HL Deb 10 April 1940 vol 116 cc56-78

4.20 p.m.

LORD FARINGDON had given Notice that he would call attention to the position of the poultry industry, and move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think that first of all I should like to clear up what seems to me to have been a slight misunderstanding when last I mentioned this subject in your Lordships' House. I am, if I may say so, particularly pleased to see the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, in his place to-day because, as I think would be the case with any of your Lordships who are interested in agricultural subjects, I was very disturbed to find myself in apparent disagreement with him. I am sure that all your Lordships would agree that on any agricultural subject to have the noble Viscount's support would reinforce one's certainty of one's own opinion. And on reading through the OFFICIAL REPORT I came to the conclusion that our disagreement might perhaps have been due to a misunderstanding, because I found myself entirely in agreement with everything that the noble Viscount said afterwards. It was not my wish or intention at that time in any way to underrate or belittle the importance of the backyard producer of poultry. I think that that was the ground on which we differed. I hope that I am as fully alive as anybody to the importance of backyard farming.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? I hold no particular brief for what he calls the backyard farmer, but if he means the small-scale producer—Yes.


I think, after reading the report of the noble Viscount's speech in the OFFICIAL REPORT, that perhaps I gave the impression that I did not favour backyard farming, but apparently the noble Viscount meant the small farmers. Anything I said about the backyard farmer applies with all the more force to the small farmer. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount that the small farmer is as important a part of our productive machinery as any other.

But it is not to-day my intention to deal with this question of backyard farming, because the Government have shown themselves thoroughly alive to the importance of using up all scraps and remnants and converting them, by the means of poultry or pigs, into foodstuffs. That being so, it is evidently unnecessary for me to dwell upon this subject. I would point out, however, that if I am dealing more with the troubles, the necessities and the prospects of the more professional side of the industry, if I may so put it, it is because—and I think I shall be supported in this by all agriculturists—however much You may develop the home farming, you cannot possibly by that method obtain a regular supply of eggs, and above all a supply throughout the winter months. That, I submit, must depend upon the professional poultry farmer. Unfortunately, throughout the country there has spread among the poultry farmers an impression that the Government are inclined, or even have as their policy the intention to encourage the backyard farmer, in order thereby to be able to do without the professional poultry farmer. I am sure that this is at least an exaggerated view, and probably an entirely erroneous one, and I do hope that this may be a suitable occasion—for which I trust the Government may thank me—for the Minister to dispel this illusion completely.

This poultry industry is one whose very large size and enormous importance are, I think, sometimes overlooked by the general public. I do not think it is commonly realised that the poultry industry alone produced, before the war at any rate, more valuable products even than the home-grown cereal branch of agriculture. Moreover, the poultry industry gives more employment than any other branch of agriculture. On those grounds alone the industry is one which does not deserve to be treated, as certainly those engaged in it feel it has been treated since the beginning of the war, as a kind of Cinderella of agriculture. I believe this policy to be as short-sighted as it is unjust. I cannot help feeling a suspicion that the neglect of this industry may have been to some extent due to the fact that it consists mainly of small units who are not well organised to make their voice heard and their political weight felt.

At the beginning of the war the industry was reassured by the Government, who declared themselves fully alive to its importance, and promised it that adequate supplies of foodstuffs should be made available. Since that time, disappointment has followed disappointment, and I really do not think I should be exaggerating if I said that the present situation is almost catastrophic. Enormous numbers of poultry have been slaughtered throughout the country by farmers who were unable to get food for them. The poultry industry is not only suffering from the hardships of war or of departmental neglect, it is also suffering, I think, from some sense of injustice, because it feels, and I believe rightly feels, that it has been put unfairly and unwisely very low on the list of priorities. It feels that foodstuffs have been given to other branches of the industry more vocal perhaps than itself, but whose need was not greater and could in fact have been made up more easily by substitute feeding-stuffs.

I would exemplify the case of the dairy industry. Dairy farming has been given an absolute priority in feeding-stuffs over all other branches of agriculture. I am a dairy farmer myself, and I would not dream of underrating the value of dairy products to the country's nutrition, but in my submission it is a fact that cattle can be fed more easily than poultry on substitute food, and I do not believe that the Government have insisted with sufficient firmness that a condition of the giving of supplies to the dairy industry should be that the dairy industry is itself efficient, that it is producing an adequate quantity of milk for the amount of food given to the cattle, and also that it is taking full advantage of all substitutes which can be available. Moreover, the poultry farmer feels that this preference given to the dairy farmer is not quite fair in another sense. No one would dispute for one instant the importance of milk to children and nursing mothers, but for adults, I submit, the egg has all the nutritional dietary advantages which are claimed for milk. Were a free choice left to the majority of adults, the egg would probably receive preference to milk. Most of your Lordships would probably be ready to sacrifice your glass of milk at eleven in favour of your egg at breakfast.

It may be maintained—and it may be the ground on which the Government have meted out this rather harsh treatment to the poultry industry—that milk is not, whereas eggs are, fairly easily transportable. It is perfectly true that a packing case of eggs both weighs less and is less bulky than the amount of food-stuffs required to produce those eggs, but it should not be forgotten that at least one half of that feeding-stuff is, in fact, by-products of other human and animal food. Further, when we consider the comparative monetary cost of the raw material, the feeding-stuff, and the manufactured article, the egg, I cannot help thinking that the advantage of the imported feeding-stuff becomes apparent, for surely at the present time our foreign exchange has got to be even more carefully conserved than is our cargo space.

I have already pointed out the size and importance of this industry in view of the number of people who draw their living from it, but there is another point of view—a point of view which applies to all agricultural undertakings. An agricultural undertaking is not like a factory which can be closed down to-morrow because you have a superfluity of its products, or for some other reason, and reopened a week later as the need arises. Agriculture, as I do not need to tell your Lordships, depends on Nature and her seasons, and if you allow any great branch of agriculture to go out of production, to cease to exist, it cannot be reproduced immediately, nor even in any way but extremely slowly. I would there- fore implore His Majesty's Government to assure to the poultry industry the means to carry on an activity which is of essential importance to both the health and the security of the nation. I would suggest that they consider carefully—and I hope that in this respect they will be able to give me a favourable reply—the policy, during the next few months, of allowing additional food-stuffs to the poultry industry. At this season, or very soon now, cattle will not be requiring so much imported food-stuff. I suggest that some of this might be released to the poultry industry which will be requiring it in the next few months, since this is the time when they take in their pullets on which they will be dependent for their supply of eggs during next winter.

I do not know whether His Majesty's Government are dependent for their supply next winter to any extent on cold storage eggs, but, if they are, I am afraid they are going to be disappointed. I am reliably informed that the price which His Majesty's Government have fixed for cold storage eggs is unremunerative. Had the offer been made a fortnight earlier it is possible that a considerable number of eggs would have been put into cold storage, but even if farmers had been willing, I find that a very curious situation has arisen. The Ministry issued a list of fourteen cold storage houses which they suggested could be used by poultry farmers for storing their eggs. An influential organisation in the industry wrote round to these cold storage houses in order to find out what accommodation was, in fact, available. Four of these fourteen houses did not reply at all, one replied it had no accommodation for eggs, five replied that they could not take eggs—I do not know for what reason—two replied they were full up, and two, incidentally branches of the same, said they could take them. There seems to have been some slight muddle there, and it does not look as if the Government will be able to look forward to any very ample supplies of cold storage eggs during next winter.

That brings me now to the question of prices. I would draw the attention of the Ministry to the really enormous increase in the prices of poultry mash, which since the beginning of the war have risen by more than 50 per cent. At the beginning of the war the poultry farmers were informed by their suppliers that the immediate rise in prices was due to the prices fixed by the Government for those ingredients of the mashes which they controlled. The poultry farmers are now informed that the later rises have been due to the fact that all the ingredients are not controlled. I do not know what the answer is to this particular problem, but I submit that unless this rise in the prices of feeding-stuffs is controlled, even though eggs should bring next year the same very high price as they have produced this year, egg production will not be remunerative.

Might I make a plea for the introduction, even in war-time, of the Poultry Industry Bill which was before Parliament last year, and which aimed at, amongst other things, the improvement of our poultry stocks by putting the whole business of poultry rearing under Government control? If the poultry industry, whose importance I have tried to stress to your Lordships to-day, is to survive and play the part it should play in the national economy, a long-term policy is essential. It is essential because the poultry farmer must be told what his prospects are. He must be told what feeding-stuffs he can hope and expect to receive. If the fortunes or misfortunes of war make it impossible for the Government to carry out such a guarantee, if given to the poultry farmers, the poultry farmers would, I know, understand that. They would sympathise with that. But at this present time it seems to me, and to them, that it should be possible for His Majesty's Government to plan the importation of feeding-stuffs into this country. In fact, they feel that it ought actually to have been done, and that therefore the Government should be able, conditional, as I have said, on the fortunes of war, to give some assurance of supplies for the future which would enable the farmers to plan their production ahead. The situation of this industry is parlous, but I believe it is not yet too late to be saved. I beg to move for Papers.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I did not come down to the House this afternoon with any intention of addressing your Lordships, bin the noble Lord who has just spoken opened his speech by a reference to myself and therefore I feel impelled to make a few remarks with regard to it. But may I first of all take the opportunity of welcoming on the Front Bench my noble friend Lord Woolton, in his capacity of Minister for Food? Having myself some twenty years ago represented the same Department in this House, perhaps he may forgive me if I make bold to offer at least a semiofficial welcome.

There is so much which Lord Faringdon has said with which I agree that I feel it perhaps almost an irrelevance on my part to appear in any way as a critic. But first of all I would remind the noble Lord that the difficulties that are met with in a war-time Department hastily put into operation with comparative little precedent to guide it, such as the Ministry for Food, renders the problems which it has to solve much more open to criticism than at least would be the case with any ordinary and permanent Department of State. But when the noble Lord refers to backyard farmers, I am bound to say, with a long experience of the farming community, that I have never met any. I think the backyard, if I may venture to say so, is a very useful place for accumulating out of the waste food bins potential food not only for farmers but particularly for the small-scale cultivators and animal feeders, with whom I have a very special sympathy. The noble Lord spoke of the professional farmer and in this connection appeared to refer particularly to egg production. There again I am not quite sure, by antithesis, that I fully understand who the professional farmer in this connection is. At the present time I am myself getting something like 400 dozen eggs a week from my poultry, but I am not quite sure that I am a professional farmer in that connection. At any rate my eggs are available as a small quota to the national requirements in that regard.

When the noble Lord imputes something in the nature of a bias on the part of the Food Department, I am perfectly certain that there is really no ground for that suggestion. The difficulty in regard to poultry is that something like four-fifths of their food is, under normal peace conditions, imported from abroad, and consequently, when tonnage space has to be considered, the poultry, unfortunately, are part of the producers of national food which are apt to come off rather badly. I myself deprecate very much that there was not on the part of the Government more provision made for an extra supply of animal food-stuffs. But be that as it may, I honestly think that the large-scale food producer, the large-scale poultry farmer of whom the noble Lord is particularly speaking, could be more resourceful than he is wont to be in the matter of providing food for his poultry. In that connection possibly the Government might be able to give him some little guidance.

There are, for instance, alternative foods to maize which, in particular, ran short some three months ago, with the result that there was a very considerable reduction in the lay of the poultry of this country. As an old poultry farmer and as part of my own agricultural education, I have reason to know that butchers' offal is extremely valuable as a source of that fatty element which maize normally provides for poultry, and, if I may be forgiven a personal experience, immediately I found on my own poultry farm that maize was unobtainable I made a special appeal to the local butchers to provide me with their offal, with the result that, although for something like a fortnight the lay of my hens and pullets had fallen something like 60 per cent. in the absence of maize, as soon as I was able to secure butchers' offal the lay recovered to the extent of 80 per cent. of its normal level. Moreover, there are kinds of wheat which even now can, with the approval of the Government, be sown which are not suitable for human consumption but which are more suitable and desirable for poultry food than many starchy foods that are usually provided. I myself, when I learned that cereal foods were likely to be unobtainable, or difficult to obtain, for poultry feeding, got in touch with the agents of the Swedish Government and obtained Swedish iron wheat and similar wheats—soft biscuit wheats—which are far more suitable for poultry, and I at once sowed six acres of my poultry farm with that kind of wheat. I am only mentioning these things to indicate that a little guidance on the part of the Government Departments, with a little more resourcefulness on the part of the poultry farmer will, I am sure, overcome some of the difficulties.

The noble Lord referred to storage of eggs. Surely there is plenty of opportunity for storing eggs, perhaps not quite to the extent that would be possible in normal times of peace, but still great opportunity for storing eggs at the present time with the help of waterglass or lime and so on. In my part of the country, in the West of England, I find every poultry-keeper to-day putting large quantities of eggs into waterglass or lime with a view to their availability during the winter months. It is perfectly true, as the noble Lord has said, that there are alternative foods for cattle which are not available to poultry, and there I go a very long way with him. Dr. Charles Crowther, in an address he delivered before the Royal Society of Arts about a month ago, pointed out with great force that whereas cattle, including dairy cattle, can be fed upon the produce of our own land for the whole of the year if silage and hay are available, poultry do require to a large extent food that must come from abroad in order to keep them in full condition and enable them to lay to the maximum amount. Therefore it seemed a little unfair to put poultry into the fourth category of food producers which should receive least consideration when there is a reduced amount of food available for farm stock.

I want particularly to urge our new Food Controller to consider the potentialities of the small-scale food producer. I have reason to know what an immense amount of food these small people, out of their cottage gardens and allotments and small holdings, provided during the more critical period of the last war by way of augmentation of the farmers' output. I feel that some greater encouragement should be given to these people than has so far been given. In Gloucestershire we have set up a special organisation with a view of establishing a home food producers' club in every village of the County. We hope thereby to get a large number of the presently derelict allotments once more into cultivation and to give far greater guidance both to allotment holders and cottage gardeners with the help of the county staff who are readily helping in this campaign. We hope by that means that, in the matter particularly of potatoes, and also of beans, peas and other highly nutritive foods, the cottage gardeners and allotment holders will contribute no small quota to the food requirements at any rate of that County. I quite agree with the noble Lord that so far as adults are concerned eggs are a factor in their diet which certainly cannot be overlooked. We have been warned that we are much better without milk, at any rate when grey hairs appear on our heads, but in the matter of eggs we have been told that there is more food in an egg, and therefore presumably more nutrition, than in any other food unit of the same size and weight.

There is one suggestion I would like to make to my noble friend Lord Woolton before sitting down and it has reference to recent events. When a country like Denmark is unfortunately occupied by the enemy, although that country was to a large extent an exporter of certain classes of food to this country, is it really desirable and necessary to assure the British public with almost hectic haste that the food products exported from that country are in such large supply in this country that there is no need for the public to be apprehensive? For two reasons I would venture to deprecate such a hasty statement. First of all, I cannot bring myself to believe that the British temper is such as to be influenced by these considerations when serious events are happening overseas and when we have every desire to do all in our power to bring about an early and effectual victory over our enemies. I cannot believe that the British public generally are really concerned about their food to the same extent that they are concerned about beating the enemy.

But there is another factor which I very much want to emphasize. When we are being perpetually informed through the Press and over the air that the national larder is so splendidly full, it is extremely difficult to convince the small producer that he must bend his mind to the task of producing more food and carry through that task persistently and with determination. Over and over again one hears these people ask why if the Government have been storing ford, and have plenty of food, they should trouble to grow all these potatoes and to raise pigs in empty sties and all the rest of it. I cannot help thinking that it would be very much better if the Government would make it clear that, although the larder may be fairly full at present, it does not necessarily follow that it is going to be equally full a year hence, and that we must do our best to produce the more nutritious foods on the farm and allotment and in the cottage garden in order to make certain that we shall not be faced hereafter with possible starvation.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, it is with very great hesitation that I rise to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House, but I do not wish to detain you long and I hope that I may have your customary indulgence. I was not aware of the points on which the noble Lord opposite was going to speak, nor did I know if he had any contact with any particular unit or organisation of the poultry industry before he spoke, but if I understood the points he raised they were, firstly, the question of backyarders and then the importation of feeding-stuffs and foreign eggs, and the storage of eggs. I cannot say anything about the storage of eggs because that does not come within my purview, but I am very glad that the noble Lord opposite amended his first remarks about backyarders, because in my opinion they do play a very important part in the poultry industry. It is quite true that they are not food producers to a large extent but are hobbyists; but they certainly do keep the breeder of stock poultry up to the mark because they are prepared to pay a good price for something that is good to look at and at the same time useful. These men, in addition, play a very important educational part through the shows organised by their societies and by encouraging the youth of the towns to take an interest in the raising of poultry. I hope that in any schemes for the poultry industry the backyarder will not be left out of account.

As regards the question of importation of feeding-stuffs rather than eggs, one feels that the poultry industry may have to take second place to the heavy industry. If that is so, it is all the more necessary for the poultry industry to have a long-term policy. The poultry industry naturally requires more feeding-stuffs, but in the present state of the industry's organisation—or perhaps I should say lack of organisation—it is very hard to know on what basis the Government can work out any scheme. I feel myself that it is for the poultry industry to get together, instead of being such an incoherent body as it is at present, and put up some scheme to the Government. I have advocated that to the poultry industry for some time, but unfortunately nothing seems to be done. If that were done, I feel that no Minister would be unwilling to listen sympathetically.

Finally I want to say one word on another subject. On the Second Reading of the Poultry Industry Bill one noble Lord, I think Lord Rea, referred to that Cinderella of British industry, the shipping industry. In these times you will appreciate with great gratitude, when you look at the Mercantile Marine, the gallant services they have rendered to the country, and incidentally their services in providing feeding-stuffs. The poultry industry want help, but for myself I urge that they should take steps at once to bring about some sort of co-ordination, so that we may go forward as a body.

5.1 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intervene in this interesting and important debate which has been introduced by my noble friend to discuss its detail. My purpose is rather a different one: to use the opportunity first of all to congratulate the noble Lord who has just spoken on his acceptable and successful maiden speech. We have all had experience of the anxieties attached to making a speech in either House of Parliament, and we all know that the trial is compensated for by the reaction of great relief when it is over. The noble Lord has made a most useful contribution: his remarks were concise and practical, full of suggestion and helpful thought. I am sure the whole House will welcome his intervention in debate and hope that we may hear him on future occasions. My second purpose is to take the opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord the Minister of Food on assuming a high and most responsible position at this time, a position on which the health and endurance of the whole people will depend. The noble Lord has had great experience in providing for poor households in many ways. He knows the problem from the consumer's end from top to bottom, and we very heartily congratulate him on the position which he has now assumed. I think the noble Lord never had the experience of being in Parliament—


This House is part of Parliament.


I mean, before he came to this House; and therefore he never had to suffer the impertinences of critics in the way that most of us have suffered them. I only want to assure him that we shall give him all the support that we can, and if he sometimes finds our questions inconvenient and is apt to get irritated with them, let him remember that we have our part to play in Parliament as well as himself. On behalf of my noble friends I very heartily congratulate him on the position which he has assumed.

5.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first of all, if I may, to take this opportunity of associating myself with the very eloquent tribute which has just been paid by the noble Lord who leads the Opposition to my noble friend who sits beside me, the new Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, and to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, who made such a very interesting and, if I may say so without impertinence, helpful maiden speech. I am particularly pleased to welcome my noble friend because I feel that this will be the last occasion when I, who try to represent the Ministry of Agriculture, shall be called upon also to represent the Ministry of Food. He will do it very much better than I could ever attempt to do it or succeed in doing it. One part of my difficulty to-day is that the Motion which the noble Lord opposite put down was so widely drawn that it was very difficult for me, to start with, to foretell to what extent what he might say in his speech would affect the Ministry of Agriculture, and to what extent the Ministry of Food would be involved. All the time we were both deep in his criticism.

If I may turn first of all to the speech that was delivered by Lord Greenway: he hopes that the backyarder would not be left out of account by the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Food. I can promise him that that will be so. He then talked about the desirability of a long-term policy being pronounced by the Government for the benefit of those interested in the poultry industry. Of course it is very true that anybody who is dealing with livestock, be it poultry or any other kind of livestock, wants to plan ahead; that is common to the whole of agriculture. But all long-term planning is and must be subservient to the exigencies of the war, and I shall proceed to show in a few minutes that it is most difficult to give my certain long-term engagements or guarantees.

I was most interested, if I may say so, in the suggestion that the poultry industry should get together and should thrash out a scheme which afterwards they would present to the Government. I can promise him that if they do such a thing the Ministry of Agriculture will be most interested to receive that scheme and to give it every possible consideration. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who always makes so well-informed a speech on agricultural matters, dealt with small-scale food producers, and I should like to say that there is a Domestic Food Producers' Council which has been meeting now for some time, and that council has appointed a sub-committee to explore all the possibilities of such things as the contribution which backyard poultry-keeping can make, and is also interested in all questions affecting the small-scale food producer.

Now, if I may, I will turn to the speech of the noble Lord who introduced the Motion. His main criticism, of course, was a criticism about supplies of feeding-stuffs. That is the vital, fundamental criticism which he voiced to-day. I will come to that, if I may, in a minute. He spoke about his fear that the Government would favour the backyard farmer—I am not sure how he put it: that the Government would prefer the professional man, or was it the other way about?


What I said was that there was an impression that the Government were counting for their production of eggs on the backyarder at the expense of the professional man.


I can assure the noble Lord that there is no word of truth in that. In the view of the Government, the two are complementary. Both of them ought to exist, and to exist the better because they will exist side by side. I should very much like to deny his imputation that the poultry industry is the Cinderella of all the agricultural industries—because, after all, agriculture is a collection of industries—but the Government are surely right: in time of war to state quite boldly and frankly what they deem to be the proper priority as between those interested in livestock. I shall have a word to say about that in a moment. If he will let either my noble friend Lord Woolton or myself at the Ministry of Agriculture have further details about his complaints about storage, I will gladly see that those are looked into, and we will take them up on his behalf.

I will now try to deal with the question of feeding-stuffs and with what the future may hold for those interested in the poultry industry. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, mentioned how much the poultry industry was dependent on imported feeding-stuffs. That is perfectly true, and it is amazing to see the way in which in the last twenty-five years the poultry industry has increased in importance. In June, 1914, just before the last war broke out, there were 38,000,000 fowls in this country. That figure of 38,000,000 had become 69,000,000 in June of last year, and it is an interesting fact to remember that between the years 1924 and 1933 the poultry population of this country doubled in number. It is true to say, of course, that poultry cannot make as much use of the bulky home-grown fodder crops as can other forms of livestock, and so it was that, when the war broke out, the poultry industry and the poultry keepers were most hard hit, because they depended to the largest extent upon the arrival of cereals.

I should like to make it quite clear that the Government well recognise that at this season of the year there must always be a special demand for wheat. The Ministry of Food have issued a circular letter to provender millers and distributing dealers calling upon them to convert at least the pre-war percentage of their total supplies of feeding wheat into cut wheat or kibbled wheat suitable for young chicks, and also to release the normal pre-war percentage as straight wheat or mixed poultry corn. This matter is so important that I will venture to read the circular letter which was sent out on March 26. It is quite short, and a great many of the complaints that reach the Ministry are founded on the assertion that it is difficult to get the straight feeds. This letter was sent from the Ministry of Food to all provender millers and all distributing dealers: Sir, I am directed to inform you that by an amendment of the general licence under the Home-Grown Wheat (Control) Order made on March 15 it has been made permissible for every authorised buyer of home-grown wheat to sell or use for the feeding of livestock 5o per cent. instead of 33 per cent. of his purchases of wheat from growers. One of the objects of the Minister of Food in making this change is to improve the supply of grain for poultry during the next few months. It is most undesirable that the extra wheat now made available should be used wholly or mainly in the production of mixed meals and compounds. I am accordingly to inform you that all provender millers are expected to convert at least the pre-war percentage of their total supplies of feeding wheat into cut wheat or kibbled wheat suitable for young chicks and also to release the normal pre-war percentage as straight wheat or mixed poultry corn. Distributing dealers should follow the same procedure, so far as it is applicable to their trade, and they should issue as poultry and chick food the normal pre-war percentage of their supplies of wheat. As I say, the poultry industry is a very important branch of agriculture. The annual value of its output has been estimated at round about £23,000,000 a year, and that compares with £25,000,000 a year for pigs and £16,000,000 a year for sheep. The number of persons engaged in the industry is roughly half a million, and the capital invested not only in birds but in the necessary equipment totals something like £75,000,000. It is, however—and this is a fact that I want to bring to the notice of the noble Lord; I am sure that he will recognise that it is true—largely a factory form of agriculture, consisting as it does in the conversion of cereals and cereal products, which are mainly imported, into eggs and meat.

I come now to the all-important question of distribution. The Ministry of Food is now buying all major imported feeding-stuffs with a view to getting a more equitable distribution first of all as between the buyers at the principal ports, on the basis of a proportion of their prewar trade, and secondly as between the country merchants and the provender millers, by instructing each c.i.f. buyer to pass on to them his allocation in the same proportion. The country merchants and other distributors have received instructions to treat their customers as fairly as possible having regard to the declared policy of the Government with regard to the priority which the Government have decreed should exist amongst livestock. I will say a word about that in a moment. Since March 1 all dealers have been licensed, in order to get a better control of distribution, and that licensing of the dealers has led to two important things. First, every dealer is required to keep accurate and full records and accounts of his transactions, and secondly, there can now be inspection of his books by people authorised by the Ministry of Food. As a further step to securing even distribution, the Government intend to appoint regional committees with an executive staff to co-ordinate the supply of home-grown and of imported feeding-stuffs and to secure their proper distribution from the ports and farms to the country merchants. To meet cases of special emergency and special hardship, small reserves of maize, barley or wheat offals have been established in each county to be used at the joint discretion of the chairmen of the county feeding-stuffs committee of the Ministry of Food and the county war agricultural executive committee. The main object of these reserves is, of course, to prevent the premature slaughter of sound breeding stock, and I think that they should be very helpful.

As regards the question of priority, on November 22 last the Government announced that in view of the curtailed importation of feeding-stuffs, and above all so as to secure that the available supplies should be utilised to the best national advantage, a certain priority should be observed. First, as the noble Lord said, came the dairy industry. The reason for that is obvious, to maintain the milk supply of the nation. Secondly came fattening cattle and sheep, and only thirdly came pigs and poultry. The pig and poultry industries, of course, are the heaviest users of imported grain, and the fact that they come last in the list of priorities does, I assure the noble Lord, mean no hostility to the pig or poultry industry—none whatever. Pig and poultry keepers accordingly were advised to plan production programmes for the next twelve months on the basis that the proportion of their feeding-stuffs derived from imports from abroad would be reduced at least by one-third as compared with pre-war quantities. In parenthesis let me add that this does not mean that those who were above them in the priority list were going to get 100 per cent. of what they wanted. There was bound to be a readjustment all round and a neces- sary curtailment all round from the prewar level. But the fact remains that, as between the various classes of livestock and livestock products, the country under war conditions, in the opinion of the Government, can sustain a reduction of home supplies of eggs and of pig meat with less serious detriment, either to the needs of the people or to our farming economy, than would be caused by a falling off in the milk supply or by a diminution of our national reserves of cattle and sheep, which, after all, would take years to replenish.

Moreover, as I have already said, we started this war in a very much more favourable position than we were in at the beginning of the last war, with our poultry population increased by over 80 per cent. In addition—and here Heaven forbid that I should be drawn into a quarrel, which really ought to exist between the noble Lord and the Ministry of Health, if it exists at all, regarding the comparative nutritional values of eggs and milk—I took some trouble this morning to find out what was the opinion of the Ministry of Health, and I am informed that milk in their view is very much more important in food value than eggs. Of course, there have reached the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Food too, grave complaints about maldistribution: first, that there is an inability to obtain the straight feed; secondly, of deficiency of supplies in some areas as compared with others; and, thirdly, as to the inequality of supply as between one farmer and another in a the same area. In the last case it is alleged that one merchant seems able to treat his customers more favourably than another. In some cases the apparent inequalities are due to the pre-war practice of some distributors who have relied largely upon imported wheat for incorporation in their meal mixtures instead of maize or other cereals. Owing to the necessity for conserving wheat for human consumption, these supplies are no longer available, and it is difficult under the prevailing method of distribution, based or pre-war quantities, to make allowances where imported wheat has been an important item in a merchant's trade.

As regards straight foods and compounds, the Ministry of Food is now trying to secure that such feeding-stuffs should, as far as possible, be sold in their pre-war proportions, and further steps are contemplated which are designed to increase appreciably the quantity of straight feeds that will be available to farmers. Arrangements have been made, and will come into effect in the near future, under which flour millers will be required to supply each customer with not less than two-thirds of his pre-war supplies of wheat offals, their own provender mills being treated as customers. At the same time a fixed percentage of each flour-miller's output of offals will be allocated for distribution in those areas, such as the South-West of England, which were largely dependent on imported offals before the war. The effect of this arrangement will be to limit the use of offals for compound feeding stuffs and to secure a more even distribution throughout the country as well as a larger supply of the straight feeds.

As a further method of correcting maldistribution, the question of rationing of feeding-stuffs to individual farmers has been receiving the very close and careful consideration of both the Agricultural Departments and the Ministry of Food. But it is quite obvious that this question simply bristles with difficulties, owing not only to the varying needs of farmers from one season of the year to another, but to the varying needs of farm and farm. Moreover, to make any scheme of rationing successful, it would have been necessary to build up some reserves of feeding-stuffs, and if that course had been taken it would have still further curtailed supplies that were available to those engaged in the poultry industry. During the summer, however, as was eloquently pointed out during the debate, there will be much more grass in the coming weeks, and it should be possible to get together some reserves. After that is done and if a satisfactory scheme can be devised, rationing could be introduced before the next winter feeding begins, if the Government at that time feel that that should be done.

As to prices, soon after the outbreak of the war the prices of feeding-stuffs were stabilised at approximately pre-war level by a Maximum Prices Order, but immediately, or very soon, the Government found that they were making a very substantial loss, and on January 6 a second Maximum Prices Order was issued, the object of which was to avoid further loss, although that Order did not seek to recoup the Government for the previous loss. It must be recognised that it is very difficult to fix prices for compound feeding-stuffs, in view of the variation of their constituent elements. The Order therefore prescribes that the price to be charged for such compounds should not exceed by more than 30s. a ton the cost of the ingredients, plus the cost of manufacture and of containers. Moreover, in the second Order certain merchants' margins were reduced, as well as the maximum permissive additions for small lots—a not unimportant point. But complaints are still coming in and further improvements are being considered.

Now I come to the last demand made by the noble Lord—namely, that the Government should give some details as to the future outlook for the poultry industry. The poultry farmers, he said, must be told what feeding-stuffs they can rely on, and he went on to say that in his opinion if the Government were wrong in their promises or in their guarantees the poultry farmers would forgive them. I do not think that would happen.


I said—if it were due to unexpected military events.


Well, let us look at my way of putting it. I say on behalf of the Government that, in view of all that has happened, not only in this war but in the last few days, it would obviously be not only impossible but most indiscreet for the Government or for anybody else to guarantee what would be the quantity of imported feeding-stuffs which would reach this country, and it is upon those imports really that the whole question depends. Where possible poultry farmers, like all producers of all kinds of livestock, should do everything they can to grow more of their own feeding stuffs and to become more self-supporting. The value of potatoes as a substitute, for instance, for part of the cereals in poultry mashes, should be explored, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, mentioned another experiment which he had made. There are many experiments taking place at Cambridge now under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, and the result of those experiments will be made known as widely as possible as soon as possible. But even after the next harvest there can be no guarantee that there will be any increase in the supplies of feeding-stuffs available for poultry farmers, and they, in common with the producers of other sorts of livestock, should make every effort to economise in their use of purchased foods, not only by growing as much of the food they require as they can, but also by utilising swill and other waste materials wherever practicable.

The possibility of making available larger supplies of feeding-stuffs to poultry keepers must depend largely on the level of imports of feeding-stuffs in the next few months and the success with which the ships reach the shores of this country. It is impossible to prophesy what the situation will be. In recent months imports of feeding cereals have been about two-thirds of the average monthly quantity, and provided this level is maintained until next harvest, the proportion available for the poultry industry should be rather higher than in the early months of the year because of the appreciably lower requirements of cattle and sheep in the summer, thanks to their dependence on grass. As to what is going to happen following the harvest, the answer must in part depend on the increased quantity of feeding-stuffs, especially grain, that will be produced in the United Kingdom during the coming harvest. We do not know yet what acreage has been, is being, or will be sown to such crops, but I can assure the House that in cropping the Ministry of Agriculture has given the very widest possible range to farmers who are planning their harvest, and it is hoped as a result that there will be a great increase in home-produced feeding-stuffs. There is also the vital question of the available tonnage which may be allocated to importing feeding-stuffs, bearing in mind always the claim on that tonnage which comes from raw materials, war materials, and so on.

Poultry keepers, along with cattle and sheep producers, must be ready in time of war to adapt themselves to the exigencies of the situation as they arise. If a too optimistic view were expressed by me today, if too optimistic promises or guarantees were given to-day as to the future prospects of supply, the poultry industry might well be encouraged to rear many more chicks than could subsequently be fed. If, on the other hand, I were to give too conservative or too gloomy a view of the possibilities of feeding-stuffs in the future, then perhaps unnecessary restrictions in the poultry industry would take place, and it might possibly be followed by the premature slaughter of valuable poultry stock. All I can safely say at the moment is that, so far from belittling or thinking ill of the poultry industry, the Ministry of Agriculture do appreciate not only the Last number of people who are employed in the industry, not only the importance of the industry itself, but also that it is the Ministry's duty to do their best to provide the maximum supply of feeding-stuffs consistent with other considerations which are vital to the successful prosecution of the war.


Before the noble Lord sits down might I ask him whether it would be reasonable to plan production on the two-thirds basis which was laid Clown as he said last November?


Yes, I think it would. I think I have gone further in my speech to-day. I have said there is every likelihood—I put it no higher than that—that in the next few months there will be more feeding-stuffs than there have been in the first three months of this year. But what I cannot do is to give any sort of pledge or guarantee because of the fact that the poultry industry, like the pig industry, depends to so large an extent on imported feeding-stuffs, which immediately introduces the whole question of shipping and tonnage.

5.26 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his not entirely comforting reply. He has a silver-tongued way of making the disagreeable palatable. I should also like to congratulate myself on having interested the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, in this debate. I hope I have softened the noble Viscount's heart as to the egg problem. I would further congratulate myself on receiving the eloquent support, on the occasion of his maiden speech, of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway. As to his suggestion for organisation in the industry, I assure him he could have no more enthusiastic supporter than myself, but, on the other hand, I am afraid I am not an optimistic supporter. It is a peculiarly difficult industry to organise, and I suggest that its produce is of such national importance that, perhaps, such organisation should not be left to the industry, but that the industry should be organised from without. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, talked about other forms of storage. I was referring to cold storage because it is to that that the Government made special reference and for which they have made special provision.

Incidentally, I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Denham, for the width of my Motion, of which he complained, but he did request me to tell him in advance what I was going to touch on, and I do not think I took him in any way by surprise. The noble Lord talked about pre-war percentages, but that is not the same thing as absolute quantities. Would one conclude that the food distributors would have—shall we say two-thirds of the total amount and that the percentage to be allotted to the various users would be two-thirds of the total quantity? If a miller, for example, is to treat the pre-war percentage of his pre-war supplies, it does not mean a large quantity is to be made available unless that miller has the same quantity as before the war. If only half the percentage, that will be only half the total amount. I take it that that is unfortunately the fact. It is not entirely consoling, but it is something to know that we can base production on a two-thirds food supply in comparison with what we had last year and on anything additional we can produce ourselves. The noble Lord must not forget that most poultry farmers have not the land on which to produce their own feeding-stuffs. That is a point which will handicap a good many of us. I thank the noble Lord for his answer, and for what comfort it contains, and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.