§ EARL DE LA WARR rose to move to resolve, That this House is of opinion that the establishment of wheat and meat import boards for the purpose of bulk purchase of these commodities would have the effect of stabilising their place and be of great benefit both to producer and consumer, and hopes that His Majesty's Government will initiate an inquiry as requested by the National Council of Agriculture.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, during the last few weeks there has been a correspondence in the Press from the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Bledisloe and others suggesting a Three-Party Conference on agriculture. Many of us, however, must feel that there have been quite enough roving inquiries and Commissions into the state of agriculture and that our present need is rather to have a Minister who is prepared to examine all the actual proposals that have been put forward, to select from them those that he considers most practicable and either to put them into action or else, at the very least, to have an inquiry into their practicability. The trouble appears to be that the Conservative Party themselves put forward nothing hut Protection, which they admit it is impossible to apply, and subsidies, about which nobody said harder things in the past than Conservatives themselves. Derating is nothing but a subsidy, and it is no solution of any problem. If dealers, food-stuff merchants, milk combines and all that great multiplicity of interests that live on the back of agriculture to-day do not very soon take away from the farmer any subsidy that he happens to be able to get from the State, then in the course of time the landlord must get it in the process of re-letting his land. It is not a question of the rapacity of the landlord, but one of simple economic development. At any rate, Lord Bledisloe and those who have been asking for a Three-Party Conference will have to admit that they are satisfied that the Government have 280 put forward no satisfactory solution at all, for they wrote their letters after the passing of the Agricultural Credits Act and after they knew all about the scheme of derating.
§ Discussion is useful only when there is some common basis from which we can all start. Our task, therefore, is to explore an avenue in which we think that it may be possible to find this common basis. It is only on this question of stabilisation that support seems to have come from individual members of all political Parties and if the Conservative Party again turns down this scheme, and if Lord Bledisloe turns it down, I would ask him what is left to put upon an agreed agenda for discussion. The Labour Party will welcome any discussion if it can be convinced that any useful conclusion would be arrived at as a result of it, but while the Conservatives themselves put forward nothing and refuse to look at our proposals, there is nothing to discuss. Let them make some gesture of meeting us and they will find us only too ready and willing to respond. Here is a test case. Here, in the proposal for the establishment of wheat and meat import boards, is a suggestion that has awakened Imperial, Conservative, Labour and general agricultural interest. It has never really been examined with the necessary thoroughness by a national body.
This proposal was first put forward by Mr. Bruce, the Prime Minister of Australia, at the Imperial Conference in 1923. In 1924 Mr. Baldwin, the present Prime Minister, was evidently very favourably disposed to its consideration. He said in the House of Commons:—
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?
In 1925 the Economic Section of the Ministry of Agriculture published the Report of the Committee on the Stabilisation of Agricultural Prices, which again was very favourable and asked for further inquiry. In 1927 the Labour Party adopted the scheme in their official programme, and within the last year the National Council of Agriculture, which none of your Lordships will accuse of being a Socialist body, have asked the Government to have an inquiry into the
matter. I retail this short history of the question; not because it is likely that you are going to consider any of these authorities or requests as infallible, but in order to show that this question is practical politics and therefore eminently worthy of discussion in your Lordships' House, and, what is more, of the sort of discussion that is always easier in this House than in another place—namely, a discussion on comparatively non-Party lines.
§ In considering this question we must first ask ourselves what is the problem that we are seeking to solve, and then we can go on to consider the nature and practicability of the suggested solution. It is probably generally admitted—so generally admitted that I do not think I need weary your Lordships by arguing this part of the case—that the most serious obstacle against which a farmer has to contend is the fluctuation in the prices of his produce, this fluctuation being caused by factors entirely outside his own control. In the milk market alone we see that he has some controlling voice, but he has reached that position only after years of struggle and nobody could really pretend to he satisfied with the situation as it stands at the present moment. Every year the farmers have to organise themselves for a strike or for a war with the combines, and the public has to stand by hoping that it may not be shortly cut off from a supply of milk.
§ Unsatisfactory as this position is, if your Lordships will reflect upon the position regarding those commodities that are mainly imported, such as wheat and meat, you will realise that the situation is even worse, because Prices here can never really be influenced to any serious degree by organisation on the part of the farmers of this country. About 80 per cent. of the wheat that we consume is imported and about 50 per cent. of the meat, and your Lordships will see that such large quantities as these must really be the controlling factor in the settlement of prices. These prices fluctuate from year to year, according to the value of money and the forces that operate in connection with the laws of supply and demand. The latter forces, with which we must associate the activities of market speculators, also operate in connection with the monthly, weekly, and almost daily fluctuations that the farmer has to face. 282 It is with this aspect of the problem that I will attempt to deal to-day. The problem of fluctuating monetary values, and the effect on trade, is one which will have to be examined from the national point of view rather than from the point of view of one industry, such as agriculture, and so it really cannot be usefully pursued in this debate, but no discussion of the difficulties of this industry, with its particular circumstances of slow turnover, could be complete without the bare statement that readjustments within the industry itself can never affect the losses and difficulties brought about by this particular cause. What we can do is this: we can eliminate the element of profit, including speculation, we can do away with the redundant overhead charges of a number of competing firms, all doing what one organisation can do much more efficiently, and, by bulk purchase, we can leave out the variations of price, and present a united purchasing front to importers who are more and more organising themselves into combines.
§ The last two points are probably the most important. It is possible to-day to bring about these objects, because both the grain trade and the meat trade, both here and abroad, have reached a state of organisation which renders bulk purchase of these commodities not only possible but really the easiest and most obvious way of dealing with the situation. It is true that there is more to do in this country than elsewhere. Every producing country, including Canada, has the majority of its wheat marketed already through a central pool. The meat trade, on rather different lines, is also very well organised. Your Lordships will see from this that it really means that there is nothing to prevent us going forward ourselves.
§ Let us for a moment examine the position with regard to these two particular trades. Meat is really in a, position intermediate between milk, which is almost wholly home-produced, and wheat, which is mainly imported. We produce in this country approximately 50 per cent. of our meat. Of that which is imported over three-quarters is controlled by the American Meat Trust and by the Vestey interests, which are British, and which operate through the Union Cold Storage Companies and subsidiary companies. 283 The majority of this is chilled meat from South America, and only a very small portion of it is frozen meat from Australia and New Zealand, which are our Dominions. These two groups, and other much smaller companies, meet together periodically for the purpose of allocating shipping space on an agreed basis. How far price discussions take place at these meetings is really a matter for speculation, but it is hard to believe that such discussions do not take place. At any rate it is clear that competition as an effective force for the protection of this country is really a dead letter. The control is becoming increasingly centralised, and, what is more, increasingly centralised at a point where foreign interests are in the ascendant. The American Group controls over 50 per cent. of the imported meat market to-day. The British Group, the Vestey interests, control about 35 per cent., I believe. There is, as yet, apparently, no financial connection, but with regard to quotas, shipping space, and possibly prices, there does appear to be agreement. At any time the other may follow.
§ It seems to be a logical development that sooner or later these two groups should cement their alliance still further, and come together, and then what will be the position? The position will be that we will then have allowed the control of the imported meat supplies of this country, from its very source in South America, to fall into the hands of a foreign group of financiers with no interest whatever in this country except that of exploitation. In a moment I hope to discuss what we might do to encourage the production of home-grown meat, but whatever we try to do to develop the home-grown meat trade in this country can be entirely neutralised by this foreign group. During the last two or three years we have witnessed a great meat war between these two groups, which has finally been settled. In that war we saw that they were prepared to throw away hundreds of thousands of pounds in order to try to get the trade.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
What is to prevent them adopting the same policy towards the produce of this country, and entirely neutralising anything that we can 284 do to help the British farmer? They can temporarily afford to let prices drop, and kill our trade, and then, having done so, when they feel quite safe they can at their leisure again raise prices and recoup themselves for their losses, at the expense, mark you, of the British consumer. There is another point. America, we know, is a friendly nation. Most of us feel that war between England and America is something that is quite inconceivable, but last year we had the spectacle of this country saying, rightly or wrongly—that question is not in dispute to-day—that we did not feel that we could trust America with 8-inch guns on her cruisers instead of 6-inch guns. If we cannot do that, are we quite sure that we are prepared to let her financiers have control from the very source of one of the staple foodstuffs of this country? The main purpose of our Navy is to protect our trade routes and ultimately to ensure that during the period of war we are able to keep up our supplies, the most important of which are food supplies. How is the Navy going to help us when the main supply of our meat is never going to be put on the sea at all, because it will stay over in South America? I think you see, my Lords, into what position we are beginning to drift.
Now, what can we do to remedy this situation? The first step we can take is to organise the distribution of home-produced meat so as to make it as easy to handle for the butcher as the imported article. Great central slaughter-houses must be established, where slaughtering, cutting up, and grading can be carried on under first-class conditions. The butcher to-day does not want to handle English meat, because he cannot be bothered with it. He does not want to bother to go out and purchase it, select it, bring it back, and slaughter it. He does not want to have to dispose of the offals and of cuts that are probably quite unsuitable to his trade; he would prefer to ring up a wholesaler and order exactly what his class of customers take. The British producer, therefore, to-day is labouring under the disadvantage of having the interest of the distributor, that is, the butcher, against him. His goods are awkward to handle, and the distributor persuades his clients that chilled meat is just as good. Thus, there 285 is a field for the increased home production of meat, not only through price reduction (though with better organisation that should come) but through ordinary wholesale marketing.
The second step is to carry out the recommendations of a Committee presided over by Mr. Bridgeman, who is now First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the Cabinet, and of another Committee presided over by Mr. Macrosty, to protect our interests at the source by acquiring freezing works in South America. The whole question is gone into very fully in the Report, and I will not bother your Lordships with its details. Lastly we must ensure that we shall have control of the import market by taking over the control of the Vestey interests, either as a half-way measure by turning them into a public utility company, with proper representation on the board, or by going the whole way by the appointment of a public corporation, constituted rather on the lines on which the B.B.C. is constituted to-day. The supplies of meat would then be contracted for over a period of time by a responsible body, supplies would be kept in British hands and speculative rises and falls would be avoided, to the advantage both of our producers here at home and of our consumers.
Now I turn to wheat for a moment. With home-grown wheat there is very little to do for the present, though of course full liberty should be given to the farmers to sell to the wheat board, and facilities offered for grading and proper marketing. Nor is there any need to contemplate purchasing interests abroad equivalent to the meat freezing works in the Argentine. The import board in the case of wheat could to-day get into direct touch with the wheat pools in the various producing countries, notably Canada, and what we have to ask ourselves in connection with this question is not really so much whether this step is advisable, but what is going to be our position if we do not take this step. I have already said that every producing country in the world that counts to-day has its wheat pool. Last year all these pools met together in a central conference, and while they have naturally not come together yet, and it is quite possible that for some time they will not come together, this is 286 a possibility that we shall have to contemplate. Where will this country be then? We shall be the one element in the wheat market that is still without any central organisation. We, with our multiplicity of interests, will be bargaining with these great centralised wheat pools, and instead of being able to put all our energies into dealing with the seller, we shall have all our small firms trying to cut each other's throats. The only attempt that is made in this country at central purchasing is made by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which, I believe, buys about 20 per cent. of the wheat supply of this country. The board would not, of course, be tied to dealing only with the Dominions, but they are already our main existing source of supply, and I should imagine that we should all prefer to go on dealing With them, so long as they remain reasonable, both for sentimental and practical reasons.
Our experience of wheat control during the War and after the War shows how cheaply this commodity can be handled in bulk. It is true, I believe, that there were miscalculations right at the end, but it was not only State Commissions that failed to realise the approaching slump. Moreover, in speaking of these War organisations, we have always to remember this: they were emergency in character, and they were in the position of having to acquire experience that will be of immense use to us in evolving our much more carefully considered schemes at the present time. But, even taking this into account, they were able to handle wheat at a cost of about ⅛th per cent., or 2s. 4d. per £100. The wheat trade abroad to-day is in a very much better state of organisation than it was ten years ago, and is therefore a good deal easier to deal with. There is one other consideration. Not only were these War organisations emergency organisations, but they were trading from quite a different point of view from that of to-day. They were in the position of not always being able to bargain. The problem was to get food for this country at all, and therefore it is not really fair—although we can claim, that they did a great deal—to argue from any mistakes that were made during those War years.
Before closing I should like to deal with two or three objections that are 287 very often brought up. Of course, all the old arguments against management of trading organisations by Government Departments are likely to occur to noble Lords, in fact they are already mentioned in the Amendment on the Paper. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I do not deal with that Amendment for the moment, because it seems to me to be tackling the subject from the point of view of a general debate on Socialism or anti-Socialism, rather than from the point of view that we are faced with a particular industry in a particular state and that we want to evolve particular solutions on the merits of the case. Moreover, these objections do not really apply. There is no question of attempting to control wheat and meat imports from a Government Department. The wheat and meat import board would be composed of experts in all branches of the trade, including the co-operative movement, and there would be no interference from Parliament. Their only contact with politics, in fact, would be that instead of submitting their accounts annually to shareholders they would submit them to Parliament, and the national interest rather than that of the shareholders would have to be their guiding inspiration.
There is another point that is brought forward. The Liberals fear, I think, that this scheme will infringe their Free Trade principles. Indeed, there have been members of our own Party who have been nervous on this point. On the other side there are farmers who wonder what they will get out of the scheme unless those Free Trade principles are infringed. The answer to that is perfectly clear. The object of this scheme is not to raise or to lower prices artificially, but it may have some such incidental effect. If we increase the demand for home-grown wheat by a better organisation of the trade, and it is possible to do so, the farmers will benefit from the increased demand. Similarly, if we find that homegrown wheat could be used more for baking were it not for certain trade interests—I know that this is a controversial matter—we should hope to increase the demand for that commodity. The negotiations for imports, if such happen, will be carried on as now on a purely commercial basis by one solitary authority. It is assumed that both sides before they go into this scheme will have 288 realised the importance of stability as opposed to occasional good deals. Then, if the wheat pools try to be extortionate, prices will rise, production must be increased and the whole object of the existence of the pool, the object which these men have laboured for years to build up—namely, stability—will be defeated. In the same way, if we in this country try to take advantage of temporary difficulties, temporary circumstances to force down prices, we shall destroy our sources of supply. Nobody but the speculative middleman has ever benefited from rigging the market either way. The price can, therefore, be left to be settled on a commercial basis, but on a sounder commercial basis than hitherto.
This reply really answers, I think, another point that is frequently put forward—namely, the fear of endangering foreign and Dominion relationships. The Canadians may be dissatisfied by the prices they receive. We may be dissatisfied by the prices we have to pay. Surely it would be much truer to say that the activities of these completely irresponsible bodies present in themselves a much greater danger, an increasing international danger, every day. Their interests are what producers and consumers in all countries most abhor—namely, fluctuations in price. The interest of the public corporation will be for what we are all most wanting—increased security and increased certainty, and it will, therefore, be much less likely to promote discontent than the present system. From this increased security or stability, or security of price, as we may call it, the farmer will gain the knowledge that no matter when he puts his wheat on the market he will get a fair price for it. This will be a particular help to the small farmer who has no capital, and frequently has to rush his corn on to the market as soon as he has finished the harvest and take whatever price he can get. He will also be able to estimate very much better than he can to-day the chances of making a profit or a loss on certain transactions in the coming year, because he will have a very much clearer idea of what the price is likely to be. In other words, he will be able to devote his energies where they ought to be devoted, to the farm and to the management of his land 289 instead of to speculation, and speculation with the odds weighing heavily against him both from the point of view of knowledge and power.
From the point of view of the consumer it will become very much easier for such bodies as the Food Council to control the actions of the retailer and the middleman. They will be in the position then of having this increased knowledge and power through the national control of the sources of supply. This, in itself, must bring about a decrease of the middleman's charges, which will benefit both the producer and the consumer in this country and may well have important industrial effects. Dear food is a charge on industry. Fluctuating food values mean industrial difficulties because wages questions are always being raised. Those are a few of the advantages, and those are the main advantages, that we feel can be obtained from pursuing this course of appointing wheat and meat import boards for the importation of our essential foodstuffs. The scheme is not cut-and-dried. It does not profess to be a panacea. But those who are interested in agriculture, those who are disturbed at the present state of the land and those who are trying to-day to get a living out of it, have a right to demand that this Government, in default of some other constructive proposal of their own which they have not as yet shown, shall at least be prepared to consider one like this, which is so pre-eminently based on the actual needs of industry to-day. I beg to move.
§ Moved to resolve, That this House is of opinion that the establishment of wheat and meat import boards for the purpose of bulk purchase of these commodities would have the effect of stabilising their prices and be of great benefit both to producer and consumer, and hopes that His Majesty's Government will initiate an inquiry as requested by the National Council of Agriculture.—(Earl De La Warr.)
§ LORD FORRES, who had given Notice to move, as an Amendment, to leave cut all the words after "would" in order to insert "institute Government entrance into commercial trading and the adoption of a policy which would be against the country's interests," said: My Lords, I almost hesitate to rise after the exhaustive speech we have had on 290 the subject of meat and wheat, but as one who has had something to do with trading in one of these articles I feel it would be unbecoming in me that this occasion should pass without saying a word or two on the proposal before the House. I confess I had some difficulty at first in understanding what the proposals meant and what inferences were to be drawn from them. I think it is unwise to dismiss a Motion such as this on the ground that we consider it wild and impracticable without attempting to investigate a little what is behind the proposal, and the point of view of those who make it.
§ So far as I can understand the intention, it is that the Government, through an established Department—it is idle to say it would not be the Government; it would, in fact, be the Government—and given presumably a monopoly, should buy all the meat and wheat that it is necessary to import. It is quite clear that if this body were to buy all that is imported it would have also to buy all that is home-grown. It would have equally to ration the wheat grown at home to the millers with the wheat which was imported. That would involve the institution of national granaries and national home storing. No farmer, having a fixed price for his wheat, is going to hold wheat from the month of August to the following July if he can turn it over to a Department and get cash for it. Consequently, you have to have large national granaries to take over the whole product.
§ For what object is this proposed? Long ago—I suppose it is thirty years ago—there was a great deal of talk about having national granaries. The idea behind that scheme was that we were in grave danger in time of war because we produced so small a proportion of the wheat we required for our daily bread. There was a great deal of discussion at the time—I am old enough to remember it—and the project was turned down upon the ground that it involved enormous warehouses, that it would involve great loss of interest, and that there would be deterioration of the grain owing to the action of weevils; or, alternatively, that it would involve constant in-and-out speculation. Opponents of the scheme took the view, I think rightly, that for the protection of our national 291 food supplies we ought to have a strong Navy which could keep the freedom of the seas and admit of food supplies coming freely to our shores. But this new proposal of instituting Government purchase of meat and wheat is not founded upon—or at least not mainly founded upon—national safety in time of war, but it is founded upon a proposal that we should stabilise prices in order to benefit both the producer and the consumer. Is it desired to stabilise the present prices? Are they entirely satisfactory? If it is not, and if it is desired to stabilise lower prices, how does that benefit the producer? If, on the contrary, it is proposed to stabilise higher prices, how can that possibly benefit the consumer? But the idea is entertained that the Government can buy cheaper than other people. Well, it is contrary to all our experience.
§ Reference has been made to the profits of the middleman as being somewhat enormous. There has been a Committee, or a body, investigating the prices of food, and if I remember rightly I read in the newspapers that evidence was given, and I think accepted by the Committee, when bakers and millers were called before the Committee to defend their prices, that on the whole wheat is brought into this country by importers at a loss. It may seem almost illogical that such a thing could be, but as a matter of fact it is like what happens at Monte Carlo. People go on playing at Monte Carlo because they hope to make a coup and win a large sum of money some day; similarly they go on playing in the wheat market and importing wheat more or less in the same spirit. The result is that Monte Carlo always wins; so does the buyer of the wheat always win.
§ Something was said about how the Government would buy. What would be the influence of a Government Department buying wheat? The influence could only be adverse to their own buying interests because, with a big body like this buying, it would be known exactly what they required, and when they came to the market everybody would know at once that this great organisation was in the market, and in consequence prices would stiffen against them. It is an entire misconception to think that a large national body such as 292 this could buy more cheaply than the individual purchaser. I say that because it seems to be forgotten by some people that this country is not the only buyer of wheat. This country, taking Great Britain and Ireland together, in the year 1926–27 imported thirty million quarters; the rest of Europe imported fifty-seven million quarters; and other countries outside Europe imported eighteen million quarters, so that of the world's export of 102,000,000 quarters we bought less than 30 per cent.
§ It should be obvious at once that we are not in a position to dictate prices, nor would the home-grown supply very greatly help this body to hold off in order to stabilise prices, because the homegrown supplies would be only six million quarters out of the thirty-six million quarters that we consume. Prices do not depend entirely upon speculation. They depend mainly on weather and on freight. No Government can control the weather, nor can they control the world's freights. I have said nothing of the army of officials that would be required and the great difficulty of equal distribution of qualities to millers, nor the loss of interest and the burden on the Government's finance, and, above all, the speculation which would be inherent in any such scheme. If fixity of prices ever could be achieved the stimulus of competition would largely disappear, and its bright edge would be replaced by the rusty dullness of laissez faire and antiquated methods.
§ I think the scheme is hopelessly impracticable, or, if you like, alternatively, ruinous and costly. If it is an example of the kind of legislation we are to expect from a Socialist Government, I think it is well that we have had the proposal before us now in time. Something was said by the noble Earl about fair prices. I would like to know what is a fair price. I do not think people would entirely sympathise with the view that the present price is fair to the farmer in England; on the other hand, there are consumers who would think it too high. A fair price is a very difficult thing to define, and we had very much better allow trade to run in the ordinary course of supply and demand. With keen people buying keenly and with ships running, as everyone knows, at a loss, the wheat is obtained more cheaply than we 293 could buy by any interference of any kind by a Government Department. For those reasons I ventured to put down an Amendment on the Paper to the Motion of the noble Earl, and I ask your Lordships to agree with me by adopting it.
Leave out all the words after ("would") and insert ("institute Government entrance into commercial trading and the adoption of a policy which would be against the country's interests").—(Lord Forres.)
§ LORD BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I feel bound to intervene in this debate, partly because the noble Earl who has so ably introduced this Motion has made a personal reference to myself, but mainly because I cannot help regretting that it appears to be thought the advisable course on the part of some at least of those who sit on these Benches to support the Amendment which has just been moved from the Liberal Benches. I cannot help thinking that the arguments against the contention put forward by the noble Earl are quite sufficient and quite sufficiently forcible to condemn his Motion by a direct negative.
With regard to the arguments which have been adduced in support of the Amendment of the noble Lord opposite I have but little to say, except that I am one of those who are wholly opposed to the laissez faire policy of the old Manchester school which becomes evident in every single sentence of the noble Lord's arguments. In this Amendment he suggests that the Government are for the first time instituting an entrance into commercial trading and that such a course is in national interests to be deprecated. The process has already begun and begun in many directions. It is true that in certain directions it has been abandoned, or partially abandoned, but altogether apart from the provision of credit facilities, which in effect constitute the Government for the time being as debenture holders of the particular companies which they support financially in this way, the present Government—inheriting, I believe, a legacy from the immediate post-War Government—has a large interest in oil, having a financial interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and has had, if it does not retain, a similar interest in rubber and other commodities. The noble Lord must be fully aware of these interests which the Government already 294 have in commercial undertakings. He himself is, I understand, very largely interested in oil. He also is perfectly entitled to give an expert opinion upon meat, because, as I understand, he is chairman of one of the largest, most powerful and prosperous railway companies operating in the Argentine, and carrying large quantities of cattle and to some extent chilled meat with a view to this country as their ultimate destination.
But I am bound to submit to your Lordships that in my humble opinion there are emergencies other than war which may compel at least temporary intrusion on the part of British Governments into industrial enterprise. Let us take by way of illustration a case to which the noble Earl referred—what is popularly known as the milk combine. Does any one really suppose that the sort of controversy which has gone on in the public eye this year and last year and the year before, as between this great monopolistic distributing milk agency and the milk selling farmers of this country, is going to be tolerated for all time to come? Is it really supposed that either the farmers or the consumers are going to allow that class of monopoly to remain undisturbed by successive Governments in this country without any sort of direction or control? I can only say that if that is thought, it is a state of affairs which would not be contemplated in any other civilised country in the world, and least of all in those countries which raise large quantities of land products for sale in our own markets. Let me take that as an illustration. I do not want to press it. Milk is not cheap to the British consumer. Milk is, compared with other countries, relatively dear to the poorer classes of the community in this country. Milk at the present time, even with the amended contract between the National Farmers' Union and the milk combine, leaves a very doubtful profit on a large number of well-conducted dairy farms in this country. It is in fact a somewhat precarious branch, although up till recently regarded as the most promising branch, of the agricultural industry.
The noble Earl has made reference to the large extent to which we depend upon meat shipped from Argentina, and has made reference, if I may venture to say so, with great skill and accuracy, to the danger which may await us in 295 the future of there being constituted a great monopoly, not a world monopoly, and least of all an American monopoly such as he adumbrated, but a meat monopoly in this country to the disadvantage of the consumers. We already are aware that something like 48 per cent. of the whole of our beef comes from Argentina at the present time. The cattle, the raw material of that meat, are purchased by the various frigorificos or packing houses in Argentina at a price which certainly seems to leave a considerable margin to the packing houses, but, as I am credibly informed, not always a large margin to those who raise the cattle. At least the price is very largely dictated by the frigorificos or packing houses. The cattle, having passed into these packing houses, are converted into meat, and the meat is to a large extent carried in ships belonging to the owners of these frigorificos and is sold in this country in retail shops by the same persons who own both the frigorificosand the ships.
I want to say with perfect candour that I think that growing monopoly is being operated mercifully so far as the consumers in this country are concerned, but will it necessarily be always so? Suppose that that concern, that great powerful monopolistic concern, is converted into a company and, as has happened in the case of the dairy companies of which the combine is an aggregate, having made large profits for its shareholders, issues bonus shares, waters down the capital, and continues to pay a substantial dividend on that enlarged capital: What is going to be the result? Surely the result is going to be exactly the same as we are threatened with in the case of milk. A large section of our population, owing to the cost of that essential commodity, are consuming too little—far less than in any of the Scandinavian countries of Europe, considerably less than in any part of North America—to the detriment, as some of us believe, of the children of the nation. And all the time there is no certainty of any advantage being gained for the producers of that commodity in this country. If those conditions can be contemplated, I will not say with certainty but if they can be contemplated as at all possible in the course of the development of big business as it is understood in every part of the world to-day, is it not only pos 296 sible but right for even the Conservative Government to contemplate the possibility and the public advantage, as well as the advantage to the agricultural producers of the country, of stepping in at least to regularise such a trade as that? I can only say that, being myself a very sincere disciple of the man whom I regard as having inspired Conservative policy in my generation—I mean Disraeli—I cannot believe that Disraeli, if he were alive to-day, would fail to say that those are conditions under which even a Conservative Government—perhaps preponderantly a Conservative Government—would feel justified, as the noble Lord who moved the Amendment said, in intruding into industrial enterprise.
Having said this, I want to make it perfectly clear that I for one, with some small knowledge of agriculture in this country and in countries overseas, am not going to vote either for the Amendment or for the noble Earl's Motion. So far as the noble Earl is concerned, I agree absolutely with him when he suggests that the conditions of agriculture in this country are highly unsatisfactory. We have had this year a perfectly magnificent harvest. I think that if we were to take all the different crops that are normally raised by our farmers it is probably the best harvest that we have had for something like thirty years. Yet there is not a single crop that we have raised this year in England that will show an appreciable profit, if any profit at all, except sugar beet, which is artificially supported by Government money. If that be so, all that I venture to say is that the most vital and fundamental industry in this country is in an admittedly precarious state, and therefore it is not only up to the present Government but it is up to all statesmen who are responsible for the well-being of the country and its rural population to see whether there cannot be devised some measures, possibly as the result of a concordat between the leaders of all Parties, to save the industry from ultimate destruction.
No one can deny that the ultimate wellbeing of every nation must depend very largely upon the well-being of its rural population, and what I want to ask is—and I have never yet been able to get an answer, although I have asked it many a time since I entered public life—is there any settled plan, is there any cer- 297 tain and united objective as regards our great agricultural industry on the part of all Parties in the State, as is to be found in every other civilised country in the world with which I am acquainted? If there is no settled plan, if there is no settled objective, surely the time has come when we ought to see whether we cannot put our heads together and try, for the salvation of the agricultural industry, to find one. That, at least, is my view, for what it is worth. What do we find instead? We are approaching a General Election. We know what happened at the last General Election, and I suppose we may contemplate the same thing happening at the next. A so-called land policy is thrown into the cockpit of the politicians. Nothing does more to intensify the insecurity from which the industry is suffering at the present time; and if there is one industry more than another that requires a full measure of security on the part of those who carry it on if it is ever going to be enterprising and progressive and successful, it is the agricultural industry. For my part I welcome the efforts which the Conservative Government are making to alleviate the unfortunate lot of the agricultural industry. No one welcomes more warmly than I do their credits scheme, their derating proposals and especially all those measures which they have been taking for the last two or three years to improve marketing conditions, which were admittedly in a deplorable state and which are every day being improved as the result of their efforts. I cannot deprecate or denounce such steps as the Government are taking because, quite candidly, I have had a very considerable part in the task.
What is the remedy which the noble Earl opposite advocates? He advocates, so far as I can see, that the Government of this country for the time being should enter the markets of the world and attempt to stabilise the prices of essential commodities by buying those commodities in bulk. I ventured to speak on a former occasion, and I venture to remind your Lordships now, of what took place during the War. The noble Earl opposite says that the conditions are not the same. No, the conditions are not the same, but the difficulties are the same and the obstacles that the Government is going to be up against are exactly the 298 same. I had the experience of being Sugar Controller during the most fateful part of the Great War, and in conjunction with Mr. Hoover the President-Elect of the United States I had the none too easy task of purchasing sugar in the various markets of the world for supplying the Allied countries and the Allied troops. I can tell you, as my noble friend Lord Crawford, who was Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Wheat Supply at that time, could tell you if he were here, that not only was it a most delicate business but our methods had to be most secretive, and even with the most secretive methods we found that whenever the British Government was entering the market of the world for either wheat or sugar, or even when it was contemplated that it would enter the markets, the prices for those commodities went sky-high against us. We know perfectly well that the same thing is bound to happen again.
I am sure that the motives of the noble Earl are genuine and sincere so far as the agricultural community is concerned, but what happened then would be bound to happen again. Prices would be raised against the consumer, but would not be allowed to rise so far as the producer of those commodities was concerned. I suppose there is no greater grievance with farmers, and no one knows it better than one of my noble friends beside me [Lord Ernle], than that when prices seemed to be fairly remunerative in the matter of cereals the Government interposed, and rightly interposed in the face of public opinion, and in times of emergency prevented the producer gaining the full benefit of those prices. I cannot satisfy myself, having had some difficult and at times painful experiences of trafficking in important food commodities for the benefit of the British public in the world's markets, that any such policy would not defeat its own ends and produce no satisfaction either to the consumer or to the agricultural community. I do not want to take up more of your Lordships' time except to say that I believe the solution of this particular difficulty as regards wheat, and possibly as regards meat, is to be found in co-operation on the one hand and credit facilities on the other, with such help as the Empire Marketing Board can 299 give us, in securing that our own overseas producers shall not be unfair Competitors with their fellow agriculturists in this country.
I am bound to tell your Lordships that when, the year before last, I found myself sitting on the Empire Marketing Board, I felt conscious that I was sitting with representatives of countries likely in the long run to be the most severe and dangerous competitors of the British farmer in his own business, but I discovered that they were prepared to admit that Great Britain was a part of the British Empire, and that the Empire Marketing Board could so construe its functions as to see that not only would British agriculturists receive fair treatment, but preponderatingly fair treatment, in competition with themselves; in other words, that when it came to encouraging, as the Empire Marketing Board are out to encourage, the sale of Empire products in our own markets, preference would always be given to British produce, even in competition with that coming from our own overseas Dominions. I believe that the solution of that particular problem is to be found in Empire consolidation, operating perhaps in this connection through the Empire Marketing Board, and, so far as our domestic policy is concerned, in greater co-operation, coupled with such credit facilities as the Government are able to afford to farmers in this country, and such as are afforded to competitive farmers in other countries of the world.
Finally, I only want to say that I think the noble Earl over-stated the case when he said that milk is almost wholly raised in this country. It is true that liquid milk is almost wholly home-produced, but if you look at statistics, and particularly the statistics of consumption, you will find that milk to an increasing extent is being consumed in this country which is either synthetically produced by a machine known as the emulsifier, or else is coming in in the form of condensed milk, some of which is very nasty stuff, and dried milk, or milk powder, which is converted into liquid milk before it is consumed. I apologise for intruding so much in your Lordships' debate, but I feel strongly on the subject, and if the matter goes to a Division I shall vote both against the Motion and against the Amendment.
My Lords, I am not going to do the same thing as my noble friend. I am not going to vote for or against either the Motion or the Amendment, and for this reason, that I should have been only too glad if I could have been persuaded by the noble Earl. I thought his speech was most earnest, and showed great care, and great knowledge of the arguments that are used in support of the scheme that he had in his mind; but I think it perfectly evident from the speeches which have been made that this is not an agricultural question at all, or hardly at all. It is an economic question, a trading question, and possibly a political question. The advantage to agriculture has been exploded by the speech of Lord Forres and by the speech of my noble friend Lord Bledisloe, who has had experience of a Government attempting to stabilise prices. We know what the attempt to stabilise prices during the War effected, as the noble Lord has said. As long as prices were low the British farmer was allowed to sell, but as soon as they went high he was not allowed to sell. If that is going to be the case with this specific stabilisation, I do not see what advantage the British farmer is going to get.
The difficulty of stabilisation was exposed long before the War. If I remember aright the whole question was gone into in very great detail by the Commission which was assembled to discuss fair trade by Mr. Chamberlain, and the idea that it would be a great advantage to agriculture was entirely exploded by that assembly, which I should imagine was certainly imbued with great anxiety to help the British farmer. I cannot see that stabilisation is going to help him unless we know before hand what is the fair price which the noble Earl assumes is going to be laid down by this body. At the present moment we know that prices are not fair. The one thing which is stabilised is the agricultural labourer's wage, and that is far too high for the farmer to pay. The agricultural labourer is getting an advantage of from 20 to 30 per cent. above the cost of living scale, and he is not going to get an advantage if prices are stabilised higher than they are now. The farmer naturally wants prices to be stabilised higher, because he is not getting any profit on present prices, and therefore I do not see that any satis- 301 faction is to be secured from the theoretical stabilisation which the noble Earl believes would be of advantage.
If the noble Earl had confined himself to expressing a hope that the Government would appoint an inquiry I should have been glad to vote for that, but when he commits himself to the dictum that stabilisation will help both the producer and the consumer I am very sceptical, and I do not care to commit myself to voting for a Motion containing that conclusion. The noble Earl opened his speech with some reference to a suggestion which I have seen adumbrated in the Press that there should be a conference of the three Parties on the subject of agriculture. That, I think, would be as advantageous as would have been—only it failed—the suggestion of Mr. Baldwin, that there should be a conference of the three parties interested in agriculture—namely, the landlord, the tenant, and the labourer. If, now, a conference could be composed of the three political Parties, with a view of assisting agriculture, no one would vote for it more heartily than I would, but I have not observed that there has been any enthusiasm to support the suggestion that there should be this conference. If that had been the Motion of the noble Earl I should have voted for it gladly, but when he commits himself to the dictum that stabilisation will help both the producer and the consumer I cannot commit myself to that.
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF STRADBROKE)
My Lords, I am sure we all feel that the noble Earl who introduced this Motion spoke with very real sincerity in all that he said, and with a very firm belief that the suggestions which he brought forward would be for the benefit of agriculture. As is inevitable in a debate like this the discussion has turned on lines more affecting the general welfare of the community than on the way in which they would be affected by the establishment of import boards for wheat and meat. The Amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Forres, naturally led to the debate more on those lines.
The proposals in the Motion are not new, as they form part of the policy of the Labour Party. Reference has also 302 been made to the fact that they have been very exhaustively considered, in the first place in 1923 by the Food and Materials Committee of the Imperial Conference, and later by the Royal Commission on Food Prices in 1925. But I do not know whether it has been made quite clear to your Lordships that both these bodies reported unfavourably, in fact, they rejected the suggestion. In addition to this, when Mr. Buxton was Minister for Agriculture he appointed a Committee on stabilisation to go into these matters and see if it was possible to stabilise prices. The noble Lord also mentioned that the Council of Agriculture passed a resolution adopting a report of their Standing Committee that his suggestion should be carried out; there was a division of opinion as to whether it was right or wrong, but it was carried. I was present on that occasion, and pointed out, as was my duty, that the Government were opposed to the establishment of import boards. The inquiries that have been made on this subject have been very exhaustive indeed, and the Government feel that at the present time no good purpose could be served by having a further inquiry, because they do not think that anything new can be brought to light. Therefore we cannot accept the Motion of the noble Earl.
I should like once more to emphasise the very great size of the trade that is affected by the noble Earl's Motion. I think it was the noble Lord opposite who referred to the fact that we are the purchasers of 30 per cent. of all the wheat exported by exporting countries, and no less than 80 per cent. of the wheat consumed in this country is imported from overseas. The five chief sources from which we buy these supplies are Canada, the United States, Argentina, India, and Australia. These imports are, indeed, huge. In 1927 the amount of wheat imported was 109,962,075 cwts. and the imports of flour during the same period were 6,666,374 cwts. The meat imports have already been referred to, but the figures are:—Beef and veal, 56 per cent. of our consumption; mutton and lamb, 59 per cent.; pig meat, 66 per cent. The imports of meat into the United Kingdom in 1927 were 29½ million cwts., valued at over £96,000,000, and in addition there were the imports of live animals, valued at £15,500,000. 303 Your Lordships will realise that what the noble Earl proposes would mean a very serious interference indeed with the private trade of this country, in fact, it would involve the nationalisation of most of the trade in this country of foodstuffs.
One point which the noble Earl made was that the advantage of these import boards would be that they would stabilise the price of wheat, and so the farmer who, after harvesting his corn in the autumn, is compelled sometimes, for the sake of ready cash, to sell off his corn, and so glut the market and bring down the price of corn, would be helped by stabilisation. But I would point out that the Government think that he could be helped in other ways, and your Lordships will remember that last summer the Government introduced, and Parliament passed, the Agricultural Credits Bill, by which the farmer will be able to borrow money, and will thereby be absolved from having to sell his corn or his agricultural produce when he does not wish to do so, but will be able to provide himself with the credit that he requires through the Agricultural Credits Act, and so avoid having to sell his crops at unfavourable moments.
The objections to the establishment of import boards were stated by the Royal Commission, and I have tried to summarise them shortly, so as not to take up too much of your Lordships' time. A State monopoly would necessarily involve the prohibition of export and import on private account. To a country like Great Britain, which is one of the principal world markets for wheat and meat, this would mean an appreciable diminution in her profits from foreign trade. Even if the State monopoly undertook the intricate business of reselling to foreign countries, the abolition of a free market in London and Liverpool could not fail to diminish the national income from the profits of finance, shipping and insurance, and to increase unemployment. The divergence of internal prices from world's prices might cause reactions on the country's foreign trade. If the purchase of all imported wheat were concentrated in the hands of the import board, the board could not expect to make fewer miscalculations than private importing firms, but the effect of miscalculations would 304 be far more serious under a State monopoly since they would be on a vastly greater scale. Moreover, the losses would fall upon the taxpayer instead of upon private individuals.
Under the heading of "Political and administrative difficulties," the Commission say:—Parliamentary and Treasury control are necessary safeguards where public money is at stake, but they are bound to hamper initiative and weaken the sense of individual responsibility, which enables a man to back his own judgment and take personal risks. Neither publicity nor Parliamentary criticism would prevent mistakes occurring; on the contrary they would prove embarrassing even to the foremost experts.The Commission goes on to say that the system would be exposed to political influence by interested parties wishing to obtain things that could not be justified on grounds of public policy. In regard to diplomatic considerations they say:—A Government trading, monopoly in this country, engaged in buying as cheaply as possible from producers in the Dominions and foreign countries, would find itself exposed to pressure even more difficult to cope with than political intervention at home. Diplomatic relations might easily be strained by disputes of a purely commercial kind arising out of the interpretation of a contract for the fixing of a price.In addition to these difficulties I may mention others. If the price of wheat were maintained at a steady average level in the home market, this would necessarily mean that at certain times prices abroad would be lower. Prohibition of import would prevent millers and bakers from buying at these cheaper prices. This would provide a strong handle to critics who were anxious to attack the monopoly, and might even be made the basis of a political campaign against the Government of the day on the ground of higher prices to the consumer. State control of the imports of wheat would almost inevitably lead to the control of milling and baking; in fact, the control of milling is admitted to be a necessary consequence. Such control might severely restrict the bakers' choice in the flour they use and might even involve the baking of a standard bread. The noble Earl, Lord Crawford, in his evidence before the Royal Commission, held the view that it would also lead to the control of the import of cereals. Even though it stabilised domestic wheat prices, the operation of 305 the wheat monopoly might conceivably emphasise world fluctuations. If the British wheat monopoly suddenly held off the market it might lead to a very severe drop in prices. Similarly, the mere rumour that the wheat monopoly was once more buying, or was about to buy, might send prices up rapidly. In short, these operations might lead to excessive speculation. The Report of the Food and Materials Committee to the Imperial Conference of 1923 put forward similar objections (which also apply to the stabilisation of meat prices) and rejected all the alternative suggestions which were made at that time. This Report was endorsed by the Conference.
To conclude, the objections which have been raised to this proposal are briefly these. The duty thrown on the import authority would be too invidious to be borne. It would be assailed by consumers for restricting imports and by home and Dominion producers for importing from foreign countries. The maximum of friction would result and the whole scheme of Imperial development would be liable to be prejudiced. Trading involves the taking of risks, but the State import board would have to play for safety and play very high. Officials could not have the same initiative as business men because every risk which they took would be liable to criticism in Parliament and the Press, and successful business involves the taking of risks. This objection has particular force in such speculative trades as the wheat trade. Even so the board would make mistakes and the losses would fall on the taxpayer and not on the individual responsible.
A single State importing body is at a great business disadvantage as compared with a multitude of private importers. It would be as impossible for it to conceal the fact that the British Government was in the market as it was when the Wheat Commission bought wheat during the War. It would play into the hands of the cornerer, the producer's pool, and the speculator, and it would be quite impossible to operate anonymously. Control of imports would necessitate price control in this country and the setting up of a cumbrous and expensive machinery.
War-time experiences demonstrated that under control it is impracticable to let quality govern price, since the variety in quality is too great for any controlling 306 authority to be able to take accurate account of it. In the case of meat control in Great Britain it was not found possible to differentiate in price according to varying quality for the same cuts of meat. Control is certainly very costly, as experience shows that profit margins must be governed by the least efficient elements in the controlled trade. It is not possible to confine price control to any one stage. Once applied it has to extend to all stages, and the State would find itself involved not only in control but in every phase of the business of marketing. Having done so, it would probably find that margins had increased rather than diminished. The most serious objection of ali is, perhaps, that State trading is extremely sensitive to political pressure, both domestic and foreign. Every movement of price due to world conditions, over which the import board could have no control, would immediately have political reactions in this country, and political relations with the Dominions and foreign countries would also be involved.
Your Lordships will agree, I think, that the objections I have indicated from the two Commissions are decisive, that it would be of no use to agriculture and no good to trade in general to have these import boards established. The Government hold that view. As I have said already, they do not see the need now for a further inquiry in view of the fact that such exhaustive inquiries have recently been made. The Government, therefore, cannot accept the Motion so ably moved by the noble Earl opposite.
I fear that I cannot agree with all that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Forres, who moved an Amendment to the Motion. We certainly do not wish to let it be thought that matters are to go on and that we are not going to give any help. The Government will try, as they have done since they have been in power, to do all they can for agriculture. The noble Earl said that we have done nothing, but noble Lords behind me referred to certain Acts that we have passed and action which we have taken to try to help agriculture. What we feel with regard to the Amendment of the noble Lord is that we agree with him that it would be disadvantageous to this country to have import boards established; but, as I say, we cannot accept the Motion of the noble Earl.
§ LORD ERNLE
My Lords, I should like to raise a point about the wheat import boards which operated during the War. It will be remembered that they bought largely and that they bought exclusively. It was found at once that if the Government bought at all it must buy everything, and that if it did not become the exclusive trader, the private trader did not buy. The result was that it was forced upon the Government by the fact that we could not possibly take any liberties with the people's supply of bread. But it did not operate as the noble Earl seems to think. It did not operate, that is to say, for the benefit both of the producer and the consumer, and this must be the great difficulty which any purchase board has to deal with.
The producer did not get the price which the wheat board was paying in foreign countries. His wheat was fixed at 72s., and the wheat board was buying at 95s. and even 120s. Therefore, the producer in that case was, as it were, helping the taxpayer to pay for the wheat out of what ought to have been his own profit. On every quarter of wheat he was contributing a pound which would otherwise have fallen upon the taxes of the country. The justification for it was that it operated as an excess profit tax at the time, but I know for my own part, when I had to defend it before farmers, that I found it exceedingly difficult to do so, and all I can say is that if ever we have a wheat importing board again you must not allow the Food Controller to be also the fixer of prices. It must be a board on which the Minister of Agriculture has a place. Then you stabilised bread during that period at 9d., but if the price of bread had been calculated on the price of wheat it would have been 1s. May I ask if the noble Earl contemplates in his importing boards any discrepancy of that sort happening? Obviously, 3d. of the price of every quartern loaf was paid by the taxpayer, and that is, I fear, one of the great difficulties about import boards.
I must say that I have great sympathy with the noble Earl and I should have been quite ready, but for one sentence in his Resolution, to support him. If he had only asked for a conference on the subject I should have been prepared to support him, but he pledged himself to what I cannot accept—namely, a belief 308 that he can benefit both producer and consumer by an import board. I do not think he can, though I believe something in a modified form on the lines of the proposals of Sir Charles Fielding, which ran very much on the lines of Lord De La Warr's to-day, might be usefully explored, with the addition of what I think is almost essential, an international board. I think by that means something might be done to relieve the situation. As a matter of fact, the reason prices fall below the cost of production is that every exporting country has a surplus which it is bound to sell. It must sell, and the price does not matter. They must get something for it, and they sell, and what we are buying are the surpluses of other nations. That necessarily means that the prices will fall below the cost of production, not only in our own country but in the country of origin, and that is what is going on at the present clay. That being the case, no Duties, however high you like to put them, will keep wheat out of this country. Nothing short of absolute prohibition will do so. Therefore, on that ground I have always been against any form of Protective Duty. It is the international surpluses you are buying in this country.
If I may I will make one suggestion in connection with the investigation. Something useful might be done if you had an international board to deal with the commercial situation throughout the world. I regret I could not support the Motion, but equally I could not support Lord Forres's Amendment, because, though I agree with it in general terms, it does not seem to me that it necessarily meets the point of having a board by international agreement, which would be a useful thing.
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, I should like to say a word or two on what has been said by the noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Agriculture and by the noble Lord who spoke last. I do not think I am in any way exaggerating when I say we always attach importance to Lord Ernle's speeches, and on this occasion we are quite ready to consider all he says whether by way of criticism or support. There are two questions involved here. The larger question is raised in the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forres. I do not want to add anything to 309 the criticisms we have already heard. It appears to me that there is a large body of opinion in all parts of the House which is opposed to the terms of the Amendment of Lord Forres. But a far more important question is that raised by the noble Lords, Lord Bledisloe and Lord Ernle—the agricultural question.
Let me remind Lord Ernie of two of his own statements. He asked: Why should we not have a big national buying board and contract ahead with foreign countries, and so establish better prices? That, of course, is the real basis of the Motion of my noble friend Lord De La Warr, in the admirable speech he made. A little later the noble Lord said on the general question of our agricultural future that there was nothing for it but the stabilisation of world prices by international agreement. I put my bottom dollar on that. There may be, and no doubt always will be on questions of this kind differences of opinion as to method. Unless you have a full inquiry there will always be differences as to method. Lord Ernie has not always been in favour of stabilisation, but he has always realised the enormous advantage which agriculture would derive if stabilisation could be properly employed.
We cannot put out of sight in these matters what has been called the wheat pool or the meat pool. We have a pool at the present time which controls 80 per cent. of our meat imports; in reality almost the whole of the prices to the consumers of this country depend upon a combination of two great meat-importing combines which between them control all prices and all importations. That is a matter which, from a general social standpoint, seems to me to be fraught with every kind of danger. As to what has been called the stimulus of competition. I think that private interest has really long ago been absorbed. We have got into a new stage of inquiry. We are going to be subject to these large combines or pools. What steps ought to be taken for our social and national protection? I do not know of any other protection except that which Lord Ernie himself, as I understand, suggests. I think the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, was wise to introduce into his Motion a hope that His Majesty's Government will initiate an inquiry as requested by 310 the National Council of Agriculture. The noble Earl, Lord Stradbroke, was present on that occasion, and I think he expressed doubts as to the policy which was then being proposed by a committee of the National Council of Agriculture; but that proposal was adopted. Not that everyone there, as I read the Report, believed in the particular remedy but they believed that a remedy in this direction was necessary, and at least they begged the Government to undertake an inquiry.
There is only one other point with which I wish to deal, because time is passing, and it is this: I am sure every one who has looked at the farming question from the farmer's standpoint, as Lord Bledisloe has done, will be convinced of two facts, as he has been convinced of two facts. First, we can never get a better natural season than the one which has just passed. I say that without any hesitation from my own experience. I have grown crops quite out of the ordinary. To take wheat as an illustration. I have grown wheat on 30 acres. It was a splendid crop, the best crop I have ever grown, but the price was such that when it was sold it not only did not bring any profit from the farmer's point of view but left a deficit. That being so, and if under the best conditions you cannot get a reasonable return from the farming industry, what are you going to do?
But I am not going into these questions. I have discussed them before. The noble Marquess tells me I am always returning to them. I am not going to discuss the question of agricultural credit, or even the Derating Act which I think was the other suggestion, but I do say, and I believe Lord Bledisloe agrees—he has had great experience—that so far no effective remedy has been found in order that agriculture in this country may be placed in a fair condition of prosperity. I think all your Lordships will agree, with my second proposition, that no country is in a satisfactory condition unless agriculture can be carried on with a reasonable business profit. I am not going to say anything more at this time of night. Everyone on this Bench is, of course, opposed to the Amendment of Lord Forres, and if the Amendment is put we shall vote against it.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, do not rise to make a speech, but I should like to say how much I admired the speech of the noble Earl who opened the debate, and how well I thought he approached a very difficult subject from a very impartial standpoint. Listening to the noble Lord who has just sat down I almost wished he had been in the same frame of mind last night, because many of his arguments to-day would have been very germane to the Safeguarding policy of His Majesty's Government. But, of course, different environment produces a different frame of mind. I only really rose in order to indicate the line the Government intend to take in regard to the Question which is going to be put from the Woolsack. We cannot support the Motion of the noble Earl, for reasons which I will not repeat, because they have been sufficiently stated by my noble friend who represents the Ministry of Agriculture in this House, and also in the two notable speeches of Lord Bledisloe and Lord Ernle, to which your Lordships listened with so much satisfaction. We cannot support the Motion of the noble Earl, but I should be sorry if it were thought that we are so indifferent to the undoubted difficulties of the agricultural interest that we desire to be committed to a pure policy of laissez faire. That is certainly not the attitude of His Majesty's Government. I cannot help feeling that if we voted for the Amendment of the noble Lord that might be the interpretation put upon our vote. In that case we must resist the Amendment, and we shall 312 also resist the noble Earl's Motion after, as we hope, the Amendment has been rejected.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to withdraw my Motion, and in doing so may I thank the House and the noble Marquess for the kindly way in which they have received the subject? Perhaps I might also say that I hope that the Government will notice that all three speakers from their side of the House are profoundly dissatisfied with the situation, and that two of them, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, would both like apparently to associate themselves with the demand of the National Council of Agriculture for an inquiry into this problem. I hope that will induce the Government to think about the matter. I beg leave to withdraw.
§ LORD FORRES
My Lords, after the words which have fallen from the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, I am left with little option but to withdraw my Amendment to the Motion. At the same time I should like to say I regret the attitude of His Majesty's Government in this matter, because I think they have a very good opportunity now of showing a firm front against Socialistic proposals which in my judgment are of a most reactionary and dangerous character. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at seven o'clock.