§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Alexander of Hillsborough has dealt very thoroughly with the difficulties arising out of the reversion to private trading in farm products and with the broad lines of the Government's agricultural policy. I shall not, therefore, touch upon any of those topics, nor shall I be drawn by the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, after listening with much interest to his perhaps somewhat one-sided account of the relative merits and demerits of private and public marketing. I would venture to say only this, and it is about the marketing of fatstock. Most people will agree that the system of selling fatstock at local auctions is old-fashioned, inefficient and wasteful. Now I believe the Livestock Corporation, set up by the National Farmers' Union, is taking only about 30 per cent. of all the fatstock that reaches the market. Therefore, most of the balance is being sold at these local auctions, and what I should like the noble Lord to consider is whether he is really justified in complaining about an alternative which would at any rate do away with these local auctions, so long as such a very large proportion of the fat cattle, sheep and pigs that are sold at the moment have to be dealt with in this way.
I shall pass on in my brief remarks to deal with three subsidiary matters which are nevertheless of some importance—and I gave the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, notice of these matters—because they have a direct bearing on the efficiency of agriculture and on the problem with which we are all concerned, the main problem of producing more food at 747 home at an economic price. The first of these matters is the question of the Agricultural Land Commission. I wonder whether the noble Earl could give us a little more information about the disposal of agricultural land which is now managed, or has been managed, by the Agricultural Land Commission. Your Lordships will remember that it was the late Minister of Agriculture who decided as a matter of policy to sell as much of this land to private owners as could conveniently and properly be put on the market. That means, of course, that many months have elapsed since this decision of policy was taken, and I think, therefore, the noble Earl will agree that it is not unreasonable for us on this side of the House to ask what action is being taken by the Government to carry out the policy which they have adopted.
I was wondering, for example, whether the noble Earl could give us any estimate—perhaps no more than a very rough estimate at this stage—as to the amount of land which is likely to be put on the market. I think it is important to know whether this will be a large transaction, involving a lot of money and many existing tenants, or whether in fact only a few small properties will be affected. I must say that I personally shall take much less exception to this policy if it is likely to affect only a few thousand acres of the Commission's farm land. But if, as I fear, the total acreage to be disposed of will be extensive, then, of course, a large amount of public money will be at stake. The Commission have spent a great deal on improving and reconditioning this land which they have taken over from different Government Departments. One thing I should like to ask is whether the taxpayers' money will be recovered in the purchase price, or whether the Government expect to sell at a loss and intend to sell whether the result is a loss or a profit or striking a balance. It would throw some light on this matter if the noble Earl could say what land, if any, has already been sold and whether, on these sales, there has been a profit or a loss.
May I also ask whether the noble Earl can tell us this afternoon anything about what will be the method of sale? Is each piece of land to be offered as a landlord would offer it, to the 748 sitting tenant first, or possibly, in certain cases, to the original owner at a local valuation, or will the land be sold at public auction to the highest bidder? These are obviously two alternative methods of disposing of the land, and I cannot help feeling that the Government here are rather on the horns of a dilemma. They can either be a good landlord—and a good landlord would obviously offer land first to the sitting tenant—or they can be a conscientious trustee of public money: and a good conscientious trustee would have the primary obligation of getting the best price he could for his property. I do not see how the Government can do both these things. I should like to know which alternative method will in fact be adopted.
I believe the public will watch this transfer of public land to private owners very carefully indeed. It will be for the Government to show that this widespread disturbance in the relations between the Agricultural Land Commission and its tenants will in fact do more good than harm—will produce more food and will redound to the benefit of agriculture. It is also for the Government to show—it may be because we have not the financial facts at the moment, though no doubt we shall have them either now or later on—if, as a result of what happens, the taxpayer has to foot the Bill, how the taxpayer will benefit as a result of this policy.
The second matter which I think is causing general concern at the present time is the position arising from a recent court decision invalidating supervision and dispossession orders made against two farmers. I understand that the Minister has instructed all the county agricultural executive committees to suspend the exercise of their powers of supervision and dispossession. This means that there is no longer any check on the incorrigibly inefficient farmer. Of course, such people are very few in the farming industry, but in any walk of life there are always a few laggards, whether on the land or in offices. The position now is that, however much a farm may be neglected, however grossly the land may be neglected, the farmer cannot be removed and replaced by someone who will do the job efficiently. This is surely not only a bad thing for food production, but also contrary to the whole spirit of the 1947 Act. 749 Your Lordships will remember that Part I of the Act gave the farmer his guaranteed prices and assured markets, while in Part II the farmer undertook in return to maintain a reasonable standard of husbandry. It was on this basis that the disciplinary provisions in Part II of the Act were generally accepted, both by the farmers and by the public. The situation which we have at the moment, therefore, is one that could not be allowed to continue indefinitely without undermining the 1947 Act and certainly prejudicing food production. I should like to knew whether the noble Earl can tell us what the Minister intends to do about it. There is more than one possible course of action. If he appeals against the court's decision and his appeal is successful, then we shall go back to where we were and the county agricultural executives will be able to resume their normal duties in relation to the inefficient farmer or landowner. But if, on the other hand, either he does not appeal or his appeal is not successful, then surely the only possible course will be the introduction of fresh legislation.
Should it be necessary to think about fresh legislation, I hope the noble Earl will give consideration to the possibility of separating the advisory from the police functions of the county agricultural executives. There is no doubt that these two functions do not work happily together. The essential advisory services of the county agricultural executives would certainly benefit if they could be separated. It might be possible, for instance, for another body, such as a land court, to take over the police duties, although it is impossible for anyone without the expert advice available to the noble Earl to make any very sound alternative suggestion. At any rate, I hope that this is a matter which will be carefully examined if the occasion arises for reviewing the whole position.
The third matter is another problem which I think deserves the immediate attention of the Government if it is not already receiving it: that is, the problem of the very substantial loss to food production and forestry resulting from the neglectful use of common land. This subject has often been raised in your Lordships' House and I do not apologise for raising it again, because I think that one of the objects of this House is so to pester Ministers over a long period of 750 time that ultimately some result is obtained. I think everyone is aware that there are thousands of acres of rough grazing reserved as commons and carrying far too few animals or no animals at all, and that there are sites with thousands of acres, covered by scrub or braken or heather but very suitable for planting trees, which cannot be acquired by the Forestry Commission for this purpose because commoners have rights there and it is too dangerous to buy the land: when the purchase is challenged by one commoner, the challenge is upheld in court and the whole thing falls down. We all know that this wastage is going on and has been for many years. We all know that the only way in which to stop it is for the Government to take the appropriate action.
Of course, we know that not even the Government can tell us how much common land is either unproductive or producing much less than it should do, as there has been no survey of common land for over fifty years. We cannot, therefore, expect an immediate solution. But I should like to ask the noble Earl to consider whether the Government would appoint a committee of inquiry—and appoint it without any delay, for I do not see any reason why it should be a matter for further consideration—to survey existing common land and its present uses and also to recommend what the Government should do to bring this land into fuller production. I know that some noble Lords would disagree with me, but I think that a small committee of experts on agriculture and forestry would be better adapted to this purpose than a Royal Commission, which would be unnecessarily high-powered and certainly very slow moving. But, whatever is done, it should be done as quickly as possible. I am sure that action is preferable to inaction. We cannot afford to go on wasting so much land that might be giving us more livestock or more timber.
I should like to say these few words in conclusion. I believe the approaching Price Review that will take place next month will be one of the most important, if not the most important, in its effects on industry, of all the Annual Reviews that have taken place since the passing of the Act. I am delighted that the Government have agreed to the Special 751 Review because I think it is entirely justified by the sharp increase in the cost of wages which, amongst other things, farmers have had to face in the past year. The Government must, of course, always hold the balance between the interests of the taxpayer and the interests of food production, but this time I hope it will not be forgotten—and I hope that the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer last night indicated that it would not be forgotten—that a slight tilting of the balance towards the taxpayer might mean not merely a slowing down of the rate of expansion which has been going on for so many years, but, quite easily, a reversal of the long expansionist trend in British agriculture.
§ 4.19 p.m.
THE LORD BISHOP OF CARLISLE
My Lords, it is with some hesitation, and not without trepidation, that I rise to speak on this important subject of agriculture, but I am a little fortified by the knowledge that in my pastoral office I have much in common with those farmers whose main work is to seek out and care for the lost and wandering sheep. I hasten to add that I do not in any way suggest that that is part of my task in your Lordships' House. As a Bishop of a diocese that is largely rural I am bound to be interested in the conditions in which my people work and live. I was gratified to hear the noble Viscount pay a tribute to the agricultural community for the great contribution they have made in recent years to the wellbeing of our people. It is indeed a pleasure to go round the countryside today and see the vast improvements that have taken place in the last few years. Farmsteads are being renovated and repainted; they look as if the people who own them are happy and taking pride in them. Lands are being reclaimed, better cultivated and producing a better crop; and to a great extent, through mechanisation, the drudgery has been taken out of farming. There is new heart and happiness in the countryside so far as the majority of people are concerned.
It must be realised, however, that farming is a precarious industry and that a year such as 1954 can wipe out many of the gains of previous years. This is particularly true of that valiant section of the agricultural community who are called hill farmers. I should like to raise 752 my voice in your Lordships' House in expressing sympathy to those hill farmers who have suffered grievously during this autumn, and continue to suffer. Those men and women in the hills are the sturdiest and most hardworking of our race, and I hope that every effort will be made to provide emergency fodder, so that they may not have to sell their stock at unfavourable prices, for it takes a very long time for a hill farmer to regain his capital through the breeding and rearing of stock. While mentioning the sale of cattle I would voice what appears to be one small matter of considerable dissatisfaction in that regard. There seems to be a pretty widespread complaint about the great divergencies in the standard and methods of grading cattle, and I suggest that this is a matter which ought to receive serious consideration.
Agriculture is a basic problem in the economic life of our country, and it arises from this important fact: that roughly half the food which 50 million people in this island eat every day has to be brought in from outside. Remembrance of this fact is fundamental in any consideration of agriculture, and it is in the light of that fact that policy must be continually, or at any rate considerably, revised. The need for a strong policy towards increased food production can scarcely be questioned—national safety demands it; and prudence would show that a prosperous agriculture is absolutely essential in an island country which has so large a population as ours. What is the answer to the question: is the policy to increase food growing, or to increase exports to buy the food at a cheaper rate? I imagine that the answer would be that our aim is to increase food production and, at the same time, to increase exports to buy our food. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, has confirmed that in the quotation which he gave us in his opening address.
That being so, the question arises: how far can we pursue the latter, that is, the expansion of factory products, without damaging the former, namely, field products? It is here that I come to my main point. We have reached the stage in our industrial development when there is a form of war between the claims of factory and field in regard to available labour; and the factory is winning, with the consequence that there is a flight from the countryside. Inquiries 753 which I have made from widely different districts confirm that fact, and that men are moving away from the land. Is this because their wages are not good? That may have had an influence; but wages are now coming up to the standard of normal industry. Is it because they live in poor conditions? That has certainly had its effect; but conditions are improving, and there is great need to go on improving the communications and to make the houses in which farm workers live more comfortable.
But there is another factor, more important than either of those that I have mentioned, which accounts for the flight from the land. Let me try to illustrate it. The establishment of factories for light industries has been very successful indeed, and I, who come from Cumberland, which was at one time a depressed area, am most grateful for what those factories have done for our people. But they have been so successful that they are spreading away outside the industrial areas, and there is a tremendous struggle for labour to man those factories. Every morning, the buses and coaches go round the countryside, bringing the women and girls, and sometimes men, into those factories to produce the exports to buy the goods which they might, in part, have produced on the land. If the people who were brought from the land into these factories were likely to return to the land, all might be well; but what is happening is that the girls, particularly, are becoming so accustomed to group activity, group work, group feeding in canteens and group entertainments, that they are becoming conditioned to an outlook on life that will prevent them from living and working happily in an isolated cottage or on a farm. The result is that when they are about to be married they generally persuade their husbands to-be that they should find work in the towns.
My Lords, here is a psychological element which has not been given sufficient consideration, and which has a very great bearing on this whole question of available labour for work on the land. and of people who can live in the country and be happy in such work. I am informed, by those who I think can be trusted in their judgments, that were more labour available in the countryside to-day, both on the farm and in the 754 farmhouse, production could be increased in a short time by anything from 10 to 15 per cent. I believe that is true but that it will not be done, no matter how much you mechanise and modernise agriculture, unless more care is taken to consider the advisability of bringing industry so close to the land so that it competes unfairly for the available labour.
Our approach to agriculture must be one of some reverence. A country which has a big proportion of its people dwelling in towns and cities is a country in danger of losing something vital to its welfare. My interest in the development of agriculture is not simply concerned with our economic independence, material prosperity or national safety on the physical level. There is a particular kind of wholesome strength that comes to those whose work is close to Mother Earth. From the fresh soil a man can breathe in through his nostrils something cleansing, which renews his life and which he can spread through the whole community. It will be disastrous if we do not take such steps as will ensure a reasonable proportion of our people living happily on the land, with a good standard of living and with a sense of security; for I believe that that proportion, if it is working near to God's good earth, can make a contribution not just upon the material level but upon the moral and spiritual level, to the benefit of our whole people and to the future well-being of our country.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, I am sure we are all particularly grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, not only for raising a subject which is of so much importance to the country but also for the great thoroughness with which he discussed the subject both in itself and also in its relation to other aspects of our economic life and our other industries. Since 1940, the three great industries which provide us with food, homes and industrial power—that is, agriculture, building and coal mining—have all been subject to more or less continuous control and supervision by the Government. In the emergency of war we desperately needed more food and more coal, while we could not afford to build more houses; and in the economic emergencies of peace time 755 (which, I agree with the noble Viscount, are still continuing) we badly need all three.
Whatever may be our opinions about coal mining or the building trade, we must all agree that in comparison with those other great industries the record of British agriculture is a very fine one. If one takes the total output, one finds that home-grown food has increased since 1939 by 50 per cent., while in coal mining, in spite of the new capital which we have been able to put into the industry, we have so far hardly succeeded in equalling the pre-war output. If one takes output per man, the farming output is even better; while we were told some years ago by the Departmental Committee on the Building Trade that in house building the output per man had fallen to only one-half of what it was before the war.
There has been less political controversy about agriculture between Governments and Oppositions than about most other industries, and although the speeches of the noble Viscount and of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, have strongly challenged certain new departures taken by Her Majesty's Government, it is very much in the interest of the farming community, and I believe of the country, too, that we should seek the greatest possible measure of agreement in our agricultural policy. None but perhaps a few cranks would argue that British agricultural production and agricultural marketing should be entirely unregulated by anybody. The question is: How should they be regulated and by what agency? Until last year the bulk of our home-grown food was bought by the Government or by merchants acting on behalf of the Government at a price agreed on in the Annual Price Review under the 1947 Act; and it was often supposed by ill-informed people that those guaranteed prices contained some element of subsidy from the taxpayer to the farmer. There were, of course, and there still are, a number of limited subsidies directed towards various specific agricultural purposes, one or two of which I will mention later; but I am now speaking only of the guaranteed price, a subject about which even official spokesmen appear sometimes to be rather muddled.
I remember reading one particularly misleading answer which was given in an- 756 other place by a representative of the Ministry of Food who should have known better, and who attempted to compare the price which the Ministry was paying for coarse feeding barley imported from the Middle East with the price of best malted barley at home. At that time the Ministry of Food were buying feeding barley from Iraq at a price of 140s. per quarter, while the guaranteed price for British feeding barley was 90s. per quarter, which was a pretty good bargain for the Ministry. Of course, the discrepancy was not always so great, but, on the whole, the world prices of main cereal crops were generally appreciably higher than the home price guaranteed to the British farmer.
The farmers' critics, many of whom were living in heavily subsidised council houses eating heavily subsidised food and receiving free medical attention from the State, when they tried to make out that the farmer was the only man in the country who was being "feather-bedded", usually selected meat as the commodity to prove their contention, because the home price of British beef was higher than the price which we paid for imported beef from the Argentine; but when one came to compare the home price not with the Argentine price but with the price of beef being imported into the United States, one then found that the American price was higher and not lower than the British price; and, indeed, that was the reason why the Argentine farmer thought we were treating him as badly as we thought he was treating us.
The food subsidies, so far as they applied to imported food, were subsidies entirely for the benefit of the consumer at the expense of the taxpayer; and the food subsidies on home-grown British food were subsidies paid entirely to the consumer, partly at the expense of the taxpayer and partly at the expense of the British farmer, who could at that time have obtained higher prices for his products if he had been able to sell them in a free world market. But that situation has now been reversed, and, as shown in the most recent of our Annual Price Reviews—which I think were described the other day by the noble Earl, the Minister of State for Scotland, as "a pursuit of the unattainable by the insatiable"—the guaranteed price for British cereal products does now contain, for the first time, a subvention from the taxpayer to the 757 farmer, not because the British price has gone up but because the world price has come down.
That is a situation on which every farmer ought to reflect very seriously. What has happened in the past, and what we all want to avoid in the future, is this: that when food has been scarce, prices have been controlled by the Government, so that they should not go too high; but when foreign imported food has become plentiful and cheaper, the non-agricultural voters, who outnumber the agricultural voters by nine to one, have been unwilling either to pay more than they need for their food or to pay taxes for the purpose of sustaining the prices received by the British farmer. Now that we are asking the taxpayer to make a contribution to the farmer's guaranteed prices, we must consider what kind of price support policy is most likely to command and retain the consent of the urban electorate.
I have always thought that the principle of the deficiency payment, which was first introduced here by the Wheat Quota Act of 1932, is more scientific and less expensive than any other method of price support which has been designed in any other country. It gives the farmer a reasonable protection against unfair competition from cheap imports, and at the same time it is mathematically designed to set, and does in fact set, a high premium on good farming. And now that foreign food is becoming cheaper, I do not think it likely that the British public would tolerate for long a system of uniform purchase at a uniform price high enough to enable the mediocre farmer to go on as he is doing without much improvement, coupled with the threat that he will be displaced if he does not improve his methods of husbandry.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
I must apologise for interrupting the noble Earl, because I am enjoying his speech very much, but would he tell me this? With regard to the matter of the deficiency payments, what is his view as to how the Government should deal with the situation if they continue to buy from the United States, which, having an export surplus of wheat, is selling wheat to this country and other countries at a price £10 a ton cheaper than it pays its own growers?
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
I may come to that point a little later, but I do not want to take up too much of your Lordships' time. What I am trying to do is to consider what is likely to be most acceptable, not only to the farmer but, in the farmer's interests, to the urban electorate.
As I was saying, I do not think that the urban electorate would tolerate for long a policy of uniform prices coupled with the sanction of displacement, for in practice the number of people who could be displaced by the county agricultural executive committees could never be big enough to make any real difference to the standard of husbandry. The cases which have been selected for displacement by the C.A.E.C.'s are not always the worst cases. Indeed, I am sorry to say that I think there have been a few cases of eviction by C.A.E.C.'s which ought not to have occurred. I believe that a policy of price support, on the principle of deficiency payment in a free market, will be more conducive to good farming and also less likely to provoke the antagonism of the taxpayer.
There is another aspect of the matter which I hope the Government have not overlooked. Whatever method of price support you may choose, remember that the policy may become subject to an almost intolerable strain—and this is, I think, what the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, had in mind. It might become subject to an almost intolerable strain if there should be so great a slump in world prices that the gap between the world price and the British guaranteed price became so high that the taxpayer might revolt against paying the bill. I think it may be permissible to hope that that will not happen—for this reason. The Governments of the leading commercial countries of the world are much more alive than they used to be to the fact that world trade cannot flourish if the primary producer is paid too low prices so that he cannot buy the products of manufacturing industries.
I do not join with the noble Viscount in condemning the Government for refusing to sign the International Wheat Agreement, because I think it is possible that the price demanded by Canada and the United States may have been too high. Certainly we ought not to agree to pay a price that is unduly high. At the same 759 time, we must be very careful not to use our position as the greatest wheat-importing country in the world to force down prices to a level which is unduly low; for if we do that it will be the surest way of bringing back the trade depression and the unemployment from which we all suffered before the war. That does not necessarily mean that we should go in for a policy of bulk purchase—a subject upon which I do not propose to take up your Lordships' time to-day. It means that we should not be unwilling to co-operate in the international planning of world trade, and that we should recognise that, in the long run, it does not pay the industrial countries of the world if they deny to the farmers of the world a fair and reasonable reward for their labour.
In spite of the changed price situation, I hope the Government will agree that it is necessary for the future economy of our country that we should still further increase our production of home-grown food, and that, besides designing a suitable price structure, we should also encourage the investment of new capital in the farming industry, so that our equipment and methods may be brought up to date more quickly. The last agricultural revolution in Great Britain took about one hundred years to accomplish, and although the farmer is not the kind of person it is ever very easy to hustle, it may be hoped that the new agricultural revolution, which is slowly happening now, will not take quite so long as that.
In recent correspondence in The Times a week or so ago, it was pointed out that the very large and highly capitalised farms are those which have made, in proportion to their acreage, by far the greatest contribution to our post-war production of food. I think that is true, but it would be a social disaster if all the land in the country were to be concentrated in huge farm units of 2,000–3,000 acres. The problem of helping the small farmer without great resources to get new capital is one which varies a good deal, according to the kind of production in which he is engaged, and it is closely connected with the question of agricultural death duties. On that matter, I understand, both the English and Scottish National Farmers' Unions have recently made strong representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on behalf of the smaller tenant farmers who used always 760 to rely on the land owners for their capital equipment but of whom many are now limping along inefficiently in the rear of agricultural progress.
At the moment I want to direct your Lordships' attention to one branch of the farming industry, a branch to whose capital re-equipment a great deal of attention and legislation has been devoted since the end of the war—that is, the breeding of hill cattle. I think the Labour Government ought to be given full credit for two excellent measures which they carried through in their term of office—the Hill Farming Act and the Marginal Production Act. A hill farmer who decides to convert his old farm into an efficient modernised unit can obtain a Government grant of 50 per cent. on all his expenditure on dwelling-houses, on farm buildings, on drainage—which can now be carried out on very high and rough country by machinery—on the application of lime and mineral phosphates, which are so badly needed on most Highland grazings, and on constructing fences and shelters for cattle where cattle can take refuge in bad weather. In addition, he can earn cow and calf subsidies which together amount to a payment of £10 on each cow which successfully rears a calf.
These are all direct subsidies paid by the Exchequer to the farmer on the condition that he does certain things we want him to do. I think they are subsidies which are well justified in the public interest. Anybody who considers that it is a comfortable thing to work for ten hours a day pulling sheep out of a peat hag in a Highland snowstorm can call it "feather-bedding" if he likes. I am sure the Highland farmer, as well as the Cumberland farmers, would welcome the pastoral assistance of the right reverend prelate, the Lord Bishop of Carlisle, if he were willing to use his crosier for the operation. Probably the one section of the community which can never be accused of "feather-bedding" at the present time is the clergy.
But this is not the only way in which the Highland farmers can obtain assistance from Government policy. The modernising of an old and inefficient farm may cost two or three times as much as the farm is worth now. It may be desirable to spend £5,000 on a farm which is now worth only £1,500, and that is a formidable thing for a man of 761 small resources, whose capital is all locked up in his existing stock. But that part of his expenses not refunded to him by Government grant can be borrowed, not from moneylenders but from Government-sponsored agencies, such as the Lands Improvement Company or the Scottish Agricultural Securities Corporation, on very easy terms, repayable over a period of ten, twenty or forty years, according to the choice of the borrower. I am bound to say that, so far as finance is concerned, I do not see how any Government could do much more than this to accelerate the investment of capital in the hill farming industry; and very encouraging progress has been made.
There are, however, two obstacles which hinder the more rapid expansion of our policy to a really satisfactory degree. One, of course, is caution. If a man has no liquid resources, and if he has conservative views about finance, as some people in Scotland still have, however strongly you may impress upon him that half his expenses will be refunded to him by the Government and that he can borrow the other half from the Government on favourable terms, naturally he feels that he does not like getting into debt; and he cannot help reflecting that, if there should be a great slump in farm prices, this debt would still be there and he might never be able to earn enough to pay it back. That is an attitude which we can easily understand, and probably we can afford to be patient with it, for if the bolder men act first, as many of them are now doing, then sooner or later the more timid ones will follow their example.
But the greatest obstacle to the expansion of our hill farming policy is bad transport. The number of cattle which could be kept on Highland grazings in the summer and early autumn is very large, but there would be nothing for them to eat in the winter and spring, for the small patches of hay and oats which can be grown at the foot of the glen are only enough to feed a small fraction of the numbers which can be kept in the summer. If a new cattle grazing enterprise happens to be on one of the main trunk roads in the Highlands, all is well, for a lorry with winter fodder can run up from a Lowland farm perhaps in an hour or two. But by far the greatest part of our Highland grazings are too inaccessible, so that they are either wasted altogether, and 762 covered with bracken, or else are devoted to the mono-culture of hill sheep, which are excellent animals, so far as they go, but, if they are allowed to have a monopoly of grazing, will slowly destroy its value in course of time.
The trunk roads, which are the responsibility of the Government, are improving, but the secondary roads, which are the responsibility of the local authorities, are deteriorating, or even disappearing, because the rateable value of the Highland counties is hopelessly insufficient even to maintain the existing secondary roads in proper condition, let alone to permit thought of ever making any new ones. I have in mind particularly one road which has lately had to be removed by Argyll County Council from the list of public roads because it is no longer possible to get a wheeled vehicle to go over it. The postman has to get off his bicycle and walk the last three miles of his journey to the few houses which are situated on the road. It is, or was, the road passing Glassary from Loch Awe to Loch Fyne. I was talking about it a short time ago to a very old man who is getting on towards ninety. He is one of the last survivors of the Highland cattle drovers, and he is mentioned by name in Mr. A. R. B. Haldane's most admirable book on the subject.
This old gentleman told me that seventy years ago, when he was young, he used to take his drove of cattle over this road, which was then a good road, on the first stage of their eight-day journey to the Falkirk tryst. At that time, of course, there were quite a number of people in the Highlands who used to work far longer hours, and for far lower wages than would be tolerated now, in order to cultivate patches of very poor soil, which would now be economic, to grow more fodder for the cattle. But now the usual practice is to sell off the six-months-old calves in the autumn. What are needed are not first-class roads, but small roads, not more than eight or nine feet wide, with a metal surface, capable of carrying a 5-ton lorry, which can run up with loads of hay, beet pulp or bruised oats to feed the permanent stock of breeding cows, and which on its return journey can take away the six-months-old calves which are the export product.
Even a small road of this kind is most expensive to make. It costs £2,000 a 763 mile, so that 1,000 miles of new road would cost £2 million, while 6,000 miles, which, if they were carefully planned, would be enough to open up a great deal of our wasted or inefficiently used Highland grazings, would cost £12 million. That is a lot of money, and it would have to be calculated whether the return to the nation, in the shape of increased supplies of beef, in addition to the other advantages of good transport, would be adequate. I have no doubt that that would be so, but I am not asking anybody to take my word for it. That is a question which would have to be considered by those who have the relevant statistics and other information at their disposal.
I am delighted to see that the British Transport Commission are now preparing to spend a sum of £1,200 million on making the railways a little less bumpy (which will be a great boon to Members of both Houses of Parliament who have to travel from Scotland to Westminster and back every week), in order that the Transport Commission may be able to earn rather larger profits than they seem likely to be able to do in present circumstances, and be able to pay the new scales of railway men's wages which, although they are not so high as we should like them to be, are higher than the wages received by farm workers in the Scottish Highlands. I very much hope that the Transport Commission will succeed in both these objects, but I cannot help feeling that if only 1 per cent., of this sum of £1,200 million were to be spent in constructing a system of small commercial roads in the Highlands for the carriage of agricultural produce and timber, the economic benefit might be proportionately greater, not only to the Highlands but to the people of Great Britain as a whole, because I still think that in the second half of this century the British people will need to grow more beef and more timber at home than they did in the first half.
I should like to conclude by again thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, for raising this question. I am afraid that I cannot honestly say that I have a very high opinion of the most recent statement of agricultural policy which has just been published by his Party. I think it was the Manchester Guardian which described it as a hankering after the good old days 764 when war-time controls saved the Party from the need of creative thought. I am inclined to take a more lenient view than the Manchester Guardian, because I think that all political Parties from time to time find themselves in the difficult position of having to produce something for their Parliamentary candidates to say about a new situation which may not perhaps quite fit in with the speeches they have all become accustomed to making. That is a difficulty met with occasionally by all political Parties; but it is always permissible to hope that second thoughts may lead to better things, and I still hope that our agricultural policy in Great Britain may proceed with at least a broad measure of general agreement among the main Parties in the State.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ LORD HUNGARTON
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, for so ably opening this debate. He covered practically all the ground in a most efficient manner, and that leaves little for those who follow to say. I should like to say, too, how much I appreciated the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. Not all of it, but a great deal of it, was excellent, and I feel that note might be taken of it by the Government. I hope that I may be forgiven for referring to a debate which was initiated by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, on April 28 last, dealing with the position of agriculture in this country from a somewhat different angle. In my opinion, it was a brilliant debate, and every one who took part in it made notable contributions on this important subject. The report of that debate should be read and studied by everyone in the British Isles, because it would give them much food for thought as to the future. I treat the present debate as a continuation of that one.
If we accept as correct the estimate then given of the number of people likely to be in the world by the end of the present century, the problem of feeding this vast population is a terrific one, and it is the one thing which scares me. When we are told by many well-informed people that the world population is likely to increase by 1,000 million in the next thirty years, surely that is enough to make anyone think seriously. 765 But I am quite certain that not one in ten of the people in Great Britain realise that by 1980–and that is not far away; I have found the past twenty-five years go all too quickly—there may be great difficulty in getting the food that we require. Unfortunately, there are far too many people to-day who will not face facts.
We have been warned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, and by other organisations, of this danger, but what are we doing about it? We had a reply to the debate in April from the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, and he gave us a great number of most interesting figures. I am proud of what Britain is doing for other nations in other parts of the world, but I do not think we have really "got down" to it. From what I could gather from that debate, there was a great doubt in the minds of many noble Lords present as to whether we believed that we are going to come to a difficult time. I am one of those people who are very sincere in believing that we shall come into a very difficult time during the next thirty years. I may be told, "Well, perhaps that will not matter, for you will not be here." However, we may be cursed by future generations for something which we do not do now. It is up to us to prepare for that day.
In so far as food is concerned, Great Britain is one of the most vulnerable countries, in the world. We must appreciate the good work being done by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and by other world organisations to which we subscribe, but I believe (and I say this kindly) that they are too distant to influence and educate the British public. As there is much doubt in the minds of our people about world food supplies, I hope Her Majesty's Government will seriously consider the appointment of a committee to make an independent survey and report on this vital subject. I am serious in putting forward that suggestion, and I hope that the Government, in their wisdom, will give it consideration, because I want a report of that kind to come before the British public, to let them know what is facing us in the future, and also future Governments, for we have to plan how much we are to produce in this country from our land.
In the meantime, what are we doing to produce all we possibly can at home? 766 We must ask ourselves whether the present policy for home agricultural production is likely to succeed. I wish to refer to a statement made by the Minister of Agriculture and published in the Financial Times on November 29 last year. In this statement the farmers were repeatedly urged to greater efficiency and to lower the price of their products. That is very good advice, but if you want to get a body of farmers cross today, you just go and say to them, "You see, boys, you must be more efficient." You will have the "come-back" immediately: "Good advice it may be. We have been riding that horse just about long enough. We want a little more action now from the Government besides the giving of good advice."
Now, how can we farmers lower the price of our products when costs are rising so steeply? Wages have just gone up by another £12 million a year. That is not too much: I do not grudge the farm worker one penny piece of that £12 million. The best of luck to him! I want to see those men now on the land stay on the land. Then there are requirements and repairs, which are all going up. Machinery, fertilisers, oil, and everything one can think of, are all going up against us. With regard to repairs, it almost frightens us to-day to send our tractors and implements for repairs, because of the bills we get. I received an invoice yesterday morning, a pre-estimate for a tractor at which I do not think the man had looked. I think it is a "try-on," but the charge is £250 for just a small repair. At any rate, that shows just how charges are going up against us.
Then it must not be forgotten that we are carrying that £33 million for the last Price Review—and yet we are asked to put our products on to the market more cheaply! We may do something about that, but I do not think we can produce any more cheaply at the moment, because we are not magicians and we cannot produce something out of a hat. It is also said that the cumulative contribution of better management and greater skill is worth at least £20 million each year. I agree, and I say that it is a real credit; but I should like to know how much of that £20 million comes out of be farmer's own pocket. That is worth thinking about. There is a good deal coming out of the farmer's own pocket, 767 out of his little profit, if he is likely to get any.
Many farmers think that the Government ought to tell the industry in detail how much of each commodity it should produce. So do I, most emphatically. But the Government state that the national interest will best be served by leaving the farmer to decide for himself what part he is going to play and how he is going to play it. I say that that is grossly unfair to the farmer. He cannot possibly know the quantities of commodities which will be brought in from abroad, and yet he is left to his own devices. He can produce eggs, poultry—anything you like; and when he has done all his work, the Ministry just say, "You have overproduced." If he is given a figure, and he goes beyond that figure, then it is up to him; but he must have a target to work to. If we are not going to have some kind of planning in that direction, it will be chaos. To give the farmer the confidence he requires, he must know well in advance how much of each commodity he can produce at an agreed price. The farmer must be confident that, when he has finished his production, he will find a fair market at a fair price.
The Minister also said:Shortage in all commodities has now been ended and sufficiency restored.That may have been true at the time, but at the present time there is a definite shortage of beef. Here is where I come back to the last speaker and what he had to say. He said many things which I would have said with regard to the Highlands and Islands, but in my own opinion beef will be in short supply for a long time. Our principal sources of supply are South America and Australia. I had the privilege of being in the Argentine eighteen months ago, and stayed on a number of ranches for a week. I can tell your Lordships that, so far as the Argentine is concerned, there is a great shortage. The population of beef cattle has been greatly diminished, through no fault of the Argentine farmers or of the Argentine Government. It is simply that there has been a drought. They have had two years of drought, and cattle were slaughtered by the million. If we think that we are going to get a lot of beef from the Argentine, we all "have another think coming to us"—it is just not there. Australia also had a bad drought in the 768 Northern Territory some years ago, and the effects are still felt there. Moreover, so far as Australia is concerned, her population has increased by some 2 million since 1939, and that means an increase in the consumption of meat—not beef, meat—by some 200,000 tons a year. On top of all that, we find that whereas last year the U.S.S.R. bought only a small quantity of beef from South America, some 20 million pounds weight, this year they are negotiating to buy 240 million pounds weight. In all probability, the U.S.S.R. will get that quantity of meat from South America; and that means less for Britain. The answer to the beef question is that we must produce more if we want it.
I would give it as my opinion that, so far as milk production in this country is concerned, since more is being produced now than is required for liquid consumption, conditions should be created to encourage any farmer who wished to change over from milk production to cattle rearing to feel that he could afford to do so. That is not easy. I remember going to Scotland, driving up there over Shap, where there are many little rearing farms. If you go that way you can count twenty-three lots of milk churns going over that distance of ten miles. How are you going to get those farms, which at the moment are producing milk, back to producing beef? It can be done—I am certain of that; but a man would have to be paid so much on account of his cattle. It is something to be worked out, but something has to be done. If you are going to persuade a dairyman to turn from his monthly milk cheque to the rearing of calves, you have to show him that he is not going to be worse off; and that is not easy. At any rate, I should like to make more use of the Highlands and Islands, of Wales and of the North of England. Every little piece of our land which can be utilised should be utilised.
Finally, I have two questions for the Government. Is the present policy or strategy of the Government likely to produce more food? I use the word "strategy" because in what the Minister has had to say about agriculture, and the way in which we have to deal with it, he has used the word "strategic" on quite a few occasions. Personally, I should like to see a little more policy and a little less strategy. I want to ask these two 769 questions. Are the farmers happier and more confident today? Is the present policy or strategy of the Government likely to produce more food? To both these questions I would definitely say "No." Unfortunately, farmers are rather bewildered by the freedom they have received and by the general uncertainty regarding the price which they will eventually get for their produce. No man can say today what he is going to get. He doses not know what will be the average price he receives for his corn and the amount which is to be paid on the cattle, sheep or pigs. At the moment they do not want any sheep: they are making too much money already.
The present method of marketing fat-stock is completely out of date. It may have satisfied producers thirty or forty years ago, but today I would describe it only as "Heath Robinson." That is a very good description of our fatstock marketing today, and I hope your Lordships will pardon me for using such an expression. The variation in price from one market to another, probably not more than fifty miles apart, is colossal, though any animal—I do not care what it is, whether bullock, sheep or pig—of a given quality is worth a given price. That is one of the things which is upsetting farmers more than a little. They see what is happening only a few miles away. It happened in my own county last week, where the difference in market prices was 15s. How can one lay plans for the future? Things like that are happening. We have to have some planning Let it be sensible planning. All fatstock should be sent to abattoirs and producers paid on carcase weight and grade basis. The Milk Marketing Board is a good example of how our produce should be marketed. In my opinion, everything we produce should be dealt with by similar marketing boards or commissions—for commissions can come in at times and be of great help.
Agriculture badly needs a long-term policy—we have said that so often. It is not easy, but it is so badly needed. I hope that the Government will do all they can to get their long-term policy going. Until this is brought into being, I am certain that farmers will play for safety. That is what the farmer is doing to-day: he is playing for safety at every turn and corner. He does not know what is going to 770 happen by next Christmas. He says, "I am going to play the safe way. If I am going to lose money, I will lose as little as possible." That is his attitude to-day. I know, because I am living amongst them and seeing there everyday. For the well-being of our country and population, Great Britain must be farmed like a garden, from Land's End to John o' Groats. That is what we want. That is looking ahead to the rising world population. If you will give this problem the serious consideration which it deserves, you will see with me that there is not a day to lose in farming our country a great deal better than we are now farming it. Quite apart from the reasons I have given for greater production, for economic and strategic reasons also we must produce to our utmost capacity.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ LORD HAMILTON OF DALZELL
My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships very long, and on the general subject of the Government's agricultural policy I would simply say that in my view they have handled a very difficult situation as well as farmers had any reason to hope. The real difficulty lies in convincing farmers, who remember what happened between the wars, that the Government will not sooner or later withdraw their support, under pressure from the rest of the community. The most solemn assurances have been given and I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech yesterday will further help to dispel these doubts; but I believe that it is a dread of what might happen which has given rise to the demand for a more definite statement of policy. I believe that anyone who for whatever purpose encourages this fear of the future is doing an ill service to farming.
I should like, however, to draw attention to one aspect of policy—a minor one, perhaps, but one which I think needs quick attention. I have the honour to be a member of one of those smallest cogs in the Minister's machine, a district committee of a county agricultural executive committee. In this committee, as I know in many others throughout the country, there is some doubt and confusion of mind about the rôle we should play under to-day's conditions. I would say at this point that I am assuming that the present suspension of the exercise of the executive committees' powers which was referred to by the noble Earl, 771 Lord Listowel, is temporary, and that if the Minister's appeal is rejected steps will be taken to restore the position. As I understand it, the question under dispute is one of method rather than of principle.
I have not myself been a member very long, but it is quite clear that in the past years a great deal of time and care has been spent on the surveying and grading of farms; and in the process a very good relationship has developed between those farmers who are members of the committee and the other farmers in the district. During the war and until recently, all concerned realised the vital need for increased production at all costs, and this provided both an incentive to the surveyors and on the part of the surveyed a willingness to submit to survey and grading and to receive advice.
But now the picture has changed. The farmers' problem is no longer simply one of producing the maximum of which his holding is capable, in the fairly certain knowledge that his extra outlay will be recouped. Now he has to consider whether more of a particular commodity is in fact wanted at all; if so, whether he can produce it cheaply enough for it to be a paying proposition; and so on. In other words, his problem is no longer purely technical—how to get better yields from his crops and stock—but is now much more complicated and involves financial and managerial questions much more than hitherto. I do not feel that the farmers in a district would much enjoy being asked to give each other or to receive from each other advice of this sort. In any case, it could not be given without knowing very much more about a farmer's business than he is likely to want to disclose to a neighbour. From the point of view of the survey and grading, it is no longer possible to judge a farm solely by its evident signs of productivity—inspection will not reveal whether the production is economic, that is to say, efficient; while, in the case of milk, for example, where a ceiling has been set, a farmer who increases his production may in fact be doing more harm than good. Under these conditions, grading becomes meaningless.
The easy way out of the difficulty is to say, as do some of my colleagues, "Why not scrap the survey altogether? Production is no longer so vitally important. We are all to compete with each 772 other in reducing the prices at which we can sell. Why should we help others to compete with us? Under the new, tougher conditions, the less efficient our competitors, the better for us." The drawback to this argument, as I think most farmers realise, lies in Part II of the Act. We are, of course, still getting considerable benefits from subsidies and from the provisions of Part I; the public will have very good reason for complaint f they see some farmers not keeping their part of the bargain. The sight of farmers jogging along, with their land falling down around them, keeping themselves going on Government subsidies, would, I think, in the long run produce a greater outcry than the occasional dispossession case does now—and certainly a better founded one.
Various suggestions for meeting this difficulty have been made. One is that each district committee member should have a group of farms under his charge, not, as at present, for the purpose of periodical survey, but just to keep an eye on them. If he saw one of his farms going downhill, he would go and offer advice to the farmer, and, if necessary, would bring the case to the notice of the committee. I must confess that I doubt whether this would work. The advantages of an official survey are, first, that it is official and can therefore be accepted by both parties as an unfortunate necessity; and second, that the detailed tasks are allotted by the committee, and if necessary the committee member is prodded until they get done. Casual snooping, if it got done at all, would, in my view, not make for good relations between the parties.
Another suggestion is that the surveys should be carried out only in cases where there were grounds for supposing that the standard of farming was unreasonably low. But how would this be known if there were no general survey? It would be unfair to take action only in those cases which happened to come to light, either by hearsay or because the farm could be seen from the road. In the case of rented farms, the landlord, of course, has his own responsibilities and rights, and should keep his tenants up to the mark; but many landlords, for one reason or another, do not choose to take action against unsatisfactory tenants. In any case, the worst offenders in the way of bad husbandry seem often to be owner-occupiers, particularly in parts of 773 the country like mine, where there are many owner-occupiers whose farms are not their principal occupation.
My Lords, I wish I could offer a solution to this problem. I believe that some action must be taken against farmers who fail to play their part in accordance with the Act; and I believe also that the basic idea of district committees, which is that the assessment of a farmer's effort should be made by his fellow farmers rather than by an official, is most valuable and should be preserved. But the fact remains that district committees—and I am sure that the one on which I serve is representative of most—are not happy. They are in danger of disintegration unless they get a new, clear directive, telling then what they are to do and how they are to act. If, on the other hand, they are no longer wanted, let them be put out of their misery at once.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ LORD ARCHIBALD
My Lords, the speeches from all parts of the House to which we have listened this afternoon indicate that there is unanimity on at least one thing—namely, that British agriculture must be maintained in a state of the highest possible productivity and efficiency. There are, of course, and always will be, wherever the matter is discussed, differences of opinion as to how that state of affairs is to be brought about, and the differences of opinion do not always run entirely along political lines. But there is one question to which I think attention should be drawn—namely, what is the basic, background reason for which we want to maintain in this country a high level of agricultural productivity? It can be for a variety of reasons. Is it primarily as an insurance for defence needs? Is it mainly because of helping in our balance of payments problem? Is it, to take the case raised by my noble friend Lord Hungarton, an insurance against the growth of world population exceeding the growth of world food supplies? Or is it from the very desirable point of view of maintaining that relationship between rural and urban life which likely to give us, from the moral and spiritual point of view, a better all round community? I think that these questions have to be answered in some way.
The reason is, as any good agricultural economist will tell you, that 774 according to where you put the weight—whether it is for balance of payments reasons, or for defence or some other needs—it will make a difference in the stress which you put on the output of particular agricultural commodities; and that, in turn, must influence the agricultural policy both of the Government and of the agricultural community. I am not proposing to give any answer to these questions and naturally I have not got the information on which I could do so; nor do I expect that the noble Earl who is to reply can necessarily answer them this afternoon. I hope, however, that on some occasion a considered statement will be made as to where the emphasis lies on these various aspects of the reasons behind high agricultural production, or, if there is an amalgam of reasons, where the particular emphasis is to be placed.
I do not propose this afternoon to deal with policy matters nor, for that matter, I hope, with controversial matters at all; but I want to draw attention to two or three points where I think there are practical considerations that we should have before us. Reference has already been made to the labour situation in agriculture—the constant loss of workers from agriculture. Various causes have been put forward as being responsible for this, such as housing, education, general amenities, wages and so on. In that connection, I would suggest that there is great need for a rural, or rather an agricultural, housing survey. Like other farmers, I have from time to time men coming as candidates for jobs and, on my asking them why they want to leave their present place, almost invariably the answer is, "Because of the housing"—and then follows a description of housing conditions which ought not in this year to exist in any civilised country. It is difficult for anyone to know just how widespread are these abominable conditions, and I believe it would not be outside the scope of the staff of the Ministry at present to make a survey and give us some adequate information. If we had the facts, it might then be possible to work out a system whereby it became obligatory on the owners of these houses over a period either to replace them or to put them into proper habitable condition.
§ LORD ARCHIBALD
No doubt local authorities have had responsibilities in the past, but they have not yet been very adequately carried out. This is the concern of agriculture, and of the Ministry of Agriculture, and I suggest that it is necessary that it should be looked at from the point of view of the labour needs of the agricultural community. With regard to education, I want to be perfectly frank and say that I consider that the new Ministry of Education circular with regard to rural education is a step in the right direction; but, of course, it all depends on what action follows upon that circular. If the discrepancy between educational opportunities in the country areas and in the towns could be narrowed, that would be a considerable help.
In regard to wages, we come to the most difficult point. Like my noble friend, Lord Hungarton, I believe no one would for a moment dispute the complete right of agricultural workers to the increase they have recently received. I would go further, and say that agricultural workers' wages should as soon as possible be brought up to a parity with those of workers in industry. It is largely, or partly at least, due to the wonderful efforts of the workers that we have been able to get increased output with a lower labour force. It is not entirely due to increased mechanisation. We have seen that in other industries with increased mechanisation the same result has not been obtained. Full credit must be given to the agricultural worker; and it is a good test of any industry if it is able to maintain or to increase its output with a lower labour force.
But there is a limit below which a labour force cannot go without endangering the efficiency of the industry and the maintenance of output. I believe we are getting towards that danger point in agriculture, and it becomes necessary, by considering housing, education, rural amenities, wages and every other possible aspect, to try to stop the drift from the land. In that connection, may I once again ask Her Majesty's Government—as they have so often been asked in the past—to reconsider the call-up of young men from agriculture for National Ser- 776 vice. I believe young men in the mining industry and in the merchant navy are exempt from National Service, and I submit that agriculture is at least as important as either of these forms of service and that the same exemption should apply.
I will turn from labour to something which I consider is linked with it. With a low labour force, it is important that we should make the most efficient use of labour. To some extent that has been done by the great increase in mechanisation. But in one respect—namely, in regard to farm buildings—comparatively little improvement has been made. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, referred to the farm buildings on the hill farms, and to the need, in many cases, for their rebuilding or reconditioning, but I believe it is true of farms in a much wider area than just the hill farming areas. Most of our farm buildings are well over one hundred years old. They were built before there was the mechanisation that there is to-day, when there was an abundance of cheap labour and when the humping of sacks on men's backs and similar work was regarded as being quite natural and proper. These buildings are unsuited for modern conditions. They are wasteful of labour, and most of them want completely remodelling.
Unfortunately, the cost of replacement is practically prohibitive. I know of one case which is a fair illustration, where the farm buildings, excluding the farmhouse and cottages, were looked at by a professional man with a view to estimating the cost of their replacement. His figure was about 50 per cent. above the market value of the whole farm, land and buildings taken together. With the farmhouse and farm workers' cottages added in, the total cost of replacement was estimated at about two-and-a-half times the market value of the farm with the farmhouse and cottages and all the buildings. That represents a very serious state of affairs, and for these buildings there is not available, as in the case of hill farms, the 50 per cent. grant. I am not suggesting that it should be. However, something that should be done, perhaps in a small way, is to extend the Farm Buildings Advisory Service and to make better known, and perhaps extend, the credit facilities for the modernisation of farm buildings. I do not put it higher than asking for an increased advisory service and in- 777 creased possibilities of credit for the carrying out of necessary work. It may even be necessary to go a little further and make the advisory services not merely available on demand but almost in the nature of recommendatory services to those who are rather slow in getting on.
My third and final point is one upon which I have spoken before in your Lordships' House. On this occasion I am not going to talk about the price of pigs but merely of one other aspect. In our debate on April 14 last, following the White Paper of 1954, I drew attention to a paragraph in the White Paper which said that Her Majesty's Government were considering proposals for the introduction of a pig recording scheme and for the extension of arrangements for progeny testing at present conducted by the National Pig Breeders' Association. I begged Her Majesty's Government then not to spend too much time on consideration, and pointed out that there was not much to consider: the facts were known, and all that was wanted was a decision to get on with it. I repeat that plea to-day. Since that time, all Her Majesty's Government have done has been to set up the National Pig Records system, which is much the smallest part of the proposals. In fact, as the noble Earl who will reply knows, it is purely paper business, putting on an official basis something that most good producers have done for themselves, for quite a number of years. It will not by itself, for a long time, make possible the getting of one single better pig.
The thing that really matters is the extension of the progeny testing stations. At the present time I think there are only one conducted by the National Pig Breeders' Association, one privately owned and conducted by a feeding-stuffs firm, while a small amount is also done at some of the agricultural colleges. The Ministry have given us the whole story about it in their own publication which came out, last October: Costs and Efficiency of Pig Production in England and Denmark. This systematises and sets out in an excellent manner all that has been known about the difference in the methods used in Denmark and in this country. What stands out most prominently is the fact that the Danes have three national progeny testing stations and fifteen local testing stations; and it is due to the work of these stations 778 that Danish pig production has been brought to such a high level of efficiency.
I hope that in this connection no one will be misled by looking at the fancy prices that are paid at a few of the big sales in this country. I was at one sale recently where these fancy prices were being paid. To some extent, it is a case of half-a-dozen big breeders going along and paying high prices at one sale in the reasonable expectation that the others will come along in turn and pay similar prices at their sales. They are supplying the next range of breeders, and they, in turn, are supplying another range until it gets down to those who supply the commercial pig producers. But I suggest that the commercial pig producer in this country to-day has the greatest problem in knowing where to go to get good stock at prices he can afford, stock which will give him the kind of carcases the bacon factory wants. The Ministry, in their own publication, have told us that they know all about how to do it. But they will not get on with the job. I quote only two sentences from the publication. With reference to Denmark it is stated that:It is, however, mainly through the provision of good boars that the quality of commercial breeding stock has been improved.The pamphlet goes on to say that the Danish breeders get them from the élite breeding herds approved by the testing station. Later, we find this:the Danish farmers have easy access to stud boars of high quality. They also find it easier than British farmers to buy gilts and sows of proven strains.I suggest to the Government that this is something they might have got on with more speedily; it is something upon which they should give us an assurance that they will proceed with speed in the near future. My Lords, I have tried only to touch, as I have said, on three practical points. This is one of the important ones. I think that unless we deal with these practical points, policy and discussion of policy will not give us the increased efficiency in British agriculture to which we have all made reference this afternoon.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ LORD WISE
My Lords, in the first place I wish to apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Macpherson of Drumochter, who was down to speak this afternoon but has had to leave your Lord- 779 ship's House because he has another engagement. For that I am more than a little sorry, because he is full of interesting facts on meat importation and matters connected with the meat trade generally. I am certain that he could have enlightened the Government, in a short speech, on that aspect of these matters.
For my own part, I am in the happy position of almost winding up the discussion from this side of the House, and I can tell your Lordships that I do not propose to occupy very much of your time. That is reinforced by the fact that, so far as I can see at the moment, I have only one speech from the other side of the House to reply to. But I will come to that in a moment. Before doing so, I wish to congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on coming into a really good agricultural debate for the first time. He has a good deal of my sympathy, in view of the fact that, so far as I can judge, he has a pretty had case from his side of the House. But what he has to say will, I am sure, be listened to with great attention and great respect. Not only will it be of great interest to those of us who are left here, but it will command the attention and respect of people outside, particularly those in the farming industry. It seems to me that this is an appropriate day on which to have such a debate in your Lordships' House—indeed, it would seem either that the debate was inspired for this day or that the annual general meeting of the National Farmers' Union was inspired because we are having this discussion in your Lordships' House. But suffice it to say that outside this House, apart from whatever has happened today inside, there is a good deal of trouble and anxiety in the agricultural industry with regard to the position of that industry, not only at the moment but in the future.
I wish to say in his presence how greatly I enjoyed the speech by the noble Viscount on this side of the House who opened the debate. I think that I can say with the agreement of my colleagues and perhaps also with the agreement of some noble Lords on the other side—certainly so far as my knowledge goes it is true—that a speech on agriculture has never been made here with greater strength or greater clarity. The noble Viscount showed himself a master of his case and 780 he covered a very wide range. What makes the occasion more important is that he is in a position, as are many of us here to-day on this side of the House, to speak with practical knowledge of the industry. That is so because the livelihoods of some of us at this moment—at any rate it is true of our livelihoods in the past—depend on the prosperity of agriculture. Therefore, we have a great feeling—not all of it critical, not too much of it critical—with regard to the present situation of the industry.
Our feeling is not too much one of criticism because we know that the difficulties are there, but we feel strongly that the Government should take stock of the present situation, and should also take note of the many letters which have appeared in the public Press within the last two or three weeks, and of the articles which are appearing in the farming papers, from practical farmers and others, about the position which the industry has reached. I have been connected with the industry since the beginning of this century, as either a land agent or a farmer, and my own people are still in it; in fact, I am going back into it myself in a quiet way. Therefore, whatever I say will be, I hope, for the benefit of agriculturists as a whole. It has been said that the production efforts of agriculture have not been surpassed in any other industry, and I think we can give a high measure of credit to the way in which the farming industry has been carried on, both during the war years and under present difficulties.
I want to deal first with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, and to say how much I appreciate his consideration for the welfare of those of us on this side of the House. I also want to tell him that he has entirely misconceived the Labour Party's policy. I say, without much fear of contradiction, that of all the Governments which have been in office during the last generation, and perhaps even before, the Government which paid most consideration to the agricultural industry was the last Labour Government. We were trusted not only by the farmers but by the workers; and their trust was not misplaced, because there never was a greater prosperity in the farming industry than during our period of occupation of office. If one were to ask the farmers at the present time, "Are you as prosperous as you were under the 781 Labour Government?" I am certain that the answer would be, "We are not as prosperous as we were then."
Our future policy will be based on our past policy, and we shall exercise that measure of control which was so successful not only during the war years but also in the years which followed the war. Never in my experience of farming have I met a better customer than the Ministry of Food in the old days.
§ LORD AMHERST OF HACKNEY
After all, it was a policy in a completely different set of circumstances from those in which we find ourselves now.
§ LORD WISE
Only in regard to feeding-stuffs. It is not the policy of the Labour Party to return to rationing as we knew it during the war period; but if a war comes what are the Government going to do then? We may not be so far away from it. Are they going to ration, or are they going to open the sale of feeding-stuffs to the highest purchaser? The Government will have to go back to the control which was so successful during the war period.
My noble friend mentioned common land and I want to say how much I hope that the Government will do whatever is possible to reclaim all waste and scrub land. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, mentioned the same point. Apart altogether from commons, there are acres and acres of scrub, bracken and furze-covered land which can be re-claimed, and I hope the Government will take steps to do it. I know the aid which can be given for reclaiming waste land, but if the county agricultural executive committees want a job of work, which the noble Lord opposite thought they were with out at the present time, there is a good deal of waste lard in every 782 county which could be usefully employed for the production of food.
The right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle referred to the flight of workers from the land, and said that the factory was beating the farm in working conditions for the employment of labour. That may be so. I do not think it is at all to the advantage of this country that it should be so, and it is apparent that good, solid British farm workers, young and old, are still leaving the land for the towns. I know that higher wages are being enjoyed at the present time (one or two speakers have expressed their approval of this), but I should like to enlarge upon what was said recently in another place by a great friend of mine, a man who is interested in the farm workers, on the bringing into operation of safeguards against injury on the farm. There is a proposal on foot to have farm workers covered against the risk of injury, and if that could be expedited and the men satisfied that their work is safeguarded, I think that would be advantageous.
The question of the increased production of foodstuffs by reason of the increase in rural population was referred to by the right reverend Prelate and by the noble Lord, Lord Hungarton, while in his opening speech my noble Leader, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, referred to the question of food production for war. That also is most important. We know the difficulties that we have had in the past. It seems to me that in approaching an atomic age, and possibly an atomic war, when cities may be destroyed, we may be glad in this country that our efforts to produce food have not been neglected, and that we have not only been able to store food but are able to grow food on land which may escape the effects of an atomic onslaught.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, paid a rightful tribute to the output per man in the agricultural industry, and I should like to endorse that tribute. My experience, has led me into contact with many farm workers and groups of farm workers, and I can always appreciate the difficulties under which they sometimes have to work. The noble Earl referred to the question of workers across the Border, and suggested that they were not in any way "feather-bedded." I wish to refer to the conditions under which 783 some of our people have to work on this side of the Border—and I expect it applies on the other side as well. I want to call attention to those people who think the agricultural industry is a bed of roses. I should like some of them to have a try at it. For instance, I should like some of them to tackle the sugar beet on a nasty snowy morning, or to drive a tractor through the whole of a long winter's day, with a leaky cab, or with no cab at all, in the rain and the wind. I should like them to take on the job of the man who has to go into the fields in the snow in the early morning to fodder the cattle; or the man who has to do the milking in the dark, before the ordinary people in the towns are up; or the man who has to mess about with the threshing on a windy March day, or with an east wind blowing. I could multiply those jobs ad infinitum, to show that the agricultural worker does a hard job of work, and one for which we, as a consuming public, ought to be grateful.
My noble friend Lord Hungarton referred to the question of a plan for cropping, which I think is important. We are approaching a new spring, with a new harvest in the offing in the autumn. What do the Government want us to grow, to feed, to rear or to produce? Are we to be left to our own devices? Must we not have some sort of plan from the Government telling us a little of what they want, and what they expect to import against our production? I well remember how, in the days gone by, we used to switch from crop to crop. We had a good barley year one year, and everybody changed to barley the next year and brought down the price; and so it went on through the whole length of farming experience. But in the immediate years which have just passed we knew within a little what was wanted of us, and we were able to plan. It is true that we get our plans ahead in our Price Reviews, and that sort of thing, but I am sure that it would be beneficial to the country if the agricultural industry could have a plan for guidance. This matter was also touched upon by my noble friend Lord Archibald.
I want now to deal with Part I of the Act of 1947. Your Lordships will remember that Part I of the Act deals with the question of guaranteed prices and assured markets. I am going to put it to the Government, in all seriousness, 784 that at the moment they are playing about with Part I of that Act. We have not, in the fullest sense of the word, guaranteed prices; nor have we, in the fullest sense of the word, as we envisaged when the Act was brought into operation, assured markets.
§ LORD WISE
The noble Earl doubts my statement. I will read from a letter which appeared in The Times only two or three days ago, from a gentleman who sat opposite me in the other place and who is a well-known farmer. He was dealing with the question of the difficulties facing farmers. Many of your Lordships will remember that there has been correspondence in The Times on the agricultural dilemma—that is an extraordinary expression, "agricultural dilemma." In that letter he says:To sell most of our goods we must spend hours guessing and gambling in auction markets. Assured of a fair price, most farmers would like to see their produce removed from the farm gate—like milk and eggs, and sales to the Food Marketing Corporation.I would commend that also to the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney. We have no guarantee of a definite price. We fix our prices, but we are not sure that we are going to get them. There are margins. We take our stock into the cattle markets, and the same old game is now going on that went on years ago, in which dealers are rigging the market; they are buying stock in one market and transferring it to others. Week by week the farmer has to look through this green paper pamphlet to see the differences in price at the various markets in this country. We want something better than that. We want some stability and knowledge that when we produce something we are going to be paid a proper price for it. Until we can be sure that we shall get that again in Britain, you will not get full agricultural production.
What are the Government doing about smallholdings, under Part IV of the Act? Are you satisfied that you ore getting enough smallholdings? Are you satisfied that you are satisfying the demand? I was never happier than the other day, when I sold one of my farms in order that it might be used for smallholdings. Where one young man used to get a living on it, in the future two will do so. It was 785 pleasant, when I offered a county council my farm and they, without any hesitation whatsoever, agreed to buy it. I hope that sort of thing is going on throughout the country.
I wish to say one or two words about rising costs. My noble friend has dealt with the pig situation, but I wish to say this, in connection with a remark which I think the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, made, that if one loses money on pigs in one period of the year one gets it back again in another. That should not be so. I want to ask the noble Lord what is going to happen to anybody who bought pigs a few months ago and is now selling them on a market which is going against him—and a market, mind you, in which the prices of pigs are becoming lower week by week and the prices of feeding-stuffs are going up. I have in my hand a receipted bill for pig meal which I bought on November 23 at £32 5s. a ton net—no discount added on to be taken off, as is the stupid custom of the merchants; an iniquitous custom, too, because a farmer may be running into a heavy interest charge which he does not know anything about. But here is a clear cut figure—no discount added, and no discount taken off. On November 23 it was £32 5s. a ton; on December 11, £35 a ton—that is within a fortnight; on December 23, £35 15s. a ton, an increase of £3 10s. a ton on pig meal within a month. That is a rise of over 10 per cent.; and during that month the price of pork went down. When instances of that sort multiply, how can a farmer carry on unless the Government exercise some measure of control over the prices of what he has to buy? That is "freedom." I do not want that sort of freedom, and nor does anybody else.
The setting up of one or two committees has been suggested this afternoon. Would it be possible for the Government to look into the question of the cost to farmers for feeding-stuffs, implements, and this, that and the other? Directly you come into a new review of prices in a month's time it is almost as certain as night follows day that up will go the costs against the farmer in order to meet those additional prices. I am certain that this debate will have a real effect upon farming opinion. I wish the Government all success in doing whatever they can to stop a slipping back of the agricultural industry at the present time.
§ 6.25 p.m.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Viscount for having provided this opportunity for reviewing agricultural policy. And may I say that I am glad to see him in better health than when I heard from him earlier. I should also like to say how much I appreciate the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has risen from his sick bed to come and address us. I understand that he has had to return to it forthwith.
The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, launched the debate in his usual stimulating and provocative style, and I am sure the House enjoyed his speech. I am sorry that he does not like our policy. There are, I think, two main reasons for his displeasure. The first lies in the general difference of outlook which inevitably separates noble Lords opposite from noble Lords on this side of the House. The second cause is misunderstanding of the nature and aims of our policy. I have not a good enough opinion of my own powers of persuasion to suppose that I can do anything about the first cause, but I might, with careful explanation, remove some of the misunderstandings.
The debate has ranged widely; many different opinions have been expressed, and many helpful suggestions have been made. I am afraid that I cannot hope to deal with them all at this approaching late hour. In the main, I think I must deal with the two charges which have most frequently been made against the Government's policy: that we are not properly implementing the guarantees which are the industry's right under Part I of the Agriculture Act, and that we do not attach enough importance to the need for more home-produced food.
Noble Lords opposite seem to think that a guaranteed price must necessarily be a fixed price, and that in restoring free markets in agricultural produce we have deprived the farmers of guaranteed prices. Frankly, I do not know where this idea about fixed prices originates; it certainly appears nowhere in the Act of 1947. On the contrary, the Act clearly provides for arrangements of the kind which are now in force, and if noble Lords care to read the debates on this subject when the Bill was before Parliament, they will see that the Government of the day had very much in mind the 787 need to make the Bill cover more flexible arrangements for guaranteeing prices than those which existed during and immediately after the war.
In removing these war-time restrictions the Government have been guided by one quite simple principle. We think it desirable that those kinds and qualities of food should be produced which consumers want most. Broadly speaking, our way of ensuring this has been to allow consumers to express their preferences through the prices which they showed themselves prepared to pay in an open market, and to allow these preferences to be reflected in the producers' total returns, so that they will be encouraged to produce what the market demands. By this method the farmer who judges the market best gets the best return. This is not only fair and reasonable; it is the only possible way of ensuring that producers will produce what is wanted and not waste their energies. We have already demonstrated amply that this can be achieved without any loss of stability or prosperity to the industry. I might mention here that, after considering the circumstances, the Government have decided to combine with the Annual Review shortly to begin a Special Review to consider the immediate effect of the awards of the Agricultural Wages Board.
Our marketing policy is clear. Perhaps I may just remind the House of the stage we have reached with each of the main commodities. When looking at the problems connected with cereals, I think it is important to bear in mind that this year's harvest has been just about the most difficult in fifty years. This happened to coincide with the first completely free market for grain in fifteen years; so, in judging the effects of that free market, we must try to separate the difficulties which are due to the weather from the problems associated with new marketing arrangements. In spite of everything, the deficiency payments scheme has worked well. The market for home-grown grain was weak in the autumn because large quantities of grain were being offered for sale by farmers who had no facilities for storing and drying it.
Now the demand is stronger, and we have already learnt two important lessons. To get the best return, farmers will need to pay attention to the condition, 788 as well as the type, of grain wanted by the market. The other lesson we have learnt is the importance of storage. When the market is weak, a farmer is obviously in a much better position if he can keep his grain until the market is strong enough to give him a good price. There are still too many farms without storage and drying facilities, though a good deal of progress has been made in this respect. The Government are helping to solve this problem in three different ways: there is a rising scale of seasonal guaranteed prices for wheat; there are loans available to farmers, through United States economic aid, for providing drying and storage facilities; and we are continuing to operate the national silos, under the control of the Ministry of Food, for the particular benefit of cereal growers who are not in a position to instal complete facilities on their own farms.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
Do these national silos serve a wide area? What areas do the national silos serve?
EARL ST. ALDWYN
They are dotted over the countryside. I cannot give the exact location of all of them at the moment.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
I have one within thirty miles of me. We have suggested to the National Farmers' Union a way in which they could take over these silos, and we are waiting to hear their views.
We have not yet had a full year's experience of free markets for fatstock and I am sure that we have a great deal to learn. But here again the method of a collective guarantee and a minimum guarantee seems to be working very well. The gloomy prophets who forecast a catastrophic autumn glut for cattle and sheep have been proved wrong. Housewives have shown a strong preference for home-produced meat, and prices, on the whole, have been encouraging—especially for fat lambs.
The farmers' own marketing organisation, the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, has figured largely in the events since the de-control of meat. This is an excellent example of a voluntary marketing 789 organisation, and the Corporation is to be congratulated on the energy and success with which it has tackled its task.
Last November the Government had a discussion with the three National Farmers' Unions about the possibility of introducing a comprehensive marketing scheme for fatstock under the Agricultural Marketing Acts. Our minds are not closed to this possibility. We said in the White Paper, De-Control of Food and Marketing of Agricultural Produce, which was published in November, 1953, that we would be ready to consider proposals for the establishment of a marketing board or boards with wider functions than a voluntary board could have, provided that the difficulties which would clearly be raised by a scheme of this kind could be overcome. I do not think we have yet gained enough experience to justify any variation of the policy which was stated in that White Paper.
A number of noble Lords have raised the question of pigs. There have been difficulties in the marketing of pigs and I am sure that more thought will have to be given to this matter in the light of experience. I wish that I had time to tell the House in detail of the steps which the Government has taken to help improve the quality of pigs. I can only remind your Lordships that a committee has been appointed, under the chairmanship of Sir Harold Howitt, to advise in what ways pig production could best be developed, with particular reference to breeding policy and production methods. A promising start has been made in England and Wales, with the scheme of National Pig Records, and I should like to tell the noble Lord, Lord Archibald, that we are also making good progress with the scheme for establishing five stations in Great Britain for the progeny testing of boars, at a capital cost of about £400,000. This will be regarded as a capital charge on the pig industry and will be recovered from the industry over a small number of years, through the medium of the guarantees provided at each Annual Review. These stations will be controlled and operated by an independent company consisting of representatives of breeders, commercial producers, scientists and other interests.
I turn now to a subject which has not been touched on this afternoon—that is, poultry. The idea of a scheme for progeny testing for poultry has been can- 790 vassed for many years, but until now it has not been possible to launch such a scheme. Your Lordships will remember that in the White Paper following the 1954 Annual Review the Government said it was considering proposals for a progeny testing scheme to be run in conjunction with the Poultry Stock Improvement Plan, to help poultry keepers to improve the quality and stock in laying flocks. During the past year this matter has been followed up in consultation with my right honourable friend's Poultry (Stock Improvement) Advisory Committee. While this consideration of how a progeny testing scheme should be run has been going on, the Government have also been considering the associated question of how it should be financed.
As a result, the Poultry (Stock Improvement) Advisory Committee has produced a scheme for England and Wales for the progeny testing of breeding flocks, and that scheme is about to be sent to the poultry organisations for their comment, and, I hope, speedy approval. I understand that a similar scheme is under consideration in Scotland. The Government has also proposed to the N.F.U. that the capital cost of establishing the poultry progeny testing stations (which we estimate at £446,000 for England and Wales and about £50,000 for Scotland) should be borne by the poultry producers them selves, by means of an arrangement similar to that by which the cost of pig stations will be recovered through the guarantees. This proposal has been accepted. I wish now, on behalf of the Minister, to pay a warm tribute to the National Farmers' Union for their realistic and far-sighted attitude not only in this matter but also in the pig progeny testing scheme. I should also like to express our grateful thanks to the Advisory Committee to which I have referred.
I believe that this project, which we hope to see running in the spring of 1956, represents one of the most important steps forward in the history of the poultry industry. I believe that with its help a steadily improving supply of really high quality stock will become available from poultry breeders accredited under the Poultry Stock Improvement Plan, resulting in higher egg yields at very little increased cost.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
Apart from improving progeny, is any special drive being made at 791 the present time against two principal factors, namely, fowl pest and fowl paralysis? Both are exercising an extraordinary toll. So far as I can find from reports of agricultural research, there is no remedy known for either. Is that matter being pursued?
EARL ST. ALDWYN
In the case of fowl pest, as I am sure the noble Viscount is aware, we have what one might call clean and dirty areas. The clean areas have been very considerably increased, and in time we hope we shall be able to do away with the other areas, to keep the disease entirely confined and finally to eliminate it. Now, my Lords, to revert to marketing arrangements, a new marketing scheme for potatoes which would provide for the administration of the guarantee arrangements through a marketing board is now going through the statutory procedure for the introduction of such schemes under the Acts. On the question of milk, I may say that the arrangements for operating the guarantees through the Milk Marketing Board are now a matter of history, and we are very pleased with the way in which they are working.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
I am sorry to keep interrupting, but this is very important, and one has to keep the point clearly in mind. I agree that the Milk Marketing Board have taken over their responsibilities, smoothly and successfully, but I hope it is clear to the House and to the public outside that it has entailed charges against the former receipts of the farmer. A producer of T.T. milk with an attested herd has already had a reduction in the current year at the rate of 2½d. per gallon, while the profit margin to the distributor has been raised by a farthing. If there is universal satisfaction about that, I should be rather surprised.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
If the noble Viscount had raised that question earlier, I could, of course, have given a more detailed reply. My right honourable friend has for some time been discussing informally with the leaders of the N.F.U. the possibility of an eggs marketing scheme. A financial arrangement has been worked out which appears to them and to us to offer a basis for the consideration of a scheme under the Agricultural Marketing Acts to set up a board 792 with full trading powers through which any assistance needed under the Agriculture Act could be paid to producers. I understand that the Unions will now examine detailed proposals on this basis, and I have every hope that a scheme will now be promoted.
I think the House will agree with me that if we examine the history of events since the Government first started to do away with war-time controls we shall find there plenty of grounds for confidence in the future and plenty to demonstrate that stability and prosperity can be effectively combined with flexibility in spite of what was said on the other side. Certainly we find no ground whatever for the allegation that the Government is not properly implementing the guarantees which are the industry's due, or is dragging its feet on marketing.
I now turn to the second main charge which has been made against the Government, namely, that we do not attach enough importance to food production. I do not quite know how one measures the amount of importance that anyone attaches to a thing, but underlying this charge there always seems to be the suggestion that the Government should go on asking for more of everything, regardless of the market and of world food supplies. With that, of course, we cannot agree. But I should like to make it perfectly clear that we do want more production of the right kind. Where imports are concerned this country is far more vulnerable than it was before the war. I think we all appreciate that and are therefore agreed that it is essential to maintain a large and thriving agricultural industry here at home. But in deciding the directions in which we think the industry ought to expand we must keep in mind the needs of the market and the costs of production. The reduction of costs must be a primary aim alongside production objectives.
We do not believe in laying down the law about what farmers ought to grow. Obviously, the farmer who knows his own farm, the nature of the soil, the climate and the facilities he has, is in the best position to decide for himself. We try to help by ensuring that technical advice is available, so that when the farmer decides what he is going to produce he can take his decision in the light of all the relevant facts. We also help by giving 793 general guidance on the probable future demand for each of the main commodities. Our present views on this subject have been stated many times and I will not go into the matter in detail on this occasion. Generally speaking, we want more production, but it must be of the right kind and quality and produced at the lowest possible cost. We think it is possible and desirable for the industry in the next few years to increase its net output to 60 per cent. above the pre-war level.
The rate of expansion has, of course, been affected by the appalling weather which we have had this year. This is a set-back, but I think only a temporary one and not one that would lead us to alter our general objectives. The losses of fodder and grain have been quite substantial, and as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, a lot of farmers, especially in the hill areas, are having a very difficult winter. There is no sense of panic in the hills, and any shortage of fodder is local rather than national. In a spell of severe weather such as we have recently had there is natural anxiety on farms where the hay harvest has been lost and adequate replacement has not yet been made. Fortunately, however, except in very exposed parts of Scotland, the normal trade channels of distribution have stayed open. There are several things which we are doing to help. County agricultural committees can, at their discretion, allow farmers to spend the whole of their hill cow and hill cattle subsidies on fodder, if in the particular circumstances of the case, that seems to be the right thing for the good of the farm.
A while ago my right honourable friend reminded the county agricultural committees that they could make available supplies of forage on credit under the Goods and Services Scheme. He has now asked the committees to see that every proper facility is extended to help hill farmers who clearly need help in providing enough forage. The committees have been given discretion to arrange, where necessary, for repayment to be spread over the maximum period of three years permissible under the scheme, provided, of course, that there is a reasonable prospect of getting the money back by the end of this period. The committees have also been given discretion to post- 794 pone the first payment of loan charges until the autumn and to make this first payment less than the later ones.
In this, as in many other aspects of day-to-day farming, the county agricultural executive committees play an extremely important part and will, I am sure, continue to do so. Their functions nowadays must be viewed in the light of the changes which have been made in the industry since this Government took office. Food supplies have become more plentiful, controls have been abolished and, although the Government continues to provide the guarantee of stability in the background, much more is being left to the farmer's own initiative. But he is not being left entirely to his own re-sources. The advisory services and the committees are there to help him. The 1947 Act lays down that the main function of committees is to further agricultural development and efficiency; that is far and away the most important job which they will have to do in the coming years.
I am sure that it is going to be worthwhile. It is certainly no less important than the job they did in war time, although it may be harder. It is fairly easy to direct; it is not easy to lead. In the background there are still my right honourable friend's statutory responsibilities for enforcing the rules of good husbandry and good estate management. In the last resort, and in extreme cases, use will be made of his powers of supervision and, if need be, dispossession.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, both raised questions about the position of the committees as a result of the new court ruling. All the activities of county executive committees in this respect have been brought to a standstill for the time being as a result of the recent judgment of the Divisional Court in which it was held that sub-committees could not legally hear formal representations; and doubt was also expressed about the ability of executive committees to do so. It has all along been the general practice, in cases of proposed supervision and dispossession, and also in notice to quit cases, for representations to be heard by sub-committees, and the effect of this judgment is to put in question the legal validity of the action taken in many thousands of cases under the Agriculture Act and also under the Agricultural 795 Holdings Act since these Acts came into force. I cannot, of course, make any comment on this matter at the present stage except to say that my right honourable friend has decided to appeal against the judgment. It would not be right for me to forecast what he would do if that appeal were unsuccessful.
There is another subject which has not been raised this afternoon upon which I should like to address the House, namely, rabbits. I should like to say something about myxomatosis and the campaign to eliminate rabbits that survive outbreaks of the disease. The Myxomatosis Advisory Committee have made a second Report which will be published to-morrow, and copies will be available in the Printed Paper Office. This Report describes the spread of the disease during 1954. By the end of December it had spread all over Wales and the southern half of England, while scattered and widely distributed outbreaks have occurred over the rest of England and Scotland. The Advisory Committee have no doubt that the disease will survive the winter and that nothing man can do will be able to prevent it from spreading widely during the coming spring and summer.
The Report deals with many aspects of the disease and recommends that Ministers should consider what more can be done to help occupiers to eliminate the survivors. The county agricultural executive committees are taking steps this season to urge farmers, land owners, farm workers and others, in areas where myxomatosis has taken its toll, to co-operate in these "mopping-up" operations. In some districts farmers and others are already taking energetic action to find the few rabbits that have survived and to destroy them before they can start breeding again. Experience in Australia and elsewhere has shown that myxomatosis alone cannot get rid of rabbits, and I think your Lordships will agree that the farmer and farm worker going round the land each day are the only people who are in a good position to observe whether there are any rabbits left on their land.
The onus of getting rid of these rabbits must be primarily on the occupier. The results of this season's campaign will show what success can be achieved by the present methods and whether they need to be augmented in future. This is a subject which the Land Pests Advisory Com- 796 mittee are closely watching in England and Wales, and the same interest is being shown by the Rabbit Clearance Advisory Committee in Scotland. These Committees comprise practical men and we will give the most careful consideration to any advice they give us on the "mopping-up" campaign.
The noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, suggested that it might be possible to make long-term minimum prices more realistic if they were linked to costs. We have considered this possibility very carefully, and we have, in fact, linked the minimum prices for pigs and eggs to a formula which is designed to measure movements in the cost of feeding-stuffs, but we do not think it would be practicable to go any further than this. It is extremely difficult to measure accurately changes in cost, especially where there are many different factors of cost and many different ways of combining them. The calculations we now have to make are already complicated enough.
The right reverend Prelate raised the question of fatstock graders. For the last fourteen years grading at fatstock markets has been done by a panel, usually consisting of an auctioneer, a butcher and a farmer. These had to be local people because they could not be expected to function outside their own territory. We are now in process of appointing full-time Government graders to replace these panels. This cannot be done all at once, but about one-half of the markets are now covered by Government graders who sometimes cover as many as four markets, We believe these new arrangements should help to make grading more uniform throughout the country.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
Are these graders to be sent only to auctions? I should like to be quite clear on this point, as many farmers send their animals direct to a butchery centre where it is at present possible to get them graded. But those animals are not auctioned; they are within the scope of the Fat Livestock Marketing Corporation.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, and my noble friend Lard Dundee touched on the question of the International Wheat Agreement. The only reason why Her Majesty's Government did not continue as a party to this Agreement was because of failure to reach agreement with exporting countries on the maximum price. We were willing to go up to two dollars a bushel, and the exporters held out for two dollars and five cents.
EARL, ST. ALDWYN
Maximum, yes. I do not know whether the noble Viscount thinks we should have agreed regardless of the price.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
No, but in the case of an international concern of that kind there are any amount of cheaper parcels sold under the International Wheat Agreement by negotiation within the price; therefore the steadying effect which was wanted could easily have been achieved without the Government's worrying about whether they were five cents or ten cents above a figurative maximum.
EARL ST. ALDWYN
We had already gone up twenty cents, which was more than we had thought we should do in the first place. The noble Viscount also raised the question of meat prices. I am quite sure that, as a general rule, butchers tend to keep their retail prices fairly level. They expect a lower margin when prices of fatstock are high, and a bigger margin when fatstock prices are low; so they keep the prices to the housewife on a reasonably steady level. The high prices which are now being realised for home-produced beef animals mean only fiat housewives are prepared to pay a premium for home-produced meat to cover the extra cost of winter feeding. I am glad there is this strong preference for home-produced meat; but for those who do not want home-produced meat there is plenty of imported meat available.
The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, also raised the question of overdrafts. He said that farmers' overdrafts at their banks were increasing, and so were bankruptcies among farmers. It 798 is true that bank overdrafts are increasing, but that is, of course, partly because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has specifically asked the banks to give special consideration to the importance of agriculture in the national economy when applying their general policy of restricting credit. I certainly do not agree that a high level of bank advances necessarily means that the industry is in poor shape. These advances are needed to finance expansion arid improvement, and they can be regarded as a sign of buoyancy in the industry. As to bankruptcies, the number of receiving orders issued for forestry, agriculture and fishery, in the three years 1951–53 were, respectively, 149, 166 and 204. These figures are negligible compared with the number of enterprises in the three industries.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me what progress is being made with the sale of land which is under the control of the Agricultural Land Commission. Of the 228,000 acres which the Commission controls, roughly 105,000 acres are agricultural land bought by the Forestry Commission for planting; 40,000 comprise the Glanllyn and Laxton Estates, 27,000 are former airfields, and the remaining 56,000 are land bought compulsorily under the Agriculture Act of 1947, land bought by agreement for rehabilitation, and a few miscellaneous kinds. We do not intend to sell the Glanllyn or Laxton Estates, but we have made a start with the 56,000 acres, of which nearly 11,000 are in preparation for sale—that is to say, each individual property has been examined and a decision taken to sell. My noble friend also raised the question of the method of sale. I cannot agree with him that the State would be in a dilemma in that they would either be playing the part of a good landlord and letting the tenant have the farm, or playing the part of a good trustee of the National Exchequer and selling to the highest bidder. In practice the two coincide. There is a tenant sitting on the land, and that land is inevitably worth more to him than it is to anyone else, so the chances of getting a lesser price from the tenant than anyone else are remote. It is the normal practice to offer it either to the original owner, if the case is appropriate, or to the tenant in the first place, and then to sell by auction.
799 My noble friend Lord Listowel also mentioned commons. I appreciate his desire to see better use made of the common land in this country. There are about two million acres of common land in England and Wales, and no doubt a large part of this could be very considerably improved, either for use by the commoners, where they wish to exercise their rights, or, alternatively, for ordinary agricultural use. The difficulty is that commons are a survival from the feudal system of tenure, and, as a result of a century of legislation, the law has become so complicated that it is extremely hard for anyone to make effective use of common land without infringing some aspect of existing legislation. For example, the commoners cannot erect fences to control grazing; they cannot plough the land in the interests of a proper rotation; they cannot control the number of stock, or manage the grazing in the most efficient manner. As a result, the great majority of the land subject to common rights in this country is gradually becoming derelict. It is covered with bracken or gorse, and is of practically no use to the commoners for agricultural purposes, and of very little use to the general public for recreational purposes.
I should perhaps mention that there is a popular misconception that the public have a legal right of access to all common land for recreational purposes. This is not so. The public have rights of access over only a limited number of commons, as, for example, those in the London area or in other built-up urban districts. On the other hand, in practice, many commons have been used by the public for recreational purposes, with the general ber of years, and, clearly, these de facto rights cannot be ignored. The problem, therefore, is to consider, having regard to the long history and tradition of common land, how far it would be possible to reconcile the traditional rights of commoners and the general desire of the public for access to commons for recreational purposes, with the general wish to see more effective use made of common land, either for agricultural purposes, for recreational purposes, or, in exceptional cases, where the land is not suitable for either of these purposes, perhaps for some other public purpose. The problem is not an easy one and the Gov- 800 ernment now have the whole question under very careful consideration.
The noble Lord, Lord Wise, raised the question of smallholdings. I should like to tell your Lordships that we shall shortly be submitting to Parliament a report on smallholdings for the year ended March 31, 1954. Bearing in mind the need to limit public expenditure and capital investment, my right honourable friend has concentrated mainly on the improvement of existing holdings to bring them up to the standards envisaged in Part IV of the Agriculture Act, though some new schemes have been approved, and no doubt more will follow.
I am sorry to have heard again this afternoon the old familiar suggestion that the Government have no long-term policy for agriculture. Our long-term policy has been explained in this House several times before, and it is precisely because it is a long-term policy that it has not changed in its essentials since last April, which was the last occasion on which your Lordships turned your attention to agricultural policy in general. We remain determined to ensure stability for the industry while at the same time giving it the flexibility which comes from free markets and healthy competition. We still want to see as much of our food as possible produced here at home, and we should like producers to have a say in the marketing of their produce wherever appropriate through marketing schemes under the Agricultural Marketing Acts. The news which I have been able to give the House about the agreement we have reached for the promotion of an Egg Marketing Scheme is more evidence of the sincerity of our intentions in this direction.
There seems every reason why farmers should have confidence in the future but it continues to be suggested that there is uncertainty. Some people, I know, having heard what has been said about the cost of maintaining agriculture at its present level, and about the need to reduce that cost, have jumped to the conclusion that this means the Government intend making drastic cuts in the support which has been provided from the Exchequer. There is no justification whatever for this assumption, and in fact it is contrary to the firm assurances which my right honourable friend has repeatedly given. I think the industry itself it fully aware of the need to reduce costs, but 801 this will not be done at the price of letting down an industry which has done so much in responding to repeated calls for increased production and increased productivity.
It has been suggested that farmers would feel more secure if they could be given their support in, the shape of tariff protection, instead of subsidies. I very much doubt whether that is so. There is no tariff that could give the certain help which we are giving the industry direct from the Exchequer. To give the equivalent in support for some commodities a tariff would have to be set at a very high level indeed. If it did not raise the prices it would be no good to the farmer, and if it did it might all too easily destroy the market. The subsidy, as well as giving the farmer an assured return, also safeguards his market. For this reason, and because our position in international trade depends on our ability to sell to countries which send us food, we have quite deliberately chosen guaranteed prices and production grants as our method of helping agriculture, instead of giving protection by way of limitation of imports. We intend to go on providing a substantial measure of support in this way. There is no more reason to suppose that we shall not do so than there is to suppose that other industries will not continue to have the benefits of tariff protection. Any reduction that may become possible in the bill for subsidies will be made in the light of what the industry can fairly achieve. The object of the price guarantees is to ensure a fair living for producers and to enable them to pay a fair wage to their workers. That object we intend to fulfil scrupulously.
My Lords, we have had a long and useful debate. In replying, I have done my best to meet three needs, which sometimes come into conflict—the need not to be a bore, the need to answer as many of your Lordships' questions as I can and the need to give a clear statement of the Government's policy. If I have not succeeded in all these objects, I hope that 802 I have at least shown that the Government have a clear, forward-looking, long-term policy in which the industry can confidently put its trust.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, in rising to beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl on his first major speech on behalf of the Government in an agricultural debate. But I must tell him at once that I feel that he was very much swayed by his last phrase. I think it was the Apostle Paul who said:We are saved by hope.I could see little else in the noble Earl's argument. I received no real reply to the questions I asked about the way in which last night the farmers had been marched up the hill and this morning marched down again, after the pronouncement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer which registered "No change." I was delighted to hear my opinion repeated by the noble Earl when he said that he assured us that the policy has not changed since last April. That confirms the views of the farmers and what I said in my speech today. But it would be a shame to bore the House by taking up more of the matters on which I disagree with the noble Earl. I would mention only one point, in regard to the prices of meat. There may be a greater demand for English beef in the shops, but it is by people who can afford to pay 7s. 6d. per lb. for rump steak. There may be a greater demand for home-cured Yorkshire ham, but at 7s. 6d. per lb. It is not what the farmers are getting; it is what the consumers have to pay—and only the consumers who can afford to pay; the others are rationed away from it by their inability to make the purchase. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at fourteen minutes past seven o'clock.