believe that if this nation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke said, is to stand on its own feet and, looking across the Atlantic, say, "Thank you, Uncle Sam. we can manage now," we have got to have a healthy respect for money, and certainly we have to make sure that we are getting the very fullest value for every penny that we spend.
Can that be said after the lavish financial assistance that this industry has had? There has been an expenditure of £1,200 million in four years over and above what housewives have paid, but has the return in terms of efficiency, productivity in acreage yields, yields of milk per cow and so on been commensurate with the spending? If we sit down and analyse the figures only one answer can be arrived at. The results 657 have been very meagre and very disappointing indeed.
§ Mr. Paget
My hon. Friend does not seem to realise the essential economy of this industry when he displays the arguments of Bright and Cobden. There can be low cost agriculture at a low level of production, or high cost agriculture at a high level of production. We cannot have high production at low cost in England. The amount produced by agriculture has come fully up to the plan which was made at the time the expenditure was undertaken. We have produced what we planned to produce for that expenditure, and it will not be got at any less price because high level production here is not economical in the world sense of the word.
§ Mr. Evans
That is the point of view of my hon. and learned Friend, which I have no doubt he will be able to put for the second time if he catches Mr. Speaker's eye. I do not accept the argument of my hon. and learned Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke spoke of the increased profits from farming in the past few years. I was not able to accept his arithmetic. Perhaps he went to a night school, and cannot add up during the day. The increase since 1937 has been 480 per cent.—£56 million in 1937, £183 million in 1947, £325 million last year. That compares with 175 per cent. increase in wages and salaries. I do not mind what the farmers have, provided the return is commensurate with what is doled out.
Let us take the British yields in oats and wheat and barley and compare them with those of the Danes, who produce in conditions of similar climate and rainfall, with no difference in the soil. Last year the production per acre of those three commodities was less in this country by about 44 per cent. in the one instance, 46 per cent. in the second and 48 per cent. in the third. I have the exact figures supplied by the Danish Embassy, but I do not want to take time giving them precisely. In addition, Danish cows are still producing over 100 gallons each more per year, while the milk is of a very much higher quality.
These are the comparisons which we are forced to make. It is not as though this industry were standing on its own 658 two feet, running the risk of going bankrupt, with all the social stigma attached. It is in a unique position and we, as the custodians of the public purse, must ask these questions. I hope someone will tell me tonight why it is that the Danes, with no advantage of soil or climate or wages—the wage of an agricultural worker in Denmark is £1 2s. 9d. a day—can produce so much more efficiently and at so much smaller cost than ourselves.
At the present time British farmers are getting 74 per cent. more for their milk than the Danish farmers. The Danish farmers are still supplying us with 1 lb. of butter for less money than we pay the British farmer for a gallon of milk. I want to know why it is. It is no good anybody on the benches opposite or on these benches thinking that this industry can be guaranteed the present high prices and guaranteed markets for unlimited quantities "come hell or high water," because it cannot. In the last resort, we are a great industrial nation and 93 per cent. of our people have no contact with agriculture. They depend for their livelihood on the competitive force that the industries with which they are associated can deploy in international markets. It is absurd for anybody to think that this nation would stand by and see these markets lost because of the high cost of British food.
Therefore, I say that the future of the industry depends on the industry itself. It would be the greatest mistake in the world for the N.F.U. leaders, in the pursuit of apparent security, to destroy real security. That is the danger, this belief that somehow, some Government, this or the preceding one, can make certain the future prosperity of this industry at present prices. It is beyond the power of any British Government to do that. So I hope that the N.F.U. leaders will turn to the question of increased efficiency and productivity.
As I said at Bournemouth on Whit Tuesday, when it comes to pennies from Whitehall or marketing boards designed to sell crab apples at the price of Cox's Orange Pippins, the boys are there with their shoes shined, but when it comes to productivity one would think it was a naughty word. I want to know why the British fruit farmers want protection against Canadian apples which cost more 659 to pick, grade and pack and then have to be sent by rail across the American continent and afterwards shipped 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. Why does the British fruit farmer want that protection?
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
Would the hon. Gentleman allow me to answer that question? They only want protection where the products are subsidised by the Government.
§ Mr. Evans
I have yet to know that the Canadian Government subsidises the production of apples.
We are pursuing a policy which needs to be carefully examined, and the best thing that could happen in the interests of this industry and of the country would be an inquiry into it. I am far from satisfied, and the urban population is far from satisfied. In this request I am looking for a good deal of support from hon. Gentlemen on the benches opposite because with them inquiries are in fashion. The Government have ordered an inquiry into the publicly-owned London Transport and into the National Health Service and 122 hon. Gentlemen on that side of the Committee want an inquiry into the publicly-owned coal industry. I make no complaint. I believe that if we are to get back on our own two feet we must examine all our policies with the same icy detachment with which a surgeon examines X-ray plates. I suggest that the need for an inquiry into this industry is greater than in the case of any of the others.
I agree that the industry has a great part to play, but we are entitled to expect a different psychology on the part of its leaders. I get invitations to talk to farmers from all over the country and whenever I can, I go. I talked to more than 400 farmers at Worcester. We had a grand time. I flung everything at them except the platform I stood on. I have never seen such magnificent fielding—they returned it all. When the night had gone, however, each of us understood where we stood, and I am sure that that was helpful. I went to Guildford and the Guildford Young Farmers put on a show. We had the same rough and tumble down there. I am to go to the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, I have been to Oxford University, and I am invited to Bristol.
660 There is a lot more interest in this subject than the N.F.U. pretend, and there is growing interest. This country is anxious to be fair to the farmer and most anxious to see a strong, stable, self-reliant, prosperous agricultural industry in Britain—and that permanently. I repeat that this depends on the industry itself. Here I think the N.F.U. leaders have gone a little astray. It has sometimes seemed to me that defects of temperament and faulty mental attitudes have led to a situation in which they are psychologically divorced from the main stream of our national life. They seem to have one philosophy—"Gimme, gimme."
I suggest that if they got out into the countryside, preaching the story of how to make every acre yield more at less cost, a rapid and dramatic change could be anticipated in the productivity of British agriculture. I deem this to be a not unreasonable request. After all, the mendicant friars of the Middle Ages went out and did a little preaching occasionally; they were not always at the tap. The rewards would be very great, because to see British farmers standing on their own two feet a couple of hours a day would be a sight for sore eyes. We should all feel so proud and thrilled and excited that I am sure the leaders of the industry would be pleased.
I believe that the necessity for an inquiry into the moribund condition of this industry becomes more apparent every day. We have done everything we can to give the industry confidence. We have done everything we can to enable it to become more efficient, to bring greater acreage yields and more and better milk per cow. We have done all these things, but the return has not been commensurate.
The Minister once said that the industry enjoys virtual self-government. Self-government means the assumption of responsibility as well as the enjoyment of privilege. We have gone to great lengths. Each of the three political leaders of the Ministry of Agriculture is a farmer. I think that they are admirable men but, were they the most saintly men of our time, I am not at all sure that it is entirely desirable; but such has been the desire to give this industry confidence that that is what has been done. We have the N.F.U. and the Ministry of Agriculture conducting negotiations 661 which result in the transference of £1,200 million in four years from the pockets of the taxpayers to the pockets of the farmers, because that is what has happened. At the head of these negotiations representing the nation—the taxpayer—is the Ministry of Agriculture the three political heads of which are all farmers.
I make no aspersions, although I have sometimes doubted the constitutional propriety of this. Each of the three men enjoys my confidence and respect. I make no personal aspersions, but this is the extent to which the nation has gone in its desire to give the industry confidence and to encourage it to go all-out to increase efficiency and productivity.
It is because I believe that the results achieved so far are quite meagre in relation to the sacrifices made by the nation so that this industry could be sustained, and because I believe that we as a nation are coming back into a much more competitive era and that it will not be possible to maintain guaranteed markets for unlimited quantities at present prices in all circumstances—it is for these reasons and in the interests of the industry itself not less than in the interests of the nation, that I say that an inquiry is long overdue.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Sir Robert Boothby (Aberdeenshire, East)
It is some considerable time since I troubled the Committee, and I crave the indulgence of hon. Members for the speech of a "maiden knight," if I may put it in that way. I listened with great interest, as I always do, to the speech of the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans). I shall be dealing with one or two of the things he said in the course of my remarks. I should, however, like to say that when he points out the advantages that agriculture has enjoyed as an industry since the war, he should remember that both the coal industry and the steel industry have enjoyed exactly comparable and similar conditions. Both have been entirely free from any kind of foreign competition. That is by the way.
This debate is important, because I believe that the economics—
§ Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)
Will the hon. Gentleman indicate what subsidies are received by the other two industries he mentioned?
§ Sir R. Boothby
I was referring, and I said so, to the absence of foreign competition. They have bad no foreign competition of any sort. I am prepared to say that, on balance, if there was an investigation into both the coal industry and the agricultural industry in this country, we should find that of the two the agricultural industry was more efficient. I really do believe that to be true.
I was saying that I believe that the economics of the second half of the 20th Century will revolve very largely round food. As against the hon. Member for Wednesbury, I believe that there is a grave and an increasing world shortage of food which will not disappear in our time. Therefore, I think that there will be guaranteed prices for food in unlimited quantities for ever, as far as we are concerned; but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, if we give them, we want the maximum efficiency on the part of the producer in return.
There is to my mind no shadow of doubt that the surest and safest road to economic salvation for this country in the next 10 to 15 years is an increased production of food. We can argue as we like about balances of payments, convertibility and the rest of the economic nostrums with which we are being deaved, as we say in Scotland. Here is a clear issue: should we or should we not produce more food? To that question there can only be one answer.
At present it takes nearly half the earnings of our exporting industries to pay for our imports of food and drink alone. Nearly half of our total exports are used to pay for our imports of food and drink. This is all wrong. That being said, let us have a look at the achievement. Despite what the hon. Member for Wednesbury said, it is considerable. We are now producing more than double our pre-war output of coarse grains on about a 75 per cent. increase in acreage. That in itself is remarkable. We are producing all the milk we require, 100 per cent. We are producing 61 per cent. more potatoes than we did pre-war, and 55 per cent. more sugar beet, off acreages increased by only 37 per cent. and 22 per cent., respectively. That looks to me like a considerable increase in productivity.
The gross value of our agricultural output, our output of food, for 1952–53 663 was £1,120 million. If home production had been back during that year at the pre-war level, we should have had to spend another £400 million on imports of food from abroad, or suffered a very serious shortage of food for our people. The sum of £400 million is sizeable. It would have made a marked difference to the national balance of payments.
These are considerations we ought to bear in mind. On the other hand, beef, veal, mutton lamb and pig meat production has increased by only 7 per cent. That is the bad side of the picture, as I see it. The fact remains that, with an index of net output standing at 50 per cent. above pre-war, we are still producing only half our total food requirements. That is not enough.
We may reasonably expect under the existing policies, and the progress we are making which the Minister of Agriculture outlined, to increase this to 60 per cent. and two-fifths over the next three years; but that still will not be enough. In my view we have to double our prewar production over the next decade. This will involve a total expansion of current output by 40 per cent.
Therefore I say, and I say it with emphasis and with no apology, that the present targets of the Government for agricultural production are too low. I would also agree with the hon. Member for Wednesbury that there is no cause for complacency. Despite the enormous increase in mechanisation in this country since the war—a far greater comparable increase than has taken place in any other country—the contrast between our standards of farming and those of Denmark and Holland is at once disturbing and challenging, and we may as well face it. Both of these countries have a higher head of livestock per acre, and they have a better average quality—for example, Danish pigs—and yield, for example, Dutch cows.
This comparison is, admittedly, not quite fair, and I put this point to the hon. Member for Wednesbury in regard to Denmark and Holland. First, the economies of those two countries have been built round the farm; whereas the economy of this country has been built up round the factory. We are an industrial country, and they are concentrated and specialised agricultural countries. 664 Second, they have been producing primarily for export; and third, they have concentrated on one or two items, which they do superbly. Therefore, it is not really quite fair to make the comparison between Danish farming and British farming, because the conditions, not of soil, nor of climate, but of environment and of economic policy, are so entirely different.
Denmark and Holland are fundamentally agricultural countries. They have built up their whole national life on the basis of the farm. Our national life, for better or worse, has been built up on the basis of the factory, which makes a very sharp difference.
§ Mr. S. N. Evans
In the matter of the dairy side of the industry, that is quite true, but would the hon. Member apply the same argument to cereals—to wheat, barley and oats? Is there really any reason why they should be getting 50 per cent. more per acre?
§ Sir R. Boothby
The argument is not quite the same, because fundamentally and primarily they are agricultural communities and they devote everything—all their energies, their capital, their skill and all their lives—to that single purpose. I think it would be found, however, that there was a greater disparity between their milk production and ours, than between their wheat production and ours.
The need for increased production of meat in this country is at the moment paramount. Fortunately, arable stock farming remains the basis of British agriculture. I am not one of those who advocate mountaineering in search of food. I have never thought that that was a very good economic policy. Speaking personally, I am not very keen on mountaineering in any shape or form. It may be exhilarating for some, but I find it exhausting and rather boring.
There is, however, room for a considerable further expansion of the production of animal feed in this country; and, therefore, of animals, on marginal and hill land. I reckon that we could bring into use an additional two to three million acres without undue cost. In this business of reclaiming marginal land it is the cost that has to be borne in mind; and we must never forget it, because sometimes a lot of nonsense is talked about it. But 665 I reckon that we could do that, and I think that Lord Lovat has shown that it can be done and how it can be done. He has done a great job in the Highlands of Scotland.
Nevertheless, the key to this problem of meat production does not lie in marginal land. It lies, in my opinion, with livestock and leys. This means that the plough must be taken round the farm to the same extent in England as it is in Scotland. I wish that I could get some of the English farmers and Members of Parliament to come up to Angus, Forfar and Aberdeenshire and look at the farms there, and see how farming really should be done. Some Americans who came up there the other day rightly said, "This is the best farming in the world." Livestock and leys, take the plough round the farm, and leave nothing out. That is what they do up there.
Despite the fact that grass management has become almost an exact science, the English particularly, and, I am afraid, some parts of Scotland also, carry millions of acres of poor grazing; and they go on feeding to dairy cows concentrates which should be going into the production of bacon and eggs. Nobody can deny that, because it is profoundly true. The answer is to improve the quality of permanent pasture by the application of scientific methods where this can be done; and to bring the rest of it under the corrective influence of the plough, which in my opinion is not sufficiently done, especially in England, although I do not want to make a national issue out of it.
If we do that, we could, in my view, carry several million more head of sheep and cattle; and increase the production of meat over present levels by 50 per cent. within a reasonable period of time. There is no other single thing in the domestic field that any Government could do which would be as beneficial to this country as a whole.
It requires a new approach on the part of the Government, on the part of the farmers and, last but not least, on the part of the public. I would say this to the Government—I do not need to say it to my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, because he knows it as well as I do, but no harm 666 is done in reminding him of solid truths about which he and I have agreed for many years past. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that livestock production is a long-term investment, demanding, above all else, confidence and a sense of security. It is less profitable than straight arable farming, and it requires more capital than dairy fanning.
The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) gave some figures, which were quite interesting. I would add to them only these. It has been estimated that to produce cattle now costs between £40 and £45 a head and sheep about £5 a head, as against wheat at only £15 an acre. This means that an additional million beef cattle and five million more sheep would need an extra working capital amounting to about £60 million. That is a lot of money, and if we add to this the need for further fixed capital investment it becomes clear—on this I take issue with the hon. Member for Wednesbury, who spoke before me—that if we are to get the meat production which we require, massive additional capital investment in this industry is required. It has got to be done. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
I know of no more rewarding field, and I am slightly disturbed by the fact that in recent years there has been a definite tendency for agriculture to receive a declining share of the total national resources devoted to fixed investment. The banks have done a good job, but they cannot do it all. I suggest in all seriousness to the Government that, so far as credits are concerned, something more than the Mortgage Corporation is now required.
The Government ought to examine seriously the possibility of setting up something in the nature of an Agricultural Credits Guarantee Department, similar to the Export Credits Guarantee Department. Exports and agriculture are the two most vital things in our economic life. The Export Credits Guarantee Department has been doing a magnificent job, largely behind the scenes, in stimulating our exports. We know far too little about it in the House of Commons. Every time one investigates what they do, at the practical level, one comes across fresh examples of contracts which we have obtained and carried out and paid for, which never could have 667 been done without the Export Credits Guarantee Department. I believe that an Agricultural Credits Guarantee Department on a comparable scale would do equally good work.
My second suggestion is that the Government should set up a Meat Marketing Board, as soon as they decide to replace the present method of marketing meat through the Ministry of Food, with wide powers and effective consumer safeguards. They also should have a comprehensive slaughter-house policy for the nation as a whole, which they have not got at present. They should provide adequate refrigeration facilities for summer-killed animals, because one of the reasons why the farmers are in a mess over this is that they do not at present have the refrigeration facilities for summer-killed animals. Finally, I think they should have a price structure which will not only maintain the present rewards for quality production but also ensure that the farmer who has to keep his beasts through the winter will have a reasonable return when he sells them in the spring.
I now turn to the farmers, having dealt with the Government, although I have not quite finished with the Government and will return to them before I sit down. Farmers must now concentrate on the conversion of the inherent wealth of their land into animal products. They have not done that sufficiently since the war. They must provide every year an increasing number of store cattle for fattening, as supplies from Ireland diminish. They have been diminishing in the last two or three years and will go on diminishing, and we must therefore produce our own stores and fatten them here. Farmers must stop killing calves a few days old and sending them to the potted meat factories. They must grow every animal suitable for beef to the best economic weight and age.
I now turn to the public, having spoken of the Government and the farmers. The public must learn to think of meat not only in terms of prime beef and canned ham, of which their consumption at exorbitant prices is absolutely fantastic. They are consuming all sorts of fancy meats from cans and tins and if they cannot get them, or prime beef, they 668 seem to think they are not getting any meat at all. They must divert their exclusive attention from canned ham and prime beef and direct it to mutton, to pork and, last but not least, to veal. Veal is not sufficiently consumed in this country, but it is consumed to a very large extent on the Continent of Europe and, when well cooked, is exceedingly good, and compares favourably with any other meat.
I now come to a rather difficult passage of my speech, but I must say a word on the subject of marketing. In this country we handle 40 per cent. of the world's trade in food, and we continue to do so even after the war. We are, therefore, a controlling factor in world price stability. Our basic objective must surely be to combine maximum stability with maximum freedom. To the primary producer, with the long time-lag between his costs of production and the sale of his products, violent price fluctuations are deadly. Nothing could do him more harm; even if prices go up sharply that does not do him any good. In agriculture there are wide seasonal fluctuations—caused by conditions, weather, and so on. Any policy, national or international, which budgets for the world's food needs must therefore, give rise to periodic surpluses; and these must not be flung without thought on ordinary markets and break those markets, but be disposed of in an orderly manner. So my plea is for orderly marketing both abroad in the international field, and at home.
Before the war I remember oats at 14s. a quarter. I remember when our Scottish farmers were on their backs under the flail of foreign vested interests and speculators, and the long years when prime Scotch beef was under the hammer at Smithfield at prices far below the cost of production. The Joint Under-Secretary of State will also remember that very well, and will agree with me when I say that whatever theoretical views we may have about Socialism, capitalism, bulk purchase, private enterprise, or whatever it may be, Scottish farmers are never going to allow that to happen again. Never—they are never again to be at the mercy of those foreign speculators at Smithfield Market—never. We will march down—if ever that happens—with our claymores and burn Smithfield to the 669 ground; and it will not be the first time it has been burned to the ground.
I am well aware that on the subject of bulk purchase I am regarded by my party as something of a heretic, but I have been absolutely solid and consistent on it for a quarter of a century. There can be no doubt that the bulk purchase policy of the Ministry of Food has given a considerable measure of stability to world food prices, and a considerable measure of prosperity to primary producers all over the world. We have to face that fact, and it should not be a party political question but a question to be considered coldly and objectively—under the microscope as the hon. Member opposite suggested—and strictly with regard to its intrinsic merits.
My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) will remember that in the 1920's F. L. McDougall of Australia, the late Francis Blundell and he and I, under the stimulus of Lord Bruce—then Mr. Bruce, Prime Minister of Australia—seriously considered the possibility of establishing an Imperial Wheat Pool. Mr. Bruce actually went the length of advocating a meat purchasing organisation, and we nearly fainted, thinking that it was such a daring idea. But it was not so stupid as all that, and we went on batting away and, 16 years ago, I said to the farmers of Perth:We do not take kindly to co-operation in this country. But that is our misfortune rather than our gain. Look at the Meat Boards of Australia and New Zealand. Why should we not have a Meat Producers' Board in this country? It is the only way in which we can obtain reasonable prices for our beasts, full value for their by-products, and minimum overhead costs.That was 16 years ago. Now the Ministry of Food is on the way out, I ask: what is to replace it? I suggest two things. First, international commodity agreements for basic products. Second, marketing boards at home. I understand it was the decision of the Ministry of Food not to sign the Wheat Agreement the other day. I do not dispute the wisdom of the Government, although I think it was a pity. We must have a wheat agreement. We cannot go on outside it. We are too important for that. We can and should fight for our rights, but I am not sure that 5 cents is worth such a tremendous fight as all this, and 670 sooner or later we must negotiate a wheat agreement. The same goes for sugar. International commodity agreements and marketing boards with trading powers are indeed the only answer to the disappearance of the Ministry of Food.
Here I am glad to see my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove, because this country owes these commodity boards almost entirely to him. He started them and established them, and they were a tremendous success. My only complaint was that he did not go further and faster and apply them to meat and oats whilst the going was good. Whenever he applied them they were a great success. Look at the experience of the Milk Marketing Board. Above all they make for efficiency and, not for contraction, but for expansion. Their effect is to stabilise output, prices and consumer supplies at the highest level consistent with effective demand; to give the producer a sense of underlying security; and to make possible a certain long-term stability of prices which in an industry like this is absolutely vital.
The call for a practical agricultural policy is not unjustified. It should set new production targets designed to double our pre-war output and give the necessary priority to meat. We have not done either of these things, and have not yet declared our intention that meat production at this moment is of paramount importance. We should lay down concrete proposals for the preservation of good agricultural land at all costs. Keep the Air Ministry out, keep the Ministry of Housing out and keep the Ministry of Works out; do not let them touch it if it is good land. We cannot afford that. This is more important than anything else at present. We should provide for a marketing system based on commodity boards, and also adequate slaughter and cold-storage facilities. We should make capital available at reasonable rates. I really do not think the hullabaloo over an additional 1 per cent. interest rate is justified. After all, it is only a tenner in £1,000, and that will not make or break anybody. But capital must be made available, at reasonable interest rates, for the development of marginal land, the equipment of farms and the improvement of the fertility of the soil.
671 Finally, we should give to the efficient young stock farmers the chance to make good. Today they require to be competent practical scientists as well as skilled factory managers. There are some very good young men coming through the agricultural colleges who would do very well if only they could get on to the land. But they have not the opportunity of getting there. I hate the idea of turning farmers out of their farms, and I think that in their hearts most hon. Members feel the same. But we must all admit that we cannot afford to allow a really inefficient farmer to waste valuable land in this country today. The need for increased productivity is too desperate.
The agricultural executive committees have been criticised. I do not think the present system is working very well, and one of the reasons is that it takes such an interminable time to get anything done. There is undoubtedly some over-security of tenure in this country. It takes months or even years to remove a really inefficient farmer, particularly if he is a tenant farmer, even though there be adequate compensation provided. The present system is too cumbersome and slow, as well as being rather unfair; and needs to be looked at again. I hope the Minister will do it.
Lastly, our agricultural policy should be possessed of a dynamic quality and informed by a sense of urgency without which we cannot hope to succeed; and without which there can be no hope of maintaining our present standard of living for which increased food production is the certain recipe, and I think almost the only recipe.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)
The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) is always very stimulating, and I agree especially with that part of his remarks which concerned marketing. He gave credit to his right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), a former Minister of Agriculture, and he is quite right to do so. But I would remind him of the work done by the late Lord Addison in connection with marketing boards—
§ Mr. Price
I remember being a member of the Standing Committee which dealt with the Bill introduced by Lord Addison in 1930 and part of 1931.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) made some not very helpful remarks regarding farmers' profits, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) also referred to the profit which farmers are said to be making. Although the figures may be correct according to the Inland Revenue, a very large part of that money has to go to financing the ordinary day-to-day work of the farm, and to the provision of equipment, livestock and so forth. In other words, much of the profit made on the farm today—as those who have to deal with farming know to their cost—has to be ploughed back to a very large degree. Those of us who have to deal with these problems realise that if we are to raise the level of production in the country beyond the figure of 60 per cent. it will involve more finance. Incidentally, I feel that the Government are a little conservative in their figure in this respect, and that production could be raised by more than 60 per cent.
I do not know if instructions have been given to the banks to be as forthcoming as possible regarding schemes which potential creditors may put to them for extended farming operations. The Government will have to look very carefully at this matter. If the banks cannot meet the demand some other method must be found; some scheme such as the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, which will supplement the work of the banks.
I would agree that there is still a good deal of farming which cannot be called bad farming but which is only a moderate type of farming. That is a great difficulty today. There are very good farmers and a few very bad farmers, but there are also a lot of mediocre farmers who do not realise what a revolution has resulted from the application of science and technology to agriculture. I have witnessed the enormous improvements which can be effected by the application of selective weed killers, for example. By that means the dock and the thistle, which are among the worst pests on arable land, have been almost eliminated.
I have also seen the immense change which has come about in the handling of 673 farmyard manure. In the old days it was necessary to employ half a dozen men for weeks in shifting the manure in the spring. Today, by means of the lifting machinery attached to tractors, three or four men can do the job in a few days, which reduces the cost of farmyard manure by nearly 50 per cent.
But these methods are not practised generally and agricultural committees must accelerate action on the part of farmers who do their best, but who have not yet realised the immense changes which have come about thanks to scientific investigation and discovery. I believe that these committees are doing admirable work, and, of course, it is done voluntarily. I occasionally receive letters from farmers and landowners in my constituency who are being pressed to do this or that by the agricultural committee because the committee are of opinion that things are not up to the requisite standard.
If agriculture is to fulfil its task in the near future there must be price stability, and farmers must be able to look ahead with confidence. I remember the time when farmers worried about what would be the selling price if they produced one kind of crop or fattened up certain animals. That worry has been removed thanks to the Agriculture Act which my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) piloted through this House. But it would appear that the Government are now in the process of modifying the provisions of that Act. They have introduced an element of doubt and uncertainty about the price mechanism and about the method of working the Act.
We have only to look at the agricultural Press to see evidence of this element of doubt and uncertainty and to know what the farmers are thinking. The great question to my mind is how farmers can be guaranteed prices under the Agriculture Act and at the same time sell competitively on a free market. The Government seem to be toying with the idea of doing that. Perhaps there are ways; I do not know. Clause 4 of the Agriculture Act, 1947, foreshadows methods by which a freer market may be possible, but stability maintained by deficiency payments and marketing schemes.
This opens up a very important question. Deficiency payments may be a means of stabilising the market. Wheat, 674 oats and similar products depend for their prices upon the world market and are the very type of product which lend themselves to deficiency payment schemes. I hope that something like the Wheat Act, 1932, will be introduced again which would put a bottom to the market, which now appears to have none, if we are not to have uncertainty for some time. I wish the Government would get busy about doing it. The Minister did not tell us very much, but no doubt he has many interests to consider and negotiate with.
§ Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)
The hon. Gentleman was saying just now that there is no bottom to the market for cereals. Surely he knows that there is a guaranteed price for the 1953 harvest under the interim scheme?
§ Mr. Price
There is an interim scheme which is in operation. I did not mean to convey any other impression, and if I did so I was wrong; but we want something much better than the present interim arrangement, something more permanent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree.
There are other products for which marketing schemes are essential. The National Farmers' Union has come in for a great deal of criticism by my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury who talked about it as if it was divorced from actuality. I happen to know something about the National Farmers' Union. I have been a member of it for many years. The people who sit in Bedford Square have all been elected from the county branches and the smaller branches, and they are all people who have got their ears to the ground. They have to listen to the points of view of the member in the parishes and the country districts.
I know that they are very interested indeed in re-establishing marketing boards, which have been largely pushed into the background over recent years. The Government's action over eggs, for instance, has been too precipitate. They have abolished the fixed price of eggs. We want an egg marketing scheme, but the Government went bald-headed for a scheme to abolish the fixed price and set up a temporary arrangement. They did not inform anybody, not even the National Farmers' Union, and up to now we do not know what is going to happen. I listened very carefully to the Minister to 675 hear whether he had anything to say about an egg marketing scheme. Perhaps the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will fill up some of the gaps in the Minister's speech and give an assurance that an egg marketing scheme is on the way. We have heard rumours, but there is nothing one can be sure about.
In regard to milk, the Milk Marketing Board was shorn of many of its powers under wartime conditions. Is it to get back the powers it once had? How will the prices be arranged? Shall we continue our present fixed prices, or will there be deficiency payments similar to those proposed for the Wheat Marketing Board? In the case of milk there is again an element of uncertainty which I wish the Government would do something to disperse, because it is causing a great deal of trouble in the industry.
Meat, too, is an example. I agree with much that was said by the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East. Meat is another aspect in respect of which a marketing scheme is required. The Deputy President of the National Farmers' Union was reported in the agricultural papers as saying that three-quarters of the movement of livestock could be dispensed with as being much too wasteful and that one-third of the collecting centres were redundant. He said there was much double handling and unnecessary movement of the animals to marketing centres. This condemns the present system and makes it imperative for us to replace it by something different.
The National Farmers' Union has a marketing scheme which has been considered by the county and parish branches, and in the main has had support. One can say that it is the N.F.U. scheme. It may not be exactly one that the Government of the day can accept in all its details, but the general principle is sound. It is something on the lines of what we were gradually working up to before the war. We had the Livestock Marketing Act in 1936, and the bacon marketing Acts just before the war. We were working out a system of central abattoirs in order to have a more secure market for meat and to eliminate waste.
I would say a word about the production grants which are paid out by 676 the Ministry for the encouragement of the use of fertilisers and the feeding of calves and as ploughing-up grants. These come mostly from the global sum agreed to in the Price Review. These are the soundest methods. They help the good farmer. By reducing the price of fertilisers their use on a big scale is encouraged. The farmer is encouraged to rear the largest number of calves possible.
The only doubt that I have is about the ploughing-up grants. We should like to know rather more about them. The fact is that many farmers who have been receiving these grants would have ploughed up their land anyhow, because it is part of the policy of taking the plough round the farm, which is the only sound and sensible thing to do these days. They do not need the subsidy for this purpose. The people who need the subsidy are the farmers on the marginal land. Payment of the subsidy to them may just tip the scale in favour of ploughing up and making it worth their while to do so. We ought to know to what extent this subsidy has gone to that type of farmer and how much of it has gone to the farmer who does not need it and who is not on marginal land. If the Joint Parliamentary Secretary can give us any indication of that, it will be very useful.
As to calf rearing, I am not satisfied that everything is being done to prevent the unnecessary slaughter of calves, I understand that in the big industrial areas of the north the dairy farmers who retail milk to the towns have no facilities for rearing calves in their dairy herds, and the calves are slaughtered. I understand that a considerable number are being slaughtered in areas round Manchester, Liverpool and the big cotton towns and industrial cities of the north.
Is it not possible to have those calves removed to the great livestock rearing areas of Wales, the highlands of Cumberland and parts of Yorkshire? I wish the Minister would look into that and consider whether anything can be done by Government action to supplement the efforts of the private trade, which does not perhaps do what it might in this matter.
If we are to secure this 60 per cent. increase in production and more—I think that we can do more—there must be security in the form of deficiency pay- 677 ments, marketing schemes and adequate financial resources which will enable the farmer to do his duty, as I am sure he wants to do.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Mr. George Lambert (Torrington)
I hope that the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) will forgive me if I do not follow him in his remarks, but I want to keep my speech as short as possible, as several of my hon. Friends hope to be called.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said that there were various hindrances to the production of food. He mentioned rabbits, pigeons and crows. I should like to add: forms and Whitehall. During the course of his speech my right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of growing grass. Whitehall seem to have planned very well when they decided that Bilston high-grade basic slag is not to be sent to Devonshire, the county which grows better grass than any other county in the country.
When I saw this year's June return I thought that the Minister was continuing his policy of reducing the number of forms and making them more simple. I was delighted when it was announced that the quarterly return were only to be completed by one-third of the farmers, but it seems a pity that the return is now to be much more complicated. I urge the Minister to examine it carefully and see whether the number of questions cannot be reduced, because in each of the last three years the number has increased; it is now 145.
The various subsidies for attested herds, ploughing-up and calf rearing are all valuable, but in order to receive them the farmer has to keep records and fill in more forms. I suggest to the Minister that his experts could obtain the information about the number of calves or attested cattle from the December and June returns. It is probably all there if they look for it. Or, if not, these forms could be slightly modified so that the information could be made easily available.
I am afraid that another potential hindrance to production will be the shortage of labour. It is very frightening when one realises that we are losing men farm workers at the rate of around 10,000 a year. The right hon. Gentle- 678 man the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), whom we were all delighted to see back here this afternoon, stressed the importance of marginal land. But surely it is not wise to spend money and materials on increasing the production from marginal land if good fertile land is to go out of production due to the shortage of labour.
In this connection it is interesting to recall what the President of the Royal Agricultural Society said at Gloucester in 1853:It was now their very pleasing duty to retain the energetic, the active and the industrious by increased comforts, improved cottages close to their work, etc., so as to render the home of his father more attractive to the labourer than the gold fields of Australia or the increasing wages of the manufacturing districts.Today I do not think that it is so much a question of increasing wages as the lack of amenities in rural areas, the lack of buses, water and electricity.
We in the South-West have a very difficult problem with regard to electricity. The South-Western Area Board are alive to the problem and are doing all that they can to bring electricity to the rural areas as fast as they can. But we have a long way to go, as only one in three of the farms has main electricity. To put it another way, 20,000 farms are without it, as are 45,000 other premises. But this is the rub. In December, 1951, the whole of the South-West could have been electrified for £10 million; today it would cost £17 million, or just half of what was spent on the Groundnuts Scheme. We all welcome the very large increase in the amount that is to be spent on rural electricity, but I have a feeling that in the South-West the cost of bringing the main electricity to the farms will be prohibitive and will bring many schemes to a stop.
I should like the Minister to tell us whether it would be possible to grant a capital subsidy for the provision of electricity. This is already done for water and drainage, and it can be done in some parts of the country under the Hill Farming Act. Surely the time is now ripe for areas where there is a shortage of labour, where the land is good and where a great deal more food can be produced, to enable those areas to have mains electricity and for the Government to pay, say, half the cost not only for farms but 679 also for the workers' cottages. I believe that if we can provide better amenities in the countryside we shall have gone a very long way to preventing the continual drain of skilled labour from our land.
§ 8.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)
I gathered from the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Lambert) that he was probably the author of that very crude Tory leaflet which attacked farming from Whitehall. However, I later came to agree with two important parts of his speech—not the first part, but that portion which dealt with the importance of labour. I agree with him that the position is extremely serious. In fact, the latest Digest of Statistics which I have—for May, 1953—giving the figures for last year, shows that there was a decline of regular male workers of 23,500. That is a very formidable figure.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an average decrease of 10,000. Last year the figure was more than 20,000. I wish that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) had spoken on this matter because I remember that in 1946 he focused opinion in this House on the decrease in manpower in our agricultural industry, and he actually intervened in a main Budget debate to criticise budgetary policy for not giving incentives to attract workers into industry. I remember his speech. He said:Perhaps the most dangerous feature of our internal economic situation is the acute shortage of labour in our two basic industries, agriculture and coalmining; upon which, in the final analysis, the whole national economy depends."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 2007.]He said that there was nothing in the Budget to remedy that situation.
The position is still the same today. We have had an extremely valuable and interesting report from the Minister, and I was very glad that he concentrated on the productive side of the industry. No doubt, we shall be able to study more carefully some of the interesting figures which he gave for various forms of agricultural production. We all applaud such increases. But whatever increases we have, and whatever arguments we may have about what financial aid shall be given to the industry—whether it be in the form of extended subsidies, or 680 acreage payments, or selective aid for hill farmers, or special credit facilities in relation to matters like electricity—the health and vitality of this industry will in the end depend upon a healthy supply of labour being available.
I was very glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned this point. I agree that the whole question depends upon amenities in the industry. When I first heard of the decrease and saw the figures for last year I questioned various Ministers. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in reply to an intervention which I made, said that the decrease in manpower was entirely due to mechanisation. Since then we have found that he was wrong. The Minister himself, at a production conference held in the North of England, at Newcastle, according to a report in the "Farmers' Weekly," said that the call-up is not the real cause of farmers' labour troubles, and he went on to mention that it was a question of providing amenities to attract to the countryside not only the workers as such but the workers' families.
In that very interesting speech he gave some figures. He said that the average losses of workers were to be found among the 25 to 30 years age group. He went on to suggest that this should be the first item on the agenda of every National Farmers' Union branch. I suggest that it should be the main item on our agenda this evening. I know that it involves many sides of our life with which the Department, whose Estimates we are debating, is not concerned.
Reference has been made to electricity. We had an interesting debate only the other week on this subject. We were glad to hear that over the last three years there has been a rapid increase in farm connections, the average rate per year having been in the region of 9,000 as compared with the pre-war figure of 2,000 a year. That will help, and by the improvement of amenities of that kind we shall help to attract more people to the countryside. I hope that the Minister and the Government will give this matter urgent consideration. If necessary, some extraordinary action will have to be taken.
I was interested to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, 681 East, who made his maiden speech as a knight, and with much of what he said I agreed. I think most hon. Members recognise that we have got to go on increasing our food production. One only has to look at the world food situation and the needs of peoples in other countries to realise that we must go on producing more food. In that world situation lies a guarantee to the farmers. To that extent, I agree very much with the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East. I always felt that he was not a Tory. That is why he is so popular on television. He speaks in the name of the Tory Party, but he often uses Socialist arguments. They are very attractive, and he is a very attractive speaker.
I am glad he criticised the policy which has been put forward. I know that he will continue to advocate international occasions at the Council of Europe, where planning, which he has stressed on many he speaks so frequently. I was glad that he stressed the need for credit facilities. It may be, as he said, and as was said also by my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans), that the increase in the Bank rate will have no marked effect, but I think it creates a gency, and, no matter what hon. Members general atmosphere of financial strinmay say, if we are to develop our marginal farms and help those farmers who may be receiving assistance under the Hill Farming and Livestock Rearing Acts there must be easy credit facilities.
This problem has been mentioned only recently by the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. I would remind hon. Members of the Tory promise at the last Election. In their dreary pamphlet, the "Agricultural Charter," which was out of date before it was printed, they said, in page 38:Since we wish to encourage new blood in agriculture, and since many farmers will have to undertake an unusually heavy outlay in expanding production and increasing efficiency in the near future, additional credit facilities are needed.I would remind hon. Members opposite that this was not just old Tory propaganda. It has been repeated recently. I have here a report of an interesting speech which the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in December, 1952, at a meeting in 682 London. In reply to an argument, he said that he was fully aware of the problems of agricultural credit. He would simply say, without wishing to forestall his Budget, that he would go on examining this question with sympathy. The Chancellor did nothing in his Budget. I put a Question to the Minister today, and he said that he was looking into the question. I know that he is not the master in this matter and that in the end it will depend upon budgetary policy, but so far, since the Conservative Government came into power, nothing has been forthcoming from the point of view of increased credit facilities for farmers, particularly those who are to develop our marginal farms. Indeed, there has been a reversal of that policy.
The policy pursued has been condemned by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Sir A. Braithwaite). He quoted figures showing that there had been a policy of restriction. Hon. Members opposite may defend it, but from the point of view of our primary producers it is a wrong policy, and in the end it can only harm food production. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us some indication when that Tory promise, in a Tory document, later repeated by a very responsible Member of his Government, will be fulfilled. I am not hopeful. The Government have set many precedents for promises not having been fulfilled, but on this occasion at least, in this field of agriculture, which is so important to our national effort and our desire to overcome the balance of payments problem, I hope the Minister can say that this matter has had some sympathetic consideration.
The Minister mentioned production, and another hon. Member opposite mentioned the need to set targets. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire that a target of a 60 per cent. increase in production, to be reached by 1956, as compared with the pre-war position, is not sufficient. I am certain that with a greater effort, increased credit facilities, a greater drive and initiative, and with a firm undertaking on the part of the Government about all the security that was given in the Labour Government's Agriculture Act, 1947, we can reach a target which will virtually double the output of food as compared with the pre-war position.
683 That is why I have tried to impress upon the Minister the need for setting targets for each commodity. I know that he has resisted our advice and our Questions on this matter, but when the main production campaign of the last Administration was launched, after the Act had been brought in, targets were set for various commodities. Although the Minister resists publishing targets or giving figures, he knows that in a very interesting Memorandum—No. 52–40—which he sent out to county and district committees last year, targets were set.
If one examines that Memorandum, and even its appendix, one can see that targets are virtually set for each district. There is mention of increasing the production and use of grass by 15 per cent. and of raising the yields of tillage crops by 5 per cent. I admit that there are certain generalisations, such as "growing as much wheat as possible," and "all the potatoes that the country wants," and "the need to maintain the present number of dairy cows," etc. Nevertheless, the Minister does ask how far each committee can assess production in their particular locality. He is virtually asking for a form of target. I should have hoped that even now, although he has firmly resisted this plea, he would still consider publishing or setting targets for each commodity. I am certain that it would be to the advantage of all.
I want to concentrate for a few moments on the Estimates themselves. On page 4 we have items dealing with agricultural education and research. They show that for 1953–54 there will be a decrease of £2,000. Similarly, in respect of agricultural education and grants to colleges there will be a decrease of £2,000. There is also a decrease under the heading of "Agricultural Education: Grants in Aid." I hope that the Minister can give some information about this. It is a pity that any form of agricultural education should be hampered in any way, and I hope that these items do not mean that there will be a cut in any form of agricultural education, or that any students who may have been sent up by a particular authority will be deprived of places in an agricultural college. There is one other item, in connection with the eradication of diseases and the improvement of livestock. Under one heading—"Eradication of diseases of animals"—there is a decrease of 684 £1,566,000. That is a formidable item and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary can give me some information about it.
I hope that the Minister will resist those sections of his party who would throw aside the main Agriculture Act, 1947. Mention has been made today of a speech made by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in a debate last February. Obviously the Minister's speech today has really knocked down the case advocated by that junior Minister. Nevertheless, there are certain people in the ranks of the party opposite—as there are in all parts of the House and the country—who would wish British agriculture to go back to the free-for-all system which we had before the war—a "set the people free" philosophy. I hope that hon. Members opposite will support their Minister and hon. Members on this side of the House who brought in the Act of 1947, and resist any such attempts to wreck something which provides a firm foundation for British agriculture.
If we recognise that here is a piece of legislation which needs to be backed by the various methods I have mentioned, and some which other hon. Members have mentioned, and by effective leadership at the top, which would destroy apathy in the localities by making the county committees really effective agents of the Ministry, then I am certain we can not only increase the targets which have been set by the Government but can go much further towards the more ambitious targets which have been mentioned today.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) need have no fear of the Conservative Party's attitude towards agriculture. The industry has always had the support of the party, never more so than today or than will be the case in the future, because we are very dependent on agriculture for many reasons, economic and otherwise. I did not hear the speech made by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to which reference has been made, but he is a farmer, and a very good farmer, and the last thing he would wish would be to bring any harm to his colleagues in this, the greatest of all British industries.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) is not in 685 his place because, in his interesting and provocative speech, he spoke of the farmer as the favoured son of Britain for the past 12 years. That may be true, but it was nothing done by any political party which made him the favoured son. It was the hunger of the people. For at least a century before that the farmer was thrown to the dogs. During the Industrial Revolution thousands of farmers went bankrupt and a great number migrated overseas. It is remarkable how farming managed to carry on in those dark days of dumping from overseas, frequently from countries with sweated labour.
Yet farming survived. I think the British farmer deserves the highest praise. In the recent war, as in the First World War, he buckled to and put up a wonderful show. My right hon. Friend and I served in the same House of Commons and supported the same Government for a long time, and I am glad to see him speaking once again for agriculture. He knows that in those days the British farmer and agricultural worker produced 70 per cent. of the food we were eating—and they were not thinking about profits but about the best possible service they could give to the country. Those who suggest an inquiry into the behaviour of British farmers would be well advised to handle the matter with velvet gloves.
Nevertheless, we are not producing anything approaching the full quantity of food we need. I congratulate the Minister of Agriculture on giving an account of his very efficient stewardship today. My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State gave a similar account yesterday in Scottish Grand Committee. But it would be futile for anyone to believe that we are out of danger. No country should have learned more thoroughly the lessons about the need for increased food production than Britain. We had very close risks in two world wars, and thousands of gallant men in the Navy, the Air Force and the Mercantile Marine gave their lives to ensure that food cargoes reached us. That is one lesson we should have learned.
When people talk of imports, I wonder if anyone would dare suggest that we should falter in any degree in the efforts we are making to increase our 686 home production of food, particularly when world food production barely meets the demand and may not meet it in the future. We have made desperate efforts to sell manufactured goods abroad in order to pay for our imports, and we have done that in a very favourable market since 1945. Now that that great hunger of the post-war period has been met, does anyone imagine that this demand will continue and that there will be a waiting queue of people to buy our manufactured goods? I hope there is, but I very much doubt it. Anyone who has lived as long as I have knows that there are far more buyers' markets than there are sellers' markets, and I think we are in for a very tough time in relation to finding the money to pay for our imports of food and raw materials.
I said we are not self-supporting, and I have some figures here which may be of interest. The United Kingdom pre-war annual average imports of carcase meat and offal amounted to 2,103,000 tons. In 1952, the last recorded year, the amount was only 1,555,000 tons, a decrease of 548,000 tons below the prewar average, and we have a much bigger population now than we had then. The Argentine figure has gone down by 306,000 tons. That will take some replacement. In the case of Australia it is down by 161,000 tons. New Zealand is the only country exporting to us in excess of pre-war quantities. As usual, she has been glad to come to the rescue. Our home production is down by all that amount after all the efforts and subsidies and injections of capital and so on that have been made.
We are not out of the wood by a long, long way. Any talk of cutting the prices of farmers, or of cutting their security of tenure, just will not do. This industry has got to be encouraged. Of course, it has got to be efficient. No one will tolerate an incompetent farmer, but it is no good chasing him with a big stick and saying that he has got to take less money or pay his men less money. Incidentally, that is one of the things we must never do.
I am fully convinced that one of the reasons we have this decline of labour on the land is the lack of opportunity for young men to farm on their own account. I think that is why so 687 many men leave the industry. All are not willing to go on working for ever for someone else. These figures, which reveal a very serious decline in imports, a decline even at this stage of home production, call for even greater effort.
My object tonight is to aver once again that we must cease that neglect of the forgotten half of Scotland, the Highland area. I shall have a word or two to say in a moment about the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby), whose views differ somewhat from mine on this matter. I want to remind the Committee that there are thousands of acres in the Highlands that are not mountains but good flat land in the valleys. Thousands of acres have reverted to the moor and bog from which they were wrought by a generation of people who could not afford to live and work there in the hideous days of free trade. Even a farmer on the good, rich ground near the big cities had a job to live, but the man in the North of Scotland, faced with penal freight rates, which have always prevailed, and with poor soil had not much of a chance at all. I wonder if we can continue to let that land go back to moor and bog? I do not think we can.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire referred to the work of Lord Lovat in the Highlands. He has done noteworthy work in producing a very fine herd. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and his partner, Mr. Stuart, in Glencalum have achieved an even greater performance on very high ground. It took years to come to fruition, and it took a lot of money and effort, but it succeeded. Mr. Hobbs at Fort William has transformed a bog which I well remember when I was a patient in hospital in that locality during the first war. I hardly knew it a year or so ago when I saw the lush grass there, and the cattle. Thirty years previously there was hardly a living thing but pests there.
But those are the well-known cases. There are many farmers, small farmers, large farmers, and crofters who have reclaimed land which had once been wrought from the heather and the bog and made fertile, but had been allowed 688 to deteriorate again, or who have cultivated such land that had never previously been won for cultivation. There are many crofters in my own area who have reclaimed a couple of acres, and there are farmers who have reclaimed 100 acres, but they all come to a stop for lack of capital. I support what has been said on that all-important subject tonight in speeches from both sides of the Committee, and I earnestly hope that the Government will give consideration to it.
I put it to the Joint Under-Secretary of State, does he think that Britain can go on any longer leaving the Highland area derelict, a place for wild life? If he does then we had better stop talking about the depopulation. We have reached a disastrously low level already. I do not think that anyone in this House will say that we should arrest our efforts to bring back more land under the plough and to put more cattle on the hills. We were a great cattle country and we carried one-third of our people in the Highland area a century ago. Now we carry less than one-twentieth. That is an unhealthy situation, a situation which calls for correction.
The hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire has said that he did not like mountain farming. I do not suppose any of us from the rich Lowlands of Scotland would like it. But for the sake of the record I must say that I was glad to meet some of the greatest cattlemen in the North of Scotland from the counties of Orkney and Shetland, Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, down to the Morayshire coast—skilled men in the raising of cattle, beasts and sheep—and they said that in the Highlands, in the deer forests, they could raise cattle if they could get security of tenure. We put in many of them during the war because of the nation's need and then threw them out after the war.
These are the facts. I am not quoting my own opinion, because I am not qualified to give an opinion on that matter, but I assure the Committee that a society, which I believe is called the Northern Pastoral Society, has practical men who know their job, and they say that not only can we reclaim the bogs on the marginal land but we can reclaim on the high lands, too. I earnestly hope that this work of reclamation will go on.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. McNair Snadden)
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government's view is the same as his own. We recognise that our hill areas are the reservoirs from which we draw the raw materials in order to finish the product on the low ground.
§ Sir D. Robertson
May I make this gentle observation? The work seems to be going on rather slowly, and I wonder if we can do something to speed it up. It is heart-breaking to go through my constituency and see heather where grass should grow, to see masses of bracken and sheep nosing in among it trying to get a mouthful of food. I accept the assurance of my hon. Friend. I know how wholehearted he is in this matter, but I realise that there is the restraining restriction, necessarily so, of the Treasury in these difficult days. But I have never quite understood why capital restriction had to be imposed, in regard to sterling costs, when people were unemployed who could be producers if we put them to work.
What are the costs of reclamation? They are mainly those of labour and machines. We want no dollar assistance of any kind. I wonder if we have not got into the habit of talking too much about capital restriction without knowing what it means. I know that it is not only money; it is precious labour, materials, and so on, but we have a good many people unemployed in Scotland—too many. I think that something ought to be done about that.
I also want to speak about the longdistance fish producer, whose industry produces the bulk of the fish landed in our country. An unsatisfactory situation prevails today. We know that the fishing industry has been guilty of over-fishing. It is not only our men who have done this but also fishermen from other parts of Europe, and it is still going on, and I hope that the Convention which is now sitting will be able to do something. The time is long past when something ought to have been done at Ministerial level. However, large cargoes are being brought in by the latest and best of our modern fleets, and many of them cannot be sold when they reach Hull, Grimsby, Fleetwood and the other fishing ports.
This great industry produces a quantity of food which is second only to that 690 produced by the agricultural industry, and there is something radically wrong when cargoes which should provide human food have to be made into fish meal. My view is that a change of preservative is necessary. I have long advocated that freezing at sea should be resorted to to ensure that a perfect article is landed and to permit of fish being stored at times of glut and kept until days of scarcity and famine. There is certainly something radically wrong when such large quantities of edible food—it is not condemned food—have to be made into fish meal.
There is a job here for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries—to take steps, or to get the White Fish Authority to do so, to deal with the problem. If the problem continues, it will bring that great food-producing industry to an end. Heavy losses are being incurred because the good fish which are caught become unsaleable when they reach the country. Trawler owners are suffering heavy financial losses. I earnestly hope that the problem will be dealt with immediately.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Horace E. Holmes (Hemsworth)
I apologise because, owing to other duties, I have been unable to be present throughout the debate. I want to reinforce one or two of the points which have already been made, and particularly what has been said by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) about the reclamation of land and its maintenance.
In the rapidly developing industrial area in my constituency, hundreds of acres of good agricultural land have been swallowed up. In that constituency there are also many acres of rough common land. During the war much of the common land was reclaimed; it has been a great credit to whoever reclaimed it and to whoever has farmed it. The Ministry of Agriculture should say to the other Departments, "Not another acre of agricultural land shall be taken until you reclaim an acre of other land to put in its place." In my constituency there is very strong feeling about that.
With regard to capital investment, there is in my constituency a rich rural area in which water is still having to be carted to first-class farms. The rural district council has been in consultation 691 with the farmers, with the county agricultural executive committee and the West Riding County Council about it, and has put forward a scheme, costing about £20,000, to supply the area with water. This has the backing of the West Riding County Council, the farmers and the county agricultural executive committee. From my correspondence with the Ministry, I can almost say that the scheme has the backing of the Department, but the reply from the Ministry is that because a capital investment of £20,000 is involved the scheme is being held up. The development of the rich agricultural belt in my constituency is being frustrated and delayed because of the cost of providing water mains and so forth. Hundreds of acres of valuable agricultural land have been lost each year, and yet there is in the same constituency common land which can be reclaimed and converted into good food-producing land.
I rise only to stress these points and to reinforce the pleas that have been made to the Minister. What I have said may be parochial, as it is a point of view from a limited area, although it is the limited areas in the aggregate which make up the whole. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to the reclamation of land, the maintenance of the land which we have reclaimed, and the development of various services, such as water, which are so much needed in many agricultural areas today.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Mr. John Baldock (Harborough)
I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Holmes), because the theme I had principally in mind was that on which he dwelt for a few moments, the retaining in agricultural use of the highly productive land of this country and, where finances permit, the reclamation of new land as well as the commons, which, I feel, is a problem which the Government should tackle. I know there are political difficulties about commons, but there is some pretty good and accessible land in them. With all due respect to some of my hon. Friends, I am not talking about land hundreds of miles away from the centres of population, but land which surrounds them. It is land of fairly good quality, and it can be reclaimed and brought back into fruitful production to 692 make up for what we are necessarily losing in other directions.
All of us in this Committee subscribe to the policy of an expanding agricultural production, and land is one of the major keys to that. We must, however, keep a sense of proportion over the use of land. We must remember that the urban populations, which represent such a large preponderance of our community, require land and have rights in land. They need houses. It is not everyone who wishes to dwell in the centre of a town in a large block of flats. Such people want gardens, roads, playing fields, aerodromes and many other things which absorb agricultural land.
I think we must keep that aspect of the matter in proportion and not forget that the urban majority have rights in that direction as well as the farmers and agriculturists. When satisfying those rights and demands for land for the urban population, however, we must say, "Do not let them have the best land. Do not let them have even good land." Again and again the point is made in the House that the great increase in agricultural production which has taken place since 1939 has taken place largely on good land. That has been the major contributing factor to the increase in agricultural production, and yet it is good land which is being eroded away and is becoming smaller in area with every year that passes.
I believe that we have to continue to rely on intensive farming on good land for increases in our production, but that is becoming more and more difficult as agricultural labour diminishes and as the area of that good land decreases. Is it an economy in the national sense to build our houses and villages round towns on the best, well-drained and most suitable land for agriculture, as is so frequently done? The only possible excuse for such action is that these are the most economical sites on which houses can be built. Over and over again we hear the argument that houses have been built on land on the edge of a village which is flat, well-drained and suitable for agriculture, because it is the cheapest site to develop, but is that sound economy in the long run in the national interest?
Could we not more profitably spend a little more money in building those 693 houses on land which is less satisfactory agriculturally? I think the Committee should give that matter consideration. Are we not mortgaging the future by allowing first-class agricultural land near the big centres of population to be sprawled over by this kind of development when there is less valuable land, often quite close to it, which would be equally satisfactory to the urban community if rather more money were spent on it? I believe that would be a fine investment for the future of the country.
On this side of the Committee we believe that meat rationing should be brought to an end as soon as possible. There is little doubt that in order to achieve this we must have a greater number of centres where meat can be stored. Previous Socialist Governments are not entirely free from blame for failing to provide a sufficient quantity of cold stores. They must have realised this problem and they cannot possibly use the excuse—
§ The Temporary Chairman (Mr. H. Hynd)
Order. I think the hon. Member is straying on to the Vote of the Ministry of Food.
§ Mr. Baldock
I understood, Mr. Hynd, that increase in food production was the subject before the Committee and I thought that storage facilities were necessary to allow that increase in homegrown meat to be maintained. However, I defer to your Ruling and I will not pursue that matter further, if cold stores do not come under the heading of this Vote.
I hope that the livestock marketing scheme will be pressed forward because it seems to provide in many ways a satisfactory alternative to the present methods of meat marketing and to control of prices, and I hope that some arrangement will be made in it for storing this meat to allow it to be made available on the market all the year round.
I feel strongly about the use of land because in my constituency there is a plan, which I have discussed with the Minister, to take over an aerodrome which is on 600 acres of really excellent land. This aerodrome at Bruntingthorpe is a case where one would have hoped that the agricultural interests would have drawn the line and said to the Defence Departments, "This is good land; surely 694 it is possible to find an alternative site on less productive land?" After all, with modern aircraft a few score miles cannot have much strategic importance. Looking at it from an agricultural point of view, looking at it from what I hope is a long-term point of view, it cannot be in the best interests of the community to allow land of that kind to be taken over if there are less productive areas which would serve equally well for the airfield.
There is every sign, both from statistics and by observation, that we now have an expansive agricultural industry. The present and preceding Governments have given practical assistance to that expansion, but there are threats of gluts and surpluses, even though they may be far away in those fabulous and inaccessible dollar areas. They do, however, cast uncertainty upon the minds of farmers. The doubts which arise are certainly not allayed by speeches such as those which have been made today by the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) and by certain articles written by economists who are successors to the Manchester school. Doubts arise in the minds of farmers about future marketing and prices.
I ask those hon. Members who make speeches of the type made by the hon. Member for Wednesbury, and economists who write that kind of article, to consider how much production has already been lost to the country by the addition they have made to those doubts and by the atmosphere of anxiety which has tended to spread over the agricultural community in the last year or 18 months. Those people who tend to increase the doubts about the future stability of the industry, who undermine confidence in the Agriculture Act and the long-term marketing of agricultural produce, are doing a great deal to thwart the continuing upsurge and increase of agricultural production which can still make such a great contribution to the biggest problem of our time—the balancing of our overseas payments.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)
I regret that by rising now I am inevitably cutting out of the debate hon. Members who have sat throughout the afternoon and evening and who are anxious to contribute to the discussion. It is, however, 695 necessary for me to begin now, because I wish to give the Parliamentary Secretary ample time to reply to the debate. I want to give him an opportunity of replying to a good many question which were put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) to which the Minister was unable to reply during his speech.
Some of us were terribly disappointed by the speech of the Minister this afternoon. Most of us like him very much. He always speaks courteously and kindly and does not hesitate to give us what information is at his disposal. Today, however, the longer his speech continued, the more clear it became that the Minister had simply nothing to tell the Committee. We on this side remember how when he made speeches from this side of the Committee he used to thump the Dispatch Box and demand a long-term policy for agriculture.
The Minister told us on 2nd February that he was working on many plans. He told us to day that he was still working on the plans, and that some of the commodities that had previously enjoyed fixed prices under the 1947 Act were now enjoying the advantage of support prices only. He did not get as far as answering a whole list of questions, and I should like to trouble the Committee by repeating them and asking the Parliamentary Secretary to answer them to the best of his ability when he replies to the debate.
These are the questions which were put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. What steps have been taken to fulfil the promise—or the threat, if the Government like that expression—that was contained in the 1952 White Paper, "Annual Review and Fixing of Farm Prices," from which I quote:The Government will take all possible steps to encourage and where necessary require that full productive use is made of the land.My right hon. Friend asked what steps had been taken since then—that was March, 1952—to give effect to that promise. I would be obliged, and my right hon. Friend would be obliged, if we could have an answer.
My right hon. Friend also asked whether the Government were taking advantage of Section 98 of the 1947 Act 696 to maintain tillage acreage. That is to say, are the Government really administering the powers they have taken to themselves under the Maximum Area of Pasture Order? We should be grateful for information on that. My right hon. Friend asked whether the Minister is exercising his powers of compulsory purchase under Section 84 of the Act of land not being fully used for agricultural purposes.
My right hon. Friend further asked how many areas altogether the Minister has referred to the Land Commission for investigation, and with what results. We were not told in the course of the reply. My right hon. Friend asked the Minister if his Department would consider publishing a report similar to that published by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. This is not a party matter; indeed, I have been asking my right hon. Friend why it was not done when he was Minister of Agriculture. A Scottish Member of Parliament gets a tremendous amount of information from the Report of the Department of Agriculture and we think we should get the same sort of information out of the Ministry of Agriculture. We should be glad to know if there is any prospect of a similar report being published by the Ministry.
The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) referred to the use of good agricultural land for other purposes. Many of us are concerned to see land being used, as it appears to us, extravagantly—for housing development, putting through new roadways, development of industry and many other purposes. Those of us who have had to negotiate with people taking over agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes must be aware that there would be a better case to put for the protection and conservation of good agricultural land for agricultural purposes if we could show to the community that those entrusted with management were in fact making the best use of it and getting the maximum food production.
That is what we started to discuss when my right hon. Friend initiated the debate this afternoon. The Minister of Agriculture seemed to convince himself that he had gone on to give us some useful information about increased agricultural production when he told us of the increased production figures for beef cattle, sheep and pigs. But merely to 697 give us those figures is not enough. We all welcome any figures that show the right trend and give evidence of an increase in production, but what is really important is to know whether there is an increase in production per acre of land farmed in this country. We do not know the answer; we have not been told. The Minister will agree that we can have an increase in livestock numbers that would make for a net loss in agricultural production, or production per acre of beef cattle and sheep. The Minister told us that in recent months there had been an increase in the numbers of beef cattle and sheep, but they are the worst converters of coarse grains, and pigs are not much better. It is there that we have an increase in livestock numbers, but milch cows are the best converters of all, and there we have had a rundown.
§ Mr. Fraser
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland says we have had an increase in milk. We have had a remarkable increase in the yield of milk per cow since the end of the war. I think the increase in Scotland is 26 per cent. But I am saying, and I think the Minister will agree, that merely to give figures of increases in cattle, sheep and pigs, and so on, is not to give the whole story. One looks to see what demand that will make on cereals and what land these animals will occupy and what will be the demand for imported feeding-stuffs.
The Minister seemed to be satisfied with the increase in production shown last year. But Appendix I of the White Paper which was published following the Annual Review includes some interesting figures. For example, taking the pre-war average as 100, by 1946–47 agricultural production stood at 122. By 1950–51, four years later, the figure had gone up to 143. In another year the figure had gone up to 149, a further six points in one year.
The Minister said he was satisfied with the increase in the past year, but the figure has gone up only a further two points. That represents an increase of something like l½ per cent. per year. I put it to the Minister that that is not 698 good enough. He should not be complacent about it. With that kind of increase he will not achieve a 60 per cent. increase over the 1938 figure by 1956. We were criticised when we were in office because we were getting an increase of only 6 or 7 per cent., but the Minister is boasting of an increase of 1½ per cent. in a year.
We must all make an effort to get a greater increase in production. The Minister said that would be brought about by the greater freedom now being given to agriculture. But he somehow forgot to tell us how this greater freedom would result in increased production. One or two of his hon. Friends have shown that this greater freedom is likely to result in a fall in production. It goes without saying that support prices now to be given for cereals and which are given for eggs are less than the actual prices previously given, notwithstanding that the cost of production has gone up. Of course the farmers who like this new-found freedom are those who will get prices considerably in excess of support prices.
We have today heard an admirable maiden speech by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill) who told us about the difficulties of egg producers in Northern Ireland. They are getting a price which is about the same as the support price for eggs, which would be 4s. per dozen, or less. The hon. Member told us that the costs of production are high in Northern Ireland, where feeding-stuffs have to be imported. They are much higher than for a producer just outside London, who would be getting 6s. a dozen. So the farmer who is nearer the market and for whom feedingstuffs are more readily available will no doubt welcome the new freedom.
The hon. Member for Antrim, North said that if costs in Northern Ireland continue at their present level production will stop. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland heard the same kind of speech yesterday from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). He speaks for the best egg-producing area in Scotland. Indeed, I believe that in Orkney he has the best and biggest egg collecting centre in Great Britain.
That was all right as long as they were getting the fixed, guaranteed price for 699 eggs, paid at the collecting centre. Now they are only going to get the support price for eggs at the collecting centre, which is less than they got before, while the cost of producing eggs has gone up. So the hon. Gentleman said the same as the other hon. Gentleman said in his maiden speech, namely, that if that process went on, egg production was going to suffer in Orkney, in the new freedom which is so much welcomed and which is going to bring an increase in agricultural production.
The Minister seemed to imply in his speech that the egg position is quite satisfactory. I tell him that many egg producers consider the position to be absolutely chaotic and that there are many egg producers in a fairly big way who, now that the price they are getting in the market is right down to the support price, believe that the price cannot go any lower, so they are holding on to their eggs for three or four weeks in the hope that prices will go up. Therefore the housewife will be getting eggs which are three or four weeks old before they get to the market. Is that a good thing? That is the sort of thing we shall get under this new form of freedom which is so good for agriculture and which will lead to increased production.
I do not want to say anything in criticism of the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I told him I would not, but he jocularly and stupidly said: "It's whisky he's talking about."
§ Mr. Fraser
Yes, I know, and I was talking about eggs. It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman does not know what the farmers of Scotland are talking and thinking about this precious egg scheme of his. In any case, the Minister does not say that this is the end of the story, but, like the Joint Under-Secretary, he says that a solution will be found for these problems one by one. A little while ago he said: "We want a long-term policy for agriculture." Now he is going to solve the problems as they arise, after freedom has been given to the agricultural industry, as and when production is near to flopping in consequence of the freedom that has been granted.
700 One of the greatest impediments to increased production in agriculture is the lack of fixed equipment, and particularly that which is the responsibility of the landlord. The Minister brought forward a lot of figures to suggest that agriculture was doing all right in fixed equipment. In the Scottish Standing Committee more figures were produced that agriculture was getting all the money it needed because bank advances were going up and up. The Minister also said that the rate of interest did not matter, and advances had to go up and up because repayments were going up and up in consequence of the increase in the interest charges. The Government publish an Economic Survey once a year, and the survey for 1953 contains some quite interesting figures.
The industry of agriculture is lumped together with forestry and fishing in this Report so that the figures given are not exclusively for agriculture. But I think that the Committee will appreciate that agriculture accounts for most of this capital investment. In 1948 the gross fixed equipment in agriculture, forestry and fishing was £90 million. The total gross fixed equipment for all industries was £1,466 million. In 1952 the gross fixed equipment in agriculture, forestry and fishing came down to £85 million, but the gross fixed equipment for all industries went up to £2,000 million.
Therefore, whilst fixed equipment going into other industries is going up and up and up, the fixed equipment going into agriculture, our basic industry, is coming down. These figures are either right or wrong. I think that they are right and that they are much more material figures than those given by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in the Scottish Grand Committee yesterday and those given by the Minister this afternoon; and they are taken from the Government's own Report.
Even in 1951 agriculture received 5 per cent. of all the capital fixed equipment going into all industries but in 1952, when there was this great drive for food production, agriculture received 4½ per cent.
§ Mr. Fraser
Perhaps this short-fall in fixed equipment is not the result of controls exercisable by the Ministry of Agriculture. It may not be done through the 701 licensing system at all. It may be that landowners are either unable or unwilling to put in the necessary fixed equipment to give us the increased food production which we all require. It may be that many owner-occupiers are already so heavily mortgaged that they cannot raise the necessary additional capital to put in the fixed equipment required to give them the opportunity of securing the increased food production which we all desire.
I do not know which it is. The Minister may know. In any case, if the Minister and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary cannot tell us why we are not getting more fixed equipment into agriculture they ought to tell us that they will look into the matter and ensure that more does go into agriculture, because if we do not get it we shall not have the increased food production which we need.
The Minister spoke at some length about the labour force in agriculture. He said that he would ask hon. Members not to over-rate the importance of the call-up and its effect on the withdrawal of labour from agriculture. He said that it did not amount to all that, but he did not take the trouble to give us the figures. He told us how many had gone into the Forces but he did not tell us what was the reduction in the labour force, which is the important thing. But the Digest of Statistics states that last year the male labour force in agriculture was reduced by 23,500, which is a tremendous drop.
Three per cent. of regular male workers in agriculture were lost in 1952, and that was at a time when we were told that there was a greater drive than ever before to increase production. No wonder that the increase in production was only 1½ per cent. over the year before; and perhaps it would have been excusable if it had been no higher than it was in 1951 in the circumstances of a falling off in the labour force. I am not one who thinks one cannot have increased production without an increased labour force. I sincerely believe, however, that if we allow the labour force in agriculture to run down at the rate of 3 per cent. per year we can say good bye to any prospect of getting any increased supply of food from the soil of this country, and we can look forward gloomily to a day not far distant when we shall all go a bit hungry.
702 We shall be having debates in the not very distant future, some time next week, I believe, on the ploughing grants scheme and I do not want to say much about that scheme at the moment. But we have heard today about the increase in the tillage acreage, and many hon. Members have sought to prove that this increased tillage acreage has been obtained purely in consequence of the ploughing grants. I warned the Minister just now that when we come to discuss these schemes again I shall have some questions to ask about the ploughing grants, and I hope that he will say quite a bit in justification of them.
I think the ploughing grants are easily justifiable so long as we have a fixed price for the cereals produced on the grassland to be ploughed. In those circumstances, the ploughing grant could truly be said to be a payment on account. It is a part payment. Instead of putting the extra money on the end-price of the product, an advance payment is made in the ploughing grant. I think that is perfectly justifiable so long as we have a fixed price for cereals.
But when we move into this freer economy that is so acceptable to the present Government, in which farmers are permitted to get whatever price they are able for cereals, and receive in addition the support price, the whole picture alters. There are farmers on the rich lands in Lincolnshire, the Lothians and many other parts of the country, who would plough their land in any case and who would get the £5 per acre for doing a job that they would do in the normal course of their work, as routine husbandry; and with the decontrol of cereal prices, those farmers, who have the biggest yields in the country and who are generally the best fitted for the marketing of cereals, are getting the best price. I give the Minister a warning that we shall have some further questions to ask about the ploughing grants scheme when the scheme comes forward for approval.
We are anxious to do nothing which would discourage the farmer. Indeed, I think we would be willing to give more money by way of ploughing grants if it could be directed to bringing into cultivation and good production land that would otherwise be producing no food or very inadequate grazing. In recent years we have seen a great increase in grass 703 conservation, grass drying and in the production of grass for silage. That grass is used as a winter feed, and in some measure, therefore, it is fair to say that any acreage of grass so used is comparable with tillage. The Minister said today that he was encouraging further grass conservation. I hope he is. I wonder how far he is encouraging it.
I wonder whether the loans and grants that were made available by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, when he was Minister of Agriculture, are still being made available for the plant and equipment necessary for grass drying by individual farmers and co-operatives? I believe the Scottish ones have been discontinued. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us something about that.
I have raised a lot of questions, as has my right hon. Friend, and they were not answered by the Minister. Other hon. Members have also asked many questions to which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will wish to reply. I therefore give way to him, saying that if this has not been the best-attended debate of the Session, it is certainly a debate the subject matter of which is of as great importance as any other debate held in this Session of Parliament.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)
Before dealing with the main trend of the debate I shall answer the smaller points raised by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser). He asked me what steps had been taken to fulfil the promises made in the 1952 White Paper to deal with the inefficient farmer. There is a very good tale to tell here. The general work that we, with the county committees, have done in the past 18 months or two years has been creditable to them and to us. We have helped and encouraged them to put new life into their work.
With regard to the question of dispossession, I think it would be a complete mistake—and I think the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) would think so too—to try to measure this work by the number of dispossession orders made. Dispossession is the last act to take when everything else has failed, and I hope and believe that 704 the work we have been doing has been getting over to the individual farmer what we want grown in order to serve the interests of the nation and, at the same time, of the farmers themselves.
My right hon. Friend has visited a number of counties. My noble Friend, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in the House of Lords, and I have, between us, visited all the counties in England and Wales, and the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has visited those in Scotland. We have there met the county and district committees and have been able to put over to them just what we are trying to achieve. I know that the right hon. Gentleman used to do very similar things.
In order to assist us to get a little more pace on the ball we have reappointed the liaison officers who served us so well during the war. As hon. Members will know, we have been lucky enough to get some who served us at that time, and we have others who are very distinguished in the farming world and are giving very valuable time to this work, thus forging a most valuable link between my right hon. Friend and county and district committees. This is having a very valuable effect in getting over to the individual farmer just what we want him to do.
The hon. Member asked for the number of Maximum Area of Pasture Orders served under Section 95 of the Agriculture Act. Up to 31st October, 1952, there were 494 orders. In the preceding 12 months the number of orders served was 86, compared with 42 for the period August, 1950, to October, 1951, so we doubled the number served in his last year of office. I will give him, in a letter, the details of the number of supervision orders and dispossession orders if he wishes for a specific answer to that question.
§ Mr. T. Williams
Can the Joint Parliamentary Secretary say whether, during the last 12 or 18 months, there have been any prosecutions—apart from the mere issue of orders?
§ Mr. Nugent
I think there have been prosecutions under the maximum tillage orders. I am afraid I have not the figures handy, but I will let the right hon. Member have details of them. In the main, 705 we have been able to get farmers to respond without the necessity for prosecutions.
I was asked what references there had been to the Land Commission, and the answer is that there have been two—the Somerset Moors and an extended area at Herne Bay. I will certainly look into the point about an annual report for the Ministry comparable with that produced by Scotland, which we agree is a very valuable document, to see if we could do as well as Scotland.
The hon. Member for Hamilton was on less good ground when he said my right hon. Friend was making a mistake in assessing his progress by reference to the increased numbers of cattle and sheep. Both, of course, are ruminants, and the critical factor here is that it is grass of which we have an excess and not coarse grains, so that our immediate concern is to increase the numbers of ruminants, the grass-consuming animals, in order to make use of our excess grass. I think that is very satisfactorily reflected in the figures which my right hon. Friend gave.
The hon. Member asked about fixed equipment and extracted figures from the Economic Survey, and I think that that point is partially to be explained by the fact that something like half the figure of £80 million a year is attributable to expenditure on machinery. When the initial allowance was originally removed by his right hon. Friend, that had an immediate effect in checking the farmers' expenditure on that account. The hon. Gentleman would be unwise to assume from these figures that there has been a smaller expenditure on fixed equipment on the farm. I cannot distinguish between the figures for these two items, but I expect that this expenditure is proceeding at least as well as it was before and, with the relaxation of building permits, possibly better.
I agree that the fall in the labour force figures last year is a serious matter, and it is something to which my right hon. Friend has given much attention. The fact is that since the call-up was applied to agriculture albeit to a limited extent, the figures, which previously had been mounting year by year, immediately began to decline. Unfortunately, we do not lose only those who are called up. 706 as the industry loses some of its previous attraction far some of the others. My right hon. Friend has done all that can be done in extending deferment to different classes, particularly stockmen. We all accept that the industry has to make its contribution to the needs of the Defence Services. This is a situation with which we have to cope as best we can. The labour figures continue to be a worrying concern to us all.
We all agree on the long-term solution of greater amenities, which we are pursuing. I think the figures given recently of the increased allocation of capital equipment for electricity supplies, one of the amenities which will make a valuable contribution in this field, were most welcome.
I will not go into the question of the ploughing subsidy for I do not doubt that I shall be engaged with the hon. Member for Hamilton in due course when we debate the Order. On the question of grass conservation and grass drying grants, as the right hon. Member for Don Valley knows, his Act provided for only three years, which ran out some time ago.
§ Mr. Nugent
No, it has not been continued. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because we feel that the taxpayers' money should be used with a little more caution than it was by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.
§ Mr. Williams
Is the hon. Gentleman, when he makes that observation, deprecating such undertakings as the grass drying enterprise down in Norfolk run by Lord Melchett?
§ Mr. Nugent
I am not deprecating grass drying, but I am deprecating putting public money into risky enterprises, where the money should normally be found by the private entrepreneurs themselves—
§ Mr. Nugent
—and that is the general philosophy of my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the Committee.
§ Mr. Peart rose—707
§ Mr. Nugent
If the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) is so excited about hill farming I will certainly give him a reply. The assistance given under the Livestock Rearing and Hill Farming Acts is in a totally different category from the grant aiding, on the generous scale of the right hon. Gentleman, of enterprises like the grass-drying one in Norfolk—an entirely different category. One is a very proper thing to do, and the other very doubtful.
§ Mr. Williams rose—
§ Mr. Nugent
No, really, I have given way very often.
I come now to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Mr. P. O'Neill), who gave us all so much pleasure by his maiden speech. We all remember, with affection and respect, his father, who served for so many years with great distinction in this Committee and became the Father of the House. It was a great pleasure to hear my hon. Friend making such a fluent and useful contribution today. He was, of course, dealing with a particular aspect of the agricultural problems of Northern Ireland. That is a problem not confined to agriculture but reflects the general problem of transport costs—of things going to Northern Ireland and things coming back from Northern Ireland. It is part of a very much larger problem.
On the question of egg prices, he asked whether the interim egg scheme would be replaced. The scheme is working quite smoothly at present. We are prepared at any time to receive any proposition that the Farmers' Unions wish to put up to us for any alternative scheme, but up to the present time we have not received one. The price arrangements for next year can proceed on the usual basis and the calculations can be made according to the returns that we now have.
Certainly we realise how very important potato growing in Northern Ireland is. I cannot guarantee to my hon. Friend that it is possible to get what he would call, I suppose, a smoother take-off of those potatoes that come over to England. The general policy has always been to regard the reserve of potatoes in Northern Ireland as something of a 708 national reserve. I know they tend to stop rather to the end of the season, but in this matter the Northern Ireland farmers are making a particularly valuable contribution, and I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that that should be some consolation to them.
I was asked a further question by the hon. Member for Workington with regard to the Estimates. The large reduction in the Estimates to which he referred in respect of animal health is due to the small token provisions for compensation which we hope is all that will be necessary. This year, fortunately, we did not have very heavy losses from foot-and-mouth disease, and, therefore, less compensation is provided. I shall write to the hon. Member about his two smaller points, to give him the details.
I think that the burden of the debate has been related to the Government's general policy of moving into a freer economy. My right hon. Friend satisfied the House in his speech, I think, that our policy of interpreting the 1947 Act in a more flexible form was not inconsistent with the spirit of it. I should like to make the point that when the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland made his comments about fixed prices, he did not mean that we are opposed to fixed prices in themselves but to the State trading system, which we feel it is now time to get rid of.
Indeed, in the freer economy into which we are moving there will be some commodities—for instance, wool may be one—which will have a marketing scheme where a pool price and, therefore, a fixed price for all farmers operates; and so it may be that for some commodities in the future there will be a fixed level of prices for all producers concerned. That will depend on what schemes are established for different commodities.
§ Mr. T. Fraser
Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who on 2nd February said:Fixed prices have hampering effects upon enterprise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1521.]
§ Mr. Nugent
It is not so much the fixed price in itself as the trading system which we are now getting rid of. It is quite possible, and, in fact, probable, that if producers join in a marketing 709 scheme similar to that of the Wool Marketing Board they may well be receiving a fixed price in the future, although their product is not going through the State trading process.
The general picture that my right hon. Friend gave of the increases in production was, I think, something which satisfied everyone in the Committee—that whatever criticism hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite may make of our policy at least it was succeeding, it was securing rising production in the commodities that we particularly want and was showing every prospect of going on doing so. Therefore, my right hon. Friend is entitled to take every credit for it.
While it does not particularly apply to this debate, it certainly did to the last debate which we had in February, when the right hon. Member for Greenock (Mr. McNeil), who I am sorry is not here tonight, made some very stringent and damaging remarks—damaging to confidence and not justified in themselves—that it is a fact which it is right to remember that we are talking about the lives and livings of hundreds of thousands of farmers and hundreds of thousands of farm workers. The work which they are doing, as the right hon. Member for Don Valley well knows—and I appreciate the moderation of his speech—plays a vital part in providing the food on our tables every day. Therefore, right though it is for the Opposition to be critical of anything with which they do not agree in the Government's policy, it is equally right that they should try, unless they have some constructive alternative, not to make that criticism in a way which will upset confidence.
May I ask what alternative the Opposition have? I had a look at this extraordinary document "Challenge to Britain," and what did I find? I found that the policy stated there is going to increase output by one-third in five years. I wonder whether the framers of the document really thought out what the implications of the policy would be.
§ Mr. Nugent
Take the instance of milk. An increase of one-third would mean an additional 600 million gallons 710 a year. There is no prospect of enlarging the liquid market, and so it would all have to go to manufacture, and that would represent an additional subsidy of about £37 million.
§ Mr. Nugent
Hon. Gentlemen opposite have been handing it out; now they have to take it. They have been critical of our policy. They have tried their policy out in a rural constituency, and they have seen the result. The electorate of Abingdon were more discriminating than they are.
There are one or two other interesting little sidelights which might interest the Opposition. An increase of one-third in the potato acreage would produce an addition of nearly two million tons a year, all for stock feed because human consumption requirements will not take any more. Hon. Gentlemen opposite may criticise our policy, but they must take some responsibility for what they have written. On that line, there is a further comment that I want to make about Labour Party policy. The statement says that it will not use the Price Review to make changes in the balance of production between different crops.
§ Mr. T. Williams
Would it not be better if the hon. Gentleman applied himself to the policy which is now being pursued?
§ Mr. Nugent
I can understand that the right hon. Gentleman does not care for this, but as he has been attacking our policy, it is not unfair for me, just in passing, to make some comment upon his own. I want, in passing, to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to a remark made by his right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell), who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the last Government. He made a comment on this policy statement in the "Daily Herald."
§ Mr. Nugent
I can well understand that comment. The Labour Party's policy certainly wants a good deal more done to it before it is finished. I will give the right hon. Gentleman the words 711 of his right hon. Friend so that he can have the benefit of them. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South said:Incidentally, I am puzzled by the abandonment of the February price review as a means of influencing production. It is no use believing in economic planning without being ready to use the instruments of economic planning. If we do not use changes in our buying prices to stimulate the right kind of production, what other instruments of planning can we use?So the report goes on.
§ Mr. Nugent
I want now to turn to an aspect of the debate which I feel is of particular importance, and that is the question of stability in the freer economy into which we are moving. There is a genuine misapprehension in the minds of many farmers, and perhaps of many hon. Members as well, about whether a comparable economic stability can be given to farmers in a freer economy in which prices are not fixed and paid by the Ministry of Food for the State. The point I want to make is that in the past 14 years farmers have been accustomed to receiving payment for the main part of their produce from the Ministry of Food, which pays the price fixed after the Price Review. It is not unnatural that they have identified that stability to some extent with the body which has paid them the money.
The point I want to make clear is that it was not the system of State purchase by the Ministry of Food that gave them economic stability. It was the price policy behind it, and if the level of prices that the Ministry of Food had been paying had not been satisfactory quite obviously the farmers would not have had reasonable returns. If one looks at the production and the net income figures over the years that picture comes out very clearly.
Going back as far as 1945–46, we see a net output index of 128 when the Socialist Government began, and a net income of £202 million. The net income dropped to £183 million the next year and in the following year it rose to £216 712 million and went up to £284 million with the 1947 expansion programme. The production began to expand with it, and it continued to go up in the next year with net income advancing to over £300 million and production going up to 143. The net income dropped again in 1951–52 to £262 million and we found production standing still again.
The picture that comes out of this is twofold. First of all, the level of production fluctuated considerably during those years, and, therefore, the price review machinery, valuable though it was and carefully though it was operated, is not a precise piece of scientific machinery which can give an accurate result for a given year. It is on a basis which can provide an estimated net farm income to within £20 million or £30 million, and is sufficient to indicate what the general trend of production is. It will be possible for us to give roughly the same picture when we get into a freer economy.
What we propose to do and, as my right hon. Friend says, what we are now doing, is to work out with the farmers the most appropriate structures in the different commodities for price and market in the freer economy; structures which will enable us to maintain prices at what we think is the right level in the interests of both producer and consumer. As the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) said in his thoughtful speech, there are various systems. There is the deficiency payments system, which has been used satisfactorily here in the past. There is the price support system which is now being used for eggs. There are other systems for supporting prices as well.
The determining factor in each of them as to what result they will give is the price policy behind it. My right hon. Friend has said beyond a doubt tonight, and his words are confirmed by what has been said on other occasions by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, that the price policy is intended fully to maintain the provisions of the 1947 Act.
Therefore, there is no reason for doubt in the minds of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, or farmers in the country, that we intend to maintain an economic stability for farmers throughout the country in the freer economy comparable with that which they have had in 713 the past, and with that they can confidently go on increasing their production on the lines that we have asked them to do—
§ It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.