HL Deb 23 June 1915 vol 19 cc119-25

LORD HARRIS rose to ask His Majesty's Government for the terms of reference to the Departmental Committee recently appointed by the President of the Board of Agriculture.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I ask this Question as the result of an announcement which appeared in the Press last week that the Minister for Agriculture had appointed a Committee for the purpose of advising him whether legislation was advisable for the purpose of maintaining, and, if possible, improving, the output of the country. It struck me as rather ominous that the noble Earl should so soon after his entry into office—upon which I sincerely congratulate him and ourselves—be contemplating legislation for the purpose of altering the system of agriculture in this country, for I do not see what other construction can be put upon it. From the debate that has taken place previously this evening I know that the noble Earl has up till August full power as regards the slaughter of beasts, and therefore power of interference, to some extent, with the sale of beasts. The Government have full power over cereals; they have just as much right to commandeer wheat in this country as the Government of India had to commandeer it there. Therefore I can only construe this announcement as being a hint to the agricultural industry that, for some reason or other and in some direction or other, the Government contemplate legislation which is likely to interfere with the system of agriculture here.

The noble Earl, if he grants my request for the terms of reference to the Departmental Committee, may also be able to give us some idea of the direction in which he thinks alterations in our system advisable. I must say that I deprecate very much anything heroic; and I was glad this evening to hear from the noble Earl, certainly as regards the particular question we were then discussing, that he did not consider there was any need for drastic action. The noble Earl must be able from his Statistical Department to procure all the information that can be usefully got with regard to future supplies, both as regards beef and as regards wheat. Those are the two most important materials that we want; and it seems to me that if he pledged himself to anything in the speech he made he pledged himself to maintaining our flocks and herds at their present capacity, and, if possible, at an increased capacity, so that we may be more independent of the rest of the world this time next year. I do not think I am misconstruing what the noble Earl said. Well, if that is his policy, then it obviously must mean that he does not contemplate interfering with the system of agriculture, as distinct, of course I mean, from pastural occupation. I should hope that that is so.

At the same time this announcement came very significantly after some articles in The Times that were very interesting and good reading. But I do not think I am misconstruing them in saying that if there was one practical suggestion in them that would be seized hold of more readily than another it was an advocacy of such an alteration in our system as would result in a very large increase of the laud under wheat. In fact, a suggestion was made that the acreage under wheat in this country might be increased by two million acres. If there is any connection between those articles and the policy of the noble Earl I would ask him—and from his practical experience he will acknowledge that these are points of importance—to consider this, that the agriculturists of this country have been seriously weakened in these last ten months in their ability to carry on their business. We are short of men, of horses, and of tackle; and I doubt very much whether we are capable of keeping the land in the same heart as we were before the outbreak of war. My impression, borne out by practical agriculturists, is that the land is going back; and if that is so there is most certainly very little chance of being able to increase a crop which requires more labour than land under grass does. There are people who hold the view that it is possible, by the application of certain manures, largely to increase the growth per acre of this or that crop. I think, as a rule, if you consult a practical agriculturist on these points he will tell you that you can no more stuff the land with rich manure than you can stuff your stomach with rich food without making it sick. But it does not matter in the least. These fads are aired as regularly as possible annually; and I hope that the Department of Agriculture is practical enough not to seize hungrily at every possible suggestion to increase the output of the soil.

I should like to tell a little story in connection with this which I think is applicable. About the year 1889 the Government of India, in its benevolent way, thought it its duty to teach the farmers of India how to farm. India, of course, has a system of agriculture infinitely older than ours, but nevertheless the English Government there thought itself capable of teaching the Indian farmers how to farm. So they sent for a very eminent agriculturist, Professor Voelcker, to advise them, and he travelled up and down the country and examined all the systems of agriculture there. It so happened that I was in Bombay when he was leaving, and he came to see me before presenting his report, a very voluminous one. He said, "You will find a lot of interesting matter there, but the gist of it is in the last paragraph." There were two lines in the last paragraph, and they ran— I have nothing to teach the Indian farmer. He knows his business thoroughly well. If you can supply him with more firewood he will produce more manure. That was a very practical reply to the query of the Government of India as to whether they could teach the Indian farmer to farm better.

At the beginning of the war Viscount Milner made a speech in which he advocated the trying down of a larger quantity of land under wheat. Unfortunately I was unable to stay in the House until the conclusion of his speech, but I saw him afterwards and I said, "There was one factor you did not mention which is a somewhat important one as regards agriculture. We are all anxious, with wheat at its present price, to grow more wheat, but we are entirely dependant on whether the season is suitable." I am afraid the amateurs overlook the fact that the farmer is always competing against the climate, and that his system of farming is based on the experience of many centuries of the climate of this country. He takes the average climate and introduces his rotation of crops to suit that climate. I venture to suggest to my noble friend opposite that even in a year like this heroic legislation for the purpose of maintaining, and possibly increasing, the crops of this country is scarcely possible. I say that because I do not think the fanner has the means, either in men, horses, or implements, to increase very considerably the output of wheat. I believe the farmers in this country are now producing as much as is possible from the land under their present system of agriculture. I cannot see, after the noble Earl's speech earlier this evening, what can remain in the way of legislation to be done, because he has committed himself to maintaining—if possible, increasing—the flocks and herds of the country, which cannot be compatible with a large increase of the acreage under wheat.


My Lords, I will make two preliminary observations in reply to the remarks that have fallen from my noble friend. I read with great interest the articles to which he alluded, but I can assure him that there is no connection, direct or indirect, between those articles in The Times and the policy which has culminated in the appointment of this Committee. The second of my preliminary observations is that I do not think it is true historically, as might be inferred from the noble Lord's remarks, that there is any necessary relation between the amount of grass in a country and the number of flocks and herds that are kept. I believe that in Denmark, which is a country where a very large proportion of the land is under plough, the proportion of flocks and herds to the total acreage is even greater than it is in this country.


There are very few sheep in Denmark.


I do not say that the conditions of England are at all the same as those of Denmark, or that the systems which apply to Denmark apply to England, but I quote Denmark as a protest against the assumption, which might arise from the noble Lord's language, that there is an essential relation between the number of flocks and herds kept and the amount of the land in the country that is under grass. The noble Lord asked for the reference to this Committee. I think he already knows it, but I will gladly read it out to him. The Departmental Committee has been appointed— to consider and report what steps should be taken, by Legislation or otherwise, for the sole purpose of maintaining, and, if possible, increasing, the present production of food in England and Wales on the assumption that the war may be prolonged beyond the autumn of 1916. That is the reference; neither more nor less. It is perfectly plain to your Lordships that the problem which this Com mittee is asked to consider is a war problem; it relates exclusively to the conditions that may be prevailing in this country next year, if the war lasts as long. We must all recognise that this war is going to be a long one. In a war you have to take great risks, but there is one risk which I do not think should ever be taken, and that is a possibility of a shortage of food for the people. There has been no shortage at present and I do not say that there will be a shortage, but, if there were a shortage in a critical period of the war, and, as President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, I had not taken all steps open to me to prevent that shortage, then I should be the first of those who would be justly hanged.

The question I have put to this Committee is whether there is or is not any means of preventing a diminution in the amount of food produced in this country during the war; and whether, if that diminution should or should not be threatened, there are any means of increasing that production during the war. The noble Lord will recognise that the words are "production of food," which includes all kinds of food, not only cereals, to which he alluded, but flocks and herds. That question does not involve agricultural considerations alone. The problem is a very complicated one. The agricultural side, of course, is one of the greatest importance, but there is a political side, an economic side, and a financial side. What I endeavoured to do was to form a Committee competent to consider the question from all points of view, and to weigh the evidence presented to it by the most competent practical farmers in the country and by economists and scientists and politicians.

The allusion to legislation is quite easily explained. If the Government can take no step either to prevent a diminution of or to increase food production the Committee will say so, and I shall have done what was in my power in the matter. But if the Committee should be of opinion, and the Government should share that opinion, that there are steps which can be taken either in the one direction or the other, it is quite clear that we must be ready to take those steps when the new farming year begins, after the next harvest; and if those steps should involve legislation it is equally obvious that that legislation must be passed during the present session of Parliament. I wish the noble Lord to understand hat I have no preconceived plan, no patent theory, which I desire to air. But I do wish this question, which might under certain circumstances be of absolutely vital importance to the country, to be considered in all its bearings by the strongest Committee which I can get together. I think the noble Lord himself justified my action. He spoke of his doubts whether under present circumstances the farmers of England and Wales would be able to continue to produce food at the same rate at which they had been accustomed on the average to produce it; and he gave as his reasons for those latent doubts the difficulties in connection with labour and with tackle. All those questions are, as I am sure the noble Lord will understand, very present to my mind; and it has occurred to me that the Government might be able to help the farmer in dealing with such questions.


By legislation?


Certainly, if necessary. If the powers of the Defence of the Realm Acts are not sufficient, other powers might be given. It was only quite recently that, without any legislation, I received the greatest assistance from the Secretary of State for War. I first of all represented to him how valuable the co-operation of the Army might be in getting in the harvest which is now becoming due, and without any hesitation he has put at the disposal of the farmer, under what I think are generally admitted to be fair terms, a large portion of the Army, both for the hay harvest and then for the corn harvest. But he has done more than that. I went to him and pointed out what a serious thing it was for the farmers that not only was agricultural labour being taken for the Army in an ever increasing quantity, but that that labour often included some of the most skilled hands on the farm, men absolutely essential for the working of the farm—such men as foremen, stockmen, head carters, and shepherds. Directly I pointed that out to Lord Kitchener he told me that he would meet me in every possible way, and would issue instructions to his recruiting officers that those specially skilled types of agricultural labourer were no longer to be taken from the farms and included among the recruits for the Army. Of course, he pointed out to me that if such men are determined to leave the farm and go into the Army there is no power of preventing them, but that so far as he was concerned he would see that the recruiting officers took no steps specially to induce such men to join.

I do not know why the noble Lord is so afraid of legislation in this matter. If I can help the fanner without legislation there will be no need for legislation; but it does not seem to be quite inconceivable that the farmers may desire help which under the present laws I should not be able to give them. Should the Committee report that legislation is required for such a purpose, that the present powers are not sufficient, I am not afraid that Parliament will refuse to give those powers if I can make good the case. I want particularly to impress on the noble Lord that this Committee is not appointed to advance any preconceived theory, and that it is a purely war emergency to deal with those future months which may be most critical in the history of this country. I cannot conceive how it would be possible for the Government to exonerate itself, should a period of crisis come, if steps had not been taken which might have been taken to meet that crisis simply because the subject had not been considered in time.