§ 3.48 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWELrose to call attention to agricultural policy, with special reference to theAnnual Review and Determination of Guarantees,1954 (Cmd. 9104); and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, we are starting to deal with this Motion probably rather later than some noble Lords who came here to speak on it had expected, and I shall therefore try to be briefer than I should otherwise have been. I am sure your Lordships will agree that publication of the White Paper that followed the Annual Price Review is a very good opportunity for us to consider the importance of agriculture in the past year, to try to assess its prospects and to discuss—I hope with the minimum of Party prejudice—the merits, and possibly even the demerits, of Government policy. Last year was a bumper year for agriculture: there was an increase of production of 4 per cent, over the year before. It was, I imagine, by far the best year we have had since the war. Of course, everyone will agree that this was not entirely due to the efforts of the farmers or the support they received from the Government. The winter weather had a good deal to do with it, and we cannot count on the same luck in an average year. All the same, it was a really remarkable achievement, of which the whole industry and those officials who served it can be justly proud. But in spite of this fine all-round record, there are certain trends in production which cause some degree of anxiety about the future. I am thinking particularly of the slowing down of tillage and beef production, to which reference is made in the White Paper.
§ The increase in tillage last year was only 43,000 acres, as compared with about 140,000 acres the year before. When allowance is made, as allowance should be made, for probably about 50,000 acres (the noble Lord opposite will correct me if I am wrong in that figure) taken away by the floods, the annual rate of increase since the downward trend was reversed has fallen sharply. Your Lordships will remember that we lost rather more than 1 million acres of arable land after the war. Then, in 1952, the present Government told us that we needed to recover this loss, and to get a higher 1260 yield, to reach their then production target of 60 per cent, over the pre-war level by 1956. The ploughing-up subsidy was introduced and has had an excellent effect. I hope that it will be continued, otherwise I am quite sure that there will be a rapid deterioration. But unless there is some improvement on last year's rate of increase, we shall not get even 500,000 extra arable acres within the next five years.
§ I wonder whether the Government could give us a little more guidance about the future of our tillage acreage. They say in the White Paper that we no longer need the 1 million acres for which they asked in 1952, provided that there is a steady increase in crop yields. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, these questions, of which I have given him notice. Can he tell us how much additional tillage the Govern-men now want, and what they would regard as the minimum tillage acreage for a balanced agriculture under the normal peace-time conditions to which we look forward? Can he also say what further increase in crop yields they think good farmers could get, especially in view of the excellent increase in yields which has already taken place, and how this future increase will compare with the actual increase since 1952? What I fear is that, unless something can be done to reassure farmers about the future—and there is a great deal of uncertainty at the present time—tillage will start to go back again. The easiest way for farmers to save money is to switch from arable to grass, or to leave under grass land which should be ploughed up. The change from a guaranteed price, calculated to cover the costs of the individual farmer, to a standard price for all farmers, has made arable farming more speculative, and the arable farmer has not benefited like the livestock man from the fall in the; price of feeding-stuffs. It is in the Mid-lands and the Southern counties that the battle for our tillage acreage will be decided. I hope that the Government will do everything they can, through the county committees and the Advisory Service, to strengthen morale in all vulnerable areas.
§ It is also a little disturbing to hear that beef production is going more slowly than was hoped for in 1952. After meat rationing ends in July, the day when the Sunday joint will not be rationed by 1261 price will depend on how quickly we can get a lot more home-killed beef. That happy day looks even further off after one has read the White Paper. I wonder whether the noble Lord could explain why the pace is slackening, and at what point, or points, in the livestock production cycle things are not going as well as he expected. In 1952, he told us that he was hoping to have 400,000 more calves annually for rearing within four years—that is to say, by 1956. Can the noble Lord say what the increase in calves for rearing was last year, if possible distinguishing between dairy and beef animals; and whether he still thinks that an annual increase of 400,000 calves can be reached in two years' time? A further question I should like to ask about beef is this—it bears on other aspects of livestock rearing, too, but that is the main point I am on. Is the noble Lord satisfied that farmers are still taking full advantage of the assistance offered by the Livestock Rearing and Hill Farming Acts to increase the number of the store animals kept by farmers in the upland areas? Can he tell us how much money was spent in grants last year, as compared with the previous year, and how many new schemes were approved under those two Acts? We shall not get the beef we want, and to which we are looking forward, unless farmers make better use of marginal land in the upland parts of England, Scotland and Wales. This, of course, is only supplementary to a larger number of calves kept for rearing, and a much larger number, and better quality, of bullocks that are kept by farmers in the Midlands on their rich pastures.
§ Before I leave the subject of livestock, I would also ask whether the noble Lord can say anything more about marketing arrangements. We have all read something in the Press on this subject, but noble Lords are probably as uncertain about the arrangements as I am. We shall not reiterate the view we have already expressed, that the return to the pre-war system of local auctions is extremely unfortunate because it exposes the farmers to rings, and the taxpayer to an unlimited liability; but for this reason, any alternative method for the farmer to sell his animals is desirable. I have seen in the Press that the National Farmers' Union are considering setting up a company which will operate to purchase 1262 animals before the longer-term scheme of a Livestock Marketing Board has been approved and applied. Can the noble Lord give us any more details about how soon this company will be in a position to purchase livestock; how wide an area of the country its activities will cover; and, particularly, whether it will be available as an alternative to the private auction system by the autumn, when so many animals will be sold off the Farms?
§ With your Lordships' permission, I should like to pass on to make a few comments about milk The decision in the White Paper to reduce the price of milk by ld. a gallon, and to limit the guarantee to an amount not exceeding last year's output, will obviously put the brake on dairy farmers—and that, clearly, was the intension. As we all know, there are many small men in the dairy business who came into dairy farming during the war, and many of these should be encouraged to change over to rearing livestock. Again, unless a great many more people can be induced to drink a much larger quantity of milk, any increase in supply will add considerably to the Treasury subsidy in milk sold for manufacture. Both these reasons, I think, are valid reasons for halting production, as the Government wish to do, at somewhere near the present level.
§ The Milk Marketing Board, however, appear to disagree with the Government, and to take art opposite view. The Chairman of the Board has said publicly that sales of milk off farms could not be stabilised—and here I quote the words used in the White Paper—"at somewhat below the present level." Of course, we all agree that it would be an excellent thing if people would drink more milk, and up to a point this is not inconsistent with Government policy. But the Milk Marketing Board seem to be lining up with the nutritionists who want a monthly supply of something like 200 million gallons, which is enormously in excess of present output. This indicates a sharp conflict between the advice of the Ministry and that of the Milk Marketing Board. I cannot help feeling that such a conflict of opinion between two authorities to whom farmers look for guidance is bound to cause confusion and uncertainty among dairy farmers. I should like 1263 to ask the noble Lord whether his officials and those of the Milk Marketing Board could not get together to try to work out a common policy for milk production. This effort may already have been made, and it may have failed. Clearly, the independence of the Milk Marketing Board must be respected, but I hope that, if this scheme has not been tried, it will be tried. Perhaps the noble Lord can say something on that subject.
§ Finally, I should like to ask the Government whether they can clarify their intentions in regard to the much more difficult and, in the long run, more important matter of the spending of public money on agriculture. This, I think, is of vital importance at a time when farm prices are falling. Whether production is maintained at the present level will depend very largely on what the Government are prepared to give by way of support to the price structure. It is evident that the Government regard the present Treasury contribution of about £200 million per annum as too high, and that they do not mean to wait until rising prices or increased efficiency reduces the burden. As farm prices in a free market cannot be settled in advance, the Exchequer liability can be controlled—not wholly, of course, but in part—only by limiting the amount of a particular commodity for which the guarantee will be paid. This has already been done in the case of milk. It has been suggested, both in the White Paper and in the Budget, that other farm products which are in danger of becoming rather more plentiful will be treated in the same way.
This is put clearly in the White Paper, one passage of which says:
Further consideration will be given to means of limiting the dependence of the industry on Exchequer assistance; for example, relating guarantees to levels of output of particular commodities as in the case of the new financial arrangements for milk.
The imminence of these further economies was underlined in the Chancellor's Budget speech. Here perhaps I may be allowed to quote two sentences from it. He said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 526, No. 90, col. 209):
I am sure…we must establish…some limit to the open-ended Exchequer liability. Of this we shall hear more during the year.
It may soon be said of Mr. Butler, as Lewis Carroll said of the Walrus and the
Carpenter, in their treatment of the oysters, that
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size.
This, I suppose, was the first instance of what Mr. Butler would call the quantitative limitation or quantification— I am not quite sure whether he said "quantitative limitation" or "quantification." However, what matters, from the point of view of farmers, is that, if the Government feel that they must save money immediately in this way, the farmers should know as soon as possible which other products besides milk are on the list. Can the noble Lord say whether consideration is already being given, or will shortly be given, to other foodstuffs such as eggs or pig meat, and whether, in this event, the National Farmers' Union will be consulted before any final decisions are taken?
§ I should like now to make two general comments about this policy. It may be necessary, of course, from the standpoint of national finance, and of that only the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Government of the day can judge. But for agriculture a policy of retrenchment adds to uncertainty, because no one knows where the axe will fall next. Its effect on production is bound to be restrictive, as farmers will not want to bring down prices by exceeding the guaranteed output. The noble Lord opposite will, I am sure, understand if I say that on reading the White Paper I could not help feeling at least a pang of regret for his owl earlier policy as set out in the White Paper of 1952. Those were the days of high hopes for the further expansion of British agriculture. We were to increase agricultural output by 1956 to at least 60 per cent above the pre-war level. But we are now told that the increase will be unobtainable in two years' time, and that it will not be within the grasp of the industry—to use the words of the White Paper—until two or three years after that.
The Government have now acquiesced in a slowing down of our magnificent post-war expansion program. No one would, of course, ask farmers to do the impossible. But is it true that the 1952 expansion program which, after all, requires only a further 2 per cent annual increase for the next two years, is no longer possible? The Minister of
Agriculture, at any rate, still believed in the late autumn of last year that this program could be carried out. In a newspaper article on the aims of agricultural policy, the Minister wrote, on November 30:
The Government's objective is to continue this advance. It hopes to see production rise a further 9 points, so that it reaches 60 per cent. above pre-war by 1956.
What has happened in the last four and a half months to make the Minister change his mind? It cannot have been the fall in world food prices, or the approaching end of rationing and market controls, because obviously the Minister was fully aware of these matters at that time. Perhaps the noble Lord can solve this mystery. For my part, I cannot imagine a spirit of defeatism in the Ministry of Agriculture.
§ Whatever the explanation, I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the country's need for more home-grown food is no less urgent to-day than it was last year. The Minister himself put this admirably as recently as last November, when he described the main reason for the production drive as "economic and strategic." Who would say that our economic and strategic requirements of agriculture have changed since then? Home-grown food is becoming, if anything, of greater importance to our balance of payments. It has been calculated that the increase in food production since the war is saving the country £600 million a year in food imports. Agriculture is our greatest import saver. The recentEconomic Surveyshows how precarious our trade balance was in 1953, and how far short it fell of the £300 million safety margin desired by the Chancellor. If the terms of trade should turn against us, as may easily happen after the United States has pulled out of its present recession, we shall need every ton of grain and meat that our farmers can give us to stave off another sterling crisis. If we relax our efforts to grow more food this year, we shall lose an invaluable safeguard against the growing danger of an adverse trade balance.
§ I cannot help feeling that the White Paper—I hope that I am not doing it an injustice—pictures the farmer rather as a sort of Benthamite man, actuated only by motives of self-interest, of profit and loss. But we all know that farmers are net made that way. If they are asked to do 1266 something for the country, as the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, asked them during the war, they respond magnificently; and to-day they are giving a large part of their time to unpaid public work. We all recognise that the risks of farmers in a free economy, competing very often with cheaper or subsidised foreign producers, will obviously be much greater than they were while the British farmer was sheltered by the State. But these risks should surely be regarded as a challenge to greater effort, and not as an obstacle to the advance on which we had counted. I had wondered whether the Prime Minister might not be asked to send a personal message, drafted by himself, to every person working on the land, landlords, farmers and farm workers, telling them, in his own inimitable language, what the country expects in the difficult times ahead. I hope that the noble Lord will consider this suggestion. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE
My Lords, we must all welcome the fact that the noble Earl has taken an early opportunity to seek the views of this House in regard to the recent Review of farm prices, as set out in the White Paper. I, for one, welcome, and welcome heartily, the fact that, generally speaking, in both Houses of Parliament there is a consensus of view as to the vital importance of home food production and no appreciable tendency to make British agriculture the catspaw of Party politics. It would appear to me that, after the experience of two world wars, no Government of any complexion will dare to let down agriculture in this country—at least, for another twenty years. But ours is a predominantly urban population, some of it remarkably ignorant and extremely sensitive on the subject of the increase in the cost of living. We naturally want to evoke and maintain on the part not merely of the taxpayers but of the food consumers of this country all possible sympathy in regard to our operations on British soil.
The noble Earl did, not in so many words tell us whether he approved, on balance, of the White Paper, or whether he had any serious criticisms of it in detail. I should like to say frankly that I welcome the White Paper. I do not welcome to the same extent some comments that have been made upon it by 1267 some leading agriculturists, to the effect that the reduction in the price of certain important commodities is the "thin end of the wedge." We are passing through an interim period, a period of transition from a high system of protection to one of a freer economy. The task of any Government in relation to agriculture during this period must be a difficult one. I, for my part, sympathise very much with both the Minister of Agriculture and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the enunciation of a policy which necessarily must evoke certain anxieties and fears for the future.
But do let us, as farmers, do all in our power not to open our mouths too wide. Let me give a simple illustration. Two of the main commodities the prices of which have been reduced in the new Review are milk and pigs. Can anyone truly say that, subject to foodstuffs being available, pig producers in this country are not making a good margin of profit? And, when we come to milk, which has been called in war time the A.1 priority food of the country, can any of us seriously say that, if our dairy farms are efficiently conducted, a penny reduction per gallon of milk at a time when the winter price is no less than 3s. 6d. or 3s. 8d. a gallon is really any great hardship? Incidentally, I should like to ask the Minister who is to reply whether it is true, as stated in certain organs of the public Press, that this reduction, and possibly further reductions in the price given to the farmer in the future, will not affect the price that the consumer has to pay. I do not know upon what ground that statement has been made but I sincerely hope that there is no foundation for it.
As I ventured to point out on January 20 last in the debate in Committee on the Food and Drugs Bill, the urban housewife is paying a high price for milk which is not always of a high standard of butter fat or of solids which are not butter fat. I then pointed out that statistics show that in those two respects the average quality of the milk is lower today than it has been for the last twenty-five years. I am not sure that I agree altogether with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his criticism of the Milk Marketing Board. I am inclined to share the view of the Milk Marketing 1268 Board that we want more milk for liquid consumption, especially when we bear in mind that in comparison with many countries in Europe, notably Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, ourper capitaconsumption of milk is less than half. Even though it has improved during the last six or seven years, it is less than half the consumption in those countries; and they put down their remarkable physical stature and well-being to their high consumption of milk These are not days when we ought to consume less milk; to my mind, we ought to consume more milk, so long as it is of a reasonably high quality.
When the noble Earl speaks with sadness (there may be some reason for it) about the loss of tillage and the tendency to let a certain amount of land 20 down to grass, I feel inclined to make two observations in reply. One is that that is largely compensated for by the far more intensive treatment of herbage in this country and the fact that we are producing a much larger proportion of our animal foodstuffs from our own land than we used to do in days gone by. The second point I should like to make is that in my long experience I have always found a reduction in the tillage area when there is a growing lack of confidence on the part of the agricultural community. If we can only build up—and all three Parties in the State can do a great deal in this connection—a feeling of confidence that no Government is going to let down agriculture, I am sure that that will do as much as anything to maintain the tillage area and to produce the largest possible amount of food from our own soil.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hudson has just been elected President of the British Friesian Society. I am not sure, but I think he claims to have the Friesian cow with the largest milk yield in the country. I confess that in days gone by I have been rather a critic of some, at any rate, of the Friesian cattle breeders, because of the production of what we farmers used to call "blue" milk with a low proportion of butter fat. However that may be, I notice with much interest and delight that at the annual meeting of the British Friesian Society last week it was said, not merely that the liquid output of the breed was greater than that of any other breed (in fact I think they boasted of owning a head of cattle more than twice 1269 that of all the other breeds in Britain put together) but that during the last year the average butter-fat content of Friesian cattle had risen to over 34½per cent. I only hope that within the ranks of the Friesian breeders there are not many who indulge in the "appeal to the cow" because their milk does not reach the minimum legal standard of 3 per cent. butter-fat.
But what I really wanted to refer to to-day is the position of the small farmer. I think the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who represents the Ministry of Agriculture, will agree with me when I say that, apart from the very small number of incurably inefficient farmers for whom none of us has any respect, who are curiously difficult to deprive of their holdings, even when they are offered an old age pension or a cottage as their future home, the great problem is the small farmers, of whom there is a preponderance in this country. I believe I am right in saying that something like 88 per cent. of the farmers of this country have no more than 100 acres each. If that is so, it would appear to me that all this much criticised subsidisation of the agricultural community is clue to difficulty on tae part of any Government in keeping these small men commercially and economically alive and able to pull their weight in providing a due proportion of the nation's food from their land.
In that connection I want seriously to suggest that in the matter of Government assistance a premium ought to be given to those small farmers upon their belonging to a co-operative society. In every agricultural country in the world except this country co-operation is the economic salvation of the small farmer. It is true that it has grown to some small extent during the last fifty years, but to nothing like the extent that should prevail for the benefit of the smaller food producers of this country; and if it were possible I should like to see a special premium in the matter of Government assistance provided for those farmers who conduct a local co-operative system, bosh in the matter of the purchase of their raw materials and to some extent in the sale of their produce.
There is one further suggestion I am going to make which may be a little more difficult to carry out. Apart from the British Friesian cattle owners and the encouragement that hay noble friend Lord 1270 Hudson gives to them, we have nothing much to boast about in this country regarding the yield of our dairy cattle compared with that of other European countries. It is lower than the yield in most of the dairy countries of the world—substantially lower than that of Denmark, Holland, New Zealand, Sweden and other countries I could specify.
As regards those small men who, in the main, are not self-contained in the provision of feedingstuffs for their stock, I venture to suggest that a discount in Government assistance should be made in the case of those farmers whose mature cows, within a period of five years, yield less than 700 gallons each a year. I suggest that at the present cost of labour and of purchased feedingstuffs the 700-gallon cow is not an economic proposition. If it were possible to limit Government assistance given to those small farmers who are not members of a co-operative society and do not keep cows giving reasonably large yields, and who in consequence require much more Governmental support at the expense of the taxpayer, one could look forward to the future with greater confidence. There would not then be this unfortunate dependence upon subsidies and uneconomic measures that evoke the criticism of our taxpayers.
To show that I am not speaking "with out the book," I want to say one word on the matter of co-operation. Exactly fifty years ago I founded in my own area a farmers' co-operative society. We held our fiftieth meeting five days ago and we were able to show that 90 per cent. of the farmers within ten miles of us, and spreading into three counties, belonged to our society. The present turnover amounts to no less than £300,000. This compares with the position sixty years ago, when three cut of four farmers in that area were financially in the pocket and at the mercy of the local dealers. Many of the farmers then became insolvent and suffered bankruptcy. From the moment that that co-operative society was formed the farmers became, to an increasing extent, financially free, independent citizens; and they form to-day a very prosperous little community. That is largely, if not mainly, owing to that co-operative society whose jubilee is to be celebrated next month, and which I founded with the guidance of Sir Horace Plunkett, that great Irish co-operative authority.
1271 I am going to add one further fact. In the report which was adopted unanimously at the fiftieth annual meeting, there was a notable paragraph to the effect that we, at any rate, the members of that farmers' co-operative society, so far from fearing that we should fail to reach during the next three years the target of a 60 per cent. increase of output over that of pre-war days, hope and believe that in our district there will be a substantial improvement upon that target. I say these few words only in order to impress upon your Lordships the enormous importance of this point: that rather than let agriculture amongst what I may call the 100 or 50-acre group become a mendicant industry, more and more dependent—some would say permanently dependent—upon Government subsidies, we should encourage that group to do all they can to establish themselves by co-operation, by efficiency, by growing crops of a reasonably remunerative kind and particularly by keeping livestock of as productive a character as possible. That will save our industry from the continuous criticism of the taxpayer and from greater and greater dependence upon the public purse and the Government, rather than upon our own efficient efforts.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ LORD WISE
My Lords, I am very glad indeed this afternoon to follow the noble Viscount who has just resumed his seat and to say, I think on behalf of the whole House, how pleased we are to see him on the occasions when he does come to talk agriculture to us. Nobody can speak with greater knowledge of our industry than the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. I want, before I make my ordinary little speech, a short one, to agree with him on the great need, the urgent need, at this present time to keep agriculture in this country alive, virile and flourishing. We depend, as we have done so much in the last few years, upon the output of our home farms, and it does not behove any of us to take any action, whether political or otherwise, to bring any sort of depression whatsoever into our agricultural industry again. The noble Viscount said that he realises the difficulties of the Government at the present time. Well, we all do. We rather look upon this White Paper as the outline 1272 of what may mean, in agriculture, a new experiment. It may succeed; for the benefit of the industry, we hope that it will. On the other hand, it may not. At any rate, at this particular time I do not think any of us should be too critical. The Government have instituted this policy; the farming industry are asked to carry it out, and time will show whether a change of policy at this time is a right one or is detrimental not only to the industry itself but to the economics of the nation.
We realise, also, the difficulties of the farmers at the present time. They are now asked to enter into something totally different from what they have been used to in the last few years. I hope in the course of my remarks to deal with some of those difficulties as outlined in the White Paper. The noble Viscount mentioned milk. We on these Benches, I think, heartily agree that the consumption of milk should not be allowed to decline but should increase. There have been many slogans in the past—"Drink more milk" and such like. I understand that shortly (I believe I am right) a campaign will be launched to try to encourage a higher, in fact the greatest, consumption of milk among our families in this country. I am rather afraid, however, that the decrease in the consumption of milk in the last few years has been an economic one. So that, if a penny a gallon, or whatever it may be, can be taken off the price of milk at one end, something may happen at the other end also, as the result of proper planning and organisation. I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, on the huge success of the co-operative effort which he started fifty years ago. It is a wonderful achievement, and I think, with him, that possibly we may be able to find in British agriculture some means whereby the smaller farmers can be encouraged to join in disposing of their products on a co-operative basis, and to increase not only the basis of co-operation within the country but also its scope.
As I said a moment ago, the Government have brought in this new policy, and it is up to all of us to say, quietly and without any antagonism, without any heat, where we think there may be a mistake. We may be wrong. We have recently come through a period of 1273 marked success in agriculture. During the last few years, the industry has been reasonably profitable; our production has increased; we have been able to feed the people to a greater extent, and vie have, as a farming industry, I think, received the commendation of the nation in regard to what we have tried to do and what we have done. And I personally do not want to see anything put into operation, by this Government or arty other Government, which is likely again to brine depression, as we knew it years ago, into British agriculture. And whatever we may say, whatever may he the outcome of the policy, I am certain that we all, on both sides of the House, wish the British farmer, and British agriculture generally, well.
I am a little puzzled (perhaps the noble Lord who is going to reply for the Government will explain this to me) to know why the White Paper's title on this occasion is theAnnual Review aid Determination of Guarantees.I think if the previous White Papers are referred to it will be found that the title wasThe Annual Review and Fixing of Farm Prices.
§ THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (LORD CARRINGTON)
We are not fixing prices this time.
§ LORD WISE
You are not fixing prices—that is the explanation. I was wondering whether it meant a different emphasis as regards the guarantee and the prices. It is of course significant that there is a change. For instance, in the third paragraph on the first page these words creep in:They must, however, give a somewhat less accurate picture of future prospects as these now depend less on guarantees and more on the market than hitherto.That passage covers the opening of the markets to free enterprise and different trading operations.
The White Paper has had a mixed reception—reference has been made to it to-day. Some of the remarks which have been attributed in the papers to various persons may be unfortunate, but generally I think I should be right in saying that the reception accorded to the White Paper has not been over-enthusiastic. Generally, the farming community is suspicious; it is always suspicious, and in 1274 this case I think it is uncertain of the future. We have had a very happy experience in recent years. As said a few moments ago, we have had a fair measure of prosperity. We have come through a very progressive era in regard to the application of new mechanical and scientific processes. We have been able to improve the standard of life both for farmers and their workers. And we have, by improving supplies of home grown foods, not only satisfied ourselves but satisfied the nation.
We now have to face new conditions of market and prices in the name of freedom from control. We have once again to meet, in a very high degree, the renewal of a scramble in the corn and stock markets for powers to purchase the commodities of the farmer at remunerative prices. I am rather uncertain in my own mind as to whether, unless we are very careful, we shall not drift back into the state of affairs which existed in the old days which many of us knew, when the market was uncertain and when conditions were difficult, when we took our stock and our corn to many dealers before we were able to sell them. Anti it may be that, by losing, as we do lose, the Ministry of Food as a very beneficial customer of British agriculture, our sales may be retarded or expedited, as the case may he, not by any Government operation but by the operation of outside interests. That used to happen in the past, and I think it was in those days very detrimental to the interests of the British farming community. It might be detrimental again if it were allowed to come into operation.
In present circumstances, there are only three commodities—wool, potatoes, and sugar beet—which will have the benefit of fixed prices. No doubt, it will be argued, as indeed it has been argued, that the other commodities will gain by the distribution by the Government of additional payments to the producers. That may be so; but the cost to the Exchequer, according to the White Paper, cannot be estimated with any reliability. It may be so heavy that after a year or two of its operation the Exchequer may seek to relieve itself still further of the burdens upon it, so far as agriculture is concerned, with the result that prices will drop still further. The White Paper throws out such a hint, and, as my noble friend on the Front Bench 1275 has said, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a statement last week, mentioned the possibility of that happening.
I want to deal with two specific points. The first is the lessening of income of farmers by approximately £30 million, which I believe is the reduction envisaged. If the farmers are not able to make up any portion of that £30 million to be retained by the Treasury, that reduction in income will be of tremendous importance, not only to the agricultural industry but to the general community living around the farms. According to the White Paper, a sum of £30 million is about 10 per cent. of the net income of the industry, and I doubt whether the industry can make that up to any marked degree by any of the suggestions which the Government make in their White Paper. The methods suggested appear simple in print, but in reality the farmer's costs are governed by matters outside his own control. If he reduces his labour bill, his production is likely to suffer; and of course he has no control over the prices he has to pay for commodities, except possibly in regard to certain feeding-stuffs. In other respects he has to meet rising prices, and he has to pay for articles required prices which are in no way fixed by himself. He has to pay for services rendered to him by other people; and their charges have to be met, whatever they may be. He has to pay for artificial manures, seed corn, young stock, machinery, petrol and oil, transport and bank charges, and repair bills, all of which remain at a high level. Unless he dispenses with some of these, to the detriment of his efficiency and productive efforts, he remains powerless, in existing conditions, to make a substantial reduction.
In my view, the White Paper does not over-encourage the farmer. It tells him that much is expected from him but the lead which the Government give is not very helpful. Milk has already been mentioned. The farmer is told in black and white in the White Paper to reduce his milking herds. I think that is detrimental and a mistake. It tells him to be careful about increasing his cereal acreages; that the production of potatoes is already up to consumption level (and not only next year but also, I believe, in the years which follow, prices will fall); that 1276 no additional rye is required from the rye-growing lands; and that the quantity of sugar beet which the factories can deal with economically has been reached and that the surplus will not be absorbed. It is true that the farmer is told that the nation requires more and better beef and encourages him to achieve that in the course of years. Yet the Government are not quite certain whether or not they require additional mutton and lamb. That is a point which strikes me as peculiar. In the White Paper the word "perhaps" creeps in: it says, "perhaps more mutton and lamb." In my view, we want an increase of sheep production. We have been very short. A few days ago, when in Devonshire, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many lambs and sheep grazing in the pastures. I thought that at long last, as a nation, we were getting back to the old days when sheep, and the benefit of sheep on the land, were a standby for British agriculture.
That is the problem which confronts the farmer; and it is small wonder that, with the change in the marketing arrangements and the reduction in producers' prices, he is in a state of bewilderment. It is necessary to plan future farming arrangements on reasonable lines, but in existing circumstances of possible fluctuations in markets and in prices, it is not at all easy for the farmer to budget ahead, and to budget so that he can increase his production at reduced costs. The emphasis which is now to be placed on livestock has been already mentioned. It may well be that in increasing livestock the acreage under corn will decrease. I do not want to detain the House much longer, but there is one point I want to put specifically to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. Many people think that the reduction in the pig price is heavy. Three shillings a score works out roughly at £1 a pig. A difference in turnover of £1 a pig on bacon and other pigs which are brought to maturity is a high sum for the pig-breeders to bear. Of course, I understand that the cost of production may have come down, but the fact remains that there is this loss of price of more than £1 a pig. I want to ask the noble Lord who is going to gain by that reduction?
I have in my hand the annual report of a bacon factory. In that particular bacon factory last year about 120,000 pigs were handled. That bacon factory 1277 showed a reasonable profit, and far higher than was necessary to pay the fixed dividend on the shares. The pigs handled totalled about 120,000. On the face of it, the saving to that bacon factory by 3s. a score, or just over £1 per pig, was in the region of from £120,000 to £130,000. It may be said by the noble Lord opposite that the subsidy paid to that factory on the difference between the cost of the pig and the receipts for the bacon may be lessened. But if that is not the case, is that £120,000 going to relieve the bacon factory of its costs, or is it, in any shape or form, going to be handed to the consumer by lowering the price of bacon? That is one small point, and possibly the noble Lord can deal with it when he comes to reply.
I will conclude by saying this—it has been referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and I do not entirely agree with what he says. In many paragraphs of the White Paper the word "efficiency" occurs. I think that at long last we ought to call a halt to the charge of inefficiency in the farming industry. This word "inefficiency" is thrown at the industry by all sorts of people outside, and it sticks to small farmers, large farmers, good farmers and inefficient farmers alike. In my view, with the record of the industry over the last few years—production increases, improvement in methods and improvements all along the line—the term "inefficiency," as applied to British farming should at long last be dropped.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ LORD HAMILTON OF DALZELL
My Lords, I rise in great trepidation to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House, particularly when the subject is one of which so many noble Lords have personal expert knowledge. I hope that your Lordships will extend to me the forbearance usually shown on these occasions. As a farmer myself, and one who moves among farmers, I would say that the general reaction to this Price Review has been one of relief—relief that it has not been found necessary to make more drastic cuts in prices. Farmers realise that conditions have changed. Not only are many of our products now available on the world markets at prices much lower than we have been receiving, but for the time being, at least, the country seems able to spare the foreign currency 1278 with which to buy them. Under these conditions, there may be a few farmers who wish that we had in Parliament a Farm Lobby, such as they have in the United States, where they seem to be able to induce their Government to give almost unlimited support to the main farm products at remunerative prices. There can be no question of the farming community ever being able to exert that sort of pressure here. But even if there were, I think it must be clear to most people that great difficulties would soon arise, and that it would not be a good thing, either for the country or, in the long run, for the farmers themselves.
What I think farmers can reasonably ask of the Government is, first, some degree of cushioning against the violent changes in world prices which seem to afflict not only agricultural but all primary products, and which seem to result from relatively small surpluses and shortages of these products, Over a period, it should be possible to do this without serious cost to the country, since there is no reason to suppose that from now on all world prices will always be below ours—many were higher quite recently, and may well be again. The second thing which I think farmers can fairly ask from the Government is protection from dumping, either by supporting prices, or by duties on the commodities being dumped. I have been told by my feeding-stocks merchant, and I have also read in the farming Press, that some commodities, particularly cereals, which have lately been imported at low prices, have been heavily subsidised by their countries of origin, and that the farmers who grew them have, in fact, received prices as high as, or higher than, those paid to farmers here. I cannot enlarge on the point, because I do not know the details—perhaps other noble Lords can; but if that is so, then I should have thought that it provided a good answer to the charge of "feather-bedding" in these cases, and I cannot think why more has not been made of it by those concerned with publicity on behalf of the Farmer.
I feel it is quite understandable that during the past year or so there should have been considerable uneasiness in the minds of many Farmers. The change of circumstances came very suddenly and, I think, much sooner than was expected. There were fears that the Government's 1279 reactions to the change were in some directions too hasty, and in others too slow, or inadequate. But as it gradually becomes clearer that the Government do not intend to let the farmer down, and are taking reasonable steps to keep the industry on an even keel, confidence is returning, and I believe that the Price Review has been generally accepted as fair and appropriate.
As regards the future, the whole emphasis of the White Paper is on increased efficiency, since, clearly, if our costs of production could be brought down to a competitive level the whole problem would disappear. I believe there is no doubt that there is room for increased efficiency in British agriculture, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Wise, has said; and the reason for this flows naturally from the way the industry has been treated during the last fifteen years. I feel that most people will agree that the most efficient, and, in the long run, the most successful farmer is the one who decides what type of production best suits himself and his farm, and sticks to it, come what may. In the course of time he perfects his technique and his equipment, and almost inevitably he becomes efficient. When, in the course of normal price fluctuations, his products are up, he is able to take full advantage from the start, and does very well; when they are down, his efficiency enables him to keep his head above water until the next time.
Since the beginning of the war, not many farmers have been able to conduct their affairs in this way. The compulsion, first of war, and then of economics, has forced successive Governments to demand of agriculture the greatest possible production of whatever from time to time was needed most. High-pressure publicity, price incentives, even at one time the force of law, have been used to induce farmers to embark on lines of production about which they knew little, and for which their farms were often not suitable. Production under these conditions has not been economic, and prices have had to be high to allow for that. No doubt, also, these high prices have given rise to a certain amount of complacency among some farmers who would, in any case, have been producing the commodities in demand, and who 1280 therefore managed to do very well without much effort. That policy was inevitable at the time, and it was highly successful in raising production; but it was not conducive to efficiency or to high quality. Now we have suddenly once more to face the fierce competition of the specialist overseas producers and also to meet the more exacting requirements of our own market. I am afraid that we are caught rather at a disadvantage.
I am not one of those who take the line that "the Government got us into this mess and it is up to the Government to get us out." As I said before, I think we can expect the Government to ensure a reasonable degree of stability and to protect us from dumping. Beyond that I think it is up to the industry itself. The two needs are, first, for farmers to get back to producing whatever they can produce most efficiently—for example, for some of the less suitable dairy farms to return to stock raising, as suggested in the White Paper; and, second, to increase efficiency by such means as pig recording and progeny testing, the eradication of cattle diseases, the better use of grass, more use of fertilisers, better marketing, co-operation, as suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and so on. I believe that by these means it should be possible to bring our production more in line with the requirements of our market and, at the same time, to reduce costs and keep a reasonable level of profit for the farmer.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ LORD ARCHIBALD
My Lords, I am fortunate this afternoon in having the opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord who has just sat down on the eminent success of his maiden speech. I hope that I may say that it is a speech with the content of which we all agree in large measure, and the manner of which we all most heartily admire. We hope to hear the noble Lord again on other occasions and on other subjects. Like the noble Lord, I am a farmer, and also like him I have not previously taken part in a debate on agriculture in your Lordships' House. If I may, I would disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, on one small point, and that is with regard to the reception which the White Paper has had in farming, circles. There, of course, 1281 one's experience is limited by the contacts that one has with farmers. But my general impression is that it has not been received with relief—unless by "relief" we are to accept that there was great alarm and apprehension and that there is now less alarm and apprehension.
On the whole, I think a fair description was that given by the National Council of the Farmers' Union, who said that they regarded the Review as having placed an undue burden on the agricultural industry. As the county branches of the Union are meeting, I think the National Council attitude is being endorsed almost without exception. Unlike the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, with whose speech one was in general agreement, I do not welcome the White Paper; nor do I view it with marked and outstanding hostility. I think it is open to criticism in a number of directions. There is one particular point to which I wish to refer in some detail, not necessarily because of its intrinsic importance but because of its importance by way of illustration. Practically every speaker has emphasised the need for the farmer to be able to look ahead and make plans with the knowledge that conditions will be reasonably stable, I am not suggesting by that—nor would anyone else—that he should be guaranteed high prices for everything that he can produce for all time to come, but simply that changes should be gradual; that he should have warning of them, and that he should have reasonable time in which to deal with them. In other words, he is entitled, as the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, has said, to a certain amount of cushioning when conditions change.
When we look at what has happened in this Review—not of "Prices" nowadays, but the Determination of Guarantees with regard to pigs—I think we get a good example of just how not to do it. May I remind your Lordships of the background to this? Here I may interpolate that my noble friend who moved the Motion to-day suggested an appeal to farmers signed, I think, by the Prime Minister. I can assure him that no such appeal is necessary in order to secure higher production. May I point out to him that the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate to-day, speaking in Nor-folk, in, I think, February of last year, made an appeal for increased production of pigs. When he was asked how many, 1282 naturally he did not want to put too narrow a figure, and said, "About one million." By the end of the year the pig population had gone up by 600,000. When we see a response like that, it will be obvious that no higher appeal is necessary than that made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. But what happens when there is an enthusiastic response like that? Without waiting for the one million, down comes the price by 3s. a score. That is rather like a famous occasion when an admiral was shot, "pour encourager les autres." This, no doubt, is to encourage others, who might be tempted to increase production in response to appeals.
Not only is there this 3s. reduction. In addition, the price had already been fixed in relation to a sliding scale of feeding-prices, coming down (I think I am right in saying) a penny a score for each penny per cwt. drop in the price of feeding-stuffs. But A is not based on the price of feeding-stuffs bought by the farmer. It is based on what I believe are called port prices. As indicated by the port prices of feeding-stuffs the price of pigs has come down by 4s. 6d. a score, in addition to the 3s. cut under the Price Review. In other words, it is not, as my noble friend Lord Wise said, a reduction of 3s.—it is a reduction of 7s. 6d. a score; not about £1 a pig, but, on the average bacon pig, about £3 per pig. That is a considerable, indeed, a savage, amount.
If the Government, embarrassed by the prompt and enthusiastic response to the appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, had said to the pig producers, "Now go easy; you are going too fast. We shall have to cut down the price, but we will give you six months in which to adjust yourselves to this further reduction," one would not have grumbled. But whereas in the Review the reduction in cereals of £1 a ton applies to the 1955 harvest, the reduction in the price per score of pigs came into operation as of March 29. Therefore, every pig producer with his pens full of pigs coming up towards bacon weight has had a considerable amount wiped off the value of these pigs practically overnight. I venture to suggest that that is not the kind of procedure calculated to inspire confidence and stability in the agricultural industry. I should like to emphasise again that I have not vet met a single farmer who has found that 1283 the price that he pays for his feedingstuffs has come down by the amount that is indicated by the index of port prices; so that in fact he is being penalised doubly, in not having a reduction in feedingstuff prices, as he is supposed to have, and in having a reduction in the price of his finished product.
There is one other point that should be made. One knows that the appeal for increased production had meant that those who responded had to buy more breeding stock, in some cases more equipment; in some cases they had to provide additional accommodation. In other words, one does not get an increase of 600,000 in the pig population without some investment. Those who made that investment are penalised for doing so. It is a too sudden reversal to say now that the emphasis is on quality and not on quantity. It is a reversal almost without warning. I say "almost without warning" because it is fair to mention that the Chief Scientific Officer to the Ministry, speaking at a conference, did give some indication that perhaps pig herds should not be increased in number. Unfortunately, although the Chief Scientific Officer is also Director General of the N.A.A.S., the N.A.A.S. still went on holding conferences urging farmers to increase their pig production right up to within almost days of the Price Review. I attended one of these conferences, so I am not speaking from hearsay or report. I think it is a very good example of the Ministry not letting its left hand know what its right hand is doing.
The only encouraging thing in this respect in the White Paper is that on page 5 it says:In order to assist producers in improving the quality of their stock and raising the efficiency of pig production, the Government are considering proposals for the introduction of a Pig Recording Scheme and for the extension of the arrangements for progeny testing at present conducted by the National Pig Breeders' Association.May I beg that there will be as much speed applied to this consideration as there was to the cutting of the price of pigs? We do not want a long-drawn-out consideration. There is actually not very much to consider. What is needed is a decision to set up these progeny-testing stations, to get them in operation so that the farmers of this country who are pig breeders may at an early date be in a somewhat comparable position to 1284 that of the pig breeders of Denmark in having some scientific guidance as to their breeding and general policy. My last point—and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—is that I understand that something like 60 per cent. of our bacon is still imported, so that there would appear to be ample room for improvement in both quantity and quality. Therefore, both from a balance of payments and from an agricultural point of view, the limit of expansion in that particular field has not yet been reached.
The White Paper indicates that further production of beef is desirable. In raising this point about pigs and giving the Minister an opportunity to say something which I hope will be encouraging, I would point out that this sort of thing in regard to pigs is not likely to be encouraging to beef producers. They are bound to have the fear that in three or four years, when they have extended their beef production and have their bullocks ready for the market, there will be a price review of this kind, and a sudden, unexpected and without-warning cut. They will say: "If it can happen to pigs, it can happen to beef. We must go easy and not get ourselves in too deeply." In other words, a hasty decision without due warning, without what the noble Lord called any "cushioning," is apt to spill over into other sections of agriculture and create that uneasiness which it should be the purpose of the Government to avoid.
There is one other aspect of agricultural matters to which I wish to refer, a point to which reference has already been made—namely, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement that some limit must be set to the "open-ended Exchequer liability." Noble Lords will remember that, when last year's White Papers on cereals and de-control and marketing came out, there were storms of protest from branches of the National Farmers' Union all over the country. In the main, the storm of protest was not, I think, due to any feeling that the deficiency payments were inadequate; it was really due to the fear of what the deficiency payments were going to cost the Treasury and to the realisation that, if they cost the Treasury too much, they would not be continued. That was really what was behind it: the fact that there was no kind of guaranteed market. It was, in fact, what the Chancellor of 1285 the Exchequer has now called an "open-ended Exchequer liability." The older farmers remembered that the Agriculture Act, 1920, was repealed in a year just because it put too heavy a liability on to the Treasury, and they were afraid of that happening again.
Their fear was heightened by what The Times agricultural correspondent described in the issue of February 15 as "disturbing talk." He wrote:But there is disturbing talk about the intentions of the millers and feedingstuff manufacturers after next harvest. Some are boasting that they will be able to play the market down to slump prices by holding off buying home-grown grain in the weeks after harvest when farmers will urgently want to sell.These fears have been heightened further for farmers who have heard the millers talking about the various wheats that they will not be willing to buy at the next, or subsequent harvests. The farmer who had responded to appeals to increase wheat production by growing the higher yielding French soft wheats are naturally very much concerned as to what their position is to be. They were told—I have heard them being given the assurance—that, although there was no guaranteed market, there was virtually a guaranteed market because they could always sell at some price. That just accentuated their fear, because being able to sell at some price means an enormous deficiency payment and an enormous burden on the Treasury which obviously could not go on year after year. So the farmers were not concerned about the effect on themselves for the coming, harvest or possibly the one after, but the: long-term effect because of the Treasury position.
Now their fears are heightened still more by the fact that we are to hear more of this during the year in relation to the open-ended Exchequer liability and that there is some prospect of "quantification"—another horrible new word. I think it is quite unnecessary, as unnecessary as it is horrible, because it means either limitation of output or reduction of output. Why cannot we have it put in ordinary terms? Is it limitation of output, or reduction of output? Why talk about "quantification"? I do not think that limitation or reduction of output should be the remedy. It may be the only remedy if the Government's policy with regard to agriculture is to be determined only by narrow Tory 1286 doctrines and not by a realistic view of the actual situation. If their policy is to be based entirely on ideological grounds, and if agriculture is to be the only industry without protection and open to all the winds of free competition, all right—then probably "quantification" is the only remedy; the remedy is as horrible-sounding as it will prove to be in fact.
Surely, however, the common-sense method is some reasonable control over imports. Last year, the Government gave open licences for the import of grain, with the result that this country was flooded with imported grain just at the time when our harvest was being gathered. Surely a little reasonable regulation should correct that sort of thing. I would plead, even at this late hour, that there should be the retention of the Ministry of Food as a potential buyer if and when the price falls below some agreed minimum. It is only by such a method that one can ensure that the deficiency payments do not become an intolerable burden. I said at the beginning that I did not approach the White Paper with any great degree of hostility. If I had, and if we had in your Lordships' House the custom which I believe they have in the Parliaments of America, of reading things into the record, I would have read to your Lordships the article in this week's Farmer and Stockbreeder by Sir Rupert De La Bère, who I believe is a Conservative M.P., a farmer and former Lord Mayor of London. He says, much more savagely than I would venture to say in your Lordships' House, what he thinks of the Government's agricultural policy. I will do no more than read the final paragraph:I have said that the Government's present agricultural policy must result in a ghastly muddle. One of my constituents then retorted Don't be beastly to the Government, Sir Rupert! Why not say that the Government's agricultural policy is unfortunate in the extreme?' Unfortunate it certainly is.May I suggest that there is still time for the Government to improve that unfortunate position?
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ LORD JEFFREYS
My Lords, may I, in the first place, join with the noble Lord, Lord Archibald, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, on his maiden speech? I am 1287 sure that none of us has heard a clearer or better expressed speech than the noble Lord gave us to-night. To hear him gave great pleasure to those of us who knew well his father and his uncle, and I hope we shall often hear him again. Next may I say that I very much enjoyed the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in opening this debate. Although I may not agree with him on every point, I think he put his points extraordinarily well and said many things with which many of your Lordships will agree. If I understood him aright, he said, amongst other things, that it was necessary to clarify the spending of public money on agriculture. I believe that that is very important, because some of the Government's policy has not always been easy to understand, whether or not it is considered sound. Then, in one of the last passages in his speech he suggested that the Prime Minister should write to farmers a message of encouragement, a message promising to keep farming in the favourable eye of the Government. In his own inimitable style the Prime Minister might do a great deal of good by sending such a message.
Now as regards the Motion, it seems to me that the policy outlined in the White Paper of November, 1953, and amplified in the White Paper referred to by the noble Earl, has been rendered necessary by the decision to end rationing and consequently to end trading (that is, buying and selling) by the Government, and, in fact, to end controls by the Government as soon as possible. So far, I believe the vast majority of the people, both farmers and consumers, will agree with the Government's decision; but that decision leaves the Government with the liability under the Agriculture Act, 1947, to secure to the farmers guaranteed prices. Adequate guaranteed prices are indeed necessary in view of the ever-increasing expenses, and especially in view of the greatly increased farm wages. In connection with producing the money which is necessary to implement the guaranteed price, whatever it may be, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Archibald, hat we ought not to rule out import duties. We have had them in the past—we had them before the war for certain purposes—and I believe that, suitably used, they provide the means for raising the money 1288 required to give the necessary prices to farmers for their produce.
The plans outlined in the White Papers, whatever they are considered to be, are not simple or easy to understand; but they have the advantage that, with the system of auctions, good quality products will command better prices. I believe that is an important matter. We heard a good deal last autumn about the indignation of farmers at the proposals in the White Paper. This may have been correct as regards some prominent and vocal members of the National Farmers' Union, but, in my county at any rate, my impression is that most farmers have received these proposals with equanimity even if not with enthusiasm. I doubt whether there is any very general feeling against them, though there are doubts as to how the meat-pricing scheme will actually work in practice. Meat is to be de-rationed and State trading is to end. But how the arrangements for the new guarantees are to work is not clear and, I think I may say, is not understood by most farmers.
The conditions of buying and selling by auction or otherwise have changed since pre-war days. Then, most butchers bought on the hoof, and, with their own men, killed animals in their own slaughterhouses. Now, in most towns there is only one slaughterhouse where all the killing takes place, and even if they were allowed to make use of them, very few butchers nowadays have their own slaughterhouses or any men who can slaughter. I believe that much clarification of the arrangement and procedure in this matter is required. Some are asking whether, now that milk marketing boards are to be revived, meat marketing boards might not be the means of solving this difficulty. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, can throw some light on this matter when he comes to reply. Paragraph 17 of the White Paper seems to suggest the possibility of such a course. Apart from the obligation about guaranteed prices. I wonder whether a new Agricultural Bill is not now needed. Much of the 1947 Act is intricate and involved; moreover, it perpetuates the system of controls and places additional functions on the successors of the war agricultural committees, the county agricultural committees, through which the Minister exercises his powers. The Minister has 1289 immense powers of control. He can authorise; he can refuse; he can direct; he can veto. All of these powers may have been necessary in war time, and some may be necessary in peace; but the degree of controls in the Act of 1947 is, I suggest to your Lordships, unnecessary. And while the return for controls—that is, guaranteed prices and assured markets—is, rightly, given to farmers, no return whatever, for all the controls they have to submit to, is given to landowners, who in very few cases get a reasonable return on their capital investment in land, and who are left with only a very small degree of control over their own property. The efficient farmer gets security of tenure—some people think that in these days he gets too much security. Sometimes that security is given to the inefficient farmers, and even to the positively bad farmers; and often keen young farmers cannot get farms because older men just sit tight, doing just as much as they must and no more. There is no such guarantee for the efficient landowner, and I submit to your Lordships—though I think many of you know it well—that there are many efficient landowners who cannot get one of their own farms for themselves, or their sons, because of the complete security of tenure given to all farmers, good, bad and indifferent, by the Act of 1947. To get rid of the bad farmer means long and expensive proceedings.
Everything in the 1947 Act (this was said by the Minister when introducing it) stands or falls by first-rate committee. And to be first-rate, they must be composed of good practical agriculturists. In many cases they are good; in others, they are less good. But however good they are, there is a limit to the amount of work that they themselves can do efficiently. And if the work is not done by the members of the Committees it is done by officials. I submit that that is thoroughly undesirable. The fact that officials have to do much of the work has resulted in increasing numbers on the staffs of committees, and that means increasing expense—that expense which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking at so carefully. It has resulted in increase of staff and increasing expense. Then, nowadays, there are quite a number of junior officials who are recent products of agricultural colleges. Largely because of the difficulty in getting farms, instead 1290 of gaining practical experience on farms which might make them really capable farmers, they go, after their course, as officials of course agricultural committees. And as such they are less good because they have had no practical experience of farming themselves.
My Lords, I doubt whether it is necessary or desirable that county agricultural executive committees should be responsible only to the Minister and should not be responsible to any local body, nor have to submit locally any report or statement of accounts. Such reports and statements should, in my submission, be rendered to county councils. County council agricultural committees which were practically abolished should be reconstituted, and should take over much of the work of county agricultural executive committees—if not, indeed, take their place altogether. The Status, though not the methods, of the county council agricultural committee might be comparable to the status of the county education committees. These committees also work under Government Departments, and also receive grants of Government money, but are composed partly of members of the county council and partly of those who have a special knowledge of education. I suggest that something very much on the same lines might be adopted with county agricultural executive committees. Or they might be compared to county police authorities, who administer the forces serving under Home Office regulations. In any case, their report and accounts can be discussed in the county council. Local criticism and local questions are of very great value; but at present there is none, because the county council do not get the opportunity.
Not enough is known of the doings of the present committees. Moreover, there is not sufficient uniformity of procedure in these committees. Some are far more open, and their activities far more widely known in their counties, than others. Some conduct inquiries without all the parties being notified or being given the chance to be present or represented. None of the committees, in fact, is subject to local criticism or local inquiry. I well remember some Members in another place, at the time when the war-time scheme was before that other place, urging strongly this suggestion which I have made. I recall that the noble Viscount. Lord Hudson, who is 1291 now a Member of your Lordships' House but who was then Minister of Agriculture, saying, No; that he must have these councils responsible to him and to the Ministry. I have no doubt that in war time he was perfectly right, but I suggest that the circumstances are quite different in times of peace. I remember, too, that at that time we were fortunate enough in my own county to have as chairman of the war agricultural executive committee the chairman of the county council; and to begin with, at any rate, he used to read to the county council a brief summary of the doings of the war agricultural committee. That was of the utmost value. It told people what was being done. There was no discussion on it; it was not a matter for the county council to discuss; but we did hear what was being done by the county committee. I suggest that something of the kind would be valuable at this time.
We are told, and we know it is a fact, that more home production is required, and home production has, in fact, increased. But in far too many cases there is toleration of the work of the indifferent farmer, the farmer whose farming is not good, whose land is none too clean. I do not wish to give the impression that they are in a majority or anything like a majority, but there are such farmers. I myself have seen noxious weeds—docks and thistles—growing in far too great profusion on farms which are apparently not frowned upon by the agricultural executive committee, and that is because officials of that committee have not walked right over the land. They go along the roads in motor cars, and what they can see from the roads is all right. If they went a field or two away from the roads they might see a good deal which they do not otherwise see. Those farmers whose land, as I say, is none too clean, whose stock is mediocre, who just pass muster with the local committees, are allowed to go on producing less in quantity and lower in quality than they should produce. Then there is the question of supervision. If farming is so bad as to call for supervision, ought not the tenancy to be ended and the farm re-let? I would say that in no circumstances ought committees to do—in fact none of them undertake such liabilities nowadays—what they certainly 1292 did do at one time, and that is take over the farms themselves. Nor ought they to spend our public money on stocking these farms. It would, I think, be a good thing if the committees' functions were more advisory and less executive than they are.
I greatly doubt whether the system of subsidies—and here I am well aware that I shall be in disagreement with many people—can really be justified; and I was interested to note that the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, to some extent criticised the system and suggested that a co-operative system would be much more efficient and much better for small men. I feel certain that that is a sound doctrine. I believe that subsidies are bad in principle. I think we ought not to spend money on such things if we can help it. And they are certainly expensive in practice. They mean more officials to administer them—and they cost money, apart from the money grants which, of course, are considerable. With adequate guaranteed prices it is better for farmers, generally speaking, to stand on their own feet rather than to be bolstered up by subsidies. I very much doubt the value of the calf-rearing subsidy. I very much doubt the value of the ploughing-up subsidy. I believe it has resulted in some cases in people ploughing up land which it would have been better not to plough up—good old pasture for instance. I am not sure about the value of the lime subsidy. I certainly know some people who have misused it. They have used it where it was not required. The only subsidy which I think is really useful—though not good in principle—is the fertiliser subsidy. In view of the price of fertilisers, a subsidy for the assistance certainly of the smaller farmers is of value.
For all these reasons, and, not least, with the object of reducing expenses, I believe that the 1947 Act should be replaced by a new one, and that the new Act should give more freedom to good farmers and to good landowners. The county committees, I believe, ought to be reconstituted as county council committees. Their functions ought to include county agricultural education, which is the only thing they do not control now—it is controlled by the county council. Their reports and accounts ought to be rendered to county councils, and everything possible should be done to reduce their expenses, including reduction of officials and office expenses.
1293 Agricultural land tribunals, which are complementary to the county committees, should be retained, and should be made use of to deal with bad and indifferent farmers. As I have already declared, I am far from saving that the number of these is large, but there are a good many of them and they ought to be dealt with. The procedure of these land tribunals ought to be speeded up and simplified. It is far too slow and cumbrous nowadays. I believe it is on these general lines that the 1947 Act should be improved and, in fact, replaced by a new Act more suitable to the conditions of peace, progress and economy and less based on war-time experience, which is a thing by itself.
§ House adjourned during pleasure.
§ House resumed.