§ LORD HINDLIP rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is correct that part of the hay crop of 1919 is to be commandeered for the use of civilians in towns or for any other purpose, and if so, under what conditions.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for not being able to accede altogether to his request to postpone this Question. I feel that it is one of some importance to the agricultural world. When I first put down the Question on the Paper, I expected to receive very shortly after a letter from the President of the Board of Agriculture, or someone, telling me it was perfectly ridiculous to expect the Government to commandeer any portion of such a minute crop of hay as will be grown in the country this year, and asking me to take the Question off the Paper. I was very much surprised that such a letter never arrived, and I was still more surprised to learn that determined attempts are being made in some quarters to induce the Food Ministry or the Board 476 of Trade, or whoever is the authority, to commandeer for some unknown purpose portions of this year's hay crop. I do not know who is at the bottom of this movement—whether it is some transport authority or whether it is some Department which wishes to retain the services of certain gentlemen—but I am quite sure that shall meet with a. considerable amount of support if I warn the Government that any commandeering of the hay crop will not only meet with almost universal opposition throughout the country, but will cause very great dissatisfaction, and that the persons who think they are going to get hay by this means will be bitterly disappointed.
§ I should like to make it perfectly clear that for my part I am not asking to be free from commandeering on account of the high price. I do not want to see a high price, and I will go as far as this, that I do not personally mind in the very least if the Government choose to fix a price for hay, so long as they do not fix it too high. They will have to fix it sufficiently high to ensure that hay will come into the country. If the price is too low foreign hay will be kept out, and if it is too high you will have people selling hay instead of consuming it, which is bad for all parties concerned. If you commandeer as you did last year, and you fix a controlled price, probably it will be high. On top of that controlled price anybody who wishes to buy hay will have to go through formalities, such as filling up endless forms, and will have to subscribe to the salaries of officials, and to agents' commissions, and will have to contribute, on the same scale as last year, no less than £4 per ton on top of the controlled price.
§ You will therefore have hay at an enormous price, and discontent and unfairness throughout the country. You cannot have farmers having their hay commandeered and having to buy hay in the spring to feed their cattle. I cannot imagine for a moment any necessity for commandeering hay, and I cannot imagine for a moment that the Government can make out any kind of case for it. As regards price, I have already said that I do not regard a low price with aversion. I do not want to see hay above a fair price, provided you do not keep out foreign hay. I understand that a Conference is sitting on the subject at this moment. I do not know who it consists of, or whether the Board of Agriculture has any status or is represented on the Conference. All I do know is that resolutions have been passed 477 by various agricultural bodies against any commandeering, and I am told that the Advisory Forage Committee also voted against it. I hope that if we hear anything to-night it will be that the Government, whatever they are going to do about controlling the price, are not going to commandeer, or have anything to do with the disposal or distribution of the crop.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Before the noble Lord answers the Question, perhaps I may express a hope that the Government will be able to say something definite on this subject, because it has been for some time past a matter of no small anxiety to tire farmers all over the country, and it is quite evident, from the replies given in another place, that the Government have not been able to form a definite policy so far. I note that on June 30 the representative of the War Office, when asked whether the hay crop of this year would be controlled, said that the matter was still under review, and that he had nothing to add to what had already been said; but on July 2 an hon. Member who put a Question was informed by the representative of the War Office that the Army Council did not propose to control the 1919 hay or straw crop in any manner. Of course, that reply merely meant that the Army Forage Department was going to be wound up, and that the controlling would be done by somebody else. The subject, as the season is advancing, is becoming one of great anxiety to farmers in many parts of England. In the part of England in which I live I know it is acutely felt, and I have evidence that in other parts the feeling is equally strong. I trust, therefore, that this evening the noble Lord will be able to give a definite reply.
§ LORD SOMERLEYTON
My Lords, I have a great personal sympathy with what has fallen from the noble Lord opposite and from the noble Marquess. As I stated privately to my noble friend when the Question was first brought to my notice, conferences between the Departments of the Goverment concerned with this subject are now being held, and, as I then suggested, this Question might therefore with advantage to the House have been deferred. My noble friend has not taken that course. Therefore I will endeavour to reply as fully as I can.
As is known, it was necessary for the Government, in view of war requirements 478 and the difficulties of importation, to requisition the whole of the 1918 crop in the United Kingdom. An elaborate system of control was set up, and farmers were restricted as to the amount of hay they could retain for their own purposes. These measures, necessary under war conditions, inevitably caused much inconvenience and in some cases considerable hardships to farmers, and now that Army needs have diminished and shipping is easier there is a natural desire, with which the Government have every sympathy, to secure free conditions for the disposal of the 1919 crop.
There are, however, circumstances in connection with the supplies of hay likely to be available for the ensuing year which give cause for considerable anxiety, and make it necessary for the Government to consider carefully whether it may not be advisable to retain some form of control. In the first place, Owing to unfavourable weather and other circumstances, the hay crop of this year will almost certainly be exceptionally poor. So far as can be foreseen at present, the crop in England and Wales is unlikely to exceed 6,000,000 tons of seed and meadow hay, as compared with an average crop of 8,000,000 tons over the last four pre-war years. The crop last year was about 15,785,000 tons; and despite the extensive requisitioning for Army and town needs, it has been estimated that the amount which it is necessary to have in farmers' hands for their own use was about 5⅔ million tons. The amounts so left were certainly not excessive; indeed, they were often inadequate. Unless, therefore, the hay crop exceeds the present expectation, we cannot rely on a margin of more than a few hundred thousand tons in England and Wales in excess of farmers' own requirements.
The requirements of England and Wales for the Army, town horses, etc., cannot be put at less than 1,100,000 tons for the ensuing year; and though the importation no longer presents the same problem as it did during the war, there might none the less be considerable difficulties, if it were necessary, to have recourse to importation on the scale these figures indicate. In these circumstances, the possibility that the price of hay might, in the absence of control, soar to an altogether unreasonable level, with unfortunate consequences to the general life of the community, and to the milk supply in particular, cannot be dismissed as an unlikely contingency. The 479 Government are accordingly giving careful consideration to the whole problem, and will do their best to deal with the situation in good time. It is impossible as yet to indicate what measures may be necessary to meet the situation, and, as before stated, I am sorry to be unable to give my noble friend a more satisfactory reply.
§ THE EARL OF SELBORNE:
My Lords, I hope that my noble friend in dealing with this matter, if it is admitted that some form of control in these very exceptional circumstances may be necessary, will bear in mind what has been part of the gravity of the complaint of the farmers against this control in the past—that is, whereas they were given one price, the price to the civilian consumer was a very different one from that which they received, and the difference, representing a very great profit in some cases, went apparently to the middleman who did absolutely nothing whatever for the reward which he received. The farmer was forbidden to sell the hay direct to the man who got it, although it might be his next door neighbour, and that has always seemed to me to be most unnecessary, and has operated in some cases very unjustly. I hope that the experience of the past two years in this respect will be borne in mind, and that, if a price is fixed, either the farmer or the consumer will get the benefit of it and not the middleman (who has done in many cases nothing or very little to deserve it), and not His Majesty's Government (who will have done nothing whatever in the matter except act as controller).