§ [THIRD DAY]
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [30th November]:
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as followeth:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.—[Mr. J. N. Browne.]
§ Question again proposed.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Williams (Don Valley)
We make no apology at all for raising the question of agriculture. After all, agriculture is still our largest industry, employing directly about 1 million persons. Their output last year was in the region of £1,200 million. They are, therefore, entitled to be heard more frequently in this House, not only during the debates on the Queen's Speech, but on many other occasions.
It is an opportune moment for the new Minister to make his first large agricultural speech in this House, and hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome him when he does so. We are raising this matter because of the grave doubt and uncertainty which we know to exist in the countryside. Where there was until recently confidence and readiness to invest large sums of capital, now there is doubt, hesitation and bewilderment.
We charge the Government with full responsibility for the change that has taken place. By importing their own special brand of economic and political theories into this industry, they have not only undermined the confidence produced by the 1947 Act, but are also indicating that they are running away from their own promise in the Conservative Agriculture Charter. The fact that, in the last quarter of a century this industry has twice saved the nation from semi-starvation, apparently means little or nothing to the present Government.
320 Were the Prime Minister addressing the Opposition, he would probably say, "Their political party nostrums are of more importance than the well-being of agriculture or the food of the people." Well, that is exactly what we think of the present Government. Their party nostrums and pleasant phrases come first and the well-being of the industry a very bad second. They are the Government, of course, and they are entitled to pursue their own policies. That is an unwritten law. Nevertheless, we are under a definite obligation to warn the nation that, if the policy of so-called freedom and the law of supply and demand is carried to its logical conclusion, it can mean disaster to the industry and a very great danger to the food supplies of the people.
There is a very tardy recognition in the Gracious Speech that what we said last November was correct. It states:My Ministers recognise that the transition from control to freedom has brought problems for all engaged in farming and kindred industries.Those problems were foreshadowed in November last year, yet they were deliberately created by the indecent haste with which all forms of control were dismantled. We were obliged during and after the war to adopt policies which were not only likely to increase the production of food from own soil, but to ensure that the best use be made of the limited area of land.
The confidence which was entirely absent in pre-war years was completely restored. Market and price guarantees were provided and, as every hon. Member must now know, production has now reached record levels. No Government ever took office and inherited a better policy than did the present Government. They had a combination of the 1947 Act, the Hill Farming Act and the Livestock Rearing Act—with many additions. The fact is that three years of Tory Government have shattered the confidence of the rural community from Northumberland to Cornwall and from Belfast to Inverness.
There is no need for me to quote from the farming or any other Press. My own correspondence tells its own story. Farmers today feel that there is no such thing as a long-term policy, that continuity and stability have been completely 321 dropped, and that large-scale capital investment would be nothing short of a gamble.
The reason for that is not far to seek—and here I am not condemning the new Minister of Agriculture. Speaking at the Farmers' Club quite recently, the Minister said that farmers knew what best to produce on their own farms. The farmer, said the Minister,… saw how the markets had been moving and he formed a view of their likely future trends.Shades of the 1920s and 1930s. Each of 360,000 farmers must keep his eyes on home and world trends and decide whether to breed, sow or plant according to his or her estimate of world trends. That is a long day's march from stability. Agriculture is by no means a push-button industry, where production can be changed in rapid succession from one commodity to another. The methods of "pinafores today and buttons tomorrow" cannot apply to agriculture. It has the longest production cycle of any industry.
At the same meeting, the Minister said:The farmer saw before him a system of free markets in which the law of supply and demand was in force.Of course he does—but who invoked this new form of freedom, this unwritten law of supply and demand? How does it square with the highest priority, continuity and certainty which the Conservative Party promised when in opposition? The fact is that all their protestations and boasts of supporting Labour's long-term policy of guarantees and continuity were just insincere, as recent events have proved.
Might I, once again, remind the House and members of the Government in particular just what the Conservative Party Agricultural Charter said? What they said in opposition can then be compared with what they are now doing in office. That Charter said:That is why we are resolved to give home agricultural production the highest priority, and to introduce a sense of urgency, of continuity and of certainty into policy.Where is the certainty, continuity and sense of urgency and high priority? It is not in star-gazing into world trends. We can only conclude that this Conservative Agricultural Charter was a fraudulent prospectus, a vote-catching instrument 322 similar to their reducing-the-cost-of-living effort in 1951.
I wish to make it very plain that nothing I say is a condemnation or criticism of the present Minister. He has only recently inherited the traditional policy—or lack of policy—of the Conservative Party, and we all know that any form of planning, even where agriculture is concerned, has always been anathema to that party. Agriculture is, perhaps, the most difficult of all our industries to organise on a long-term basis. We also know that the results of the Tory Party's refusal to face planning or any form of control led us to a state where farms were derelict all over the place, millions of acres of land went out of cultivation and production reached rock bottom.
Why are we so disturbed today? Why is the industry really and genuinely worried? Since I came to this House there have been, including the right hon. Gentleman, 11 Conservative Ministers of Agriculture. With one exception—Lord Hudson's term of office during the course of the war—the so-called law of supply and demand, and complete freedom, was mainly in operation. The average term of office of those Ministers was just over two years. They were not all failures, but all failed with agriculture because they never had a chance under a Conservative Government—which never had an agricultural policy.
The Prime Minister may have made many mistakes, he has held many offices, but he never made the mistake of becoming Minister of Agriculture in a Conservative Government. It was very bad for the succession of Ministers I have Watched come and go—they never had a chance—but it was worse for the industry, which was neither successful nor prosperous all down the years.
The question we are obliged to ask ourselves is whether the right hon. Gentleman can succeed where the others have failed. He certainly cannot succeed simply by star-gazing into world trends, nor by relying upon 360,000 farmers doing just as they like, when they like and how they like, and switching production hither and thither. Just as we had to make a clean break with the past to restore confidence and provide stability, so, if the right hon. Gentleman 323 wishes to stay the course of two short years and a bit, he will need to satisfy the farming community that he is not only talking about the Government standing four-square behind the principles of the 1947 Act, with markets as well as prices up to the quantity of food required from our own farms, but that the Government are actually doing what they are saying.
Might I give the right hon. Gentleman this piece of advice? Perhaps he will re-read the Conservative Charter and bring it to the notice of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was the chairman of the committee that produced it. It might help the new Minister of Agriculture in his Cabinet discussions. I know that the more recent Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are in the habit of making almost a weekly speech pledging their troth to the principles of the 1947 Act which, they say, they will never, never desert. But they seem singularly inept in fitting those principles into the area of universal freedom that they themselves have provided.
We have already had the pig muddle. There is anxiety on the cereal front, and even the egg marketing scheme is becoming a bit stale. As one farmer put it to me, "The millers are prepared to buy our wheat, at their price, in their time, if they need it. It is no consolation to us," said the farmer, "that the deficiency payment is safe until after the next General Election." He went on, "As regards milk and eggs, all we have to do is to train our cows and hens to produce the right quantity of milk and eggs at the right time of the year, and at the right price, and then sell them if we can." That is a point of view, but it is not a very happy state of mind for farmers to be in, and, unfortunately, that view seems to be fairly widespread.
Certainly the pig muddle will take a lot of explaining away, and it will not do for either the Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer—who, by the way, seems to have appointed himself the Government's chief agricultural propagandist—to deploy the argument that we are making political capital out of a temporary difficulty. After all, the Government themselves created the diffi- 324 culty, and they deserve the condemnation that is coming to them for it.
For years the previous Government and, indeed, hon. Members opposite have appealed to the farming community for more and more pig meat. Members of the present Government were perhaps more clamant than any other Members. The White Paper No. 8556 of 1952 said:In terms of meat, a programme of this kind should lead to a progressive increase in production which, by the fourth year, might well be some 250,000 tons (mainly pig meat),while the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Carrington, said in 1953 that the Government would like to see another million pigs by 1954–55.
Between June, 1953. and June, 1954, there was an increase of over 1 million pigs; and then what happened? The Government, who had asked for pigs, saw that the pigs were readily forthcoming, but they made no sort of arrangement at all to market them, with the result that bacon curers could receive only about two-thirds of the pigs available after they had been produced and fed. Pigs, therefore, had to be held back on the farms and fed for several weeks, and because of the then price schedule, which perhaps was quite right, the larger the pigs grew, the smaller the price the producer got for them. No wonder, then, that the pig producers, large and small, were in a panic. They had responded to the demand for more pigs and then, as usual, this Government let them down.
As one writer put it, it is the fruit of a blind plunge into freedom which allowed no breathing space for proper adjustment of production and marketing policy to the new conditions. Clearly, this is an example where the Government's policy for the pig industry has neither produced the stability nor permitted the efficiency which the Agriculture Act was designed to achieve. That is a very sad story, and I do not think that it is going to be as temporary as some hon. Members opposite try to make themselves believe.
I should like the right hon. Gentleman to clarify this point when he replies, by elaborating on what he said about pigs at the Farmers' Club meeting. There he said that we could do with about the same number of pigs as we have now if qualit3, is right and the price comes down. I understand that the bacon curers can deal 325 with about 5 million pigs a year, which is just about half our consumption of bacon. Has the Minister made it clear to the industry that there is to be no extension of bacon factories in this country, and that they must adjust their production to 50 per cent. of our bacon requirements? Both the industry and the House are entitled to an answer to that important question.
On the question of beef, mutton and lamb, the Chancellor said the other day, in one of his fairly regular agricultural speeches, indicating that his state of mind was not too happy and stable about the countryside, that the deficiency payments for beef, mutton and lamb will work out very much as the Government expected. But what the Chancellor did not say was that but for the activities of the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, dealing with approximately 40 per cent. of the value of all the livestock being slaughtered, the old auction mart system would have broken down completely, and the cost to the Exchequer could have been enormous, and the producers would have got all the blame. There is no doubt that but for the courage, determination and tenacity of the N.F.U. leaders and the loyalty of livestock producers, hasty decontrol would have proved a calamity to the industry and to the Exchequer.
On the question of production and marketing, the Gracious Speech says:They will not relax their efforts to promote the efficient production and marketing of food.We all agree that efficient production should be the constant aim of every farmer, but we must also agree that, thanks to the guarantees and the sense of stability that the farmers have had over the past 10 years or so, efficiency has increased at a more rapid rate than at any other period in British history.
But what can we say about efficient marketing? While the Conservative Party were never enthusiastic about agricultural marketing—in fact, may I remind them that they voted against the Agricultural Marketing Act in 1930—in their White Paper of 1953 entitled "Decontrol of Food and Marketing of Agricultural Produce," they did visualise possible schemes for eggs, potatoes and bacon. But so far, after three years of Conservative government, no schemes have been submitted.
326 Still another promise is made in the Queen's Speech not to relax their efforts, although their efforts seem to have produced very few eggs. Might I remind the Parliamentary Secretary that in his optimistic moments in 1951, when he was writing up the Conservative Party's agricultural policy for the October election, he said in the "News Chronicle":A Conservative Government would progressively improve the marketing of both agricultural and horticultural products by encouraging the formation and development of producer marketing boards. On the one hand, this would relieve the long-suffering taxpayer of the heavy cost of the Ministry of Food performing these functions, and, on the other, would ensure a progressive improvement both in economy of marketing and in quality of presentation.Of course, that is when the Parliamentary Secretary was in opposition and in search of votes. That was just three years ago.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us when he replies why not a single scheme has emerged after that very definite and specific promise, made over three years ago. Either he or the Minister will perhaps tell us why they are still so hesitant about marketing schemes. Is it because the trading interests are too strong? Or is the Treasury barring the way? Or does it simply not matter, because the housewife has to pay? We are at least entitled to know why they make these promises and then rarely fulfil one of them.
The farming community will read the following paragraph in the Gracious Speech with mixed feelings:My Ministers recognise that the transition from control to freedom has brought problems for all engaged in farming and kindred trades.In other words, that is a confession of Government blunders. The second quotation reads:They will not relax their efforts"—if any—to promote the efficient production and marketing of food.That means exactly what it says—nothing. The last part reads:These will enable stability for the industry to be combined with the flexibility of a free market so that the consumer may enjoy plentiful supplies, and the producer a fair return.I can only describe the third part of the reference to agriculture as just "wet and windy." To an industry which, with approximately the same number of 327 workers as it had in 1939, produced 50 per cent. more food last year, this reference to farming is little less than an insult to the industry and everybody employed in it.
There is no reference at all in the Gracious Speech to a long-term policy, except for the somewhat vague expression of "flexible stability," whatever that elastic term may mean. There is no word likely to restore confidence to the industry or to discourage skilled workers from leaving the land. Whereas in their White Paper in 1952 the Government hoped for an increase in tillage acreage of about 1 million acres, the latest returns show a reduction of over 300,000 acres. I regard that as a portent. It is true, us the Minister will no doubt tell me, that according to the latest returns—September—livestock numbers show no signs of diminution, but that was before the pig muddle, and in any case one cannot change breeding policy overnight. We shall certainly watch the December returns with very great interest.
So much for Tory policy in the short term. What about the long-term prospects? This Government of all Governments, always counselling others to think and look far ahead, ought to be the leaders in the star-gazing. We know that many exporting countries are consuming much more of their own produce than they consumed in the past. I need to mention only the Argentine, Australia and perhaps India. We know that world population is increasing at the rate of 85,000 a day, or 30 million a year—perhaps far in excess of the general increase in food production. We know that, at the present rate of the acquisition of land, over the next 50 or 60 years we are likely to lose another 2 million acres of cultivable land, and we know that for balance of payments reasons the saving of imports is equally as good as the expansion of exports.
What, then, should be our approach to this grave national problem both now and in the years afterwards? I certainly do not advocate, nor, I think, does anyone else, maximum production of food in this country, regardless of cost, but rather a steady, continuous improvement in the efficiency of production and marketing, based on production policies 328 agreed by and understood by the industry and, at the same time, the Government. For this, concrete and absolute confidence is required. That confidence does not exist at the moment. Our charge against the Government, therefore, is that they have been less than frank with the industry, that they have left it in a state of uncertainty and indecision, that they constantly make promises to agriculture When in opposition and immediately proceed to break them when in office. In our view, all along the line they have been too busy looking backward to try to look forward. I believe that they are endangering the food supplies of this country in the immediate and distant future and that they are doing no less than gambling with the balance of payments problem.
§ Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)
Could the right hon. Gentleman give his authority for stating that 2 million acres will be taken out of cultivation?
§ 3.17 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. Heathcoat Amory)
This is the first opportunity we have had of a general discussion on agriculture for some time and, as a rather recent entrant into the industry—I believe that "trainee" would be the appropriate word—I welcome it very much. I see around me this afternoon so many hon. Members who, I know, are very experienced and erudite in agricultural affairs that I admit to being a little awed by the very high technical pressure of the atmosphere. I realise that in this business of agriculture I have a lot to learn.
I am glad to be able to follow the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). In many things concerning agriculture I am sure that we see eye to eye; in some we do not. Most of us on this side of the House have great personal respect for him. Today, however, he has given a picture of the present situation which is out of all relation to realities.
I must say that I was surprised at the defeatism and lack of confidence which he displayed in the resilience and the ability of our agriculture. He seemed 329 to speak as if our farmers have one ambition only, which is to be told exactly what to do and what not to do, how to do it and how not to do it, and then to be given a fixed remuneration for so doing. I do not think that that is the spirit which runs through British agriculture.
The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to express great sympathy for me in my present position, and in the approaching termination of my political career. I do not know how that will work out, but I can tell him that I am enjoying myself at present. I want to give the House a kind of progress report on the present situation and the prospects as I see them. In so doing I shall try to answer as many of the right hon. Gentleman's questions as I can.
The first point I want to make is perhaps rather obvious, but it is basic: during the past year or two we have moved into an entirely new situation; we have moved from a situation of food shortages to one of relative sufficiency, and new conditions call for new methods. The Government would indeed have been worthy of reproach if they had been inactive and had trusted to arrangements and methods designed to deal with a period of shortages and had relied on them to grapple with the new and entirely different set of problems which exist today and which will exist tomorrow. That would have been a classic instance of preparing for the wrong war.
Fortunately, the Government have remained very far from inactive in these matters. By dismantling controls, ending rationing, freeing production and distribution from restrictions and devising new ways of providing price support, they have created the conditions in which British agriculture is, I believe, going to give the very best account of itself in the era of vigorous competition that lies ahead. These steps have been made possible by two things: first, the improvement both in world and home food supplies; and, secondly, the very impressive strengthening of our national economy which has taken place during the past few years.
In the past year there have been two main achievements. I want to say this because, if I can, I want to comfort the right hon. Member and disperse the feeling of defeatism to which I referred. 330 The first achievement has been a further increase in net output. The percentages of increases over output in 1939 were: 1950–51, 43 per cent.; 1951–52, 49 per cent.; 1952–53, 52 per cent.; and 1953–54, 55 per cent. We must not count our chickens before they are hatched, and I shall have a word to say about the harvest in a moment, but that does look like progress in the right direction and up to a recent date.
The second achievement is the changeover to new schemes of marketing and price support. Here, I should like to pay a personal tribute to the immediate predecessors in my two offices for the work they have done and on the success of the schemes they devised so carefully in consultation with the industry a year ago. Those schemes, in general, so far have worked out extraordinarily well.
In opening the debate, the right hon. Member seemed to say, "The Government have no policy for agriculture" or, alternatively, "If they have I do not understand it" or "If I do understand it, I do not like it." That may be a fair interpretation and it is just the right start for the Opposition in a debate on the Motion for an Address. I take no objection to that at all, but I do not think the right hon. Member found time to explain to us whether he and his hon. Friends have a policy, and if so, what it is.
Not for a moment during his speech did I get the faintest impression of what the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would like to see done in the present state of things, or, in the event of their coming back to office, what they would do. The right hon. Member and his supporters must really face the fact that Government buying and allocation simply cannot be reconciled with free choice for the consumer. That is basic to the present policy of the Government. Government allocation means that the consumer must take what he is offered and, presumably, be content with it. Although I did not hear that this afternoon, I imagine that must be the policy of the right hon. Member for Don Valley and his right hon. and hon. Friends.
§ Mr. T. Williams
Before that is let loose outside this House, the right hon. Gentleman must admit that I never referred to the word "allocation" 331 throughout my speech—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman is not going to misinterpret anything I said by putting into my mouth words which I have never uttered.
That was the point I was trying to make. During his speech we could not get a clue as to what the policy of the right hon. Member was. Judging from what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have said from time to time about this matter, I believe that rationing and allocation must be absolutely a central point in their policy.
Perhaps during the course of our debate there will be an opportunity for hon. Members opposite to explain exactly what their policy amounts to. The point I make is that any policy which involves allocation without freedom of choice is certainly not our policy.
The Opposition's policy cannot give the consumer a free choice, nor can it give sufficient emphasis to improving production.
Our policy has been shaped to meet these requirements, and I claim that it is doing so. I am very anxious that the right hon. Member should understand our policy on agriculture, so I shall describe it as succinctly as I can.
We believe that a strong and stable agricultural industry is as vital to us in peace as it is in war. Furthermore, we believe that is in the interests of everyone in this country, consumers and producers alike. We want as high an output of efficient home food production as we can get. There is no ceiling, but we must have regard, now and in the future, to costs and quality as well as quantity. We believe that we ought to be able to obtain a net output of about 60 per cent. above pre-war during the next few years. Secondly, we want to ensure reasonable stability in conditions of freedom and flexibility.
Those are the objects how are they to be attained? We believe that will best be brought about—this is one aspect of the policy—if we leave freedom to farmers to decide for themselves what kind of production they will go in for to suit their particular land and circumstances. But the Government must see that they get a fair return for efficient production and the right incentives to increase efficiency still further.
I want to describe how we are endeavouring to carry out those two objects. I would remind the House of the extent and range of assistance which we are giving the industry at present, apart from the guarantees in price, because I think that sometimes the scope and the scale are not realised. There are the grants for ploughing up grassland, for fertilisers, for the rearing of calves, for field drainage and water supply, for lime, for the assistance of marginal production, for hill farming and hill cattle, and for the eradication of bovine tuberculosis. There are others, also.
About half the cattle in Great Britain are now attested. During the next four years we hope to extend still further the areas in Wales, Scotland and North-West of England and to start with area eradication in Southern England.
The total we expect to spend this year on production grants is £54 million. In addition, there are our many research institutes and advisory services which are doing first-rate work. The advisory service is extending its advice into the important field of farm management, which, I think, is a very interesting development.
Now I want to turn to the cost of that support. All this costs a lot of money, and we expect the bill for price guarantees and production grants this year to amount to substantially more than £200 million. Exactly how much it will be is impossible to say at this stage, because it depends partly on the trend of market prices. That is a large sum, and it is clearly in the interest of everyone—
As I have said, it is impossible to say at this stage what it will amount to. With the best will in the world, any figures that I gave now as to how the cost was running might easily be falsified by changes in the next month or two.
There is nothing secret in this. The best indication I can give is to say that it is running between £200 and £250 million at the present time.
It is in everyone's interests that we should do what we can to see that this big bill to the taxpayer should gradually be reduced. I believe that if the industry can continue, and even improve upon, its very fine record during recent years of increasing its annual productivity—it has been increasing at the rate of about £20 million a year during the last three or four years—a gradual reduction in the bill to the taxpayer should be possible while maintaining stability and prosperity to the industry.
I do not mind repeating, as often as anybody wants me to say it, that we stand by the assurances given in Part I of the Agriculture Act. We believe that the nation is getting value from this support to an industry which is steadily improving its productivity.
§ Mr. M. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)
Is there to be any check on prices in connection with what the Minister has been saying?
I shall be dealing with that later.
The Government have deliberately chosen this method of subsidies rather than the alternatives of, perhaps, tariffs or quota restrictions for providing a price support to the industry, because we be-believe that in our position as a great trading nation, that is the best way of providing the support. We have no intention of making any sudden, startling or arbitrary cuts in this subsidy bill to the detriment of efficient production.
As I said, we shall look forward to a gradual reduction, in the light of the continued increasing productivity and efficiency.
I should like to say a word about minimum prices. We have had these considerations which I have mentioned very much in mind in determining the minimum prices for livestock products for 1956–57 and 1957–58, of which details were given yesterday in reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Spearman). I need not remind the House that these minimum prices are merely an absolute floor. The guaranteed prices for those years will be fixed at the time of the Annual Review.
I should like to turn to the methods which we are at present following in providing the price guarantee and the marketing arrangements. As I have explained, with the new conditions into which we have been moving it became essential that with the end of rationing and control there should be changes in the methods of marketing and in the forms of the guarantees.
The new arrangements have not been in operation very long, but, on the whole, the way in which they have been working is distinctly encouraging. I have no doubt that as time goes on we shall find ways in which we can modify them advantageously, and we may even find better ways of doing the same thing. As and when those opportunities arise, we shall seize them eagerly, but I claim that the transition to free markets has been successfully accomplished and that the beneficial effects are being increasingly felt.
Twelve commodities are covered by the guarantees in the Agriculture Act. We have now virtually established permanent schemes for three of them—milk, potatoes, and wool. Incidentally, I may remind the right hon. Member for Don Valley, since he seems to imply that we on this side of the House were not keen on marketing boards, that in all three cases it is being done with the co-operation of a producers' marketing board. During the past six months, we have also introduced arrangements for eight other commodities. I cannot deal with the whole eight, but I should like to make one or two remarks about three of them—cereals, fatstock and eggs.
335 As regards cereals, the first entirely free grain market for 15 years has been accompanied by probably the most difficut harvest for 50 years. The first lesson to be drawn from this experience of the new free market, accompanied by the unprecedented weather, is the need to study the market. The second lesson is the need, in connection with the use of combines, to make sure that there is proper provision for drying and storage. Certainly, from our experience this year, that connection cannot possibly be ignored.
Part of the trouble this year about the very wet harvest was that many farmers found themselves without facilities for drying and storage and, therefore, threw their grain on to the market, with the result that the market became extremely weak. The Government have not been unmindful of this business. As hon. Members know, there is a rising scale of seasonal guaranteed prices to induce farmers—
—to retain their grain longer than they would otherwise do. Then, loans are available to farmers who wish to provide drying and storage facilities from the United States economic aid.
Thirdly, there are the national silos, which this season we have been operating under Ministry of Food control—to date the silos have handled, I believe, about 90,000 tons of home-grown grain—making a charge for the service. We have decided that in future it would not be inappropriate if those silos were to be operated under co-operative arrangements by producers, and we have offered them for operation by an organisation to be promoted by the National Farmers' Union, if it would care to operate them. Further discussions on this point are proceeding.
The trade has played its part in absorbing this year's cereal crops under very difficult conditions. The trouble has been the existence of a weak market. One hears stories of millers' rings and things like that, but I have no evidence whatever of millers' rings. What has happened is that buyers of grain, very naturally, have bought their grain at the lowest possible price; and that brings us back once again to the weak market.
336 There is very little evidence that there is a differential which cannot be justified between the price of imported grain and the prices which our producers have been getting. Even so, with all these difficulties, the evidence I have is that very little reasonably dry grain has not found a market.
I was able to announce earlier this week that the deficiency payment for wheat in the first period will amount to £9 3s. 6d. a ton. Cheques will be sent to producers straight away. Advance payments for barley and rye will also be made as soon as possible. In view of the present strong market for oats, and the trend of rising prices, we have decided that we cannot make an advance payment for oats at present. Deficiency payments, broadly speaking on the same lines, will operate again next year.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the drop in the tillage acreage—
I do not think I can go over all that again. I have already told the right hon. Gentleman how they are being operated this year and how we suggest they could be operated in the future. The right hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair.
§ Mr. Brown
I do not think I am being unfair. The Minister said—[HON. MEMBERS: "Make a speech presently."] I shall be glad to do so, if necessary. The Minister said that the weak market was in part due to the lack of drying equipment. To say that silos that exist are to be operated by somebody else is no answer to that. I asked him what he was going to do, and to indicate what the Government's policy is to make good the lack. What is he going to do about it?
The evidence I have is that many, many farmers, acting in the light of experience this year, are now buying grain dryers and storage facilities of their own. The trade tells me that there is a very brisk demand for dryers at the present time.
I have described what the Government are doing. The right hon. Gentleman will doubtless have a chance of saying his piece later on. It is impossible to make a speech with all these interruptions.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley asked me about the drop in the tillage area. Undoubtedly, there was last year a substantial drop. We want a high level of cereal production and we are providing incentives accordingly. On the other hand, we must leave it to individual farmers to decide, each one for himself, what is the best for them to grow in the present economic circumstances.
Therefore, it would be quite wrong for me to try to lay down an aggregate tillage acreage, however odd this may seem to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. Whether or not the drop in the tillage area is serious depends entirely upon what use is made of the land that ceases to be tilled. Provided that it goes into good leys carrying a full head of livestock it can be as productive, or even more so, than tillage in the conditions in which we are now existing.
A word about fatstock. We are coming to the end of the first stock fattening season after decontrol. Again, the results have abundantly justified the Government's decision to decontrol meat and fat-stock. For the first time for many years there has been no autumn glut of fat cattle and sheep. Week after week there has been an even and steady flow of stock coming forward to meet the needs of the trade. Prices, too, have been encouraging to producers, especially those for fat lambs, and the size of the Government's guaranteed payments has in consequence steadily gone down.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley paid a tribute to the Fat-stock Marketing Corporation. I entirely 338 support him in that. Here is an example of exactly the kind of initiative that we welcome. He referred to the Fatstock Marketing Corporation's handling, I think, 40 per cent.—
If the right hon. Gentleman is right and I am wrong the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is to wind up the debate, will correct me, and give the figures.
§ Mr. Williams
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman wants as much as I to be certain that we are discussing the same thing. I said the whole of the value of all the fatstock, including, of course, cattle, sheep, lambs, and pigs for bacon.
I still think I am nearer the mark than the right hon. Gentleman, but we will settle that point later.
One word about pigs, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. It is perfectly true that in September and October large numbers of pigs could not be accepted by the bacon factories, and those heavy pigs unsuitable for bacon ultimately had to be sold in the pork market. The result was that for some weeks the prices for pork pigs fell away to a very low level. In the meantime, they have recovered substantially, and bacon factories today, I understand, can handle all the pigs on offer.
Some people are saying that these initial difficulties attendant on the reopening of the market, and the fear of a repetition of them next year, have destroyed confidence in the pig industry. I only can say that the latest figures that I have seen do not bear that out, after making all the allowances that one should make.
I am very anxious indeed to do anything I can to ensure that the same kind of trouble does not arise next year.
The Government are not in marketing and are not going into marketing, but there are one or two things I have been able to do. One is this. I asked the Advisory Panel, which advises me as Minister of Food, and which has on it representatives of all the interests concerned, the farmers, the auctioneers, the meat traders and curers, to consider this problem.
Earlier this week the Panel met, and there was a unanimity of view that the market needed all the pigs now being produced. That fits in exactly with the information which I have that there are not too many pigs in the country. All the members of the Panel agreed, too, that the recent difficulties sprang from the pattern of prices for pork and bacon pigs which emerged in the early days of July. I shall consider very carefully its recommendations.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the curing capacity at the factories. I want to make it quite clear that the Government have not laid down, and will not lay down, the proportion of pigs wanted for either bacon or pork. That must be settled by the market. It is exactly the kind of thing that the market settles best. If the market justifies it, no doubt the curers will be ready to increase their capacity. It is a marketing problem.
In our policy on pigs, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have said that the emphasis must be on a reduction in cost and an improvement in quality. What are we doing to help? First, there is the recent introduction of the National Pig Records Scheme. I am glad to say that the farmers have started very enthusiastically. The Scheme was introduced only 10 weeks ago, but we have already 1,000 members and 14,000 recorded sows. Registrations are coming in every week, and in a year, or possibly two years, we may have at least 25 per cent. of the country's breeding pigs registered in the scheme.
Another thing which is valuable from this point of view is that we hope to see established several up-to-date progeny testing stations on Danish lines. We hope that they will come into operation. We 340 believe that agreement will be reached shortly with the producers on this matter.
Lastly, we feel that more guidance is required about the type of pigmeat that will be needed by the trade in the next few years. We have, therefore, appointed a Committee to advise on this matter. Sir Harold Howitt, who was a member of the Reorganisation Commission for Pigs before the war, has agreed to act as Chairman. I hope that soon I shall be in a position to announce the names of the other members, and that the Committee will get to work. The Committee will not be concerned with investigating the market problem. The problem is more a breeding question and a matter of advice to farmers on the types of pigs which are likely to be required.
I want to touch on the possibility of an egg and poultry marketing scheme. We have often made it clear that we are in favour of producer marketing boards in appropriate cases. I think that this may well be such a case, and we are at present in discussion with the Unions on concrete proposals. I hope very much that these will shortly come to a satisfactory outcome.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley charged us with half-heartedness over producer marketing schemes. That seems to come oddly from that side of the House. I saw no great enthusiasm for them, but rather considerable antipathy to them on that side. The charge has not been substantiated. There are now in operation boards for marketing milk, potatoes, wool, hops, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We agreed to the promotion of a board on voluntary lines for fatstock. That has not been proceeded with. We also allowed a scheme to go forward for apples and pears, and that was subsequently voted upon by the producers. Now we are giving consideration to a scheme for poultry and eggs. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would have done half as much.
On the contrary, we have restored the boards—the Milk Marketing Board and the Potato Marketing Board. I ask the right hon. Member to look back at the record of his Government. He will see that on this point they have not much in the way of achievement.
§ Mr. Williams
Has the right hon. Gentleman forgotten the tomato, cucumber and wool marketing schemes? Apart from what the right hon. Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot) did with the Milk Marketing Board in 1933, the party opposite have had no marketing scheme of any kind.
It is just those things that I have considered. I say as a result of that consideration that I do not think that the right hon. Member and his colleagues have many achievements to their credit.
This scheme to deal with eggs and poultry has to be considered on its merits to ensure that it is fair to the consumer and the taxpayer as well as to the producer. Where the scheme passes those tests we shall be certainly agreeable to its official consideration and promotion. We believe that improvements in marketing are every bit as important as improvement in production.
As for horticulture, the new tariff increases which were agreed upon and put into operation during the past year seem to be working out successfully. Horticulture has had a difficult time lately owing to the weather, though. I gather that there has been a bumper crop of watercress. That no doubt will help us when we come to calculate the aggregate net return of the industry.
We have decided that the time has come when we should have a systematic examination of the very difficult and complex problems of horticultural marketing. There has been no comprehensive inquiry into this matter for 30 years, since the Linlithgow Committee reported. There have been many changes since then. In reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) yesterday, I said that we should be setting up such an inquiry, and that we would announce the composition and terms of reference of the inquiring body as soon as possible.
§ Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)
Will the inquiry be a United Kingdom inquiry? There is, for example, the question of the dumping of English horticultural products in Scotland.
I should not have the nerve to set up an inquiry into the position in Scotland. [Interruption.] I beg my hon. and gallant Friend's pardon. The inquiry will be comprehensive. In that case I have got the nerve, though I believe that the greater part of the industry is in the South.
I should like to say a few words about manpower, because I saw a reference in the Amendment to the Address to the continuing drop in manpower. That is something which I am watching with anxiety. There is still no evidence of a general shortage holding back production, but there are very real difficulties in certain localities. The decrease is partly due to the attraction of other jobs and partly to economy in the use of labour due to mechanisation and other causes.
To get the matter into perspective, we must remember that, coincidental with the drop in manpower, we have had a very encouraging increase in output per man, but still I am deeply concerned to see that the manpower on our farms should be adequately maintained, and I shall continue to watch the matter closely. I am sure, however, that it is difficult to exaggerate the importance in this matter of good housing, water supply, and electricity and transport.
I believe that almost as important as anything are good schools. I am delighted at the enthusiasm with which my Tight hon. Friend the Minister of Education is tackling the provision of more secondary schools in rural areas. I believe that modern farming techniques call for farmers and farmworkers with alert and well-trained minds. I am informed that it requires a very well educated person to understand some of the circulars and forms which are sent out by my Department. I had the pleasure, a week or two ago, of opening a very fine new secondary modern school, which will serve a rural area in my own county.
It is good too that electricity is being connected up to farms and cottages now at a much faster pace.
I am not so sure. If one looks at the dates one finds that it is thanks after quite a pause to nationalisation. The pace has been much accelerated recently.
343 The White Paper on Rural Wales which was published in November, 1953, raised the question of assistance for rural roads in livestock-rearing areas in Wales. I hope that it will not be very long before we formulate our proposals definitely and legislation is introduced.
I should like to say a few words about the effect of the present weather.
§ Mr. Douglas Marshall (Bodmin)
Before my right hon. Friend turns away from the subject of roads, I trust that he is fully aware of the importance to agriculture and horticulture of the Tamar Bridge.
I am fully aware of the position with regard to Tamar Bridge because my hon. Friend has already talked to me about it.
I want to pay a real tribute of admiration to our farmers and farm workers for the way in which they have tackled the situation created by the appalling weather this season. The difficulty started with the hay crop, and in many cases it was the hay crop which was the worst damaged of all. There have been very serious effects in certain areas on certain sections of the harvest, and latterly on potatoes. I am, however, glad to say that, from the information which I have, 95 per cent. of the potato crop has now been harvested.
There seems no likelihood of a general shortage of feed for winter keep, although there are local shortages. The trade and the National Farmers' Union are, I believe, helping to ensure that there shall be a satisfactory distribution of hay to meet those needs. I have authorised our county committees to waive requirements in connection with the hill cow and hill cattle subsidies that a proportion of the grants must be spent on improvements, and I have also reminded them of their power to grant credit for fodder.
My advisory officers are keeping very close touch and will advise, as time goes on, what the effects on the health of our stock is likely to be. In the meantime, ploughing and drilling for winter corn is being seriously delayed. The damage to the land, I think, has not been caused so much by the extent of the flooding as by the general waterlogged condition of the land. That is something, again, which we shall have to look out for in the immediate months ahead.
344 I want to say a very real word of thanks to the members of our county committees and their district committees for the help which they have given me. I know that their work in present circumstances may in many ways be more difficult than in the days when extra output was required regardless of cost. They are rendering very valuable service to the industry and to the country.
I also want to say one word about land. My predecessor announced that it was the Government's intention to sell any agricultural land they held unless there was some strong reason to the contrary. This policy I have started to carry out, and it will be continued. There are a number of areas of requisitioned plot land which are in the course of compulsory purchase under Section 85 of the Agriculture Act. These purchases will be completed, put together into holdings, and then, if possible, sold.
All other land under requisition being used for farming will be derequisitioned as soon as feasible. It is not intended to refer any more land to the Agricultural Land Commission under Section 84 of the 1947 Act. But, if necessary, references will be made under Section 68 of that Act instead.
Dispossession must still be the ultimate sanction in serious cases of bad husbandry or estate management under the 1947 Act when all other remedies have been tried and failed. We regard compulsory purchase as a procedure which ought to be used with the greatest restraint.
I hope that this survey, compressed and incomplete as it has been, will convince the House that the Government are whole-hearted in their resolve to stand firm and steadfastly behind our farmers, farmworkers and landowners in their continued efforts to meet the needs of the nation. We are determined that full production in the agricultural industry shall be maintained. The awful weather this season has, I am afraid, brought a temporary setback, but I am confident that the industry has never been in better shape, and that when it has recovered from the present difficult season, it will renew once more the impressive progress in productivity and efficiency that it has shown during the past two or three years. The scope is there, and, I am sure, the 345 skill and the enterprise, too. Her Majesty's Government will not falter in playing their part.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)
I have listened during nearly 10 years here to a number of agricultural debates, and I have always hoped that during the course of those debates we could deal with agricultural problems on a nonparty basis, and thus avoid violent changes of emphasis and policy when another Government took over. But that, apparently, is impossible. The Gracious Speech says:My Ministers recognise that the transition from control to freedom has brought problems …and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) has referred to this aspect of the Speech and to the problem of all engaged in farming and in the agricultural industry. I want to take it a little further, and give it, as my opinion, that not only has the process from control to freedom brought problems, but that if we are not careful the industry will be again heading for disaster.
I read in the Gracious Speech references to efficient production and marketing, the need for stability and for a free market. All these things are supposed to add up to the kind of efficient and prosperous agriculture, and very expanding agriculture, that we had from 1945 onwards. I have always held the view that in farming there must be long-term planning and a measure of control. But the kind of control that I envisage is not the kind of control that some people suppose we are aiming at. Some suppose that if Parliament leaves the industry to its own resources, all will be well. I think that those of us from the rural areas will appreciate this point: that farming would not last long in the modern world, in face of the various economic winds that blow today, without the State continuing to take some practical interest in the industry.
I appreciate that control in some directions can be irksome, but I think: that in relation to many aspects of farming control can also be benevolent. If the House wants an example of benevolent control I can say that we have it in the operation of the Milk Marketing Board.
346 I value the opportunity of addressing the House, because I want to say a few things from the workers' point of view. The welfare of the farmworker is bound up with the general welfare of the industry. When farmworkers make their claims, as they do from time to time, I assure the House that they make their claims with a due sense of responsibility—responsibility not merely to the industry itself, but to the nation as well.
If I may touch on the question of farm wages, although I appreciate that the Minister has nothing to do with this matter directly, I want to tell the House that the farmworkers were originally pressing for an increase of £1 per week in the national minimum wage, and had that been secured it would have brought the farmworkers a little nearer to the rate paid to industrial workers.
If the present proposals of the Agricultural Wages Board, which were issued yesterday, go through, then I take it that the farmworkers' wage will be increased, about mid-January to a national minimum of £6 7s. per week. In my opinion, the increase could have been greater. The Board rejected the workers' claim in June when everyone, including the farmers, expected the wage to be increased. I think I am correct in saying—and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the difference between agricultural and industrial wages has increased by over 3s. to £2 15s. 8d. a week since the claim was rejected in June.
I appreciate that the Agricultural Wages Board is a statutory body and that the Minister must not intervene in its proceedings, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and the Government can exercise great influence on the policy of the Board by their policy in this House. I have heard the Minister say that our farmworkers are the best in the world, and so they are. Not only is that true because of their hard work and their anxiety to do their best in the industry, but also because of their output per man. When the farm is prosperous, the workers have always made an approach, I will not say to prosperity, but to a wage which makes for happiness and comfort in their homes.
I have not given up hope of the industrial wage being paid on the farm, and I am going to claim the Minister of Agriculture as a supporter of this policy. I have been reading again the 347 address that he issued for the General Election, because I wanted to discover whether he had anything to say about my friends the farmworkers. I found that he had something very emphatic to say, and I now welcome him as a supporter. I noticed that the Minister expressed the same point of view as I have expressed today, that the wage of the farmworker should be on a par with that of the industrial worker. I am glad that he is with me, but I warn him that if he pursues his present policy he cannot possibly carry out the promise which he made to his electors.
§ Mr. Gooch
In the last five years, 76,000 men have left the land. It may be said that mechanisation of the farms has had a great deal to do with this, but there are many other reasons, among which is the level of the farmworker's wage. The point remains that at a time when we want to go forward with our agricultural programme all those men have left the farms. I accept the assurance given by the Minister that he has given a great deal of thought to this matter. It is extremely important. It is not a question of whether a machine can do the work; there is a human side to farming and I know that the Minister will pay as much attention to that as do many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard is here, because I want to congratulate him on the speech he made in seconding the Motion for the Address. I do so, as he knows very well, most sincerely. It was the kind of speech that I expected from a Member with his roots deep down in the soil. When a friend of mine, the late Sir George Edwards, made a maiden speech in this House a newspaper referred to his "earth clodden sentences." That was a compliment to one who had championed the cause of the farm workers for many years. I know that the remark which I have made about the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West, will be regarded by him as a compliment to himself.
The hon. Member did well to refer to the farmworkers' contribution in his 348 constituency, but it was a little unnecessary of him, as a Parliamentary colleague, to say:It is not that part of Norfolk that hon. Members may know from holidays on the Broads or on that beautiful bow of the North Sea coast. That is the glamorous outside."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 11.]I have the honour to represent in this House most of the restful Broad land and practically all of the beautiful bow of the North Sea coast. I agree that it is a delightful part of the country, but it does not make an insignificant contribution to farming. I might go so far as to say that the contribution that the farmworkers in my division make to the general welfare and to abundance of agricultural production is equal to the contribution made by the farming community in the division of the hon. Member.
In my county there is less confidence among the farmers about the future of the industry than there has been for years. That is due to what I regard as the deliberate undermining of the Labour Government's Agriculture Act, 1947. These is no effective substitute for an assured market, guaranteed prices and security of tenure for the efficient tenant farmer. Those things the farming community enjoyed under the Labour Government.
Now I would refer to something which was not in the Gracious Speech and which, I think, ought to have been there. Farmworkers were keenly disappointed at the absence of any reference to legislation that would help to reduce the number of accidents on farms. The case for the implementation of certain recommendations in the Gowers Report has been urged again and again. Meanwhile, the risk of accidents on farms keeps mounting.
I thought it was well to give the Minister a reminder on this subject a few days ago. When the Parliamentary Secretary replied to a Question of mine I thought there was general agreement on the form that legislation should take in regard to the Gowers Report. My hopes rose, to be dashed almost immediately by the concluding words of the Parliamentary Secretary's reply, which was to the effect that legislation must wait until Parliamentary time was available. Seeing that this subject is absent from the Gracious 349 Speech. I must conclude that Parliamentary time is not available to give the much-needed protection to the men who work machines on our farms.
This social legislation is long overdue. We have been talking about it for at least 30 years. We are still talking about it, but the matter has still to be attended to. I was very hopeful that there would be a reference in the Gracious Speech to the Government's intention to bring forward legislation. Farmworkers who are subject to daily risks should not be put off by the reply which the Parliamentary Secretary gave to me. He said:My Department is actively studying the question of accident prevention."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd November, 1954; Vol. 533, c. 95.]This is not the time for study only, but the time for action.
The men who handle machines on the farms are subject to great risks. I know that there is a revised leaflet—I have one here—on the prevention of accidents. It has been issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and I hope that it will be widely circulated; but I say seriously to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not always the man who is at fault. Very often it is the machine. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider the point I have made.
If it is possible to bring in legislation, even of a minor character, to help those of my friends who are handling these machines on the farm, it will be very welcome. I believe that only a few days ago the right hon. Gentleman received a letter from my local secretary of the Agricultural Workers' Union, stressing the imperative need for special legislative measures. Education and advice should be supplemented as early as possible by legislation.
I am sorry that the Minister of Education has left the Chamber, because, having offered a few criticisms I want to give a little praise on a matter which has occupied the minds of hon. Members from agricultural areas for a long time. I hope that the representations made to the Government about secondary school facilities for children in the rural areas will result in a great expansion. I have served on the Norfolk Education Committee for some years. It has a good record, but it would have had a better record still if there had been Government 350 approval of schemes and grants. We have been restricted by the amount of money available, so if the Government really intend to tell education committees to go forward and to build as many secondary schools in the rural areas as they can, no one will be more delighted than myself.
I was pleased to note, therefore, the indication in the Gracious Speech that the Government will pay more attention to the provision of secondary schools, village halls and playing fields in the rural areas, but, since this involves land as well as money, I hope that objections on agricultural grounds to the building of these new schools will not be advanced to the detriment of the schemes.
Today, the man who is seeking a job in farming, or is changing his farm, is concerned not only about his pay and conditions but also about the house for his wife and the school for his children. The two big farming organisations are very keen on these points, and I hope that the proposed extension of secondary school facilities in the rural areas will continue until we can say that the child of every farmworker is assured of an advanced education. This is necessary not only for the new methods on the farms, but also so that the children of farmworkers and farmers shall be able to enjoy the finer things of life. So, in that context, I want to thank the Minister of Education for his announcement, and I shall watch with a great deal of interest what follows.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)
I agree with two points made by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch). First, the hon. Gentleman said he thought that farming and agricultural problems ought to be dealt with on a non-party basis as far as possible. I should like to think that every speaker in this debate will follow that suggestion. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that the gap between the wages of farm workers and industrial workers was far too wide. I agree with him there, also.
I am not an agricultural expert, but I represent a large agricultural constituency. There is no denying that there is a great deal of apprehension in the country on the part of both the farm-workers and the farmers. The bad harvest may be making the farmers fear 351 the future more than they would have done had the harvest been better, but they read of French wheat coming into this country at prices far below the cost of production, they read of the enormous American surpluses, and they fear that the deficiency payments may become so great that, ultimately, the taxpayer may refuse to meet them, and that we may face once more the debacle of the Wheat Act of 1921. These fears may be unfounded, but I would not be doing my duty to this House if I did not say that they existed.
I have great sympathy with the farm-workers who ask me continuously why should they always be at the bottom of the wages ladder? When the London dock strike came to an end, newspaper headlines read "Dockers Returning to £30 a Week Wages." There is nothing a farmworker could do to get £30 a week, yet his work is as important as that of a docker, and there is no reason why he should work for about one-third of the wage paid to certain sections of the industrial workers.
I want to answer three questions from the point of view of the consumer. First, what can we do to help the agricultural worker and the farmer? Secondly, what would it cost? Thirdly, can we afford to pay the cost? The most important thing to do—apart from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) trying all the time to get the job held previously by his right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) before his right hon. Friend is dead—is to educate the town dwellers in the wiser spending of their money and to the understanding that they have to pay a fairer price for the food produced by the agricultural worker and the farmer.
There would be a more assured living for the farmer and higher wages for the farm worker if more reasonable prices were paid for the food they produce. Many hon. Gentlemen sitting opposite have reminded the House frequently that before the war miners were paid miserably low wages because coal was sold too cheaply. My father taught me as a boy that if the fruits of a man's labour are sold too cheaply, his employer cannot afford to pay him a decent wage. The nation has recognised this; today, 352 we are paying higher prices for coal, and there is not an hon. Gentleman opposite who protests, because he knows this is justified in that it gives the miner a decent standard of life.
Why should not that principle be applied to food and to the farmworkers? Cheap food was all right in the days when wages generally were low, but today wages are high, and I am saying that what is good for the coalminer shall be good for the agricultural worker. Hon. Gentlemen opposite, who for years have been demanding that the nation should pay a higher wage to the miners, must agree on the same ground that the agricultural workers should have a better wage. I will give two examples of how it could be done. Today, a 14 oz. loaf of bread is sold at just over 1d. per loaf less than it costs to produce—
§ Mr. Osborne
If the right hon. Gentleman would keep his mouth closed for a little while and would open his ears, he might learn something; and if he were less discourteous to this House, the House would have as much respect for him as they have for his right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, instead of regarding him as about the most discourteous man on that side of the House.
If the proper price were paid for bread it would produce an extra £47 million a year. The proposed increase in agricultural workers' wages will cost £12 million a year, so that if the nation would only pay the proper price for its bread, instead of demanding that its bread should be subsidised, the agricultural workers could have four times that amount of increase in wages on that one item alone.
§ Mr. Osborne
I will try to deal with that point if I am allowed to develop my ideas.
Let us take the example of milk. Non-welfare milk and non-school milk is sold at about ¾d. a pint less than it costs to 353 produce. If the proper price were paid for this milk, it would put into the agricultural "kitty," for division between fanners and farmworkers, another £40 million a year, so that bread and milk together would produce £87 million extra a year. This is considerably higher than the cost of the wage demands made by the agricultural workers.
I shall be asked to say how much it would cost. The average family of five persons consumes, to the best of my information, about 15 pints of non-welfare milk weekly. If the price were increased by ¾d. a pint, that would amount to 11d. a week. The average family of five consumes about 16 loaves a week, each weighing 14 oz., and an extra penny on each loaf would cost 1s. 4d. It would, therefore, cost the average family of five an extra 2s. 3d. a week to put into the agricultural pool an extra £87 million a year. The third question, which was asked by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North, who is so fair-minded about this matter, is: are we not paying enough already? Could the nation afford to pay more—and this is the most important of all the points I have to make.
If the right hon. Member for Belper feels so unhappy he should leave the Chamber.
§ Mr. Osborne
I recognise that this extra burden will fall upon the women of the country and not upon the men, because the women have to pay the household bills. Is this extra cost of £87 million a year more than the nation can afford? A week or two ago I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer how much more food had cost us in the first two years of this Government's life, and he told me that the nation's food bill had increased by £600 million a year, of which £525 million a year was due to increased prices and £75 million a year to increased consumption.
In those two years, wages and salaries had increased by no less by £1,647 million, so that even if the nation's food bill had increased by £525 million in those two years, there was, in extra salaries and wages, more than double and nearly three times as much to pay for it. If the housewife was getting from her husband 354 anything like the same proportion of his wages or salary as that which she got before the war, she would be "in clover," despite the increase in the food prices which she has to meet. This would also give the farmworker the extra wages for which he is pleading and would give the small fanner, whom I represent, the added security to which he is entitled.
My final plea is that the extra cost could easily be met by the nation if the nation spent its money wisely. Last year, we spent no less than £837 million on tobacco. A packet of 20 cigarettes cost 3s. 7d. It carries a tax of 2s. 9½d., so that the real cost of 20 cigarettes is 9½d. How can the nation claim that it cannot afford to pay the proper price for its bread—an extra 1d. a loaf—when people will stand in the rain and queue for cigarettes selling at three to five times more than they are worth and when the nation is spending over £800 million a year on tobacco? There can be no defence of that policy from a moral point of view.
§ Mr. Osborne
I was considering the nation as a whole, for it is impossible to segregate every family. It is possible only to argue on the national figures.
Perhaps I may take another figure, which hon. Members may or may not like. Last year we spent no less than £869 million on alcohol. May I remind the House that a pint of beer, which costs Is. 4d., carries a tax of 8½d., so that its commercial worth, even allowing for the millions which have been made in profits, is only 7½d. How can a nation which is prepared to spend that vast sum of money on beer at such a price say that it cannot afford to pay the extra ¾d. a pint on milk to meet the cost of production and to allow those who produce the milk to have a decent living wage?
§ Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)
What is the logic of this argument? Does the hon. Member wish the House to pass legislation to prevent people from buying cigarettes or consuming beer? If not, I do not see how he could get what he desires.
§ Mr. Osborne
I am trying to put some startling facts before the House. I am saying that, in view of these figures, it is unreasonable for hon. Members on either side of the House to say that the bread and the milk which ordinary people consume ought to be subsidised. A nation which can spend £2,300 million a year in fun and games cannot say that it cannot afford to pay the proper price for the bread it consumes. Since I represent those who produce that food, and since they cannot make a decent living unless we pay the proper price for what they produce, I believe that these facts ought to be brought to the attention of the country.
I am sorry that I have been so long, but I have been interrupted. It is our task on both sides of the House to go to the country and make these facts clear. We should appeal to the nation to be prepared to pay a proper price for its basic essentials and not demand that its basic essentials should be subsidised so that it can fritter away its wages and salaries on non-essentials.
If it is not a presumption, may I put to the House the ancient question which was asked 3,000 years ago and to which, in this modern age, we have to find an answer? It was asked so long ago:Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not?If we could give a proper answer to that question, we could halve the agricultural problems which exist today. I beg hon. Members to forget the votes for the time being, and to tell the people the truth.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
I do not know what the Minister will think about his hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne).
§ Mr. Champion
When the Minister was about to sit down he said he felt that he had said enough to convince the House of the excellence of the Government's policy for agriculture. When he said that I wrote down that perhaps he had convinced his supporters, but no one else, certainly not the farmers of this country.
356 I little thought that I should so quickly get some support for my observation from the Government side of the House. Certain it is that the hon. Member for Louth has made it quite clear that from his experience of his agricultural constituency he is aware of the considerable amount of apprehension in the minds of farmers at this time, apprehension which must have been caused by the policies of the right hon. Gentleman whom he supports and the Front Bench behind which he sits.
I am bound to say to the hon. Member for Louth that I did agree with him on at least one point. I refer to the necessity to ensure a decent standard of living for all those engaged in agriculture. It is absolutely vital that we should raise the standards of those engaged in agriculture, particularly agricultural workers, at least to the level that is found in the towns.
For much too long the agricultural worker has been regarded as being at the base of the wages pyramid. He was supporting the whole structure, as it were. If his conditions were improved, if his wages went up a few shillings a week, everyone else in the structure said that he must maintain his differential vis-à-vis the agricultural worker.
It is time we all recognised—and I am now speaking as one who knows something about representing industrial workers, because of my trade union activities in the past, and I say this to all my friends in the industrial field—that these workers in the countryside deserve conditions at least as decent as those which industrial workers enjoy. What is more, the industrial workers must be prepared to pay for them, not necessarily by doing without some of the comforts which the hon. Member for Louth condemned, but certainly by ensuring that there is an adequate return for the farming industry. To that extent I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Louth and with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch).
The Minister's speech fitted very well into this agricultural year, because it seemed to be a very watery speech indeed. It had the substance of the watercress crop of which he seemed to be so proud. I hope that the Minister will pursue that policy, which he said he was adopting, of doing everything in his power to assist 357 those who have had difficulties with their hay crop in getting fodder for this extremely difficult winter which is now before us. I want to praise the Minister for what he said. I shall study that part of his speech with very great care to see what he did actually say, but I believe he held out some hope to the hill farmers and to others of some assistance in this coming winter.
The Minister asked us what were our proposals for agriculture. After listening to him I can well understand why he does not want us to spend too much time examining the proposals which he has put into this Gracious Speech. It is understandable that he would rather anything should happen than that we should bring to bear upon his proposals and the work of his Government the examination and the criticism which it is the job of the Opposition to bring to this portion of the Queen's Speech.
So far as I can tell, so far as his policy—if there is such a thing—is concerned, all that he is to do and all he is doing is to set up a number of new committees to advise him. Time after time he made reference to new committees which had been set up to go about the job of advising him in the difficulties which his predecessor and his Government have brought to this great industry.
I am sure that he will have read "The Times" this morning, and will have read that the National Farmers' Union has made it quite clear that it does not like the right hon. Gentleman's policy for the future of prices. The Minister is going one step further towards undermining that prosperity in the farming community which was undoubtedly brought about by the Labour Government from 1945 to 1951.
It is platitudinous to say so, but nevertheless I must say that the greatest problem facing Britain is that of keeping alive 50 million people on a small island, with a rising standard of living. We have always to consider a rising standard of living, because people have come to expect that and it is the job of all Governments to do what they can towards meeting that desire. The only way we can secure that is by making the maximum possible use of our every resource, brains, skill, and our very few raw materials. Certainly, the most valuable of our raw materials is the land.
358 The Government seem to be falling into the trap of the temporary surpluses of food which appear to exist in the world. Their policy makes it quite evident that they have fallen into that trap. We have had a few years of good harvests—and I am not talking about the harvest this year, which, unfortunately, has been bad.
There is an inability in the world among starving peoples to buy some of the surpluses that exist. They are not real surpluses over need, but rather surpluses over effective purchasing power. There is also the fact that in the world at this moment there is an absence of war, for which we are all grateful.
But we dare not plan for Britain on the basis of these few good harvests, the absence of war and the inability of backward pepole to buy what food happens to exist. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) this afternoon reminded us of what is happening in Australia and in the Argentine. I remind the House of the growth of the population in the United States of America, which is very heavily pressing and will continue increasingly to press upon the amount of foodstuffs produced in that great country.
Temporarily cheap foods are a snare and a delusion, if they are obtained at the price of Britain's agriculture, if we obtain them at the price of causing difficulty and loss of confidence in our own British agriculture. The only safe thing for the Government to do is to recognise Britain's altered position vis-à-vis the world, and to plan accordingly. This will involve, as is recognised by the Labour Party, the maintenance of prosperity for both farmers and farmworkers, and the people of the towns must recognise that, and act accordingly.
I would say, even to some Members of my own party, that they too must think of the absolute necessity of recognising the importance of the position of agriculture in relation to all this.
It seems to me that the proper use of these resources, this raw material, this land, is vital to our future prosperity. The food that is too cheap and obtained at the expense of the producer involves, in the long run, disaster for the townsman equally with the countryman.
359 I am not afraid to go back and to discuss history, because I do not believe that we can understand the present and plan for the future unless occasionally we look back. In the nine years following the First World War we had the slump of 1921–22, the grinding down of wages, and the return of farm produce prices to 1914 levels. In those nine years we were approaching the disasters of 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1933.
What is the difference between the nine-year period after the Second World War and the same period after the First World War? Surely it is that we have not experienced a slump, mainly because the primary producers of the world, the farming community, the miners and the fishermen, have been kept to very much higher standards than they were immediately after the first war.
I can see a little of that position being undermined at the present time, but there is no doubt that the fact that we have not run into a major slump has been because the primary producers have been able to buy the products of the towns. If they cannot continue to do that the towns will not prosper, and slumps will be with us once more. We cannot afford again to promote low standards in our countryside. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North expressed some satisfaction about the wage award that was made yesterday. I must say that I do not think that it is enough to prevent the march from the countryside. It is not sufficient to stop this movement, which could lead to disaster.
I recall that when I had the pleasure to stand at the Dispatch Box on the Government side for the first time, I said that the march from the countryside was going on. I excused it partly on the ground that greater mechanisation was taking place in the industry, and that is a fact. Greater mechanisation, as in all industries to some extent, is varying the manpower situation.
However, I am not happy about the fact that this march from the countryside is continuing on such a scale. All townsmen and country workers, and certainly the Government, must recognise the danger, and do everything possible to remedy the position. I agree with my hon. 360 Friends who have said that schools and other amenities are important factors in this respect, but the primary factor is that of the wages paid to the man on the job. A satisfactory rate of pay would help to overcome many complaints about lack of amenities.
What has happened to us under the Tories? The Gracious Speech says:My Ministers recognise that the transition from control to freedom has brought problems for all engaged in farming and kindred industries.The Government completely fail to recognise that they cannot have it both ways. We cannot have both the so-called freedom of the 'twenties and the 'thirties, and the stability of prices and guarantee of markets which was achieved by planning under Labour.
I should love to think that we could have both, because there are some aspects of freedom which I very much like, but in this matter we have to make a choice between the planned economy and freedom. The planned economy obviously brings to the farmer a better chance and a greater security than is possible under the so-called freedom of which we had experience in the period 1919–39. What really did frighten me in the Minister's speech was the fact that he seemed to have failed to read the lesson of history. That lesson surely is that we cannot have stability, guarantees, and so on, alongside this freedom to which the Government are rapidly heading.
In three years the Tories have succeeded in reproducing some of the old conditions, and, as a result, they have destroyed some of the confidence of the farmers. It is no good the Minister or any one else whistling in the dark and pretending that that has not happened; it has, as the hon. Member for Louth made clear. In many other respects the Tories have reproduced the conditions of the inter-war years. The last Minister of Agriculture followed the pattern of all Tory Ministers of Agriculture, having left for the back benches after about two and a half years, which happens to be the average for Tory Ministers of Agriculture.
We have a new Minister of Agriculture, and we wish him well. I said that when he made his first speech on an agricultural topic in the House, and I mean it. I was delighted to hear him say that he 361 had been enjoying himself "up to now." I hope that he will continue to enjoy himself, but if I remember correctly his predecessor enjoyed himself immensely up to a certain stage in his occupation of that post.
I wonder what happened when the right hon. Gentleman was called before the Prime Minister to get his new appointment. I can imagine the scene at No. 10. The right hon. Gentleman was ushered into the presence. The Chief Whip was standing to attention just inside the room and saying, "This is Heathcoat Amory, Sir; you know, the man I recommended to take Dugdale's place." I can imagine that the Prime Minister, in something of a stage aside, said something like this, "Oh, yes. Poor old Tommy. The back benchers started chasing him, and the 1922 Committee said that he had to go. Let me see, what is this man's name?"
After he had been told his name, he said to the present Minister, "What you have to do is to go on dismantling the structure of security established by those Socialists, and the conditions which made that possible, while at the same time pretending that everything is rosier for farmers than at any time since the Tories have had anything to do with agriculture." I imagine that he also said, "That you will find easy to do, for it is all worked out. We call it our agricultural policy, but, of course, you will find it all set out, down to the very last detail, in the files at No. 3, Whitehall Place. Good-bye, and the very best of luck."
I gather that the new Minister has had a careful search made in the files at Whitehall Place and that he has been unable to trace the Tory agricultural policy. Like the Prime Minister's telegram to Montgomery, the policy simply does not exist. A copy could not be found because, perhaps, like that telegram, a Tory agricultural policy never existed, except in the minds of the Tories when they were in opposition from 1945 to 1951.
I wish to plead in particular for one thing. I am sorry to note the failure of the Government to include in the Gracious Speech a reference to anything constructive about farm buildings. I believe that a careful examination of farm buildings and farm lay-outs in this country should be undertaken. Something should be done about bringing them up 362 to date and making them reasonably efficient.
Recently I was in Denmark, and I mentioned to the gentleman who was showing me round that I thought their buildings were modern. They were new buildings. The lay-outs were up to date and much more efficient than ours. I said, "Why is it that you have these efficient buildings and lay-outs which compare so well with our own?" His answer was instructive. He said, "In Denmark we put our old farm buildings in museums. You use museum exhibits as farm buildings. If you had done the same thing in your industrial life, yours would now be a half-starved peasant, economy"—and how right he was.
If there is one thing we need to do at this time it is to bring our farming equipment up to date. I ask the Minister to-do something to educate the farming community in this respect to encourage them, and to assist them. Less should be spent on the middleman and the hangers-on in this great industry and more on the modernisation of its equipment. If the Minister will do that during the period in which he remains in office, I am sure that he will have achieved something worth while for this great industry.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Colonel Ralph Clarke (East Grinstead)
I hope that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) will forgive me if I do not follow him in great detail over the many facets of his most interesting speech. I would say, however, that while all friends of the agricultural worker would agree that his wages and those of the town worker should be the same, the first thing to do is to persuade the town worker of that fact. He also needs to be persuaded that when agricultural wages rise it does not necessarily follow that all other wages in the country should rise too in order to keep the traditional difference between them.
In opening the debate, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) suggested—.perhaps inadvertently—that the present agricultural revival only started from the beginning of the war, and through the help given to it because of the war. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that in the years before the coming into power of the Coalition Government agricultural 363 production increased by 25 per cent, or thereabouts. Again, I would point out—because the right hon. Gentleman appeared to suggest that it was not the case—that the majority of the agricultural marketing schemes were started in that same period.
I wish to support the Motion moved in such fitting terms by my hon. Friend the Member for Govan (Mr. J. N. Browne) last Tuesday, and to concentrate on one of the latter paragraphs of the Gracious Speech which refers to agriculture and kindred industries. I find that paragraph sympathetic, encouraging and helpful. The Government recognise the difficulties which have been forced on the industry by the transition from a wartime economy and the aftermath of war to the present freer conditions. So they promise to continue their efforts to promote efficient production and marketing under those conditions. They announced their aim for producers, which is to achieve conditions where, for the producer, a free and flexible market will be combined with sufficient basic stability deriving from the machinery of the 1947 Agriculture Act, and for the consumer, the provision of a plentiful supply of home-grown food.
That is a programme which appeals to me, but from what I see on the Order Paper and from what I have heard said by hon. Members opposite, I gather that my view is not shared by them. Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite seem unable to recognise that efficient production is much more likely in conditions of competition between vigorous and enlightened farmers. In these last few years our farmers have learned a great deal and have received much help from the Government since the agricultural revival. Now our farmers are more fitted than before the war to compete with each other and with circumstances.
It would have been a great mistake, in my opinion, to continue in the rigid, non-competitive and riskless climate in which agriculture was called upon to exist. Such a climate is suitable only for conditions of war or emergencies arising out of war. I find the somewhat pathetic faith of hon. Gentlemen opposite in the Whitehall farmer and the infallibility of Socialist planning to be rather depressing.
364 Even more, I regret their failure to recognise the worth of other parts of the Gracious Speech, including the promise of improved housing; of more secondary schools; of village halls and playing fields in the rural areas, and improved transport facilities through new road construction. That is the most likely way to attract more workers to the land and to retain those still in the industry.
I must admit there has been a drift of workers from the land, but it has, to some extent been compensated by increased mechanisation and the more efficient use of man-hours. I am encouraged to find that among the young workers on the land there is great knowledge and keenness and a sense of enterprise. For that, I think we owe a debt to the agricultural institutes in the counties and to the young Conservative clubs. I believe that the promised increase in rural amenities will result in the drift of workers from the land being checked, and perhaps reversed.
§ Mr. Champion
The hon. and gallant Gentleman said he believed that the fact that a better type of person was coming on to the land was due to the activities of the young Conservatives' clubs. Did he mean that, or did he intend to say "young farmers' clubs"?
§ Colonel Clarke
I am not certain that I heard what the hon. Member said, but I was suggesting that the young men and women who are coming on to the land are of an excellent type. They are extremely keen and are doing very well.
§ Colonel Clarke
I suggest that it owes it to the work of the agricultural institutes in the counties, and to the young farmers' clubs. That is what I said. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am extremely sorry if I said something else.
§ Colonel Clarke
I want to discuss the question of amenities in a little more detail. I was very gratified with the statement made by the Minister of Education on Tuesday that the first instalment of his 365 housing drive will be the complete reorganisation of the schools in rural areas. We all know that in urban areas only about one child in 12 is denied a secondary education, but in the rural areas that proportion is increased to one in three. I know that we all deplore that fact, and I hope that the Minister's statement means the end of it.
Not unconnected with the subject of education—because the children have to get to school—is the promise to improve our roads, which I welcome. Buses have now become an essential part of rural life—how essential can be seen by a study of any county plan, and the way in which development of active rural life follows the bus routes and stays away from the villages and hamlets lying off those routes. We all want more buses, but in many areas we cannot have them because the roads are not fit to carry them.
The Foreign Secretary, in a new and welcome role, talked about the twisting English highways and their origin. What we really want to know is how they can be improved. One of the reasons why the minor rural roads have not been improved in the past is that in many cases the whole cost of maintenance and improvement has to be borne by the local roads and bridges authorities. No matching grant is received from central funds. It would be an encouragement to local authorities if money spent by them upon the improvement of unclassified roads were matched by some money from the Exchequer.
In many parts of the country there are half-finished road schemes, some upon trunk roads and some upon classified county roads. I suggest that those uncompleted schemes are not only a great waste of public capital but are eyesores and frustration to motorists and local inhabitants alike. What can be more annoying than to find a village—and I can name one within 40 miles of this House—with great streams of motor cars thundering and stenching through the main street of the village, to the discomfort and danger of the inhabitants, when, just outside, there is a half-finished bypass which was started 15 or 20 years ago, the costly cuttings and levelling of which have never been used. In the case I have in mind the road is a trunk road, which would be a matter for a direct 366 grant. It is most frustrating to find these half-finished roads when, with so little extra work, so much improvement could be made.
I now want to turn to the question of electricity in the countryside. This is not only a valuable source of power in our farms but a highly desirable amenity, bringing in its train the benefit of wireless and television, and it has now become almost a standard of civilisation, especially for younger people. It is a standard which practically everyone in the towns has already, but which a great many country people are without, and it causes a feeling among the country people that they are not being treated so fairly as those in the towns, and they would like to see the difference removed.
I was, therefore, deeply grateful for the announcement which was made on 9th November by the Minister of Fuel and Power that last year was a record year for the electrification of farms, and that in the coming five-year programme it is hoped that 90 per cent, of the farms and 80 per cent. of the rural houses will be connected up. I hope that the British Electricity Authority will heed the advice given to them by the Minister to be venturesome, and that they will not do what they have been inclined to do in the past, namely, to refuse to spend any capital in the country unless they can see what they consider to be an immediate adequate return upon it.
I also want to refer to the negotiations regarding the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was referred to in the Gracious Speech. I recognise that it is impossible for our agriculture to have the protection that it would like; it is obvious that that is impossible in a country as dependent as we are upon the export trade, but I plead for a not too purist attitude in the matter. In the case of timber, there are arguments in favour of some form of import duty, and I suggest that this might be achieved by means of a levy subsidy system. It is known that both the Forestry Commission and private owners are having great difficulty in selling home-produced timber, and a committee has been set up to go into the causes of this difficulty.
I therefore bring this question forward now only because I understand that negotiations are going on with the body usually termed G.A.T.T., and I feel that 367 the opportunity should not be missed. I am convinced that only by some form of levy subsidy can home-grown timber products obtain a fair price and the industry, which is really in its infancy in this country, be put upon a firm basis, to the advantage both of the Forestry Commission and private owners.
This country has a great deal of money locked up in the Forestry Commission, and I think that there are three other reasons for help being given. First, since the ratio between imported and homegrown timber today is 12 to one, it will be seen that a very small levy would make all the difference. Really, the levy would hardly be noticed by the consumer. Secondly, the wheat scheme before the war, which was one of the most successful of its kind, was worked on the basis of the levy subsidy. Thirdly, an interest in industry the natural economy of which has to be warped in the interests of the nation should receive particular consideration.
The Forestry Commission cannot operate purely as a commercial undertaking, and really was designed to provide the country with a store of timber in case of war. Naturally, that warps the economic balance. Private owners were urged to cut timber and sell it when the price was low, but, when the price had improved, an Act of Parliament was passed under which they had to have licences to cut timber—and these were very often refused—and they were therefore unable to sell it. I feel that that is an additional reason why this matter should be considered.
I would end as I began by saying that I believe that these paragraphs in the Gracious Speech are sympathetic, encouraging and helpful to the agriculturist and to country dwellers generally. I deny the allegation that the farming community has lost confidence. I believe that, while reckoning the difficulties inherent in the present transitional situation, the go-ahead, modern and progressive-minded farmer welcomes the opportunity of showing his capabilities in this new climate and in the new economy. I believe that he will also welcome the decline in the volume of farming directed from Whitehall.
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting another great agricultural country, where, for the last 37 years, agriculture has been 368 strictly controlled by the State. In fact, many agricultural operations are performed almost as operations of war, and people there talk of brigading their tractors and their workers in the fields. I believe it would not be over-critical of my hosts—because I am grateful to them—if I admitted feeling a sense of disappointment with the results of that policy.
In the Press of that country and in the statements of their Ministers, it is found that agricultural production since the Revolution has only maintained the output per head of the population that it had when the new system was brought into operation. I believe that actually whereas in cereals they have held their own, in livestock production they have just failed to do so. I was rather amused to read somewhere that in that country there is also a school of thought about direction similar to mine and that some people have thought in the past that they had had too much direction of agriculture from Moscow.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Mr. H. Rhodes (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I will not follow the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) through the catalogue of good points or otherwise in the Gracious Speech. I had hoped that the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) would have remained in the Chamber for a minute or two, because I wanted to address some remarks to him. However, as the hon. Member is no longer in his place, I cannot do so.
His arguments reminded me of the baker who sued a farmer, who was also a miller, and took the dispute into court The magistrate said to the farmer, "You are accused of delivering short weight of flour to this baker. Do you use scales?" The farmer replied, "Aye, I use scales." The magistrate asked, "Do you use scales with weights?", and the farmer replied, "No." The magistrate then said, "Then how do you weigh the flour?" The farmer replied, "For every 14 lb. of flour that I weigh out for the baker, I put on t'other side seven of his 2 lb. loaves."
But that is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about wool. I understand that wool, such as I hold in my hand, is a product of a farm. I understand that, when prices are 369 guaranteed, fixed and high, wool is a very valuable commodity indeed on a farm. Whether in this country or in Australia, wool is a very highly regarded product. I want to speak on one aspect of this farming industry which is causing tremendous trouble in the wool-manufacturing industry today.
I must declare my interest. I am a woollen manufacturer and a user of wool. The wool that I use is mainly Australian wool, but, nevertheless, the illustrations that I can bring in support of my argument apply just as much to British-grown wool as Australian. I refer to the branding of wool with pitch and tar. This is no new complaint, and I have been looking up the history of the matter.
The first time that there was a Royal Proclamation on this subject was in 1661, when King Charles issued an edict that Licences were to be issued to those people working in wool who did not put tar, pitch or paint on their fleeces. The next record to be found, in this House at any rate, is a Petition brought here in 1752 by aggrieved users of wool, who petitioned this House in order to prevent tar and pitch being used in the branding of wool.
The last time I spoke on this subject was at 1.45 in the morning, when almost everybody else had gone home, and there were two or three of us hanging around. We had been talking on the Consolidated Fund Bill until that time in the morning, and my speech was made on the Motion for the Adjournment. The fact that the Adjournment Motion debate is limited prevented me from making the suggestions which I propose to make today.
The first suggestion I would make is that, because of the changed circumstances which have come about over the last few years in the production of soluble branding materials for the marking of wool, the Government should, during the present Session, introduce a Bill to make it illegal to use tar, pitch, paint, or any insoluble substances on wool fleeces.
I am not belittling the work which has been done by the Wool Federation. Neither am I belittling the actions and the attention which the present Minister took when he was a Minister at the Board of Trade and had to deal with this problem. At that time, he adopted a very sympathetic attitude, and I am hoping that this afternoon he will give me 370 a little encouragement which will enable me to go back to Yorkshire at the weekend and tell the people there that something is likely to be done.
Neither am I belittling the efforts of the International Wool Textile Organisation. It has been trying for years, just as the manufacturers of days gone by tried, to get this matter remedied. It is not surprising that a clean wool Act was not brought in in those early days, because no proper substitute could then be found for tar, pitch or paint which would stand up to the weather that sheep have to brave on the moorlands and elsewhere, and to the rubbing and all the rest of it.
Today, however, there is a brand of marking fluid on the market which will do the job equally well. It is because that is so that I am speaking so confidently on the matter this afternoon, knowing, as I do, that I have the backing of the trade organisations and also of my own work folk. No village in England looked on the advance of the Plague with such concern as the workpeople in a woollen factory today look upon a consignment of wool which is contaminated with pitch or paint. It is a scandal that such conditions should exist.
The pitch or paint cannot be got rid of unless trichloride-ethylene is applied to every single spot. Very often there are a thousand or more spots on a piece once the markings are broken up, and the pitch or paint is spread by the manufacturing over the whole of a piece of cloth. As I have said, in order to get rid of the spots, this odious chemical has to be employed, a chemical which should be condemned by the factory inspector as unfit for anybody to use. I do not blame the workpeople for getting on their hind legs about it. It is a difficult and an obnoxious job, but it has to be done.
Considerable sums of money are being lost each year because of the necessity to remove the pitch or tar used on fleeces. I have here a letter, one of many which I have received from manufacturers on the subject. It says:Whilst it is quite common for us to remove some 50 or more tar spots from pieces (60 yards) made from New Zealand wool and noils, we have nearer 1,000 to contend with at times from similar pieces containing 60 per cent. of 58/60s Australian noils. Our removal of tar spots not only slows our production, but creates additional work at a time when labour is depleted, and costs our company something like £10,000 a year.371 This is a ridiculous state of affairs when we consider that rival fibres, such as rayon, which costs only 24d. a lb., can be wrapped in cellophane, while wool costing 84d. a lb. is soiled by tar or pitch. It is ridiculous that in 1954 we should be allowing such a situation to continue.
As I have said, the attempts made to stop the use of tar or paint in years gone by failed because no satisfactory substitute could be found for them. But the position is different now, and the time is opportune to do something about the matter. It is no use the Minister of Agriculture or the Minister for Commonwealth Relations approaching the Australian Government and asking them to do something about the wool grown in their country unless we in this country put our own house in order. Many countries have clean wool laws in operation. France introduced such a law this year; South Africa has introduced one, Eire has had one for a long time, and New Zealand has had one for a considerable period, but Australia and ourselves are lagging behind.
In this country we have a Wool Marketing Board. I do not intend to discuss the merits or demerits of that Board, but will simply describe quite briefly the kind of thing that is going on at the present time. The wool is taken in by the Wool Marketing Board. It is sent from the farmer to the appraiser for its quality to be determined. An appraiser can be a merchant as well. He usually is. To the merchant are allocated farmers, who send their fleeces to him.
In the case of many English and Scottish breeds of sheep, the fleeces are wrapped up with the wool inside and the skin outside. Others are wrapped in the opposite way, but in every single case the shearing from the tail is twisted into a rope and is used to tie round the fleeces. Those fleeces go to the appraiser, and are piled up at his place awaiting his inspection.
On average, a British fleece weighs between 4 and 5 lb. According to the law as it stands at present, a farmer who has put pitch on his wool should have 4d. a lb. deducted from the price which he receives for his fleeces, and that price is between 60d. and 70d. a lb., which is a very high one.
372 Remember, we are not dealing with a low-priced synthetic product such as rayon, or even with cotton. We are dealing here with an expensive product, and the farmer is being given a fair deal. Now the appraiser does not of necessity have to open the fleece to see whether or not there is tar on it, which means that in many cases the farmer who should really have 4d. per lb. deducted from the price he receives does not suffer that penalty.
Who is going to object to a clean wool Act? The farmer who is doing the job right and not using pitch and tar, and who qualifies for this 4d. per lb., is not going to object. Neither is the farmer who deliberately puts on the stuff and knows jolly well that he is going to get 4d. per lb. less in any case. The chap who is going to object is he who is now putting on the pitch and is illegitimately getting away with the 4d. I suggest that the objection from a farmer of that description can be ignored.
Finally, I want to show the House what happens in the case of pitch spots. It is no laughing matter, particularly if any one has got to do the job that these lads have to do on Saturdays and Sundays
I should like to say that I am very far from laughing. I have been a textile manufacturer myself, and I know that these things are very far from laughing matters.
§ Mr. Rhodes
In my hand I hold a fine woollen cloth. It is made out of 64s Australian wool and it is beautiful stuff. It is a credit to the people who made it. One spot has been missed, and hon. Members can see it where I am pointing. But there could be thousands of those spots in a piece, and trichloride-ethylene, which is objectionable, has to be used on every spot. This is what results when the cloth is finished A string is put in it which means that a deduction is made from fee value of the piece, and if there are over 100 the manufacturer may as well not have made the piece at all.
The same kind of thing applies to this second piece of material which I now hold in my hand, and which is going to be very fashionable next spring. Even from across the Floor of the House Members can see the damage which a which 373 a pinpoint of tar has caused. If there are thousands of these spots, it imposes tremendous anxiety on the factory which has to get rid of them. So we get the position where the raw materials are gathered together for a particular seasonal trade. Then, suddenly, it is discovered that there is pitch in them, and in trying to remove that pitch six weeks are occupied. By that time the season is gone and the order for the goods is cancelled.
This is a serious issue of tremendous importance to the people of Yorkshire. I am speaking this afternoon on their behalf because I think it is about time that this matter was put in order. It is such a ridiculous thing, and I am sure every Member of the House would agree with me that if it could be obviated it should be. We agree that the branding should take place. If there is a good substitute for tar and pitch on the market, as there is, then it should be used, and anybody who does not use it should be prosecuted or some action should be taken against them.
The last time I raised this subject the then Minister of Materials replied in these words:If action which is not now being taken in the interests of wool consumers, represented, for example, by the British Wool Federation, is desired to be taken by this Government as regards wool produced in this country, I should be very glad to see the suggestions if the trade thinks it desirable. I will say nothing, of course, in anticipation of any such specific request."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 29th July, 1953; Vol 518; c. 1508.]He was aware then that the new branding fluid was approaching perfection. I have reason to believe that it will do the job now.
All I want from the Minister tonight—and I would ask him to apply his mind seriously to this problem—is an assurance on this subject. I do not want him to bring in a clean wool Bill at once. Indeed, I do not expect it, but I hope that he will regard this speech of mine as being a reflection of the opinion held in Yorkshire, for we are determined to develop a campaign during the next few months.
This improvement is necessary from the point of view of economy, of the production of wool, and of the happiness and well-being of the workers in our factories. I am asking the Minister tonight 374 to say that he will receive representatives of the trade, who I believe are quite determined in their minds about this matter, these representatives to include the Wool Federation or the wool textile organisations which are interested to discuss this matter, with a view to bringing in what is desperately needed in this country, and that is a clean wool Bill.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)
I am sure that the House has listened with a great deal of attention, to the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes), who has been dealing with a particular aspect of the wool problem. It is not one on which I shall endeavour to follow him, but I could not help recalling, as I listened to him, that in centuries past in this House there has probably been more time devoted to discussing wool than many other subjects. At one time it was the very basis of prosperity in this country and, indeed, in my own constituency in centuries gone by it was certainly the basis of prosperity.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the case put by the hon. Member, but I will not attempt to deal with the points he raised because I have no knowledge of them. I can say, however, that he argued his case so well that it may be that at some future date he will, if his party is returned to power, have an even closer association with wool. The Woolsack, I am sure, would be waiting for him.
Perhaps I could again refer to the problems of the agricultural producers, which have occupied a great deal of the time in today's debate. I do not want to spend a lot of time on the various aspects of production because I have several other points I wish to make; but we should all recognise, as I am sure we do, the extraordinary difficulties of farmers all over the country who had had to cope with production during a most terrible harvest. I am sure we all sympathise very much with them in their difficulties.
In my own constituency there are still many acres of sugar beet and even potatoes waiting to be harvested, and I do not know how many of those acres will be harvested. There is one point I must make about sugar beet. I would ask 375 my right hon. Friend, if the harvesting of it is very much longer delayed, to make absolutely certain that the factories are kept open long enough to deal with it when it conies along, because it may be some months before some of that crop can be harvested.
As a result of this grim harvest we must expect a fall in the tillage acreage—I do not see how that can be avoided—but I hope that it will be kept to the very minimum. I feel most strongly that tillage acreage must be maintained at at least its present level. If it now suffers a temporary setback I hope chat it will be built up again. In particular, I hope that our farmers will make the utmost use of spring varieties of corn, especially spring wheats, to try to make good this autumn's losses.
We have, in future, to look for an even greater output per acre from our grass acreage. Anything that can be done to improve the permanent grass and take the plough round the farm more frequently must be done. There are all sorts of methods that can be adopted and farmers must look to that as one method by which production can be stepped up further.
As a number of hon. Members have referred already to the shortage of labour on our farms, there is no need for me to quote the figures again. I would only add my word of pleasure at the news we have heard today of the rise in farmworkers' wages. I am sure we are all agreed that it was very well merited. One hon. Member said that it should have been more. Perhaps that is so, but it is to be hoped that all other wages will not correspondingly rise to put the farm labourer again at the bottom of the ladder. That is obviously not good enough, when one thinks of their skill.
If we are to expect to bring agricultural wages to a level comparabe with those in general industry we must acknowledge that even greater mechanisation is required on the farms. That is the only way, in my view, by which a greater output per man can be achieved. We must have more mechanisation if we are to see wage parity between agriculture and industry. The fanning community must face that, too, because it involves heavy capital expenditure. These things are closely connected.
376 Another aspect of manpower is the still pressing need for greater amenities in the countryside. From the time when I first sought election to a local authority—long before coming here—I have maintained that the countryman is entitled to three things which his town compatriot takes as a matter of course. They are electricity, sewerage, and mains water.
Those three services mean more to the people of the countryside than does anything else. The one that costs the least, and probably means the most, is electricity. It is, therefore, heartening to know how much has been done in that field in the last 12 months. There has been tremendous expansion, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power on what he has done.
Nevertheless, there is a long way to go yet. Those who, like myself, represent constituencies bordering on the Fens, know how difficult it is to get electricity supplies to the very many isolated farms and cottages. It is not just a question of getting power to the farm, though we know, from the agricultural point of view, how useful to his productive efforts electricity is to the farmer.
If we are to have contented workers it is very necessary that electricity should be supplied to their homes. It is an amenity they desire. They now have a taste for television. Farmworkers' wives are anxious to see some of the rather peculiar programmes appearing on television. I hold no brief for them myself, but there are those who seem to find them quite entertaining.
Vital to agriculture today are the problems of marketing. There is probably a good deal of agreement on both sides of the House as to the need for sustained production, but there is wide divergence about marketing. It is time that we really cleared our minds as to just where we are going in that respect—and hon. Members opposite are a good deal more in need of clearing their minds on this matter than are we on this side.
I would like to mention just one or two commodities. Milk is the prime example. The Milk Marketing Board, which has served us very well in the past and is now once more back in the hands 377 of the producers, is doing a very good job. Milk is the classic example of what can be done by a producers' marketing board, but the House should realise that milk has two particular and peculiar advantages which are not found in any other commodity. The first is that, although all milk may not be the same, it looks the same in the bottle. That makes it easy to market. There is no other commodity which has a uniformity, maybe artificial, but apparent from the consumers' point of view.
The other advantage is that we are not concerned about imports. Those two things make a marketing board for milk peculiarly easy and suitable. The milk situation is satisfactory so long as the producers do not produce so much too much that a very great proportion has to go for manufacturing. That would mean a correspondingly depressed price. Only if there is an increased consumption do we want increased production. The Milk Marketing Board is doing all it can to encourage greater consumption. I think that there is nothing wrong with regard to milk.
There are those who claim that there should be a marketing board for cereals. I have never held that view, nor have I pretended to think that it was a suitable means of marketing cereals, and, in particular, wheat. I think that the wheat quota system of pre-war days worked well, efficiently and cheaply. At that time it gave the home producer what was not, perhaps, a good price, but at least a stable return. It had the further advantage that it placed no burden on the Exchequer. In regard to wheat, particularly, I think we should return to that system, though I am not so sure about other cereals. Four-fifths of the wheat used in this country is imported and the quota system of payment on each bag of flour meant that the bulk of the expense was borne by the imports and the home farmer was sustained.
That is how it operated before. A uniform price was given to our farmers, yet, at the same time, the by-products, which are used so extensively on farms, were not raised in price. They came cheaply to the fanner to be turned into meat in some form or other. If we are to put up the price of wheat in any other way—except by deficiency payments, which is the same sort of principle but 378 financed in a different way—it means that we are artificially increasing the price of what, to a number of farmers, is a raw material. Some farmers may welcome the higher price, however obtained, but a large number use the cereals as raw material. Artificially to increase the price of the raw material would result in an artificially higher price for the finished product in the form of meat. Therefore, I say that there are very strong reasons why we should retain a deficiency payment scheme in some form or other, preferably financed by some method such as the wheat quota, as a permanent long-term solution to the problem of cereals, and I am very glad that we have started on those lines.
Reference has been made to the Wool Marketing Board. That is perfectly satisfactory and is working well. On the question of sugar beet, we have a clear contract price, and, so far as I understand, there are no difficulties and this scheme is working satisfactorily. On the subject of potatoes, I am sure that a marketing board for this commodity is the right solution to the problem, and I hope to see it in operation by next spring. A potato marketing board worked reasonably well before the war, and I do not see why it should not do so again.
The point that I am making is that each commodity should be considered on its merits. That is the only way in which the question of marketing can be dealt with satisfactorily. I do not accept the hazy idea expressed on the opposite benches about commodity commissions. I want each article to be dealt with on its merits, and that is why I have referred to them separately.
I now come to the question of fat-stock, and I have deliberately left this matter until last. I had great hopes at one time that the problem might have been solved by setting up a marketing board for this commodity. I realise however how difficult it would be 10 solve this problem. Time was short, and, in addition, there is the disadvantage that there are so many different types and cuts of meat to be provided. We have not got the level that we have with milk, potatoes, and so on. That is where a difficulty would arise with a marketing board.
379 I believe that the solution that was found was the only one possible in order to provide the security which had been promised. The security has been provided by the present scheme of deficiency payments doubly buttressed, and I welcome the efforts made by the N.F.U. and the Fatstock Marketing Corporation in this connection. They have done wonders, and we should pay a tribute to them. They have done it, perhaps, in spite of the Government as much as by their aid. I give that point freely.
I am sorry if my right hon. Friend does not agree, but I do feel that they have not done it entirely because of the Government. I hope that the Government will help them in every possible way in expanding the scheme still further. If, in fair competition with the auctions, the Fatstock Marketing Corporation can prosper and take a larger proportion of the fatstock, it will be doing a very good tiling for the farming community and for the country as a whole. I wish the Corporation every success.
I do not think the future can be adequately planned, unless there is a decision about the future of slaughterhouses. We have had an interim report and we are now awaiting the final report. I urge my right hon. Friend to see that we get that as soon as possible. We ought to be quite sure where new slaughterhouses are to be sited, how concentrated they should be, and whether they are to be in the producing or consuming areas, which is a very important matter.
Such a decision cannot be based on plain economics. It might be more economical, for instance, to site these slaughterhouses in the consuming areas—I do not know—or perhaps in the producing areas. But we must remember in this connection matters of defence. It would be wrong to bring too many slaughterhouses into heavily populated areas, and, therefore, there would appear to be an advantage in keeping them in the production areas.
I now wish to say a few words about pigs. This subject has caused headaches to a number of people in the last few months, including myself.
§ Mr. Godber
I am always modest in my statements. Pigs have undoubtedly caused anxiety. I do not think there is any point in dealing with the underlying causes, because so many people have already spoken of them, and I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will also say something on the subject before the end of this debate. What we want is the right solution to the problem of preserving a proper balance.
I am coming to the view that if we want a proper balance between pork and bacon pigs, they must all be bandied by one body, unless we have a forward contract scheme as was tried before the war, in which case it would have to be a forward contract scheme for both pork and bacon pigs rather than, as before the war, only for bacon pigs. There must be some means of ensuring that there is no wide swing to pork, and then to bacon, if we are to have any real stability in pig marketing.
I ask my right hon. Friend to try to sort out that problem. I do not think I can see a clear solution, but I am quite sure that the whole matter must be handled by one body. I do not know whether the Fatstock Marketing Corporation could be used in this connection. I do not put that forward as a definite solution, but I do say that one body must have some means of control; otherwise, there will be swings from one side to the other, whatever Government is in power.
I have covered most of the main agricultural commodities, and I have tried to show that they should be considered separately. I am sure that that is so, and I am also sure that, in the main, the policy that we are pursuing is the right one, particularly on matters like deficiency payments for cereals and fatstock.
I should like to say a word about horticultural marketing. I was very glad to get my right hon. Friend's Written answer to a Question of mine yesterday on setting up a committee for horticultural marketing. We have had so many horticultural marketing problems. We still have to solve them, and, as my right hon. Friend said this afternoon—though, unfortunately, I was not able to hear him—we have not had a really authoritative report since the Linlithgow Interim Report on Fruit and Vegetables in 1923. I have been refreshing my memory on some of the points made in that Report, and I am amazed at the similarity of the problems 381 in those days to our present-day problems. Indeed, if one were to erase the date and substitute the present date on that Report we might have a ready-made report for present conditions. Unfortunately, it was not acted upon in those days as much as one would have liked.
I should like to read a short extract from the Report to show how little the problem has changed in these intervening years. Paragraph 312, for example, contains a reference to Covent Garden, as follows:Covent Garden is wholly inadequate to deal efficiently with the volume of produce handled. In no other market in the country is the accommodation so deficient and congestion so acute.That paragraph could be written with even greater force today, and that is a matter which we have got to face. Then there is:Standardisation of packages. An unnecessarily large variety of packages is in common use for the marketing of fruit and vegetables and there is a wide variation in their dimensions. … This irregularity in the contents of packages partly accounts for the preference of retailers for imported produce …I am afraid that in some respects that is still true. There is also:Grading and packing. Immediate reform is necessary in the methods of the grower in the preparation of his produce for market. There has been considerable improvement, and improvement is still proceeding, but a general-levelling-up is needed.Paragraph 342 says:The best hope for the future lies with the industry itself. Producers must realise that marketing is the other half of production. They must make it their business to increase their knowledge of market conditions and requirements in order to dispose of their produce in the home markets to the best advantage in competition with produce grown in other lands. Distributors, for their part, must make every effort to eliminate archaic methods and to enhance the efficiency of the general distributive system. Retail distributors, in particular …This is particularly apt today—… should make serious efforts in the direction of increasing turnover when supplies are abundant, by charging lower prices to the consuming public.Surely all these things are very relevant today. I have no doubt that the Report will be referred to by the new committee. I hope that my right hon. Friend will set up a high-powered committee with a first-class chairman, and I trust that he will announce the names of its members in the 382 very near future so that the committee can immediately get on with the job and we can have an authoritative and up-to-date report and in time take appropriate action.
I also want to express the thoughts of producers about horticultural marketing at present. I am a member of the Tomato Marketing Board. It was the first of the regulatory boards set up after the war by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). The other marketing boards about which I have been talking were compulsory trading boards. The Tomato Marketing Board was set up to improve what I have been talking about—presentation, grading and packing, and standardisation. The Board was hoped to be the forerunner of others. It has been trying to do what it was set up to do.
I regret that a vociferous minority of producers have been trying to bedevil all that the Board has been trying to do recently. It is only frank to say so. They have made it very difficult. Maybe the Board has been wrong, and, if so, I accept my full share of the blame but there has not been a willingness to give it a chance and so see what can be done. One cannot make substantial alterations in what must be largely voluntary and persuasive work in the course of 12 months. It requires years to get results. The Board has been going only four years. After it had been going two years there was carping criticism by people who had nothing to offer to put in its place. That is what I regret. I should have welcomed constructive criticism and suggestions. The difficulty we have had all along has been that some people have merely wanted to go back to the old days with complete freedom and the chaos and disparity to which reference has been made.
I mentioned the Tomato Marketing Board merely as an example. There was brought forward later the Apple and Pear Marketing Board. That was not even accepted by the producers; they threw it out before it had had a chance. If a new committee is to be set up, I hope that the producers as much as anyone else will rally round and support the recommendations that it makes. We must get the industry working together and have the growers co-operating to improve their produce if we are to compete adequately with the foreigner.
383 I know it is easy to say that the foreigners have an advantage in that they send us only their best stuff, but I am equally certain that our producers can supply a better item if they really put their minds to it. The best grade of British produce is considerably ahead of foreign produce. There is scope for ability, and I hope the industry will show what it can do.
The industry needs a little help. It has had some discouragement. In recent months a request was made to the Minister's standing committee for the marking of all imported pears, cherries, broccoli and cauliflowers. I have here a copy of the report of the committee set up by the Minister. The request was refused. I am bitterly disappointed not only about the conclusions but also about some of the reasons given by the committee for its decision. It argued as if a new principle was involved. My right hon. Friend knows well that this is not a new principle and that tomatoes and apples have been subject to the same marking arrangements in the past. If it is valid for them, there is no reason why it should not be valid for the other commodities. I understand that another application may be made, and if so, I hope that it will be very sympathetically considered. It is most discouraging to our growers when they are trying to make progress in this way to receive a slap in the face, which is what the committee's decision represented.
My right hon. Friend has a number of times recently said that there are three methods whereby agriculture can be assisted—by tariff, by quota, or by subsidy, which is the method which he and the Government have accepted. He uttered some apt words at the Farmers' Club:People sometimes ask why the Government do not, instead of subsidies, provide support for our home production by other means—tariffs, or import quota restrictions…in general neither of these methods of protecting our home production could be adopted by this country without very serious damage to our trade—and trade is as vital as agriculture to our continued existence.We all agree with that.If we want to sell to other countries we must be prepared to buy from them. If we want other countries to refrain from imposing barriers to trade we must not do so either. Those are the reasons why the Government deliberately chose subsidies as a better way 384 than either tariffs or import quota restrictions of ensuring the necessary support for home food production, while at the same time ensuring food supplies to the nation at competitive prices.Those are very sound words, but if we accept that, surely we have not got to count the full cost of the agricultural subsidies against agriculture. If we have to do it this way, we are doing it because we shall assist the rest of the community, and industry in particular, to compete in the world markets. If that is so, part of the cost of the subsidies that we have agreed to undertake should rightly be borne by the industrial community. That ought to be readily understood, and for that reason we have every right to say that the subsidies which are given should continue.
I know that they are now running at a very high level, but I hope my right hon. Friend will not permit them to be reduced this year of all years. He has said that increased efficiency should permit their gradual diminution, which is a fair and sound point, and I believe the farming community would accept it, but this year of all years when the fanners have had the worst possible harvest to contend with it would be disastrous. I urge upon the Minister that there should not be any diminution when the next February Price Review comes along, because the farmers need every sympathy and help to overcome this most disastrous season.
I apologise for having kept the House so long, but I wanted to deal with these points about marketing because I believe there frequently is misunderstanding of them. I hope the Minister will give attention to these requests, particularly the last one. J feel confident that under his direction agriculture will continue to thrive.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael O'Neill (Mid-Ulster)
My contribution to this debate will not be so much directed towards the policy of the Ministry of Agriculture as towards the policy of the Government generally to agricultural matters in Northern Ireland. I know that the Ministry of Agriculture here is not responsible. The Ministry which was responsible was the Ministry of Food. At the moment, we are in the process of being transferred and do not actually know where we stand.
I should like to draw the attention of the House to the peculiar difficulties under 385 which the farmer of Northern Ireland has to operate. There is no comparison between farming in Northern Ireland and farming in England or Scotland. Our farms are small; 60 per cent. of them are under 30 acres in extent and more than 37 per cent. are under 15 acres. It can be seen that we are a community of small farmers and, as such, difficult to organise into a system of organised farming. Nevertheless, during the emergency when we had controlled prices—when fixed prices really meant fixed prices and guaranteed markets really meant guaranteed markets—we had a period of relative prosperity.
During that period our farmers took every advantage of the facilities provided and made full use of those advantages to increase production, not only by quantity but by quality. I think the figures speak for themselves. In that period our production of agricultural produce increased five-fold. That is a remarkable tribute to small farmers of Northern Ireland. The fertility of the land considerably improved and mechanisation took place on a substantial scale. Those farmers were very wisely directed by the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture.
Under the Agriculture Act, 1947, we farmers of Northern Ireland were guaranteed a parity of price with fanners of England and Scotland. That parity of price as we understood it was to mean that we were to get the same guaranteed price in our nearest markets in Northern Ireland as the English farmer got for his commodities in the English market. A very important point to remember is that around that time legislation was being introduced in this House for making very much increased demands on fanners by way of direct and indirect taxation. We were about to introduce the colossal National Health Service scheme and many new and increased forms of taxation. One of those forms, which I mention as an illustration, was the contribution by the self-employed to National Insurance. That was a very severe tax on these small farmers. Nevertheless, they did not complain; they accepted it.
I doubt very much if those farmers would freely have accepted that extra taxation had they not been satisfied at that time that they were being given parity of price and that that parity of price was to be maintained. Now a new system of decontrol comes, and what do 386 we get? Within a few months the whole system of agricultural economy built up over a period of 15 years is driven into confusion and chaos. Our farmers not only find that they have not got guaranteed prices but that they have not even got guaranteed markets. One of the first commodities to come under the hammer was the grass seed market. We had a very substantial quantity of grass seed available for that market. Nevertheless, the Government here allowed grass seed to be imported from the Continent. Our grass seed decayed and, within two years, the grass seed fund depreciated to the extent of £750,000, for which we got no compensation.
Last year we had a tremendous surplus of potatoes, but not one ton of those potatoes could be sold until the back end of the year. Then our Ministry of Agriculture had to introduce a scheme whereby the very best eating potatoes were sprayed with blackberry dye and used for feedingstuffs. The Ministry had to compensate farmers to the extent of £7 or £8 a ton.
That was only the beginning. When the decontrol became effective in July, what happened? I heard the Minister say today that he was very happy to say that there was no glut of beef, fat cattle, or sheep at any time during the autumn of this year. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we had a very definite glut. For two or three months it was practically impossible to get our sheep sold at all. Our pig producers suffered very severely. Some of our farmers who had very extensively increased pig production and had expected to market them at £22 each had to be content with £14 or £15 each. Even so, there will be a very substantial deficiency payment.
We have a very definite grievance in this matter, and I am anxious that the Government should give it their earliest consideration. In compensation for all these difficulties, we get £500,000. That is supposed to compensate us for all this disruption in our farming industry. I put it to any hon. Member, what is £500,000? I was present in the Stormont House of Commons when that House was-discussing what to do with this £500,000.
§ Mr. Phelim O'Neill (Antrim, North)
My understanding—I should like the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. O'Neill) to confirm it—is that the sum of £500,000 387 is not a definite and final sum by any means. It is only a provisional estimate, because the final amount cannot possibly be reckoned other than retrospectively.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I agree that that is so. Nevertheless, the £500,000 is an indication to the Northern Ireland farmer of what he might expect. That is the most that can be expected during the ensuing year. As I said, I was present during that debate, when it took the House of Commons at Stormont three days to decide what to do with the £500,000. A special Bill had to be brought in to deal with it, and in the course of the debate there were some very interesting revelations.
I should like to quote from a reply given by our Minister of Agriculture to the Member for Enniskillen, a Mr. West, who, incidentally, is the Deputy-President of the Ulster Farmers' Union. Mr. West was anxious to know which Department would be responsible for maintaining the link in agricultural affairs between the Government at Westminster and the Government of Northern Ireland. This was the reply of the Rev. R. Moore, our Minister of Agriculture, which I quote from the HANSARD Report of Debates for Wednesday, 17th November, 1954:There would be no point in my going across to interview the new Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries at Westminster. He is the Minister of Agriculture only for England and Wales. So far as I know, apart from the general control and authority of the British Cabinet and the Government, he has no further control or influence whatsoever here and he cannot do anything for us as Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries for England and Wales, except as a Member of the Government. I have already been over there and I am beginning almost to regret that I ever went. It seems that instead of gratifying the farming community and their representatives it has only created trouble, confusion, and dissatisfaction.That is an embarrassing situation in which one Tory Minister meets another, but it shows the difficulties of the Minister in Northern Ireland. While I do not agree with him, I certainly have every sympathy with the difficult position in which he found himself that day. He was trying to explain to his Parliament that we in Northern Ireland would now be placed in a position equal to that of the northern counties in Scotland.
To say the least, that is grossly unfair. There can be no comparison of the cost of marketing produce between the 388 northern counties of Scotland and the counties of, say, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry in Northern Ireland. The Northern Scottish farmer has road and rail transport available. He has the markets of England within reach and within, at most, a day's journey. He has no unloading during the transit of his produce. But consider the farmer in Enniskillen or Strabane. He loads his produce on to the rail. It has to be unloaded at Belfast, reloaded on to the boat, unloaded again at the port in England, and then reloaded again on to rail, a process involving at least two or three days. There can be no comparison in that instance as between the counties in the North of Scotland and the counties of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry.
I ask the Government here to give us parity of price at the port of entry in England or Scotland; that is only fair, and I honestly believe that the farmers in Northern Ireland would be quite content to accept it. When one considers all the confusion and annoyance which we have been caused and the disruption in our economy, it is only fair that the Government here should agree to give us parity of price at the port of entry in England or Scotland. That is not too much to ask. In fact, we are entitled to it, because the 1947 Act has never been repealed. At least, if the Government's attitude is not illegal, it is certainly a very bad breach of faith, and the farmers of Northern Ireland resent it very much.
Apart from that, the system of fixing farm prices is not a fair system. It does not take into consideration the high cost of feedingstuffs in Northern Ireland. According to the report which is issued today, the Ministry of Agriculture says that the price for pigs is based on a feedingstuffs price of 29s. 10d. per cwt. We in Northern Ireland pay 34s. per cwt. for our feedingstuffs, and the Ministry says that for every penny per cwt. that feedingstuffs in Britain rise or fall in price, there will be an automatic rise or fall of a penny per score in the price of pigs at the annual review. On that basis, we are entitled to an increase in the price of pigs of 4s. 2d. per score. If the prices are fixed on a basis of 29s. 10d. per cwt., why should our prices in Northern Ireland not be based on a price of 34s. per cwt., which is the price that we actually pay for our feedingstuffs?
§ Mr. P. O'Neill
I should like to get this matter right. The price of 29s. 10d. to which the hon. Member has referred applies, I believe, to straight meals, and the 34s. refers to compounds. I believe that the price mechanism is based on the straights and not on the compounds.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I thought so myself until I re-read the report. It specifically refers to pig rations, and by "rations" we mean a mixed feed. Therefore, there can be no question of its being straight meal.
Furthermore, we in Northern Ireland are faced with increased costs of production, in that we pay more for our agricultural machinery. Every tractor that goes on to a farm in Northern Ireland costs £25 more than the price to the English farmer. The English farmer has the advantage over us in that we have to pay £25 for the cost of transit from the factory in England. We have a very good case for parity of price; and if we get it at the port of entry in England or Scotland, we will be very satisfied.
I should like to make one other point. It does not actually concern agriculture, but has an important bearing on agricultural economy. It was announced yesterday that there will be an increase of 1s. in the weekly National Insurance contribution; and I understand that this will apply also to self-employed persons. We in Northern Ireland have a great many self-employed people. We have probably a much higher proportion of them than either Scotland, England or Wales.
In Ulster there are many thousands of small farmers. Each will be compelled to pay now more than 8s. a week. Previously his contribution amounted to about £20 a year. Now it will amount to about £22 a year. That is the contribution that the small, self-employed farmers are to be compelled to pay. It imposes upon them a very great hardship. In most cases it is more than they formerly paid in rents or taxes.
The Northern Ireland Government, who administer it, have a system at present whereby there is exemption for farmers who occupy farms with a valuation of £10. I should like that valuation to be raised to £20. What is a farm with a valuation of £20? It is a farm of about 22 acres only, and at the most of not 390 more than 25. How can a farmer working a very small place like that make a contribution of £22 a year, especially in present circumstances, in which there is a downward tendency in prices and in which markets are disrupted, and the farmers find it difficult to keep going? I make a special appeal to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance to give that little concession to the Northern Ireland farmers. I am sure they would appreciate it.
Agriculture is our main industry in Northern Ireland, in the sense that it is the most widespread, and the kernel of the unemployment problem is in this industry, because our unemployment problem is largely the result of our failure to absorb our extra population on the land. In the last 20 years the number of people employed on the land in the Six Counties has been reduced by 50 per cent. That is simply disastrous for an agricultural country. If that tendency were to continue we should eventually have no one at all on the land. It is very important to try to retain people on the land, and one way to do it is to develop industries ancillary to agriculture.
A few years ago I made here a suggestion to which I received no answer at all, and so I will make it again now. We should try to develop our agriculture on more modern lines and to eliminate high transport costs. We should also undertake a meat dressing industry. That would help to reduce if not to eliminate high transport costs, and it would give employment to our people. Many thousands of our people could be employed in the dressed meat industry. We should have tanneries and many other subsidiary industries. Instead of trying to ship our surplus milk to England and Scotland during the summer we should use it and our surplus eggs in a confectionery manufacturing industry. We could make fancy cakes. The English would be delighted with them. We should make sweets and chocolates.
The all-important need is capital. The small farmers of Northern Ireland are simply not able to provide it. It must be provided for them. It would be better were the Government to provide capital for these industries instead of allowing the unemployed in Northern Ireland to be a constant drain on the unemployment fund here. At present the unemployed in Northern Ireland are a drain 391 on the unemployment fund here. The money thus spent at present would be more wisely spent on capital development. So I say that instead of allowing us to retain the £500,000 from our Imperial contribution this year the Government should say to the Government of Northern Ireland, "Keep £4 million or £5 million and spend it on capital development."
That would be a wiser way of spending the money than keeping people on the dole, because they cannot live on the dole in Northern Ireland any better than they can live on the dole in England. The cost of living is as high there as here, and to subsist on the dole or on National Assistance is existence but not living. It is high time that this question of agriculture and employment was reviewed, and I hope sincerely that the Government during the coming year will give it their earnest consideration. If they do that we shall probably be satisfied, but if they do not they can expect nothing but very great resentment.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
The whole House will agree that we have had a pleasant surprise in listening to the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. M. O'Neill). I had expected that he would have had something to say about the vexed problem of the so-called partition of Ireland. It is indeed a pleasant surprise that he has departed from that subject, and it is agreeable to see a common concern, and a sincerely felt concern, about our agricultural industry transcending the political and often bitter differences between us. It is the sort of course we should seek to pursue in future, if we can.
I am not going to refer immediately and directly to what the hon. Member has said about Ulster agriculture, because it is my purpose to raise the rather wider question of the whole economic position in Northern Ireland. I am sorry that it should take us away from the main theme of our discussion tonight, but this is one of the few opportunities one has to carry out such a survey as I am anxious to see made.
I would, however, say to the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster that probably the basic trouble in Ulster agriculture at the moment is the fact that when the principle 392 of the common price at the farm gate was introduced it benefited the remoter areas, of which Ulster is one, rather more than others, and that, of course, the converse applies, so that when the principle of the common price at the farm gate is removed it is the remoter areas, Ulster particularly, that feel the draught more than others. I am glad to say that that has been taken into account by the Government, and I hope to come back to that point later.
Nearly three years ago in this House, I raised the question of unemployment in Northern Ireland, and if the House will bear with me I would quote something that I then said. I referred to the unemployment position in Ulster, and said:It is serious and we are all greatly perturbed about it.Later in the same speech, I said:The economy of Northern Ireland, upon which the prosperity of our people and employment depends, is somewhat unstable. It is based on the two major industries of shipbuilding and textiles.There of course I might have added agriculture.
I went on:A recession in either causes a dislocation of the labour force, and an enormous number of people are thrown out of work, as is the case at present."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th May, 1952; Vol. 500, c. 1346–9.]I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to deal with what was then under discussion—Purchase Tax on linen—as a matter of urgency in order to help reduce what I described then as "distress in Northern Ireland."
At that time, unemployment in Ulster was running at between 10 per cent. and 11 per cent. of the insured population, an exceedingly high level when one compares it with the national average at which unemployment has been running in this country. The average for that year, 1952, was 10.4 per cent. of the insured population. What has happened since I raised this matter in 1952? There has been a steady reduction in unemployment. It has not been substantial or anything like sufficient, but there has been generally a steady improvement.
In 1953, the average of unemployment went down to 8.1 per cent. of the insured population and this year it will probably work out at something under 7 per cent Unemployment in Ulster since 1952 has been reduced from 48,288 to 32,961 men 393 and women. In other words, since 1952 there have been found for workers in Ulster 15,327 more jobs. That may be satisfactory up to a point, but, as the House may have already heard, the situation is still causing us very grave concern. It is still very serious, and is still worthy of examination by the House.
The Gracious Speech says:My Ministers will continue to encourage the expansion of industry and the full employment of My People.We in Ulster are Her Majesty's people. We are an integral part of the United Kingdom and, therefore, we take it that that promise in the Gracious Speech means a promise to encourage full employment in Northern Ireland. We look to that promise being fulfilled.
It may be that it could be argued that one or two of the matters to which I hope to refer are matters for the Government of Northern Ireland. The great Statute of 1920 which set up the Parliament of Northern Ireland transferred a great many matters of administration and, in a small way, of taxation to the Parliament near Belfast. While it is clearly improper for this House, having transferred some of its powers, to examine the day-to-day workings of the administration under that Parliament, nevertheless it is true that because certain major powers have been reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament, United Kingdom policy has a very considerable effect upon the economic position of Ulster.
It is right, therefore, that from time to time we should have a general review without going into details which can be properly left to the Parliament over there. Among the powers that this House has reserved to itself are the major powers of taxation. In the year ended 31st March last the total public expenditure in Ulster amounted to almost £57 million. Yet the yield to the Ulster Exchequer of the revenue over which it has control amounted to only £4,750,000.
That means that we in Ulster depend very largely upon our "residual share" of the taxation which is collected under the authority of this House. What is left in the Exchequer is known as the Imperial contribution. It is greatly to our credit in Ulster, and a fact which ought to be taken into consideration by the United Kingdom Government when considering our problems, that we have 394 an uninterrupted record of balanced Budgets ever since our Parliament was set up in 1920. There was a peak Imperial contribution of £36 million in 1944–45, and in the current year it is estimated that our Imperial contribution will run to about £12,500,000. That is a very considerable contribution.
There has developed, in the financial relationship between the United Kingdom and Ulster, a principle of parity of expenditure on the social services. It is a very good principle, and it means that our social services, very rightly, have been kept in Ulster at a level similar to the level of the social services here. It is a principle which has run through all our financial relationships. Among the matters which must be very rightly taken into consideration is expenditure aimed at countering special local conditions or disadvantages. It is to that aspect of the problem that I hope to refer.
What is the present position in Northern Ireland? The House ought to examine our difficulties. Our principal trouble, of course, is due to our geographical situation.
§ Captain Orr
I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Healy) interjecting. We love seeing him here. His character is lovable, his politics are detestable.
Our principal difficulty, of course, is the geographical one. We suffer in a very similar way to the Highlands of Scotland in that respect. In the old clays this disadvantage was not felt by industry because the cost of labour and of freight was very much lower. While it is very right and proper that the cost of labour should have risen to a position of parity with the rest of the United Kingdom—and no one would wish it otherwise or suggest that the remedy was a reduction—transport charges have risen and have accentuated our difficulties.
We have the short sea journey. There is, as the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster said in the case of livestock, the problem with every industry of the double handling, the loading and unloading, to undertake that short sea journey. The effect of this is that prices over there are increased. According to my estimate the 395 price of pithead coal is nearly doubled. The result is that while it may pay an established manufacturer in this country to absorb transport charges in order to gain a marginal advantage in his output, that is not the case when either a smaller producer or a subsidiary is trying to start an enterprise in Ulster. Consequently, all this makes it very difficult to carry out the Ulster Government's policy of diversifying industry.
We ought to look briefly at what has happened, and at the efforts the Ulster Government have made. The Northern Ireland Government, as far back as 1932, started their policy of diversifying industry to overcome the fundamental problem that our employment was largely bound up in shipbuilding, textiles, and agriculture. That policy has been the basis of our economic thinking ever since, because by attracting new industries we provide work for more and more of our people.
§ Mr. M. O'Neill
Can the hon. and gallant Member tell me how many new industries have been started in Tyrone since 1930?
§ Captain Orr
I am sorry I have not got the figures for Tyrone, but I will get them for the hon. Member and let him have them.
§ Captain Orr
I have got the figures for Ulster as a whole. About 150 new industries have been started since 1932, and have provided about 30,000 jobs for the Ulster people. In fact, industrial employment has increased from 139,000 in 1935 to 202,000 in 1952. Over these years industrial employment has increased to the extent of about 63,000 and since 1946, through this new industrial policy, the average gain in employment each year has been of the order of 2,333. Since 1946, the total gain from the new industrial policy has been about 18,665.
It cannot be said, in the face of these figures, that the Ulster Government, faced with their difficult employment problem, and a difficult economic situation, have not really done their utmost to provide employment for the people. Any suggestion that the Ulster Government have been negligent or have not exerted their best efforts would be quite unjustified.
396 Inducements have been provided to bring new industries to Northern Ireland. Factories have been built for lease with rent concessions. Grants, very often of about 25 per cent, have been paid towards the cost of building factories and there have been grants towards other services such as the provision of power, water, and workers' houses. All these inducements have been given to attract industries, and it is interesting in this context, if I am not wearying the House with too many figures, to compare the factory building statistics in Ulster with those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Board of Trade Journal of 2nd October, 1954, contains interesting figures of factory development in Great Britain. Comparing those with the official estimates for Northern Ireland, I find that, on a population basis, factory building in Northern Ireland averages about 5.3 square feet per head compared with 3.8 in Great Britain.
A fairer way to judge is to compare it with one of the Development Areas. I have not got the figures before me for all of these areas, but I have a comparison which is interesting, namely, new building work under construction in the Scottish Development Area. The figure is one square foot per head of the population and covers both Government and private building, compared with 1.27 in Northern Ireland for Government building alone. On that comparison it would be fair to say that the Ulster Government have a record in this matter of which they have no reason to be ashamed.
In addition to the figures which I have already quoted, it would be fair to say of some of the firms that have just started operations in Ulster, and who may now be employing a few hundred people, will be in a position, in the course of time, to employ perhaps a few thousands. The firms on the books of the Ulster Ministry of Commerce hope to employ an additional 6,000 men and women. That certainly applies to firms like the British Thomson-Houston Company and the Corram works at Larne.
There are two factors affecting the employment situation to which I should draw the attention of the House. I do not want to go into them in detail, but they ought to be mentioned. The first of them is that the National Service Acts do not apply to Northern Ireland. I 397 should not like to be drawn into any argument as to whether they should apply or not, because I might cross swords with the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone or the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster.
§ Captain Orr
I am not going to be drawn into an argument on the subject, but it is fair to bear in mind the effect of the non-application of these Acts to Northern Ireland.
We have estimated that there are about 11,000 young men in the 18 and 19year-old age groups, and on the estimation that 60 per cent. would be called up under conscription, and that the period of conscription would be two years, the effect would be to remove between 13,000 and 14,000 young men in these age groups from the labour market. That would have a considerable effect upon unemployment.
The other factor which affects the problem is the question of the school-leaving age. It is hoped that in Northern Ireland we shall have reached, by 1957, a position of parity with this country, and we estimate—it is a rough estimate because it is difficult to assess—that that would probably reduce the unemployment figure by about 20,000 to 21,000.
I said at the beginning of my speech that United Kingdom policy should be to aid us in Ulster. It is evident that the Northern Ireland Government's new industrial policy, comparatively successful though it has been, has not been sufficient of itself to prevent our employment figures running at the present rate of between 6 per cent. and 7 per cent. of our insured population.
It is fair, in this connection, that we who come from Ulster, whatever party we belong to, should be asked, why should the United Kingdom Government come to our aid and help us at all? Leaving aside all considerations of kinship and honour, or the question of our comradeship with the rest of the United Kingdom in war and peace, there are what I might call bread-and-butter reasons for the United Kingdom Government taking a serious and intelligent interest in our affairs.
398 We meet certain essential needs of the United Kingdom economy. Our exports are on a relatively large scale compared with our population. Our linen exports to dollar markets have often been referred to in this House, as have our shipbuilding industry exports, and our exports of textile machinery, while our farm produce, for instance, topped about £60 million in 1952. We meet certain defence needs of this country in that we build warships, and aircraft, and in many other ways assist defence. Of our total industrial output in 1952 only 42 per cent. was retained in Ulster, while about 12 per cent. was directly exported, and the rest to ports in Britain.
Successive United Kingdom Governments have been sympathetic to us, including the Labour Government, who were reasonably sympathetic to any request properly put up by the Northern Ireland Government.
§ Captain Orr
It is difficult to measure sympathy, but I would not say that. However, through the financial arrangements which have been made between us, successive United Kingdom Governments have made possible many of the incentives which the Ulster Government have been able to offer in order to attract new industries. Indeed, in many cases things could not have been done had the Joint Exchequer Board not approved.
The Board of Trade has treated us as if we came under the Distribution of Industries Act. While it is a contentious question whether or not we should have come directly under that Act, the Board of Trade has helped us as much as it has helped Development Areas by steering industry towards us. The Ulster Government have been able to subsidise industrial coal. Admittedly, the subsidy is only about £750,000, but that could only have been given with the consent of the Joint Exchequer Board. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster referred to the acknowledgment of our special agricultural position in the White Paper. All parties in Ulster, and anybody connected with our agriculture, will hope that the performance lives up to the promise. I cannot say more than that at present.
399 While all this has been going on, it is still not sufficient. The unemployment situation is bad, and something more imaginative, therefore, is required from the Government. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster mentioned capital. This should be considered also, although I know of no substantial reputable industrial expansion which has been held up for shortage of capital.
§ Mr. M. O'Neill
But would not the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that that is holding back the development of the dressed meat industry? Would not the National Farmers' Union be prepared to undertake a farmers' marketing scheme for produce, if the necessary capital were available?
§ Captain Orr
Yes, I shall not contend with the hon. Gentleman on that point; I was merely stating how I saw the position.
One of the troubles, though not the entire trouble, is the high cost of freight, as it is in other remote areas. Would the Government consider again the question of a flat transport subsidy on the sea route between Ulster and the mainland? One of the arguments used against this is that it would create a precedent in subsidising shipping which would react against the United Kingdom as a maritime country. There is, however, already a precedent in the MacBrayne Co. which operates to some of the Scottish Islands.
I hope that the Government will bear in mind the possibility of more Government contracts for Ulster. We have not been unfairly treated, but one of the relevant factors which should be taken into consideration in giving contracts to such factories as, for example, Short Bros. and Harland, in Belfast, is the level of unemployment in the area. I hope, too, that in the development of nuclear energy the Government will remember that we have certain valuable mineral deposits, such as iron ore, which we might develop into a major industry if we had the power there.
The Ulster Unionist Members recently put up some proposals, as did certain right hon. Gentlemen opposite. I hope the Government will examine all these proposals, from whatever quarter they come, in detail, and with sympathy, 400 because a long-term solution must be found. We are obliged to the Prime Minister for taking a personal interest in us and we hope that it will bear fruit—
§ Captain Orr
This is not a cry for charity. We are a proud people in Ulster, and we would not ask for charity. It is a plea for fair play, and I hope, and indeed believe, that we shall get it.
§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
Far be it from me, a Welshman representing an English constituency, to enter into the differences of opinion in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Irish are grateful for the fact that it was the Welsh who civilised them. I was quite convinced from my visit when the Labour Government were in power that we did much more for Northern Ireland than has been done under a Conservative Minister of Agriculture.
§ Mr. Davies
I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that if I am left alone I shall be back on this seat in nine or 10 minutes. The last time I spoke on international affairs, I was interrupted so much that I took a little longer.
Tonight we are discussing the Amendment put down on the Order Paper in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends regretting that the confidence of the farming community has been lost, and asking that something should be done to halt the decline in the tillage acreage of this country.
I have listened to all this debate. I heard the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne), like Jeremiah, say that the world would be better if nobody smoked and if nobody had a glass of beer, and that we could then afford to pay for other things. I could suggest that if nobody wore shoes, if nobody wore a collar and tie, and if nobody spent thousands of millions of pounds on armaments, the world would be better still. In the next nine or 10 minutes, I shall look first at agriculture and coal in relation to defence.
We are talking about future progress. Both agriculture and coal are of paramount importance to our economy, despite the grizzling of the colliers against 401 the farmers and the grumbling of the farmers against the colliers. It is a good job we do not have the colliers doing the farming and the farmers cutting the coal, for if we did we should freeze to death and starve to death at the same time.
Let us look at British farms. With the kind of foreign policy we have at present and with the telegrams which are flying round in the days of the hydrogen bomb, what kind of agricultural development can there be viewed in relation to defence? Are we abandoning all the props which were given to British agriculture and all the confidence that was given to it by the Labour Government? It is no good right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite saying that confidence does exist. I go into the markets in my agricultural constituency, and I listen to the grumbles of the farmers, and I also listen to the farm workers. I assure the House there is no longer confidence, and I do not see enough in the Gracious Speech to restore it.
The Minister said that, despite the floods and everything else, we had a fine crop of watercress. Apparently, the standard of Conservatism will hack its way through the hills, valleys, and alluvial plains of Britain; but some of the plains are flooded and the hill farms are neglected. The Gracious Speech says nothing about forestry. The Labour Government did more for forestry in five years than the Conservative Party has done in 30 years. There was not a word about a forestry policy in the Gracious Speech, and yet the Government talk about defence—not that it counts anyway in view of the hydrogen bomb.
I advise farmers and horticulturists to read an excellent article which appeared in "The Grower" a fortnight ago. I took the trouble to bring to the House the professor of biophysics at Osaki University, Japan. He spoke to hon. Members and also gave an interview to "The Grower." He described what is happening to fruit and vegetables in various parts of Japan as a result of radio-activity. Only this week we have heard of the silkworms being affected by radio-activity, and also the trees upon which they live.
Here is the problem. We are talking about civil defence and agriculture, but we have now reached a pitch where, unless the world can agree upon a policy 402 of co-existence, we shall have co-extinction. We have a completely new weapon which alters the cellular formation and powers of reproduction of animals and vegetables. In that kind of world we must somehow or other find a policy to enable us all to live side by side.
That was a slight diversion, but it was worth while pointing out that a nonpolitical, purely scientific person dealt with the problem of the hydrogen bomb and its effect upon fishermen in the Pacific Ocean and told me and other hon. Members what was happening to the famous valley of Japan where horticulture is carried on. We ought to bear all this in mind when we think of the present and the future.
The Leek local authority had the foresight to build a new cattle market costing some thousands of pounds. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) spoke about the lack of policy for slaughterhouses. I remember saying on a Prayer one night that our policy of marketing cattle and other types of stock would collapse unless we worked out a practical policy for slaughterhouses. Are slaughterhouses to be at the point of production or at the point of consumption? Is that policy being worked out?
It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Grantham quote from the Linlithgow Report. A few weeks ago I said that Covent Garden must cost the consumer of fruit and vegetables thousands of pounds every week in petrol consumption, a cost which is represented in the price of produce. It is time the Government gave us a policy which would be expansive and would give fair marketing. While at one time or another the Labour Party have been critics of the farmer or the distributor, we have always tried to discover a method of marketing which would give a fair price to the producer and would put the commodity into the housewife's basket at a fair price.
Today the farmer is not getting a square deal, and neither is the housewife. The Conservative Party sits in inapt and inept elegance making promises about the shopping basket and about the cost of living and about the standard of living. The Conservatives were forced to increase pensions. The standard of living is lower today and the cost of living 403 higher than ever as the result of a complete lack of policy in agriculture. However, we had a good crop of watercress apparently.
The matter of accidents on the farm ought to be taken seriously by both sides of the House. Agriculture is becoming mechanised, and there is a tendency, because of the novelty of mechanization—I have seen this in my constituency—to neglect the machines and to leave them out in the open. I hope the farmer will not think that I am telling him how to do his work; I am looking at this matter as an ordinary individual. Nothing hurts me more than to see well built, beautifully coloured machines left out in the fields all night and in all weathers. Production would be cheapened, productivity would be increased and our economy would be aided if we had a strict policy for the protection of the machines, and this would also help to prevent accidents.
Is it not time the Government brought about standardisation of the machines, and, in particular, standardisation of nuts, bolts and screws? How far is this being done? What consultation is there between agricultural engineering firms and the Ministry to secure standardisation? What efforts are being made not to secure lots of high-powered machines but to ensure that cheap tools and machines are put into the hands of the small farmers? Many of them have no co-operative enterprise but would welcome something on those lines. If such enterprise could be developed through the county agricultural executive committees or the Government, I believe the farmers would welcome the introduction of new types of small machines to deal with small acreages.
I believe we have reached a stage where the meat producer, the trader and the consumer are rather upset at the sudden shock and upheaval of the so-called freedom that was thrust like a boulder into the pond of agriculture when the Government threw aside controls. The National Farmers' Union was one of the Government's strongest critics on that score. It was a hasty, doctrinaire approach suddenly to throw off controls without visualising the future. The Government now realise that.
404 I should like to know how far the Government are going in relation to potato marketing and what they hope to get out of the Potato Marketing Board. What do they hope to do in view of the floods and the shortages which may result from the floods? Some of us have spent many years discussing this problem. Whatever Government we have in power, we now require, as much as a national policy for the roads, a national policy on river drainage. This is not a party point but something that must be done.
Nothing was more tragic when I was travelling through the Midlands last week, than to see on each side of the railway line thousands of acres of land under water. Year in and year out we tolerate that, as we tolerate the erosion of our coasts. It is time that the problem was tackled with as much energy as we tackle that of defence. That is why I deprecate the fact that—and the link will be seen in a moment—nothing was said about forestry in the Gracious Speech.
Everyone knows that the balance of Nature has been upset in many parts of the world by men hacking away at raw materials and cutting down trees without a policy of afforestation. I believe—and this is straight off the cuff, as I have not worked it out—that we want to develop forestry as did the Labour Government. Are we progressing at the same rate as when my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was Minister of Agriculture? Do not the Government agree that a policy of afforestation helps to prevent flooding?
For every acre of housing one gets an acre of slates. No longer is the rain absorbed into the ground as it falls. Instead it rushes into the drains, collecting at one point and causing flooding.
I regret that we are not to divide on the Opposition Amendment. The agricultural policy of the Government has been tragic since they took office, and I sincerely hope that we shall have an opportunity for a full dress debate in the coming months, when more information will be available, especially about the policies of afforestation, floods and marketing.
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)
I hope the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) will forgive me if I do not follow him, except in his commendable example of brevity, as I wish to turn to another industry. I should like to add my congratulations to the Government for what they have done to speed up efforts to solve this very vexed problem of rural education. I agree with others who have spoken today that it is essential for the well-being of our countryside that there should be an adequate rural education. The Minister today referred to modern farming techniques, which brings me to a point which I think will have to be borne in mind. That is that technical education is a vital part of rural education as a whole.
The point which the hon. Member for Leek made about machinery is important. There is more and more machinery on the farms today, and therefore technical education in the maintenance of agricultural machinery is important. I understand that under present arrangements technical education is undertaken by the National Agricultural Advisory Service, but whether that should be divided between them and the Minister of Education is something that will have to be considered.
That brings me to another form of education about which I wish to speak. I was glad to see that in the Gracious Speech for the first time since I have been in this House—since l950—a specific reference has been made to the fishing industry. It was:My Ministers will continue to foster the interests of the fishing industry.…It goes on to refer to a Bill for the herring industry. To foster those interests one of the most important things that has to be done is to encourage our young men to go into the industry. If this is to be done, something must be done about their education.
I know this is being envisaged in South-West England at the moment. Devon and Cornwall have got together with the Plymouth education committees to devise a scheme of training which will come under two heads. They are that education at the technical college will be continued by the Regional Council for Further Education in the South-West, which is an off-shoot of the Ministry of 406 Education, and that practical training in fishing boats will be carried out under the guidance, I gather, of the White Fish Authority, although under the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
There again we get the difficulties of two Ministries dealing with the same thing. They are going to have a very real problem here, because in a boat in the inshore fishing industry there is no room for passengers. In a share-fishing vessel everyone has to know his job. Anybody who has had the honour and privilege, as I have had, of going on a night's drifting knows that every man has to know his job and is highly skilled—they have no room for trainees.
Therefore, I suggest that in the practical part of this education it has very carefully to be thought out how this is to be done and what financial help and grants are to be given. I understand that those are not yet settled. They must be adequate, if men are to be borne in these vessels, because they will not have to be a charge on the other share-fishermen. That being so, adequate maintenance allowance will have to be paid to them.
What steps will technical education envisage? It is said that it comes under the Minister of Education. All these things will have to be very carefully thought out and have to be co-ordinated so that these young men get the best possible training before they go to sea. I think that it should be the responsibility of some Minister definitely to co-ordinate this training. I suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries could be charged with this duty.
That brings me to my next point, which is that I hope it may be possible for this Parliamentary Secretary to answer at the Box Questions on the fishing industry. This would give the fishing industry the knowledge that there was one of the Under-Secretaries to whom the Prime Minister referred in answer to the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) the other day that was specifically charged with the responsibility and duty, under the Minister, of dealing with fishery matters. It would help if he could give answers at the Box.
Take the Icelandic dispute which has recently come up again. The hon. Member for Lowestoft and I went to Iceland 407 in 1953. When we came back we put in a report and made certain recommendations. These matters have been discussed and one feels that this problem is going to come up again very soon. I suggest that some action might possibly be taken by a neutral source to try and get the two sides together. I will say no more than that. Each side produces arguments and will not budge unless such and such a thing is done. One side says one thing and the other side another. If both sides would give some small concession, it might help to reopen negotiations. I suggest that that concession would come easier if it were made through some neutral chairman, negotiator or intermediary.
One of the other problems to be considered when fostering the interests of the fishing industry, is the very vexed one to which many of us have referred, one that is the size of mesh. I am delighted that the Government have taken the initiative in putting the question of inspection before the other signatories of the Overfishing Convention. As I understand it, they have given it as their view that each country should be empowered to inspect the nets of foreign vessels when in their harbours.
That has been made on the initiative of our Government, and I am very glad to hear it. I hope that they will press the matter when the meeting takes place, I understand in May next year, for I think that one prosecution would be sufficient. If one of these men who are making excuses for going to sea with the wrong size of mesh when our own fishermen have been good enough to comply and to use the right size, at considerable cost to themselves, were fined £1,000 and his gear confiscated, the trouble would probably cease at once. If that did not work, then there could be a fine of £2,000 the next time.
The next subject which has been touched on several times is that of transport charges. This is a very important question. I am interested to learn that talks have been going on between the White Fish Authority and the Transport Commission and that some concessions have been envisaged provided that those concerned will send all their consignments by rail and give an undertaking to that effect. This is good news. I 408 shall believe it when I see it, but if it works it will be very helpful. I hope that we can have an assurance that the concession will be given to inshore fishermen as well. There are men who despatch their own shell fish, for instance, and I very much hope that the concession will be extended to them.
Another way in which the Government can help is by means of research. This comes under two headings. First, the Government should give every support to research on quick freezing. We all know the efforts of the "Fair Try" which has had its teething troubles but which has proved I believe fairly successful. We know what the White Fish Authority is doing by way of experiments in freezing at sea the first three days of the catch.
I hope that the Government will foster the industry by extending their research in matters of this kind. More and more housewives are taking an interest in buying frozen food. Today we can get very good frozen vegetables and fruits. The Icelanders have realised the possibilities. They have between 75 and 100 quick freezing plants all round Iceland and they are packaging fillets extremely well. I foresee the day when we will not be able to get men who can fillet and the work will be done by machines, the fillets quick frozen, and purchasers will be able to buy them throughout the country. Do not let us get left behind in this.
There has been talk in the South-West of England of a change in the Gulf Stream. I do not know whether or not this is so, but certainly this season the pilchards have deserted us in Cornwall and other fish appear to be coming in their place. I hope that the Government will bend their energies to research into this matter and that if the pilchards have gone away the Government will be able to make suggestions about alternative types of fish to be caught.
There is a more immediate problem of which all of us, and especially the people in Cornwall, have been forcibly reminded in the last weekend, and that is the strength of the gales at this time of the year. It is not necessary to say anything about the lifeboat men who went to sea last Saturday. Some of those men are suffering from loss of gear. I suggest that the Government might be able to help when men have lost gear through special 409 reasons such as the gales of exceptional ferocity.
My last point is that if we are to foster the interests of the fishing industry we must get the young men into it and we must also keep in it the older men. It is all very well to say how marvellous these lifeboat men are, but if we do not foster the fishing industry we will not have the men available to man the lifeboats and to do the magnificent work that fishermen throughout the country are doing day in and day out in war and peace as the finest possible example to every other section of the community.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)
I am happy to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) because he has discussed one or two subjects which I had not proposed to mention but which I should now like to comment upon. He and I had a pleasant journey to Iceland when the Icelandic trouble arose over the extension of territorial waters, and I might refer to that topic later.
The hon. Gentleman made a most important point when he spoke of the education and training of young men to enable them to enter the fishing industry. I have several times in the House stressed that the future of the industry does not depend primarily on the drifters, the trawlers, and so on, or even on the fish population of the near waters. It depends on the men that we get in the industry. Unless we can get the right type of man and give him the chance of promotion—and, in some cases as I shall say when I talk of the herring, of ownership—the fishing industry, that great strategic element in our national life, will decline, and we shall be hard put to it to man the defence ships around our coasts if another catastrophe overtakes us.
It is nice, in this debate on agriculture, to have a whiff of sea air. The primary industries of agriculture and fishing are closely connected. The Minister, who seems to be the Pooh-Bah of the Government, is charged with responsibility for food, fish, agriculture and goodness knows what else. He must feel a heavy sense of responsibility.
I am glad that in the Gracious Speech the Government have said something 410 about their interests in the fishing industry. The Gracious Speech says:My Ministers will continue to foster the interests of the fishing industry.That must be one of the classic platitudes, and we can only hope that the reference to the herring industry really does mean something.
To return to the question of education, a project has been mooted in my constituency by persons interested in all sides of the industry—the catchers, the merchants, and the rest, but primarily the catchers—to set up a school of fishery. It is a most ambitious idea. I do not think that they have yet thought out all the implications, but the main idea is to carry out this project on a fishing vessel, a vessel like the "Sir Lancelot," which is a research establishment and which does a tremendous amount of good work dealing with the scientific aspects of the industry.
In such a vessel the man could experience the life of a fisherman at sea. The plan could be sponsored by the White Fish Authority or the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, in co-operation with the Herring Industry Board. The Ministry of Education could also come into the picture. It is an ambitious scheme, and it would be practicable if it could be taken up right from the start, and financed by the Government.
The hon. Member for St. Ives referred to the special responsibility of a Joint Parliamentary Secretary in the Department. In view of his retreat on the Ministers of the Crown (Fisheries) Bill, I wonder whether he is now prepared to support my Ministers of the Crown (Fisheries) Bill if I reintroduce it as a Private Members' Measure. It was a most catastrophic retreat from the militant attitude of hon. Members opposite when they introduced that Bill and, at one whiff of displeasure from their Ministers, withdrew in abject terror. However, the Bill has had a resurrection.
On the question of the size of mesh, I had a visit recently from a very disturbed net maker. He had great cause for indignation. As the Minister knows, I put a Question to him recently on the invasion of our ports by the Belgians who were fishing with a much smaller mesh than that we were allowed to use. The answer given was most reasonable—that 411 the Government were taking up the matter with the Belgian Government. The complaint of my visitor was about the meticulous care of our inspectors in measuring the gauge of the net.
The measuring instrument must go reasonably through the mesh without the use of force. Because the inspector could just push the end through, he condemned the whole net. A great deal of indignation was aroused in the port as we felt that again we were being penalised by foreign competition. I shall be glad to send to the right hon. Gentleman the load of net which was sent to me—in fact, I shall be glad to get it off my hands.
I wish to say something about the promise in the Gracious Speech that the Government will… introduce a Bill to provide further assistance to the herring industry.We in Lowestoft are very anxious to know what are the proposals of the Government regarding the herring industry. East Anglia plays a very important part in that great industry, in the catching and selling of fresh herring, cured herring, and fishmeal. We are also making a gallant attempt to recapture the Continental market, especially the Russian market, so wantonly destroyed for political ends during the inter-war years, and I am glad that we are making some progress in that direction.
Despite the great contribution from East Anglia, however, the "centre of government" in this industry is located with the Secretary of State for Scotland. We do not complain about that, so long as we are assured of fair representation on the advisory councils of the Board and on its committees. I have been at some pains to try to find out what the people concerned with the herring industry really want. It is difficult to find out what the fishing industry really wants. I have been on the periphery of it now for nearly a quarter of a century.
It is one of those industries which are strongly individualistic. It has many special interests and it is difficult to get the industry to speak as a whole. But I had the opportunity of seeing the Government Press notice of 30th November, in which they refer to… a short Bill to provide a small additional sum for grants to the Herring Industry Board 412 primarily to assist the conversion of surplus herring to oil and meal.Just think of those diminutives; "short Bill" and "small amount." The herring industry requires more than that. It is most discouraging when the Government make use of such diminutives.
Surely the Government are aware that the needs of the industry require an extensive programme, and they should be prepared to provide it. In a later paragraph in the notice, it is stated:The funds at present available for these purposes are likely to become exhausted in the next financial year, and the purpose of the Bill is to provide a small additional sum (not yet determined) …Here is a good chance to determine the amount, to increase it, to put some vitamins into it, and to expand it into a suitable sum for the industry.
I do not think that my friends in the industry are keen about the use of the herring for meal and oil. We should like to see the real herring play a greater part in the dietary of the people. The hon. Member for St. Ives talked about transport charges and costs, which continue to be one of the major preoccupations of all productive industries. If there is to be an easement of transport charges, I hope that we shall not have the old pernicious transport levy. That was badly conceived and badly administered, and led to a great deal of abuse. It is wrong in principle that one section of an industry might have to bolster up a part of the industry not so efficient.
Our people would appreciate some help regarding the cost of gear. The way in which the cost of gear in the herring industry has risen is scarcely believable. Before the war drift nets cost 70s. Today the price is £20. We must remember that a drifter has a mile or more of drift nets, and all that gear may be lost in one night should a sudden gale occur. The replenishing of nets involves a tremendous expenditure, and a drain on the resources of the industry. I hope that the question of gear and running costs will be borne in mind.
We should also like grants similar to, but perhaps not exactly on the same pattern as, the subsidies given by the White Fish Authority to trawlers in the near waters. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) is present in the 413 Chamber. He introduced those subsidies, which have proved a great boon to the industry. They have kept vessels at sea which otherwise would have been tied up. We require something similar to recompense for unremunerative voyages, and to help with the cost of replenishing gear.
One of the major disabilities of the small man in the fishing industry, the owner of a small trawler or dual-purpose boat—the drifter trawler—is his inability to change over from coal-burning to diesel oil-burning engines. Such a change is beyond the financial capacity of the small man, and the result is obvious. It is only the highly capitalised firms which can afford to undertake this change over, and so the little men are gradually being bought out.
That is a contradiction of the policy of the Government, who wish to see a property-owning democracy. We shall not have the small owner-worker in the fishing industry unless something is done to enable him to compete with the bigger firms. At present, we are seeing the gradual creation of a near monopoly.
The question of distribution must be tackled—the distribution from the fish market to the fishmonger's slab and into the frying pan of the housewife. The ratio of distribution costs is too great. The producer is not getting the same balance of profit or reward as the distributor. That may be inevitable under our present system, but the Government must do something about it.
I am glad that the Government propose to tackle the question of oil, because it is vitally important to the fishing industry. Fish, gear—everything—becomes spoilt. The problem of oil is one of the greatest in our maritime life today. I hope, as is promised in the Gracious Speech that something will be done to alleviate the misery, danger, and frustration ensuing from that great menace.
The hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned the Icelandic trouble. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to arrange some sort of get-together on this matter. We are losing our traditional markets. I do not think that Iceland cares "two hoots" whether she trades with us any more or not. We are losing an interchange market worth millions of pounds a year, and I urge the Government to 414 try to organise a get-together. Let our two seafaring nations remember the brotherhood of the sea, and unite to consider whether something can be done.
We are losing our markets—including our old Russian market—to them. They are penetrating into Germany, and the ill will that has been caused can do nothing but harm to the great fishing industry. I hope that the rather timid approach which the Gracious Speech makes to this problem does not really reflect the feelings of the Government and their supporters. I hope that they will examine the matter, and see that something good is done by the Bill which they propose to produce. I am quite sure that the degree to which this matter has been pressed forward so far does not nearly approach what the industry expects and has a right to demand.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Major Patrick Wall (Hull, Haltemprice)
I, also, want to speak about the second member of the Minister's family of triplets—agriculture, fisheries and food. The hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) have already dealt with many of the fishing industry's important problems, such as education, transport and herring fishing. I want to focus my remarks upon the main problem facing the distant water section of the industry, and facing not only the fishermen, but above all the merchants, retailers and fish fryers. I refer to the Icelandic dispute.
There has recently been much publicity—amounting almost to a campaign—seeking to persuade the industry to lift the ban upon Icelandic landings. I believe that it would be a great disservice to our industry and to our country if that ban were lifted without concessions being given by the other side. Having said that, I want to make it clear, immediately, that everyone in our fishing industry wants to see the end of this unfortunate dispute. The hon. Member for Lowestoft spoke of the brotherhood of the sea. We in the Humber ports have welcomed Icelandic fishermen for generation after generation. We want to see them again, and to see the end of this long-standing dispute.
415 Our industry has always made it quite clear that it wishes to negotiate upon this problem. It has said, "Either we will negotiate now, leaving the ban upon Icelandic landings standing, together with the new Icelandic territorial limits, or we will take off the ban if Iceland withdraws to its original limits and we can then discuss the matter." But the Icelandic Government refuse to consider either alternative. They say that the ban should be lifted first, and then the matter can be discussed. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me that giving away our main card without any kind of concession from the other side would be ridiculous.
I should like briefly to refer to the origin of this dispute. In 1952 the Icelandic Government increased their territorial limits from three to four miles. That, however, is not the main question about which British trawlermen are grumbling. The main point at issue is that they have fixed their limits by drawing a line from cape to cape and therefore banning to British fishermen great tracts of water lying in the very large bays, especially those on the West Coast of Iceland. With these new limits it is possible for a trawler to be out of sight of land and still within the newly defined Icelandic waters.
It can well be appreciated what a problem this causes to a trawler skipper who is trying to fix his position when he is inside waters which are claimed as territorial waters and yet is out of sight of land. Not only that, but the Icelandic Government rigorously enforce their rules that ships running for shelter in bad weather must have the fish cleared from their decks and their nets and tackle stowed and lashed down. I believe that this dispute can be settled by negotiation, if only the other side would agree to start negotiations. I am sure that a start could be made in solving the problem facing trawlers running for shelter.
But our fishermen would need more than that. What they really want is to be able to fish under the lee of the land in bad weather. That does not mean that they would not be prepared to compromise on the question of the limits of territorial waters. They would probably even go so far as to agree to a four mile limit, provided that some modification 416 were made about the waters in the large bays of Iceland, so that in certain places they could fish under the lee of the land.
§ Mr. Edward Evans
The hon. and gallant Member will surely admit that the ban is applied to Icelandic vessels as it is to ours, and that the whole aim of the ban is the conservation of fish.
§ Major Wall
I was going to mention the Icelandic claim regarding the conservation of fish. Every fisherman of practically every nation realises that the conservation of fish is not only desirable but essential. We have indicated time and again to the Icelanders that we should be prepared to discuss this question. What we object to is their unilateral action in closing these bays, whether or not they are spawning grounds, without even discussing the matter. That is the crux of the problem.
Earlier, I said that I believed that if the ban were lifted without any reciprocal action on the part of Iceland it would be a disservice to the country. I should like hon. Members to cast their minds back to the action which has taken place off the coast of South America during the last few weeks. If we should give way and allow the Icelandic Government to extend their territorial limits, where is the matter going to end? The hon. Member for Lowestoft will remember that in 1948 the Icelandic Government passed a law which permitted the extension of their territorial limits to the edge of the Continental shelf. If they implement that law many thousands of miles of fishing grounds could be denied to our vessels. I do not say that they will do so, but that they could, and they might if we give in over this question.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the agreement which, we understand, has been reached with the Danish Government in relation to the Faroes shows what negotiations can do. I understand that each side has given way a little, and so, by negotiation, we have what we believe will prove to be a satisfactory agreement. I hope that my right hon. Friend will try to make the Icelandic Government see that here is a very good example of what can be done by negotiation and, by so doing, perhaps end this unnecessary and unfortunate dispute. It might be possible to persuade them to take the Faxa Bay issue to The Hague Court. I am quite sure 417 that our fishing industry would agree to lift its ban when a judgment of that court were given, whether it was for or against us.
One of the troubles about going to The Hague Court is that judgment takes a long time, and in the meantime, unless the Icelandic limits were reduced the ban would not be lifted. It would, therefore, be much better for both sides to meet round a table on Governmental level, with, if possible, an independent chairman, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, to try to find a basis for negotiation. I believe that the key to the whole situation is to get the Icelandic Government to talk with us. If we could do that the problem would eventually solve itself.
I have spent rather a long time discussing the Icelandic situation, but it is vitally important, not only for the distant water section of the industry, but for the whole trade. It is important that hon. Members should understand the history of the dispute, and what would be involved if we lifted the ban on landings without concessions from the other side.
May I briefly refer to two other points: first, the question of price. We have read a lot in the newspapers about monopolies and price rings, but it is a good thing to remind hon. Members that fish is still sold at a free auction on the quayside, so that it is rather difficult to talk in the same breath about monopolies and free auctions.
Then there is the question of reduced winter landings, due, it is said, to this Icelandic landing ban. This affects mainly the port of Grimsby, and I am indebted to the "Fishing News" for the figures of fish landings at that port during the winter months of October to March during the past three years. It is interesting to study these figures and to see that in the winter after the ban was imposed, there were greater landings at Grimsby than was the case in the winter before the ban, and that last year the landings were only slightly less, the reason being that last winter was such an appalling one.
I do not think it is true to say that the Icelandic ban means that we are not getting enough fish in this country, but that does not imply the opposite, that we do not want Icelandic fish. Of course we do, if we can get it, but the fact 418 that the price of fish goes up in winter is one of the facts of life. We all know the appalling storms and gales which we have had recently round our coasts and these are nothing compared with those in Icelandic waters, and that is the reason for lower landings of fish in the winter months. With less supply, obviously, the price will rise, but I think it is fair to say that the rise in fish prices compares very favourably to the rise in the prices of most other corresponding edibles—meat, and all the rest.
The quality of fish is an important matter, and we all want to see quality improving year by year. I would just mention the scheme sponsored by the White Fish Authority of freezing at sea of which many of us have great hopes.
May I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives and the hon. Member for Lowestoft on the subject of the size of mesh? It is absolutely exasperating for our fishermen to see foreign vessels come into our ports eight months after an international agreement has been signed and to find out that these vessels are fishing with an unauthorised size of mesh, whereas our own vessels have been re-equipped at great expense in accordance with the new law. I was very pleased that my right hon. Friend said the other day that something was to be done by way of discussing international regulations designed to permit our own inspectors and fishery cruisers to inspect the nets of foreign vessels within our territorial limits.
In conclusion, may I thank the Minister for the interest which he has already displayed in the fishing industry? We in the Humber ports were delighted the other day, only a short time after taking over this new job, that he could find the time to pull himself away from agriculture and visit the fishing ports. With that start, we confidently expect him to continue to foster the interests of the fishing industry.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)
I hope that the hon. and gallant Member for Haltemprice (Major Wall) will allow me to leave the maritime areas he has been discussing, since my division is in the centre of England and I want to deal with more bucolic subjects.
419 My constituency, I suppose, is the capital of the electrical engineering industry, but I have more than 40 villages and half a thousand farmers in it. I want to disillusion the Minister from what I would term too much complacency in his good natured acceptance of the advice of his officials concerning the welfare of the farming community. When I go into local marts and see our farmers, I find that there is an enormous amount of dissatisfaction about the Government's policy in regard to deficiency payments, and I want to quote the views of two Midlands leaders of the N.F.U. who cannot be termed as persuaded to our way of thinking on this side of the House.
I want to refer to the changed opinion which is to be found now in regard to the Government's policy as compared with the schemes introduced over five years ago when my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was Minister, and when he and his assistants had won the affection and respect of the farming community, which is the desire of all politicians but which, I am afraid, they seldom get. What a change now. May I quote from the "Royal Leamington Spa Courier" the views of two leaders of the farming community in my constituency? Alderman Hughes, Chairman of the Warwickshire Agricultural Executive Committee said this at Leamington:The agricultural industry was in a more parlous state now than it bad probably ever been in. It was in a transitional stage from shortage to plenty.The other quotation which I wish to make is from a member of the National Executive of the National Farmers' Union, Mr. Harold Green, who, speaking at Leicester, was reported to have said:It was not a bit of use farmers placing any reliance on the present Government's agricultural policy. Although, on paper, they have a guaranteed price and market, they actually have neither, and the position of the small farmer was desperate.That is the sad feeling in the country, and I feel that it is important that we should put this before the Minister, because he seemed a little too easy in his opening speech today. If we may laugh off any partisan statements in this Chamber, we must pay attention to statements by gentlemen of this standing, particularly in the farming community itself.
420 Why is this? I have beside me a rather famous "Blue Book" published by the Conservative Party in 1951—"Britain Strong and Free"—in which we have many statements about the policy of this Government, and in which, on page 23, they talk about guaranteeing this and that, stability and such like. But when I get about my own constituency, I find that this Government is sapping the confidence and the harmony of the countryside. I was pleased to hear of the increase in farmworkers' wages, though they have not got as much as they deserve and certainly less than they wanted. They are not now the lowest paid workers at £6 7s. a week. We must be prepared to pay them still more if, in my part of the world, the workers on the land are to remain at their jobs in an area in which there are the great car factories of Coventry and other industries in the Midlands offering well paid jobs and calling men off the land into the towns like Coventry, Leamington, Nuneaton, and so forth.
I welcome the statement of the Minister of Education the other evening about schools in the countryside, because I have instances where first-class farmworkers with no less than five youngsters have not taken up agricultural work in the countryside around Leamington and Rugby because there was not a decent school in the village to which they were expected to go. This new push in education by the Government will go a long way towards holding them on the land.
I find from the June returns that this year we are ploughing less land, and I think that the general figure is something like 429,000 acres less under tillage than was the case last year. It seems to me that the farmers are playing safe at the moment, because they do not know where they are going and they are pulling in their horns. I do not myself like to see what I would term the "dog-and-stick" farmer coming back today. It has always been a bad sign when we have had the dog-and-stick farmer on the land, and it is an ominous sign for the future.
I believe that a cause of anxiety is to be found in this deficiency payment system. We get figures something like £250 million paid out of the Exchequer, and I do not know whether this or any other Government has ever paid what is virtually a blank cheque in this particular 421 way. In the future, it may be an even larger figure and an even bigger shock for the agricultural industry.
Then there is the awful muddle and the farce of pig marketing. That has caused enormous consternation. I have heard of decent hard-working farmers who could not even get their pigs to market. I know of one case in Yorkshire where they took their pigs 40 miles before they could sell them.
It seems that the whole matter of the deficiency payment is a somewhat crazy business. Housewives complain that they have to pay more for their meat, while farmers get no more for it. Indeed, some farmers complain that they now get less. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) talking about turning our minds towards more efficient marketing. Whether it be a producers marketing board, like the Milk Marketing Board, or not, I am all in favour of looking at this question, because I fear that much of this leakage is going on between the housewife and the producer.
If I may, I will again quote one of my Midland leaders, Mr. Green. When addressing farmers at Leamington, he said:The future of agriculture lay not in Governments, but in a 100 per cent. loyalty to the N.F.U., which, as such, had got up to adopt a more militant attitude in dealing with the farmers' obvious enemies—the people to whom they sold their produce under the present system. Farmers would have to formulate their own marketing schemes, voluntarily if the Government would not permit compulsory plans, and the N.F.U. would also have to enter the view of co-operative purchasing for farmers.I welcome any suggestion for an efficient marketing in this way. I think that the Fatstock Marketing Corporation has been a wonderful success in the vacuum created by the lack of policy of this Government. Local farmers near Rugby allege that the old cliques are again appearing at the markets. When I go to my local market, I see sheep worth about £6 10s. or more being knocked down for £5 5s. or £5 10s.
We were told today that the deficiency payment for wheat was something like £8 7s. 6d. We, the taxpayers, are having to foot the bill in this way. If the object of the Government is to get cheap food from overseas in order to cut down the cost of living, and, in particular, to give 422 the urban dweller and the factory worker cheaper food, then they are making a mistake.
In my view, if they propose to depend on cheap supplies of food from overseas, they are making a big mistake. I believe that the days of cheap food have gone for ever. We cannot depend on cheap coolie labour or on cheap pioneer labour of Europeans in our Dominions overseas. Both deserve a fair return for their work. The shift upwards in the price of tea in Ceylon is indicative of what we can expect in future in the matter of food from overseas.
I believe that perhaps in two years' time there may be a food shortage. Canada has had one of the worst harvests on record, and I think that the supposed surpluses being built up in the Western hemisphere is a myth. The Argentinians and others are today consuming far more of the supplies which in the past they used to send to us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans) has, in the past, gained much fame and perhaps some obloquy by attacking the food subsidies of his own past Labour Governments. He has been carrying out an unflagging "feather-bed" campaign in this connection. I would hardly accuse the Minister of being a "crypto-Evanite," but I would say that by his policy of deficiency payments, now that the urban dweller and the countryside worker know that we have a £250 million bill or more, he will, in the future widen the gap between the urban dweller and the countryside worker.
They will get to know that in place of the old honest-to-goodness-above-the-counter £300 million subsidy, with a definite farming policy for the nation, we have now got this under the counter concealed subsidy of deficiency payments. We are paying almost as much—£250 million as opposed to £300 million—and, of course, there is now no firm policy as opposed to the decent policy of guaranteed prices which we had five or six years ago.
§ Mr. H. Nicholls
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the logical consequence of what he is recommending? If the subsidy is to be paid to the housewife over the counter, does he want to bring back the ration book, because that would be inevitable?
§ Mr. Johnson
I will leave that to be answered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), who will be winding up this debate. If the hon. Gentleman will read the literature of my party he will see what we propose to do when we get back into power in less than 12 months' time.
I ask the Minister to look where his policy is leading, because we need a united countryside and united urban workers if the nation is to get out of the difficulties which has confronted it over the last 10 years. To do that, we must not only pay the worker good wages, but must also give the tenant farmer stability and confidence. When I talk to our farmers, I realise that they have not got those things. The sooner we get back to the old days, and the sooner the party opposite are out of office, the better.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)
I am sure that the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) will not expect me to deal with every point that he has made. I am glad that, in his long survey, and in his criticisms of the present Government's policy, he at any rate thanked the Government for their proposed Measures for dealing with rural education and the provision of amenities in the way of halls and playing fields in the rural areas. I believe that every hon. Member representing a rural area will welcome the Government's proposals for improving these amenities, because I am sure that we are all anxious about this continuous drift from the land.
A very considerable drift has been taking place, and it will be useless for the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), when he winds up the debate, to suggest that this drift has only taken place since this Government came to office. There was a very considerable loss of regular agricultural workers from the land between 1949 and 1951. Many of the speeches today have drawn attention to this drift, and I am glad that attention is being directed to what is such a very important subject from the point of view of the countryside.
Various suggestions have been put forward as to the reasons for that drift and what steps should be taken to prevent it. I believe that the lack of adequate transport in the rural areas, particularly in the 424 more remote areas, is largely responsible for this loss of labour. Many farmers in the remote areas have told me that the first question by a prospective employee is, "What are the transport services like?" If the reply is that there are neither bus nor train services, the farmer's chances of getting the employee to come to his farm are exceedingly remote.
It is also true that since the war farmers themselves have become more mobile. But, unfortunately, the more mobile that farmers become, the less they and their families use public transport, and the less remunerative public transport becomes as a result. We must face up to the fact that in these remote areas public transport no longer pays its way, but if the transport system breaks clown, the whole life of the countryside becomes threatened, disorganised, and depressed. That certainly is the position in some of the long and lonely valleys of Northumberland.
The danger is that this drift may become cumulative in effect; it may have a snowball effect, and a vicious spiral may develop. The fewer the people who live in the rural areas, the more difficult it is to provide amenities for them; and the fewer the amenities, the greater the drift from the land. In one Northumberland valley in my constituency, the local cinema has had to be closed because the bus service has been withdrawn. That is one example of the cumulative effect of the drift. The danger point has now been reached in the depopulation of many rural areas, and the problem of depopulation now needs to be tackled on a national basis.
If, in the coming years, as has been suggested in this debate, we are to lose still more good and valuable agricultural land, the only alternative, if we are to keep up our production, is to make better use of our marginal land. We cannot possibly hope to make better use of our marginal and hill lands unless we have adequate numbers of workers on the hill farms. At the moment, we are spending vast sums of public money in providing electricity, telephones, roads, sewers, houses, and now, also secondary schools in the rural areas.
It is worse than useless, however, to spend these vast sums in providing those 425 amenities in the rural areas unless at the same time we deal with the problem of transport. We must get the priorities right, and all these amenities must advance together. During the past two years many representations have been made to me by local councils and other public bodies about the lack of transport and the withdrawal of bus services in the rural areas. I, in turn, have made representations both to the Minister of Transport and to the licensing authority.
The attitude so far adopted by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation has been that it is impossible for him to force operators to run unremunerative services. He has also said that no money is available to subsidise those services, and so far he has been unwilling to do anything to prevent the Transport Commission from closing branch railway lines.
In many parts of the country, especially in the remote districts, the operators of buses are small men, or small companies, and if the services do not pay their way there is no alternative but to withdraw them. They have not remunerative services against which they can balance the uneconomic services. Why do these bus services not pay their way? Why have so many bus routes been cancelled in the last few years? It is due partly to the enormous increase in running costs. This in turn is due partly to Government action, not only by this Government, but by the last two Socialist Governments.
One of the major items in the cost of operating bus services is the cost of oil and petrol, and the way in which the tax on oil and petrol has been increased is fantastic. In 1946, just after the Socialist Government had taken office, the duty was 9d, per gallon. The Socialist Government put it up to 1s. 10d. a gallon.
§ Mr. Speir
Now, it is 2s. 6d. [Interruption.] It is no wonder that rural buses are not pay their way, and I am very glad to have the support of hon. Members opposite in saying it is time that the duty on diesel oil, at any rate, was reduced.
Another matter which requires attention is the closing of branch railway lines 426 by the British Transport Commission. Far too many of them have already been closed since nationalisation, and a great many more are threatened with closure. The Commission has made no attempt, has exercised no effort nor imagination, to try to run these lines in a modern way. No one in the rural areas expects either fast or frequent services, but what people there would like is some kind of service on the branch lines, and they certainly would like them kept open.
At the moment, the Commission is doing nothing to try to operate these lines as modern requirements demand. The Commission ought to adopt a different mentality in regard to these branch lines.
§ Mr. Speir
The Commission ought to cut costs, and to run them with a tram mentality—it ought to turn the branch lines into light railways. Let trains run as buses on rails, and let them stop wherever passengers want to get on or off. That has been done in many other countries, and it is certainly time we attempted to do it in this country, too.
I do not suggest that these branch lines will ever pay. The postal services in the rural areas do not pay, nor do the services provided by the banks in the rural areas, but the Post Office and the banks and, to an extent, the electricity boards look upon the services which they provide in the rural areas as essential services, and it is high time that the British Transport Commission was persuaded to adopt that kind of attitude.
It is quite clear that there is no simple or single solution to this very real problem of rural depopulation, but it is one adversely affecting agricultural production at the present time. I realise that even today, with fewer workers on the land in England and Wales than there were before the war, we are producing 55 per cent. more food—and that is a very wonderful record—but the fact remains that the present agricultural workers are an ageing population, and comparatively few young workers are coming on to the land. Therefore, it is high time the Government gave this problem their attention. I hope that during this Session they will do their best to provide means for ensuring, in particular, that transport facilities are improved in the rural areas.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Victor Collins (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
It is very proper for the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) to draw attention to the needs of the rural areas and to the need for stepping up production on marginal land, but whatever is done in regard to marginal lands, however much production on those lands is increased, it could not possibly make good the production that is going to be lost, if it has not already been lost, because of the policy of the present Government. One of the things about this debate that impresses me very sadly is the Minister's complete unawareness of the disastrous trends in production which have arisen as a result of the Government's policy.
I regard increasing agricultural production as the basis of present and future national prosperity. The position at present is that the confidence of the farmers is very largely destroyed. The Minister did not accept that as a fact. He went so far as to say that the transfer to free markets had been successfully accomplished. I think that that is absolute nonsense. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman will find a practising farmer anywhere agreeing with that, or agreeing with his statement that confidence has not been destroyed.
I have in my possession something which would convince the Minister far more than the comments in the farming papers, all of which are in agreement about the position in the industry. It is a report of a meeting in the West Country, called by Wessex Conservatives only last week. The chairman, in moving a motion, said:There was unrest, uncertainty and anxiety among those engaged in agriculture. That could not be denied.He went on, of course, to say that the present Government have done a magnificent job, but he added:Before the war farmers were extremely sensitilve and nervous of a Socialist Government, but they had found after some years of a Socialist Government, and for reasons that were obvious, that they had done very well.The motion was seconded by the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch), who said that there was unrest among the agricultural community. He was reported as saying:He did not think that they were worried about the present financial position. What they 428 were worried about was the future outlook, as so many of them remembered what had happened in the 20's and they feared that it might happen again.That should be far more convincing to the Minister than statements from this side of the House or in the farming Press. Farming Members opposite are saying in public that there is fear of the future, unrest, uncertainty and bewilderment.
§ Mr. Collins
If farmers are feeling like that, the effect on production is inevitable. It is going down. It is true that we have had bad weather and difficult harvesting. Those are risks which always occur in farming and I do not want to make anything of that argument. The things which are causing the farmers to think again are the kind of things which have happened in the case of pig production.
The number of pigs was increased by over one million in twelve months and just at the point when we reached peak production the means of marketing and payment were altered. Farmers transferred from pork to bacon pigs in the hope of getting a fair price when the pork market collapsed, and they found that the factories could not take the pigs. We had the ridiculous situation in which farmers were offering pigs and only 50 per cent. of the pigs they offered were being taken.
The longer the farmers kept the pigs the more they cost and the heavier they got. Then if they were a pound or two overweight they made not £20 but £13. It is completely idle to pretend that that has not already had a disastrous effect on production. There are also about 250,000 empty sows in the country from which pigs will not be bred. The Minister is fortunate in this debate that we have not yet had the December returns.
Another point was brought to my mind by the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) when he advised the Minister to give heed to the injunction:Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?That has particular appropriateness in connection with the subsidies which the Minister said might amount to anything 429 from £200 million to £250 million. In my view the subsidies will amount to a good deal more than £250 million. We already find that the subsidy will be £10 or more per ton on wheat, amounting to 2,750,000 tons. The subsidy is already £9 3s. 6d. this morning. The subsidy will be as much as £8 per acre on 5,250,000 acres of barley and oats. We know that meat prices are costing about £1 million a week in subsidies. Earlier in the year subsidies on eggs were running at over £1 million a week. Therefore, it does not take long to arrive at a figure of about £250 million. I believe that the subsidies will amount to over £300 million.
When we were in office and subsidies were running at about £450 million, they were used to reduce prices to the housewife. This time the housewife does not benefit by a penny from those subsidies. The farmers are aware of this. It means that the taxpayer is not only paying higher prices through the removal of controls and the consumer food subsidies, but he will have to pay through taxation in support of those subsidies which do not do him any good and which are ruining the farmer for the future. They only benefit the middle man, who is the friend of the party opposite. That kind of thing cannot go on, and those hon. Members opposite who have the interests of the countryside at heart must realise the damage that their policy is doing.
Only this morning we read in the newspapers that the farmworkers are to get an increase of 7s. per week in the minimum wage. It has been said on this side—and I agree with it—that it is not enough for these skilled workers, who are still 50s. per week below the average earnings of other skilled workers. But it should be remembered that the entire wage bill in the farming industry is still likely to be less than the level of subsidies to the farmers. In other words, the taxpayer is paying the entire wage bill in the farming industry. When that becomes generally realised it is a situation that will not be tolerated.
Imagine what would have been said by the Tory Party if we as a Government had suggested that the wages bill in the coal industry or in the transport industry should be paid by the taxpayer. At least some cheap coal or cheap fares would be expected in return, but the 430 position in the farming industry is that direct subsidies to the farmer are amounting to more than the wage bill of the industry but we are not getting cheap food. As has been said in another context, only an organising genius from private enterprise could produce a situation of that kind.
I submit that this is a very serious business which arises inevitably out of the doctrinaire Tory devotion to free enterprise. The Minister calls his policy flexible stability. I have been sitting here for six hours trying to think of an article which combines those two qualities, and all I can think of is a fruit jelly. That is the kind of thing where the flexibility remains but the stability disappears when it melts, just as the farmers' confidence has melted under the storm and stress of Tory policy.
There is one other point to which I want to refer in a few sentences, and that is the question of horticulture. The Minister has made reference to the appointment of another committee, but 30 years' ago we had a committee on horticulture, which was the principal committee on the subject, the Linlithgow Committee. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) this afternoon read extracts from the Report of that Committee, and those of us who know anything about horticulture know that in essence it stated all that was necessary. But the Minister has told us now that the solution after three years of Conservative rule is the appointment of another committee.
I remember at the General Election in 1950 the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who was then the expert of the Tory Party on horticulture—some of us might think he would have been better to remain an expert on horticulture instead of advancing into the Colonies and other fields—and I were invited to state the policy of our respective parties in horticulture. The right hon. Gentleman stated then that the Conservative Party had a policy for horticulture that would work. Within a few months they had the opportunity to make it work.
What has happened in the meantime? Nothing administratively, nothing by way of legislation, only this: that the prices of vegetables yielded one-third less in 1953 to 1954 than in 1952 to 1953. Can 431 anyone mention any other industry where, in spite of hard work, the value of its produce has gone down by 331 per cent.? This year the acreage of vegetables has declined by 15 per cent. That is a natural cause and effect.
The Minister said not only that he would set up another committee to investigate what we already know, but that he thought tariffs would take care of the situation. Tariffs have no effect on the production of home-grown vegetables. For instance, we do not import cabbages. Most vegetables are the result of home production. And it is complete, unfettered, private enterprise. Nobody subsidises English vegetables, so all the conditions in which the party opposite delight are present in the production, distribution and sale of vegetables. Yet the value to the grower has gone down by one-third in one year and his acreage has been cut by 15 per cent.
I suggest to the party opposite, therefore, that they have failed completely in this matter. Their actions so far have been disastrous and are causing anxiety to those of us who feel keenly for the land and believe that the prosperity of this country depends on an efficient agriculture, producing to the full what can be efficiently produced from our land. What has happened in the last three years on the land, and particularly in the last 12 months, is a disaster to this country because the party opposite, despite what they said in 1948 in their Agricultural Charter, have destroyed the farmer's guarantees and his confidence. They have cut down food production and there is a prospect of further catastrophic falls. They have put up prices to the housewife and they have forced the taxpayer to pay subsidies equal to the entire wage bill of the industry without any compensation in lower food prices.
I make these charges and I do not think that right hon. and hon Gentlemen opposite can wriggle out of them, as the Minister succeeds in wriggling out of responsibility for bacon prices. He cannot, however, wriggle out of these charges. For these things the right hon. Gentleman has to answer to this House as, in due course, he and the Government will, to their cost, have to answer to the electorate.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Major D. McCallum (Argyll)
The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) will, I know, forgive me if I do not follow his rather mournful tale about all the evil doings of the Government. My own observations in a recent by-election have been that the country is satisfied with what the Government are doing—
§ Major McCallum
And in Scotland—and by no means confirm his gloomy views.
I have only a few minutes in which to speak because I do not want the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) to be deprived of any of his time for winding up the debate, but knowing his good nature, I am sure he will not mind if Scotland contributes one or two words before he speaks. I understand that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is responsible for agriculture there, will wind up the debate for the Government, and I hope that he may find time to answer one or two questions about Scotland.
The Minister of Agriculture has given a general indication of the effect of the disastrous summer and autumn upon crop conditions, and especially of winter keep prospects, in England and Wales. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can give us a general outline of the position in Scotland. I feel that certain parts of Scotland have suffered even worse than England. The summer and autumn have been disastrous, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, and also in such counties as Ayrshire.
The hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) referred to flooding. I have often worried my hon. Friend on the subject of arterial drainage. In view of what has happened during the summer and autumn, we can imagine what conditions have been like in, for instance, the southern end of the peninsula of Kintyre. Normally the farms there are half under water during the winter, but this year they have been completely flooded.
One of the subjects in the Gracious Speech of particular interest to Scottish Members is the Report of the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs. I am 433 very glad to learn that its recommendations are to be acted upon, and I hope that that will be done in the fairly near future. I wonder whether my hon. Friend could give me a little information about the Report from the agricultural point of view. The Report says that the responsibility for animal health will be taken over by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland except in relation to foot-and-mouth disease, and other diseases of that nature which may lead to epidemics. I should like a little further enlightenment on that point.
My last, and most important, point concerns the reference in the Gracious Speech to the Government's determination to introduce legislation to implement the Report of the Crofters' Commission. The lateness of the hour does not permit me to develop the subject as it ought to be developed. It is a most vital matter to the Highlands and Islands.
The drafting of the legislation will have to be done with very great tact. The crofting community is one of the most conservative communities in the country. If there was any suspicion that any of the security given to the crofters by the 1886 Act was to be removed, and that there would not be adequate protection and safeguards, I am afraid that we should find a great deal of opposition to the Measure. I am certain that it is within the powers of the Secretary of State and his Department to make it clear to the crofting communities that the legislation will be designed to improve their conditions, to increase their security of tenure, and to make arrangements for the future of the old people.
One of the most difficult problems of all will be that of crofters who are now too old to cultivate their land. They cannot be turned out of their houses. Whether it will be a matter of building separate communities only for the old people, or what other arrangements will in the end be made, I do not know, but I hope that the greatest care will be taken, when the Bill is introduced, to look after the old people properly.
I want to make a plea about the type of persons to be nominated to be the chairman and members of the Crofters' Commission. I say this with all due respect, but I hope that the chairman of the Commission is not going to be a politician of any party—[An HON. MEMBER: "A non-political Tory."]—a 434 non-political Scotsman who has a background in crofting. I ask that one of the members should be able to speak Gaelic, as Gaelic is spoken by at least one-third of the crofters as their native tongue. At least one of the members should be able to understand them when they come to give evidence on their own behalf.
That is a matter on which I feel very strongly, and I feel that if the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan) had been able to be called, he would have reinforced the plea that the very greatest care should be taken in the selection of members. In bringing forward these two recommendations about Scotland in the Gracious Speech, I congratulate the Government, in contradistinction to the mournful tale which we had from the previous speaker.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. George Brown (Belper)
We have had one of our usual, interesting agricultural debates, covering a wide ground—Northern Ireland came in the middle of it—and from our side of the House we have had two interesting speeches about which I should like to remind the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, because they did not fit into the pattern, or the main stream of the discussion. But he should remember them when he is winding up the debate.
One was by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes), who drew our attention to the very important question that will affect not only the textile industry but the wool and sheep section of our agricultural industry, and on which I am sure some comment should be made by the Government spokesman. The other was by my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) on the fishing industry, to which he has given so much distinguished service and to which the Joint Under-Secretary should give a reply.
The general debate has been raised because of what we regard as a very serious gap in the Gracious Speech. In a speech which is not to be generally regarded as over-full of important matters and good works, there is a general reference to the position of the agricultural industry which seems to us extremely thin. It takes no account of what is happening in the agri- 435 cultural industry at the moment. It takes no account of the very dangerous situation that may well be building up for the nation unless some steps are taken to deal with it.
I have something to say about the Minister's speech—I presume he is coming back—but I will leave them until he returns. I do not complain of his absence. Obviously, he could not be here, and I shall withhold my comments until he arrives, as in due time he will.
The really outstanding omission in all we have been told today, and in all that the Government have had to say about agriculture recently, is the failure on their part to make any clear declaration about how they now regard increasing agricultural production at home. They have changed their minds so very much in the last few years from the time of the White Paper of 1952—the first Price Review paper they produced—that now it is quite impossible to know to what extent they regard increased home food production as an urgent and important matter.
The Minister's predecessor, who went out of office in circumstances which most of us regarded as very sad, struck a most unhappy note on which to go out when he introduced into his last speech the statement on behalf of the Government that they had now decided that food production was not as all-important as it had been two years before. Some of us said then that not only was that an absolute contradiction of all that the Government had been saying for three years, but that, once it was admitted that food production was not as important as that, all sorts of consequences flowed from it.
Some of my hon. Friends have been twitted about proving that output is falling at a time when the Minister was able to announce that the figure—before the effect of the harvest is taken into account—was up by 55 per cent. over pre-war. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen must not read too much into that. If they wait until there is an absolute actual decline in output before they recognise that the trend is there, they will have waited until the crisis is upon us and is too severe to deal with.
What we want hon. Members on the Government benches to recognise is that, in fact, their own announcement about the lessening importance of food produc- 436 tion, followed by the steps they have taken since, is producing a situation in which the trend of agricultural production is bound to be wholly against the national interest. The statement of the Minister today has shown no improvement at all on what his predecessor said.
Let us look very quickly at the progress of Tory thought. It begins with the Agricultural Charter, in which some of the present occupants of the Treasury Bench had a considerable hand. In 1948, when this was issued, they were quite clear about what they wanted for British agriculture. They said:… we intend to sponsor a fully productive agriculture and will give the British farmer real confidence in the future by guaranteed prices and markets for all the food he can produce…to our overall target.In fact, if we compare that extravagantly optimistic statement, that tremendously wide assertion of guaranteed prices and markets for all the food that the farmer can produce, with the statement of the present Minister that it is not all that important any more, we can see what a long way we have come.
Similarly, in the 1952 Price Review White Paper, the Government set out a list of headings under the general description of "Future Production Policy." One of those wasThrough the better use of grasslands"—this was the aim they were setting before the industry—… release one million acres for addition to the tillage area (apart from the additional acreage already expected to be ploughed up …) A substantial part of the one million acres would carry coarse grains.Yet today the Minister tells us that if the tillage acreage has dropped it does not really matter in itself, that it is a question of the use to which the land is put when it has gone out of tillage; but if it has gone out of tillage it cannot be put to coarse grain, and, if it has gone out of tillage, what was the point of asking for an extra million acres only two years ago? I remember how the Tories used to wax eloquent about the alleged—often they were only alleged—sudden switches of policy when we were in office. How sudden has a sudden switch of policy to be when the Tories are in power? They asked for a million extra tillage acres in 1952, and a million extra pigs, and in 1954 they decide that they do not want either.
I really must interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. I repeat again that we have not too many pigs in this country at present. We do not in any way regret the increase in the production of pigs.
§ Mr. Brown
I am coming to the statement of the Minister about pigs.
Last night I was in Devon, where the Minister is known for other works. I was talking to 150 farmers. It is no use the Minister saying, "We do not regret the increase in pig production," because the farmers who produced them do. They have to carry the loss. They found that the Minister had not the factories in which to deal with the pigs. It meant that a million extra pigs were obtained in answer to the call for increased production, and then they were not wanted because the processing factories were not there to deal with them.
The Minister has himself said—unless he wishes to retract it, and I will give way if he does—that not only are the million extra acres of tillage asked for in 1952 not required, but that he does not much mind if the tillage acreage drops. Presumably he does not think that the tillage acreage, or the arable cultivation which would come from it, is so important? He does not retract, and, therefore, that must be presumed to be a fair statement of his views.
I say that the Government are "buck passing" the whole way. It is easy to say to us, "Oh, you want to tell the farmers exactly what to grow and how and where to grow it." The Minister says that he prefers to leave it to the individual farmer to decide for himself how to play his part, and where to play it. But if the farmer is to be given no lead at all as to policy, if the Government keep switching about between more tillage and less tillage, more pigs and fewer pigs, that is simply "buck passing."
It is not a virtue, although it may be put in a virtuous way, and a high sounding principle may be made out of it. But really it is the simple old Army game of "passing the buck" down the line. In this case, the individual farmer is in the place of the Army private. He is the chap to whom everyone "passes the buck," but he has to get on with the job.
438 We were glad to hear the Minister make his first major speech at the Dispatch Box. But I hope that in the period—forecast by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) to be two years—during which he will be Minister—if he is extremely lucky—that when he looks back on his major performances at the Dispatch Box, he will have other speeches to contemplate than this one on flexible stability and watercress.
The only contribution of the Minister to relieving the worry and anxiety of the farming community, and the only thing he could tell farmers I met in his own county last night was, "Never mind, we have had a good year for watercress." That could hardly do less justice to the problem. Someone has said that the only example of flexible stability is a jelly. I suggest that the Minister has no clue to what it means. It is a phrase which he has often used since he became Minister, but I am sure that he does not know much about it.
Another thing that worried me about his speech was that one theme song ran the whole way through. He is going to watch everything. He is going to be a really champion nightwatchman or chief of the Observer Corps for the rest of his time. He had no constructive proposals to add to anything. He is setting up a few committees, some with chairmen and some without, but beyond that he has no proposals to make. He spoke about this worry and that anxiety, and about various problems, and he always ended up by saying, "But I shall go on watching it very closely."
Something more than that is required, even for a new Minister who has to find his way around an industry which he has just taken over. When he said, rather cheerfully, "Anyhow, I am enjoying myself at the moment," two people came to my mind. First, Anne Boleyn said the same thing at a certain period in her career, and the result was just the same. The other person who enjoyed himself was Nero, but Rome burned just the same. The fact is that the Minister is hugely enjoying himself while farmers are worried, the industry is getting into a difficult situation, and—what worries me even more—the consumer and the taxpayer are having to bear a tremendous 439 burden. The Minister's enjoyment seems to be somewhat irrelevant in the circumstances.
I believe that the Minister has unfortunately come into his job, and picked up—I do not think he brought it in with him—either from within the Department, which I hate to believe, or from somebody around him, a most unfortunate misapprehension. When he addressed the farmers at Saffron Walden—a meeting which I think he will agree was not altogether successful—he referred to "the dramatic change in world supplies." He has repeated that phrase several times since. I believe that he used it today.
§ Mr. Amory indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Brown
I was taking a note of his words, and I thought that he used that phrase, but if he says he did not I accept that.
I do not believe that he can substantiate his argument that there has been a dramatic change in world supplies. There has certainly been no dramatic change in our position in relation to world supplies. All that the Food and Agriculture Organisation says is that whereas world population has risen annually by 1½ per cent. in the last year or two, world food production, for the first time, has overtaken that rise and is now rising annually by 3 per cent. Whether or not that extra 1½ per cent. will go far towards meeting the problem of world malnutrition and underfeeding, I do not know.
This is not only a sentimental emotional matter, but something which is at the bottom of our political problems. Whether or not this rise in production is to be regarded as so great that it makes a dramatic change in world supplies, I venture to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that before he uses that argument again he should look at the implications of the world situation. I think that world supplies are still dangerously low, and the Minister knows better than anybody else that if the three unusually good harvests in North America are now followed—as it is quite likely they may be—by two or three bad ones, the dramatic change will really be there, and we shall be right back where we were. It is really silly to present a policy based upon a belief that the situation has 440 dramatically changed when the change has been of such a small order.
It is quite true that, at one stage of his speech this afternoon, the Minister said that we need the utmost production, and that the ceiling was the limit. How can the ceiling be the limit in a situation in which we are doling out enormous sums of money to make up the deficiency on the already existing production? Farmers do not believe that the ceiling can possibly be the limit.
Although he was very coy about the actual figures, and I do not know why he should be so coy, the Minister told us, when pressed, that the cost of these subsidies and deficiency payments was £200 million, but when I pressed him further he said it was between £200 million and £250 million. He must know at what figure it is currently running, and he must know how much it has cost already in this year.
I think it is fair to ask the Under-Secretary to be a little more frank with the House tonight. How much has the subsidy cost us in hard cash so far this year? We are already eight or nine months of the way through the financial year, and, if he will not tell us, and I gather that either he cannot or will not, will he tell us at what rate it is running now? From £200 million to £250 million there is a very big gap, and we ought to get a little nearer to it than that. My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins) may well have been quite right. It may well be running at more than £250 million, and if the ceiling is to be the limit, it can be any figure. It may be, of course, that the Minister's coyness, inability or unwillingness to give the figure is the major criticism of the Government's so-called policy.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury in one remark, in which he talked about the subsidies going to the farmers. In this situation, that is just what it is not doing. In this situation, it is going straight from the farmers to the middlemen and the dealers. In Devon last night, the Minister may like to know, at a meeting in Totnes, they told me of pigs which had been selling in the market there at 14s. per score, and had attracted substantial deficiency payments, but that 441 the same pork was being sold in shops in London at 3s. a lb., and more.
This scheme never brought the price down to the consumer. The money neither stayed with the farmer nor went to the consumer, and this device of the Government is not a policy for backing up agriculture. When the Minister keeps warning the farmers, as he and his right hon. Friend the Chancellor have done, telling them that the Government cannot carry the cost of this much longer, because it is too high, and that the farmers themselves must get it down, he was really being outrageously unfair. Of course, it is not the farmers Who can bring this cost down; it is Government policy. This is a device to give presents to the auctioneers, merchants, and dealers.
I met the day before yesterday a farmer from Kent, a man not in association with my party, just as none of those at the meeting in Devon last night were, who gave me one example of the effect of this scheme. He said, "I had to sell something at the beginning of this winter, and I sold some barley. When I offered it to my merchant, he said, 'I really do not want it. I can buy, and am buying, French foreign barley—'" [HON. MEMBERS: "French?"] Hon. Members should not jump. Foreign barley. [Interruption.] Really, hon. Gentlemen opposite are being a little bit silly. I shall wait, and the pause will only reduce the Minister's time.
This merchant said, "We are able to buy foreign barley for less money, get it a little bit dryer and easier to handle, so that I really do not want yours." I am told that, in the end, the farmer did sell some at £4 a quarter. With the help of his merchant, he traced that barley through, and it ended up in the Carlsberg Brewery.
What has happened is that we have provided the foreign currency to enable merchants to import foreign grain in order that our grower could be told, "We do not really want your barley, and we shall have to pay you a lot less than the standard price." Then the merchant sells out to an overseas brewery for an unsubsidised price. Therefore, we have profiteering at every stage.
§ Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)rose—442
§ Mr. Brown
I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman.
We, the taxpayers, have paid a very considerable deficiency payment to no purpose at all. Therefore, I say that this is an outrageous racket.
What is worrying farmers—this is what worried the farmers in the Minister's own county last night—is that they know that this cannot go on. They know that this kind of drain is too big a burden. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps warning them, and the Minister again warns them, they know very well that the likelihood of losing the payment is very much on the cards. I say quite frankly to the Minister, and to those hon. Members opposite who have heckled all the afternoon about what our policy is on this issue, that it is not our Gracious Speech which is under discussion.
§ Mr. H. Nicholls
On a point of order. Is there any way, under the rules of the House, Mr. Speaker, of bringing to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman that if any heckling has taken place it was he who did it during the whole of my right hon. Friend's speech?
§ Mr. Brown
No doubt the hon. Gentleman has been waiting for 25 minutes to say that, and now that he has at last got it off his chest we may get along a little better.
It is not relevant, on this occasion, to discuss what is missing from the Gracious Speech. I say that there is no way out of this absurd position, no way of guaranteeing agriculture, and no way of ensuring the utmost food production without this unlimited drain on the Exchequer, except by a return to guaranteed prices and assured markets.
§ Mr. Brown
Not State trading. Unless we have guaranteed prices and fix the markets for which we guarantee the prices, there is no knowing our liability. Neither is there any possible way of limiting it, or of seeing that the payment gets to the farmer, to whom we want it to get.
I will not go through the individual muddles—we do not lay all these at the 443 door of the present Minister because he has been unlucky enough to inherit them, although he was a Minister in the previous Administration and, therefore, has some responsibility—but there is the pig muddle, the grain muddle, the livestock muddle, and the egg muddle.
Every one of them has been the most colossal muddle ever since the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill), who has sat throughout the debate today, and his right hon. and gallant Friend decided to rush the previous Minister of Agriculture off his feet and get to what they called "freedom" in no time at all. They went flatly against the advice given to them by everyone. They hared straight on.
There has not been a single case of a turnover from the old system to the new which has not ended in a colossal muddle, and, at the end of the muddle, in a colossal payment of public money for no purpose, as I say, but to cover up the muddle they made. This Government have been the most expensive Government, in terms of public money paid out to cover up mistakes, that we have ever had.
There is one other point about which I want to ask the Minister. I want to ask him about his remarks concerning land use. I am really rather surprised at what he said. In a casual sort of way—the charming, friendly way which he has—he made a reference today to a major change in the Act. He told us that the Government propose to refer no more areas of land to the Land Commission for inquiry, as a preliminary to possible acquisition under Section 84 of the 1947 Act. I want the House to know what that means, because that is the first major part of the Act to be abrogated completely.
Up to now, the Government have been dropping the Act quietly and tacitly, without people understanding what was happening. Now, we have had today a major policy announcement that Section 84 is to be dropped. It is Section 84 which enables the Minister to deal with areas of agricultural land of which full and efficient use is not being made, and whose full and efficient use is prevented by reason of fixed equipment not being provided, and which it is not reasonable to expect to be provided, and so on.
444 Now we are told, therefore, that in addition to everything else that they are doing about agriculture, the Government have decided—and this is the answer to the hon. Member who raised the question about marginal land—to wipe out of existence, certainly not to use, the Section of the Act under which that very marginal land and ill-equipped land can be dealt with.
I am bound to ask the Minister this question. If food production is still urgent, if he and his Government are still standing behind the producers, what is the purpose of deciding not to bring into cultivation, or not to enable to be brought into cultivation, large areas of land that could produce food but which are not at present able to do so because they are not properly equipped?
The Minister went on to say that the Government would still use Section 68. But I have read that Section hurriedly, and nowhere does it contain any power for the acquisition of land. All that it does is to set up the Land Commission. All the powers under which the Minister acts are carried in later Sections. Section 68, therefore, is of no use to him in the acquisition of land. This, in fact, is a major announcement of the first open breach in the Agriculture Act, 1947.
A lot of us have thought for some time that the Government were moving steadily to the abrogation of the Act. We thought that the only change was that, whereas in 1921 the then Tory-dominated Government did it openly—and the memory has lived on ever since—the present Government had decided to try to avoid doing it that way, and to do it covertly instead. Now, they have thrown even that discretion aside.
We already know that the efficiency Sections are being soft-pedalled. We know that the operation of the whole machinery to help to secure efficiency is being soft-pedalled. This latest move of the Government will reinforce the feeling of those men in Devon last night, and it will reinforce what the farmers from Kent told me the day before yesterday, that the Act is now beginning to go, piece by piece. The next to go will be Part II. The guaranteed prices and assured markets have already gone, or will openly go very soon afterwards.
445 There have been a lot of crocodile tears on the other side of the House today about the position of the workers, and the need to stop the drift from the land. It is true that amenities, higher wages, and an improvement in the status of landworkers will play a large part in that. But behind it all is the fact that unless the industry is prosperous and expanding, the farmworker can no more be given the conditions he requires than the farmer can be given his.
The reason that we have put down the Amendment, and have initiated this debate, is that we feel that there are grave reasons for the doubts, upset, and worry that exist in the industry. The trend downwards to an industry running on a lower level, and at a lower key, is certainly on. That is very bad for those engaged in the industry, and, above all, it is extremely bad for the consumers of this overpopulated little group of islands, whose food position is so vulnerable.
I say to the Minister, on his first appearance in his present office on a major occasion here, that if he is not to follow in the long procession of 11 Tory ex-Ministers of Agriculture, whose period of office at that Ministry has been their last, or almost their last, he must take time off to think again, and to think quickly, before he makes any further major speeches.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. McNair Snadden)
It falls to me to wind up a debate that has, I think, been both interesting and constructive. As we have had only one intervention today by a Scottsh Member—
§ Mr. Snadden
—my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Argyll (Major McCallum), I may, perhaps, be allowed first to answer the questions he put, to me. He asked if I was able to say anything about the effect of the bad weather in Scotland in the same way as my right hon. Friend referred to the damage in England and Wales. I am glad to be able to tell my hon. and gallant Friend that, although our northern climate usually is more rigorous than that south of the Border, the damage suffered in Scotland does not seem at the moment, according to the 446 information we have, to be as bad as bad been feared.
As regards total loss, the latest estimate suggests that about 7 per cent, of the grain harvest must be written off and about 5 per cent. of the potato crop. The harvesting of grain has, of course, suffered and the keeping quality of potatoes is at the moment a matter of conjecture. Of course, we have to expect that because the yield of hay is lower winter keep problems will arise, and it is a fact that my hon. and gallant Friend's constituency, because it has a very wet climate, will very probably suffer considerably.
§ Mr. Snadden
The rainfall in Ayrshire is bad enough, but I am afraid that Argyll has a heavier rainfall, and the hay crop was not secured there very well. The hill sheep farmers will be troubled by a shortage of hay if the weather requires indoor feeding, and because of the shortage of winter keep we may expect a fall in milk. However, our stock in Scotland starts the winter in fairly good condition.
My hon. and gallant Friend asked me about the Crofters' Commission. We propose to bring in legislation, and the Secretary of State for Scotland hopes that that will take effect very soon. I cannot say any more than that, and I do not think that it would be suitable for me to refer at this stage to any of the measures in the Bill.
As to the transfer, following the Report of the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs, of powers to the Secretary of State for Scotland from the Minister of Agriculture, about which my hon. and gallant Friend also asked me, I can tell him that, except for epidemic diseases, the Secretary of State will be taking over all the powers in connection with animal health. The powers over the work on epidemic diseases will be shared jointly between the Secretary of State and the Minister of Agriculture, and the reason is that the Report of an important Committee made a recommendation that the central control in London should continue.
Having dealt with Scottish matters in a very few minutes I shall now try to deal with the other points that have been 447 made in the debate. It has been a long debate, and, I think, very instructive from my point of view. I listened to it with great interest. I do not think it will be possible for me in the comparatively short time at my disposal to cover all the questions put to me. If I do not answer them all, it will be because time is short; but a note has been taken of them. I say that particularly of the questions on wool, and the fishing matters about which the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) spoke.
I thought that the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) today lived up to his reputation of being a hard-hitting politician. He delivered the usual number of hard cracks at the Government, though I do not think that on examination they will be found to be very wise cracks when one takes into account what the present Government have achieved, how remarkably well they are working, and when we consider the conditions. I have listened today to a number of criticisms of the Government and, at the expense of boring the House, I think that it is time that we said something in our own defence.
In a debate of this kind it needs emphasising that it is very largely because of the financial policies of the Government and the contributions which the farmers themselves have made that it has been found possible so soon to remove from the community the controls of austerity economics to which the right hon. Gentleman's Government committed the country when they were in power. It is also as well to remember that this Government in terms of agricultural production have been the first Government to put a stop to costs inflation. That is a point which we should remember at a time when we are pressing for lower costs of production.
I can speak here as a producer, which is considerably more than can some of those who have been criticising us tonight. Over the period since 1951 when our predecessors were in office costs have been progressively lowered. They were £39 million at the 1952 Review and £22 million at the 1953 Review. Then came the turning point which farmers said must be reached before they could achieve maximum efficiency when, under 448 the present Government, the costs at the 1954 Review actually fell by about £5 million. That is a matter for which we can take some little credit. We also, of course, swept away food rationing.
Food rationing was borne for 14 years with exemplary patience by the British people. I do not think that anyone in this House, and certainly not the right hon. Member for Belper, would deny that it was the right and even the duty of the present Government to remove rationing from the people at the first possible moment. If the right hon. Gentleman's Government had not done it, they would not have faced the next General Election with the same equanimity as that with which we face it. It is the key to the whole problem at the present time. We have done it with considerable courage and we have solved with considerable success a host of complex problems which came to the Government as a result of moving away from fixed prices and control.
We have done more than keep our pledge to guarantee prices and markets to producers in the new conditions of free marketing. It is not an easy task. I do not want to be particularly provocative or to criticise the previous Government in any unfair way, but I think that we are entitled to say that when the Labour Party was in power it faced easy and straightforward conditions.
§ Mr. Snadden
Yes, in 1947 there was one line of policy, which was to produce more and more of everything more or less regardless of cost or quality.
§ Mr. Snadden
That was the 1947 policy, in order to save precious foreign exchange and to meet a time of urgent scarcity.
If hon. Members are to be fair to the present Government they must admit that we face very different conditions, although I agree with the warning about food surpluses—that they can be here today and gone tomorrow. I am not one of those who believe that masses of food will come into the country. One bad harvest could remove the lot. We have to look at the facts as we find them.
449 Food today is more plentiful in the world generally and more readily available at lower prices. Quite obviously, neither this Government nor any other Government could produce anything regardless of cost. That would be an impossible policy. If I were asked today what is our objective, I would say that what we are aiming at is a policy that will achieve a proper balance between home food production and consumer interests, consistent with a stable and economic agricultural industry. That is how I would define it.
Another point I should like to make on this theme before I come to the individual questions put is that in 1947, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) was Minister of Agriculture—he was a very good Minister; I always respected him and I do not remember at any time having any very teethy arguments or differences of opinion with him—the Exchequer burdens did not press heavily at all, because, in the main, prices at home were below the prices of imported products. The fact that under present conditions this Government are footing the Bill at a figure of around £200 million—I am not going to argue whether it is £200 million or £250 million—
§ Mr. Snadden
I am not going to be drawn on that, but the mere fact that the Government are ready to back the industry to the tune of £200 million is in itself sufficient evidence of our support of agriculture.
§ Mr. Snadden
I will come to the middleman in a moment. I only mention these considerations because they have a direct bearing on the present situation.
It is impossible to conduct a debate of this nature unless we face up to the facts. The conditions today are vastly different from anything the right hon. Gentleman faced, and he knows that just as well as I do. If he were sitting in the place of the present Minister of Agriculture today, he would have a difficult job to put his policy through, because some of his theories would be impossible under present conditions. Fixed prices seem to me like going back to the old system of rationing and allocation, the denial of 450 consumer choice and all the things that we have swept away.
I want now to come to some of the points that were put in the course of the debate. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley raised the question of the percentage value of livestock passing through the Fatstock Marketing Corporation. There was some difference of opinion as to what it was, and I am informed that the figure is 20 per cent., excluding bacon pigs. We cannot tell anything more than that because we have no way of checking it. I am only giving the information which was asked for, and I am not saying that the right hon. Gentleman was wrong. That is the figure in the possession of the Government, 20 per cent. excluding bacon pigs.
§ Mr. T. Williams
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind me putting my side of the question for the purposes of the record, may I say that I included bacon pigs, and with bacon pigs the percentage total value of livestock slightly exceeds 40 per cent., not 20 per cent.
§ Mr. Snadden
It might be, but I cannot say. I am giving the information in my possession.
I want briefly to take up some other points. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) made a very interesting speech, as he always does. I should like to join with him in the tribute he paid to the workers. I think I know the farming industry as well as most people, having been in it for many years, and there is no one for whom I have a greater respect than the British farmworker. The hon. Gentleman will know that the wages issue is one for the Wages Board, and, therefore, I cannot say anything more on that subject. The point in regard to accidents on farms has been noted. Statistics are now being collected and the matter is being studied.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), who also makes thoughtful speeches and always has something interesting and constructive to say, asked about assistance in regard to storm damage coming under the Hill Farming Acts. My right hon. Friend tells me that he is considering this sympathetically, but I cannot say more at this moment.
451 The hon. Gentleman also raised a point in regard to minimum prices and quoted—I think from "The Times"—that there had been adverse comments by the National Farmers' Unions showing major differences. The hon. Gentleman rather deplored the fact that there had been a fall in the minimum prices published. If there has been a fall—and it is not very much—it is not the first time. Under the Government of the hon. Gentleman there were considerable falls. He will remember, as well as I do, when it was suddenly decided to lower the prices of milk and eggs and the farmers did not like it then either. Although we have not had full agreement in regard to the minimum prices, it is not in my view quite accurate for the N.F.U.s to use the words "major differences."
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) made an interesting speech about wool, which I followed with considerable interest, because I happen myself to be a breeder of sheep. I have not had time to go into this matter, as this is the first time I have heard of it, but it is in the mind of my right hon. Friend and it would seem to me to be a subject for consideration by the Wool Marketing Board, which has to be consulted on matters of this kind.
§ Mr. Rhodes indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Snadden
The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. All I can tell him is that the point has been noted.
I may have to leave one or two of the smaller points because I have not much time left and I want to deal with the other major points raised in this debate. Practically every hon. Gentleman speaking from the other side referred to a lack of confidence within the industry and said that this was endangering production. I do not believe it. I happen to be a farmer on no small scale. If there were lack of confidence, I should be feeling it, should I not? It has not prevented me from putting up a grain dryer during the past year.
I realise that when there is a change to a freer economy farmers are a little apprehensive as to what it means. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."] It is quite natural in a time of change, but farmers have accepted the fact that fixed prices, rationing and allocation could not last 452 for ever. So there is this transitional period, and a little uncertainty at the start as to what is happening. On the other hand, it is having a good reaction in that it is making the farmer think more of how he will meet the market. Therefore, he is going in for grain drying plants and for breeding higher quality cattle—all to meet the demand, which is in line with Government policy.
We have heard a great deal today about pigs. I do not want to be drawn again into the detail of who is to blame. To say, however, that the Government are responsible for the pig muddle is not true, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belper knows perfectly well. At this stage, however, I will not blame the Fatstock Marketing Corporation or anyone else. Here we have to apply our commonsense. We are not happy about what happened in regard to pigs in the autumn. Who could be? We know that there are bound to be mistakes in changing over from a fixed price system, where the pigs could be forced upon the butcher, who kept back meat in many cases and forced the housewife to take pork instead. We cannot do that under a free market. The housewife now has freedom of choice.
We are trying at the moment to solve the problem of pig marketing. My right hon. Friend has already said all that can be said on the subject. We are not opposed to modifications to the present arrangements in the light of experience so far, but we feel that in such a short time since decontrol, it is too early for us to take a decision and a drastic new step without giving very serious thought to the consequences. My right hon. Friend has opened discussions with all the interests concerned upon the difficult question of pig marketing and, more particularly, on ways and means of avoiding a repetition of the difficulties of a few weeks ago.
Much was said about grain by the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Collins). I speak more from my experience as a farmer than from my experience as a politician when I say that when prices tend to be low on any commodity we are always told that a ring has been started. I can only say that if rings are in existence or if dealers are indulging in malpractices in any way whatever, we have the machinery to deal 453 with the matter; but we ask for evidence that that is happening. So far, we have not been able to get any. The answer to anyone who accuses anybody else of malpractices, abuse and below-the-counter stuff is, "Let us have the information; we have a machine ready to deal with it." I do not know of a single case in Scotland where evidence has been produced.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the statements by the Scottish National Farmers' Union were false?
§ Mr. Snadden
The hon. Gentleman is slightly misinterpreting the point. I am not dealing with the point made by the Scottish N.F.U. If the hon. Member has in mind the question of the dealer, I would urge him to remember that if we removed the dealer from some of the remote markets the price would fall because local demand could not absorb the supply. In that case the Exchequer would pay more. The dealer fulfils a useful function and saves money for the taxpayers. In the remote areas we must clear the produce. The dealer who goes to the North of Scotland to bring stock away may make a loss; sometimes he makes a profit.
The right hon. Gentleman rather suggested that the Minister had said that he really did not care whether the tillage acreage rose or fell. I have a copy of my right hon. Friend's speech here. He said exactly the opposite. He said that we wanted a high level of cereal production and were providing price incentives accordingly. The Government wish to hold tillage at the highest possible level. That is our objective. It is important to encourage ley farming, because a field of grass, if properly managed, should produce as much as tillage crops. However, we should not like it to be thought by anybody that we are complacent about tillage.
§ Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Legh.]
§ Debate to be resumed Tomorrow.