HL Deb 19 December 1917 vol 27 cc261-4

THE EARL OF SELBORNE had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask the Food Controller whether he will make use of the County War Agricultural Committees (not the Executive Committees) for the purpose of his Area Live Stock Advisory Committees and Provincial Feeding-stuffs Committees instead of setting up a new authority.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the noble Lord the Food Controller has found it necessary to establish in the different agricultural districts the two Committees which are mentioned in this Question, and I am sure he will recognise the great advantage of avoiding, if possible, further multiplication of Governmental machinery. As he no doubt knows, the great majority of farmers are very small men. I think that over 80 per cent. of all farmers occupy under 180 acres, and they are not well instructed in public matters. They get extraordinarily confused by a multiplicity of authorities, sometimes of conflicting authorities. They have to deal with Committees established by the War Office for certain purposes, with Committees established by the Food Controller's Office for other purposes, and also, of course, with the Board of Agriculture. Now all this work had very much tended to be concentrated in the War Agricultural Committees, which I had the honour of appointing when I was President of the Board of Agriculture. These Committees, being composed exclusively of local persons with a knowledge of agriculture and going round to the farmers to explain matters to them, had very largely won their confidence, and the inconvenience and obstruction to production that would undoubtedly have been caused by the confusion of the farmers mind was very largely avoided by the concentration of work in the hands of these Committees. Then for the purposes of food production the Government appointed, out of these War Agricultural Committees, what are called War Executive Agricultural Committees, to whom are entrusted very important powers in connection with the cultivation of land. They emanated from the War Agricultural Committee and are a much smaller body, I have been told, and I think I shall not be corrected by the noble Lord, that his idea was to use the War Executive Agricultural Committees for live stock purposes, and if he had been able to do so I think it would have been an admirable arrangement. But it was felt that the smaller bodies the War Executive Committees—had more work to do than they could perform, and, although they were sensible of the confidence reposed in them by the Board of Agriculture, they declined to undertake this additional task. My suggestion is that as the noble Lord has not been able to use the War Executive Agricultural Committees, he should use the War Agricultural Committees, out of which they sprung, which are larger bodies, and which would fulfil admirably all the purposes he has in mind. They are known to the farmers and already possess their confidence. If the noble Lord were able to do that, I am in a position to say that it would give great satisfaction to the agricultural community, and I believe his purpose would be fully served.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Earl for postponing his Question at my request from last week until to-day, and I hope that he has not been put to any inconvenience in doing so. Let me say at once that I fully recognise the desirability of not unduly multiplying the existing authorities, and the necessity of avoiding as far as possible any confusion in the minds of the farmers. The noble Earl has suggested that the County War Agricultural Committees should be used for the purposes for winch the Area Live Stock Committees and Provincial Feeding-stuffs Committees have been set up, and has recognised that the War Executive Committees have already as much work as they can conveniently do. My recollection is that the advisability of asking the County War Agricultural Committees to undertake distribution of feeding-stuffs was fully discussed by me with the President of the Board of Agriculture when the scheme for controlling meat supplies and rationing feeding-stuffs was in preparation. Mr. Prothero and I then came to the conclusion that a division of work between the officials of the Ministry and the County Committees was not practicable, having regard to my responsibility as Food Controller and the amount of work already undertaken by the County War Agricultural Committees.

The suggestion that the County War Agricultural Committees could have been made use of to do the work for which the Area Live Stock Advisory Committees and the Provincial Feeding-stuffs Committees have been set up, leaves out of consideration one vital point; it is essential that these Committees should be fully representative; of all the interests concerned. The Area Live Stock Advisory Committees, therefore, include not only representatives of farmers but also representatives of butchers, auctioneers, and cattle-dealers. Similarly, the Provincial Feeding-stuffs Committees include not only farmers, but also dealers in, and distributors of, feeding-stuffs. In both cases the County War Agricultural Executive Committees have been utilised in that they have been asked to nominate the agricultural members, and I understand that in most cases the farmers' members are also members of the County War Agricultural Committees.

The organisation of meat supplies under war conditions is an entirely novel problem, and necessitates the construction of appropriate new machinery. The fixation of maximum prices necessarily removes the usual incentive to distribution; and I realised from the first that the adoption of this policy could only be justified if, at the same time, an organisation was set up to control supplies and undertake to secure equitable distribution to the areas where they were needed. There was no machinery fitted for this new task. While I desire, as far as possible, to utilise existing organisations and to secure, through the representatives of the various interests concerned, all the expert advice available, I cannot retain the responsibility which I have undertaken without full power to construct such machinery as I deem necessary for the task. Therefore, while I recognise the force of the argument put forward by Lord Selborne. I much regret that I cannot avail myself of his suggestion. The matter has been carefully considered by Mr. Prothero and myself from the point of view put forward by the noble Earl, and the conclusion to which we have come is that it was necessary to set up these new local committees.


I shall not detain your Lordships or postpone the debate to which we are all looking forward for more than a few moments. It was my fortune, at an earlier period of the session, to call attention to the enormous inconvenience which has been further explained by my noble friend Lord Selborne just now, and I greatly regret the answer of the noble Lord the Food Controller. It appears to me that he is leaving the enormous inconvenience of which we have all complained, and also agriculturists generally, exactly in the same position as before. Here you have these different authorities, one after another, issuing orders to the Board of Agriculture, and very often in contradictory terms. That is an intolerable state of things, and the answer of the noble Lord is simply that he must leave things exactly in the position in which they are now. We are told that this has been done with the sanction and the approval of the President of the Board of Agriculture. On other occasions this has been flatly contradicted by the Board of Agriculture, and I own that I am a little surprised to hear the statement that the President of the Board of Agriculture has on this occasion given his support to the policy which is now proposed by the Food Controller.