§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, I beg to ask whether the Government are in a position to make a general statement of agricultural policy.
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE EARL OF FEVERSHAM)
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord opposite for giving me this opportunity of providing your Lordships' House with the statement of policy that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture has announced in another place this afternoon. The statement is as follows: The Government have very carefully considered the position of agriculture from the points of view of the welfare of agriculture itself, National Defence, and the importance of maintaining continuity in our agricultural policy that is designed to ensure maximum supplies for the consumer consistent with reasonable remuneration for the producer. The Government have in the past initiated proposals for dealing with particular agricultural products. This side of the Government's policy will continue and I hope shortly to announce proposals for the future of the milk and pig industries. There are, however, certain fundamental matters with which I wish to deal in the following statement.
In regard to Defence, I should like at the outset to stress the following considerations. The two objectives—of producing the maximum quantity of food to meet our requirements in time of war, on the one hand, and of the efficient development of our agriculture in time of peace, on the other—not only demand very different methods but, to a material extent, are opposed to each other. In particular, a drastic policy of food production for war purposes would entail the ploughing up of an extensive area of our grassland for the 261 purpose of growing cereals and other crops for human consumption. In peace time, however, livestock husbandry, which is the foundation of our agriculture, is naturally based on a grassland system on account of the physical and climatic advantages which favour it. The Government have had to determine where, between these two objectives, the path lies which, on balance, it would be wise to follow.
In the opinion of the Government, to put agriculture on a war-time footing with all the regulations, the regimentation of the farming community, and the heavy costs that it would unavoidably involve, would not be practicable at the present time; nor in their opinion is the situation such as to require the adoption of this course in time of peace. The Government are equally satisfied that considerations of National Defence would not justify a policy in peace time of stimulating agricultural production to such a pitch that the country would be laced with a highly artificial situation which would, sooner or later, have to be liquidated if the emergency did not arise. Such a policy would be costly to build up and costly to close down. Moreover, farmers themselves will have a vivid recollection of the disorganisation and uncertainties which followed the repeal of the Corn Production Acts in 1921, and the Government have no wish to put them in such a position again. Having regard to these considerations, the Government are satisfied that the best course in the general national interest is to continue their efforts to improve the general prosperity and efficiency of home agriculture, and in particular to promote an increase in the fertility and productivity of our soil. The proposals which I shall now outline are so designed that should an emergency arise we should be in a position immediately to take advantage of improved fertility, but, should it not arise, we should be increasing the productivity of our land and stock by means which are consistent with, and not opposed to, the normal development of cur agriculture on economic lines in time of peace.
To achieve this object, the Government propose that the following measures should be taken: One of the most serious deficiencies of the land of this country arises from failure to maintain the old practice of applying lime to the soil. Due 262 to the long depression, farmers have been unable to bear the cost. The result has been felt not only in diminished fertility, but also in the lack of elements essential to healthy plant and animal life. The Government propose to assist farmers in raising the fertility of the soil by increased use of lime. They also consider it desirable to secure increased application, particularly to grasslands, of basic slag which, like lime, is available from home sources and has an enduring effect upon the soil. They propose that for a limited period of years the cost to the farmer of lime and basic slag should be reduced by approximately 50 per cent. and 25 per cent. respectively. The object of these proposals is not only to make good past exhaustion of soil fertility in many parts of the country, but to build up reserves of fertility, valuable in peace time, and immediately available to meet the heavy demands upon it which might be made in time of war.
It is proposed to raise the limit of the "anticipated supply" under the Wheat Act, 1932, from 6,000,000 to 8,000,000 quarters and thereby to stimulate an increase in the wheat acreage. In present circumstances this involves no cost but will give valuable additional insurance to wheat growers in the United Kingdom. The Government propose also to introduce a scheme in respect of oats and barley which will be in the nature of an insurance against low prices. It will apply only to those growers of oats and barley in the United Kingdom not receiving benefit under the Wheat Act. For the purpose of the oats scheme there will be a standard price of 8s. per cwt., and a national standard acreage will be determined. A payment will be made to the grower in respect of each eligible acre. This payment will be calculated on the basis that, on the average, about 6 cwt. per acre are sold off farms. The payment will therefore be equal to six times the difference between the standard price of 8s. per cwt. and the average market price over a period. It the total acreage eligible for subsidy exceeds the national standard acreage, the rate of payment will be reduced proportionately. In the case of barley the principle of a national standard acreage will also apply, and it is proposed that payment will be at the same rate per acre as that for oats. At the prices prevailing for oats at the present time no payment would be made, but 263 it is estimated that if prices were to fall to the lowest level of recent years the Exchequer liability in any year, in respect of both oats and barley, would not exceed £1,750,000. In no case will the payment exceed £1 per acre.
It is proposed to extend the system of Exchequer grants for land drainage. In England and Wales grants will be given for works to be carried out by the lesser drainage authorities concerned. In Scotland the rate of grant for drainage under the scheme administered by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland will be increased. It is hoped that with the aid of these grants it will be possible, in any one year, without interfering with the labour required for agriculture, to undertake essential works costing up to £450,000.
In a policy aimed at raising the fertility and productivity of our soil the improvement of our grassland must be an objective of fundamental importance. Grass forms one of our greatest natural resources and it is in the national interests that it should be more fully and profitably utilised in time of peace and be a reservoir of fertility for an emergency. By the Livestock Industry Bill at present before Parliament and the arrangements for regulating supplies of livestock and meat to this market the Government are seeking to promote the prosperity and efficiency of the livestock industry. The Government believe that this measure and those now proposed for drainage and for the increased use of lime and basic slag will lead to a marked improvement in the grassland of this country. The Government are also alive to the potentialities of dried grass as a possible addition to home-grown supplies of feeding stuffs. They are accordingly encouraging further experiments in grass drying.
The Government also propose to initiate a large-scale and more comprehensive campaign for the eradication of animal diseases in Great Britain. Our object is to improve the health of our livestock and increase agricultural productivity by seeking to eliminate what is perhaps the worst of all forms of wastage and economic loss in agriculture. In the first instance, efforts will mainly be directed to the eradication of diseases among cattle. The scheme will involve an additional charge 264 on the Exchequer of about £600,000 per annum for the first four years. It will, however, involve centralisation of public veterinary services and, as against the increased cost to the Exchequer, the expenditure by local authorities will be reduced by about £170,000. Parliamentary authority will be required for these proposals. The Government are anxious, however, to lose no time in developing the existing schemes of control of disease, and, accordingly, I am arranging at once to amend the Attested Herds Scheme under the Milk Act, 1934, by providing additional assistance in England and Wales, as has already been done in Scotland, to owners of dairy stock who are desirous of eradicating tuberculosis from their herds. This revised scheme will become operative on the 1st June next.
In the opinion of the Government the proposals which I have outlined, by increasing the productivity of our agriculture, not only will enable it better to meet the situation in the event of war, but will be a substantial aid towards raising efficiency, lowering costs and establishing the industry on a sounder economic foundation in time of peace. The necessary legislation to give effect to these proposals will be introduced at the earliest possible date.
§ LORD SNELL
My Lords, as the House will probably wish to discuss the statement which has just been made by the noble Earl, I beg to ask whether it is the intention of the Government to provide a suitable opportunity for such a discussion to take place and, if so, whether they can state when that is likely to be.
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (VISCOUNT HALIFAX)
My Lords, it would certainly be the wish of His Majesty's Government to give the earliest possible opportunity that might be desired by the House for the discussion of the statement that my noble friend has just made. When exactly it will be convenient to take that discussion I am not now in a position to state precisely, but perhaps my noble friend opposite would allow me to communicate with him and with other noble Lords who would wish to take part in the discussion as to the selection of the precise date.