HL Deb 24 July 1939 vol 114 cc409-53

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, daring the time I have represented His Majesty's Government on agricultural questions in your Lordships' House it has fallen to my lot to introduce fourteen Bills, three of which have referred to fishery matters. These measures have gone far to effect a radical change in the outlook and method of the farming community, and as your Lordships are aware, some of them have been not only far-reaching in effect but extremely complicated in character. The Agricultural Development Bill which is before the House to-day, embraces three of the more fundamental and staple commodities of the farm—namely, oats, barley and sheep, as well as other important provisions, and I am sorry to say that parts of the Bill are no less difficult and abstruse than some of its predecessors which have gone before.

Those who are not initiated in the intricacies of agricultural legislation might well wonder why different kinds of machinery should be necessary for dealing with the various commodities. Here we are dealing with three commodities, two of which have defied all previous efforts to devise practicable schemes of assistance—a fact which goes to show, I think, the ingenuity necessary in the construction of such schemes. But in spite of the diversity of the machinery which is found necessary there is a single principle running through the provisions of the Bill—namely, that of price insurance, which means a scheme to prevent a producer being involved in losses on any of his staple commodities such as would upset the balance of his enterprise and cause a further decline in fertility. I need hardly say that it is not a correct interpretation of price insurance to say that it means guaranteeing profitable prices for all farm produce. The subsidies in the Bill are not intended to create a profit, but nevertheless the Government hope that the effect of the whole policy, including the proper regulation of imports, efficiency measures, cheap fertilisers and so on will bring the industry into a position where it will make a profit.

I am very sorry that this important Bill—perhaps the most important single measure that has come before your Lordships' House for many years—has reached this House so late in the Session, and that only a short time is available for the consideration of its details. For my part I would have liked to have more opportunity of drawing on the large fund of expert opinion that exists in your Lordships' House, but as the Leader of the House has already explained, the business of Parliament has been rather badly dislocated because time has had to be found for a number of emergency measures in addition to the ordinary Government programme. So I shall forgo the opportunity which this Bill might have afforded of reviewing generally the results of the Government's agricultural policy and the present state of farming, and I will confine myself to a short and, I hope, understandable explanation of the main provisions of the Bill.

Part I of the Bill deals with oats, and provides for an increased scale of assistance to oat growers above that which was provided under the Agriculture Act of 1937. Under the Agriculture Act there is an Exchequer subsidy based on the difference between the average market price and the standard price of 8s. per cwt. Those farmers who drew wheat deficiency payments were debarred from assistance. The subsidy was based on the estimated proportion of the crop which is sold off the farm, which is 6 cwts. per acre out of an average yield of 16 cwts. We are now departing from that principle in the case of the grower who is dependent on oats as his main or sole cereal crop. Oat growers who do not grow wheat or who do not claim wheat deficiency payments—they will be enabled to choose—will be eligible to receive subsidy on the basis of 14 cwts. per acre. The maximum payment that can be given under this higher rate of subsidy will be £2 6s. 8d. per acre. The disability of wheat growers is removed, but growers of oats who also claim wheat deficiency payments will be eligible to receive subsidy on 6 cwts. per acre of their crop, with a maximum of £1 per acre—the same rate of subsidy as that which was previously given only to oat growers who did not claim wheat deficiency payment. The Ministers are given power to review and vary by Order the standard price of 8s. if there is any material change in the situation, subject to the consent of the Treasury and the affirmative approval of Parliament. As is well known, the decline in the number of horses materially affects the demand for oats, and we must therefore guard against unduly encouraging barley production. If the total acreage for which applications for subsidy are made exceeds 2,500,000 acres, the amount of subsidy will be reduced proportionately.

This Part of the Bill applies retrospectively to the 1938 oats crop, and as barley is to be treated in the future in a rather different way from oats, and it would be impossible to apply any future scheme to last year's crop of barley, it is provided that subsidy will be paid on barley grown in 1938 at the same rate as if it were oats. The payments for last year's crop have worked out at 31s. 6d. per acre at the higher rate and 13s. 6d. per acre at the lower rate. This represents a substantial improvement on the rates of payment which were provided under the Agriculture Act, 1937. Clause 4 deals with the important question of negligent cultivation, which is obviously a subject of special concern to a number of your Lordships. It will be seen that the provisions made in the Bill are much wider than the provisions made in the Agriculture Act. Not only is there power for the Minister to withhold or reduce the subsidy on evidence of negligence, but the Minister can also take action if the land has been used in such a way as is likely to impair its fertility, including, for example, overcropping with white straw crops. In England and Wales the Ministry's crop reporters are to inspect a proportion of the farms in respect of which applications are received for subsidy for oats or barley. These crop reporters are part-time officers, some 300 in number, and they have, by and large, a good and intimate knowledge of local agricultural conditions. The whole-time officers of the Department will also assist in this work of inspection and the staff has been increased and strengthened for this purpose. In Scotland the necessary inspections will be carried out by whole-time officers of the Department of Agriculture.

Now I turn to Part II of the Bill, which deals with barley—Clauses 11 to 20. Barley cannot be treated in the same way as oats, owing to the two distinct uses to which the crop is put. Barley has proved a complex problem for successive Governments over the past twenty years, and it is not surprising that in the time available it has not been possible to provide a permanent scheme to be agreed with by all the interests concerned. This Part of the Bill therefore gives the Ministers power to bring before Parliament barley schemes which may be one of two kinds, either what I shall call a "minimum price scheme," or alternatively a "levy subsidy scheme." Both the farmers and the brewers and distillers have expressed a preference for a minimum price scheme, in spite of the fact that it involves some measure of restriction on the operations of individual firms. If the Bill becomes law it is intended to continue our efforts to devise a satisfactory long-term scheme based on this principle—minimum price, minimum quantity. In this type of scheme it would be compulsory for users of malting barley to pay not less than a stated minimum price (or average minimum price) for their purchases of homegrown barley, and to use not less than a stated minimum quantity of barley in relation to the total materials used in the manufacture of the beer, whisky, or whatever the product might be. Farmers who sell barley for malting would under this scheme receive no additional assistance, but those whose barley is used for feeding purposes would receive an acreage subsidy direct from the Exchequer sufficient to make the average price of feeding barley up to 8s. per cwt., subject to a maximum payment of £2 13s. 4d. per acre.

Under a levy subsidy scheme, on the other hand, users of barley for malting would have freedom as regards their purchases of barley, but they would be required to pay a levy sufficient to make up the average price of barley sold for malting up to a prescribed standard price. Their liability would be fixed in relation to a reasonable aggregate quantity of home-grown barley which should be used for malting purposes. This reasonable aggregate quantity of malting barley is referred to in the Bill under Clause 19, subsection (4), as the "industrial quota." The proceeds of the levy would be paid into a levy subsidy fund, an Exchequer contribution would be added and the whole fund would then be distributed amongst growers of barley at a flat rate per acre. The Exchequer contribution would be of an amount sufficient to make up any deficiency in the price of barley grown for feeding purposes below a standard price of 8s. per cwt.

Although considerable progress has been made with a long-term scheme on the minimum price basis, there is insufficient time to bring such a scheme into operation before the beginning of the barley season next month. It is therefore provided in Clause 20 of the Bill that a special simplified scheme of the levy subsidy type shall be brought into operation for the 1939 crop only. This scheme must be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it comes into operation, and therefore, as soon as this Bill has received the Royal Assent, the scheme will be laid before Parliament for consideration. But in view of the shortness of time before the Summer Recess, and to meet the convenience of the House, we propose to publish the draft scheme in advance in a few days' time, as a White Paper. I hope that members of your Lordships' House will have an opportunity of studying that scheme before this Bill is on the Statute Book, so as to have greater time in which to weigh its merits. Before leaving the subject of barley I should mention that there is a ceiling level of 18,000,000 cwt. above which the full rate of Exchequer assistance will not be given. Provision is also made for setting up a Barley Advisory Committee representing growers, merchants and uses of barley, with an independent Chairman, to advise the Ministers on the operation of whatever scheme is introduced.

The sheep proposals in the Bill, dealt with in Part III and the Second Schedule, are not as formidable as they may appear at first sight. A subsidy scheme for fat sheep is to be prepared by the Livestock Commission, but the Bill specifies certain conditions which the scheme must fulfil. In the first place the Bill lays down a basic annual price of 10d. per lb. of estimated dressed carcase weight. Monthly standard prices based on this annual figure of 10d. will be fixed by Order so as to correspond with seasonal variations, and it is these monthly standard prices which will be used in calculating subsidy. Unlike cattle, sheep are not weighed when sold in the livestock markets and it will, therefore, be necessary to fix standard weights for different classes of sheep. The amount of subsidy received by the producer on any particular sheep will be arrived at by multiplying the appropriate standard weight by the difference between the average market price in that particular month and the monthly standard price.

I realise that an exceedingly difficult arithmetical calculation would follow, and therefore I may be permitted to give an example which will indicate the line and machinery to be adopted under this Bill, but no importance need be attached to the actual figures quoted. If in a given month, say the month of April, the monthly standard price is 10½d. and the market price is 9½d., there is a difference of one penny. If the class of sheep sold come within the category under the standard weight proposals of 48 lbs., then it is 48 multiplied by 1, which gives 4s. to be paid per sheep. That is, as I say, a rough indication of the way in which the sheep proposals will work, and no undue importance should be attached to the special figures which I have used.

The basic standard price of 10d. per lb. is to be reduced when the sheep population of the United Kingdom in any year exceeds 27,000,000, when it will fall by one-eighth of a penny for every complete quarter of a million up to 28,000,000, and by ½d. for every quarter of a million thereafter. This standard population of 27,000,000 is somewhat higher than the figure in June, 1938, and it has only been slightly exceeded in one year since the War and that was in 1932. It is also true to say that this figure of population has only been exceeded four times in the last forty years.

It is the intention of the Government to ensure producers against unduly low price levels, and not to pay subsidy on the basis of standard prices which are permanently above market prices. Therefore if market prices are below the standard prices for two years in succession, that would indicate that the figure of 27,000,000 was probably too high. It is provided that in this case it shall be reduced to 26,000,000, and thereafter by a further million for each two successive years that the average market price falls below the standard price. But if the low prices are due to pressure of imported supplies, or accidental causes, Ministers have power to suspend in any year the operation of this automatic reduction of the basic sheep population. Similarly, there is provision for restoration of the original figure of 27,000,000, if subsequently market prices are above the standard price. It will also be possible, if there is a material change in conditions, for the provisions in the Bill relating to basic average price of 10d. and the standard population of 27,000,000 to be varied by Orders made by Ministers, after consultation with the Livestock Commission, with the consent of the Treasury and the affirmative approval of Parliament.

The remainder of the Bill is concerned for the most part with measures to increase our preparedness to expand food production in the event of emergency. Part IV contains the legislation necessary to implement the proposals announced on May 3 last for a ploughing-up campaign. The Bill authorises Ministers to give grants of £1 per half-acre, with a minimum of two acres, towards the cost of ploughing up, between the dates of May 4 and October 31, 1939, land which has been under grass for not less than seven years, and bringing such land into a condition capable, if the need should arise, of growing satisfactory arable crops in 1940. Under these provisions the Agricultural Departments have already received notifications of intention to plough up about 200,000 acres which, I think the House will agree, is a very encouraging response to our original objective of 250,000 acres.

Clause 31 deals with the reserves of agricultural machinery. The Minister is given power to acquire and store tractors and other agricultural machinery for use in the event of war. These tractors cannot be used in the ploughing-up scheme that is in operation for this year. The Minister is given power to erect buildings and arrange himself for the storage of the machinery, but the preferable arrangement which it is proposed to adopt is to get the agents of the various manufacturers to take into stock an increased number of tractors, and keep them in good order, in return for a small payment. The tractors belonging to the Government stock would then be turned over in the ordinary course of trade to prevent deterioration.

The remaining provisions of importance which I should mention are those relating to agricultural credit in Clause 32. These powers do not represent any new departure in agricultural credit policy, but it is intended to enable the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, which is the principal organ of long-term agricultural credit in England and Wales, to overcome certain difficulties which have hampered its activities in recent years. Owing to the fall in rates of interest, the Corporation has found itself unable to lend money at corresponding rates, without incurring losses. This Bill provides for Exchequer assistance by way of grant or loan, up to £,60,000 a year for twenty years. Its sole purpose is to cover any losses that may occur during that period, so that the Corporation will again be in a position to fulfil the function for which it is designed, which was to lend money at commercial rates to those who found it necessary to apply for credit for agricultural enterprises.

As I promised, I have kept to the actual provisions of the Bill. But I hope your Lordships will not lose sight of the main objective of our agricultural policy. We are concerned not only with the returns of producers of oats, barley and sheep, but with the rehabilitation of the industry as a whole. We want to put new heart in the producers, attract lost capital back to the industry, and put the farmers in a position to give their workers better wages, and thus go far to redress the balance between agriculture and country life on the one hand, and trade and industry on the other. That is an aim on which I believe the House would be unanimously agreed, and therefore I commend the present Bill to your Lordships' sympathetic consideration. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Feversham.)

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we shall all agree that the noble Earl has commended his fifteenth Agricultural Bill to your Lordships' House with his accustomed clarity and charm. He described this Bill as one of the most important agricultural measures that have been brought before your Lordships for many years. It does not escape my attention anyhow that it is introduced in the last two weeks of the Session, and we are expected to deliberate upon it and consider it in full detail to-day and on Wednesday afternoon. I am sure this House has often felt that it had a real grievance against the Government of the day, but this is almost an affront to it as a deliberative assembly, because there are many members of this House, as we all know—and see here, too, to-day—who have very exceptional knowledge of this subject. Although I know it is completely futile for one in my position, representing a very small Party, to enter any protest, nevertheless I do. I think it is most unfair that the House should be expected to criticise a Bill of this kind in this summary fashion. I know that protest will not make any difference, but it is a justifiable protest.

I gather from the newspapers that the noble Earl will perhaps not be here to present to us another fifteen Bills. I am sure we all regret it—though not the fifteen. The fact that this is the fifteenth Bill introduced into your Lordships' House does not impress me. It represents a very big piece in a large collection of bits and pieces which the Government have presented during the last few years. But we were told that somewhere or other enshrined in the Government's policy is the principle of price insurance. I have been looking anxiously for a good many months for an explanation of that expression, and I take it that we have got something of it in this Bill. But I would remind your Lordships that last week we had before us a Bill dealing with, I think, the third major agricultural industry—namely, the production of eggs, chickens and so on, of a total value of some £25,000,000 a year—and there was not a word in that Bill, from start to finish, which led us to suppose that the producer was going to get an assured price by any species of machinery. But I am very glad that we have a good portion of it at all events in this Bill.

I remember that in 1931 some of us were engaged, after consultation with the representatives of the brewing and other interests, in trying to devise a scheme for a stabilised price for malting barley. We got quite a long way, and I am quite sure, if it had been the subject of sustained attention, it would not have required eight years to bring that to fruition. We were then very near agreement. I think the principle of a reliable price for malting barley is thoroughly sound. Just as the producer of a good commodity is entitled to be properly paid, so the producers of agricultural commodities are. But I draw your Lordships' attention to this fact, that notwithstanding these eight years of deliberation, we are still not told in this Bill how it is going to be done. There are powers to do it, and on the whole I think the way they are outlined is both ingenious and fair, but still we are not told what is going to be proposed. I suppose we shall gather the information from the White Paper which is to be issued, perhaps when we have gone for our holidays.


No, before then. In a day or two.


Then we shall have a chance of studying it at the week-end when we have parted with the Bill. That seems to me to add another grievance, if we are looking for grievances, which I am not. At all events, we shall have an opportunity of looking at it on the Sabbath, when perhaps this Bill will have been read a third time. Still, for my part I welcome the principle of a sound, reliable price for good quality malting barley. We ought to have had it years since, and if our Party had been in power we should have had it. It would not have taken me eight years to carry out the principle which we were considering in 1931. But I will not enter into the more detailed arithmetic which the noble Earl quite fairly summarised—I think, very ingeniously summarised. I think the principle that a receiver of the wheat subsidy should not be entitled to receive this help which was provided in respect of his other cereal crops, always was absurd, and I am glad that the Government have abandoned it. I should not have regarded the abandonment of what to us has always been an unjustifiable principle, particularly with regard to Scotland, as a justification for another Bill. May I end that point by asking the noble Earl a question? I see in looking at the First Schedule, on page 35, that there are three countries to which this is to apply—England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I would ask whether Wales for that purpose is included in England.




I am surprised that our Welsh friends at the other end of the passage have not had something to say about that. It is true that they do not produce many oats, but I think they should at least have been mentioned. Now I want to say a little about the ploughing programme. This is designed as portion of the policy of rehabilitation (to use the noble Earl's word) of agriculture. So far, at £2 an acre, we have a promise of 200,000 acres being ploughed up. I regard that as woefully and discreditably insufficient. Since the War I should think about 5,000,000 acres have reverted to grass, rough grazing, or even worse. I know from the figures that have come before one in connection with the County of whose War Agricultural Committee I am Chairman, that the decline in arable cultivation is quite appalling; it is quite 40 per cent. as compared with 1921 and 1922. Two hundred thousand acres are nothing. I should be ashamed of it, not proud of it. We ought to have a programme of ploughing up at least 5,000,000 acres for grass and reseeding purposes, and a programme for adding to our arable acreage nearly an equal amount.

The explanation of this small acreage is twofold. First, last autumn the Government could not make up their mind whether they were to encourage ploughing up or not so that they lost a ploughing season, and they meditated all through the winter and introduced the proposal at the most unpromising period of the year. That is one reason for the small acreage. Another reason is that I doubt very much whether many farmers will find they can do it for the money. The land must be got into good condition. But there is another reason. Mention of it is conspicuously absent from the Bill, though not from the noble Earl's speech, and that is the absence of agricultural labour. One of the main reasons for the decline of arable cultivation is the exodus of labour from the village to the town. One has reacted on the other. The uncertainty of arable cultivation has inclined the farmer not to plough any more than he can avoid, to take, as we often say, a lazy method of farming. The steady migration of workers from the country to the town in many districts now makes it almost impossible to do the work. There is nothing in this Bill to deal with that cardinal difficulty.

I notice that in the other House there were debates upon this question, and a proposal that there should be incorporated in the Bill a minimum wage for the agricultural worker was debated twice and received very general support. I hope your Lordships will be willing to give it general support. It is a vital defect in the Bill. I do not believe, myself, you will ever get a rehabilitation of the village unless, as an essential ingredient in our policy, there is provision not only of a decent wage, but of a decent standard of life in his habitation and elsewhere for the agricultural worker. He will not live in the village—at least his children will not—in the cottages which they often have to inhabit. That is a constant source of family dissatisfaction. I do not believe any agricultural policy will succeed unless it has, as an essential ingredient of it, the provision of a very large number of agricultural workers' cottages and the securing for the labourer of a decent minimum standard of wage. I regret exceedingly—I believe many of your Lordships do—that the agricultural worker has been entirely omitted from this Bill in any form.

May I just say one word about machinery? I mean tractors and so on. One of the main reasons, I believe, why many farmers are not able to undertake to plough more land up is that they have not got the labour and, secondly, they cannot afford the machinery. They have not the money with which to buy these things. I think it is a mistake that the Government have decided that the reserve of tractors and other agricultural implements shall not be usable for this ploughing programme as it would be perfectly possible to work out a system of easy payments whereby these implements might be made available to farmers to use in place of their having to find the whole money for purchasing them. This they are not able to do, and it would enormously increase the amount of land that could be ploughed if agricultural implements were made available on easy terms to cultivators. I hope, between now and the Autumn Session, the noble Earl's colleagues will have decided in some such way to give further opportunities to the farmer to cultivate his land.

There is nothing in this Bill, either, relating to the drainage of land. The National Farmers' Union estimate that the amount of land not being properly used, or even usuable, is something like 7,000,000 acres because it suffers from insufficient drainage. The amount of £140,000 a year which is given by one or other of the numerous Bills as a grant towards drainage is a freak. The drainage of millions of acres of land is an essential part of a progressive agricultural policy. There is nothing in this Bill which will provide for any of these (shall I say?) capital improvements. I do not believe they will come, so to say, gradually as the result of these different doles to farmers. They will only come, we believe, as part of a considered scheme of land improvement, as essential ingredients of a national agricultural scheme. However, whilst one regrets these omissions, and particularly the omission with regard to agricultural labour, we welcome the principle in our legislation recognising the necessity for some scheme of reliable prices for the producer. For that reason alone, apart entirely from the fact that it is quite impossible, in the short time allotted to us, to produce detailed Amendments to this Bill, my friends will give their support to the Bill.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to trouble your Lordships with any detailed examination of the clauses of this Bill which has been moved so ably and pleasantly by the noble Earl opposite, except in one particular, which I will refer to in a moment. Partly no doubt for the reason which the noble Lord, Lord Addison, has mentioned, this is one of the measures of which we regard the belated arrival in your Lordships' House with particular regret, and almost something approaching resentment, because there are so many members of this House who are thoroughly competent to take part, and I think probably also desirous of taking part in a Second Reading debate of this kind, which in the better old days would, I think, have fully occupied a couple of afternoons of your Lordships' time. On the general question I will only say that speaking from these Benches it is generally realised that if a protective system is to obtain at all, the case of agriculture, either by subsidy or otherwise, is a strong one. In the first place there is a general feeling that the rural population must be maintained for the sake of the health of the country and for other reasons. It is also the case that though this country cannot be self-supporting, yet in times of danger it is indispensable to be able to produce these ordinary necessaries of life which have to be safeguarded in ordinary times just as much as the production of implements of war, which is not entrusted to other countries, however friendly.

The only point on which I wish to make any particular observation is that which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Addison, in the course of his speech, and which is dealt with in Part IV of the Bill. I refer to the ploughing up of grassland. The noble Lord, Lord Addison, I think very truly, said that there is a vast quantity of grassland which might well be ploughed. He gave, I think, the figure of 5,000,000 acres. How far that is possible I cannot pretend to know, but I have no doubt that the quantity is considerable. But my query on the subject is of a different kind. It deals with the point not of the quantity of grassland which is to be ploughed, but with the possibility that some grassland might be ploughed which ought to be left alone. I see nothing in the terms of the Bill to prevent old pastures, a certain portion of which surely ought to be maintained, from being ploughed up if a demand is made to do so. There is a temptation to plough pasture because of the great immediate fertility which is obtained for a year or two, and, as we all know, in most farm agreements there are provisions against the ploughing up of old pastures which, it appears to me, might be over-ridden on the ipse dixit of the Minister under certain clauses of this Bill. Upon that I shall no doubt receive an assurance. But I entirely agree that there is a very great deal of poorly laid down grassland which ought to be ploughed, and I think it possible that the figure of 200,000 acres is, as the noble Lord, Lord Addison, says, not as much as it might be.

There is only one more observation I wish to make. It is clear that His Majesty's Government have reason for including in this Bill the three subjects—oats, barley and sheep. The kindred products, if I may so call them, of beef and wheat have been dealt with by earlier measures and undoubtedly, once you start on this slope of protection you are almost bound to go on sliding down. But is it not a regrettable fact that the whole business has to be dealt with in this piecemeal fashion? If it had been possible a year ago for His Majesty's Government, either by a Royal Commission or some similar form of inquiry, to enter into a thorough examination of the whole subject, calling all the possible evidence from the different parties involved, from the different types of producer and the different bodies of consumers, I cannot help thinking that a conclusion might have been reached which in the long run would have been fairer to everyone and more satisfactory to the country.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, it is always much more easy to criticise than it is to commend, but I am not going to allow myself to be led into criticism without first making some acknowledgments. I do hold that the agricultural industry as a whole, whether represented by landowners, by farmers or by the labourers, owes a very deep debt of gratitude to the Minister of Agriculture, to the Parliamentary Secretary and to the whole staff of the Ministry, for having approached this subject with the single-minded purpose of doing the very best possible within the financial limitations laid upon them. It is doubtless true to say that the provisions of the Bill are inadequate completely to deal with the position which presents itself in arable England at any rate. But while it is, I fear, the truth that there is a certain inadequacy, yet it is equally true to say that this measure is a considerable step at least towards the amelioration of what was rapidly becoming an intolerable position.

I was a little bit sorry when my noble friend introduced this measure that the exigencies of time compelled him to say that he would forgo the opportunity which it might otherwise have offered both for a general review of the various Bills which the Government have lately introduced and of the existing state of farming, for, quite clearly, this would have been an occasion for such a review, which I think would have been exceedingly interesting to listen to and would have given to noble Lords who are perhaps not quite so familiar as others with agricultural questions, and to the public in general through the medium of the Press, an opportunity of taking a broader view of the matters under discussion than is possible for them to take when measures are produced little by little in the manner suggested by noble Lords who have already spoken. But, inasmuch as my noble friend has set that restraint upon himself, I fear that it is a restraint which must apply also to those who follow him.

I would, however, like, if I may, in a few words to take up what fell from the noble Lord, Lord Addison, in respect of the effect that this Bill will have or may not have upon the agricultural worker, and the regret which the noble Lord expressed that the agricultural worker does not figure in this Bill. Surely he has very largely mistaken the purpose for which this Bill has been introduced. The noble Earl, when introducing the measure, made it perfectly clear, and indeed the measure itself makes it perfectly clear, that this Bill is not a Bill which is guaranteeing a profit to the producer. It is attempting nothing of the kind. Agriculturists would be deeply grateful for any measure which guaranteed a profit upon the basis of the cost of production plus—as it is commonly called. This Bill does not purport to give any such profit as agriculturists would be so glad to have. What this Bill does is to endeavour to put a bottom to what has been a bottomless market, and to that extent to provide against the really terrifying losses which agriculturists, particularly in arable England, have suffered within the course of the last twelve months.

I personally regard this measure as being immensely helpful to the prospects of the agricultural worker. There is no purpose in endeavouring to controvert a word that fell from the lips of the noble Lord, Lord Addison, in respect of the shortage of labour and the causation thereof. I would not controvert that for a moment. But I feel sure he would agree with me in realising that there still happily remain in the countryside a very large number of persons whose ambition is not to go to the town but to remain where they are. Even without any of the additional inducements which many would wish to see offered to them, the real fear at present in those men's minds is the loss of employment which would force them to give up the profession of their lives. That menace is always present as things now are to every labouring man, at any rate in arable England. At any moment the farmer's bank may decline to meet his weekly wages bill, and that being the case every man so employed is under the perpetual menace of losing his employment at short notice.

A Bill of this character really offers to the labouring man himself a greater degree of security than it does to any other of the sections employed in agriculture, and I am rather surprised that the Government through their spokesman have not made more of that particular aspect of the case. Providing you can insure the farmer again loss which it will be beyond his capacity to bear, once you do that, you do give to the labouring man in his employ what is of greater value to that man than anything else, and that is the expectation of continued employment. Whereas this Bill does not purport to give a profit to the farmer, and for that reason does not lend itself to the insertion of a fair-wages clause such as a profit-making Bill would, it really does in my mind give to the labouring man an expectation of continued employment which at the moment is of greater value to him than anything else that could be given to him.

The Bill does stabilise within certain low limits the price of oats, of barley and of sheep. All members of your Lordships' House will, of course, realise at once that the value of those proposals to farmers is dependent upon the costs of production not rising beyond what they stand at at present. For instance, the price of oats is to be stabilised at 8s. a cwt., that is 1s. a stone, and all members of your Lord-chips' House will know that in the days before the War 12S. a sack, that is 1s. a stone, was the normal price for oats. Well, the costs of production to-day are more than double what they were in pre-War days, but the guaranteed price of oats is not to be higher than it was before the War. It is very much better to get 8s. a cwt. than to take 5s. or 5s. 6d. which was the prevailing price last year, I agree, but if the costs of production were to rise, as they very well may, beyond the already high figures which prevail at the present time, these efforts of the Government to stabilise prices and to put a bottom in the market will be of very small account, because the cost of production may at any time really make it impossible for the farmer to continue growing this particular crop. However, I mention that only by the way.

There is a feature in the Bill which is thoroughly bad. It is almost impossible, I suppose, to avoid criticism. I have tried very hard to show how grateful both I and my fellow agriculturists must necessarily be for this particular measure, but it is impossible, I suppose—having, I was going to say, a gift but perhaps it would be considered more a vice that way—to avoid criticism. The criticism I would offer is that this Bill embodies an abomination, and that is the limitation of production. I am well aware that it must, because if financial aid is to be sought from the Treasury there must be a limit to that aid—at least, that is the Treasury argument, I do not know that it would be an agriculturist's argument—and therefore, in order to place a limitation upon the financial aid to be given, limitation of production has to follow. But it is fundamentally unsound. It might be very well in the case of a large country with a small population, but in the case of a small country with a great population, in large measure dependent on what it grows itself for the ability to feed its people, any policy which limits production must be folly; it cannot be sound. This Bill does embody—as, indeed, every Agriculture Bill of recent years has embodied—that same abominable policy.


The Coal Act and the Cotton Bill embody it; it is all the same.


Exactly. We know the reasons; I am not in a position to criticise those reasons, but they are in their cumulative effect abominable. I should like to protest against what I cannot acknowledge to be their necessity, though for their necessity I know that a good case can be made out. In addition to that, what every agriculturist must of course see is the inadequacy of the Bill to meet the real needs of the case. It is impossible to acknowledge that the conditions and terms of this Bill do adequately meet the case, even though they go as far as is possible at the moment towards meeting it. Having said that, I should like to refer for a moment to one or two other things which fell from my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary. He said that one of the purposes of the Bill was to attract capital back to the land. Something very much more drastic and sensational than this Bill will be needed for that purpose. Although it is wholly irrelevant to this measure, I am going to take the liberty of saying here and now that only one thing would attract capital back to the land, and that is the removal of Death Duties from application to agricultural land. There is only one way of doing it, and that is the way in which it can be done; there is no other. No number of Agriculture Bills will have the effect which the noble Earl and I and other agriculturists so greatly desire.

The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, referred in the course of his speech to the danger of a ploughing-up policy which might have the effect of disturbing good pastures which should be left alone. That is a very grave danger, but happily it was dealt with—no doubt the noble Marquess missed it—by way of question and answer in another place. It was pointed out that the Minister was not taking in this Bill any powers whatever to override the essential tenancy agreements which control that matter, and that therefore those who were fearful of such a thing happening—and they had good reason for fear—need be fearful no longer. I felt perhaps that it might be right that I should mention that at the present moment.

There are certain features of this Bill which give particular anxiety to those who are concerned to maintain the fertility of the land. It so happens that, all through the ages and now, the question of maintaining fertility has been an identical interest both with the owner of the soil and with the nation as a whole. It is vital to the nation as a whole that the fertility of the soil should be maintained, and it has for obvious reasons been vital to the landowner that the fertility of his land should be maintained. Those who will and do remember the Bills which began in 1906 and have continued to the present time will remember that in the earlier days there was a concentrated and successful effort to remove from the landowner the power which he then possessed for the maintenance of fertility, on the ground largely that that power could be and in some cases was exercised tyrannically. That power was entirely removed. Those who sat in the House in those days will remember perfectly well the warnings which were given by members of the House who had agricultural knowledge of the inevitable consequences of that action. Those consequences are now apparent to all and sundry. What has happened is that the removal from the landowner of the power and also the duty to retain and maintain the fertility of the soil, without replacing it by any other power, has had the effect which is now so obvious and so much lamented and has cost the taxpayer so much money: the land has depreciated in fertility to an alarming extent.

This Bill is the first of many which recognise that something either now or soon will have to be done by way of replacing that power which was taken away from the landowner. I am not here to deny that that power was exercised in certain cases tyrannically. It is ancient history now and it would not be worth going back upon it, but I would say this: that no one is in a position to maintain fertility of the soil and supervise it so effectively and so cheaply as the landowner. It should not have been impossible, and it should not now be impossible, to ensure that the landowner should be kept in what I will call that essential employment, and at the same time to institute certain safeguards which would prevent him from using that authority in either a tyrannical or an uninformed manner. What is going to be done under this Bill by way of replacing this lost authority? Clause 4 acknowledges by inference that an authority over cultivation is now required. Clause 34 gives the Minister for the first time the power to inspect land compulsorily. It is a very revolutionary power. At the present time no one other than a policeman has any right to go upon anybody's land—although there is nothing to prevent him from looking over the fence. I believe that these crop reporters upon whom we are informed that the Minister is going to rely have hitherto confined their utility to looking over the fence. I only hope that some of them have very long sight!

Under Clause 4 of the Bill it is proposed that a certain degree of power shall be exercised over the grower of oats. I have no doubt that that will also apply to barley and eventually to ploughing up as well. It is provided that the Minister shall have power in certain cases to withhold or to diminish the subsidy which is made available by the State. As I have already said, Clause 34 provides for inspection. It seems a most remarkable thing that any landowner should even cast eyes in the direction of control, but provided the control is going to be exercised by persons competent to exercise it, the time has unquestionably come when that control has to be installed. Cross-cropping has been practised to such a degree in recent years that the fertility of the soil of England has depreciated to an alarming extent. Cross-cropping—that is, the continuous growing of corn crops—is permitted. No landowner has the power to stop it. It is perfectly true that a landowner can appeal to an agricultural committee of the county and obtain a certificate of bad farming, but those landowners who have tried have found that they have wasted their time and that they might just as well have left the matter untouched.

The trouble is that agricultural committees have permissive and not mandatory powers. Many agricultural committees are fully competent to exercise those powers, but when powers are permissive it is very difficult to get members of a community to exercise them over other members of the same community. That is evident. The question that both Parliament, acting on behalf of the taxpayer, and the landowner, looking at the matter in his own behalf, have to determine, is whether in each particular case the provisions of the safeguards included in the Bill are sufficient. I would like to make it perfectly clear that neither in my view, nor in the view of any experienced agriculturist, has the occupier of the soil any undue dose of original sin. He does not farm badly because he wants to. Let that be made perfectly clear. It is economics which have caused the farmer to run out the fertility of his soil. There is no occasion, and no right, for Parliament, speaking for the taxpayer, to throw stones at the farmer. Economics have been too much for him and the soil has suffered accordingly. It has suffered very often also in the case of the owner-occupier, who, one would imagine, would look after his own land. Economics have frequently been too much for him.

There is also one other aspect which must be referred to. It is what I would describe as the depredations of a large mechanised company who, being subject to no restrictions of any sort or kind, are able to farm very extensively, and having the run of sufficient land to enable them to farm cheaply are able, by reason of the fact that there is no control, to farm out and sterilize large areas, and increasingly large areas, in England. Here is a Bill which recognises these things by inference, and it proposes to make use of persons appointed by the Minister to inspect and to report. Who are those persons to be? The noble Earl spoke of crop reporters. Do not let us deceive ourselves into thinking too well of these crop reporters. Three hundred of them in all Great Britain! I have tried very hard to find out who the crop reporters were in my own county. I suppose they exist, but nobody is aware of their existence. Have they ever functioned? Possibly they have, but it must have been by night. Have they any competence? It is extremely doubtful. If these are the people who are going to pass their eyes over the farms which are not well-farmed, and report to the Minister, with the sole object of preventing the subsidy from being paid, it is not sufficient, and I cannot think that the land of England is going to be cultivated in the future any better than it has been in recent years.

I should like very much in Committee to put Amendments on the Paper which would deal with the matter drastically, with great fairness to the occupier, with proper regard to the taxpayer, and some regard to the landowners as well, but to quote from the noble Lord, Lord Addison, and from the noble Marquess, how are we to deal with the matter? We are to take the Committee stage on Wednesday. Are we to put down Amendments, and if they are carried in this House, as they would be, when the Bill goes back to the House of Commons are we to be told that all we have done is to lose the Bill, and lose the advantages which the farmers must have? I have made my protest on that particular subject, and I do not propose to enlarge upon it, but now the temptation to put down drastic Amendments for the Committee stage is almost irresistible.

I would conclude with one more reference. It is to Clause 32 of the Bill, on the subject of agricultural credits. It is proposed to offer to the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation a subsidy not exceeding 60,000 a year, the exact disposal of which is to be arranged between the Minister and the Treasury. It can be held quite reasonably that this £60,000 to be made available to the Mortgage Corporation for the purpose of enabling that Corporation to continue loans to agriculturists at 4¼ per cent., is thereby assisting agricultural credits. It is perfectly true that it will, but at the same time it has got to be borne in mind that agriculturists of all sorts at present hold approximately £6,000,000 of loan from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, and pay five per cent., plus sinking fund. These earlier borrowers, who are carrying this heavy burden, are not to derive any benefit whatever from the subsidy under this Bill, although these earlier borrowers are taxpayers and will have to contribute to the £60,000 which is going to be offered to new borrowers. Moreover, this £60,000 a year, although it can be represented as assistance to agricultural credit, is also a guarantee to the debenture holders, and the taxpayer is being invited to contribute a subsidy which can and will automatically be used for ensuring to those debenture holders a rate of interest, for we are informed that unless this money is contributed by the State the Corporation will have to wind up, for the reason that it has so much on deposit that it finds it impossible to lend.

It is true that the earlier borrowers of £6,000,000 are enabled or will be enabled at any time to convert their mortgage from 5 to 4¼ per cent., but they will be compelled to pay a premium of 5 per cent. in order to take advantage of that fact. The payment of 5 per cent. premium is going automatically to absorb six and a half years of the benefit derived by conversion, but as all borrowers are taxpayers and many are Surtax payers as well it may well be that the six and a half years will be extended to thirteen years, and if they have to borrow the premium then it will increase to fifteen the number of years during which they will have to wait for the advantage, and as the whole number of years which have to be waited until the debentures are paid off is twenty, it will be obvious that there is not much advantage to the old borrowers in conversion. I propose to put on the Paper an Amendment which will enable both Houses to take cognisance of the particular scheme which is agreed between the Minister and the Treasury. The moment is not suitable now for putting down the kind of Amendment which would be a direct instruction to the Minister as to how he should deal with the money, but I should very greatly hope that the Government would be able to accept a short Amendment providing that this scheme shall come before both Houses of Parliament before becoming effective, just as the Barley Scheme and similar schemes in other Bills have to come before Parliament before they take effect. I propose to do that so that this rather technical matter can be properly debated, not now or on Wednesday, but later when the scheme is laid on the Table. I must apologise to your Lordships for keeping you so long, but this, after all, is a Bill which affects agriculture in its every part, and it seems impossible to dispose of it in a few moments. I thank your Lordships for the tolerance with which you have listened to me.

6.10 p.m.


My Lords, like my noble friend who has just sat down, I should like to express my gratitude to the noble Earl, to the Government and to the Land Commissioner for this instalment of what is, after all, the most determined and the most comprehensive effort to restore some measure of prosperity to agriculture that I have known during my occupation of a seat in this House, which I regret to say covers a period of nearly forty years. Whether this policy is successful or not will depend on many circumstances, some of them beyond the control of the Government; but whether it fails or succeeds there will not be many bodies in a position to throw a stone against the principle which is involved in this Bill. After all, for at least twelve years the Central Landowners' Association have been pressing for some measure of guaranteed price, the National Farmers' Union have been whole-heartedly in favour of the same, and the Labour Party have shown in the very excellent memorandum produced by the noble Lord, Lord Addison, and Mr. George Dallas, that in principle they undoubtedly press for the same thing. It is true that the Central Landowners' Association would have wished, and I think still wish, that a greater measure of assistance should come out of the pockets of the foreigner than out of the pockets of their fellow countrymen, and indeed many of them still believe that the levy subsidy, so often and so consistently urged by a late Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Walter Elliot, might have been made more use of. It is true that the National Farmers Union, when they talk of a guaranteed price, mean a profitable price for a man who farms adequately well, and that is what they urge, and personally I think logically and rightly; and it is true that the policy is superimposed on the Labour Party by their adoption of the principle of the nationalisation of the land. But the principle is one that is supported by all those three bodies.

When I express my gratitude and admiration for this Bill that is very far from saying that it is a perfect Bill. I think this is a Bill which is capable of much amendment. I believe that your Lordships might very well have improved it in more than one direction. I regret with the noble Lord, Lord Addison, and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, that such opportunity has been denied to us, and I will express very sincerely my sympathy with the noble Earl on the same ground. To the Parts of this Bill which deal with oats and barley I have this criticism to make. It seems to me to be quite illogical to say that a person who grows wheat is to get less help for his oats and barley than the person who does not grow wheat, and it seems to me that the distinction is really an incentive in many cases to depart from that balanced agriculture to which it is so fashionable to pay lip service. I wonder if your Lordships would consider whether it is, in fact, a saving to the country that the man who grows wheat should receive a less subsidy than the man who grows only oats and barley. I suggest that the incentive to the man who can grow wheat will be to grow nothing but wheat. We have been told that the cost to the country for each acre of wheat last year was in the neighbourhood of £4 5s. Is it a saving to the country to pay £4 5s. instead of paying £2 13s. 4d.? It is not a saving that is apparent to me.

In the same Part of the Bill there is a clause dealing with negligent farming, and I am entirely in agreement with the last speaker that this clause will be a dead letter. I do not believe that it will act at all, but I am not so disturbed with regard to that as possibly some of your Lordships are. In the first place that does not apply to wheat, and if the clause became objectionable to the man who was growing barley and oats badly, it would be open to him in very many cases to say, "I am in trouble in my cultivation of barley and oats. I will grow nothing but wheat, and I will do that as badly as I like." That is one reason why I am not worried about this clause becoming a dead letter. The second thing is this, that in a vast majority of cases of bad farming, that bad farming is due solely to the fact that at the present moment it pays better than good farming. Once agriculture is in such a position that good farming pays better than bad farming I venture to think that the vast majority of farmers will farm well instead of farming badly, as many of them are forced by necessity to do now. I am therefore not so worried about that clause, but I still venture to think that in course of time, and before agriculture is in a thoroughly satisfactory position, it will be necessary to have some central body—I trust nonpolitical—with branches and districts, which will be charged with the duty of seeing to fertility, cultivation and possibly wages, and possibly also rents.

Part II deals with that most difficult of all agricultural subjects, barley. Barley was always a difficult subject to deal with, for the reason that it was divided into two separate departments, malting barley and feeding barley. But it is a worse proposition now, because malting barley is divided again, and only quite recently, into malting barley that goes into beer and into spirits and vinegar, and that rapidly growing portion of malting barley which goes into Horlicks' Milk and Ovaltine, and all those preparations which minister to that delightful advertising complaint "Night starvation." Without seeing the scheme it is obviously quite impossible to criticise this portion of the Bill at all, but I might be permitted perhaps to express my sympathy with the framers of the scheme, and still more with the Barley Advisory Committee who have to work it. Their task will be hard indeed.

With regard to sheep, they represent a problem only second in difficulty to that of barley, and I congratulate the Government on their courage in tackling this subject because, after all, sheep both in peace and war are of vital importance to agriculture and to the safety of the people of this country. I find one very grave criticism with regard to this portion of the Bill, and that is the severe limitation that is placed upon the price insurance of this commodity. We are told it will only extend up to 27,000,000, and the present sheep population is 26,800,000, leaving a margin of 200,000 to overtake. This is a Development Bill. I understand "development" means to increase. When you develop your muscles you increase your muscles; when you develop your resources you increase your resources, so I have always understood.

Surely when this Bill was framed there must have been two considerations which did not occur to His Majesty's Government. The first was that for years they have been pressing the people of this country to improve their pastures. They are giving them money now to improve their pastures, I thought to put stock and sheep on them. Surely they anticipated an increased sheep population when they urged people to provide better and bigger grazing. Further than that, while 200,000 is the nominal margin in reserve, really it is much less than that for this reason, that during the last few years, from year to year, there has been a pressure to have smaller sheep—that is the fashion—to compete with the sheep that come from New Zealand and elsewhere. In the sheep scheme it will be found that there is a special desire to have smaller sheep than we had in the past. The truth of the matter is that the 27,000,000 sheep will only be equal to about three-fourths of the mutton there was from 26,000,000 sheep a few years back. That is a retrograde move, as far as mutton is concerned, of a very substantial kind, and I cannot but think that that consideration was not present in the mind of His Majesty's Government or indeed of the noble Earl who has introduced the Bill to your Lordships.

With regard to Part IV, and the ploughing up of all pastures, this I understand is to be a war measure. The noble Earl did not say so, but I have certainly heard it said in high official circles that the ploughing up policy must be regarded as a war measure. If so, I suggest it should not appear in this Bill which, after all, is an instalment of a long-term policy. I am well aware there are parts of the country where this ploughing-up policy is eagerly welcomed, and therefore I am not going to criticise it because in my own part of the country very little use will be made of it; but, if I may express a personal opinion, it would be to the effect that if the Government are going to spend £500,000, which is the sum they aim at, with a view to increasing food production in time of war, and improving the fertility of the soil, they would have had more value for that money from the point of view for which it is intended if it were expended on land drainage rather than in this manner. That is purely a personal point of view, but I hold it very strongly. I have made criticisms, but that does not mean I am either ungrateful or without admiration for this measure, because I have both gratitude and admiration.

As I generally do when any big measure of this sort comes before your Lordships' House, I have looked at the debates in another place to see what are the main criticisms with regard to this Bill. I have looked at the OFFICIAL REPORT, and I find with some gratification that there are only two main criticisms. One is that this large sum of money, which varies in the mouths of different speakers, will go mainly and inevitably into the hands of the landlord, and the second is that none of it will go into the pocket of the agricultural labourer. So far as these criticisms are genuine—I trust they are—and not merely political, they seem to overlook two facts. The first is that the landlord is unable now to increase his rent to the tenant except by arbitration, and few landowners indeed that I know have gone to arbitration. On the other hand many tenants have done so because they nearly always get their rents reduced.

As to none of the benefits to agriculture in general going into the pocket of the agricultural worker, surely it has been forgotten that wages at the present moment are governed by the Agricultural Wages Act which set up the Agricultural Wages Board. It was the Party of noble Lords opposite, who are so conspicuously absent now, which set up the Agricultural Wages Board. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, standing up among those empty Benches and saying that this was the agricultural worker's charter inasmuch as for all time, he said, whenever there was any money for agriculture, the agricultural worker was assured of his fair share. These agricultural wages boards have done very well. I have heard no complaint on the score of the work they have done from agricultural workers. The trouble has been they have been asked to produce a quart out of a pint pot. They have not been able to find the money which the farmer has not got to give to the labourer, though by this Bill and other means, when the quart pot becomes full, then I am thoroughly assured the agricultural wages boards will do their duty and pass on his fair share to the agricultural worker. If an Amendment were adopted which the noble Lord, Lord Addison, appeared to threaten he would re-introduce in your Lordships' House, under which no one should get any help under this Bill unless he paid every worker £2 per week, what would be the result? I suggest that very few working farmers would be in a position to take any advantage of this Bill whatever because it would cost them more than they could get from it, and the unfortunate agricultural labourer would have no chance of getting any share of the benefits which this Bill undoubtedly would give.

Here we have a Bill presented to us which has been agreed by all parties as far as I know. I should have thought this would have been an opportunity to set politics aside. Agriculture has lost heavily by politics in the past, and I think most earnestly that if all Parties in the State could agree, as far as this measure and other measures for agriculture are concerned, to give politics a miss, we might hope to see a greater measure of benefit not only from this Bill but from the other Bills with which I hope in due course the Government will follow this one. I regard this, I hope rightly, not as a final stage of the long-term policy but merely as an instalment, however good and big it may be.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, rising after the last two speeches I find myself in some difficulty, because they were both so eloquent and both so full of knowledge. Moreover, I have been in contact with the two noble Lords who made those speeches over the terms of this Bill and other Agriculture Bills for so long that my views very nearly coincide with theirs, because we have discussed things almost I was going to say ad nauseum and have arrived, certainly amongst ourselves, at an agreed series of views. Therefore anything I may say this afternoon will be really in the nature of a footnote to those two most eloquent speeches. I would first make reference to something that the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, said regarding the Benches opposite. I could only wish that noble Lords who are in opposition in this House had been able to sustain their interest in our great industry of agriculture sufficiently long this afternoon to hear his appeal for unanimity and no politics in agriculture.

There is no need for me to stress the importance of this Bill. That has been done sufficiently by previous speakers. Nor is there any need for me to regret the short time which we have for consideration of the terms of the Bill in all its aspects. It is a great pity, however, that is so, because open discussion in your Lordships' House, or for that matter anywhere else, very often brings to light weaknesses and clarifies difficulties in a way which one can get in no other manner. But the Bill is welcomed because it is designed to assist farmers, and I hope its welcome will not be too moderate when what is in the Bill reaches the farmers themselves. I will come at once to what I think is the most important part of the Bill, one which has been dealt with already very fully by the noble Lord, Lord Hastings. I refer to the questions of the control of cropping and the maintenance of the fertility of the land. The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, has dealt with that very fully indeed, but I do hope it is realised by your Lordships that we are only really to-day at the beginning of knowledge as to what loss of fertility means. It does not only mean the taking out of the land without replacement those foods necessary to the growth of life. It means also, possibly, an increase in the liability to disease. Already I think there are two fungus diseases about which very little is known but which are on the increase, and which seem to follow either mechanical farming or cross cropping, and which do quite definitely affect the yield of our crops. I was informed only to-day that produce from land which has gone down in its fertility seems also to have ill effects both on human beings and animals who consume that produce; but those are things in regard to which our knowledge is still in its infancy.

Loss of fertility may therefore be a bigger thing than even we realise. It is all the more desirable that every possible step should be taken to avoid this cropping, which will involve a loss of fertility in our land. I am, I think perhaps more than the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, and certainly I believe more than the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, an unrepentant believer in the value of the landlord and tenant system. I was almost horrified to hear my noble friend on my left proposing an independent corporation to control cropping on our land. I believe, for reasons which were given so ably by Lord Hastings, that the landlord is the man who can best and most cheaply preserve the fertility of the land both in his own interest and in the interests of the country, and one must remember that, although there are a large number of owner-farmers still to-day, the larger part of our land in this country is farmed under the landlord and tenant system, and I think, so far as they can afford it, even the owner-farmers try to preserve the fertility of their land.

In this Bill the process of investigating negligent farming is to be done by officials of the Ministry. I need not go into the details, which were explained by the noble Earl in charge of the Bill, but so far as I can see in the Bill the motive for discovering where there is negligence in the cultivation of the land comes initially and all the time from the Ministry and its officials and from nowhere else. I do not know that I like that very much. In any case the whole process seems to be rather like farming from Whitehall. I quite appreciate that the Minister is going to disburse the country's money as a result of this measure. Therefore it is for him to see that the money is disbursed to the best advantage and that no disadvantage is suffered as a result of its disbursement. I do not know that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, that the provisions in the Bill are completely a dead letter. I do, however, feel that there ought to be in the Bill—the noble Earl possibly can reassure me in his reply—some assurance that either the landlord or some other body which is interested in agriculture should have the right, if he or it so wishes, to have any representations regarding negligent farming looked into by the Ministry's officials. It seems to me that at the moment the initiative comes entirely from the Ministry. The landowner or any representative agricultural body is completely cut out. If the noble Earl could give me some assurance that they are not so cut out it would go, I think, a long way to making those provisions look better than they do.

One other matter to which I wish to refer is the subject of fertility and sheep. The noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, pointed out with great force that the figure of 27,000,000 sheep is a limiting figure of the assistance given. It does not limit the production, because of course you can keep as many sheep as you like, but it does limit the amount of assistance given to a comparatively small figure, considering the sheep population to-day. That is quite true, and it is also quite true that sheep are smaller and therefore the volume of mutton that would be produced would be less. It is also true that rarely in the past has the figure of 27,000,000 been exceeded. But in connection with the question of fertility, what I want to point out is that the tendency lately has been to increase the number of grass-fed sheep and to decrease the number of sheep which are fed on the arable land. They have so decreased very considerably, and I would have liked to see in this Bill a considerable increase in the maximum number of sheep that will receive assistance, if you like so to put it, if only from the point of view of encouraging farmers to keep more sheep on the arable land and so help to preserve its fertility. It is a most important point and it is of the greatest importance in the Eastern counties, in the poor and high lands in the Southern counties and in the Lincolnshire wolds, where sheep have always in the past been an important means of keeping the fertility of the soil.

Now I would like to say a word on the subject of the barley proposals, particularly with reference to malting barley. There are certain facts with regard to malting barley which I think it is desirable to bear in mind when considering the Government's proposals. It is difficult to consider them because we do not know what they are. We only know that there will be a scheme, and I must express gratitude to the noble Earl for saying that he will let us have, so to speak, advance copies of the scheme. So far as malting barley is concerned, apart from those delightful beverages which the noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, mentioned, beer is the principal home of malting barley. Now the fact is that the consumption of beer has gone down by about half—rather more than half, I think—and the production area of barley has not gone down to a corresponding extent. Not only that, but constant researches by various very skilled people have increased production and have also improved the quality so that you have a larger supply of malting barley than is warranted by the consumption of beer. Any scheme which does not take that into account may find itself in difficulty because those are economic facts and though we may sidetrack economic facts for a short time with a scheme we cannot do so for ever. There is, of course, a perfectly simple way of dealing with the whole malting barley question, if the noble Earl can persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to bring in a short Bill reducing the penal taxation on beer and so increase consumption, but I am afraid that that is not a possible solution at the moment.

There is only one other thing I wish to mention about barley. The noble Earl divided barley into barley destined for an industrial purpose and barley not destined for an industrial purpose, and said the scheme will contain provision for securing that barley designated as not destined for an industrial purpose shall not be used for an industrial purpose. It will be very helpful if some indication can be given as to how he is going to prevent a merchant buying ordinary grinding barley and then, after a decent interval, passing it on to someone else for an industrial purpose at an enhanced price. It seems to me very difficult, and if the difficulty has been got over the Ministry deserve every possible credit for their ingenuity.

May I in passing also mention one small thing? I know that Parliamentary draftsmen are a very excellent body of men, who have been working under great difficulties, but they are human like everyone else and they have certain failings. The failing which I dislike more than anything else is their apparent love for the word "designated," which appears in almost every Bill which comes before your Lordships. I always think "described" is a better word than "designated" and I wish they would not use "designated" quite so often.

Finally, I would like to say a word about the ploughing subsidy which the noble Lord, Lord Addison, criticised as not being adequate. I think he is entirely wrong there. I look on this £2 an acre more as an encouragement to persuade those who have grassland suitable for this purpose to start a practice which they will learn in time does not really need a subsidy. I had the opportunity not so very long ago of going to see a big demonstration of the ploughing up of grassland, and on grassland that was suitable for the purpose which had been ploughed up and reseeded the results were astounding. A good deal of it had been done long before any announcement by the Ministry by farmers who realise the value of ploughing up old grassland, the usefulness of which had gone and which was worn out. That does not apply to the good £3 an acre land which is still producing usefully, nor to the very poor land where in fact grass does not nor ever will grow very well. So £2 an acre subsidy is quite adequate, and I believe in course of time it will be found that the fanner will learn that it is to his own interest as well as to the country's interest to plough up and make better use of such land as is suitable for that purpose.

The noble Earl in charge of the Bill is too old a hand with Agriculture Bills to expect vociferous thanks from the agricultural community as a whole. I confess I am not prepared to give that tremendous praise to the Bill which would sound sweet in his ears. I look on it rather as a drowning man looks upon a spar which saves him from going down for the third time. He has a certain affection for that spar, but he keeps his real thanks for the man who takes him out of the water and restores him to the bosom of his family. I hope that some day a Minister may be able to do that for agriculture.

6.49 p.m.


My Lords, we are pleased in Scotland that the Government have taken up to a large extent the proposals of the Chamber of Agriculture and the National Farmers' Union and that they have recognised the importance of oats in our farming. I hope the Government will also have observed that those with most experience in sheep farming consider that better terms may quite likely be necessary to enable them to pay their wages and other costs which they have to incur, in order to run their businesses properly and make a profit. It has somehow come to be considered that the costs in connection with sheep farming in our hill lands are very slight, but we are realising that a very considerable amount of expenditure is necessary—much more than was necessary formerly—to preserve the quality of our sheep and preserve the nutritional value of the land so that it may produce good sheep and keep them free from disease. I would like to mention the case of farms in climates where probably the normal cropping would consist of about two-thirds or three-quarters oats and about one-third or one-quarter wheat. I understand that in such cases there will be a rather serious disadvantage, resulting in a tendency to grow only oats in future and not as large a proportion of wheat as there should be. Lord Hastings has very rightly pointed out the importance of preserving the correct amount of cropping, and I hope the Government will do a little more, in the interests of good farming and for the benefit of future generations, to ensure that we do have the correct cropping and not overcropping.

Apart from these matters, of which I hope a little more consideration may be possible, I should like only to say a few more words to support the Government and to emphasize the real necessity that there is for their action to-day. The proposals should help to stop the losses of our farmers, and the only question is whether they will go far enough. It should not at any rate be thought, as it may be thought outside agricultural circles, that these proposals will enable farmers to make money very easily. They will in any case have to know their jobs well and to work hard, even with the assistance which is coming, because farming under conditions as we know them is very difficult and complicated. I wonder if it is realised how very serious is the effect of the loss of capital and savings by nearly every farmer in recent years. Improvement and recovery cannot now be instantaneous, and very much expenditure in advance is required on most farms to enable full benefit to be gained from what is now being done.

I hope, therefore, that the Government will be able really to restore confidence to the industry, and thus enable somehow those concerned to get that credit, and with the new confidence to be able to borrow to purchase their requirements. I am glad to find a very widespread approval for the proposals. There is indeed a minority, a very small minority, who are opposing, and they are in some districts active in propaganda. They appear to be eager to disallow these advantages to agriculture in case some of the advantage may possibly go to the landlord. There are, we know, those who have said ever since the War that every beneficial Act would only put money into the pockets of the landlord and result in higher rents. The actual fact is that rents are to-day the same as or lower than they were a few years ago.


Before the War.


Or before the War. The costs of maintaining farms are naturally higher, as are also the taxes. It is now up to all of us to combine to take advantage of what the Government are doing for our industry. Landowners, their sons and agents will more than ever before be required to know their jobs and to assist and combine with their farmers in carrying them out. If we can do so with the help now coming to us, it will be to the advantage of the country, and the proposals will then merit the support of all other industries as well as our own.

6.54 p.m.


My Lords, I shall not be more than a few minutes, after all these good speeches that we have heard. I rise purely to say that we have hardly been grateful enough, in view of the political circumstances of to-day, towards our Government for producing this Bill at this juncture. I think it is a very notable thing to get money out of the Treasury even to the extent that it has been got, when money is so badly needed elsewhere. I should, however, also like, if I may, to pay a tribute to the conception of this Bill, which seems to me better conceived, more carefully thought out in all its details, as well as better inspired in its general principles, than most Bills which have been in front of us for many a year. I should also like to add that in my opinion the statement made by the noble Earl who introduced the Bill was one of the clearest and most helpful statements that I have heard in this House. Having said so much, I should like to say that it is still necessary to hammer into the public the fact that the whole conception of this Bill is only one, as has been well said, of putting a bottom in the market. It is necessary for the reason that that bottom, even now, is so very far down.

Let me illustrate my point. I want to get in my harvest next month. Will the prices that have been offered me, that I shall get in the market, plus the subsidy which I shall obtain, justify me in going to the labour market and offering £5, £6 or £7 per week to an unskilled labourer who does not know his farming job? Of course not. The prices that the farmer will receive will justify no such figure. Yet the public money which is being paid out to a contractor who is building a militia camp apparently justifies him in numerous cases, in hundreds of cases, in drawing the labour from our farms and paying £5, £6 and £7 a week for the erection of huts to men who have no previous skill whatever at that work. This question of wages remains unfortunately the real test of whether or not farming can continue to exist in this country. However well-conceived the provisions of this Bill may have been, they do not do more than enable us, with a very low price guaranteed to us for our products, to pay more than a very low price to the labourer. That remains the principal and the overwhelming difficulty of farming, and is the difficulty which sooner or later in the national interest must be tackled.

Having said that, I should like to welcome with all my heart the recognition that the nation has a definite interest in retaining and maintaining the fertility of the soil. That interest is very shyly and coyly expressed in Clause 4, almost as if the Government were afraid to say that the nation was concerned with the fertility of the soil. After all, that provision does not go further than to say "I am not paying you to rob my land." Even so, it is a first step, together with the setting-up of the Fertility Committee a year or two ago, to express what is really one of the most vital interests the nation can have, and I am duly grateful for this beginning. One small mistake has, however, been made. Barley and, more particularly, oats are crops that draw from the land. Beans and peas are crops that maintain the fertility of the land. Why were not beans and peas, most valuable of all our crops, included with oats and thought worthy of the subsidy? That, I think, was frankly a mistake.

Now I want to say a few words about the barley subsidy. I gathered, though I was not quite sure whether I was right, from the noble Earl, that the levy subsidy scheme was to be dropped. I sincerely trust not. I cannot see myself, and have not seen for several years, why a modified levy subsidy scheme on the terms of the Wheat Act cannot be applied to barley. That Wheat Act is so extraordinarily successful that it should come as a convincing argument in favour of its adaptation to other crops. Take the position to-day. We have wheat lower than it has been for 250 years. Obviously the farmer would have to go out of business if he were not helped. Obviously the amount of the help being found by the consumer to help the farmer must have gone up in equally staggering proportions to the reduction in the price. The net result is only that the baker has to pay 27s. a sack, with the quota on, and the consumer gets bread almost cheaper than in any other country in the world, although he has borne the insurance, as it were, of the wheat quota. I cannot help hoping that to a limited extent that precedent will be followed up, and that the noble Earl and the advisers of the Minister will be able to work out a policy of levy subsidy for barley. I promised I would not be long, and I sit down with many congratulations on the introduction of this Bill.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, the range of subjects that has been covered in this debate is such that almost every main head that comes under the term "agricultural industry" has been brought into consideration, and it is no easy task, especially at this hour, to draw from the threads of the debate the salient features which require a reply. I think we can be agreed that the debate has shown that the provisions of this Bill are generally acceptable. It is a matter of regret, and each speaker has given expression to it, that a Bill which has such a wide range should come to this House at so late a date in the Session and I am particularly grateful to Lord Phillimore for having given credit to the Government for the fact that in spite of the emergency considerations which have to be taken into account at this time the Bill has been brought before your Lordships' House even at such a late date.

The noble Lord, Lord Addison, said that to bring a measure of this kind to your Lordships' House now was not a question for resentment on the part of the members of your Lordships' House but was an affront to the House. It is not for me to say that this is a question that would have come to your Lordships' House at an earlier date if the times had been more normal. It is the unsettled conditions which have caused an unsettled programme in another place and it is for that reason, as the Leader of the House has explained, that the Bill, could not be brought up at an earlier date. I repeat that I owe an apology to the House and I can assure the members of the House that it is perhaps as inconvenient, if not more so, to persons in charge of a Bill that all the stages of that Bill should be dealt with in the space of one week, as it is to any other person.

The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, made a criticism to the effect that this Bill was another instance of piecemeal legislation and he intimated that it would have been more satisfactory if three or four years ago his Majesty's Government had brought in a fully comprehensive measure which would render unnecessary these Bills dealing with commodity after commodity of agricultural production. But after the passing of this Bill it will be possible to say that no staple commodity on the farm is without some effective safeguard. This should mean that in the future we shall see a more balanced economy on the farm, and also that the striking fall in arable cultivation, which has prominently featured in the discussion on this Bill, is likely to be stemmed, and consequently we shall have a greater production of home feeding stuffs. The National Farmers' Union, in the discussion which my right honourable friend had with them concerning the future policy of this industry, agreed that when this Bill was placed on the Statute Book there would not be one main commodity which had not got some measure to safeguard price levels from falling to extreme unremunerative levels.

Lord Hastings, in the course of his speech, which as usual was highly eloquent, suggested that this Bill was an instance of limitation of production. I would prefer to say that any limitation inserted in this Bill—the 27,000,000 sheep, the 2,500,000 acres placed as a ceiling for oat production, and the 18,000,000 cwt. for barley in Part II—are all limitations on the financial side. Therefore it is a limitation of aid, and not of production. If farmers are going to get the advantage that accrues to them by the ploughing-up campaign, which is in operation for this year, and for which they will get £2 an acre of subsidy, it does not mean that the provisions of this Bill will prevent them from benefiting the land or the fertility of the land. It simply means that some safeguard is placed on the finances of the Exchequer. Another point is that if there were undue expansion there might well be an increase in production in excess of demand, which would cause such a serious collapse of prices that the whole basis of price insurance found in this Bill would be in danger.

Lord Cranworth used the argument that under the provisions of Part I of the Bill, in respect of oats, there should not be a disability placed upon the farmer who grows wheat, and that he should receive assistance at the higher rate of subsidy. The noble Duke who sits on the Cross Benches (the Duke of Buccleuch) and other of your Lordships who come from the North-East of Scotland, from the North of England and from parts of Wales and Northern Ireland will appreciate that there are large tracts of land in those areas where wheat cannot be grown; and members of your Lordships' House will know that assistance rendered to agriculture in the past has gone largely to the better lands, and the light land farmer has tended to switch over to wheat, in some instances where wheat should properly not be grown, at the expense of fertility and to the ultimate loss of the land itself. This Bill does essentially redress that balance. My noble friend Lord Cranworth said that too much lip service had been paid to the balance of the farm and of the farm economy. That may have been a justified criticism in the past, but it certainly is not a justified criticism in view of this Bill. Because this Bill, if it succeeds at all, must succeed in giving substantial help to the farmers on the light land, who are in the main dependent upon oats, barley and sheep.

The noble Lords, Lords Hastings and Lord Radnor, referred at some length to Clause 4, which deals with the control of cultivation. The noble Lords stressed the importance of securing that the provisions concerning negligent cultivation are adequately enforced, and, further, they suggested that the powers proposed may not be adequate to prevent that which has admittedly been occurring in the past.


May I add, that the personnel may not be adequate?


I was just coming to that. The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, mentioned in particular the deterioration in the fertility of the land which arises from overcropping by white-straw crops, and he referred to the regrettable departure from the rotational practices which are generally regarded as synonymous with good farming. The crop reporters who are not, in the belief of the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, well informed as to local conditions, are in the main surveyors, auctioneers and land agents, who in the course of their normal business come into contact with the local husbandry. It is correct to say that in the main the 300 crop reporters, who are part-time servants of the Ministry of Agriculture, are efficient. But the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, doubts the value of any local person's implementation of the intentions of Clause 4.

If it be found that the crop reporters are not successfully undertaking the functions for which the Bill provides, it would be possible for my right honourable friend to increase the number of full-time employees of the Ministry of Agriculture. If it is found necessary there can be more land commissioners, and I believe that the noble Lord would not doubt the advantages that could be gained by the Land Commissioner himself undertaking this work in certain circumstances. As I indicated in my opening remarks, the Government are fully alive to the great importance of this question, and it is our intention to intensify the inspection of the land even over and above what was done last year under the Agriculture Act.

In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, who asked that a definite assurance should be given on this occasion, I am happy to give such an assurance, and to say that arrangements will be made for inspection of any holding for which an application for subsidy for barley and oats has been received, upon receipt of a complaint about negligent cultivation or the impairment of fertility from a landowner, his agent, or any other person with a definite interest in the holding, or indeed, as the noble Lord mentioned, from a representative agricultural organisation that may be concerned. Any such complaint might be made, either direct to the headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture or, if it is preferred, it might be lodged with one of the Ministry's local officers, such as the land commissioner for the district. I hope that assurance, that if any landowner wishes to raise a complaint in respect of any one of the farmers with whom he is concerned his complaint will be dealt with, will satisfy the noble Lords, Lord Hastings and Lord Radnor, who have drawn attention to this important question.

The noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, in dealing with the sheep provisions of this Bill, referred to the ceiling limitation of 27,000,000, and said that an increase of 200,000 over the existing population of 26,800,000 was totally insufficient, especially having regard to the campaign for improvement of grassland, and to the assistance given for the purchase of fertilisers. If the noble Lord will recall the slump in prices of sheep that occurred during last year, he will observe that although the fall was acute in respect of the home-produced article, the price remained fairly firm for the imported article, both mutton and lamb. I think there can be no doubt therefore that one of our main objects under these proposals is to bring about a sustained and increasing demand for the home product which, it it is to occur, must entail bringing the commodity more or less into relation with the imported product for which the demand is ever-increasing. That means that the producers of this country must give more attention to the necessity of the production of a lighter sheep. At the same time we have endeavoured to take into consideration the important fact, as propounded by Lord Radnor and Lord Phillimore, that the fertility of the land in certain districts is dependent upon the folded sheep, and the Livestock Commission, who are authorised to prepare a scheme for submission to the Minister and for the approval of Parliament, will take both these factors into consideration in the standard weight proposals that they draw up. The governng consideration as regards the prosperity of the sheep industry in this country must be to place it on such a basis that the home producer can compete more efficiently and more successfully with the imported product. If he succeeds in doing that there is a fair chance for the price levels to go up in this country which, under the provisions of the Bill, would allow the ceiling figure of 27,000,000 to be increased.

I do not want to detain your Lordships at this hour, but I must refer to a further important matter raised by my noble friend Lord Hastings in respect of agricultural credit which is provided for under Clause 32. The noble Lord will realise that for a number of years the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation has been in some considerable difficulty as the result of the fall in interest rates generally after the War Loan Conversion in 1932. The noble Lord will know that in order to encourage borrowing the Corporation reduced its rates on new loans to farmers from 5 per cent. to 4¼ per cent. in April, 1934. Under present conditions this would, if continued, oblige the Corporation to draw on its own reserves and involve it in a loss. The reserves, I understand, amount to £650,000. If I may correct the noble Lord, there is no question of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation being wound up or going into liquidation. That is not a consideration which has been taken into account in framing Clause 32. The intention incorporated in that clause is not to change long-term credit policy. The policy is that loans should be available to new borrowers at the lowest possible commercial rate, but of course not below the commercial rate for business of a similar kind. The noble Lord has said that by this provision old borrowers who can convert at a 5 per cent. premium are not in fact going to be able to do so because they would not benefit for a period of fifteen years. I have been assured, since the noble Lord has spoken, that the period is about six years, but since the noble Lord is going to pursue the subject further, as he intimated in the course of his remarks, I will leave the detailed explanation of why it is only six and a half years and not fifteen years to a later stage. I hope that may be agreeable to my noble friend.

One cannot conclude a debate of this character, which deals with such a wide range of agricultural interest, without making some reference to the labour situation. Lord Addison said there was nothing in this Bill to help the agricultural worker. My noble friend Lord Hastings gave what was a very complete answer to Lord Addison. I should say that the problem of putting agriculture upon a stable and economic basis must necessarily be inseparable, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillimore, remarked, from the question of bringing the standard of living of agricultural workers into line with the standard enjoyed by workers in urban industries. The Government have these questions in mind, and it is neither a fair nor a just criticism to say, because there is no specific reference to the remuneration to be received by the agricultural worker, that that important matter is not taken into account.


I hope the noble Earl does not think I made that criticism.


Oh, no; it was Lord Addison who made that criticism. As Lord Hastings inferred, the Government's view of the proper approach is to raise the wage-earning capacity of agriculture, and this they have been trying to do not only by this measure but by a number of measures over the last few years. Personally, I shall not be satisfied until I see the labour wage for agriculture and conditions in agriculture at least on an equal basis to those enjoyed in other industries. It is not going to be done merely by increasing the minimum wage as directed by the Agricultural Wages Board. Noble Lords to-day have had in mind such amenity and social questions as housing, the provision of electricity, the provision of water, and the educational facilities which are open to children of agricultural employees. These are considerations which have a far-reaching effect and much has been done recently to improve housing conditions and to improve the social and amenity facilities of rural areas.

The basis provided in this Bill of increasing the returns to the farmer will, I trust, enable him to pay higher remuneration to his servants. When there is such a great and serious scarcity of farm labour in many parts of the country it does not stand to reason that the farmer should continue to pay at a rate which now averages only 34s. 9d. if he could afford to pay a higher rate. That is a question, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillimore, said, that is far from being solved at the present time. It is one that does not affect this country alone, but is an acute problem in all countries throughout the world. If agriculture is going to be completely rehabilitated, if it is to be placed in the position we all desire to see it in, it must have the full and continued attention of authorities, both central and local. I am conscious that I have by no means covered some of the important points that have been raised in the course of this discussion, but I hope there may be occasion at some later date to go more fully into the issues that your Lordships have been good enough to raise on this occasion.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.