§ Debate resumed (according to Order) on the Question raised by Lord Harris on Thursday, July 9, in the following 408 Notice:—"To call attention to the Reports of the Agricultural Tribunal of Investigation, and to ask His Majesty's Government what view they take of the conclusion arrived at on page 98, paragraph 271, namely, The disadvantages attaching to any further considerable decline in the arable area will be so grave that it will be worth while for the country to pay a substantial price for its maintenance.'"
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AXD FISHERIES (LORD BLEDISLOE)
My Lords, your Lordships will remember that this debate was initiated on July 9 by a Question of my noble friend Lord Harris. We then listened to most interesting and suggestive speeches from my noble friend himself and also from Lord Clinton and Lord Shaftesbury. I should like to say at once that with the whole of the two latter speeches and with the greater part of the former I am in personal agreement, and I think I can say the same for the Government whom I represent in this connection. In effect, the conundrum which the noble Lord has put to the Government—and let me say that I admit fully that he has put it in most fair, courteous and moderate language—is this: Assuming that you are prepared to admit the serious consequences of a further considerable decline in the arable area of this country, are you prepared, as recommended by the Agricultural Tribunal of Investigation, to pay a substantial price for its maintenance?
I think I ought to remind your Lordships that the conclusion of this Tribunal, which, as the noble Lord has told you, was an eminently impartial one of acknowledged economic experts, was arrived at in May, 1924, under very different conditions to those which prevail at the present time, following a period of depression in agricultural prices which was quite unprecedented in suddenness and magnitude, with resulting serious effect upon the confidence of the whole agricultural community. Let me say at once that the Government share the view expressed by the Tribunal as to the grave disadvantages attaching to any further considerable shrinkage of the arable area, having regard to food production on the one hand and the employment of labour on the other, but these disadvantages are possibly not so grave as might be those 409 resulting from the adoption at the present time of the course indicated by the Tribunal.
Any proposal for direct financial assistance from the Government to agriculture, whether by protective duties or by any form of subsidy or guarantee, must necessarily raise grave and wide questions of public policy. The Government, as your Lordships know, have given a public undertaking that they will not embark upon any policy of import duties during the currency of the present Parliament. As regards the subsidisation of the industry or any branch of it, it is quite true, as Lord Clinton say, that the farming industry itself has never asked for a subsidy. The National Farmers' Union are continuously reminding us of that fact. Circumstances have arisen in the past, and may conceivably arise again, in which national interests might clearly dictate and public opinion might sanction direct Government assistance to the agricultural industry.
I am perfectly well aware of the continuing difficulties under which British agriculture still labours. These are, to some extent, local and due in some districts to floods on the one hand and to the recent drought on the other, and also, I am bound to admit, to relatively low prices for certain kinds of agricultural produce. On the other hand, the readiness to take vacant farms, the maintenance on the whole of rents, and the apparent capacity of farmers to discharge their capital obligations to their bankers indicate that, speaking generally, farming is not even now an altogether unprofitable occupation. Moreover—and this is perhaps the most important point which I have to emphasise—it can hardly be denied that trade depression is more serious and unemployment is more prevalent to-day in many other industries than in agriculture and any direct financial assistance to agriculture would necessarily involve an increased burden upon other industries. Further, any real and permanent security for the agricultural industry must be based upon continuity of Government policy, which involves agreement between all political Parties as well as between all sections of the agricultural community, and I suggest that this agreement is not likely to be reached at present upon a subsidy basis.
410 I think I ought to add that the Government have been doing their utmost during the last six to eight months to bring about as great a measure of agreement as is possible between various sections of the agricultural community as to what, their policy shall be and also, so far as has been practicable, some measure of agreement between the various political Parties. Ono is entitled to ask, if there is to be a subsidy who is to receive it? There is great diversity of opinion among agricultural producers as to what products should enjoy selective Government assistance. What favours one branch of tie industry is apt to damage another. Such Government assistance also involves legislation, and there is surely extreme danger in passing legislation to meet a purely temporary or local emergency.
I may indicate what I mean in this direction by reminding your Lordships that there was a movement two years ago in favour of licensing the importation of potatoes from abroad. At that time, as your Lordships will remember, the price of potatoes was very low. In fact, most of the growers in Lincolnshire and elsewhere must have suffered very serious losses in 1923 out of the cultivation of potatoes. It is perfectly true that there was some small importation from Holland of early potatoes, but not enough materially to affect the price. As a result of overproduction in 1923—that is what it amounted to—there was considerable under-production in 1924, with the result that prices last year reached so high a level as to silence all those who had been clamouring only a year before for a licence duty in respect of imported potatoes. Exactly the same thing happened with regard to barley. Your Lordships will remember that, following the Tribunal's Interim Report, the Government, in 1923, were approached with a view to putting either a customs or excise duty upon imported malting barley. At that time the price of barley was most unproductive to the growers, but since then the price has very materially risen and again I am able to say that there was no very urgent demand, certainly during the year 1924, for any such action on the part of the Government. I am only mentioning these matters in order to indicate that permanent legislation would be required to 411 carry out any measures of this kind when, in fact, the difficulty which they are brought forward to meet may be of a purely transient character.
I am asked to give the most recent statistics relating to the shrinkage in the arable area. I am sorry that I am not in a position to do so because the figures for the present year have not yet been analysed, but there is no reason for supposing that they will disclose any considerable shrinkage in the year 1924–5. I think you may, however, be interested to know what the actual shrinkage has been, in recent years, both in England and Wales on the one hand and in Scotland on the other. The shrinkage between 1903 and 1924 in England and Wales amounted to almost exactly 1,000,000 acres. The shrinkage between 1913—the immediate pre-War year—and 1924 was 130,000 acres. The loss during the present century of arable land has amounted roughly to about 8½ per cent. On the other hand, in Scotland, it is noteworthy that the arable area, which includes temporary grass, has shown no very material decline during the last fifty-two years; in fact, it only shows a decline of about 4.6 per cent. If you eliminate from your figures the temporary grass area the decline is more considerable, amounting to 16.9 per cent, as compared with 27 per cent, during that period in England and Wales. The shrinkage of the wheat area is not so marked. There was, in fact, no loss in the wheat area between 1903 and 1924, taking that as a continuous period. Between 1913 and 1924, however, there was a loss of 150,000 acres.
I mention these figures to your Lordships because it will be for you to judge whether, in face of them, the conditions are fulfilled to which the Tribunal referred—namely, as to whether there has or has not been a considerable shrinkage of the arable land in recent years. As my noble friend Lord Harris has pointed out, the only country having similar conditions to ours where the arable area has been maintained, at least up to the War, is Germany, and there, as he pointed out, there was a general agricultural tariff. It has not been maintained in Belgium, which I suppose has more similar conditions to ours than any other European country, and there there has always been 412 a partial and not a general tariff. But it is interesting to note—and I have only just been given the figures and do not know whether they are wholly to be trusted—that official figures coming from Germany show that the loss in the arable area since the War has amounted to no less than 25 per cent. I ask your Lordship to accept those figures, however, with all due caution.
Lord Harris, not unnaturally, refers to the 1,000,000 acres which was mentioned in the appeal which the Minister of Agriculture made to the various sections of the agricultural community when he invited thorn to take part in a Conference. When the Minister's invitation was issued it was thought advisable to indicate as an objective an enlargement of the arable area to what were roughly its dimensions at the beginning of the present century, as being a goal worthy of attainment, even though present conditions should render such an objective impossible of immediate realisation. As I pointed out to your Lordships, there has been almost exactly 1,000,000 acres shrinkage in our arable area since 1903. We have, as my noble friend Lord Ernie would say in this connection, hitched our wagon to a star, as it were, and I think your Lordships would probably be willing to acknowledge that if we were to point the way to any goal in arable cultivation it was not an unfair objective to set as one to which that Conference might usefully direct its deliberations.
We have been receiving, since the proposed Conference fell through, various suggestions from numerous agricultural bodies which have since been called into consultation and we are still awaiting those of the National Council of Agriculture for England, of whose Policy Committee my noble friends Lord Selborne and Lord Clinton are both members. We must needs attach great weight to any suggestions coming from so authoritative a body and we have deferred final formulation of Government policy until those suggestions are received. I understand from Lord Clinton that at the next meeting of the National Council of Agriculture, in about a week's time, their policy will be submitted for adoption.
Even admitting, however, all the difficulties which seem to stand in the way of anything like a subsidy policy, I want 413 to make clear to your Lordships that the door is by no means finally closed upon subsidy proposals. But, while pronouncing no final judgment on these matters, which must necessarily merit the gravest and most deliberate consideration, I cannot conceal from your Lordships my conviction that the objections to granting any such direct Government assistance as was contemplated by the Tribunal are very formidable. There are, first of all, the conflicting claims of other industries, apart from the present depression. It has been frequently asked, if such assistance is given to agriculture, why not to the coal trade, to the steel industry, to the shipbuilding industry and other industries which, it is admitted are in serious trouble at the present time? Secondly, it is practically impossible to devise any subsidy scheme, except as regards a new crop such as sugar beet, under which there will be any guarantee of securing increased production as the result. Any subsidy on a general scale by which public money is paid to men for doing no more than they would do without it, is difficult to defend.
Thirdly, it is difficult to justify such a policy to the outside public as long as the cost to consumers of home-grown products is relatively high and there is a considerable "spread," to use the expression of the Linlithgow Committee, between producers' and consumers' prices. The "spread" can best be reduced, with advantage to the producer as well as the consumer, by greater domestic organisation of the industries rather than by subsidisation by the Government. In fact, until such organisation is developed it is quite conceivable that the benefit of any such direct Government assistance might pass to persons other than those for whom it is intended.
I have frequent opportunities of discussing this subject with eminent agriculturists from abroad and the one thing they are never able to understand in connection with the proposed pecuniary assistance from Government is why it should be necessary, in a country where, on the whole, food juices are higher than in any other country in the world and which is the chief market of agricultural produce for the other countries of the world, for the Government to come to the assistance of the farming community by way of pecuniary benefit. They 414 always say the same thing: Surely the remedy lies in the ranks of the farming community themselves; by better organisation they ought to be able to secure a much larger part of the whole value of their products than they are securing at the present time. And it is very difficult to see what the answer to that is.
I suppose I may best sum up the general attitude of the Government to the basic industry of agriculture to-day by saying that the Government, like a good Providence, is prepared to help those who are prepared to help themselves. There is no better guarantee for the future of agriculture than that which would be produced by unanimity of aim and suggestion on the part of such an agricultural conference, representing all sections of the industry, as it was contemplated to bring into existence when the Government came into power. In the absence of this there may be no absolute guarantee as to the future stability of the industry. As in other industries so in agriculture, the great sources of stability are domestic peace and unity of aim. My noble friend Lord Clinton referred in his admirable speech to a very interesting round table Conference which took place three years ago in reference to the proposals for reducing the rates as levied upon agricultural land. He and others representing our chief Agricultural organisations sat round one table with representatives of the land-owning interests, the farmers and organised labour, with the result that a unanimous Report was forthcoming and unanimous recommendations based upon that Report were made to the Government upon which the Government promptly acted. This is a very clear indication that if the agricultural industry seeks to obtain some material benefit from any Government the best thing it can do, if it can, is to close up its ranks and come to the Government with united recommendations.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
I am sorry if I have overstated the case. At any rate, so far as the particular proposal concerning the suggested Rating Bill was concerned 415 the parties were unanimous and were enabled thereby to put considerable pressure upon the Government. The question of subsidy cannot well be mentioned without some reference to Government control and it seems very probable that control of some sort on the part of the Government is likely to be made a necessary condition of direct Government assistance. The idea of control appears to be greatly resented by most English farmers. I may say incidentally that only four days ago I attended a large agricultural gathering in Hertfordshire, where, apparently, that view is not held. The farmers, at any rate in that part of Hertfordshire which I visited, appear to be prepared to accept control as long as they get pecuniary help from the Government. But it is interesting to note that the general English view in regard to control is not shared in Wales. The National Agricultural Council for Wales have just presented a report to the Government in reference to agricultural policy, in which they say in no qualified terms that they strongly advocate Government control of the industry and that they make a subsidy no condition of control. But surely it is a mistake to suppose that British agricultural production can only be stimulated by Government financial assistance. There are other methods available. To some of them the Agricultural Tribunal of Investigation have referred in very clear language, and to some of them noble Lords who have already addressed the House have referred sympathetically. The Tribunal's own alternative to a subsidy is that of arable stock farming for the purpose of maintaining the arable area. They recommended that experiments in this direction should be made by the Ministry of Agriculture. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked whether such experiments were now contemplated.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
It was also asked by the National Farmers' Union. These experiments are now about to be conducted under the supervision of the School of Agricultural Economics at Oxford. We have handed over recently three arable farms in Middlesex, Northamptonshire and Cornwall respectively to them for these experiments, which will 416 begin almost immediately. We are also selecting progressive farmers for individual experiments of the same kind. We have allocated for this purpose, subject to Treasury sanction, a sum of £50,000.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
I am not quite sure and I will find that out. The second direction in which the Tribunal emphasised what I may, perhaps, call a new department in agricultural policy was a large extension of small holdings, especially those on an ownership basis, as recommended by my noble friend Lord Clinton. While the whole Tribunal have strongly favoured the extension of small holdings as a means of maintaining a rural population, Professor MacGregor, one of the three members of the Tribunal, specially stresses their development as an alternative to a subsidy for this purpose.
There is one side of this question which, if I may venture to say so, is not sufficiently emphasised and that is the Imperial aspect of it. I am sure that all those of your Lordships who have travelled recently in Canada, in Australia or in New Zealand, must reluctantly admit that the large areas of land that are awaiting settlement in our oversea Dominions are not being adequately settled with British agriculturists of the right type; in fact, I may say with British settlers of the right type, because many of them come from our towns and fail after a few years' experience of the conditions to which they are subjected. We feel—and this opinion certainly is very strong in Canada—that the best way to provide the best type of settler is to constitute to a much larger extent than we have at present a peasant class in this country with all their self-reliance, their resourcefulness and their business habits which have made the success of the same class settling in our Dominions from foreign countries so extraordinary. No one can go through the prairie Provinces of Canada without coming upon examples of the Scandinavian settler who makes a successful settler on land in the Dominion, and that applies to some extent to Australia and New Zealand. In fact, it is the peasant stock of the Continent of Europe, with their self-reliance, their business capacity and their other admirable qualities, which is producing the best 417 settlers in our own Dominions overseas. That, to my mind, if I may submit it to your Lordships, is one of the strongest reasons why we should do all we can in this country to develop that class upon our own agricultural land whoso children and other relations—if I may say so, the surplus human production of the class—will pass to our Dominions for the successful settlement of those countries.
There is one other respect in which, there is great scope for the improvement of agricultural land and that is drainage, and to a slightly less extent the application of lime to our more acid or more sour soils. There is a Hill which the Government is about to introduce giving the County Councils extensive powers to ensure progressive drainage schemes being carried out within their administrative areas.
Then there is the question of research to which my noble friends Lord Clinton and Lord Shaftesbury referred, and my noble friend Lord Harris, in connection with research, asked what was going to be done to develop greater contact between research stations on the one hand and farmers on the other. Lord Harris, I think, emphasised the importance of demonstration farms in order to indicate to the farming community the best economic results of the most successful research work. I may say that, in addition to what I have already said on this subject, there has been a very big development during the last three or four years of research work along different lines of research in various research institutes in different parts of the country. I need not remind, your Lordships of what they are because they will all be familiar to most of you, but there is one respect in which there is great room for improvement and that is in rendering available to the farming community the more valuable results of such research work in intelligible language. I think we have to admit that a great deal of the output of these research stations has been expressed in a jargon which the farming community do not understand and we are going to make a big effort during next year, by means of what I may call a clearing house of information, to reduce into popular and easily intelligible language a large 418 amount of the economically useful results of research work. In fact, because they are so unintelligible, they are made far more use of in certain other countries in the world, although they emanate from our own research stations, than they are in our own country.
May I just touch on one other matter which has been referred to in connection with the proposed subsidy and that is considerations of national defence? Professor MacGregor, in his Report, says that defence reasons are the only reasons for maintaining our arable area. The other members of the Tribunal say that the main reasons are social reasons, public health, employment, and, above all, economic stability, on the ground that upon the stability of agriculture depends that of the other industries of the country. I think I ought to say that the responsible Government authorities have given prolonged and careful consideration to this matter and so far they have shown no disposition to stress it as a basis for the Government's agricultural policy. There is this to be said even with regard to a large area of grass viewed from the point of view of national emergency, that there is going on a great accumulation of fertility which can at any moment be rendered available in the event of such, an emergency taking place. I do not think it has been sufficiently realised, but all the agricultural exports have admitted that, whatever drawbacks there may have been during the great War, owing to the lack of knowledge of arable operations at a time when arable operations became essential, at least it could be said that we should not have won anything like the amount of fertility and consequent production of food from our soil but for the fact that we had in generations of unturned grass a great accumulation of fertility which we wore enabled to utilise in that time of emergency.
There is another factor which the Tribunal has emphasised to which no reference has been made, and I do not want this afternoon to stress it, but I think I ought to mention it. That is the enormous importance of costings as an indication to a farmer whether he is making a profit or a loss out of his occupation. Your Lordships are aware that farmers are not always in the habit of keeping books, and there is a very large portion of the agri- 419 cultural community who would find it very difficult to tell you with certainty out of which crops they were making profit and upon which crops they were suffering a loss. The Economic Research Institute at Oxford is giving its attention to this subject, and, under the supervision of the Ministry, is endeavouring through the various collegiate centres to assist farmers in the matter of costings so as to enable them to understand better the economic side of their business.
My noble friend Lord Harris asked a question, based, I think, upon a recent debate in the House of Commons, as to whether British agriculture is really decadent, as to whether there is any ground for the suggestion that this country is the worst farmed country in the world, as suggested, I think, by some distinguished statesman in another place. He himself gave an answer from the Tribunal's Report and with it we are in entire sympathy. The Tribunal reported, or at any rate Professor MacGregor, one member of the Tribunal, reported that there is no ground for depreciation of British agriculture as a whole, whether you look to the wages that are paid in the industry, the area on which the chief cro7^s are grown and the yield of those crops, or whether you look at the decline in the agricultural population tested by male persons employed during the last fifty years. But, on the other side, I think we must all admit that, although there is no better farmer than the best of our English or Scottish farmers, the average standard of farming in this country is capable of considerable improvement. The chief incentive to such improvement is a feeling of security and confidence which has not always been enjoyed in recent years in agricultural Britain and which, in turn, depends upon continuous fair treatment at the hands of the State.
It is easy both to exaggerate and to minimise the potential increase in agricultural production in this country. The former was done during the War, the latter was done before the War and has been done since. Noble Lords, like other members of the agricultural community, have from time to time commented upon the emphasis which is sometimes laid upon the standard of farming abroad, particularly upon that of Scandinavia. In that connection I should like to suggest 420 to your Lordships that although the conditions may be very different there is something to be learned from other countries which we can usefully learn for the improvement of our own industry. Because the conditions are different do not let us close our eyes altogether to anything useful which they can teach us. The great periods of renaissance in British agriculture have always followed the incorporation of some foreign crop, or some foreign process, into our own system. Archbishop Morton, who was the pioneer of drainage of the Fens, received his inspiration and knowledge from Flanders. The same applies to Hartlib and Sir Richard Western who, similarly, brought their knowledge from Flanders and Holland. Jethro Tull, who as your Lordships well know, brought the horse-hoe and drill into this country, similarly derived his information from Flanders and from France. The second Viscount Townshend who, as your Lordships will remember, was followed by Coke of Norfolk in his methods, and who was the real founder of the four course rotation, and therefore of modern agriculture, derived his inspiration and the knowledge which he brought to this country from Hanover and Holland. Even the pioneers of the present century who have brought the sugar beet industry into our midst looked to Holland and to Germany for the suggestions which they have submitted with success to the statesmen of this country.
I only mention these matters because, while admitting that our standard of fanning is good, we ought, at the same time, to realise that we have to move with the times, keep pace with other countries who are getting abreast of us, to show our own progressive inclinations by being prepared to learn from others if they have anything to teach us, and to adapt, if we can, their more successful methods to our own system of farming.
In conclusion, I should like to say that the Government realise that they must recognise the fundamental importance of the well-being of the most vital of all industries, that of agriculture. We fully realise our responsibility in relation to it, but your Lordships will, I am sure, realise on your part the difficulty of our task under present conditions and the necessity of avoiding, if possible, acute Party controversy in relation to the 421 agricultural problem. I know there is a tendency, a very natural tendency, for each Party in the State to develop what it calls a Party agricultural programme. Such programmes may win votes, but they may destroy the agricultural industry, and I do make a most earnest appeal to your Lordships to help us, so far as lies in your power, to obtain, if we can, some measure of agreement between all parties as to the fundamental basis on which an agricultural policy can be framed, because it is only by such an agreement that we can look to obtain that security and confidence on which the will-being and prosperity of agriculture must depend.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
My Lords, we have listened to a very interesting and exhaustive speech from the representative of the Ministry of Agriculture in this House. He has turned over a very large field. He spoke about a clearing house for information, about research, national defence, about New Zealand and Scandinavia, and about demonstration farms; but we were rather disappointed that only a small portion of his speech was devoted to what we came here in order to hear, and that was the answer to what he himself called Lord Harris's "conundrum." To most? of us Lord Harris's Question appears to be perfectly legitimate and pertinent. At the beginning of his speech the noble Lord told us that the Government had not made up their minds on the subject, that the door was not closed—there was a little hope and ray of comfort in that—and that the Government will help those who help themselves. We are very grate-fid to the noble Lord for that piece of information.
I hope he will forgive me if I address the few remarks which I ask leave of the House to make to Lord Harris and Lord Clinton, who made excellent speeches according to their way of thinking. Both noble Lords have the courage of their opinions and do let us know really what those opinions are. Lord Clinton told us that a loss of tillage would be disastrous to the nation. He goes a little further than the Tribunal, because they only say it would be disadvantageous. I suppose it would be disadvantageous in the opinion of the Government in case of war; and then 422 we should be told that it; was our fault if we were in danger of starvation because we did not see to it that England was self-supporting, which is practically impossible, as we all know.
We have already had some experience of what ought to be done in the case of a. shortage of food in time of war. We all remember when guerre à outrance was declared by Germany in the third year of the War. We remember that these brutes, the Germans, not only sank ships of war but hospital ships, passenger ships, with men and women on them, and they ended by sinking the "Lusitania," the climax and crown of their brutality. Not unnaturally there was much alarm—I will not make it too strong—as to a shortage of food. That crisis, and it was a dangerous crisis, was stopped by the patriotism and genius of two men. One man was named Rhondda and the other was named Prothero. They both became members of this House, and no two men ever deserved a Peerage morn worthily.
To Lord Rhondda was given the task of rationing the country. He did it extremely well, but it is no use rationing a country if there is not enough food to go round. To Lord Ernie was deputed the terrible task of finding enough food to feed the country at a time when the U-boats were sinking the ships bringing in the grain. Lord Ernie brought in at once the Food Production Act of 1917. I will not weary your Lordships by reminding you what that Act did. But you know that it guaranteed the farmers against loss, it gave labourers a minimum wage, it put the Allotments Act of 1907 into force, and, above all, it insisted on the ploughing up of the grass lands of the country and putting in wheat and oats. It is not too much to say that the virgin soil under the green pastures of this country saved the nation. What was the result? The result was that in 1918, instead of the country growing ten weeks' provision in the course of a year, Lord Ernie brought it up to over forty weeks' provisions—if I am inaccurate I hope he will correct me—and in addition the allotments grew from something like 600,000 to about 1,400,000.
THE MARQUKSS OF LINCOLNSHIRE
I am much obliged. The consequence was 423 that the nation was saved, and what I want to impress on the House is that what we have done before we can do again, and we can improve upon it. I would respectfully suggest that it is the duty of the noble Lord, the representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, at once to schedule all the grass land of this country and see whether wheat can be well and properly grown. There are portions of England which it would, perhaps, be a mistake to plough up, but if the grasslands were scheduled, and if the eight months' food supply, which is necessary in time of war, where in this country, and a little bit more brought in when the storm clouds of war were gathering, we might say, as Lord Fisher said at the Mansion House on one occasion, that as regards the possibility of starvation we can sleep comfortably in our beds.
The Tribunal says that farmers cannot make their business pay by arable cultivation. I did not quite follow what Lord Bledisloe said about that, but I join issue with them at once. Wheat is now 50s. a bushel, and the average harvest of an acre of land is four bushels; four times 50s. is £10, and I am given to understand on the best authority that the cultivation of an acre of wheat, including harvesting and the paying of rent and rates, should come to about £7 10s. I do not mean to say that everyone does it at that price, but a Committee who have been sitting on the matter have come to the conclusion that £7 10s. would be about the proper amount to pay for the cultivation of an acre of wheat. If we subtract this sum from £10, we are left with £2 10s. You cannot call that a loss. Even if you went back to wheat at 40s., as you may, there would be a profit of 10s., and, though this might be a very small profit, it is impossible for the strongest advocate of Protection or of subsidies to say that this would be growing wheat at a loss.
I do not want to argue that point or to emphasise it further, but I should like to call attention to what Lord Harris said about the second part of Mr. MacGregor's Report, which is stated to make it perfectly clear that a subsidy on agriculture is the best method of keeping the land in cultivation. We have already had an opportunity of seeing how that works. When the "Victory" Government came in, in 1919, they came in on a magnificent 424 programme of hanging the Kaiser and making Germany pay for the War. The first amiable intention having been frustrated, the Government were still under the hallucination for some years that they would be able to carry out the second part of their programme, and they brought in a Bill guaranteeing prices to the farmer for ever and ever. I should like for one moment—memories are very short—to remind the House what that proposal was. They guaranteed to the British farmer 96s. a quarter for his wheat for ever, and some 40s.—I forget the exact figure—for his oats. Norfolk came at once, hoping to get some share of the plunder, but was rebuffed as usual and told that barley would not get any bonus whatever. The Liberal Party as a whole opposed this bonus and pointed out very respectfully that if wheat fell to 50s.—whidh is the exact price now—it would cost the country something like £40,000,000 or £50,000,000 but that was pooh-poohed. In another six months, however, the Prime Minister, recognising what he had done and losing his nerve, repealed that Act and, as a sop to the farmers for breaking his word, he told them that he would give them a subsidy or a bonus of £17,000,000.
That subsidy affected every single member of your Lordships' House, directly or indirectly. Those who farmed their own land got the bonus directly, and it would be rather interesting to know what amount was received by those members of the community who farmed land on a very large scale. It would be interesting, for instance, to know what sum was received by the Hon. Mr. Strutt or, perhaps, by my noble friend Lord Bledisloe himself; if he does not think that this is a fair question, I should not of course for a moment think of pressing it, but it might be my excuse for saying what happened to me personally in regard to this subsidy.
In 1922 I had a farm to let on the Humber. That was a misfortune which had only happened to me once before in sixty years of landowning. Up in the north of Lincolnshire I had no tractors or horses and, to keep the land in cultivation, I asked a friend of mine who farms in a large way in Lincolnshire to put the land under cultivation for me, and to harvest the wheat and thrash it out. I forgot all about this farm—it was 425 a mixed farm of some 200 acres with 100 acres of wheat—but in the next year I thought that I should like to have some of this wheat and, following the example of Sir Roger de Coverley, Cedric the Saxon, my noble friend opposite and others, I thought that I would grind my own wheat into my own bread and make my unfortunate household eat it. I sent for this wheat and had six sacks of it sent to a friend of mine, a, miller in a large way in Buckinghamshire, and asked him to grind the corn and send it back so that I could feed my wife and household with it. In about ten days he sent it back and said that it was of such inferior quality and so full of smut that it was not the smallest use milling it, as he was sure that we could not cat it as bread. Accordingly I gave it to Lady Lincolnshire, who gave it to her chickens, who benefited very much.
My heart rather sank after this experience of farming, and when the estate accounts came in afterwards I asked my agent what was the loss on this farm on the Humber. He said that there was no loss but a profit of £450, and it was attained in this way. This second class wheat was sold in Grimsby at 50s., making £125, and in addition there was the sale of grass keeping which averaged £150 to £200 and, on top of everything, there was my share of the Lloyd George loot, which came to £168. In addition there was some incomprehensible matter concerning outgoing tenant's valuation, which is a thing I could never understand. The total came to £445 profit on this farm. All that I most humbly and respectfully say is that you have merely got to give a bonus to the farmers of England, if you make it big enough, and you will keep every indifferent farmer who scrapes the top of his land, who can only just make a who pays very poor wages to his labourers, who is no good to himself, to his landlord or to the nation; if you keep all those men on the land they will be able to pay all their expenses for the rest of their lives.
I thank your Lordships for having allowed me to say these few words. In conclusion I should like to add this. As we have not had any lead or any light at all from the Front Government Bench shall we obtain any light at all from the Labour Benches? Have the Labour Benches got any policy whatever? I have 426 been told, and I have read in the papers, that the policy of the Independent Labour Party is well known and that it certainly does not conduce to Free Trade. If that is so all I can say is that we of the Liberal Party will have nothing whatever to do with it. We may get no answer whatever from noble Lords opposite but, although I am not in the habit of speaking for other people, I think I can fairly say, in the name of the whole Liberal Party, that if any proposal is brought to us under any name, whether of Tariff Reform or of anything you like, which embodies the taxation of food, our answer to that will be: "No! No! No! a thousand times, No!" We will not touch any policy of that sort, even with the tongs.
And the last thing I ask permission to say is this. I remember very well, when the cruel policy of "Your food will cost you more" was brought out before the country, saying (and I repeat it now) that for fifty years between 1868 and 1918 I lived entirely upon and by the land. I had not a stock or share. I paid off a very heavy debt upon my property, educated all my children and put some thousands of men on the land. The policy of live and let live enabled me to see in fifty years, except in the case of death, only about nineteen tenants leave the Carrington estate. I repeat that we will not have Protection, coupled with the taxation of food, in any circumstances whatever. I would rather see our Jamaica estates restored to their pristine paying position by the reintroduction of slavery than I would see my Lincolnshire or Buckinghamshire rents increased by the taxation of the food of my fellow countrymen—to quote from the memorable speech of Lord Goschen "by gambling with the food of the poorest of the very poor."
THE DUKE OF BUCCLEUGH
My Lords, I think we shall all agree that Lord Harris has done good work in eliciting the interesting reply of Lord Bledisloe and the interesting and amusing speech of the noble Marquess. In spite of his great cry against Protection, I should like to ask the noble Marquess one question. Assuming we had had Protection for many years before the War, and that had resulted in a very much larger area of arable land, would not the cost of that probably be nothing 427 like what was the cost to the people during the War owing to the great rise in prices which then occurred? Not that, I want to advocate Protection, but that side of the matter has got to be looked at as well as the other. The noble Marquess's illustrations of the feeding of his family were certainly very amusing, but I am afraid that the prices he gave show that the noble Marquess's family must be rather dainty.
With regard to the remarks of Lord Bledisloe, I noticed that the other day, in giving away prizes, he is reported to have said that "if agriculturists looked to the Government to perform wonders for their industry they would be bitterly disappointed. The most the Government could do was to see that agriculturists at least had a fair field, even if they had no favour." I agree to a large extent with what my noble friend said and if he does get a fair field, and there is no balance against him, I think the farmer will be able to meet his competitors. But does he really have a fair field? Is he being given a proper opportunity of keeping his land under cultivation, and preventing the arable area from diminishing? The noble Lord, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, spoke about the shrinkage in arable land, and I think he said that the figures for Scotland included temporary pasture. If that is the case your Lordships will probably be aware that temporary pasture in Scotland lies longer than it used to and therefore it would seem to show that the actual arable area has diminished more than the figures of the noble Lord would show.
There is one point with which I quite agree, and that is that the great thing for the success of agriculture is security and confidence. There is a great deal to be said for all parties coming together, and your Lordships are probably aware that an Agricultural Conference did meet in Scotland, and that it presented a unanimous Report. While the noble Marquess said that he was against all food being taxed I think he will agree with what was said in the Report:—We are impressed by the fact that the existing burdens on agricultural land constitute, in effect, a heavy tax on homegrown food. This fundamental point is often overlooked. Whilst there is a widespread demand throughout the country that the food of the people should not be 428 taxed, enormous burdens, both Imperial and local, are placed on the producers of food at home, burdens from which the foreign producer is exempt.I do not think that that can be contradicted, and what agriculturists ask for in particular is a fair field and that the home agricultural industry should not be handicapped, as it is at present, for the benefit of the foreign importer. Before the War the farmer's assessment to Income Tax was one-third of the rental. By the end of the War, owing to the Excess Profits Duty, it was six times what it had been before the War. Since then it has been reduced. The Excess Profits Duty was done away with altogether. The present basis for assessing Income Tax for an occupier of a farm is three times what it was before the War.
The Parliamentary Secretary presented to us to-day a more cheerful view than I quite expected. We have heard a good deal all over the country of the depression of agriculture and the difficulty of farmers making both ends meet. Why then should they be assessed on a basis three times as high as they were before the War? Of course, it can always be said that they can reclaim from the Income Tax authorities, but any one who has to do with the Inland Revenue knows that they are very difficult people to deal with. Even on a large estate it takes up an enormous amount of time for people with great experience, and the ordinary farmer, especially the smallholder, is really at a very great disadvantage with the Inland Revenue officials. He probably gibes it up in disgust when he sees that the only way is to employ a local solicitor, which he does not wish to do, because he thinks that the solicitor will make all the gain and himself be left with all the loss.
Take the rates for roads and education. Why should agriculture be taxed to provide roads for people who do not live in the district and for heavy motor traffic coming from big towns? And why should it be taxed for the education of people in the county? Both of these are burdens placed on agriculture which are not placed on the hulk of the people. My point is that both the roads and education are becoming national services and it is quite unfair that a very large proportion of the burden should be placed 429 on agriculture. In my part of the world, in the South of Scotland, in spite of the large amount which comes from the Road Fund, the roads, generally speaking, cost about six times more than they did in pre-War days; yet they are not in particularly good order and the rates are rising year by year and are likely to go very much higher. Probably if it were not for this outside traffic the rates would have been about double, I do not think very much more. A very large burden is therefore being placed on owners and occupiers in agricultural districts to provide roads for the outside public.
The education rate presses much more hardly on agricultural districts in Scotland than it does in England. In many places the country has, practically speaking, to pay very largely for the education of the town. I may also point out that the children of Roman Catholics, whose schools indirectly are endowed through the Education Act, are almost all town dwellers. Those are some of the burdens from which agriculture thinks it should get some relief. I quite admit that considerable sums have been given towards the rates, but that is not the right way to do it. The burdens ought to be properly allocated and the system placed on a proper basis.
Then we come to the question of arable land. The noble Marquess alluded to the way in which the land produced the food under the auspices of my noble friend Lord Ernle, the late Lord Rhondda and others who were associated with them at a time of danger during the War Of course that could be done again. I think the noble Marquess suggested that the Ministry of Agriculture might take notes of what happened during that time so that if there was an emergency again they would know how to do it rather better. Everybody knows that there were many failures and there were many landed properties broken up. I am afraid that the question of the food supply of the people is not considered very important at the present time owing to the oversea supply which, of course, can always come freely as long as there is no war. It is possible, however, that we may have a bad war again, and as the Navy is much reduced we might be in a far worse position. Is it not of the very greatest importance for the country to 430 maintain the agricultural population? I think we are all agreed that the depletion of agricultural areas is a great loss to the country and will be felt much more in the future than it is at present.
I have not had so great an experience as the noble Marquess, but I have had thirty-five years' experience in the management of one of the largest estates in this country and one which it is admitted, I think, on the whole, has not been badly administered. I do not pretend to be a practical farmer, but I try to get hold of the best men I can and give them a fairly free hand. I have had a considerable amount of experience and, as to the housing of the agricultural labourer, our greatest enemies have been at the Treasury, under successive Chancellors of the Exchequer. At present if any one who pays Super-Tax wants to do £100 worth of drainage it costs him £200 of income. That is, £100 goes in Super-Tax, and the remainder in drainage. If he wants to build two cottages of an improved type at £1,000 it costs him £2,000 of income, of which £1,000 goes in Super-Tax. I think the Minister of Agriculture in the last Government found fault with agricultural cottages, but if you build a superior cottage instead of an inferior one, you are told: "Oh, yes, but it is a better cottage; the accommodation is much superior, and therefore the whole cost cannot go into maintenance."
Now, any one who has had experience in managing an agricultural estate will agree, that unless improvements are made out of income, it is only a matter of time—and not a very long time—before that estate is bankrupt. It is absurd not to allow this to come out of maintenance. Other businesses do the same and some are allowed depreciation. Take railway companies. If you take the railway companies, which are statutory bodies, I think you will find—your Lordships will correct me if I am wrong, but this is true of those with which I have been connected—they spend a large amount out of revenue on what in agriculture would be called "improvements" and they do not pay Income Tax on the money so spent. Agriculture, housing, and even employment and so on, are affected by the present state of things. I remember that a collector of Inland Revenue with whom I discussed the matter agreed that 431 the Department would be more than recouped for any loss of Income Tax if this allowance were made, by the increase in employment and in the consequent returns from the land.
The real point is not merely that it is necessary to preserve the arable land but to bring about an increase in the number of people employed on the land. If in doing that you increase the arable area so much the better. But there are other ways than doing that, such, for instance, as arable stock farming to which the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, referred. But if what I may call this tax on improvements remains it will be almost impossible to achieve the end in view. The result of the policy of successive Governments, of Treasury policy, has been to induce landowners who want to get as much income as possible out of their property to spend as little as they can upon it and it has paid some of them, for a time at any rate, so far as the net return is concerned, to allow land to go out of cultivation. That has been a great misfortune to the country, as I think almost everyone will agree.
The recent quinquennial valuation has afforded another example of the way in which the person who tries to do his duty is penalised while the person who does not obtains an advantage. Since the previous quinquennial valuation the rents in some cases had gone up and so long as any one spent less than the allowance of one-eighth he received all the advantage of the increase in the rent over the previous valuation, because he did not pay Income Tax upon it, whereas the man who spent money in trying to get things in order after his land had gone back during the War was told: "All that should go in under maintenance claims." When the maintenance claims went in that man was told, "No, your rent has increased since the last valuation and we cannot allow the claim." In the result the man who spent money on his land and gave employment was penalised as against the man who did nothing but try to make as much as he could out of it. While that policy continues it is not likely that people, whether they are large landowners like myself or are farmers who bought their farms recently, will be induced to spend money they would otherwise lay out in improving their farms.
432 In another part of the Scottish Report the Commissioners express the opinion that—the owner should have to pay taxes only on the actual income, or profit, which lie gets and not on a fictitious, or statutory, income, which he does not receive.And it would be a very great boon if all inspectors and collectors of taxes were instructed that they were only to collect what they knew was legally due. A large number of people have demands made upon them which ought not to be made. In some cases the mistake is corrected when it is pointed out, while in others the amounts demanded are paid. In regard to the roads, all mechanically driven vehicles should be taxed both on their horse power and their loaded weight and in agricultural counties the money collected in respect of those items should go to the county councils, the boroughs, of course, having their share, and he spent in the district instead of being allocated to other purposes by the Ministry of Agriculture.
In addition to the burdens I have mentioned there is the new Pensions Bill. It may be a very good thing for some people, but it is not very difficult to see that the agricultural labourer is going to pay far more for his pension than he ought to pay. I understand that both he and his employer will have to pay considerably more than they ought; I had a look at the Bill, and I freely admit that I was unable to understand it. It must be remembered that the agricultural labourer and his wife lead healthy lives and are long-lived as a rule, and that there is not much sickness among agriculturists. Therefore the cost of insuring them is obviously very much less than the cost of insuring those who live in towns and are employed in industry. It is calculated that it will cost over, £1,338,000, and some people think that, considering the risk run by agricultural workers, that sum might be reduced by half. At any rate, a further burden of that sort ought not to be laid on agriculture.
I should like also to call your Lordships' attention to another important point. Speaking on July 1 last the Prime Minister said:—I am not quite sure that the general public—and I am not sure that the farming community either—realise what the State has recently done to help agriculture There has been, of course, a feeling of 433 bitterness, not unnatural, among agriculturists because for a time after the War they were rather in the position of being a sort of shuttlecock of Party politics, and they suffered a good deal from the intervention of well-meaning politicians.I do not know to whom the Prime Minister was alluding, but I presume it was to the Coalition Government of that clay, of which he and a very large number of the present Government were members—the Government for which the noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire, has such a great admiration. What I and the agricultural community would like to know is when agriculturists ceased to be "a sort of shuttlecock of Party politics" and whether they are not still suffering "a good deal from the intervention of well-meaning politicians"?
There are a lot of people who think they know about agriculture, and a very large number of them live in towns. Various Governments have been ready to clutch at any straw, and they have clutched at straws put forward by these town dwellers, or, perhaps, by another class of people who, though they may not live in towns, live on the Press. Are we to be saved from them? That is one of the first essentials of agriculture. I quite agree with the noble Lord when he said that the best policy is, to a certain extent, to leave agriculture alone, and not to shackle it with absurdities. In the old days the agricultural stock and everything else in Britain was miles ahead of that in any other country in the world. That was in the days before Parliament began to interfere with agriculture. The more Parliament has interfered with agriculture the more it has lost ground in comparison with foreign countries. One of the best things that could happen to agriculture, I think, would be to reduce the inside and outside numbers of the Ministry of Agriculture to what they were in 1905. That would be a very considerable saving to the taxpayer, and would also, I believe, be a good thing for agriculture.
The Prime Minister went on to speak of the huge sums that have been given to agriculturists. I think the figures he gave are misleading, or at any rate they are liable to be very misleading. I would like to go through those figures and point out one or two things in connection with them. That has been done outside, but I think it right that it should be done in your 434 Lordships' House. The Prime Minister stated that in six years £66,000,000 had been provided by the State for various agricultural purposes. Of that total he admitted that some £20,000,000 represented loans advanced by the Government but the balance of £45,000,000 he said had been provided by the general taxpayers for the direct benefit of the farming community. He then gave details, as to how that £66,000,000 had been allocated.
I should like to examine those details. Take first the one figure of £66,000,000. The greater part of that, I think, cannot rightly be said to have been given to agriculture. First of all there is a figure of £15,000,000 for land settlement. Land settlement was not carried out for the benefit of agriculture; it was carried out in fulfilment of a pledge that was given to the men who served in the trenches during the War. You cannot say that is an assistance in any way to farming or agriculture. Then there is the £4,250,000 advanced in the way of agricultural credit. Those are advances made to farmers who purchased their farms, but I believe these advances are well secured, and the Government is getting interest on the money. Similarly there are sums of £27,650 and £91,000 advances to various agricultural co-operative societies. Those sums are also secured, and they make a total of £19,368,650, which could not in any way be called assistance to agriculture. However, the Prime Minister himself ruled these out, and that left a balance of about £46,000,000.
Of this £14,000,000 were given in consequence of the repeal of the Corn Production Act. The noble Marquess (the Marquess of Lincolnshire) received some of that, and I suppose I received some, too. I hope my share was larger than his. But after all that is the price that the Government had to pay to get rid of the Corn Production Act, which would have cost them a great deal more. It was a debt due to agriculture. A great many agriculturists had done more than scratch their land, and had done something to go on with cultivation, and, as everyone knows, if you have to alter this rotation, it is not easy to get it right again. It was difficult to get the land back into proper rotation after the War. After all, this was a debt due by the Coalition Government of the day, and they got off by paying a quarter of what, 435 or at any rate very much less than, it would have cost them under the Act had it not been repealed.
Then there is an item of £13,500,000 paid under the Agricultural Rates Relief Acts. But that was only paid because agricultural land was unfairly rated and taxed, and it was simply giving back to agriculturists a part of what they had already been, so to speak, defrauded of, or giving them back a portion of their over-taxation. Another item of £4,500,000 represents grants towards road improvements, but that is not a grant to agriculture. It was a grant to councils and others to make up (but only to a small extent) for the damage done to the roads by the vehicles of towns and industrial areas which had curt up the roads, and for the increased cost of putting them hack into condition again. There is an item of £4,250,000 for land settlement losses, but surely the losses a Government make on land settlement cannot in any way be taken as giving a contribution to the advantage and improvement of agriculture. The last item, one of £4,000,000, was for education, live stock improvement and rural industries.
There is a sum of £3,000,000 for foot-and-mouth disease, but that is really a national service. Moreover, in connection with this matter, I do not think your Lordships are aware that, certainly in Scotland, every county, whether it had foot-and-mouth disease or not—the one I am connected with had not—had about half of what is called the equivalent grant given in consequence a the increase in rates taken away from it to pay for this foot-and-mouth disease. That all meant a certain amount of increased rating on agricultural land.
Therefore, out of the total, £20,000,000 consists of loans, £36,250,000 of payments for debts or other things, leaving a little more than £10,000,000 as a total that can be in any way classed as assistance to agriculture, and out of that there probably could still be made very large deductions. I am afraid an impression has been given that agriculture is very well off after having got this £66,000,000. No one believes that. Instead of doing anything to help agriculture, or give it fair play, the Government has been in favour of placing heavier burdens on it, and taking out of it what little life remains in it.
436 I am afraid I have been rather long, but there is another item to which I should wish briefly to refer and that is the sugar bounty. I should like to point out that that was given primarily to factories, and as a relief to unemployment. Drainage has also been alluded to, but the grant for drainage was given at a most unsuitable time of the year for draining. In Scotland we had the greatest difficulties over it, and it did not do so much good as it might have done. What we want is both security and confidence. I think there has been a great deal of keenness on the part of some people to go on the land since the War, and I hope that will continue, but. I do not think it is because there is a large demand for farms that some farms let at a high rent, very often, perhaps, at too high a rent. That is not an advantage. The fact that high rents may be paid in some instances does not show, I think, that the industry is very prosperous. I admit that agriculturists have done very well in many cases, but any help that agriculture might hope to receive is either prevented or killed by the Treasury or by the Free Trade doctrine.
It comes to this: the Government have wiped out subsidies and Protection. I agree that a subsidy is not likely to do very much good. You can do much more in other ways to assist agriculture. If the country is satisfied that more land should be put down to grass and that fewer people should be employed on the land, well and good, but if, on the other hand, it wants economic farming, if it wants land broken up which will not pay under present conditions, it must pay something for it. I do not think Protection or subsidies are necessary, but we do want to get rid of the burdens and disadvantages. Probably the greatest Finance Minister that ever lived was Colbert, who raised France to a pitch of enormous prosperity in a very short time. Then he had an extravagant Government to deal with. He had to put on taxes, and all his schemes were destroyed. He died the best hated man in France. Even if we had a Colbert, so long as we have a Government that is extravagant neither agriculture nor any other industry can hope to succeed.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, the noble Marquess, Lord Lincolnshire, before he sat down issued a challenge to the 437 Labour Party to put forward a policy. I cannot promise the noble Marquess that what comes from these Benches will be just exactly what he wants, but I can say that while it may not be absolutely pure laissez faire Free Trade, at least it has nothing to do with Tariff Reform or the taxation of food. It is with great diffidence that I rise to speak in a debate to which so many of your Lordships who are most eminent agriculturists have contributed. I do so only because the Party to which I belong has got quite a definite point of view on this matter, and a point of view which I think should at least be put before your Lordships. I intend, therefore, to restrict myself strictly to questions of principle, where we do definitely differ from noble Lords opposite. Matters of real importance, such as education, research, improvement of technical matters, arable stock farming, small holdings and co-operative marketing, have all been dealt with. Moreover, in my humble opinion these are all consequent on the general fundamental policy which I hope to deal with as briefly as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred us to a paragraph in the Report of the Agricultural Tribunal of Investigation in which they said that it would be worth while for the country to pay a substantial sum for the maintenance of our arable area. This is, of course, a generalisation, and a generalisation which is so general that very few of us can disagree with it. Many noble Lords opposite have always said that in their opinion agriculture is so important to the life of the community that it should receive special treatment, while, on the other hand, it has always been a sine qua non of the Socialistic doctrine that an industry should be judged not only by the profit it makes but by its value to the community as a social service. This is, of course, a generalisation, but it has yet to be proved that the efficient farmer—and nobody would suggest a subsidy to inefficiency—has any greater claim on the generosity of the taxpayer than has the shipbuilder, the heavy steel producer or the coal miner. All of them are of the most vital importance to the life of this country, and all of them are suffering very heavy depression and require help of some kind; the only question being how that help is to be given—by subsidies, tariffs, or by 438 a thorough reorganisation of the system on which they are run.
Our objection to subsidies to depressed industries is that the demand for them, in our view, constitutes not really a case for a subsidy at all but a confession of the failure of private enterprise to deal with the present conditions of industry. And why, we ask ourselves, should the taxpayer be asked to bolster up a system that by its very request for subsidies and help is admittedly inadequate for the occasion? In our opinion private enterprise in the ownership and control of land, private enterprise in the purchasing and marketing of farmers' requirements, has failed. We know that every penny which is given to agriculture to-day by the State must ultimately, under the present system, be absorbed either by rent or by a rise in the price of farmers' requirements.
It is not for me to speak of the greed of landlords. I know far too much of the sacrifice that countless individuals amongst them have made, but it is not the individuals that we are up against. We are up against the system. It is not that landlords are bad; it is that the system is bad. The landlords may, or may not, take advantage of it, but you cannot get away from the fact that the State by helping to capitalise the development of land by carrying out drainage schemes is increasing the value of private property at the expense of the taxpayer. And why does it have to do so? Because the landlord is no longer able to fulfil his function as a partner in this industry. Hitherto be has been the instrument for giving credit to agriculture, and very cheap credit at that. But circumstances have changed, and this is no longer possible—rightly or wrongly, that point is quite irrelevant here. He cannot do it now, and so the State has had to step in.
If your Lordships will consider for a moment the course of modern legislation, you will realise that this is only part of a very general tendency. Not only has the State had to come forward to assist with capital for the development of land in the form of drainage schemes and subsidies to afforestation, but it has had to provide both long term and short term credit for the farmer and it has had to provide education and research. Then again, the development of rent restric- 439 tion legislation, the Agricultural Holdings Act and, indeed, the very existence of the county agricultural committees all point to this tendency to supersede individual by community action. But this tendency cannot go on for ever, for we are brought back to the fact—and here I make no apology for repetition—that there is a limit to the amount which the public can consent to spend on private property.
At the same time, there is a very great demand for further provision for research and education, for further capital development of the land and for assistance in providing improved marketing facilities. But the landlord has not the money for all this. The State has; but if the State is to provide money, then the land must belong to the State. We do not put forward the idea of the nationalisation of land as a solution of the agricultural problem, but I do think that it is the key to that solution, for, with the State as landowner, it would be possible to justify that expenditure and assistance to which all the noble Lords who have hitherto spoken have referred, though it would never be tolerated if it were felt that in the long run the effect of it would he merely to increase the demand for farms, to force up rents or to ensure greater profits for the middleman.
I would not venture to detain your Lordships with details of administration as between the State and the county agricultural committees, nor with the exact form of tenure. Let it suffice to say that our one aim in dealing with tenure must be to secure the maximum increase of security of tenure consistent with the proper development of the land from the point of view of the State. The more the tenant can he made to feel that he is a part of his land and that the land is a part of him the better, and I, for my part, am convinced that the only reason why a man should be turned out of his farm is that he is not making the best communal use of his land. As an immediate measure in preparing for nationalisation we would desire to do everything possible to prepare the county agricultural committees for the heavy responsibilities that are bound to fall upon them. No scheme of State ownership would be conceivable without a very large measure of decentralisation of power to local bodies 440 with local knowledge. In particular, it is essential at the present time, in the interests both of the nation and, I believe, of good farmers—and something that the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, let drop in his speech gives strength, I think, to this view—that a very large measure of control should be at once restored to these committees. This country, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton, I think, said, has some of the best farmers in the world, but the gulf between the best and the worst in this country is far too wide. It is far wider than this country can afford to allow to continue, and it is to the county committees, with their local and technical knowledge, that I believe that we must look for bridging that gulf.
There is one question that I should like, if the House will allow me, to put to the Government and to the noble Lord opposite. What steps do they intend to take with regard to that very excellent Report that has been drawn up by the Committee on the Stabilisation of Agricultural Prices and recently issued by his Department? Does he intend to follow this up, or is it just to take its place in the pigeon holes of his Ministry in honourable company with such other Reports as that of the Linlithgow Committee? Let us admit at once that a scheme such as this for the stabilisation of agricultural prices has, together with its vast possibilities, enormous difficulties. We must also admit, I think, that little can now be done in the direction of remedying the monetary causes of our instability of prices since the reimposition of the gold standard, and that the present over-valuation of our currency can now be rectified only by time. But, though it would be difficult to stabilise the general price level of all commodities, it should still be possible to prevent the fluctuations of particular commodities that are caused, not by a change of monetary value, but by manipulations of the market. Of course this requires a totally different remedy, which entails Government intervention in the markets of the world and particularly, I think, of the Empire. This policy may be right or wrong, but I do not think that it can be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders, labelled State Socialism and then forgotten.
The Independent Labour Party is not the only Party that have brought this 441 suggestion forward. It was discussed at the imperial Conference of 1923 and was put forward by the Prime Minister of Australia—I speak subject to correction—I think with almost as much zest as the policy of Imperial Preference. Moreover, the present Prime Minister, speaking in the House of Commons in June, 1924, came very near to it when he said:—Is it not possible to enter into some arrangement with the Dominions by which the enormous amount of foodstuffs that we require to-day may be obtained solely from them by bringing them into this country at cost price and distributing them with the least possible margin?That this suggestion is certainly one that demands very serious consideration, I think goes without saying. Its financial effect on the farming world is incalculable and I therefore implore the noble Lord opposite to push forward with this matter as fast as he can and thus give to the farmer that stability of price for what I hope he is, by a return to control, going to urge him to grow. As I look at it the problem is this: The nation requires greater production from the farmer and the farmer requires greater assistance and greater stability from the nation. Surely it is possible for them to come together in the manner I have suggested and work to the common end of producing food for this nation.
§ LORD ERNLE
My Lords, I think the speech to which we have just listened illustrates the importance of drawing a very clear distinction between an agricultural policy framed in the interests of the industry and a national policy towards agriculture framed in the interests of the nation. I think that that distinction is one of the utmost importance, and it is a point which has hitherto during our discussions been very much neglected. So far as an agricultural policy framed in the interests of agriculture is concerned, I agree with the noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Government. No agricultural crisis exists at the present moment which necessitates the intervention of the Government. The farmers have, I believe, weathered the worst of the storm. I believe that although they have lost a great amount of capital, if they do not give up the occupation of their farms or desire to raise credit, it is a book-keeping entry—a writing down of their stock and equipment. They are, and here I also 442 agree with Lord Bledisloe, more prosperous to-day than most of our industries, and they are more prosperous because the novel economic conditions which are now pressing upon manufacturing industries have been familiar to the agriculturists for more than half a century, and because they have adapted themselves to those conditions.
I am not going into the vexed question of Protection and Free Trade, but they are as an industry what Free Trade has made that industry—what a policy which really prays every day "God speed the plough on every soil but our own" has brought about. As I have said they have adapted themselves to those conditions and they are in a certain degree of prosperity. If they find that they cannot cultivate arable land at a profit they know by experience what their remedy is. That remedy is agriculturally sound and it is also the remedy to which they are invited by the fiscal policy of the country. The noble Marquess has said, although I do not intend to follow him into the figures at length, that with an expenditure of £7 10s. you can grow four quarters to the acre and therefore the farmer makes a profit. I dare say you can grow a crop of wheat for £7 10s. an acre, but you will not get an average of four quarters to the acre. What you will get is two and a half or at the outside three quarters, and even at the highest price of the noble Marquess the farmer loses. As I have said, however, he has his remedy and his remedy, as we all know, is to lay down grass, permanent or temporary. By so doing he lessens his cost of production, his risks and his anxieties, and increases his chance of a moderate return on his capital, and he is also carrying out the principle of Free Trade by devoting himself to the production of fresh meat and milk, which have least to fear from foreign competition.
Farmers as a body do not need and do not ask for a subsidy so long as they are allowed to carry on their business on business lines. They do not ask for it. They know full well its danger, and also that if it is given them in their own interests, and not in the interests of the nation, it is an invidious, lop-sided, precarious, and short-lived boon. If you give it to them they will doubtless, like the noble Marquess, put the money in their pockets and perhaps grumble that it is 443 not more, but I am sure of this, that unlike the noble Marquess, they will not tell you how much they have got or express in public the opinion that the Government are fools.
If, then, the crisis does not require agriculturally the intervention of the Government, we turn to the other side of the question, and that is whether some great change is demanded in the interests of the nation. Is there to be, in fact, a national policy towards agriculture, framed in the interests of the nation and overriding, if necessary, the business interests of the agricultural industry? The Summer Time Bill sacrificed quite rightly the business interests of the farmer to the convenience of the vast majority of the community. So will a national policy towards agriculture sacrifice their interests to the interests of the community. What I have been struck with since I have been listening to the discussion in this House is how very little noble Lords appear to appreciate the immense strength of the demand that agriculture should give us the maximum output of produce and the maximum amount of employment.
I have thought that we were rather fiddling while Rome was burning, because I should have liked to warn noble Lords, although it is a late hour in the evening, that that demand is gathering strength every day. We have from the Independent Labour Party a programme which invites the Government to take control of all the social and economic forces which mould the structure of our national life and so to direct them that agriculture may, to its fullest capacity, serve the national welfare. I do not agree with any part of that programme. It seems to me to attempt the impossible. That a Government should assume the control of the whole buying business of the nation, of all the distributing agencies and of the banks, and then should proceed to frame the State of the future seems to me to be an impossible task.
On the other hand I have followed with great and growing interest the agrarian legislation which has been passed in Eastern Europe. I dare say some of your Lordships are aware that State after State has adopted the principle of expropriating the landlords for terminable annuities and of redistributing the land on the 444 principle that no man shall occupy more land that he and his family can cultivate. It is an open secret that one of the most distinguished of the Liberal Leaders is at this moment formulating a policy upon those lines, which I conclude he expects that his Party will follow. And the conclusion that I come to when I look at both these conflicting policies and the absence of any great national policy on the part of the Party to which I belong is this: Do not let us hurry things. Let us be thankful that they have not adopted the finding of the Agricultural Tribunal and taken the fatal step of subsidising the agricultural industry in order to secure some national purpose.
We are often told about Germany. I think the noble Lord, Lord Harris, occupied some part of his speech with the regeneration of German agriculture. What was it? In 1875 and 1882 Germany took hold, not of agriculture alone, but of all her industries, and treated them all together. She divided her industries into three classes, one lot which were to remain in the towns, one lot which were to be brought into the country, and one lot which were to be handed over as rural handicrafts. They treated those three classes of industry in that way, and by so doing they filled up all the gaps in their industrial and agricultural organisation; they casualised the agricultural labourer by giving him supplementary industries, and out of that huge transformation of their whole industrial organisation they built up that powerful Germany which advanced with the utmost rapidity from that day forward.
The only appeal that I would make to the Government is that if they are going to adopt a national policy it shall be a national policy for industry as a whole, and not for agriculture as a part, that they shall treat all their industries together, and that whatever remedies they devise shall be for the advancement of all the industries of the country. In that way alone do I believe that you can escape the danger of rash schemes which antagonise almost every industrial interest in the country, and without victimising, as the distinguished Liberal Leader is doing, a small industry like agriculture in order that it may benefit all the industries of the country. I wish I had time to add a great many more 445 points on the subjects which have been discussed, but I am always reluctant to trespass on your Lordships' time, and I am more particularly reluctant now, because unfortunately I cannot either write a note or read one, and therefore what I have said to you is, I fear, a rambling speech, and yet I hope I have made my points in this discussion.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I am sure we are all greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, for the very statesmanlike and helpful speech which he has just delivered, and I am sure we shall treat his suggestions with the greatest possible respect. Only one question has been addressed to me, that by the noble Earl opposite, Lord De La Warr, who asked what use we were going to make of the Report on the standardisation of agricultural prices. My answer is that the Report has been received, it is true, and it has been under the very careful consideration of the Minister of Agriculture: in fact, he has asked that a supplementary Report shall be made by the same Committee. But, unlike the Report which we have been considering here this afternoon, it is a Report which was made by gentlemen of known Labour views. They are certainly not what would be regarded as an impartial judicial body, and, necessarily and naturally, we are not likely to treat their Report with quite the same degree of consideration as we would a Report made by a perfectly independent, judicial body. But, subject only to that reservation, we shall give the Report every due consideration.
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
I do not happen to remember the personnel for the moment, but they are certainly gentlemen who in no way disguised their sympathy with Labour views.
My Lords, I did not offer any apology at the commencement of my speech for having brought this subject forward, and I think the result of the debate justifies my confidence. So far as my Question is concerned I am entirely satisfied. It has extracted the information Which I sought for, and which I expected. In the months that have elapsed since Mr. Wood advanced his 446 invitation to a conference, and suggested the possibility of increasing the arable acreage by a million acres, it has become obvious that that was probably an impossibility, and I cannot help thinking that that invitation was rather in the nature of a ballon d'essai, because with the Report of the Agricultural Tribunal before him, I should have thought he could have appreciated that it was practically an impossibility. But I entirely agree with nearly everything that Lord Bledisloe has said. I am perfectly certain that the conference, if he could have got a favourable response from the three parties, would have been extremely useful, and I am very sorry that it has not taken place. It may be possible yet.
But I am glad to be assured by the noble Lord that the Government. realises the responsibility that rests upon them of doing everything they can to encourage agriculturists in every way that has been suggested to-day. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, just now said, if I understood him, that private enterprise had failed That is the very thing of which I complained in my opening speech—that Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Snowden had advanced propositions which were absolutely unsupportable if the evidence adduced by the Agricultural Tribunal can be believed. That it is believed by the present Ministry of Agriculture is obvious, because the noble Lord took great pains to tell us to-day that agriculture in England is not a failure, and that on the whole the British farmer is as good as any of his competitors abroad. I think that is a very satisfactory opinion to extract, and I hope it will go out to the country that the British farmer is not the fool he is often said to be. On this ground I am entirely satisfied, and I hope that I have given satisfaction to your Lordships by bringing this subject for ward.