§ LORD HARRIS rose to call attention to the state of agriculture; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they contemplate taking any, and if so, what steps to check the reversion of arable to pasture. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I can well understand that with all the grave and anxious questions that are occupying our minds from various parts of the world and in Great Britain itself, it might appear inappropriate that I should bring forward this subject for consideration, and occupy your time to-night, but I venture to submit to your Lordships that the subject is of vital importance to the country and to its population. It is not only a question of the success this year, or the reverse another year, of the harvest. It is not a question of the prosperity of this or that individual, or even of a class, for a time. There are questions underlying it far more important, affecting the vitality and the vigour of the nation—silent forces working as mysteriously as the germination of the seed in the ground, and yet capable of production of something as glorious as the golden column of straw ending with its beneficent ear. Therefore, I have not hesitated to put this Question down and to detain your Lordships if you care to hear me.
§ My Notice on the Paper, besides calling attention to the matter, asks a Question, and in that Question is an assumption. I assume that a large part of the soil of 478 this country devoted to arable farming is very shortly going to be converted to pasture. I cannot pretend to a general knowledge of the situation, or of the condition, of agriculture throughout the island. I can speak of my own neighbourhood only and I imagine that what applies there applies also to the principal corn-growing counties of the country. The noble Earl in charge of the Department will be able to give us information upon that, and will correct me if I am wrong, but certainly, so far as my own neighbourhood is concerned, I have no hesitation in saving that it is impossible to conceive a more serious state of affairs than that which exists. And I can speak with some experience. I have had experience of the crisis of 1878, through the 'eighties into the 'nineties, when a combination of unkindly weather and the introduction of the triple-expansion engine, resulted in wheat being poured into this country from America in such quantities, and at such rates, that it was impossible for the British farmer to compete. It had the result of sweeping away a generation of farmers, and of impoverishing, in many cases for all time, a large number of landowners. So bad was it that Parliament eventually recognised that it was necessary to do something, and in 1896 introduced a Bill which became an Act, called the Agricultural Rates Act.
§ I could not have believed it possible that so much Money could be lost in farming as has been lost this year in my neighbourhood. It was supposed, and was constantly alleged, that farmers were making very large profits in the years 1916–17–18. In 1917–18 they did make considerable 479 profits no doubt, and the farmer who went out in that period did very well. But I have no hesitation in saying, from experience, that whether profits were large or small, every penny of them has since had to go back into the land, and those who have stuck to farming all through can now, on the result of the eight years since 1914, not show any great profits. I make this statement very deliberately to your Lordships—that I have never known agriculture in such a serious state as it is this year, so far as the areas of which I can speak are concerned. I can substantiate that, and not on my own authority.
§ I have here a letter, which I can read if necessary, from an eminent firm of land agents, who give me some typical cases in a neighbourhood where the land is extremely good and where the farmer has the assistance of fruit. I am not including any farms that have bolos, because hop farms are quite different; this year they have been successful. In one case 230 acres of land produced no rent at all, and there was a loss of £1,800. The second case is one of 250 acres: No rent at all, no wages for the owner and two sons who worked it, and a loss of £1,157. In a third case, 300 acres, the loss was £2,000. In another, 250 acres: No rent, and a loss of £700. They add: "These are merely typical, we can give you numbers more if you need them." I think the noble Earl will acknowledge that some figures that. I sent to him some time ago bear out the statement I have made here. What was the cause? We were growing our crops for 1920–21 at the maximum possible rate of wage, and on the assumption—for part of the year, at any rate—that the control was going to be kept on. Suddenly the control was taken off, and there was a most disastrous fall in the prices of cereals and of other agricultural and pastoral produce. There was a fall of very nearly 50 per cent., and unfortunately the £3 per acre bonus given by the Government, although it was helpful, could not make up the difference.
§ Of course, we know that the cost of growing wheat varies materially according to the soil. Doctors differ, and so do experts as to what it costs to grow an acre of wheat. The Royal Commission on Agriculture, in the course of their inquiries, found the very greatest difficulty, and the very greatest difference of opinion, 480 as to costings. But, taking land where it costs from £16 to £22 an acre to grow wheat—and I could give you details of that if it was worth while troubling your Lordships with them—the loss has been this year from £3 to £5 an acre. It is arrived at thus. I am taking four quarter land, the average of the country, and I will take 50s. as the price. A tremendous lot of corn was sold at 45s. and less. It is 54s. or 55s. now, I think, and so I take the four quarters at 50s. That conies to £10; bonus £3; giving £13 for the crop. The cost is £18, so that you get a loss of £5 an acre on the wheat we grow this year.
§ What was the reason? It was a simple one—the cost of labour. I can give you some figures which are very startling. They are from a Return showing, On a group of farms amounting to 1,100 acres, excluding a lot of grass land, that the weekly wage in 1913–14 was 18s. and the average of 1921 was 40s. per week. This is a startling difference. The total spent upon labour in 1914 was £2,855; in 1921 it was £8,374, or more than three times as much. The acreage under wheat was rather less in the last year, and therefore the total amount of cereals has decreased. The total amount realised in 1914 was £4,219 and in 1920, £7,754. That is very significant, because in 1920 we had the controlled price. Those figures showed £600 profit over the total cost of labour. In the following year, 1921, the total amount realised, with the £3 bonus from the Government, was only £5,313, whereas the cost of labour was £8,374. Thus there was a loss of £3,000. The average return per acre in 1914 was £8 18s.; in 1920–21 it went as high as £14 8s. 9d.; in 1921 it was £12 10s. 7d., an increase of about 50 per cent. over 1914. The average cost of labour, per cereal acre, went up from £6 in 1914 to £13 in 1920, and to £19 15s. in 1921, or more than three times as much. Of course, it is impossible to compete against such figures, and that is the cause of this disastrous state of affairs—the sudden drop, owing to the control being removed, in the value of what was produced, whereas the cost of growing it had shown no reduction at all, though it has done so since, I admit.
§ I submit that, with such losses as that, it is absolutely certain that some cheaper form of farming must be introduced. Therefore—and I submit that I have made out my case as regards the losses—I am 481 justified in assuming that some other form of farming must be adopted if a farmer is to remain solvent. He will have to save on labour; he will have to reduce the amount of labour; and it seems to me inevitable that a great deal of arable land must go back to pasture. In my experience farmers are extremely reluctant to drop wages unfairly. They are trying strenuously to keep them as close to the calculated cost of living as possible. But they are still so high, and the value of produce has dropped so much that, so far as I can see, it is inevitable that they must get rid of a certain amount of labour, and must convert arable land into pasture. I noticed, incidentally, in a newspaper the other day, the statement that Messrs. Sutton Lad never had such a demand for grass seeds as they are getting this year.
Is that something to be feared? Should it be regarded as a calamity? Is it something that ought to be avoided if possible? I should be very much interested, if one could get it, to know what the answer would be now, as compared with the opinion of that Royal Commission to which I have referred. They presented an interim Report, as your Lordships may remember, and I should like to cull from it one or two expressions of opinion. They referred to a Committee appointed by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, which reported on June 19, and they extract this from the Majority Report—
A healthy riral population forms a valuable recruiting ground for those departments of urban industry which require a high standard of physique, and for the class of emigrants chiefly desired by our Dominions. Indeed, it is frequently urged that it is highly desirable, on the grounds of physique and health alone, to increase the numbers of our rural population. The desirability of increasing our home production of food, both for military and economic reasons, has also been urged by many of our witnesses, and there are, we think, indications that, as a result of the war, the nation may decide that national security demands a substantial increase in the agricultural output of the country.
And again, they refer to another Report of 1916—
It is evident that after the war the financial and physical welfare of the country will demand that the productive capacity of the soil should be developed to the fullest extent. Burdened with a huge debt, the nation will be strongly interested in producing as much as possible of its food at home that it may buy as little as possible abroad. Exhausted in man power, it will find in the expansion of the rural population of these islands the best restorative of its vital and creative energy.
§ I am afraid we have seriously fallen away from those opinions, and that it is a matter rather of indifference whether we revert to pasture or not, and whether we can attract a large population to the land or not.
§ I wonder what has happened to those aspirations, to that grandiloquent boast of sonic twenty years ago when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman declared that the pleasure grounds of the rich were going to be turned into the treasure grounds of the poor. What progress has been made with that, I wonder. Where are the homes for heroes? In suburban and urban districts possibly; but I do not notice any in the rural areas. We may very well regret that period from 1851 to 1879 when there were 24,000,000 acres of arable land, 10,000,000 of which were under wheat and produced 13,000,000 quarters, and when the agricultural workmen numbered 2,700,000. In 1914 there was a reduction of 4½ million acres, a production of only 7,800,000 quarters of wheat as compared with 13,000,000, and a reduction in the number of agricultural workmen from 2,700,100 to 2,000,000. That was the fall up to 1914.
§ Is that heavy fall to be allowed to continue and, perhaps, to be accentuated? Is it desirable; and, if not, can the Government do anything to stop it? It may be regarded from various points of view. There is the question of the manhood of the nation, the vigour and vitality of the race, referred to in the quotation I made at the beginning of my remarks. Surely it is the ambition and desire of everyone to get as many people on to the land as possible. That is our desire at any rate. We have on our shoulders at this moment the most terrible and threatening burden that possibly any nation has or over has had. There are nearly 2,000,000 men unemployed, exclusive of those thrown out of work by the strike that has just commenced. There are hundreds of thousands of acres upon which many of them, I do not say all, could be put. There are hundreds of thousands of frontages to our roads from which small holdings could be worked if we could attract the people on to the soil. But we have not proved that those lands are the treasure grounds for the poor.
§ Can it be said of small holdings that the results of all the efforts of the Government and the county councils are anything more than somewhat meagre? And as to the farm colonies—a subject which was dis- 483 cussed last week in this House—the whole scheme is scrapped after an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Why? Because it could not be made profitable. To what does all that point? That Government after Government is not afraid, is not ashamed, to put burden after burden upon real estate, until the industry is not profitable, is not attractive. It is proved by results that men will not come on to the land although it would employ at this time, and desirably employ, hundreds of thousands of those who are unemployed.
§ The whole world competes with us in our cereal production and to some extent in fruit and vegetables. It is very different in France. As I said just now, in supporting the noble Marquess opposite on another point, in France the subject of agriculture is recognised as of national importance and the cultivator is protected. He has no chance of that here; every kind of burden is put upon him. Take one little item. The noble Marquess appealed on behalf of agriculture that Summer Time should not extend throughout September. I think one can claim that your Lordships—most of whom are keenly interested in agriculture—voted in the interests of the whole populace and not selfishly in your own interests, when you poured into the Lobby and insisted upon Summer Time being continued into October. That is an illustration of how indifferent to agriculture we are in this country as compared with France.
§ I ask: What is the policy of His Majesty's Government? I am not expecting an encouraging reply in reference to the growing of wheat. The only possible way of insuring the continuance of wheat growing is a subsidy or a duty. His Majesty's Government has already shied at the idea of a subsidy, and as to a duty, if Mr. Chamberlain, with all his energy and all his enthusiasm, could only maintain a duty of 1s. for about two years, when it was scrapped, what chance has any Government in the future of putting a duty on wheat? Therefore, I rule that out. I am not for one moment blaming the Government for disregarding that item. It is no good their breaking their heads against the stone wall of the absolute objection of the urban classes of this country to paying anything in the shape of a duty upon their principal food.
§ But in the February Report of the Land Union there are some very useful and 484 helpful suggestions as to what might be done not only by this but by future Governments to help farming and real estate, and I hope that someone here who is officially connected with that. Association will deal with the point. I will touch only upon one suggestion of the Land Union, because I have had to do with it officially. I have mentioned that in 1896, under the late Lord Salisbury's Government, I had the honour of conducting through this House the Agricultural Rates Act. This relieved occupants from paying half of the rates, and the Government made up the balance to the other ratepayers. But, unfortunately for both the ratepayers and the agriculturists, the amount set aside for that purpose was limited to the amount necessary for that year, and the consequence is that although the rates have been multiplied since some eight or nine times, the amount received in relief of the rates is still about the same as it was in 1896. A hope was held out in another place by the Minister of Agriculture that he might be prepared to look into this matter. I think that is an indication of the interest taken in the subject by the Department. I cannot conceive of our being better served in any Department than we are by the heads of the Ministry of Agriculture at this moment—Sir Arthur Boscawen, the noble Earl on the front bench, and Sir Daniel Hall. Their interests are in the industry, and I am certain that they are doing their best for it.
§ I will put this question—it is an old question, and an old grievance—why should real estate be burdened with national necessities such as education, which has been put on since 1896, sanitation, highways and (I am going to refer to this particularly) animal diseases? These are all national questions, but, when the amount granted by Government out of the National Exchequer is exhausted, the balance is thrown upon real estate, and in increasing amounts and on increasing subjects almost every year. Take the case of animal diseases—a matter of such national importance that the Government ordered that all animals suspected of a certain disease were to be slaughtered and the owners compensated. I see from a communication in the newspapers this morning (which looks like an official communiqué) that the amount to be granted in compensation this year is likely to reach £1,000,000. The amount estimated for was only about £100,000, 485 and I understand that a Supplementary Estimate is to be brought in for about £400,000, making altogether £500,000.
§ In this communication it is stated that tic Local Taxation Fund is going to bear some portion of the remainder of the £1,000,000. I am not sure what that Local Taxation Fund is, but I presume it is a fund in the hands of the Government, who may legitimately use it for this purpose. But from information given me I learn that the fund does not amount to more than £130,000, so that on this national question, as a consequence of the Governments order to destroy these herds, £370,000 is going to be thrown upon the rates. That means that in those areas where the disease has been rife farmers will have to pay a rate. Those who have been compensated for the loss of their stock will not mind it so much, but the rest, who have been seriously inconvenienced by the embargo on the removal of cattle, are going to be taxed because their neighbours' animals caught this disease.
§ That is another illustration of the indifference of the Government to the laying of burdens on the unfortunate local taxpayer. That was not the policy of Mr. Goschen or of Lord Salisbury, both of whom tried to help the land, but it has been the policy of Sir William Harcourt and his successor s to throw all the burdens possible upon real estate, aiming, of course, at the great landowners. The missile, I rather think, has missed. The great landowners are "out"; in the parlance of tint ring, the Dukes have dodged the blow and got down to avoid it. They are nod going to be the sufferers by this increase of rates. They have had to part with their land, but the burdens remain on the land, and it is those who have bought from the great landowners who are now going to suffer—people in a very different position in life, a great many of them yeomen farmers. They are the people who are being hit, and who are going to be hit more and more if the rates go up, and if more burdens are laid upon local taxation.
§ This sounds a very gloomy speech, but I am not afraid of agriculture in the future. As I said when the Agriculture Bill was introduced, agriculture pursues the even tenour of its way, and by degrees accommodates itself to the circumstances which surround it. And as in the disastrous period of 1878 and 1898 agriculture by degrees adapted itself to circumstances 486 and eventually emerged successful, so agriculture will, after this crisis, in course of time once more emerge successful. But I am very apprehensive indeed for farming at the present moment, and I would venture to ask my noble friend on the front bench to give attention to the position in America where, in some of the States, it is precisely the same as here. There is a vicious circle due either to lack of demand (as in the case of cotton), or bad crops (as in the case of potatoes); and in those States where those are the principal crops farmers had bad times and were unable to buy fertilisers. The land suffered, with the result of poorer crops and poorer returns. And so it goes on round the vicious circle.
§ That is what I am afraid of here. If farmers have suffered such losses as I have indicated, it is inevitable that they will not be able to afford such artificial manure as, possibly, the farms want. Reduced crops and reduced returns will be the result. If the noble Earl will make inquiries with regard to America he will find, I think, that the Federal Government is contemplating making a grant to farmers for the purpose of buying fertilisers. It is a gloomy view that I am taking of the situation as it exists at present, but there is one saving factor. We have the whole world competing with us in the sale of our products, but there is this saving factor—that the whole world comes to us for our pedigree stock, and it seems to me it is in that direction that the industry will have to turn its attention. More and more we shall have to depend on those products in which there is the least chance of competition; milk, vegetables and fruit.
§ You cannot depend on the individual to supply capital for a great movement towards the land. If it is desirable, and I submit that the pious opinion I quoted from the Report is sound, to raise a sturdy and vigorous race, you must get people on the land. It does not matter whether the land is held by a landlord and cultivated by the tenant and his labourers, or whether, as in certain parts of India, large areas are held by the cultivators themselves from the State; those who are in favour of nationalisation have only to go to India to see the two systems working side by side. But if the country wishes to raise a vigorous, hardy and active race it must tempt people back to the land, and you are not going to tempt them back by throwing such burdens on the land as deprive the cultivator of any real profit.487
§ LORD DYNEVOR
My Lords, there is no doubt that the very serious situation which has arisen in agriculture is owing to the sudden drop in the price of agricultural products, the suddenness of which has been acknowledged by the Minister of Agriculture to be without parallel in the history of the industry. I hope we shall hear from the noble Earl that the policy of the Government in regard to agriculture is, in the main, to leave it alone and not to interfere with the running of the farm. I believe that is the policy of the Government, as the Minister of Agriculture, speaking last month in another place, said that he thought the duty of the Government was to confine itself to its proper function—namely, to assist agriculture so far as it can outside and not to interfere with the farmer in the conduct of the farm.
The price of wheat, barley, oats, livestock and wool has fallen at a sudden rate, but, unfortunately, the prices of articles which the farmer is bound to buy have not fallen in the same proportion. That is what is causing the serious situation for the farmer at the moment. Rates, too, are very high, and Income Tax is high. I think the greatest praise is due to the farm labourer for the way in which he has accepted a drop in wages. He realises that the farmer is no longer able to pay the old wages. The farmer is unable to pass on the cost of production to the consumer as those engaged in so many other industries are able to do. Agricultural prices are world prices. They are governed from Chicago, the Argentine, Australia, Europe and Asia. He cannot do what some other industries—coal mines or factories—are able to do and close down his industry temporarily. He must go on, and go on working at a loss perhaps, for if the land is left derelict it can only be recovered at a practically prohibitive cost. Therefore I maintain that agriculture is in a class by itself.
I am not going to suggest that the Government is in any way responsible for the fall in the price of agricultural products, but I would remind the noble Earl that the Government has been spending its time lately in repealing its own Acts—the Corn Production Acts. These Acts were passed with the intention of assisting agriculture and, therefore, agriculture has a right to very serious consideration at its Lands. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, 488 has alluded to the Report which has been issued by the Land Union pressing forward certain considerations and suggestions. I believe every one of your Lordships has received a copy of that Report. Let me briefly mention some of their suggestions.
Most unfortunately when the Agricultural Rates Act was passed in 1896 provision was not made that the grants from the Exchequer should keep pace with the rise in rates, and the Minister of Agriculture has informed us that agricultural rates have risen four and a half times since the passing of that Act. Then there is the question of the roads, with which I will not deal at any length as the noble Lord has a Notice dealing with it on the Paper for next week. Let me say, however, that to my mind the upkeep of the highway should not fall either on the ratepayer or on the Imperial Exchequer. It should be paid for wholly by the users of the roads as in the old turnpike days. I am not suggesting that we should go back to turnpikes and tollgates; that would be impossible with the present fast through motor traffic. But I think the present system of licence duties should be extended and that those vehicles which are the most likely to do the greatest damage should be the heaviest taxed.
Then there is the question of Schedule B, now levied on double the rent. I think that assessment should be reduced. It should, at any rate, not be more than the rent, and I am not quite sure that we should not go back to the old system of one-third. Salesmen should be compelled to mark their agricultural produce to show whether it is home-produced or comes from abroad. There are a great many people who would be quite ready to pay a little more if they were quite sure of getting the home-produced article. I hope also that before long the railways will see their way to reduce their charges for the carriages of agricultural produce.
Sales of land are going on continuously, and they have been enormously increased by the onerous nature of the present Death Duties. Really the Death Duties at the moment have got beyond breaking point. These sales are creating a feeling of un-certainty among tenant farmers. If they knew for certain that there was a chance of the landowner keeping his land and not being compelled to place it in the market, they would have a greater feeling of security, which would be all for the benefit of the industry. Income Tax and Super- 489 Tax have got to a prohibitive figure. Many landowners find it impossible to keep their property in order; and that is to the detriment of farmers and of agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture said the other day that if you tax the landowner out of existence he cannot properly look after his property. I maintain that he is being taxed out of existence; and it follows that the property in some cases is not being properly looked after. The maintenance allowance under Schedule A should be extended. I should like to see property owners allowed to do practically what industrial companies are allowed to do—produce balance sheets under Schedule D—receipts on one side, expenditure on the other; deduct one from the other and pay Income Tax and Super-Tax on the net profits.
The Committee of the Land Union, upon which I had the honour to serve as Chairman, put forward the proposals, not from a political point of view but from the national point of view, in the hope that agriculture might thereby be enabled to weather the storm through which it is passing at the present moment, and the future is none too bright. We wanted to confine ourselves to what was reasonable and practicable and to what could actually be put into force at the earliest possible moment. If you take those proposals one by one they may not sound very considerable or of very great assistance, but if they are treated as a whole, we believe that their cumulative effect, would be considerable, and I sincerely hope that I shall hear from His Majesty's Government that they will accept them.
§ THE EARL OF DENBIGH
My Lords, I should like to say a word or two, if I may, to inform your Lordships of the position at the present moment of that great agricultural industry which has been started in this country as the result of many years' work and agitation, the sugar beet industry, which has this year reached a very critical situation. We have had two factories working during the last season, but the industry is not yet out of the experimental stage; in fact, owing to the peculiarities of the industry, the experimental stage will probably have to extend for quite a number of years. The net result has been that, although a very considerable amount of sugar has been turned out—about 6,000 tons altogether, and about 2,000 tons from the new factory at Kelharn—there is a loss on the year's 490 working, and a strong demand is now being put to His Majesty's Government for the purpose of limiting the Excise Duty on sugar, which conies to about £20 a ton, and which, if it is continued, will make the industry absolutely impossible.
The noble Lord who introduced this subject said with great truth that excessive wages have made profits on arable land almost impossible. We all want to see the agricultural labourer earning the best wages that he can earn, and there is no doubt that wages before the war were too low. I think also that everybody is in agreement with the general proposition that what we want is to increase the population on the land in every possible way; the great rural population is an enormous asset to a country's strength; but there is no doubt that unduly high wages operate against that equally with unduly low wages. We are seeing for ourselves at present how unduly high wages are driving land out of cultivation. Unduly low wages drove men off the land into the towns. Both processes tend to reduce the rural population. I think, therefore, that it would be of great assistance to do everything we can to encourage industries dependent upon agriculture, which bring a large amount of employment into the rural districts, and I contend that nothing proves so effective in that direction as the sugar industry.
I do not expect any answer from the noble Earl opposite, because the question is now for consideration by His Majesty's Government, but a considerable amount of interest has been taken in this matter, and I find, from the number of questions I am asked on all sides as to what is being done, that people do not quite realise the situation at the present moment. Therefore, I call your Lordships' attention to the subject by these few remarks.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF ANCASTER)
My Lords, it is not my intention to speak at any great length on this subject. First of all, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the manner of his speech, and, if I may say so, for the flattering remarks he has made about the Minister of Agriculture, myself, and the officials at the Ministry. I do not know whether he will be so well satisfied with us when he has heard my reply. When he 491 first put this Question on the Paper, I confess that I was in very great difficulty, because I did not exactly know what line he intended to take, and whether he was going to blame the Ministry, and His Majesty's Government as well, for not taking some very drastic action in order to make corn-growing profitable in this country. He traversed a large amount of ground, and recalled a good deal of history.
There can be no doubt that last year a certain amount of land was laid down to grass, and I expect the process will go on this year. The figures are not so alarming as one might perhaps expect, in looking at the severe depression in agriculture. I have here the figures up to the end of 1921. There was a decrease in 1921 of 401,000 acres of arable land, but, taking the arable land of last year and the average amount of arable land of the last ten years, we find that there was an increase of 150,000 acres, and those ten years, of course, include the period of the war, when a large amount of land was broken up and cultivated under the orders of the agricultural committees, so that up to the present there has not been a very rapid change. It looks very much as if we shall revert in this country to the state of things which existed in 1913 and 1914, when farmers devoted their land to the most profitable purpose; that is, where it was more profitable to have grass they had grass, and where it was more profitable to plough they ploughed.
That will not suit everybody. People make speeches, saying that we must get the population back to the land and that much more land must be ploughed. If I may say so, I believe there is only one way of doing it; perhaps one might say that there are two ways, but they both come to the same thing whichever you adopt, for in either case the people will have to pay for it. One way is by Protection. If you put a sufficiently heavy protective tax on all food stuffs coming into this country, making it worth while to produce them in this country, they will undoubtedly be produced here and at a profit. The price will go up, and the British consumer will have to pay. There is another way of doing it. You may choose to give high enough subsidies, by enormous grants from the taxpayer for the cultivation of certain crops, and I suppose that eventually, by pouring out money, you will make it profitable to grow those crops, and people 492 will grow them. But in that case as well the taxpayer will have to pay, for he will have to find the subsidy.
When you come down to the bedrock of this question, you get to this economic fact, that people will not grow anything unless it pays them to grow it, and in order to make it pay you must either give a direct subsidy or else—a course which I have always believed to be the more honourable—put on a stiff protective tariff, and tell people they have got to pay for it. As regards the first of these proposals, I am one of those who, in my short Parliamentary career, was bold enough to advocate a protective tariff. I told my constituents perfectly plainly that I did propose to tax their food, and that I hoped the taxes which were going to be put on would put up the price of farming products. I believe that some of those who took the same line did not speak quite so plainly, and the result was that I was successful where others failed. But I may say that mine was a peculiarly agricultural constituency, and that I had the nearest shave in my life. I got in by only 150 majority whereas at every other election I had got in by a majority of 500 or 600. If you were to ask me to go and advocate that policy again I should flatly refuse, because I believe there is hardly a constituency in the country where you would have a chance of getting elected.
Now we get to the policy of subsidies. I have never made any false statement about that. I believe your Lordships know my views upon the matter, and I do not intend to repeat them. I do not think you have a chance now of asking the country to give an enormous subsidy to encourage corn-growing in this country. There is one extraordinary fact which we have to take into consideration. In the year 1920–21, which every speaker and the noble Lord who introduced this matter has told us was the worst year in all their experience—
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
In Kent, but I think he is very likely right about the whole country—it is a rather curious thing that this should have happened in the very year when the British taxpayer paid the farmers £20,000,000.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
I do not say they did not, but it is a remarkable fact that this year, which so many speakers have said is the worst year they have ever known in the history of agriculture, is the very year in which the taxpayers of the country have found £20,000,000 to assist them. I only make those two remarks on this question. The noble Lord did not, I think, for a moment advocate that we should adopt either of those policies, but if you want this country to revert to a large corn-growing country, and perhaps half of the land now in grass to be ploughed up, I am bound to say that it is one of those policies which you must adopt, and adopt permanently.
Unless it is made an economic and paying proposition to grow corn people will not grow it, and I know that the noble Lord, when speaking on the Agriculture Bill, rook exactly the same view that I do, although I think he expressed it rather better than I can. He was referring to the Report of the Royal Commission, and he said—On rising from the perusal of these three volumes the effect on my mind was that we ought to be very well satisfied in this country with the arrangement of landlord and tenant and as regards the system of agriculture; that we grew on the whole as large craps as the elimate of the country permitted; and that those crops were well adapted, having regard to the price, to the soils upon which they were grown.Then, later on, he said—The system of agriculture in this country rises superior to legislation, and it will proceed in its calm and methodical way despite all the laws you may pass.I agree with those remarks, but the point is that we get to the further suggestion whether, in any lesser degree, we can help in any way.
I think we can help to a certain extent. The first thing I should like to say, if I may do so—I express a personal opinion, but I know that it is shared by many others—is that I am not one of those who deplore that the land has changed hands to a large extent. I believe that it is for the great security of the country, and a very good thing for the country, that the number of owners of land in this country should be largely increased. I go another step and I say—I believe it cannot be contradicted—that the man who has the chief interest in the land, and who is chiefly interested in seeing that it does not deteriorate and does not fall in price, is the owner of the land; 494 and that so far as securing that the land should be well cultivated is concerned, it is far better that the owner should cultivate it himself than that he should let it to another party. The tenant who takes the land can always go when he likes; during the last two or three years of his tenancy he can take what he wants out of the land, not caring how it may deteriorate, and then go off. But in the case of the owner it is to his interest always to keep up the, productivity of the soil, and to turn it to the best advantage. Therefore, so far as the question of the ownership of land is concerned, I do not in the least lament that there has been much change in the ownership of land in this country. I think it may have the effect of carrying out what the noble Lord and we all desire—namely, that there should be greater interest in agriculture, because I believe that the owner is the man who really is interested in it. He is no middleman, but he stands or falls by the -prosperity of his industry.
Now I come to another matter, to which I should like to refer. The noble Lord pictured the highways and main roads stretching through our country, and he said: "What beautiful frontages there are, and what splendid land available for unemployed people to settle upon." I agree. There is a splendid lot of land and splendid highways, but there are no houses, and if I may say so it is again a question of £ s. d. Only a few nights ago I was standing here defending the policy of the Ministry which had been trying to settle soldiers and sailors on the land, and I, or rather the Department, was charged with spending some £400 or £500 per head in settling these men on the land? That is perfectly true. It cost that.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
No, that was in one or two cases of building houses. I know the cases which the noble Marquess instances, where with the houses and buildings it cost a great deal more than £1,000 to settle the men on the land. I believe that during past years the lowest price for building a cottage was £650, rising in sonic eases to £1,100. I cannot tell you at, the present moment what is the cost of building cottages. It may have fallen, but I do not think it has to any considerable degree. It is purely uneconomic to build houses along the main roads 495 as is perhaps suggested, in order to put these people back on the land, when every house is going to cost £600 and buildings perhaps another £200 or £300. It cannot be made a paying proposition, but if you want it done, and the country is determined, in spite of our present rather poor financial position, to spend ten, fifty or perhaps a hundred millions more in settling people on the land and building houses on these sites, no doubt it can be done, but I think that at the present moment it would be a very rash Chancellor of the Exchequer who made any such proposal.
Next I come to the question of taxation on land. The first thing to do, if we want to get taxation taken off the land, as we all so strongly desire, is to reduce the taxes, and the first thing to do to reduce the taxes is to give up uneconomic methods of spending money. It is no use advocating settling the unemployed on the land in cottages along the main roads, or giving large subsidies for growing wheat or potatoes, because that means that the taxes will go up. I am thoroughly in agreement with those noble Lords who have advocated a reduction in taxation. I do not think agriculture is peculiar in that respect. From what I read in the newspapers, it appears that the one cry from almost every industry in the country at present—from agricultural bodies and Chambers of Commerce—is: "We cannot carry on our industries with this enormous burden of rates and taxes."
I thoroughly agree with the noble Lords who have spoken that land is suffering, and for many years has suffered, from an undue burden of taxation. I can only hope that the Minister for Agriculture may be successful in making such representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we may get some relief on this occasion. Of course, I cannot say now what the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to do, and I do not think that any noble Lord will expect me to say what the Minister of Agriculture, in private conversation, has said to me about the different measures which he proposes to place before the Chancellor of the Exchequer with that object in view. But I can assure noble Lords that there is no question that has been lost sight of, and that the Ministry are doing their best to press on the Government the need for some relief.
I recollect that what I think was the first debate on the question of the taxation 496 of agricultural land to which I ever listened was one in which the late Lord Wolverhampton, many years ago, replied to a discussion in the House of Commons. Then, all the satisfaction he could give us, when we complained of paying a great deal more than we ought, was that they were hereditary burdens. That is very poor consolation, because, although the hereditary burdens always seem to remain, and get heavier and heavier, a great many of the hereditary privileges and advantages which went with the holding of land have now absolutely disappeared. I think, therefore, that having none of the hereditary advantages left, we have rather a stronger claim now that some of the hereditary burdens might be taken from us. Here again, however, we are always up against the difficulty that nobody else likes to undertake our responsibilities.
The noble Earl, Lord Denbigh, mentioned the question of sugar beet. He quite rightly said that a very great experiment had been made in that direction, and in order to show that the Government are not entirely deaf to the claims of agriculture, I may mention that they have very considerably helped in this experiment. Whether they will be able to continue that help I cannot say at the present time.
One thing in which the Ministry, if they have money, can direct and help agriculture is by education and research, and by research especially. I still believe that we have a great deal to learn from science as regards agriculture. Undoubtedly, if it is aided by the Government, and to a certain extent directed by Government Departments, overlapping can be avoided, and research can perhaps be turned into the best channels. We have been doing a good deal in that direction. I am pleased to say that here again the Government were not completely deaf to the agriculturists, and, when the subsidy on corn was lost, part of the bargain was that £1,000,000 was voted by the Government in aid of education and research.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
Some of it goes to Scotland, as it always did, and I believe it is now to be spent over a period of five years, instead of three years; but that is the whole extent of the alteration. I hope that, with these increased funds, we may be able further to develop this important work. It is expensive, because it is no use going in for research unless you employ the best men and the best apparatus, and do it under the best circumstances. But it is a thing which repays expenditure, and which may be of ultimate benefit. I do not think that noble Lords expect the Government to advance some great scheme by which agriculture will suddenly be restored to prosperity. If we only knew a method for getting rick quick for farmers I can assure you we should publish it promptly enough. But I do not suppose any such scheme exists. Undoubtedly, this veal' has been a very bad year, but I am doubtful whether it is as bad as some people say. Some have had heavy losses; others have not had heavy losses. During the war sonic farmers undoubtedly made a great deal of money, though others were not so successful. After all, there are ups and downs in every trade, and I think that noble Lords themselves did not absolutely despair of agriculture. If we are left to ourselves, given a fair field, and treated fairly as regards taxation and the charges to be placed upon us, though I do not believe that agriculture will ever make fortunes for people, I still believe that an honest, good and healthy living can be made out of it.
I have heard it stated here to-night, and frequently on public platforms and have seen ill the newspapers, that the great thing to do is to get masses of people back on the land. It may be desirable, but I believe it is an economic fact that those countries where crops are most easily produced, and which are the most fertile countries—the countries where you get heat and damp in sufficient quantities to grow crops quickly and profitably—are the countries where the great mass of the population are living on the land; but as the population living on the land increases the rate of wages and the standard of living of the people seems to go down. I state that as a general economic principle, and nobody knows it better than the noble Lord who introduced this Question. In certain parts of India where you find fertile lands on which it is easy to grow crops, 498 you will find a dense population. At the same time, that population is living at a very low standard of life, and on very small wages. I am always doubtful whether it is sound policy, by any artificial means—which, after all, may be afterwards reversed—to try to place an enormous number of people on land which is really not suitable economically for providing them with a living, and when it is quite possible that those people may in the long run be reduced to great destitution.
But in those small ways that I have mentioned—by pressing upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer the claims of agriculturists in respect to the burdens upon land, and assisting in every way by education and research—the Ministry will do their best to help forward this great industry. I have said, and I repeat, that I do not think the Ministry is prepared to come forward with any very grandiose scheme to try to make corn growing in England generally a profitable business, especially on land which is not suitable for growing crops of that description.
§ LORD CAWLEY
My Lords, it seems to me that what agriculture wants most of all is to be left alone. Agriculturists as a body ought, once and for all, to get rid of any idea either of protection or a subsidy. I have had some experience of contested elections in large constituencies and I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that the country will never stand a protective tariff or a subsidy. I voted against the Third Reading of the Agriculture Bill which would have cost the country the annual sum of £40,000,000 or more. The Government evidently reconsidered their opinion and came to the same conclusion as I did—I think wisely. Were the Government giving £30,000,000, £40,000,000 or perhaps £50,000,000 a year to one industry at the present time, I am sure they would be sent about their business for doing so. What I really want to point out, however, is that agriculturists should get rid of all idea of State aid of the kind I have mentioned. If they have legitimate grievances, as I think they have, with regard to rates and so on, let the Government direct its attention to those particular points.
The noble Lord who introduced this subject said that he thought the future lay with pedigree stock. There is, however, 499 only a certain amount of pedigree stock sent abroad, and the demand is but a limited one. The losses of pedigree stockbreeders of late have been as heavy as those of anyone. Exporters of pedigree stock to South America, particularly to Montevideo, have lost thousands of pounds on stock exported from this country to those places, and there is hardly any demand whatever for pedigree stock. Therefore, I do not think there is any very great future for it.
I think the policy of putting on the land soldiers who know nothing about land does very great injury to them and to the country. If you put on the land men who very often have to pay high rents and who sometimes have to try to farm forty or fifty acres in the same way as people cultivate large farms, they are bound to fail and lose their money. If the Government persist in making great efforts to put soldiers on the land I think they will be doing them a very ill turn and not much good to the land itself.
§ THE EARL OF ANCASTER
The noble Lord will pardon the interruption, but up to the present time the men settled on the land have all been approved by the county councils.
§ LORD CAWLEY
I am afraid the county councils are not always the best judges of whether a man understands land or not. From what I know, a great many of those men have made failures and are going to make greater failures.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for his very full reply. I think we ought to appreciate the fact that he has disclosed as much as he may of the intentions of his Department, and that, as I anticipated, the influential people at the head of that Department are doing all they can to persuade the Government that land may be justifiably relieved of some of its burdens.