HL Deb 08 August 1918 vol 31 cc667-73

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Hindlip

  1. 1. Whether it is correct that it has been decided not to raise the maximum price for cereals produced in Great Britain.
  2. 2. When was this decision arrived at.
  3. 668
  4. 3. Whether, in view of the increase in the cost of production, and the necessity of encouraging the production of cereals in this country, His Majesty's Government propose to reconsider their decision.
  5. 4. At what date and by whom were the maximum prices for cereals fixed, and have they been reconsidered. If so, when and by whom.
  6. 5. Were the prices fixed by a Committee appointed by the Ministry of Food. If so, who were the members of the Committee, and had producers of cereals any representative on the Committee.


My Lords, I very much regret that, having asked my noble friend Lord Hindlip to postpone this Question, I shall be unable to-day to give a definite reply. But I will endeavour to explain the procedure adopted with reference to the points on which information is desired

It is the duty of the Food Controller to fix maximum prices for cereals produced in Great Britain, and in the discharge of this duty he is naturally assisted by the three Departments of Agriculture concerned. There has been set up a Home Cereals Committee for the purpose of advising the Food Controller in this respect. It comprises representatives of the Wheat Commission, of the three Departments of Agriculture, the milling and grain trades, and the Army Forage Department, thus covering producer, dealer, and user. The new Central Agricultural Advisory Council have now asked for direct representation on the committee, and they have been invited to send two representatives.

For the encouragement of corn production, and in order to inspire confidence among the farmers; it was announced early in this year that maximum prices for the 1918 crop would be fixed on substantially the same basis as those of 1917. Recommendations were made to the Food Controller some weeks ago in favour of some slight adjustments in the scale of prices; and, in view of the changed seasonal conditions, some further modifications may be thought desirable. The urgency of the matter is recognised, and a definite announcement will be made as soon as possible.


I wish to say a word in connection with this question because it appears to have been forgotten by the Government why there is all this trouble and difficulty about the increased cost of production, arising from the prices settled or recommended by the various Wages Boards throughout the country. I wish to remind the Government of the reason why all this has arisen, and at the same time to tell them how serious is the position, in my opinion, unless some fitting and proper adjustment of prices is carried out without delay.

Just imagine how farmers in this respect have been treated. On February 23, 1917—and I have stated this before in the House without its receiving any attention whatever, without its having been published in the Press, or attended to in any degree, so far as I can see, by the Governraent—the Prime Minister gave the most unqualified pledge that ever was given by a Minister, that there should be no Wages Board set up till after the war. I will quote his own words, so that there can be no mistake upon the subject. He began by stating that there must be an addition in wages for the agricultural labourers, and he further stated that they had taken as the proper figure the 25s. a week recommended by the National' Service Department, under Mr. Chamberlain at that time. Then he went on to say this, and I hope it may be taken into consideration by the Government— We discussed for some time" [that is, I presume, the Cabinet] "the question of whether you should have a Wages Board to fix wages or whether you should have a fixed minimum. That is what influenced us eventually in not settling up a Wages Board during the war. The farmer—I will not say preferred to know the worst, but he preferred to know exactly what he had to face— And here I may say that if you are to hope for any really permanent increased production, that is something which the farmer must know and it never ought to be forgotten. He must know how he is situated with regard to the cost of production, in order to know how to carry out his business successfully. The Prime Minister proceeded— He (the farmer) did not want to be bothered with Wages Boards; he preferred to concentrate the whole of his mind on ploughing the land. After the war Wages Boards can be set up. Now, is it possible to have given a more positive pledge than is given in those words? Yet when the Corn Production Bill was laid upon the Table, it was seen at once that the second part of that Bill was devoted entirely to the setting up of the Agricultural Wages Boards. I have always said that I cannot blame—and I never have blamed—the Prime Minister for this, for in the multitude of other occupations and serious matters which he had to carry on his back, and with all his immense responsibility, I was perfectly well aware that he never attended one single debate upon the Corn Production Bill during the time it was passing through the House of Commons. He was constantly abroad, as everybody knows, going to Paris at one time, to Italy at another, and somewhere else on a third occasion in connection with vital matters concerning the successful prosecution of the war. I have good reason for believing that he was not aware of it, and yet it has been done. I hope that after what I have said, to-day, for the third time on this point, it will at least receive some attention and consideration.

I will go to another sentence in that speech, which is in these words. The Prime Minister turned round to Mr. Balfour, saying— My right hon. friend beside me (Mr. Balfour) reminds me that it is not merely during the war that this guarantee of a minimum wage will be given, but during the period when there will lee a guarantee of prices"; —showing conclusively that these two things (the fixed minimum wage on the one hand, and the fixed price for corn on the other) were each the complement of the other. But there was a third pledge given, and this was with regard to maximum prices. What was said upon t he question of maximum prices was this— The only guarantee we have given of the maximum is this, that if the State commandeers either potatoes or cereals the prices will not be fixed without the consent of the Boards of Agriculture of England, Scotland, and Ireland; therefore there will be an opportunity of consultation before the prices are fixed. Obviously, you cannot limit the power of the State to commandeer for national purpo es. I hope and trust that, with this guarantee, the farmers will put their backs into it. That is exactly what the farmers did, and it is exactly what many Members of Parliament, like the member who has now the honour of addressing your Lordships, also did.

We went all over the country, and pointed to the guarantees thus given. I went to a variety of meetings, and I said "Here is the man for you. He has made you these promises and these great concessions, which I think no other Minister would have ventured to make in these days, and, he having done this, it is your business to support him." And they did; for, late as it was in the season, they grew 350,000 acres of more corn than had been grown in any year before for a very long time. What more could they do? And now they are confronted with the position that unless something is done, and done directly, towards increasing the price of corn, you may say good-bye to all your hopes of a largely increased production of corn, which is the one kind of food which is most essential to the population, and of which you will find it stated in the Royal Commission which was appointed to consider our supplies of food during the war, that this is the one kind of food which is consumed in an immensely larger proportion by the population of the country than any other single kind of food you can name.

Now let me point out what your own Minister of Agriculture said upon this question. He was asked to attend a great meeting of farmers in Norfolk, and I can tell you that another meeting of 3,000 farmers in Norfolk was held not very long ago, an account of which was sent to me. I read it with no great surprise. Yet I never heard of a meeting of 3,000 farmers before during the whole of my political career. Therefore you may imagine how strongly they feel on this subject in Norfolk, which, next to Lincolnshire, is probably the largest corn-growing county in England. In Lincolnshire they feel just as strongly, and they write to me just as strongly as they do from the county of Norfolk. What did Mr. Prothero state? I will read an extract from the report— Mr. Prothero proceeded to answer questions that had been handed to him in writing. The first was, 'In the event of any rise in agricultural wages, what increase does the Government intend to make in the maximum prices fixed for farm produce? Mr. Prothero said that the cost of production was the basis upon which prices had been fixed, and any increase would and must be met by corresponding changes in the maximum prices. That is a positive statement made to a great meeting of farmers, which cannot be contradicted. The Minister would be the first to admit it, and I am quite confident that what he said to them he must have made known to the Cabinet. I say that it is nothing less than my duty, and the duty of all people who know something about this subject, to press what the President of the Board of Agriculture has stated upon the Government with all the force at our command.


My Lords, my noble friend has made a considered attack upon all Departments of the Government, to which I have no right to reply.


No right?


Only with the leave of the House.


The noble Viscount has made a considered attack upon various Departments of the Government, to which, I regret to say, I have no right to reply; but if your Lordships will allow me to say a few words, I shall be glad. We cannot go back upon the establishment of Wages Boards.


Quite true.


They exist, and they have to be taken into account in fixing prices, but I deprecate the view that a change of policy is the same thing as a breach of faith. Parliament insists—and perhaps rightly insists—on debating all kinds of matters before the policy of the Government is finally adjusted, and the natural result is that announcements are made, or expectations are aroused, which have to be modified later on. Conditions in time of war change so quickly that what may be true to-day, as a statement of fact or as an outline of policy, may in a month's time have to be reversed. I regret, therefore, that it should be considered that because at one stage—in regard to the food problem, for instance—a particular view is announced, that view, in the changing conditions of war, may not be modified later on without subjecting the Government to charges such as we have just heard from the noble Viscount.


May I interrupt my noble friend for one moment? Does the noble Earl mean to say that this doctrine is to hold good when, on the very faith of the statement made, great additional expenses have been incurred and unusual efforts have been made in full reliance upon that statement?


I should like to check the statement of the Prime Minister to which Lord Chaplin has referred, but I do not think that the effort to promote cultivation would have been decreased if the establishment of Wages Boards had been announced at an earlier moment. I think the two went together, and I do not believe that if Wages Boards had been established or announced at an earlier stage the acreage grown would have been materially increased in consequence. The only other point I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to is this. Personally, I should be very glad if circumstances justified the increase of prices, but I hope those who advocate this will not consider our home prices in isolation.

There are other countries where corn prices are fixed and where guarantees are accorded, notably in the United States of America. Lord Chaplin will remember that quite recently an Act was passed by both houses of Parliament in the United states to raise the price from $2.20 to $2.40. That Act was vetoed by President Wilson. If we take a corresponding step here there will be no veto. It would be hollowed, of course, by a rrecrudescence of the demand elsewhere to increase the price, and that demand would, of course, be conceded. That naturally would react on other sources of supply to the Allies, notably in the Argentine and in India, and, possibly, in Australia. Therefore an increase beyond an adjustment of price in this country may involve the taxpayer here in an outlay two or three or four times greater than the increased guarantee to the producer at home. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will remember that adjustments here will be followed by reaction elsewhere, and that the question should not be treated in isolation.