§ THE EARL OF LICHFIELD had the following Notice on the Paper—
§ In view of the wool clip of Great Britain and Ireland having been commandeered, to urge His Majesty's Government to pay the farmers at least the same prices as those ruling and obtained in 1915, so that the home producer should not be unduly penalised.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, this matter is an urgent one, and therefore I have no hesitation in bringing it to your notice even at this late hour of the evening. It is more than three weeks ago that the Government made the Order preventing any further transactions in home-grown wool, but it was only last week that the official announcement was made by my noble friend opposite, on behalf of the Government, that they intended to give considerably less than the market price for the wool which they were commandeering. The proposal then put forward was that the Government would pay the pre-war price of 1914 plus 30 per cent. This announcement has fallen as a great blow on the farmers of this country, who were confidently expecting an advance on the 1915 prices which would have compensated them for the increased cost of store sheep, feeding stuffs, and labour.
§ The prices proposed by the Government would, I think, work out at 10 to 15 per cent less than the 1915 prices. Lord Sandhurst stated the other afternoon that the Government figure was fixed after careful examination of wool prices over a long period, and after consultation with the Board of Agriculture, with wool buyers, and other interests. I should like to ask what possible relation wool prices over a long pre-war period have to the circumstances now existing, when cost and difficulty of production have increased so enormously. Again, as regards Lord Sandhurst's statement, I have no knowledge that the farming community were consulted in any way; and surely they are as much interested in this question as any other section. Further, I am given to understand that the Board of Agriculture have not agreed to the price that the Government name. Lord Selborne has left the House; otherwise I was hoping that he would have been able to tell us what the views of the Board of Agriculture were. Lord Selborne's resignation of the post of President of the Board 548 of Agriculture, just at this time when the wool question is before the country, has been a great loss. Surely the only fair basis of payment is to give as nearly as possible the latest market prices for the wool.
§ I have heard it suggested that there is justification for the Government taking farmers' produce below market price because farmers have been exempted from the Excess Profits Duty which was last year passed by Parliament. I cannot for a moment admit the justice of that argument. Why did Parliament exempt them? I have not with me the references to what took place in the other House, but surely the obvious reason was that most farmers, as we all know, are not "fliers" at keeping accounts, and under the old system they paid Income Tax on one-third of the annual value of their holdings. Therefore the authorities would have had no accounts to go upon on which to assess them for any excess war profits that they might have made. On the other hand, Parliament did impose a war tax on the farmers of this country; Parliament increased the amount on which they previously paid from one-third of the annual value of their holdings to the full value. Therefore farmers are now assessed at three times as much to the war chest of the country as they were in pre-war times. I do not think any case has been made out for denying a fair price to the farmers on the ground that they have been exempted from the Excess Profits Tax.
§ We all recognise that under the Defence of the Realm Act the Government have full power to take what they like, if they think it desirable and in the interests of the country, and to pay any price they may choose, or none at all, as they may see fit. I have no doubt that if an appeal were made to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack he would confirm this view of the powers which the Government possess under the Defence of the Realm Act. But surely the fact that the country has given these immense powers to the Government renders them under the greatest obligation to see that equal justice is meted out to all classes of the community, so that as little harm as possible should be done to trade and enterprise. Their duty obviously would be to give a fair market price for articles which they commandeered.549
§ Let us consider for a moment the position of the home grower of wool as compared with that of the producer oversea who consigns his wool to this country. Your Lordships are no doubt aware that in the City there are periodical wool sales from month to month or during intervals of a few weeks. Next week there is to be one of these great sales at which wool will be sold from all parts of the world, mainly from the produce of our Empire; but also there will be large consignments from foreign countries, Argentina, other parts of South America, and so on. As far as I can make out, the proportion that home-grown wool bears to the wool imported into this country is only about 15 per cent.; of the rest, Australia sends by far the largest quantity. Let us take the case of the sale coming off next week. I believe that the Government would have a perfect right, under the Defence of the Realm Act, to commandeer any quantity of wool that was lotted out at this particular sale. But if they did this, do you suppose for a moment that they would give the sellers of the wool at this sale from 15 to 20 per cent. less than the market value? I cannot conceive that they would think of doing such a thing. Just imagine the position of the Australian producer of wool. He sends his wool over to this country believing that he will get a fair market price for it. There would be a turmoil in Australia if they heard that the wool had been commandeered by the Government at less than the market price. I think Mr. Hughes, who is now on the high seas, might be inclined to turn back and protest against such a course, especially after the splendid way in which Australia has rallied to the aid of the Empire. It is impossible to think that the Government would commandeer imported wool on such terms.
§ There is another reason why it would be impolitic for the Government to commandeer wool below the market price—namely, because this would have the effect of discouraging imports from neutral countries, and as the Government are anxious to get a large supply such action would have the opposite effect to that which the Government wished. Therefore I cannot conceive that they would in any circumstances adopt such a course. Why then should the unfortunate home producer be penalised in this way? You have urged him to 550 produce as much as possible on his holding as a national duty. Is this the way to encourage him to do so? Surely not. The only fair course seems to be to give him at least the 1915 price—not as much as he expected, but still the farmer will feel that his case has had fair consideration. And above all give it to him quickly so as to interfere as little as possible with his business. You can only secure the best results to the trade of this country by retaining the confidence of those engaged in industry and thus obtaining the largest returns for the successful prosecution of the war.
In connection with any interference with trade, let me quote the weighty words which fell the other afternoon from Lord Emmott, who has had exceptional opportunities, in his position in the War Trade Department, of judging of this question. He said—
But I may perhaps express the opinion, from what I have heard this afternoon, that a case has been made out to show that this new Order was imposed without adequate inquiry having been made in regard to it.
And again he said—
I appeal to His Majesty's Government to see to it that when interference is necessary it shall be made as little hurtful as possible to all interested by making as full inquiry as possible from experts in the trade before these new Orders are made.
The farmers of this country are absolutely unanimous that the 1915 prices are the minimum that should, in fairness, be given to them. At a meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, held at Manchester, with a large attendance of members, a resolution was passed to this effect, I believe unanimously—that no less than the 1915 prices should, in fairness, be given. Farmers' clubs, at meetings in all parts of the country, are passing the same resolution. I should like, in connection with this, to read a few lines from a letter written by the Midland Farmers' Association to the Board of Agriculture on the same subject. They say—
Store sheep were bought at high prices, partly owing to the then expected high price of wool, and farmers would be seriously prejudiced unless a price considerably in advance of the 1915 clip price is fixed.
The Board of Agriculture sent that on to the War Contracts Department, Tothill Street, Westminster; and the Midland Farmers' Association received
this reply from that Department, dated June 26—
In reply to your letter of the 21st instant, I am directed to inform you that in carrying out this scheme of the purchase of the wool the Department hopes to interfere as little as possible with the terms and methods of purchase hitherto prevailing.
I am very much afraid that the good intentions mentioned in that letter have not been fully realised; but now in the hope that the farmers' case may receive adequate consideration from His Majesty's Government I appeal to them, in view of the wool clip of Great Britain and Ireland having been commandeered, to pay the farmers at least the same prices as those ruling and obtained in 1915, so that the home producer should not be unduly penalised.
My Lords, we all know the knowledge with which my noble friend who has just sat down speaks on this subject, and I can assure him that the Government in no way underrate the patriotism of the farmers. My noble friend covered a good deal of ground, but the main reference in his Notice on the Paper is as regards the question of price. I need hardly say that the Government do not desire to be unfair or unreasonable, and they hope to find the same spirit animating the farmers. This is an extremely technical subject and a somewhat difficult one to discuss across the floor of the House, and I am able to say that His Majesty's Government will be glad to receive a deputation on the subject of a representative character, including the Central Chamber of Agriculture, the Farmers' Union, and others interested, to discuss this question. I think that will be a piece of information which will be acceptable to the noble Earl.
My Lords, as far as I can understand the views of the farmers in my neighbourhood, I do not think they will regard the noble Lord's reply as altogether satisfactory. And for this reason. The selection of the deputation, its reception, and the consideration of the discussion that takes place at the reception of the deputation—all this is going to take a very long time. This is really an urgent matter, and I am sorry that the noble Lord has not been instructed as to the intentions of the Government. The Government have commandeered the property of a particular 552 class. I am not contesting that they have the right to do that under the Acts which they possess. But I suggest to them that they have done so in this case without that careful consideration to which everybody is entitled when his property is taken. The farmer is as loyal a person as the member of any other profession, and when I have spoken to farmers about this matter they have not talked in terms of indignation at the commandeering of their property—they recognise that this is a possibility under present circumstances—but they do feel that in fixing the 1914 wool prices plus 30 per cent. the Government are not giving them a fair quid pro quo.
There are a few points that I will take the liberty of making public here, because in the report of the deputation that will presently be received it will be impossible to publish everything that is said there, whereas the records of your Lordships' House will contain all these points. Now I am perfectly certain of this, that the Government want to act with equity. I cannot believe for a moment that, in doing a thing of this kind, the Government would wish to act inequitably as between this particular profession and others. Curiously enough, I noticed yesterday in a Colonial newspaper a reference to what has been done by the Army in Egypt, and I will read one sentence—Food stuffs, and especially grain, are naturally the first need. All the wheat, maize, and barley required is bought in Egypt, and at prices which invariably show a substantial increase on the pre-war prices. Purchases are made in a compulsory fashion. The Army, for instance, took the whole of the last maize crop at an abnormal price.That is what the Army is doing in Egypt. Why is the Army going to do something different in England? Farmers do not complain so long as they are treated equitably; but I submit that the Government's present proposal as regards payment for the wool clip constitutes inequitable treatment.
What is going to happen? Supposing you take the 1914 prices plus 30 per cent., how are you going to dispose of this wool? You are going to sell it to the usual purchasers, I presume, or to the manufacturers. At what price? Are you going to sell it at the market price? Very well; the purchaser will then be no worse off than if he had bought in the market. Then who is going to make the profit? The 553 Government. Out of whom? Out of the farmer. Is that fair? The wool is required for the manufacture of Army clothing. You are going to give to the manufacturer the price he asks; but the unfortunate farmer is to lose the 3d. or 4d. per lb. difference between the pre-war price and the 1915 market price. Or if you are going to let the purchaser have it at something less than the market price of this year, why, again, is he to have that advantage and the farmer to be put at a disadvantage? That is not equity, surely. I cannot understand what the Government are going to do as regards the price of the wool and its method of sale. It seems to me that they are in this dilemma—they have either to sell at the market price or below the market price. If they sell either below or at the market price, then they put the inequality on the farmer, for the purchaser is either in the position that he was or is better off.
I want to impress upon the Government the urgency of this matter. The wool business is a ready-money business to the farmer. A farmer's flock is his current cash. He can always turn to it for some ready money to pay his labourers. At this time of the year there are very heavy demands upon the farmer's purse. All his bills are coming in, and in some parts of the country they are exceptionally heavy—and then there is the rent I met one of the biggest and best farmers in my neighbourhood last week, a man who, I am perfectly certain, would regard it as a terrible disgrace to repudiate any debt. He told me, "I cannot help myself; I shall have next week to tell my landlord that I cannot pay my rent." So you are throwing an inequality upon the whole of the agricultural community, not only upon the farmer but also upon those who depend on the farmer. I am not at all sure that the Government can have realised what they were doing when they fixed upon the proposed price as compared with the market price. As my noble friend Lord Lichfield said, in what he quoted from the communication of the Midland Farmers' Association, the farmers this year were giving long prices for sheep, not only because of the price of wool but because there was a very good promise of keep. All the men who had the money thought it worth while to increase their flocks, because there was plenty of keep and they were certain of a return in consequence of the price of wool.
554 I will take the liberty of giving your Lordships one or two principal figure with which my agents have supplied me. They deal with various flocks of something like 5,000 sheep, and they find from their books that the weight of fleece to a Kent sheep, full size, is 6 lbs.; that is excluding lamb wool. They understand that the Government are going to take the basis of Kent wool at pre-war price as 13d., and then scale that down for carriage and middlemen's profits, etc., which will most probably make it come out at an average to, say, 12d. Now we got 13½d. in 1913. Therefore you are giving us actually worse prices than we got in the year before 1914. If you add 30 per cent. to 12d., you bring it out at 15½d. The 1915 price was 18½d., so there is a loss of 3d. a lb. Take that at 6 lbs. to the fleece, and the loss works out at 18d. to the sheep. Romsey Marsh, on which I have not sheep myself, bears about eight to the acre; so there is something like 12s. an acre that you are going to take away. The farmer will be 12s. an acre worse off in meeting his rent. And, as I have said, at this time of the year he looks to this money to meet his rent. Wool is a ready money business; the weight off the scales, and the farmer gets his cheque. He has already been waiting three weeks. The present state of things is inequitable as regards the men who have sold their wool. Sales had already taken place at market prices, and only those who happened to sell early are to get the benefit of the present prices.
Quite at the beginning of the war one of those Solomons who are constantly writing in the newspapers to educate practical farmers how to farm was commenting on the difference between the head of stock in various countries—in Germany and Austria-Hungary—and comparing the relative quantities, of course very much to the disadvantage of the British farmer, who, according to him, was a fool, a bigger fool than the German or the Austrian farmer. The writer pointed out what very much larger herds of cattle and pigs were being kept by those countries, and he concluded—It is only in the matter of that inferior animal, the sheep, that England exceeds those countries—This was a pretty useful "except" for the British Army—The United Kingdom possesses an aggregate of 27,000,000 sheep, compared with, in Germany and Austria-Hungary combined, 17,000,000.555 Fortunately in England there were these 10,000,000 more sheep than in those countries combined. It is a most fortunate thing for the British Army that England is a sheep-breeding country, and I should imagine that our enemies would have been very glad indeed had their countries possessed that excess of sheep instead of us.
I venture to suggest that this matter has been entered into by His Majesty's Government rather hurriedly, and that no harm would be done by reconsidering the price that has been mentioned. As has been suggested from many quarters all over England, the middle price—that is to say, the price of 1915—is a fair concession to make. I urge that this concession should be made, and that, above all things, it should be made as promptly as possible.
My Lords, I should like to point out to the House the position of Scotland in this connection. There the whole of the points which have been made by Lord Harris are specially applicable. A large proportion of the clip in Scotland is a black-face clip, which has no value for certain purposes. The Government would appear to be buying this by way of speculation. The majority of this clip is never used in this country; it used to be sold in Germany, and will probably be sold in America now. The point which Lord Harris made with regard to the profit is particularly pertinent. Are the Government going to make this profit at the expense of the poor crofters in the North of Scotland? The price of black-face wool will be something like 15d.; the price to be offered is in the neighbourhood of 9d. This particular portion of the community has given a larger proportion of men to the service of the country than any other; they have no means of sustenance other than their wool clip.
This year, as noble Lords are aware, was one of the hardest years known for sixty or seventy years in Scotland, and the mortality of the lambs was very high. The price of wintering had gone up, especially turnips; and, as a matter of fact, the sheep had in many cases to be taken down to the low grounds, covering distances over which sheep had never before been moved in the memory of man. It hardly seems fair that such a step as 556 this on the part of the Government should have been taken without inquiry. When I say that, I have the authority of a meeting of Scottish farmers—at which the larger farmers were represented but not the small men—who said they were never consulted at all. I should like to ask His Majesty's Government whether they consulted anybody in Scotland, or who was the wise man on whose advice they decided on this movement.
Then the question arises, on which Lord Harris commented—the question of time. Time is most important. This is a very serious moment for this decision to have been made. It is all very well for the noble Lord who represents the Department to say now that they are inviting farmers and associations to state their views; but this is the very time when the wool is being sold. The regular time for the big sales is the first week in July. What is going to happen? The buyers have made their arrangements, and this is the time when the farmer and small-holder hope to get a certain return in cash. This will all have to be put off. How long will it take before the different representative bodies have been consulted? I submit that this is an experiment which, if it is to be done on other lines, should be done with the very greatest caution, and not entered into, as in this particular case, without the least apparent examination of the facts and the least consideration of the serious hardship it will occasion, not only to large farmers—who, after all, may have capital and may be able to weather through troubles of this sort—but to all those small-holders in the North of Scotland who regard this wool money as the most important return they get. And this year the matter is particularly important, because this has been the worst lambing year known in that part, and the cost of wintering for sheep has been higher than it has ever been before. I trust that when this consultation with the farmers takes place the Scottish farmers' representatives will be allowed to have their say in this matter.
§ LORD ST. AUDRIES
My Lords, I should like to impress on the Government what has fallen from noble Lords—namely, that the question of time is everything in this matter; and though it is more or less gratifying to know that a deputation is going to be received, the 557 inquiry should have been made before the price was fixed. The Central Chamber of Agriculture are very anxious that the price should not be finally settled until the deputation has been received. I am bound to say I think it is putting things off too late. This question of price is an urgent matter, and I can assure your Lordships that the 1914 price plus 30 per cent. is not good enough; it is grossly unfair to the farmer. Some people seem to consider that sheep live by grass alone. They do not. They are very expensive animals to feed. We have been ordered to produce more mutton and more generally on the farms, and we have done our best to do that. But the production of that mutton and that wool has cost a great deal more during the last twelve months than in 1914 and in the early part of 1915. You have to give sheep cake and corn and hay and roots. The price of cake has gone up 100 per cent.; the price of torn is rising; and as for hay, well, that was commandeered by the Government. When the snow fell in March all the farmers wanted hay for their sheep, the snow being feet deep on the ground, and they had to pay £7 15s a ton for stuff not worth eating. In the same way, everything in connection with sheep has gone up—hurdles, sheep netting, everything; and I think I am right in saying that the cost of feeding sheep, including the increased price of artificial manure so necessary for the roots, has gone up by something like 60 to 65 per cent. in the last fifteen months.
Now as to the proposed price of 30 per cent. on 1914 prices. I have made inquiries over a great part of Somersetshire, in which county there are a great many different kinds of sheep and of crosses. You may divide the wool there into two kinds—short and long wool. The price of short wool in 1914 was 14d. per lb.; add 30 per cent., and it comes to 18d. The price in 1915 was 20½d. a lb.; so that if the Government pay the 1914 price of short wool plus 30 per cent., the loss to the farmer is 2½d. a lb. The price of long wool in 1914 was 12½d. a lb.; add 30 per cent., and the price is 16¼d. In 1915 it was 18¾d., so the loss to the farmer on long wool is 2½d. a lb. The short wool fleece runs to about 6 or 7 lbs. weight, and the long wool fleece to about 10 or 12 lbs. On the whole, therefore, taking the greater value of the short wool fleece, it is very much the same whether it is one 558 kind of wool or the other. But what the Government are offering for both classes of wool is 2½d. a. lb. less than 1915 prices.
With regard to the market value, the price for this year's clip, the Government have deprived themselves of the best way of finding that out, because they have closed the markets. You cannot, therefore, find what the actual market value is; but some farmers had sold before the Order came out, and one neighbour of mine, a grower of long-wool sheep, sold his clip this year for 20½d. a lb., as against 18d. in 1915. Therefore if the Government's offer of the 1914 price plus 30 per cent. is carried out, this man loses nearly 5d. per lb. A neighbour of his was offered 22d. as against 20½d., but he was just too late to sell before the Order came out, and he will have lost an appreciable amount per lb. As my noble friend Lord Harris has said, in the Australian market there is a considerable rise in the price of wool. If, therefore, the Government buy at the 1915 prices they will make a very good bargain indeed, because they will be buying wool at 2d. or 2½d. a lb. less than the real value at the present moment. I think the Government are treating the farmers rather hardly. They ask them to produce more, and then when they do produce it they commandeer the result at less than the market price.
Nobody will accuse the Government of undue economy in the purchase of war material generally. It is common knowledge that there has been considerable extravagance and waste, and I think it is very hard that this sudden wave of economy on the part of the Government should hit the home producer. I consider this delay and this setting up of advisory committees of purchasers and boards all over the country as quite unnecessary. I know that the wool business is very difficult and complicated; but, after all, the machinery of that business, the machinery by which the wool goes from the producer to the manufacturer in the end, has been in operation in this country for years past, and is in the hands of experts. Why on earth should the Government set up side by side with that an entirely new machinery, some of it of experts, but some of it of military officers who know nothing whatever about wool and are likely to be like the fifth wheel of the coach. If the Government fix a fair price—say at least the price of the 1915 clip—then I believe 559 there will be no difficulty whatever in using the machinery which exists at the present time. It would save a good deal of delay and a great deal of worry, and I believe that in the long run—because you cannot set up a new Government machinery without spending money on it—you will save over and over again the difference between the price of the 1915 clip and the price you propose to give. I can say this to the Government. The farmers throughout the country have played the game with you, and I sincerely hope that you will play the straight game with the farmers.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
My Lords, I will not stand long between my noble friend Lord Crewe and the House, but I should not like this debate to close without saying something on the important matter which my noble friend Lord Lichfield has brought forward. As Lord St. Audries has reminded your Lordships, I have repeatedly on behalf of the Government urged farmers to produce more during this time of war, and I think that in the face of great difficulties the farmers have made a noble effort to respond to the appeal made to them. I have also had to resist a demand of the farmers, in respect of goods they require, such as particularly sulphate of ammonia, which has risen greatly in price, that the Government should fix a maximum price to enable them to secure these articles at what they consider a reasonable price. I pointed out to them that it would be impossible to fix the price of what they required and not fix the price of what they produced, and I did not think that would be on the whole an advantageous arrangement for them. Therefore I am really concerned at the position into which the War Office has got itself over the price of wool.
I do not question the necessity for the requisition of the wool. I do not pronounce any opinion upon it. I am quite prepared to believe that the War Office were wisely advised in requisitioning all the home-produced wool. But I do associate myself most earnestly with the arguments brought forward by Lord Lichfield, Lord Harris, Lord Lovat, and Lord St. Audries; there is not one of those arguments which I am not prepared to endorse and which I do not believe to be accurate. Except this. Lord Harris spoke of this being a Government matter. Theoretically that is true; but practically in wartime it is impossible 560 for my noble friends Lord Lansdowne and Lord Crewe, with their immense responsibilities, to follow the details of Army administration as regards the stores required. There is only one Department of the Government besides the War Office which had a duty to watch what was going on, and that was the one for which I was responsible.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
Yes, the Treasury and the War Office besides. The very moment I heard that the War Office contemplated taking the wool in the way they have done, I held a watching brief on behalf of the farmers. The War Office had the power to deal with the farmers without consulting me, but I need scarcely say that the War Office were quite prepared to listen to the representations of the Board of Agriculture. I instructed my officers to follow closely all that went on, to report to me from time to time, and to impress upon the War Office the farmers' point of view, because what the farmer is entitled to is this—he is entitled to absolutely fair play, neither more nor less. If you give him less than the value of his wool, you are imposing upon him and upon him alone a special tax. He is taxed like all the rest of his compatriots, but he would be suffering in a way they do not in respect of a particular article which he produces. Therefore I hope that the War Office and the Treasury, while being careful to see that the farmer does not get an inflated value for the wool, will recognise that he is entitled to get the full market value.
I think the first mistake which the War Office made was in the composition of the advisory committee. So far as I know—I may be misinformed, but I do not think I am—the advisory committee is composed entirely of wool merchants. I do not say a word against those gentlemen. I have not the least doubt they are thoroughly skilled in their own business, and will most patriotically and honestly endeavour to assist the War Office. But I do not think that this was a properly constituted committee to suggest the price at which the farmers' wool should be taken. The farmers should certainly have been represented on that committee, and so far as I know they were not. It happened just about the moment when I had, I regret to 561 say, to sever my connection with the Government. One of the last papers that came before me was the report of one of my officers, whom I had instructed to watch this business, as to the price which the War Office were prepared to offer—that is, the price of 1914 plus 30 per cent.—and almost my last Minute at the Board of Agriculture recorded the fact that I could not endorse this price, and that the Board was instructed to protest against it, and to point out to the War Office that they were, though unintentionally, using the fanner in an unjust and hard manner.
It is quite true that time is of the essence of the case. But as things are I do not reject, as some of my noble friends have done, the proposal of the War Office to meet representatives of agriculture from the Central Chamber, the Farmers' Union, and other bodies, and to discuss this question, I hope with an unprejudiced and open mind and with a real desire to arrive at a fair price. I would only make this suggestion to my noble friend on the Government Bench. I think it would be a good thing if they were able to arrange that this deputation should be received, not only by a representative of the War Office, but by a representative also of the Board of Agriculture and possibly of the Treasury. I think this is a matter that goes far beyond the Contract Department of the War Office.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
Although I repudiate the suggestion that it is possible for all the members of the Government to follow such details of departmental administration, I do think that in this case it would be to the public advantage to strengthen the body, which, after all, does represent the Government, that is going to deal with the farmer. I am quite sure that there has been no intention on the part of the War Office to behave unjustly. I think they have erred from the method in which they set about the business. But it is not too late to set the matter straight, to offer the farmer the fair market price to which he is entitled. I am quite sure that my noble friends on the Government Bench are as conscious as I am, or as any noble Lord, that the farmer cannot be kept out of his money for weeks and months. He must get his cash down at the earliest possible moment, or otherwise he is injured to a degree exceeding that which is caused by 562 the offer of too small a price; because it means that the whole of his financial arrangements for the year are dislocated, and he is put in that position which no honest man likes to feel himself in, that he cannot meet the engagements he has entered into with other people. And why? Because his own Government have taken his produce and have not paid him for it.
THE DUKE OF BUCCLEUCH
My Lords. I would like to corroborate what has been said by my noble friend Lord Lovat. In the hill farms in the North, the great wool-producing farms, they have had a bad winter and a bad lambing time; therefore presuming the weight of the wool is somewhat the same as last year, which is not the case, they will not make anything like the profits they might have expected. But they are quite reasonable, and I think the speech we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Selborne must have convinced the Government that the price fixed has been arrived at on a wrong basis and is not justified. Personally I do not think that the 1915 price would be quite fair to the farmer; but I feel sure, if it is gone into, that that price must be considered as the minimum. I would urge the Government, after the speech that has been made by my noble friend and other noble Lords on this subject, that even without waiting for a deputation they should issue a statement to the public that they are going to give a reasonable price which may satisfy the farmers and thus remove what one might almost say, though quite unintentional, is not fair dealing on the part of the Government. Inadvertently they have created a great injustice, and the sooner it is remedied the better for everybody.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, it is clear from the speeches that have been delivered, not only this afternoon but before, that this question is not merely one of great importance to those interested but is also one of no small complexity. That is quite evident to us all, and I am glad that my noble friend Lord Selborne recognised, as indeed one would have been sure he would, that there can be no intention on the part of His Majesty's Government to behave unfairly to those who are specially concerned in the production of wool. The price of 30 per cent. above the 1914 rate, which is complained of, was arrived at after a careful examination. My noble friend has pointed out that in his view that 563 examination was not perfect, in the sense that the elements composing the advisory body did not include all who might properly have been included, but care was taken to arrive at a figure which was considered fair.
It may be taken, as my noble friend said, that in the opinion of the War Office the purchase of this year's entire clip of wool in this country was considered necessary. It seems to an outsider—I include myself in that class so far as this particular subject is concerned, because I was naturally not cognisant of the negotiations as they proceeded—that it would have been desirable if notice could have been given earlier. That I quite admit. But, as I understand, there were special reasons, with which I am not able to trouble the House, which made the matter become suddenly and unexpectedly urgent; and therefore a complete purchase of this kind, which I suppose had not been originally contemplated, became in the opinion of the authorities urgently necessary.
It is very difficult to talk about a fair price and the market price in this connection. The wool of the world is now bought, as regards an enormous percentage of the amount; for military purposes and for military purposes alone; and if the market price is spoken of as the price which that artificial and inflated demand produces, it cannot be denied that those who get that artificial price are making a profit out of the war. And when a similar argument is applied to coal and to various other articles it is found, as a great many of us know, that the full profit due to the demand directly traceable to the war by no means goes to the pockets of those who are at ordinary times the recipients of the profit. Therefore it is reasonable, I think, to argue that the farmer, like other people, cannot expect to get the full advantage of the whole war profit either as regards his wool or as regards anything else. He does not get it, as we know, with regard to the hay—that is one of the cases of a commandeered article—and I fully admit the force of what fell from my noble friend below the gangway (Lord Selborne) when he stated that the case of the farmer is a peculiar one in this respect, that a demand which he might make and which indeed has been made for the fixing of prices for various artificial manures, sulphate of ammonia in particular—no doubt the same could be made to apply to basic slag—that it is not possible to comply with that demand.
564 The whole matter comes, in fact, to be one of price, as to whether the particular price which has been fixed upon as representing a reasonable figure for this year 1916 is a fair one or not, because nobody has attempted to contest the claim of the Government to obtain this clip if it is considered necessary. Then, of course, you are confronted by the difficulty that although the cost of production to the farmer has, by common admission, increased, the calculation of the percentage of cost of production is a more difficult one for the farmer to furnish as evidence than it is, so far as I know, for all other classes of trade. In a great many cases it is quite simple to calculate the increased cost of the production of an article. Take, for instance, an article such as finished steel. A trader can refer to his books and trace back the enhanced prices from the iron ore or the pig iron through all the various stages. He can trace the precise rise in wages which appertains to those who are engaged in each particular process, and he can furnish a mathematical calculation of what the enhanced cost of the steel is. But when you come to anything produced by the farmer the process is infinitely more difficult, partly no doubt owing, as has been stated in this debate, to the fact that farmers as a rule do not keep very accurate accounts. Farming accounts are infinitely more easy to keep than is sometimes supposed, but farmers as a rule do not keep them very closely, and the various elements of calculation are no doubt more complicated than they are in many other trades. Therefore though the farmer has an artificial impression—and he is quite justified in holding it—that a sheep has cost him a great deal more to produce before it can be clipped for wool, at the same time it is not easy for him to bring the precise evidence which would satisfy a Court as to what further amount he ought to receive.
We should all be glad, and not only glad but we should consider it reasonable in the circumstances, that where a doubt exists as to what the farmer is entitled to he should have so far as possible the benefit of that doubt. Where the precise figure is difficult to calculate the verdict ought, we should submit, to be in favour of the agricultural producer for many reasons, some of which have been given to-night. And it is quite clear, I think, that a case for further examination—and I should hope favourable examination—of 565 this 30 per cent. figure exists. For that reason I venture to hope that the House will agree that in consenting to receive the deputation of which my noble friend spoke His Majesty's Government are taking the most practical and the most reasonable course. I do not think that it need involve any serious delay. It cannot be difficult to collect a sufficient number of those who are entitled to speak with authority on behalf of the sheep farmers and to prepare the various data which they would desire to place before His Majesty's Government. I lay stress upon this, because I entirely agree that time is very greatly of the essence of this question. There is no doubt that the whole process of this purchase of the wool clip inflicts what is an undesirable, and what in general may be called an unfair, strain on the sheep farmers. They are undoubtedly kept out of their money longer than they would be if the market pursued its normal course, and for that delay it is evident that the Government ought to and must pay. It is clear, so far as the farmers are damnified by being kept two or three or more mouths out of their money, that pro tanto the price ought to be increased. Even then, as the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite pointed out, they are placed at no little inconvenience, because a farmer is almost compelled to a certain extent to live from hand to mouth, and the fact of his being kept out of his money for a time deranges sometimes to an almost disastrous extent the course of his business, and that is clearly a point which the deputation would have to consider. The point that my noble friend Lord Selborne made of the desirability of adding the representatives of some other Departments, and in particular a representative of the Board of Agriculture, to those who receive the deputation will, I can assure the House, have careful consideration, and it appears to me to be reasonable in itself.
There was one point that fell from Lord Harris to which I ought to allude—namely, the question of the allocation of profit. He argued that, wool being bought below its price, somebody must make a profit out of it, and that the farmer is the person who might reasonably have expected to make that profit. And he asked, Who would make it? Would the manufacturer make it?
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Yes. When the Government is mentioned it undoubtedly means the country. In speaking of the Government, we unfortunately do not make any profits for ourselves, but it is quite true that the National Exchequer would gain to a certain extent a profit which, supposing the farmer were able to get the full benefit of a highly-priced necessity of life at a particular moment, would fall to him, or, if so artificially arranged, would fall to the manufacturer. The saving will fall to the country as a whole, and not to any particular class of individuals.
I gather from what the noble Marquess has said that the price to the manufacturer is to be the market price. Therefore the only person who is going to be injured is the farmer.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
The manufacturer, I take it, will make up the Government wool for Government purposes into military uniforms and the like, and be paid a reasonable price for so doing plus a reasonable profit. But it will not be sold to him, I imagine, or he will not get the benefit of the extravagant price which the Government might have paid and have not paid. The actual commodity will be Government property and will be passed on to him for Government purposes. That, I conceive, is what will happen.
THE DUKE OF BUCCLEUCH
May I be allowed to ask the noble Marquess a question? I did not gather whether there is to be one deputation for the whole of the United Kingdom, or a separate one for England and another for Scotland. And in what form are we to communicate with the people?
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I am obliged to the noble Duke for reminding me. I had it in mind to say that the particular representations made on behalf of Scotland by himself and by Lord Lovat will be carefully considered. I am not able to answer now as to whether the deputation would apply to the whole country, but I presume that it will; and supposing that it does, I think it is quite clear that it would also be received by a representative of the Scottish Office as well as by a representative of the War Office.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I am afraid I do not know that either, and my noble friend (Lord Sandhurst) is not here.
§ THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN [addressing Lord SANDHURST, who had resumed his seat]: Does compulsory purchase apply to Ireland?
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
My Lords, I am sure all those who take an interest in this question are much obliged to the noble Marquess for the very sympathetic speech which he has made, and of course the statements made by Lord Selborne are very strong evidence in proof of the general justice of the demand which we have been making on behalf of the farmers. I am sure there is not one of us who wishes to get an extravagant price for the farmer. All that we have been arguing for is that the farmer should not be placed under special disabilities which apply to his produce and to his produce only. The tendency of the debate to-night has gone very much in the direction for which we have been contending, and although the Government are prepared to receive a deputation, they probably will have to receive, as has been shown, more than one deputation—a deputation for Scotland, one for England as well, and so on; and it stands to reason that these deputations must take a considerable time. Is the difference as regards the price of 1915 so appreciable as to make it desirable to incur the delay which must necessarily take place if you are to go into these matters thoroughly? What really is the difference?
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Although I do not carry the figures accurately in my head, I think you are approaching the region of millions when you are speaking of those figures.
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
Observe the way in which the Government have dealt with other great interests. If when the question of railways arose at the outbreak of the war they had gone into all the matters that were raised there would have been an enormous amount of time lost; there would have been difficult calculations and tremendous difficulties of every kind. The Government very wisely made a definite arrangement with the railway companies, which did away with all the delay and all the trouble which would have been occasioned. Now it occurs to me that if they were, in regard to this wool transaction, to agree to the prices of 1915 cadit quœstio they would not hear any more of the farmers, and I am sure the Government would save themselves an enormous amount of trouble of every sort and kind. I merely make that suggestion because I foresee that if you have this inquiry it will take longer than you think and involve going into a great many matters at a time when trouble and inquiry are undesirable. And I believe that in the end it will come out that the difference between whatever you arrive at and the price of the year 1915 will be so trifling that you had better accept the price of 1915 at once and have an end of the question.
THE EARL OF LICHFIELD
My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Marquess and the noble Lord for the care and attention they have given to this subject. It is, however, somewhat of a disappointment to find that no decision can be arrived at until after a deputation from the leading agriculturists has been received, because, as has been said all through the debate, the matter is of urgent importance and a speedy settlement is most desirable. But I am glad to find that the Government are not definitely committed to the price that was first suggested, and that they are willing to treat the farmers with consideration and to hear their point of view. I think, however, it will be very difficult for the farmers, when they are received on the deputation, if they are invited to argue their case as to price on anything like the lines which my noble friend the Leader of the House suggested. He talked about how much of the present market price was due to artificial reasons. If farmers are asked to prove how much of the price that they thought they were going to receive in 1916 was due to artificial reasons 569 and how much was due to the increased cost of production, it will be putting them a very hard case to prove. I must say I do not think it will be fair on the farmers if they are called upon to prove how much the price is inflated by artificial reasons. I therefore join with my noble friend who has just spoken (Lord Camperdown) in urging the Government to be good enough to consider whether really the simplest, easiest, and fairest plan to all concerned would not be to agree to the very 570 moderate request for 1915 prices which all the farmers will be satisfied with, though they do not amount to what they had been led to expect for the 1916 prices. I trust that this point may be considered, so that when the farmers come they may not be called upon to prove exactly how much they are entitled to receive.
§ House adjourned at Eight o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.