§ 2.54 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to call attention to the agricultural industry, with special reference to Command Paper 8989 on the Decontrol of Food and Marketing of Agricultural Produce; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, when I look at the list of speakers for this afternoon, I must confess that I feel something of an interloper, because the great majority of noble Lords on this list are practising farmers and, therefore, better qualified than I am to discuss this question. The other thing which strikes me about the list is its length. There are eighteen speakers, and I have calculated that if each speaker occupies a quarter of an hour and the Government spokesman—whom we always like to hear at rather greater length than other speakers—a little longer, we shall be sitting until well after seven o'clock. I believe that even noble Lords opposite will not object to one form of rationing—the self-imposed rationing of time by speakers. I shall certainly do 214 that, on grounds of principle as well as of expediency, in my opening remarks.
§ It is a year ago to the very day—it was on November 11 last year—that we had our last debate on agriculture and food production. Since then a great deal has happened. A year's farming falls to be reviewed, and the outline, at any rate, of the Government's long-term agricultural policy, especially in the marketing field, is now pretty clear. Your Lordships will agree—indeed, the House and the list of speakers show this—that a debate on this subject this afternoon is timely. There are two recent changes in Government policy which I warmly welcome. The first is the inclusion of the Minister of Agriculture in the Cabinet. In almost every agricultural debate which has taken place in the last two years we have asked the Government to do this, and many noble Lords opposite with great experience of agriculture have supported our plea. The other change is the removal of the duty of co-ordinating food and agriculture from a Minister with no responsibility in either Department. We all respect the competence and ability of the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, but we never felt that it was fair that any Minister should be shouldered with what was really an impossible task. This function now returns to the appropriate Cabinet Committee—whatever that may be—under the present Administration. If agreement cannot be reached there, then presumably the matter will go to the full Cabinet, in which both responsible Ministers will be able to state their case. I am glad that the Prime Minister has thought fit to revert to this traditional method of co-ordinating Government Departments.
We shall also agree on both sides of the House that what really matters is the continuation of the food production drive. Therefore the first thing I should like to do is to see how the expansion programme has been faring lately, and to make one or two comments about it. About the programme itself, my feeling is that the Government's target for the increase of home-produced food is far too low. I believe that the farmers could produce more than 9 per cent. above prewar production by 1956—which is the Government's target—if they were given the confidence, the equipment, the credit, and so on, that they need for a further
expansion. This view is not confined to any particular Party. It is held by so distinguished a Member of the Party opposite as Mr. Amery. I was looking at a memorandum on agriculture which he was kind enough to send me the other day, and I noted this sentence:
The target which the Minister of Agriculture has set before himself to be reached in 1956 is 160 per cent. This is far below what could be achieved if there were a real determination to restore agriculture to its rightful place in the national economy. The target to be attained within the next eight or ten years should be at least double the pre-war production.
I will not commit myself to an increase such as that, but I think it is of interest, and worth your Lordships' consideration, that so impartial and able a person as Mr. Amery believes that we can get more from the land within a reasonable period of time.
§ Now let us look at what has been actually happening by way of expansion of agriculture in the last year or two. When we look at the figures given in the White Paper published after the last Price Review, and the actual amount of the increase in food production for the last three years, it seems doubtful, unless we accelerate the present pace, whether we shall reach the Government's target by 1956. The figures for 1950–51 (I quote the total figures, which include market gardens, smallholdings and so on) were only 143 per cent. compared with prewar; for 1951–52 149 per cent., and for 1952–53, the last figures I have, running into the current year, 151 per cent. The annual increase in production has fallen this year—though, of course, the latest figures go only up to the summer and do not include the harvest—from 6 per cent. to 2 per cent. Unless this downward trend is reversed and we get a more rapid rate of increase, we shall not be able to add the further 9 per cent. which the Government have envisaged as their target for 1946.
§ What causes one considerable concern is that, after a spurt in 1951–52, the rate of increase of production is less than the average rate of increase since 1947 when the production drive began. If we ask why thisis—I realise that many factors are responsible, and I do not want to exaggerate the importance of any one factor—the answer must be in some 216 measure at least, and certainly recently, that it is owing to the fact that the farmer has been in an unhappy frame of mind. If we ask whether this trend will continue, again the answer must be that it will depend to some considerable degree on whether the farmer continues to be in an unhappy frame of mind. For the first time since the war farmers have begun to lose confidence. They are uncertain about the future, and, as I am sure your Lordships will all agree, uncertainty is the most deadly of all the enemies of farming.
§ This unhappiness in the industry is borne out by views expressed by the county branches of the National Farmers' Union, which represent most of the local farmers, and in the farming journals. I should like to quote to your Lordships passages from the Farmer and Stockbreeder and the Farmer's Weekly, two representative journals, but I will not do so because I think it is more important, at the beginning of the debate, to concentrate on the facts. I am sure your Lordships will be aware, however, that views have been expressed, both in these periodicals and at meetings of the farmers in the counties, about this uncertainty. Whether or not these doubts and uncertainties are justified is a debatable question, and noble Lords opposite may deny that they are. But two things are certain. The first is that they do exist in the minds of many farmers: that is incontrovertible. The second is that they are a thoroughly bad thing for farming.
I believe that the root cause of these doubts and fears has been the failure of the Government to arrange a long-term policy for implementing the guarantees in the 1947 Act, after the removal of war-time controls and after the return of normal trading conditions. I do not blame the Minister for taking two years to produce a marketing policy. I know the difficulties, and I am not using that as an argument against the policy of the Government, although I am certain that this delay has done a good deal of harm. But I do blame the Minister for producing, after all this time, not a permanent long-term marketing policy but a series of hasty, improvised interim arrangements. The proposals for eggs, cereals and meat in various White
Papers are all provisional. Other long-term arrangements are suggested, but I should have thought that it would have been better for Government purchase or purchase by a statutory authority to continue until permanent long-term marketing arrangements have been worked out in consultation with the producers. Whether the reinstatement of the auctioneer and the wholesale dealer is due to an obligation to the middleman or to a blind faith in private enterprise—both views have been expressed—is a matter of secondary importance. What is important is the effect on the producer and the consumer of this change in marketing. This is how its probable effect on the marketing of livestock is described by a non-Party Sunday newspaper, the Observer. What this paper said about the livestock marketing scheme was:
A closer examination, however, suggests that this is a stop-gap scheme open to serious criticism on several grounds. It revives the absurd guessing-game of livestock auctions and underwrites them with an unlimited Treasury guarantee, thus throwing the meat market open to the speculators, dealers and price rings which battened on the industry before the war. Such a scheme can only discourage the much-needed expansion of our livestock industry, and would be likely to put such a burden on the Exchequer that ultimately the whole conception of stable prices for farmers might be discredited.
That is one view of the livestock marketing scheme. I would mention another—one that is obviously more important even than that of a newspaper, however independent and well-instructed it may be—and that is the view expressed by the National Farmers' Union. They have a similar fear of this return to auctioneering as the system of marketing trade produce. I should like to quote briefly from their Press release dated November 5. It runs as follows:
As for fat stock, while reiterating the strong objections of farmers to the auction system"—
I should like these words to be noted—
that is, the three branches of the National Farmers' Union in England, Scotland and Wales—
note that the proposals contain some provision for payment to the producer for the weight and quality of his individual animal. The decision to revert to auctions has evidently been dictated by the Government's determination to end State trading in meat when control ceases. This is presumably held
to preclude the system of actual fixed prices known in advance which the Unions regard as fundamental to expanding production.
I should like that last sentence to receive your Lordships' careful consideration. It is evident that the Union regard the system of an actual fixed price, fixed in the annual Price Review, which is the existing system, as being essential to a further increase for farm products. That is the system which noble Lords opposite wish to replace by their own.
I should like to come now to the proposed substitute for the existing system of purchase and price guarantees. Before I do that, however, may I draw the Government's attention to the fact that they themselves have said in their White Paper:
The pre-war fat stock auction system was unsatisfactory in certain respects.
Yet that is tine system they want to go back to, without knowing—for no Minister has given this information—how the admitted pre-war defects can be put right. It is quite evident that under the new marketing system arable and livestock farmers will both have the risk of auction added to the other risks of farming. Your Lordships will remember how easy it was before the war for dealers to agree among themselves to cut out competitive bidding. The risk is particularly serious for the small man, the man who has only a few animals or a few hundredweight of corn to dispose of. He will get less consideration from dealers than the man in a big way who has large quantities to place on the market.
§ The new method proposed in the White Paper, of giving the farmer a guaranteed price, will not protect him against the risk he runs of getting a poor price in the open market, for he will no longer be guaranteed the actual price he will receive for his produce, which up till now has been fixed in advance at the annual Price Review and paid to him by the Ministry of Food. What he will now get is an actual price from a dealer in an auction at a local market, or from another man if he makes a private sale, plus certain additional deficiency payments, for which he will have to wait, probably for a considerable time, from the Government.
§ In the case of fat cattle and fat sheep, the actual price paid to the farmer by the dealer will be made up to the guaranteed individual price, which is the minimum price for a particular grade. That 219 is what is set out in the White Paper—if I have misunderstood the situation, I hope the noble Lord opposite will correct me. On top of this—there are two guarantees for the livestock man—if the average price obtained in these transactions is lower than the standard price the farmer will get the difference between the average price for the grade of animal which he is putting on the market and the standard price, which will be fixed at the annual Price Review.
§ The unfairness and uncertainty of deficiency payments—and such payments are inevitable if we do go back to private trading, which is the Government's intention—is that they guarantee a collective price to the industry, but not an actual price to the individual farmer. If the average price for oats or barley is below the standard price, every farmer will receive the same deficiency payment on each hundredweight of oats or barley that he sells, regardless of whether he is lucky or unlucky in his marketing arrangements. The uncertainty that this return to private trading has caused in the farming industry will, I fear, slow down the production drive. Farmers will certainly become more cautious. The tendency for farmers will be to go on taking the milk cheque, for example, instead of switching over, as for many years past we have been trying to induce them to do, to livestock rearing. The tendency will also be to revert from arable farming to grass, from high cost to low cost production, again a tendency which the Government have tried to check in the last couple of years.
§ There is another consequence of the reinstatement of the middleman, one which I fear will be just as injurious to the consumer as to the producer—namely, that it will certainly add to the cost of distributing home-grown food. These intermediaries between the producer and the consumer will inevitably add a fresh margin to the total cost of distribution. In the end, this extra cost will be paid by the consumer in the shop price of food. It seems a great pity, at a time when food prices are high and rising, and when we should all like to spare the housewife any extra cost for essential foodstuffs, to go back to an expensive, old-fashioned and inefficient system of distribution. The noble Lord opposite smiles, but I wish he would consider 220 this, because I should like some noble Lord opposite to be able to convince me and other people that this new marketing system will be cheaper and more efficient than the present marketing system, and will not add to the cost of distribution. I hope that some noble Lord will address himself to that point.
§ Another hazard resulting from this holocaust of controls is the unlimited liability which the Treasury are now accepting on behalf of the taxpayer. The Chancellor of the Exchequer himself has said that he cannot estimate what the liability arising out of these deficiency payments will be. In the case of fat stock, the dealer can, of course, offer any price he chooses. If the farmer wants to get rid of his animals, as he will do in the autumn, so as not to have to provide them with winter food, there is no reason for him not to accept the dealer's offer, however low it may be, because he knows that the difference between the dealer's price, however large that difference may be, and the guaranteed individual price, in the case of livestock, will be made up to him by the Government. If the noble Lord does not agree with me, I shall be glad to hear his reply later on in the debate. That again is a point that has been made before, and I think it would be of great interest if it could be satisfactorily answered.
§ In the case of corn crops, where, of course, there is a single guarantee, not a double guarantee, as in the case of livestock, a serious fall in the price of barley or oats would saddle the Treasury with a substantial and quite unpredictable liability, because the Treasury have to pay the difference between the average price, which is a price based on every single transaction which takes place, and the standard price, and no one can tell what the average price will be in the actual sales. Such an increase in the payments from public funds would be hard on the farmer, as well as on the taxpayer, because the public would feel that farming really was being "featherbedded" at their expense. I am glad to think that that is not so at the moment, that those who take that view are in a very small minority indeed. But it is important, in order that feelings of that kind may not take root in public opinion, that the new price guarantee should not 221 cost the taxpayer more than the old price guarantee.
§ Finally—I do not think I have exceeded my allocation of time by very much; I am now coming to the end of my speech—I should like to ask for some information about imported foodstuffs. I gave the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, notice of my intention only a short time ago, and I shall understand if he is not able to reply to-day; but it is an important matter, and I should like him to reply if he possibly can. The White Paper makes it clear that the Ministry of Food will no longer import any meat except bacon. Of course, existing contracts will be safeguarded, but what I should like to know is: what will happen when our present long-term contracts for beef and mutton and other foodstuffs expire, as they will all do in the course of time? I imagine that it is most unlikely that the Governments with which most of these contracts run will be willing to renew them with private traders, and without any Treasury guarantee. What I should like to ask the Government is this: is it their policy to give up the system of long-term contracts for imported foodstuffs? If this is not their new policy, what arrangements do they propose to make when food imports revert to the hands of private traders? I am afraid that this has been something of a Jeremiad. I wish that it had not been so, and I hope the Government will be able to say something to remove or allay the fears that are felt by farmers all over the country at the present time, and to restore the confidence that is absolutely essential if the production drive is, to continue. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for having put down this Motion and for giving us an opportunity of discussing this subject at a most important and opportune moment. He had an important Motion to put before us, and I think the House could not complain of the length of time for which he has detained us. He has put his case before us with his usual clarity, but I hope he will not think me discourteous if I do not follow him exactly, or answer all his questions, because I believe that it will be for the convenience of the House if I try to keep rather to the White Paper 222 which is to be the subject of our discussion, and that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington should gather up and deal with all the questions at the end of the debate.
Lord Listowel mentioned the question of production I am certainly not going to follow him there, because I think that the problem before us at the moment is rather one of distribution and security; but he is quite right in saying that there is no hope of increased production in this country if there is no confidence. All I would do, while I am on that point, is to correct him on one small issue: the production drive did not start in 1947. I know that most good things started during the life of the Socialist Government, but this drive started, in fact, mainly under the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, nearer 1940. Nobody who is in touch with agricultural opinion will disagree that there has been a considerable amount of anxiety in the countryside; nor do I think we should question the fact that that anxiety has been quite natural. I would qualify what I have said, however, with the comment that the prices now being obtained in the marketing of young cattle—in fact of any stock that is being sold for slaughter, for at least a considerable period ahead—do not reflect the lack of confidence of which we heard from the Opposition Benches in another place the other night. From what little I know of farming opinion, I am sure that farmers would not thank anyone for trying to exploit their feelings at the present moment for political purposes.
Now, my Lords, let us be quite clear on two points. First, such anxiety as exists is certainly not caused by any blows that have been received, but rather by fear of what may possibly arise. Secondly, the anxiety is caused not so much by a change of policy—which is not, in fact, taking place—as by a change of circumstances. The policy of the Agriculture Act, 1947, stands. That policy is to give to British farmers the maximum security compatible with wider national interests; and the fact that new circumstances have arisen means that we need a new technique for carrying out that policy. That fact was well recognised in 1947 by Mr. Tom Williams, then Minister of Agriculture, when he referred, in his 223 Second Reading speech on the Agriculture Act, to the need to be flexible in the use of remedies. The remedy needed might be guaranteed fixed prices; it might be deficiency payments; it might be deficiency payments related to a standard price; it might be acreage payments; it might be a subsidy, or a price calculated according to a formula, such as we have in our meat scheme to-day.
Let us be perfectly clear on this point, which I do not believe is adequately recognised. The simple fact is, that from 1945 to 1952 there was no problem at all of safeguarding British agriculture—no more than of safeguarding British motor manufacturers when there was a long waiting list of intending purchasers of motor cars. The scarcity of food and the inflation of money values meant steadily rising prices, whatever Government were in power, whatever any Government were to do; and all that the so-called "guaranteed price" policy of that period did was to enable the Minister of the day to persuade farmers to accept prices rather below what they would have received if there had been a free market. It is easy to give security to sellers on a sellers' market; the challenge comes only with the approach of a buyers' market—and this is the first time that the Agriculture Act is being tested. It has never been needed before, and I had rather hoped to hear from the noble Earl, not only some of the interesting criticisms that he put before us, but possibly some indication of how noble Lords opposite would meet the challenge—because challenge it is, and a challenge that Sir Thomas Dugdale has had to face. It is not a question of how to drop the Agriculture Act, but how to save it by adjusting it to present circumstances, when the whole structure of the rationing of consumers, the control of farmers, and the risks of almost certain loss to the taxpayer on State purchases, have become quite inappropriate.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to the fact that there had been some delay in producing the new programme. I was glad he did not really join with the critics on that point, because he was right in not doing so. After all, consultation was essential. It is easy to go ahead without proper consultation, but particularly in a case like this consultation with all 224 the interests concerned—the farmers, the traders, the distributors and so on—was essential; far more important than haste. Especially was it essential in view of the character of the solutions that are being proposed. It is our thesis—and I believe many noble Lords on the other side of the House will agree with it—that agriculture cannot be saved by State action alone; it must be a co-operative effort, a co-operative enterprise between the Government, the farmers and the traders concerned.
If your Lordships will look at the machinery proposed in this White Paper, you will see at once the truth of what I am saying. It is true that in regard to cereals there is a fairly direct State scheme for deficiency payments; so far as I know at the present moment that covers next year only, but it may be that on further consideration it will be thought the easiest and tidiest way of dealing with the problem on a long-term basis. I certainly do not see why that scheme should cost any more than the existing scheme of a guaranteed price. It is so also with regard to sugar beet. The State need not come in there. There is direct contact with factories, and that system can be allowed to continue. But when we turn to other commodities, we find that my right honourable friend has largely adopted the Marketing Acts as the basis of his policy, and this involves co-operative action between the Government and the farmer. We see that the Wool Board and the Potato Board will be reconstituted, and powers will be handed back to the Milk Marketing Board, whilst farmers have been asked to submit their proposals on a possible egg scheme. I will mention bacon and meat a little later. I should like to pause here to say that I believe we shall all, particularly those who remember its operations before the war, welcome the return of powers to the Milk Marketing Board. It was a magnificent organisation, built up by the farmers of that day. We recall especially the wise manner in which the Board dealt with the interests of the consumers, the extent to which it co-operated in—indeed, fostered—the movement for clean milk, and the way it co-operated with the Government in the milk in schools scheme. In fact, its general efficiency must make us all welcome its return to power over the trade.
225 I will now turn for a moment to the subject of bacon. It is intended that the existing system of direct contract between producers and factories shall be continued. It may well be, however, that farmers will feel it is desirable to reconstitute the Pigs Marketing Board, with full powers for negotiating contracts and so on; and, if so, they will receive the full support and co-operation of the Minister. It is true that there is a snag, which we all know about, in dealing with this matter. It arises in connection with the question of pork. I remember very well, because I was at the Ministry at the time, that when the original Pigs Marketing Board was set up, this snag worried us very much indeed. The inclusion of pork is an artificial arrangement because there is no real means within the scope of the bacon scheme for dealing with pork. On the other hand, if pork is not included there is a danger during those seasons which we call the "pork eating seasons" that the bacon factories will be left without adequate supplies of pigs. And there is the added complication that the seasons may have different effects in different areas of the country. It is known that the people in some districts have particular preferences in the matter of the pork they eat. People in the Midlands, for example, for some reason, like very much more fat than do we who live in the South. Admittedly, this is a difficulty which may have to be dealt with as part of the Fatstock Marketing Scheme.
I will now turn to the Fatstock Scheme. Perhaps the best way for me to proceed is to refer directly to the White Paper itself. First, let me read again certain words to which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has already referred. Paragraph 14 states:The Government recognise that the pre-war fatstock auction system was unsatisfactory in certain respects.But the noble Earl did not read on. The paragraph continues:They are inviting representatives of the farmers and other interested parties to co-operate with appropriate Departments in making immediate improvements.The noble Earl may well say that we ought to come before the House with a final scheme. But surely it is very much better in a matter of this complexity to say that we are going to work out a practical scheme with those farmers vitally concerned. If your Lordships will let 226 your eyes run on to the first part of paragraph 17 of the White Paper, you will see this:The plan described above does not exclude the possibility of a producers' Marketing Board for meat as a long-term solution. Indeed, the Government will be prepared immediately to give every facility for the establishment of a Board which would develop the voluntary marketing of fatstock, either on a live weight or on a grade and deadweight basis, as well as trading compulsorily in pigs for bacon…They will also be ready to consider proposals for the establishment of a Board or Boards with wider functions.The paragraph concludes with this sentence:The present plan has been devised to meet the immediate situation, and is open to modification in the light of experience.Now in all the schemes which I have mentioned there is a common factor, and that is the challenge thrown out to the farmer himself. I believe it is a challenge that will be gladly taken up by all those who do not want to see the members of the farming industry become State pensioners. It is true to say that of the fatstock scheme. We all know, as the noble Earl said—and in this connection he quoted the words of the National Farmers'Union—that farmers, and indeed many ether people in the country, would prefer that meat should be sold as we say "off the hook" instead of "on the hoof." This means really that the animals go straight to the slaughterhouse just as a pig does, without any intermediaries. It is possible to put up a very strong case for that method of dealing with fatstock. I think Colonel Walter Elliot said in another place that we have to deal with immediate realities, and he asked: "Where are the hooks at the present time? Where are the meat factories? Where is the refrigeration plant? Where is the farmers' organisation for directing cattle to the hook at the present moment?" Therefore, I think it is right to say of the farmer (though it is not necessary, I believe, to say this to him, because he is thinking along these lines already) that he should be allowed to build tip his own voluntary marketing board. And if he thinks it desirable, let him make the case for even wider powers than that. Certainly in building up a voluntary marketing board the farmer can count on the full help and support of the Government. But all that is going to take time—it must take years.
227 This brings us to the point that, at any rate for the time being and for some considerable time, the market must in the meanwhile be underpinned. And that, in turn, brings us to the two-fold price guarantee system, to which Lord Listowel has already referred. May I give your Lordships my reading of that scheme? The first leg of it is the individual guarantee. This means that if a farmer takes an animal to market and has it graded as suitable for slaughter—the scheme does not operate unless an animal is graded as suitable for slaughter—and gets less per hundredweight than the published price for that grade, the Government will make up what he gets to the published price. The second leg is the collective security payment. That means that if, over a period of twelve months, the prices that farmers, as a whole, are paid for livestock, fall below the collective standard price, then the difference will be paid to all farmers selling that type of livestock. Here I am not sure that the noble Earl had it quite right, because this being, of course, a flat rate payment to each farmer, it will leave the producer of the good quality beast who has received a higher price in the market for his beast, on its merits and on its quality, with a premium. I think noble Lords will agree that that is exactly as it should be.
Whether your Lordships like every detail of this scheme or not, one thing, I think, is abundantly clear, and that is, that it would be absurd to describe this, as it was described in another place and as I think the noble Earl suggested one could describe it, as a return to the pre-war system of insecurity. It is clear that there are certain dangers and difficulties. But what proposal does not contain dangers and difficulties? There might be rings of butchers and dealers who would try to evade the normal customs of the market. But I think that in another place the Minister of Agriculture and the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that they are well aware of these dangers and are prepared to take appropriate action. What action? I suggest that it would be better if we first saw whether the abuses do occur, and, if so, in what form. Action might be taken to appoint a Government buyer, under the system of Government buying in the stock market, or the licence of the market might be put at stake. But I think we had better 228 jump that fence when we see what it is. There is one great overall safeguard, and that is, the farmers' Marketing Board. These difficulties seem to strengthen the case for giving that body yet wider powers. Those who are contemplating, or might contemplate, any abuse should remember that there are many people who believe in sending stock direct to the slaughterhouse, as with pigs, and this practice would certainly increase if this scheme were abused extensively.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, before the noble Earl passes on, I should like some information. In paragraph 17 of the White Paper there is a reference to the establishment of an over-all Board—I take that to be a national type of marketing board—which is to develop the voluntary marketing of fatstock; but I thought I heard the noble Earl say "with compulsory powers." I should like to know what is the distinction between the two.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
My Lords, the words I read out were that the Board would be one "with wider functions." I did not specify that the wider functions would necessarily involve compulsory powers. I think that if the noble Viscount will read paragraph 17 again, he will see that that is a matter for further consideration. The only point to which my right honourable friend is committing himself for the moment is that he will give every support to the voluntary marketing board and the fullest consideration to anything else that may be produced at a later stage.
Before I leave that point, may I remind the noble Viscount, because I know he is worried about this, that in any event it will be seven or eight months before this scheme comes into operation. With regard to all the commodities I have mentioned—wool, pigs, meat, eggs and cereals—no lightning change is envisaged. No guaranteed prices are being withdrawn straight away. In the case of meat, which we were discussing, none of this can even begin to come into operation until rationing stops, and it has been announced that that will be some time next summer. I would say to the noble Viscount and to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that this policy, depending, as it does, so much on a co-operative scheme between the Government and the 229 farmers, and on how much the farmers feel able and wish to make use of the powers under the Marketing Acts, must be allowed to grow and develop, but being (in the words of the White Paper about meat, which I have already quoted) "open to modification in the light of experience."
This White Paper is the beginning of a new era in agricultural marketing policy. It is the beginning of the working out of a practical scheme to make the Agriculture Act work, now that the sellers' market has gone and, for the first time, the Act is really needed. It is an effort to adjust remedies to the new circumstances, when scarcity is no longer the ruling factor. And it is an endeavour to enable the consumers to benefit from certain cheap overseas supplies without destroying our own producers, who can give us steady guaranteed supplies. This is a difficult task. There are many complications which we shall have to face and there will be many compromises. Of one thing I am sure: we are right to proceed step by step, but the Minister is determined, with the farmers' help and understanding, to carry this policy through. It is true that the National Farmers' Union to-day are fighting for the interests of the farmers, as they must always do, but I believe that they have in their ranks a sense of leadership that makes them capable of seeing this great problem in its wider aspects. I am sure that I speak for every one of your Lordships when I say to the Minister, to the farmers and to the other interests concerned in these new developments, that we wish them well in this tremendous task they have undertaken, the task of enabling British agriculture to make its full contribution not only to our food supplies—that is important enough—but also to our whole social and economic life.
§ 3.48 p.m.
THE EARL OF GAINSBOROUGH
My Lords, it is some time since I had the privilege of speaking in your Lordships' House, and I am delighted to do so on this occasion, on the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, which comes at a timely moment. I recall other agricultural debates in your Lordships' House, many of them held in our temporary Chamber, but this is the first time I have spoken in this Chamber. I hope, 230 therefore, that if I speak too loudly or too softly it will not be to the annoyance of your Lordships. I should like to follow the example of the noble Earl who moved the Motion and be brief, because we have a long list of eminent speakers, many of whom are much more qualified to speak than I am and who ought to speak before me.
On the question of confidence, to which Lord Listowel referred, I agree with the noble Earl. I believe that most farmers feel that the confidence which formerly existed has to a certain extent disappeared. If there is to be any hope of increased production, clearly that confidence must be restored. We now face an economy of de-rationing, which we all welcome very much, provided that the cost does not get too high. In the period following the 1947 Act, conditions were different. There was a shortage of most foodstuffs, and there was every incentive for the farmers to increase production. There still are incentives, and I hope that they will be continued. We have now come to the time when there will not be such a shifting of price emphasis from one thing to another, We hope that a reasonable price will be obtained for all products, instead of sixpence being taken off one and put on another—which I suppose had to be done in order to give these short-term incentives. All of us who farm and who own agricultural properties hope for a long-term policy, so that farmers can settle down to producing what the country needs.
I should like now to refer to something said by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr. I remember the many speeches he made when his Party were in Opposition, and the valuable contributions he then made to agriculture. But he did say to-day that the high price of cattle (I imagine that he was referring to store cattle) showed that there was still plenty of confidence. I think we should bear in mind that this high price is partly due to the exceptional grazing season that we have had, and the fact that slaughtering home-produced meat has been at a very high level—in fact, there is a great shortage of store cattle at the present moment.
§ EARL DE LA WARR
I did not say that there was plenty of confidence. I said that it was possible to exaggerate the loss of confidence.
THE EARL OF GAINSBOROUGH
I apologise if I misrepresented the noble Earl. We must all keep a perspective in these matters, and I think there is great substance in what the noble Earl said about the leaders of the industry being responsible people. I should like to stress one thing about marketing which we sometimes forget: the bulk of the farmers of this country are small men, who probably do not read The Times or other reports of our Parliamentary debates, and it is getting the information through to them which I feel ought to be rather better organised, possibly by the National Farmers' Union. The amount of ignorance amongst the smaller farmers as to the position with regard to the marketing of certain products is surprising. In particular, many small farmers produce grain to-day, which they did not produce before the war—in my district, of Leicestershire, they were mainly stick and dog farmers. They now produce wheat and barley, which they did not produce before; and they are wondering whether they ought to go on with this, or whether they should ley some of their land back to grass again. One of their difficulties is the storage of grain. There is a lot of barley in store now, and I am told by one Ministry official—because I have a small company which dries and stores barley—that some of it will still be in store in eighteen months' time. If that is the case, I do not know what will happen to the barley produced next year. Of course, we have the assurance from the Government of the guaranteed prices for next year's harvest, but it is a serious matter, and the balance between imported grains and the home-produced article must somehow be maintained.
It is easy to go on being destructive, but I do not wish to do so, because obviously the Government have a difficult task before them in changing over from a much more rationed economy to the present happy position of once more having everything available in plenty. I hope that farmers will be given every encouragement to form their own marketing boards. I believe that they are trying to form a meat marketing board, but I feel that even the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, will agree that the de-rationing of meat has come much earlier than was at one time thought possible, and that is aggravating the position of getting agreement on meat marketing. 232 Therefore, the present scheme, which is, and can only be, an interim scheme, has had to be brought into effect. I would stress, also, that all the subsidies which are given to the agricultural industry, in the way of ploughing grants and calf subsidies, are really only "shots" in the arm. And obviously they cannot be continued for indefinite periods. I feel sure that we should all feel happier if the prices obtained by the farmer for his goods really justified him in producing them, and setting out his store to produce them for a long period ahead.
Farmers very much welcome the assistance being given at the moment to keep down pests. We heard a Question asked on this matter earlier to-day, and it is one on which I feel strongly. I hope that myxomatosis, which was mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, whom I have long admired as a great agriculturist, does come into prominence among our rabbit population, because if we can get rid of the rabbits it will be a great blessing to farming and forestry, in both of which I am keenly interested. I have nearly used up the time which I thought it reasonable to occupy, in view of the long list of speakers, and I will conclude with one further observation. I mix with farmers nearly every day in markets and on committees—I am really being a "naughty boy" now, because I ought to be doing my duty for the Minister on the C.A.C., which meets to-day, and of which I am a member, but I am here instead, because this is an opportunity one rarely gets of speaking on a subject in which one is so interested. I hope that the farmers will have a long-term policy put before them soon, and that the people of this country, the consumers, will realise that they must pay a reasonable price for food, because unless the home farmer continues to produce the food he is producing, the people of the country will most certainly starve. I hope, too, that imports of food will be regulated in such a way as to enable the farmer at home to produce in a most economical way what is needed.
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF HALIFAX
My Lords, the noble Earl who has just addressed your Lordships has made a speech full of practical knowledge and direct information that I doubt not has been of great interest to us all. He also, incidentally, set an admirable example to 233 those who follow him in the fashion in which he responded to the exhortation of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who, in opening the debate, reminded us of the long list of would-be orators. I hope I shall not fail to profit by Lord Gainsborough's example. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in a constructive contribution, was concerned to stress the importance of production, and that, I take it, will be the point to which most of our thought this afternoon will be directed. The present circumstances lend extra weight to the importance of that side of the matter.
Now productivity depends upon two things: it depends upon the land and upon the skill and willingness of those who work it. With the first I am for the moment not concerned; but the second relates to what we commonly call confidence; that is where we touch confidence this afternoon. When people are considering the question of prices, what farmers will do, whether they are responding to the Minister's appeals and the like, there is a tendency in some quarters to regard the whole subject from too limited an angle. People tend to think of it rather as a question of whether farmers, as human beings, will do too well, or unnecessarily well, for themselves, in relation to the general community. I suggest that the question is much wider than that, because it is on the capacity of the farmers to make, so to speak, a successful "go" of their own side of the business, together with the interests of the other partners, that the whole matter of food production and land cultivation finally depends.
Take wages, which, I suppose, form the largest single item in most farmers' budgets to-day. They depend entirely upon the farmer's capacity to make his own budget so come out that he can afford to pay them. While I am on the subject of wages, may I, parenthetically, make one other observation? I was interested in the speech made by my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn in seconding the Address, when he reminded your Lordships that the most important elements and causes in the drift of agricultural labour from the countryside were such amenities as water, sanitation, baths, lighting and the like. Whereas the agricultural labourer has received, I suppose, a higher advance in wage than any other section of the wage-earning population— 234 and certainly no section of the wage-earning population deserved it more, for he has willingness to work and a hereditary skill, and had a miserably poor wage before—I do not believe that wages can be regarded to-day as the main instrument to retain agricultural labour in the country. I am sure that my noble friend was right when he said that it is to the social amenities—affecting the man, the housewife and the children—that we have to give attention. Therefore, the point I wish to leave in the mind of my noble friend who will reply for the Government is that anything the Government can do to help in the way of amenities is likely to be more efficacious in the retention of labour than direct wage advances.
The farmer's prices, affecting the agricultural labourers' wages, also affect the other partner, the owner, whose business it is to keep the fixed capital assets in repair. He can do that only out of his agricultural rent. He can get an adequate agricultural rent only if the farmer is economically in a position to pay him. That is what I mean when I say that in this business of farmers' prices it is not a case of the "selfish farmer" against the State, but a question of seeing that the foundations of the whole structure—the position of the three parties to the partnership—are effectively secured.
May I now say a word about the price and marketing plans in this White Paper? Let me assure your Lordships that I have no intention of leading you through any abstruse mathematics. It is, however, certainly true to say what farmers have been nervous about is how the new arrangement would be. I think they have been nervous because—and I say it with respect—the Government have been a long time in bringing forward the plan. I think the noble Earl who opened the debate was entitled to lay a measure of blame on the Government for that delay. Farmers have behind them an experience which they have not forgotten. Then, like most other people, they are essentially conservative by nature—not politically Conservative necessarily, but conservative in the sense that they have become accustomed to a system and they do not like change. It is a case of the devil you know being better than the devil you do not know. They have had to sink a great deal of money, both in stocking their farms and in mechanical development, to enable them 235 to meet high labour costs and the like. Lastly, the farmer is not greatly convinced by the arguments of world statistics, such as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Orr, might put before us, because the farmer, together with a good many other people, is inclined to say that world planners offer him world statistics which often do not seem to come out right; it does not always quite work out when it comes down to the individual, and, therefore, it does not give him reassurance.
It is true that the farmers do not like this meat plan, and I am bound to say I am not surprised. The wording which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, quoted from paragraph 14, about the pre-war fatstock auction system having been unsatisfactory in certain respects, is a most gentle under-statement of what went on before the war. If matters should work out in the same way again it would, of course, involve the Government in weighty and serious liabilities. Farmers also think—I maintain not without some justice—that their scheme would be far cheaper to the Government and would offer equal freedom for consumer choice, which we all desire to see. Moreover, it would offer as much stimulant to the producer to produce the best article. I shall not develop the argument now, but I do not think it is a bad case. It has not been put well in the public Press, but I believe that a good case on those lines can be made. But I do not think we need get unduly excited about it, as some farmers are doing at the moment, and for this reason. The plan does not exclude the possibility of a producers' Marketing Board, and if the farmers are right in their arguments and expectations I would suppose it is not at all improbable that over the next two or three years the plan in the White Paper may be replaced by something which will be worked out between the farmers and Her Majesty's Government.
Secondly, the real test of the Government plan must be its actual working—how far it succeeds in securing to the producer what he requires and what has been promised to enable him to do his part. The efficiency with which it works depends, at least in part, on where the individual price and the standard price are fixed in the Price Review. It also depends on the extent to which it may 236 be possible to adjust the new machinery that has been set up to keep pace with the conditions that follow the removal of controls. About what is likely to happen in this respect none of us can speak at this moment with complete assurance—I do not believe anyone knows. Therefore, we shall have to see for a time how the machinery works.
The noble Earl, Lord Gains borough, said that he spends much of his time among working farmers. So do I: indeed, I dare say that he and I spend as much of our time with and among working farmers as do any of your Lordships. I have no doubt at all of the broad impression that emerges of the general feeling of farmers at this moment. While they have been, quite naturally, anxious, and at this time are gravely doubtful about some elements in the Government's scheme, nevertheless I am certain that there is not that lack of confidence in Her Majesty's Government which noble Lords opposite, on behalf of their Party, might like to see, and which I should have said, if I did not know him well, the speech of my friend and my Member, Mr. Tom Williams, in another place might almost have been designed to create. If I may speak quite frankly, I think it was an unhappy speech. However, I will not pursue that aspect because it would be trespassing on the privileges and province of another place. I am quite certain that we are not going to see one store bullock the less in any yard or pasture as a result of the Government's White Paper. I only hope that my noble friend Lord Carrington and his right honourable friend the Minister will keep a close watch on developments and see what form they take, and will be prepared to move quickly in the event of the present scheme not turning out as well as they and their friends hope.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
My Lords, I feel particularly happy in following the noble Earl, with whom I had the great privilege of co-operating at the Ministry of Agriculture during the war. It was the happiest Ministerial experience I have ever had. May I say, too, how pleased I am that the noble Earl referred to the speech of my fellow Glostrian in seconding the Address in reply to the gracious Speech—I refer, of course, to Lord St. Aldwyn, whom I hope we shall see frequently in this House. The noble Earl 237 is becoming one of our leading agriculturists, practical farmers and agricultural administrators, speaking locally, in this country, and I hope that we shall often hear him in this House.
Quite frankly, my Lords, I am not medically permitted to take part in this debate to-day. What has induced me to do so is the desire I feel to follow up the last few remarks of the noble Earl. To my mind it would be a positive disaster if food production in this country were thrown into the cockpit of Party political controversy. I may say that nearly half a century ago I entered public life solely to endeavour to do what I could to impress upon the public, and, if possible, and so far as my faint voice would permit, upon Parliament, the extreme danger of allowing agriculture, and especially food production, to be the shuttlecock of Party politicians. I had authority from my constituents in those days, while supporting the Conservative Party on all other issues, to speak freely in regard to agriculture. If rather fancy that what little I may say here this afternoon will not satisfy those who are strong Party politicians, on either side. I feel bound to say that I regret that my very valued friend Mr. Tom Williams should have initiated the debate in another place two days ago on such a strongly controversial note. I also feel bound to say that, with the exception, perhaps, of my good friend the late Lord Addison, I have never known anyone who appeared to take greater pains than Mr. Tom Williams to deal impartially with the agricultural problems which have been facing us in recent years, and to evoke the wholehearted sympathy and support of the people who know where the true welfare of the country lies, whatever may be their political sympathies.
I am sorry that the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, has left the House, because I wanted to tell him, after reading his speech in the debate on the Address, how interested I was to read what he said. With the bulk of it I found myself in hearty and complete accord, but in one small respect I differ from him. He referred, so far as I could gather, to the importance of marginal land. I should deprecate any large expenditure of money at present on developing marginal land. I have little sympathy with either marginal farmers or 238 marginal land. I am confident that if only we could get our good land and our reasonably improvable medium land, properly and sufficiently farmed, following in every possible way the teachings of science, which has done so much far the industry in recent years, we could win far more food from the best land and the medium land of this country than we are ever likely to get as an economic proposition from so-called marginal land. In that connection, I have ventured more than once to say in public what I consider would be (although possibly impracticable except in times of extreme peril) the ideal plan. The ideal plan would be to look to the West of England and Wales, and parts of the North of England, for the production of the bulk of the meat and the milk that the country requires, and to the Eastern Counties for the bulk of the cereal bread corn. I say that emphatically, because, although we are told by certain people of extreme views that the farmers to-day are making fortunes out of their vocation, I have reason to know that in the West of England, bordering on Wales, from which I hail, there are a substantial number of small farmers, not family farmers, who have to employ labour and who are getting a poorer return out of their vocation than the labourer or labourers whom they employ.
It may be said—and I agree with what my noble friend has just said—that the best type of agricultural worker is the best type of worker in this country. Nevertheless, apart from the question of amenities, which we all, I hope, want to see improved, the trouble—and this applies to all the industries of this country—is that the cost of living, which in other countries has a tendency to go down, is maintained in this country owing to excessive demands on the part of certain sections of the workers for ever-increasing remuneration. If only we could come to some sort of arrangement by which a little more patience could be exercised, and if only the cost of commodities generally could cease to rise owing to excessive demands on the part of the working population, their own advantage would rapidly come in a lower cost of living. One cannot get away from that fact. As I say, other countries are to-day enjoying a lower cost of living, as compared with this country. I will not 239 follow that matter further, except to say that so long as these perpetual agitations for ever-advancing industrial remuneration continue—and bear in mind that the products of that labour constitute, to a large extent, the essentials of life to a population—I despair of seeing the cost of living in this country substantially reduced.
With regard to this particular scheme, and particularly meat (and I speak as one who has in the past been one of the largest pig producers in this country), I have always thought that the fairest system, both to the producer and to the consumer, is that of selling meat on a dead-weight basis. That, of course, operates in the case of pigs. Who can tell with perfect confidence what, for instance, is the true value, apart from the offal, of, we will say, a Hereford ox at the present time, as compared, we will say, with an Aberdeen Angus or a North Devon? One has an enormous proportion of offal in the form of internal fat and bone, and the other has a relatively small amount. Therefore, I say that the auction system, in principle, is not in the interests either of the stock-owner or of the public; it is not the best possible system. My only fear, if we multiply auction sales, is that that bugbear of auctions, to whom the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, particularly referred, namely, the middleman dealer, who operates in rings or corners, will to a large extent, unless we are extremely careful, destroy this system of deficiency payments. I do not quite see how the system will work unless, somehow or other, the Government can devise a scheme which will prevent the ring or corner of certain types of middleman depriving the stock owner of the full value of his stock.
I realise to-day what has been happening among fruit growers. I have declaimed against it for some time past, being a commercial fruit grower myself. At a large number of the fruit markets in this country to-day, we have a little ring or corner who operate at those fruit auctions and, by pre-arrangement, divide between them the whole of the produce sold at that auction, to the detriment both of the producer and of the consumer.
240 I will not take up much more of your Lordships' time except to mention something which has filled me with no small apprehension. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has, quite rightly, emphasised the fact that what the farmer wants is confidence. We shall not see any material expansion of food output unless the farmer's confidence is maintained. To do that, you have, in the first place, to make it perfectly clear that all enlightened politicians are with him in encouraging efficiency and the biggest possible effort on his part to produce what the public wants. But we have to be a little careful that certain sections of our urban population do not destroy to a large extent the confidence of the farmer by carrying on, as they are in parts of England today, a campaign in favour of re-rating agricultural land.
In my own area, at almost every meeting of our county council, there is a certain element representing a very highly rated municipality—perhaps I had better not mention the name, but it is a town that is increasing its population at a greater rate than any other in my county; the rate, I believe, in that particular town is 28s. in the £,though I do not say that they are extravagant—who are to-day urging in public, including the meetings of our chief local authority; "Re-rate agricultural land and you will alleviate the rate burden of the people in our town." As most noble Lords here will agree, agricultural land is the raw material of the agricultural industry; and if you re-rate, or even threaten to re-rate, agricultural land, to my mind it will do more to destroy the confidence in the future of our really industrious agricultural population than any other policy that may be adopted. I cannot resist mentioning this matter because it is beginning to frighten me very much. I see, at any rate in the West Midlands, that this campaign is developing, not among advanced politicians but, I am sorry to say, to a large extent among people belonging to the Party to which I belong. I hope we shall do all we can to lead public opinion along the right lines, to make it perfectly clear that any attempt to throw this extra burden on the agricultural community will tend only to increase the cost of food to everyone in this country.
Now that the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, has returned, may I mention 241 one fact? I want to express agreement with him on one remark he made—I could not myself be present—in the debate on the Address last week. He said this (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. No. 184 (No. 2), Col. 45):…is there a real surplus of food? Surely if the half-starved people, representing something like 70 per cent. of the world population, were to be properly fed, not only would there not be a surplus but even if you took the whole production of the North American Continent, and doubled it, there would still be a deficiency.With that I am in most emphatic agreement. In considering this food problem we have to bear in mind the fact not only that more than half the population of the world is half-starved, but that that is a great factor in developing and emphasising the Communist creed throughout the world.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF HUNTINGDON
My Lords, like the noble Earl who opened this debate, I also will ration my time and try to make my remarks as short as possible. Noble Lords on this side of the House feel genuinely worried over the situation in the agricultural industry. Speaker after speaker has emphasised that point—how the farmers are disturbed in mind and worried and anxious about the future. It is for that reason that I am supporting my noble friend, Lord Listowel, in this debate this afternoon. When we brought in the Agriculture Act, 1947, there were two basic assumptions on which that Act was planned. The first assumption was that home-grown food was absolutely necessary. The second assumption was that if we are going to need home-grown foul, we must secure the confidence of be farmer, and that can be secured only by giving him reasonable security. By "security," I mean the knowledge that when he plans his livestock policy or what he is going to sow, he will know more or less that he can sell what he has sown or what he has reared and get a reasonable and fair price for it. These assumptions, I believe, are still true—I hope the Government and all members of the Party opposite will agree with me on that point.
I was interested in what the noble Viscount. Lord Bledisloe, said about world surpluses in his extremely well-thought-out speech, because the danger is obviously arising now, when we are 242 not as short of food as we were, that people are beginning to think of the importation of cheaper food and are losing sight of the great importance of our own home-produced agriculture. As the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Orr, told your Lordships on another occasion, world population has increased so rapidly that if the food available were properly distributed there would be no surplus of any kind. And if the food is not distributed, if these hungry people are not fed, uprisings and wars will result; and if wars do come—which Heaven forbid—we shall need our home-produced food even more. We should all agree that it is essential to increase our production and to make it more efficient, and of a permanent and not temporary nature.
In a debate in another place last Monday, Her Majesty's Government rather soft-pedalled, played down, the idea of this alarm among the agriculture community and pointed to certain increases in production; but, as the noble Earl who initiated this debate pointed out, the point is that the rate of increase is going down. In the agricultural industry everything is a long-term question. You cannot judge to-morrow, next week, next month or next year, the result of what you do to-day; but, sure enough, the results will tome in the long run. We are genuinely frightened that if this uncertainty continues, if this doubt and anxiety among farmers goes on, ultimately we shall see the results in a very big decrease in production. It is for that reason that my noble friend initiated this debate to-day.
What are the reasons for this anxiety? I think one of the reasons—as the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, said in his most able and wise speech—is lack of policy. The farmer looks around and notices that the machinery for implementing the Agriculture Act is being taken away. Government purchases of feeding stuffs and little by little, all controls and all planning, are going, and he is wondering how the Agriculture Act is going to be implemented. It is only one step from that for him to say, "Is it going to be implemented?" He argues to himself: "Why has the Government not produced a policy? There must be some difference of opinion. Argument must be going on. If there is a difference of opinion, one 243 side is probably saying, 'Let us support the Agriculture Act,' and the other side is saying, 'Cannot we scrap or not implement it to the full extent?'" I am not suggesting that that is what is happening, but I am suggesting that these are serious doubts which may be agitating some farmers to-day; and we should be greatly relieved if the Government would come out with a proper policy on agriculture and not give us, as they have done, an expedient in the form of a White Paper on marketing. I am not very impressed by this White Paper.
The first point to which I take exception is the return to private auctions. I feel convinced that it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to stop rings forming: in other words, to prevent rigging the market. I do not see any way in which it could be stopped. This is not a trivial point. If that were to proceed on a large scale, the guarantee required of the Treasury might be enormous. That seems to me the biggest point against the Government's temporary scheme. The only good thing about it is that it may be only temporary. Therefore I should like Her Majesty's Government to think the matter over and see whether they cannot produce some more farsighted marketing scheme. I wonder what is their opinion of the Lucas Committee, whether they have studied their Report and whether they are going to consider it. What are their views on Marketing Boards? Are they going to encourage producers' Boards? If so, what safeguards are the consumers going to have on those Boards? Those are questions upon which we should like to have some information from the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate.
One of the biggest troubles with which the Government are faced in this connection arises from their being too wedded to their doctrine of private enterprise. I do not want to raise that particular problem now, but it seems to me that if security is to be given to the agricultural industry the Government must take a large part somewhere; the industry cannot be thrown back to the chances of the free market, The Government's difficulty is to find how to go on supporting the industry and yet let this breath of free enterprise blow through it. I think those things are incompatible, but I shall be interested to hear anything the 244 noble Lord may say which may alter my opinion.
I shall also be grateful if the noble Lord can give us some information upon another matter. I remember being pressed by various noble Lords some years ago on the question of slaughterhouses and the slaughter policy. It seemed to me at that time that it was essential, for reasons of public health, for safeguarding our meat supplies and also for the important point of humane slaughtering, to maintain rigid control and inspection. A very big programme for the provision of slaughterhouses, of yards and all the different adjuncts to them, is needed and with that, I should have thought, there is a need for a big plan of cold storage or refrigeration. It seems to me that such a policy must be implemented by Governmental or local authority action, and must not be left to chance. We must not return to the old system of innumerable and sometimes very badly run slaughterhouses.
My third point is one of which I have not given notice, and therefore I cannot expect the noble Lord to reply to it if he does not wish to. It concerns the great problem which Lord Bledisloe mentioned—namely, that of marginal land. One of the great difficulties has always been how to arrange the prices at the Annual Price Review so as to give a profit to the marginal farmer whilst at the same time not giving an overwhelming profit to the farmer on the better land in the Eastern counties. The more you throw the matter open, without any sort of Government control or planning, the more difficult will that problem become. I hope the noble Lord will give us some information about it. I do not want to keep your Lordships any longer, as there is a long list of speakers. However, I should like to stress again that we have these genuine and serious doubts, which have spread to the farming industry and will in time affect the consumer. It is for that reason that we are criticising and asking questions, and hoping to spur on the Government to produce a policy which will satisfy and restore confidence to the farming community.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT HUDSON
My Lords, I hesitated a long time before deciding to take part in this debate, because I have a very distasteful task to perform during 245 part of my speech, and that is to criticise an old friend of mine, one of whom I am very fond, the late Minister of Agriculture. No one, and certainly no Minister, could have had a more loyal colleague during the whole time we worked together in the war years. Therefore I assure your Lordships that it is with quite genuine pain that I feel compelled to-day to say things in criticism of his action.
May I begin by referring to the speech just made by the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon. He and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, as well as two speakers on the Front Opposition Bench in another place on Monday, asserted that already there had been an appreciable drop in production since this Government took office. If they have a moment, I would beg them to look at Column 722 of Hansard for the House of Commons debate on Monday, when they will see that, so far from there having been a reduction, there has in fact been an appreciable increase compared with the last year when noble Lords opposite were in power.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
I do not like to interrupt the noble Viscount, especially as there is so little time, but I do not think either I or Lord Huntingdon maintained that there had been a falling off in production since the present Government took office. What I said was that there had been a decrease in the rate of increase of production in the last year, 1952–53.
§ VISCOUNT HUDSON
I am sorry if I misunderstood the noble Earl; but what is quite certain, if he will look at that particular column, is that he will find that, so far from there being any appreciable reduction in production, all the figures tend to show that in livestock, as well as in tillage acreage, there is every prospect of there being increased production next year.
May I refer for one moment to the question of the late Minister of Agriculture. In the early days of the war, very soon after we took office, it appeared to both of us, in discussing the problem of what was going to happen to agriculture after the war, that whatever might have been the Party political causes of the conditions between the wars, one of the certainties was that the difficulties 246 that agriculture went through then were undoubtedly enhanced by Party political bedevilment. I do not attribute any blame at this moment to either of the major political Parties. It also seemed to both of us (I do not take any particular credit for foresight) that conditions after the war would be substantially different, and that conditions would be particularly difficult for the consumers in this country, because it looked as though the destruction in the world as a whole would deprive us of our pre-war reliance on overseas sources of food and that we should be dependent to a much greater extent than ever before on home production. Therefore we thought that if we could take advantage of the fact that we were both members of the Coalition Government, if we could devise a policy for agriculture which would take it, not outside politics (it is clear that a matter of such supreme importance to the country cannot be taken out of politics), but outside Party politics, that would be a desirable achievement.
We were greatly helped by the fact that about that time the Royal Agricultural Society of England called a conference in which I think the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, had a great hand. At that conference we got all sorts and kinds of people and all sorts and kinds of interests, land owners, farmers, and farm-workers, who made a very notable contribution to our debates; and in the end the meeting was able to produce a policy on which there was a wide margin of agreement. We hoped that that policy might provide the basis for a post-war agricultural policy which would meet with approval from all parts of the country and from all interests. In substance, that was the policy that was handed over when we were defeated in 1945.
Speaking purely personally (I hope that your Lordships will forgive a personal note) I was so impressed with the desirability of continuing to make some little contribution to keeping agriculture out of Party politics that during the whole of the time that I was in another place after the war I never made a speech on agriculture, although clearly it might have been regarded as one of the obvious things for me to do. I did that deliberately, because I was extremely anxious that nothing I said could be regarded or twisted in any way as hindering this bipartisan policy. I think 247 also it is fair to say—and I believe that the former Minister of Agriculture would agree—that on the whole the Opposition Front Bench gave the Minister support in his administration and in the policies which he put forward. I can assure your Lordships that a good deal of pressure from the Opposition Front Bench was often needed to keep in check recalcitrant Party Back-Benchers who were only too anxious to try to score—as they thought—good Party points. I believed that the former Minister of Agriculture shared my views. Your Lordships can therefore imagine my feelings on reading in Hansard the report of the debate which was held in another place last Monday to note that the former Minister of Agriculture made what I can only call a purely Party political speech, in which he was backed up by his old Under-Secretary, the former Minister of Works. My feelings were beyond words, but I think—and I venture to hope that your Lordships will agree with me—that that absolves me to-day from my self-imposed silence. And so I propose, if your Lordships will bear with me, to say a few words about the way in which the late Labour Government conducted agricultural affairs.
As the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, said, the Labour Party enjoyed during their period of office extremely favourable circumstances. They enjoyed a sellers' market. There were shortages of food all over the world, and there were difficulties connected with the balance of payments in obtaining food from the dollar areas. And those shortages of food lasted a great deal longer than any of us, during the war, had supposed that they would do. We had thought—certainlyI had thought—that a matter of two or three years might see us back into a state when the world's supplies were at our disposal. Indeed, I do not think that anyone in any Party thought that the shortages were going to last as long as, in fact, they did. During all that time the position of the Minister of Agriculture was extremely easy. He was faced with steadily rising prices, due, I am sorry to say, to domestic inflation and domestic devaluation. All he had to do was to go along to Bedford Square from time to time and agree to further rises in prices.
248 If I may refer to what happened during the war, the line I took—I may have been wrong but I held this view genuinely, and I expressed it in nearly all my speeches to farmers up and down thecountry—was that if farmers after the war got into the situation of depending on subsidies, then they were building on sand. I was certain that sooner or later a Chancellor of the Exchequer would come along and say, "I should like to support British agriculture, but, honestly, the bill is getting bigger than the taxpayers or the consumers will stand." And in fact, as we know, that did happen—the Chancellor of the Exchequer who took that line was the late Sir Stafford Cripps. He said that subsidies were getting intolerable and must be limited. Throughout the previous period, the Labour Minister of Agriculture had encouraged farmers to believe that however prices and costs went up, they would be met.
The gravamen of my criticism of the former Minister of Agriculture is that he acceded so easily to farmers' demands and so encouraged the British farming community to rely on a continued rise of subsidies that he undermined the moral fibre of the farming community, or went some way towards it; and, in turn, he steadily reduced the esteem in which the farmers had been generally held at the end of the war. I do not think any of your Lordships would venture to deny that that esteem in the minds of the public had risen to a great height as the result of the farmers' efforts. Through the magnificent co-operation of landlords, farmers and farm workers during the war, the reputation of British agriculture at the end of it stood higher than it had ever done before. I venture to think that it is nothing like so high today. I attribute that very largely to the former Minister of Agriculture. He was undoubtedly one of the most popular Ministers of Agriculture ever to hold office in this country, but a great deal of that popularity was due to a belief among the farmers as a whole that he was going to "play the game" by keeping agriculture out of Party politics. I venture to say that, as a result of the continued increase of prices from 1945 to 1951, as the former Minister's popularity with the farmers increased, so the renown and the esteem of the farmers in the eyes of the public fell. We are now faced with an entirely different situation 249 which has come upon us earlier and more quickly, in some ways, than people had expected. As the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, has said, we are now faced with a buyers' market, and the problem with which the present Minister of Agriculture is confronted is fundamentally different from anything which his predecessor had to face. In my opinion, the problem has been made much more difficult by the action of the present Minister's predecessor during the years that he was in office.
The other matter on which I would criticise the former Minister is this. He increased, quite rightly, the amount of money spent on agricultural education, and expanded it very materially. I think that was right. But at the same time he took steps to see that the great majority of those young men who had benefited by that additional education were deprived of the chance of ever putting their knowledge to use in farming for themselves, by reason of the excessive security of tenure which the Minister, in order, as I believe, to curry favour with the sitting farmers, had inserted into the Act of 1947. I do not think there is any doubt, taking the country as a whole—I certainly have found it on all sides—but that anyone who has the real interests of agriculture at heart would say that one of the tasks of this Government ought to be drastically to amend the relevant part of the Agriculture Act of 1947.The result to-day of that additional security of tenure is that young men who ought to be going into farming are not able to find farms. Or if a young man is fortunate enough to find a farm, he has to spend any capital he may have—capital that should have been regarded as his working capital—in paying "key money" in order to get in. Therefore, on both those grounds, I believe that the reputation of the right honourable gentleman will undoubtedly be lower in the years to come—
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, may I put a question to the noble Viscount, for he has made a very important statement? We all recognise his great experience in these matters, and I should like to know whether what he has just said represents merely his own opinion or is he, so to speak, putting forward a concerted case. We have always recognised that the 250 principles of the 1947 Act were accepted on a bipartisan basis. That was accepted on both sides of the two Chambers. So I would ask whether the noble Viscount has been expressing a personal opinion or speaking for his Party.
§ VISCOUNT HUDSON
What actually happened, as many noble Lords know, is that the Labour Minister of Agriculture found in the pigeon-holes of the Ministry of Agriculture the outlines already prepared for the 1947 Act, and he took pains to claim that we were involved with him. But I can say, from my official knowedge at the time, that the main change he made was increasing what we had thought at that time to be the right amount of security of tenure for sitting tenants.
The other question I should like to ask, a question repeatedly put in another place, is this. It is easy to criticise the present Minister of Agriculture, but what would noble Lords opposite have done if they had been in power and were faced with the steady increase in the amount of food available to the public? The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander, has a pretty good knowledge of the distributive trade. Would he say that he would have maintained rationing, and insisted on people keeping their ration books at a time when there were reasonably ample supplies? I think we are entitled to ask that question. The question was asked in another place but, perhaps wisely, it was not answered from the Front Opposition Bench. Would the noble Viscount have been in favour of maintaining subsidies? The figure has already been given that this would mean an increase in taxation of £800 million. Does the noble Viscount think that is right? In fairness to the late Minister of Agriculture, I believe he indicated that he would not have been in favour of continuing rationing. If not, what substitute would the Party opposite have put for the Government guarantees, as particularised in the recent version of policy, under the 1947 Act? So much for the late Minister of Agriculture.
I should like now to say a word to farmers. During the war, at practically every meeting I addressed, I was asked what guarantee the farmers had that they were not going to be let down again as they were in 1921. My answer, which I believed to be true then and which I 251 believe to be equally true to-day, was that no Government can possibly guarantee prosperity to agriculture. That depends on agriculture itself. The real security for agriculture depends on public opinion, on the opinion of the mass of voters in this country. No Act of Parliament or, for that matter, promise of any political Party can be any good unless the mass of voters believe that agriculture is bearing its full share of the burden of our national economy. It is easy to make political fun of the acts of various Governments in power in the 'twenties and 'thirties, but the fundamental reason why agriculture had such a bad time was that the mass of public opinion did not believe that the farmers were playing their proper part in providing for the economy of the country. They did not believe that agriculture was necessary to our existence or that it was really efficient; and, therefore, every Government in succession failed to provide very largely the conditions which were necessary for a successful agriculture.
I always thought during the war (if your Lordships will forgive a personal reference) that I was singularly fortunate in that time of trouble to be head of the Ministry of Agriculture, because I thought that, unlike other Departments, not only were we helping to win the war but we were also laying the foundations on which a successful post-war agriculture could be built. In other words, I believed that we were not only saving the country but were also doing a constructive job. Of course, we were enormously helped in that by the efforts of all the people concerned—farm workers, farmers and landowners. But now, looking objectively at the situation, I am bound to say that the agitation among a certain section of the farming community, and their attempts to spread alarm and despondency and to undermine confidence are not in the best interests of agriculture. All they are doing is to pander to the political prejudices of the Labour Party.
We hear from the National Farmers' Union about the magnificent increase in production, of more than 40 per cent., for which they take credit. I do not underrate their success in getting that increase, but I believe that that increase is very "small beer" indeed compared to 252 what the land of this country is capable of producing. I believe, too, that the bulk of that increase has come from the really good farmers, scattered up and down the country, and to be found in all parts of the country—men whom once I had the honour of describing in your Lordships' House as men who farmed really well, not for the profits they get but because of the satisfaction of seeing their own land properly farmed, and of growing good crops and good stock. I believe that that is still an important element. If all the men in the farming community who fall short of that standard—and I am sorry to say that we know how very far short of that standard only too many farmers are—could be persuaded to farm to that standard, or else, I would say frankly, make way for the younger generation who could and would come up to that standard, then I believe that farmers could take real pride in telling the country of their industry's efforts. I venture to suggest that that is what Bedford Square ought to be doing with their money and personal efforts.
My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount one question at this juncture? Does he believe that the farmers of this country fully understand that what they are being asked to do now represents a very important arm of the armament programme?
§ VISCOUNT HUDSON
Yes, my Lords, I do. At the same time (I am sorry to have to say it), I think a substantial body of opinion is urging them to rest on their laurels and is not urging them to devote all their efforts to improving the total production of this country, as I believe they could. I said earlier that I do not believe any Government, of whatever Party, can create agricultural prosperity in the long run. What it can and, in my opinion, should do, is to create conditions under which the industry itself can create prosperity. I think that the proposals in the White Paper, if worked out in the spirit of co-operation between the interests on all sides, do provide, or can be made to provide, such conditions. Having travelled up and down the country and seen a good deal of them, I am optimistic enough to believe that the rising generation of both farmers and farm workers contains a very high proportion of men whom I would describe to-day as the salt of the earth. I believe 253 that they are capable of seizing this opportunity and showing to the country as a whole the contribution that agriculture can make, not only to our food supply but also to sustaining the whole of our national economy. I venture to end by saying that in my view that is the proper definition of a long-term agricultural policy.
§ 5.10 p.m.
My Lords, what I have to say falls into two parts, and the first is mainly concerned with the White Paper. I accept entirely that the change-over from the old system to a new system is bound to be gradual and cannot be complete, and that the scheme outlined in the Paper on the marketing of agricultural produce must, therefore, be tentative. It does, however, contain the elements of what I believe to be the only possible way of doing it (I refer particularly to livestock and cereals) and that is by way of what really amount to deficiency payments. The experience of the United States in providing a basis on which the Government will buy anything and everything that the farmer produces if the Government price is above the market price has led to a state of affairs there which is well known to your Lordships; it has produced an absolutely impossible situation. If we are in a period of falling commodity prices, as appears to be the case, and if the Government here, or any Government, were to adopt the policy of buying indiscriminately at a fixed price any cereal produced here when there is a falling world market, there is not enough storage space in the country (and I doubt whether there is enough money in the Treasury) to accumulate the stocks which would inevitably be shovelled at the Government.
The criticism I have of the White Paper is largely as to its form, which, frankly, I find rather obscure. I find the statements in regard to the marketing of livestock, in particular from paragraph 11 to the end, and the appendix thereto, extremely difficult to follow. I thought I knew what the terms meant—I still think I do—but I found it difficult to follow how the payments, which are deficiency payments under the double guarantee, are going to be effected. As a particular point of criticism, I would point out that there is no mention whatever in the White Paper of how these deficiency payments 254 are to be made. Will the farmer selling livestock have to apply for the deficiencies or will they come automatically, and, if so, from whom? Do they come at once, or after a period? There is nothing in the way of machinery in the White Paper, but there is a pamphlet, not part of the White Paper, which, through the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I was able to see last night. That certainly answers a good many of the questions which I have put, but it also involves me inevitably in the comment that there has to be two pieces of paper: first, the Command Paper; and secondly, a leaflet to explain to the farmer what is in the Command Paper. That seems to me to be a clumsy method of procedure administratively. In any case, it is a criticism of the form in which the White Paper has been produced.
It appears from the leaflet, but not from the White Paper, that the deficiency payments on livestock sales will be made within a few weeks of the sale. The information is given in the form of question and answer in the leaflet. It is even then not clear whether these payments relate to the deficiencies of individual guaranteed prices, or to overall collective deficiencies on standard prices; nor who is going to make the payment; nor how. If, as I understand, the deficiency will be fixed on the fact of sale at a particular auction, it would appear to follow that the auctioneer will have to certify what the price was, and send in a return calculating the deficiency, so that the farmer may in due course get a cheque, perhaps for a small item of sale. That will involve a tremendous amount of clerical work, not only for the Ministry and accounting departments, but also for the auctioneer himself.
Further, there is nothing in the White Paper to show whether, if the auctioneer has the responsibility for making these calculations and certifying the payments, any remuneration will attach to that work, which I understand must inevitably be considerable, or whether he is entitled to make a charge by a larger commission on the sale in order to recompense himself for the additional work involved. In other words, the White Paper throughout is singularly reticent regarding any sort of machinery by which these tentative schemes are to operate. It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who is to reply, will state 255 that as this is only a tentative scheme which, in any event, so far as livestock is concerned, cannot come into force until next summer, there will be time enough to work out the machinery and explain to the farmer what it is. But the fact that no machinery is provided at this stage is, in my experience, one of the factors which has led to a certain amount of dissatisfaction on the part of the farmer, and has created that element of uncertainty to which the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, and others have already referred.
With regard to two particular commodities referred to in the White Paper, it would appear to me that more ought to have been done. I refer to the unsatisfactory way in which the marketing of barley is at the present moment being handled, and which appears to be likely to continue, because the White Paper says that arrangements for the 1954 harvest are likely to continue; and the marketing of potatoes. A great deal of dissatisfaction is felt in the Eastern counties about the marketing of potatoes this year. The White Paper merely states that the 1954 harvest of potatoes will be handled under existing arrangements, and these are notoriously unsatisfactory. These are two most important crops. The marketing of potatoes has been so unsatisfactory that I, for one, who have grown them in the past in a modest way, declined to grow any at all this year; and in view of what has happened since, I am glad that I did so decide. Much the same thing happened over barley. Therefore it is a fair criticism to say that the White Paper goes neither far enough, nor into enough detail. What it does do is to outline a new set-up for marketing arrangements generally which will depend on deficiency payments on the standard prices or the individual prices. That, I am sure, is right, and it is in marked contrast to the systems which have been adopted in other countries and which have failed. We must accept that, whether in this precise form or in a similar form, this is going to be the basis for the future marketing of agricultural produce in this country.
The second point is one of which I have given notice to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and it has a bearing on the question I asked at the beginning of the proceedings in your Lordships' House this afternoon—it is on the subject of rabbits. 256 The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in a reply which was as full, I concede, as it possibly could have been, gave two significant figures of damage done by rabbits. One was that the cost of protecting forestry, in so far as it is known in relation to State forests, was of the order of £500,000, and that possibly as much as another £1,500,000 was the cost incurred by private individuals, making a total of £2 million; and secondly—a figure which the noble Lord gave in rather an abbreviated form—that the estimated damage done by rabbits to wheat might amount to 1.6 cwt. per acre. In the statistical summary it is stated that the wheat acreage in 1953 was 2,222.000. If my mathematics are correct that means that in the case of wheat alone, no less than 175,000 tons were damaged by rabbits. At an average price of, say, £25 a ton, the damage amounts to approximately £4,500,000. That does not take into account damage by rabbits to other crops. It is a fantastic figure, and it has a direct bearing on our balance of payments, because inasmuch as we have had £4,500,000 worth less wheat in this country than we might have had, we have had to import about £4,500,000 worth more wheat from overseas.
I raise this matter because of the news which appeared in the Press of the appearance in south-eastern England of myxomatosis, and of the action which the Ministry of Agriculture have seen fit to take as a result of this outbreak. This disease is one which, I understand, has been carefully fostered and sedulously cultivated in Australia with considerable success. There appeared in The Times about a fortnight ago an estimate of the increase in the sheep population in certain parts of Australia, notably between New South Wales and Victoria, as a result of the destruction of rabbits. The results are staggeringly large. The spread of the disease in Australia has not been uniform, and the success in exterminating rabbits by this means has not been uniform in the drier parts of Australia. There are various ecological reasons why it is more effective in certain parts than others.
I believe I am right in saying that the disease was introduced deliberately in France, where the decline in the rabbit population has, as a result of the introduction of the disease, been considerable. 257 We have now got it in England. How it came here is not known. It appeared on a farm, I think, in Kent. The first action taken has been to net the farm in order to enclose the infected rabbits, and then to exterminate the rabbit population within the net. The farmer who was lucky enough to have an infected rabbit has, at the expense of the taxpayer, had his farm cleared of rabbits. That is most satisfactory from that farmer's point of view. I should like to know whether the noble Lord is prepared to assure me that if I have an outbreak of myxomatosis on my farm, he will also net my farm and send in his rabbit exterminators and clear my farm at the Government expense, because it will be very convenient. I have a great many rabbits. I hope if I get myxomatosis on my farm I shall have no rabbits.
But I wonder why the Ministry of Agriculture are taking such pains to make British farming safe for rabbits. It is an incredible position; it is Gilbertian. We have something which is a pest. By an act of God, or perhaps the machinations of somebody, the pest is in process of being exterminated. The Ministry of Agriculture exterminate the exterminator of the pest. Luckily, the rabbits in this particular farm seem to have got up a little earlier than the Ministry of Agriculture, and they got out on to a second farm, which I understand is also being netted. I hope with a bit of luck they will get out on to other farms. Is it reasonable to protect rabbits against a disease that is going to kill them, when we are suffering from their depredations on wheat alone to the extent of nearly £5 million worth of valuable food? If the rabbit is to be protected, why not the rat? If it is not humane to kill rabbits by a disease, is it not also equally inhumane to kill rats with phosphorus? There must be some sense of proportion about this matter. This is not a new experiment; it is one which has been going on in Australia for years with great success. It is, so far as I know, a fact that this disease has infected no other animal of any sort in Australia, whether wild or domestic; it is specific to the rabbit. Why do we spend our money to make British farming safe for rabbits?
§ 5.26 p.m.
My Lords, if we look back to April, 1952, when the Government first announced their farming policy, it will be seen that the whole 258 conception of that policy was based on an increase of food production in this country so as to make us less dependent upon imports. The noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, in a debate in your Lordships' House on April 30, 1952, gave two very sound reasons for this policy. He said that for reasons of defence and to preserve and stabilise our currency we must produce the maximum amount of food at home, and he went on to point out that agriculture was our biggest dollar saver. This programme and these arguments were, I believe, accepted in all parts of the House. Indeed, many speeches made at that time and during other debates on food production have emphasised this point, and the theme has been enlarged upon this afternoon by many of your Lordships.
It will be no exaggeration to say that the fact that we import half of all the food that we require was viewed—and I think by a number of people still is viewed—with some alarm. Conditions have changed little since the early part of 1952. We are still finding it almost impossible to maintain our food imports at their present level and to pay for all the raw materials that we need for industry. In two or three years' time this may not only be difficult, it may be impossible. The reasons are so well known that they hardly bear repetition. The growing demand for food in all parts of the world, in spite of the increased production, and the progressive industrialisation of the food-producing countries, are the two basic reasons that have raised the fear of continuing world food shortage. In the White Paper (Cmd. No. 8556) which appeared in May, 1952, the Government gave as the first object of their programme the need to stop the downward trend in production which had then become apparent, and to go ahead and increase production progressively to a level of 60per cent. above pre-war. Your Lordships will remember that in paragraph 12 of that White Paper, the main objectives of the production drive were set out quite clearly, and these were again confirmed in the White Paper winch was published at the time of the annual farm Price Review this spring.
May I remind your Lordships of the technical side of this production programme? It was stated that the major contribution to the increase in output of food was to come from grassland—indeed, 259 the whole policy depended upon the success or failure of the grassland improvement scheme. An increase in the production from grass of 15 per cent. was forecast. From the 17½ million acres that were involved, this was equivalent to about 2½million tons of coarse grains. An increase in the number of grass-eating animals was the next major point of the programme, and, by the more efficient use of grass, the release of a further million acres to go into tillage crops. I understand that it is still the official view in the Ministry of Agriculture that the increase in production at reasonable cost can still be achieved only by a very much larger and more efficient output from our 17½million acres of grassland. That is certainly the view still held by a large body of expert opinion amongst agriculturists who have studied this problem seriously.
The basis of this policy was to increase the number of grass-eating animals, and to get the existing population of grass-eating animals to eat a higher proportion of grass in their diet, so depending less on other forms of feeding-stuffs. This required a major change of practice on almost every livestock farm in the country. Farmers, particularly on dairy farms, had to depend less on buying their foods ready made in a bag, and had to adopt many new techniques, such as strip grazing, silage and the use of home-produced dried grass and, of course, their home-grown grains. All this would have taken a very considerable time, because there were many new techniques which people had to learn. Because they had to give up practices they were used to, progress could be only very slow.
I mentioned in a debate in your Lordships' House, when the White Paper I referred to, that of April, 1952, appeared, that a high rate of subsidy on imported feeding-stuffs at that time was removing a great deal of the incentive for farmers to produce feeding-stuffs on their own farms. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, at that time did not agree with me, but I still believe that it was the case. And I think that it has been borne out by the very slow rate of improvement of the grassland production programme since, and certainly during 1952. I believe that there was actually a fall in the tonnage of silage during that year, as compared 260 with the year before. At that time, Lord Carrington also said—and here I quote from Hansard (Vol. 176, Col. 585):…it is desirable that the feeding-stuffs subsidies should be removed progressively with the object of bringing to an end the feeding-stuffs rationing system as soon as possible. But this can be done only if more feeding-stuffs are grown at home to relieve the shortage of imported feeding-stuffs.Well, my Lords, what, in actual fact, has been done? The proposal that we should grow more at home, and thereby be able to scrap the rationing system and relieve ourselves of importing huge quantities of coarse grains and other animal feeding-stuffs, was a reasonable proposal. And the White Paper issued early this year further pursued that policy in announcing that the subsidy would be removed and that there would be little movement in feeding-stuff prices, although a very small increase was, in fact, forecast. But what has been done is something quite different. In fact, we have imported a great deal more feeding-stuffs and the increase in home production has been negligible, so far as one can make out from statistics at the present time. In the first nine months of this year we have imported one-third more feeding-stuffs than in the whole of 1952 and as much as in the whole of 1951. But the position is rather worse than this, because we have embarked on a large dollar-spending spree. In 1951, for barley, which is the main coarse grain imported for feeding animals and the barometer of the feeding-stuffs and grain market, we spent only £500,000 on imports for dollars. In 1952, we spent only £1 million. Yet during the first nine months of this year we have spent £12 million worth of dollars on importing barley.
Now, my Lords, 25 per cent. of the grain going into world markets is imported by this country. Since the end of the war, because of the dollar shortage in the world, non-dollar grains and other commodities enjoyed a premium of, usually, about £10 a ton over other grains. By entering the world market this summer and spending unlimited amounts of dollars we have, of course, removed that premium, and the whole market has gone down. Other factors have been operating at the same time. The Ministry of Food carried large stocks to ease the position from rationing to derationing. In addition, we have had 261 a very good harvest of our own and a situation has arisen in which the grain and feeding-stuffs market has been heavily over-supplied in this country. We have over-imported, and it is common knowledge that cargoes corning into major ports are being sold for less than has been paid for them. It is difficult, too, to arrange the unloading of cargoes arriving in this country. This situation has been responsible for major difficulties in handling this season's harvest, and, of course, most of the crop has been taken by the Ministry of Food and is still in store. I shall be glad if the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, when he replies, will explain what the Government's intention is with regard to the home-grown barley crop for this year. It is not being released by the Ministry of Food, and I understand that the total cost to the taxpayer has been of the order of £30 per ton, and that when the stocks are released there will be a very large loss to the Exchequer. I have given the noble Lord notice of this question, and perhaps he will be able to indicate the measure of this loss and the amount, in terms of tonnage and money, involved.
There is another question in connection with marketing this year's harvest—it concerns dried grass. Your Lordships will remember that a scheme was introduced in 1949 for the encouragement of the dried grass industry: the Government provided both grants and loans for the establishment of new plant. I believe that something of the order of £500,000 was advanced under this scheme. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply can cell me whether or not that figure is correct. At the present time, for the same reasons that it has been difficult to market and sell grains, it is almost impossible to sell dried grass except at a price below the cost of production. I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell us whether the Government are prepared to have some form of rescue scheme for these producers, if it proves impossible for them to find an outlet for this product during the course of the winter, because there is a large amount of Treasury capital involved in the plants. If no market is found for the crop, there will certainly be a smaller amount produced next year, and the loss to the producers concerned might be very serious.
I believe that at the present time there is a considerable lack of confidence 262 among those concerned with the agricultural industry. It would be wrong to gloss over too easily thereal, deep-felt reasons for these doubts. There is also, I think, some confusion in the minds of people who are not directly connected with farming as to exactly what the Government's intentions are about home food production. The recent White Paper has done little to dispel these fears. It deals mainly with marketing schemes, and not with policy. Except for wool and sugar, all the schemes are temporary and in the nature of expedients. Can the Government tell us whether paragraph 12 of Command Paper No. 8556, to which I referred earlier, and which sets out the main points of the production programme, still stands; and, if so, how do they reconcile the high subsidy on imported feeding-stuffs, which was maintained until this spring and in place of which these large imports of dollar feeding-stuffs have been introduced, with the need to increase the production of feeding-stuffs from our own farms, mainly from grassland? Because I fail to understand how the two things are compatible. I think there are many people up and down the country who have similar fears. Confidence really has been shaken, and I believe that there are good reasons for it. It is not just a matter of delay or lack of understanding marketing schemes. People see that these big imports of grain are coming in, that large sums are being spent in dollars, and there is the feeling that, if circumstances have so changed that the country can afford to buy in North America almost limitless quantities of grain, the need for home production may be smaller in the next few years than it is at the present time. That is a point which I think ought to be clarified. It is not abundantly clear to people at the moment.
I think also that people feel that the existing arrangements for the Ministry of Food purchasing were swept away rather hastily and before proper arrangements were ready to replace the Government purchasing of many products which has been operating since the war. The noble Lord, in replying to this debate, would do a great service to agriculture and to the country if he could explain to your Lordships what arrangements were made this spring about the importation of feeding-stuffs, particularly feeding-stuffs from the dollar areas. There has never 263 been any public announcement on this particular point. It would be interesting to know exactly what these arrangements were, whether they are unlimited, whether they will come up for revision and how the adjustment of imports is to be made to allow for the marketing and use of the home-grown crops.
The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, earlier in the debate this afternoon told your Lordships that we were now in a buyers' market, as opposed to the sellers' market which farmers had enjoyed since the war, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, echoed that same point. Frankly, and with great respect, I believe that both the noble Lords are wrong. The real change has been that we have gone out deliberately and positively to spend dollars, huge sums of dollars. The surplus really is quite small. The problem has always been one of distribution, and it is doubtful whether, if India and other parts of the world that are short of food had the ability to buy, the surpluses in North America would be there for more than a year or two. There are, of course, some problems of moving these crops, because of transport difficulties, but viewed in terms of world demand, the surpluses are small. To use the noble Earl's own analogy, if I were allowed to import unlimited numbers of American motor cars for dollars, without any duty, and to sell them in the home market here, I think not only should I bring down the price of home-produced cars but I should probably ruin the car manufacturers, even in a sellers' market.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ LORD HUNGARTON
My Lords, I should like to associate myself with many of the things which have been said by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. He has said a number of the things which I had intended to say to your Lordships; at any rate, he has given you a number of figures which I shall omit. I shall now refer only lightly to some of those matters. There can be no doubt that this is a most important debate because of the general uncertainty—I emphasise the words "general uncertainty"—in the minds of producers in Britain. No industry can give of its best with uncertainty as to the future hanging over it. Many producers these days are asking each other: "Where do we go from 264 here?" There is a reason for that question to be put, and there is a reason for these good men to feel uncertainty and some lack of confidence at the present time. I hope a little later to give what is one of the reasons, and is probably the main reason, why farmers have this uncertainty in mind.
Only a year ago farmers and workers were begged and cajoled by a number of Her Majesty's Ministers to produce every possible ounce of food from the soil. We all heard the plea. It came over the wireless and through various media. We were told that it would save the spending of dollars on the purchase of food from abroad—the very things that the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has been telling us about. The farmers and the workers responded nobly to this appeal and we are proud of their achievements. With hard work and owing to favourable weather conditions throughout the year—this is most important: we must not forget the weather conditions which we have had in Britain this year—we have had one of the most prolific harvests of this century. Unfortunately, I believe that too many cattle have been slaughtered during the last couple of months, cattle which should and would in the ordinary way have gone along to next year. They have got fat and have gone to the grading markets. We have produced this great amount of beef this year; it has been an abnormal year, and there has been an abnormal amount of marketing. Unfortunately, we shall be short of those cattle next year. We should bear that in mind when considering the production of beef, because that is one of the biggest worries which this country is facing for the future. It is not that producers are not doing their best, but in every part of the world there have been droughts—in Argentina, Australia and America—which have caused the slaughter of many millions of cattle. Farmers want to increase beef production, but no man can fight drought. I believe that for some few years we are going to have great difficulty in getting all the beef we require.
Farmers, having done all that was asked of them, what do they find? They find it most difficult to dispose of their grain. Thousands of tons of grain are still in the barns, and far too many tons are deteriorating. I am told that when 265 grain was decontrolled, many port mills were holding heavy stocks. That was wise; but by this time the Government should have realised that there was likely to be a big harvest at home. Importers purchased large quantities of grain from abroad, and some vessels were held up for several weeks outside the ports before they could discharge their cargoes. Surely this should have been foreseen by Her Majesty's Government. It would appear that there was no liaison or co-operation between the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Agriculture and the importers. None of us likes controls, but we must have some planning, otherwise the future position will become chaotic. I want to be helpful, and I am bound to suggest to Her Majesty's Government that it would have been wiser if they had kept the control on imports for the time being.
As regards meat marketing, may I say that the present system has worked exceedingly smoothly and well during its period of operation. It is a great pity it is to be dropped before the country is in a position to deal with its fatstock on a deadweight basis. It is now proposed to go back to auctions. My Lords, what a retrograde, antiquated step! Those who have been through the auctions for many years know what happens by this method. We will go back, not forward—back to the days when producers saw their animals split up amongst buyers on the spin of a coin: "Heads I win, tails you lose." The farmer was generally the loser. Is there any other industry in this country which would allow its products to be auctioned, particularly after the two, three or four years which it takes to produce livestock? It is just not good business; in fact, it is bad. May I ask whether the country butcher, or the butcher in our cities and towns, is to be allowed to reopen his own slaughterhouse? It is an important question. If so, how is inspection to be carried out? In pre-war days we had in this country about 1,600 slaughterhouses—far too many. Now there are about 600, and that is still far too many. We ought to have far fewer than that to deal with our meat in an adequate way.
Auctions mean that fatstock will be hawked alive all over the country as in the past, thereby losing weight and being bruised in transit. They will also add to 266 the cost. Auctions mean great variations in price from one part of Britain to another, whereas all fatstock of the same quality are worth the same price. If there is yet time I would ask Her Majesty's Government to give further consideration to the present proposals for dealing with fatstock, and I trust they will feel that the only businesslike way to deal with fatstock is on a deadweight basis. All inferior meat, and there is a considerable quantity, should be processed—I mean cowmeat, and so on. That should be taken off the market, and it would be good business to do so.
What about prices? The Prime Minister said on November 3 last week:Farm price levels must be high enough to sustain the welfare of the farmer, but the Government must deal equitably and encouragingly with the producers without throwing an undue burden on the taxpayer and denying the consumer the advantages of world abundance and widening choice.That is a marvellous paragraph. It covers everything. There is only one thing I disagree with, and that is that there is world abundance. There is abundance in some parts, but there is not world abundance. I was asking my friend the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Orr, a few days ago about it and he said, "Surplus? What does surplus in the world amount to? What does it mean? How long would it keep the peoples in the Far East and Asia'?" I said, "I do not know; tell me." He said, "It would give them one meal each and then it would all be gone." There is still a shortage so far as the world is concerned. What does this statement which I have read from the Prime Minister mean? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, can tell me. I think I know, and I think many other farmers do—that is the crux of the whole trouble with farmers to-day. I shall not be very popular when I say it, but it is the country I am thinking of first of all. Farmers assume, whether rightly or wrongly, that they will be asked to accept lower prices in the near future. They are asking each other just how much lower the price is likely to be.
If it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to lower prices to the farmer by, say, 20s. per cwt. for meat and 20s. per quarter for grains, I beg them to let the reduction be orderly, say over a period of two years. If the farmer knew now that he was to take a lower price for 267 his products over a period of two years he would go to his work with every confidence, but he just does not know. He is expecting it, but he does not know. Ask the farmers, and they will tell you I am correct in my diagnosis of the lack of confidence. It was possible during the war to peg prices, and rightly so, at a level to which they should rise; it is also possible to put in the peg at the lower level. If anything like that came about, the hill and marginal land farmers would have to receive special consideration—we must be fair to those men. But there are other people too—all the ancillary trades connected with agriculture—who would be expected to lower their prices. It is a long-term policy that I am looking to. These people have got to know.
I realise that what I have said may be unpopular with many producers, but I believe that most farmers will agree that it is better that they should know where they are going than to have a slump such as we had in 1921 and the early 1930's. The bringing into operation of the suggestions I have made should be considered only after the present guarantees run out. Most farmers are patriotic and will agree to a smaller return provided the amount saved is passed on to the consumer. This would eventually lower the cost of living, which would reflect itself in lowering the cost of production of our exports. Confidence, which is so sadly lacking at the present time, must be restored to the agricultural industry. I beg the Government to produce a long-term policy of not less than four years for cereals and eight years for livestock, so that farmers may go on with confidence and increase the production of food which is so vitally necessary to our country.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ LORD MONK BRETTON
My Lords, as another rare visitor to this House I crave your indulgence to say a few words with particular reference to meat. I welcome the attempt to wind up the Ministry of Food meat purchase. It has been a system which has answered us very well throughout the war years, but I am pleased that the time has come when we can start to do something to improve the quality of our home-produced meat and, in the end, enable 268 it to have a far better reputation with the consumer here. That is something for which we have been waiting a very long time. Under the new scheme, there will be a considerable increase in consumer choice. Formerly, the quality of our English beef was a great pride of the nation, and I trust that one day it will again be so. I feel, however, that the proposals in the White Paper must be regarded as strictly interim, and that the duration of the scheme will depend on a number of factors.
In the first place, the cost of the deficiency payments should not increase owing to difficulties at the auctions. I feel that it is right to say clearly what I have heard from farmers about this difficulty. A typical market has been instanced tome, where in pre-war days perhaps sixty head of cattle would be forward and there might be only three buyers. The complaint has generally been lack of buyers, which makes for a very patchy market. Obviously, the working of the present scheme will be greatly improved by the fact that at the moment there is a sellers' market, and so long as this lasts the scheme should function better. Another anxiety is the cost of pre-war methods of distribution, which may eat away the economies in public expenditure which are now envisaged. Efficiency of distribution was much in question before the war, and we had reason, when a Commodity Commission had been set up in regard to livestock, to look into the matter. I feel that this aspect should not go by default too long, particularly if farmers do not quickly produce a marketing board which shows promise of remedying the situation.
It is a fine thing to see the great measure of all-Party support for agriculture; nevertheless, there have been criticisms, some of which may have justification. In many cases, credit is a great difficulty, and it is one which has received little prominence in to-day's debate. Much has been produced at below world prices, and, moreover, a higher wage has been paid here, probably, than anywhere else in Europe. It is to be hoped that Her Majesty's Government will give every assurance that the industry will continue to be supported against possible unfair trading from overseas. Such assurances are of great importance in maintaining 269 confidence, so that the money already spent shall not be wasted and that further efforts shall be made to increase efficiency.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl for putting down this Motion. It is right that we should discuss this important White Paper which will, we hope, together with the White Paper on the guaranteed price for the marketing of cereals, form the basis on which, for many years to come, the Government will implement the guarantees under the 1947 Act and instil confidence in this most vital industry. In my opinion, the schemes outlined in these White Papers strike an even balance between giving the necessary security to the producer, without which it is impossible for him to plan ahead, and, at the same time, giving the consumer the necessary freedom of choice. As we move back into a freer economy the consumer is bound to get back to his rightful place in the country. After all, every man, woman and child in this country is a consumer, and on the whole I feel that the consumer has had rather the raw end of the deal for some time. It is therefore right that policy should be dictated by the consumer, and I am certain that in the long run no scheme for agriculture could survive if it did not have as its main object the production of what the consumer wants.
At the same time, we have in agriculture our greatest single industry, and ultimately the prosperity of the country must depend on a prosperous agriculture. Any scheme for agriculture must, I think, do three things. First, it must give the farmer a confidence that if he produces a good quality product he will be able to sell it at a reasonable price. To do this, it must shelter him from the worst effects of the world gluts over which he has no control. Secondly, it must encourage him continuously to improve the quality of his product, whether it is by good breeding or good feeding, or by good husbandry. I think that in many of our products there has been some decline in quality. For instance, in the pig industry, where we have had this very rapid expansion in many cases sows which should have been eaten have been used for breeding, and that has led to a lowering in the quality of our stock. That is a thing 270 we have to remedy. Thirdly, the scheme must achieve the maximum production of which this country is economically capable, and so make its contribution to the general prosperity of the country, and to minimising the effect of world gluts and shortages on our national economy. In my view, this White Paper gives the agricultural industry a great opportunity. It gives it security, and at the same time it gives incentives to the keen farmer to increase the quality and quantity of his production. It gives to the industry generally the opportunity to introduce new marketing schemes, with the object of improving the organisation of the marketing and, again, the quality of the product.
There is, as I see it, at the moment only one small cloud on the horizon. I have no doubt that it is the intention of both the Government and the Opposition—indeed of all Parties—to fulfil to the limit the guarantees given under the 1947 Act, and to do their utmost to ensure a prosperous agriculture. But there are people, some of them Members of the Party opposite, who speak with a different voice. It would not be worrying if one felt that they were what one might call lone voices crying in the wilderness; but I am afraid that, unfortunately, they do speak for quite a large number of people who feel that the farmer is being pampered and is inefficient. If that feeling should spread sufficiently, as I think Lord Hudson said, the result might be regrettable, for no Government, of whatever Party, could continue to help an agricultural industry which public opinion considered to be inefficient. At the moment, I do not think public relations are as good as they should be. There is a great deal of ignorance about agriculture, and particularly about the amount of capital and labour involved. I believe that a great many people sing the harvest hymn about ploughing the fields and scattering the seed, and tend to believe that that is all the farmer has to do. The remedy, in my view, lies in the industry's own hands. It must prove to everyone, to the country generally, not only that it is efficient but that it forms an essential part of the economy of this country. I feel that in this policy which we are discussing today we have a signpost that should point the way to an ever-increasing and prosperous agriculture.
§ 6.15 p.m.
My Lords, at this late stage of the debate we seem to be veering round towards the consumers' point of view, and I want to add a few words also on that behalf, because my interest is greater as an eater than it is as a producer. One must first ask oneself the question: are guarantees inimical to the consumer? First, there is the moral issue. We have exploited the farmer during the years when he could have exploited us, and we gave him certain promises. Therefore, those promises have got to be fulfilled. Then there is the economic issue. If our industry is to have markets for its yearly increasing production, then it has got to range the world for them, and there is no better market for British industry than the British countryside, for it is, I think, the only market in the world which is prepared to exchange food for the full range of our manufactured goods, whether motor cars, shirts, or razor blades. Moreover, it pays a full and proper price for these manufactured goods. Exports to the outside world only too often have to be shipped at cut prices—prices that are getting ever more cut; so if they bring cut foodstuffs in return I do not see that we are very much better off than if we had exchanged with our own countryside.
The other economic point is this. I am afraid that I have never subscribed to the theory of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Orr, that we are in a starving world. I just do not believe it. But we are most vulnerably dependent upon imports. We spend approximately one quarter of our national spending on food, yet it takes nearly half our exports to buy that portion of the food which we import from abroad. That, to my mind, means that we are in a very vulnerable position; and for that reason, and those others, I have always supported the largest possible output from British agriculture. To get that we must have guarantees. Therefore, I claim that guarantees are not inimical to the consumer for he is also vitally interested in the prosperity of industry in which he is a producer.
Meat is considered in greater detail in the White Paper than are some other things, therefore my remarks on the details of the White Paper will be confined to meat. At the present moment, 272 we have Government buying and grading, and so on. The trouble is that the grade does not necessarily reflect the quality. Grade on the hoof is by no means the same as quality on the plate. Nor does the price charged in the butchers' shops necessarily reflect quality, because when prices are controlled, naturally the butcher will sell everything he legitimately can at the controlled price for a certain description, even though, in practice, some of that meat may not be up to the quality usually represented by that description. Under the new proposals, the consumers get a free meat market, and I greatly welcome that, because I believe that meat will be attracted to this country to meet precisely the demands of the consumers. There is a lot of cheap meat in the world, and that will be attracted to this country to meet the very large demands which exist in this country for cheap meat. Likewise, there is high quality meat in the world, and that also will be attracted here. I personally hazard a belief that the price for high grade meat is probably about as high as consumer demand will stand, and, therefore, I should not expect to find prices for the best grades going up. On the other hand, I expect to find prices for the lower grades going down. By "lower grades," I mean the cheaper cuts from good beasts and all cuts from the poorer beasts. The result would be that the cheaper the meat level in this country, the larger would the subsidy become. No doubt, of course, the subsidy will be the subject of great scrutiny from time to time. Meanwhile, I salute the Chancellor of the Exchequer for being brave enough to take on a burden which obviously he cannot calculate exactly. Chancellors of the Exchequer are not always brave in that respect.
Is this a consumers' subsidy or a producers' subsidy? Undoubtedly, it will go down in history as a producers' subsidy, unless we can prove it to be the reverse. I believe that so long as imports are comparatively free, it cannot be claimed that in essence this is a consumers' subsidy, because it is one to create the supplies, and without these supplies we should not get the low price. The greater the supply, the lower the price and the greater the subsidy—and if that is not a consumers' subsidy, I do not know what it is. If the subsidy should prove to be too great a burden on 273 our economy, of course it could be adjusted quickly by means of some quota or tariff on imported meat.
The idea that at times the market might fall rather low brings interesting thoughts of whether an export trade could not develop from this free market to the countries of the Continent of Europe, in many of which meat fetches a remarkably high price. Another thought I have, after the doubts that have been expressed about whether farmers like auction sales, and the suggestion that other methods might be offered to them as alternatives, is that it would be rather attractive to see some of the big British meat firms who operate over the whole world opening up in this country slaughterhouses where the farmers could be offered a firm price, and where the meat resulting from a glut could be put into cold storage and brought out later on to level off the price. The future of our Empire guarantees is a matter which will obviously have to be considered. I cannot see why in the future, after existing guarantees run out, producing countries should not produce schemes precisely like this, if necessary, by arrangement, underwritten partly by ourselves. In summary, I would say that I very much like the proposals of the White Paper as regards meat, because I believe that we shall get more supplies and cheap meat, and we shall also get better quality. Furthermore, the price the farmers actually receive in the first instance will be a valuable guide to farmers as to the type of cattle on which they should concentrate in their breeding programmes, because, as other speakers have said, it must be obvious that the lower the subsidy, ultimately the more security there is for the farmers.
§ 6.24 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to say how grateful we are to the noble Earl opposite for giving us the opportunity to discuss this White Paper, and we are especially grateful for the excellent speech of the noble Earl, Lord Halifax. I hope we shall be equally grateful for the answer which will be given by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I beg to put forward only two points which I think have not been fully brought out previously. The first is in regard to slaughterhouses, which are merely mentioned in the last paragraph of the Appendix. We know that new slaughterhouses 274 are to be built, but as yet we do not know how many, by whom, where, or by whom they are to be operated. I beg Her Majesty's Government to make all haste in getting these slaughterhouses set up as going concerns, especially so where a market town is able to set up a small slaughterhouse that will serve the immediate community. I should like to see those going straight ahead. I am certain that if slaughtering is to be divorced from the market in a market town, the interests of that town are going to suffer considerably.
I come to my second point. Noble Lords opposite have said that the confidence of the farming world has been lost, but I am certain that the farming world will have every confidence in Her Majesty's Government provided the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, is able to assure them that at peak harvest times, when their products are on the market in large quantities, as they have been this harvest year, cheaper products from overseas will not be put on the market to such an extent as was done this year. I am certain that that is the main fear the farmer has. The public should be persuaded to pay fair prices to the farmer, and the farmer, in his turn, must give good quality produce at a price which the housewife is able to pay. But if, while he is trying to do that, produce is brought infrom farms overseas, operated under entirely different conditions and constituting completely unfair competition owing to the difference in the standards of living, I cannot see how the English farmer can possibly keep his prices down to those at which overseas produce will be offered to the housewife. If, in his reply, the noble Lord is able to say that there will not be a repeat performance of this year's glutting of the market—and this glutting undoubtedly took place, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, although I dare say it arose from unforeseen circumstances—and that this aspect of the matter will be most carefully watched in future, especially next year, then I think that confidence will certainly be restored.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, as many noble Lords on the other side have said, we owe something to my noble friend Lord Listowel who has introduced this Motion 275 at such an appropriate time. In view of the fact that some of us are more fiery than he is, we all owe him a special debt for the calm and measured way in which he made his constructive speech. If, in winding up, I commit any sins in the other direction, having been slightly provoked by the other side, I should like to have the cover of the good manners which my noble friend so sedulously displayed in opening this debate. This question of agriculture, as one or two noble Lords have said, should certainly be treated as a bi-partisan matter, so far as possible. Unfortunately, there rests in the minds of those in the industry, either as farmers or as hired farm workers, memories which are apt to bring back to their minds the dangers they may have to face if there is a sudden and then persistent change of policy. It is essential, therefore, that in any approach to this matter this fact should be remembered clearly.
I subscribe entirely to the references made on all sides as to the anxiety (that is the word used by some noble Lords) and the lack of confidence (the expression used by others) in the present situation. The noble Earl who introduced the Motion refrained from making any quotations. I could give many, but I will mention just one, because it is something that occurred in the county in which I am attempting to farm, the County of Essex. In the month of October, the Essex branch of the National Farmers' Union passed a resolution which said:Essex farmers are fast losing confidence in the intention of the Government to honour the guarantees of Part I of the Agriculture Act, in spite of the lip service by Government spokesmen to it.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
No; I was not even present. I thought it best to confine my quotations to the county in which I happen to be living, trying to live a rural life. The area from which that resolution came is one in which there are vivid memories of what happened after the First World War. I used to visit Essex a great deal, and spent many week-ends there between the wars, before I settled in the county. Farms were then sold for next to nothing, at far and away below their true economic 276 value. Workers' wages fell, from the year 1920 to the end of 1923, from 46s. to a figure varying between 23s. 6d. and 25s. These are the factors in the minds of the people who are "anxious," or those who go further and say that they "lack confidence" in the present situation.
The attack—I am afraid that I must so describe it—made by the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, upon the Minister of Agriculture during the time the Labour Government were in office, is one of which we cannot fail to take note when thinking of the political side of this issue. The Minister of Agriculture in the Labour Government was described to me in a Scottish hotel about ten days ago, by a prominent member of the National Farmers' Union, as the best Minister of Agriculture the country had ever had, or that farmers had enjoyed. All his colleagues who had to deal with him during that time—and I am sure my noble and learned Leader agrees with this—would agree that, even when we sometimes felt that he was asking too much for the farmers, he still went on putting forward the farmers' case with such effectiveness that he was able to do much to save the continuity of the progress of the production of the industry.
I am sorry that the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, who outside politics is such a friendly person—and we want to remain on friendly terms—has taken this opportunity to make this attack. I link that attack with something said in the opening speech on behalf of the Government by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr. It was a very good speech. The noble Earl referred to the buyers' and sellers' market having turned round; and the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, did the same. The noble Earl talked about the changed circumstances. What are these changed circumstances? They arise from two main causes. One is the effect upon our economy and our balance of payments, brought about by the sheer necessity of greatly increasing our armament programme, until we were committed to an extent of £4,700 million over a triennial period. And that led to such a reaction in the world markets, including food, as well as raw materials for armaments, as to disturb the whole balance of payments.
The second cause, in its later effect, has been what was clearly illustrated in 277 the debate in the other place on Monday—namely, that the present situation of the farming industry is contributed to by the statement made, not in this House but in the other place during the debate on Monday, that in no circumstances will the Government at present in office be associated with the making of controls which will involve State trading. Why have they come to that decision? They have come to that decision because they want, by any possible means, according to their lights and their principles (I make no complaint of that) to deal with the general balance of payments and financial situation by a policy of deflation. A good deal of the trouble which is now beginning to change more than ever the sellers' and the buyers' markets has been that by the precipitate reduction of food subsidies the Government have increased the demands for wage increases, and have put up the actual costs of production for exports. In so doing, they have created circumstances of a serious character which must be faced up to. It is not everybody who realises that, since food subsidies have been removed, it costs the housewife at this moment something like 26s. 6d. for every £1 worth of food that she bought two years ago. That is the present situation, and there is every prospect of further increases. If the general idea which has been brought about by the Government on behalf of its policy is once and finally established, then I can see no likelihood within the next twelve months or the next two years, of anything but further increases to the consumers in the current prices of their daily necessities. That is bound to have a further reaction upon the demand for wages, and the like.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, who has really provoked this kind of statement by his speech attacking my right honourable friend in another place, asked me (I am sorry he is not here to receive the answer) what I should have done had we been in office. Would I have continued rationing? Would I have continued subsidies? Taking the second question first, I would say that I certainly should not have precipitated the reduction of subsidies at the rate adopted by this Government.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
I would consider the circumstances when I came in. That is a purely hypothetical question with regard to time and circumstances that no one can possibly answer. But you must not turn round and blame me for some sin of commission for which you have been responsible. First of all, I would say that I should not, in those circumstances, have precipitated the reduction of subsidies. I am convinced that that has been one of the main factors in the growing difficulties in our commercial markets, because of its effect upon our cost of production.
In the second place, because of my political convictions I should certainly not deal with the kind of food situation we have to-day by seeing that, instead of having rationing by docket, by book or by organisation, it should be achieved by way of increasing the price to the poor. That is the point noble Lords opposite have to face. I have already given a clear indication of how food is going up, and there is rationing. That is why, of course, liquid milk consumption is falling.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
Meat consumption is going up for quite another reason. Meat consumption has been going up because they are having an increased British output, which they like, and which is by no means all due to noble Lords opposite—we had some share in that ourselves—largely helped by the gradual mounting of the price as against the weight allocation in the ration. But we shall see how that will go. It is too early yet to form a final and complete judgment about it.
What does all this mean? It means, in effect, what all my honourable friends have been saving in another place: that the Government are obviously facing a crisis themselves and have produced a crisis for the farming industry. They want to be able to guarantee prices to the farmers; they want to abolish all controls and restrictions, and to let what they call free private enterprise (I am quoting from memory the Minister of Agriculture) "blow through the cobweb of controls." We say that that cannot be done successfully for both sides. If there are to be guaranteed prices to the farmers, and if, 279 because of those guaranteed prices, the mass of industrial workers in the farming industry—round about 700,000 of them—are to be guaranteed the standard of life they have achieved now, you must take whatever steps are necessary to continue the control so that you may secure the proper goal for the productive farmer and secure the maintenance of the standard of life of the workers in the industry.
I was touched by the reference to the workers which was made by the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, and which I think was justified. Between the wars they were paid wages that were miserable. That was the noble Earl's word, and it was a right word. From 1924 to 1938, from the introduction of the Minimum Wages Act by a small minority Labour Government, raising the wages from 24s. to 25s. to 27s. 6d. a week, it took until 1939 to get the wages to 38s. a week. I would ask any noble Lord how he could justify a wage of 38s. a week in 1939 for a man to support his family. The workers have laboured through their organisation to get the proper protection due to them and to attain a proper standard of life, but their wages are still not up to the average level in the country. They are higher than ever they have been. It may be argued that the farm worker is better off to-day than he has ever been, but he is still not up to the average. Few people who are connected with the farming side of the industry would argue that the farm worker to-day, with the knowledge required of him of artificial manuring, fertilizers, of the proper use of machinery, of the proper husbandry and the care and management of grass in relation to the feeding of livestock, could be described as anything but a highly skilled man, and a man who is entitled to the returns for his skill and labour.
But what is really happening is this. The Government, no doubt convinced that it is right in its deflationary policy and its method of redressing the balance of payments, is steadily pursuing that policy by subterranean and subterfuge methods, and is going to face all the workers in the country with the same position as that with which they were faced before. From the year 1921 to 1926,the year of the General Strike, you had that which the Prime Minister publicly regretted in his Guildhall speech a 280 few days ago, when he warned the financiers of the City of London not to be without caution in approaching this general question of what he called the approach to the gold standard, which is properly described as a certain amount of deflation. The farm worker was the first to suffer from the repeal of the Corn Production Act, and, with every step in the direction of further restriction, the disease spread like wildfire through the rest of national industry. That is exactly what will happen in this country unless steps are taken to counteract it.
The situation is political in this sense: that the representation in the representative House of the rural areas is vastly important to the Party of the noble Lords opposite. It is important anywhere, and I am bound to say that, as I read the speeches made at the Conservative Party Conference at Margate, there seemed to be a growing recognition of it and in relation to agriculture things were said for which the farmers had been waiting. It is hoped that this White Paper—which is full of temporary expedients—will keep the farming industry quiet. I hope that agriculture will be put first. I believe that farmers have a right to demand that the pledges of the Agriculture Act, 1947, shall be guaranteed to them now. What can we expect if the views expressed by the noble Viscount who attacked my honourable friend this evening, are representative? What he said was cheered all along the Benches—a wish for a drastic amendment of the 1947 Act. What was the main purpose behind that Act?
He said that my right honourable friend in another place had conceded to the farmers greater security of tenure in order to gain popularity for himself. I hear complaints from time to time about the lack of security of tenure. There was a leader, a condemnatory article, in the Daily Express this morning about a poor farmer's widow who was turned out under the Agriculture Act, having failed in her appeal to the Tribunal. And on this very day I have to come to your Lordships' House to hear a Conservative say, "I want to amend the Agriculture Act, 1947, in order that I may lessen the security of tenure." I think that ought to be known and faced.
If we forget the other side of the picture, if we forget the rearmament programme, we shall be making a great 281 mistake about agriculture. There is always the other "leg" of the programme to consider: how we can manage to correct the balance of payments. How well the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, spoke about the situation this afternoon! How far has the situation been affected on the balance of payments side, first by the admitted fall for a time in the price of raw materials in the world market, and the fortunate help provided by that fact? And how is it that when we have to deal with this farming problem, in this year of grace, we find an increased dollar expenditure on the import of food? For what purpose? I heard some noble Lord say during the course of the debate—I think it was the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson—that there is now plenty of cheap meat in the world. I have not discovered it. I remember in a debate in which I had to answer for the then Government, discussing the meat problem with Lord Woolton. He made attacks upon us and I remember how by so doing he injured the negotiations we were then conducting in the Argentine. I know that as a result of the change, the present Government have to pay nearly £40 more a ton for that meat than we paid in 1951. Where is the cheap meat in the world? I should like to discover it.
If the Government will honour their pledges to set up marketing boards they will be doing a good thing. I hope they and the farmers will be able to go on establishing such boards in what the noble Earl who has spoken for the Government rightly described as a "most co-operative fashion." If we are to give wide power to such bodies the consumer and the trader should be consulted. If it can be said to the people concerned, "Through this we will give you guaranteed prices and will see that you are able thereby to maintain a proper standard of living," then I care not which Government does it so long as it brings security to the farming industry. I say to the Government, "Do not hold back in any way with regard to your help to the industry." Governments from time to time must feel very guilty on these matters. They have to deal with their annual Budget. I have not attacked the present Minister of Agriculture, Sir Thomas Dugdale, because I know that his principal trouble in the last eighteen months has not been merely to arrange consultation with the trade but 282 to get reasonable treatment by the Treasury—that is the problem he has had to face. Let us aim to get a high, and not a low, farming basis. Give the farmers the tools to finish the job.
When I went into farming four years ago, I could get a loan for capital development from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation at 3½ per cent. It is not so now, with the steps taken by the Government to restrict credit. For some months after the restrictions the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation were charging 6 per cent. Then there was a reduction a few months ago to 5½ per cent. I have not seen another yet, but will there be another to come as a result of the reduction of the bank rate to 3½per cent.? How can the farming industry deal with a situation like that? There was a big break in the fertiliser subsidy and a change in the Price Review. A friend of mine who has been hardly hit, one of the best farmers I know, made himself expert at farming—he worked on the land, won a scholarship at an agricultural college, got a farm for rehabilitation and was making a great success of it. He said to me a fortnight ago, "We have been so let down about egg prices that we cannot make them pay now. We built special poultry houses, but I shall be scrapping them all when the birds have finished laying. We cannot have any confidence." That is the kind of feeling that there is about. I ask the Government not to do those things. Treat the matter properly. Let there be a proper recognition of the importance of crops and of soils.
Lest anyone should think that I am partisan, let me say that I believe that the Government have done some things which are good. I think that the proposal, carried into effect, to give more for tillage was a good thing. The reintroduction of ploughing grants and the spread of the liming subsidy in the last twelve months have been all to the good in adding to the prosperity of the industry. The reintroduction of certain classes of fertiliser subsidy has been good, but action in that direction has not been as complete as it ought to be. I say this to the Government, and I should say it to the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, if he were here—I am sorry he has left the Chamber. I have said many things in reply to his speech—I see the noble Viscount has come back.
§ VISCOUNT HUDSON
I have to apologise for not being present. I was talking to your late Minister of Agriculture.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
I hope that Mr. Williams is still of the same forgiving nature that I have always known him to be. He may have found it more difficult than usual, but as a good chap I hope he will try to forgive the noble Viscount.
What we want for the farmer and the worker is such encouragement that he may believe in the injunction that so many of us want to give: that if he puts more in he will get more out. It is not really any good to talk about rising to 60 or 60-plus per cent. over pre-war unless you give them the encouragement of a long-term policy to which they can give effect.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
My Lords, we have now come to the end of a long and interesting debate on agriculture; and I know that I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we are very grateful indeed to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for having given us this opportunity of discussing this subject. We have had some interesting and valuable contributions, not least from two former Ministers of Agriculture who have spoken—the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson—and from the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who speaks with such authority on agriculture. I hope that their words will receive the attention, and also the publicity, they deserve.
The noble Earl, the Postmaster General, has covered the ground so adequately that I shall confine myself to answering the questions which noble Lords have put to me; and then, perhaps, end with a few words of my own in a rather more general way. Lord Listowel asked me about long-term contracts for meat. It is the declared intention of Her Majesty's Government to end State trading in foodstuffs as soon as practicable. The cessation of State trading in a given commodity necessarily implies that no further Government-to-Government contracts will be made, although, of course, as stated in the White Paper, appropriate arrangements will be made in respect of our existing obligations. For example, if the noble Earl will look 284 at paragraph 12 of the White Paper he will find there stated:The Government are not prepared to continue trading in meat when rationing ends next year.Therefore no new long-term contracts for meat will be made by the Government after that time. As the Government get out of trading in each individual commodity, so the policy of bulk buying through long-term contracts will end.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
Before the noble Lord leaves that point, am I to understand from what he says that the consequence of the restoration of the import business to the private trader will be that there will be no long-term contracts for imported foodstuffs which, at the moment, are in Government-to-Government hands?
§ LORD CARRINGTON
There will be no Government-to-Government long-term contracts, but there is nothing to stop private interests making long-term contracts. Indeed, the existing long-term agreements for meat with New Zealand and Australia have another fourteen years to run, so the noble Earl need not get too excited at the present moment. He also asked me about the distributive costs when the distributive trades are handed back to private enterprise. I thought there was little evidence to show that distributive costs rise when the industries are handed back to private enterprise. And giving them back to private enterprise will enable us to give the consumer the choice which he has been denied over the past fourteen years.
The noble Earl, Lord Halifax, stressed, and I think all your Lordships will agree very rightly, the importance, not only for agricultural workers but also for farmers, of amenities in the countryside. I think Her Majesty's Government have done a great deal in this respect. We have accelerated the pace of rural electrification, we have passed an Amendment to the Housing Act which makes it possible for landowners with service cottages to take advantage of the grants under this Act, we have intensified water schemes, and so on; and we will continue on that path and do as much as we can. The noble Earl did, however, have some criticism about the meat scheme which has been put before your Lordships in the 285 White Paper. He seemed rather to prefer the National Farmers' Union scheme. I am not aware to which of the two schemes that the National Farmers' Union have put forward be was referring, whether the long-term scheme or the so-called compromise scheme which they produced later. The difficulty about the long-term scheme—I think everybody will admit this—is that it would be impossible to bring it into effect for a considerable number ofyears—at least five was the time suggested. Therefore, as we have announced that we intend to deration and decontrol meat next summer, something has to be put in place of the existing system.
In regard to the compromise scheme which the National Farmers' Union put forward, the difficulty was that the Government had decided that the Ministry of Food must stop trading in meat next summer, and the National Farmers' Union scheme involves a continuation in State-trading in meat by the Ministry of Food. That scheme inevitably meant that there would be a continuation of controls by the Minister. I am convinced that the scheme which my right honourable friend has proposed for the fatstock industry is fair and workable and fully implements the guarantees under the Agriculture Act.
My noble friend Lord Rennell has expressed some doubts about the wisdom of the action which my right honourable friend has taken to deal with the recent outbreaks of myxomatosis in rabbits. I thought he had rather a good time; he enjoyed himself at the Government's expense and I know he amused your Lordships and himself. It seemed to me, however, that his arguments, though they sounded forceful, were rather oversimplified. He argued that myxomatosis kills rabbits; rabbits are a pest; therefore, myxomatosis must be a good thing. But this is only the surface of the problem. There are other considerations which must be taken into account before we decide what to do about this disease. It is by no means certain that the disease would be an unmixed blessing. To mention only one consideration, the disease causes acute suffering to rabbits, and I do not think we can disregard the humanitarian aspect. Also, although the disease appears to affect only rabbits and, to some extent, hares, it is a virus disease, and we should surely be very unwise to 286 allow a new virus disease to become established in this country without first trying to find out as much as we could about it. The virus affects also, of course, tame rabbits. The results of the spread of the disease in Australia and France have, I agree, been spectacular, but I do not think that the final results in either country can yet be definitely assessed.
Your Lordships may have read in the Daily Telegraph this morning that in Australia rabbits are now beginning to appear which are immune to the disease, and we may imagine that after the rabbit population has been so drastically reduced there will be plenty of food for these immune rabits to eat. They may well multiply very quickly indeed, with the result that the Australians would be back where they started, with the rabbits and with the disease. My right honourable friend can see the possible advantage if this disease were to wipe out all the rabbits but he has decided that the problem must be considered carefully and systematically before he can commit himself to a line of action which may have far-reaching consequences. He and the Secretary of State for Scotland therefore set up a Committee to consider the problem and advise on it. At the same time, he instructed that attempts should be made to contain the present outbreaks as far as possible, so as to leave the field clear for the Committee to consider the problem objectively. It may be that the Committee will advise that the disease should be allowed to spread or that it should be introduced deliberately. If, however, this decision were to be taken, I feel sure your Lordships would agree it would be better that it should be taken deliberately after considering all the evidence, rather than be forced on us prematurely by leaving present outbreaks unchecked. In the meantime, the committee have endorsed the action taken by my right honourable friend, and it would help us to deal with this problem if farmers and landowners would co-operate by intensifying their efforts to destroy rabbits on their land. Myxomatosis, even if it spread, would give no justification for relaxing our efforts to destroy rabbits by other means.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
I have no doubt it will report before the spring, because the disease is likely to spread more in the spring than in the winter when most of the insects are dead or not active: certainly in the spring and, I hope, as soon as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, asked whether in the conditions of a free market it would be possible to export meat to the Continent. I am not much of an authority on overseas trade, but I can think of nothing to prevent people from exporting meat from this country to the Continent. I think most of the countries on the Continent have some kind of tariff on imported meat. It would be just a question whether the tariff in any particular case would be low enough to make exports of meat to that country worth while. The noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, told me he would be unable to stay. He asked me about slaughterhouses. As a result of the decontrol of meat, the present arrangements for the central control of slaughtering will cease. Private interests will make their own arrangements for slaughtering. A number of slaughterhouses now closed will have to be reopened. This does not mean that the general policy of concentration of slaughtering facilities has been modified. Decentralisation would in any case take a period of years to carry out, and de-rationing and decontrol cannot be held up for the building of new slaughterhouses. But the policy of encouraging modern slaughterhouses will continue, as was stated by my right honourable friend some time ago in another place.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
May I ask which Department would deal with this expansion at the top level? Will the Ministry of Agriculture deal with it, or will the Ministry of Food do it before it is wound up?
§ LORD CARRINGTON
We have still the Ministry of Food, and they are responsible for slaughterhouses. I do not think I can go any further than that now.
§ LORD GREENHILL
May I ask the noble Lord whether slaughterhouses which were owned by the municipalities but which were taken away will now be restored?
§ LORD CARRINGTON
The noble Lord will appreciate that it is not my 288 Department, but if he will give me notice of the question I certainly will answer it. I could not do so on the spur of the moment. As soon as rationing ends, local authorities and private interests will take over the present responsibilities of the Government for the provision of slaughterhouses, subject to suitable control regulations in conformity with the general policy. There is no reason to think that private interests will not be anxious to do so, or that the requisite facilities will not be provided as quickly as resources allow.
The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, asked what the Ministry of Food will do about the barley crop they bought. They have bought some substantial quantities of barley this year and sales will be made commercially. The Ministry cannot, therefore, disclose the quantities purchased, nor would it be in accordance with long-established procedure for the amount of stocks to be disclosed. The cost to the Ministry of handling the barley will depend in part upon the date of sale and the total quantity handled, because overhead charges per ton will be reduced in proportion as the quantities handled are increased. The selling prices will be determined by market conditions during the period of sale, which is likely to extend over several months. Purchases are still continuing and sales have not begun. Therefore it is impossible to form any estimate of the loss the Ministry will suffer in its dealings in home barley this season, in implementing the guarantee to growers under the Agriculture Act.
I was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, about dollar imports of feeding-stuffs. When derationing took place we were much more concerned with the risk of shortage than with the possibility of abundance. The Government were warned by various people that they were taking a rash step and that there might be a shortage. If noble Lords opposite will look at their speeches I do not think they will find that they wore entirely blameless. The White Paper sets a lower limit on imports of feeding-stuffs which the Government guarantee to permit in the event of restrictions being necessary. There is at present no discrimination between dollar, sterling, or other sources This arrangement may be modified in the, event of a serious balance of payments difficulty arising. It is not consistent with 289 Government policy to use import controls to help the marketing of home grown feeding-stuffs. The noble Lord asked questions about grants and loans for grass drying. About £250,000 was lent to co-operative bodies and nearly £500,000 to farmers and commercial concerns, under the provisions of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1939. Of this total of £750,000, £260,000 has been repaid. With one exception, repayments have been received from all borrowers and are reasonably up-to-date.
Do I understand from the noble Lord's answer that there is no restriction at all upon the amount of dollar imports that the various feeding-stuffs and grain-using industries may import at the present time, and that this will be so unless there is a balance of payments crisis?
§ LORD CARRINGTON
We have handed back the grain business to the trade and that is the position unless balance of payments difficulties arise.
I listened with great interest to the noble and learned Earl, the Leader of the Opposition, when he spoke about agriculture at some length in the debate on the gracious Speech last week. He said that, looking at the matter with the impartial eye of the townsman, there seemed to him to be grounds for serious misgivings about Government policy. He complained about delay in producing a marketing policy, and ended by saying that the Opposition intended to have a debate when all these matters could be threshed out. Since the noble and learned Earl does not often talk about farming, I felt that he and the Opposition were seriously concerned; and so, when I saw on the Order Paper to-day the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I imagined that we should have some serious criticism of our conduct of agricultural affairs. This has not turned out to be the case. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, and the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, have complained mostly about the lack of confidence in the farming industry. They appear to attach, and I think quite rightly, great importance to confidence in the agricultural industry—though the speeches of the three noble Lords, and in particular that of the noble 290 Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, could hardly be said to have been calculated to restore confidence to the farming industry. But, apart from that, there certainly has been no major criticism of the Government's policy.
Last Monday I listened to most of the debate in another place and it seemed to me that there were three broad lines of criticism put forward by the Opposition. First, there were those Members who attacked my right honourable friend, the Minister, for delay in producing the marketing proposals contained in this White Paper. I was glad the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, did not follow that line of criticism. I noticed in that debate, however, that, while complaining of the delay, Mr. Tom Williams in his speech twice declared that we were trying to do at once two things that were mutually incompatible: to bring freedom into farming, by which imagine he meant end the rationing and control, and to fulfil our pledges under the 1947 Act.
To have reached a solution for two things, apparently "mutually incompatible." in so short a time, seems to me a major triumph. Of course the two things are not incompatible. The position is that in the last fourteen years we have been living under the system of State purchase and State allocation by the Ministry of Food. The Government have decided that, with the disappearance of rationing, this must, and should, end; and that decision brings with it the necessity to alter our marketing arrangements. This is a complicated and difficult subject and my right honourable friend the Minister thought, and still thinks, as he made clear in his speech in another place earlier this week, that although decisions on some of the commodities could have been reached and announced earlier, that would have been possible only had the Government been prepared to take these decisions without full consultation with the various interests concerned. And I believe, as he believes, that it has been worth while taking this time to reach such a large measure of agreement.
The second criticism has been that some of these schemes are interim schemes and open to review. Well, as I have said, we have lived for the past fourteen years under a rigidly controlled marketing system from which we are now moving away. We believe it to be 291 sensible to review these interim schemes in the light of our experience as time goes on. But let there be no mistake; we have laid down the framework of our marketing policy. The third criticism was that the Government's policy had failed to maintain the confidence of the farming industry and that, as a result, production was not increasing fast enough. The figures do not appear to bear out that contention. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned a rise in the index of agricultural output from 143 points in 1950–51, to 149 in 1951–52. He seemed to think his Party can claim all the credit for this.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
I do not want to interrupt but, by a self-denying ordinance, I abstained from claiming any credit, so far as production goes, for anything that had occurred since the end of my Party's term of office after the war. I must defend myself against the noble Lord's interpretation of what I said.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
I did not mean to misinterpret the noble Earl, and I apologise if I did so. I will leave the point. But when this Government took office we found we had to arrest declining trends in tillage and calf-rearing—and these are key items in the expansion programme. The tillage area of the United Kingdom fell, between 1950 and1951, from 12,750,000 acres to just over 12 million acres; the number of calves kept for rearing fell from 2,385,000 in 1949–50 to 2,141,000 in 1951–52. The steps we took early in 1952 successfully arrested these declines, but if those trends had been allowed to continue unchecked, the total output would have gone down and we should now have been struggling for an output of 50 per cent. above pre-war, rather than striding on towards 60 per cent. above pre-war. The noble Earl asked me to give the latest figure for the increase in tillage. The total increase over the last two years is now 181,000 acres. The actual state of affairs with regard to crops is even better than that. The figure of tillage includes bare fallow, which, of course, is not producing anything. There has been a decline in the acreage of bare fallow over the last two years amounting to 242,000 acres. We also have to make allowance for the very large amount of land which was flooded 292 at the beginning of the year. We estimated that as a result of the flooding we lost about 50,000 acres of arable land.
My Lords, the September Returns for England and Wales this year are also encouraging. All classes of livestock show increases in total. I will not bother your Lordships with many of the details because they are readily accessible to anybody who wants them. I should only like to point out that, as compared with September, 1952, the number of cattle has increased by 3 per cent., cows and heifers in milk by 7 per cent., sheep and lambs by 4 per cent., and the total of all pigs by 9 per cent. These are increases in total production, but it is just as important to study the trend in productivity, which is a measure of the general efficiency of the industry. Here again, the figures are quite satisfactory. The average yield per cow for 1952–53 was 7 gallons per year more than last year. Yields per acre for the main crops also continue to increase. As compared with the pre-war yields, the present yields for wheat are better by 28.6 per cent. Barley yields are up by 28 per cent., oats by 25.6 per cent., potatoes by 17.6 per cent., and sugar beet by 37.8 per cent. These are not total figures; these are increases per acre. Although we wish to encourage the tillage acreage to be increased as much as possible, we are not losing sight of the importance of grass. The yield per acre of grass is rather difficult to assess, but it can fairly confidently be estimated to be not less than 30 per cent. above pre-war.
There has been a good deal of rather loose talk about confidence in the farming industry. It may well be that, in a period of transition such as we are going through at present, some such anxiety and talk is only natural. But I suggest that the figures which I have quoted show quite clearly that the ordinary farmer is getting on with the business of producing food and is showing by his action that he has every confidence in the future of the industry.
One thing which has been very noticeable, both in the debate in your Lordships' House and also in the debate in another place, has been the lack of any constructive alternative put forward by the Opposition. My right honourable friend the Minister of Food and my noble friend Lord Hudson asked some pretty 293 pertinent questions. They asked: would the Opposition restore the food subsidies? Would they put back rationing and controls? Would they bring back food cuts and avoid the dangers referred to by Sir Stafford Cripps when he said:We must call a halt, or else we shall find ourselves in the ridiculous position of having to refuse to import much-needed food because we cannot afford to pay the subsidy out of our Budget."?To all these questions, asked yesterday in another place, and here to-day, we have had what I may call rather an equivocal answer. Perhaps more will be revealed to us later on about what noble Lords would do, but at the moment I am not at all clear what, in point of fact, the Opposition would do. Would they continue rationing—or rather would they reintroduce rationing and reimpose controls? If not, what marketing scheme would they put forward? Would they take the Lucas Report from the dusty shelf to which they consigned it on publication, and give it a brush up, rather than the brush-off that it received from Mr. Tom Williams? Would they put forward a Commodity Commission as a solution? Would they keep the Ministry of Food in force and continue State trading? Would they be prepared to consider marketing boards set up under their own Agricultural Marketing Act of 1949? My Lords, I really do not know. We have heard not one single suggestion from the Opposition to-day about the measures they would take—indeed, that applies to the whole of their agricultural policy.
I have read with great care the pamphlet called Challenge to Britain, which I understand is a pamphlet of the Opposition. There is in that pamphlet not one single word about marketing. They talk about farm efficiency. They say that Labour would institute a system under which each district would have a standard output per acre, worked out on the basis of the output of farms in the district; and they talk about a ten-year plan which will aim at increasing output by one-third in the first five years. Although they leave uncertain what they would do with one-third more milk, one-third more potatoes, and one-third more eggs—
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
May I say at once that we shall treat these matters exactly as we 294 did in 1945 and 1950, and in the same spirit—namely, that we should put the programme before the Electorate and it would be carried out within the lifetime of a single Parliament. I remember all the debates we had here, and the observations of a number of farmers, members of the Conservative Party, who prepared a policy, but I have not seen that policy come to fruition.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
The noble Viscount may do something in a certain spirit, but he is not putting forward a policy in answering that question. They talk about continuing the February Price Review, but not using it to make changes in the balance of production between different crops. It would be useful to hear how else, if they continue a fixed price system, they could change the balance of crops. But, my Lords, there is not one single word about agricultural marketing, which is clearly the burning issue at the present time, in this pamphlet. Of course there is a perfectly good reason for all this. Noble Lords opposite and their Party are split from top to bottom on agriculture. On Monday, I listened in another place to Mr. Stanley Evans making his usual attack on the farming community and farmers in general, and it was very revealing to me to see how much support he received from the Opposition Benches; how many heads nodded and how many "Hear, hear! "s there were when he was making his entertaining speech. He claimed in his remarks to be speaking for 95 per cent. of the rank and file of the Labour, Co-operative and trade union movements. I am not qualified to say whether that is so, but certainly he was not speaking for the Opposition Front Bench, who remained silent and glum during the whole of his remarks.
As I say, no coherent policy has emerged from the Socialist Party. At their Annual Conference at Margate the only solution which emerged was that nationalisation may be the answer, but not quite yet, and not in the open. All this is quite consistent with the record of the Socialist Party in Opposition. Before the war, as noble Lords who have read the Report of the debate on Monday will have realised, they consistently voted against every measure introduced by the Conservative Government to help the agricultural industry.
295 My Lords, the Labour Party have no alternative policy to that which we are putting forward. Her Majesty's Government have a clear agricultural policy. It is this. Our production policy is to increase food production in this country to at least 60 per cent. above pre-war by 1956. In order to do this, the farmer must have security, which is given to him under the Agriculture Act, 1947. He needs, and must have, the tools for the job. We have given them to him, for there is not much problem nowadays in getting feeding-stuffs: even my noble friend Lord Melchett will agree with that—we have de-controlled and de-rationed them. There is no difficulty in getting fertilisers, machinery, and the hundred and one other things which it is necessary for a farmer to have if he is to get high production. He needs, and he has got, first-class advisory, research and technical services. He needs, and he is getting, a fair return for the work and the money he puts into his long and strenuous job. He needs stability, and I believe that the marketing proposals outlined by Her Majesty's Government in this White Paper give him that stability. The industry has got all these things. It has been shown that we intend to stand by our pledges and by the principles of the Agriculture Act, 1947, and it has been shown the means by which we intend to implement those obligations. The farmers and the agricultural industry generally can now go forward, confident in the prosperity and stability of their industry.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
My Lords, before I ask leave to withdraw my Motion, I should like to thank the noble Lord, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, for his careful and spirited reply. I think it would prove to have been none the less useful if it were sufficiently provocative to produce another debate on this subject at a later date in this House. I should also like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I am quite sure that their criticisms and constructive suggestions will be most carefully weighed by the Minister of Agriculture. We are particularly grateful to noble Lords on the Back Benches who have come up from the country for the express purpose of enabling us to benefit from their special knowledge and experience of farming. The low temperature at which your Lordships deal with broad issues of policy is, perhaps, particularly useful at a time when the principles of agricultural policy are almost in danger of becoming a matter of Party controversy, and I think your Lordships will agree that the atmosphere here during the greater part of the afternoon and evening has been agreeably cool. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes before eight o'clock.