§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE rose to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to the proceedings of the Royal Commission on Agriculture; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, may I first of all remind you what the terms of reference are to this Royal Commission on Agriculture which is now sitting. The reference is—
§ To inquire into the economic prospects of the agricultural industry of Great Britain, with special reference to the adjustment of a balance between the prices of agricultural commodities, the costs of production, the remuneration of labour, and hours of employment."
§ Your Lordships will notice that that is a very carefully-drawn and restricted reference. Then let me remind you of how this Commission is composed. Roughly speaking, there are seven or eight representatives of labour, seven or eight farmers, and two or three economists or accountants; but there is not one single representative of the agricultural landowners. Of that omission I make no complaint, if and so long as the work of this Commission is strictly confined to the questions intended to be covered by the reference—that is, whether, under the immediate prospect of future prices, the farmers will be able to pay the wages as settled by the Agricultural Wages Board. But if the Commission should proceed to deal with matters outside that narrow reference, then, of course, the question is raised at once whether the composition of the Commission is such as to make it a fit body to deal with such subjects.
At the first meeting of the Commission, I am given to understand, a certain question of interpretation of the reference arose, with which I am not concerned to-day. But the Commission adjourned in order that the matter might be referred to the Government, and that they might inform
the Commission what their position in the matter was. A letter was written to the Commission by Sir Arthur Boscawen, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, which was read to the members of the Commission at their first meeting after July 27, the date of Sir Arthur Boscawen's letter. That letter is addressed to Sir William Peat, and commences as follows—
Dear Sir William Peat,
With reference to our conversation this morning respecting the terms of reference to the Royal Commission, I have consulted the Prime Minister, and am authorised by him to write as follows.
The first paragraph of the letter deals with the question referred specially back to the Government by the Commission, with which I have nothing whatever to do now—it is a question with reference to the meaning of the words "hours of employment." But I want to draw your Lordships' special attention to the second paragraph of the letter—
The Government purposely limited the reference in the first instance so as to exclude wider questions, by which I understand is meant such questions as security of tenure and the nationalisation of the land, because they wish to have an early report on the economic question, and for this reason they placed on the Commission no direct representative of landowners, but an equal number of representatives of agriculturists and labour. It would be manifestly unfair that those questions, which profoundly affect the interests of landowners, should be considered in the absence of any representation of them. The Government realise that evidence on these subjects cannot be excluded altogether in so far, at least, as it may bear on the economic position of the industry. But they are of opinion that if there is to be a full examination and considered ion of these questions it should be undertaken by a separate Royal Commission specially constituted for the purpose.
(Signed) ARTHUR G. BOSCAWEN.
I want in the first place to draw your Lordships' attention to the reference to nationalisation. It is very satisfactory that His Majesty's Government state there quite definitely that the present Royal Commission is not qualified to deal with such a subject. But I think it is rather disquieting that any reference should be made at all to the possible future appointment of a Royal Commission to deal with that subject, and I do think that this is implied by the concluding words—
But they are of opinion that if there is to be a full examination and consideration of these questions it should be undertaken by a separate Royal Commission.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
To both. Nationalisation is a very big subject, and I do not intend even to touch upon it to-day, except to say that those who are in favour of it and those who are against it hold their views with great strength, and I think it would be a deplorable thing if that question was raised now in any shape or form. It could only add still further to the general want of confidence and the public feeling of insecurity that lies at the root of our financial and economic difficulties. And what I hope the Government will be able to say is that there is no intention whatever on their part of opening that question in any form.
Then I come to the question of security of tenure, which, as my noble friend opposite truly states, is also referred to in those concluding words. That case is a very different one. So far as I am able to speak for agricultural landowners—and I think I may, as President of the Central Landowners Association, claim to speak for many of them—they are quite willing to meet the occupiers and discuss this subject, though your Lordships must not think that that implies on my part an open mind on the question of dual ownership. I have no such open mind. I believe dual ownership to be a wholly bad system in any country, and I cannot imagine how anybody could suppose it could be for the interests of the State to introduce it here. This does not alter the fact that there is a very general feeling of insecurity at the present moment among many farmers, due almost exclusively to the large sales of estates, to their purchase by syndicates, and to that unhappy practice that grew up of giving notice wholesale to tenants before the sale took place.
The point I want to make on this question of security of tenure is this, that any body appointed to consider that question (to which there are two very distinct sides, as my noble friend opposite knows well) should be composed of competent persons wholly disinterested from the question at issue, before whom the interested parties should appear as witnesses. I want to make a protest now and here against this practice which is growing up of appointing a Royal Commission to decide some very 844 difficult question by putting on six members who hold one set of extreme views and six other members who hold another set of extreme views, and appointing one or two people to decide between them. It is a preposterous way of arriving at a settlement, and I should have thought that the proceedings at the Coal Commission led sufficiently exposed its danger and its mischief. Therefore I would strongly beg His Majesty's Government that if they appoint such a body—I personally am wholly prepared for its appointment—to consider this question, it should be composed of people who are neither occupiers nor owners nor with any interest in the occupation or ownership of land. The only rôle which the owners and the occupiers should fill in the Commission is that of witnesses.
I desire to refer again to Sir Arthur Boscawen's letter, and especially to these words—It would be manifestly unfair that these questions" [that is, nationalisation and security of tenure] "which profoundly affect the interests of landowners, should be considered in the absence of any representation of them.That is exactly the same thing as saying what was said—I think every one must agree with Sir Arthur Boscawen and the Government—that the present Royal Commission is not a fit body to deal with the question of security of tenure. When I remind you again that it is composed of seven or eight representatives of labour, seven or eight farmers, and two or three economists and accountants, and that there is not one landowner on it, it must be clear that it is a wholly unfit body to deal with the question of security of tenure.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
Yes, this body. And I want to emphasise the feint that it would not be made fit by the appointment of seven or eight landowners to balance the seven or eight representatives of labour and the seven or eight occupiers. In my judgment it would still remain a wholly unfit body. I have already described to your Lordships the kind of body which I think would be fit to deal with this question, but I hope that no such unhappy idea will occur to His Majesty's Government as to try and make this body fit merely by adding a representation of the landowners. 845 Although this body is clearly unfit to deal with the question, I want to draw your Lordships' attention to a Resolution passed by the Commission at its meeting on July 30. I am reading from the Official Report of the proceedings of the Commission as published in the newspapers of July 31. At the very end of the Report you will find these words—The Commission agrees to consider the subject of security of tenure in relation to the costs of production and to the general economic prospects of the farming industry.I can imagine anyone saying that in dealing with the costs of production it would not be possible to omit altogether all consideration of security of tenure, though personally I do not think it comes much into the question. Nor do I myself believe that you can consider this question in bits; you have to consider it as a whole, because otherwise it would not be in any degree satisfactorily dealt with. But the Royal Commission goes much further than that when it passes a Resolution to the effect that it agrees to consider the subject of security of tenure in relation to the costs of production and to the general economic prospects of the farming industry.
Now, if that is not the whole question of security of tenure I do not know what is; and I enter my most emphatic protest against a Commission so formed—which has been characterised by His Majesty's Government, by implication, as unfit to deal with this question—attempting to deal with it. Let me draw your attention to the extraordinary contrast between its action on this subject and on the question of hours of labour. In the same Report, exactly before the words I have just quoted, comes the report of the following Resolution—The addition of the words and hours of employment' is not to be taken to mean that the Royal Commission is expected to consider hours of employment, except in relation to the costs of production; and that the Commission will not consider what the hours of employment should be or make any recommendation thereon.Here is a Royal Commission on which labour is very fully represented; its duty is to consider the present economic position of the farmer: labour protests that the hours of employment should not form any part of the business of that Commission, and the Commission passes a Resolution to the effect that, whereas the hours of employment may be considered and referred to in relation to the costs of production, 846 yet the Commission is to make no recommendations thereon.
The next Resolution deals with security of tenure, and there it says that it is to be considered in its whole bearing on the economic condition of the industry; but the Commission never says a word about making no recommendations thereon, although not one landowner is on the Commission. A Commission on which the labourers are fully represented is allowed to consider the hours of labour as they affect the costs of production, but passes a Resolution to the effect that it shall make no recommendations thereon. The same Commission, at the same meeting, passed another Resolution—although not one landowner is on the Commission—that it is going to deal with the whole question of security of tenure as it affects the economic problems of agriculture, and says nothing whatever about making recommendations thereon. I draw your Lordships' attention to that singular contrast, and I make my emphatic protest against it.
That is not all; because at the previous meeting this Royal Commission passed a Resolution—I am told only by the casting vote of the chairman—to the effect that the proceedings should be conducted in secret. On general grounds that decision in my judgment was wholly wrong. What is the case at issue? The farmers are accused by a section of the public of making undue profits; of being, in fact, profiteers. That statement, I believe, is' wholly unjust and unfounded. The farmers en the other hand say that, if prices fall to anything like what they were before the war and if the costs of production remain what they now are, they will not be able to conduct their industry at a profit. I believe that statement to be absolutely accurate. But the public is suspicious, and the consumer wants prices to come down. The right course for the farmers to take is to put the whole of their cards on the table. They have nothing whatever to fear from the just judgment of the public, because their case is so good that they can put the whole of their cards on the table. Therefore I regard it as a great misfortune that this Resolution of secrecy should have passed.
Then I ask you to consider how that Resolution affects the other Resolutions to which I have drawn your attention. They are going to consider the subject of 847 security of tenure in relation to the general economic prospects of the farming industry. A Commission not containing one single representative of the landowners, pronounced by the Government as unfit to deal with this subject, is nevertheless going to deal with it behind closed doors. Is it possible, my Lords, to make a defence of such a proceeding? Many of the gentlemen composing this Commission are my personal friends, and I am perfectly certain it would never occur to them what a mistaken and unfair course they were taking. I sincerely trust it may not be too late for them to reconsider their decision and to open their doors, to put the whole of their cards on the table before all their fellow-countrymen, and to realise that, constituted as they are they cannot possibly fairly deal with this question of security of tenure except on exactly the same lines as those proposed for dealing with the question of the hours of labour. In conclusion, may I say that the Papers I ask for are this letter of Sir Arthur Boscawen and the Official Report of the proceedings of the Commission. I beg to move.
THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY
My Lords, I wish to emphasise what has fallen from Lord Selborne. I entirely agree with him. It is the last point I want to rub in. It is monstrous that this Commission is to be held behind closed doors. I have it straight from a great friend of mine who is on this Commission. He says it is dangerous to hold it in public, because small farmers will be afraid to come in and disclose what they would like to disclose. My answer was. "You are going to publish it, are you not?" "Yes" he said, "afterwards." I replied, "Then if you are going to publish it afterwards, you may as well have it in public at once." I cannot imagine that any farmer would be afraid to come. The coalowners and the miners faced the music, and surely the small and big, farmers can face the music of a public Commission. If they are afraid of it, they must stop away. I hope the will be told that they must hold the inquiry in public. I know what the other side of the argument is. It is said that you will only get garbled reports in the newspapers. You will not, of course, get a verbatim report every day, and very often thing, are not accurately reported. That, however, is the lesser evil. I hope they will be told they must have it in public, particularly as my noble friend says that on this point they were equally 848 divided. I know that it was the chairman's casting vote which decided it.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
My Lords, Lord Selborne has asked for two documents, one of which is in the possession of the Government and which, of course, the Government gives at once—namely, the letter from which he quoted. I do not know if that has been published. If it has not been published—I do not know what the most convenient procedure is, but it shall be made available to Parliament. The other was, I think, an official document.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
So far as the second paragraph is concerned, Lord Selborne read it verbatim. I have not compared the first paragraph, but I imagine it is also probably there. If it is not there, your Lordships shall have it. I mean the letter of July 27.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
It shall be published. It is a letter to Sir William Peat from Sir Arthur Boscawen of July 27. I will consult with the Clerks at the Table as to the proper means of circulating that document. Half of it has already been read by Lord Selborne. The other Paper refers to the secrecy of proceedings. I will refer to that in a moment. Before doing so I should like to discuss the earlier part of Lord Selborne's speech about the reference to this body. Lord Selborne asks that an assurance should be given that there should be no inquiry into nationalisation or security of tenure, though he said that he himself was prepared to welcome inquiry into the latter.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
No: only an assurance about nationalisation. If the question of security of tenure is held before a body constituted very differently from this one, I ask for no assurance upon that.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I understand Lord Selborne does not mind an inquiry into that so long as the body is properly equipped.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
And therefore it is not to be allowed to discuss it. It is quite clear in the letter from Sir Arthur Boscawen, which will be made public. All I wish to point out to your Lordships is that I do not suppose the Government can say that it will refrain from inquiring into any subject under the sun. All Sir Arthur Boscawen says is that This particular body cannot discuss it; that the reference does not justify their doing so, and that in any case their personnel was designed and selected with a view to their discussing other matters and not to discussing that one. I imagine that if, after a statement of that character, these gentlemen care to discuss nationalisation, and everybody knows that they are not equipped for that purpose, their recommendations will receive the same meed of attention which we should pay to recommendations on any other subject made by any other unqualified body. If these questions are to be discussed, it is clear that somebody else has got to discuss them, and the Commission has been told accordingly.
There is no occasion for me to traverse or to criticise what Lord Selborne said about the ideal body to look into these matters—security of tenure, for instance, or, if you like, occupation of land, or ownership. I would only point out that he laid down a very stringent test—namely, that those who discuss these matters shall not have any interest in the occupation or ownership of land. That may be an ideal solution, but I do not think it is practical business. I certainly should regret very much if another Royal Commission, over which Lord Selborne is presiding, consisted of people who were unacquainted with the problems with which his Commission has to deal. Lord Selborne went a great deal further. He said that one of the qualifications for an inquiry of this character is that people should know nothing about it. I applaud his sentiment, but I do not think it would work.
Now let me come to the most important part of Lord Selborne's Question—that is, the procedure of this Royal Commission. It is, I think, much the most important 850 part of his Question, and is certainly the most difficult for me to deal with, because the Government have no standing or status to control the procedure of a Royal Commission. Lord Selborne emphatically protests against the two Resolutions which these gentlemen passed on July 30 last. The first was that which he quoted to us dealing with hours.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I will do full justice to that point. The first of these two Resolutions dealt with hours, on which the Commission has agreed apparently to make no recommendations. The second Resolution was that the Commission agreed to deal with security of tenure in so far as it is concerned with the cost of production.—
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
—and the general economic prospects of the farming industry; with no restriction in that respect about making recommendations. That may be regrettable, or it may not be regrettable, but it is not the province of the Government to instruct this Com mission what Resolution it is to pass or not to pass. Equally, on the question of secrecy Lord Selborne thinks that the natural—indeed, the right—course for the farmers on the Commission would have been to court publicity to the utmost, and thus to show the public that allegations which have been made against them are not only unfair to-day, but, should prices fall, would be grotesque and ridiculous. I dare say Lord Selborne is right. I do not know what animated these gentlemen in coming to this decision. They may have indicated, as Lord Kimberley pointed out, that they consider that some people would prefer that their evidence should appear in print ultimately, rather than, before a large public perhaps, orally; or they may have cons tiered that, in order to reach a businesslike conclusion, the Royal Commissioners should conduct their affairs in private and not in public; or they may have considered that if the public is to gather a jut impression of their general opinions, the public had, better have it from the Report presented as a whole, rather than from bits which one newspaper may pick out and exaggerate, or 851 another newspaper may deal with perhaps in a partial or very abbreviated form. I do not know what their motives were. All I can tell your Lordships is that the Government have no control whatever over the procedure of a Royal Commission. Lord Selborne is the Chairman of a Royal Commission; I am the Chairman of a Royal Commission. Neither he and his colleagues nor I and my colleagues are dictated to by the Government as to our procedure.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I beg pardon. I thought it was a Royal Coin-mission. I think your Lordships must agree with that. Those who have been Chairmen of Royal Commissions must know it, and if these gentlemen have committed an error of judgment, I daresay that the considerations which I have no doubt have been pressed upon them—I do not mean in this House, but by persons outside who are interested in the welfare of the agricultural world—may have an effect, and they may revise their opinion. The only other point is about the Papers. I have promised to lay the letter of Sir Arthur Boscawen of July 27. For the reasons I have stated, I cannot promise to lay the other documents. They are the Official Reports of the Royal Commission on Agriculture.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
That can be laid. I was not familiar with the point Lord Selborne wants Sir Arthur's letter, which he is going to have. He also wants the Official Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Your Lordships are, of course, at liberty to have that, but in what form? Not as a Parliamentary Paper?
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to talk it over with Lord Selborne afterwards. These Reports come out two or three times a week, and I do not think it will be convenient to have them printed at odd intervals as Parliamentary Papers.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
If it is not a document of the Royal Commission which is confidential, you can have it. So far as the technical point is concerned there is no difference of opinion between us. I agree to the Motion, subject to my being able to adjust this point with Lord Selborne.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, I have very little to add to what has bean said by the noble Earl on this bench, and very little to comment upon in what has been said by the noble Earl opposite. There is, however, a point of substance—as to whether particular proceedings of a Royal Commission fall within the terms of reference framed for them by the Government. To that extent, I think, the action of a Royal Commission does cast a certain responsibility upon His Majesty's Government. I suppose it is possible that a Royal Commission, neglecting its terms of reference, might proceed to discuss completely irrelevant and different subjects. This Royal Commission, for instance, might inquire into the position of affairs in Turkey. But it seems to be hardly conceivable that any sane body of persons would so act. I think the real question is, assuming that this particular matter of fixity or security of tenure is not a proper subject in fact for a body so composed to discuss, whether its discussion is or is not permitted by the terms of reference. If it does fall within the terms of reference and at the same time is not a proper subject for discussion, then the responsibility for what happens must rest upon the shoulders of His Majesty's Government who drew up the terms of reference.
I confess that on the general point of the composition of this Royal Commission I am in close agreement with the noble Earl (Lord Selborne) behind me. He did not, I think, lay it down as a proposition that complete ignorance of a subject should be a necessary qualification for sitting upon 853 a body to inquire into it, but what he did lay down as a canon, with which I cordially agree, was that the practice of composing Royal Commissions of Inquiry of a certain number of frenzied partisans of totally different views, with a Judge or some such person as an impartial Chairman to act as a possible cement, is, in itself, an unwise one. We have known a great many cases of that in the past. I think almost all the Royal Commissions which inquired into the liquor question have been so framed. There have been a certain number of frantic advocates of temperance and a certain number of brewers and distillers, with one or two people who might be presumed to be impartial. We do not get from such a Commission a Report which satisfies the public, and it is not by any means impossible in such a difficult subject as this—one of proper security for the occupiers of land—to frame a body, not necessarily altogether unconnected either with the ownership or occupation of land, yet who would not be regarded as strong partisans by the one side or the other.
It is clear that this Commission, as constituted, is completely unfitted to consider this particular question. About that, I think, there can be no dispute. That being so, if it takes on itself to consider it, one may assume that the conclusions will not receive very close attention from the public generally. But if it is the desire of His Majesty's Government to make inquiry into this particular subject—which, I quite agree, is and always has been one of considerable importance, and now, in the special conditions, is of peculiar importance—I venture to think it would be wise of them to anticipate a desire for an Inquiry of this kind by appointing an entirely different body to make it.
As regards the question of nationalisation I say nothing. I do not regard that as a current question as applicable to the land of the country as a whole, and therefore I conceive that the Government will not desire to have an Inquiry into it. But if the Government think it should be regarded as a question for Inquiry, I hope they will undertake it in the form suggested by the noble Earl.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, will pardon my saying so, but I do sometimes regret the air of detachment with which he deals with this kind of question.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE
The kind of question I have asked to-day. No doubt he has to consult his colleagues, but I much regret that the Government can give us no assurance at all that it is not their intention to appoint any body to consider the question of nationalisation. It would have been easy for them to say that it was not in their minds; and I hope their supporters will note that, having been publicly invited to give this assurance, they have not given it. I cannot conceive a more unnecessary or deplorable disturbance of public confidence than that this question should be ventilated at an early date. Why does the noble Earl give us no opinion of his own in respect to the secret proceedings of the Royal Commission? If he had turned to the discussions in the House of Commons and read what the Prime Minister said on this subject, he would have felt more at liberty to express a personal opinion. I do not believe for a moment that he, or any member of the Government, approves of this policy of secrecy. And why not say so? That is what I mean when I say that I regret the air of detachment which the noble Earl sometimes assumes on these occasions.
On this question of secrecy let me add one word more. I have stated my arguments, which, I think, have commended themselves to the House in regard to the inexpediency of this policy, and how utterly futile it is. Every morning a report of the proceedings of the Commission appears in the Daily Herald, written entirely from one point of view and with one object in view. Everything that the farmers want to bring out is excluded, and everything that can be represented as being in favour of the other side is given great prominence. This will continue to the end, and, although the noble Earl felt himself unable to say anything in public regarding this subject, I hope the Government will do what they can in private to tell the Chairman of the Commission what they think of the wisdom of this decision.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
My Lords, I wish to say a word in support of everything that has fallen from the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I get any number of communications, all expressing the utmost dissatisfaction at the secrecy with which 855 this Inquiry is being conducted. The noble Earl (Lord Crawford), I understand, says it rests entirely with the Royal Commission. I have served on any number of Royal Commissions in the course of a long career, and I have always understood—I believe I am right—that the Sovereign has the power to give any Instruction he pleases when the Royal Commission is appointed. As he gives these instructions through his Ministers, the Government have, of course, the power to do it if they choose. The noble Earl can very easily ascertain what the facts are, although I believe I speak with perfect accuracy, from the highest and most informed authorities on the subject. What we ask is that this secrecy should be removed, and that whatever reports are permitted to appear in public they should not be confined to a single paper like the Daily Herald, but that true and accurate reports of what has occurred should be sent out from day to day as part of the duty of the Commission. I hope that this will be done, and that in future the Government will get rid of what is undoubtedly an abuse. It is most mischievous that there should be reports such as have been described appearing every day in one particular paper, and no other reports appearing elsewhere.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
My Lords, after listening to the reply of the noble Earl I cannot help thinking that we could not possibly have had a more unsatisfactory answer to the Question. The situation appears to me to be this. This Royal Commission was set up largely on the demand of the farmers when the extra 6s. 6d. was added to the wage of agricultural labourers. The farmers said they could not pay it; the labourers said they must have it. The Central Wages Board said that this 6s. 6d. must be paid, and the Government said "We will set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the facts, and see whether you can afford to pay this 6s. 6d." That was the origin and beginning of the Royal Commission. What occurs? After listening to the debate (I am afraid I was not well acquainted with what has happened in private) apparently the Commission have passed two Resolutions—one, that they intend to discuss and go into the question of security of tenure, which has little indeed to do with the ability of farmers to pay 6s. 6d. more to their labourers; and, second, that they did not intend to discuss the question of hours of 856 labour, which I should have thought had everything to do with the question.
As a practical farmer myself, I should say that the Report of this Commission, which has passed these two Resolutions, will absolutely have to be taken as of no value at all. The noble Earl, Lord Crawford, says it is quite true this Royal Commission was appointed to inquire whether the farmers can pay this extra wage to the labourers and that the Commission passed Resolutions saying that they intended to consider a question which has nothing to do with the subject, and leave out that which has everything to do with it. The noble Earl says that the Government have no power at all and that the Royal Commission must go on. It is a most unsatisfactory position for the taxpayer and a little distressing in these days of want of money that the Government should waste the taxpayer's money in appointing a Commission which, apparently, is not going to inquire into the very thing they were set up to inquire into.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
May I ask permission to say one word? The point mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Ancaster, has already been dealt with; but Viscount Chaplin asks that accurate reports should be sent out daily. That is being done, officially.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.