HL Deb 03 July 1918 vol 30 cc550-9

LORD STRACHIE had the following Notice on the Paper—

To call attention to the procedure of the War Office in regard to hay, and to ask—

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I desire to ask the noble Earl the Parliamentary Secretary to the War Office a series of Questions which I have put on the Paper fully, so that I should not take him unawares as regards any of them. In putting them I may say that, while I recognise the courtesy and consideration of the higher officials of the War Office and the Board of Agriculture in dealing with the question of hay, undoubtedly a good deal of friction has arisen from the fact that gentlemen, clothed in khaki as a rule and with a little brief authority, come down upon the farms and treat the farmers in a way in which they ought not to be treated—in a very rough and ready way. Such an official says, "I am going to take the whole of your hay. You cannot have any objection. I am going to commandeer it."

I have a letter here from a member of your Lordships' House, in which a noble Duke says he is very glad that I am raising this question. Only the other day a military officer appeared upon the farm of one of his tenants—it is a farm of 200 acres—and said that he had come to seize all the hay except ten tons, in spite of the fact that it was explained to him that, owing to the drought, it was unlikely that the farmer would have at all a large crop of hay this year. It is a heavy clay farm where often they do not hoe till August. The probability is that this officer was only authorised to say, "We shall only leave you ten tons, and you will have an appeal afterwards as regards the quantity you may want." But the impression left on the minds of the farmers of this country by the officials—the minor people—who go to them like this, is that the Government are going to seize everything and that the farmers will be left without any hay at all.

As the noble Earl knows, it looks as if we are going to have a very small hay crop indeed, and, should the drought continue, it will be a very serious matter for the farmers if the hay crop is taken. Under present conditions I think it would be unwise for the Government to take any hay at all, or to hamper the farmers in the matter until the hay crop is assured and they know the amount that will be available for the coming twelve months Otherwise, what inevitably will happen will be that farmers, like the tenant of the noble Duke, will say "If they are going to treat us in this way we shall kill off our stock and turn our cattle into the hay field at once. What is the use of saving hay for the Government to take it away from us?"

I should like to ask the noble Earl my first Question as to the hay crop of 1917—whether they intend to take the whole of that? According to the letter that I have quoted, it would appear that they are going about telling farmers that they are going to take the whole of the hay crop, except a small quantity which in their judgment—not the judgment of the farmers—is deemed to be sufficient for the farmers until September 30 next. I do not see how it is possible, even for experts, to estimate requirements in this matter, and it would be a great thing if the noble Earl could give some assurance that there is not going to be any commandeering wholesale in the matter, but that the Government are going to wait and see how it is going on.

In my second Question I ask as regards the requirements of this year, and how they are going to ascertain what the hay crop is going to be for next year. How is the noble Earl going to estimate the amount of hay which he thinks is required? I have been told—I do not know whether the noble Earl will agree—that the War Office or the Board of Agriculture estimate it at about 11,000,000 tons as an average crop. If the average crop is 11,000,000 tons it is very unlikely that there will be anything like that amount this year. No doubt the noble Earl will tell us. If the demand for the War Office is, say, 1,000,000 tons, and for the civilian population another 1,000,000 tons, that leaves 9,000,000 tons for the farmers; but, on the other hand, supposing there are only, 9,000,000 tons coming in, what are they going to do? Are they going to reduce the farmers to 7,000,000 tons? Then I should like the noble Earl to consider another point. Owing to the likelihood of there being a great shortage of roots and straw (because they will be affected in the same way), this fact will make it more necessary to use a larger amount of day than if we had a good crop of roots and straw. Further, as the noble Earl knows very well, there must be a great reduction anyhow in the hay crop this year from the fact that a great deal of grass land has been ploughed up—improperly ploughed up, in my judgment—when it was too late to crop it. That is land which ought to be simply bare arable fields covered with grass at the present moment, and which might have produced a good hay crop. I do not think I need go further into details because my Questions sufficiently explain themselves. I hope the noble Earl, on behalf of the War Office, will give an assurance to agriculturists and farmers that they are going to be treated fairly, if not leniently.

I am glad to think that one advantage has accrued from having put the Question on the Paper of how and by whom the Committees are constituted. It has had a good effect, because instead of the preposterous method that has existed until lately, whereby the people who made the allotments were the hay dealers themselves, I understand that since the Question appeared on the Paper there has been an announcement that the Committees now will be constituted on another and a fairer principle, and that the farmers will have one-third, the consumer one-third, and the hay dealers one-third of the representation. I think this will remove a good deal of the grievance in the matter, but I hope the noble Earl will give a sympathetic reply and some assurance on behalf of the War Office that farmers will be treated well and that great care will be taken that they shall have a full supply of hay in the coming winter—a supply that will be enough for them for all contingencies. I hope also that the noble Earl will say that there is no idea of rationing farmers as regard hay, because it is perfectly impossible for the farmer to say the amount of hay he will want for his stock. I beg to move.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord who has put these Questions on the Paper that the War Office has every intention of dealing fairly and justly by the farmer. Perhaps before proceeding to reply to the Questions which he actually puts, it would be advisable if I gave the House a very short précis of the arrangements which have come into force as the result of the award made by Sir Arthur Lee on April 29. I feel sure that your Lordships would wish to congratulate the right hon. gentleman on the honour conferred upon him in his having been elevated to your Lordships' House, and I can only regret that he has not already taken his seat in order that he might explain the very able award that he made.

In each county there is to be set up an Allotment Committee, to which the noble Lord has referred. This Committee will consist of three members, representing the producer, the dealer, and the horse owner. These County Committees nominate representatives on a Central Council. The Central Council will consist of sixteen members, one being the representative of the War Office, and the remaining fifteen will be nominated from the five Departments into which Great Britain is divided. The duty of the Central Council will be to recommend any modifications of the existing scheme for the 1917 crop and to survey the whole problem for 1918. The Forage Committee has been reconstituted. It sits under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir Trustram Eve, and consists of eighteen members. In addition to the chairman, there is an ex officio member—the Chairman of the Central Council to which I have just referred—and sixteen representative members, seven representing the various Government Departments concerned, and nine representing the hay producers, dealers, and consumers. The duties of the Forage Committee are to keep in touch with the County Farm Produce Committees and to deal with, and advise on, all matters relating to the acquisition of farm produce for His Majesty's Forces, and the purchase and distribution of the civil supplies of forage.

In regard to the Question of the noble Lord on the Paper, the War Office will only take from the holder so much hay as is considered a surplus to his reasonable requirements. Occupiers of land have used a good deal more hay than had been anticipated, and I am afraid the situation in regard to hay is not a very good one. It is not possible, therefore, to postpone the taking of this decision until after September 30, and this not in the interests of the Army but in the interests of the civil population. I think the noble Lord will agree that the occupiers' interests will be safeguarded because they have the right of appeal to the County Farm Produce Committees, which are composed entirely of tenant farmers.

In reply to the next Question on the Paper, I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord any exact estimate of the amount of hay required for the year ending September, 1919. We hope to get a more exact figure, but, as the noble Lord knows, it has to be worked out on the number of animals that will require feeding. For the farmer the amount will be what he actually requires for the stock in his possession or control. The actual quantity will be decided by mutual agreement between the farmer and the Army purchasing officer, and failing agreement it will be referred to the County Farm Produce Committee. The requirements for the Army are about 1,000,000 tons. That amount is based on the established strength of animals in the Forces. The amount required for civilians is believed, by the War Office, to be approximately the same amount—1,000,000 tons—and is based on the amount that was released to civilians in the year ended July 31, 1917.

As your Lordships are aware, a Rationing Order came into force on July 11, and all owners of animals are being asked to register them with the dealer with whom they used to do business in previous years. We therefore hope very soon to know the exact number of animals which it will be necessary to feed, and by the Rationing Order the amount of hay that will be required. I understand that in Beloochistan horses are given no hay at all, but do extremely well on chopped straw and dried alfalfa, and it is hoped that horse-owners in this country may be prepared to follow, to some extent, some similar plan.

Licences for the sale of hay are given by the Army purchasing officers. When the register of animals has been completed the County Allotment Committees will authorise the dealer, or producer, to supply forage in accordance with the number of animals registered upon his list. I think we shall therefore meet the point to which the noble Lord referred—namely, that the Allotment Committees are a preferable arrangement to its being entirely in the hands of the hay trade.

In regard to the last Question on the Paper, the producers can sell direct to horse-owners, and are then treated as dealers and can charge the same price. There has been, I think, a certain amount of annoyance caused because in some cases farmers have been charged for the cost of administering the scheme. What has happened is this, that any one who has the advantage of the £2 difference in price between Schedule 1 and Schedule 2 can be charged for the cost of administering the scheme up to a maximum of 5s. per ton. Actually the price has been somewhat between 2s. and 3s.

We hope that hay will be dealt with more carefully in the future. As your Lordships know, there is an Order in regard to the wastage of fodder, and in view of the almost certain increase in the price of hay we think farmers and others will be more careful not to waste what they have got. I do not think the War Office takes quite so gloomy a view of the hay crop as the noble Lord opposite. I do not know what the Board of Agriculture say about it, but I understand we hope to have somewhat of an average crop. It will not be, perhaps, quite so large as last year's because the acreage under grass, as the noble Lord knows, has probably been reduced by about 10 per cent. We cannot certainly hope to have anything like the very big crop we had in the year 1916, but we hope it will at any rate be not a short crop in most parts of the country.


My Lords, I hope I may take the noble Earl's reply as an assurance on the part of the Government that farmers may rely on being permitted to retain an adequate allowance of hay for the maintenance of their flocks and herds during the winter and early spring months. I am sure the noble Earl, and the Department he represents in this House, will agree with me that one of the most serious questions is the depletion of the number of breeding ewes in this country. The maintenance of our flocks is one of the most important questions of the present day, and every encouragement should be given to owners to increase the number of breeding ewes. Therefore, I attach great importance to a sufficiency of hay being provided.

I notice that the noble Earl did not give a specific answer to the first Question of the noble Lord—as to whether the War Office intends to take away, after September 30 next, all the hay crop of 1917 which may then be unconsumed on any farm. I sincerely hope there is not going to be a hard-and-fast rule that all the hay that may be in the farmers' possession on that date is going to be taken out of his hands. I know you may say that this is not a very important point, because, as a matter of fact, in many counties at that date there will be very little old hay at all left. Most persons in my part of the country have an exceedingly small quantity of the 1917 hay crop in their possession at the present moment, but in individual cases it may be a very great hardship if you take away all that remains of that crop in the farmers' possession on September 30.

I know of a concrete case, in which a farmer, who is also an occupier of land and a large fattener of cattle, is fortunate in having a very considerable amount of the 1917 hay crop in his possession, but on the other hand is unfortunate because his grass land has been ploughed up, with the probability of his having a very short supply of hay for this year. With the number of stock he keeps he will be placed in an extremely serious position if it is proposed to compulsorily take away his whole hay crop. I sincerely hope there is no intention on the part of the War Office, or the Board of Agriculture, to forfeit all the old hay which farmers may have in their possession on September 30. I trust that a reasonable view will be taken, and that in asking a farmer to compute what his requirements will be during the winter and summer months due allowance will be given for the old hay that is in hand, as well as the crop from the hay harvest this year. I shall be glad if the Government will give some assurance on this point.


Before the noble Earl replies, perhaps he will allow me to ask him whether he can give an assurance that the War Office will issue a circular to their purchasing officers telling them that in all cases they may inform the farmer that if he is not satisfied with their action he has a right of appeal to the County Produce Committee. It is quite satisfactory that the farmers have this appeal, but at the present moment the majority of them do not know of this right. The ordinary farmer, and especially the small farmer, thinks that if a man comes in khaki and gives an order he simply has to obey it, and that if he does not he will probably be taken away and put in prison. If all farmers were made acquainted with the fact that they have a right of appeal it would be more satisfactory, and I hope the noble Earl will undertake to do that.


I think that certainly the War Office will be able to inform farmers that they have a right of appeal. I am sorry that I did not make it clear to my noble friend that the War Office had no intention of taking away all hay in any case, but only where it was found to be surplus to the ordinary requirements.


Surplus to the requirements? In a part of Sussex in which I have a small interest the officer states that he has been ordered now to take away from farmers all hay that they are likely to have after September 1, and he has taken my hay away. I have a copy of the letter, and will send it to the noble Earl if he wishes. My noble friend's speech this afternoon has certainly given us the impression that these orders have not been issued from the War Office, and I hope that at any rate he will inquire into the matter, for it is very serious in the part of Sussex with which I am connected. The surplus of September 30 is being taken away now.


I did not mean to imply that the hay surplus on September 30 was only to be taken then; it is the hay which it is estimated will be surplus at that date.


One is only allowed to keep sufficient now to last till September 30.




I have that in writing, and I will send a copy of the letter to the noble Earl. If my reading of it is correct, I hope that he will stop the officer from doing what he is doing.


My Lords, before this matter is disposed of, I would beg the noble Earl to take into consideration the singularly unfortunate position in which farmers have repeatedly been placed by the different Departments of the Government, owing to all of them issuing Orders, and to some of those Orders being entirely contradictory, creating the greatest confusion and disgust among hundreds of farmers throughout the country, who never know from day to day what their position is going to be. One of the first essentials to successful farming is that the farmer should know exactly the position in which he is placed, and upon what he may count for certain that he will be called upon to do. He must know in ample time what it is that he is going to be called upon to do. That has not been the case hitherto. The complaints of farmers are numerous from all parts of the country, and many of those complaints that I myself know are thoroughly well founded. I have had endless cases sent to me to which no reply has ever been made that I am aware of. Sometimes when farmers have gone themselves to the War Agricultural Committees the responses there have not in all cases shown that due regard to the farmers' interests which they ought to have shown. I hope that the noble Earl will place this as definitely and as strongly as he can before the authorities who are responsible, and endeavour to do something to remove the complaints which I am quite certain hundreds of farmers in all parts of the country are justified in making at the present time.