HL Deb 12 February 1919 vol 33 cc57-84

THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE rose to call attention to the letter of the President of the Board of Agriculture of February 1, 1919, to Agricultural Executive Committees, and to move—

"That this House expresses its regret at the decision of the Board of Agriculture to modify the scope of its activities and its policy of direct control."

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, I ask the indulgence of the House for a short time while I call your Lordships' attention to the letter of the President of the Board of Agriculture, whom I am grateful to see in his place, of February 1, 1919, to the Agricultural Executive Committees. I have been informed, but I have not been able to verify it, that in one of the newspapers—one which the Leader of the House called one of the best papers—it is stated that the gracious Speech from the Throne which was delivered yesterday is "full of promise." Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is full of promises. Let us hope and let us see to it that those promises are promptly and comprehensively carried out.

Curiously enough, very little is said in the King's Speech about what is of great importance and interest to the country, and that is the land. There are four lines in the omnibus paragraph at the end of the Speech which dispose, in that short space, of land settlement for soldiers and others, land reclamation, and afforestation. That seems to me to be somewhat curious, as it is no empty compliment to my noble friend the President to say that no Department seems to stand so well or so high in public estimation as the one over which he presided in the last Coalition Government, and over which, we are glad to say, he presides in the present one. I may say, as I have said before in this House, that Mr. Prothero—if I may be permitted to call him for one of the few last times by his old name, which is so honoured and respected in the country—did more in that hour and a half's speech which he made when he introduced the Food Production Bill to help progressive agriculture than we who had been slaving at spade work had been able to accomplish in more than half a century; and we hoped and believed, when we heard that speech, that the old patriarchal system of agriculture—if I may be permitted to call it by that name—under which we had suffered so long and so cruelly had been knocked on the head for ever

I am not going to trouble the House with any details of the Food Production Act, as your Lordships know them better than I do, but I may say that the Act has turned out a triumphant success. Under it the Agricultural Executive Committees were given plenary powers. A million allotments sprang into existence at a single wave of the magic wand of a man whom I may perhaps be permitted to call the Prospero of British modern husbandry, and he was well backed up by his two familiars and Under-Secretaries, Sir Arthur Lee and Sir Richard Winfrey. What was the result? Last year—I am speaking under correction we were told that the home food supply, which in this country under the old system provided only enough food for fourteen weeks, had—I dare not give the figures because they may be challenged—multiplied over and over and over again. In these circumstances the country expected—and I think we had a right to expect—that this policy would be carried out with consistency and vigour.

But about eight months ago a fiat went forth from the powers that reign in Whitehall-place that the Executive Committees were to moderate their efforts, and, practically, that they were to suspend the ploughing programme. Lord Clinton, in the autumn of last year, casually and semi-officially announced that he was in favour of getting rid of the single arbitrator who also had great and plenary powers. The spell of the magician at once was broken, and his familiars deserted him. Sir Arthur Lee, whom we looked upon as a sort of bucolic Ariel who flitted about from Committee to Committee and gave us wise counsel and words of encouragement, folded his wings and disappeared into the murky darkness of the back benches of the House of Commons. But I am glad to say that he has reappeared triumphant in a fresh creation on the red benches of your Lordships' House, of which I am certain he will be a most distinguished ornament. As for Sir Richard Winfrey, he found that his light was under a bushel, and therefore he very wisely extinguished his lantern and flew straight back to his native fens, in his native county of Lincolnshire. I see the Chairman of the Land Union here. He is a man who always speaks his mind, and I can fancy him saying, "And a jolly good job too." I can fancy his saying, "It is a very good thing that at last we have been able to bring the President of the Board of Agriculture into line with our opinions, and that we have got rid, once and for all, of the Jack o' lantern, will o' the wisp policies which we so profoundly detested." We are glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, like the rightful Duke of Parma, in his proper place at last on the Front Bench of the great Coalition Government—that Government which is unleavened by the presence of any Liberal member at the present moment, with the sole and solitary exception of my noble friend the Master of the Horse of the King's Household.

I come to the letter of my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture, which we have all had. It is a somewhat long document, containing 1,475 words, so that if it were read at the rate of 100 words a minute, which I think is about the rate of ordinary speakers, it would take very nearly a quarter of an hour to read. I therefore propose to take the letter as read and try and give a précis of it, just in the same way as an agricultural ox which we sometimes see in the posters is boiled down and transformed into a cup of Oxo or Bovril and presented to a gallant wounded soldier by a good-looking and smiling V.A.D. nurse. Lord Ernle's letter appears to me to say this to the Agricultural Executive Committees: "You have accomplished a great work, the fruits of which bear testimony to the patriotism and public spirit of the agricultural community. The Committees have created a link between the farmers and the Government which it is hoped will never be broken." It is hoped that this link will never be broken. Yet this letter is sent out to us! He says in effect: "The result of your labours is so good that the Land Union and the patriarchial party who are affiliated with it and who are very much stronger than some people would imagine, have naturally been seriously alarmed, and in consequence of this I have reluctantly to wish you God-speed and good-bye. Please accept the heartfelt thanks of the nation for your good work, which I can in the circumstances no longer permit you to continue."

This letter is sent out to these Committees at a time when it is expected that provision will have to be made for an enormous number of our gallant soldiers who are demobilised and returning from the front with the intention of settling on the land. I am not going to argue whether this scheme is a good scheme or a bad one; whether they will be able to make the land pay or not; whether it is economic or uneconomic: that is all beside the point. These gallant men have determined to try to make their living out of the land, and facilities must—and I hope shortly will—be given to fulfil their wishes. It has been said that it is absolutely out of the question to manage this—it is an ideal, a fancy, an impossibility. I do not know whether the country is aware that at the present moment all the machinery already exists. The House may perhaps remember the Small Holdings and Allotments Act of what wine merchants would call "'07." Under that Act, which was passed by your Lordships in a patriotic and most praiseworthy manner, everybody who wants a bit of land—not only soldiers and sailors, but tinkers, tailors, bishops, squires, or any loyal subject of the Crown—is entitled to have it. He can go to the Government and ask for it, and the Government are obliged by law to give him what he wants—a piece of land from one to fifty acres.

People will say, "Yes, that is all very well, but how are the Government to get it?" Under the Act the first thing to do is to go to the landlords and see if it could be done by voluntary arrangement. If that could be done, so much the better. But if that could not be done, then under the Act we had the power of compulsion, and of going to the landlord and saying, "We do not want to interfere with you more than we can help; we do not want to do you any harm by severance or in- justice, but we must have this land for the general welfare of the nation, and we are going to take it." He had no option. We took the land and we got it. Then, of course, the landlord would say, "That is all very well, but you will have to pay through the nose for it." That contingency was also provided for, because we knew that there are properties that are in bankruptcy, and insolvency, and lunacy, and Chancery, and other unfortunate circumstances—properties which have very often fallen to a bank or an insurance company or an individual; and the lawyers who managed those estates would naturally say, "We do not care two straws for the public weal; what we want are the rents and we are going to have them, and we are not going to be interferred with." How did we deal with that? This shows the open-mindedness and fairness of the House of Lords: they passed a clause in which they said that if a man will not under [...] oper conditions sell his land, and wants because delay or to get lawyers in, or expert witnesses, we knock all that on the head, and send down from the office a man who will look at the land, see what sort of land it is, see what the price of the adjoining land is—a man of practical knowledge and experience—and he would determine the rent of that land, and against that decision there was no appeal. This was a marvellous clause to have got through the House of Lords; and I once more say that it redounds to the credit and to the patriotism of a House which is composed of men who in the old days owned about one-fifth of England, against whose management of their estates not one word could be said—it is a great feather in their cap to have unanimously allowed such a clause as that to pass into law.

Then came the question of machinery. Who was to manage all this? The only management of which we could think, the only machinery that was to our hands, was the County Councils. I dare say my noble friend Lord Harcourt will remember the many consultations that we had—he and I, and Sir Thomas Elliott, whose great work at the Agricultural Office ought never to be forgotten—and we at last decided that the County Councils were, after all, the only authorities on which we could rely to work under the Act. That was, of course, the weak point of the Act. I do not want to attack County Councils, God knows; but we all know what County Councils are. They are not over and above anxious to break up farms and put men on the land. However, we did fairly well, and in three years we obtained 170,000 acres on which we put labouring men and others.

But that difficulty was removed by the act of my noble friend of last year; it was remedied by the agricultural Executive Committees which he rightly endowed with very strong and plenary powers. I do not want to say for one moment that these Executive Committees have not made mistakes; no doubt they have. Some people may say that they prefer the County Councils to the Executive Committees; yet in the main there is no doubt that these Executive Committees have—as has been conclusively proved by the generous testimony which the President of the Board has accorded to them—on the whole done their work extremely well. In addition to that, these Executive Committees had chief officers, cultivation officers, district officers. These men have been chopped and changed about, but in my own county these different officials have all the details of the county at their fingers' ends. Further, we have had tractors and horses and men and women on the land who have done glorious service; yet the whole of this machinery—"all the King's horses and all the king's men"—is, as I understand it (I hope I may be wrong and that I may be corrected), scrapped by my noble friend's letter.

Horrors accumulate on horrors; we have not half done with it; it gets worse and worse and worse. I see in The Times a sort of official communiqué. The Times says— Before the Soldiers' Land Bill is brought in, measures for the acquisition of land for all public purposes must be introduced. That is relegating everything to the Greek Kalends. Next we are told that the County Councils—the dear old County Councils are brought in again—are to furnish the machinery for carrying out the settlement on the land. Then we have a great piece of information. We are informed that enormous quantities of bricks, windows, etc., are to be ordered; that illustrations of cottages will be supplied to County Councils; that a staff of architects to report on their plans is to be appointed. And then there is very good news for landowners, but I am not sure whether it will be popular in the country— Land, instead of being purchased at the prewar valuation, is to cost the country 20 per cent. more. Whether that is an official communiqué or not I am unable to say, but that was in the programme.

We are living now in critical and tremendous times. The language of neutral flattery and of self-adulation will not avail us. I hope from the bottom of my heart that I shall be contradicted, put on my back, and told it is not true. But if what I say has any truth in it, a more complete confession of Ministerial want of preparation and foresight it is impossible to conceive. There is one gleam of hope—it is not yet too late. If the President of the Board of Agriculture will harden his heart and take his courage in both hands and continue Mr. Lloyd George's land policy, as the Prime Minister stated it in the House of Commons on February 23, 1917, the situation may yet be saved. If the President refuses, what will his position be? The demobilised soldiers who are coming back in large numbers will say to him, "We looked on you as the soldiers' friend. We believed that you had a scheme actually ready to put us on the land. But what do we find? We find that you have apparently deliberately scrapped the machinery which was in existence, and thereby you have destroyed any possible early settlement on the land which we believed was in our grasp. This is our reward on our return to the England for which we fought and which we saved for you and yours—the old England which we fondly hoped we would be permitted to re-fashion and to share." But if the President fails us in this—I hope from the bottom of my heart that he will not—we have got one man and one man only left—that is, the First Minister of the Crown. We must appeal unto Cæsar.

We know, of course, the difficulties of Mr. Lloyd George's position. We know that he is the Radical Leader of a Coalition Government which is overshadowed by the largest Conservative majority that the country has ever seen. We know that he is face to face with Ireland in open rebellion; we know that the Labour Party, which he fondly hoped to bring over to his side, is sitting opposite him in open and active opposition in the House of Commons; and we are beginning to see that he will be menaced with a wavering and uncertain personal Press support. We see all this. As independent Liberals—the Wee Free Party as The Times cleverly calls us this morning—we are ready and willing to support the Government in the great question of peace which is now hanging in the balance; but we absolutely refuse to be pledged in any way by the Prime Minister's speeches or actions before or during the great war.

Many of us see eye to eye with the Prime Minister on the great question of the land. We remember his courageous speeches in days gone by, when the name of Lloyd George was anathema to most people. We remember his courage, and are grateful to him for it, and we hold him to his speech to which I have referred already—namely, the speech of 1917. We rejoice to think of the courage of his speech at Pwllheli, in North Wales, some little time ago, when he said, "If I betray my principles, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth." We know him to be a courageous man, and we cannot after that pronouncement believe that he intends to throw over the chances of the brave men who have won the war. We hope and believe that he will stick to his guns, and in that hope and that belief I respectfully submit to your Lordships the Resolution that stands in my name.

Moved, That this House expresses its regret at the decision of the Board of Agriculture to modify the scope of its activities and its policy of direct control.—(The Marquess of Lincolnshire.)


My Lords, I cannot possibly compete with the noble Marquess who has just sat down either in agricultural experience or Shakespearean knowledge, but I am very glad to support the Motion which he has submitted to your Lordships; not merely because he is my Lord Lieutenant, but because we have both served on the same Agricultural Executive Committee, which, in common with others, is being most adversely affected by the circular-letter to which he has called attention. It is not too strong a statement to make that if that circular-letter is carried into effect the effective usefulness of these committees will be practically destroyed.

I must make it clear that I have not the slightest intention on this occasion of criticising, and still less of attacking, the Government scheme of land settlement. In the first place, I do not know what it is—it has not been laid before Parliament, and we have only had certain communiqués which may or may not be inspired, in the public Press. Therefore it would be premature to deal with the main scheme now—and, in the next place, many other occasions will arise. I will only say this, that if and when it does appear it is a good scheme, no one will support it more heartily and strenuously than I shall. I will do my utmost to assist my noble friend in getting it through your Lordships' House, a task which may present some considerable difficulty.

I should also like not only to congratulate my noble friend personally upon coming to this House, but also to congratulate your Lordships' House upon having had it recognised by the Government that at least some of the great State Departments should be represented here, and particularly the one which deals with a subject with which your Lordships are probably far better fitted to deal than is the other branch of the Legislature. But while leaving the main question on one side for the moment, I do think it is proper, and indeed necessary, to challenge at once this preliminary action which my noble friend has taken, and which, if it is not modified or withdrawn, will, I believe, cause his main scheme, when it is produced, to emerge very little if at all from the paper stage. After all, the policy of this circular is not yet in actual effect, and therefore is not irrevocable, whereas in a very short time it might be. For that reason I think it is essential that the question should be raised at the earliest possible moment.

With regard to the first point, the effect that this circular-letter is bound to have and is indeed having, to my knowledge, upon Agricultural Executive Committees, it is not too strong a statement to say that it has been received by those committees not only with consternation but with resentment, and within the next few days my noble friend will receive plenty of evidence of that in representations and protests from the committees. The net effect, as expressed by a member of my own committee, is that Executive Committees are being dismissed. At any rate the action taken will be sufficient to take the whole heart out of their work. Their keenness had in any case been waning during the last six or eight months, since the President of the Board of Agriculture abandoned his forward policy, and since the committees had been made to feel, as unfortunately they have, that they can no longer count upon the support of their Chief. The attendance has been falling off—committees which used to sit three days a week now often sit not more than once in three weeks—and this circular will, I venture to say, prove their final death-blow—the death-blow of an organisation which, with all its faults (and I agree that they have made mistakes, but he who makes no mistake does nothing), at the same time did get things done and did manage to avert very grave peril from the population of this country, and in addition, and concurrently, effected beneficial changes not only in the spirit but in the practice and output of agriculture in this country.

Those, I venture to say, were great services. And having performed them, having hoped that they would have the privilege of continuing and maintaining the ground gained under stress of war, practically now, as we know from the official statement, the Food Production Department, the parent body, has been abolished; Agricultural Executive Committees, with their most valuable district sub-committees, are being demobilised and handed over in a different form to the County Councils; and in the meantime, until that can take full effect, they are told to go slow and to moderate their activities. I should really like to ask my noble friend why it is that he has lost faith in the organisation for which he was primarily responsible, and which not only averted grave peril in the course of the war, but which I venture to say saved the reputation of the Board of Agriculture. My own impression is that my noble friend has never really liked the Agricultural Executive Committees, and that he did not like them because he was responsible ultimately for their actions, and he was liable to be heckled and worried perpetually by people who had suffered under their vigorous efforts. That, no doubt, caused him a great deal of additional work and inconvenience and then fore these new-style committees have been designed. Two-thirds of their composition is settled by the County Councils, and he will, therefore, no longer be really responsible for the committees. If they behave as he thinks foolishly, he can disown them and refer the complainants to the County Councils. That might lighten his task, but I think it is a very unfortunate position for the country, and I am afraid that my noble friend's pessimism with regard to these committees and their activities is leading him to extend in every direction this policy of divesting the Board of Agriculture of its old direct responsibility.

There appears to be a growing passion on the part of the Board for divesting itself of its powers. They are surrendered first here and then there to almost any Government Department which will consent to adopt them. First of all there is the surrender of vital agricultural interests to the Ministry of Food. We understand from the Press that the greater portion of the land settlement scheme that will deal with holdings of one acre or under is to be handed over to the Local Government Board, and that other responsibilities which the Board of Agriculture has hitherto held will be handed over to the, Board of Trade and the Ministry of Munitions, while now the machinery by which the land settlement scheme is to be carried into effect will be handed over to the County Councils. The only result of all that must be an immense amount of overlapping and divided responsibility, and the unfortunate agriculturist, whether he be farmer or land-owner or small-holder, will find himself perpetually falling not between two stools but among half a dozen stools. It has been said often that the Board of Agriculture has never had its proper place in the machinery of the State. I think it is only too true that in the past—it has not been its fault—it has been looked upon as, and it has been in effect, a second-class Department, whereas it ought to be a Department equal to any which is presided over by a Secretary of State.

Now under this policy of my noble friend it is rapidly shrinking into a third-class Department, and it is losing prestige and influence with the whole agricultural community. I venture to say that there never was a time when the farmers and agriculturists of this country were in a state of greater apprehension and soreness or when they more needed a powerful friend in the Board of Agriculture. What is wanted is not a surrender of responsibilities but that the Board of Agriculture should gather together all the powers which it has either surrendered or which it ought to possess, and bring the whole thing under one control as a first-class Department of State which would have full and comprehensive authority over all agricultural matters. In this circular, which is full of disquieting symptoms, the Board of Agriculture still apparently holds the view that these Agricultural Executive Committees will be its agents, in spite of the fact that two-thirds of each of these committees will be appointed by an outside local authority over which the Board of Agriculture will have no kind of effective control. The result will be that these new committees, if there should be such a body in existence as a reactionary County Council, can be packed with sceptics with regard to the whole question of land settlement or even by its open opponents; Even if that should not be so, you will have in each county the business of land settlement and the welfare and interests of the small-holders looked after by two separate committees, two separate sets of officials—I am leaving out of account the Agricultural Education Committee—and one of these committees will establish the small-holder on the land and the other will then control him as, I suppose, a kind of agricultural police.

The only result, I venture to say, will be intolerable confusion and exasperation on the part of the small-holders and farmers themselves. After all, why is it necessary? These Agricultural Executive Committees have been for two years studying every inch of the soil of their respective counties through their committees and sub-committees and surveyors. They know far more about the conditions of the soil in their counties than any small holdings committee can possibly know in any county. So much so is that the case that already the small holdings committee of the County Councils are appealing to the Agricultural Executive Committees to do their work for them, because they do not feel that they themselves possess the knowledge. But, quite apart from that and the confusion which is bound to result, there is the constitutional question in connection with what used to be called "No taxation without representation" This is precisely the converse of that. Under the system proposed Treasury Funds, the money of the State, is to be spent by committees which are not appointed by the State but are appointed by the County Councils so far as a majority of two to one is concerned. They will have to spend not their own money or the ratepayers' money or their constituents' money. There will be no incentive to economy, and they will not be in any way responsible to their constituents for the money or the schemes which they are administering.

Surely there never was anything more topsy-turvy in the way of organisation, or a more glaring violation of ordinary constitutional principles. That, after all, might be a minor objection if one were satisfied that the County Councils were the best bodies to handle this question. But are they? The noble Marquess has expressed grave doubts upon this point. I have every respect for County Councils. I had the honour of being an Alderman of one for some time, but I venture to say that, speaking generally, caution and deliberation with regard to anything to do with land is almost an obsession on their part. This is sufficiently shown by the fact that for ten years they have been the statutory authority with regard to small holdings, and what have they effected? I have seen it claimed that 20,000 small holdings in all have been created. I believe that figure is entirely fallacious, because most of the land is accommodation land. I believe it is an outside figure to say that not more than 1,500 new settlers have been put upon the land as a result of ten years' activity of the County Councils under the Small Holdings Act. I go further and say I believe that, with very few exceptions, they are generally sceptical about the value of the policy and they are unsympathetic. As was pointed out by Lord Lamington in the letter which he wrote to The Times a short time ago, County Councils are unsympathetic and sceptical because they believe that the small holding is an uneconomical form of agriculture. They may be right. I am not here to argue whether they are right or wrong. Let us assume they are right. Is the Government, which believes in the policy of small holdings, and believes in the policy of land settlement, going deliberately to appoint as its agents to carry out its policy a body which admittedly is unfriendly and unsympathetic to the policy itself? That surely seems to me to kill their policy almost before it is born.

I know it is argued that County Councils are democratic bodies, and that they are elected on a wider franchise, which makes them a truer mirror of popular opinion, than the House of Commons itself. That is rather a surprise to some of us who have served on County Councils for, even if it be admitted that their franchise is democratic, in how many County Councils has any one ever seen an agricultural labourer or any representative of the class from which the future small-holders are to be drawn? Even if they should be elected, how are they going to find the time or the opportunity to serve on small holdings committees, or County Councils under present conditions? The County Councils may be store-houses of all wisdom with regard to agriculture, but they are no more democratic than your Lordships' House, if indeed as much so. In any case—and this is the essential point—the President of the Board of Agriculture will have no real control over them whatsoever.

That brings me to what is my main contention—that the whole business of land settlement is the duty, not of any local authority, but of the Central Government and its agents, which it should appoint itself. It is a national and not a local responsibility—and the matter is so urgent, as I feel sure the Government will find before many months are out, that dilatory methods (committees under the Small Holdings Act, and this procedure through the County Councils) will not be tolerated. I know there is a new tendency now on the part of the interests opposed to the movement to decry the whole thing as being not really in the interests of the soldier himself. There is an interesting letter in The Times this morning on this point by Sir Howard Frank. If he is right, it ought to have been thought of before the General Election and not after. The Government have definitely nailed this land policy to the mast-head. Now they say it would not be good to put them into this precarious business. The very fact that it is necessary to exercise care in this matter surely emphasises the need of the Board of Agriculture directing and controlling it itself through its own appointed agents, its district commissioners and executive committees, appointed by and responsible to it. The district committees, it is fully admitted, are quite capable of improvement and should be overhauled and strengthened in many respects. That should be done by the Board of Agriculture, and I venture to say it will be necessary, or at any rate desirable, to appoint at least one representative of the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors Society on each of these committees.

There is only one other point on which I wish to touch, and that is the action which the President of the Board of Agriculture has taken in his circular instructing committees to sell all their implements and machinery—in effect, to go out of business. It means that these committees will be powerless in the future to assist these men after they get on the land; and this is done at the moment when one of the greatest difficulties which confront the small-holders is the shortage of capital and the difficulty of purchasing equipment at the present high prices. In these circumstances surely it is premature on the part of the Board of Agriculture to get rid of the means in its hands of helping these people at the very moment they most need it.

I hope that the President, when he replies, will deal with this point. There is one thing behind all these which is absolutely fundamental. It is the point which is always shirked, or forgotten, by the Ministerial spokesman. What is the policy of the Government with regard to the maintenance of prices which will enable the small-holder, or other agriculturist, to live and pay the new scale of wages which are now in existence? If the British agriculturist, this new class of agriculturist, is to be exposed in the future to unmitigated foreign competition in the matter of imported food-stuffs, in the alleged interest of the urban voter and the cheap loaf, then it will not only be an economic impossibility to pay this scale of wages but it will be impossible for the small-holder to maintain himself at all. Under such circumstances to talk of putting our gallant soldiers and sailors on the land is to talk nonsense, or else to connive at a farce which will rapidly become tragic. How can you expect soldiers and sailors, and the small-holder, to put their small capital into their holdings unless they are guaranteed a fair return for their investment? That is the fundamental question which has to be faced before any of these schemes are launched; and whilst this is not the moment to discuss it in detail, at the same time I hope I am not out of order in drawing attention to it in connection with this Motion, because the very best scheme that can be framed, or the best machinery the wit of man can devise, will be void and of nil effect until that question is settled.


My Lords, as Chairman of a War Agricultural Executive Committee I should like to express my regret that I am unable to agree with the views of the noble Marquess or of the noble Lord who have addressed your Lordship with so much authority on agricultural matters, and who I understand are both of them members of a War Agricultural Committee. I have listened to their arguments with very great care and attention. Some of their remarks went perhaps a little wide of the Resolution on the Paper, and dealt with land settlement, the case of soldiers, and what prices are to be in the future—matters on which I do not wish to express an opinion at the present time. So far as their arguments dealt with the Resolution, they have not convinced me or brought me to a frame of mind in which I am able to support it. On the contrary, I welcome the announcement of the Board of Agriculture that it is their intention to modify the scope of their activities, firstly, as to the compulsory acquisition of more grass land, and secondly, to discontinue after May 31 (when the spring ploughing of the land will cease) cultivation by means of Government motor cars, Government horses, and Government labour at a very great loss, and doing work which, I believe, both farmers and small-holders will be perfectly competent to do for themselves much more efficiently and much more economically than it has been done by the War Agricultural Executive Committees.

I have felt for some time that there has been a very considerable waste of public money in the expenditure on the cultivation of land through the medium of War Agricultural Executive Committees. We had a job set us to do, and we did it to the best of our ability. We had means put at our disposal, and we used those means. I myself feel that in many cases we have ploughed up land and carried out cultivation at a loss to the country. We have done that work for persons who are perfectly competent and were quite in a position to have bought the motor tractors and provided horses and done the work themselves. I am very glad to think that now a large amount of labour is going to be released, and that farmers, and I think small-holders too, will be able to carry out that work. What we are going to do is this. We are going to keep a sufficient number of motor tractors and horses in order to carry out our existing contracts, and we shall be careful to carry out all those contracts. I sincerely believe that after that the British farmer and small-holder will be able to look after himself.

The noble Marquess, in the terms of the Resolution, regrets the action of the Board in modifying the policy of direct control. I would point out to the noble Marquess that in my opinion the Board has never up till now adopted the policy of direct control in dealing with this matter, and I hope most sincerely that they will not do so in the future. The successful result in increasing the amount of land cultivation and the food supply of this country, to which the noble Marquess referred, has been brought about, not by the direct control of the Board of Agriculture, but because the Board have authorised War Agricultural Executive Committees, composed of local persons (mainly farmers with agricultural experience) to carry out that work, and they, with their local knowledge, have been able to do it much more efficiently than it could possibly be done by direct control from the office of the Board of Agriculture.

I think the Board have very wisely in the past given to War Executive Committees a wide discretion in the manner in which they shall carry out the work, The view which the War Agricultural Executive Committee, of which I have had the honour of being Chairman, have always taken is that the Board have—and I think very properly—put the responsibility on our shoulders of doing the best we can, under their instructions, to increase the food supply in our own area. The exact method in which that was to be done has been left very much in our hands. We have never been asked to take this circular from the Board of Agriculture or the Food Production Department as a strict instruction to be carried out in its entirety. We realise, and we give credit. to the Board for realising, that it is quite impossible for the Board of Agriculture to issue a series of instructions which can be applicable to every county in the whole of the country. We know the difference of climate, the difference of soil, and the difference of conditions of agriculture, and therefore in carrying out these matters each Agricultural Executive Committee has had a wide discretion, and has exercised it I believe to the satisfaction of the Board of Agriculture. Hence this good result has been achieved.

I also would say that if when Part IV of the Corn Production Act comes into operation any good results are to be achieved—if our agricultural methods are to be improved under the powers granted to the Board under Part IV of the Corn Production Act—the Board will have to continue the same policy, and exercise the wisdom of delegating or handing over their powers to persons in the counties who are acquainted with the agricultural conditions in those counties. Those persons must be given a very considerable amount of discretion as to the manner in which they will carry out their duties. The noble Lord, Lord Lee, seemed to entertain some objection to the proposal contained in the Board of Agriculture circular-letter of February 1 regarding the method in which the new committees which are to succeed the existing War Agricultural Committees are to be appointed. He seemed to have some doubt as to the wisdom of entrusting to County Councils the nomination of a certain number of members of those committees. I gather that the noble Lord rather objected to what he described as the appointment of members of the committee, by the County Council. There is nothing in the letter which says the County Council is going to appoint the members. What it says is that the County Councils are to be asked by the Board to nominate persons for appointment to the committee. The actual appointment will be made by the Board of Agriculture.


The words are "to nominate a majority."


That is exactly My point. My point is that two-thirds of this committee will not be appointed by the County Council but will be nominated by the County Council to the Board, and the appointment will be made by the Board. In the noble Lord's opinion that is not a desirable procedure. I understand that he would very much prefer that the existing War Agricultural Executive Committees should remain in office and not be replaced by the new committees. May I remind your Lordships how the present War Agricultural Executive Committees came into existence. In the early years of the war County Councils were asked—I believe I am correct in saying this—by the Board of Agriculture to nominate agricultural committees in counties, and the President of the Board appointed those gentlemen who had been nominated as members of the War Agricultural Committees. Early in the year 1917 it was found that the War Agricultural Committees were too large to carry out administrative duties, and they were asked by the Board to appoint War Agri- cultural Executive Committees. Therefore as a matter of fact the members of the existing War Agricultural Executive Committees, with the exception of one gentleman who is nominated by the Board of Agriculture, are actually nominees of County Councils. That I believe to be an absolutely true historical account of how the War Agricultural Executive Committees came into existence.


I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend. As I myself had to advise the President of the Board many times to appoint additional members of these committees, I can say that they are not the original committees as appointed by the County Councils. They have gradually grown into different bodies, and in most cases are largely composed of members appointed by the present Board of Agriculture. I did not state the wording of the circular-letter quite correctly. It is "twelve members, of whom eight shall be appointed by the County Council, and four by the Board."


I accept the noble Lord's correction as to the wording of the letter. Perhaps I am wrong, but from my own particular experience I can say that I served on a War Agricultural Executive Committee, and of that Committee every member except one was appointed by the County Council Agricultural Committee, and the Agricultural Committee was appointed by the County Council. I think the noble Lord will find that that is the case in a great many counties. If I am right in that I cannot understand why the noble Lord should strain at the gnat of accepting a committee of which two-thirds are appointed by the County Council and prefer to that the Committee of which I believe in every case a much larger proportion than two-thirds are already the nominees of the County Council or have been appointed through the instrumentality of the County Council and who, as he says, have done their work remarkably well.

I have the pleasure of remembering the time when the noble Lord opposite sat on the County Council of which I now have the honour of being Chairman, and I somewhat regret to hear the rather strong view he holds as to their incompetency. He implied that County Councils were extremely unsympathetic with the small holdings movement. I do not think that can be justified. At any rate I hope that, in making that general statement, he was not referring in particular to the County Council on which he himself served with so much distinction.

I should like, as a member of a War Agricultural Executive Committee, to express my thanks for the appreciation which both the noble Lords have expressed for the work which these Agricultural Committees have done. Approbation from the noble Lord opposite, who has presided over the Food Production Department, is praise indeed, and I can assure him that we very much appreciate it, especially as up to now we have had more kicks than ha'pence—or perhaps I should say we have received a great many kicks and no ha'pence at all. It is to be remembered that these War Agricultural Executive Committees are composed for the most part of tenant farmers. These men have, without any remuneration, given up their valuable time—very often three or two days a week, and at least one day a week—to carrying out work which is certainly of a somewhat disagreeable and unpleasant character. There is nothing that farmers dislike more than having the very invidious duty of criticising their brother farmers and serving orders upon them to improve the cultivation of the land, and I think our thanks are very much due to them for the excellent work they have done. Many of them are men who are too old for military service, and as they could not go to the front they have taken up this work as their contribution to the country in time of war. But I think there is a limit to the amount of time they can give to work of that sort. It is rather hard to expect that when the war is over these men should continue to do that amount of work. Those of them who were willing to do it will, no doubt, be nominated by the County Councils to the newly formed committees, as the President of the Board of Agriculture has expressed his earnest hope that they will be. And, in spite of the fears which both the noble Marquess and the noble Lord opposite entertain, I believe that their fears are unfounded when they think that the newly-formed Committees will be less efficient and less keen in carrying out their work than the present committees.


My Lords, at any period it would be an ordeal to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House, but seeing that, this is only the second day that I have been a member of it I can assure you that it is an ordeal from which I shrink. I will endeavour to meet the points that are raised in the Motion. The first one is that the Board of Agriculture has decided to modify its activities. I think we are bound at the Board to consider the state of agriculture at every particular moment, and to be guided in the main by that as to what particular form our activities shall take. I do not want to talk too technically upon the subject of agriculture, but I think it must be obvious to everybody that at the present moment, after four years of war, during the whole of which the farmers have been short of labour and short of fertilisers, the existing arable land of the country is out of condition. It is no discredit in the circumstances to say that the greater part of it is not at the present moment able to respond to arable cultivation, or to make the most of such manure as we can administer to it. There is no immediate prospect of labour being returned to the land in such certain quantities as would entitle us to embark upon a large new ploughing programme. Neither do we feel so sure that we can command the requisite fertilisers. Therefore what we have done in this circular-letter is to inform the War Agricultural Executive Committees that what we want them to do is to concentrate their most energetic attention upon getting the existing arable area clean and in proper condition, so that we may get. the utmost out of it.

From an agricultural point of view, apart from the other points which have been raised by the noble Marquess and the noble Lord behind me, I am perfectly convinced that that is the sound policy to pursue at the present moment. We have also urged them to pay special attention to raising the standard of farming to the highest level of the district. In those two respects—the bringing of the existing arable area to the highest possible condition, and the averaging up of the general level of farming to the highest level of the district—I believe that the War Agricultural Executive Committees will be doing the best work they can for agriculture. That does not imply modifying your activities. As a matter of fact you want much more labour, and labour more constantly employed, upon the work which we are asking them to do than if we were asking them to plough up a certain amount of grass, put in a crop, and wait for it. You have got to clean the land, and that is a laborious process, and the argument that is sometimes used that we are diminishing the employment that the land will afford is not an accurate argument in fact.

It is quite true, as has been pointed out, that we have decided that we will go out of the business of universal provider for the British farmer. During the last two years he was quite unable to supply himself with either labour or fertilisers or machinery or implements. If agriculture was not to languish, those essentials of production had to be provided, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord behind me for the able and efficient way in which he organised that supply. But we may hope that to a certain extent the normal sources of supply of those essentials of production will be re-opened within the course of the next few months, and I think the farmers are a sufficiently independent class not to ask the State to provide them with things with which they can provide themselves, and better. As to the use of tractors, necessarily when they are operated by an Executive Committee there is a great deal of waste of time and some unavoidable waste of money; and if these tractors are in the hands of the farmers themselves they will, I believe, be more economically and efficiently worked than they could be from an Executive Committee. So long as the war lasted we had no choice but to do what we did, because the farmers could not have obtained either the motor fuel or the spare parts, or even got their tractors mended. Those conditions are disappearing; therefore we are withdrawing in the main from that part of the business. But, as is pointed out in the letter, we intend to reserve such a quantity of the mechanical appliances which we now have as will enable us to render help to any man who is unable to help himself. Meanwhile it is not as if these tractors or these horses or implements were going to be sold out of the country. We want to sell them to the farmers themselves; and we have very good reason to hope, from our experience of such of the horses as we have parted with, that this is what the farmers will do; so the country will be better provided with mechanical assistance to agriculture than it was two years ago, while at the same time we shall retain in our hands sufficient means of helping those farmers who cannot help themselves.

Let me turn to the other question, that we are abandoning control over this movement. Very strong things have been said about our action towards the committees; that the usefulness of the committees will be destroyed, and that a new style of committee was being created. The noble Earl opposite has really met a good many of those arguments in his speech, but let me review the origin of the Executive Committees. What is called the Milner Committee—of which I was a member—in 1915 recommended the formation of War Agricultural Committees in every county and their appointment by the County Councils. Some of them were appointed; some were active, some were inactive; in some counties they were not even started. So in December, 1916, I began by getting these War Agricultural Committees formed where they were not formed; and then a circular was sent round to the War Agricultural Committees which had been appointed by the County Councils asking them to appoint from their number from four to seven members of the Executive Committees. In some cases we have gone through this campaign of the last two years practically with that body unchanged appointed by the County Council; in other cases we have added men to the Executive Committees. But there is nothing inherently vicious in the principle of the County Council nominating committees seeing that the existing Executive Committees were to all intents and purposes nominated by the County Council. I really suppose that the main objection is that it is supposed that we are placing these Executive Committees under the control of the County Council and making them responsible to that body. Now, nothing is further from our intention nothing is further, I may add, from the terms of my letter.

When these Executive Committees are formed it is the authority of the Board under which they act; the powers which they exercise are delegated to them by the Board, and it is to the Board that they are entirely responsible. There is no change whatever in those respects. Further, it is the Board from which they derive the payment of their expenses. If they do not carry out the instructions of the Board, the Board can by an Order do away with them and appoint a new committee. The Board can by an Order appoint new members. In point of fact, these Executive Committees are, so far as their relations to the Board go, in absolutely identically the same relation to the Board as the existing Executive Committees. There is not a syllable of my letter which would make anybody, who really familiarised himself with the previous Orders, think otherwise. Therefore the Executive Committees are, as I said, practically unaltered; they are responsible to the Board; they derive their powers from the Board; it is the Board's authority that is delegated to the committees; it is from the Board that they derive their expenses, and it is from the Board that they take their instructions.

That being so, it seems to me that the case made both by the noble Marquess and the noble Lord against the Board falls to the ground. It was based on the assumption that these were to be handed over to the control of the County Councils. As I have pointed out, there is nothing of that sort intended or expressed; and I should be very sorry indeed to hear that other committees have so completely misunderstood this position as I understand from the noble Lord the committee in Buckinghamshire has done. My experience is rather to the contrary. I find that some of the members of these Executive Committees, who have given their whole time with really the most self-sacrificing energy for the past two years, are only too thankful to be released. That seems to me to be quite a natural wish; and any of them who desire to stay in, as I said in my letter, I earnestly hope will remain. But you cannot expect men of business who depend upon their business for their livelihood to give up days and weeks and months, and more than that, to public work. It is very well to say that their energies have waned in the last few months. I do not know, but I think all our energies to a certain degree have been affected by changes in the last few months. During the war those men were working at the highest possible pressure from the strongest patriotic motives. Now that the food situation is so much easier, the great motive which influenced them, and actuated them, and drove them on, is very considerably altered, and I do not think that they show any unwillingness to go on with what now is to be their work—namely, the raising of the standard of cultivation to that of the best level of the district, and taking good care that the condition of the existing arable lands is made as good as it possibly can be.

I have heard almost unanimous approval from the members of the Executive Com- mittees whom I have seen of that course of conduct. They know very much better than I do, because they are local men with local experience, and they know the condition of the arable land in the county in which they reside. I am convinced that this policy which we have adopted is the right one, and there is no change in the instrument by which we are carrying it out. Therefore I venture to hope that your Lordships will not accept the Resolution expressing a regret that we are modifying our activities or abandoning the policy of direct control.


My Lords, however much the noble Lord who has just sat down may have shrunk from what he terms the ordeal of his maiden speech in this Assembly, I am sure I shall express the universal opinion of noble Lords who have heard him when I say that he need have had no apprehension whatever upon the point. I venture to say, for myself, that his elevation to this House will be a real and welcome addition to our agricultural debates, whenever we have occasion to hold them. More than that, I venture to say that his presence here will tend to an intelligent understanding throughout the country of the needs and necessities of agriculture at a time like the present, when everyone acquainted with the industry is well aware of the exceptional difficulties through which it has had to pass since the commencement of the war.

The noble Lord has painted out with perfect truth, and I am surprised that it did not meet with more recognition from the noble Marquess who moved the Resolution, that one of the great difficulties which we have never surmounted in regard to agriculture is the want of labour. The latest monthly returns from the Board of Agriculture, which give particulars of the cultivation and condition of the crops in this country, I read only yesterday morning, and what was the burden of their song? The prevailing complaint, which applied to nearly every county in the kingdom, or to the great majority of them, was that so much of the arable land, and the land which had been ploughed up too, was undoubtedly so foul; and everybody knows that this is the one thing above all others which is injurious to agriculture, and which must be remedied if ever you are going to increase the production of food to a great extent within the confines of this kingdom. That has been the great duty held out to us for a long time by the Prime Minister himself, and by every other authority in the country who has dwelt upon the subject. These returns are well worth the careful consideration of all members of this House, and of people elsewhere interested in agriculture at the present time, and if they were studied a little more than they are I do not think we should have Motions put upon the Paper such as this, with the small consideration that it appears to have received from the noble Marquess.

I may remind this House that there was considerable debate upon this subject, initiated I think by myself, only a session or two ago. The burden of that debate was this, that while everybody was anxious to increase production of food, there was one thing which must be into consideration in connection therewith, and that was that we must be satisfied that the labour for the land which was to be ploughed up in quantities, in addition to the existing arable land, was wade available in the first instance. After a long debate, in which Lord Milner took part as representing agriculture in this House, on behalf of the Government, the Motion which had in view the object which I have mentioned was accepted by the Government itself. So far I think the views of the noble Lord who has just sat down have had very ample confirmation.

I do not wish to detain this House, but I must say this. I do think it is to be regretted that the noble Marquess should have thought it necessary to move, on the first occasion of the appearance in this House of the noble Lord opposite (Lord Ernle) what practically would be a Motion of censure upon the noble Lord. I, for one, most heartily rejoice at the noble Lord's elevation, and I am certain that he will be universally welcomed to this House, especially after his speech to-night. I can only add my earnest hope that the Motion will be rejected, and I cannot help adding that in my view the noble Marquess would be well advised not to press it to a Division.


My Lords, I should like to say one word in conclusion. The question before us is not one of cleaning land or of labour, or even of whether it was right or wrong to bring this subject before the House this evening, under the supposition that it was a vote of censure. It is nothing of the sort. The real question before the House now is which are the best people to do the business, the Executive Committees as they are now, or to plunge back again into the dear old County Councils and get some fresh nominations, and make fresh committees, for doing exactly the same thing. I may say that the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture has given us some good news. He has told us that although the Board are not going to be universal providers they are going to retain a certain number of tractors. That is very valuable information. Then we hear that the Board will have the same powers over the new proposed committees as they had over the old ones. May I then respectfully ask, Why do away with the present committees? They are doing extremely good work. The noble Lord said: "Oh! so many people want to retire." That may be true, but they can retire now. There is no reason to scrap the whole concern because two or three people are tired of war work and want to retire.

I have listened most attentively to the debate, and I really cannot see that any good reason has been given for doing away with these committees which the President himself has complimented and in which he has so much confidence. There is no doubt a distinct divergence of opinion as to which would be the best authority. May I make a request to the noble Lord who leads the House? Would it be permissible to allow noble Lords to vote according as they think best? Is there any necessity to put on the Government Whips since there is no question of a vote of censure upon the Government and no question of any reflection upon anybody? It is only an attempt to get at the bottom of the whole thing and to see what in the general opinion is the best authority to do this work. I very respectfully ask if it would be possible not to put on the Government Whips, but to allow us to go to a Division and see what the real opinion of the House is on a question of great and paramount importance.

On Question, Motion negatived.

The Marquess of LINCOLNSHIRE, who had challenged a Division, was engaged in conversation with a Clerk at the Table when the Question was put a second time and the Lord Chancellor declared that "The Not-Contents have it." The decision having been questioned by the noble Marquess.

VISCOUNT SANDHURST said: I think it is beyond contradiction that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack put the Question as clearly as possible a second time. The noble Marquess was engaged in conversation with one of the Clerks on business of his own. I distinctly challenged "Not content" myself, as did the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture. I challenged a second time, and I thought the noble Marquess was not going to a Division.