HL Deb 11 May 1920 vol 40 cc272-8

LORD BLEDISLOE rose to ask the Minister of Agriculture why the Agriculture Bill has not yet been introduced in either House of Parliament; whether he is aware of the growing feeling of impatience and insecurity among agriculturists consequent upon its non-introduction; and whether any, and if any what, facilities will be pro- vided for its full discussion in both Houses before the Autumn Recess.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not sure whether the Minister of Agriculture is in a position to give me a reply to this Question, and I only put it to him to-day in view of the extreme urgency of the matter and the great unrest prevailing throughout the agricultural community, regardless of any particular class of that community, owing to the non-fulfilment of the Government's very specific promise to introduce at the earliest possible date what is known as the Agriculture Bill. Your Lordships will remember the very important speech made by the Prime Minister at Caxton Hall last October, in which he emphasised the extreme insecurity of tenant farmers in respect of various matters, particularly as regards the cultivation of wheat and other cereals without any definite basis of prices upon which they could depend for any number of years in the future. He also referred to the unfortunate and widespread dealings by way of sales in agricultural land, involving specially purchases by speculators in land, and the consequent extreme unrest of many good farmers throughout the country. In the same speech the Prime Minister referred to the desirability of increasing the security of the farmer's tenure and his capital by drastic amendments to the existing Agricultural Holidngs Acts.

Since that time we have had the Speech from the Throne, in which a measure was adumbrated to deal with all these matters as one of the chief Bills coming before Parliament in the present session. The Prime Minister made one very significant remark in the course of the address to which have referred. He said, "Confidence is the best fertiliser of the soil." I venture to say that confidence is just what is most lacking amongst the agricultural community to-day, and that it would far more effectively fertilise the soil of this country than any of the manures which we have just dealt with in the Fertilisers Bill.

No Bill has so far been introduced into either House of Parliament, and unfortunately we have received no assurance as to when such a Bill is to be introduced. What some of us fear is that the Bill will either be introduced in the expiring days of the session, possibly in the "dog days," without any opportunity for a full discussion, or it may be postponed altogether beyond the confines of the present session. In the meantime it is no exaggeration to say, in consequence of this lack of confidence in Government promises, land which the Minister of Agriculture desires to see retained under cereal and arable products is being extensively laid down in grass, particularly in the west of England. In addition the land speculator is more rife than ever he has been during the war or since its termination.

The remuneration of labour has steadily gone up Without any reference to the price of the products of such labour. In saying this I do not want to suggest that with the steady increase in the cost of living it is not perfectly just and right that the worker should receive higher wages than he has been receiving in the past, but obviously it becomes an uneconomic transaction if there is no guarantee as to the future price of these particular farm products upon which most human labour is expended and for which such labour is quite essential.

All the large agricultural organisations have during the last fortnight or three weeks passed very strongly-worded resolutions, which, I believe, have been sent to my noble friend, in regard to the non-introduction of this important measure. At a meeting at Bury St. Edmunds recently the noble Lord's colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry, announced to the surprise of all of us that certain difficulties had intervened to prevent the introduction of the Bill. I have been at considerable pains to find out what these difficulties are, and their source. I do not think my noble friend opposite will contradict me when I say that the difficulties have not arisen on the part of the landowners on the one hand or on the part of the organised tenant farmers on the other. If difficulties have arisen they must have arisen amongst Ministers themselves, and in view of the definite promise of the Prime Minister, supported enthusiastically by my noble friend whose sympathy with the genuine requirements of the agricultural community has never been doubted and who has been fully trusted by them up to the present, it is only fair to ask that the Government should take steps to introduce their Bill at the earliest possible moment.

It was the Prime Minister, I think, who made the interesting observation that "uncertainty creates inaction." Never was that more true than it is as regards agriculture to-day. At the very time when you want the maximum of activity amongst the farmers of this country, particularly in the production of bread-stuffs, there is more inaction amongst them than has been my experience at any time during the last twenty-five years. I do not think I am going too far in asking the Minister of Agriculture to present this Bill, or see that it is presented to one House or the other, at the earliest possible moment in order to allay this well-founded apprehension, and make it perfectly clear that neither he nor the Prime Minister intend to go back one iota from the definite undertakings given to the agricultural community, so as to ensure that restoration of confidence and feeling of security upon which alone depends the large increase of bread-stuffs and other farm products in this country which is expected.


My Lords, I take no exception whatsoever to my noble friend's action in raising this question to-day. Indeed, I welcome the opportunity of stating to your Lordships what I can about the present position of the Bill. I am very well aware, probably no one better, of the great and growing anxiety that exists in the agricultural world, and particularly among those great bodies to which my noble friend referred, and which have not omitted, as a rule, to favour me with copies of resolutions which they have passed as the result of debates that were distinguished at any rate by great plainness and force of language. I fully share and sympathise with their anxiety that the Bill should be not only introduced but passed into law with the least possible delay.

I can assure your Lordships that I personally am very much alive to the point of urgency, because quite apart from the fact that the Government is deeply pledged to this measure, I, unfortunately, have accumulating and insistent evidence that the uncertainty with regard to the future of agriculture, which is intensified by the delays that unfortunately but inevitably have taken place in connection with the Bill, is having a discouraging and injurious effect upon the whole industry. My noble friend spoke of the difficulties, to which reference has been made. There have been difficulties of a very unfortunate nature, with regard to the ill-health of at any rate two of the persons most directly concerned —namely, the Prime Minister and myself—with the preparation of the Bill. For those illnesses I can only apologise to the agricultural community, and ask them to believe that the illnesses were not of our seeking, and that we are not altogether to blame. Having said that, I should, with regard to my noble friend's protest against the non-fulfilment of the promises of the Government, like him to substitute "postponement" for "non-fulfilment," for I can assure him and your Lordships, to use his phrase, that neither I nor the Prime Minister have gone back, or intend to go back, one iota from the public statements that we have made in connection with this Bill.

The position is this, that the final drafting has not yet received the full approval of the Cabinet. Its consideration has been deferred until the return of the Prime Minister, who, as your Lordships are well aware, is specially interested in both the general policy and the details of the Bill. I have, however, his authority for stating that it is the intention of the Government to introduce the Bill in the House of Commons at the earliest practicable date. I do not want to pledge myself, because he is still not well enough to return, but I hope that possibly it may be before Whitsuntide; and Parliament in any case will be asked to pass the Bill into law. before the end of the present session. So far as the Government is concerned—after all, we are in the hands of Parliament in this matter—no efforts will be spared to this end, and this implies of course the request of my noble friend, that facilities will be provided for the adequate consideration of the Bill in both Houses before the autumn recess.

I know that my noble friend is rather pessimistic about the calendar. He spoke of the "dog-days." They have not made their imminence very much felt as yet, and I still hope that there is time for the proper preparation, discussion, digestion, and passing into law of this measure, to which I am deeply and irrevocably pledged. I welcome the indications in the speech of my noble friend that when the opportunity arises he will be found among the supporters and advocates of the principle and details of the Bill.


My Lords, we all listened with close attention to what has fallen from my noble friend opposite, and I can speak for Lord Bledisloe as well as myself when I say that, so far as the delay in dealing with the measure has been due to the most unfortunate illness of the noble Lord opposite, and also, though I should think to a much less extent, to the absence through indisposition of the Prime Minister, those considerations are clearly apprehended by us. The noble Lord did not either permit or forbid us to entertain the notion which was hinted at by my noble friend, that there might be some differences of opinion on the details of the Bill, the composition of which might occupy a certain time, and it clearly would not be fair or right to invite him to make any statement on those points either one way or the other.

I confess, however, that I, too, if my noble friend above the gangway is pessimistic about the time table, do not feel very confident about it. I understand that there is some faint hope that the measure may be introduced, read a first time, and printed in the House of Commons before Whitsuntide, but, as we know, the whole actual sitting time of the House of Commons is mortgaged up to Whitsuntide, and therefore the consideration of the Bill in that House cannot begin until some time in June. It is likely, I should think, to occupy there a considerable period. Provided the measure is of the wide scope which we have been led to suppose, its discussion there from different points of view is bound to occupy a considerable time. I really only desire to press once more upon the noble Lord the Minister for Agriculture the extreme importance from our point of view of receiving a measure of this kind in your Lordships' House in reasonably good time. It is quite certain that both in its general aspect and also in regard to its details very close examination will be asked for here. There are so many members of 'this House who are both competent and anxious to discuss a great agricultural measure of this kind that it is certainly not an exaggeration to say that a period of six weeks would have to be allotted in order to pass it through all its stages. It may be that it will reach us in time for that, and, of course, it is very early days yet to talk of the time when Parliament may hope to rise for the autumn. I imagine that when the noble Lord reads his letters it must be enforced upon him how great is the anxiety that is felt by individuals and by those who belong to the great agricultural organisations, over one of which my noble friend presides, while I have the good fortune to be chairman of another.

There is one point to which I should like to direct the noble Lord's attention. What would be demanded by the agricultural community in the way of consideration is not merely Parliamentary time but also sufficient intervals during which the local branches of the different agricultural organisations can meet and discuss the proposals in order to enable them to apprise their Parliamentary representatives, and those in this House who are known to represent them, of their separate views. It is not enough that the central organisations should have time to consider them, but very important that the local organisations should do so. I am sure that the noble Lord is well aware of this, and that he will forgive me for having pressed this particular point upon him.


My Lords, there is only one point upon which I should like to say a word. I do not think it is binding on the Government that they should introduce the Bill in the first instance in the House of Commons. It is possible that later on they may find that it will be far more convenient to have the discussion in this House in the first instance, seeing that the whole time of the other House is being taken up with the Home Rule Bill. It is most satisfactory to all those connected with agriculture to know that neither the noble Lord nor the Prime Minister have receded in one degree from the promises and pledges that have been made, because it is no use blinking the fact that in the country agriculturists are afraid of the delay. I hope that the Government will not think that by the speech which has just been made by the noble Lord they are bound to introduce the Bill into the other I louse if they find that time will be saved and the discussion better conducted by introducing it in the first instance in this House.


Perhaps I may be allowed to say, in reply to Lord Heneage's point, that this is not a question where any alternative is possible. We must not discuss the provisions of the Bill in advance. But owing to the fact that financial considerations are largely involved, particularly in connection with the question of guarantees, it would be out of order, I am informed, for the Bill to be introduced in the first instance in your Lordships' House.