HL Deb 08 March 1934 vol 91 cc82-92

LORD STRACHIE rose to call attention to the milk policy of the Minister of Agriculture and of the Milk Marketing Board; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have put this Motion on the Paper with the object chiefly of asking for information as regards the present position. I notice that a good many people are referring to the money which is to be found by the Treasury in the next few years for the assistance of farmers in the matter of cheese made in farmhouses, and also manufactured milk, as a subsidy. Of course it is not a subsidy. It is only a repayable advance in respect of factory milk and milk made into cheese on farms. In fact, it is a case of feeding the dog with its own tail. In some way or other —it is not explained how it is to be done and I do not suppose the noble Earl or anybody else knows—the money is to be repaid. It is true that the Minister said that if the industry cannot repay what would happen would be that the Treasury would have to bear the loss of what was not repaid. I hope, however, that there will be no question of the Treasury having to bear anything, and that the dog may be successfully fed with its own tail, and no harm done.

One question which I should like to ask the noble Earl is whether I am right in thinking that farmhouse butter is excluded from any advantage from this repayable advance. I should like also to ask the noble Earl whether he can give us more information with regard to the guaranteed prices of 5d. and 6d. a gallon to be secured to the Milk Board for manufactured milk. That can be done better in this House than in another place. When Mr. Walter Elliot spoke in another place he was making a statement by leave of the House and, as old members of the House of Commons know very well, a Minister is unable in those circumstances to make a very long statement and there cannot be any general debate. Therefore we really know very little about what is going to happen in this matter or what advantage there will be to the farmers. In my own part of the country, which is a great dairy country, farmers are not very satisfied with the statement made in the House of Commons and would very much like to have it elaborated. I should like to know from the noble Earl what he thinks will be the result this summer on liquid milk prices. in my own part of the country farmers fear that they will not get more than 7d. or at the outside 9d. for liquid milk instead of, as now, over per gallon. I do not know whether the noble Earl will be able to give any estimate or whether he will simply have to tell us that we most wait and see.

I notice that The Times agricultural correspondent—who, I think the noble Earl will agree, is generally well in formed about agricultural questions—wrote in The Times on Monday that these prices "are not highly attractive figures." It is quite evident that agriculturists do not think that much is going to be done for them, and I should like to know what the noble Earl thinks about the statement in The Times. As regards cheese, I should like to know what the maker of farmhouse cheese is likely to get. At the present moment it is really impossible to sell farmhouse cheese, because the farmer can only get 3½d. or 4d. a pound. One of my own tenants told me that he has still got the whole of his cheese-make at home and could not sell it. By that he meant he was not going to get more than 3½d or 4d. and that would not meet the cost of production. I should also like to ask the noble Earl on what grounds the price is fixed at which the producer may sell milk while the retailer is allowed to sell at any price on which the retailers in any district agree. In some districts that is 6d. a quart and in London, I believe, it is 7d. Again, why should there be a difference made between Scotland arid England in this matter? In Scotland the retailers have their prices fixed by the Milk Board in the way that producers have their price fixed. It seems to me that as the position is at present both producers and consumers suffer. The producer gets less and the consumer pays more. I am not surprised that there is less milk consumed in London when the price charged is 7d. a quart. I understand that the price is to be reduced this month, but so far the position has been unsatisfactory.

The whole trouble arises, of course, from the Ottawa Agreement. There is no doubt that the milk industry was damnified by that Agreement. It is not the fault of the present Minister of Agriculture. The man who sacrificed agriculture to the vested interests of shipping and iron and steel was Sir John Gilmour. He sacrificed the milk industry, and fortunately for him he had the support of representatives of the National Farmers' Union who went out there, one of them being Mr. Baxter, who is now the Chairman of the Milk Board. When I say that he had their assent I say it for this reason, that they went to Canada and when they came back they did not say a word denouncing the unholy Agreement with the Dominions. It was left to a past President of the Royal Agricultural Society to denounce the way in which the interests of agriculture had been sacrificed. Then Mr. Baxter, the present Chairman of the Milk Board, with the support of the present Minister of Agriculture, went out in order, as he thought, to get New Zealand to agree to limit their dairy competition with this country. Of course everyone knew that it was going to be a perfectly hopeless task. What New Zealand said was: "We entirely agree that the home producer should have the first place in the market, but we are not going to depart from the bargair, we have made." Australia would not even see Mr. Baxter. When he came back: he made the extraordinary statement that, although he had been unable to do anything with the Dominions, yet on the other hand we could make a levy at the ports on dairy produce coming from the Dominions. I should like to ask the noble Earl to tell us whether that is the case. I cannot myself understand how, if the Dominions are to have free entry into this country, a levy can possibly be made on dairy produce from the Dominions.

There is another point on which I should like to ask for information. No doubt the noble Earl noticed in The Times the other day a letter written by the Chairman of United Dairies, Limited, in which he said that the Milk Board in the past five months had with-held enormous sums from milk producers. That is a most startling statement to be made, and I think it ought to be contradicted either by the Ministry or by the Milk Board, because if it be true it shows that we are getting a less price for milk than ought to he given. I hope that the noble Earl will clear up that question, and if he does not do so to-day perhaps he will be inclined to take some opportunity of seeing that it is corrected in The Times, where that statement was made.

One other matter that I would like to refer to is with regard to the£750,000 to be provided for a campaign to secure a purer milk supply. Of course I am entirely in favour of a pure milk supply, but in this White Paper no indication appears to be given of how it is likely to be applied. It would be interesting to know whether the idea is to give the county councils more money, so as to assist them in eliminating not only wasteful and doubtful cattle, but the more expensive and less productive herds. No doubt many of the councils have their veterinary officers, but to inspect all the herds in a County like Somerset, for example, would be a very expensive matter. Still, a great deal has already been done by the councils, assisted by the Government, in getting rid of cows suffering from tuberculosis, which is the only case in which you can trace direct infection of children or other people from cows. All I am a little afraid of is that the Government, or rather the Ministry of Agriculture, may be inclined to be misled by a letter in The Times, signed by several distinguished doctors, with regard to this question of pure milk. I notice they say this: Until purity at the source and during subsequent distribution can be guaranteed it is imperative in the public interest that all milk should by adequate pasteurisation he rendered safe… I agree with regard to the importance of purity both at the source and during distribution, but I do not know that enough attention is paid to milk being kept pure after it leaves the farm.

I remember a great many years ago, when I was at the Board of Agriculture, I received a deputation of doctors on the question of the impurity of milk, and I pointed out then that there was a question of impurity not only before the milk left the farm but afterwards. I cannot but think that there ought to be something more than this mere statement of these distinguished doctors, that there were 2,000 person s who died from tuberculosis of bovine origin and also 4,000 other cases. We see nothing, as regards that letter, to show on what basis they make this statement, and I think it is rather unfortunate that they should do so because we are always being told of the great advantage of milk drinking, and that we must try to advertise milk. I am glad to see that the Government are going to provide a large sum for advertising, but what is the use of advertising milk when on the other hand we have these distinguished doctors holding out that a large amount of milk is not in a proper condition for human consumption? I am doubtful indeed whether it can be proved that people are really suffering from bovine tuberculosis which has its origin on the farm. It is all very well to say that the farmer is in fault and at the same time ignore the question of securing freedom from impurity during distribution. I cannot help but remember that after distinguished doctors in this House had talked about infection from milk, Lord Iveagh followed and said he wondered that anyone ever drank any milk at all. I beg to move.


My Lords, the noble Lord has asked me a number of very interesting and important questions. If my answer to some of them is not quite as complete as your Lordships might wish, I hope you will forgive me, as unfortunately I had no prior notice of what the exact questions were going to be.


The noble Earl will pardon me, but I spoke to the Whip on Tuesday and said I would like to see the noble Earl very much, in order that I might tell him about it, and I came here specially yesterday to see him, but he was not here. Otherwise I would have given him full information.


I hope the noble Lord will not misunderstand me. I make no complaint, but am merely apologising to the noble Lord and to the House for not being able to answer more fully. The noble Lord has raised questions on our general policy at Ottawa, and I hope he will not expect me to follow him on that point, except to deal with one quite unnecessary attack upon Sir John Gilmour, who made a most gallant effort at Ottawa to represent agriculture in this country. I do not agree at all with the noble Lord, and if we were to go into full debate I could show that the whole of our milk policy has only been made possible by certain arrangements which Sir John Gilmour made at Ottawa. It is perfectly true that they have had to be supplemented, but the foundations were laid there for the regulation which has since taken place. It is perfectly true that with regard to dairy produce certain concessions had to be made, as indeed concessions always have to be made in the making of an agreement. In the forming of the policy that the Minister of Agriculture has lately put before the country in another place, we have taken particular notice of the Ottawa Agreement, and we have been able to show, by what we propose, that it is possible to have a really helpful and constructive milk policy in spite of the failure of the Dominions to co-operate in the regulation of supplies.

The noble Lord has already mentioned the fact that this policy endures for a period of two years, as regards the grant to the Milk Board for fixing a bottom to the market. A period of two years takes us just to the end of the Ottawa Agreement, when the policy can be considered on a different basis. That is the first purpose of this new policy, to fix a bottom in the market, and we have fixed the bottom as being 5d. in the summer and 6d. in winter. We have been accused on the other side of taking steps that are going to inflate a too-greatly-supplied market of milk, but I think any of your Lordships who know anything about the production of milk will realise that in fixing the bottom at 5d. in summer and 6d. in winter we really were not fixing a price in any way excessive or likely to inflate the market.

The noble Lord on this point has asked me a number of questions. He has asked what is to be the future of farmhouse cheese prices. I can only tell the noble Lord that at the moment that very question is in process of negotiation between the Milk Board and the farmhouse cheese makers. The arrangement under this scheme is between the Government and the Milk Board. It is now for the Milk Board to make its own bargain with the cheese makers. He has also drawn attention to the fact that farmhouse butter is excepted, but it is only excepted for the purpose of a Government grant to the Milk Board. There is nothing in the scheme to prevent the Board coming to its own arrangements with butter makers, if it so desires or finds it necessary. The noble Lord has asked me further about the course of future prices. That is a question which, I think the noble Lord knows very well, it is quite impossible for me to answer at the moment. It is in process of discussion. And one last point which he has referred to is the question of the holding back of moneys by the Board which, he says, should have gone to the producers. That is not a fair statement. What has actually happened is that the Board has done to a not very large extent what all of us do when we go into business, and that is has put aside a certain amount for the building up of reserves. It has not been possible to put aside as much as it would perhaps, to many of us, seem desirable, but it has made a beginning. I think we should all agree that that is quite a right and legitimate step for the Board to have taken.

Now, let us pass to the second item of the policy to which the noble Lord has referred, and that is the question of the cleaning up of the herds. I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Lord at the moment exactly what steps we intend to take for the disposal of that£750,000. He will realise that a policy of this kind can only be worked out to a final statement in consultation with many outside bodies, and we felt, quite rightly I think, that we must make the announcement of our general policy in the House first before going to outside bodies. I can assure him, however, that we are at the moment in process of making out that detailed policy, and that, of course, the House will be informed the moment we have our definite proposals ready. The noble Lord has referred to the correspondence in The Times a few days ago by certain very distinguished members of the medical profession. Of course, we all know the state of opinion in the medical profession at the present moment towards much of the milk that is produced in this country, and it is because we realise that no real milk publicity campaign can possibly prosper unless we get the sympathy, not only of the public generally but particularly of the leaders in public health—of the medical profession—that we have put forward this very bold proposal for spending no less than£750,000 in the next four years on cleaning up the herds. Certainly I shall consider that we have failed in our duty of making the best use possible of this money unless we are able to satisfy the medical profession to such an extent that they will stand behind us instead of against us, as in the past, in conducting a milk publicity campaign.

The third portion of our policy has not received very much attention from the noble Lord, but perhaps he will forgive me if I just mention it now that we are on the subject. We have promised grants or loans to assist the putting of a bottom into the milk market. That bottom is concerned mainly with the disposal of what is called surplus milk in the manufacturing market, but we all know perfectly well that if we are going to give real assistance to the milk industry, where the expansion in consumption has got to come is not with regard to manufactured and processed milks but with regard to the consumption of liquid milk. The first step that we have taken in regard to that is the step that I have already mentioned, that is, an attempt to clean up the herds of this country, and thereby give the public confidence in the commodity that we are attempting to sell. But the second step is, believe, almost equally important, and that is that we are making a grant of£500,000, on the pound for pound basis, to increase the consumption of liquid milk in that place where it is most needed for social reasons to-day the schools of this country. And when I say schools I include not only elementary schools but also nursery schools and secondary schools. That money has to be spent on a scheme which is agreed between the Government and the Milk Board, and again it is not possible for me to inform your Lordships of the details of the scheme. I can only say that we are hoping that, although the Vote comes under the name of publicity, as far as possible that publicity will be conducted by means of cheapening the price of milk rather than the conventional form of advertisement.

There is one other point to which the noble Lord has referred, and which is possibly the most important of all—namely, the question of retail prices. Well now, I think the noble Lord knows—in fact, I think he said so in his speech—that retail prices are not under the current contract the responsibility either of the Government or of the Milk Board itself. All that is being done is that retailers, in consideration of having to give fixed prices for their wholesale commodity, have been given power to protect themselves against under-cutting which would make it impossible for them to pay those wholesale prices. That has meant that in certain areas undoubtedly (we have to admit) the price of certain retailers' milk has been raised. Of course, the situation was made to seem rather worse than it actually was by reason of the rather unfortunate fact that this scheme came into operation just as there was about to be a normal rise from summer to winter prices. But still, in spite of that, there was a rise in price, which I fully admit. That matter is at the present moment under consideration by the Milk Board itself, who may be found to have certain powers of assisting in dealing with this question.

But in addition, I can assure your Lordships that His Majesty's Government also have the matter under very careful consideration, and it may well be that the situation, which quite admittedly is not satisfactory at the moment, may have to he dealt with at a later stage by the Government adopting further proposals. I think it would be generally agreed that to deal with this situation we had to take the steps which we have taken and that the only hope of getting a general reduction of prices to the consuming public was first and foremost to get control of the whole of the milk supplies of the country and to get the wholesale side of the trade in an organised state; and, having done that as a first step, it was then possible to consider going on to take the further steps, if necessary, of dealing with the milk at subsequent stages. I have endeavoured to deal as far as possible with the points which the noble Lord has raised. If there are any further points I hope he will let me know, and I will of course communicate the answers to him.


My Lords, I am very much obliged indeed to the noble Earl for the most careful answer that he has given me to the question, so far as it is possible to give an answer at the present time. I was very glad to notice that he evidently intended to indicate that at the end of two years something will be done to prevent our dairy interests being flooded by produce corning from overseas. It is only unfortunate that we have got to wait two years for it. Again, as regards factory butter, it is unfortunate that the farmhouse butter will get no advantage from the repayable grant, while on the other hand, as I understand it—I hope the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong—the factory butter will get an advantage from this grant. Then he seemed to think that the amount which was referred to by the Chairman of United Dairies, Limited, as being an enormous sum which the Milk Board was keeping away from the producers, was not in fact an unduly large amount. Of course no one can possibly object to their making a reasonable reserve, but a sum which can be described as an "enormous sum" does not come within the description of a reasonable reserve. I think it is very desirable that the noble Earl should look into the matter and see whether that description is justified. If it is not justified, the Milk Board certainly ought to contradict such a statement, made by so important a person as the Chairman of United Dairies, Limited, which supplies London with practically the whole of its milk.

As regards what the noble Earl said about the repayable advance—or rather it is not repayable, I think, in that case; I understand that the £750,000 is a distinct grant?




I understand that already the breed societies have approached the Ministry with the object of getting a large grant from the Ministry. I only hope that the noble Earl will bear in mind that it is much more important to consider the ordinary farmer in this matter, and the best way in which he can be helped to clear his herds, if I may venture to say so—and the noble Earl, who, I think, is himself a member of a county council, will I hope agree with me—is to see that a large part of that grant is distributed through the county councils, who are really the very best people to control and supervise the matter of the clearing of the farm herds. I am entirely with the noble Earl as regards that matter, only I am anxious that, instead of the money going to the breed societies or other such bodies, it should go to public bodies like the county councils, who at the present moment at entrusted to a very large extent with the clearing up of the herds, and have done a very great deal indeed, as I am sure the noble Earl will admit, for the benefit of the farmer. I hope the noble Earl will agree that they are the people who should in the future administer these grants, and that he will see that they have a very large proportion of them, because we do not want all the expense to fall upon the rates. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.