HL Deb 19 February 1930 vol 76 cc596-622

THE EARL OF LIVERPOOL rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the present serious condition of the agricultural industry, they would convene a representative committee selected from all three political Parties to consider the best and most efficacious means to deal with the situation and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I was tempted this morning to withdraw my Motion because when I took up my morning paper it seemed to me that a certain scheme had been devised by which everything was going to be cured in a moment, but on second consideration I decided to approach your Lordships with the Motion which stands in my name, which deals with the great depression in agriculture. I desire to consider the whole situation outside the arena of Party politics. It seems to me that we have been thinking what we are going to do for a very long time and not doing anything. It also appears certain that unless we take very swift action in the matter we are going to have a vast additional amount of unemployment in the particular industry with which I am dealing. Those who think with me are of opinion that what we have been doing in the past has been to apply palliatives instead of going to the root of the whole evil.

In the few moments which are at my disposal I propose to make one or two suggestions. Whether they are practical or not I leave to your Lordships to decide; but at all events they are tendered with the view of helping towards a solution of the whole difficulty. Let us briefly consider the situation as it exists to-day. I know your Lordships are aware of the conditions in agriculture. The State in its wisdom or unwisdom, whichever you like to call it, has brought into being a compulsory wage system. Now if you have a compulsory wage system it seems to me, and also to many others, that the State ought to make arrangements so that the individual who has to pay the wage is in a position to do so. Indeed, I go further and say that the farmer, especially the arable farmer, finds that wherever he looks the dice are heavily weighted against him. We have been told for a long time that the depression in agriculture has reached bed-rock. As each harvest comes and as one year succeeds another we find a great diminution in the return that the farmer gets for his labour. This year, although they have been going on for about four years or more, the heavy subsidies which have been given to German corn have knocked the bottom entirely out of the cereal market here, and I understand it is recognised by all three Parties in the State that somehow or other these subsidies, or at all events what is called "dumping," must cease. We are not very much encouraged by the reply which was given upon this question of dumping by the Prime Minister in another place. He acknowledged the evil of dumping, but he said the whole question enters into international treaties, and the only place where those can be dealt with is at Geneva. The President of the Board of Trade is, I think, at Geneva at the present time. Are we to understand that he is taking immediate steps to deal with this question or not?

But putting aside the question of cereals, I will come to that of potatoes. In reply to a Question in the House of Commons it was said that Arran Chief and King Edward potatoes were in some markets fetching as much as £3 13s. 6d. a ton. All I can say is that the largest potato growing area in this country at the present time is, I suppose, the Administrative County of Holland, and the growers there have not been able for a very long time to get an amount anything like that for their potatoes. In fact, I was talking to one of the principal growers in that district not very long ago and he said he could not get rid of his potatoes by hook or by crook, although he had been able to sell a few at about 28s. to 30s. a ton. The rest either rotted or were fed to pigs. That speaks for itself. This is a very serious condition of affairs. It affects a very large section of our industry—not only the cereal part of it but also the tuber portion, if I may so call it. One reason why the bottom has been knocked out of the potato market in this country is that potatoes are sent to it which have been raised and harvested by convict labour.

Leaving the question of dumping, I will pass on to that of fair remuneration to the farmer for the work of his own hands. Your Lordships might not object to the amount which is given in wages, but you cannot have a hard and fast wage unless you give the person who has to pay that wage the power to pay it. If it is not presumptuous on my part, may I make a suggestion to any Committee which His Majesty's Government are likely to appoint? It is this. Should not that Committee enquire most closely into the channels of communication between the producer and the consumer? I may be wrong, but I understand that in another country overseas the difficulty was found in this, that there was an enormous number of channels through which the commodity had to pass between the producer and the consumer. If I might go one step further than that, I would point out that the best means of dealing with that position was found to be the creation of depots whereby the producer brought his cereals or other commodity into the market at a guaranteed fair price, and a fair price was guaranteed to the shopkeeper, and so on to the consumer, all the larger channels being eliminated. You will probably say to me that what you can do in a new country you cannot do in an old country. There are two sides to every question, and I do not know that I disagree with that; but I do say that if you mean to do a thing you can always do it.

I shall probably be told that this would be a great extension of State trading, but the State is already dabbling very largely in trading by prescribing a fixed price. If by any chance you could enlarge this scheme and sell to the farmer at such depots what he requires in the way of artificials and manures you would give further help to the farmer and at the same time make a certain profit to cover the cost of upkeep of the depots instead of allowing it to fall as a charge on the National Exchequer. I only throw this out as a possible solution; but at all events I can say this, although I do not wish to be egotistical, that for eight years I was in a country which depended for its prosperity almost entirely on its agricultural production and that there it was found that that system was the best system to adopt. The Secretary of State for the Dominions is not here, but I believe that if he were here he would bear me out in saying that New Zealand is probably the Dominion which is most prosperous at the moment and prosperous entirely on account of her agricultural resources.

I shall probably be asked under what authority these depots should be put if they are established. Although I am a member of a county council and although I know that county councils are already overloaded with work, I should say that the county council would be the proper authority because each county differs materially from another. Worcestershire, for instance, is a fruit country, my county happens to be a county in which cereals and potatoes are largely grown, and Norfolk, I suppose we would say, is the ideal barley-growing district of the world. But whatever means may be adopted I hope we shall cease to employ palliatives and go to the root of the evil, in order to set this oldest industry of ours on its legs again and restore its prosperity. For that reason I tabled the Motion which stands in my name, and I trust the Government will see their way to approach the other Parties in the State in order that we may have a Committee set up at once, if possible, to go into the whole question, and especially to consider the position of the arable farmer and in order that we may have in the future a continuity of policy which has been so sadly lacking in the past.


My Lords, in rising to support my noble friend in the Motion he has brought forward I am well aware that the ills of agriculture are a very hackneyed subject. I make no apology for intervening on that account. Indeed, I would very gladly bore your Lordships every day for a week if by that means I could bring to you a thorough understanding of the gravity of the agricultural situation. I am sometimes astonished when I hear the views which are put forward on this point. Only a couple of months ago the Minister of Agriculture said that he saw no reason to apply any special measures for helping agriculture in its needs. Later I heard an even greater authority say that, although there were black spots, they were not altogether general, and I have heard many of my friends on my own side of the House say that the position of agriculture was in places excellent. Where are those places? I note a rather peculiar thing, that whenever any one says that there are certain places where agriculture is excellent they never mention those places, and it sometimes causes me to wonder whether it is because if they mentioned places they would be apt to get an indignant denial.

I know this very well, that there are places, undoubtedly, where the depression in agriculture is less than it is in others. Where are those places? I think your Lordships all know where they are. They are in the grass counties, in those places where the production of food is the least, where the employment of labour on the farms is the least, where the buildings are the fewest and therefore where there is the least employment for the builders, the bricklayers and the artisans, and where agricultural implements are the least used and there is the least employment for those who make agricultural implements. But I ask you to look at those counties which are the real agricultural counties of England, in which 90 per cent. of the agricultural labour is employed, the Eastern Counties, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire, and then go north to Yorkshire, then south of Hampshire, and then north again to the best agricultural districts of Scotland. There you will find agriculture down on its knees. It is little use to tell us or to tell the nation that distress is less on the sheep farms of Cumberland or in the deer forests of North Scotland.

Is it surprising that distress is great in agriculture? In Norwich last week the price of barley was 10s. a sack, the price of oats was 8s. and the price of wheat was 19s.—all ludicrously less than the cost of production. If you are not inclined to believe one who is manifestly interested in the subject I would suggest that His Majesty's Government should ask the bankers. I was speaking to an eminent banker the other day and he said: "If I were at liberty to disclose the financial position of agriculture in the Eastern Counties even the Government would be astonished." Well, the Government have it in their power to get that information and I suggest that they should do so, because in most places what I have heard described as the spectre of unemployment is rising now for the first time in the memory of those who live in those parts. I may say parenthetically that that is not helped by forcing on us unemployed from what are called the distressed areas. We have every sympathy wits the distressed areas as they are called—we ought to have, because a fellow feeling is said to make one kind—but we cannot help the thought arising now and again, even though it may be an unworthy one, that there is many a cottage in the distressed areas into which there is more money going by way of the "dole" than one of our skilled labourers in the Eastern Counties earns by a week's full toil.

I think we have a right to ask, and the farmers who are being ruined have a right to ask, what the Government are doing at this crisis. I am well aware that they have summoned a Conference of the three parties to agriculture, and I would like to congratulate noble Lords opposite that they have succeeded in getting a conference which our Government failed to do. I am proud to think that the agricultural experts on my side have given of their knowledge fully and freely to the other Party in this matter although that help was denied us on our side when we asked for it. While I congratulate them on their success in getting this Conference together, I find less cause for congratulation in the terms of reference, or perhaps I should say the agenda, of the letter of invitation in which representatives were asked to come to it. In that letter of invitation any hope of a real measure of help was cut out. There were mentioned as definite subjects of help seven small and very controversial matters, as being useful topics of debate. They were controversial subjects, and I venture to say that, if all seven of them had been debated by a committee of archangels and they had produced a report dealing with those subjects in the way in which I presume archangels would deal with them, not one farmer who was on the road to bankruptcy would have been prevented from going there. Does there not seem to be a little element of irony in producing a measure by which some one is asked to kill another man's rabbits, which are eating the farmer's corn, when the production of rabbits is a more profitable industry than the growing of corn? It seems almost farcical, too, to say that the drainage of land is a great thing, while a snipe bog is much more valuable than a well-drained field of corn.

I do feel that we have a right to ask what the Government are really doing in this matter. In that connection I would add that I am not without hopes of this Conference, because I know that the twelve men who are on it are not archangels; I know that they are men well versed in agriculture and well aware of the ills that exist, and I do not believe for one moment that those twelve, men would have wasted their time for so long on the subjects which they were told were the main points. Agriculture is not the only thing that has suffered from being made a political plaything, but I venture to think that agriculture, perhaps most of all, has been so treated. That is not to say that agriculture does not require political help, for it most undoubtedly does, but what I mean is that as each measure comes up before any Party—I do not mean particularly the Party of noble Lords opposite—it seems to me that, whereas the first thing that ought to be thought of is whether the measure is in the interests of the country and the second whether it is in the interests of agriculture itself, the first thing that is actually thought of is whether it is a measure that will either keep them in office or get them in office. In other words, they consider by what devious paths that hoary old vote-catcher "Your food will cost you more" will be dragged in.

It seems to me sometimes that the ways of Governments are rather difficult for us common people in agriculture to understand. The Government have now said that this dumping of cereals in this country, which has lately started and is certain to increase, is an increasingly bad thing, a thing that does no good to any class in the country. They condemn it in every way, and then they add: "But we are powerless to prevent it." That is trying the credulity of the common man like the farmer rather high. It is a strain upon his credulity and his upbringing, for he has been brought up in his board school to think that England is a great nation, respected at home and abroad, and now he is told that she is powerless to prevent herself becoming the dustbin of the world.

I could go on to mention other instances, but I will take only one more. Throughout this country every summer, if you go to any agricultural show, you will find there a Government servant, paid by Government funds. You will find him in a tent and he will be showing everyone who goes to the show what a wonderful thing British milk is. He will have a lot of little placards in front of him showing its food value in terms of meat, eggs and so on, and proving what a splendid thing it is. He will suggest that everybody who is anything of a citizen ought to encourage his children to drink British milk. And yet at the same time you will find the Government encouraging British people to drink a substitute in the shape of a garbage called "condensed skim milk," which comes from abroad and is so low in quality as a food that, even in this country, it has to be marked as unfit for the use of infants, while in many countries abroad its use is prohibited. This article, if properly diluted, looks like milk, and tastes like milk, and if it is used, as it is used in millions of tins a year, by British men and their households, they will save enough by not using real milk to get one or two tickets for the cinema or for a football match, or even for a pint of beer, which would be very much better. But is that all that the man pays? I venture to think not. I venture to think that he saves at the cost of the stamina, the physique and the health of future generations. It seems to me that some things may be bought too highly, whether it be skim milk, cinema tickets or even votes.

I have occupied your Lordships for some time and I do not wish to anticipate the reply of noble Lords opposite, but I venture, before I sit down, to say that I hope that it will not take one form; I hope that they will not say to us: "The cure for all this is to nationalise the land." I say that for this reason only: that there are tens of thousands of acres of nationalised land in England now, and the distress on that land is every whit as great as on the lands that are in private occupation. I beg to support the noble Earl who asked this Question.


My Lords, I should not venture to address your Lordships or to intervene in this debate were it not that I feel it my bounden duty to do so and to support the noble Earl who has raised this Question in your Lordships' House. More especially do I consider it my duty because almost every day, by letter, by word of mouth or by direct observation, I am made forcibly aware of the really dire plight of agriculture throughout this country. This is brought particularly to my notice because the conditions in the districts where I live in Scotland, in the County of Angus, are as bad as they could be. Indeed, it is because I have almost been asked by the farmers in my district, on the first opportunity that arises, to endeavour to secure that some interest shall be brought to bear on this terrible situation in the north. Even now there is an emergency meeting being called in Angus to endeavour to come to some understanding as to what could be done to meet these conditions. There must be many of your Lordships more qualified to speak on this most difficult subject than I am, but as one who has had some small but rather bitter experience of farming on one's own account, and who is proud to feel that he has the confidence of the farming community in his own district, I make so bold as to address your Lordships.

It is no idle statement to say that the situation of agriculture is indeed bad, but what seems one of the most worrying factors to me is the uncertainty whether the country as a whole really knows how bad the situation is. Sometimes I wonder whether it cares, and, seeing that agriculture is still in this country the premier industry, can one visualise what effect it must have, when it is sick and down, as it is now, on the other great industries of this country? I go further, and I believe that the terrible condition of agriculture must be accounted one of the causes of the general trade depression that we see to-day. It is not necessary for me to speak long or fully, or to do more than touch upon that controversial point of Protection or Free Trade, but is necessary for us to face the facts and to look at the position in which we stand to-day. It is not a healthy one, and it is not an invigorating sight. Trade is depressed, unemployment is increasing, the cost of living is rising, and on the land cultivation is being reduced by 50 per cent. all round. Land is going down to grass, farm horses are being sold, and consequently men are being thrown out of employment. Only a month or so ago a hundred ploughmen from Angus went into Dundee and enlisted in the Regular Army, because there was no work for them to do. Potatoes there are fetching ridiculous prices, and worse still, in some cases are rotting on the ground because they cannot be sold, and all the time we have the foreigner dumping grain and potatoes into this country, at low prices, subsidised by their Governments. Then we are told there is no avenue to be explored—nothing to be done.

This may seem to be a recital of woes which your Lordships have heard before, but what is to happen if the present policy is to be pursued? In a few years the farmers of this country will be producing nothing but stock and milk, and the foreigner, who is at present dumping grain and potatoes at low prices, will continue to dump his produce but not at low prices. He will sell it at high prices because there is no other produce except that of the foreigner. And who Will pay these high prices for food? The poor man will have to pay them. Yet is not that the bugbear from which we are always running away—that we shall put up the price of food if we attempt to control the import of foodstuffs into this Country? What would your Lordships think of a man who was very sick—so sick he was about to die? Suppose he had tried every means of relief and none succeeded until one day a means of possible relief was presented to him, and he refused to try it because he thought the results might not be successful. Would you not say almost that he deserved to die? I hate to say that this industry of agriculture is dying, but it is very nearly so. Would it not be only common sense for the sick man to try every avenue of possible relief, and is not that like the case of agriculture? Is it not true that we refuse to contemplate the control of the import of foodstuffs because it is feared we might put up the price of food? Because it was true in 1840, is it necessarily true now? What was true in the time of Cobden and Bright, is it necessarily true now?

Whether it is true or not, it is not entirely the main issue. The main issue that I wish to emphasise is this. There is an avenue which has been unexplored, or at any rate partly unexplored, up to this time, and we cannot afford, and we have no right, to dally with the prosperity of this country without taking care that we have explored every avenue and lane which might help to lead us out of this ghastly quagmire in which we have sunk. Why not try something such as has been suggested by the noble Earl? Why not try an avenue which may lead us out of this trouble? Why not form this three-Party conference and tell the country that it is to be an experiment which must be tried because everything else has failed? This is no longer a Party question or a political issue. It is a national question and one which must be dealt with now if you are to save agriculture in this country.


My Lords, I rise to support the suggestion of the noble Earl opposite. It does not appear to me to be a very difficult proposal to put into execution. Hitherto we have seen the rival Parties in the State acting as rival Parties on this matter of agriculture. It would in my humble opinion be a good thing if the best brains of all the Parties in the State could work together to see whether, by combination, they could arrive at some solution of this extremely serious problem. At present they seem in many ways to be pulling against one another, but if they with all their strength were pulling together in the manner indicated in the proposal of the noble Earl, it may be that they would reach a solution at which one by one they are unable to arrive. We have just heard allusions to the Conference now going on between landlords, tenants and farm labourers. We hope something may come of that. Sometimes those three parties are represented as being antagonistic to one another. I do not think that that is a fair estimate of the situation; but at any rate we are glad that those three parties are now pooling their brains and doing their best. That might be an example to the three Parties, or more, in the State.

I believe we shall never get a satisfactory handling of the agricultural situation until agriculture is treated like our foreign policy, as something that ought to be continuous and above Party emulation and Party contradictions. I suppose that if such a conference were held there are a great many points which it might investigate directly or through sub-committees. I believe there are a certain number of questions which have never yet been satisfactorily answered. Right action depends upon right knowledge, and a conference might arrive at satisfactory information, upon which correct action might be based. May I indicate two or three such matters? Would it really be a good plan —I am not asking a rhetorical question, but a true question—if we discontinued the cultivation of all cereals, and England contained only a number of orchards, pig farms, poultry farms, and dairy farms? The answer to that question very much depends upon the matter of transport and the neighbourhood of those farms to towns. Is it the case that the population in England is so distributed at the present time that those forms of farming, which are at present the most reproductive and the most successful, could safely be extended over a wider area than they at present cover? Or could that sort of thing only be done when there is a market very handy?

The noble Earl has suggested another very proper inquiry, upon which, I believe, we want fuller knowledge. We need to investigate the control of wages apart from the profits of the industry. What is the effect? Is it the effect that fewer men are employed? Is it true, farmers having to pay these wages that are settled for them, that over a very wide area they are having to dismiss men who would otherwise be employed in the cultivation of the land? It has been said that in Norfolk arable farmers employ 3½ men per 100 acres; if they turn their fields into grass land then they only require a man and a boy and a good dog for some hundreds of acres. Is that the case? That is worth inquiring into.

Then there is the question of unemployment insurance of agricultural labourers. I should be very sorry to attempt to give a dogmatic opinion upon that subject. I think it is one for investigation. Such a conference might investigate it. Then again—and this point seems to me to be becoming very prominent in later discussion—we need to differentiate farming in different parts of England. The East and West are not the same, but they are often classed together as if they were the same. It would certainly help me as an outsider very much if we could learn the respective profits and prospects of farming in the Eastern part of England and the Western part of England as contrasted with one another. The noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, drew a very sorry picture of what happens in Norwich. I think he was quite correct. On Saturday or Saturday week it was the case that on Norwich Cornhill barley was being sold as low as 12s. for 16 stones. An average crop is quoted officially as eight sacks to the acre. This means that if a farmer sells eight sacks to the acre at 12s. he will receive £4 16s., for which he has expended, on a very fair estimate, at least £10 in the costs of production. But I do not think that is at all the case in the West of England. We want information, in order to contrast the one with the other.

Again, we are often put off by heaving that when farms are vacant there are many people who are ready to buy them. This is mentioned as evidence of the prosperity of farming, "or else," it is asked, "why should people be so foolish as to purchase farms?" I am inclined to think that a very large part of the answer to that question is that people who have been brought up as farmers know that, even if they low much in farming, they would lose even more in taking up a trade kith which they have no acquaintance whatever. But that is a matter for inquiry. We want to know in the Eastern part of England whether farming can only succeed in the case of a small holding, where the farmer and his family work, and overwork, all day long. They may make a success of it. Can other people make it a, success? Can they go on making a success of it? That is a further question.

I feel no doubt in my own mind that the question of communications and transport is very vital to this matter, and that the Government could give us useful information on the subject. The telephone communications in the country, I believe, have a very direct effect on the farming industry, so have the railway facilities; but the telephones are not good enough in the country to enable a farmer quickly to divert any superfluous item that he has to sell. As an example, I would say that in the summer much more milk is required in Norfolk; in our seaside towns it is very acceptable. But if a farmer finds suddenly that he has more milk on his hands than he can deal with, he should be able, with such a perishable article, quickly to get it to the place where it would sell. But he will not do that if he has to start a long postal correspondence, and then it becomes necessary for him to make elaborate arrangements with a railway. With perishable articles like milk or currants, and other things that we grow in Norfolk, facilities for quick handling are very necessary. I believe this conference, if it investigated those matters of communications, would be able to throw a good deal of light upon some dark places in the farmer's world.

I rejoice that the proposal of the noble Earl is to have what I may venture to call a common-sense inquiry, and not too much of an expert inquiry. The farmers listen to, and I believe profit by the work of, experts, and they owe a great deal to the research work done in our universities and elsewhere; but there are some who lecture the farmers, and tell them how to do their business. The farmers, when they hear some of these lectures, think to themselves that they have a long experience behind them, and they are better able than their instructors to weigh up what it is wise for them to do, and to select what is good in the proposals made to them, in view of the old advice that they have tried to adopt and have already proved by experience to be inappropriate. We cannot forget that, however you put it, the gifts required by farming for the production of crops are different from the gifts that are required by a good salesman. And a great many of the advantages of co-operation and co-operative sales are vitiated by the fundamental difference that must exist.

We are all agreed, and I need not labour the point, that it is extremely important that this great industry should be made to succeed. One noble Lord who spoke just now used language which seemed to suggest that the Government are not aware of the parlous position of agriculture. I rather question that for I have in my hand some figures, for the accuracy of which I will not vouch, mentioning the work of the farm settlements for which the Government are mostly responsible. At the Vale of Evesham their losses have recently been over £5,000; at Ruston, nearly £2,000; at Holbeach, £4,000, and at Sutton Bridge, £10,000. Those figures suggest to me that at any rate we shall receive a sympathetic reply from the Government, who know something about the difficulties.

This all-important industry ought to be put in a proper position for many reasons. Let me suggest half a dozen. Are our foreign supplies always to be available? Will they be as full as they are at present? If so, will the supplies which are grown abroad be consumed abroad and so make it unnecessary to export to England? Then, for all our happy anticipations of brighter days when war will be no longer on the horizon, are we right at the moment in ignoring the possibility of war? In war it might be everything to this country to have just a fortnight's supply of home grown products on which to rely. We cannot resuscitate agriculture in a moment. The agricultural labourer is a very skilled person and we cannot all of a sudden say: "Now we muss reinvigorate our agriculture." The thing is in the blood. If at any future time we are likely to want our agriculture, we must keep it going at present.

I need not say anything about our rural stock and the importance that that stock bears to England as a whole. These men live in the presence of the everlasting hills and they have a wisdom and a power which do not belong to others who are not reared in the daily presence of the great processes of nature. They are strong and healthy. They are called slow and stolid. I would rather call them solid. If they drift to the towns they swell unemployment. If they swell unemployment they increase the rates, and that concerns the townsmen. There are country towns which depend upon agriculture, and one noble Lord has already told your Lordships what the bankers in the country towns have to say about the part played by the farmer. I earnestly hope that we may have a sympathetic reply from the Government. It appears to me to be along that line of co-operation and fellowship which is often emphasised from these Benches that something may be done. I believe that those who are concerned with agriculture—the landowners, the farmers, the labourers and the titheowners—must sink or swim together. We want to see co-operation among them. I believe that we also want co-operation among the Parties of the State. It is just by such co-operation that the suggestion made by the noble Earl could be carried out and be brought within the range of practical politics. With all my heart I support him.


My Lords, I do not propose to follow the right rev. Prelate in the various agrarian conundrums and problems which he has placed before your Lordships this afternoon. But in listening to him I could not help feeling that he, at least, in the exercise of many duties of an important character that he has been called upon to perform in the course of his distinguished career, had the good fortune not to have to administer a large tract of land and farm it himself. If the right rev. Prelate had had that misfortune he would realise that a great deal that has fallen from noble Lords who sit on the Opposition Benches is profoundly and absolutely true. The condition of the agrarian industry has sunk, is sinking, and is likely to continue to sink. The condition which has been painted this afternoon by various noble Lords who reside in different parts of the United Kingdom is no exaggeration. It is perfectly true and perfectly correct. The difficulty under which the agrarian community suffer is that they see very little prospect indeed of the situation improving. With that we are thoroughly familiar and I think the general public are familiar with it.

But I have intervened in this debate before the noble Earl replies on behalf of the Government to say that during the War the British Government were able to produce something between 30 and 40 per cent. of home-grown supplies of materials and other commodities. The noble Lord, Lord Ernle, is in his place and will correct me if I am wrong. Is not the figure something between 30 and 40 per cent. or rather less than half our total requirements? I should imagine that to-day the sum total of the foodstuffs supplied by the farming community of Great Britain has sunk at least to 20 per cent. and possibly less. We are, therefore, confronted with the fact that we could, if we so desired, produce 20 or 25 per cent, more of home-grown food for our fellow citizens than we produce at present. The causes which contribute to prevent us from doing so are not those which I propose to discuss to-night. They are too difficult and too complex, and they are not the subject of the present debate.

I would like, however, to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to this. We have had a very interesting speech from the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, and a suggestion that a representative committee, selected from all political Parties, should meet and discuss the agrarian problem. I should like to go a stage further and, as the noble and learned Lord who leads the House is present, I earnestly beg that he will take into consideration the humble suggestion I make to him. We all know that he is a very good and very keen agriculturist. During the War he certainly made his contribution towards the production of food, and anybody who knows the condition of his estate down in Buckinghamshire is aware that no man exerted himself harder on behalf of the agrarian community than the noble and learned Lord during the years of the War. Therefore we know that he is really (although officially I suppose he is debarred from saying so) in deep sympathy with the views and opinions expressed by noble Lords on this side of the House, and he himself, apart from being Leader of this House, must as a pure agriculturist sympathise deeply with the conditions both of the landlords and the tenants on the absence of farm labourers on the soil.

I make this appeal to the noble and learned Lord as Leader of this House. He is in close association day in and day out with the leader of his Party, the Prime Minister. This is really what the agrarian community would like to see take place; this is a thing that they have been looking for for a very long time. Try so far as we can to remove this great and vast industry, which is the first and the basic industry of this country, from the flotsam and Jetsam of Party and political strife. If we only could persuade the noble and learned Lord to say to the Prime Minister: "Mr. Prime Minister, if you would only say to the country and the agricultural community that you yourself, the Prime Minister of England, are prepared to meet in conference the leaders of the other two Parties, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Lloyd George, and that you three will sit together at a round table over a period of days, and if necessary a period of weeks, and will on behalf of the British public, and especially on behalf of the agrarian community, draw up and work out some system which possesses a continuity of policy and which is not subject to Party vicissitudes or Governments which come and go, we shall be greatly indebted to you."


My Lords, I am quite sure all of us interested in agriculture, especially my right hon. friend the Minister of Agriculture, will be very gratified by the interest that has been aroused in your Lordships' House by this Motion on agriculture. I hope the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, will forgive me if I do not follow him in his very interesting speech on agricultural policy because it is not directly relevant to this debate. I hope also the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, will forgive me if I do not follow him, except on one point, and that is where he attributed a statement to my right hon. friend the Minister of Agriculture who, he said, had made a speech in which he used the words "no special measures were needed for the assistance of agriculture." I follow the speeches of my right hon. friend very carefully, and I do not think I have missed any.


May I quote it? On November 25, 1929, he said: "I cannot accept the suggestion that the agricultural industry on the whole is in such distress as demands special and immediate relief measures."


Special measures—that is used in a special sense as meaning measures quite different from those which are needed by any other of the economic units of this country, such as tariffs. Of course, on the subject of tariffs, he would find himself in complete agreement with the noble Lord's Leader himself—no special measures in that particular sense of the word.


Of course, I cannot follow into his internal reasoning. I must take his words.


There is always this difficulty in taking small parts of a speech out of their context, but I only comment on it because the whole situation lying behind this debate is that we should try to discuss the question of the agricultural industry from a non-Party point of view. I suggest to the noble Lord that making speeches of that character does not assist a non-Party atmosphere. After all, the noble Lord sat behind the last Government for four and a half years when they were in office with a very large majority, and he never once made a speech criticising, not merely one particular sentence in a speech but any speech of the then Minister of Agriculture. He never criticised the then Minister of Agriculture for doing nothing.


Yes, several times.


I have looked through the record of speeches and I know the noble Lord only made one speech on agriculture during those four years, and that was a short speech on agricultural credits. However, that is a small point. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, is as anxious that this subject should be considered from a nonpolitical point of view as is any noble Lord in this House. The noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, is expressing a very general desire, but I would draw his attention to the fact that actually at the present moment there is, not a non-Party but a non-political body sitting to consider remedies for the agricultural situation—a body to which the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, has already referred. It is a Conference composed of landowners, of farmers and of workers with the Minister of Agriculture presiding. The last Government attempted to call together this Conference but were unfortunately unable to do so. This Government, whether by luck or good management, have been more successful in their attempt. It has been said that this Conference is debarred from discussing the really important topics. I think I can relieve the noble Lord's mind on that point because they are allowed to discuss the question of cereals which, I think, he mentioned as a subject that was being debarred. The only subjects that they are debarred from discussing are tariffs and subsidies, and after the speech of Mr. Baldwin the other day I am quite sure the noble Lord would find no quarrel on that particular point.


I am afraid I do. You are quite wrong there.


Of course, it is hard in these days to know whom noble Lords opposite follow. Some follow Mr. Baldwin, some Lord Beaverbrook and some Lord Rothermere. When this Conference has reported, if it is successful in coming to agreed conclusions, the next step will be for my right hon. friend the Minister of Agriculture to consider how next to proceed. It is very difficult to say before we see their actual conclusions what steps he will feel able to take. The last Government certainly felt that an actual meeting of the three political Parties was really hopeless, and for that reason they did not call it. I must say that I was inclined to agree with them. When we suggest that we should take agriculture out of the realm of politics that is very pleasing to us all, and very desirable, but political differences are real differences, and as long as we do disagree absolutely and fundamentally on certain proposals it is not a bit of good our leaders or anybody else getting together and trying to patch up some agreement. At the moment I am a little inclined to change my mind. I do feel, speaking only for myself, that the opportunities for agreement to-day are probably greater than they were. I am a little disheartened by the fact that I hear that Mr. Baldwin in turning down tariffs does not represent all your Lordships who sit on the other side of the House; but nevertheless he was speaking for the Conservative Party.


Excuse me—you pointed to me, I think—I cannot agree there. You say the late Prime Minister spoke against subsidies to agriculture. You said he was against subsidies and against tariffs. I had gathered he was against any tax on food, but I think you will find it hard to say that he was against subsidies. If he said he was against subsidies I should be against him.


As the noble Lord said, he spoke against tariffs. He dropped subsidies as a policy after being defeated on it at the 1923 Election. We have never heard of them again. There was to be a subsidy of £1 an acre on corn, as your Lordships will remember. That was a very serious point of difference, and if that point is to be removed then we at once come very much nearer. But there is another point of difference which make hopes of any successful conference somewhat distant. Some time ago—I think it was about four or five years ago —I ventured to move a certain Motion in your Lordships' House to the effect that the Government should be asked to consider the possibility of setting up import boards for the bulk purchase of imported wheat and meat. I remember very distinctly the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, who was speaking for the Government. I remember that he did not argue the question at all. He simply made the statement that this was a Socialistic proposal and as such he took it for granted that it could not be considered. Of course, if a proposal is to be rejected simply on the ground that you can affix a certain name to it, then I think it is going to be very difficult for a three-Party Conference to begin any intelligent discussion of the problem.

Since then, however, only a few weeks ago in fact, the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, definitely stated in this House that he was prepared to assist the Government in considering this actual problem, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, some time ago expressed, not by any means agreement with the policy, but sympathy with the suggestion that it should be seriously considered. I think his main objection was that it did not go far enough in international control. Then, shortly before the General Election, there was a national conference on agriculture presided over by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, on which there were several members of all Parties in the House of Commons and they recommended definitely that this proposal for setting up wheat and meat import boards should be considered. If that is the position it becomes very much more practicable to say that there may possibly be room for discussion if not for agreement between the three Parties. While, therefore, holding out no hopes whatsoever for the moment that the Minister has in any way made up his mind what action to take after the Conference has reported, I would say that it does look as if a Conference might be more possible than it has been until now. I should, however, make it clear that during the progress of this Conference, which is a very inclusive Conference, very representative of the industry with very wide terms of reference, and until it has reported, it is quite impossible for my right hon. friend the Minister of Agriculture to make any announcement as to whether or not there should be a three-Party conference.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting but an extremely depressing debate. I only rise to say in a very few words that we on this Bench support the noble Earl opposite in his views that it would be undesirable that there should be a conference of the political Parties until those who are engaged in the industry themselves have completed their Conference and issued a Report. We have had a series of speeches describing the condition of agriculture, and I think all of us who are engaged in agriculture will agree to a greater or lesser extent with the description which has been given. It has been, as I have said, very depressing, but none the less it is one which I think is substantially true. But we have had hardly any suggestions as to how that condition of affairs is to be remedied, and I would submit to your Lordships that it would be desirable for any political Party to have the views of those engaged on agriculture before they begin to frame a policy or indeed to discuss it with those who are normally in opposition to them.

The reason is obvious. Agriculture in this country is very different from what it is in some of our Dominions. Agriculture differs, as has been said by more than one noble Lord, between one county and another, and indeed it even varies between one field and another, involving an entirely different form of agriculture and an entirely different kind of farming. If we could get agreement between those in the industry we should be that much to the good. But there is another reason why we in this part of the House should be doubtful about engaging in a conference with the other political Parties. Your Lordships will remember that on November 4 last the Minister of Agriculture said he was prepared to announce the Government's policy at the first available moment. That is three months ago. Whether the Minister of Agriculture requires the inspiration derived from contemplation which I am told poets require, or whether he shuns the limelight, as some prima donnas are said to do, I do not know, but we at any rate are still waiting to hear what is the policy of the Labour Party. All that we know is the policy laid down in "Labour and the Nation" before the General Election and that policy was one of nationalisation. We on this side of the House, believing as we do in private enterprise, obviously could not go into a conference with any advantage if we were going to discuss a proposal for agriculture and the ownership of land being delivered over to officials and run on a system entirely different from that which appeals to Conservatives in this country.

I am not sure that we are much better off when we turn to the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party in 1925 produced their famous Green Book which suggested that agriculture should be handed over to the control of committees innumerable with very widespread duties and all sorts of responsibilities. In 1926 there was a Liberal land conference which I believe modified the Green Book to some extent, and we are left wondering now whether the Liberal Party has got a policy differing from the Liberal Green Book, or a land policy on which they have been able to obtain greater agreement than they were able to obtain in 1925 and 1926. For instance, we heard from Mr. Lloyd George only about three weeks ago, that where wheat is imported in this country and sold at a price below its cost of production, there should be, not merely a tariff but an absolute embargo on such dumping. If that is the policy of the Liberal Party, and one which the Party unanimously accepts, it raises, of course, a very different situation. We on this Bench would like to know whether it is now the adopted policy of the Liberal Party or not.

We should also like to know what the views of the Liberal Party are in regard to site values. I believe the Liberal Party in the past favoured, and I rather think the Labour Party still are inclined to favour, a tax on the site value of land. There are two charges, among others, made against the present conditions of agriculture. One is that the landowner is now so financially crippled that he is not in a position to carry out the necessary repairs and upkeep of his property, and is still less able to effect the improvements that he would like to make to help farmers and tenants. If there is a tax on site value, it is obviously going to impose a further tax on the landowner and will make him even less able to fulfil his obligations to his property and his tenants than he is at the present time. As regards those who farm their own land, many farmers—sometimes to their own regret—have had to buy the land which they farm. In some cases either tenants or owner-occupiers have a field just outside a market town—what we farmers describe as accommodation land. That is often a very valuable field, as everyone who farms is well aware. It adds to the value of the farm, because farmers are able to put their stock in the field before the market or after they have bought at the market. This land, being close to the market town, is obviously of value not only for agriculture but for building purposes, and therefore would be taxed heavily if there were a tax on site values. If political Parties are going to advocate a tax on site values, we in this part of the House, at any rate, feel that it is a proposal which we should have to oppose, as being bad for agriculture and a further burden on the farmer.

After all, what do the farmers require? Speaking very broadly, they require two things: (1), to reduce, if possible, the cost of production; and (2), to obtain, if possible, a better price for their product. We hear a good deal of talk about Free Trade within the Empire. On that point I want to say only this. If it is true that a tax on imported food is not going to raise prices for the farmer, I do not see how the farmer is going to profit by that policy at all. In regard to lowering the cost of production, here surely the farmers have a good deal of the remedy in their own hands. The noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, referred to what has been done in New Zealand. I think this was a most valuable contribution to the debate, and I want to see something of the same kind established all over our own country. But I do not see why it should not be done by the farmers themselves. I hope that the noble Earl, when he comes to tell us something about the points that I have ventured to raise with regard to the Liberal land policy, will also tell us something more about his experiences in New Zealand. I should like to know, for one thing, whether farmers are compelled to join these associations and to deal solely with these depots.

Every farmer knows that in this country the difficulty which agriculture has to face is to get farmers to co-operate wholeheartedly and unitedly, either in purchase or in sale. I have quite recently, like others who live in Kent, had experience of the disaster which is threatening the hop industry. There I think something like 95 per cent. of the growers belonged to an association for selling their produce. I believe that some of those who belonged to the association were not loyal to it, but what really broke it was the remaining 5 per cent. who always refused to belong to it. That association is broken up, and, although I no longer grow hops—I have long found them impossible to grow at a profit, or even without heavy loss—I understand that the situation confronting the hop grower, both in Kent and in Herefordshire, is very serious indeed.

It is exactly the same thing with regard to milk. We farmers have tried to combine to make a contract with the wholesale purchasers of milk. There again there has always been the trickle out of the bottom of the bucket of those who were afraid that they would not be able to sell their milk unless they accepted a low price. That is what farmers have to face. If a Party—I do not care which—says that it will exercise compulsion and make farmers come in and unite for co-operative purchase and sale, are farmers prepared to support that policy? If not, let us be told. The Conservative Party and the late Government did their very utmost to assist in that direction. They passed the Agriculture Produce (Grading and Marking) Bill in 1928 which was the whole foundation of the grading and marking now beginning to be successful in various directions. But this plan can only be successful if farmers will loyally support it. That is a way in which I do suggest that farmers could come in and help themselves without political action. I am afraid that I have been led astray into saying things that were far outside the Question that the noble Earl has placed upon the Paper, but I have ventured to do so because I think it is bad that any industry in this country, and particularly an industry so important as agriculture, should feel that there is no outlook unless they turn to political Parties, or until political Parties are prepared to drop proposals like nationalisation and other principles which obviously the Conservative Party can never go into conference and accept.


My Lords, I do not intend to press this Motion to a Division. Let me answer the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, at once. I am speaking for no one here except myself. I am afraid I do not know what my Party is going to do or not going to do. I purposely put this Motion down as a non-political one. I distinctly asked the Government to consider non-contentious means of dealing with the situation, and suggested a representative committee, selected with the approval of all the political Parties in the State. I did not solicit in any way the noble Lords who have kindly spoken, because I did not think it was fair to His Majesty's Government to use methods of that kind when I put down such a Question for debate.

In regard to the next point that was raised by the noble Earl, I do not think I have indicated any policy, but if you come down and make representations in your Lordships' House as to how the situation can be bettered, you have to say what occurs to you at the time, if you have been in a country where agriculture is largely flourishing. Here let me tell the noble Earl that, while it is not a hard and fast law of Government control that these depots should be the only places where produce is sold, it has become such a recognised condition of affairs that practically everything is sold and bought there. It would take too much of your Lordships' time to go into details on that point. I recollect very well what the late Lord Curzon and the late Lord Rosebery told me—that one of the biggest monsters that existed was the Proconsul who came back and told stories about the country he had been in. I do not want to bore your Lordships by going too far into that matter, but I shall be very happy to supply the noble Earl with any details that he requires on that particular subject. Just one other question. I think Lord De La Warr was hardly quite fair (although I am sure that he meant to be) as it is a purely non-political Motion. He hinted that as the Conservative Government of the day had been rather rude to him on the subject, therefore he did not see why he should not be rude to us. I do not think he entirely implied that, but he was next door to doing so. I have nothing more to say except to thank your Lordships and to ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.