HL Deb 24 February 1896 vol 37 cc900-5

*LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY rose to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs when the Papers respecting the prices of wheat and bread would be ready? He said that last summer, when he asked for Papers relating to the price of wheat and bread in France and elsewhere, the noble Marquess, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, seemed to be under the impression that French farmers had suffered more than English farmers, and were no better off for Protection. With the leave of the House, he would read a letter, dated from the Carlton Club, which appeared in the St. James's Gazette on November 25th, 1895:— Your leading article 'That Curious Consumer' treats Lord Salisbury's speech as representing not any principles or arguments of his own, but as an acknowledgment 'that the forces of superstition and tradition are too strong to meddle with,' and that they are fatally opposed to any alteration of our fiscal system. As the speech has attracted widespread attention, from its obvious importance, will you allow me to point out that Lord Salisbury did have recourse to a favourite argument of his own against Protection 'on its merits.' His words run:—'If you cross the water you find that the French have tried the experiment of Protection in an extreme form, and there agriculture is suffering as greatly as in England, if not more so.' A letter of mine from Bordeaux, which appeared in your columns last spring, was made the subject of a question and a discussion in the House of Lords. Lord Salisbury on that occasion again took refuge in generalities, as he does now. But can he question the proved fact that France was actually extending her wheat-growing area while we were driven to reduce ours? Can he deny that the price of wheat was 40 or 50 per cent. higher in France than here last spring, while bread cost hardly more? And can he point to districts in France 'going back to prairie,' in your words, 'as the fields in Essex are going'? He is bound to do this if he persists in his argument.—I am, &c., J. H. R. He had obtained the last volume of Agricultural Statistics for 1894 from the office of the French Minister for Agriculture, containing 21 sets of tables. These figures fully bore out the assertions of the writer from the Carlton Club, that French farmers got more for their wheat and that bread was hardly higher than in this country. The other statement, that the area cultivated with wheat had increased in France was not true to the same extent. Wheat cultivation had increased owing to the decreased market for colza oil, and some bad years, in which the frost had killed the young corn, had made an apparent increase in the succeeding year. In 1894 the average price per hectolitre was for the whole of France 15 francs 21 centimes, or about 36s. a quarter; but in the Departments in the lower part of the Rhone valley, and along the Mediterranean from the Pyrenees to the Alps, the price was more than 19 francs per hectolitre, or 46s. a quarter. In these Departments the yield was less, but the weight of the grain per hectolitre was much higher, reaching to 80 kilogrammes, as against 76 to 78 kilogrammes in other parts of France. In England the weight of a bushel varied from 60 to 80 lbs. According to the Mark Lane Express Almanac 30 bushels to the acre appeared to be the maximum average yield in England. In Cheshire 22 bushels and in Anglesey from 25 to 28 bushels were the average, while in Norfolk it was 32. In France in 1894 the average yield of wheat for the whole country was 16.71 hectolitres per hectare, equivalent to about 18 bushels per acre; but owing to improved cultivation and the use of artificial manures, especially nitrate of soda, in some Departments of France, the average yield for the Department in 1894 reached our maximum, and in several exceeded our average produce. 1882 is described as an exceptionally favourable year for wheat, yet the improvement of cultivation shows an increase in the yield per hectare in several Departments in 1894. The French statistics supplied the following figures:—

1892 1894
Hectolitres Hectolitres
Seine 28.51 28.93
Seine et Marne 26.00 25.27
Seine et Oise 25.95 30.00
Eure et Loir 25.60 25.76
Nord 24.45 28.00
Oise 23.49 29.00
Loiret 22.91 22.60
Somme 22.60 22.21
Loir et Cher 22.43 19.00
Yonne 21.70 19.00
Allier 21.55 23.00
Puy de Dome 17.65 23.00
30 hectolitres per hectare in Seine et Oise were about equal to 33 bushels per acre. But French farmers had not only improved the yield of wheat per acre; the price had been higher than in this country. A table of prices of various cereals for the whole of France for 20 years from 1875 to 1894 gave an average price of 19 fr. 53c. per hectolitre, equivalent to about 46s. a quarter. The highest prices were obtained in the years 1877, 1878, 1880 and 1881. Although the price of wheat was so much higher than it was in this country the price of bread was not higher, for in 1894 the average price of the kilogramme throughout France was 31 cents., 26 cents. and 23 cents. for first, second and third qualities of bread or from 6d. to 5d. the 41b. loaf. In Paris bread was cheaper than it used to be. This he was told was owing to greater liberty having been conceded to the bakers, and the substitution of an officious for an official price laid down by the Administration. The volume of official statistics contained tables of the officious price of bread in Paris for every week with the price of wheat, and the price at which bread was sold in some 3,000 bread shops in Paris. Of these about 2,000 were bakers' shops and 1,000 were depôts or places where bread was sold but not made. These returns gave the number of shops where bread was sold above and the number of those where it was sold below the Government price. On the whole the depôts were cheaper than the shops. During 1894, the officious tax or price recommended by the Government in Paris varied from 62c. to 68c., and the selling price varied from 80c. to 50c. the 2 kilos, or from 8d. to 5d. the quartern loaf. This price was less than that given in the Parliamentary Papers of 1888, and in several weeks taken at hazard, bread was sold below the officious price in a fourth or a fifth of the Paris shops. In his speech at Hastings, Lord Salisbury spoke of the consumer as "coextensive with the whole people of this country," and appeared to forget that the great bulk of the consumers were producers as well, and that to have, or not to have 18s. or 20s. a week as a producer was more important than possibly to have to pay 3½d. a week extra for bread. All people were occupiers, but those who were owners and occupiers thought more of their ownership than of their quality of occupier and it should be the same in the case of producers and consumers. There were very few consumers who were not producers also; they were limited to the sons of rich people exercising no profession and to the inmates of the workhouse, and those had no votes.


I hope the noble Lord will allow me to answer the official part of the question. A statement has been furnished by the Board of Agriculture, and they say that the representations from Her Majesty's representatives abroad have been received and are now under consideration by the Board. These statements will require a good deal of arrangement to make them intelligible, and it may be necessary to obtain further explanations on certain points. It is hoped, however, that the papers will be ready for presentation to Parliament at an early date.


I suppose I ought to say a few words in answer to the citations in which the noble Lord so liberally indulged from speeches of my own. But I think I shall accept the permission which he gave me to say very little. When at the end of last year I pointed to the case of France as one that caused considerable doubt as to the immediate effect of tariff upon prices, I was speaking of what I had myself heard, not on the Riviera, where, I am afraid, you will not get much information as to the growth of corn, but in Normandy. I have always understood that the fall in the value of land as it concerns both the French owner and occupier, is very much what you would say the fall in this country has been—namely, rather more than one-third; so that I do not think an extensive use of protection has really saved the owners and occupiers in France. But I am not inclined to follow the noble Lord into a disquisition on the politico-economic question which he has raised. The question of the bearing of tariffs upon prices is a matter of extreme complexity, and I should be very sorry to undertake it at a moment's notice in answer to the figures of the noble Lord, and I do not think any advantage would result from my doing so. But I do wish to emphasise what the noble Lord referred to, that neither at Hastings nor anywhere else have I said a word which could be honestly interpreted as meaning the advocacy of Protection. I do not believe that the protection of articles of first necessity is a measure that can, during any period which it is material for us to consider be adopted in this country, because it probably would be hostile to the interests of the consumers, and it certainly would be thought to be so. The consumers being entirely the masters in the determination of such a case would always be afraid that their interests were being sacrificed to the interests of the owners of land. As to the deeper economical questions, what advantage there is in Protection; why, we are the only nation that has pursued Free Trade; what the precise results of the Protective System would have been upon our country—those are questions which for our purposes are practically academical, and I shall certainly not attempt to follow the noble Lord in discussing them. The elements for any such consideration are hard to obtain, and no one can have watched what has taken place within the last 50 years without feeling that discussion has very little to do with the decision which nations come to upon this question. They are guided, each one, by the belief that this course or that will be favourable to their own interests. The more profound intricacies of economical problems are highly interesting from a literary or scientific point of view, but I do not think that an investigation of them has much influence upon the course of nations. I therefore will merely repeat that it seems to me that the case of France does throw considerable doubt upon the probability of Protection being a real relief to the owners and occupiers of land, and I conclude by reiterating my assertion that nothing that I have said can be fairly construed as an argument in favour of Protection.

House adjourned at Five o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Ten o'clock.