§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Williams (Don Valley)
Whatever horse won the Derby yesterday, it seems to me that the wide open spaces, home sweet home and the Navy have won the Parliamentary race today. Now that we have had the Annual Price Review and White Paper No. 9104, supplemented by the Chancellor's hopes and expectations, we think it may be useful not only to the farming community but to the nation as a whole if we can get further elucidation on the White Paper from the right hon. Gentleman, and to that end this Vote is put down.
We had hoped that from Ministerial speeches here and there we might have had some clarification of, at least, the important paragraphs in the White Paper. But all we have had so far are further threats from the Chancellor to quantify production and some optimistic outbursts from the Minister of Agriculture about those luscious tender steaks, prime cuts, ox-tails and liver galore for all. Unfortunately, the ox has only one tail and there is a great deal of meat other than prime cuts.
It may sound very appetising to talk on "Housewives Choice" about tender 1468 cuts for all, but they are tender cuts for the well-to-do, to whom prices mean little or nothing, and it does not add to our knowledge of the Government's intentions on agriculture in the short or long-term. Therefore, we are obliged to reach our own conclusions from the results of the Review and statements made in the White Paper.
The first conclusion which we are obliged to reach is that the Government have completely written off the promises contained in their own "Agricultural Charter." I shall return to that later. Of the Review itself, I shall say very little. We all know that the settlement was an agreed one, with the usual reservations, an achievement at any time, as I have reason to know.
On this occasion the right hon. Gentleman had to make an exploration into uncharted seas—from certainty to uncertainty, from stability to instability on the royal road to freedom. The inevitable result, in several cases, is that the producer will not know what he is to get for his produce until he gets it. In other words, we are back to the old days of uncertainty. To put it very mildly and gently, guarantees and stability are not what they were. That was made inevitable by the Government's policy, and now, of course, we shall have to wait and see just what the ultimate results will be.
There are so many question marks about the future of prices and production that we shall welcome any streak of light which the right hon. Gentleman can bring into these dark places. There is bound to be a good deal of doubt and confusion, however, in the minds of many who fail to understand the mathematical calculations and hypothetical assumptions which will ultimately lead to the price that the producer receives for his various commodities. Nor will the producers readily understand the production policy of this Government, which changes with such dazzling frequency.
The 1952 White Paper proposed a 60 per cent. increase in production over 1939. A little over 12 months ago the Prime Minister was at the National Farmers' Union annual dinner, and there he was calling upon the farming community for as much more than 60 per cent. as the farmers could produce. The present White Paper states that expansion 1469 of physical output is no longer our main objective and that the 60 per cent. increase can be deferred for two or three years more.
I am not suggesting that the Government are either right or wrong. I am simply explaining that it would require either a Sir Gordon Richards or at least Gordon Pirie to keep pace with their changes of policy. That cannot be a good thing for a long production cycle like agriculture. But Members of the Government have never been very stable on this question, and I can understand their wobbling now.
I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members opposite have a very uneasy conscience today, after reading the White Paper. For a long time they enjoyed themselves at my expense by quoting speeches which I made in 1923, 1933 and on other odd dates, and have always placed their own interpretation upon them. I have never complained. I did not see why I should spoil their fun, but I knew that at some time Nemesis would be bound to overtake them.
In the past few days, I have been having a look at some of the speeches which they made on Second Reading and in Committee on the 1947 Bill. They make very interesting reading. I am amazed by two special features. The first was the splendid speeches that I made resisting unreasonable demands, and, secondly, the speeches from hon. and right hon. Members opposite which prove beyond any shadow of doubt how much better they understood the Conservative Party than I did on agricultural matters, and how anxious they were in 1947 that I should protect them from future Conservative Governments.
For instance, the present Leader of the House—I am sorry he has left for a moment, but I understand why—in his wild and woolly but always entertaining moments said on Second Reading:I want to put this question bluntly to the right hon. Gentleman: Does he, or does he not, agree that, whatever happens, the home producer must come first and the Empire farmer next? That is the crux of the whole question. If the Government are not prepared to give us an assurance, then, of course, the whole Bill falls to the ground, with all the pious promises about a stable and prosperous industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 651–2.]1470 Remember, whatever happens the home producer must have first place in our market. These are strong words from a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, whose duty then was to preserve the position of the Chancellor. They were strong words coming from a potential and now the actual Leader of the House. He put the home producer first in the home market. We shall say something about that in a moment.
The Minister of Agriculture was more modest. He said that he and his hon. Friends were not convinced that the provisions of Part I were anything more than an empty shell. He and the Minister of Food had more full shells last autumn than they knew what to do with. The Solicitor-General then described Clause 1 as a false and misleading prospectus and he ought to be locked up for giving false evidence.
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that Clause 1 was the most important Clause in the Bill, If it fell down the rest of the Bill was not worth the paper it was written on. Well, the Bill did not fall down while we were in office. Our promises were real and they were fulfilled. Indeed, the output increased between 1947–48 and 1951–52 by no less than 31 per cent., or an average of 6 per cent. per annum.
But now we can see what hon. and right hon. Members were afraid of in 1947. Paragraph 13 of the White Paper says:It is evident that home agriculture cannot be completely insulated from world market conditions and that in determining the level of guarantees account must be taken of long-term trends in market price.It goes on:Further consideration will be given to means of limiting the dependence of the industry on Exchequer assistance; for example, relating guarantees to levels of output of particular commodities as in the case of the new financial arrangements for milk.How does that square with the speeches of the Leader of the House, the Minister of Agriculture, the Solicitor-General, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and many other hon. Members opposite when they were in opposition, that the home producer was to have first place in the market? Or how does that statement in paragraph 13 square up with the Conservatives' "Agricultural 1471 Charter"? This document said that the Conservatives weredetermined to bring home to the overcrowded population of our islands the grave danger of real food shortages, which might well lead in times of emergency to the risk of starvation. That is why we are resolved to give home agricultural production the highest priority, and to introduce a sense of urgency, of continuity and of certainty into policy.That was the vote-catcher in 1950 and 1951. But where is the urgency, continuity and certainty in paragraph 13? It has gone with the wind of freedom.
It is true that in paragraphs 15 to 42 some guidance is given on how to achieve a 60 per cent. increase—for example, more beef and, perhaps, more mutton and lamb and a steady improvement in crop yields—but there is not a word about acres, more ley farming, improved management of grass or more skill and economy in the use of feedingstuffs, all of which are very desirable.
In paragraph 17, the Government seem to be more concerned about world grain prices and Treasury guarantees than about cereal production in this country. In paragraph 22, they have fixed a "floor" price for potatoes for 1955, which definitely encourages a large reduction in acreage and which will keep the price reasonably high, but which will avoid any Treasury expenditure at all. In paragraph 27, there is actually a lament that the estimated output of pig meat for 1955–56 will be reached in 1954–55, and in paragraph 38, dealing with eggs, the Government say thatMaintenance or expansion of output must depend upon a firmer market or reduction in average costs.We all agree that we cannot continué to produce things that are unable to be sold at an economic price, except for social or other very good national reasons, and we recognise that production regardless of cost is no longer necessary in this country. Indeed, I agree with every word in the White Paper referring to a possible increase in efficiency. But with the White Paper before us, we can plainly see that the "Agricultural Charter" has been sunk without trace and that the Agriculture Act is listing very badly.
The warning by the Conservative Party thatreal food shortages … might … lead in times of urgency to the risk of starvation.1472 is forgotten. The sense of urgency, continuity and certainty is no longer necessary. We may take that as a high testimonial to the success of our own policy, but where do we go from here? It is no use the Minister quoting simply paragraph 11 and omitting paragraph 13 and paragraphs 17 to 38.
It is quite fair, therefore, to invite the Minister today to tell us clearly what he has in mind in these paragraphs to which I have referred. I am sure that the Leader of the House would like to be let into the secret, so that he can inform his constituents what the policy of the Government really is, for it was he who, in 1947, demanded first place in the home market for British producers and no monkeying about with world prices, trends and Treasury problems.
That reminds me, also, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made many speeches on agriculture, mostly like my own, sometimes very good and perhaps sometimes irresponsible. He has done me the honour on odd occasions of quoting something I have said, and I am sure he will not object to my quoting him this afternoon. It was he who said:I hope an opportunity will be offered of bringing horticulture into the Schedule"—that was, a guaranteed market and prices for fruit and vegetables. The right hon. Gentleman, pointing his finger of good will towards me, continued:I hope that the Minister will not sit there in complete isolation as a gentle and well-trained Minister of Agriculture, but will assure us that, on the Government's policy for agriculture, he is on top of his companions in the Government in this important respect"— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 801, 804.]Is the Minister "on top of his companions"? It seems to me that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has hired the Minister of Food and other Ministers to hold the Minister of Agriculture down, and the Chancellor seems to be winning the race by a mile. He is another "Never Say Die."
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to let us into a secret. Has the Chancellor urged the Minister to bring horticulture into the First Schedule, or is it the Chancellor who is edging agriculture out of the First Schedule? If he will not tell us this, will he clarify what he means by 1473 these words in the middle of paragraph 13:The present cost to the taxpayer of the support given to British agriculture is very high—of the order of £200 million.Is it really true that the £200 million is a contribution to British agriculture or to British farmers, which, I understand, is what is meant? I should like a considered answer explaining this in detail to avoid misunderstanding, for at least we ought to be careful with words in a White Paper which is circulated nationwide.
Secondly, I ask the right hon. Gentleman, if the £200 million did not come from the taxpayer or the consumer does the right hon. Gentleman or any other Member of the Government imagine that the same amount of food could be purchased in the world anywhere for £200 million less than we pay for it? I think the answer must be "No." So, the next words in paragaraph 13—Further consideration will be given to means of limiting the dependence of the industry on Exchequer assistance"—by limiting guarantees to a lower level of output are very important indeed, and I hope that agricultural Members opposite will take note of them. They can only mean, in plain language, that if producers in this country cannot compete with world prices, they must reduce output and make way for cheaper imports— at least, that is the only interpretation that the average plain, commonsense street corner reader like myself can place upon these words.
I wonder what the Leader of the House really thinks about this. How does it square with the promise of first place in the British market for the home producer? What becomes of "urgency, continuity and security"? Clearly, all that nonsense was purely party political propaganda. In any case, I hope that the Minister will now give a clear explanation of exactly what he means about the first, third and fourth sentences in paragraph 13. They could mean a wholesale slowing down of production or the slowing down of production of certain commodities. Producers should not be left in doubt any longer. I am not arguing the wisdom of this or that in reducing and stabilising production, but at least the industry is entitled to know. Agriculture is not a push-button industry in which policy can be changed overnight.
1474 It is not my intention to go through the whole schedule of prices, with all their complexities and price-fixing machinery, but I cannot resist a glance at livestock, which is to me very illuminating. I regard 3rd July as perhaps the biggest gamble ever, when we go back to the old auction mart and the alternative provided by the National Farmers' Union.
There will be an individual minimum guaranteed price, an average market realisation price and the standard price to be added, subtracted or equated. Then there will be the scheduled prices for quality, from top quality to bottom and everything in between, and, finally, there will be seasonal prices. When this compound of variables has been unscrambled there will be the price. It is as easy as that. If some of the clever, agricultural critics were faced with this mathematical jungle every week or every month in order to work out their wages, their salaries or profits they would understand exactly what the Prime Minister meant when he said, "Set the people free."
The only thing the producer of livestock will be sure about is that he cannot get less for his produce than the individual minimum guaranteed price plus the difference between the average market realisation price, the standard price, the quality price and the seasonal price. It is quite an easy thing for him to do. I have heard my mother say of my father. who had never a day's education and could neither read nor write, "No by gum, but he can reckon." It seems to me that the farmers of the future will have to be good reckoners if they are to discover what they will get for their animals.
After decontrol the producer of good quality pigs will never know the price until he has added four figures together, two of which he will never know until after the animals are dead. I hope these complicated calculations and uncertainties will not be too great a strain on the vast number of small producers. The combination of guarantees that the Government have given in the White Paper, the deficiency payments and the floor prices, whatever they may be, seem just reasonable enough to carry this Government over the next Election if it is not too long deferred, and even so that 1475 is only due to the fact that the 1947 Act is still on the Statute Book.
But producers will awake one day and find that the spirit of the Act is slipping, and slipping very badly, vanishing as it were between the cobwebs of control and Treasury pressure. While we expect no spectacular decrease in production for some little time because the livestock are already there—they were conceived before decontrol was announced—we shall, nevertheless, watch very carefully and with interest the trends of production under the various new schemes.
From the national point of view, the important thing is what may happen in a few years' time now that the industry in the words of the White Paper:… cannot be insulated from world market conditions and long-term trends in market prices.In other words, now we are back on the slippery slope of so-called freedom and uncertainty.
I recall the Leader of the House, in one of his entertaining and irrelevant speeches, saying that if we had plenty of bacon we could have bacon and eggs if we had any eggs. So we laid the foundations for more eggs than the Ministry of Food was able to deal with last autumn, and now it is its unenviable task to warn producers that though they promised them first place in their home market, they must not produce too much or they were bound to suffer quantification, whatever that might mean.
I should like to say in all kindness and generosity to the Minister, that since 1947, with reasonable guarantee, agriculture has responded to almost every appeal that was made to it. Output and efficiency have increased enormously and with virtually the same number of workers in June, 1953, as there were in June, 1939, output has increased by 54 per cent. That is not only a great contribution to the economic life of this nation, but it was, and still is, a great dollar saver. It is the Minister's duty to preserve as much of that confidence and enthusiasm as is possible and to resist undue pressure from the Treasury and from the Ministry of Food.
There may be no more emergencies of the 1914 and 1939 varieties, and we all pray God that there never will be, but on 1476 the other hand we cannot afford to lose sight of the rapidly growing world population, which is increasing by about 30 million each year. Even in the U.S.A. where harvest surpluses accumulate when they have a succession of good harvests, the population is increasing by about 2 million per annum and they will be consuming more and more of their own produce. It has been said that Australia may very well become a net importer in 10 years' time, and we know there are hundreds of millions of Asians who are demanding a better standard of living than they have ever had before.
While there may be surpluses of some commodities in some places at this moment, there may very well be a change to scarcity in a few years' time, and this nation is the most vulnerable nation in the world. Having worked side by side with Chancellors of the Exchequer, I know that they are very much concerned with the present and sometimes with an oncoming General Election, but the Minister of Agriculture must, and ought to, take the long view. Instead of that, I feel that the basic principles of the 1947 Act are slipping away.
The noble Lord the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said in another place that we can now see the shape of things to come. We can all too clearly, but we are on the way back to the jungle unless we are careful. It is for the Minister to tell the Committee and the industry in plain, understandable language what is meant by paragraph 13 of the White Paper. If there are to be alterations let them be known and understood. Do not leave the industry in the state in which this telegram suggests it is. I received this telegram quite unsolicited yesterday:Hope in agricultural debate you will stress frightful uncertainty now besetting whole industry and particularly ghastly muddle and ruin of grass industry.Whether or not this uncertainty is justified I am not prepared to argue now, but we cannot ignore it. If there is uncertainty in any part of the country it is clearly the duty of the Minister to remove it as soon as possible so far as words can remove it.
I shall not say very much on the Select Committee's Report on British Field Products. I shall leave that to my hon. and right hon. Friends who have examined the matter. [HON MEMBERS: "Oh."] If 1477 hon. Members opposite wish it I will deal the lot to them. I believe that I know as much about it as most hon. Members in this Committee, but some hon. Members have been studying the question particularly closely and they have all the facts before them. Having examined the facts it is better that they should say what they found.
I want, however, to say this to the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Food. Together, they share the major responsibility for any problem in the grass drying industry. They either rationed feedingstuffs too early or they failed to appreciate the inevitable reactions on price dried grass and other feedingstuffs when derationing came. We know that to ensure plenty on the day that derationing came coarse grains were imported for dollars and that it cost the country £6½ million more than it should have done. Very little was said about that. All I know is that the so-called dried grass muddle has cost £35,000 plus and has caused very deep depression among grass driers.
It is as well for right hon. and learned Gentlemen opposite to see the problem in its proper perspective. I concede that the Minister has been unlucky. The mistake was either in derationing prematurely or, at any rate, in not appreciating all the possible reactions upon other phases of agricultural production.
The right hon. Gentleman has told us that the Crichel Down Report will be available on the Tuesday when the House returns after the Recess and that a statement will be made on that occasion.
To sum up, the Government have buried their "Agricultural Charter" good and deep. They have dropped from their vocabulary "urgency," "continuity" and "certainty". They seem to be more concerned about world prices and world trends than about the stability of British agriculture. In the short-term that may be advantageous, but in the long-term it could be dangerous to this country. Let us have cheap food by all means, but certainly not at the expense of cheap men and cheap women. I should have thought that in these days, with our rising population, safe food in both the short-term and the long-term should be our aim. I doubt whether the Government's present policy will guarantee either the one or the other.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Sir Thomas Dugdale)
I should like to say at the outset that I very much welcome this opportunity to have a discussion about agriculture. I shall try to answer some of the main questions which have been put by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). Some of the more detailed questions will be dealt with later in the debate.
It seemed to me that throughout the right hon. Gentleman's speech there was a contradictory theme. On the one hand, he was accusing the Government of going behind the 1947 Act, and on the other, he said quite definitely that he himself would not be in favour of production regardless of cost. That is the key to the whole problem, and the duty of determining the answer to it is one for the Government to face.
It is the practice of the House of Commons when going into Committee of Supply to review the whole policy which is bound up with the supplies to be voted. The present is a very good time at which to review our agricultural policy, and, as I have said, I am very glad to have the opportunity of doing that this afternoon. The development of the Government's policy for agriculture is now well advanced. I will try to explain that in my remarks as I go along. It is now possible clearly to see the measures and institutions which the Government's policy has brought forth.
In my review, I want for a moment to go back to consider the state of the industry at the end, of 1951, 2½ years ago, when the Conservative Government took office. It is important to do that in order to see where we were then and where we have got to now. At that time the industry had been working for 12 whole years under a system of rigid controls and fixed prices, which were inherent—I am not complaining about it—in the siege economy which we had endured for so long. When we reviewed the position on taking office, it became clear to the new Government that the national interest in this field required two things.
First, we had to give a new impetus to the expansion of agricultural production. If hon. Members will look at the figures for that time, they will see that, although there had been a big increase in 1479 the rate of production after the programme of 1947 was initiated by the right hon. Gentleman, when the Conservative Government arrived to take charge of the country's affairs the impetus had died and there was very definitely a fall in the production of many commodities. That should not be forgotten. Consequently, our first task was to give a new impetus to the expansion of our agricultural production.
Secondly, and at the same time—that is an important phrase here—we had to break away at the earliest possible moment from the system of fixed prices and rigid controls and so get back to a free market in which we can have flexibility, efficiency and emphasis on quality. It may be that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite do not agree with that philosophy, but that is the fundamental philosophy of Members of the Government and of my hon. Friends.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I shall try to show how it is working out as I go along.
These two things had to be done without losing the confidence of the farmer, while continuing in the new circumstances to implement the guarantees of price and market provided for in the Agriculture Act, 1947, to which we are pledged just as much as right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite.
We started by giving the industry a clear lead on production policy. We did this at the first opportunity in the White Paper which followed the 1952 Annual Review. In that White Paper we stated quite definitely the objective of raising production to a level of 60 per cent. above that of pre-war. In doing so, we gave clear illustrations of the ways in which we thought that objective should be secured. But, at the same time—and this is a point to note now, two years afterwards—we specifically avoided imposing detailed targets which are inappropriate to the flexible market system which it has always been our intention to establish.
With the co-operation of the industry —I emphasise that strongly this afternoon 1480 —we have made good and steady progress towards reaching the objective which we set ourselves two years ago. To show how we are making that progress, I will quote two or three figures. In 1950–51, the index of production was 143. In 1951–52, it was 149. I am not taking credit for the Government for all the increase in that year; I am taking credit for some of it. In 1952–53, the figure had risen to 152. We take all the credit for that. Last year, it rose to the provisional figure of 156, that is, a record figure of 56 per cent. above pre-war.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I shall come to that. I realise that that final figure was partly due to the exceptionally favourable weather which we experienced during the harvest period, which resulted in a very heavy crop yield, but—
§ Sir T. Dugdale
—even taking that into account—this is the point here—the increase in output has been most satisfactory. The land now being farmed—this is an interesting point—and the regular labour force on our farms are almost the same as they were in 1938—almost, when we take the two together—but the value of the gross output from our farms is now well over £1,200 million as compared with about £300 million before the war, and the value of the net output is more than £900 million as compared with £200 million before the war.
I gave these figures in answer to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) and I repeat them because they are significant. Despite the changes in the value of money, which I admit, this has been a great achievement and has been to the immense advantage of the nation. In particular—and I hope that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food will agree with me—I doubt whether the complete ending of the rationing of food, which my right hon. and gallant Friend will achieve next month, could have been brought about without this help from the British agricultural industry.
The expansion of agricultural production has not, of course, been confined to this country. Here, I take a point which 1481 was made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley. There has also been a recovery of production in many parts of the world and world prices of some products have begun to fall. At the same time as this movement has been going on, the development of production of certain products in this country has reached a point at which further expansion could only be absorbed if the price to the consumer were much reduced at heavy cost to the Exchequer.
Let us face this. These two factors, operating together, have led us to give a new emphasis to our production policy which has been set out in the White Paper that followed this year's Annual Review. There is now before the country and the industry a production policy which we have redefined in that White Paper in the light of all the developments since 1952.
That brings me to the main feature of the speech with which the right hon. Member for Don Valley opened the debate. He analysed certain paragraphs in the White Paper. It is an essential part of this new emphasis that more regard must be paid to the cost to the Exchequer which our production policy involves. That is clearly set out in paragraph 13 to which the right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention.
To put it on record I quote the words at the beginning of that paragraph. We say there:It is evident that home agriculture cannot be completely insulated from world market conditions and that in determining the level of guarantees account must be taken of long-term trends in market price.Those are the operative, important words and I ask the Committee to consider whether any industry can be soundly based if it does not face up to the trends in market price.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I am asking the Committee to consider that point. We must not put the agricultural industry into a kind of ivory tower regardless of its cost to the rest of the community. That would be to the worst interests of the industry itself.
Now we come to the other side, which did not exist until the present time. We have undertaken to give an appropriate 1482 measure of protection against sharp fluctuation in prices and to give time for adjustment to long-term market trends. That was always the intention of the Agriculture Act, 1947.
That brings us to the important figure, to which the right hon. Member for Don Valley referred, of about £200 million, which is the cost of this general policy of support. The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) will have to admit that this £200 million is no mean figure. I think that all sides of the Committee will agree that this large sum is clear evidence of the Government's intention to stand behind the agricultural industry.
I have been asked by the right hon. Member for Don Valley how the money is being spent and how it is made up. I hope the Committee will forgive me if I try to answer him in detail. The figure of £200 million refers to the year 1953–54. Fifty-four million pounds were spent on production grants, such as fertiliser and calf subsidies. Subsidies on individual commodities add up to £163 million. They are made up as follows: cereals, £20.8 million; potatoes, £7.8 million; milk other than welfare milk—and it is important to make that distinction— £43.5 million; eggs, £21.1 million; fat cattle, £10.1 million; fat sheep, £11.1 million; and pigs, £48.6 million.
These payments, together amounting to £163 million, when added to the £54 million for production grants make a total of £217 million, but in both the milk and fat cattle payments there are considerable elements of consumer subsidy. To make allowance for this the total figure in the White Paper was rounded off to £200 million.
§ Mr. T. Williams
I do not want to intervene while the right hon. Gentleman is in the middle of giving figures, but if he has completed what he wants to say, may I ask him a question?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
No, I have not quite finished yet. I should like to finish this part of my speech before the right hon. Gentleman intervenes.
In addition to £200 million there are still in existence purely consumer subsidies, such as on bread and welfare milk. Some of the figures will be different for 1954–55 because, despite the reductions in price guarantees at the Annual Review, the total bill is likely to be no less than 1483 it was in 1953–54. Indeed, it might be a bit more. This will be mainly due to falling world-wide market prices, particularly for cereals. I think that these figures will convince the Committee that the Government are standing four-square behind the industry.
§ Mr. Williams
Among the figures which the right hon. Gentleman has given, such as for milk and potatoes, are consumer subsidies. I wanted to know exactly how much of the £200 million is a consumer subsidy and how much directly goes to the farming community in their net global income.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I was trying to explain that point in my analysis of the figures. They add up to £217 million. We appreciate that there is a certain element of consumer subsidy which it is impossible actually to analyse in certain milk and fat cattle subsidies—
§ Sir T. Dugdale
No, not in pigs. We agreed that the fair figure to put in was £200 million, which we believe to be the definite help to the production side from the national Exchequer and to represent, together with the production grants, the producer subsidies as opposed to the consumer subsidies. The figure will be different in the year into which we are now moving. It is too early to know, but in some commodities the figure will be higher and in some it will be lower.
I have been asked whether the passage in the White Paper which states thatFurther consideration will be given to means of limiting the dependence of the industry on Exchequer assistancemeans that we are to cut down that assistance regardless of the effect on home production and regardless of the price we have to pay for imports needed to replace production lost at home. That, I think, was the implication of the question of the right hon. Member. Of course it means nothing of the sort. We do not want any reduction in the volume of agricultural net output; on the contrary, we want an increase. But it would be foolish, as I think is accepted by the right hon. Member, to encourage unlimited expansion of every commodity without regard to the cost of production. The right hon. Member admitted that in the course of his speech.
1484 If we did that, apart from its not being in the best interests of the country, it would be disastrous to the industry itself. Therefore, in the case of milk we have sought to reinforce our general policy of stabilising milk output at the desired level by including in the guarantee arrangements a provision whereby there is some relationship between the guarantee and the output. If the quantity produced continues to increase the guaranteed price becomes rather lower.
An interesting feature about this new arrangement, and one which I am certain the whole Committee will welcome, is that it has been brought about and come into being with the complete agreement of the milk marketing boards, the industry and the Government. We are considering similar arrangements for some other commodities. For example, we are considering whether the same kind of arrangements would be practicable for eggs. We have not got beyond that stage. But this does not detract either from our general production policy or from the large measure of support that is being given to the industry.
§ Mr. G. Brown
The Minister is doing this—limiting the guarantee to the limited output—under the powers of Part I of the Act. He will remember that he and his colleagues voted against Part I of the Act on the ground that that power ought not to be there. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared honestly to admit that he was wrong on that occasion?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I am not prepared to admit that what happened in 1947 is naturally appropriate to 1954. I am making a perfectly frank statement. We are doing this in agreement with that section of the industry. I think it is sound common sense for the Government to seek ways and means of limiting dependence on the Exchequer as far as that is consistent with our general policy, and for the industry it is also sound common sense to welcome such an approach to the problem of assuring its stability in the future.
The other main point made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley was in regard to the future of alternative supplies. It may well be that now or later we may have opportunities of getting relatively cheap supplies of one commodity or another from overseas, but 1485 how far can we rely on being able to do that indefinitely or for anything like all the commodities we require?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
Even at this time we still have to depend on the rest of the world for about half our supplies.
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Don Valley drew attention to the fact that world populations continue to increase. How easy it is, too, for harvests to fail for one reason or another. I am sure that for these reasons, no less than for balance of payments and strategic reasons, the only possible course for us as a nation, and certainly for this Government, is to do everything we can to produce as much as we can, at reasonable cost, in our own island.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I will go further than that. If we relaxed our efforts now expansion would cease—of that there is no doubt—and the task of recovering momentum would be one of greatest difficulty and most costly. We have set ourselves the objective of getting the right produce, of the right quality and at the right cost. This is in the common interest of the producer, the consumer and the taxpayer.
Here, once again, I should like to emphasise how well farmers are playing their part. The efficiency of farming has been increasing considerably throughout the last decade. The measure of that increase can roughly be judged as 2 per cent. a year. Much of this improvement has no doubt been due to the effort and skill of individual farmers on their holdings—
§ Sir T. Dugdale
—but also much is the outcome of the considerable investment by the State in research, education and advisory services and the control of disease and pests for the benefit of the industry.
The Government believe it is right and proper that, in these circumstances, a substantial part of the annual gain in efficiency should be made to accrue to the benefit of the Exchequer. We have 1486 been able to develop our policy with the agreement of the producers and to that I attach the utmost importance for in this way we have been able to maintain the confidence of the industry in the future. All the signs indicate that this confidence does, in fact, exist. There may be an exception—one telegram from the right hon. Member for Don Valley—
§ Sir T. Dugdale
Perhaps another from the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). But all the signs in the countryside, from my personal experience indicate that this confidence exists.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
Reports I have from all parts of the country indicate that, despite unavoidable troubles which there must be in making the necessary adaptations to economic changes which have been taking place, farmers recognise the need for adaptation and adjustment and are willing to play their part in the new conditions. This confidence exists because we have been able to carry the industry with us in the changes we have introduced in the form of the guarantees of market and income.
With the removal of controls we have had to work out new marketing and guarantee arrangements for all the main agricultural commodities. I am aware that I have been criticised because, in the opinion of some people, this has taken a long time in some cases. But the task has not been easy. I have had to face the difficulty of combining the objective of restoring free market conditions for the benefit of consumers generally with that of providing security for the producers. I have had to reconcile the need for orderly and efficient marketing with the minimum of controls and restraints on the individual. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food and I have had to devise measures which would bear the strain of any further changes in economic conditions which may lie ahead.
If these arrangements are to meet all these requirements, they must he hammered out with the most careful thought, and we must consider and profit by the different views and experience of the many interests concerned. This has inevitably taken time—
§ Sir T. Dugdale
—but it is time well spent if it enables the transition from a controlled to a free economy to be carried out smoothly and with goodwill on all sides.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
An example of a successful transition is the restoration of marketing powers to the Milk Marketing Board on 1st April. The change has been effected smoothly and the amendments to the scheme now under consideration provide for the closest co-operation between the Board and the distributive trades. The new arrangements have been rightly welcomed by farmers who now feel that they can themselves set about the marketing of their milk.
The new arrangements for cereals, which will come into operation in this season's harvest in a few weeks time, are very similar to those that operated successfully before the war. I expect that the transition to these arrangements will be equally smooth. No doubt the Committee will have noticed with satisfaction the public statements by leading members of the trade promising their help in seeing that the harvest is marketed satisfactorily.
If, on cereals, there was, in the end, no serious difference of view about the position, on fatstock we had to take into account many opposing views strongly held by different interests. The decisions of the Government have now been worked out in detail and have been loyally accepted. I can say that we are receiving full co-operation from the industry as a whole. The guarantee arrangements are complicated. Even a collective guarantee by itself would have been complex, bearing in mind the different classes of stock and the different methods of marketing. But we have introduced an important new feature most valuable to the producer. That is the individual guarantee which has come to be described as a "safety net" to give producers security from abnormal falls in market prices.
By this means we have been able to give to the individual producer the security of a guaranteed minimum price as well as a guaranteed average return, with every incentive and opportunity for 1488 him to try to do better than this in the open market.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. We shall have to wait to see how it works out, but I am confident that it will be satisfactory both to the consumer and the producer.
§ Mr. Brown
The right hon. Gentleman says that this guarantee gives an incentive to the producer to try to do better. If the price falls below the figure stated it does not matter how much lower it falls because the producer gets a guarantee and so how can there be any incentive? Is it not true that this is an incentive to the dealer to depress the price as low as possible and to rely on the Minister of Food to make it up?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I admit that the individual guarantee is a safety net, but, in addition, there is the collective guarantee which gives the producer every encouragement to make the very best price he can.
Although the arrangements are complicated, everything is being made as easy as possible for the farmer. He has only one form to fill in to get the guarantees and he can market his stock how, when and where he likes. We have been at pains to explain this scheme to the people concerned and I think it true to say that as the scheme has come to be understood it has become better liked. That is as much as we can say about this scheme today, and I am certain the Committee will wish it well when it comes into operation in July.
§ Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the Committee the number of farmers who actually understand this scheme?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
More and more every day.
Some anxiety was expressed in the early stages about whether sufficient physical facilities would be available for the marketing and slaughtering of stock on decontrol. I am glad to tell the Committee that good progress is being made with both the authorisation of markets and the licensing of slaughterhouses. Much work has been involved in these arrangements and I should like to pay tribute to my right hon. and 1489 gallant Friend the Minister of Food and his Department for the way in which this has been done.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
Side by side with these arrangements the farmers are building up the Fatstock Marketing Corporation. We wish this new enterprise in co-operative marketing every success.
I wish to say a word about potatoes. We have reached agreement with the producers on the new form of guarantee, both of price and market, and the way is clear for the promotion of a remodelled potato marketing board. Those hon. Members who know of the details of these matters will agree that that is no mean achievement. I understand that good progress is being made with the preparation of a substitutional scheme.
Regarding eggs we are not quite so far forward. Both the Government and the farmers' leaders are most anxious to press ahead with a long-term scheme to replace the present interim arrangements for egg marketing. The outline of proposals submitted to us by the National Farmers' Unions at the end of last year raised a number of matters of considerable importance which have led to many exchanges of views between Departments and the Unions. The latest of these discussions took place only a few days ago, and we are now awaiting a further communication from the Unions on the matter.
I now come to horticulture. The right hon. Gentleman went off the rails rather in regard to this matter. He made great play with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the debate on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Act, 1947. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman does not propose the inclusion of horticultural produce in the First Schedule to the Act, because his own Solicitor-General at that time in the same debate said that it would not be suitable to include horticulture in Part I of the Act, and I think that is now common ground between both sides of the Committee.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
But I am talking about now. I think it is clear that my 1490 right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was making a plea for more specific assistance to horticulture than the vague promises which came from the Government at that time. He wanted something more specific. What did the right hon. Member for Don Valley and his Government do for horticulture in the four years during which his Government were in office after the Act was passed into law? Probably the short answer is "Nothing."
§ Mr. T. Williams
The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. He must know that year by year we had a schedule of periods for different kinds of horticultural produce when imports were prohibited. They were well defined specified periods which were discussed each year with the National Farmers' Union. The right hon. Gentleman is really stretching the elastic a little too far.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
Then I will stretch it a bit further because I maintain that it was left to this Government to put through the only important Measure to help horticulture. I admit that the right hon. Gentleman was doing his best, but it was left to the present Government to put through the most important Measure, namely, the increase in tariffs on imported horticultural produce. Increases in the tariff on certain fruit and vegetables became operative on 1st December last, and a further Order increasing the duty on plums, strawberries, nursery stock and flowers came into force on 21st May. I would be the last to pretend that this increase in tariffs will solve all the problems of horticulture.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
Yes. We must keep up determined efforts to improve the efficiency of production and the quality and presentation of the goods when they are marketed.
§ Sir T. Dugdale
The Government are already helping in a number of ways. The advisory services and many of the grants which are available to agriculture are also available to horticulture.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
When foreign vegetables and fruit, including broccoli and lettuce, come into the country, have the Government thought of tracing the source of origin right through to the shops so that the housewife may know whether she is buying good British apples and lettuce, or foreign apples and lettuce? Can we not have a scheme of certification for these imported vegetables?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
It is easy to ask for that, but it is an extremely difficult thing to do. At present Departments are also carrying out investigations into a number of aspects of the marketing of horticultural produce in conjunction with the organisations concerned. That is the primary matter which they are considering.
I should not like to leave the discussion of the part of the horticultural industry without making reference to its leaders who have shown their ability by the skill and moderation with which they piloted the applications for increased tariffs. I should like to pay special tribute to them and to the way in which the horticultural industry is facing its difficulties.
I have not this afternoon dealt with some of the less spectacular but still most important activities of my many-sided Department. County agricultural executive committees have continued their leadership to the industry in increasing production and improving efficiency. I should particularly like to thank and congratulate them and their staffs for their co-operation and help in the measures which have reduced the losses on their trading services from £9 million in 1949 to virtually nothing at all. Great strides are being made in the eradication of tuberculosis from our cattle and in the control of the diseases and pests of animals and plants.
I should like also to dwell for a moment on the achievements of the comparatively recently formed river boards in reconstructing our flood defences after the disasters of last year. That was really a major enterprise, but because, by and large, it was carried out so successfully and so quickly it has passed almost unnoticed.
I have tried to indicate to the Committee how, in the last 2½ years, our great industry has moved from the controls and 1492 rigidities of a siege economy to the flexible market economy which is now in force. This has involved a new emphasis in production policy and radical changes in methods of marketing and of guarantees. I appreciate that on occasions there have been doubts in some quarters and impatience in others, but, in the end, we have carried through these great changes with the maximum of co-operation and collaboration of the interests affected. As a result, the expansion of the industry has been maintained and the confidence of the producer has continued.
I believe that the worst of our difficulties are now behind us, and that if we continue to meet changes in our circumstances in the spirit and with the methods of the past 2½ years, the prosperity of agriculture and its contribution to the life of the nation will be maintained and increased. I have every confidence that this will happen.
§ 5.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
I am sure that we are grateful to the Opposition for this Supply Day on which to discuss agriculture.
I should like to take the Minister up on the last part of his speech dealing with the question of horticulture. It is far from correct to say that we on these benches were not concerned with British horticulture and fair returns to growers in this country. The Minister will remember that when the Opposition were in power they took the trouble to discuss this problem of marketing, and the Lucas Report was the result of research into that problem of marketing.
As the Minister rightly pointed out, many people in this country may forget the contribution that horticulture makes to the British standard of living. No matter how blasé and sophisticated we may be, it is still of paramount importance to remember that unless we get a first-class productive system of food growing and unless our farming is efficient, the very basis of our defence strategy is undermined.
We were told in a recent number of "The British Farmer" that there are 150,000 men and women today in British horticulture, and these 150,000 people are producing somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2½ million tons of vegetables. 1493 800,000 tons of fruit and £17 million worth of flowers every year in this country.
I was in Cornwall only recently, at the height of the daffodil season and when early vegetables were coming through. Despite all this laissez faire of the Government and the freedom that they are pretending to introduce into British farming and horticulture, there is not the slightest doubt that the growers of the prime commodity, the producers of the broccoli and the flowers, including the small men, many of whom have a very few acres indeed in the West Country, are not getting the price that many people think they get when they see the tickets in the shops and when flowers, for instance, are bought over the shop counter. The time has come for a joint effort by British housewives and British growers. They should combine against the interference by too many middle-men in the marketing of horticultural produce.
The other day I asked the Home Secretary whether he was in a position to tell us the finding of the inquiry into the recent disastrous fire in Covent Garden market. Those of us who know Covent Garden realise that it is an antiquated method of marketing the work, labour and effort of the 150,000 men and women throughout Britain who produce the fruit, vegetables and flowers.
The nation must be wasting millions of pounds in petrol alone through the traffic jams in the Covent Garden area. This is not a party point. Is it not time that the Government though of moving the Covent Garden market outside London in order to organise a much more efficient distributive centre for these products?
§ Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)
This is an important point. No doubt the hon. Gentleman knows that it has been investigated. It certainly was when I was on the City Council some years ago, before I came into the House. It is a matter of extreme difficulty. The question of splitting up the market has been investigated over a number of years.
§ Mr. Davies
I was careful to point out that I was not trying to make a party point. This is a question of the economic efficiency of the distribution of our goods inside the country. Those who 1494 look at the matter calmly know that the question is difficult and complicated, but the time has come when the entire system of marketing and collecting at Covent Garden should be overhauled.
I understand that growers are buying land at Slough. They are hoping to build a distributing centre inside Slough. Growers are beginning to co-operate in an effort to avoid exploitation by too many middle-men. We have a packing station in the Lea Valley in Hertfordshire which is used only spasmodically. Why cannot it be used regularly as a distribution centre for vegetables? It is just outside London at a convenient point. Is that a constructive suggestion worthy of examination?
I had a great-uncle who worked at Kew Gardens many years ago and who helped in rubber seed production. We can be very proud of the vegetables we produce. I am told by experts that one of the finest apples in the world is Cox's Orange Pippin. What is being done to encourage the sale of that apple in the United States of America? It may not have artificial red, rosy features—one can take an anæmic-looking apple and colour it, but the juiciness, the taste, is not there. Are the Government making an effort to get into the American market? The climate in America is such that the Cox's Orange Pippin cannot be grown there.
There appears to be a barrier against the import of our fruit into the United States. Are we to allow fruit to come into Britain from other parts of the world if we cannot have a reciprocal agreement?
An interesting development is being carried out with tomatoes. I saw an article recently in the magazine, "The Grower," in which £5,000 was being offered in connection with research into the production of first-class tomato seeds. I understand that at the John Innes Institute we have discovered an excellent tomato seed which will produce plants second to none in the world. To guarantee that the seeds are not contaminated, there ought to be some kind of certification scheme for first-class seeds. Are the Government considering such a method of certification after great research work has been done either in Government or in private horticultural research centres? 1495 Recently a pamphlet was produced by a group of young Tory M.P.s. This group is rather like the 10 little nigger boys slashing right and left, but they must remember the end of the tragic story. There were 10 little nigger boys, and only one was left; something happened to him and then there were none. The pamphlet is about the prosperous Britain which they wish to build, and it criticises, as we have criticised for many years, the sugar-beet subsidy scheme. This was introduced in 1925 and since then it has cost the nation £35 million. This "one nation" group want to drop the scheme.
They cannot, in the name of this almost medieval idea, get a Minister of Agriculture shouting from the mountain tops, his voice reverberating from peak to peak, that we are entering into a period of freedom, and then suddenly drop all the subsidy schemes without having something constructive to put in their place. That is the criticism from this side of the Committee. There is more terror and fear in horticulture and farming today than there ever has been since the Hungry Forties.
Hon. Gentlemen opposite may shake their heads. I invite one of them to come with me on any Wednesday to the cattle market for a discussion. Instead of enthusiasm, and perhaps destructive criticism by Labour speakers, there is now a quiet tone indicative of the fear that is creeping into the cattle markets and the farming centres of Britain. This is not so much because they may not still think that the Conservative Government is the best Government which they have had, but because they see no constructive alternatives being put forward by the Minister of Agriculture. And these 10 little Tory boys who have written that pamphlet throw out the idea of destroying the subsidy for sugar beet. I will suggest something constructive.
What are the Government doing about the analysis of the cost and the monopoly in the sugar beet industry? The National Institute of Agricultural Botany estimates that 98 per cent. of that seed is home grown and that there are 420,000 acres of sugar beet seed in Britain. At a sowing rate of 15 lb. of seed to the acre, 2,812½ tons are needed for the whole of Britain at a cost of 1s. 11½d. a lb. That 1496 is the cost of the seed to the grower—ls. 11½d. a lb.
Suddenly we find that the 11 firms in the seed trade say they will reduce the price of the seed by 5s. a cwt. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members say "Hear, hear," but this seed is being sold now at an exorbitant rate. The seed grower gets 9¾d. for his seed per lb., whereas the user has to pay is. 11½d. So there is a wide margin of 1s. l¾d. which need not exist, and it goes to people who have no merchanting problems, no advertising expenses, and no distributive charges.
If, therefore, we looked at the sugar beet industry at the seed production level, we could easily produce sugar for the British housewife much more cheaply. I have worked it out, and I find that this monopoly in seed production means that the British housewife is paying over £314,000 per annum more for her sugar than she need do because of the exorbitant margin of profit on the seed.
I want to mention two local points. The Government are to be congratulated on the research now being carried out in the North Staffordshire area into fluorine poison. It is one of the growing problems of an industrialised society, and this research is something which any Government in power should undertake because of the future of the agricultural industry. The Minister of Agriculture should bring more pressure on the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Ministry of Civil Aviation or the Home Office in order to try to get a greater reduction of the danger of smoke fumes in our great cities. I say that because we are now finding it much more difficult to undertake adequate and profitable cattle farming or cereal farming on the fringes of our great conurbations. It is a problem which is growing, and one to which all of us here should be giving greater consideration.
Sometimes the War Office and the Royal Air Force act in a peremptory manner towards small farmers. Only this week in my own district the Minister of Agriculture agreed that many acres of fine arable land had been taken away from one of my constituents simply because the R.A.F. must have it. Whatever Minister of Agriculture is in power, it is his duty to insist that if the War Office, the Admiralty or the R.A.F. can 1497 find a suitable site, they should not use land that is in good heart in this shrinking Britain of ours.
The same is true of water companies. In my constituency a village is being flooded. I do not know what the Ministry will do for the small farmers there who have not had a wonderful time in the last 10 years. In that village of Meerbrook the local farmers have been at a standstill for four or five years. They have not been able to bring in pigs or cattle, neither have they been able to repair their farms or outhouses. Appeals have been made from time to time to the Ministry of Agriculture to allow these people easy access to the right hon. Gentleman and to his officers because they have not time for the intricacies of form-filling or a knowledge of local law.
In view of our growing population and the condition of the world today, I suggest that all of us here have a duty to treasure every square inch of the land in Britain that is in good heart. The Minister has made efforts to stand up to the War Office and other Departments, but it is his duty to wage a greater fight against the Admiralty, the War Office and the R.A.F. in an effort to retain this land for agriculture.
Summing up, I say that those of us here who live in agricultural constituencies, or have the privilege of representing them in the House of Commons, know that if ever we have to face a third world war, in the face possibly of radio-active seas, there would be no possibility of victory unless our food production was strong. That is the first thing we should be guarding in Britain, and a little more money spent wisely in that direction might give greater returns to the nation than the Government think.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies), because I do not propose to detain the Committee long. I want, first, to congratulate the Minister upon his interesting and comprehensive report on the present condition of the agricultural industry. It was well that the nation should know the amount of hard work and the results that this brought about last year in an Increase in every commodity produced by the British farmer. We can look to the future with confidence, because the 1498 policy embarked upon by the Government will continue to bring about increasing amounts of produce from our farms, and as this new system of marketing settles down, it will be appreciated by the entire farming community.
I want to talk about one commodity we grow, which is the most important of all, namely, grass. I feel that insufficient attention is given to the management of our existing grassland and to the management of the leys that we put down. Grass is the foundation of all life, whether animal, human or plant life, and when we plough up grass and put the turf underneath, we can be sure that we shall grow very good cereal or root crops. I wonder how much grass is properly farmed; very little indeed, I should think. I believe that a great deal of it can be improved, and indeed I have seen it improved in some cases merely by putting in proper drainage.
The next thing to be done to permanent grassland— and I feel sure that the bulk of our grassland is starved—is to apply still more fertilisers. Many people think that if a field is green it is necessarily composed of good grass, but my experience is that if grassland is properly fertilised we can step up production per acre, and, what is most important of all, bring down the cost per unit. I know that that will appeal to hon. Gentleman opposite, because if we reduce the cost per unit we shall increase the profit, and I know how anxious they are that farmers should make a fair and proper profit.
In dealing with the leys, again I feel that not sufficient notice has been taken of, or knowledge sought about, the very much better strains of grass and clover that are available to farmers today. These new strains have been brought about as a result of a great deal of hard work and research over many years. If one has the correct amount and the proper variety of seed, it is surprising how much better results one can achieve.
I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether he is seriously setting about this job of getting the farming community to carry out these improvements. I know that he is doing something, and that the previous Government did something, in this direction, and I believe that that is the way in which we shall be able to improve our production. 1499 We shall also place ourselves in such a strong position that, should an emergency of any kind arise, we shall have sufficient fertility built up to produce good crops without a great deal of trouble.
I know that we have the agricultural services and that they do what they can, but I wonder if they encourage farmers to go on farm walks sufficiently often. I know they have encouraged farmers to do so, but, although the suggestion is sometimes carried out, I do not think they do it sufficiently often. I am wondering if we could not do something more, because I feel that today this is the most important problem that faces the industry, and that if we can deal with this problem, the other difficulties will be very much easier to solve.
I should like to end by drawing the attention of the Committee to the small increase in the amount of the provision for fertilisers which has been made in the last few years. I think that the estimates for this year show an increase of only £500,000 in the fertiliser subsidy, which is creased from £13 million to £13½ million. This is not very encouraging, and I believe that a great increase in this direction is required. I am also disturbed to see a suggestion that there may be a drop in the amount of lime that will be applied to the land during the coming 12 months.
I remember looking through the Price Review when it was published, and that among a lot of figures which were quoted one in particular stood out, the small amount spent on fertiliser. It was estimated that farm rents for the coming year will be some £73½ million, and it is also estimated that £75 million will be spent on fertilisers. I see that other farming expenses—I do not know how the figure is made up, but they can include quite a number of expenses which farmers incur—total £160 million. It may represent going to market and little jobs that need to be done, but I do not know how it is arrived at.
I suggest that the farmers, industry and the country generally would be very much better off and very much wiser to spend £160 million on fertilisers and only £75 million on other farming expenses. I still think that, with all the various expenses which a farmer has to meet today, his best investment is to apply more fertilisers 1500 to his grassland, and to apply as much fertilisers on good grassland as on poor grassland.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)
The debate up to now has shown that speakers from the Government Front Bench, and particularly the Minister, have some difficulty in explaining away some of their former speeches referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), who spoke first for the Opposition. It is true that the speeches made at the time when the 1947 Agriculture Bill was going through the House make strange reading today. The right hon. Gentleman quite rightly, I thought, referred to the "ivory tower," but we do not want agriculture in an ivory tower, and it ought not to be suggested that it should be permanent.
Of course, both sides of the Committee really agree that, in the situation in the world today, with increased food stocks at home and abroad, the problem must be looked at afresh. It is equally true to say that the days of cost-plus farming are over. It was no doubt necessary, in the days when there was food shortage, to increase production from all types of land and of all possible foods, with little regard to quality, but those days are now past.
In Europe, at least, and on the American continent, once more we hear talk of surpluses, and the spectre of the interwar years is once more rising before the vision of many farmers. Yet I myself think that this spectre is only a temporary one. The rapid rise in world population may cause these surpluses to vanish, but the disturbing feature of the world situation is that there are surpluses in some countries and shortages in others, and that those countries which are experiencing a shortage do not possess the buying power to level out the surpluses of those countries which possess them.
That is another story that we cannot go into in this debate. Europe and America will have to organise their agriculture on the basis of more limited quantities and with special emphasis on quality. I suppose that is what the Government had in mind when they negotiated the February Price Review. That Price Review was disappointing to many farmers when they saw the obvious end coming to unlimited production. 1501 I am not sure that in some things we have really reached saturation. The Milk Marketing Board made a survey the other day, and reported that 47 per cent. of the families whom they interviewed would buy more milk if the price were lower. The dairy farmer does not like to see the wholesale price going down, although reduction in the price would probably have the effect of stimulating consumption. Up-to-date dairy farmers are striving to lower their cost of production and to meet the lowering prices of their end-product and the high labour bills by more efficient methods of production.
They can do it in a number of ways. They are doing it by raising the production of their herds. That has gone up quite a bit in recent years. The quarterly review of the Royal Agricultural Society's "Journal" has pointed out that the rise in recent years is 100 gallons per cow per annum, or a rise of 20 per cent. This shows that a lot can be done to meet lower prices with more efficient production.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) said about the necessity of developing fodder crops, especially silage. The cost is about £20 per ton and that fodder has a high protein content. That will eliminate, or much reduce, the need for buying high protein cake at £35 or £40 a ton. I would rather see that develop than grass drying, which, with its very high production costs, is a much more speculative business. We could grow good fodder crops for dairy cows at relatively low cost. Attention has been called to the strip raising system, which involves fences, but gives an increased output on well-fertilised long leys at relatively low cost. All this shows what can be done to meet the situation. I am not worried that the February Price Review is tending to put a limit to the quantity of milk produced and a limit to the price which the dairy farmer will get. His answer is: Better methods and lower costs.
The same thing is true in other branches of the industry. A great deal has been done already. We produce 40 per cent. more wheat now from nine per cent. more acres than we did 10 years ago; we produce 61 per cent. more sugar-beet from 37 per cent. more acres, and 55 per cent. 1502 more potatoes from 22 per cent. more acres. That indicates that the output per acre is going up. The output per man in farming, too, has gone up generally 30 per cent. since 1938. The farmer's man is getting better wages, thank God, and it can be said that the farmworker, who was really badly paid before the war, is not only better paid but is more efficient. The farmer also is more efficient because he has better methods and better machinery.
That is the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans). I am sorry that he is not here today to give us his views on the subject. There is some truth in some of his remarks that there is still bad and mediocre farming going on, but he always exaggerates. He spoils his case by exaggeration. The figures I have quoted show that there must be a large number of farmers who are farming efficiently to produce that result. The inefficient farmer will be gradually eliminated in the cooler winds that are now blowing.
Savings that will be brought about by the lowering of costs of production should be divided among the three main interests concerned. They are the taxpayers, who would pay less subsidy towards agricultural prices; the consumer and the housewife, who would get lower prices, and the farmer, who is entitled to interest on the very substantial investment that he is making in the industry today. Indeed, he will need it.
I hope that the Minister of Agriculture will keep his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer aware of the fact that if agriculture is to be up to date it must have full support from the banks for credit facilities. The banks must recognise that public policy demands the financing of agricultural improvements at reasonable rates of interest.
While I am on the subject of capital expenses, I would say that some farmers in my constituency are faced with difficulty as a result of the erosion of their land by the River Severn. I have raised the matter privately with the Minister, and I hope that something can be done about it. I know that the rivers board do not like to accept responsibility for something for which they are not legally liable; nevertheless, farmers who farm lands in the neighbourhood of great rivers like the Severn are liable to serious 1503 capital expenditure in keeping the river within bounds. The Severn is a very difficult river, as those know who live near it.
In connection with lowering the costs of production, I do not think we are making anywhere near enough progress in the production of pork and bacon. The costs of production in this country are too high. We have many herd societies who have done excellent work in their day in breeding types of cattle, sheep and pigs, but they have been much more interested in producing animals to win prizes at shows than for conversion efficiently into food. The show business has been a rich man's hobby for a good many generations. It is not really helpful to the industry as a whole. It is much more important to produce the type of animal which has no show points, but which will give a high milk yield and a meat production of the right qualities.
§ Mr. Price
No, indeed, but what I am saying is that we should produce animals of the utility kind rather than of the show kind. That is very important.
Here is a case in point, for in the case of the pigs to which I am referring the cost of our production of bacon and pork is much higher than that of the Danes. The Danes have produced a type of pig which is really efficient. We have not. Only the other day, I put a Question to the Minister of Agriculture asking if anything had been done about that. I received an answer showing that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the point and is giving some assistance to the Pig Breeders' Association to start some pig testing stations.
This is a matter which has only just been started in this country whereas the Danes have been at it for generations. When they lost Schleswig-Holstein in the war with Prussia, they had to settle down on relatively poor land and to try to produce first-class animals and agricultural produce to sell abroad. They did very well at it. They produced the type of pig which is wanted for that purpose. 1504 We in this country have no means of knowing what we really have got. Any farmer going to market to buy a sow from which to breed has rarely any idea of just what kind of animal he has got. He does not know whether it will produce good litters, what percentage of the litters are likely to be reared, or what the rate of live weight increase in the progeny is going to be. There are some individual herds where that fact is known, but it is not done as in Denmark. Therefore, I ask the Ministry to pay great attention to this matter of improving the type of our bacon pig in order that we may lower costs of production and be able better to compete with the Danes.
The Government have been in a great hurry to break up the price control of food products and to get back to a free market. They have done that so precipitately that the farmers have hardly had time to get marketing schemes going. The interim scheme for eggs, for instance, is hardly satisfactory. There was no time to get a marketing scheme going before the whole thing was thrown into the melting pot.
Fortunately, owing to the superhuman efforts of the National Farmers' Union, the Fatstock Marketing Corporation has been set up, and will, I understand, be in working order by 1st July. Something like this is needed to prevent chaos in meat marketing. We already have trouble in the West. Only yesterday I received a telegram from farmers in my constituency informing me that the Ministry of Food has refused to take more than two-fifths of the fat lambs offered at Gloucester market next Monday.
The Ministry of Agriculture, on the one hand, asks farmers to produce high quality meat, in this case lamb, and all good farmers will try to get off now the best of their lamb flocks that are really fit for the market. This will relieve their pastures of pressure and will give the other animals, which will mature later, a better opportunity of doing so. In that way we ensure a high quality of meat throughout the season.
The best farmers are trying to do that, but the answer they have received from the Ministry is that only two-fifths of their offers are to be taken next Monday. I should like to know the reason for that. I wrote to the Minister about it last 1505 night, and I should like to know why it is that the Ministry of Agriculture encourages high quality meat production while the Ministry of Food, apparently, does the very opposite. That is the kind of thing we want to avoid. The Government must really know what they want in this matter. We cannot have a Government who do not know their own minds.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)
The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) has, on the whole, made a very constructive and helpful speech. I am sorry that he went a little wrong towards the end of it in criticising the Government's policy. It seemed to me that the very point he was making with regard to these surplus sheep, whether lambs or ewes, emphasised the difficulty of a Government allocation which has to take place if there is Government organisation, and the necessity for doing away with rationing and controls as soon as a sufficiency of supplies is achieved. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be defeating his own argument in the instance which he put forward, but no doubt he will get a very full reply from my hon. Friend.
I am rather sorry that the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) is not in the Chamber at the moment. I endeavoured to intervene in his speech, and I must make one or two brief comments, in his absence, on some of his remarks. I was very glad to hear what he said about the propagation of a new strain of tomatoes, in which matter I have been particularly interested. I think that the sum of £5,000 given by the Tomato Marketing Board is valuable, and is in line with what should be done to try to improve quality, marketing and presentation. If one has not the good varieties to start with, one cannot present a good article at the end.
The hon. Gentleman went on to speak about sugar beet seed. He said some most interesting statistics about that subject whereby he seemed to prove that the housewife could get her sugar much 1506 cheaper if the seed was not so expensive. It was an ingenious argument. I have in my constituency one of the leading firms of seed merchants who deal in sugar beet seed. I have been struck by the tremendous care they take in the elimination of all rubbish and weeds from the seeds, and by the elaborate and expensive machinery which they use in the process. They also spend a great deal of money on research. I can assure the House that the picture is not so black as it is sometimes painted with regard to these firms.
Regarding the finished product, the hon. Gentleman took to task some of my hon. Friends who are members of the "One Nation Group." I do not defend them, and I must say that, to a certain extent, I agree with some of the remarks which the hon. Member made. I would remind him that on this side of the Committee we have a right to disagree on some of these matters. I believe that even in recent months Members opposite have had disagreements on occasion.
I do not think that it would be right to abolish the subsidy on sugar beet. In any case, there is no operative subsidy at present, because we are competing with produce imported from the Commonwealth countries. This is a crop that we are fully justified in growing at home. We should have been in a lamentable position during the last 10 years had we had not had the home-grown crop. I think that we are fully justified in going ahead with it, but that does not mean that I advocate a considerable extension of the acreage at present.
I must turn to the question of dried grass, about which I shall have to be a little critical of the Government. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) dealt with it very briefly, whether because he was being kind to the Government or because his conscience pricked I do not know.
§ Mr. Williams
Before the hon. Member goes further, perhaps he will bear in mind that little or no dried grass was produced before I left office.
§ Mr. Godber
Not by that particular firm, but of course the right hon. Gentleman spent a lot of money to produce a very little. That is the criticism.
§ Mr. Godber
The right hon. Gentleman authorised the spending of a great deal of money, and he cannot get out of it like that.
§ Mr. Godber
Yes, with private enterprise.
This is another of those cases which we see repeated so often when looking through the accounts of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which was another organisation set up by right hon. Gentlemen opposite when in power. They set up all sorts of extraordinary schemes which were wholly or largely Government-financed, and so many of which have gone wrong. It seems to me that this was an attempt to do the same sort of thing at home.
The trouble was that they tried to go far too fast. They tried to start a grandiose scheme with people who had very little knowledge of the technique needed. From a study of the Report of the Select Committee on Estimates it appears that what those people particularly lacked was knowledge of the selling side. When it came to selling their main method was to try to undercut the market. I say, therefore, that right hon. Gentlemen opposite have a very heavy responsibility in this field.
§ Mr. G. Brown
The hon. Member says that, but will he also say that when the Bill which authorised this was before the House, the Clause under which this was done was not only not opposed by Conservative Members but was supported by them?
§ Mr. Godber
No doubt that is true, but they had no knowledge of how it was to be developed by right hon. Gentlemen opposite. At least the right hon. Gentleman cannot blame me for that because I was not in the House at the time. In any case it was initiated by the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, and they cannot escape that.
My point is that this was too grandiose a scheme. When my right hon. Friend took office he had the alternative of either shutting down the organisation, with the loss of a lot of money already invested— 1508 on the authority of hon. Members opposite—or of attempting to keep it going. He decided, and in the then circumstances probably rightly, to try to keep it going, and a good deal more Government money was invested. I shall not go into the lamentable result in detail, but I must be a little critical of my own Government.
At the end of last autumn, when the question arose of the subsidy which was paid to this firm I fear that an error was made. It may have been done in all good faith, with the intention of helping the industry as a whole—as stated in the Report—but its effect was to make the position for the rest of the industry not better but worse. Although this firm's crop was held off the market for perhaps two months that was not long enough to benefit the other producers.
Nor were the other producers informed of what was being done or they might have been able to take advantage of it to some extent. But they did not know that until the Minister had given authority to this firm to release its stocks. Then, by reason of its subsidy, the firm undercut the market. The result has been that many producers—including large-scale producers in my own constituency—are left with large quantities of this crop which they have not been able to dispose of. It is a very serious matter for them.
I say to my right hon. Friend that if this one firm was entitled to a subsidy it seems unfortunate that it has been impossible to give anything to anyone else in the industry—
§ Mr. Godber
The right hon. Gentleman should allow his natural good manners to control his natural ebullience—
§ Mr. G. Brown
The one may be more apparent than the other, but I wanted to make the point which the hon. Gentleman was obviously missing. The money was given or lent under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act because this company was to operate an experiment that no one else was doing. When the hon. Gentleman says that other people should have had the money, I say that there was no one else in circumstances the same as those in which this experimental undertaking was set up in Norfolk, and which everyone supported at the time.
§ Mr. Godber
I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong, but he may get the opportunity to develop his argument later. The company was doing nothing experimental or new, or anything which my constituents have not been doing. It is wholly wrong to use that argument. It does not meet the case at all.
I want to turn now to a wider sphere. I was glad that in his review the Minister took us back to the conditions of 1951. The right hon. Member for Don Valley is often so forgetful of what was happening when he left office. I remember, because during the whole time that he was Minister of Agriculture I was trying to earn a living in that industry. I therefore know what the conditions and feelings were at that time.
During the whole of 1951 there was undoubtedly a feeling of very great unhappiness and uncertainty. Many of the previous production grants had been withdrawn, the industry did not know which way things were going, and there was no confidence at all. There is no doubt that that was the legacy left by the right hon. Gentleman.
I do not wish to weary the House with a lot of figures but there is one set in particular which I should like to quote to indicate my point. I will give the right hon. Gentleman the figures of calves under one-year old appearing in the March returns for the years 1951–1954. In the return of March, 1951, there were 1,595,000; in 1952, they were down to 1,466,000; in 1953 they had risen to 1,612,000 and in 1954 to 1,646,000. That is indicative of the feeling in the agricultural community, and the restoration of confidence which my right hon. Friend was able to achieve.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley came into office at an easy time. He carried on a policy which had been laid out for him by his predecessor, to whom he has never given sufficient credit.
§ Mr. T. Williams
The hon. Member is making statements for which he has no foundation, about a subject upon which he has not a scrap of knowledge. How does he know that from 1939 to 1945 it was not also my policy?
§ Mr. Godber
That is a very nice point, and might be a possible form of 1510 Socialist propaganda. It was certainly the policy for which the Minister, during the war, was held responsible, and until this moment the right hon. Gentleman has not suggested that it was not.
§ Mr. Godber
Since this is a slightly controversial matter I had better pass on.
The restoration of the production grants which my right hon. Friend instituted has probably been one of the most valuable things which the Government have done since they came to power, in helping to restore production, encourage it in the most effective places, and provide the money where it is most needed —at the beginning of the cycle rather than at the end. I hope and believe that this policy will be continued, at least to its present extent.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley was, in fact, trying to give the impression that we are not wholly behind the 1947 Act, but my right hon. Friend gave a very full answer to that allegation when he pointed out the extent of the present Exchequer liability in supporting farmers' prices. When the party opposite were in power they never had to bear the brunt of any such expense, because they were operating in conditions of shortage. The 1947 Act was then no burden to the Exchequer; it was a help, because the prices obtained were considerably less than those which had to be paid for imported produce. It is only now that the real test has come, and the Government have shown their worth in meeting that test. That fact should be acknowledged. The proof lies in the £200 million.
I turn now to the marketing arrangements which are being introduced for this year's harvest and for fatstock. It has taken some time, pains and toil to produce, but the Minister has now evolved a programme which is not only workable but realistic. We have something which the farmers can trust, because they can see the way it links up and can feel confident that we shall stand by it. The important thing is that it will be something of a permanent nature. We are getting out of the transition period and want to see the way in which this matter will work out.
The fatstock position is extremely complicated, but my right hon. Friend has produced some valuable leaflets. The full 1511 leaflets are perhaps difficult for farmers to understand, but the new simplified leaflet explaining the fatstock guarantee scheme, and which is being sent to all farmers, will be extremely helpful. I hope that all the farmers will study it, thereby realising all the problems and how they will have to be dealt with.
The new N.F.U. Fatstock Marketing Company, which has been formed extremely quickly, has great opportunities before it, and we all wish it well in the work it seeks to do. It will provide for stock that valuable alternative outlet to the auction market which is so very important if we are to avoid the danger of price rings. That is something for which we should be thankful.
One of the most valuable assurances we have had about cereals is that there will be no overhang of last year's crop. A feeling was widely held for many months that there would be a very heavy overhang, especially of the barley crop, but the Minister of Food gave an assurance last week that the quantity had been rapidly reduced and that there was every likelihood of it being cleared up.
When one remembers the large quantities imported at the end of last summer to ensure that no shortage arose when the derationing of cereal feedingstuffs took place, it is most encouraging to know that these surplus stocks are being worked off, and that there should be a ready and reasonable demand for our own cereals when they come on to the market.
The farmers themselves have a very real responsibility for making a success of cereal marketing from this year's harvest. I hope that they will consider the real need under present-day conditions, with masses of combine harvesters producing large quantities of grain ready for immediate disposal, and with so many farmers lacking proper storage capacity. I beg them to use moderation in marketing when the time comes, in their own interests as well as those of the Government and the Treasury. If they try to put too heavy a burden upon marketing facilities at harvest time they may cause very considerable harm and much extra expense to the Exchequer, which it is in their interest, as well as that of everyone else to avoid.
I hope they will bear that fact in mind, and that more and more farmers 1512 will provide storage capacity for themselves. In the past they have had it automatically in the form of their stacks. When they were cutting with the binder and stacking they could bring the grain on to the market gradually, but if they choose the combine harvester, which is efficient and labour saving, they should introduce, as a corollary, storage and drying facilities.
I hope that the Government will maintain, in some form or other, the Government silos at present in the hands of Recommissioned Mills, to ensure an added safeguard for cereals. The most important thing for the farming community to consider between now and harvest time is how to harvest its cereal crops and not to overload the market. If it remembers that, all will be well.
I believe that the speech which the Minister has made this afternoon has put the whole position in its true perspective. The farmers realise that we have not only to look after ourselves but to consider our position in relation to world prices. Farmers are ready to accept that challenge. Given reasonable safeguards, I believe they can continue to expand their production, and I have every confidence that so long as the present Government remains in office agriculture has nothing to fear.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)
I ought almost to ask the indulgence of the Committee for what is practically a maiden speech, as I have never before ventured to inject my remarks into a debate on agriculture. I am induced to do so only because of a feeling that the policy of the present Government is based upon a very grave misconception of the economic prospects facing us.
What drew the matter to my attention most starkly was the Third Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, to which the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) has referred. In the course of my remarks I shall refer to that Report and shall put upon it a complexion very different to that which the hon. Member sought to do. It may be that he is inhibited by his position on the other side of the Committee, whereas I am not inhibited in any way.
The Government are taking advantage of what I consider to be only a temporary, if substantial, fall in the world prices 1513 of very many commodities, including food and feedingstuffs, and the substantial benefit therefrom to our terms of trade. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has frequently claimed credit for the advantages that have accrued therefrom. It seems to me that the present policies of the Minister of Food and the Minister of Agriculture are based on what I consider to be only a temporary factor.
The history of our economic situation since the end of the war shows that, even with an increase of our exports, by volume, of three-quarters, we have barely been able to pay for 90 per cent. of our pre-war volume of imports. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) said today, our population is rising and, therefore, our need of foodstuffs is rising all the time. At the same time our industrial production is rising, and will have to rise because of the factors of increased population and increased exports, and we are therefore, having to import more raw materials that are not available in this country and could not be in any circumstances.
Under the operation of the Agriculture Act of the Labour Government, agricultural production has risen to over 50 per cent. above the pre-war level. I do not think the Minister would claim that what took place in 1952 was in any way due to his policy. I may not be a farmer, but I have sufficient knowledge of farming to know that things do not happen in agriculture quite as quickly as that. As a result, in 1952 our food imports were only 35 per cent. of our total imports. It is true that at that time food and feeding-stuffs were controlled, and that many of them were rationed. Last year, with some increase in meat supplies, and with the bringing into operation of decontrol and derationing, food imports went up to 39 per cent. of our total imports—in the first year of decontrol and derationing.
We are not in a static situation. Indeed, I am concerned with the movement of Government policy—of the changes that seem to be taking place in it. I do not believe we have seen the end of this process of change in policy going on in the minds of right hon. Gentlemen. It may be argued that we could buy more food if we could export more, but we have to face the fact that our share of world trade is declining as the Germans return to their pre-war 1514 position. It is not that the Germans are advancing beyond their pre-war position; they are nowhere near it; but as they approach it our share of world trade is bound to decline.
America at the present time has a much higher proportion than before the war. Therefore, there will be considerable difficulty in increasing the total volume of our exports. If we can increase them it will be in an expanding world economy, in which the terms of trade will be likely to go against us, and the prices of our imports, including the prices of our food and feedingstuffs, will probably rise.
In view of the need of this country for increased industrial production and an increase in industrial raw materials we shall require to have a greater contribution towards our food supplies from home production. The Government pay lip service to this. In the Annual Review there is a rather weak repetition of their estimate that agricultural production should rise to 60 per cent. above its prewar level—a mere 4 per cent. over last year's figure—but the Annual Review seems to me to put the question of increasing food production far below other factors.
Of course we want an efficient agriculture. We want an economic agriculture. It is rather shocking that hon. Gentlemen opposite, like the hon. Member for Grantham and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) have still, in 1954, to lecture farmers on the need to dry and store grain harvested with combine harvesters, or on the advantages of the cultivation of grassland. As I have already said, I am no farming expert, but I read the works of Sir George Stapleton in the early 'thirties, and if the farmers have not yet learned the value of the cultivation of grassland I do not know when they will.
To be fair to the farmers, their cultivation of grassland, as of any other crop, must be dependent on a consistent Government policy, and at present the Government have no consistent policy. I suspect that in the Government there is a very serious split. Members may have read the very interesting article in the "Three Banks Review" in March, by Professor Austin Robinson. I make no apology for referring to it again, as I have referred to it before in this Chamber. His calculations are very difficult to controvert, and he points out that if industry 1515 is to receive the raw materials it needs for the estimated increase of production, agricultural production will have to be increased during the next 10 years by about 30 per cent., that is, to double the pre-war volume.
He may be exaggerating, but if that estimate is not the true one, then, doubtless, the true figure lies between the Government's estimate of 60 per cent. and Professor Robinson's estimate of 100 per cent.: and it certainly does not lie, in my opinion, at the rather uncertain 60 per cent. of the Government's estimate, probably to be reduced still further under pressure from the Minister of Food or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I ask hon. Members to read Professor Robinson's estimates, because they are extremely interesting. He points out that on the basis of his estimates our larger population could in 10 years' time perhaps eat a little better than it did in 1938. These are very careful estimates, and, I believe, far more accurate than those which induced the writing, in page 3 of the White Paper, of this statement, so expressive of the Government's self-satisfaction,… so much of the desired expansion of output has already been achieved. …I consider that dangerous nonsense.
The White Paper is a manifestation of the ambivalence of the Government's agricultural policy and of the conflicts within the Government over it. An example of this is found in their attitude towards home-grown feedingstuffs and particularly those that can be substituted for imported goods. On page 4 of the White Paper it is stated that economies in the use of concentrates will reduce import needs, but the true attitude of the Government was disclosed in evidence given to the Select Committee on Estimates when it investigated British Field Products.
I am not concerned to defend that organisation. What I am concerned with is the evidence given to the Select Committee of the lack of ability of the Minister of Agriculture to make up his mind, and the evidence of the obvious pressure exerted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Food, as I suspect, to reverse the Government's present policy of trying to save imports.
1516 I would remind the Committee that the company started full-scale operations in the financial year 1951–52. At that time imported feedingstuffs were subsidised, and the company based its policy on what it had been led to believe—that the subsidy would be renewed. Mr. Lambert, the Assistant Secretary in charge of Crops, Feedingstuffs and Subsidies in the Ministry of Agriculture, gave evidence to the Select Committee. I quote from his answer to Question 1051 of the Select Committee's Report:There is one other factor. In the year 1952, the crop year, the company had to make some assumptions as to what would happen to the subsidy on imported feeding stuffs, and it was always an unknown factor when they made their plans the previous November as to at what level the subsidy would be continued. In this particular year they were rather assuming that it would be reduced, but in point of fact the price of controlled feeding stuffs remained the same at April, 1952, and that was a setback from the company's point of view.This is a company in which the Ministry itself has some holding, and which was set up with the concurrence of, and to some extent the advice of, the Ministry. It cannot be argued that in that sense the company was responsible. During that year Government policy began to change—or appeared to begin to change. World prices began to fall, feeding stuff prices in particular. Imports became decontrolled in January, 1953, and in the financial year ended March, 1953, the company sustained its biggest loss. In fact, there was no co-ordination of policy.
British Field Products asked the Government to appoint a director to its board and the Government refused to do so. The object of having a director on the board was that there should be co-ordination between the production and sales policy of the company and the policy on subsidies and imported feeding stuffs in general which the Government intended to follow. The next question makes that point quite clear. This is what the same witness said:It was very difficult to predict what would happen to this subsidy on imported feeding stuffs; that was the major point, and they asked us several times if we could give them any information as to what would happen to that subsidy which would determine the level of the prices of their competitors.By their competitors they meant the overseas exporters of feedingstuffs. 1517 So uncertain in their policy were the Government that a promise of a subsidy, a bribe, was given to the company in 1953 in order that it should hold its stock off the market. This was against the judgment of the company, which believed at that time that it could have sold its products at a profit. It had its own views about what would happen in the future to the prices of feedingstuffs. Perhaps the company had some suspicion of what was taking place in Government circles on food and agricultural policy.
The Government bribed this company to hold its stock off the market by a promise to bear the cost of any loss. The full turn of Government policy having taken place, and the Government having decided to throw the whole industry overboard, in January, 1954, they allowed the company to sell its stock, thereby sinking the rest of the industry and costing the Treasury £35,000. If ever there was an example of muddle, incompetence and division of policy, I should say this was it. How the hon. Member for Grantham can say that the Government are not responsible for this and that, in fact, my right hon. Friend is responsible, I do not understand.
§ Mr. Godber
The hon. Member is putting words into my mouth which I did not use. I said that the initial responsibility lay on the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), and he cannot escape that responsibility. I said that my right hon. Friend was responsible for the latest matters; I did not seek to evade that in any way. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) was making a big point about the drop in the price of feedingstuffs. There was very little drop in the price between the time when this guarantee was given and when it was taken off. Prices were almost static throughout the whole of that time. For that reason, a great deal of the hon. Member's argument falls to the ground. As for the earlier period, competitors of this firm in this country, including my own constituents, were producing these products at a profit.
§ Mr. Albu
I accept the hon. Member's withdrawal and recognise that he was criticising the Minister, but I do not think his argument about the fall in prices after the guarantee was withdrawn has much to do with the point, because the Government 1518 did not withdraw the guarantee. The Government said, "Go on and sell the stuff," and by saying that they caused prices to drop to the bottom. They told the company to place its stock on the market, after having previously told the company to hold the stock off the market at a time when it could have been sold at a profit. What the hon. Member said only underlines the criticism which I am making of the Government.
Whether my right hon. Friend should have encouraged the company to start this experiment, which is the point of the hon. Member's criticism of him, is something with which I will deal, because it seems to me to go to the root of the question which I am trying to discuss, and to the root of the whole problem of agricultural and food policy in this country. I think we are beginning to see a complete change from the policy which we have had since the end of the war.
Of course, the effect of what the Government did in the case of British Field Products has been very serious for the whole grass-drying industry. Hon. Members will have received a letter from the Association of Green Crop Driers. The hon. Member for Grantham referred to his constituents, who are among them. In the Memorandum which the Green Crop Driers submitted—page 24 in the Report—we see:Several large and old established Driers are going out of production. Some of them are offering their plant for sale and others have intimated that they will be unable to carry on and will have to go into liquidation. Others have discarded their normal rotation of cropping, by considerably reducing their acreage of leys and lucerne and putting in barley or mixed corn which carry a deficiency repayment.One is forced to the conclusion that the Government do not care whether this industry closes down. Of course, there is no doubt that they have been under considerable pressure from the big compounders and the big makers and sellers of concentrates and cattle feeds, who do not like to use this material, for a number of reasons—for instance, their plants are situated near the ports and it is cheaper and easier to use imported raw materials.
There is no doubt that the big compounders have had a great deal to do with it. They are unwilling to use the 1519 dried grass which is produced by the industry. They do not like to use it in place of the imported materials.
The question of whether this company —and I again refer to the hon. Member for Grantham—was good at selling its product is another question. This one single company was trying to sell its product against the very extensive sales organisation of the big compounders, who already had salesmen in contact with farmers, had a very extensive organisation and were able to introduce and use every trick which is known to salesmen —of bribery and so forth—every type of trick—to sell their products. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Bribery is, perhaps, not the right word, and I withdraw it. I meant the word in the sense that any salesman always sells anything. Hon. Members know quite well how it is done.
I have been concerned in industrial management and I know very well what sometimes happens when a salesman is trying to sell a branded product to one of one's foremen—and I know the means which can be used. I am told that not dissimilar means are sometimes used with farmers.
I am sorry to stray into this side issue, because the main point is that it would be very difficult for this company to try to build up a vast sales organisation in competition with the existing large-scale sales organisations of the big compounders; but that does not necessarily mean that from the country's point of view it would not be valuable for this dried grass to be incorporated in the feedingstuffs made by existing compounders.
§ Mr. Godber
I apologise for intervening again, but it is important to get this right. The point which I was making was that other grass driers, in exactly similar circumstances, including my constituents, are producing and selling on a similar scale. They have not the extensive organisation to which the hon. Member refers.
§ Mr. Godber
The right hon. Gentleman should get his facts right. They have compounded and they have also sold the dried grass itself. There is an exact parallel between these producers, and 1520 this company should have been able to do exactly the same as my constituents.
§ Mr. Albu
The hon. Member may very well be right.
A small, marginal amount of dried grass may be sold to farmers under certain conditions, but what we are talking about is a serious increase in the production of dried grass throughout the country in order to reduce the need for imported concentrates. That is the question. This marginal use has nothing to do with what my right hon. Friend had in mind when he assisted this company to set up in business; he had in mind greatly to increase the use of dried grass as a replacement for imported material. That means a consistent policy, not only in setting up this company but also in support of the industry as a whole.
Of course, there is always some marginal dried grass which can be sold. The hon. Gentleman forgot one aspect of the starting up of this particular factory. It was set up for good agricultural reasons in Norfolk in order to encourage crop rotation, and to produce grass in an area where it is good to produce grass, and to sell it to the other side of the country, where it can be very usefully used in feeding cattle. But I am dealing purely with the economic reasons, which seem to me to be absolutely overwhelming.
Even the White Paper itself—the Annual Review—says that if we saved 10 per cent. of concentrates they would be worth at least 1 million tons of imports. The Committee, which the Government set up under Sir Henry French, to examine this company and the whole of the grass drying industry, expressed the opinion that production of dried grass could reach 800,000 tons a year within seven to eight years in this country, but that could only be done if the Government continued to take steps to encourage it and provide it with long-term stability. That seems to me to be completely reasonable.
What the value of this saving would be on the country's economy depends on the level of world prices. I think that it would be substantial—at least £25 million a year, and if my estimate of the change in the terms of trade and of world prices are right, very much more. In addition to the immediate benefit by the saving on imports, the encouragement of 1521 the industry would be of great assistance to agricultural production.
I quote the French Committee, in the evidence in the Select Committee's Report: on page 2, of the Memorandum submitted by the Ministry it says—and I say to the Minister that it is a dirty trick and probably unconstitutional to quote one little part of the Committee's Report without having published the whole of it:The existence of a grass drying factory in the Walsingham area offers the possibility of a substantial increase in net agricultural output. We therefore recommend that, whatever the future of the company, the Government should endeavour to keep that plant in operation.The Committee was no doubt impressed by the value of increasing the production of dried grass to save imports, and by its value to the fertility of the soil and agricultural production in the area.
As a result of these changes in policy, during the last 18 months, expenditure on feedingstuffs—both cereals and concentrates—has been rising very rapidly. The Treasury bulletin "Industry" says that imports rose by over 25 per cent. between 1952 and 1953. This was in addition to a 13 per cent. increase of imported food. During the same period, there has been practically no increase taking place in the area of land under the plough, and, in particular, the increase in the cultivation of grass in leys has been stopped.
It is not a question of whether or not there has been an increase in general agricultural production in the last year by a small percentage—the point is that the rate of increase is slowing down and is likely to do so. In fact, the only substantial increase in agricultural production seems to have been in the number of pigs.
Agriculture today is the victim of the increasing dominance of liberal economics in Government policy. That is not surprising. We have an ex-Liberal Minister of Food, an ex-Liberal Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food and a co-ordinating Minister in another place who comes from Manchester. We are getting a return to Cobdenite economics. Perhaps you will excuse me, Sir Rhys, because you may not like my remarks. It may be that the Corn Laws agitation was right in the last century, under very different conditions. It is an impossible policy in this century. It seems to be 1522 based on a short-sighted view of the future economic prospects of this country today. I wish the Minister of Agriculture had more understanding of these matters and could stand up to his right hon. Friend more strongly.
In "The Times" today Lord Brand's letter warns strongly against taking the present situation in our terms of trade as likely to be permanent; and a leading article in the "Financial Times" made reference to the same matter. The temporary rise in our gold reserves does not mean that this situation has come to stay. There is no doubt that the pressure of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take advantage of falling world food prices and to remove subsidies, and of the Minister of Food and the co-ordinating Minister to get rid of all controls and press on with a "free trade" policy has destroyed the confidence of the agricultural industry and slowed down production.
There are some people, including some on this side of the Committee, who believe that the era of cheap, plentiful food imports is going to come back. They will only do so by the exploitation of producers in other parts of the world, such as the share-croppers in the Middle East, who grow a considerable proportion of our imports of barley. If we want to ensure an adequate food supply at reasonable prices we must not allow our policy of expanding home food production to be thrown over every time there is a temporary fall in world prices. In so far as the Government have reversed this policy, they are guilty, in my opinion, of a short-sighted profligacy for which I hope the country will hold them responsible.
I consider that an extremely dangerous policy, and I hope that the country will soon wake up to what they are trying to do. No doubt they are doing it with a General Election in mind, and with a view to short-term popularity among consumers, but in the end the consumers will suffer from this policy, and, in my view, this country will one day go very short of food if the present Government remain in office much longer.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)
I am grateful to the Opposition for devoting a Supply Day for a debate on agriculture. Agriculture has been a subject, like 1523 housing, which they have kept off in recent months. I could not make out, after listening to the speeches from the Opposition benches, including the speech of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) and that of the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), what good the Labour Party think they are doing by persistently trying to foster uncertainty among the farming community.
Few farmers are likely to be deluded that Labour would give a blank cheque for guaranteed prices. They know, as well as I do, what that led to after the 1914–18 war. A blank cheque led very quickly to the repeal of the Agricultural Act, 1920. We know, too, the record of the Labour Party between the wars. They argued that there could be no guarantees to agriculture without land nationalisation. It is really the same tune today. The theme is nationalisation of the means of production and distribution through State commissions to handle farm produce.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley goes about the country and writes articles in the farming Press putting his faith in State commissions on the lines recommended by the Lucas Commission. At the same time the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) goes about the country saying that Labour would, of course, return to fixed prices and market guarantees. He has worked out some scheme by which prices are to be fixed for five years ahead. It is quite plain that the Socialists would make State control of distribution the price of absolute market security for farmers.
It is mere humbug to pretend that this kind of policy could endure here. It might work in some other countries— indeed, it is practised in some of them— but I do not believe, and the farming community does not believe, that it would be practicable and that it would endure here. We need to be quite frank about this in discussing our present-day problems in agricultural policy.
I take the view that history will record our present Conservative Minister of Agriculture as a true friend to the farming community. He has steered a prudent course towards freedom and he has had the guiding hand of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with him. There have 1524 been plenty of hazards and there have been delays in negotiation—certainly there were too long delays last summer— but I think we have now reached the right conclusions, and our Conservative Minister of Agriculture has carried responsible farming opinion with him. That is very important.
We do not believe in more Whitehall control than we must have for farming or any other industry, but we say that for agriculture the basic price guarantees must be maintained. We are freeing the markets and at the same time providing these basic price guarantees. This is the strongest lead to farmers to organise marketing on their own account, either through statutory marketing boards, voluntary co-operative associations or, indeed, commercial companies like the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, Limited, that the National Farmers' Union are sponsoring. They will go ahead themselves with improving the marketing of home produce on the same lines as the Danes, the New Zealanders, the Canadians and others have done, to the advantage of their producers and of consumers here.
Happily for Britain, food production at home continues to rise. It is well to keep in mind clearly the figures which my right hon. Friend gave this afternoon. The net output of British agriculture— and net output is the important figure, because that is what comes from our own land cutting out imported feedingstuffs and imported ingredients in what we produce—has risen from £201 million in 1938–39 right up to £956 million at the present time. Even since 1946–47 there has been an increase of £400 million a year in the value of the net output. We have reached the point when home production accounts for two-thirds of our beef, two-fifths of our lamb and mutton, nearly half our bacon, four-fifths of our eggs and one-third of our wheat. Those are great achievements.
That rate of achievement has enabled my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food to get rid of food rationing this summer. Freedom in the food markets will not only bring greater choice for the individual housewife, but, by the closing down of local food offices, will save the taxpayer £2,400,000 a year, including a 6,000 reduction in Civil Service staff. The credit for this goes 1525 primarily to my right hon. Friends the Ministers of Food and Agriculture. It also goes to the British farming community. Parliament has provided the incentives, and I think it is now realised that the various subsidies such as ploughing up and calf rearing grants have given the results we wanted Indeed, the farming community has given the country good value for the money expended. I say that frankly now, because I was not, and never have been, one who cared for these production grants; but I think we have got good value for the money expended. Meanwhile, efficiency in production continues all the time to improve, whether in crop yields, in milk yields or in the output per man employed in the industry.
We all regret the loss of 27,000 men and women from agricultural employment in the past year. But let us keep this in perspective. Farming still employs much the same number of workers as before the war. There was a sharp rise in their numbers during the war, and there has been a decline since. This decline, however, has gone in step with much greater mechanisation and the use of more labour-saving machinery.
Another increase in the minimum wage, if it were awarded by the Agricultural Wages Board on 14th June, would certainly spell a further cut in farm staffs. We would be moving nearer to the farm labour economy of Canada, the United States and New Zealand and further away from the peasant labour economy of Denmark and other Continental countries. We must recognise that. I do not think it is a catastrophe, but it is something that we would do well to face frankly.
What is all-important to the country and to agriculture in particular is that the key men on the farms should be satisfied in their work, and their wives happy and content with their living conditions. Here, our Conservative Government are doing a first-rate job. I do not need to rub in to hon. Members opposite what we have done in housing. I think hon. Members opposite recognise the progress that has been made in rural, as well as town, housing.
§ Mr. Hurd
As for piped water supplies and sewerage, I was interested the other day to get figures from my right hon. Friend showing that in the first quarter of this year twice as much was spent in grants on water supply and sewerage schemes as was spent in the first quarter of 1951. That is good progress. It is providing the amenities which our farm workers and their families have every right to enjoy. As a Conservative Government, we are doing a good job for the rural community in that way.
There is, however, one weak spot, and I wish that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport were here. I refer to rural bus services. We must make it possible for the small operator to serve the outlying hamlets and give to the farm worker's wife, living at a distance from town, the opportunity to get into town and do her shopping conveniently at least one or two days a week.
If the big companies, now so largely nationalised, cannot undertake that task because it is not economic to run large buses on these services, we must encourage the small bus operator to do it, as he does on the Continent and in many other countries. I would press that matter on my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport.
§ Mr. Hurd
It is true, as the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) said, that in some cases costs of production are too high—in bacon pigs, for example. Farmers were asked by the right hon. Member for Don Valley and also, in turn, by my right hon. Friend to go all out to breed and feed all the pigs they could. The country was desperately short of meat. The farmers should be praised for what they have achieved. They have given us a record output of pig meat. Some of it is too fat. The fat has now to be pared off in the price and bred off the side of bacon. It can and will be done by better breeding and by closer grading at the factories. But do not blame the British farmer for having responded so well to the call for increased meat production. He has done that job well. The quality is not as good as it should be, but, having achieved a substantial increase in weight, we can now tackle the quality.
We have got to see that the price is right for the right quality stock, whether fat cattle, lambs or pigs. I believe the auction markets, for all the criticism that has been made of them based on memory of days before the war, will again reflect the consumers' choice. As a producer myself, I am comforted in knowing there will be a Fatstock Marketing Corporation operating alongside, so that if I have any doubt about the fairness of the competition in the auction market then, I can consign my stock to the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, the Government standing behind both these methods of sale with the price guarantee.
There will be teething troubles in the marketing of livestock. There are bound also to be troubles as we move into the freer market for cereals, but I have no doubt that the Ministry of Food buying could not go on in the way in which we have experienced it in recent years. It has been an easy way for farmers. The corn has been taken straight off the combine, sometimes not too dry, some of it full of weed seed, and all taken by the Ministry of Food at a fixed price.
Do the Socialists think that that sloppy trading at the taxpayers' expense could go on indefinitely? No Chancellor of the Exchequer in a time of easier world supplies would be able to justify it to the House of Commons. We are restoring incentives for quality and for marketing 1528 at the right time. This idea of everything being shovelled off into some Government organisation at the taxpayers' expense does not make sense to the farmers or to the House.
§ Mr. G. Brown
At whose expense will the barley that comes off next year's crop be marketed? Is it not the taxpayers'? Will the taxpayer not have to meet the whole cost of the deficiency payment?
§ Mr. Brown
Did the hon. Gentleman misunderstand my question deliberately or was it unintentional? Next year, imported barley will sell at £18 a ton and English barley at £25. But who will meet the difference between those two prices? Will it not be the taxpayer under a Conservative Government? What is the hon. Member going to do about shabby marketing, if that is the word he used?
§ Mr. Hurd
It is not shabby but sloppy marketing. There will be the market price and the deficiency payment under the Agriculture Act.
§ Mr. Jack Jones
The hon. Member should be hauled before his agricultural committee and sent to jail.
§ Mr. Hurd
I know that many hon. Members, including hon. Ladies, in this Committee, believe that home produced food always looks costly. We shall now have a free choice not only for the producer but for the housewives, and we 1529 shall see whether there will be a premium of 3d. per lb. for home killed meat as against frozen meat, as was the rule before the war when I was selling lamb, or whether it will be 6d. a lb. We shall also see when the farmers get going with their egg marketing schemes whether there will be a greater demand and a premium for home produced eggs of guaranteed freshness, marketed properly, over eggs import from the Continent.
We shall see how home produce will stand up to competition, but do not let anyone pretend that the public cannot afford to pay a fair price for food. Today we are spending £250 million a year on sweets. Our consumption is running at 9 oz. a week as compared with 7 oz. before the war. We are now the record gobblers of sweets in the world.
§ Mr. Hurd
There is enough money for what people choose to buy. It may well be that we shall have to change our standard of values and pay fair prices for what we really want, doing without some of the frills as is in most other countries in the world.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley that a passing phase of surplus in the world's grain markets should not be taken as a reliable criterion of the total world food supplies and the total world demand for food. Of course there will be ups and downs. We in Britain must set our course for a high level of home food production. A Conservative Government can achieve that, using the Agriculture Act of 1947 to keep basic price guarantees and encouraging producers here to do what their competitors overseas do, that is, organise the distribution and marketing of their produce not only to benefit themselves, but to win and hold the custom of the consumers.
We believe in partnership between farmers and the Government and that we are finding an enduring agricultural policy which will not be appallingly expensive to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and one that will last. That is my chief concern as one who has farmed through bad times and through easier times. I am most anxious to see a right course struck which we in this Committee can continue to support year 1530 after year, and which will continue to produce a high level of home food production.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
We have listened to a speech from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) which has positively shocked me.
§ Mr. Champion
An interjection by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) caused the hon. Member to drop some of his defences and, in an unguarded moment, to tell us the truth about Tory morality. "I have," he said, "shovelled off rubbish on to the Ministry of Food."
§ Mr. Champion
Apparently he was delighted he was able to do it. It beats me how a man can stand up in this honourable House and make such a confession as that. I sincerely hope he will be properly shown up as the type of man he undoubtedly is in this matter, not only in the Press tomorrow but in the weekend papers as well.
§ Mr. Hurd
If the hon. Gentleman is attacking me personally, I hope he will accept my word when I say that the standard of grain that I sold to the Ministry of Food was the standard acceptable, and commonly acceptable by the Ministry. I was not doing anything particular but selling what was acceptable under guarantee.
§ The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
I did not say it was rubbish; the hon. Gentleman said it.
§ Mr. Champion
I have merely taken the hon. Gentleman's own words, and my remarks were directed to what he said. I repeat I was shocked that the hon. Member for Newbury should have had the temerity to stand up here and make 1531 such an observation. I thought his standards were much higher than they appear to be.
The hon. Gentleman started his speech by asking what good the Labour Party was doing by trying to foster uncertainty in the minds of the farming community. The fact is that uncertainty already exists in their minds, and what the Opposition is doing, quite rightly, is to bring some of those uncertainties and doubts on to the Floor of the House of Commons, criticising the Minister and his Government for their policy, and trying to bring home to the people the consequences of those actions and policies.
In the course of his speech the hon. Gentleman said that we were getting rid of rationing. Rationing is not disappearing as a result of any action of this Government. The action of this Government has permitted prices to rise against the people, with the result that in the first two years of Tory rule people have consumed fewer eggs, less milk, less butter, less cheese, less flour and less lard than they were consuming under the Labour Government. So we are getting rationing by the purse instead of by another method, and people who previously were able to buy butter, etc., have now had to turn to more inferior foods.
If the hon. Gentleman can get some satisfaction out of that, I hope he will enjoy it. I cannot get any satisfaction out of it, because the people I know best are today consuming less of the necessary foods than they were consuming hitherto, in circumstances much worse than they are at present
§ The Minister of Food (Major Lloyd George)
I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to 1950, the last year of the Labour Government. At that time people consumed many commodities more than were received, and stocks were run down to such an extent that it took us a great deal of time to build them up to what they should have been. The only method the Labour Government knew for giving more food was to run down stocks to a dangerous level.
§ Mr. Champion
But the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, by his deliberate policy, has permitted the prices of these things to rise against the people. There is no reason why I should run over the 1532 entire list because it is a Ministry of Food point, and this is not the day to discuss that. I merely brought it forward in answer to the hon. Member for Newbury, who was taking to himself satisfaction for the fact that there had been derationing.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, with the exception of bacon in Denmark, every basic foodstuff is cheaper in this country than in any other European country?
§ Mr. Champion
If food is cheaper in in this country it is due to the fact that the present Government have not yet removed all the things which the Labour Government put into operation, but they have been busily doing that by the removal of subsidies since they came into office in October, 1951.
I am bound to call attention to the waste of skimmed milk by the Milk Marketing Board, which has been pouring away thousands of gallons of this valuable food. I was told when I was in Denmark during the Easter Recess that skimmed milk is the explanation of their success in pig farming. I was told, "The difference between our products and yours lies not in the breed but in the feed." There is a tremendous amount in that.
A Wiltshire pigman, who had been feeding skimmed milk to his pigs said recently, "The only thing wrong with it is that the beggars shriek the house down for more of it." I agree with his remark but I doubt whether he said "beggars." Certainly it is a first-class feedingstuff for pigs. The right hon. Gentleman must try to do something to stop this waste and to see that we use skimmed milk as much as possible for building up the quality of our pigs.
I do not regard the Landrace as a bettor pig than the Large White. The only fault of the latter is that we have not yet properly progeny-tested the Large White. The right hon. Gentleman permitted the Swedish Landrace to come into this country. It brought disease with it, and that might bring disaster to our pig industry. I hope, therefore, that he will not permit further pigs to come in until he has tried to ensure that our excellent pigs are properly developed and properly progeny-tested. If that were done, we should have a pig here which 1533 would be satisfactory from every point of view and would add to our exports.
The speech of the Minister was extraordinarily complacent about the present agricultural position. What are the Government doing? As far as I can see, they are creating the maximum doubt and difficulty for farmers and engaging in a speculation with the money of the taxpayer for which I can see no justification. Those two things are happening at the same time, and both might be disastrous for the farming industry. Grievous is the position into which farmers are falling, because they do not know what the future holds, and the certainty which they had previously is disappearing. As a result, I fear that we shall have a loss of production below the present level.
The speech of the Chancellor on the Budget, phrased as carefully as one would expect from a practised, polished politician, must have contained for every farmer a warning which he dare not ignore. That warning was underlined by the Annual Review of Farm Prices, now called the Annual Review and Determination of Guarantees. Paragraph 13 commences:It is evident that home agriculture cannot be completely insulated from world market conditions and that in determining the level of guarantees account must be taken of long-term trends in market price.The Minister today underlined that statement by saying that the industry must not be put into an ivory tower— at least I understood him to say that. Farmers dare not shut their eyes to the fact that stability of price and guarantee of market depends on insulation from world market conditions. If it does not mean that it means nothing at all.
These conditions about which the Government speak today are precisely the conditions which caused Sir Arthur Boscawen, when he was Minister of Agriculture in 1921, to bring in a Bill to repeal the Corn Production Acts. I have been looking up the words which he used in introducing that Bill, which destroyed all hope for the farmer in 1921. They are remarkably like the words which we have heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and again from the Minister today, and which are certainly contained in the White Paper on this year's Price Review.
§ Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, South-West)
A little while ago the hon. Member was refuting the charge made by my hon. Friends that the Opposition were trying to foster uncertainty in the farming industry. Surely the hon. Member is drawing a completely false parallel. Every farmer now knows that the present proceedings have no parallel with those of 1921.
§ Mr. Champion
The hon. Member can neither read history nor understand what is going on at the present time.
§ Mr. Champion
What is happening today is a fairly close parallel with conditions after the First World War.
§ Mr. G. Brown
If my hon. Friend has looked up the 1921 debate he will be able to say that Members on the Tory Benches, representing agricultural constituencies, were prepared to say exactly what the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) has said today —that it was not happening.
§ Mr. Champion
One of those who spoke in the debate happens to be a Minister today. He intervened and, if my memory serves me right, pointed out some of the dangers that existed in the repeal of the Acts.
The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West knows perfectly well what resulted from that decision. He suffered from it or, if he did not, all those around him did. As a result of the failure to insulate farmers against world market conditions we had people marching to Westminster from Norfolk and Suffolk and other counties to try to impress upon Conservative Governments of the day the need for some insulation against those conditions.
That is an extremely important point. The Minister and the Chancellor have said it, and everyone else on the Government side of the Committee has been busy trying to make excuses for departures from the guarantees which insulate farmers from world conditions and which were the basis of the 1947 Act for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was largely responsible. 1535 Reference has already been made today to American surpluses of food causing President Eisenhower to send his trade missions abroad to sell farm commodities which happen to be surplus to effective demand—not of course to world need. All these facts cannot be lost upon farmers. They realise what is happening and it is causing them doubt and uncertainty. I cannot imagine that any words of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East are causing that doubt and uncertainty. I am sure that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West must realise and recognise that.
My fear is that production is bound to suffer. Doubt and uncertainty exist despite the fact that we may have had a little rise in production since the present Government came to power, for the impetus which was present when the Labour Government were in office is disappearing. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary, in reply to a debate on ploughing grants only two nights ago, admitted that so far from the additional grants giving us additional acreage of tillage it was now expected that there would be a decrease in the tillage area for the 12 months ended 31st May, 1954.
The impetus has been lost, and the action of the Government has failed, though naturally the Minister made the best case possible for it. Despite the ploughing grants, we are today experiencing a decrease in tillage and ley farming and in the improvement in grass cultivation, the very things that we want to increase. Instead of the Price Review estimate of an increase in tillage area, by 43,000 acres, in 1953–54 being realised, there has been shown a decrease.
On the one hand, production looks like going down as a result of the Government's policy, and on the other hand we shall see a pouring out of subsidy provided by the taxpayer. The question we have to ask is where the money will go. This £200 million a year might soon rise to a figure equal to two-thirds of the farmers' income. Are we satisfied that it will go into the farmers' pockets and be a stimulus to production, or is there not a possibility, owing to the system which the Minister and his colleagues have devised, that much of the money will go to the arrangers of price rings, those men 1536 who haunt the auctions and know how to deprive the farmer of his rightful return for the products which he brings to market.
We seem to be in danger of getting the worst of both possible worlds as a result of the Government's policy. We are discouraging production by the creation of the maximum of doubt about the Government's intention as to the future of the assured market and guarantee of price, whilst the method of payment of subsidy now being worked out looks like ensuring that very much of the money which is being poured out will go into the pockets of those who are the hangers-on of the industry.
Some people might say that I am exaggerating. If they do, let them cast their minds back to what happened in so many of our markets and let them read their own Press, which will tell them that the farmers themselves are very much disturbed about this possibility. Rightly, the Government's policy on agriculture has been called "The taxpayers' gamble on the agricultural market," but it is not a real gamble because the taxpayer has no chance of winning. In connection with a policy such as this, devised by the right hon. Gentleman, all the taxpayers can do is to pay. This so-called gamble is for the taxpayer a case of "Heads I lose, tails you win." That is a reversal of the phrase one usually hears.
What is the unsatisfactory feature of the present policy of the Government? It clearly is that if, through any cause, world agricultural prices shoot up through wars and rumours of war, as they did in 1950, the farmers and the hangers-on will get all the benefit. But, if prices go down, the Exchequer will make great losses through underwriting the market by the taxpayer to an unlimited amount.
The system of Government purchases of farmers' products that we had when we were in office had some disadvantages, of course, but at least when world prices were at their highest level the British consumer was shielded and the British farmer received a reasonable price, coupled with a valuable guarantee which gave him a reasonable degree of prosperity. When world prices fell below the level of the guarantee, the subsidy to farmers, as it then really became, went to the farmer because his produce was being bought directly. 1537 That was an incentive to higher production. The farmer felt himself secure, and the amount of subsidy was limited to a pre-determined figure. Higher production was helping to save precious foreign currency, and under that system, I think everyone must agree, in many important respects there was striking progress toward greater efficiency in the agricultural industry.
The danger of the policy of the Government is that when people realise what is implicit in it a great shout will go up for the withdrawal of all farming subsidies and, as in 1921, the Government might find themselves unable to resist the call of the electorate for the withdrawal of all these subsidies. If that were to happen we would see a reversion to the sort of situation we had between 1921 and 1929, with disaster to farming such as I never want to see again.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, South-West)
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), who is always very fair. I think that the point I made against him was a fair one. I have listened to every speech he has made on agriculture since I have been in the House and know that he generally puts the case very fairly indeed. But I thought this afternoon he was trying to have the best of both worlds.
We agree on the need for stability, but I do not think we shall get stability without cost. The hon. Member was trying to get the best of both worlds by suggesting that the cost to the taxpayer or the consumer can be avoided. That is a very difficult thing to do if we are to have stability when world prices are low.
I welcome an agricultural debate at any time, but I think we should recognise this is a period in which we have to do a little waiting and seeing. We have to wait and see how the schemes which my right hon. Friend has introduced will work out during July and the harvest. It is rather premature to come to any decisions or conclusions about them. My view is that, given time to get established, they will work out a great deal better than hon. Members opposite have seen fit to predict.
I want to return to the point about uncertainty in the farming industry, about which we have not heard quite so much 1538 today as in previous debates on agriculture. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was in a particularly good-humoured mood, which I think must itself be a reflection that some of the doubts about which we have heard so much have, perhaps, been dispelled. I still think that hon. Members opposite have judged these policies prematurely and have added to the uncertainty by what they have said up and down the country. Certainly the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) has lost no opportunity to suggest that guarantees have either been whittled away, or disappeared. If that is not a way of bringing doubt and uncertainty into the industry. I do not know what is.
§ Mr. Bullard
I do not think it is true. I do not think the point that guarantees are going has been made this afternoon. and I hope that it will not be made.
§ Mr. G. Brown
Since the hon. Member mentioned me, he will forgive me interrupting him. Is his suggestion that there should be no political controversy in the country any more? I hold the view that the guarantees are being whittled away and, in some cases, have gone. Is the hon. Member asserting that I ought not to be free, in a free society, to say so?
§ Mr. Bullard
There will never be any lack of political controversy while the right hon. Member is about. He is the arch-provoker of political controversy and he knows that very well.
I believe that the outline of policy for the different commodities through the whole range of commodities in the Agriculture Act given in the White Paper last November was a very great positive step forward in agricultural policy. The proof of that lies in the fact that since that White Paper there have been major developments in the marketing of agricultural products. Not only has the Milk Marketing Board been restored, but the potato marketing board plans for restoring that system are under way, and this has enabled the National Farmers' Union to bring in proposals for a Fatstock Marketing Corporation, whereas, until that White Paper was issued, there was a complete deadlock as regards reorganisation of meat marketing.
1539 Unfortunately for hon. Members opposite, the returns and general signs are all against them. The March returns show improvements in the number of young cattle. There are consistent improvements in the number of pigs, and even in the number of poultry under six months' old there are improvements.
§ Mr. Bullard
I would far rather go on the direct returns made by the farmers themselves, and these are the facts—
§ Mr. Bullard
After all, all the figures which are given as to agricultural progress must be based on the figures from the farms themselves. I am quoting figures to show that the number of cattle and pigs, the acreage of wheat, and in many other directions, there has been a very considerable advance.
I do not take a complacent view of the matter. Knowing how these agricultural returns can go up and down, I know that very soon we may have a reversal of any of these trends. All the same, I maintain that the figures are a genuine sign that there is no decrease in production, but a tendency to increase, and that is supported by the March returns—
§ Mr. Bullard
I was coming to that, and I was proposing to represent it as an undesirable thing. So far it has not received any recognition in this debate, and that is a bad thing.
It is my opinion that, despite mechanisation and all the new methods now employed, if an industry reduces the number of people working in it, that is a bad sign for the permanent good health of the industry. There are features with which it is connected, particularly the increase in mechanisation, for which in itself we must be glad. But I concede 1540 the point made by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch).
I wish to refer to guaranteed markets, and to return again to the speech of the right hon. Member for Belper, who mentioned this matter in a supplementary question which he addressed to the Minister the other day. It is rather significant that we have not heard in this debate, as in previous debates, so much about the floodgates being opened for imports. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) introduced a new note in our agricultural debates, which I welcomed. I have heard economists telling us about agriculture on a good many occasions, and very often they have said things which were not agreeable to me. But I agree with most of what the hon. Member said about increased production in this country, and the need to maintain it against the day when surpluses may not be available in the world, and in order to help our economic position.
But I hope the Committee will have noticed that after the heavy importation of grain—and I think it was the lack of a guaranteed market for grain that was referred to by the right hon. Member for Belper—those import figures, though big in the summer, decreased greatly; and that the importations in the first quarter of this year are considerably less than in the corresponding period last year.
In my opinion that is a sign that when home produced stocks are available at comparable prices—as they have been when the Ministry of Food put its stocks on the market—it provides a form of protection which I believe will operate with the deficiency payment coming into effect at harvest time. It would be very undesirable for our markets in this country to be flooded out with foreign importations but I think that an automatic check will be imposed in that way, which is really a form of protection, and to which the hon. Member for Edmonton did not refer.
I wish now to say a word about paragraph 13, which is a very celebrated paragraph.
§ Mr. Bullard
I prefer the word "celebrated," if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to use my own term. 1541 I consider that this paragraph may be interpreted in various ways. From what my right hon. Friend has said this afternoon, I have no doubt that he and the Government recognise that the cost of maintaining the guarantees may be as high this year as last year, but that it is a necessary expenditure and that the Government are quite prepared to meet it. That disposes of any immediate idea—or any long-term idea—that the Government are anxious to run away from the cost of giving this degree of stability.
But we must face this question. Some people are anxious to cut down arbitrarily the cost of these guarantees. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he does not envisage any arbitrary cut of this kind, and such a cut would be a wrong thing. On the other hand—and I say this as a farmer—it is very desirable, in my opinion, that we should remain conscious of this point about costs.
The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) and the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East referred to the litter-testing of pigs. I agree with them when they say that the Danish pig has been built up for our market, if one can use that term about an animal. The Danish pig has been developed for our market by that very system.
I am inclined to think that we over-do our attention to show standards. I remember Professor Boutflour referring to this subject a good many years ago. Incidentally, I am afraid it is true that on agricultural matters the House of Commons often reflects opinions which have been well recognised in the farming community 10 or 20 years before. I remember Professor Boutflour referring to show standards, and to judges walking round the animals "like wise old owls." "You know what an owl is doing when it's looking wise," he said. "It is asleep."
I should prefer to see developments in the other method, especially in the case of pigs, which I believe would help to reduce this cost. That is something to which we must give increasing attention. I believe that the National Agricultural Advisory Service and other services are capable of helping. But there must be a lead given by the Government, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to say something about this. I know he is interested in this movement, and I hope we 1542 shall be told that it is intended to go on with it rather more quickly than at present.
Having said these things about recent developments of policy, I must refer to to the matter which has been mentioned in most of the speeches today, the Report of the Select Committee on the affairs of British Field Products Ltd. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) I do not feel at all happy about this concern. I am not enough of of a financier to know whether the final decision about reconstruction is the best one or not, but I wish to say something about the principle of the thing.
In this and other agricultural debates we have heard a lot about the need for cheap credit for agriculture. That is very important, but I think that it should be given generally and not to a special concern. I consider that British Field Products Ltd. has been made a special concern. The fact is that it has had £335,000 advanced to it in loans, and £35,000 in guarantees.
I, as a relatively small farmer, regard these as large sums to be had by one firm. I have had a little experience of borrowing money from banks when trying to build up my own business. I have been in the "sweating room." I have been cross-examined by the bank manager, and afterwards I recognised that it was a very proper thing for him to do, because he did not wish to advance money to an unsound concern.
But what has happened in this case? A group of people, predominantly bankers, of all people, or at any rate, people who have very little to do with farming, come to the Government and, by one means or another, manage to wheedle out of the Government £335,000 in loans and another £35,000 in guarantees. It may be said that I am actuated by a feeling of envy, and maybe I am. But it strikes me that there is something wrong when that kind of thing is allowed to happen.
Though I think that my right hon. Friend has had bad luck, he may have been guilty of bad judgment as well. At all events, it is a thing which I cannot altogether overlook, and I sincerely hope that no further money will be advanced. I recognise that there is an agricultural side to it, but one can put up as good a 1543 case in almost any part of the country for doing things on these lines, and if that happened we should certainly have some very extravagant expenditure indeed.
I want to make one constituency point. I should like to mention a matter to which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) referred in the debate last Friday, and that is the question of the concrete roads in the Fens. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be familiar with this point, and I know that he will not mind me returning to it. I want to warn him that these roads, which were made by his Ministry during the war, and which serve a very useful purpose in keeping up a high level of production in that area, are deteriorating rapidly.
I do not want the adjoining owners necessarily to get rid of their liability in respect of something which can permanently improve their land. Yet I do not think this matter can go on much longer untouched. If it does, we shall either have considerable expenditure laid upon us in the future, or else the land will deteriorate, which I sincerely hope will not be allowed to happen, because some of it is potentially very good.
The Opposition today have been very critical of the Government policy, and I think we are entitled to ask them what their own policy would be. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) seemed to suggest that he had not put forward the idea of commodity commissions. I will say that he originally stated that it was his own personal view that these commissions were the most suitable means of marketing meat. I have looked through "Challenge to Britain," where I thought I might find something about marketing policy, but I have not been able to find much there.
I found the proposal for a 10-year programme, in the first five years of which there was to be an increase of production by one-third. I am in favour of increased production, though I am not sure that we are going to get much out of any of these arbitrary targets, but I want to warn the Opposition that if they did this, which would involve an increase of 216 per cent above pre-war, it would be an extraordinarily costly business indeed.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire. South-East, who is objecting to the £200 million cost, would have a much bigger 1544 cost to meet if he attempted to achieve a target of that size. I am all in favour of setting the sights high enough, but I think that we should appreciate what would be the cost of that kind of programme.
I find in "Challenge to Britain" a reference to the standard output per acre, and I should like to have that defended by hon. Members opposite. According to the Labour Party proposals, if a farmer falls below this standard he is to be thrown out. I should like to hear something said about that. I hope the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), who I know has got some documents about which he is going to cross-examine me if he has an opportunity, will enlarge upon this point about fixing this standard output per acre. Perhaps he would like to come to my constituency, where I can show him good fenland and breckland side by side, and tell me how to fix a standard output per acre there. They are two very different sorts of land, and I should be very much obliged if he would help me.
I find on a later page in "Challenge to Britain"—not on the agricultural page, of course—a proposal for repealing the derating proposals in the 1929 Local Government Act. That is a matter which I should have preferred to have seen put with the other agricultural matters, because I think that that proposal, along with the suggestion of the standard output per acre, would have killed anything else which might be said in that document. I do not think we have had a very effective challenge to the agricultural policy of Her Majesty's Government this afternoon. Unless we hear something very different, I think that we shall all await with very great interest the working out of the Government's policy, and I believe it will work out to the permanent good of the agricultural industry.
§ 7.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) began by asking that politics should be taken out of agriculture.
§ Mr. Houghton
I thought the hon. Gentleman said that he hoped to have non-contentious speeches on the subject. 1545 though I noticed towards the end of his own speech that he got very provocative indeed. But if it is a non-contentious speech that he wants I may be the answer to his prayer, because I feel very diffident in rising between the agricultural Goliaths who have been heaving clods of earth at each other for several hours this afternoon. I do not pose as a David. I am indeed rising to deal with a very non-contentious subject—the ailments of the domestic hen. This is one of the plagues of our poultry industry.
I apologise for raising a matter which is of very great concern to my own constituency. If we pick up any of the poultry journals we have difficulty in missing advertisements from the hatcheries in the Sowerby Division of Yorkshire, in Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Luddenden Foot and the other parts of the division. We have the biggest day-old chick industry in the country. In my constituency we have been smitten with this fowl pest, with considerable losses and dislocation of the industry and distress in all quarters. Fowl pest attacks chickens of all ages, and it also attacks parrots and stops them talking. Fortunately for hon. Members of this House, it does not attack mammals of any kind, or humans, and ducks and geese appear to have a certain immunity. But chickens are especially susceptible.
The first attack of fowl pest recorded in this country was in 1926, and that was known as the fowl plague—the acute form—in which there is a high mortality rate and where birds die off alarmingly quickly and in great numbers. It was when that dreadful fowl plague came to this country that the slaughter policy was first adopted. I do not think there is any poultryman who would question the need for adopting that drastic remedy for that dreadful disease. But later on, in 1947, a number of years afterwards, a milder form of fowl pest came to this country known as Newcastle disease. The slaughter policy was applied to the milder form of this disease as well as to the very acuate form which had arrived years earlier.
The mortality rate in the milder form of fowl pest is very much lower than in the case of the acute form. Indeed, the average death rate in the milder form of fowl pest is unlikely to exceed 10 per cent. I am told by the experts in the 1546 hatchery business that even an experienced poultry keeper has difficulty in distinguishing the symptoms of fowl pest from the symptoms of other poultry diseases, such as the common cold or fowl paralysis or other virus infections.
I may say, in passing, that I am not an expert poultryman. During the war and shortly afterwards I joined the vast army of domestic poultry keepers but, like many others, I did not make a success of it because I became too fond of my hens. I had not the heart to kill them. I had not the stomach to eat them, and so they had to go on living; their egg production fell, and the only satisfaction that I eventually got was that I was able to call them by their Christian names. I make no claim to any expert knowledge on the subject, but I have a very deep affection for the domestic hen. Anything that will keep it alive has my wholehearted support, even though it has to be assisted over a short illness at some stage in its life.
The slaughter policy can hit poultry breeders very severely indeed. Their stocks of laying birds—the breeding stocks—can be destroyed wholesale. There have been some distressing occurrences in my constituency when there has been an outbreak of fowl pest and a very large number of birds have had to be destroyed. There is a strong body of expert opinion which thinks that some form of vaccination is a substantial answer to the threat and the ravages of fowl pest, though at the moment vaccination is, I understand, prohibited by law in this country.
The Ministry have claimed that for vaccination to be in any way effective every bird in the country must be treated and, because the protection is of short duration, it would be necessary to re-vaccinate every six months. There is also the suggestion that the vaccinated bird may have fowl pest, but conceal the symptoms which would be discernible to the expert eye in a bird not given the degree of apparent immunity from the disease.
Not only has the slaughter policy been a serious blow to many hatcheries, but the Minister's recent attempt to establish clean areas adds to the difficulties. The reason why there are so many hatcheries in the valleys of the 1547 West Riding of Yorkshire is purely historical. Years ago unemployed weavers discovered that there was money in the broody hen. They went around the district collecting broody hens and eggs to put under them. Eventually the incubator arrived, and the industry was developed on commercial lines. That is the only reason why the hatchery businesses are to be found where they are.
The concentration of the day-old chick business means that this area has been the distributor over a very wide area of newly hatched chickens. Many parts of the country have not been self-supporting in poultry production. They have relied on importing their chicks from the hatcheries, most of which are in Lancashire and the West Riding.
The Minister in his attempt to establish clean areas has selected those of Monmouth and the West Midlands where the number of primary outbreaks of fowl pest has been small and where he is hoping to build up a self-supporting poultry production insulated from the risk of imported infection. They have, so to speak, gone behind the poultry iron curtain. The ban has gone down on sending chicks from areas which have at different times suffered from this disease to the clean areas. That is a restriction of the business activities of the hatcheries, and it adds to their difficulties.
I do not pretend to know what the answer is, but I submit for the consideration of the Minister and of the Committee, the fact that the poultry industry is a valuable part of our agricultural production. There seems to be a difference of opinion, in the fiscal world at all events, as to whether the poultry industry is part of the agricultural industry. We shall be hearing in discussions on the Finance Bill that a hatchery is not an agricultural building for the purpose of certain allowances under the Income Tax Act. Nevertheless, it comes under the Ministry of Agriculture, and that is why I am, with considerable diffidence, submitting this problem to his consideration.
We have seen how egg production has recently had to be supplemented by importation from overseas. We want, if we can, to make Britain self-supporting in eggs. There is no real reason why that 1548 should not be done. We want to save our flocks from needless destruction and we want to put as few hindrances as we can in the way of those who have established businesses and who cannot very easily move them to other parts of the country.
This is perhaps part of the veterinary controversy regarding slaughter policy for foot-and-mouth disease and other ravages among animals and birds, where it is felt that drastic treatment is the only one which, in the long run, is likely to prove effective. Nobody likes to think that in this country foot-and-mouth disease should be endemic as it is in other countries in Europe; but are we entitled on the facts to think that fowl pest is not already endemic in this country having regard to the difficulties of diagnosis by physical means, and the undoubted danger that a considerable number of outbreaks of the mild form go undetected? As we know, it is a notifiable disease to the Ministry, and I am sure that the poultry industry does its best to identify fowl pest when it sees it and to report it to the Ministry even though very serious consequences may flow from that.
Compensation is paid to the hatcheries, the breeders and producers for birds destroyed which have not the symptoms of the disease at the time of destruction. The cost of compensation is rising. It is understood to have gone up to something like £500,000 during last year.
I am not competent to suggest to the Minister dogmatically whether vaccination is a remedy, whether the slaughter policy is the only one, or whether the proposals for clean areas are justified in the circumstances; but my constituents who are so close to this matter and who are such influential people in the poultry industry, complain that they are not adequately and properly consulted on these matters. Whether it is that, naturally enough, the Minister, perhaps for historical reasons, tends to lend an ear too closely to the National Farmers' Union, I do not know, but there are other people in this industry besides the N.F.U. Those who are in it as a business and who are at the very root of our poultry industry complain to me that they are not given the opportunity which they think they should have to put their point of view.
§ Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)
May I suggest to the hon. Member that he advises his constituents to join the Poultry Association and send a representative to the Livestock Export Group? Then they will have direct contact with the Ministry of Agriculture.
§ Mr. Houghton
I am much obliged to the hon. Member for that suggestion, and I will gladly put it to my constituents. I hardly think they have neglected all reasonable opportunities and facilities for gaining suitable access to the Minister of Agriculture and his advisers. It is possible that in Yorkshire we have not heard of the body to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I scarcely think so.
I can only add that the slaughter policy has not succeeded yet in any part of the country, I am also advised. Fowl pest frankly is endemic in this country today, but it has to be tackled in the interest of the industry, of egg production and of poultry production. If I have, quite inadequately I fear, voiced the sentiments of those whose interests I tried to represent my intervention may have been justified.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)
I am very glad to follow the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton). I am sure that the Committee has learned a very great deal from his discussion of fowl pest. Many of the things that he mentioned were new to me, and I am sure that his intervention will be of considerable value. When he was talking about fowl pest he said that when it infected parrots it stopped them talking, and I had a moment's joyous picture of its effect upon some human beings. The hon. Member rather dashed my hopes when he proceeded to say that fowl pest was not infectious to humans. The poultry industry can make this country self-supporting in eggs, which is a strong reason why the Minister should introduce whatever measures he can to stamp out fowl pest. I am sure that he will do it.
Reference has been made to party policy on both sides of the Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) referred to the Opposition document "Challenge to Britain." There is one sentence in it which gives the views of the party opposite on agriculture. It is: 1550Farmers must be able to make long-term production plans without fear that they will be upset by sudden reversals in government policy.I think every hon. Member will agree with that. It is all the more surprising that the late Administration in 1946 made a sudden reversal of policy from the expansion of production of livestock to a policy of increasing tillage. This caused considerable upset in the agricultural industry.
I cannot help remembering that very familiar story that was going round the country in 1950–51. It was that a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture was trying to explain the policy of the then Administration. He was pointing out to farmers that they could not expect results over night and that if a bull was put into a field with a lot of cows they could not expect to find a lot of calves there on the following morning. The well-known reply to that was, "No, but we could expect to see a lot of contented faces." In 1951 this country was not getting a lot of contented faces.
The problem which faces any Government and any Ministry in a highly industrialised country such as ours, with a growing population, and in which we shall always have to import a certain proportion of our food, is to reconcile the provision of plentiful food at reasonable prices with the necessity to maintain a strong and prosperous farming industry. We have already heard from other hon. Members that this is largely a Treasury problem. Whatever subsidies are given, either to producers or consumers, come out of the taxpayer in one form or another. It was Gibbon who said in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire":All taxes must, at last, fall upon agriculture.It is well to remember that statement when we are talking about subsidies.
The Government's policy, covering the difficult transition period from rigid controls with heavy and increasing cost to the taxpayers, to freedom from rationing is, very broadly, right. The Price Review, 1954, which was referred to by the "News Chronicle" at the time asleaving unchanged the proposition that intelligent farming can be made to pay and pay well,1551 has met with reasonable approval by the farming community. It shows a slight change of emphasis which I welcome. It places emphasis on the production of more beef and perhaps more mutton and lamb. With our type of agricultural climate, and the kind of farming we do, and with something like two-thirds of our farmers farming 50 acres of land or less—it is far better to concentrate on the production of livestock and vegetable growing and possibly on poultry and fruit, than to go in for large-scale growing of cereals.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) in stressing the need to improve our grasslands. The record of other countries, especially the Netherlands, shows that their yield per acre of grassland is greater than ours. We have a lot to learn about improving grasslands, and we have something to learn about the use of fertilisers. As far as I can ascertain from the records, we use about 50 per cent. less fertiliser than it is calculated would be needed to give a reasonable return to the producer. We should develop the use of fertilisers because of the beneficial results to the land and in terms of profit to the producers.
I come to the question of capital investment in the industry. The farming industry, with some exceptions, is under-capitalised. There is greater need for capital to provide modern buildings, better and greater mechanisation—although one sometimes sees examples of mechanisation gone mad and wasted— the building up of good dairy and meat herds, and the drainage of our fields. The Agricultural Mortgage Corporation does good work in financing farmers who want to put capital into their farms, but the smaller farmer, among the two-thirds who farm 50 acres or less, require rather lower interest charges. A way in which the farming community can be helped is by making loans available at rather lower rates of interest than are generally charged.
§ Mr. Hall
I am asking the Minister now to answer a question on this matter when he replies.
1552 Something has been said about a lack of confidence which farmers are supposed to feel about the present Government. I was therefore interested to read of the farming conference held at Oxford in the first week of this year. There was a considerable amount of discussion about the future of farming. The theme of the conference was: "The way ahead— facing a competitive market." One speaker in the debate said:I believe that the farmer's future lies with himself. If he gives full value to the public I feel sure that he will be able to rely on the support of the public.He paid a compliment to both political parties, and to both the Labour and Conservative Governments, who had honoured their promises to agriculture. He said that if the farmers allowed them, they would continue to do so.
No Government could cure agriculture. It could make the climate, but the farmer himself must grow the crop.He went on to point out that whether a farmer made a profit or a loss depended very largely upon his own efforts. The theme of the conference, which was attended by farmers and experts from the Ministries and from the farming research stations, was much along those lines. I would not say that it showed any lack of confidence.
§ Mr. Baldwin
Is my hon. Friend aware that very often these resolutions did not represent the body of opinion in the branches?
§ Mr. Hall
I am very well aware that some of the resolutions passed by branches of the N.F.U. were passed with a view to exercising pressure on the Minister. The N.F.U. is undoubtedly one of the best trade unions in the country, and is good at developing pressure on the Minister to get its own way. To some extent it did, because it was so gratified by the prices of 1954 that since then it has kept quiet.
One of the problems facing the farming community is marketing. We talk about developing production, but there comes a time when too much of one 1553 commodity is produced at a given time, too much for the market to absorb then, but not necessarily too much for it to absorb if properly developed. The farmers already face this problem over milk. They are trying to develop publicity campaigns designed to stimulate a greater consumption of milk.
It is quite understandable that after 15 years of rationing, when we have become used to inadequate, and, very often, uninteresting food, and when the average English family seems to have lost some interest in food, quite apart from losing the capacity to absorb it, we should give greater priority to other things. How often do we find that people prefer tobacco before food? They prefer to smoke cigarettes than to buy additional food.
An hon. Gentleman said that research had shown that more milk could be sold if it were cheaper in price. It is interesting to remember that milk today is, I think, 6d. a pint while beer is 1s. 2d. a pint. But the consumption of beer seems to go up steadily year by year. I cannot understand why it is impossible for people to spend more on milk and less on beer. Of course, the brewers would not like it, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) would welcome it.
Our ancestors were very great eaters. If one looks at some of the menus of past generations, one wonders how they managed to absorb it all. Therefore, there is a great opportunity for the National Farmers' Union to promote campaigns to encourage people to eat more, if more than enough of one commodity is produced. The N.F.U. or the Ministry should carry out much more market research than they do at the moment and develop better sales technique.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk (South-West) touched on the question of the farm worker. I was rather interested to see quite recently a quotation taken from Virgil about farm workers and those on the land. It went as follows:Oh, blest beyond all bliss the husbandmen did they but know their happiness. On who, far from the clash of arms, the most just Earth showers from her bosom a toilless sustenance.1554 If Virgil came down and spoke to farmers, he might get a different view of these things.
In one of the Socialist pamphlets, called, I think, "Town and Country Post," reference was made to the great drift from the land, a matter which has been mentioned by several hon. Members. We should remember that the drift from the land started some years ago. If we look at the figures for 1949–51, we see that in those three years we lost 52,000 people from the land and that in the years 1952–53 we lost 41,000. One could claim some credit for arresting the rate of drift from the land, but one does not want to do that. One wants to face up to the fact and ask oneself why.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
Is the hon. Gentleman trying to say that the Tory Party should take the credit for stopping the depopulation of the rural areas? If so, I suggest that he should read the history of Montgomeryshire when the Tories and the Liberals were in power.
§ Mr. Hall
I was careful to say that one should not claim credit for arresting the drift. It is a problem which one has to face and to examine in order to find out why this drift is occurring.
If we look at the wage problem we find that there have been three increases in agricultural wages since 1951, so that the present standard wage for a 48-hour week is 120s. Nevertheless, the farm-worker, even if we take into account the additional benefits he receives, such as a fairly low rented cottage and things of that kind, is still getting less than the industrial worker when one compares skill for skill. A man working in a factory or industry in and about a town can command a greater wage for no greater work or skill than that performed and possessed by the farm worker. The farm worker, I have always claimed, has perhaps the more satisfying work, but he sometimes works under uncomfortable and arduous conditions. That is a matter which has to be considered.
We cannot overlook the fact that if agricultural wages are increased that must have an effect on the price of foodstuffs unless it can be associated with increased production.
§ Mr. Hall
Yes, if increased wages can be associated with increased production. The whole wage structure of the farming industry should be examined to see if bonus incentive schemes are possible. This would give the farm workers a share in the prosperity of the industry as a whole. I fully appreciate the difficulty of that, but in some of the bigger farms it has already been done. I also believe that it is under consideration by some of the leaders of the farmworkers unions. I merely put it out as a suggestion because we cannot go on increasing wages year by year with the resultant effect of increasing food prices unless we associate that increase with increased production.
§ Mr. Hall
Speaking for the farm workers. I should be disappointed if there were no increase, but I still feel that we cannot go on increasing wages without at the same time increasing production. That applies to any industry.
One last point about the loss of agricultural land in general. We have a growing population; we are trying to increase the agricultural production by 60 per cent. or more above pre-war; we are trying to cater more and more for our own needs and reduce the amount which we have to import. Side by side with that we are seeing the disappearance week by week of first-class agricultural land. In the other place on 1st July, 1954, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington said that there were likely to be 2 million acres lost to urban development in the next 60 years. That is about a 100-acre farm per day. It means that in the next 60 years more than four counties the size of Buckinghamshire will be sterilised and be of no further use to agriculture.
This is an extremely serious problem. I know the conflicting demands of the various Ministries—the Ministry of Housing needs land to build houses—but we have to give much more serious consideration 1556 to this problem than we have perhaps given to it in the past. I cannot see how we can reconcile the attempt to produce more in order to cater for a growing population and at the same time see agricultural land go out of use. I hope that we shall be told what is being done, either to preserve the present agricultural land or to bring other land not now used for agriculture, into production.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)
I should like to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) on one or two points. He charged the Labour Government with radically changing policy in 1946, or of intensifying the tillage programme at that time. The reason was that there was a great shortage of feeding-stuffs, with the prospect of their becoming more and more difficult to obtain as a result of the tremendous demand in other countries and because of our own shortage of foreign currency.
§ Mr. John Hall
Is it not true that some few months before this policy was reversed farmers had been promised increased feedingstuffs whereas supplies later had to be cut drastically and that that was the reason for the change of policy?
§ Mr. Kenyon
No, I cannot agree at all. The indications that there would be reductions first appeared early in 1945. When the Labour Government came into power later that year they began to draw up a proper agricultural policy, which was expansion from the beginning.
The hon. Member, I am afraid like many hon. Members, fell into the error of believing that the more fertiliser one puts on the land the greater the output. They have the habit of comparing this country with Holland and Denmark. In those countries the land is absolutely different. Holland and Denmark are below sea level, and they are warmer. The greater part of this country is above sea level, gradually rising to good heights. The higher one rises the lower the growth.
Only last Saturday I was on my own farm with the agricultural officer. He said, "One of the things that we have to face on land like this, which is 1,200 feet above sea level, is that 1 cwt. of fertiliser only produces what half that 1557 quantity would produce at sea level." Therefore, the statement that if one doubles the fertiliser and balances the lime and so on one will double output is just not correct. It has been tried time and time again and it has been proved that it cannot be done.
Experiments are taking place on the Great House Experimental Farm, Helm-shore. There we find that the leaching by rain and the acid caused by smoke takes from the land the equivalent of half a ton of lime per acre per year. They have not that to contend with in Holland and Denmark. No matter how much fertiliser one puts on it is leached away.
§ Mr. John Hall
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I did not say that to use double the amount of fertiliser would double production. I said that we could use double the amount of fertiliser to the profit of the farmer and the benefit of the community, because Ministry experts calculated that we are using 50 per cent. less than could properly be used.
§ Mr. Kenyon
The farmers are the ones to decide that question. They know what their land will produce. What the hon. Member has said may apply to some land, but on most of our land, at greater heights, it just does not follow.
We all know that capital can be raised to a remarkable extent in agriculture, but there is always a danger on the small farms—and the hon. Member for Wycombe himself pointed out that very much of our agricultural land is farmed by small farmers—of over-capitalising on mechanisation. In agriculture a machine can be used only for a certain period. The hay-making machine is used for a few weeks, or even for only one week on a small farm, and lies idle for the rest of the year. On a 50-acre farm, the cost of a tractor and all the implements which go with it is a sheer waste of money. If that money were put into livestock or crops it would bring a far greater return.
The banks have to be very careful in this matter, and those bank managers who understand agriculture watch the position very closely. Farmers themselves are awakening to the fact that it is very easy to spend too much money on machines. I was in a farmer's house only the other week, and the farmer's wife said, "I dread the coming of the shows." I asked her why, and she said, "Because 1558 for each of the last three years my husband has bought a new mowing machine. He has been persuaded by salesmen at the shows." That man had only a small farm of about 30 acres. I am glad that the majority of farmers are not like that. but there is a danger of their being persuaded by salesmen
I now want to refer to the question of fowl pest, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) mentioned. I know that the Minister is an expert on poultry. I hope that the Ministry will not abandon the policy of slaughter. The same consideration applies to foot-and-mouth disease in cattle. Slaughtering is the safest policy for the fowl and cattle population where these two diseases occur, and it is the cheapest in the long run. We know that poultry recover from fowl pest, and some hon. Members think that that is the only thing they have to do. But they have to continue laying, and when they have been knocked off their health by this disease it is a long time before they lay again. They suffer for it for some time and may pass on the disease when it is thought that they have been cured. The moment the disease shows itself among poultry—and it is very easily detected by a blood test—the best thing to do is to slaughter the lot. While it bears hard upon the breeders in many parts of the country, this policy is protecting the birds of many thousands of other breeders.
Now I come to the position of the farmers. It has been argued that they are not uncertain about the future and are looking to it with confidence. I am afraid that my experience amongst farmers does not bear out that argument. They just do not know what is to happen, and are somewhat afraid of the future. Their fears may turn out to be entirely groundless, but they are there. To prove it, I shall refer to the debate which took place last Tuesday, when the Minister and his colleague introduced the ploughing grants.
Both Ministers admitted that because of the change of policy of the Government they were not certain that the ploughing grant subsidy would bring about the result they desired. The Parliamentary Secretary admitted that, according to all the returns, up to 31st May this year there would be a decrease and not an increase in the amount of ploughed-up land. Why will that be so? 1559 The subsidy is available. It is because of the uncertainty in farmers' minds about what is to happen. We just do not know. Only the future can tell. We are talking hypothetically today. The long-term effects of agricultural policies are always difficult to forecast.
Let me give a simple illustration. We have a good surplus of milk now. That is the result of the policy of the Department over a large number of years in developing milk production, in the use of artificial insemination, particularly from good milk stock. The result is that today we are getting greater production per cow than before, and we have a surplus of milk. I do not say that that is due to any party. It is due to the policy of the Department over the years The present Government are not responsible for one pint of today's milk surplus. It is the result of a long-term policy. The calves that are coming into the world now were not conceived when the present Government came into office.
§ Mr. Kenyon
My hon. Friend is always anticipating things, and he looks upon them, unlike the farmers, with no fear at all. However, that is an example of the time lag that there always is in any agricultural policy. We shall not be able to tell the effect of the policy the Government are putting into operation now, the last part of which will not be begun until July, for another 12 months or two years. Then will be the time to discuss the position.
I was puzzled by the Parliamentary Secretary's speech on Tuesday night. I had always been under the impression that arable land and tillage were one and the same thing. I understood that if one turned up grassland it became tillage land or arable land. It certainly is. I am justified by the dictionaries.
§ Mr. Bullard
It is of no use to rely on dictionaries for definitions of agricultural 1560 terms. If the hon. Gentleman goes to Lincolnshire he will find that tillage is artificial manure.
§ Mr. Kenyon
I am very glad that the hon. Member has given that information to his hon. Friend, for he did not mention it in his speech on Tuesday. His speech was on ploughing up grants and when he referred to tillage he meant land which had been ploughed up.
The Parliamentary Secretary, as reported in column 1235, said he could make onlya rather rough estimate based on the forecast of tillage crops and cereal and root crops in the March returns.I should like some explanation of that because in column 1240 he is reported as having said, quoting his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely,tillage includes cereal crops, root crops and fallow. Arable includes grass crops."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st June, 1954; Vol. 528, c. 1235–40.]Does not tillage include grass crops? Does not tillage include the ley? Certainly it does. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), who is a practical farmer, apparently agrees with me. Tillage and arable land are the same. They might not be the same in the hon. Gentleman's Department in Whitehall, but they are the same to a practical farmer. The hon. Gentleman went on to say that the figures with which he had been dealing were tillage not arable. I think the hon. Gentleman's Department in Whitehall should start looking at the dictionary or else should come to some practical farmer for their information.
§ Mr. Kenyon
The effect of the Government's policy will be seen in practice. It may easily cause a reduction in production. Let me give the example of milk. In the National Farmers' Union's booklet of information for March, where they are discussing a meeting with the Government, they make these comments under the heading of "Milk":The increase in yield per cow should therefore be accompanied by a reduction in the dairy herds, so as to stabilise sales off the farm somewhat below the present level.That is a definite indication that there is to be a reduction in the dairy herds 1561 and that the milk yield will be maintained by better production. Anyone in agriculture knows quite well that that is not an easy thing to do. It depends very much on the season, for one thing; it depends on the flush of grass. The Government have been very fortunate in the last three years for they have had the three naturally good years, but they have now come to the fourth, and already it is not as good as the others.
§ Mr. Kenyon
It is the beginning of the lean years, and naturally we shall not have as good results this year as we have had in other years. If the policy begins to cause a decline, it might lead to an even bigger decline than expected if nature is against us this year. In that respect the policy is dangerous.
Let me turn to the question of freedom and abundance. We have an abundance of milk already and we are teeming it down the pit. Freedom, to be fully operative, must start from the beginning and go right through to the end; otherwise it is not freedom. The best man to judge is the farmer himself. That is why I disagree with these subsidies which the right hon. Gentleman was putting forward on Tuesday night. The Government think that by putting these subsidies forward and offering £5 an acre we shall have greater tillage—or arable.
But the good farmer would plough his land, whether there is a subsidy on it or not. If he considers that the land should be ploughed, he will plough it for the crop which he gets from it. It is the final price of the article at which the farmer looks, not the subsidies. If the final price is right, be it beef, milk or any other thing, he will produce it. The Government can give all the subsidies possible and some people will take them, but the good farmer judges his farming by the final price of the commodity and that, not freedom, should be the criterion.
The right hon. Gentleman could withdraw his subsidy, but he is not going to do that. The Government are going to have control at one end and fling us upon the market at the other end. These guaranteed prices or guaranteed minimums only cover part of the production. There is no guaranteed minimum on ewe mutton. The old ewe which comes down 1562 from the hills will be flung on to the market, where the butcher will give just what he likes, because he knows full well that the farmer dare not run it again on the hills. He will have to sell it or lose it. It goes into the market at any price—there is no guarantee at all.
There is no guarantee for the cow that cuts out at less than 54 per cent. There is no guarantee on eggs below the standard egg. The Government have guaranteed prices on the best things which would have fetched their price in the market at any time. They have given a guaranteed price on good fat cattle, good fat lambs, good fat sheep and the standard egg which could be put into the market at any time and have got the guaranteed price or more. For the things for which we cannot get the prices, the guarantee is not there. So the farmer is driven into the market with these things, and he does not know what price he is to get.
The sheep farmer knows full well that he has to turn his draft ewes into the market at a certain price. The dairy farmer knows that he has to turn his dairy cow, which has done her service. into the market with no guarantee of price. It is manufacture meat, and that is all that the butcher will give for it. That is where the uncertainty comes in. There is fear and uncertainty. We find it at every auction to which we go. What are the farmers discussing at the moment? They are discussing with each other whether they must put their fat stock into the market before the 26th of this month or risk going on—they are selling in my district—because they simply do not know what will happen.
If there is any doubt about the grade of the animal, it goes into the market now. If there is no doubt about the grading, the farmers keep the animal because they get the guarantee in any case. The whole thing is uncertain, and I fear that in from 12 months' to two years' time the Government will regret very much the action —
§ Mr. Kenyon
My hon. Friend's optimism passes my comprehension. The Government will stay in office to the last minute, knowing that they will not come back. 1563 I fear that agricultural production will not play its part in the future as it has done in the past. If there is a trend in world prices against the producer here —I believe that only this week the trend in grain is upwards—we will find that the agricultural community suffers at the hands of this Government, as it suffered in the 1920s and in the 1930s.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. George Brown (Belper)
I think everyone would agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) has made one of the best speeches of the whole day. I will not enter into the argument about tillage and arable, but I think that anybody in the Committee who has been pretending up to now that he did not know why we said there was uncertainty in agricultural circles will have had his mind cleared by what my hon. Friend had to say.
This has been in some ways an interesting debate, in some ways a startling debate, and perhaps in some ways a disappointing debate. Of the speeches that have been made, we all have our choice. Some appealed to each of us more than others, according to what we wanted to hear said, but some of them appealed to me very much. Amongst these were not only the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, but that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu).
I am very glad to have my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton participating in this debate—I gather it was his maiden speech on agriculture—not only because it is a great thing for those of us who are trying to back up an agriculturally biased policy to have an economist on our side for once—that is always a delightful experience—but because my hon. Friend speaks in a debate of this kind as a townsman—as a townsman's representative; at any rate, as a consumers' representative—and because in doing so he struck the note that I should like to get across to the Government side.
Inevitably in a debate of this kind one talks a good deal about the agriculturist, because, after all, it is upon him that we rely for our supplies. If he is upset, unhappy and uncertain, we consumers suffer. My hon. Friend's intervention reminded us that it is the consumer who 1564 matters in this regard, and that the criticism of the apology for a policy which is now being followed by the agricultural Departments is that it is the consumer who will suffer for it. It is the consumer's position that is endangered.
There were other speeches about which one could not say anything like the same thing. There was the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd). Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about the extraordinary statement by the hon. Member is that I hope that on reflection he is as sorry about it as I am. His speech did him no credit. It did the farming community no credit.
For anybody in the House to boast—and in a seemingly proud way—that he has been taking large sums of money which were made available for a product of quality, and that he had been taking it because it was the Ministry of Food—the agent of the people—he was dealing with, and had been taking it for rubbish —we gave him many opportunities to withdraw—seems to me a shocking thing and an example of a very remarkable morality. I can only hope that he is sorry for it, that in fact, he did not mean it, and that he will take an early opportunity to say that that is not how he conducted his business.
§ Mr. Hurd
I will take the opportunity now. The right hon. Gentleman has misquoted me. I made it quite clear that the barley I was selling was of a standard acceptable to the Ministry of Food, and inevitably when there is Government buying under obligation and guarantee a low standard is set. I am not proud of that. nor are the farmers. I was adopting the standard acceptable to the Ministry of Food.
§ Mr. Brown
I hope the Ministry of Food will fulfil its function in making sure that it did not pay £25 a ton for it. I have taken steps which will give the Ministry an opportunity to explain what 1565 it has been doing in its custodianship of the nation's money. We will leave the matter just for the moment. The hon. Member for Newbury must settle with his conscience and with his own constituents who, I hope, will hear something about what he is doing with the money of the people.
I come now to the Minister's speech. The difficulty about the right hon. Gentleman is that one likes him. He is a kindly man, he is a nice man, and I have not the slightest doubt he is a well-meaning man. The trouble is that I doubt whether he knows what is going on at all. He is the latest in a long line of men who have held that office. As Mr. Speaker knows, and as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot) knows, there are hosts of other ex-"future Prime Ministers" who held the office of Minister of Agriculture, and lost their future there, and who will bear witness that a man cannot be a Minister of Agriculture in a Tory Government.
To protect British agriculture—and I use the word not in the narrow fiscal sense but in that of looking after British agriculture and giving it a chance to enable it to develop—a degree of planning is required. The Minister is now discovering that there cannot be a planned agricultural economy in the midst of an unplanned society. There cannot be planning for the production of home-grown food when the Minister of Food is allowing in imports, wholly unplanned.
The only time I got really upset with the Minister of Agriculture today was when he paid lavish tributes to his right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister of Food. I have heard of biting the hand that feeds one, but until today I have never heard of feeding the mouth that bites one. Yet this is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is doing, and if he will take a tip from me—I am a younger man and there is no reason why I should give him a tip except that I like him—he will stand up for the industry of which he is the spearhead and fight for its interests. He will insist upon being treated by his colleagues as the representative of a great industry, or he will make it clear that he is not going to put up with what is going on.
1566 The right hon. Gentleman has got to make up his mind about policy. That is our criticism of him. He allowed the Minister of Food to get away with derationing before he had started to think about what he was going to do afterwards. The Fat Stock Marketing Corporation was not born out of long travail; it was a last-minute, rushed attempt, a brave attempt by the National Farmers' Union to do in nine weeks a job which the right hon. Gentleman ought to have embarked upon long before the Minister of Food was allowed to prejudice the situation.
That is what the right hon. Gentleman is under attack for, and he knows it. However, he is a kindly man. He is kind to his colleagues and he is sometimes kind to me. Indeed, if he winds up tonight, I think he will be kind to me even then. But a little less kindness when dealing with these apostles of laissez faire would be a great deal better.
This is a sad tale of agricultural muddle and decline, and it is no use saying that there is no uncertainty or trouble. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley has denied that. It is no use saying, as somebody did, that I go round stirring up trouble. I should like to think that I had any real influence with the farmers. If I had, the Government would not perhaps be sitting here now, let alone getting out next year. It is not I who am stirring up trouble or anybody else, but it is there undeniably.
The last time I spoke on this subject I quoted from a pile of farming papers to show that the anxiety existed. I quoted telegrams then. I have a case full of them outside now, but I did not bring them in because I did not want to repeat the same exercise twice. I have been to farming meetings and know what is going on. It is not only farming uncertainty or the collapse of the Minister which is a sad business. Something else upsets me. Ever since I spent nearly five years at the Ministry of Agriculture I have been proud of the standard of the Department. But it will be difficult, in view of the events of the last month or two, not to feel that an administrative decline is setting in there.
I believe it is all stemming from the same theme. Everyone concerned with British agriculture has the fear, if not 1567 more than fear, that we are heading back to the conditions of 1920, which led to the repeal of the Corn Production Act of the previous war. It is no use Tory Members of Parliament who sit for agricultural constituencies saying that that will not happen. As I pointed out in an interruption earlier, anyone reading the debates which led up to that repeal will find that this is exactly what Tory Members were saying then.
In the 1930's, when the Norfolk farmers had to march on London, Tory Members for agricultural constituencies were still saying there was nothing wrong, and that it was wicked Opposition Members who were pretending that there was something wrong. It is no use hon. Gentlemen opposite putting their heads in the sand. My right hon. Friend saved me a little time by referring to the extraordinary difference between the extravagant speeches of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite when they were the Opposition compared with the ineffective performances they put up now that they are Her Majesty's Ministers.
Then, nothing in the 1947 Act was good enough. The guarantees were not wide enough, the market was not unlimited enough. The right hon. Gentleman went into the Lobby with the present Leader of the House, and every Tory Member of the Committee voted against Part I of the 1947 Bill on the ground that it gave the Government power to limit the market, and the Tory Party thought that was all wrong and voted against it to a man. Now the Minister comes down to the House saying, "I am limiting the market, and it is the right thing to do." He does not even show that they have learned from experience.
That is one of the reasons for the uncertainty. I have told the right hon. Gentleman before that it was because of the extravagant hopes which they gave the farmers. Politically the farmers are much more their friends than ours, much more under their influence than ours—although that position is changing, as many of us know who go into the rural areas. It was the right hon. Gentlemen opposite who led the farmers to think that they could have the moon, that they did not even have to be responsible, that there need not be a limit. That is why, when the Minister of Food overpowers 1568 the right hon. Gentleman, the people in the countryside get extremely upset and worried and concerned.
The basic problem was revealed in something which the Minister said. He said proudly, "We are determined to go for a free market." There is a doctrinaire determination to rush for freedom, with no agricultural policy to fit into that situation, as indeed I believe there cannot be. Ultimately, of course, such a situation will be disastrous for the farming industry.
Whenever British farming has had to operate in these conditions it has suffered disaster. The Minister spoke today about not expecting agriculture to be isolated from world events. He said that one cannot put agriculture in an ivory tower and that one cannot expect it not to follow the trends. After hearing that, I went outside and opened a volume of "The Times" which included a report of Chamberlain's speech at Kettering in July, 1938, which so horrified rural England. If the right hon. Gentleman likes to undertake the same operation he will find that that speech follows frighteningly the same pattern as that which be offered to us today.
Mr. Chamberlain said that if agriculture was isolated from world trends all sorts of disasters would follow to all sorts of people. We now know that he was wrong, but the Minister flew right back to that today. That is why we say that this policy is the thin end of the wedge. Noble Lords in another place, one of whom we know as "the Grand Old Man of agriculture," were very upset that Opposition spokesmen like myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) should talk about this being the thin end of the wedge, but that is exactly what it is. It cannot but lead to a reduction in agricultural production.
But I do not want us to deal with this matter simply from the point of view of whether it harms farmworkers or not. I contend that the Government are gambling with Britain's highly vulnerable position in the matter of feeding our people. The whole basis of the White Paper which was issued after the Price Review seems fallacious. The argument behind it is that there are world surpluses of food, that there will be surpluses for some time, and that we 1569 can safely take a chance and quite safely make our industry fit in because we can obtain the food more cheaply elsewhere.
I do not believe that that can possibly be right. There is no surplus of food in the world. The Minister of Food may see himself doing a limited Departmental job, but he is a partner with us, even those of us who are not in the Government, in a great political struggle which is going on vigorously in the world to secure the allegiance of millions of people to the democratic way of life. A great weapon in that fight is the ability of the democratic parts of the world to feed those people, and if we feed them there is no surplus in the world.
When I was in Kenya I did not come to the conclusion that starvation caused Mau Mau, but it was very clear to me that we should have no happiness and contentment there until there was an enormous increase in the standard of feeding in Kenya, and much more food was sent there. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) has been to South-East Asia, and he has come back telling the same story. The world demand is bigger than the supply. It is growing faster than the supply and our obligation to meet it is growing and will grow with the political struggle.
But there is also the question of our ability to pay. This point was raised during our economic debates. There is altogether too much temptation on the benches opposite to take a wholly unjustifiably rosy view of our ability to pay. The terms of trade are not all that good, and they are not improving. The last index I saw showed an increase in very recent days.
We are not earning by our exports the volume of imports which one would think we were to judge by the gay abandon by which the Minister of Food allowed our dollars to be spent last year to bring in barley and make it impossible to sell British barley. I have no doubt that the Minister now says that he has sold it. He was getting ready to say that and I wanted him to do so. He has sold 80 per cent. to 90 per cent., but will he tell us at what price he sold it? Will he tell us what the loss was per ton as a result of letting the millers and merchants, to whom he had to sell, fill up with Canadian barley bought with our 1570 dollars so that they could hold out on our barley?
Should I be wrong in suggesting that it was £5 a ton plus double transport charges for 2 million tons? If I say that it was £12 million altogether, shall I be sadly out? I doubt it. I have no way of knowing. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman is coy about this, but I challenge him. I do not believe I am very far out in putting the figure at £12 million plus the dollars we lost in bringing in Canadian barley when we were growing barley at home in order to make sure that we did not place it.
We cannot go on in that way. The position of our country does not justify it and the position in the world does not justify it. That is what is frightening farmers and, if they will attend to the question of their food before it gets on the breakfast table, it will frighten consumers also. Nor is it true to make the comparison between high costs of production in this country and low costs elsewhere. It is not the case that there are high costs here and cheap production elsewhere. America sells grain at 1…80 dollars and has to pay her own farmers at 2…20 dollars. The French Government sell wheat for £25 and pay their own farmers £36. Turkey sells at £35 and pays their own farmers £40. Iraq on the other hand, only pays £10 a ton.
Either we are buying grain cheaper than it is costing to produce because the other countries are subsidising it in order to get it here, or producers as in Iraq and Syria have a standard of living on the basis of which we ought never to want to buy. There is high cost of production there also, but in fact this situation will not continue. The Governments concerned will not go on subsidising, and the peasants of the Middle East will not continue on that standard of living. When that happens we shall be short of supplies on which the Minister of Food is gambling now, and the Minister of Agriculture will have depressed production here which ought to have taken the place of that other production.
There has been a complete muddle on grain, a complete muddle between the two Ministers, with no trading organisation and nothing ready to deal with the situation this year. When the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) was speaking of the taxpayer having to finance it in the 1571 past, I asked who was to stand by and finance the operation this coming year. It will be the taxpayer just the same.
Recently I was looking at the forecast quotation on the London futures market for grain delivered in August—Iraq barley—and it was £18 delivered. I was told by a merchant I know that, because it is so much easier for him to handle, it was worth £2 a ton more to have foreign-imported grain than to handle home-produced grain.
What is the cost to the taxpayer of subsidising the sale of British barley on that basis? The Minister says that £200 million is the cost of all this in a year, and that that makes it quite evident that the Government are standing by the British farmer. It is nothing of the kind. For corn, as for livestock, it is money poured into the pockets of middlemen who are doing nothing to produce the stuff. It is using a bottomless purse to cover the operations of merchants playing around on the grain futures market and the operations of rings and dealers in the livestock market.
We find Lord Carrington, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, going to Newcastle and saying, in words that my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) never bettered, "Of course, this is getting enormously expensive. It is getting too dear to maintain. Of course we shall have to do something about it.' The whole thing has gone right round in a circle. My hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury may have said things from time to time which have pained me, things that were used politically by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. But he was never able to force his policy on the Labour Government. The Minister in a Tory Government is carrying it out.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture is the one who tells the farmers that they must face the fact that this policy is getting too expensive. That is not because of what the farmers are doing. It is because the Government have no agricultural policy. Money is being poured into the pockets of the middlemen.
We have heard a lot about grass drying today and about the activities of British Field Products, Limited. I do not know 1572 why it is that such terrific bitterness creeps into the voices of hon. Gentlemen opposite when they mention this example of private enterprise. I do not care about what British Field Products, Limited, has done. The real problem is caused by the vacillation in policy of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The grass drying industry has been worked up from 30,000 tons to 225,000 tons a year. In the time when my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was in office, the increase was worth £7 million a year.
Having got this British food to take the place of expensive imported feeding-stuffs, the Minister goes messing round making it easier and cheaper to import foreign feedingstuffs; doing nothing with the compounders to make them take grass meal into the compound; doing nothing to see that grass is more favourably treated than foreign feedingstuffs.
Then the Government are surprised when the bottom falls out of this industry which has not got into a mess because British Field Products Ltd. had a loan which anyone could have had on the same terms. The bottom has fallen out of the industry because the Government have not a clue about what to do with British agriculture. They do not want to plan. They do not want to organise our economy. They prefer to waste our foreign currency.
Until a short while ago the Minister of Food was saying, "I am shutting up the Ministry of Food. I am working myself out of a job." Six months ago or more the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food came to a Committee upstairs and moved to insert the name of the Ministry of Food into 25 Acts in which it had never appeared before. I asked him then, "Are you serious about shutting up the Ministry of Food?" He made a great speech, telling me that he was. But of course now they do not say that. They do not want to shut up the Ministry of Food. It is the Ministry of Agriculture they wish to take over, and I warn the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture to watch out very carefully.
How are the Government proposing to police these new arrangements? They are no substitute for guarantees. I have here the "Derbyshire Advertiser," one of the better local papers in my constituency. It contains a report of a visit 1573 by an officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, the head of the Livestock Branch, at a conference at Nottingham. He told the farmers what is meant by the new set-up. He revealed that it was proposed to double the number of livestock inspectors in the market to keep a check on the graders.
How many more inspectors are we to have to police freedom more than we had to have to police a controlled economy? Let the Minister tell us. I see that he is trying to find out. I will keep on talking while he finds out. I will not sit down too soon. How many people are we to have at Guildford, operating the payments scheme? The Minister cannot have come here without a brief in his hand, he must have a note about it somewhere. Why is he so coy?
The fact is that we have an army of bureaucrats, and that is why the Ministry of Food is not to go out of existence. It will cost far more to police freedom without an agricultural policy than it took us to police a controlled economy with one. If the Minister of Agriculture is afraid of his colleagues, we will support him. Let him declare firmly, as did Sir James Turner of the N.F.U., that the only basis on which the expansion of any basic and primary product in the world can be carried out is that of guaranteed prices and assured markets.
Let the Minister go back to that. I am going round the country saying "We will do it," but I am so generous that I invite the Minister to do it first, so as to get the credit for it. Let him say what he knows is true, and what the whole of his Department knows is true. Let him return to guaranteed prices and assured markets. Let him stop fooling about with bottomless purses and safety nets, and let him tackle the needs of agriculture. Let him deal with the lack of credit, facilities, loans at reasonable interest rates for the tenant farmers, let him deal with the lack of capital resources, the need to back up co-operative methods, the problem of land that needs to be reclaimed and brought back into production and the re-equipping of land to provide new holdings for new men.
Those are the things that will give Britain the food that she requires. The farmer can be relied upon to do his job properly and well. Let the Minister show that he is also in business, at the head of 1574 a great agricultural expansion programme. Let him return to his own policy of 1952, when he issued a circular to the county agricultural executive committee and told them to get on with the job of raising agricultural efficiency and dealing with backsliders.
He warned them not to allow more than a year—this was the Conservatives at work, not us—under supervision. What has happened to that policy now? When I go round to the C.A.E.C's.—I say it regretfully as an old servant of one of them, who regards them as a fine piece of machinery—I note that they are being messed about, and are getting almost as low in spirit as everybody else in the industry.
I promised to sit down at half-past nine, and I will, though there is much more to say. I have here a book called "A Balanced Economy" by Leo Amery. I have been reading something in it that Mr. Disraeli had to say at a time when he thought that Sir Robert Peel's Tory Ministry was doing what the right hon. Gentleman now wants to do, return to laissez faire. I will read only two sentences of it, but I commend the rest of the book to the House.
Mr. Disraeli—their Mr. Disraeli, never ours—speaking of a Tory Ministry, said:It may be vain now, in the midnight of their intoxication, to tell them than there will be an awakening of bitterness; it may be idle now, in the springtide of their economic frenzy, to warn them that there may be an ebb of trouble. But the dark and inevitable hour will arrive.It will, for the whole of hon. Members opposite as well.
§ 9.31 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)
We have had an interesting debate, and some valuable contributions. Most of it has been quiet and constructive, and the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) really had quite a hard job to try to warm up the atmosphere, as it is his intention to divide the Committee at the end of it, because the fact is that he and his right hon. Friend alongside him—I have in mind what his intentions are—had really very little material with which to make out their case of criticism of my right hon. Friend. 1575 One of the more amusing remarks of the day—and I think the right hon. Gentleman will accept it—came from my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) when, in reply to the right hon. Gentleman, he acknowledged that he had the right of political controversy, and named him the arch-provoker of it. The right hon. Gentleman has done his best, and we may find one or two issues on which to cross swords.
The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) gave us a most interesting speech about the difficulties of fowl pest. I congratulate him on the skill with which he put over a brief which I am sure was not very familiar to him, and his constituents have every reason to be grateful to him for putting it over so well. But the fact is that his hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) answered him by saying that the slaughter policy is considered to be the best safeguard for the poultry stocks of this country. While I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman and his friends at the great hatcheries in his constituency that the mild type of fowl pest gives us special perplexities in diagnosis and reporting, we still believe that we have a good chance of stamping it out, and that it is not yet endemic. I know there are other views, and I know how anxious and how strongly others feel about it. But I am quite certain that so long as we have a chance of stamping out the disease altogether, it is well worth going on with the slaughter policy.
We have intensified the campaign during the last few months and the definition of a "clean area" was part of that intensification. Of course, it will not permanently be defined as a clean area. Obviously it cannot be. It is part of a general campaign of control. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have this very much in mind, and that what we are doing is, I am quite sure, the best thing in the interests of the poultry industry as a whole.
The hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) raised the question of horticultural marketing. I can assure him that we have that particular problem very much in mind at present. We have been extremely preoccupied with the marketing problems relating to the main agricultural products but are now turning our 1576 attention to horticulture, and his helpful comments on the subject will be borne in mind.
The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) referred to the question of the presentation of sheep at the present time. The Ministry of Food has always reserved the right to refuse a proportion of the sheep offered at any time, and although it is true that it has not been necessary to do that for some time in England it has sometimes been necessary in Northern Ireland because of the heavy offerings. After 7th June the price drops and there is a tendency for farmers to push in their lambs before the price drops from 6d. to 4½d. In this case they have done that so heavily that the cut has been made. In the circumstances, it is inevitable.
Among other points in the hon. Member's very thoughtful speech, I felt he spoke of practical realities when he said that today we cannot indulge in cost-plus farming. There must be greater emphasis on quality. I also thought his comments on what might be done to improve cost efficiency, particularly in milk production, by better husbandry were most helpful and constructive.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) made what I think is a fair point in regard to the speech of the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). He said that whereas my right hon. Friend is today under fire and criticism, the situation in regard to production policy is by no means as straightforward as it was in the days of the right hon. Gentleman. Then, the one line of policy was to produce more and more to meet a time of urgent shortage. Today we have a different situation. Food is freely available in the world at lower prices. We must have a policy which will achieve a right balance between production on our own farms at proper prices and, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, at the same time study consumer interests.
The subject of dried grass has been referred to several times but I feel that I should not take too much time in dealing with it. Dried grass is no innovation; it has been produced for many years. There are two stable forms of demand for it. One is as a vitamin supplement in pig and poultry meals, and 1577 I can remember starting to use it for that purpose back in the '20s. In those days it was imported from California and South Africa. Since then a certain production has also grown up by dairy farmers producing for consumption on their own farms.
Those two demands are stable and certain, but outside that the demand by dairy farmers who do not produce themselves and buy in the market is very uncertain. During the time of feeding-stuff rationing there was a fair demand because it was unrationed and therefore commanded a premium because, in the high quality grade, it can be used as a production ration. Now that dairy farmers can choose what they buy they go for the traditional types, such as dairy nuts, which they used before. I am not saying that they are wise, because dried grass has a very high feeding value and is also valuable as a vitamin feed, but the dairy farmer is very conservative in what he does.
It has always been a speculative business as those who have been in it a long time know just as well as I do. What is happening is that they are now going through a time of difficult adjustment. I am sympathetic with those carrying considerable stocks from last year who have felt the financial squeeze in this period of adjustment when the price inevitably has been falling.
I am particularly sympathetic towards my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham whose constituents are holding heavy stocks. But that is the fact, and the incident with regard to British Field Products, Limited, which has attracted so much attention and comment, is quite beside the point in relation to the general trend of development. This question has been very fully examined and discussed by the Select Committee, and everyone, therefore, has all the details of it clearly in mind.
I should now like to make a general comment upon the broad issues which have been raised against us by right hon. and hon. Members opposite. One or two of these were raised by the hon. Member for Chorley. He referred to the difference between tillage and arable. As a practical farmer, before I came to Whitehall, I admit that I thought they were the same thing, but I have since 1578 discovered that each has a certain technical connotation of its own. Tillage is confined to cereals, root crops and fallow, and arable includes temporary grasses. If it is any consolation to the hon. Member, I can tell him that the same distinction applies in Scotland, where they call arable—I speak with some hesitancy about Scotland—almost anything that is not mountain.
§ Mr. Kenyon
Does not the hon. Member think that the practical farmer should come first, even in Whitehall?
§ Mr. Nugent
I certainly think he should, and he certainly does as far as we are concerned. This situation was inherited by us from right hon. Members opposite, and it is a form of distinction which would cause more confusion if it were changed.
I now turn to the general accusations and charges made by hon. Members opposite. In this debate, as in the last one in November, the charges, broadly speaking, have been that we have been disturbing the confidence of the farmers and endangering the nation's food supply. The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) said something very similar to that this evening. It is also said that we have been undermining the principles of the 1947 Act and engaging in an irresponsible and haphazard movement into freedom, against the interests of agriculture and the nation.
Our agricultural policy is no haphazard affair; it has been very carefully thought out and worked out as an essential part of the Government's domestic policy over the last two years in order to meet the basic needs of the country. The decision to move away from a system of State control and trading—which we inherited and accept as having been necessary in time of war and intense shortage—to a freer economy, was a major decision by the Government when they first took office. The main objective was to restore solvency and personal freedom and, particularly, to end food rationing.
The success of this policy is not questioned by anybody. The great benefits it has brought to the nation in restoring solvency and bringing the end of food rationing in sight are welcomed by everybody. Our agricultural policy is a basic complementary part of that overall 1579 policy. It would have been impossible to achieve these benefits without moving away from State trading and restoring a system of freer economy.
The system of State trading by the Ministry of Food at fixed prices had to be replaced to bring about this desirable end. It would be impossible to end food rationing so long as the Ministry of Food remained the sole buyer. In a system of State buying by the Ministry of Food a large measure of allocation and, therefore, of limitation of consumer choice is inherent. The degree of restriction of consumer choice varies, of course, with the commodity. It depends on the range of types of the commodity and of the alternatives that there are.
Meat is the commodity that provides the example par excellence. We saw last summer, when the supply pretty well equalled the demand, just what happens when the State continues to try to trade in such circumstances. The State makes its allocation to the butchers' shops. It is there that the market is created. Somehow the butchers have to adjust prices so that consumers will take up what has become an adequate supply. The result is, of course, a fearful liability on the Ministry of Food and a mass of problems follow.
Quite apart from that particular instance, it is the fact that when shortage ends a system of State trading can no longer be operated practicably. We are then faced with an intolerable dilemma. Either the Exchequer has to shoulder an intolerable liability, or we have a considerable restriction of consumer choice and, therefore, denial to the consumers of the benefits of free supply and choice. It is evident that consumer choice can be given only by restoring the operation of a free market where consumer demand and producer supply can meet and equate.
In considering the restoration of a free market, I take again the best example, meat. We were considering last year what would be the best arrangement for meat marketing in future, and we gave the very closest and most detailed attention to every kind of arrangement. The more closely we examined the problem the more evident it became that there is just no way of giving consumer choice over the counter without the restoration 1580 of a market somewhere, and the only place in which we can restore the market is on the hoof. We do not have the abattoirs and so on for marketing otherwise, and we did the only practicable thing that could have been done and followed the system the Committee knows. The logic of the facts is irrefutable. I readily grant the fact that the strength of this argument varies with different commodities, but broadly it is true of every commodity.
Therefore, when our agricultural policy is being criticised it has to be remembered that that policy that my right hon Friend has developed is complementary to the general policy that has given the nation the great benefits we see today with the end of food rationing. I say with all sincerity to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite that, while we are perfectly prepared to be shot at, for, after all, it is the job of the Opposition to shoot at us and to find out the weak spots in what we have done and in what we propose to do, if they are going to shoot at us, and at what they consider to be weaknesses in our agricultural policy, they have the obligation to put up some constructive alternative, and to say how they think these things should be done instead of the way in which we are doing them. They have not done that today.
I come now to the accusation that we are undermining the Agriculture Act, 1947. It was proposed by Part I of that Act to provide guaranteed prices for agriculture. It did not provide the machinery for paying them. I know that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite know this, but the fact is generally overlooked that the authority to pay the guaranteed prices exists by virtue of Defence Regulations only. Therefore, it is on a temporary basis. It is fair to remind hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite that when that Measure of 1947 was introduced it was accompanied by a White Paper descriptive of how it would work. It made quite plain how the Act would work when conditions changed.
Perhaps I may give one short extract, which reads:The price may be a guaranteed fixed price; a rate of deficiency payment related to a standard price; an acreage payment; a subsidy; or a price calculated in accordance with a formula, of which, for example, the price of feedingstuffs might be the basis. Of 1581 the other major factors the most important is the quantity which is to be covered by the determination.The right hon. Gentleman added in his speech, and I think it is fair to remind him:It is, however, possible in the Bill to use some prewar machinery should that be the best method, such as, for instance, the Wheat Commission or the Milk Marketing Board or anything parallel to these."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 631.]I have taken the liberty of reminding the Committee of this background to the 1947 Act because it shows quite clearly that the right hon. Gentleman had most admirable pre-vision, guided by our admirable Department, and that they foresaw that in time we should reach conditions when supplies were sufficient so that the fixed price system would no longer be necessary. When we are accused by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite of undermining the 1947 Act, and when our reputation is therefore attacked, believe me, it is not our reputation which is in danger but that of right hon. Gentlemen opposite.
§ Mr. T. Williams
That is just where the hon. Member makes a mistake. We foresaw all these eventualities, but right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite did not, and that was why they tried to force me, in Committee, to do what was utterly impossible and what the hon. Member now agrees is impossible.
§ Mr. Nugent
I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman in his difficulty.
What we are now doing is quite in the spirit and in the intention of the 1947 Act. The broad principles of our price support policy were defined by the Prime Minister last autumn, and we have followed that general line. He said—and I paraphrase it—that we intended to restore a free market in foodstuffs so that home production would combine with imports to give consumers the benefit of plentiful supplies at current world prices, the Exchequer to make up to home producers the difference between the realisations in a free market and the price levels needed to give a fair return and stability to the industry.
I say that, as far as humanly possible, that gives the best of both worlds; I think it has been recognised by farmers and that it gives a growing confidence. The price guarantees which have been 1582 provided, of course, vary from one commodity to another, and inevitably they are complicated. They have to give a fair return to the farmer with a natural incentive to quality. They have to give consumer choice and they have to give proper safeguards to the Exchequer, so that inevitably they are complicated, but everybody will admit those necessities.
The White Paper which my right hon. Friend published following the Price Review completes the picture of our new arrangements by re-defining the principles of production policy and with them the new principles of Exchequer support; and the price levels which we produced at the same time showed clearly what we meant to do and how we intended to do it. This production policy, which has come under a certain amount of criticism today, continues to be to expand to 60 per cent. over pre-war, but we have given some warnings on some commodities, particularly on milk and eggs, which show a danger of out-running consumer demand. We have also said that further expansion over 60 per cent. must depend on reducing costs to levels which will substantially reduce the Exchequer liability. We have been able to define a policy by which the Exchequer costs will be reduced at the same time as we have defined a policy of full production. We have done that by making use of the annual increase in efficiency which the industry has been able to achieve. That has been going forward at the rate of about 2 per cent. per annum, and this will enable us to maintain a sufficient net income for the industry and at the same time give the taxpayer the prospect of a reducing burden in supporting home agricultural prices. That is the basic necessity.
When the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the difference between the price at which barley was bought and the price at which is was sold, he knows very well that there are many elements which make up the £200 million. If we are to guarantee to our farmers price levels, particularly for cereals, above the current world prices, inevitably the taxpayer and the Exchequer have to pay the difference. The system which we have devised is in the belief that it will give the consumers the benefit of free supply and at the same time enable us to maintain a fair level 1583 of return for full production to our producers.
I am in touch with farmers as I go about the country, and I am certain that as farmers come to realise—and they do wherever I go—that this agricultural policy is not only serving the end of maintaining full production but is also making possible the restoration of consumer freedom, they will, whatever anxiety they may have, not wish to hang on to a system of price support which stands in the way of restoring complete consumer freedom and the end of rationing for housewives throughout the country.
I am quite convinced that the development of the policy which my right hon.
§ Friend has brought about in the last two years, which has not only expanded production but shows signs of continuing that admirable expansion, is the basic necessity for the ending of food rationing. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite in representing their constituents ought not to be criticising him tonight but congratulating him.
§ Mr. G. Brown
We find the manner impeccable, but the content impossible. I beg to move, "That Item, Class VIII, Vote 1, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, be reduced by £5."
§ Question put.
§ The Committee divided: Ayes, 112; Noes, 143.1585
|Division No. 139.]||AYES||[9.58 p.m.|
|Acland, Sir Richard||Grimond, J.||Fargiter, G. A.|
|Albu, A. H.||Hale, Leslie||Parkin, B. T.|
|Allen, Scholefield (Crewe)||Hamilton, W. W||Pearl, T. F.|
|Anderson, Frank (Whitehaven)||Hannan, W.||Popplewell, E.|
|Awbery, S. S.||Hastings, S.||Price, Philips (Gloucestershire, W.)|
|Benson, G.||Hayman, F. H.||Proctor, W. T.|
|Beswick, F.||Healey, Denis (Leeds, S. E.)||Reeves, J.|
|Bing, G. H. C.||Herbison, Miss M.||Reid, Thomas (Swindon)|
|Bottomley, Rt. Hon. A. G.||Holman, P.||Reid, William (Camlachie)|
|Brockway, A. F.||Houghton, Douglas||Robens, Rt. Hon. A.|
|Brown, Rt. Hon. George (Belper)||Hudson, James (Ealing, N.)||Rogers, George (Kensington, N.)|
|Butler, Herbert (Hackney, S.)||Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire)||Shackleton, E. A. A.|
|Callaghan, L. J.||Irving, W. J. (Wood Green)||Silverman, Julius (Erdington)|
|Champion, A. J.||Isaacs, Rt. Hon. G. A.||Simmons, C. J. (Brierley Hill)|
|Chetwynd, G. R.||Jeger, George (Goole)||Skeffington, A. M.|
|Clunie, J.||Jenkins, R. H. (Stechford)||Soskice, Rt. Hon. Sir Frank|
|Collick, P. H.||Johnson, James (Rugby)||Sparks, J. A.|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda||Jones, David (Hartlepool)||Taylor, John (West Lothian)|
|Craddock, George (Bradford, S.)||Jones, Jack (Rotherham)||Thomas, Ivor Owen (Wrekin)|
|Dalton, Rt. Hon. H.||Kenyon, C.||Turner-Samuels, M.|
|Davies, Ernest (Enfield, E.)||King, Dr. H. M.||Viant, S. P.|
|Davies, Harold (Leek)||Lawson, G. M.||Wallace, H. W.|
|Davies, Stephen (Merthyr)||Lever, Leslie (Ardwick)||Warbey, W. N.|
|de Freitas, Geoffrey||Lindgren, G. S.||Wells, Percy (Faversham)|
|Delargy, H. J.||McLeavy, F.||Wells, William (Walsall)|
|Donnelly, D. L.||Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)||Wheeldon, W. E.|
|Ede, Rt. Hon. J. C||Mann, Mrs. Jean||White, Mrs. Eirene (E. Flint)|
|Edwards, W. J. (Stepney)||Marquand, Rt. Hon. H. A||Whiteley, Rt. Hon. W.|
|Evans, Edward (Lowestoft)||Messer, Sir F.||Wilcock, Group Capt. C. A. B.|
|Fienburgh, W.||Mitchison, G. R.||Willey, F. T.|
|Fletcher, Eric (Islington, E.)||Morgan, Dr. H. B. W.||Williams, Rt. Hon. Thomas (Don V'll'y)|
|Follick, M.||Morley, R.||Williams, W. R. (Droylsden)|
|Freeman, Peter (Newport)||Moyle, A.||Williams, W. T. (Hammersmith, S.)|
|Gaitskell, Rt. Hon. H. T. N.||Noel-Baker, Rt. Hon. P. J||Willis, E. G.|
|Gibson, C. W.||O'Brien, T.||Wyatt, W. L.|
|Gooch, E. G.||Orbach, M.||Yates, V. F.|
|Gordon-Walker, Rt. Hon. P. C.||Oswald, T.|
|Greenwood, Anthony (Rossendale)||Pannell, Charles||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Mr. Bowden and Mr. Pearson|
|Aitken, W. T.||Bishop, F. P.||Cary, Sir Robert|
|Allan, R. A. (Paddington, S.)||Boothby, Sir R. J. G.||Clarke, Col. Ralph (East Grinstead)|
|Alpert, C. J. M.||Bossom, Sir A. C.||Colegate, W. A.|
|Amery, Julian (Preston, N.)||Bowen, E. R.||Cooper, Sqn. Ldr. Albert|
|Anstruther-Gray, Major W. J.||Boyd-Carpenter, Rt. Hon. J. A||Craddock, Berestord (Spelthorne)|
|Arbuthnot, John||Boyle, Sir Edward||Crookshank, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. F. C|
|Assheton, Rt. Hon. R. (Blackburn, W.)||Braine, B. R.||Crosthwaite-Eyre, Col. O. E.|
|Baldwin, A. E.||Braithwaite, Sir Gurney||Crouch, R. F.|
|Barber, Anthony||Brooke, Henry (Hampstead)||Crowder, Sir John (Finchley)|
|Barlow, Sir John||Buchan-Hepburn, Rt. Hon. P. G. T||Crowder, Petre (Ruislip-Northwood)|
|Beach, Maj. Hicks||Bullard, D. G.||Davidson, Viscountess|
|Bell, Philip (Bolton, E.)||Campbell, Sir David||Deedes, W. F.|
|Birch, Nigel||Carr, Robert||Dugdale, Rt. Hon. Sir T. (Richmond)|
|Duncan, Capt. J. A. L.||Kerr, H. W.||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Duthie, W. S.||Langford-Holt, J. A.||Remnant, Hon. P.|
|Eccles, Rt. Hon. Sir D. M||Leather, E. H. C.||Renton, D. L. M.|
|Eden, J. B. (Bournemouth, West)||Legge-Bourke, Maj. E. A. H.||Ridsdale, J. E.|
|Erroll, F. J.||Lennox-Boyd, Rt. Hon. A. T||Roberts, Peter (Heeley)|
|Fleetwood-Hesketh, R. F.||Linstead, Sir H. N.||Roper, Sir Harold|
|Foster, John||Lockwood, Lt.-Col. J. C||Russell, R. S.|
|Fraser, Sir Ian (Morecambe & Lonsdale)||Longden, Gilbert||Ryder, Capt. R. E. D.|
|Galbraith, Rt. Hon. T. D. (Pollok)||Lucas, P. B. (Brentford)||Simon, J. E. S. (Middlesbrough, W.)|
|Garner-Evans, E. H.||Lucas-Tooth, Sir Hugh||Smithers, Sir Waldron (Orpington)|
|George, Rt. Hon. Maj. G. Lloyd||McAdden, S. J.||Smyth, Brig. J. G. (Norwood)|
|Glover, D.||McCorquodale, Rt. Hon. M. S.||Steward, W. A. (Woolwich, W.)|
|Godber, J. B.||Macdonald, Sir Peter||Strauss, Henry (Norwich, S.)|
|Gomme-Duncan, Col. A.||Mackie, J. H. (Galloway)||Studholme, H. G.|
|Gough, C. F. H.||Maclay, Rt. Hon. John||Sutcliffe, Sir Harold|
|Grimston, Sir Robert (Westbury)||Macleod, Rt. Hon. Iain (Enfield, W.)||Teeling, W.|
|Hall, John (Wycombe)||Macmillan, Rt. Hon. Harold (Bromley)||Thomas, Leslie (Canterbury)|
|Harris, Reader (Heston)||Macpherson, Niall (Dumfries)||Thomas, P. J. M. (Conway)|
|Harrison, Col. J. H. (Eye)||Manningham-Butler, Sir R. E.||Turner, H. F. L.|
|Harvie-Watt, Sir George||Marples, A. E.||Turton, R. H.|
|Heald, Rt. Hon. Sir Lionel||Maude, Angus||Vane, W. M. F.|
|Heath, Edward||Medlicott, Brig. F.||Vaughan-Morgan, J. K.|
|Hill, Dr. Charles (Luton)||Mellor, Sir John||Vosper, D. F.|
|Hirst, Geoffrey||Morrison, John (Salisbury)||Wakefield, Sir Wavell (St. Marylebose)|
|Hollis, M. C.||Neave, Airey||Walker-Smith, D. C.|
|Hornsby-Smith, Miss M. P.||Nicolson, Nigel (Bournemouth, E.)||Ward, Miss I. (Tynemouth)|
|Horobin, I. M.||Nield, Basil (Chester)||Waterhouse, Capt. Rt. Hon. C.|
|Hudson, Sir Austin (Lewisham, N.)||Nugent, G. R. H.||Webbe, Sir H. (London & Westminster)|
|Hulbert, Wing Cdr. N. J.||Nutting, Anthony||Wellwood, W.|
|Hurd, A. R.||Oakshott, H. D.||Williams, Sir Herbert (Croydon, E.)|
|Iremonger, T. L.||O'Neill, Hon. Phelim (Co. Antrim, N.)||Wills, G.|
|Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich)||Page, R. G.||Wilson, Geoffrey (Truro)|
|Johnson, Eric (Blackley)||Peake, Rt. Hon O|
|Jones, A. (Hall Green)||Peto, Brig. C. H. M||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Kaberry, D.||Peyton, J. W. W.||Sir Cedric Drewe and Mr. Redmayne.|
|Kerby, Capt. H. B.||Pickthorn, K. W. M.|
Question put, and agreed to.
§ Original Question again proposed.
§ It being after Ten o'Clock, and objection being taken to further proceeding, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair, to report Progress, and ask leave to sit again.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.