HL Deb 29 April 1919 vol 34 cc384-94

LORD BLEDISLOE rose to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture—

1. Whether any, and if any how many, of the sixteen additional Commissioners and forty Sub-Commissioners stated by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board on March 26 last as about to be appointed, have, in fact, been appointed.

2. Whether he will state the names and qualifications of those already appointed.

3. Whether he is aware that a register of military officers possessing considerable agricultural knowledge and experience was kept by the Director of Agricultural Production in France; and whether any opportunity has been given to any of these officers to apply for the above posts.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking the Questions on the Paper in my name regarding the appointment and qualifications of certain officers who have either been appointed or are about to be appointed under the Board of Agriculture, I desire to make it clear that I do not wish to trench in any way upon that sphere of agricultural policy—or lack of policy—which I understand is to be the topic of debate in this House one day next week on the initiative of the noble Duke, the Duke of Marlborough.

My Questions are prompted by a debate which took place in the other House on March 26 on a Motion by Mr. Harry Hope, a very distinguished and expert agriculturist, relating to the reorganisation or reconstitution of the Board of Agriculture; and the Motion, perhaps I may remind your Lordships, which was moved by him and which was adopted without any amendment and apparently with considerable enthusiasm by the Government, was in the following terms— That as a necessary and immediate preliminary to agricultural reconstruction, it is essential to reorganise the Board of Agriculture, and to accord the Department the status, staff, and accommodation of a first-grade Ministry. I may add that the Parliamentary Secretary—Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen—who gave the assent of the Government to this proposition, stated that a Bill would be introduced into Parliament at an early date in order to carry out the intention of that Motion. The Parliamentary Secretary at the same time adumbrated the form which this proposed reconstruction would take; at any rate he appeared to do so; and he foreshadowed amongst other things a new Board, or, as he described it alternatively, a Committee on Agriculture; secondly, new county agricultural authorities, which would apparently be a large addition to the present county war agricultural executive committees; a central agricultural council for England, and another for Wales; and finally the appointment of sixteen Commissioners and forty Sub-Commissioners. He did not explain exactly what functions these gentlemen would have to undertake, but he described in connection with them that they would deal with the county. councils in all matters in respect of which the Board acts either with or through the county councils or the county agricultural authorities.

The Parliamentary Secretary proceeded to detail a certain number of subjects which would come within their cognisance, I and mentioned that they were by no means comprehensive. Those subjects included small holdings, the cultivation of land—I presume that this covers the main duties of the present agricultural executive committees—drainage, agricultural education, land reclamation, diseases of animals, plant tests (whatever they may be), and seeds. I think your Lordships will agree that the scope of their work will be very wide and will involve very special qualifications—in fact, they must be men above the ordinary stamp of agriculturists and possessing something more than mere agricultural qualifications. As a matter of fact, each of them in my judgment would have to be an Admirable Crichton if he were at the same time to be thoroughly equipped for dealing with all the matters to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred.

Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen also explained that the Commissioners would be officers of the Board who would act largely in an advisory capacity—whether they are to advise the farmers themselves, or to advise the new county agricultural authorities is not quite clear—and would also act as inspectors to see that the work was properly carried out. They would appear, therefore, in the last resort to is persons who would exercise coercion on the part of and on behalf of the Board of Agriculture. He described them as links between the Board as the centre and the county authorities outside. That is all the information that was given about these prospective appointments by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board; and apparently, as far as I can ascertain, the Board has been proceeding with the appointment of these officers without waiting (if I may say so with all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Ernle) either for its own reconstruction or for the passage of the promised Bill.

Section 2 of the Small Holdings Act of 1908 contemplates the appointment of certain gentlemen—who are there described as Commissioners, and who have been subsequently described in public as Small Holdings Commissioners—of the number of two or more, to be appointed to the Board from amongst persons who are possessed of a knowledge of agriculture. Those clearly were persons who would have to do with small holdings, who would give advice to the small holdings committees of the county councils, and, if necessary, put pressure upon them to carry out the provisions of the Small Holdings Act. The functions of these new Commissioners, as outlined in the other House by the Parliamentary Secretary, are clearly of a much more extensive character and requiring very special qualifications for their duties, which will carry them far outside of the scope of the Small Holdings Act. Whether or not it becomes necessary, therefore, to pass fresh legislation to enable these gentlemen to be appointed must, of course, be a matter for the legal advisers of the Board, and it is one upon which I am not competent to express an opinion. But they would appear to be gentlemen, if they are to carry out all these new functions, who would require some new statutory authority to enable them to do it.

Upon the activities of these gentlemen will depend apparently the whole success of what has been generally described as "rural reconstruction," including the land settlement of ex-Service men. They will, I suppose, supply the necessary driving power; they will give technical advice; presumably also—and I hope this is the case—they will be in a position to. give the approval of the Board to purchases or intended purchases, by the new county agricultural authorities, of land intended for the purposes of settlement. I may say incidentally, as a member of one of the county agricultural authorities, that I foresee some great difficulties in carrying through the very extensive purchases of agricultural land which it will now be incumbent upon them to carry out, unless there is some representative of the Board of Agriculture on the spot who is able to give them promptly authority on behalf of the Board to purchase land when it comes into, or is about to come into, the market, and before it becomes generally known that the Government is intending to be a purchaser, with a prospect of the value of the land being put up against them. At any rate, that is a fear which has already been expressed by the committee to which I have the honour to belong, together with a hope, which I believe is being conveyed to the noble Lord opposite, that county agricultural authorities will be empowered in advance to make purchases on the same lines as an ordinary private purchaser is able to do, with the benefit of bidding at public auction when property comes into the market, without its being known that such bidding is on behalf of the county authority.

I should like to draw the attention of your Lordships to an advertisement, or rather public Press notice, which recently appeared in all the leading newspapers, and which emanated from the Board of Agriculture and was in the following terms—

"The President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries has given directions that in future every vacancy that calls for the appointment of a technical officer or inspector to the permanent staff of the Board shall first be advertised in the Press, and that no such vacancy shall be filled until due opportunity has been afforded to all suitably qualified candidates to make application for the post in question. Candidates for employment under the Board are therefore asked to refrain from making personal application at the offices of the Board, or from writing to individual officers of that Department, unless it be with reference to some particular vacancy which has been duly advertised and with respect to which they desire further information or to be considered as candidates."

If I may say so in passing, in my judgment—and I have been cognisant of the activities of the Board of Agriculture for the best part of thirty years—never have more important appointments been contemplated than those to which I have just referred, and never was more expert knowledge required if they are efficiently to carry out the duties which are to be assigned to them.

I estimate that something like forty-eight appointments have to be made of these new Commissioners, or possibly have already been made. Apart from the terms of this advertisement, with which I am sure your Lordships will most heartily concur, as calculated to bring into the field the best possible talent for this purpose, I think your Lordships will also agree that the country needs in this connection the very best men that can be obtained, and this is only possible as the result of open competition consequent upon due notice and advertisement in suitable organs of the Press. I have made every effort to trace any such advertisement as that which is adumbrated in this Press notice, and I cannot find that these posts have been advertised at all; but I am informed, rightly or wrongly, that certain persons have already been notified that they have been or will be appointed to these posts. In that event I am asking in my Question for the names and qualifications of the appointees; and also, by way of further explanation, I ask whether these gentlemen (if any have been appointed) possess qualifications as the result of examination by the Surveyors Institution or other similar body whose diploma carries great weight for the execution of such tasks as these gentlemen will have to undertake.

If I may venture to say so, the qualifications that would appear to be needed are just those the possession of which would be best evidenced by the diploma of the Surveyors Institution—either the diploma of professional associateship or of fellowship of the Institution. I applied yesterday at the Institution for information in reference to this matter. In fact, I had an interview with the president and also with the secretary of the Institution, and they informed me that they had no knowledge of these posts having been advertised, or of any of those holding their diplomas having been appointed. No doubt the noble Lord will be able to enlighten your Lordships on this matter, but if these appointments have been made I suggest that a very great hardship will have been inflicted especially upon those gentlemen serving as officers in His Majesty's Army who have either lately been de mobilised, or are shortly about to be demobilised, possessing most if not all of the necessary qualifications to enable them to carry out efficiently the work of these Commissioners, if these gentlemen have not been given an opportunity of applying for these posts in the absence of advertisement in the Press, which I suggest would have been the most suitable course to ensure the best possible men putting in applications.

In this connection I wish to ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that a register of officers possessing high agricultural and surveyors' qualifications has been in existence for some time, compiled on the initiative of the Quartermaster-General by the noble Lord, Lord Radnor, in his position as Director of Agricultural Production in France. I am informed that no gentleman whose name appears upon that register has so far been appointed to any of these posts, and I ask the noble Lord, in any further appointments he may make of this character, to bear in mind the special claims of these gentlemen, who because they are out of sight are out of mind, but who have carried out such magnificent work for their country in a military capacity, and whose claims ought not to be overlooked in favour of those who have done possibly less sterling work for their country in a civil capacity at home but who are more obvious to the eye of the noble Lord and his advisers.

I would also like to ask whether these Commissioners will be whole-time employees of the Board, or whether they may, while accepting a salary from the public purse, engage also in private business. I hope that in the best interest of the public these gentlemen will be whole-time servants of the Board, and will not be allowed to undertake private practice as estate agents or otherwise at the same time.

May I finally express the hope, in which I am sure your Lordships will join, that the process of raising the status of the Board, of which this appears to be part, will not mean the retention of a large number if not all of the present staff of the existing Board of Agriculture while simply raising their salaries to the standards of those given by a Department of the highest grade. I feel sure that the noble Lord, the President of the Board, will be able satisfactorily to answer most of these Questions. It is in no carping spirit that I put them to him. I feel very strongly that if we are to have a real rural renaissance, a real recon stitution of the Board of Agriculture (especially in its decentralised form as it will exist throughout the counties of England), it is most necessary to procure for this work the highest possible qualifications that are to be obtained and not too hurriedly to make appointments of men who may appear to the President or to his advisers to be capable, but who may conceivably, if brought into competition with others, prove not to be the very best men to be obtained for this purpose.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for bringing this subject before the House, and I can at once set his mind at rest on one important point. None of the permanent appointments, which we have stated must be by advertisement in the public Press, have been made. We have made no permanent appointments. We have made only certain temporary ones for temporary purposes, and I think that if the noble Lord had called at the Board of Agriculture we could have put his mind quite at rest on that point. The secretary and the president of the Surveyors Institution are quite right in saying that no permanent appointments have been made of members of the Surveyors Institution, because no permanent appointments at all have been made; but they might have gone on to tell him—and I rather wonder that they did not—that they have supplied us with a list of officers who have served in the Army who are either Fellows of the Surveyors Institution or professional associates of that body, and that of the nine temporary appointments that have been made seven were gentlemen selected from that body. I am somewhat surprised that the noble Lord did not receive that information from the Surveyors Institution.

As to the status of the Board and the suggestion that raising its status will affect the salaries of the servants of the Board, I believe that, as a matter of fact, the only salaries that are raised are those of the President, the Permanent Secretary, and the principal messenger. I believe that no other salaries are raised when the status of the Board is raised. I hope that this will set the noble Lord's mind at rest.

I will now deal with the specific Question which the noble Lord has asked me. We have before us a very big task—that of continuing the work of the Food Production Department and of finishing it up in certain directions; of carrying on the work of the allotments, which have grown, as you all know, to a very great extent; and, finally, of obtaining the land for land settlement. Besides that, we have in hand certain important drainage schemes, and we have two or three selected areas of land reclamation. For all these purposes we want a temporary staff of skilled men, and we therefore applied to the Treasury in February this year for permission to add to our staff, not to our permanent staff but to our temporary staff. We pointed out, in making that application, that we intended to utilise the services of as many of the gentlemen already in our employment in food production or allotment work as we could, with such changes as the addition of those new and different duties required.

We obtained permission from the Treasury in March to form a staff of twenty-four Commissioners and thirty-five Sub-Commissioners. I am quite aware that the Parliamentary Secretary stated elsewhere that the number was forty Sub-Commissioners, but that is a mistake. It is really thirty-five. I have the letter of the Treasury before me. The staff at the present moment consists of twenty Commissioners and twenty or twenty-one SubCommissioners—I will explain why that number is uncertain. There are, therefore, four Commissioners and fourteen or fifteen Sub-Commissioners whom we still have authority to appoint. The twenty Commissioners that we have are made up thus. There are the eight Small Holdings Commissioners, who are permanent members of the Civil Service and part of the establishment of the Board; in addition to those eight permanent members, we have twelve temporary Commissioners—Commissioners appointed temporarily only. The services of ten gentlemen already in the employment of the Board and engaged in food production or allotment work were retained as temporary Commissioners. We have made two appointments of men not already in the service of the Board, and one of those two was an officer who has risen in the war to the rank of Colonel and who has gained the Distinguished Service Order. So far then, out of the only two outside appointments that we have made, one has been an officer who has rendered distinguished military service abroad. There remain four temporary Commissioners still to be appointed. If and when we want them we shall proceed to appoint them, but I may point out again that these are temporary and not permanent appointments.

The twenty or twenty-one Sub-Commissioners, all of whom are temporary, are made up thus. The services of eleven gentlemen already in the employment of the Board and engaged in food production or allotment work have been retained as Sub-Commissioners. Nine new appointments have been made. All of them are of officers who have served in the war; and I should like to repeat again that of these nine officers seven possess the qualifications on which the noble Lord lays stress; four of them are Fellows of the Surveyors Institution, and three are Professional Associates of the Institution. Those gentlemen were specially recommended to us by the Surveyors Institution, and were on the list which was furnished to us by that very distinguished body. The tenth officer has been selected and offered a post. He has not yet accepted. If he accepts there will remain fourteen vacancies; if he refuses there will be fifteen vacancies. I do not propose to read out the names and qualifications of these gentlemen. I have them here—it would be rather a long business to read them out—where they were educated, and what their professional qualifications are. If the noble Lord wishes for information as to any specific name I shall be delighted to give it to him. If he would prefer it, I will have a copy made and will hand it to him so that he may make any comments he likes on a subsequent occasion. I have nothing to fear from this list of names appointed for this temporary purpose.

The Board of Agriculture is not aware of the register to which the noble Lord alludes. But I may say this. The Army Agricultural Committee, which is presided over by Viscount Harcourt and is the London agent of the Agricultural Committee in France, is also unaware of the existence of that register. We have a list at the Board of Agriculture of 6,000 civilian and military applicants for employment under the Board, and if the noble Lord can obtain a copy of this register from France for me I shall be delighted to compare it with the list of applicants we-have before us and to add any names that do not happen to be noted in it. I may add that we have also received a list from the Surveyors Institution of the gentlemen now serving in France and engaged in agricultural work who are, in their opinion, specially suitable for such appointments as those which we are making. Whether we shall go on to fill up the total number of temporary appointments that we are allowed, I do not know. At present we do not intend to appoint any others. If, and when, we find it necessary to appoint them, we shall select them on the principle which we have already followed. We shall give priority in every case to soldiers, and we shall give priority to men who, being soldiers, have obtained the certificate of the Surveyors Institution, who are Fellows or:Professional Associates of that body, or who are experienced and trained land agents. Those are the type of men we want. That is the principle upon which we have hitherto acted, and the principle we mean to pursue. When we come to make any permanent appointments then, in accordance with the notice I have issued in the Press, those appointments will be duly advertised and applications will be requested. I hope the noble Lord will be satisfied with that.


Are they whole-time appointments?


They are ad of them whole-time appointments.


My Lords, there is one point arising out of the answer of the noble Lord on which I should like to ask a further question. I am rather surprised that nobody seems to know of this register of officers who have been working overseas. I understand that they are fully qualified for the posts now vacant, and I do not think there will be any difficulty in supplying Viscount Harcourt, or the noble Lord, with a list from that register. This is a very important matter, because surely a fully qualified ex-Service officer is a very admirable person for the work. I understand that these appointments will be fully advertised, and that those already made are merely temporary. I should like a little further knowledge as to what is the meaning of the word "temporary" in this connection. I have a recollection of some hutments that were put up at Folkestone after the Crimean War. They were called "temporary" houses, but they are still in position. There is a strong feeling prevailing, which ought to be allayed as far as possible, that these officers and men who have done service for the country overseas are often prejudiced, and that appointments are made in favour of others who have never been overseas.


My Lords, I shall be extremely grateful to the noble Earl if the register can be obtained, and, as I have already said, if we can get it we will carefully look through our own list and add any names to it that are noted. Whether any of these gentlemen who are chosen for temporary appointments become permanent officials depends upon the way in which they conduct themselves while holding their office. If they turn out to be good men, I do not think the noble Lord would wish me to say that they should not be made permanent officials; but subject to that, as I have already explained, we have only made nine new appointments outside the Board to the posts of Sub-Commissioner. We have only made two appointments outside the Board to the Commission—one of these two being a distinguished officer; and the whole of the nine are officers who have served abroad. That is the state of the case, and I think it fully bears out the wishes of the noble Lord.


Would the noble Lord kindly say whether there is any particular reason why these temporary appointments should not be advertised in the same way as the permanent appointments?


It is not the usual practice. The permanent appointments, by the order of the Treasury, are to be all of them advertised. I am not sure whether I can promise that every one of these temporary appointments shall be advertised. We have really got an exhaustive list of officers who have served abroad, and who have professional qualifications.