§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (LORD LEE OF FAREHAM)
My Lords, it is with no ordinary sense of responsibility, and still less with any illusions as to the popularity of some of the proposals in this Bill with your Lordships' House, that I venture to ask you to give the Bill a Second Reading. I trust that I shall not be thought guilty of disrespect if I recall that it has been said of your Lordships that while you would not hesitate to surrender your last shilling, or even your lives, on behalf of your country, you would as unhesitatingly go to the stake sooner than submit to any 720 derogation of the rights of landed property. I am quite sure that the first part of this statement is true, but I am not so sure that the second part is. I have an uncomfortable feeling that on this occasion, at any rate, you might prefer to send me to the stake instead. As to that, I must wait and see.
I am fully aware that there is hardly any subject, except possibly theology, which arouses such bitter controversies as legislation affecting land; nor is there, I think, any task so difficult and thankless as that of the would-be agricultural reformer. There is always not only active but passive resistance on the part of the industry to any proposals which involve change of any kind, and this constitutional and traditional yearning to be let alone has baffled most of those who have endeavoured in the past to help agriculture, either by legislative or administrative action. Where much bigger and wiser men than I have failed, I may be rash to try my hand; but my only excuse—and it is, I think, a sufficient one—for, as the Americans say, "borrowing trouble" in connection with this matter., is my sincere and profound conviction that the safety of the Realm may be very largely bound up in the passing of this Bill. Indeed, I go further and say that it is not designed primarily as a measure of agricultural reform, but as an essential provision of national defence which has been shown to be necessary as a result of the lessons of the late war. This is what I shall endeavour to make good to your Lordships.
I fear that I shall have to trespass upon your indulgence for a considerable period this afternoon, as I understand it is the wish of your Lordships generally that I should make a full and measured statement with regard to the objects and the broad principles of this measure. I realise that unless I succeed in making good that it is a measure essential to the interests of the State, I shall be deprived of my chief justification for proposals which admittedly interfere with the laws of supply and demand, and which in certain cases may cause inconvenience and even hardship to individuals. Certainly nothing but the national interest and national safety could justify such interference; and I know that if I succeed in convincing your Lordships that it is necessary, no considerations of self-interest would tempt you for a moment to reject the Bill.
721 I hope I may be forgiven if I interpolate a brief personal explanation, because I do not want it to be thought that I lay any cairn to special expert knowledge with regard to agriculture, or that I have any pretensions to speak as an agricultural authority. I know that many of my predecessors in the Office I now hold, and notably my immediate predecessor, have probably forgotten more about agriculture than I could ever know. But I do claim that there can hardly be any one in this country who can have had a more clear and vivid inside view of the peril which the country ran through the later stages of the war in connection with its food supplies. At that time I was Director-General of Food Production, and I know that we were pushed to the very edge of the abyss, and having once looked over that edge I certainly could never rest content until I had done whatever lay in my power to safeguard the future and to give effect to what I believe to be perhaps the most obvious and greatest lesson of the war.
It was with this object only, and for this reason only, that I felt justified in assuming the responsibility of my present office. However imperfect in many respects your Lordships may consider my agricultural qualifications to be, at least I can claim that during the whole thirty years or more during which I have been engaged in public work I have devoted myself to the study and furtherance of national defence. If therefore this Bill, both in intention and in effect, did not promote the safety of the Realm I personally should take comparatively little interest in it, despite the fact that it does embody a series of agricultural reforms for which the most enlightened spokesmen of the industry have been asking and pressing in the most formal way by means of Committees and Royal Commissions for many years past.
In the preparation of this measure the Government has principally, though not exclusively, relied upon the authoritative Report of what is known as the Selborne Reconstruction Committee on Agriculture, which reported only three years ago on the whole problem of post-war agricultural reconstruction. Whatever may be the fate of this Bill the Government, the country, and the agricultural industry in particular owe a deep debt of gratitude to Lord Selborne and his eminent colleagues for the thoroughness and devotion with which they discharged their important and 722 most laborious task. That Report showed a profound knowledge and appreciation of the practical and technical problems with which agriculture has to deal, together with a far-sighted imagination which kept clearly before the nation and the industry the fact that their interests are inextricably intertwined and the obligation which rests upon them of closer co-operation in the supreme duty of national defence. In that connection I should like to quote from the Report. The Committee said—We must renew our assurance with all the earnestness at our command that, unless after the war the principles of that Act I the Corn Production Act) are (with the necessary adjustment of details to the values and conditions of the time) embodied in a permanent Statute, there can be no hope of the people of the United Kingdom becoming emancipate(1 from dependence on supplies of foodstuffs brought from overseas, or of the increase of our rural population.I do not suggest that this Bill follows undeviatingly the recommendations of the noble Earl's Committee. We have sought inspiration from other authoritative quarters, a fact which I am sure he will be the last to resent. But I hope I may be able to prove to your Lordships that even for some of the more contentious provisions of this measure we have high and authoritative support from influential, technical, and professional bodies to whose opinions I know that your Lordships are accustomed to attach peculiar weight.
It is obvious that your Lordships will not wish me to deal with the details of this measure this afternoon. The proper occasion for that will be the Committee stage. I would like to emphasise, however, that the principles and the provisions of the Bill are not in any sense the product of the unaided genius of the Government, still less a happy inspiration of my own, and that they are, or at any rate profess to be and are believed to be, a compendium of the reforms which have been pressed on the Government unceasingly by the most influential spokesman of the industry for many years past. This being so, I cannot help feeling that it is a little hard for critics to turn round on the Government and say, "Why do you introduce this Bill at all?" and make the occasion one rather of protest and complaint.
The Bill has critics and opponents. After all, what great measure has not? So far as I can judge, the criticism and opposition so far has been almost entirely destructive; no alternative plan has been 723 put forward from any authoritative quarter, which is at any rate within the region of practical politics, for dealing with the new problems which as a result of the war have and do confront the industry. The noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire, who is to move the rejection of the Bill, in a letter which he published a few days ago described the Bill as "rotten." I have not yet learnt what he would substitute for it. I hope he will tell us. If it is merely the policy of "Let us alone," of laissez faire, I think that can hardly be dignified by the name of a constructive policy, and in any case it is totally incompatible at the present time with the highest interests of the State.
Having regard to the fact that this Bill has just passed through the House of Commons with the support of all Parties by large majorities, and that on the occasion of the Third Reading only twelve members of the House saw fit to go into the Lobby against it, I think I am justified in claiming that at the present time this Bill holds the field. It may be retorted that it is an unpopular measure, and that there is no great enthusiasm for it amongst any section of the industry. Is that altogether a bad recommendation? I venture to say that if this Bill seemed to satisfy the extreme demands of any one of the sections concerned it would lie open to the charge of ill-balance and partiality, and if to your Lordships it may seem in some of its provisions to lean too much one way or the other I can only plead that the Government, and certainly I, have been actuated by no other view than that of promoting the safety and the increase of our national food supply. I can claim at any rate that no political or Party considerations entered for one moment into the framing of this Bill. Its very unpopularity, if that be a correct term, is surely sufficient proof that we have not been angling for votes. As I have said, its chief purpose is to stimulate food production by creating conditions which shall promote arable farming and tend to keep as much land as is suitable for the purpose, and no other, under the plough, not necessarily under wheat, or oats, or any other given crop, but under crops of some kind, so that it can be available in time of national emergency for growing wheat or whatever the nation most needs.
If this policy is to suceed it is obviously essential, in the first place, to give confidence 724 and a greater sense of security to those who till the soil. As you well know, the average farmer is inclined to be discouraged and panicky, and at the present time he has additional reasons for being so. In the present state of the world he sees wages constantly rising and the political pressure behind them all in the direction of forcing them permanently higher. On the other hand, he sees the prices of his produce falling, or at any rate fluctuating wildly, with political pressure always in the direction of trying to force them down. These are naturally disturbing circumstances. They breed in the farmer a lack of confidence, which is intensified by a feeling of insecurity of tenure to which I shall have to refer later. These things combined tempt him to play for safety; and by "safety" I mean whenever possible converting arable land into grass, and reducing so far as possible the amount of labour which he employs. Unfortunately for the State the farmer has the alternative of either arable or grass farming. I am speaking broadly now, of course. The comparative immunity from worries which attaches to grass farming very often has a fatal attraction for those who prefer a quiet life. This is reflected in the national Returns which show that since- 1918 there has been a reduction of over 450,000 acres of arable land, and, as your Lordships well know, there has been a reduction of over 3,000,000 acres since 1870.
Therefore, this Bill, in its first provisions, offers a system of guaranteed minimum prices for wheat and oats to the farmer, not in the interests of the farmer himself, and not as a subsidy to a particular industry, but in the interests of the nation as an insurance against the submarine. We think that it is of vital interest to the State that the farmer should be encouraged to maintain and, if possible, to increase his arable area, but it is obvious that this can only be done in the long run in time of peace by making it worth his while. I agree with those who say that wheat, or indeed any other crop, will not be grown unless it pays, and equally that it will be grown if it does pay. But how, under present conditions, is it possible for the average farmer to tell what the price is going to be twelve months ahead? Any one who has seen the fluctuations in the market during the last few months will realise who impossible it is, and that instability of the market is likely to con- 725 tinue for a long time while we are recovering from the world war. For this reason guarantees are proposed in this Bill, and for the first time they are based on the cost of production—a very important principle—and they are so calculated as, in our judgment, to protect the grower of wheat or oats from disastrous losses in case. there is a slump in the market, without at the same time guaranteeing him any profit.
The old guarantees under the Corn Production Act are generally admitted, I think, to be perfectly useless. They bear no relation whatsoever to the facts of to-day. The main reason they are useless is that they were not based upon, or made to vary with, the cost of production. It is obviously necessary, if there are to be, guarantees, that time scale should be brought up to date. A Royal Commission was appointed specifically for the purpose of going into the question of figures, and in this Bill the Government have accepted verbatim et literatimthe figures recommended recently by the Royal Commission. I do not know that I need trouble your Lordships by describing the actual system, as it is set forth very clearly in the first page of the Memorandum which is attached to the Bill. Consideration for your Lordships time restrains me from reading that passage, which I think could not be more clearly stated.
Some alarm has been expressed in certain quarters that these guarantees possibly may become effective, that the country may be called upon to pay them, and that thereby they will become a serious financial burden. If necessary that must be faced. Certainly these guarantees are not put into the Bill as merecamouflagewhich could under no circumstances ever cost the country anything. If so, they would be merely deluding the farmer into thinking that he could ever get assistance from them. I prefer to describe them as a national insurance premium at a very low rate compared with the risks which that premium covers. There is this comfort for those who are anxious about the cost, that if the world price drops below the guarantee, it is quite obvious that can only happen if the costs of production have dropped also, and that there must have been a drop in the essentials—cost of labour, manures, machinery, and so forth. As there is developing very rapidly a world movement in agricultural labour for levelling up not 726 only the wage but the conditions which prevail throughout the industry in different countries, I venture to say, if the prices abroad dropped substantially to anywhere below the guarantees, that a lower cost of production would follow in this country also, and in consequence the guarantees would automatically decline in sympathy under the scheme of the Bill. I must emphasise again that the guarantees are not intended in any way to ensure the farmer a profit, because they can never in any circumstances, under the scheme of the Bill, exceed, the bare average cost of production. Therefore farmers will never grow cereals simply for the sake of the guarantees, but we have confidence that the insurance against loss which these guarantees afford will encourage the growing of cereals whenever market conditions appear reasonably favourable. That is all we claim for the guarantees.
I need hardly say that the system of guarantees is not a casual inspiration on our part. It has been sanctioned by the highest expert authorities who have recently and repeatedly gone into the question. There was the Milner Committee on Food Production, the Selborne Reconstruction Committee, and lastly the Royal Commission. I do not know that I need say more at this stage in support of this system of guarantees except that they represent the only plan, I think, that has ever been suggested which will not increase the price of the loaf, and which will therefore not hit, at any rate in any direct way, the consumer of that necessity of life. But your Lordships will further note with regard to these guarantees that, although under the scheme of the Bill they are intended to be permanent (in so far as any Act of Parliament can be permanent), if Parliament should determine at a later date to terminate the scheme it must give four years' notice in order that farmers might have time to adjust their business to the changed conditions. If then the guarantees should be discontinued the whole of Part I of the Bill would go with them, including the Agricultural Wages Boards, and the other provisions of that part of the Bill.
The fixing of the guarantees each year will be undertaken by three Commissioners, whose duties are set forth in the Bill, and in regard to whom I only wish to say here that so far as I am aware they will be the only additional officials, except 727 possibly some temporary assistants to the crop reporters at certain seasons of the year, who will be created as a result of the machinery of this Bill. We have heard so much, in rhetorical objections to the Bill, about the hordes of new officials, mostly emanating from Whitehall, who are to be let loose on a suffering countryside as a result of the provisions of this Bill, that I thought it as well to refer to the actual facts of the case.
I will pass, if I may, to the more contentious portion of the Bill—Clause 4—which deals with powers to enforce proper cultivation. Those of your Lordships who are familiar with the Bill as introduced in another place will recognise that this clause appears in a much simpler form, and without all that irritating cross-reference to other legislation which I freely admit disfigured the original draft of the Bill. The clause as it now stands, and as it passed the House of Commons, reproduces Clause 9 of the Corn Production Act but in a greatly modified and softened form, in so far as it affects the interests of both owners and occupiers. Before I come to any of the details I would like to state my reasons for asking your Lordships to accept such a clause at all. I say "such a clause" advisedly, because I do not pretend for a moment that this clause in its present form is a law of the Medes and Persians, incapable of any alteration, and so long as the principle is conceded I shall at a later stage, I need hardly say, be prepared to consider in a reasonable spirit any Amendments which would make the principle more acceptable to those affected, provided, of course, that they do not make the clause ineffective and useless. That portion of the powers which deals merely with the enforcement of good husbandry will, I imagine, meet with comparatively little disagreement from your Lordships. Your Lordships will see what is meant by "good husbandry" from the definition in Clause 30, which provides that the expression "rules of good husbandry" means "the rules of good husbandry generally recognised as applying to holdings of the same character and in the same neighbourhood." I imagine that the provisions with regard to that will not be the subject of prolonged controversy, but I am aware that there is strong opposition to the continuance, even in the very modified form described in this clause, of any powers to the county agricultural committees to extend or even 728 maintain the existing arable areas. Indeed, I think it is quite possible that this may be the greatest difficulty that I shall have to face in your Lordships' House in my attempt to persuade you of the wisdom of these proposals, and as the matter is of vital importance I am anxious to face the question frankly and at once.
May I in this connection remind your Lordships once more that the immediate problem with which the Government is concerned in the national interest is how to arrest the rapid shrinkage of the arable area which has been going on since the conclusion of the war, and how to ensure in future a greater production of essential foodstuffs. The first remedy that we proposed for that is the guarantees to which I referred, coupled—and this is most important—with a free market for the produce, which will give the grower his fair chance of profit. But that is not enough, and I venture to say it would not be possible to ask the State to assume the financial risk which undoubtedly exists in these guarantees without at the same time retaining some power (and a very modified power it is) to ensure that the farmer performs his part of the bargain. I cannot assure your Lordships too strongly that there is no question or intention whatsoever of applying war methods to peace farming. At the same time it would be folly, I maintain, to ignore war experience in framing future policy. Merely to trust to the patriotism of farmers in this matter is surely not enough. Farmers are no less patriotic than any other section of the community, but in 1915–16 at a time of dire national need, when labour difficulties were much less acute than they became later, all the patriotism of the farmers did not produce any marked increase in the food supply of this country, nor did all their knowledge and industry in the forty years before the war prevent the shrinkage of our arable area by over 4½million acres and the reduction of our agricultural population by over 600,000. These facts have to be faced, and on these facts we have I venture to claim overwhelming authority for the proposals for the control of cultivation which are contained in the Bill.
May I refer again to the Report of the Selborne Committee and read a few extracts to your Lordships, because I rather resent the charge that this is a policy which has been invented by me on 729 the strength of my experience as Director-General of Food Production at a time when we had to consider nothing but how to avert starvation. These are extracts from the Report of the Selborne Committee—It must be explained to landowners, farmers' and agricultural labourers alike that the experience of this war has shown that the methods and results of land management and of farming are matters involving the safety of the State, and are not of concern only to the interests of individuals. They must be plainly told that the security and welfare of the State demand that the agricultural land of the country must gradually is, made to yield its maximum production both in foodstuffs and timber.The Report goes on to say that—Much grass land must be reconverted into arable …We recommend that the State should fix a minimum wage for the ordinary agricultural labourer in each county, guarantee to t he farmer a minimum price for wheat and oats, and take steps … to secure the increase of production which is the object of the guarantee … Of the remaining grass land a large proportion could be ploughed up with advantage to the farmer, the landowners and the State. The interests of the State demand that more land should be put under the plough.Further on it says—The policy which we recommend will be thoroughly unpopular with many landowners and farmers. They have turned their farms down to grass, they do not grow corn and do not wish to do so, and they do not ask for a guarantee; they will not like the idea of a minimum standard wage, and all they ask is to be left alone … If, however, they once understand that the policy in which they are asked to join is necessary for the safety and welfare of the nation, the State can, we believe, confidently rely upon their co-operation.Finally, the Report says—But we recognise that, when once the State has embarked on such a policy as we recommend, for the sake of the nation's safety, it can run no avoidable risk of its failure. Neither the idio-syneracies, nor the incapacity, nor the lack of patriotism of individuals can be allowed to interpose even a partial barrier to the success of a national policy.Those are strong words, my Lords. I notice that the Report is signed by many practical agricultural authorities, including my noble friend Lord Bledisloe.
§ LORD LEE OF FAREHAM
I am quoting at present from the first part only, which was signed by my noble friend. Language of almost equal strength was used in the Report of the Milner Committee, and stronger language still was used in favour of the control of cultivation by the 730 Royal Commission which reported last Christmas, the Majority Report of which was signed by, I think, every practical farmer that was a member of the Commission. Their recommendations went considerably further than anything which is proposed in this Bill, and the National Farmers' Union, which might have been a protesting body in this matter, alter the introduction of the Bill, and after our even stronger provisions were still in the draft, stated—This power to enforce proper cultivation is assumed in consideration of the guarantees given in regard to cereal prices. The National Farmers' Union accepts, subject to certain reservations, the decision of the Government in these matters in the belief that such decision was demanded in the interests of the gat on at large.If the farmers through their accredited representatives, whether on these Committees or Commissions, or speaking for the National Farmer's Union, are prepared to accept the powers for the control of cultivation which are contained in this clause, I hardly think it is incumbent upon your Lordships to show yourselves plus royalist que le roi.
I can only assume that what critics and opponents genuinely fear in connection with these powers it, a possible resumption of some kind of grass ploughing campaign, such as was carried out on a wholesale scale in 1917 and 1918 at the greatest crisis of the war—carried out, I freely admit, under my own direction. From a letter written by very moderate and experienced authority that I read yesterday, I gather that there has even been a fear that the system of county quotas might be re-established. I can assure your Lordships on behalf of the Government that there is no such intention, nor is there any possibility of such a thing unless the very life of the nation were again at stake. If that is not clear in the Bill I am, as I say, perfectly willing to consider any reasonable Amendments which will make it more clear and afford the necessary safeguards. I do not want this issue to be prejudiced by what took place in 1917–18. If challenged I shall be prepared to defend up to the hilt what was done under stress of war and under my direction in that purely war-time campaign.
§ LORD LEE OF FAREHAM
I sometimes hear it alleged that the whole of the work which was then done produced no food for 731 the nation, that land was destroyed and no food resulted. My Lords, I can only ask you to look at the official agricultural returns; not those dealing with acreage—I am not concerned with that—but with the actual weight of crops harvested, and you will find that as a result of that campaign we produced in the year 1918 52 per cent, more wheat, 41 per cent, more oats, 57 per cent, more potatoes, in realised bushels, than the average of the previous ten years, and that the total weight of this food was over 4½million tons, which, if it had had to be brought from overseas in the face of the submarines, would have needed the services of something like 875 ships of 5,000 tons apiece. That is, I think, a sufficient answer to those who say that that campaign was of no effect and was not justified by the results.
I admit that in the course of that campaign none of us who were concerned in directing it were restrained by considerations merely of good husbandry. The life of the nation was at stake; we were threatened with starvation; we had to get food at any cost, and the plough was driven relentlessly, though I venture to say, with due discrimination. There were mistakes, of course, but I have evidence to show they were certainly not more than 5 per cent, of the acreage that was ploughed, and in some cases, of course, the farmer had to go over the top and suffer casualties, like other people, in the death grapple in which we were engaged. I make no apologies whatever for what was done in that connection; indeed, I would have ploughed up the floor of your Lordships' House if that could in any way have assisted to defeat the submarines.
But, having said that, what I want to emphasise by way of contrast is that there can be no repetition of it, and, indeed, there are no such powers contained in the provisions of the present Bill. Indeed the powers of the county agricultural committees are so hedged round with restrictions of every sort and kind that the most effective criticism that I have heard made with regard to those powers is that they have been so whittled down that they would be comparatively ineffective. In the first place, the right of appeal is given in any and every case of an order—even an order with regard to good husbandry. Then, with regard to any order, the arbitrator to whom the appeal goes can only confirm the order if he is satisfied, first, that 732 it will not injuriously affect the interests of any persons connected with the land; secondly, that it will increase production; and, thirdly, that it will be in the national interest. Moreover, a very important Amendment was inserted in another place under which no order can in any circumstances be made which would interfere with the discretion of the farmer with regard to the crops that should be grown on a particular piece of land. Those are very severe limitations, and I notice that they are recognised as such in the very interesting and balanced legal examination of the Bill which was issued by the Central Land Association. It said—The Amendments now proposed do to some extent contract the powers originally granted. The measures of protection which have been introduced are undoubtedly of great value, whilst j the new powers, when closely analysed, lose soma of their first formidable appearance. The existence of the rights of appeal, even if seldom resorted to, exercise a wholesome influence.And, as I have shown just now, the National Farmers' Union accept the modified powers for which I now ask.
And what is the alternative if they are not accepted? Is self-interest only to prevail in this matter? I can conceive that self-interest might possibly dictate the conversion of the whole of England into a grazing ranch. Then at any rate the timid farmer or landowner would be in one sense on velvet; he would be spared a very large proportion of his worries with labour, machinery, buildings, equipment, and so forth. But the national need would be entirely ignored, and after all the land of this country is limited and the nation is deeply concerned in the uses to which it is put. The occupation of land involves national obligations as well as individual self-interests.
This is not merely a question of the State seeking to exact a quid pro quo in connection with its offer of guaranteed minimum prices and a measure of increased security of tenure. It is true that the Bill is not designed in any sense as a measure of social reform, but incidentally, if passed, it may prevent a great injury to our social fabric. Every one admits, I suppose, that the maintenance, and indeed the increase, of our rural population his of vital importance, both from a political and a hygienic standpoint. But the substitution on a large scale of grass land for arable is a direct negative to that policy; it is not only opposed to the national interest but, 733 if persisted in, must have one, result—the creation of a new army of landless men who are skilled land workers and who, having lost their employment, will embark upon what, I venture to say, would prove an irresistible agitation for the breaking up of farms and for the nationalisation of the land. There have been rumbles of that already, and I am quite convinced that that tendency would not be in the interests either of farmers or of landowners. At the same time it is a contingency which cannot lightly be dismissed.
Under Clause 4 committees will also have the power to insist on the execution by the tenant or landlord, as the case may be, of repairs and works of maintenance which are essential to the proper cultivation of a holding. But against these powers, again, there is the right of appeal, and in case of default the penalty which stood in the original Corn Production Act—the much too severe penalty, as I considered it, of eviction from the holding—has been reduced to a small fine, or the committee may execute the work and recover the cost.
I have no doubt that in the course of the speeches in answer to mine one frequent objection that will be made will be that your Lordships do not possess the necessary confidence in the discretion of the county agricultural committees—which, of course, are not set up by this Bill, but which were set up under the Ministry of Agriculture Act. I have been concerned in scrutinising the list of those committees with immense care. I have seen every one of them, and I venture to say that on the whole, and with very few exceptions, they have been most carefully chosen and consist of highly responsible and representative men and women. There may be a few cases open to criticism. But after all, my Lords, the powers which are given to these committees in connection with this Bill are delegated powers only. If abused they can be Withdrawn; and I say unhesitatingly that so long as I hold my present office they will certainly be withdrawn it they are abused.
Personally, speaking for the committee in my own county, which is also the county of my noble friend Lord Lincolnshire, I have the utmost confidence in their capacity and good sense. I had the honour of being their first chairman, and I know that my noble friend Lord Lincolnshire is an active member of that committee.
734 As an illustration of their diligence and impartiality, quite recently they hauled me over the coals in connection with a superfluity of weeds in certain fields for which I was responsible. I need hardly say I at once complied with their directions, but also I gladly kissed the rod which I had myself forged and wielded at an earlier date. I ask your Lordships to give reasonable confidence to these committees, upon which, I have no doubt, many of you are sitting—at any rate until they [trove themselves unworthy of that trust.
There is one other point in connection with Clause 4 to which I feel I ought to call attention, although I have no doubt it has not escaped the notice of your Lordships—that is the provision for dealing with an estate which is so grossly mismanaged as to impede the production of food in the national interest. Fortunately, that is a very rare evil, but where it occurs it is undoubtedly a great offence and scandal to the neighbourhood and a great hardship to the tenants affected; and it is necessary, I think, that the State should retain the power in the last resort to intervene in cases of that kind. The necessity was very strongly pressed upon the Government by the Report of the Selborne Committee, in paragraph 56. Experience, unfortunately, has shown me that there are a certain number of such cases. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Northbrook, if he were here, would agree with that remark in view of the difficulty which his own committee in Hampshire is having at the present time. Power to deal with such rare cases is badly needed, and I am sure of this, that these cases if brought before any tribunal of your Lordships would be more sternly condemned than they would be by any agricultural committee. But the powers, again, are hedged round with every kind of safeguard and restriction, including an appeal to the High Court in any case where it is sought to put these powers into force.
My Lords, the only other provisions in the first part of the Bill to which I will call your attention are the powers to order the destruction of noxious weeds, wherever situate—much-needed powers in some districts—also the provision which was inserted in another place at the last moment, in response to the unanimous and insistent demands of Welsh Members of all parties, for the extablishment of a separate Wages Board for Wales; and other minor 735 points which can be dealt with in committee. I feel I must apologise to your Lordships for the length at which I have dealt with this first part of the Bill, but I realise that it has excited and will excite much opposition in some quarters, and I am anxious, if I can, not only to give a full exposition but if possible to allay some of those apprehensions which have been expressed.
Now I come to Part II of the Bill, which deal; with the amendment of the Agricultural Holdings Acts. The main purpose of this part of the Bill is, whilst preserving in all circumstances the right of the landlord to give notice to quit, and whilst steering clear of the evils of fixity of tenure and of dual ownership, to give those tenants who are farming properly a greater sense of security than they now enjoy, and to do that by compensating them fully in the event of their having to quit. We propose this not merely as a matter of justice, nor principally as a matter of justice, but because we regard it as essential in the national interest, that the good farmer should have sufficient encouragement to tempt him to embark his capital in increased production and to produce from his holding the maximum amount of food. I think there is comparatively little difference of opinion as to the reality and the extent of this evil. It was very clearly and adequately set forth by the chairman of the Central Land Association in the Report to the Annual General Meeting last year. He said—There has been a great unsettlement of the occupier owing to the great number of estates that have gone into the market; and, above all, to the practice, which personally I deplore, of giving wholesale notices to the tenants to quit in preparation for a sale. Now, that that. has produced unsettlement we cannot deny …Therefore when our friends of the National Farmers' Union put forward their proposals for what they call security, I suggest that we must examine those proposals with great respect, but in the light of the principles which I have laid down.—those principles apparently being that there must be nothing which savours of fixity of tenure or dual ownership. I claim that in this part of the Bill we have avoided those two pitfalls to which the chairman referred, and that at any rate these proposals do represent what I have ventured to call reasonable corn-promise which was negotiated and come to between the authorised representatives of the National Farmers' Union and a group of very influential landlords—namely, the 736 leaders of the Agricultural Committee of the House of Commons, who have generally been looked upon as the most authoritative representatives of agricultural opinion in that House. I am aware that at a later stage, although they themselves held to the compromise which they had negotiated, they found that some of those who had previously acted with them had broken away from it. But it does represent a compromise which I believe is fair, and in any case it has been adopted by the Government as offering a reasonable sense of security to the farmer who is not in default and who is farming his holding properly. On the other hand, the provisions of this part of the Bill extend no such consideration to the bad or defaulting tenant. Indeed, the Bill provides special facilities for getting rid of any such with less difficulty than formerly.
If I may summarise in a sentence the purpose which we have in view in this part of the Bill, it is to make it easy to get rid of a bad tenant, while making it difficult or at any rate expensive to get rid of a good one. I do not believe that the good landlords—and they are in a great majority—have anything to fear from this portion of the Bill. From the way in which it has been denounced in some quarters one might really imagine that it was the ambition of landlords to get rid of their good tenants on every possible occasion, and that this Bill in some way proposed unfairly to thwart them. As a matter of fact, as between the good landlord and the good tenant these compensation clauses will hardly ever come into effect, whilst on the other hand they do constitute a much needed and effective protection to the good tenant against the rare case of the harsh, oppressive, and capricious landlord.
The benefits of this portion of the Bill are not by any means confined to tenants. For the first time, under this clause, a simple and friendly procedure is provided by which either the landlord or the tenant can secure a revision of rent without having to have recourse to a Land Court or even of notice to quit. It is notorious that a great portion of the land of this country is greatly under-rented; both tenants and landlords know it. But under existing conditions the best landlords, particularly, shrink from trying to force an increase of rent from long-established tenants by the only available means, which is giving notice to quit. This is 737 unfair to the landlord. As a result he is prevented by financial considerations from discharging his full obligations to the tenant and to the holding, and in the last resort, I am afraid in numberless cases, he is forced to sell. Under the provisions of this clause it will be possible for a landlord to secure a reasonable increase of rent without disturbing his tenant and without incurring the odium which undoubtedly attaches at present to giving notice to quit for this purpose; whilst conversely the over-rented tenant—I think he is an exceedingly rare bird—if he can establish his case, will be able to secure a revision by arbitration whilst still remaining in possession of his holding. Those are, in brief, the main provisions of Clause 8 which I am well aware will come under minute examination when we reach Committee stage.
I know that the whole of Part-II of the Bill treads on very delicate ground and that in bringing it forward I am embarking on the battlefield of old controversies and embittered fights. I am not doing this merely for the love of trouble. I am doing it solely from a deep conviction that a settlement of this burning question is long overdue, that it is demanded not only in the interests of the State, but in the interests of all parties affected, and that the present is almost a unique opportunity for coming to a fair settlement—an opportunity which may never occur again. It should count for something that this measure has been approved by a Cabinet consisting of representatives of the two great Parties in the State, and that you have at the present time a Minister of Agriculture who is profoundly convinced of the evils both of fixity of tenure and dual ownership and who is irrevocably opposed to both. My successor might think differently; but certainly I feel that never before has there been such a large measure of agreement and goodwill amongst moderate and influential men of both sides as there is at the present. Therefore, perhaps greatly daring, I have endeavoured to build a golden bridge between the two interests concerned, and in doing so have tried to steer a straight course between the Scylla of dual ownership and the Charybdis of nationalisation.
That the desire for a settlement is widespread and sincere no one will deny. It was voiced very clearly by the Central Chamber in last year's Report; by the Surveyors Institution, the Land Agents 738 Society, the Central Land Association, the National Farmers Union (with the representatives of all of which I have consulted freely), and also by many individuals and distinguished authorities, such as my predecessor, Lord Ernie. It is quite unnecessary for me to labour the desire for settlement. That it admitted. My task will be to justify not so much the principle as the details of the Rill with regard to this point and to make them as acceptable to your Lordships as I can. Clause 8, which I know is vital, contains numerous safeguards for landlords against any abuse of its provisions. It provides a power to withdraw a notice to quit in lieu of paying compensation. It limits compensation to that portion of the holding, if it is only a fraction, which is taken away, and, what is most important., it enables a landlord to get rid of a bad tenant without compensation for disturbance if he secures from the county committee a certificate that the tenant has been farming badly.
Those are the more important and contentious portions of Part II, and it is only consideration for your Lordships' time that prevents me from dealing with details on other points. I may call attention, however, to Clause 9, which provides compensation for disturbance for allotment holders. Clause 10, applies to cottages held under a farmer by agricultural labourers the same principle of compensation for disturbance as is adopted in the Bill with regard to holdings. That, again, is hedged about by numerous restrictions and safeguards which will prevent any real hardship on a tenant who gets rid of a labourer under those conditions. Clause 11 places tenants who hold upon lease for a. term of years on the same footing as yearly tenants as regards compensation for disturbance, and leases will automatically continue in force as yearly tenancies unless they are terminated by notice to quit.
There is an important clause under which, if a tenant is unable to secure the consent of his landlord to an improvement which is essential to the good cultivation of the holding, he can refer the matter to an arbitrator or to the county committee, and if they are of opinion that the improvement should be made they may authorise that, when made by the tenant, it shall rank with other matters for compensation.
Then there is an important provision for extending what is known as the Evesham custom in connection with market gardens 739 generally all over the country. Another clause, which I have no doubt will be closely criticised by your Lordships, gives the tenant power to recover such compensation as represents the benefit accruing to the holding for the continuous adoption of a standard or system of farming higher than that which is required by the contract of tenancy or by custom, providing that a record of the holding has been made. That is based on the advice of the Selborne Committee and has been pressed upon the Government in an authoritative way. Further, there are clauses for protecting the landlord's position under which he can claim compensation in the event of any deterioration of the holding by a tenant. Clause 19 explains how the panel of arbitrators is appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. That was the result of a compromise in another place. Clause 26 provides that the tenancy of an agricultural holding shall not be determined by a notice to quit of less than twelve months except in certain specified cases.
I feel that I have made such a demand upon your Lordships' time that you will not wish me, on the occasion of the Second Reading, to deal with any further details of the Bill. I hope that in the arguments I have put forward I have succeeded in convincing your Lordships that in framing and introducing this measure the Government have not been actuated by any other motive than a passionate desire to stimulate production and—whilst doing nothing to injure any section of the industry but rather to further its interest on the lines which have been pressed upon the Government—to establish agriculture in its proper place as one of the first lines of our national defence. This Bill cannot be fairly described as a farmer's charter; still less as a landlord's scourge. It is, if anything, a consumer's insurance. This, at any rate, is the object of the Government's policy, and if, and in so far as, it fails to find adequate expression in the Bill I have no doubt your Lordships will advance suggestions to make it more effective. To any proposals of that kind which are put forward in a constructive spirit and which will not destroy the vitals of the Bill, I need hardly say we shall give the most earnest consideration.
I fully recognise that in your Lordships' House I am addressing a body of experts who are peculiarly interested in these matters, and therefore it is not only my 740 duty, but my desire, to give special weight to your views. At the same time I must make it plain that the scheme and the whole policy of the Bill rest upon three main legs. It may be possible slightly to lengthen or shorten them, but if any one of them be so drastically cut as to make the structure topple over, then obviously the Bill cannot survive. I am quite unwilling to contemplate such an outcome in view of the disastrous blow that would be given to the foundations of our national security—a cause on behalf of which I do not believe any appeal has ever been made to your Lordships in vain. We really cannot afford to disregard what is one of the most striking lessons of the war, merely, if I may say so, to gratify my noble friend Lord Lincolnshire who, in a public letter that he wrote a day or two ago, spoke as if this debate were a sort of opportunity for a day's rabbiting in which he would have, as he said, a sporting chance to knock on the head a Bill which I venture to claim in its essence is a first-class measure of national insurance against perils the reality and gravity of which have been so recently and forcibly brought home to every one of your Lord-slops.
If any further support were needed for the case I have endeavoured to make this afternoon I would ask your Lordships to recall and consider the official opinion of the Board of Admiralty communicated to the Selborne Committee and printed at the end of their Report. The Admiralty said—The submarine attack on the overseas food supply of the Unit, d Kingdom has thrown a great additional strain upon the Navy in the present war. The Navy has so far been able to keep this submarine attack in check, but no means have yet been discovered to render sea-borne traffic immune from attack. Consequently any effective steps to make this country less dependent upon the importation of the necessities of life in the present war would result in a great reduction of anxiety. The certain development of the submarine may render such vessels still more formidable as weapons of attack against sea-borne commerce in a future war, and no justification exists for assuming that anything approaching entire immunity can be obtained. Therefore the experience of the present war leads to the conclusion that any measures which resulted in rendering the United Kingdom less dependent on the importation of foodstuffs during the period of a future war, and so in reducing the volume of seaborne traffic, would greatly relieve the strain upon the Navy and add immensely to the national security.That is the opinion of the Board of Admiralty.
§ LORD LEE OF FAREHAM
1917. How great that strain was is brought home to me by information which I have received since that during the later stages of the war there were seldom more than eight or nine German submarines operating around our coast at any one time, and yet to deal with these the. Navy maintained, actually patrolling in the Irish Sea, at one time an average of 2,500 vessels. Still they were quite unable to give us security or to prevent daily and disastrous sinkings. It has been estimated that in actual money losses and naval expenses the sinking of every one of these German submarines cost us not less than £20,000,000. And that quite apart from loss of life. At one period undoubtedly our overseas supplies of food were within very measurable distance of complete severance.
If that was the extent of the peril in 1918, who can set a limit to what that peril may be in any future emergency, or the extent to which we may have to rely for our very existence upon home-produced food. Certainly we cannot depend upon another improvisation to save us in a situation of that kind. That is the main justification for this Bill, and so profoundly convinced am I that there is a vital need for legislation on these lines that I could not face the responsibilities of my present office unless Parliament sanctioned some measure of this sort in an effective form. My experience of public life, like that of my noble friend Lord Selborne, has been very largely bound up in naval and agricultural business, and never before has their interdependence been so vividly apparent. I hope, therefore, that I may be forgiven if, as my last word, I venture slightly to paraphrase the ancient and historic preamble of the naval articles of war and say, "It is expedient to amend the law relating to the government of the Navy, and of Agriculture, whereon, under the good Providence of God, the wealth, safety, and strength of this Kingdom do chiefly depend." I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lee of Fareham.)
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until Tuesday next.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, debate adjourned until Tuesday of next week.