HL Deb 10 April 1924 vol 57 cc232-45

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill which, word for word, is the same as the Bill that passed your Lordships' House, last year. It was amended on the Third Heading, and it did not go further because there was presumably no time to carry on the discussion in another place. I want to make that quite clear, because I see that the noble Lord, Lord Banbury of Southam, has put down a Motion to reject the Bill on Second Reading. I did not feel sure, when I saw his Motion, whether he was aware that it was precisely the same Bill as that which passed this House last Session.


I am quite aware of it.


The Ministry of Agriculture is required, by Section 2 of the Board of Agriculture Act, 1889, to collect and prepare statistics relating to agriculture, but that Statute contains no provision as to the method in which those statistics are to be collected, although, as a matter of fact, on a. voluntary basis, a very large number of annual Returns were made. These Returns were subsequently made compulsory by the Corn Production Act. 1917, but with the repeal of that Act the compulsory powers disappeared. The value of those Returns it is really impossible to question. They are the basis, practically, of all discussions which we have on agricultural policy and afford the only reliable evidence we have as regards the dimensions of the industry and the position in which it stands at any given time. They are wanted, not only as regards crops and live stock, but also as regards the number of men employed. As a statistician, the noble Lord will appreciate that if these statistics can be obtained, without putting any undue obligation on farmers, or other persons interested in the industry, it is very important that we should have them, if we are to get a proper picture of the conditions in the agricultural industry.

There is no doubt that the very large majority recognise the importance of giving this information, and giving it in accurate form, but a minority, no doubt, dislike having to give statistics and resent the obligation. The references which I am going to give are really references to resolutions passed in relation to the Bill of last Session, but it has not, been thought necessary to get any further intimation as regards the opinion obtained at that time, nor is it bought that there is any change of opinion. At a conference of the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales which has been particularly interested in this question, and the National Farmers' Union of Scotland, which was held in 1922, the following resolution, which was passed by the General Purposes Committee of the first of these unions, was adopted by the second: That this Council of the National Farmers' Union, recognising the great value of accurate statistical and economic information to the industry in all its branches, informs the Minister of Agriculture that it would welcome the introduction of a measure in Parliament to put upon a sound basis the annual agricultural statistics from England and Wales, provided that such a. measure contained due guarantees that the information so given by individual fanners would not be disclosed, or used for any other purpose than the compilation of those Returns. I may say at once that the Bill contains a provision that no such disclosure shall be made, and any one who makes such a disclosure is rendered liable to a heavy penalty. Indeed, every precaution is taken that there shall be no such disclosure, and, as I am informed, the Ministry of Agriculture finds that the provision which they have put into the Bill to prevent any disclosure of that sort is satisfactory to the farmers.

The proposal to make the Returns compulsory was also submitted to the Agricultural Advisory Committee and the Council of Agriculture, and it received the approval of both those bodies. The only information which can be obtained at the present time in any reliable form about the employment of men in agriculture is merely from the Census Returns which, of course, can only be obtained every ten years. Even then there is a good deal of doubt as to their accuracy. The noble Lord will recognise, I think, that if statistics of this kind are to be kept up-to-date a period of ten years makes the last statistics of no great value. In some respects the figures to be obtained in this way are of greater accuracy than those which can be sot from the occupation returns in the Census because the form in which the Return is made is more precise, and therefore, more accurate, than any one of the Census columns which gives the information. Now, in addition, if they are taken yearly, or even every two years—I think the proposal is that they shall be taken yearly—they would give most valuable indications, in the view of the, Ministry, of the employment position, and they would be available, promptly.

I do not think I reed say much more in regard to the general desirability of obtaining these statistics, but I would like to add a word or two in regard to the provisions in the Bill in order to show how the wishes of the farmers and of all those interested in supplying these statistics have been safeguarded. If the noble Lord will look at Clause 1 of the Bill, under which these Returns are required, he will see that it says that the occupier of any agricultural land in England or Wales, of the person having the management of any such land, may be required to make within such time as is specified in the notice, and in such form and to such person as the Minister may prescribe by Regulations, a Return in writing for that year. I pause there for a moment because there is a provision that the method of making these Returns shall be prescribed by Regulations which have, of course, to be laid on the Table of the House and possess the ordinary safeguard of Parliamentary control. I know that the noble Lord does not think that is effective, and in some senses I should agree with him; but it really is a sufficient safeguard against Regulations of this kind being put in any oppressive form.

What the clause asks for is a Return in writing for that year in respect to the cultivation of the land, or the crops or live stock thereon, or the persons employed on the land, and if the occupier is the owner he is to make a statement to that effect. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 is specifically inserted to meet the requirement of the National Union of Farmers to which I have referred. It was put in to meet a suggestion which they made, and it is in these terms: No individual return or part of a return made under this Act shall be used, published, or disclosed except for the purposes of the preparation and publication by the Minister of agricultural statistics or of a prosecution under this Act. That is to prevent the disclosure for other than the specified purposes of the information which has been obtained.

Then, if the noble Lord will turn to subsection (4), he will see that Any person who uses, publishes, or discloses contrary to the provisions of this Act any individual return or part of a return shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds. Subsection (7) carries out in the ordinary form in Rills of this kind the provisions as to Regulations. It says— Any regulation made under this Act shall be laid before each House of Parliament forthwith, and if an Address is presented to His Majesty by either House of Parliament within the next subsequent twenty-eight days on which that House has sat praying that the regulation may be annulled His Majesty in Council may annul the peculation, and it shall thenceforth be void … That, of course, puts the protection in the best form, because it gives the power of annulment really to a vote in either House. I mean that this House would have full control, just as much as the other House would have it, in such a matter.

The Bill is applied to Scotland by Clause 2 with the ordinary alterations which have to be made in applying to that country a Bill of this sort which is primarily an English Rill. Those alterations make it conform with Scottish names and procedure. That is the Bill. As I say, it was passed in absolutely the same terms by your Lordships' House last Session, and I hope that it may be passed again. The noble Lord will find in the provision as to Regulations being laid on the Table of both Houses of Parliament, a sufficient protection against anything in the nature of an oppressive requirement. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Parmoor.)

LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM had given Notice to move, as an Amendment, That the Bill be read 2a this day six months. The noble Lord said My Lords, the noble Lord, the Lord President, began his speech by asking me whether I was aware that this Bill, in the identical form in which it now appears, passed your Lordships' House last year. Unfortunately, I was well aware of that, and I remember being much astonished at the time at the Bill slipping through in the way in which it did. I would, however, point out to your Lordships that, notwithstanding the fact that the Bill passed your Lordships' House last year and that the Government had the whole time of the other House, it made no further progress. The Government did not attempt to press it.

Whether that was owing to any action of mine or not I cannot say; but as soon as I was aware last year of what your Lordships had done, I took it upon myself to interview Sir Robert Sanders, then Minister of Agriculture, and to point out to him that that was a very bad time to put further burdens upon the farmer. I pointed out how very oppressive a Bill of this sort, though seemingly very innocent, might become. Sir Robert Sanders is a friend of mine. He does not speak very much. He is a quiet, reserved kind of man, and he merely listened to what I had to say and said nothing. But we heard no more of the Bill in another place. Whether that was owing to my action or whether it was owing to the innate badness of the Bill, I cannot say; but the fact remains that, though the Government could have put that Bill forward last year, they did not do it.

Unfortunately, I am only a poor man. I do not possess agents, sub-agents, bailiffs and people of that sort. I have to fill up all these forms myself and, therefore, I know the trouble which arises in regard to filling them up. If your Lordships will permit me I will place before you the history of this Bill as I know it. I call it a Departmental Bill. Your Lordships are aware, no doubt, that there are in the various Departments a number of Bills in pigeon holes which are meant for the glorification of the Departments concerned. They have nothing whatever to do with the welfare of the country, or the good of the community. They are, as I say, for the glorification of the Departments. If a Minister is in the hands of his chief officials, it is said to him "Look here, just bring this Bill forward. It will do the Department some good, and it will not do any harm, and you will go down to posterity as the Minister who introduced this particular Bill."

The history of this Bill beyond that, so far as I know it—and I have filled up these forms for a considerable number of years—is as follows. Until the Corn Production Act came into force the form was always voluntary. When the Corn Production Act finished it became voluntary again. I never heard a single complaint about the forms not having been properly filled up. So far as I know, the information was given by the great majority of farmers, and I never heard a Department or anybody make any complaint that the information was not forthcoming. About three or four years ago—I do not bind myself to the particular period—a new demand appeared in the old Returns. You were required to state how many men you employed. I refused to fill up that particular Return. I had a conversation with a friend of mine, and also with members of another place, and we all agreed that we would not fill up that Return. We did not know what it was wanted for, and we did not see what business it was of the Board of Agriculture to ask us how many men we employed. That seemed to us to be our own business, and not the business of any one else. At that moment I happened to know that there was a movement among friends of the noble Lord—it was not spoken of very openly—to compel farmers to employ a certain number of men for so many acres, and we thought, aid I still think, that this provision was put in to obtain information on which to found a Bill to make it compulsory for farmers to employ a certain number of men for every fifty acres, or whatever the number of acres might be. It was not until we refused to fill up this particular form that we heard of any proposal to make the filling up of forms compulsory.

My belief is that that particular Department did what, I am sorry to say. all Government Departments have got it into their heads to to during the last ten years, and that is tried to make the subject do something which does away with his freedom, and if the subject revolts and objects to submit to it they bring in a Bill to make it compulsory. That I believe to be the whole foundation of this particular Bill, it may be said, if that is so, there is no reason why the Second Heading should not pass now, because in Committee you can cut out that particular clause. But there are other features to which I object, for reasons arising out of my own personal experience. Clause I says that a person shall be required to make a Return within such time as is specified in the notice, and in such form and to such person as the Minister may prescribe by Regulations made under this Act. Under that clause I shall have to fill up a form. I may be endeavouring to do my duty in this House—I endeavoured to do it in the other House—and it takes some little, time to fill up these forms. I do not know whether many of your Lordships fill them up yourselves, but if you do you will know that you have to state the exact acreage, down even to fractions of an acre. You have to state the exact acreage in roots, in seeds, in oats, in wheat, in barley, how much of your grass land you are going to mow, how much of it you are going to feed, how many ewes you have, how many lambs, how many cows, whether they are in milk or whether they are dry, how many heifers, if they are maiden heifers, how many horses you have, how many of them are breeding horses, with all their ages, etc. It takes a great deal of time to fill up all these forms.

I filled up one of these forms at a time when I was farming 950 acres. It took me a long time to fill it up, and I did not keep a copy. The following year I was told that there was a variation in my form as compared with the previous one. I forget whether the variation was two acres or three acres, but I was asked what had I done with those two or three acres; had I let them or had I sold them, or what had I done with them? I replied stating that I expected I had made a mistake in addition, and said no more. As it was not compulsory nothing happened. But if this is going to be compulsory I might be fined £20, and be told to fill up another form. I contend that that is unreasonable at this moment with all the troubles that agriculturists have, and with all the burdens which the farmer has to bear. It is not right that the farmer, who for many years has done his best to send in correctly these forms, should in future be put under the control of an official, and if he does not fill in the forms exactly as that official tells him under the Regulations which may be made, that he should be fined. The protection is perfectly illusory, because no one knows when the Regulations appear. I shall try to find them out, but I do not know whether I shall find out correctly. If you are going to put farmers at the mercy of these officials, and compel them to make Returns even to a fraction of an acre, you will be doing something which. I submit, you ought not to do.

I have never filled in fractions of an acre. Let me give your Lordships an instance of the difficulty. All my arable land is in big fields. I have one field of 63 acres. I grow in that field a certain amount of wheat, a certain amount of oats, and seeds, and roots. I know, roughly speaking, what portion in that field is devoted to each particular crop, but I have never had that portion of field measured. I expect that is how I came to make a mistake of two or three acres. I rode round with my foreman. I said "There are 18 acres, and here are 12 acres." I put the figures down roughly, and that is, I suppose, how I got an acre or two wrong. But if we are to be put under control of a Department there is nothing that an official, if you offend him, may not tell you to do. You may enter into correspondence which will last for weeks or months. You will have to argue with him when you ought to be doing your duty in looking after your farm, or in being here. All that time you will have to waste arguing whether or not you have filled up the form to within a few acres. Moreover, you have to do it within a specified time. I have bad a great many things to do, and I have been sometimes late in filling up forms. Under this new Bill I should be liable to be fined for being late. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will reject this Bill, for in my opinion it is utterly incapable of amendment in Committee.

Before I sit down—and I apologise for being so long, but I feel obliged to put the case as it presents itself to me—I would like to point out this. The burden of taxation at the present moment is very heavy upon everybody, and one of the reasons for this is the immense increase in cost resulting from the making of so many Returns. I have taken out the cost of the Ministry of Agriculture in the year 1913, and the cost this year. In 1913 the cost was about £500,000, while in the present year it is £1,500,000. It is three times as much, and that is largely owing to all these forms, and to all these officials who are required to see that we do this and do that. I may perhaps be unfortunate, but I do not think I have received any greater assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture this year than I had from it in 1913, yet as a taxpayer I have to pay three times as much as I did in 1913. I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name.

Amendment moved—

Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Banbury of Southam.)


My Lords, the House has listened with considerable surprise to the speech of the noble Lord who wishes to reject the Bill. What is the Bill? It is a Bill to facilitate the preparation of agricultural statistics. We all know how necessary that is. There are certain provisions for fining people who refuge to comply with what is required. The noble Lord made a most interesting speech. He has told us in touching tones that he farms 950 acres himself. I must remind your Lordships that this Bill was introduced in the last Parliament by the Earl of Ancaster, who is the son of a man who knew a great deal about agriculture, and the noble Earl himself farms, not 900 acres but between 7,000 and 8,000 acres. He brought in this Bill lost year, and now we are told it is to be rejected because of the cost to the Ministry of Agriculture! What on earth has that to do with the Bill? We are told that it is a glorification of the Department. What on earth has that to do with the Bill?

The noble Lord also goes back to his old cry of interference with freedom. It is nothing of the sort. This is simply a Bill to facilitate Returns with regard to agricultural produce and land. The noble Lord says it is incapable of amendment. I dare say it is no amendment is necessary. The only Amendment introduced by the noble Earl last year was, after "Minister," to insert the words "of Agriculture and Fisheries." The noble Lord may be an adept at splitting hairs, but I never remember hearing a speech moving the rejection of a Bill which had so little to do with the Bill itself. In my opinion this is a good and a necessary Bill and I hope the Government will be supported on the Second Reading.


My Lords, if my noble friend goes to a Division against the Bill my friends and I will feel bound to support the measure. It was introduced, as your Lordships know, by the late Government last year. It was passed by this House through all its stages, and that being so I cannot conceive that your Lordships would desire to refuse it a Second Reading. It is true it was not proceeded with in the other House but, as my noble friend knows, there were other reasons which prevented the progress of this Bill and other Bills during the course of last year. I am afraid I cannot confirm his conjecture that it was owing to his conversation with the Minister of Agriculture that the Bill was not proceeded with. It was our view, and it is our view still, that these figures, so obtained, would be very useful not only to the Department but to all those in either House, and to those concerned with the welfare of agriculture, who desire to help the industry and give it assistance in its different functions. It may be that the Bill is capable of being amended in Committee, but that is a matter which we can consider later. I hope the House will not reject the Bill on Second Reading.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has moved the rejection of this Bill speaks of it as though it was a Departmental measure for the purpose of extorting in some way information from individual farmers for a sinister purpose. There is no sinister purpose behind the Bill. The nation is engaged just now in a great effort to improve the condition of agriculture in this country. It is the most important industry in the country, and the purpose of the Bill is simply to get the information which is necessary for that purpose. You cannot work out a true solution for the condition of agriculture unless you know exactly what you are dealing with. We have not that information. It is to be had in the case of many industries, but in the case of agriculture we have left the matter to unscientific investigation, with the result that it is extremely difficult for any Minister to get the facts he requires before any progress can be hoped for The Bill is not for the glorification of any Department, but in order to get the necessary facts without which no advance can be made.


My Lords, I really think that the Bill of a year ago slipped through this House without your Lordships knowing much about it. There is a great deal of force in what has been said by Lord Banbury of Southam, and if this Bill is passed in its present form it will be very oppressive in many cases. The noble Marquess's argument in favour of the Bill was that because it was introduced by the Earl of Ancaster, who farms between 7,000 and 8,000 acres, therefore it must be perfect. Let me inform him that I farm about 15,000 acres and I think the Bill is most imperfect. However, that has really very little to do with the question. At the present time Returns have been made for many years, and I do not think there is any great necessity for any drastic change. We all know what these Returns are. Every year they get more and more oppressive, and it is a great nuisance to farmers to be perpetually pestered for Returns from various Departments. There is a strong feeling amongst many people against this Bill. As the years go by these Returns become larger and more complicated, and the more complicated the questions are obviously the more likely it is that there may be inaccurate answers and misleading Returns.

I quite agree that information is necessary for agricultural operations, but I do not think you will get information by this Rill certainly not unless it is amended. I shall have to move Amendments in Committee in order to make the rules less stringent. The Rill would not carry out its purpose. In fact, it would rather put people against making any Returns at all. At the present time most people try their best to give accurate Returns, but if you are going to have these complicated questions it means that it will be more difficult to give accurate answers, and any one who makes a wrong answer is liable to serious penalties. I do not know whether my noble friend intends to go to a Division, but if the Second Reading is carried I shall move Amendments when we come to the Committee stage.


My Lords, I should like to point out, in reference to what the noble Lord and the noble Duke have said, that at the present time these Returns are made, and if they can point out that the statistics required are of an oppressive character, or could be given in a better form, or that they could be answered without so much trouble, that is exactly the kind of information which the Ministry of Agriculture, desire to have. That is the information which we might obtain at subsequent discussions if this Bill had a Second Reading. It is a good thing that the form of those Returns should be carefully considered, and any views put forward by noble Lords would receive every consideration from the Ministry of Agriculture. I hope that the noble Lord will not think it necessary to divide on the Second Reading. By so doing he would surely be seeking to deprive this House of the opportunity, which I understand him to desire, of attempting to put these Regulations into a bettor form. I would thank him for any information which he can give for the assistance of the Ministry of Agriculture.


My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, goes to a Division, I shall certainly support him, for these reasons. I agree perfectly with the principle of the Bill, which has been carried out in my country with great success. The noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, in explaining the Bill, explained it, as he always does, with great lucidity, but I noticed that he left out the real sting of the Bill—namely, the penalty clause. That is the clause that makes it a very disagreeable Bill. Let me give my experience of this system in another country. These returns were asked for by our Board of Agriculture, and we looked upon them with great suspicion. I asked what we call a strong farmer, a very rich man—much richer than I am— what he thought of them. He said he thought they would be very useful, and he advised me to fill them up. I then went to another man who was a real old Tory, a greater Tory. I think, than my noble friend who has opposed the Bill. He said that he did not believe in the Government, and ho called them all sorts of names. I gave him the paper, and asked him to read it and tell me what he thought. He said: "I think that is about the best thing they ever did." I then asked him if he were going to fill up the form, as an old farmer who did not agree with the present Government. He said that he was.

But these forms were altogether voluntary. They were a great success under the old régime. The Constabulary used to collect them, and now they are sent round to everybody and are properly filled up, and, as our country is almost purely an agricultural country, they are most useful. I agree with every word that Lord Parmoor said as to statistics being essential, but you will get these statistics much more easily if you obtain them voluntarily, and persuade the farmers that they are essential, instead of putting in your Bill a provision that they will be fined £20 if they do not fill forms up properly. That is my opinion, and if the noble Lord goes to a Division I shall vote with him.

On Question, Whether the word "now" shall stand part of the Motion?—

Their Lordships divided Contents, 31; Not-Contents, 12.

Haldane, V. (L. Chancellor.) De La Warr, E. [Teller.] Clainvilliam, L. (E. Clon-william..)
Lucan, E.
Parmoor, L. (L. President.) Onslow, E. Clwyd, L.
Russell, E. Cochrane of Cults, L.
Sutherland, D. Darling, L.
Cave, V. Meston, L.
Bath, M. Cecil of Chelwood, V. Muir Mackenzie, L. [Teller.]
Curzon of Kedleston, M. Chelmsford, V. Olivier, L.
Lincolnshire, M. (L. Great Chamberlain.) Cobham, V. Pentland, L.
Ponsonby, L. (E. Bess-borough.)
Lincoln, L. Bp.
Beauchamp, E. Stanmore, L. (E. Galloway)
Clarendon, E. Arnold, L. Thomson, L.
Dartmouth, E. Balfour of Burleigh, L.
Northumherland, D. Hood, V. Hawke, L.
Hutchinson, V. (E. Donough-more.) Hindlip, L. [Teller.]
Doncaster, E. (D. Buccleuch and Queensberry.) Lawrence, L.
Mayo, E. Raglan, L.
Banbury of Southam, L. [Teller.] Stuart of Wortley, L.
Sumner, L.

Resolved in the affirmative: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.