§ THE EARL OF KIMBERLEY (on behalf of LORD HINDLIP) rose to ask His Majesty's Government "whether, in order to prevent the price of the hay crop of 1919 rising to a very high figure, which would increase the cost of production of milk and meat and of all agricultural operations and would seriously affect the cost of feeding horses, etc., in towns, they will fix a price for hay, fair to producer and consumer, leaving the control of distribution alone and abandoning any idea of commandeering any portion of the crop, as any such action would further increase the cost of hay to the consumer."
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am a sort of deputy deputy. Lord Hindlip asked Lord Stanhope yesterday to put this Question for him, but Lord Stanhope was unable to attend to-day, and consequently I have been asked to put it. It is a subject about which we may talk a great deal. If you do not place some price upon hay, I very much doubt whether it will not go to a tremendous price. Farmers really need hay, because there is a bad crop and it must be got.
§ There is one question which arises out of this, of which I would ask Lord Somerleyton to take note. It is this. There are some people, including my-self, who still hold hay upon which the Government have put a mark. They put it on mine on October 18 last year, but they have never taken any of the hay, which now remains where it was. I asked whether I could be given it, because I could very well do with it. I said that if I had any I would sell it at the same price which the Government put upon it—namely, £7 a ton. The answer, which I have in my pocket, is that the hay has gone out of the control of the War Office and is now in the hands of the county authorities, who can do what they like.
§ The Government never paid a deposit, and I Should like to know, if they take this hay at £7 a ton, that they are not going to sell it to the public at £12 or £14 or £15 a ton. They ought to sell it at a fair distribution price, and then the public will get the advantage of my haystack at the lower price. If not, they should give me the increased price. But I do not want the increased price. I mention this matter because I think it is only fair that they should not make a large profit out of the hay. Nobody knows better than I do that by the time the hay reaches the consumer 1048 it has gone through numerous channels and the price has gone up very high. I think that very likely hay ought to be protected. I am told to apply again. If I had any hay over, I would sell it at exactly the price that they give to cart any of it away. I do not think you ought to charge more. That is a point that ought to be taken into consideration because hay is open to very large profiteering.
§ LORD SOMERLEYTON
My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Hindlip, who put down this Question, for the kind way in which he has postponed it at my request. I was most anxious to give a full answer, and I have been unable until to-day to obtain a reply. In fact, some of it has only reached me in the last minute. The various factors in the problem were discussed in the House of Lords on July 10. There is still considerable reason for anxiety as to whether the supplies of hay that are likely to be available for distribution in the next twelve months from either home or foreign sources will prove sufficient to meet requirements. But there would be serious and legitimate objection to the continuance during the coming year of a rigid system of control on the lines of that which has hitherto prevailed.
The Government have no present intention of either commandeering or of controlling the distribution of 1919 hay, and they sincerely hope that circumstances will not arise to render necessary recourse to either of these expedients. The Government will, however, maintain a careful watch over the whole hay position, and should prices at any time soar to an unreasonable level they will consider carefully the advisability of fixing maximum prices, as suggested by the noble Earl. The Board of Trade will have powers to fix prices under the provisions of the Profiteering Bill. The Government are not, however, of the opinion that the need for fixing prices has as yet arisen.
The general danger that the fixing of prices may diminish supply is of special importance in the case of a commodity like hay, of which the farmers are not only the producers but the principal consumers, and which competes as a feeding-stuff with other commodities, which this year are very expensive to obtain. In these circumstances, if the price of hay was fixed now at a relatively low figure there is a real danger that an even smaller margin would come into the market for 1049 general consumption than may be expected under free conditions. For these reasons, the Government do not propose immediately to fix maximum prices for hay, though they will continue to watch the position very closely
Complaints have been made that in the administration of the control of the 1918 crop middlemen have been able in many cases to make exorbitant profits, while farmers' profits were limited to a very low figure. But in fact middlemen's charges were fixed just as rigidly as the farmers' prices. A schedule of charges was drawn up which allowed a margin of only 27s. per ton to cover all the charges of wholesalers and retailers, from the stock to the consumer, excepting only transport charges, which of course varied in each case. It is no doubt possible that in certain cases wholesalers or retailers made excessive charges by misdescribing the quality of the hay purchased. But such cases involved a definite breach of the law, rendering the offender liable to penalties, and they were certainly not common.
It has also been complained that distributors took illegitimate advantage of the provision by which they were allowed to make certain additional charges for small deliveries (of less than 10 cwt.). But it was expressly provided that they could not make such extra charges for a number of small deliveries made against a large order—that is, for more than 10 cwt.—whatever the reason might be, whether "owing to a shortage of supplies" or other reasons. I am quoting the Order. Any "profiteering" under this head, therefore, must also have involved a breach of the law, and cannot have been common.
As regards the future, should the prices of 1919 hay be controlled at any time this would clearly involve, as in the past, control over the distributors' charges. The way in which this should be done would naturally be considered at the time when the question of fixing prices arises. The Profiteering Bill is designed to give the Government powers to control the charges of the middlemen as well as those of the farmers. I do not know whether I have answered all the points raised by the noble Earl, but I can go further into the question of the 1918 hay and enumerate the arrangements at length if he wishes me to do so.
§ LORD SOMERLEYTON
Then I will not trespass any longer on your Lordships' time to-day. I trust that the answer I have given will be satisfactory to the noble Lord who put the Question. If any further information is desired, I shall be glad to give it.