HL Deb 16 December 1948 vol 159 cc1145-58

3.0 p.m.

THE DUKE OF MONTROSE rose to call attention to the recent statement of the Ministry of Agriculture, that the present arrangements for collecting and disposing of home-grown wool will be continued for the 1949 clip, and to move that in relation therewith, farmers shall be granted complete freedom to choose their own wool merchants. The noble Duke said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should like to say that I am speaking for a great many farmers in this country, and in Scotland and Wales, who depend very largely on the sale of wool for their livelihood.

The object of my Motion is to try to elicit further information regarding a statement made quite recently by the Minister of Agriculture. In his statement the Minister said: The present arrangements for collecting and disposing of the home grown wool will be continued for the 1949 clip. What has disturbed us who are in farming is that we had hoped very much that all the small war restrictions would be lifted, including the restrictions on the sale of wool. Now, according to that statement, the control of the sale of wool is to be continued for another year. That means to say that the restriction against a farmer being able to dispose of his wool to a wool merchant of his own choice will continue. That concerns the farmers very much, because they have understood, or at any rate have been hoping, that they would be able to dispose of the 1949 clip to the wool merchants of their choice.

What happened is that, somewhere about 1940, the Wool Control took over all wool in the country and requisitioned all the wool in England, Scotland and Wales; then they reallocated that wool to certain specified merchants, and in some cases to specified factories, to process and market. That, of course, upset all the existing market arrangements of the established farmers and caused many of them a great deal of inconvenience. Many of them were but small farmers. Sheep farmers were prepared to give way, to forget their inconveniences and to do their best to help the country through the war, but the late war has been over now for several years, and the sheep farmers have been hoping that the liberty and freedom to sell their wool which they had before will be restored to them as soon as possible. We thought that we should not be able to resume our peacetime freedom of negotiation until 1949; but now, according to this statement, the restriction is to be continued for another year.

The difficulties of and objections to this continuance of the restriction can be easily illustrated. For instance, in the old days, in peace time, a sheep farmer might be selling his wool to a merchant on one side of a street in his native village. Now, according to the disposals by the Wool Control, he has to sell his wool to another merchant, perhaps in another village, about whom he knows nothing at all. That is a great inconvenience. Then there is this question to be considered. During the late war, many farmers gave up their farms at one place and took farms elsewhere. For instance, it may be that a farmer living on the West Coast has given up his tenancy and has moved to the East Coast. Yet he is still compelled to sell his wool on the West Coast, a long way from his farm, although it would be very much to his advantage to have his wool merchant as close as possible to the farm.

Another question arises. Young men taking up farming for the first time want to sell their wool, and they probably have in mind some friendly merchant to whom they can sell their clipped wool. They cannot do it now. They must send their wool to the Government pool, of which they know nothing—and probably the Government pool knows nothing about them. This is most inconvenient, and it is this inconvenience which is causing a feeling of frustration. Frustration can lead only to damping down increased production, which is the last thing we want these days. So keenly do these farmers all over the country feel this inconvenience and this sense of frustration in getting rid of their wool clips, that last December they formed a National Wool Federation, representing all the sheep farmers in England, Scotland and Wales. They sent a deputation, which they asked me to lead, to the Minister of Agriculture. We went to the Ministry of Agriculture about this question, and were received by the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon. After a pleasant talk, he told us that he was pleased to say that the Ministers of the Government were most sympathetic to the views which the deputation had put before them regarding the removal of these small restrictions.

The next thing that happened was that in April, through the Press, the Government announced a Wool Marketing Order. That was on April 8. In that Marketing Order, it was stated that it was open to farmers to make an application for the sale of their wool to any merchant of their choice up to April 30. There was not much time between April 8 and April 30 and, of all times, that was the period of the year when the farmers were busiest on their sheep farms, because it was the lambing season, or shortly after the lambing season. A large number of farmers in this country never heard about or saw that Order. Consequently, they were too late to put forward their applications before April 30. Therefore, they had to continue their wool clip in 1948 under the old conditions. I think it was most inconsiderate of the Government to issue that Order in that way at that time.

Quite a number of farmers made applications under that Order, and I have heard that, generally speaking, in England the applications were most sympathetically received. My noble friend Lord Exeter, who is Chairman of the Central Area of England Farming and Agricultural Committee, mentioned the other day in public that every single application in his area had been approved, and I am told that in other agricultural areas in England something similar has happened. In Scotland, however, not one single application has been approved. It is true that there were three appeals lodged by farmers in Scotland against the refusal to give approval to their applications, and I believe that those three appeals have now gone through. However, in the first instance, every application in Scotland was turned down. Why? We do not know. We cannot think how or why that has happened.

I expect that the noble Lord who is to reply will say: "But surely this is a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland." I agree that it is. We formed a deputation to see the Secretary of State for Scotland, to ask him to explain how this had happened. He also expressed sympathy with our desires—I might say it was a mild sympathy; perhaps that would be more accurate—but he left us under no misapprehension on the matter. He could not himself give us any encouragement and he could not say what he would do, except that he would like to discuss it with the Minister of Agriculture in Whitehall—because it was like Mary's little lamb: Wherever Mary went, The lamb was sure to go. That is just what happened. Our farmers and I feel it is absurd that we should have to come here and waste the time of your Lordships in asking for attention to be given to a question of this sort, instead of being able to settle it, as we ought to be able to do, in our own country in our own way. However, there it is.

We farmers are most anxious to have these restrictions lifted. The other day, two Ministers in another place said that they were going to lift all the small controls that hindered the nation's industry. For a start, they were going to get rid of the control which prevents consumers buying their coal where they like. They said that the lifting of that control would give freedom of trade, so that consumers of coal could buy their coal from the merchant of their choice. If it is right for coal consumers to trade with merchants of their choice, why is it wrong for British farmers to trade with merchants of their choice? There is something very funny and wrong about this—although it is not really funny. One point is that these applications have to go to a committee of an agricultural area. These committees are supposed to be impartial and equally divided. In Scotland, we have three farmers, three merchant representatives and a neutral chairman; but the chairman is a wool trader, and therefore, although he may not vote, he is still in a position to influence the opinion of the committee.

I noticed the other day that in England there is an area committee at Leeds to receive these applications. There are ten farmers and ten merchants on that committee, together with a supposed neutral chairman. But the chairman held an interest in 25 per cent. of concerns of the merchant farmers. When a tribunal is appointed to receive appeals of any kind, we want the chairman to be absolutely neutral and to have nothing whatever to do with wool, on one side or the other. It may be that we are being influenced in a wrong way by a committee that is not truly impartial. Therefore, I would like to appeal to the noble Lord who is to reply to use all his influence to get this petty restriction removed so that we can sell our wool to the merchants of our choice. We wish, further, that steps shall be taken to see that the committees to whom we send our appeals shall be strictly impartial, not merely in regard to the representation of farmers and merchants, but by ensuring that the chairman shall hold no share whatsoever in wool concerns. I beg to move.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, in addressing your Lordships' House, I feel that I am experiencing certain sensations with which some of your Lordships, delving into the corners of your memory, will sympathise. Standing as I do in this part of your Lordships' temporary House, I see before me two mural paintings entitled "Hospitality" and "Mercy." Whether that refers to the quality of noble Lords supporting the Government who sit immediately in front of those paintings, or whether it serves as a warning to those who sit on this side of the House to use the velvet glove, I do not intend to inquire. I do suggest, however, that the wording of the Motion before the House is refreshing and it is wholesome. With the shortest of preambles, it asks for a complete cutting out of something which we, who support the Motion, consider quite unnecessary. I think that the crux of the whole business is one of restriction, frustration and an obsolete measure which has outlived its usefulness.

The noble Duke who moved this Motion has mentioned the pressing concern which has led to his doing so, and I would like to emphasise the point that this argument has been going on since 1945. It was in 1946 that the Minister of Agriculture said that he would look at this particular concession, but he wanted a little more time to think about a general reorganisation in wool marketing, in order that this procedure, amongst others, might be superseded in 1947 and thereafter. We are now nearly in 1949 and nothing whatever has been done. It is unnecessary to refer to the war conditions, when canalisation and even inefficiency were put up with for the sake of the one great object of beating the enemy. Nor do I think it likely that the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, will consider that the wool growers are a capitalistic or monopolistic body, who should be kept continually in chains, fastened on them by an obsolete measure. I do think, however, that this matter could be put right by a very small gesture by the other side. I believe that what has happened is that there has been a muddle, and that the Minister of Agriculture is unable to make that slight generous gesture of saying that he has made a mistake and will climb down. May I put it to your Lordships that a small stroke of the pen would rectify what is a grievance in this industry and is not really a matter of principle or of the greatest importance? I beg to support the Motion.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, when the noble Lord is replying, will he kindly say how it is that in England the farmers are treated better in this respect than they are in Scotland? My noble friend has told us that in many cases in England the applications to sell through merchants were agreed to, whereas in Scotland in no circumstances were they agreed to. Further, my noble friend says that when he led a deputation to the Secretary of State for Scotland, asking him for better treatment and also for the reason why this had happened, the Secretary of State for Scotland said he would have to consult Whitehall first before he could give an answer. My Lords, that is all wrong. I think there is no Scotsman in this House (and no Englishman that I can see around me) who would agree to that sort of treatment—differential treatment between the two countries, to the detriment of Scotland. I hope the noble Lord in his reply will be able to give a reasonable answer to that very serious point which was put by my noble friend.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, the point just raised by the noble Viscount will be dealt with in the course of a general statement which I hope to make on the position. The only comment I would make on his remarks at the moment is that I do not like the suggestion that Scottish farmers are always being "put upon," and that English farmers get everything whereas the Scottish farmer is neglected. From my knowledge (which I admit is not very extensive), that is not fully in accordance with the facts. I think the Scottish farmer gets everything he can out of agriculture, and he sees that he gets his share, just as much as the English farmer.

I count myself particularly fortunate to be replying to this short but interesting debate, because it gives me an opportunity of congratulating Lord Rea upon his first contribution to the House. It was an interesting contribution, and some us here—almost all of us—who have memories of his late father, are particularly happy to know that it is the present noble Lord who has succeeded him, and we look forward in the future to many contributions from him. He said he thought a small gesture could put this right. That brings me straight to the subject which the Duke of Montrose has raised, and which I am very glad he has raised. Boiled down, it is not a very large matter, and I will make this general point at the beginning: it is not a matter of whether the control of the wool industry will be maintained as a permanent part of our life; it is a question of how quickly it can be taken off—and taken off under conditions which will not create more chaos and confusion than would exist if it were left on.

One must bear in mind that the control that was put on originally (and to which the noble Duke does not object at all, because it was necessitated by the war) has been built up, and built up very successfully and very efficiently, over a number of years; and when an organisation has been so built up and is operating throughout the whole country, in my opinion it is not advisable merely by a stroke of the pen to wipe it out. It must require a good deal of consideration, so that the change-over to the new system, whatever it may be, is carried out without undue dislocation. Therefore I should like, with your Lordships' permission, to explain how the Wool Control administration operates and some of the difficulties inherent in the proposal that the noble Duke has put forward—namely, that farmers should be allowed, in time for the next clip, to choose their own merchants.

Arrangements for the requisitioning and disposal of the home wool clip were introduced in 1939 as a war-time measure. The responsibility for making the Order under the Defence Regulations and the necessary administrative arrangements rested until 1945 with the Ministry of Supply; with the Board of Trade in respect of the 1946 clip, and thereafter, from 1946, with the Agriculture Departments of England and Scotland. A separate organisation, known as Wool Control, which was drawn almost entirely from the wool industry, was set up by the Ministry of Supply for the purpose of administering the Order. That organisation has continued to function in this capacity under the Agricultural Departments. Wool Control has its headquarters in Bradford, but it is operated on a regional basis, and each region has a Wool Advisory Committee, representative in equal numbers of wool producers and the wool industry, to advise the regional chief executive officer on questions relating to the local application of general policy. In the early war years it was laid down, and accepted (as I think the noble Duke has said), that producers should be tied to the merchants with whom they dealt in 1939—that was at the beginning of the scheme. In the latter war years, in the interests of conserving transport and man-power, when our position became more difficult, the basis of allocation was changed to a zoning or geographical one; after the war, by general agreement, the original basis of allocation was reverted to.

The noble Duke wishes to know the reasons for the continuation of Wool Control in the post-war period. Well, it followed the setting up of the body known as the Joint Organisation which is representative of the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Dominions. That is one of the points which the noble Duke has perhaps overlooked—namely, that in considering the whole question of the control of wool we have to consider not only the wool clip in Scotland, or in England and Wales, or in the United Kingdom generally, but also the wool clip in the Dominions. Therefore the Joint Organisation was set up to secure the orderly marketing of Dominions wool for a number of years during the disposal of surplus stocks. This action, of course, compelled the Government to recognise that they had an obligation to make provision for the home clip and to continue the war-time practice of requisitioning the home wool clip, so as to give further time to devise and bring into operation other methods for the disposal of the clip. In the result, it was decided, after consultation with all sections of the industry, to continue the existing arrangements under Wool Control, successively in 1946, 1947, 1948 and now—it is hoped, finally—for the 1949 clip.

The noble Duke makes a demand for freedom for wool producers to choose their own wool merchants. When the disposal of the 1947 clip was nearing completion, and the arrangements for the 1948 clip were under consideration, the producer organisations asked that producers be granted complete freedom to choose their own merchants—which is what the noble Duke is asking. The Agricultural Departments decided that, for reasons which I will explain, this request could not be granted, but that consideration would be given by the local advisory committees to applications by individual wool growers who wished to change their merchants, where this could be clearly shown to be of practical assistance in the handling of the wool and not inconsistent with the orderly marketing of the clip. Appeals by farmers against decisions of the local advisory committees could be made to the appropriate Agricultural Department.

At this point perhaps I may refer to a point raised by the noble Duke and the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, and to the suggestion that Scotland has some grievance in this connection. It is suggested, I gather, that there has been much more latitude in the appeals that were made to change from one merchant to another in England and that more appeals were allowed in England than in Scotland. Let us not get this out of proportion. If I am advised correctly—and I believe that I am—the total number of appeals in Scotland, England and Wales amounted to something under 300, from something like 80,000 people who were concerned. So the number was really very small. That, I realise, may be used as an argument for making the concession.

Again, I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that one has to take into consideration the surplus wool problem which arises in connection with the wool coming in from the Dominions. The demand for a change in these arrangements, to allow a producer complete freedom to choose his own merchant, comes primarily from farmers' wool co-operative societies who are also authorised merchants under the Wool Control scheme. These societies, unlike the merchants in private industry, can offer an incentive to producers in the form of dividends, co-operative dividends, and would obviously be in a favourable competitive position if freedom were allowed to canvass producers. The Government, of course, have no objection in principle to co-operative enterprise of this kind; quite the contrary. But it would be unreasonable and would lead only to great administrative confusion if the present structure of the control scheme were to be disrupted in what is expected to be the last year of its operation.

As your Lordships no doubt know, it is expected that producers' organisations will shortly promote a scheme under the Agricultural Marketing Acts incorporating long-term plans for wool marketing. It is hoped that this scheme will mature in time to deal with the 1950 clip. That is why I have suggested that 1949 will be the last year of the operations of Wool Control. In the Government's view it would be inexpedient, in all the circumstances, to alter the present arrangements at this stage. I do not think that I am particularly well qualified to offer any explanation—it would be a somewhat involved one—as to how it came about that there was greater consent given to applications to make changes in England than in Scotland. It is not always wise to try to hold post-mortems, and to rake up the past. But I would draw the attention of the noble Duke to the fact that it is intended that the arrangements which were made in respect of the 1948 clip for the consideration of individual applications by wool growers to change their wool merchants shall again be applied in respect of the 1949 clip. This is an assurance to the noble Duke that everything will be done by the Agricultural Departments in consultation to ensure reasonable flexibility in giving effect to these arrangements.

I have now covered the position generally. The noble Duke put certain specific questions. He complained of short notice being given to farmers in the Wool Marketing Order. The notice he said was three weeks—announced in the Press—the period beginning on April 8 and closing on April 30. I think that is a fairly long time, considering that it was not a new Order but merely the renewal of the previous Order. While I agree that in some parts of the world—particularly those where the noble Duke spends much of his time—three weeks may be held to be very short notice, I do not think that for the country as a whole three weeks is an unreasonable period to elapse between the date of the notice being given and the date of the Order's becoming operative.

The noble Duke referred to farmers being restricted from selling clips to merchants of their choice. I have already explained that to the best of my ability, and would add only that the price the farmer receives for his wool is not affected by the present system of allocation to prescribed merchants. Prices are the same for the same quantity and quality of wool. Nor is the farmer required to meet the cost of transport to the merchant's premises. There is, accordingly, no price disadvantage to farmers under the present system, and it seems to me that any other disadvantage is outweighed by the convenience of adhering to it. The noble Duke drew attention to the fact that in England applications to change were much more favourably received than in Scotland. I have already dealt with that and the noble Duke has not only dealt with that in speech, but also in the deputation to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

To sum up, I would say that the whole of this question seems to me to boil down to a comparatively small point. The Government are desirous of abolishing Wool Control as quickly as possible. But when we have built up a Wool Control from 1939, with ramifications throughout the Dominions, and when we have in hand such vast stocks of wool, which must be distributed in an orderly fashion, before we can take the drastic action of taking off all control on the home market we must be satisfied that chaos would not result—as it has in many other countries where too much haste has been exercised in releasing these controls—and that the new method of marketing wool has been properly devised. Instead of waving a wand over the system, which has been built up gradually and extends throughout the whole country, and smashing it up altogether, it is hoped to abolish the control in an orderly fashion. To do that successfully requires time. That is why I ask the noble Duke that we should retain this Wool Control for another clip, and then what he is aiming at will be achieved.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene only for a moment. I well recognise that the Government cannot be called to task for the initiation of this scheme. Indeed, I was one of the founder members, as the Minister responsible for agriculture in Scotland in 1939. As the noble Lord, Lord Morrison, has said, this was a scheme designed, in the first instance, for war time. It was a valuable scheme, which was modified in certain respects later on, and played an important part in our economy during the war; but it was not intended that it should continue indefinitely. Four years have passed since the end of the war, and while it is true that vast stocks of wool have to be disposed of, and a certain length of time may reasonably be required for that purpose, I would urge that the scheme should be terminated as early as possible. Indeed, as the noble Lord has indicated, this is the desire of the Government. I had hoped it might be terminated by next year, but in the view of the Government that has not been found possible.

I do not feel able to press that issue further at the moment, except to say that if it is not possible for the Government to remove the control before next year, though the noble Lord will urge the Government to do so, there should be a more liberal attitude towards applications which are being made. I am not sure whether I understood the noble Lord correctly, whether he was speaking of appeals or original applications when he gave a figure of 300. I assume they are appeals. If they are, I would suggest that if there are 300 out of many thousands, there is still a reason why the Scottish quota should be adequate. In most Scottish matters we preserve the ratio of 11 to 80 and I am not sure whether eleven-eightieths of the 300 were Scotsmen or not, and whether they received favourable replies; but I have no doubt the Secretary of State has that in mind. I urge that this war-time scheme, which served an excellent purpose, should be wound up as early as possible, so that we can get back to a greater measure of freedom under present conditions. I think that farmers would universally support that. If the Government do not feel able to remove it next year, a matter they must consider very carefully, I would ask them to adopt a more liberal attitude towards appeals, both in England and in Scotland.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I would like to say that I have already given the noble Duke the assurance that a more elastic interpretation will be given during the coming year of all applications which come to be examined, and I repeat that assurance. There were 300 original applications—not appeals—and of these, 48 were successful. Out of the 300, there were 98 appeals; and out of these, 43 were successful, three in Scotland. It would be a rather long task to go into the question of why only three were successful in Scotland and rather than waste our time by holding a post-mortem, perhaps I should be justified by saying that certain steps have been taken to see that this disparity does not occur in the future.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his full explanation, but I am left with the feeling that the matter has been handled by far too many Ministers. I have tried to keep pace with the Ministers mentioned by the noble Lord—the Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Supply, the President of the Board of Trade, and I do not know how many others. It seems to me that there have been "too many cooks," and that the matter has got into a muddle. I do not think that the transfer of transport from a farmer dealing with a wool merchant to the direct Wool Control would affect the transport at all. At the present time all pay into the transport pool, and the position would be the same whichever way it went. What I want is to have the 1949 clip handled without controls. We hear so often that it will be "Next year," that we have begun to lose confidence. If there is to be a reform in agriculture in 1950, it would make no difference if we had a free market in wool now. That is all I need say at the moment. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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