§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN rose to call attention to the great shortage of milk, butter, cheese, bacon, meat, poultry, rabbits, and game since the issue of Orders by the Food Controller affecting the prices of those kinds of food, and to move—
§ That, having regard to the warnings repeatedly given to the Controller of Food by representatives of agriculture of great experience and repute in England, Scotland, and Ireland, that the policy announced in the summer—viz., the slaughter of thousands of immature cattle on the scale of prices adopted by him—must have the effect, if carried out, of creating a meat famine in the New Year, this House is of opinion that the Controller must be regarded as largely responsible for the present shortage of meat, and that any powers vested 126 in his Department by which the production of food can be affected should be transferred to the Board of Agriculture, and be subject to the control of that Board alone.
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, on February 19, Lord Rhondda, at the close of a few observations which I only indistinctly heard, said—
The noble Viscount has just stated that he proposes to-morrow week to raise the whole question of the policy of food administration.
That was not quite what I said. I know very little of the administration, and I am not in a position to criticise the whole of it. We have recently heard rumours of some great changes in the future policy of the Food Ministry in regard to altering the system of purchase by live weight to the system of purchase by dead weight. As far as I know, we have had no official information on that point. All I do know about it is that, from the communications which reach me from agricultural circles, the whole agricultural world is up in arms against that already. Only a short time ago, at the meeting at Caxton Hall, said to be the greatest and most representative agricultural meeting that has ever been held in London, the noble Lord, I am advised, gave an undertaking to the farmers that the live-weight system of purchase would not be altered. That is all that I know about the administration.
§ What I rise to speak on is contained in the words of the Motion that I have placed upon the Paper, and it is within the limits of that Motion that I propose to confine my observations to-night. I thought it as well to say this to begin with, for it was only on looking at one of the reports in Hansard a short time ago that I observed what had been said upon this point of administration by the noble Lord. Having said this, I never forget—and I hope that it is needless for me to say so—how thankless a task it was which the noble Lord undertook when he accepted the post that he holds to-day. Moreover, I freely admit that the importation of meat into this country has to a certain extent been hampered by the attacks of submarines, though to what extent we have never been told, and I venture to think that that is a mistake. I presume that it has been due to a fear that information would reach the enemy. It appears to me that the enemy possess such a perfect system of espionage that in all probability 127 they know a great deal more about the arrival of shipments of food, and the probable dates of those arrivals, than we have any idea of. If I am right in that apprehension, then the only people who are really being kept in the dark are the British people, and those are the persons who are chiefly concerned.
§ On the other hand, my Lords, the noble Lord, in the policy which he has pursued, seems to me to have been guilty of what must in these days be regarded as a capital sin, because he has done so much to discourage and to decrease the production of food in this country, and that at a time when we have all been pressed by the Government to remember that production ought to be increased to the greatest possible extent. That, my Lords, is why I have enumerated in the forefront of my Motion a number of different kinds of popular foods which I think may—most of them may certainly—be called essential, and the shortage which has followed in regard to these particular kinds of food since Orders were issued affecting their price by the Food Controller.
§ From first to last what the noble Lord has told us is that his main object has been to lessen the prices of food to the people of this country—a very laudable object, indeed, and one with which I should not dream of quarrelling for a moment, unless in order to do this he utterly disregarded its effect upon the increased production of food. And my quarrel with him is that he either could not or would not perceive, in spite of the warnings of hundreds of practical men thoroughly versed in the subject from all parts of the kingdom, who did their best to make him perceive this elementary truth—that if the food producer goes under, the increased production of food inevitably goes with him. Instead of that, the noble Lord declared that he did not care a hang who suffered, or what interest went under, provided that he could make what he called a "good job" for his Ministry and for the consumer by a reduction in the prices of food.
§ I hold in these days, when I attach great importance to the increase of food in this country, a doctrine which I have preached for a great number of years, and in which for a great number of years I stood almost alone. In these days, happily, that is no longer my position, for, among others, I have a new and a most unexpected ally, as he would have been at one time, in the 128 Prime Minister himself. In my humble opinion, from the time he succeeded to that position he has been able to grasp the whole agricultural situation with a clear understanding, an open mind, and a rapidity that do him infinite credit. More than once since the war began it has been my privilege to be permitted to discuss this question with him, and, with one single exception, when he said, I think in the City, that we should be self-supporting in the year 1918—an estimate which, I think, was very greatly too sanguine—with that single exception I do not think in the time that I have been privileged to discuss these things with him that there was any subject upon which we were not practically entirely agreed.
§ On February 23 last—and this was a very remarkable occasion—he made a speech on the whole agricultural situation of this country, a speech which, I venture to say, was the most remarkable and the most favourable that ever has been made with regard to agriculture by any English Prime Minister, that I can remember, at all events ever since the days of the great historic conflicts between Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Disraeli, who in the end, after all, was able to defeat his great rival. I have ventured to make a brief summary of some of the statements that the Prime Minister made in the course of that speech, because they present an overwhelming case for the increased production of food—and that is my great cause of quarrel with the noble Lord who represents the Ministry of Food at this moment.
The Prime Minister dealt first with the question of tonnage. He was of opinion that the ultimate success of the Allied cause would depend upon the solution of the tonnage difficulties with which the country was confronted. Tonnage, which before the war was only just adequate, has now had to meet such demands as these :—transport for the Army, transport for the Navy, for our expeditions in France and in Eastern waters, over a million tons being allocated to France, with a considerable allowance to Italy, and originally for Russia also, which, however, thank God, I suppose has now ceased. The problem of tonnage, therefore, had to be ruthlessly and promptly dealt with, and measures were submitted with that object. They were divided into three categories, and, as far as I am concerned, I go at once to the
third, because in the Prime Minister's Opinion the most important way in which aid could be given to the country in this respect was by the largely increased production of food in Our own country. As to this he spoke with a passionate emphasis which I remember struck me very greatly at the time, saying that it was essential for the safety of the nation—for the maintenance of the nation, for the life of the nation—that we should increase our production as largely as possible, and that we should do it without delay. He pointed out also that the State has undoubtedly shown a lamentable indifference to the importance of agriculture, the very life of the nation—a mistake which must never occur again. And again, he said that our foodstuffs were lower, alarmingly lower, than they had been within recollection; and filially he wound up with this statement, which, if I may, should like to repeat ipsissimis verbis—
The country is alive now as it has never been before to the essential value of agriculture to the community, and, whatever befalls, it will never again be neglected by any Government.
I sincerely trust that this may prove to be always true in the future, but I am not quite so sure and sanguine abort it as the Prime Minister himself. "The war at any rate," he said, "has taught us one lesson "—it certainly ought to have taught us a lesson, and it certainly ought never to be forgotten, but in these days people have very short memories; that, at least, is my experience—" that the preservation of our essential industries is as important a part of the national defences as the maintainance of our Army or our Navy." A truer statement than that, I venture to say, has never been made by any Prime Minister.
§ It is true that the Prime Minister stated at that time, while speaking with so much fervour, that the immediate object was the coming harvest; and there he was perfectly right, because he spoke on the very eve of the spring sowings, and the sowing of wheat in the spring is always a more or less doubtful proceeding. But the Prime Minister knows just as well as this House knows, and as we all know, that the two great essential foods which it is necessary to maintain in adequate production are corn and meat. And how the noble Lord who is in charge of the Ministry of Food should have supposed that the methods which he adopted for fixing the prices of cattle in particular and of other things 130 could have any other effect than to discourage and to decrease the production of food, I am quite unable to conceive. However, he will be able, no doubt, when he comes to reply, to give the reasons why his policy has been one of such a totally different character from that which has been urged upon us by the Prime Minister.
§ The policy of the noble Lord has taken various directions which I will now endeavour to summarise. He has hampered and meddled with trade in a variety of different directions. He has issued countless Orders, so confusing and so long as to be for the most part unintelligible to the people, and to the farmers who are chiefly concerned. He has threatened the people with pains and penalties if they infringe those Orders. And his two chief hobbies, apparently, have been the slaughter of immature cattle, with the profusion of waste which that involves; and the fixing of prices of all kinds of commodities of his own choosing on every possible occasion. And this again, as I say, at a time when increased production was urged upon us more than anything else, and we were told that it as necessary to us as our Army and our Navy—which I believe to be absolutely true. I have always maintained during a long life—and I shall always believe that I have been right—that there is only one foe which can ever conquer this country, and that is starvation, and starvation alone.
§ May I now say a few words on the question of prices, having stated my indictment against the Controller? Take the articles which I have named in the forefront of my Resolution, and your Lordships will judge for yourselves whether I am justified or not in the charges I have made. The Food Controller fixed for milk prices which did not pay the producer. Milk, in consequence, has become exceedingly rare, although it was one of the things which, above all others, it would have been right and necessary for us to maintain in as large a quantity as possible. Butter was treated in exactly the same way, and the same thing has happened. Butter is now rarer even than milk, and more difficult to obtain. Cheese was one of the things with which the noble Lord next dealt. Let me relate an incident which happened to myself in the country a fortnight or more ago with regard to the great scarcity of cheese. I was in two different counties, not more than 48 hours in each, and in both of them poor people came up to me and said, 131 "What has happened to cheese? What has become of our cheese? We cannot buy or get a bit of cheese in the village or in the neighbouring town no matter what we pay; and yet we used to have it in any quantity, when we desired it, only a very short time ago." That is what has happened with regard to the different articles on which the noble Lord has thought it right to fix his own particular prices. In nine cases out of ten the article has promptly disappeared. It is not only the poor people who suffer from this difficulty with regard to cheese. From some of the clubs in London cheese has altogether disappeared. I make no complaint of that myself, because butter has gone too, and cheese is a thing for which, I confess, I do not care very much unless I have something to go with it.
§ With regard to poultry and game, there I am afraid I have been wrong in attributing the shortage to the fixing of prices; and I apologise to the Controller for my mistake. But the breeding and raising of poultry has been seriously hampered by a whole series of Orders, Orders which, I think, were exceedingly foolish, often contradictory, and which have been issued over and over again. Game has been treated in precisely the same way, especially with regard to pheasants. In the case of pheasants the chief sufferers have been the wounded soldiers in our hospitals; because it is notorious—anybody might have known it—that nearly the whole of the game produced in the country since the war began has been purposely sent to the hospitals.
§ I come now to bacon and meat. In my judgment no greater mistake has been committed with regard to the increased production of meat than has been committed with regard to pigs and potatoes. In the first considerable speech that I made in this House I drew your Lordships' attention to that particular point. I placed a Motion on the Paper in the year 1916, just before Mr. Asquith's Government resigned. There was considerable delay, and it was not until three months afterwards that I was able to make that Motion in your Lordships' House. I then said all that I could in support of the proposal that every means should be taken of growing as many potatoes as possible, and of largely increasing the number of pigs. I did this for two reasons which I thought were excellent, and which I think are excellent still. Where a cow produces one calf, 132 where an old ewe produces two lambs, a good sow will produce fifteen, sometimes twenty, at a litter; and not only that, but she does it twice in the year. What was the answer to this? "Oh, it will be so difficult to feed them." That was a great mistake. Pigs will eat anything. This year, to take one thing, there has been a profusion of grass, but much of it has been wasted because so many thousands of immature cattle have been killed under the auspices of the Food Controller before they were allowed even to have an opportunity of eating it. All this grass might have been eated by pigs instead, and they would have thrived upon it. Then there was the question of potatoes. The reason for urging an increased production of potatoes was that you could grow infinitely more food for the people from an acre of potatoes than you could from an acre of anything else. Further, there is nothing that a pig will eat more greedily than potato peelings; nothing he likes more and that is a part of the potato which is not, I should say, usually eaten by human beings. As for the idea of not being able to find food for pigs, I do not believe it.
§ There was another excellent scheme mooted about that time and thrown aside entirely by what I should call official red tapeism—discarded by people who knew nothing whatever about it. What was the scheme? At this moment there are hundreds of camps of soldiers and other people in different parts of the country, and the refuse from those camps would have fed any number of pigs. Nothing would have been easier than to establish, at no very great cost, a number of temporary piggeries within reach of those camps. If that had been done, you might at this time have had, with the rapidity which which you can increase pigs in this country, such a supply of pigs and potatoes as would have made you absolutely safe against any possibility of real or serious famine. I will come now to rabbits. Rabbits swarmed everywhere, and quite recently out came a price for rabbits from the Controller. What happened immediately afterwards to rabbits we all know from a very amusing picture which appeared in Punch. I do not know whether the noble Lord saw it, but if he did not and he will allow me I shall be pleased to procure a copy and send it to him.
These are not by a long way the only articles dealt with. There seems to have
been no bounds to the mania for fixing prices upon every conceivable thing. Here is a case in point. Again and again the Controller promised the farmers that he would do everything in his power to increase the imports of feeding-stuffs for cattle. How did he fulfil this undertaking? I was not aware of this until a short time ago, but it really is a most striking example of what the effect of fixing prices haphazard may be. What happened in this case was that he decreased the price of feeding-stuffs—linseed cake, I think it was—by something like £3 or £4. I am going to quote from two letters which were read at a meeting held at the Exchange Station Hotel, Liverpool, under the auspices of the Liverpool Seed Oil and Cake Trade on January 4 last, and which was attended by 400 members. This is one of the letters which were read, and it came from America—
We regret that the price of £19 5s. established by the Food Controller makes further business with Great Britain altogether impossible. We had succeeded, with a very great deal of difficulty, in booking about 20,000 tons freight-room for December-January shipments, and had taken the risk, which was considerable, of booking this freight at 2 dollars per 100 lbs. The maximum price now established is about £4 per ton less than the value in this country, taking into account the shipping expenses. We have fortunately been able to cancel our freight engagements and do not feel disposed to operate further in the future.
That letter is signed on behalf of the Midland Linseed Company, Minneapolis, U.S.A. I have been in Minneapolis myself, and I have no reason whatever to doubt that this is a letter which may be absolutely relied upon; and I am in a position to say that if there is any doubt about its accuracy, I shall be placed in a position of being able to produce the original. Another letter from America is as follows—
The maximum price of linseed cake established by the British Food Controller is so much below the value here that we have been obliged to cancel all our freight contracts and discontinue shipments to the British market.
What are we to think, in the face of that, of this policy of fixing what I call hap-hazard prices? Had the Controller taken any trouble to ascertain what the effect of suddenly fixing prices would be on the imports of linseed cake from America?
§ These are only samples of what has been done, I am informed, by a great number of other firms. The imports of linseed cake were of the utmost importance to the in- 134 creased production of meat in this country, and in this case the question of tonnage would not have interfered, because the tonnage had been obtained and was ready to bring the cake; and so it would have been, I am informed, in numerous other cases where merchants were ready to send it but for this extraordinary policy on the part of the Controller of suddenly fixing a price which made it altogether impossible. I am told that these letters can be multiplied to any extent, and I have seen extracts from others myself, but I think you will agree that they are in themselves enough to show how injurious may be the effect of fixing prices without in the least knowing or ascertaining, or trying to ascertain—for I cannot conceive that this policy would have been pursued if is had been ascertained—what consequence would be likely to follow.
§ Now my Lords, I want you to consider the effect of the slaughter of immature cattle on a scale of price like that which was fixed by the Controller. In my humble, opinion this is the most serious question of all that we have to deal with in regard to the policy that he has pursued. It was on August 2 that in this House I called attention to the rumours I had heard of a Committee that had been appointed, consisting of representatives of three or four Government Departments, by which it was intended at that time to slaughter 250,000 lean cattle. I obtained that information about the 250,000 from the Controller himself across the floor of this House. There hid, I believe, been a somewhat different scheme suggested by his predecessor (Viscount Devonport) whom I see sitting opposite. It was abandoned when he retired. The scale of prices fixed by the noble Lord opposite was entirely new, and its purpose appears to have been a progressive reduction of the price of meat, upon which he was very much bent, naturally, as that was the main object he had always told us he had in view. In September the price was to be 74s. per cwt. live weight; in October, 73s.; in November and December, 67s.; and in January, 60s. When the price of 60s. was fixed for January, that was too much for any one. There was a general storm, and after a time the Controller was obliged to admit that he had bean wrong and to change it. But by that time, unfortunately, the mischief had all been done. Just imagine what it meant. You were to get 74s. in September, but in January, when you 135 would have had to keep the animals and feed them for months and months, and when they had cost you a great deal more, they were to be sold for 60s. per cwt. instead of 74s. Why, one would have thought that even a child might have perceived that this system could not by any possibility answer.
§ How did it all end? Immature cattle were rushed on the market as quickly as they possibly could be, and these lean animals were sold one after the other. They were got rid of before the extremely low prices began. There was no possibility whatever of making a profit by keeping them till later in the year. On the contrary, it would involve an absolute loss. One of the greatest feeders in Norfolk told me himself, "I have always fed a thousand cattle at least every year, and sometimes I feed cattle in Northamptonshire as well, but I shall not feed one. Why should I? "He said it would mean to him a loss of at least £7,000 to do so. He said, "If I were to keep the cattle till January and get 60s. per cwt. for them at that time my loss, according to my calculations, would be £7 for every beast I sold." Now it is extraordinary to me that in a Department like this—which the noble Lord tells us is managed in London alone by 3,500 officials, of whom 500 are men filling positions of great responsibility and importance—there does not appear to have been one single official who could give advice to the noble Lord of what was going to happen under this most exceptional and extraordinarily mischievous policy.
§ The noble Lord said in this House—I remember it perfectly well—that there were no means of ascertaining the exact cost, or nearly the cost, of feeding bullocks. He must forgive me for saying he was entirely mistaken. There are means. I have profited by them, and I will tell him what they were. The noble Lord said there were no figures. I believe that if he would only desire a search to be made among the masses of figures that I know were left by the great Scottish deputation which waited upon him he will find all that information—all the information I am going to give to the House directly—which he said it was impossible to get. A better and an abler deputation than the men who composed that one I have never known in my life. Many of the farmers in Scotland are the shrewdest and most hard-headed men I have ever had to do with in my life. They 136 were absolutely masters of the whole situation, and the two officials who were present sitting with the Controller had hardly a word to say in reply. If ever they tried, they were turned flat on their backs in a moment.
§ What was the result of it all? I have stated this before in this House, and I stated it again at the Caxton Hall meeting the other day with the permission which I asked across the table and which was very courteously accorded to me by the Controller, but not a word of it was reported either here or on that occasion. As there is a much bigger House to-day than there was on the last occasion I am going to repeat it again, and I hope the Press will enable me to get before the country this very important fact which I am going to state now. I asked Mr. Overman to go to Edinburgh for me, to get hold of the leaders of this Scottish deputation and work out the whole thing with them. They did so. Within a week I had a letter from him to this effect. He said they had met and had discussed this question for hours. He believed they had got figures which were quite impregnable. They had taken out side by side what a bullock put on, sometimes in a day; what a bullock put on in a week; and what he put on in a month; and, assuming that the whole of these 250,000 cattle had been killed, what do you think would have been the absolute wastage of beef which would have been put on the carcases of these animals had they been allowed to live and put it on in the ordinary way? Over 27,400 or 28,400 tons of beef! Well, my Lords, knowing these men who had provided me with this information, knowing also that the information was sent to the Royal Agricultural Society—and I believe entirely accepted by them—I do think this is a case which deserves the condemnation of this House for the Department that has been guilty at a time like this of the inconceivable waste of such an amount of food.
§ The scale of figures we have always been told was agreed to between the Controller and the President of the Board of Agriculture. I believe that statement to be an entire misapprehension. I am quite sure the President of the Board of Agriculture will not admit it; that I am certain of. I see the noble Lord present who was his predecessor in that Department. He had the figures before him, and I suspect he 137 could tell us exactly whether my statement, that the President of the Board of Agriculture absolutely denied that he was a party to the acceptance of those figures, is true or not. I have not a doubt upon it myself, and I think the noble Lord (Lord Rhondda) must have forgotten that when he told us they were agreed to by the President of the Board of Agriculture.
§ THE FOOD CONTROLLER (LORD RHONDDA)
By the Department, I said—by the representatives of the Board of Agriculture.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
What is the difference? The Department cannot do it without the sanction of the President of the Board of Agriculture. That is impossible, and I think the excuse only weakens the position and makes it worse.
§ LORD RHONDDA
I am not making any excuse; I am not making any apology; I am simply stating the fact.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
Did the President of the Board of Agriculture agree or did he not? That is the question.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
You do not deny, then, that the President of the Board of Agriculture disagreed? You admit that?
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
You to not. Now we know exactly where we stand. The noble Lord disagrees with the statement that the President of the Board of Agriculture disagreed with—
§ LORD RHONDDA
I really must correct the noble Viscount. This was agreed to at a Committee, at which representatives of the Board of Agriculture were present, and that is all I have stated.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
That is not my recollection, and I shall be able to produce something to the contrary. I cannot do 138 it now, because I have not the Debates with me. I am glad I have raised the question because it must he, sooner or later, absolutely settled whether or not the President of the Board of Agriculture is to be charged with responsibility for agreeing to this particular scale of prices.
I now want to ask the noble Lord something else which is very important. He said, on August 2, that only 70,000 of these 250,000 cattle had been killed for the Army Committee. But what is much more important than that—and may I have the noble Lord's attention, because I want him to answer these questions; we do not always get very clear and distinct answers from the noble Lord, and I want him to answer this question in particular. How many more immature animals have been killed under his orders, apart from those which were killed for the Army? I have endeavoured to obtain the figures elsewhere. As a rule statistics of all kinds can be obtained from the Board of Trade, but they have not got these statistics there, or at the Board of Agriculture. I am told that they are in the office of the Ministry of Food, and I think we are entitled to know what they are. I desire to ask these questions in addition. Have the original number of 250,000 been killed, or have more than that number been killed under his orders, and, if so, how many more than that number? In a word, what is the total number of cattle, immature or otherwise, which have been slaughtered under his orders? Those are all simple questions and perfectly capable of answer, and I think we are entitled to an answer. It would be very satisfactory if I could be proved to be wrong in thinking, as I do at the present time, that what the noble Lord really has been doing—without, I suspect, being aware of it—is that he has used up the whole of the ordinary supply of animals which usually would have fed the country through the whole of the winter. In addition, many of these cattle possessed nothing like the weight of meat they would have done with ordinary treatment.
I do not want to be longer than I can help, but there are other matters with which I should like to deal. I do not know whether they would be regarded as food questions. The noble Lord has made a Regulation with regard to tea about which I hear the gravest complaints. I am also told that he might do something in respect of tonnage; that the amount of paper 139 imported into this country exceeds the whole of the meat imported, and by a great deal. I suspect that position is still the same. I am quite aware of the difficulty the Press have at the present time, and I should be sorry to do anything to interfere with the Press, but I may mention that instances of advertisements by great firms have been sent to me. They were great books of advertisements, sent all over the country. One weighed 3½ lbs., another 2 lbs., and a third just tinder a stone, and if one firm does that hundreds and thousands of others, no doubt, are doing it too.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
No. Quite the opposite. The noble Lord has no powers in that respect. Perhaps that is very fortunate for the noble Lord. I should like to know what Department of the Government has to deal with this, for it seems to me to be a serious matter which should be dealt with. It might be acceptable also to know something of the opinions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to these advertisements. They are costly in themselves, and paid out of the profits of profiteering, and in that way they escape taxation. However, I will not deal with those questions any further at this moment.
My object from the first has been to try to do something to ease the food situation. What I feel so strongly is that grievous mistakes, which could so easily have been avoided if the advice of practical men had been taken, have placed the country in what is in reality a very serious position with regard to its future meat supplies. My great objection to all the schemes of the Controller is this, that by the policy which he has thought it his duty to pursue, he has done much to discourage and to decrease that production which the Prime Minister himself has pressed upon us is necessary at this moment in order to secure the safety of the nation, the maintenance of the nation, and the very life of the nation; and, with regard to meat, by the slaughter of immature animals in their thousands which he has had carried out he has wasted profusely the meat of the nation which would otherwise have been produced.
Moved to resolve, That having regard to the warnings repeatedly given to the Controller of Food by representatives of agriculture of great experience and repute in England, Scotland, and Ireland, that 140 the policy announced in the summer, viz., the slaughter of thousands of immature cattle on the scale of prices adopted by hint, must have the effect, if carried out, of creating, a meat famine in the New Year, this House is of opinion that the Controller must be regarded as largely responsible for the present shortage of meat, and that any powers vested in his Department by which the production of food can be affected should be transferred to the Board of Agriculture, and be subject to the control of that Board alone.—(Viscount Chaplin.)
§ LORD LAMINGTON had the following Notice on the Paper—
§ To move, That as the fixing of maximum prices has resulted in reducing the production and importation of foodstuffs, it is desirable, now that compulsory rationing is being introduced, to abandon the system of fixing prices.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I understand that it will be convenient to the noble Lord the Food Controller that I should now make some remarks upon this subject instead of moving the Resolution which stands in my name. I am sure that most of your Lordships, even without knowledge of agriculture, thoroughly agree with the remarks and with the exhaustive indictment which the noble Viscount has made against what has been done by the Food Controller in the fixing of prices. I think that he might have gone still further.
§ There is one point which I should like to mention, and it is this. Whilst we all could probably produce instances of the mischievous and disastrous effect of fixing prices upon agricultural produce, there is one large aspect which ought also to be considered. At any time farming is rather of a speculative nature, but owing to the countless Orders which have been issued, either by the Food Controller in regard to prices or by the Board of Agriculture in regard to production and other matters, it hits become more speculative than ever. The farmer really has to look two years ahead in order to be able to farm his land properly; yet now he never knows from day to day how he will be circumstanced in the following week.
§ With regard to the sale of immature cattle, I was told by a person who ought to know very well indeed that the result of the fixing of prices has been that those persons responsible for buying cattle have 141 to buy three beasts for every two that would be bought under normal circumstances. That means a distinct waste of food. I will not, however, go into that question, which has been dealt with so exhaustively by the noble Viscount. I should like to go much further. Just as he illustrated his arguments about the importation of linseed cake, so it is all through. This fixing of prices has been disastrous to production. Not only has that policy prevented an adequate food supply being produced in this country, but it has also retarded the importation of food. I think that Lord Strachie some time ago had a letter in The Times pointing out that in the case of butter the price was fixed at something like 222s. per cwt., and that there were at that time consignments in Denmark and Holland waiting to come here, but that the price there was over 400s. per cwt., almost double the price here, and the result was that that butter did not come here. Only the other day I was told—and I hope that the noble Lord may be able to give me precise information on this point—that quite recently three ships were waiting to come from Denmark with supplies of dairy produce and other foodstuffs, and those ships were diverted simply because the prices in this country were not of a remunerative character. A great authority on this point told me that there were numbers of cases in which food would have come to this country, but was diverted elsewhere owing to the fixing of maximum prices here. Possibly there may be difficulty in getting shipping tonnage in some cases, but in these eases that I have mentioned no such difficulty arose. It was simply a question of prices.
§ Where does this diverted food go to? In many cases it goes to our enemies. If that is true, there can be no doubt, in the case of the three ships which I have asked about, that the food in them instead of coming to this country went to Germany, where, short as they are of food, they are quite willing to pay big prices. Their want of food is so acute that they do not care what price they pay for it. If you have in this country a hundredweight of butter and you can supplement it by another from abroad, although you have to pay a higher price for the latter, it is better to have that additional hundredweight in the country rather than not have it at all. It is infinitely better to have a fair supply at a high price than to have practically no 142 supply at a low price. That is the position to which this country has been brought.
§ No doubt for political purposes this system of fixing prices has been adopted, the idea being to please the people and convince them that there was no such thing as profiteering. But I think that this policy will become much more disastrous than would the opposite one have been when the public are unable to be supplied with any articles or to be supplied only in a small degree. Therefore I would ask the Food Controller whether he cannot see his way to remove the maximum prices now that we have compulsory rationing. Once you prevent a person from having more than his fair share of an article, then you can let prices alone to look after themselves. If you have cases of profiteering, the Government have plenty of powers under the various Orders to stop it. I think that the noble Lord himself said on one occasion that he did not believe that profiteering was rampant or had in any degree heightened prices. I do not say that it is a good or desirable policy to adopt a system of subsidies, such as you have done in the case of bread, where you sell a shilling loaf for ninepence—I do not say that such a system is sound economics, but I do say it is better than not to have the articles at all.
§ I understand that the noble Viscount is going to press his Motion, and I do not therefore intend to press mine. But there is one other point which, though it is not strictly germane to my Motion, I would like to touch upon. It is the question of importations from Ireland. I gave private notice to the noble Lord yesterday that I should put this question. I understand that some time ago people who had sources of supply of butter in Ireland were not allowed to import it from there to this country. I do not know whether that is the case now, but I would like to draw your Lordships' attention to a letter that appeared in the Scotsman about ten days or a fortnight ago. In that letter it was stated quite clearly and distinctly that there was plenty of agricultural produce in Ireland, but that it was not allowed to be sent over here owing to the action of the Sinn Fein faction. The writer of the letter in the Scotsman stated that he had read in a paper called Nationality that there was an abundance of food in Ireland. Another authority also stated that there was plenty of food there, but that the Sinn Feiners 143 were not going to let it come over here, but intended to keep it there until after the summer, when they hoped there would be an Irish Republic. Further, it was stated that there had been exhortations to people in Ireland not to handle the food and to farmers not to sell their food except to those who would guarantee its consumption in Ireland. There have also been large subscriptions, I think about £5,000 or £6,000, collected in Limerick alone to buy up all the food in the neighbourhood. I do not know whether all these statements can be substantiated, but it seems to me a very serious matter indeed. I understand that the Sinn Fein Party have their own Food Controller who is dealing with this matter. In the meanwhile these articles of agricultural produce, which would naturally come to this country to supplement the supply, are not allowed to come. I dare say the noble Lord will give me some reply on this particular point.
§ THE FOOD CONTROLLER (LORD RHONDDA)
My Lords, I am obliged to Lord Lamington for kindly bringing forward the subject of his Motion before I have to reply to the indictment of the noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin. I think it was for the convenience of the House, because Lord Lamington's suggestion covers to a large extent the same ground as the Motion of Lord Chaplin. The series of indictments brought against me by the noble Viscount constitute a very serious charge. He has accused me of a capital sin—of having utterly disregarded the effect upon production of fixing prices, of indulging in my "pet hobby" of slaughtering immature cattle, and of wasting profusely the food of the nation. In the course of his remarks he observed that people in these days have very short memories. The public always has a short memory, and I agree with him that it is particularly short in these times of war. I propose, therefore, in the first place briefly to remind your Lordships of the circumstances in this country when I accepted the position of Food Controller.
I took office in June last, when prices had been left to the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and when prices were soaring. They had continued steadily and heavily to rise for three years, although there was no shortage, until they were, in the case of imported foodstuffs, more than double the rate obtaining before the war. I will give the House a few illustrations of the rapid and continuous rise in certain articles of 144 prime necessity. I am going to give the percentage increase in food prices in the United Kingdom in certain periods as compared with normal prices in July 1914. These figures are given by the Department of Labour Statistics; they were formerly given by the Board of Trade.
In the case of thin flank, British beef, taking the pre-war basis as 100, the price went up by January 1, 1916, by 45 per cent.; by July 1, 1916, 80 per cent.; by January 1, 1917, 83 per cent.; and by July 1, 1917, about the time when I took office, the advance was 132.2 per cent. In other words, the price of beef was 232 as compared with 100 before the war. It has now been reduced, on February 1, to 201. These figures are, of course, percentages. I think it is more convenient that I should give them in actual percentages. In the case of British mutton, breast, the price rose steadily. On July 1 it had risen 142 per cent. on the pre-war price; now the increase has been reduced to 95 per cent. Those are two instances of the prices of British-produced food which have been brought under control.
Fish, which was uncontrolled until quite recently, rose to 127 per cent. on July 1, and on February 1 it was 217 per cent., the price having continued to rise. I am quoting these figures now because I shall want to refer to them a little later. The price of bread rose to 100 per cent.—rather more than double what it was at the beginning of the war; it is now 54 per cent. That, of course, is due to the large subsidy given by the State. Potatoes rose to 144 per cent. They are now down to 36 per cent. That is mainly due to the large crop. Fresh eggs, which have not been controlled, rose to 95 per cent. on July 1, summer price. On January 1, 1917, they rose to 175 per cent. On February 1, 1918, they had risen to 245 per cent.—nearly 3½ times the price prior to the war.
That was what happened when the laws of supply and demand were allowed free and unfettered play. I have shown you that in cases where I have not exercised control, and where that free play has continued, prices have continued to advance. Now what is the result of that? Seething discontent. I am not out for popularity. I have no desire to gain votes as, I think, Lord Lamington suggested, or to court popularity. I have simply accepted this office (the noble Viscount made kindly reference to the fact) at the insistent 145 pressure of the Prime Minister—against my own inclination, I beg to assure him, and against my own better judgement. But while I am here I intend to do what I conceive to be my duty in the best, interests of the country. The result, then, of those high prices was seething discontent among large masses of the people which, had it been allowed to continue, would not only have seriously embarrassed those to whom had been entrusted the conduct of the war, but, I have no hesitation in saying, would have rendered victory for the Allies well-nigh impossible.
Let me confirm that statement by reference to the Reports of the Industrial Commissioners who were appointed just before I took office. I think they were appointed on June 12; I took office on the 15th. Mr. Barnes, a member of the Cabinet, issued a Summary of the Reports about the middle of July. In this Summary, in reference to food prices and distribution of supplies, he says—All the Commissions put in the forefront as the leading cause of unrest the fact that the cost of living has increased disproportionately to the advance in wages, and that the distribution of food supplies is unequal. The Commissioners are unanimous in regarding this as the most important of all causes of industrial unrest. Not only is it a leading cause of unrest in itself but its existence in the minds of the workers colours many subsidiary causes, in regard to which in themselves there might have been no serious complaint, and the feeling exists in men's minds that sections of the community are profiting by the increased prices.The, first recommendation of the Commissioners is as follows—Food prices. There should be an immediate reduction in prices, the increased price of food being borne to some extent by the Government; and a better system of distribution is required.I do not want to read the whole of the eight Reports, but I should like to take the cases of the North-east and the North-west areas. The Commissioners for the Northeast area say—At a very early stage it was forcibly borne in upon the Commissioners that the question of food prices was the most general, if not, indeed, the most important cause of industrial unrest.The following is an extract from the Northwest area Report, one of the Commissioners being my colleague, Mr. Clynes—There is no doubt that this is the chief cause of industrial unrest,that is, of course, the increase in prices of food in relation to wages—and if the Government can solve this problem satisfactorily, and can assure to all women and146their children a fair proportion of the necessaries of life, it would go far to solve the problem of industrial unrest.Every one of the eight Reports, without exception, gives the great increase in the cost of food as tire principal factor in creating the very grave unrest that existed throughout the country nine months ago.
Advances in wages were given in order to meet the increased cost, and these were followed, again its a consequence owing to the increased demand, by rises in prices. There was a vicious circle. Rises in prices, advances in wages, succeeded by rises in prices again. It was pretty clearly laid down when I took office—I will not say that instructions were given to me to this effect—that one of my first duties was to break that vicious circle. My first objective obviously was to prevent any further soaring of prices; if possible to lower prices, and thus to allay the widespread unrest. But I say without any hesitation that, if the increase had been allowed to continue, it might have imperilled the very existence of the State.
§ LORD RHONDDA
But I claim to have obtained some measure of success in the face of increasing difficulties. The cost of living has been brought down by my Department to [...] extent of something like 8 per cent. I say that "some measure of success has been obtained in the face of increasing difficulties," advisedly; because, subsequent to my taking office, increases in wages were given by various Departments which aggregated over £1,000,000 per annum. That meant a largely increased demand. On the other side, of course, the supplies of food coming in from abroad were being further and further restricted; and had the law of supply and demand been allowed to continue to regulate prices unchallenged, I do not hesitate to say that prices would have increased several-fold, and that essential articles would have been placed beyond the reach of millions of the poorer classes of the community. I dread to think of what the result would have been. It would have spelt not merely unrest and discontent, but something far more serious.
The policy which I outlined to your Lordships six months ago I have kept constantly in mind, and endeavoured consistently to carry out. That policy has been the 147 fixing of prices at every stage from producer to consumer, such prices being based upon the cost ascertained by the Costing Department, plus a reasonable profit. The noble Viscount is entirely mistaken in his repeated assertion that these prices have been fixed in a haphazard fashion. They have invariably been fixed, in the case of agricultural products, after consultation with the Board of Agriculture and advisers expert in agricultural matters. The noble Viscount spoke contemptuously of the number of business men I have had in my Department. One of my policies has been to utilise the services of business men to the fullest possible extent. I have not only a large number of business men engaged in executive work in the Department, many of them giving their services gratuitously, but in the case of every article—I cannot call to mind a single exception—I have advisory committees of business men who are consulted before any price is fixed or any action is taken.
We are charged with offending against the laws of economics. Well, we are living in times of war. I think I explained pretty fully to your Lordships six months ago, after I had been in office a few weeks, the policy that I intended to follow. I intended to pursue the policy that we were going to set aside the law of supply and demand; and I gave your Lordships the reasons for that, one reason being that it was an established fundamental law of economics that a very slight shortage, below the requirements, of any article of prime necessity, leads, or may lead, to a several-fold advance in price. It was because of my knowledge of economics, and because of my knowledge that this law of supply and demand could not be allowed to operate in abnormal times such as these, that led me to take that definite line. I believe the policy is a right one; and I can give Lord Lamington no encouragement whatever that, as long as I hold the office of Food Controller, I shall remove the restrictions of prices and cease to fix maximum prices.
Not very long ago there was a notable address given by President Woodrow Wilson (which I dare say your Lordships read) to the United States Congress, on, I think December 4. In that speech Mr. Wilson said—Recent experience has convinced me that Congress must go further in authorising the Government to settle prices. The law of supply 148 and demand, I am sorry to say, has been replaced by the law of unrestrained selfishness. While we have eliminated profiteering in several branches of industry, it still runs impudently rampant in others.So that in the United States they have had to adopt this policy of fixing maximum prices. To listen to the remarks of the noble Viscount one might almost imagine that I, as Food Controller, and this Government, were the only people who had fixed maximum prices. If your Lordships will make examination into the matter I think you will find that in nearly every country, belligerent or neutral, in or contiguous to the zone of military operations, it has been found necessary to set aside for the time being the laws of political economy. They had a free run here for three years, with the result that prices doubled and the country was in a state of seething discontent.
May I refer back for a moment to one thing which I have omitted in reference to the effect of the increased cost of living upon the population. I consider that the discontent which was so rife nine months ago has been very greatly allayed, and I believe that the country is now more united and more determined to win the war than it was nine months ago. In my judgment the discontent which existed at the increased cost of living was justified. Some producers justified themselves by the thought that the people in the towns were quite able and willing to pay the increased prices. They entirely overlook the fact that large masses of the population are not earning the high wages received by some classes of munition workers, and have not the money to meet the increased charges for food. It is stated that between one and two million families at least, if food prices increased further, could not afford to purchase the bare minimum of food necessary to stave of hunger. At the present moment there are over 500,000 workers in Lancashire on short time, and a considerable proportion of the employees in the woollen and worsted industries are faced with a similar prospect. Thousands of old-age pensioners, and the families of professional men and small shop-keepers, are barely able to meet the present cost of food-stuffs although, as I have stated, prices are appreciably less than they were last August. If prices had been allowed to increase, apart from the effect upon industrial opinion—and I frankly admit that that has influenced me and will again—the fact has to be faced that a consider- 149 able proportion of the population could not have afforded to buy the food which they needed even if it had been available.
Another reason for fixing prices, to which I would especially draw the attention of Lord Lamington, is that maximum prices are a necessary prelude to rationing. His suggestion was, I think, that now that we are going to have rationing, it is not necessary to have fixed prices. Quite the reverse is the case. You cannot ration meat unless you control the distribution of it, and you cannot control distribution unless you are able to make it equally advantageous to the farmer to sell for consumption in one town as in another. Consequently, fixed prices are necessary, and no rationing scheme could last a week if producers were able to reserve their supplies for richer districts, which were able to pay higher prices. One district would get all it needed, while another would starve. I recognise to the fullest extent that in fixing minimum prices it was essential to do so at a figure that would not diminish supplies, but would leave sufficient stimulus for production. That is a consideration which I had constantly in mind, and I maintain that there is no justification for the assertion that the food shortage is due to prices fixed by my Department, or for the suggestion which is involved—namely, that higher prices would have sensibly increased the amount of food available.
I will try not to weary your Lordships, but this is an important matter, and I am sure you would like all the information, and to know—you may not agree with them—what are the grounds upon which I have acted, and what are the arguments that I can bring forward in support of the action that I have taken. Let me first deal with the points generally, and afterwards state the case of particular commodities, to substantiate what I have just now stated. My submission is that maximum prices fixed in this country have not affected the quantity of imported food. The limiting factors in determining our imports are first and foremost tonnage, and secondly exchange. So far as the foodstuffs mentioned by Lord Chaplin are concerned, we have purchased abroad every ton we could ship and for which finance was available.
§ LORD RHONDDA
All that was available at any price, except in the matter of finance, I have purchased. If the price in this country had been twice as high, the only difference would have been that the foreign producer or middleman in foreign countries would have been able to demand a so much higher price, and it would have been correspondingly difficult to find the exchange to pay for it. It would not have affected the number of ships available to bring the food into this country. At the risk of repeating some of the arguments, I would like to say this, that the increased price for meat would not necessarily have increased the supply of home-produced food. At the time that the check to price was applied last year it was rapidly becoming more profitable to slaughter cows to produce meat than to keep them to produce milk. It was also becoming more profitable to feed grain to animals than to preserve it for human consumption. If the price of meat had been allowed to rise the production of milk would have been considerably diminished, and the grain which will be urgently needed for human consumption before summer is out would have been fed to animals from which the farmer expected to make a higher profit than from grain which was needed for bread. The only effective way to increase milk production was to import more cattle feeding-stuffs, but this we could not do, not because of price, but because the ships that were available were wanted for grain. The number of dairy cattle according to the December census has been mentioned. That census, to my mind, must be accepted with considerable reservation, because it was taken in particular circumstances, and I do not think it is strictly comparable with the census taken by the Board of Agriculture in previous years. The supply of milk has only been diminished proportionately to the diminished quantity of imported food-stuffs, as the result of conditions over which neither I nor the Government can exercise any control. There have been local shortages, but no serious general shortage, but if the rise in the price of meat had been allowed to continue the effect upon milk production might have been disastrous.
Now I come to the consideration of the particular items mentioned by Lord Chaplin in the preamble of his indictment against me. I should like to say this, that I think any one listening to the noble Viscount without; knowledge of the circum- 151 stances obtaining in other countries would have been led to imagine that this was the only country in which scarcity existed. But that is very far from being the case, and I would ask noble Lords to bear this in mind—that the position of this country is rather exceptional in normal times. Whereas other belligerent and neutral countries are largely self-suppliers, this country in normal times is dependent for two-thirds of its food requirements upon importation overseas. Take the particular commodities alluded to in Lord Chaplin's Motion. Even leaving out the belligerent countries there is a shortage in most countries in milk, butter, and bacon. It cannot have been my action in fixing maximum prices which has created shortages in every belligerent and neutral country to-day. In Holland, for instance, the shortage of milk is expected to last another three or four months. In Norway there was a serious shortage in November and December. In Stockholm butter was rationed at the end of last year at 1¾ ounces per head per week, and even that could only be obtained, if obtained at all, with great difficulty in December. With respect to bacon, everywhere there has been a great reduction in the number of pigs. The stock in Denmark, according to reports, has fallen to under one-half of what it was in the year before the war. There are complaints of shortage and scarcity outside Europe. Even in the United States there are complaints of scarcity of milk. With regard to meat the scarcity has been and is being checked by heavy slaughtering, and decreases in the live stock have occurred in many countries. It may be pointed out that reports from Italy state that herds are down by 25 per cent. and the weight of cattle down by something like another 25 per cent. In Germany we know that the meat ration is only one half of what we propose in this country. Notwithstanding reduction, our ration will be on an average something like one half of what it was in pre-war time. The ration in Germany is on an average only about half a pound, and your Lordships know that in the case of many artificial foods the Germans are doing their best to provide substitutes. As to Austria, my information is that the position there is a good deal worse.
The noble Viscount has corrected his preamble and withdrawn poultry and game. The prices of poultry and game have gone up very heavily, but, as he has since discovered, that cannot be due to my 152 action because I have not fixed prices for poultry and game. The price of fresh eggs always goes up in the winter. It has gone up to an enormous extent this winter, but there again I have not attempted to fix the price. Here is rather a curious illustration—the case of jam and marmalade—which may be given when we descend to details of this kind. The price of jam was fixed, and yet jam remains relatively plentiful, while the price of marmalade was not fixed till January and in the autumn it was much scarcer than jam.
Now I propose to take the articles in detail. In the case of milk the future prices were fixed in November, 1916. The shortage which exists in this country is by no means uniform, and there are indications that it is passing. Moreover, a relative scarcity is usually to be expected in the winter months. Shortage in milk supply could in no case be due to the prices fixed shortly before. I think the noble Viscount will admit that. With regard to the cows that are in full profit and which recently calved no blame can be attached to any action of mine at any rate during the last nine months, because I only came into office about eight and a-half months ago. It should be noted that in any ease the action of the Ministry since June could not possibly have had any effect on the present supply. In the case of butter I would point out that the butter imports of July, 1917, were down to about one quarter or one-fifth of the pre-war amounts. That cannot have been due to any action taken by me as Food Controller, seeing that I only came into office in July. The prices were fixed on August 31, and the September imports were heavier than those of August. Butter began to be scarce even in the first week of September—that is before the Orders could possibly have had any effect. It is important to note that the use of milk as such and its utilisation for dried milk has been deliberately preferred to its utilisation in the manufacture of butter. The prices were fixed—I do not know whether I am using the right expression—at such a parity that we discouraged in the winter months the production of butter at home, because milk was the most valuable form of food, and we did not want to have the milk or any part of the cream converted into butter.
I hope I am not wearying the House, but I want to go as fully into this matter as I can. The noble Viscount laid special emphasis on the position of butter, and 153 suggested that owing to the maximum prices I had fixed large quantities of butter that would otherwise have come into the country were kept out. This is the position. This is the note I have had prepared for me on that point. The maximum price, which is the selling price for the retailer, is an average price fixed on the average price of butter which we import from all parts of the world. It is therefore absolutely incorrect to suggest that the import of butter from markets where the price is higher has stopped because of our maximum price. In fact, we are importing from France all the French butter that is available at the market price prevailing in France. The quantity at this moment is not very high, because the butter supplies in France are at their lowest ebb. The French season runs from April onwards, much as it does in this country, and as soon as more butter is available we shall buy it on the best terms we can. Similarly we are buying all the Dutch butter that the Dutch Government will allow us to buy, and we are paying—well, I do not want to give prices. I do not think it would be in the public interest to do so, but I shall be very glad to give them to any noble Lord who wishes to have them. I may say we are paying a great deal more than 252s. per cwt., winch is the figure in this country on which our selling price is based. Similarly with regard to Denmark, we have offered to buy all the Danish batter that the Danish Government are prepared to let us have. The view of the Butter Committee is that it is their duty to get all the butter they can into the country and at the same time to do so at the cheapest price. I think that is a business proposition, and to suggest that the best way to do that is to let the price here take care of itself is a policy of despair and one which in practice would not bring an additional pound of butter to this country. The quantity of butter that we can get is limited, and limited only, by two considerations—the amount of shipping available and the amount of butter which Colonial, Allied, and neutral Governments are prepared to let us have. We bought the whole quantity available under these conditions. We bought the whole surplus supply in New Zealand and Australia. I do not think it is in the public interest to give the actual price, but I should, as I say, be pleased to give any noble Lord who takes an interest in the subject the particular price in any case.
154 The noble Lord (Lord Lamington) has referred to a letter written by Lord Strachie in The Times. I am sure Lord Strachie would not intentionally do anything against the public interest. I had thought of answering the letter, but I came to the conclusion that the less publicity that was given to it the better. I am sure the noble Lord did not mean to embarrass, in any kind of way, my Department in the course of our negotiations with Foreign Governments, and I wish he had come to me at the Department when I could have told him all that he wanted to know. We are working—that is, the Food Department, in the limelight. I question whether there was ever a Department which is more frank and ready to give all the information possible having regard to the public interest, or more free from red-tape. And another time I hope Lord Strachie will come round to me and ask for information. I think I could tell him all that he wanted to know. We were paying a considerably higher price, getting all the butter that is available, and all the surplus the Government will allow us to purchase, from Denmark and Holland. Then we average the price. It is upon that that the average price is based, but it is not an indication of the prices we are prepared to pay in order to get all the possible supply of butter into the country that we can.
In respect to cheese, your Lordships will recollect that the price was fixed by an Order of May 29, and 20,000 tons more were imported during the year 1917 than during the year 1916. Home prices were fixed on August 31, too late to effect, in the main, the home production of cheese. The prices of Dutch cheese were fixed in December, and in January the imports from Holland were 1,000 tons more than in any month during the year 1917. There, again, I maintain that in fixing prices we did not in any kind of way restrict imports. Now with regard to bacon. The price of bacon was settled by a trade arrangement in the spring. No maximum price was fixed, but we were in constant consultation with a business committee of the trade. When the price was fixed by the Food Controller, in the latter part of the year, there was an increase in the importation over the maximum which had been referred to in the arrangement. The demands of the Army for bacon were 50 per cent. more in 1917 than in 1916, and the June census of bacon, taken by the Board of Agriculture, showed that the stocks from June, 155 1916, to June, 1917, had fallen by one-sixth. The scarcity of bacon is due to two causes—first, the short imports, which is largely due to the world's shortage in bacon; and, secondly, to a reduction in the home supply of bacon. In pre-war times 70 per cent. of our requirements of bacon were imported from abroad, mostly from Scandinavia. The blockade has largely interfered with that, and now we are getting the bulk of such bacon as we do import—I am glad to think it is rather more plentiful and the prospects rather brighter than they were a month ago—from the United States.
The noble Viscount referred to his experience in the rearing of pigs, and told us that a sow, which littered twice a year, might possibly produce forty pigs in the course of a year. I keep pigs myself, but I have never had a sow which produced anything like that number of pigs in a year. It might be that a sow would produce half that number. The present position cannot be due to any action on my part. The number of sows for breeding purposes, according to the Board of Agriculture census—and I am taking the census for June and not that for December—showed that the number had fallen by 64,900, roughly 65,000, or 15 per cent., between June of last year and the June of the year before. That obviously must have led to a reduction in the number of young pigs produced later on. Sows constituted about 11½ per cent. in 1916 of the total number of pigs in the country. The noble Viscount must know that any shortage in the home production in bacon at the present time cannot be due to any action I have taken, because I did not take any action until August last, and having regard to the period of gestation and the time it takes to produce bacon after the pig is born, it cannot be put at less than twelve months. Therefore any action which may result from my fixing prices of bacon cannot take effect until August of this year.
§ LORD RHONDDA
I do not think that remark is quite relevant. I do not know whether the House wants me to go into the history of my actions with regard to pig-breeding since I took office. I have it here. I can only say that I think we 156 should do all we possibly can to encourage pig-breeding just as we should do all we can to increase the production of potatoes. I am entirely in agreement with the noble Viscount on that, but where he would probably differ from the Board of Agriculture would be that, whereas the breeding of pigs is to be encouraged, they should not be fattened with food that may be used for human consumption. I express no opinion on that matter, but that is the view of the Board of Agriculture. In the second six months of last year the number of pigs slaughtered in public slaughter-houses showed a decrease of 32 per cent. There was a shortage of home-produced bacon during the second six months of last year, but that cannot in any way be due to any action taken by the Ministry of Food during my time, or during the time of my predecessor, Lord Devonport. Now I come to the more important question of the charge brought against me by the noble Viscount in respect of meat and the fixing of prices.
§ LORD RHONDDA
Yes, the slaughter of immature cattle as a consequence of fixing a falling scale of prices. I think that is the charge he brings against me. I will deal with it now. The noble Viscount has charged me with the national sin of having fixed a scale of prices which has led to the slaughter of immature beasts on a very large scale, and in that way wasted the food of the nation. It is not the first time that the charge has been brought against me, and the noble Viscount has now repeated the fable. I do not think that he is in the circumstances justified in saying that I was responsible for the falling scale in meat prices. I explained very fully in this House some six months ago that that policy was initiated—
I said that it was the present scale of prices that you were responsible for. I said that there had been a previous scale, but that that had been abandoned, and that the prices you were responsible for were the present scale, and above all the price of 60s.
§ LORD RHONDDA
I think that I shall be within the recollection of the House when I say that the noble Viscount laid great and repeated emphasis on the fall in the scale of prices, and said that farmers 157 could not be expected to keep their cattle at an increased cost when they could get a higher price by selling them at once, if they were fit to be killed. That is at any rate the charge that I propose to answer first. I maintain that I cannot be held responsible for the adoption of the principle of the descending scale of prices through the autumn. This principle was recommended to the Cabinet by a joint Inter-Departmental Committee composed partly of officials of the Board of Agriculture, which was set up before I came into office and reported to the Cabinet very shortly after I came into office. So far from being responsible for the descending scale, as explained fully in the House six months ago, within the hearing of the noble Viscount, I endeavoured at once to alter it. I felt that the principle was an unsound one, and what I suggested in its place was a fixed price, and that the State—the noble Viscount and Lord Selborne and Lord Lamington will agree with me here I dare say—in fixing the price, necessarily an arbitrary one, should meet by a subsidy the losses which it would involve to those farmers who had paid high prices for their store cattle in the spring. I pressed that view, but I had to admit, on the evidence of the Board of Agriculture and of my own staff, that at that time it was not practicable, because we had not set up the machinery which we have to-day for dealing with cattle and for grading and fixing the prices, if necessary, throughout the country. It might be done to-day, but it was not practicable then to ascertain the value of each animal, and consequently to ascertain what the losses would have been. Therefore on that occasion—I wish to draw the attention of the noble Viscount particularly to this—I took the advice of the Board of Agriculture, which was also in that case the advice of my own Department. I was new to the work and did not realise the difficulties at first. The theory of the Board of Agriculture was that with the certainty of diminishing foodstuffs a reduction in our herds before the winter was essential.
I should like here to give the noble Viscount the opinion of my colleague Mr. Prothero, set out in a very interesting letter which was rend in August of last year. I propose to read rather a full extract from it because it is very interesting, and, as I think the House will agree, exceedingly valuable. It is necessary, 158 moreover, to remind the noble Viscount of what Mr. Prothero said at that time.
§ LORD RHONDDA
August, 1917. I will read the letter as it appeared in the Mark Lane Express in August, 1917. It was read at a meeting of agriculturists. After pointing out the valuable national asset that livestock was to this country, and the desirability in normal times of increasing it, Mr. Prothero went on to say—In consequence the farmers feel that no large demand for meat should be drawn for the Army from home sources, because such an addition to the normal demands must inevitably result in a reduction in our flocks and herds. I need not say that from the point of view of agriculture I am in complete sympathy with these opinions, but when I consider the national necessity and the situation forced upon us by the war—I say this, that I would agree with many of the noble Viscount's arguments if they were put forward in a time of peace, but the noble Viscount cannot get out of the habit of discussing war conditions in peace terms—I am bound to tell you that we must act on other lines. For three years, in spite of the enormous drain on our resources, and in spite of the world-shortage of supplies, and in spite of the German submarine, we have maintained our flocks and herds at an even higher level than in the days of peace. We alone amongst the belligerents have been able to do this. Both our Allies and our enemies have long had to make enormous encroachments upon their home supplies. Now, however, the time has come when, for a few months at least, we, too, are compelled to embark upon the same path, and for the first time to feed a portion of our Army on home-grown meat. This action is not taken by choice, but is forced upon us by the exigencies of war.Neither Mr. Prothero nor myself are in any way responsible for that policy, except by concurring in it—I refer to the policy of slaughtering beasts for Army purposes. Mr. Prothero went on to say that prime beef is no longer economical for the country at large. The last stages of fattening are the most expensive in food in the sense that more food, and especially more concentrated food in the form of cake is consumed in making a pound of human food in the later than in the earlier stages of fattening. All these things bear upon the arguments used by the noble Viscount in the course of his speech. Mr. Prot item went on—As soon as a maximum price is fixed for beef (and broad national considerations compel the imposition of a fixed price) then the farmer cannot realise his extra return for prime quality, and he 159 must begin to lose money as soon as the animal ceases to make those increases in weight for the food consumed which are attained in the early stages of fattening. The nation can no longer afford prime beef, and it certainly will not pay the farmer to make prime beef at second quality prices. Secondly, I must warn you again of the increased and increasing shortage of food-stuffs. However little we like it, we must accept the fact that the needs of the war and the work of enemy submarines have so reduced the tonnage available that none can be spared for cattle food. It is not a question of agricultural policy, nor of the wishes of the farmer to carry on his business in the way that he knows is best for it. It is the stern stress of the war to which every single industry, whether of an industry or of an individual, must be subordinated.There Mr. Prothero expressed what I have said in rather different language.
There is just one other quotation that I would like to make, but the whole letter is so exceedingly interesting that I would recommend it to the attention ot the noble Viscount. I think that the quotation which I am now going to snake has some bearing on prices It is—The levels to which prices have been rising this year are not only a danger to the State but a danger to the continued prosperity of agriculture, in that they are setting a bitter and indiscriminate current in public opinion against all farmers.
§ LORD RHONDDA
I dare say I have had a good many. I have had two or three a day sometimes. But does the noble Viscount suggest that Mr. Prothero has changed his opinion, or has changed his attitude since that time? If so, I should be glad to know. In fixing all these prices the best available evidence was obtained as to the cost of production and as to the parity costs of milk and grain. They formed the subject of discussion between the Board of Agriculture and the Food Controller's Department and the War Office, which was concerned in the price of cattle for the Army, and the War Cabinet ultimately confirmed the agreement arrived at by representatives of the various Departments.
The noble Viscount asked me some questions as to the number of immature cattle that had been killed. I very much regret that I have not the actual figures before me, but I can give some from memory. The suggestion that there has been a serious slaughter of immature cattle is hardly borne out by the census figures, which show in all cases a low percentage of reduction 160 in the size of our herds. Between December, 1916, and December, 1917, the amount of decrease in the case of cattle was 5 per cent., and in the case of sheep 8 per cent. This decrease, however, it must be borne in mind, falls upon the killable animals, and, occurring at a time when imports of refrigerated meat have fallen off and requirements have greatly increased, has accentuated the shortage. The requirements for Allied Armies in 1917 were 17 per cent. greater than in 1916. The supply available for civilians fell 75 per cent. from 1913 to 1917. The real trouble with regard to meat is the lack of imported feeding stuff. The House must bear in mind that out of every 100 tons of meat that we consume 40 tons were imported in pre-war times. At the present time the quantity of beef available for civilian consumption is practically nil. I wish to reiterate that this reduction of imported meat was independent of all price considerations. It was due solely to the fact that we had not enough ships to bring the meat here.
Now in regard to Army slaughtering. When in the autumn the rate of slaughtering was seen to be high, it was proposed to restrict the rate of slaughtering by butchers to three-fourths of that which had prevailed a little time previously—the end of August and September. An Order for this purpose was drafted in my Department, but abandoned in deference to the wish of the Board of Agriculture. I mention this as an instance showing how unwarrantable is the charge, made constantly by the noble Viscount, that we do not consult the Board of Agriculture. In view of the fact that immature animals were being slaughtered, and that cattle were being slaughtered on a large scale—I watch the figures of slaughtering very, very closely every week; I will not say what part of the week they occupy, but they occupy generally an hour of my time towards the week-end—
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
I never made a charge against the noble Lord that he never consulted the Board of Agriculture. What I did say was that the President of the Board of Agriculture did not agree with him in the scale of prices fixed now. That is all I said.
§ LORD RHONDDA
No; I think it will be agreed that the general impression conveyed, not only to-day but in other speeches that the noble Viscount has made, 161 is that I do not consult the Board of Agriculture, and never accept the advice of the Board of Agriculture.
§ LORD RHONDDA
In this case, as in the adoption of a scale of prices, we followed the advice of the Board of Agriculture. I have not the figures of the slaughtering, but I have a fairly good memory for figures, if for nothing else, and I think I am right in saying that the whole number of cattle slaughtered last year, apart from calves, was 2,622,000 as against 2,532,000 in 1916. There was an increase for the whole of the year of 90,000 head of cattle slaughtered. That increase largely took place in the last three months of the year. And it was when I saw that the slaughterings were going up so rapidly in October that I had this Order ofafted making provision for a restriction dr killing by butchers to three-quarters of their August or September killing. In the last three months of the year—again I am speaking from memory—my impression is that the increase, apart from the Army slaughtering, was somewhere between 10 and 12 per cent. There is always a seasonal increase; but as compared with the corresponding period of last year there was an increase of from 10 to 12 per cent. Anyhow, the net result is that the number of cattle in this country in December, according to the census, was about 5 per cent. less than it was in the previous year.
The noble Viscount has asked me how many animals were killed for Army purposes. When I came into office it was contemplated that 250,000 second-grade animals should be killed for Army purposes, in order to enable us to get a large supply for the Army and to make our position impregnable in that direction in the event of anything that might happen in the course of the submarine warfare. Out of the 250,000 contemplated, 75,000 only were killed.
§ LORD RHONDDA
Yes. I am not pretending to give the exact figure, but I think it is within 1,000 either way of 75,000. Those animals would produce 53 or 54 per cent. dead weight.
§ LORD RHONDDA
I cannot tell you. I have given the total number killed in all stages of condition As a matter of fact, I should say their condition would be very largely a matter of opinion, but undoubtedly the animals that were killed contained on the average less beef than was the case in the previous year. We had not the feeding-stuffs, and no doubt the farmers killed their cattle early because of the shortage in that direction, and because of the high prices obtainable. The noble Viscount suggests in his Motion that, in view of what I think he described last time as "the dismal failure" of myself in my office, the work of fixing prices should be transferred to the Board of Agriculture. The suggestion that the Board of Agriculture should be responsible for fixing prices cannot be admitted.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
I beg the noble Lord's pardon. If he will read my Motion he will find that it is based entirely upon production. Any powers vested in him "by which he can affect production" should be transferred to the Board of Agriculture.
§ LORD RHONDDA
Quite so; I fully understand. What I said was my interpretation of the noble Viscount's language. The actual words of the noble Viscount's Motion are—that any powers vested in his [the Food Controller's] Department by which the production of food can be affected should be transferred to the Board of Agriculture, and be subject to the control of that Board alone.I think that is substantially what I said, and it is certainly what I intended to convey. The suggestion that the Board of Agriculture should be responsible for price fixing cannot be admitted. The consumer is as much concerned as the producer in the fixing of prices. If the agricultural interest is to fix its own prices, what answer is to be made to the consumers in the towns when they complain, as they have complained—I think without sufficient grounds—that the agriculturists are profiteering at their expense? The principle that the producer should fix prices is one which, if applied to agriculture, would also have to be applied to the producer of munitions, to the producer of Army boots 163 and clothing, and to the producer of fertilisers and feeding-stuffs, etc., which the farmer buys and which are now controlled in his interest. I think the noble Viscount would have considerable difficulty in explaining to an East-end audience or to the Consumers Council that it is in the interest of the nation that agricultural products should not be controlled in price.
§ LORD RHONDDA
The prices of agricultural produce in this country cannot be fixed without reference to the effect on the probable import of food from overseas, and taking into account the probable effect of the prices paid to the English farmer. The Food Controller's Department is the only Department which has any information with regard to relative needs of different classes of food-stuffs, and which can, therefore, adjust prices accordingly. Further, the Food Department has to take into account the effect of prices fixed here on the prices which the Colonials will ask, particularly in dealing with Ireland. Such a matter as this is entirely outside the province of the Board of Agriculture. We cannot dissociate the fixation of prices from the method of marketing, nor can we dissociate the method of marketing from the arrangements for distribution. On distribution rationing must depend. To divide up the responsibility would merely double the difficulties.
It was pointed out by Mr. Prothero in the House of Commons on February 14 that the responsibility of the President of the Board of Agriculture does not extend to Scotland and to Ireland. Consequently, if the proposal of the noble Viscount is to be carried out, you would have three price-fixing authorities for the United Kingdom, all of whom would have no responsibility as to price to the consumer, and would be subject mainly to pressure for the increase of prices. The present arrangement is working satisfactorily and secures full consultation with the other Departments, whilst retaining the full responsibility of the Food Controller for the prices which the consumer is compelled to pay. No Order is made until the matter has been thrashed out in detail by a Joint Committee composed of officers of the Food Controller's Department and of the three Boards of Agriculture. If the heads of the Depart- 164 ments disagreed on a matter of importance I should take it to the War Cabinet, where it would be settled.
I am sorry that I have kept your Lordships so long, but I wanted to try and meet the arguments put forward by the noble Viscount. I would like to say this in conclusion. The task of fixing prices is especially difficult and anxious in the case of agricultural commodities owing to the diversity of practice and cost throughout the country, but the suggestion implied by the noble Viscount's Resolution and speech, that prices have been fixed so low that farming is no longer a paying proposition, is notoriously wide of the mark. Everybody familiar with agricultural conditions knows that farming has paid better under war conditions than ever before within memory, and that farmers made more money in the first three years of this war than they could ever have hoped to make. The profits since have been, of course, less, but still in the great majority of cases they exceed the pre-war profits. It is rather curious that, notwithstanding the fact that prices were fixed months ago for fat cattle, farmers are still prepared to pay what appear to be extravagant prices for store cattle. Land is continually rising in value, and farmers are always anxious to purchase their own farms, even at high prices, whenever they have an opportunity to do so. And I do not blame them. These facts afford no indication at all that farmers are not making profits.
I do not suggest for one moment that farmers are now being over-paid for their produce, but I am satisfied that they are not on the whole being under-paid. Furthermore, I have sufficient faith in the patriotism of the large majority of them, and in their appreciation of the national need, to feel confident that they will not thank the noble Viscount for his suggestion that, in order that the may do their duty to their country in this emergency, it is necessary to offer them heavy bribes at the expense of the community or of the consumer in the towns. The maintenance of production depends upon a number of factors, of which price is only one. The farmer's appreciation of the needs of the country, his realisation of the extreme difficulty of controlling food supplies save at the expense of considerable inconvenience to all interests concerned, and the continual encouragement he should receive from those to whom he looks for guidance, are 165 as important as the price which is paid for his commodities. The fanner is not alone in these days in having to submit to necessary interference and inconvenience. Whenever he understands the situation he responds readily, but speeches designed to magnify the farmer's inconvenience and to encourage him to grumble at this or that disability which war conditions impose on him speeches which appeal to cupidity rather than to patriotism constitute the worst public service that any man can render in the life and death struggle in which this country is involved to-day.
§ LORD RHONDDA
I have detained the House so long that, if the noble Lord will allow me, I will hand him this note, which contains the answer.
THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE EARL OF CRAWFORD)
My Lords, I think that probably the course suggested would be I convenient, because there are a number of noble Lords who wish to speak on this subject. Lord Aberconway's Questions, however, might be put in order to suit the noble Lord's convenience, and they are not likely to give rise to a discussion.
§ On Question, further Debate adjourned until to-morrow.