HL Deb 13 August 1940 vol 117 cc164-94

4.7 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the revolutionary changes in British agriculture which have been designed to meet our war emergency are mainly based on the Agricultural Development Act which was passed last year and the first Agriculture (Miscellaneous War Provisions) Act which was passed early in this year. The present Bill is very adequately described by its short title. It is indeed a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill. It proposes no wide or general change in policy, but is framed to strengthen certain weak points and to remove certain anomalies which have been found in the practical working arrangements for intensive agricultural production. As the Bill embodies no new principles, I can best explain it by drawing attention to the more important provisions in each clause.

The first clause extends public assistance in the matter of field drainage. The first Agriculture (Miscellaneous War Provisions) Act, passed at the beginning of this year, limited grants to mole drainage, and under this power 45,000 acres have already been approved for grants for this method of drainage. Mole draining is suitable only for certain types of land. It is very valuable on heavy land, but in the case of lighter soils the land is incapable of retaining the mole which is left by the mole-plough when drawn through it. Therefore this Bill proposes to deal with light land by the costlier method of tile or stone drains. Ordinarily, grants will be made up to 50 per cent, of the total cost of any drainage of this kind, up to a maximum of £7 10s. per acre; but, exceptionally, grants at a higher rate per acre may be sanctioned where the war agricultural executive committees put up a case that the land is especially difficult to drain and is of a quality that can be expected to give an adequate return for such expenditure.

It is expected that this provision will bring about a greater amount of reconditioning of old drains than constructing of new drains, and in many cases the utility of old tile drains can be revived by reopening the blocked outlets and by clearing the ditches which fail to carry away the water in their present condition. The ditches are already eligible for a 50 per cent, grant, but until recently they could qualify only if they affected more than one holding. Grants have hitherto been made through the medium of a statutory drainage authority, but the procedure is now to be simplified and speeded up by grants to farmers direct on the recommendation of the war agricultural executive committees. The second subsection of the first clause provides that the tenant shall get his compensation in spite of not giving the notices which were necessary under the old procedure of the Agricultural Holdings Act, 1923, but it limits the compensation which can be claimed by an outgoing tenant to the amount paid by the tenant himself over and above the Government grant, thus preventing him claiming for the public money that has been spent.

The second clause deals with the recovery of costs on the construction of roads made over fen-land in internal drainage districts, and it also makes arrangements for their maintenance. The powers to make such roads exist under the Defence Regulations, and the clause deals with the recovery of the value from the owners who may be benefited. The provisions of this clause are aimed at large tracts of potentially fertile land which should be growing valuable crops but in many cases are now derelict. The roads are vital to the effective use of such land, because much of it should be growing a crop of potatoes and sugar beet up to ten tons an acre, but in the absence of adequate provision for mechanical transport the land is restricted to light crops, or is, in many cases, not cultivated at all. In the areas which my right honourable friend has in mind, there are generally a good many owners concerned and an agreement has been found impossible on a voluntary basis.

In another place a good deal of anxiety was expressed as to just what type of land would be covered by this clause; what would be meant by roads over fen-land. In the Oxford Dictionary the description of a fen is: Low land covered wholly or partially with shallow water or frequently inundated; a tract of such land, a marsh. And there is this special meaning: Certain low-lying districts in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and adjoining counties. When we reach the Committee stage I shall move an Amendment making it clear that the wider interpretation of the word "fen-land" is covered, so that low-lying land shall not be excluded wherever it may be situate, provided it partakes of the nature of fen-land. But I would say that in spite of this definition, the clause is only intended to be utilised in respect of special areas in internal drainage districts where land drainage is an essential feature of the maintenance of the productivity of the land. In those cases roads are a vital accompaniment of drainage. Nothing will prevent county councils taking over the maintenance of these roads by negotiation. It is felt that the internal drainage authorities are suitable bodies to be responsible for the upkeep of these roads in the last resort.

The third subsection is very important to the owners of land affected, and I would point out that paragraphs (a) and (b) in subsection (1) of Clause 2 are framed to secure the owner from being charged with any increased value beyond the actual benefit which will accrue to his land. He is not to be charged the cost of making the road, but only the actual increased value which will come to his individual holding. The drafting of these definitions seems to be a little complicated but I am assured that these two alternatives are absolutely necessary to secure this object. Subsection (5) provides arbitration where the owner does not agree with the estimate of enhanced value. Subsection (6) provides that the owner may pay by instalments. Subsection (8) provides that maintenance can be recovered on the order of the Minister through the agency of the internal drainage authority. Subsection (9) makes the rate an owner's rate which differs from the practice in regard to drainage rates which makes the owner responsible for new works and the improvement of existing works. The occupier pays, of course, the total drainage rate, and the liability for the upkeep of drains and so forth fall to him to bear, but he recovers from the owner by deduction the particular expenditure which has been allocated to the owner's rate.

Clause 3 extends the period for making payment to owners of herds of cattle for eradicating bovine tuberculosis. This provision was to expire from 1st January next, but, although no new entrants are being brought into the scheme in time of war, it is desired to keep the scheme in being for another seven years. Clause 4 removes a technical difficulty which arose under the Act passed earlier this year which was desired to protect farmers against action for breach of covenant for ploughing without consent of their landlords. Clause 5 provides that where the occupier fails to comply with the directions of a war agricultural executive committee the Minister can do the work and recover the expenses summarily as a civil debt.

The rest of the Bill deals with Scotland. The conditions north of the border are considerably different from those here. The proportion of swift-flowing water is generally much higher, and consequently the Secretary of State for Scotland administers rather a different code from that which has grown up south of the border. I will not attempt to deal with these differences in detail, but my noble and learned friend Lord Alness is prepared to explain any point which may interest Scottish members. Clause 6, the first of these Scottish clauses, extends the power of the Secretary of State to secure the cleansing of watercourses and deals with the recovery of costs. Clause 7 enables payment to be made by instalment and makes provision for interest, and Clause 8 simplifies the procedure in requisitioning land which has previously been used for sport or recreation. I am conscious that my explanation of the Bill must appear very disjointed, but agriculture is a very varied industry and its variety is reflected in the large and complicated code of legislation which has grown up to deal with it. That is why many of the subjects in this Bill have had to be dealt with by the rather tiresome method of reference to previous legislation. We need this Bill because we cannot afford, under present conditions, any delays in administration and we recommend it as a measure to give ready powers and to simplify and hasten procedure. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Moyne.)

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, it is quite a cheering thing to sit opposite the noble Lord and hear him move the Second Reading of a Bill relating to agriculture. If it were proper it would tempt me to cast my mind back to other places, particularly one at the end of the passage where not so many years ago it was my business to move the Second Reading of a Bill from the right side of the House and the noble Lord was very active in opposition. But on this occasion I shall not imitate his bad example. I think this is a very useful little Bill and it certainly does several things which would be exceedingly helpful at the present time. I have only one comment to make upon the first clause. That clause enables grants to be made directly to farmers who are occupiers and who clean out ditches and otherwise help to get their land drained. That will, I am sure, have an exceedingly beneficial result, because, as the noble Lord is well aware, thousands of acres of good land are, at the present moment, waterlogged in the winter since land drains are blocked and have been blocked in many cases for twenty years. In a great many cases, the clearance of them will be relatively simple if the ditches and the minor watercourses are cleaned out.

The comment I wish to make, however, is that these grants are limited to cases where a scheme has been submitted by the owner or the occupier. Unfortunately there are numbers of people, owners or occupiers, who do not submit schemes. If it happens that such an owner or occupier has ditches along his land which are an essential part of the watercourse, and they are not cleaned out, that will stultify the efforts of the man who is doing his work properly. A watercourse has no regard to lawyers' deeds. The water just runs downhill, quite regardless as to the ownership of the land through which it runs. It is essential therefore that the whole of the watercourse should be cleared. I know that the county committees have powers—and I know they are exercising them—to require an owner or occupier whose ditches are blocked to clean them out and so secure that the whole course of a stream will be dealt with, but it is rather cumbrous. I believe myself that the next Miscellaneous Provisions Bill—this is only No. 2—may perhaps provide that the county war agricultural committees or some other appropriate authority shall be entitled to make a scheme for a whole area and see that the whole area is dealt with, because it is no good dealing with these things piecemeal. For all that, this provision will enormously facilitate this work over a very large area and I am sure will have a most beneficial result.

I am tempted on Clause 2 of the Bill to make a speech to your Lordships on a subject in regard to which, with the possible exception of my noble friend beside me, I should find myself probably in a minority of one. On more than one occasion it has been my privilege to advocate the advantages of the national ownership of land. If any one wants to see the existing system with all its faults in excelsis I would recommend them to study Clause 2 of this Bill. However, I am not here to make any objection but only to point a very obvious moral. Roads in the fen districts would certainly be made under the very rational and sensible procedure that I would like adopted, but the noble Lord and his friends have to have recourse to a dictionary to define what is fen-land. I hope they will be successful but the roads ought to be made, whatever the dictionary calls the land, if that is necessary in the interests of agriculture. I am sure the noble Lord will be the first to agree with that. Whatever we may find in the dictionary the fact is that these roads ought to be made, and they would be made if the responsibility were other than it is.

But I do not envy the Legal Department of the Ministry of Agriculture who will have to decide what share of this expenditure has improved the agricultural value of the adjoining land. Of course, it would never do for the owner of that land to be charged with the cost of the road. That would be much more than the value of the land, even though much of the land is very good land; but there will be a very difficult problem in estimating how much the making of a green way over fen-land into a decent road will have increased the value of the adjoining land. I quite agree that under existing provisions there is no other way of dealing with the matter, but I see vistas of arbitrations arising as to whether or not the increment of value attaching to the land has been accurately stated or not. Anyhow I am sure the noble Lord will be glad that it will not be his business to ascertain what is that increment of value. I think it is quite safe to prophesy that it will bring great advantage to the legal profession.

One other clause to which I must refer, because I am particularly glad to see it, is Clause 5, which deals with persons who make default in regard to instructions to plough up land and so forth. It provides that the amount of the expenses reasonably incurred by the Minister in doing the work which these contumacious persons have declined to do shall be collected from them—recoverable as a civil debt. I think that is a very good idea. There are not many of these difficult people, but there are a few in every county; and my experience, which I have no doubt will be supported by other noble Lords, is that some of them have not done so badly although they have been prosecuted for not ploughing up. The fine that has been imposed in some cases has been quite trivial. Now I gather that the work will be done, if need be, by the committee itself and the cost will be recovered as a charge. That will make them think twice before they disobey the orders to plough up. I think it a most excellent provision.

Might I ask the noble Lord if he will look at a very minor point in Clause 7? Should not "the Secretary of State" be defined in the definition clause? It means, of course, the Secretary of State for Scotland, but I suggest to the noble Lord that as a matter of clarity the "Secretary of State" there referred to should be defined in Clause 9. I have only commented on three clauses of this very useful little Bill, and I can assure the noble Lord that we shall do what we can to expedite its passage.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support this Bill, which has been most clearly explained by the noble Lord the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. May I take this opportunity, if the House will allow me, of expressing my personal pleasure at seeing the noble Lord in the position which he now occupies; since, in company, no doubt, with others of your Lordships, I have most grateful memories of the benefits he conferred on agriculture years ago when he acted so successfully as Minister of Agriculture? Clause 1 of the Bill deals with drainage, and I welcome it most heartily. Indeed, for very many years I have been incurring the odium of successive Ministers of Agriculture by urging, in season and possibly out, that some such law as this should be introduced. That odium the noble Lord opposite who has just sat down has honourably shared with me. Now I believe that this provision will do a very great deal of good, because the state of the drainage of our land is to-day quite deplorable.

I am going to ask the noble Lord, however, if he can in this connection do—or help to do—two small things. The first is to render the forms which enable the farmer to obtain this grant as simple as possible. Farmers at the present moment, quite inevitably but through no fault of their own, are simply snowed under with forms. They spend their time and get writer's cramp filling them up—time which they feel, quite wrongly, no doubt, would be better occupied outside. I think this Bill is designed to make those forms more simple, and I know that the noble Lord will see, as far as lies in his power, that that is done. The other thing I would ask is that the time of paying these grants should be expedited as far as possible. There is a saying "Bis dat qui cito dat," and as far as ploughing up the land is concerned there has not been a great deal of "cito" about it. I am quite certain that the average time for paying a ploughing grant has been more than four months, and I am pretty sure it has been more than six. In the case of land fertility grants—and I take no credit to myself for this—at no period has the average length of time it has taken to make these grants been more than five weeks, and during nearly the whole of the time it has been under three weeks. Therefore I find it very difficult to justify—and indeed I do not try to justify—the immense delay that has taken place between the application for the £2 grants and the receiving of them. I would ask the noble Lord if he can do anything to expedite this matter; if he could, it would be most gratefully received.

When I read Clause 2 I am bound to say that I received a great fright. I should not have been so frightened had I seen the Bill here, but when I saw the Bill it had an Explanatory Memorandum, and I noted that the one scheme which has been approved covered 3,000 acres and cost £50,000. I worked that out with great care, and it came to approximately £17 an acre. In my county, around my part, the average value of land at the present moment, including farms and buildings, is not more than £10; and to find £17 per acre paid for making a road frankly staggered me. Both noble Lords who have spoken have said, "Of course this is not going on to the owners of the land." I am very glad to hear them say so, but that does not appear from the Bill. Surely it is quite clear that you are not going to spend £50,000 on 3,000 acres unless you think that you are going to improve them to that extent.

I say to myself, "What is going to happen to the unfortunate owner who has got to pay, in the nicest way and over a term of years, £17 an acre?"—for I cannot think it will be less. That £17—assuming that I am right, and I am probably not—is spread over five years; it is recoverable as a civil debt; there is a mortgage on the land in addition. I presume, therefore, that if he cannot pay they will take possession of the land and then put their other powers into execution. The noble Lord who has just sat down has been, as is his custom, saying very nice things about the nationalisation of land; and of course there is a good deal to be said for it—though it will not be said by me. But I believe that even he would hardly think that this was exactly the right method to bring about the nationalisation of land: by putting a burden upon a man which he cannot pay, then taking possession of his land, and then suing him for the balance as a civil debt. I think perhaps that is rather a tough method of getting nationalisation. If we are going to have it, I should rather have it straight out; and indeed I venture to think that we have had it for a long while. Perhaps the noble Lord will not agree with me; nevertheless, that remains my opinion.

In subsection (3) of Clause 2 there are two limits, (a) and (b), which I am glad to hear the noble Lord the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture found a little difficult to understand. I found them exceptionally difficult to understand. I should have liked to see added, after (b), the words "whichever be the lesser of the two." As, however, I could not understand those paragraphs, that suggestion may be entirely out of place; but perhaps the noble Lord might at all events consider what the effect would be.

Just a word on Clause 3, which has not been mentioned and which has perhaps been rather out of place. Still, no doubt everyone would agree with the extension of the time for making payment in connection with bovine tuberculosis. But I want to bring this to the notice of the noble Lord. Since the war began, the Ministry has introduced a new kind of tuberculin for testing purposes. It is very much more drastic than that which was used before and, if my information and my experience are correct, herds which for years have had no reactors find themselves under the new tuberculin test with a great many reactors. There are many people who have been somewhat sceptical of the double intradermal test, but we have been assured—I personally have been assured in this House—that the highest veterinary authorities in the land are thoroughly satisfied with the double intradermal test and with the tuberculin which they have used. This does seem to me to be an unfortunate time to bring in a new and stiffer test, for it is a time when farmers are having the greatest difficulty in keeping their herds free, because they have less grass, and there are various other difficulties in their way. I am afraid that the use of this new tuberculin will mean that there will be a great many fewer attested herds in the future than there are now. I should like to urge, therefore, that a return be made to the old tuberculin until the end of the war, and then let the subject be studied anew. I venture to suggest that the Ministry might do worse than study the methods adopted in the United States of America. They started this long before we did, they have been much more successful than we have, and they use an entirely different test.

I welcome Clause 5 because, from my experience, I do feel that there are a few cases—comparatively few—of people who have deliberately made it difficult for war agricultural committees to obtain the production from them which they should have been able to obtain. I have said that I welcome this Bill, and so I do. It will certainly do something to increase production. The present Government, the present Minister and his predecessor have all contributed their share to that result. But if much has been done, a great deal more remains to be done than has been done already. We have now had a survey of the farms in this country. It is a survey which the Central Landowners' Association, and perhaps more especially my noble friend Lord Bledisloe, have advocated for many years. It has been a very revealing survey. I have taken some part in it myself; I have been over 140 farms for the survey, and I can tell your Lordships that I am quite certain that on those 140 farms the production has been less than half of what it could have been, not with superior farming, but with ordinary, decent farming. Why has that been the case? In some few cases—very few—it may have been due to idleness. In some few cases—very few—it may have been due to want of knowledge. In the large bulk of cases it has been due to one thing: the lack of capital in the hands of the farmer who is farming the holding. He has seen his pockets getting emptier and emptier, he has seen his farm going back and back, he has cashed out its fertility, and he has been lingering on. His heart in many cases has been broken, as his pocket has been emptied, by twenty years of neglect.

I hope that that is now a thing of the past. I would venture to say to your Lordships that there is really only one thing that will get the maximum production out of the land, and that is prices which are sufficient to enable the farmer to pay an adequate rate of wages and to obtain some return for himself. I believe that the present Government realise that. They have said so, and they are trying to do something to improve the position. I hope that they are being successful; it may be that they are, but only time will show. I know this, however, that in my part of the country farm workers are at the present time being turned off in hundreds, and possibly in thousands. Why? Not because there is no work to be done, not because production would not be better if these men were kept on, and even if additional men were taken on, but simply because the farmer has not the money in his pocket to pay for the labour, and until he has realised his crops—and in my part of the country, I regret to say, they are not too good—he will not have the money to pay for the labour. That, I hope, is something which will right itself. I repeat, however, that whatever you may do—you may fine a man, put him in prison, or take away his farm—until the farmer can make both ends meet, paying for what labour there should be on the farm and paying a suitable and decent wage, you will never get the production that you ought to have. I support this Bill; I think that it will undoubtedly help the cause that we all have at heart.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, owing to other duties I have not had an opportunity of studying this Bill as closely as I should have liked. So far as it goes, it seems to me to be extremely helpful, but it has at least one vital defect: it will not help the farmer to find the capital which would, in many cases, enable him to double his production. To speak of doubling production may sound sweeping, but I should like to support it by quoting the history of one particular estate with which I happen to be familiar. About ten years ago, an inexperienced holder found himself in possession of a property on which many fields were derelict, some semi-derelict, the drainage hopelessly neglected, and the buildings and cottages hardly fit to use. The highest bid for the land as it stood was £38,000. The choice which confronted the owner was to sell at this figure or to launch out on an expensive scheme of reconditioning, and chance getting his money back. He took that chance, and to-day the estate is probably worth more than £100,000. That may not be important to anyone except the owner, but what is important is this. Ten years ago there were very few agricultural labourers in the four villages connected with that estate and most of these were unemployed; to-day there is scarcely a cottage which is not occupied by a farm worker, and not one man is unemployed. In addition, the corn output of the estate has been at least trebled, a fact the importance of which needs no emphasizing at a time like this.

If this were an isolated case I would not presume to worry your Lordships with it, but it is not isolated. Until a year ago, land in the same neglected state could be found in every county in England. Although some of the worst of it has been taken over by the war agricultural committees, there is still a vast area of land under-farmed, land which could be made to produce a large proportion of the food which now has to be imported at the hazard of valuable lives and escorted by a considerable part of the Royal Navy and Air Force which might be otherwise employed elsewhere. Why is this land neglected? Simply because every owner is not in the position to invest the capital—often amounting to as much as the entire value of the land—required to raise the land to maximum efficiency. This brings me to the Bill before the House. Useful as it should be, it does not attempt to solve the problem of the farmer who cannot improve his land and increase his output because he lacks the money. It is true that legislation already offers him a chance of borrowing at 5 per cent. from the banks or from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, but the interest is too high. For this and for other reasons the results have not been satisfactory. For want of capital many farmers have not been able to avail themselves of the grants for ditching, mole draining and reconditioning cottages.

I am assuming in discussing this Bill that the country requires the maximum production in the minimum of time. I shall also make it clear that I am referring to the moderate or low-rented land, which probably forms 80 per cent, of the agricultural land in Great Britain. Much of this is now poor land, bringing in 10s. an acre, and an equally poor return to the tenant. In other words, it is unprofitable to both landlord and tenant, and therefore yields an inadequate wage to the labourer. That wage has now rightly been raised by Statute, but has the power to pay been equally raised? Many farmers are doubtful that it has. It is not generally realised that low productivity, low rents, and low wages go together, and that together they mean less revenue for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This same vicious circle can be reversed. There is in Bedfordshire land which within the memory of men now living was a sheep run let at 5s. an acre: it is now market garden land, let at anything up to £5 an acre. This result has not been achieved by any miracle, but by the expenditure of up to £20 an acre on manuring in one year. Without the capital the market gardeners brought with them this could never have been achieved.

I consider that a landlord, whether an individual, a company, or the State itself, can be of great assistance to the economic life of good land, but he is absolutely essential where moderate- or low-rented land is concerned. Many of the remaining landlords in the country have suffered from a series of Death Duties and are no longer in a position to perform their function in the economic life of the countryside. Perhaps a few have not appreciated the commercial success that even a moderately-rented, but under-capitalised, estate can become. They have not been prepared to put in the capital to increase an existing burden on the estate, and to wait so long for what they must have thought a doubtful return. How often have we not heard of landlords in recent years who have let this or that farm rent-free for two or three years, owing to the bad state it was left in by the previous occupier; of permission being granted to tenants to erect certain improvements which the landlord agrees to take over at the end of the tenancy. In some cases this state of affairs may have been unavoidable owing to Death Duties, but it is an admission of failure on the part of the landlord to perform his part as provider of capital and insurer of good management.

Only a comparatively few landlords have been prepared to farm their own land rather than let it at any rent to any tenant. Is that position to-day extensively altered by any of the beneficial schemes that exist? Looking about the countryside I cannot see that it is. I fear that many landlords are still obliged to wait for their tenants to recuperate and to come to them offering a better rent for better accommodation. The buying up of land by individual investors is undoubtedly taking place to-day, and will slowly help to provide further capital for the land. The process will, however, be very slow, and all that the Minister of Agriculture will be able to say to criticism is, "Well, this land may not be in perfect state, but you should have seen it before." Something more than effort by a few individuals is necessary if we want to make all farms economic and productive and give an adequate return to labourers, farmers and landlords.

Here I might say that more use might be made of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act. In war-time, owing to shortage of money, increased building costs, the application of this Act must be even more restricted. That is a thousand pities, for none of the acts of good husbandry can be achieved without labour. In recent years the number of labourers employed on moderate land has seriously decreased. No improvements can be brought about, even with enthusiasm and capital, until more labour is available, and you cannot hope to increase labour and increase production until the labourer can be suitably housed. Even with ample capital the reconditioning of farm houses, cottages and buildings is often a slow process. It is not economical to employ a high-speed firm on the repair work which is generally essential before the "thorough enheartening" of the soil can be attempted. Yet it is the quickest and easiest job in the slow and painful business of re-establishing an economic farm from the sordidness of a hand-to-mouth existence among weeds and rotted buildings.

The practical man, fortunately endowed with capital, very sincerely appreciates the Government's assistance in such fundamentals as grants for the reconditioning of cottages, the building of new cottages, the reopening of watercourses and mole drainage. These are undoubtedly the first essentials of any reclamation of uneconomical farms. The proper reconditioning of an old cottage, generally entailing the provision of far larger windows, a staircase that a person other than an acrobat can negotiate, together with the parlour that the modern farm labourer feels he is entitled to, calls for an expenditure of, say, £200 to £300. The finished house will then provide more space than the equivalent council house at about half the rent. Many families have a great pride in their old and tumble-down cottage. But for the way they had cared for it it would often be beyond repair, and it is with real affection and preference that they return to it, rather than move to a new council house, where they would not feel at home. The application of this excellent Act is entirely dependent on the local authority, generally the county council, who apply it or not at their discretion. The achievement of some counties is truly remarkable, and must have done more to help maintain the land in their districts than any other factor in recent years.

Such a high standard is, however, far from universal, and some counties have made lamentably little use of this opportunity, partly through restricted incomes, and partly through lack of appreciation of the Act. Too often these authorities contribute less to reconditioning than the Act empowers them to contribute and yet expect to dominate the owner, who is meeting three quarters of the cost. I have even come across an instance where a local authority contributing £25, together with £25 from the Ministry, to a scheme costing over £200, stipulated that the grant was conditional on the building of a road over a mile long. The road cost £600. It seems that since far less materials are required for reconditioning than for new building this Act could be pushed in some districts to a very much greater degree. By the foresight of a Government fifteen years ago the machinery of the Act is still there, and still operative. The pity is that it is not more universally applied. Where otherwise are the men to live to do all the necessary acts of husbandry? In so many districts the answer is, "I cannot afford to employ them—and anyway I have not got a cottage."

So much for the moderate or low-rented land, which constitutes 80 per cent. Now for the good land, the remaining 20 per cent. I fear few realise the effect that the Excess Profits Tax will have, firstly upon production, and, secondly, on the return of lost capital to the industry. Even within the industry you may hear men touched with jealousy for their more fortunate neighbours—fen farmers, for instance—saying, "They will make a good profit, let them pay." Admittedly the tax will only apply to a few big farmers confined mainly to the richer land. These big farmers are responsible for a very large acreage of such valuable produce as potatoes and carrots. This system of farming produces ten times as much per acre as does corn-growing, but while they produce bigger profits they are also a bigger gamble, and can produce bigger losses. They require a vast amount of capital and the most expert supervision. One hundred acres of potatoes cost to-day £3,000 to grow. These big farmers do not wish to shirk their share of the burden of taxation, and by their public work alone have shown themselves most patriotic, but are they justified, in the light of past experience, in growing these expensive crops and taking their big gambles when, by corn-growing, they could financially be just as well off?

I suggest to your Lordships that, after availing themselves of every legitimate means of raising their Excess Profits Tax assessment, they will decide they are not justified. The proof of this decision will be in the June 4 returns of 1941 when, some farmers think, the potato acreage may be down 25 per cent, on last year. Surely this great risk cannot be run at such a time as this? If more money must come from this industry than by ordinary taxation, then give these men this alternative. Instead of paying Excess Profits Tax, let them, without option, pay on twice their Schedule B assessment. I suggest that these men would come forward and welcome that. It would have the opposite effect of Excess Profits Tax by leaving them an incentive to increase production, and by reason of the high taxation, if no other, oblige them to grow the more expensive crops to make enough profit to pay the tax.

So much for production. There is one other important factor—namely, the effect of Excess Profits Tax on the return of lost capital to the industry. As is too well known, during the last war, with uncontrolled prices of produce, farmers made a lot of money. Some of it was unwisely spent, but certainly all of it, together with a good bit more, was lost by 1933. In that year the productivity of the soil must have been considerably lower than in 1940. Hundreds of farmers with good reputations and a long tradition behind them went under. Many hung on, on a hand-to-mouth basis, drawing all they could out of the land in their struggle for existence before they gave up. A few survived, severely shaken, but more or less intact. These few, almost without exception, were only to be found on the better land. Since then the fortunes of farming have depended on favourable climatic seasons as much as on Government assistance. Now where is lost capital to come from except out of industry? The banks are very helpful where there is really adequate covering—and why should they not be? It is their business. But they cannot help where there is no security. The same applies to the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. The industry is therefore dependent for fresh capital on the ranks of these few successful farmers who would be affected by Excess Profits Tax, and the more enterprising landlords.

Since farmers are not immortal, it is their sons who are wanted on the land, but in the past they have been lost to other industries. Even successful farmers got it into their heads that there was room for only one son on the land, generally the youngest, and that often partly out of sentiment. I suggest to your Lordships that, if farmers were exempt from the Excess Profits Tax, most of any largely increased income would go back into the land either by way of extended acreage or by the installing of a son in another farm. Farmers do not care to invest their money in stocks and shares, and would rather put any money they may save into the thing they understand. There is, too, the ease of the man who, ever since the slump, has been putting everything he could back into the land, often suffering considerable loss. For excess profits he is therefore assessed at the most unfavourable rates. The land now begins to show the benefits. Is it fair that these should go entirely to the Exchequer? The farmer could so well have done with them to increase his production still further.

Some of the 1940 profits will be a paper appreciation, and, after showing a considerable profit, his farm may start a fresh year with less capital in it owing to taxation in the form of Excess Profits Tax. This will particularly apply to farmers whose capital is largely in stock. A dairy farmer's 100 cows, for instance, will, on appreciation alone, show a profit of some 20 per cent., but unless the farmer goes out of industry and sells his cows he cannot realise that profit. Yet all but 6 per cent, of that profit will be liable to Excess Profits Tax. There is also the case of the good farmer who takes over from a man who has failed, makes a success, and is then penalised by being taxed according to the standards set by his predecessor. Other industries had a reasonable standard. Farming had not. Even if your Lordships were to agree that housing of agricultural workers should be pushed ahead on existing lines, that Excess Profits Tax should not apply to farmers, and that all present benefits were to be continued and added to, there would remain a great acreage of land where improvements would be very slow for a number of years. I am sure that any of your Lordships who have tried will agree with me that it takes two rotations, which means from eight to twelve years of good husbandry, backed by a good landlord, to make a really productive and economical farm out of a beggared and unproductive one.

The work of the war agricultural committees throughout the country, in taking over and improving practically unfarmed fields and sometimes farms, is praise-worthy, and I am glad that this Bill before the House extends the power regarding drainage; but, after all, it is only a makeshift. The committees are at present incapable of thoroughly re-capitalising that land and welding the scattered bits and pieces into an economic whole. To the practical man not conversant with the work of the Ministry of Agriculture, the problem of obtaining a vast increase in production, seems simple. It seems to him that all the industry requires is capital, an assured market, and energy. Energy it has, and to-day an assured market; but capital only in small spots and in certain districts. May I respectfully suggest that the Government give the question of capital its early and serious consideration so that production can be increased and the country as a whole gain vastly both in revenue and in food, which are two of the corner stones of victory?

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, it is my very pleasant privilege to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, on his maiden speech. Your Lordships rather pride yourselves on the quality of our debates on agricultural matters and it is always welcome to have some fresh speaker on this extremely complex subject. It is also to me very delightful to find someone who is so optimistic as to talk about the possibility of the incidence of the Excess Profits Tax on agricultural profits. Perhaps rather in contrast to that I might pose this question to the noble Lord, Lord Moyne: If I have been losing £2,000 a year on my farm before the war and during the war only £1,500 a year, am I due for Excess Profits Tax on the difference between these two figures? because in my rather cynical mind I am inclined to feel that is likely to be the case.

I labour under the same sort of difficulty as the noble Lord—namely, that duties of another kind have kept me away from close contact with agriculture—and it is therefore with some diffidence that I speak in an agricultural debate at all. I only wish to say a few words in connection with Clause 5 of this very excellent Bill. That is the clause that empowers the Government to recover as a civil debt, from farmers who fail to do their duty as laid upon them, the expense of carrying out work so ordered. My noble friend Lord Cranworth said there were not many (and that is the truth) who have failed to do their duty, but the policy which is now being pursued—that is to say of bringing the maximum acreage under the plough—has not been in force very long. Land which has hitherto been ploughed has in most cases been land which was suitable to be ploughed and should have been ploughed. There will in course of time return to the farmer a proper financial reward. But as the policy of ploughing up land progresses, so will land which is not so suitable for that purpose have to be brought under the plough, and I fear that there may be an increasing number of farmers who will object to carrying out the orders of their county agricultural war executive committees because they do not believe that it is going to be a profitable business for them.

It is true that the subsidy, normally speaking, will practically cover their costs of cultivation in the first year, but the first year is only one year in the life of a farm. There are subsequent years when that poor land which may be brought under the plough will continue increasingly to be a loss to the farmer, and he, looking ahead, may object very strongly to the orders that are imposed upon him. If the land is ploughed by the public authority and the cost is recovered from the farmer, it may easily put him very much on the wrong side financially in the end, and I rather wonder whether that particular aspect of the question has been carefully thought out by the authorities. I quite agree that we want to bring under the plough and into production every possible acre. Indeed, there are many acres in this country which to-day are producing extraordinarily little, and which, if ploughed up, will produce more, but they will not produce that more profitably, and the farmer knows it, and if he is charged with the cost of cultivation he is being expected to subsidise the necessities of the country out of his own pocket in addition to paying the taxation which he has to pay.

That question also raises in my mind a very much wider question which covers the whole of the ploughing-up policy. The idea presumably of increasing the acreage of ploughed land is not only to increase the agricultural production of this country, but also to "cash in" on the reserve fertility that is latent either in grassland or land that has not been properly cultivated. But for the past twenty years or more agriculture has not been very well treated by successive Governments, and there has been little or no opportunity to build up a reserve of fertility. Although the policy may produce satisfactory results over a year or even two years, we must look further ahead than that. We are informed that we must be ready to fight a long war. A long war, presumably, is one of more than one or two years' duration, and we shall see a steadily decreasing yield from these fields unless we are very careful, because the policy of ploughing up grassland inevitably is reducing the numbers of livestock that there are in the country. In addition there is, owing to circumstances over which the Government have no control, a decreasing quantity of feeding-stuffs for livestock available. That is reducing still further our livestock, and in consequence reducing the considerable manurial value of this livestock. At the same time, owing to shipping difficulties and financial difficulties, the amount of artificial manures imported into this country is being reduced, and still we are drawing heavily on such reserve fertility as there may be in the country.

That is a short-time policy, and a short-time policy may be necessary for this country in the difficulties with which we are faced now. On the other hand, one must look ahead to the times when this war is happily concluded. Financial difficulties, particularly in connection with foreign exchange, will be just as bad, I should imagine, after the war as they are now, possibly a great deal worse, and every method will have to be adopted to avoid our purchasing from abroad more than we possibly need. Our greatest purchase from abroad is that of feeding-stuffs, and if we can so direct our policy for agriculture as not only to produce as much as possible now but also look ahead for the future, I think we shall be well advised to do that. I do not pretend that I have adhered very closely to the Bill as such, but I do not get very many opportunities to speak in your Lordships' House, and I thought this was an opportunity to put forward this point of view. I do not expect to get any answer from His Majesty's Government to-day, because I know they have many problems to think out. I do feel, however, that this question of maintaining the fertility of our soil in order to maintain the yield of the land, not necessarily at its maximum, but at its optimum, is the way we should set about this problem. We have to think not only of present needs, but also of those difficult times that are going to come to us after the war is over.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes, because I think that nearly everything has been said, and said admirably, by noble Lords who have preceded me. I am sure everyone listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, with the greatest possible interest. It was a speech which covered a very wide area, and touched upon many points that are familiar to your Lordships who have studied agricultural questions. I should like to ask one or two questions and make a few remarks. The noble Lord will perhaps be patient with me when I ask him what is included in "Recovery of expenses of making good default in compliance with Defence Regulations in relation to agricultural land." This is a question upon which I feel some personal bitterness, because a large part of two very valuable farms belonging to me have been requisitioned by a Ministry. I would rather not discuss the object for which this land has been taken, for reasons that your Lordships will appreciate, because we do not discuss military subjects. What is happening to this land that has been taken is that it is growing a magnificent crop of weeds. Two first-class farmers have been turned off a very large part of the land that they have farmed, and they cannot do anything. They have been told that they may do this, that and the other, and they have done nobly what they are allowed to do, but there are these weeds growing, and not only are they ruining the farms in question, but they are sowing a harvest of weeds elsewhere. I hope the noble Lord will be good enough to look into that matter.

I dare say that your Lordships have noticed that in some counties the ragwort is growing in great profusion this year. I spoke about this matter to a war agriculture committee. I asked if they would come down my way and see the state of things. They said that they had been serving packets of notices upon farmers. "Well," I said, "I wish you would serve a notice upon the particular Government Department that is growing weeds on my land." I got a reply from another agricultural body saying that they supposed that if they served a notice on the land which has been requisitioned by the Government they would be told that the Crown was above the law. Therefore the serving of these notices on the Ministry concerned would have no force or validity whatsoever. I have explained to the noble Lord that I am prepared to give him any information that he would like to have on this particular subject, but I would rather not do so in public. Personally I have no particular respect for the Ministry of Agriculture at the present moment. I have not had much respect for the Ministry for a very long time, because I believed that any Minister who went to the Department with the best intentions would find himself defeated by the permanent officials before he had been there five minutes. That is what we ought to look into. I think I have said enough on that subject. I have no respect for the Ministry of Agriculture, but although I should delight in telling your Lordships all the details of these cases, and I think your Lordships would be very much edified, I must restrain myself.

There is another subject on which I should like to touch. Your Lordships must realise that one of the reasons why the land of the country had gone back so tremendously before the war—beyond all recognition—was the fact that the Agricultural Holdings Act prevented a landowner getting rid of a bad tenant. No landowner wants to change a good tenant—he wants to keep him all his life—but the Agricultural Holdings Act prevented a landowner from recovering possession of land from a bad farmer until the farm was ruined. Then the landowner had to let the farm at a reduced rent and perhaps spend large sums of capital on it.

Finally, I would like to say a word about the reconstruction of rural cottages with the aid of grants. That, I think, is in itself a most excellent scheme, because there are many owners of cottage property who could not afford to recondition them if they were not assisted by grants, but my experience has been that the applicants for these grants in very many cases have been people who before the war would have been called distinctly rich because they were huge Surtax payers. In those days there were rich people. I am very much astonished at the number of Surtax payers who applied for grants to help recondition cottages. I am glad to say that nearly all these applicants were turned down—I am afraid sometimes I put a spoke in the wheel myself—but it shows that you have to be very careful in what cases you give grants. These grants should be given only in really deserving cases where the money would be usefully and practically expended and when the work could not be done otherwise.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I venture to think that the dominant note in this debate, at any rate so far as the Minister is concerned, has been far too humble and meek. We have in this Bill a small instrument of legislation but one which, if it is efficiently used and properly applied, will do more than some of the much advertised methods to further the production of food and the welfare and contentment of those who live by and on the soil. I would venture with humility to congratulate the Government on this Bill. An attack, and it seems to me an unnecessary attack, has been made on the permanent officials in Whitehall. I cannot understand why they should be singled out for special stricture. My experience of Government officials in Whitehall is that they are anxious to do the right thing by agriculture. It is true that they sometimes have to meet a certain amount of criticism. It is generally ill-informed criticism, due to the fact that many of the orders issued by the Department carry some penalties and the agriculturist is inclined to think, because a fine or some other kind of disability is attached to the order, that the officials are responsible for that.

In regard to the Bill itself, I would like to say on Clause 1 that there is nothing more galling to a good farmer than to clear out ditches or watercourses and then find that his neighbour, whether through lack of capital or enterprise or whatever it may be, allows his section of the watercourse to be blocked up and so practically negative the work that has been done. I am most anxious that some scheme should be devised for regular survey and subsequent maintenance of all drains and ditches which are improved under this Bill. It is no good spending time and money in improving watercourses unless they are kept in an efficient state subsequently. We all know that it does not take many rabbits or many moles to block up a ditch by their various activities and practically destroy the efficiency of the watercourse.

May I be allowed also to refer briefly to one or two things which, although they are not to be found in this Bill, are of great agricultural importance? I hope that something may be done with regard to poultry. The poultry industry is one which can be efficiently carried on by the small man, but as far as I can see every kind of obstruction is going to be put in his way, and it will not be very long before we are confronted with a shortage of eggs which ought to have been foreseen. I think that with a little foresight that position could be met, assuming that we maintain, as we shall maintain, the free passage of foodstuffs across the oceans of the world. The other question to which I would like to refer is that of a standard price for wheat. As I understand it there is now no inducement to the farmer to maintain wheat in the stack. There was such an inducement before, but now that there is a fixed standard price for the whole year it does not matter to a farmer whether he sells his wheat to-morrow or keeps it for a time. He will get the same price and so he has no inducement and there is no obligation on him to see that a store of wheat is maintained until it is actually needed for milling. There are many other points to which I should like to draw attention, but I know that this is not the occasion when I should venture to take up further the valuable time of your Lordships.

5.29 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to thank your Lordships for the very helpful debate which we have had on this Bill. A great many valuable points have been raised and I can assure your Lordships that my right honourable friend will be very glad to go into all the matters put forward by people who, as we know, have a very close and practical knowledge of agriculture. I am in the same difficulty as I was in when I originally spoke to the Bill: the debate has necessarily raised a lot of detailed points and I can only answer them one by one. First, Lord Addison mentioned that the scheme which deals with drainage grants must be initiated by the owner. It is true that in the Bill that is the machinery laid down; but before the owner initiates his application he may be under considerable pressure by the war agricultural executive committee, who can serve an order requiring certain operations to be carried out on his drains. Therefore, although so far as the Bill goes the owner or occupier initiates the scheme, he will be driven to do so by the powers of the war agricultural executive committee. The noble Lord raised the question of defining "the Secretary of State," but I am assured that this is common form, because one Secretary of State can act for another, and of course the appropriate Secretary of State always takes the necessary action.

The noble Lord, Lord Cranworth, and also Lord Addison, were concerned about the expenditure on these roads in the drainage system. Lord Addison was alarmed from the opposite angle to that of Lord Cranworth: he thought that the owners would get the advantage of roads of a far greater value than their contributions would pay for. I am, however, assured that it is expected that the whole of the cost will in most cases be borne by the owners, and that the figures at which Lord Cranworth arrived by dividing up the £50,000 which was put in as an illustration would be a very deceptive guide to the probabilities. The estimates show that the roads can be constructed for about £2,000 per mile in reinforced concrete nine feet wide. Taking into account the area of land served by each road, it is estimated that it will be about £4 an acre on the average for the landowner. So I should explain that the £50,000 was merely put in as an illustration, to simplify the arithmetic.


And, I take it, not a very good one.


I think it was quite a good arithmetical illustration, but not a good illustration of the cost of the road to the landowners. The noble Lord was anxious that in subsection (3) of Clause 2 these two methods of computing the benefit to the individual landowner should have a provision added that the lower computation should be adopted. I admit that I am confused with these two definitions, but it seems to me that his point is already covered, because the clause says the sum shall not exceed (a) or (b); therefore, if it is not to exceed either (a) or (b), is that not another way of saying that it is limited by the lower of these two measures?


I was not quite sure.


However, if it is not clear, I can assure the noble Lord that the purpose of this draft is that the owner should get the benefit of the more generous of the two methods, and if I am advised before the Committee stage that it is necessary to move an Amendment for that purpose, I shall of course be glad to bring one up. The noble Lord asked for the simplification of forms and for the expedition of payments. I have been assured that in the case of these drainage grants the procedure has been very much simplified and the money is paid out very promptly, because it now goes direct to the landowner instead of going through the drainage authorities. In spite of the false quantity with which the noble Lord repeatedly afflicted our ears, I can assure him that he has the greatest sympathy and that in this case we shall give as swiftly as possible.

The noble Lord raised the question of the new tuberculin. The trouble has been by no means limited to this country, or to the supply of tuberculin recently produced at Weybridge. The new tuberculin is undoubtedly more potent in producing a reaction than that which used to come from Camden Town or from the Department of Agriculture in Cambridge. This trouble, however, did exist in a similar form even before Weybridge took over. The trouble is due to the fact that in tuberculosis, as in a great many other of these diseases due to micro-organisms, there are various strains. The bovine strain is not distinguished by the test from the avian strain, which is quite harmless to cattle. Many cattle have had avian tuberculosis which they have caught from poultry, and there are found post mortem little tiny lesions the size of a pin's head, of no kind of importance from the point of view of the health of the cattle. Hitherto the test has not distinguished between the objectionable bovine infection and the harmless avian infection, but in future it is proposed to have, at the expense of the scheme, a simultaneous intradermal injection of bovine and avian reagents and compare the effects. If there is a much bigger reaction from the bovine, it will be accepted that the animal is a reactor to bovine tuberculosis. If, however, the avian outstrips the bovine in the size of the intradermal reaction, then the animal will be passed as safe.

We were all, I am sure, very glad to hear the first contribution to our debates of Lord De Ramsey. We not only know that he is a large landowner, but from his speech and from other information we know he is a practical farmer who has in hand a very large area for which he is responsible. He is concerned about the lack of capital in the industry; but I would suggest that the way to deal with this question, which was raised a great deal in another place during the debate on the Bill, is not by means of cheapening the rates of interest from what are current in other industries, but by enabling farmers to pay for the service of capital. At the present time it is estimated that the banks accommodate farmers to the extent of about £50,000,000, and probably merchants do about the same. We hope that without getting farmers into debt—which is the last thing which we want to do—the new scale of prices, and the new period of prosperity which we trust that they will bring to agriculture, will enable the farmer to pay the commercial rate for capital and to obtain capital on satisfactory and businesslike terms.

The noble Lord also raised the question of Excess Profit Duty, as did the noble Earl, Lord Radnor. The danger of Lord Radnor being charged on a loss cannot, I think, arise, because as the matter at present stands—it is still in a rather fluid condition, and subject to discussions between Departments—there is, I believe, a standard profit of £1,500 allowed, so that no one will begin to pay Excess Profits Duty, whatever may be the final settlement, until he has a larger profit than £1,500. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, was concerned lest the new Orders might bring large areas under the plough which might be unprofitable in future years, but we believe that the new prices will also have an effect on such areas, and make agriculture possible upon a scale which was formerly, with the lower range of prices, out of the question. I can assure him that the question of keeping sufficient livestock to maintain fertility, especially on sheep and barley land, is not being overlooked. An expert Committee is considering policy in this respect, and is dealing with the question of the quantity of livestock which should be kept on the hoof. This Committee is devoting itself to this among other points and is fully aware that it is of vital importance that the fertility of land should be maintained by keeping an adequate number of livestock.

The noble Earl, Lord Malmesbury, raised a question about weeds. I am afraid that this is only one of the many disturbances to agriculture which are inevitable by reason of the fact that the Service Department have a claim, which must come before everything else, to go on to land under certain conditions.


Might not it be possible to have the weeds cleared off? I do not raise the question of the land being taken, but could not someone be responsible for clearing the weeds off?


This is, of course, only one of a great many cases where one learns that a good deal of apparent ignorance is being shown by people who are new to the land. We are trying to deal with it by obtaining the services of liaison officers between the agricultural interests and the Service Departments. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, has done a great deal to help us on points of this kind in the south-eastern counties, and others who have a great knowledge of agriculture and an opportunity of helping have been good enough to make a contribution to the very difficult problem of liaison. I think that cases of this kind can be dealt with by representations. If the noble Earl will give me the details, I will see that the matter is at once taken up and that the weeds are in some way cut.

The noble Earl said that he had no respect for the Ministry of Agriculture, and in particular for its officials. I cannot for one moment agree with his opinion as to the officials. During the years when I was at the Ministry of Agriculture, I was very much impressed by the zeal and efficiency which they showed. To comfort the noble Earl, however, I would say that nowadays there is much less "farming from Whitehall" than there used to be. The Ministry of Agriculture have, I am sure in the interests of efficient production, transferred many of their responsibilities to the practical farmers in each county, and the work of the war agricultural executive committees is, I am sure, doing a great deal, at great personal sacrifice on the part of their members, to bring about the maximum efficiency in administering the law in regard to agricultural production.

The noble Lord, Lord Eltisley, raised the question of poultry. It is very unfortunate that, owing to the uncertainty of the import of feeding-stuffs and the necessity for finding shipping space for more vital products, we cannot guarantee that more than about a third of the amount normally available for poultry will be available in future. We hope that the proportion will be much greater, and the indications at present are favourable. Poultry owners, however, have been warned to cut down their stocks gradually. They appear to be taking a very optimistic view of the situation. I have not been able to verify the figures, but so far there has been only a very small cut; I believe that the figures in the June returns show a reduction of about 3,000,000 only on a total number of some 56,000,000 birds. I think, therefore, that poultry are not being drastically cut down, and, if the position with regard to feeding-stuffs improves, I hope that we shall be able to maintain a larger stock than seemed possible a few months ago.


Perhaps the noble Lord will be good enough to refer to the question of the maintenance of any drainage that is undertaken, to see that it is surveyed and that continuity is ensured.


On that point, while there is local control the danger cannot arise, because the county agricultural committees will be empowered year by year to serve orders on owners to clean their drains and to do any other work which is considered necessary to ensure the fertility of the land. I think that under present emergency conditions that will meet the point made by the noble Lord. I apologise for having taken up so much time, and I hope that in view of the encouraging reception given to the Bill it may now be given a Second Reading.

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