HL Deb 30 April 1952 vol 176 cc510-22

6.15 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, perhaps my last remarks were somewhat inappropriate, in that I was talking of the investment of capital from industry in agriculture, and I was saying fiat the backing or support or investment of any sort, whether on horse, man or organisation, should go to the best and not to the indifferent. If the best farmers need more capital to do even better, then I consider that it should not be denied to them. I have had some considerable experience of large-scale cattle farming overseas, and that has taught me that, with an adequate infusion of capital over the years, longterm returns are reasonable, though I will confess that they are not spectacular. Of course, in these other lands there are many climatic difficulties to be combated, although they can be offset to a very large degree by capital development. I venture to suggest that there is another possible avenue of approach to this matter. I do not know whether it has been considered, though I do not think it is new. We have the dedication of woodlands to re-afforestation. I am wondering whether something could not be done on these lines—that is to say, the dedication of land. The noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, said that greater use should be made of common land. I am wondering whether those two thoughts could not be put together, whether there could not be dedication of land and consequent long-term investment of capital therein. Even were this practicable, we should have to see a more flexible landlord-tenant arrangement.

There is one further matter (this is rather off my main point of capital from industry, but I think it should be mentioned), and that is the urgent necessity for saving, here and now, the far too many calves which are being slaughtered in this country. I am well aware that many of them may not be worth saving for beef. I understand that as many as a million calves are slaughtered every year. I do not know what percentage would be worth saving for beef, but assume that it is a quarter: that would add 250,000 head of cattle, which, in three or four years' time, would give us an adequate supply of beef. I have no doubt, and I hope it will be so, that the calf-rearing subsidy will do something to reduce this slaughter, but I think many cattle breeders, and especially dairy farmers, might think more of crossing their dairy cattle with a beef bull and thus getting a calf which is more worth rearing.

Noble Lords may ask: If we save this number of calves, where they are going to be reared, and what are we going to do about feeding them, when feeding-stuffs are as expensive as they are to-day? My short answer—and it is very short—as to where we are going to rear them, is that I thought we were going to do a lot about bringing marginal land back into cultivation. When we have brought it back, what are we going to put on it? I think those two things link themselves together—at least I hope they do. There is another warning. We are accustomed to getting a great number of our store cattle from Eire, but I expect that it has not escaped your Lordships' notice that there is a growing export of meat in all forms from Eire to the United States and Europe, and that it is not coming here. To my mind, that means that neither the cattle nor the meat will come here. Presumably, in the case of meat we cannot afford it. That is a warning. It may be that we shall need some of our own cattle reared, instead of their being slaughtered, in order to fill up the vacant place which Eire should have filled. There is in my mind another question, which concerns feeding-stuffs, but we have heard a good deal about that, and I daresay we shall hear more from those better able to answer that question than I am.

I was hoping to finish my remarks before six o'clock, but there have been certain interruptions. However, I believe that I have said enough to indicate my trend of thought on this matter. I firmly believe that we must seriously solve, once and for all, what I call the producer-consumer equation. I was never very good at algebra but I have set myself an equation whereby the producers of food receive a fair but adequate reward, and consumers receive their maximum food requirements at prices they can afford. If this problem seems insoluble now, I suggest that we set about redressing the balance between primary and secondary production, and forging the alliance between industry and agriculture for the essential recovery and the increase of food in our Island.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, I promise to make but a very short intervention, and I do so only because I understand that no other noble Lords wish to speak before the debate is adjourned to-day. There are one or two points which I wish to take up. Before doing so, I should like to endorse what has been said by the noble and learned Earl, the Leader of the Opposition in this House, to the effect that we on these Benches are very interested in the success and prosperity of agriculture. We can assure the farming community that whatever sound and proper policy is initiated from the other side in regard to long-term matters, we, in our turn, so far as possible will give it our backing and support. We shall watch with interest the unfolding of this policy. I imagine that to-day's debate marks the commencement of something which is to happen in the future: and I hope that that future will not be far distant, because I believe that the farmers of this country should now be enabled to get down to their proper job, to produce the foodstuffs which we require, and to make the best possible use of the land which they farm. The farmers are on trial. I want to say to the farmers from this side of the House—and I know it will be endorsed from the other side—that the drive must now be commenced. There has been a little lagging behind during this last few months; but with the record of the war years and the knowledge which I have of the farmers of Britain I know that they can do their job and produce the foodstuffs. I hope that, with the backing of the Government and of all men and women of good will, what we aim at now will be an accomplished fact in the days that lie ahead.

It is the duty of the Government to feed the people, and therefore they have to make their plans not only for months ahead but also, I think, for years ahead. I am going to suggest to the Government that ten years is not too long a time to envisage. Ten years would enable us to go round our farms in a double rotation of crops; and it would give to the farmers that which I think they want—the knowledge that the future is assured and that, if they do their work, then the country will reward them for it. We shall watch with interest what unfolds itself in the months ahead. The nation, in the present circumstances of food shortages both here and abroad, will not excuse those who are producers here if they fail in the task which I hope will be set them. I am not enamoured of targets or percentages. Percentages have been mentioned this afternoon, but I think that the production efforts of our farmers, with the proper use of our land, can far outrun the percentages and targets of which we have heard, and I hope that that will prove to be the case.

I wish to deal with one or two points in regard to the Review of Prices. First, let me endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, in regard to calves. He almost took the words out of my mouth. I believe that we can save from slaughter many more calves than we do at present. I think the calf subsidy is not sufficient to bring about what we want. The Government are calling for meat, for an increase in stock numbers, and it is bad economics and bad in all ways to countenance the undue slaughter of calves. Some of these calves may grow up to be fine beasts. I hesitate to make a personal reference, but I am told that I was a very small baby. I am quite certain that if I had been born in another form I should not have survived but should long ago have been in a veal and ham pie. The same sort of thing may well be happening to our calves. Very often they are small, and some it is impossible to rear, but others, with encouragement from the Government and perhaps with veterinary supervision, can grow up and help to increase our stock numbers.

I noticed to-day that the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, was anxious for an increase in meat products. I feel rather strongly about this matter, because in another place many years ago I spoke in the same vein—to the effect that we want meat. Well, my Lords, pigs are the quickest producers, and in the Review of Prices which has been published an increase is made in the price for fat pigs. It is limited, however, to pigs of a certain weight. I noticed in The Times to-day that a fat pig over nine or ten score is still to be subject to a reduction in price. Lord Woolton spoke of the fact that one ton of bacon saves this country £200. It is to our interest to encourage the production of a heavier pig for our bacon. It may be said that the people are anxious for a certain cut in bacon; but it is meat and foodstuffs which we want, and I think production of a heavier-weighted pig would help us. One noble Lord from the other side of the House referred to the question of small pig-keepers. We should encourage the small pig-keepers more than we have done in the past. We could look to many thousands of additional pigs from the producers of the one or two pigs, as the case may be.

The second point I wish to raise on the Review of Prices is the small increase made in the price of fat sheep and the rather heavy reduction in the price of wool. My noble and learned Leader referred to sheep in New Zealand. I have seen those sheep and I have seen our own country with great flocks of sheep, but one does not see them now. There is a definite reduction in the quantity of sheep which the farming community is at present running. The Review of Prices in effect means that if a fat sheep goes into the market after the Review comes into operation, it is sold at a lower price than that at which it can be sold at the present time, by reason of the fact that there is a reduction in the value of the fleece and a very small increase in the price per lb. of that particular animal. I do not want to cavil (that is the word which was used) about this Review of Prices, but I hope that these prices are a stepping-stone to something more advanced. If I may go back to the point where I started, I do not want the farming industry always to be thinking about the Review of Prices. It is a pity that we have to have these almost six-monthly discussions between the farmers and the Government as to what rewards they should receive. I want them to do something of far greater importance to the community.

There is one point on which I may not be on such safe ground. The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, in the course of his speech said that agriculture is not a game that anyone can play. That is the view I hold, and I want to enlarge upon it in this way. The farming of land is a job for the specialist and the experienced man. The community demands that the greatest possible production should come from our lands—but what is happening? It has been mentioned often enough this afternoon that many young men are anxious to farm on their own. They are gaining experience, but they have not the wherewithal to purchase farm lands. We are educating those young men; they are gaining experience in their job; and then we allow other people with no experience whatever to come in, purchase our land and farm it. Such a state of affairs does not exist in any other profession. I could not go to the Bar, I could not go into medicine, I could not go into other jobs of that sort, unless I was properly qualified. I might go into politics, but that is different. If we make it necessary in some of our other professions for people to become qualified, surely to goodness it is necessary for the people who produce our food and farm our land to be, in their turn, qualified. I ask the Government to consider this point. I would bring in a system whereby everyone who purchases farming lands to occupy, or becomes a tenant or hopes to become a tenant of farming lands, should be required to obtain a certificate of experience from the county agricultural executive committee or the National Advisory Service. That is a suggestion which might improve our foodstuffs and our products.

There is also the question of smallholdings. In Norfolk (the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will no doubt know something of this) I believe there are 400 applicants for smallholdings. The Norfolk County Council have already set aside the sum of £100,000 to try to purchase land, but they have been stopped: no progress is being made in that direction. I think it is up to the Government, without any criticism from me or from anybody else on this side, to try to implement, so far as possible, the smallholdings policy which I believe has their support. We do not want to lose these men from the industry. We want them on the land, and we want the products of their labour. There again, the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, made a reference to the position of labour and paid a compliment to the men who are working the soil. We want them there, and if we could hasten in some form or another the smallholdings policy, we should be doing very good work.

In conclusion, I want to deal for a moment with the question of horticulture. It has not been mentioned, except by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. What is happening from the Government point of view in regard to horticulture? Nothing has been said from the Government Benches, but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will deal with it to-morrow. Here is an industry which is drifting and drifting and drifting. The Government have taken some action to control imports at a certain time. It is admitted that the National Farmers' Union are talking in terms of tariffs, and ideas of that sort, but there is no policy yet before the country from anybody except a society of which I am a member. The British Socialist Agricultural Society produced a policy last year which is worth consideration. The noble Lord may know of it—he probably does. In that policy, an attempt was made to put before the horticulturists of this country some system which, although it might not in every particular be correct, right or possible, would at least ensure that they would have better marketing facilities, that they would reap better prices and steady prices for their products, and that the consumers would have graded British products in the shops for their consumption. I do not want to enlarge upon that policy. It may be known, but I wish the Government would think in terms of it, or parts of it. I think that at the present time the horticulturists, the food growers and the market gardeners of the country have a clear case for Government action as soon as possible. I have much to say, for this is a subject with which I have had to deal all my life. However, the time is short and I do not want to stand in the way of other noble Lords who desire to give their views on this subject.

6.40 p.m.


My Lords, it is nearly four years ago since I intruded in one of your Lordships' debates on a subject similar to this. In that debate I expressed the view that it was doubtful whether we could meet our balance of payments, and very doubtful whether we could achieve the surplus which we required to pay off our debt and invest in the sterling area. In view of the existing circumstances, in which we see the deficit on our "visibles" account running at the rate of £1,000,000,000 a year, let us examine Her Majesty's Government's "visibles" target. In recent years we have picked up from Moscow the percentages habit. First of all, we have tried to find out what this percentage means in terms of either food or money. The Economic Survey gives last year's agricultural production as being 44 per cent. more than the average for the three pre-war years—that again is only a percentage. The 60 per cent. represents, of course, an increase of 16 points on that, which is 11 per cent. on the whole production.

The problem is to discover at what rate our agricultural production is running. There are no firm figures. My researches lead me to believe that at retail prices the British public is consuming about £3,000,000,000 worth of food and subsidies a year, of which about £1,000,000,000 represents the value at the ports of imported food; a maximum of about £1,000,000,000 represents the value on the farm of the food grown at home, and the balance includes subsidiary expenses, such as manufacturing charges, distribution charges, and so on. But the point is that we have a maximum home production at the moment of something of the order of £1,000,000,000. Eleven per cent. on that is £110,000,000. I add, in parenthesis, that this 11 per cent. increase represents about 2½ per cent. compound interest over four years. which is not a very inspiring target.

Now look at the components of our imports—meat, £213,000,000; wheat and flour, £153,000,000; butter, £90,000,000; other grains, £70,000,000; tea and cocoa, £120,000,000: vegetables and fruit, £111,000,000; and so on. Surely, out of this enormous volume of food that we are importing we could grow more than this extra £110,000,000 worth that we are talking about. I suggest that the most promising fields are in wheat, pigs and horticulture. Can we really afford to go on buying fruit and vegetables at three times the pre-war value? Quite clearly we cannot, as Her Majesty's Government have already recognised. Most of the £110,000,000 can be found in the home production of horticulture in order to replace those imports. Can we afford £104,000,000 worth of imported pig meat, most of which I am firmly convinced could be produced in our own country? I do not think we can. Then there is the question of £107,000,000 of dollars spent on wheat and flour. Is it really true that British wheat is of such a milling quality that a larger proportion cannot be introduced into the British loaf? After all, our ancestors fought the Battle of Waterloo on British wheat, and they were tough people Then again, are these arrangements with the Canadian millers so sacrosanct that we must go on importing Canadian flour, and must not import the wheat and have the offals in our own country?

I suggest, my Lords, that in the fields that I have mentioned there is abundant opportunity for producing in this country considerably more than the target which Her Majesty's Government suggest as their minimum. One needs to remember one thing—that if we are to remain solvent as we increase production in this country, we must by some administrative action stop imports from abroad, because it is perfectly possible for the sterling area to be bankrupted by the appetite of the British people for tomatoes, ham, apples and so on. Her Majesty's Government have recognised this. We must, of course, remember that traditionally the Ministry of Food are importers. When the Ministry was set up it was staffed chiefly with importers. That tradition has remained, and they tend very largely to have regard to sources of food outside our islands. Very often it is much easier to import food. It is far easier to distribute food imported in that way than it is to buy it off the farms. It is much easier to control, and very often it is cheaper. But if it is a question of "blueing" the reserves of the sterling area on food which we can produce at home, of course there is no question what we ought to do.

That is the general. To return to the specific: if we ask the big men for more production in farming they always ask for more cottages, more pipelines, more labour and more this, that and the other. If we ask the little man for more production, he generally asks for only one thing—namely, more feeding-stuffs. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will carefully examine the various arrangements that are in force, so that if possible he can provide a greater incentive to the really small man to grow more of his own feeding-stuffs, which can be matched by an increased allocation from the Government. I have particularly in mind the position resulting from the introduction of the cultivation of fodder beet into this country, whereby half the food for the pig for the fattening half of its life can be provided from this crop. Moreover, half the food for thirty pigs can be provided off one acre. If that smallholder can be certain of matching his acreage of fodder beet with an allocation of cereals, he will be greatly encouraged to go in for the type of production at which he is best—namely, the tending and care of animals in a small way.

There are other restrictions which it would be as well to examine. There are considerable restrictions on the use by schools and residential hotels of their own swill in order to rear pigs for feeding to their own inmates. I suggest that they should be allowed not only to have a cereal ration to match the expected quantity of swill that they may get on their premises, but also to kill a very much larger number of pigs to be fed to their own inmates. I do not suggest an unlimited amount, but a much larger figure than the very low one at present operating. Then again there are various restrictions which prevent the very small people from keeping pigs. The other day I asked a countryman with quite a little bit of ground in a village why he did not keep a pig. His reply was, "Well, my Lord, the local authorities and people do not like us pig keepers." That is the answer. There are too many restrictions from local authorities and others which prevent people from keeping pigs.

The price question is a source of great worry to the small pig producers at the moment, and pig club membership is declining. I suggest that one of the ways of increasing the numbers of pig keepers would be to make certain that the rearer of the pig who wants to sell half to the Ministry receives the full agricultural price for that half, rather than an unsubsidised price, which is what I understand he receives at the present time. In all this matter one really feels that what is needed is a change of heart on the part of the Ministry of Food. They have from the top to the bottom—and no one can deny it—a tendency to regard the regulations as matters of concessions. It is not they who are conferring a favour on the producer: it is the producer who is conferring a favour on the Ministry. He is producing food which makes it unnecessary for him to go into the market for something which would have to be obtained from somewhere else. A change of attitude on the part of the Ministry is necessary.

To conclude, I think that this "featherbedding" business has got to be examined. In industry, the greater your production the lower your costs. In agriculture, the greater your production the higher your costs, because you are calling in the worse land and the worse-equipped farmer. As we go out to get larger and larger production we shall inevitably find that we are giving bigger profits to the farmers on the best land and the farmers who are best equipped. The tax collector or the rent collector is supposed to—and in theory does—look after these matters, but somehow or other it does not seem always to work out in that way. I believe that the problem has to be examined very carefully, because if we are to have increased prices for food, and increased austerity (which means less food), and are at the same time to give large profits to the best farmers—which is inevitable—this business of getting more food from our own country is going to become a very difficult political question. There is great potential good will between town and country at the present time. After all, very few Englishmen are more than three generations removed from the land. If the system of public relations conducted by the farmers were really efficient and good, they could take advantage of that fact, but I see little signs of any really good public relations at all. I think that the farmers should look into that point. I only hope that the target of Her Majesty's Government is that of a Conservative Government and of a conservative Yorkshireman. If it does not prove to be that in the end, I feel that our economic situation will prove to be a good deal worse than we think.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Hudson, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Earl Fortescue.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.

House adjourned at six minutes before seven o'clock.