HL Deb 30 April 1919 vol 34 cc398-412

LORD STRACHIE had the following Notice on the Paper—

To ask the President of the Board of Agriculture whether he was consulted by the Food Controller as to the redaction of 2d. a gallon for milk produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Cornwall; and if so, did he concur in this unfair treatment of producers of milk in those counties, and if he is aware of the reason for such treatment; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House may be aware that in the four counties named in my Notice farmers will be penalised by being obliged to sell their milk at 2d. a gallon less than in any other county in England. It has been suggested to me that this was not a Question to put to the President of the Board of Agriculture, and further, only yesterday I was told by Members from the West country in the House of Commons, who, very naturally, indignantly asked the Secretary of the Board of Agriculture what was the meaning of this extremely unfair treatment, that the Board of Agriculture knew nothing about it and had nothing whatever to do with this matter. That seems to me to be very strange indeed, when I have in my hand a letter written from the Board of Agriculture which says— The Central Agricultural Advisory Council, which was formed jointly by the Ministry of Food and the Board of Agriculture, have three representatives on the Travelling Commission, of which Mr. C. B. Fisher was thy chairman. The Central Agricultural Advisory Council, of which Lord Selborne is chairman, was set up for the express purpose of advising the Food Controller and the Minister of Agriculture on agricultural questions. It is quite clear, therefore, that the body which decided to have this penalisation on the four counties as regards their milk was jointly appointed by the President of the Board of Agriculture and the Food Controller; consequently the President of the Board of Agriculture is equally responsible with the Food Controller for the decisions of that Committee.

Suppose for the sake of argument that the President of the Board of Agriculture entirely denies that this is so; suppose he says that, although he appointed half of this Committee which made the recommendation for penalising these counties, after he had appointed them he had nothing to do with them or with their decisions, it will seem very strange indeed. I know that the Somerset farmers, on whose behalf I am speaking to-day, naturally look upon the President of the Board of Agriculture as a man who ought to take care of their interests, and who, if the farmers are attacked by any Department, should at once take action, and not disclaim responsibility or he disinclined to answer in this House, or in the other House through his Parliamentary Secretary, any criticisms that may be made upon the action of the Department. He may naturally be asked why he did not interfere in this matter, and why he concurred—as he apparently did, although he rather says he has no responsibility for it—in the action that has taken place.

I should like to know on what evidence this recommendation was based. I will quote from a letter from the Board of Agriculture. This document says— The Travelling Commission, after taking evidence, decided that milk could be produced more economically in the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset than in other parts of England and Wales. I think it is only fair to the agriculturists of those counties that they should be allowed to see the evidence upon which this treatment, which they consider most unfair, has been meted out to them, and the grounds upon which the Ministry of Food came to this decision. I am told that one of the reasons given with regard to Somerset was that in that county we have a much earlier spring and a very much later autumn, with the consequence that there is a great deal more grass in Somerset early in spring and later in the autumn, and therefore milk production is a good deal easier. But anybody who makes such a statement must be quite ignorant of the county of Somerset. In that county there are different climates, and anybody who knows the district would be aware that in some parts there is a very late spring and an early autumn, with the result that there is very little grass at those times of the year.

Then, again, why should a county like Somerset be put in an inferior position to the county of Wiltshire? The parts of Wiltshire adjoining Somerset are quite as good as the latter county from a milk-producing and dairying point of view. I think I can put the whole matter in a nutshell by quoting an extract from a memorandum which I have in my hand from the Norton St. Philip Central Dairy Company, dated April 19. That memorandum says— We have milk factories on the borders of Somerset and Wilts. It is unreasonable to expect two farmers to take a difference of 2d. a gallon just because one lives in Wilts and the other in Somerset, when their farms are adjoining and they bring their milk to the same place. Rents are dearer in Somerset than in Wilts. At the present moment the Somerset farmers have to face the fact that the Wages Boards are going to increase the wages of their labourers by 6s. 6d. a week. I have no objection to that; I think that when labour is well paid you get better results; but it is hardly the time when wages are being increased for the Board of Agriculture not to make any protest against the Ministry of Food reducing the price which farmers in Somerset are to receive for the produce out of the sale of which they pay their rents and labour bills. The memorandum goes on to say— Taking the average annual production per cow, it is only 450 gallons— which I think the President will agree is a moderate average; in my own dairy I used to get an average of 600 gallons per year— 2d. per gallon equals £3 15s.. per annum, or £225 on a dairy of sixty cows— That is almost equal to another rent— Assuming this order stands, it will mean that Wilts can pay more for cattle, i.e., heifers or cows in milk, than Somerset, and that there will be a steady drain from Somerset into Wilts and Gloucester, and Somerset, with admittedly the best pasture land, will thus steadily reduce milking herds, whilst the neighbouring arable counties will be encouraged to increase their milking herds. Truly an uneconomic proposition. The public will not benefit, since there can be no means of earmarking Somerset from Wilts milk when it gets to London or elsewhere, and the 2d. per gallon is taken from the producer and given to the retailer. The memorandum further says— The intention cannot be to encourage cheese-making. I certainly thought it was the object of the Ministry of Food to make the counties of Somerset and Dorset go in for cheese-making in the future, and Devon and Cornwall for butter, instead of selling milk; but the memorandum states that it cannot be so because notice has been given that before very long, owing to a large amount of Colonial cheese coming into the market at the present moment, the cheese trade will be de-controlled. If that is the case, it takes away the argument that it is desirable to force Somerset and Dorset farmers to make cheese and Devon and Cornwall farmers to make butter. It is very uneconomical to force a farmer to produce an article which it is not in his interest to produce. A man should be able to use his land in the way he thinks best, and not be told to grow corn, or to feed stock, or to produce milk, or to make cheese. At the present time there will be enormous difficulty in the way of the farmers in Somerset taking to cheese-making again. For one thing, the difficulty of getting utensils is very great.

Another extraordinary thing in regard to this question is this. I noticed in The Times yesterday the statement that dealers outside the four counties who drew milk from them could do so only by licence and on condition that they paid the Food Ministry 2d. per gallon, the 2d. to from a fund to reduce the price of milk products generally. Therefore apparently the object of the Ministry of Food is to hamper anybody buying milk in Somerset. We send an enormous amount of milk to Cardiff and to Bristol. It would be very unfair if the Gloucestershire farmers were to receive 2d. more per gallon for the milk which they send to Bristol than the Somerset farmers will receive. Then we are told that the Bristol people will not get the benefit of the 2d.; that a licence will have to be obtained by any dealer who wishes to get milk from Somerset in, say, Bristol. All that sort of thing gives trouble, and it will have the tendency to make farmers say that they prefer to get their milk from any counties than the four which are penalised. What will happen if they take licences and consent to this plan of paying over the extra 2d. to the Ministry of Food? I have a letter from the Ministry of Food which says— I am to add that the consumers inside the four South-Western counties will consequently obtain milk at a lower price than they would had the producer been permitted to charge the higher price. Similarly the fund that will arise through the collection of the difference of 2d. in the case of milk exported from the low-priced areas will subsequently be used to the advantage of the public. Now why, my Lords, should Somerset, Dorset, Devonshire, and Cornish farmers be penalised to the extent of 2d. a gallon for the benefit of consumers generally in this country? It seems a most extraordinary state of things, and although during the war strange things were done it gives rise to wonder why the Government should do such strange things now.

It is not only as regards milk that this is to take place. I came across by accident a gentleman in Somerset who has a large manufactory of cheese. He tells me that for any cheese made which is to be sold outside these particular counties they will have to pay, exactly in the same way, this 2d. per gallon for every gallon of milk, and that the 2d. will be paid over to the Ministry of Food to be used for the general benefit of the consumer. It seems to me as if the regulations were made not by an agricultural advisory body but rather by the advisory body of what is called, I think, the Consumers' Council, because certainly the consumers will benefit by this, to the detriment of the producers. I suppose it will also apply as regards cream produced in Somerset and sold outside, and that this 2d. will be deducted and put into a fund of which the general public, according to the Ministry of Food, will receive the benefit, if the general public are to receive the benefit, why should it not have been over the whole country at large Why pick out four particular counties and penalise them in this manner? I would also like to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture, if he has gone into this question—perhaps it is entirely new to him—whether it will be not only cheese factories which will have to pay the 2d. per gallon and have to receive licences, but whether every individual farmer who makes cheese and sends it outside his county will have to get a licence to sell cheese and have in the same way to pay this 2d. in respect of every gallon of milk which he uses, in order that the price may be reduced for other people in other parts of the country.

This action of the Government will not have the effect of increasing production. The President of the Board of Agriculture came down to my county of Somerset and made appeals to the farmers during the war, and I think he is quite ready to make appeals now, for the greatest possible production. Is this kind of action likely to encourage the farmers of these four counties to greater production by making them more anxious to make the best of their land? I will go further and remind the noble Lord that although the big farmers may be able to stand this penalisation, it will be a very serious thing for the smallholders in these particular counties, because the small man always suffers most from any interference with his trade. The President of the Board of Agriculture has appealed to the County Council of Somerset, and no doubt to other County Councils, that they should do their best to settle soldiers on the land and increase the number of small holdings, but is it any encouragement to soldiers or other people to settle in Somersetshire or any of these counties, to be told that they will lose 2d. on every gallon of milk they sell outside the county?

I would also like to ask why we should have this infliction put upon us without being told the grounds upon which it is imposed, and what the case is for these four counties being penalised in what we think is a most unfair way, because we cannot see that our cost of production is less than that of other counties. We pay as much for labour, and though we may have better land our rents are proportionately higher. Consequently we have no advantage over the farmer who farms, say, in Gloucestershire. Therefore it would be much appreciated, and might remove the objections, if the Government would consent to give us the evidence upon which this Travelling Commission made their Report, which has been approved apparently by the President of the Board of Agriculture. Therefore I beg to move.

Moved, That there be laid before this House Papers giving the evidence and grounds upon which the Travelling Commission of the Central Agricultural Advisory Committee recommended a reduction of 2d. a gallon for milk produced in Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Cornwall.—(Lord Strachie.)


The noble Lord, I think, is fully aware that the responsibility for fixing milk prices rests with the Food Controller. The whole of his speech was really hung upon a very slender peg. He asks me to go behind that decision and explain to what part of these proposals I objected, and in what part I concurred. That question has been frequently asked me during my relations with the Food Controller, and I have always given the answer that the decision is the Food Con troller's, and that I will not say to what parts of the proposals I have agreed or from what parts I have dissented. You cannot, where there are two bodies with conflicting interests, expect unanimous decisions, and I venture to think that the question put to me is not a fair one to ask. It is not fair to the Food Controller to ask me to go behind his decision and either weaken it or in any other way impair its efficiency.

I think the noble Lord is perfectly well aware of the position as it stands. The Food Controller in January, 1919, decided that he would appoint a Travelling Commission to go into milk prices all over the country. The Board of Agriculture was not consulted about the appointment of that Commission. It was the Food Controller's responsibility. It was his decision that such a Commission should be appointed, and he appointed the Commission himself. He asked the Board of Agriculture to appoint one representative. We appointed a Mr. Mackintosh. All the rest of the members were appointed by the Food Controller. The Agricultural Advisory Council, to which the noble Lord has alluded as representing by this advice the Food Controller and the Board of Agriculture, were asked to send three representatives. They chose three farmers, three cow-keepers. The President or Chairman of the Committee was Mr. Fisher, a very well-known agriculturist in the Midland counties and a man of very high position in the agricultural world. Therefore, on this Commission there were these four agriculturists. Our own representative, Mr. Mackintosh, was for some time, head of the Dairy Institute at Reading, and was, I respectfully submit, a very competent person to represent the Board of Agriculture. The other members of the Commission were partly Scottish—that is to say, there was a representative of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, there was a representative drawn from the West of Scotland Agricultural College, and there were three Members of the Consumers Council.

The Report which they sent in, about the first week of April, I think, was unanimous so far as the agricultural members of the Commission went. The three cow-keepers signed it; Mr. Fisher signed it; our representative signed it—they were unanimous. The members of the Consumers Council did not sign it, and one member of the Consumers Council sent in a Minority Report claiming that there were other counties which, to use the noble Lord's expression, ought to be "penalised" as well as these four. Therefore it was not a satisfactory Report from the point of view of the consumers, but it did satisfy the agricultural members.

The broad grounds on which the Commission recommended the deduction of 2d. on the gallon in each of these four counties are these— As a result of our investigations in different parts of the country we are convinced of the advisability of varying the prices paid to the producers for milk in different districts. We consider that milk can be produced more cheaply in the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset than in the remaining parts of Great Britain. This is due chiefly to climatic conditions. Owing to the earlier summer and milder autumn in these districts it is possible for cows to remain at pasture from April 1 to November 1, while in summer there is not the same need for concentrated foods as in other parts of the country. Prolonged droughts such as those frequently experienced in the Eastern counties are practically unknown. We therefore recommend that the price paid to the producer for milk in these counties should be 2d. a gallon lower throughout the year than that paid in the rest of England and Wales. That recommendation, I should once more repeat, was accepted and put forward by the three cow-keepers, farmers, members of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, by Mr. Fisher, who was the Chairman, and by Mr. Mackintosh, who was the representative of the Board of Agriculture.


Would the noble Lord give the names of the three members?


Mr. Langford, Mr. Cumber, and Mr. Batchelor were the three agricultural members.


In what counties to they live?


I can only tell you that Mr. Langford lives in Herefordshire. I do not know where the others come from. You must remember that this Travelling Commission gave due notice of its coming into every county; that it took evidence in each county; that the fullest opportunity was offered to every farmer to come and give evidence; and that, before they arrived in each county, they sent down an accountant to help the farmer in producing account sheets to be shown before the Commission. In these circumstances the Board of Agriculture accepted the Report of the Milk Commission. I mean to say we accepted the general drift of the Report. I am not going to tell the noble Lord to what parts of that Report we objected, nor am I going to tell him why we objected. There were certain parts to which we objected, certain, conditions which we made and certain exceptions that we took; but, as a broad fact, we did accept the scale of prices fixed generally for England and Wales, and these prices are, I believe, generally accepted by farmers—as far as any body of farmers will ever accept any set of prices.

The noble Lord has asked me whether I will publish the Report of this Milk Commission. It is not the property of the Board of Agriculture. The request should have been made to the Ministry of Food, and I submit that the whole of the Question as asked by the noble Lord should have been addressed to that Department. It was only by asking a Question which I venture to think ought not to have been asked that he could bring it within the scope of my authority. In the circumstances in which I am placed with regard to the Minister of Food, I do not think I ought to be asked to what part of any particular Order I objected—or that sort of question. I have gone through this very often during the last two years. I went through it, for instance, in the question of fixing meat prices. I then refused to say whether I accepted the prices or not. I equally refuse to-day on the same ground, because I think that it is my duty to stand by the Minister of Food, whose responsibility this decision is, in the fullest possible way.


My Lords, I shall not attempt to enter into the merits of this particular question, because I am not acquainted with the local circumstances. So far as I have any personal bias in the matter, it is in the other direction; because, to a very small extent, I am an owner of dairy land in one of the neighbouring counties which, according to my noble friend, receive an undue preference.

I merely desire to make one or two observations upon the attitude which the noble Lord opposite has taken in reference to this Question. He complains in the first place that it ought to have been addressed to the Ministry of Food and not to him, and he further complained that my noble friend behind me had asked him to divulge what is practically confidential information of discussions which have taken place between different Departments of His Majesty's Government. The noble Lord opposite has my full sympathy in this matter, but I must remind him that His Majesty's Government have brought this kind of criticism upon themselves. They have ostentatiously, practically ever since the formation of the Government, thrown aside the idea of collective responsibility. Departments have been understood to work independently, it is true by means of occasional conferences with each other; but we have known cases of Ministers on public platforms protesting against the action of other Departments. That being so, the noble Lord cannot be surprised if in a matter of this kind appeal is made to him. After all, it cannot be pretended that the price of an agricultural product is not a matter which deeply concerns the Board of Agriculture, and I am certain the noble Lord would not contend for a moment that it is not. My noble friend opposite may have resented the species of cross-questioning to which he has been subjected by my noble friend, but I do not think he can resent the putting of the Question to him. Although it is one which concerns the whole public as consumers, it is of special interest to his Department, and, after all, it is put to His Majesty's Government and not to a particular Minister. It would have been quite possible for the noble Lord, had he thought it necessary, to explain that the Question ought not to have been put to him but to his colleague, and to have got the Ministry of Food to reply. I have no doubt the Board of Agriculture would have been pressed to express, as forming part of the Government, some opinions on the subject. I do not know what view Lord Strachie may take of the answer which he has received, and on that I have nothing to say, but I cannot think that the complaint of the Question having been put to the Board of Agriculture is in itself quite reasonable.


My Lords, I think, if the noble Marquess will read the terms of the Question on the Paper, he will see that it is, in effect, a censure upon the President of the Board of Agriculture for not having stopped this differentiation of prices between one group of counties and the rest of the country. There is no doubt why it was deliberately put down in its present form, and why it should not have been put to myself as momentarily representing the Ministry of Food.

I merely want to point this out. These prices were arrived at by what may be called an Inter-Departmental Committee. Not only was the Board of Agriculture for England and Wales represented on it, but the Board of Agriculture for Scotland was also represented. Three members of the Central Advisory Council of Agriculture were on it, the West of Scotland Agricultural College had a representative, and the Institute of Research into Agricultural Economics had Mr. Orwin as a representative, perhaps the very best judge and assessor of this kind of question in Great Britain. The chairman himself, Mr. C. B. Fisher, is generally looked upon as a first-class authority on these matters. I want to make it clear to Lord Strachie that this Committee had no executive responsibility. It was appointed to report to Mr. Roberts, the Food Controller; and the responsibility for acting upon this Report is Mr. Roberts's alone. It is no good, and indeed it is not fair, to attack the President of the Board of Agriculture because certain counties have not been treated the same as other counties.

What I wish to emphasise is that the Food Controller took special care—as, from what I have told your Lordships, is quite clear—to make certain that agriculture, as such, should be able to make its voice fully heard on this Committee. Mr. Roberts ensured that the case of the milk producers should be properly known, properly canvassed, and properly advanced; and this was done. When Lord Strachie recommends, as in effect he does, that the Board of Agriculture should have stopped Mr. Roberts taking this action, I beg him to consider what such a course would involve. It would mean that on an Inter-Departmental Committee one Department, and that not the executive Department concerned, should be entitled to veto the decision come to by the executive and authoritative Department. Such a thing would be perfectly impossible. If Lord Strachie's case were conceded, no Minister would dare to appoint a Committee upon which representatives of other Departments were invited to attend and give evidence. There is no question of disregarding collective responsibility in this. There is no collective responsibility, in so far as more than one Department is concerned in the decision. One Department, and one Department alone, has the responsibility, and Lord Ernle has made it quite clear that he, as a member of the Government; is prepared to accept that decision, although, as he has told your Lordships quite frankly, he made certain reservations. For all I know those reservations may have been acted upon.

Lord Strachie has given notice of a Motion. I have not the terms of the Motion before me. No notice has been given of them except the verbal notice which the noble Lord gave in his speech. I am afraid I cannot accept the Motion without consulting the Food Controller. It is a Motion asking for the evidence. I do not know whether any evidence was recorded on the subject. The grounds upon which the Committee reported have been communicated verbatim to your Lordships by Lord Ernle, and I would suggest to Lord Strachie, as it is impossible for me to answer until I have made inquiries in order to ascertain whether there is any recorded evidence, that he should withdraw his Motion or put it down for discussion at a subsequent date.


I understand that the noble Earl is quite ready to consider a request for Papers after he has been able to consult the Food Controller, and if I put it down on the Paper in specific terms. If the noble Earl is ready to consider this question in an unbiassed way and on the merits of the case—to consider whether it would not be fair that the farmers in these four counties should have some reasons given them for this decision—I should be quite ready to comply with his request and put down the Motion on another day. Am I to understand that is what the noble Earl means? Am I to understand that he is prepared to consider it with a free mind, and that he will not say he cannot give us any further information beyond what the President of the Board of Agriculture has given us to-day. I consider that the President of the Board of Agriculture has given us very little information to-day, and I am afraid the farmers in the West of England will be rather horrified to read his statement that he is-not here to stand by the farmers of the country, but that he has to stand by the Ministry of Food in a question which is of such vital importance to agriculturists in this country. Yet we have been told lately that the Board of Agriculture is to be made a first-class Department in order that it ma have greater authority and standing. It does not seem the right, way of beginning when the President of the Board of Agriculture repudiates the idea of his being asked a Question of this kind in this House, where there is no direct representative of the Ministry of Food and where he naturally is looked upon as a. person to whom agriculturists may appeal, just as they appeal to his representative-in another place.

The noble Earl, who says he only temporarily represents the Ministry of Food, states that he has no responsibility himself in the matter, and cannot say whether or not he will accept my Motion, and that he really does not desire to discuss it. Therefore it seems to me that there was no reason at all why the President of the Board of Agriculture should complain of my asking him, as the legitimate representative of the agriculture of this country, whether he approved of what has been done in this matter, and why he did not stand up and say he would not have it. I know from my own experience that, Presidents of the Board of Agriculture who have been interfered with in questions affecting their own Department have said that they would not have that interference; and I am only sorry to think that the present President of the Board of Agriculture is unwilling to stand up for agriculturists, and has been willing to be over-ruled in this matter as he has been in the past in other matters affecting the interests of farmers.


May I say one further word? If only Lord Strachie knew the cogency, the persistence, and the force with which Lord Ernie presses and has pressed the claims of the agricultural and producing community upon the present and upon the late Food Controller, I think that he would not have made the very ungenerous remark which appeared at the end of his observations. So far as I am concerned, I had no notice of this Motion and it is impossible for me to accept it to-day. I do not even know if any evidence is recorded. I am quite ready to explain to Mr. Roberts that a desire is expressed for further information about these four counties, and I have not a doubt that Mr. Roberts will give the matter sympathetic consideration. If, therefore, the noble Lord will postpone his Motion now and repeat it in the course of the next few days, and is then dissatisfied with the answer which is given to him on behalf of the Food Controller, he will be at liberty, if he so desires, to press the matter to a decision in your Lordships' House.


I will, of course, accept the suggestion of the noble Earl and put down the Motion for a future date. I understand that if I do so tile noble Earl, as representing the Ministry of Food, will give a reply. If the noble Earl desires it, I will show him the new Motion before it is put down.


Let it be put down again this week in the same terms. If that is done it will permit of the noble Lord speaking and of myself giving a reply.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.