HL Deb 13 July 1916 vol 22 cc718-22

VISCOUNT GALWAY rose to call attention to the terms on which His Majesty's Government propose to take over the whole of the hay and straw crop of 1916. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am anxious to bring this question to the notice of your Lordships' House as soon as possible, because it seems to me that there is a new precedent involved, and that for the first time we have the Government setting maximum prices on articles, not which they want entirely for themselves, but for the general market also. I have no statistics to give with regard to straw, but I am informed that about 14,000,000 tons is the amount of hay supposed to constitute an ordinary hay crop. I understand that of that amount the Government will require 1,000,000 tons; so that a very large amount of hay is affected besides that which is required for Government purposes.

Then we come to the question of price. I think it is worth considering how the price, whatever it may be, has been arrived at. There are forage committees in various districts, but although those committees have been consulted and are occasionally quoted as having agreed to a price, I know cases where, although they have been so quoted, they have not agreed to a price; and I do not think the head forage committee at the War Office has acted seriously on the recommendations of the local committees. It seems to me, with regard to hay, that they have consulted the hay dealers rather than agricultural interests. We had in the case of wool an example of the way in which agricultural interests have been considered by the Government. I believe that no agriculturists were consulted in regard to that, and at the price that it is now proposed to offer farmers will suffer a loss of 3d. per lb. on their wool compared with what would be received if the 1915 prices had been given. It seems to me that the middleman has been too much consulted.

No doubt when once you interfere with freedom of contract difficulty and injustice arise, and it is the duty of the Government to be particularly careful to see that whenever they take such a step as this there is no injustice committed. The price of hay ought to be regulated by the price of feeding-stuffs at the time, and previous prices ought not to be considered. If the price of feeding-stuffs is high at the time, the price of hay ought to be put on a similar basis. At the present moment I understand that the maximum price for hay has been fixed at £5 10s. per ton; oat straw, £3; and wheat straw, £2 10s. There is nothing said as to whether that is supposed to be a flat rate all round, or whether there is to be a lower price given for hay than this. If there is a lower price given, I do not see any statement as to how that is to be arrived at. Is it left to the discretion of some military officer, who may be painstaking on the part of the War Office, but who may be no judge of hay. And if disputes arise between him and the farmer who is selling, I do not see any provision for an appeal.

I should like to call your Lordships' attention to the allowance that is made to hay and straw dealers. On the prices which I have quoted a regular dealer is allowed to make a profit of £2 per ton on hay, and 30s. on straw. Taking that at the maximum prices, he is allowed to make 36 per cent. on hay, 50 per cent. on oat straw, and 60 per cent. on wheat straw. It is true that he has to cut up and truss the hay for that, but when you consider that there is a possibility of hay being sold at a less price than the one I have quoted, the margin given to dealers is excessive and ought to be reconsidered. If there is to be this margin, more of it ought to be allowed to go to the agriculturists. I should like to ask whether, if a farmer is at the trouble of cutting up and trussing his hay and taking it to the station himself, he is allowed to take the benefit of the £2 or not. I have heard it supposed that he is, but I should like to have some confirmation from the noble Earl if he can give it to me.

Then there is a curious clause in the Defence of the Realm Consolidated Regulations, 1911–16, which states that producers who are also distributers— will apply for authority to distribute, accompanied by a declaration of the quantities sold by them to private consumers during the twelve months prior to the issue of the Army Council Order, and also with their licence to sell.


What is the date of that Order?


There is no date. I will hand the Order to the noble Earl. [The document was passed across the Table to Lord Derby.] It really is puzzling to know absolutely what is intended by that clause, because if it is meant that a farmer is to be allowed to sell only a similar quantity to that which he sold last year it seems to me that the authorities at the War Office, or whoever drew up this Order, must be strangely ignorant of affairs connected with agriculture, because everybody knows that we had last year about the worst hay crop very nearly in the memory of man. Therefore to say that what a farmer sold last year can be any criterion as regards this year is most unjust and unfair to the agricultural interest. It seems to me that the agricultural interest is not sufficiently considered in these matters, certainly it is not so much considered as are other interests. A great many attacks have been made on agriculturists, but people forget that there is not only reduced labour and increased wages, but other matters such as the increased prices which the agriculturist has to pay for his stock, the high cost of tillages, and the high extra cost of feeding-stuffs. Therefore although some writers seem to think that the farmer is getting a high price for certain articles, it must be remembered that he does not, when all these other items against him are considered, get that enormous profit which some people appear to imagine.

I would also ask your Lordships whether it is not right and fair that the agriculturist should get the fair market price for what he has to sell. Certainly it seems to me unfair, while the hay crop is still being cut, to endeavour to fix a flat rate of payment on the basis of the last twelve months. Surely it would be much fairer to wait until we know what the hay crop is. But what I would like to put to His Majesty's Government is this. It would be fairer for them to say at once that they require 1,000,000 tons of hay, or what the quantity is that they want, and take the necessary steps to see that they get it; and then after a fair and satisfactory price has been fixed the hay could be allowed to stay in the farmers' stockyards if delivery is not wanted at once, but it should be paid for immediately it is purchased. When this has been done, the rest of the hay crop should be left in the hands of the farmers for them to sell in the open market. Surely that is the fairer procedure, instead of trying to fix a flat rate now, thereby giving an unfair bonus to hay and straw dealers. I regret that my noble friend who has just been appointed to the Board of Agriculture is not in his place to-night, as I should have liked to congratulate rum on his appointment and at the same time tell him that agriculturists feel that they will have an energetic man at their head. I hope he will take this matter up as soon as possible and support us. In the meantime I trust that the noble Earl who is going to answer me will be able to give a favourable reply to some of the questions I have put.


My Lords, I frankly confess to the noble Lord that I am unable to give him an answer at the present moment. The arrangement was made before I took over office, and it has only just been brought to my notice. I have been given the reasons why this arrangement has had to be come to, but I do not think I need trouble the House by reading them. I shall be most happy to show them to the noble Lord privately. At the same time I want him to understand that these arrangements were made on the recommendation of the Forage Committee, which has amongst its members several practical farmers. It is on their advice and with their sanction that this arrangement has been arrived at. The noble Lord has put certain questions to me which I frankly confess I cannot at the moment answer, but I have made a note of them and will either communicate the answers to him privately or give them in reply to a further Question in this House. It would certainly seem that there are many points that want looking into, and, with the noble Earl who is now at the head of the Board of Agriculture, I will look into them and try and give the noble Lord a satisfactory answer on the earliest possible occasion.