I beg to move,
That, in view of the present serious position, it is desirable that a Royal Commission be forthwith appointed to inquire into the economic position of the industry, and to ascertain what measures are necessary to encourage agriculture and to enable it permanently to pay a reasonable wage to the people employed, and that in the constitution of such commission representation be given to all interests concerned.
Having been successful in the ballot, I rise to make my maiden speech and I ask the indulgence of the House. I move this Resolution since I represent a purely agricultural constituency and I make no apology for doing so, because I think that it is within the remembrance of this House that so far, in spite of various attempts, we have been unable to extract from the Government
any agricultural policy. I remember quite well on the second day that this House assembled putting a question on this very subject to the Prime Minister. The Leader of the House replied to my inquiry and said that it was premature and apparently it is premature now, because ever since that date, in spite of repeated attempts, we have made no headway at all in finding a solution to this all-important problem.
Since that date a large number of hon. Members have asked similar questions. Various agricultural debates have taken place but all to no purpose, and the utmost that we have accomplished is to get from the Government a promise that they will overhaul the Department of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. They have promised to thoroughly overhaul the machinery of that Department and bring it up to date, and put it on a sound business footing. I assume that that is being done, but I should like to hear from the hon. and gallant Member for Dudley (Sir A. Boscawen) exactly what progress is being made in that direction. I cannot forget a very important resolution on this very question which was sent to me a few weeks ago from the Berks and Oxford shire Chamber of Commerce, and I will read it to the House:
That this meeting of the Berks and Oxford Chamber feels that the present Board of Agriculture is, as regards many important matters connected with agriculture, both powerless and inefficient, and calls upon the Government to immediately reorganise the same, giving it sufficient power to carry out its proper functions.
However, since we have a definite assurance from the Government that they are overhauling the machinery of this Department, I do not intend to dwell any further on that point, but I will now turn to the complete absence of any agricultural policy. Last March the hon. and gallant Member for Dudley, when replying to agricultural criticisms in this House, and apparently voicing the sentiments of his Department, made the following statement:
The difficulties of agriculture will be solved not by administrative machinery, although that may help a good deal, but by three things. Firstly, by wise estate management and judicious expenditure on the part of the owners; secondly, by skill and perseverence on the part of the cultivators; and thirdly, by industry on the part of the labourers, whom we all hope to see a contented and well paid class of labour. These are main considerations.
There is not much about policy in a statement of this nature, and I think that the agriculturists of this country will be inclined
to say, "Thank you for nothing." If I may use an expression of popular language to-day, the agriculturists of this country are "fed up," fed to the teeth, with the constant appeals to their patriotism, with the daily appeals to their intelligence, and appeals to their energy and industry. All this put together will not help to make the farms pay. Pious exhortations of this kind are no use to the farmers to-day, and what he really wants is a policy. These sort of appeals will not help to meet falling prices which are brought about by the wholesale importation of foreign cereals, nor will they place the farmers in a good enough position to enable them to pay the wages which are rising with such striking rapidity.
Before passing from this, I would like to say that the demands of the agricultural labourers have my entire sympathy, but how can this industry be called upon to pay those extra charges unless it is first of all in a flourishing condition. Any hon. Member of this house knows full well that you cannot run any business without a policy. It does not matter whether it is a great engineering or shipbuilding business, or a departmental stores, or even a one-man business. The first thing, if you want success is to formulate a policy, and unless that is done for this great industry of agriculture, which gives employment in this country to more people than any other industry, I really cannot see how the farmers can pay these big wages which they are asked to pay to-day. Let me turn to the last important speech made by the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. Some two or three weeks ago he addressed a large meeting of farmers at Taunton. His speech was full of warm and generous exhortations. It abounded with appeals. It was stuffed full and chock-block with sound advice, just as you would expect from a man of his ability and great experience; but the farmers were there hoping to hear a statement in regard to the Government's intentions, and they went away somewhat disappointed. I would like to read a short paragraph from his speech—
Well, now, I think the Government—I cannot tell you, I am sorry to say, with certainty—are prepared to prolong the period of the Corn Production Act, and to fix a minimum price so as to suit the new rates of wages which farmers are compelled to pay.
That, of course, was met with loud cheers. He then went on:
I believe that will be their policy. I am sure your chairman will understand what I mean
when I say that it will be postponed until we come to the Agricultural Vote in the House of Commons. I think, and he will correct me if I am wrong, that the Parliamentary Secretary has promised that the policy shall be definitely announced when the Agricultural Vote comes before the House.
Personally, I think that is a very wobbly speech. Let me just pick out one or two of his remarks. He starts off: "Well, now, I think." He then goes on, "I cannot tell you, I am sorry to say." Then, again, he says, "I think the Government are prepared." Bear in mind this is the President of the Board of Agriculture speaking. Later, he says, "I am sure the Chairman will understand what I mean." Again further he says, "I think, and he will correct me if I am wrong" There is nothing very positive about a statement of that nature. Then the Minister went on to deal with the prices of cereals for 1919. Anybody who knows anything at all about agriculture knows full well that you cannot run this industry by simply doling out your policy in penny packets. It is quite impossible. You must have a concrete policy, and what agriculture really needs is a statement embracing at least ten years. That will enable the farmer to look ahead. It will give the farmer a chance of arranging the rotation of his crops. It will enable him to see if it is possible to pay these increased wages. It will give him time to see if he can keep the present corn lands as they are, or whether he will have to turn them back to grass. Finally, it will give him an opportunity of finding out whether or not it is worth his while to remain in the industry. The existing uncertainty is disastrous. You find it manifested in what is taking place in all parts of the country, and in what is termed "the strike of farmers." Those are not my words; I take them from one of the daily papers. You find it in every county. Meeting after meeting is being held, and protest after protest is being made. I should be very glad indeed if the Board of Agriculture would tell us how many resolutions they have received. I have received dozens, and I should think that they must have received thousands.
I do not pretend to be an export in agricultural matters as a large number of hon. Members in this House. I am only a plain business man, but I maintain that it would be folly for me, or for that matter for any other hon. Member, to come to this House and denounce a state of affairs in any Department unless he is able to suggest a remedy. I have only waited for this opportunity,
because I have not been quite as fortunate as I should have liked in catching either Mr. Speaker's eye or that of his Deputy. I have, I believe I am quite right in saying, got up from twenty to twenty-five times, and I have given quite a lot of time to preparing what I thought to be very striking speeches. I therefore welcome this opportunity of being able at last to give the House my view how a policy should be found for this industry. It will be seen from my resolution that I recommend that a Royal Commission be set up forthwith to thoroughly investigate the whole of this industry. I do not mean a Royal Commission of the old type. I do not want your pre-war Royal Commission at all. I want a Royal Commission set up on business lines. We all know about the old Royal Commissions which used to take some three years to hear the evidence. I believe they took three years to write their reports and eventually their findings were pigeon-holed for the benefit of posterity. That is not what we want at all. This Commission must be set up at once. It must be presided over by a judge of the High Court. I lay great stress on that point. You must have a judge who is used to sifting evidence and who can expedite the proceedings of a commission of this nature. All parties interested must be represented. You must, I suppose, have the Government officials, you must have the landlords, you must have the tenant farmers, you must have the agricultural labourers, and the consumers also must be represented on that Royal Commission. It must have a definite order to report by a given date, just the same as the Royal Commission on the Coal Mines was instructed to report by a certain date. If that course were adopted—and personally I see no objection to it—the Royal Commission could report within two or three months' time, and then the farmers would be in a position in the autumn to know what to do in regard to their crops for the following year. As it is, the Government seems, perhaps quite rightly, to be labouring under the difficulty of not being able to adjust the various points of view, and, in order to bear out this statement, the House will, I hope, forgive me if I quote another short paragraph from the Noble Peer's speech. He said:
My great difficulty is that I never do get to know what the farmers have been thinking until something is done, and then I find it is not quite what they wanted.
Does not a confession of that kind, does not so candid an admission, point to the necessity of something being done to put the Noble Lord in a position to find out what the farmers are thinking about, and what their views are, before we enter on any new legislation? Does it not suggest that a great deal of the unrest in the country, which unfortunately is growing rather than diminishing, is called for? Do not hon. Members think it is about time that we tried to find a middle course—a course which would satisfy the natural aspirations of the masses in industrial centres for cheap food, which would also satisfy all the people employed on the land, and which would make certain that the people on the land had a chance of earning a decent livelihood It is high time we made a very strong effort to find such a course. It may be said that the agricultural interests do not want a Royal Commission. I do not expect they all do, but the minority which does not want a Commission is one composed of those who have the least need to be afraid of the future outlook. They are the larger and the wealthier farmers.
In the last two or three weeks meetings have been held in almost every county in this country, from one end of the land to the other, and all have voted in favour of the course which I now suggest. I am certain that the agricultural labourers in this country would welcome a Commission of this kind. They are keenly anxious for an opportunity of putting their side of the case before a responsible body. The agricultural interests of this country deserve consideration. They are often the victims of cheap sneers, but they played a very great part for the nation during the War. Their efforts, and when I say their efforts I mean the efforts of farmers and all the people employed on the land, played a great part in saving the people of this land from starvation, and I am sure that the work they did also played a very important part in bringing about ultimate victory. Are we going to revert to the position before the War? What did we find after the War had been on for some twelve or eighteen months? We found, much to our surprise, that we were almost wholly dependent on foreigners for bur food supplies. Are we going to revert to that position? I sincerely hope not. We should aim to place this country in such a position as regards its food supplies that if at any future date we should find ourselves in a similar position, at least we should have enough food in the country for our people. What we ought to aim at is British food for the British people. I therefore move my Resolution. It is always open to the Government at the last moment, as a sort of death-bed repentance, to come forward and say, "There is no need for a Royal Commission, as we have a policy." While I would welcome such an announcement, I must say I would sooner see the whole question threshed out by all parties interested, because I feel that if the course which I have suggested is adopted the Government will get very valuable information indeed. I hope therefore they will be able to satisfy my demand, which points to the only course left open, and I venture to say that if this all-important problem is not tackled at once and in a masterly manner, it may turn out to be one of the gravest problems of our time.
In seconding the Resolution which has been so eloquently proposed by my hon. and gallant Friend I am going to assume from answers I have received in this House, and also from inspired reports that have appeared in the Press in the last two or three days, that the Government propose to accede to the demand contained in the Motion. Therefore I will not detain the House by adducing any arguments beyond saying that no one who has followed the course of agricultural events during the last year or two can fail to realise that it would be absolutely impossible for any Government at the moment to adumbrate any policy which could satisfy the nation as a whole or the agricultural community in particular without a thorough investigation. It is difficult enough, as we heard this afternoon, in the financial field to devise any standard, but with the agricultural industry it is wholly impossible, from the point of view of labour and from the whole economic point of view, to either stabilise or standardise it at the moment. Therefore, I cannot join with my hon. and gallant Friend in holding up to scorn the Noble Lord who presides over the Board for not being able at this moment to produce a cut-and-dried policy. At the same time, the appointment of a Royal Commission is the only course that is now left open to the Government, and I believe, from my knowledge of the agricultural industry, that that would give nothing but satisfaction. During the last few days there has arisen an agitation in two or three counties in England owing to the decision of the Government to differentiate in the price allowed for milk in those counties from the price allowed in other counties. I do not know whether the field covered by the Commission is going to more than cover stock production and corn production. If it is also going to include milk production, I would ask my hon. Friend to defer examination of the whole question of milk production until such time as the Report of the Government Committee, over which it is my privilege to be deputy-chairman, is issued. I think I can promise my hon. Friend that our Report will be in the hands of the House within the next two or three weeks. It covers the whole field of milk production and distribution. The case is being examined, not only in this country, but with the Dominions. It might result in some overlapping if the Royal Commission started over the same field as that covered by the body whose conclusions will be in the hands of the House at an early date.
In regard to this Commission everything will depend on the constitution of the personnel. I hope that the Government is going to profit by the experience of the Coal Commission and that this Commission, when set up, will be so composed that it will make a really earnest effort to arrive, both from the national point of view and from the agricultural point of view, at the true economic conditions now prevailing in the industry, and that it is not going to be made a playground for every peculiar person to air his fads and fancies in a wholly unpractical way. The nation is now at the cross roads so far as agriculture is concerned. The real advantage of this Commission will be as an educational effort, because what we really suffer from is the absolute ignorance of the average man in the industrial area as to the very elements of the agricultural problem. If it can clearly show, in perfectly simple language, to the ordinary man in the street and in the industrial area, who merely looks upon it through the eyeglass of the consumer all the difficulties and intricacies of the most complicated and complex industry in this country, it will have more than justified its existence. It can only do that if it is composed of men of sufficiently open mind and, from the point of view of eliciting information, possessed of sufficient knowledge of the industry to examine and cross-examine witnesses in the sort of way that will contribute something to the information of the nation as a
whole. It is for the nation now to make up its mind whether it is or is not worth while carrying on this industry on an economic basis. It can only arrive at that decision if it has the case presented in such a way that the average man of ordinary intelligence who knows nothing about agriculture can say, "Yea" or "Nay," and can say, "On this evidence I am perfectly prepared to take the risk. We have had a great War, and so far as I am concerned I am prepared to take the risk that during my lifetime at any rate I shall not run the danger I have incurred during the last five years." If he takes that risk, all I would remark on that attitude is that any man who takes it is incurring a responsibility that I, for one, would certainly refuse to share—namely, the responsibility to his children and his children's children. He is also incurring a very grave responsibility in sharing in the benefits which during his lifetime have been won for him during the War, which he could not possibly have enjoyed had it not been for the efforts of the agricultural industry in this country. I would conclude by quoting some words which were used eighty-two years ago. They are so wholly true of the agricultural position to-day that, with the leave of the House, I will repeat them:
It is of the highest importance to the welfare of all classes of this country that care should be taken that the main sources of your supply of food should be derived from domestic agriculture. The additional price you may pay in effecting that object cannot be vindicated as a bonus or a premium to agriculture, but only on the ground of its being advantageous to the nation as a whole. It is to the interests of all classes of this nation that we should be paying occasionally a small additional sum upon our own domestic produce in order that we may thereby establish a security and an insurance against the calamities that would ensue if we became altogether or in a great part at any time dependent upon foreign countries for our supply.
Those words were used by Sir Robert Peel in this House eighty-two years ago. They appear to me to be so true to-day that, in seconding this Resolution, I commend them to the House.
In rising to address the House, for the first time, I hope I may have its indulgence, though I cannot promise anything in return very much except that I shall be as brief as is possible for a very nervous Member. I wish to join in the appeal which has been made for the setting up of a Royal Commission to inquire into this very important question. I am afraid in the old days an appeal of this nature would be construed to mean indifference, or it might be hostility. A Royal Commission in the past has more or less a stock Government sedative and a very convenient form of stifling all agitation by excess of official attention. I am not at all sure that many subjects have not been relegated to a Royal Commission for the same reason that an inconvenient Member has sometimes been elevated to another place, because both places have a reputation for comparative repose, where the wicked are supposed to cease from troubling, and where to a certain extent the weary are at rest. I think Royal Commissions are by way of embarking on very much more useful careers, and in this respect the recent and indeed present Royal Commission on coal has set a very important and I think very beneficial precedent. It has shown that it could sweep away all the dilatory traditions that attached to Royal Commissions in the past and that it could work very expeditiously, and that it could deal very exhaustively with a vast subject and could present a Report very quickly. That means in these days, too, that so much publicity is given to the proceedings that the public feel that they are more or less partners in the inquiry; while the fact that the Government has shown itself ready to put the recommendations into immediate operation quickens public interest and gives a deeper sense of responsibility to the Commissioners who are conducting the inquiry. It has been said that government by public meeting is a highly precarious form of government by Commission, but I think that we have arrived at a time when it is very desirable that we should have government partly by Royal Commissions. They are the only, or at least they are the best, methods by which we can gather together information which is absolutely essential. There are the munitions by which the Government is able to formulate its policy. In the old days I am afraid those munitions were turned out almost exclusively from party factories. I would particularly point out that it is a misfortune that the great question of agriculture has for so long been a subject of acute controversy, and I do think that a comprehensive inquiry, and an unbiassed inquiry, and an expert inquiry, would help to lift this great question from the arena of factious disputation and immensely strengthen the hands of the Government when they came to deal with it in a legislative manner. There are plenty of people outside this House, and very largely because they are outside this House, who would like to take advantage of every opportunity of weaking the authority and impairing the competence of this House in the eyes of the country. I cannot imagine anything which would contribute more powerfully to the maintenance and enhancement of the authority of this House than the conviction growing outside that the Government of the day and Parliament itself does not proceed to legislate on great questions until it has exhausted all the means at its disposal for gathering the facts and figures in connection with the subject. There are in this House, I believe, more parties than there have ever been before. They vary in size, and also, perhaps, in quality, and certainly in numbers, and I do not think it would be extravagant to say that they are not all equally important. But I think I may say there has never been a Parliament where there has been such a general amount of agreement on the main immediate legislative objectives, and I think it is in the best interests of the country and Parliament that we should do all that we possibly can to maintain and develop this unity of purpose and turn out useful legislation for the benefit of the nation. I come from an industrial district which is also concerned with agriculture, and there is this atmosphere of unrest surrounding us wherever we go. There are thousands of explanations of it, almost as many as there, are grievances, and that means a great many. But I think you can reduce the large majority of them to a feeling of distrust which is growing and spreading and hardening into bitter conviction that the working men and the workers generally of this country are being exploited in their lives and labour, in other words, that the share which falls to them of the fruits of their toil is a disproportionate one. That is the cause, I think, of this miasma of mistrust which is spreading everywhere, and I am absolutely convinced that nothing will dispel it permanently except the letting in upon it of the strong sunlight of the full knowledge of the facts which appertain to the situation. I would like to mention in this connection the recent coal crisis. I come from the heart of one of the largest mining areas of South Wales. What happened there? Before the Commission was set up, the men made a demand, and by an overwhelming majority they said they were prepared to go on strike to enforce that demand. The Coal Commission inquiry was held, and by an even more overwhelming majority they decided to accept the recommendations of the Royal Commission. What did that prove? It proved that what the men, the workmen of this country, wanted was not so much that their terms in their entirety should be granted, but to have the feeling, amounting, if possible, to a certainty, that they were getting what was just to them. That, I think, is the great lesson which the recent mining crisis and the Coal Commission brought.
I would appeal to the Government to set up a series of these Commissions. Let the searchlight of Royal Commissions play upon every nook and corner of our industrial system. Let everything be brought to light, and then, in the work of reconstruction, we shall not have any hidden places in our structure. I would point out that I am not making a new appeal. During the last four or five years Members appealed very frequently, and the appeal was made from the country generally, to the Government and to all those in authority, to tell them all the facts. In the darkest days of the War, and some of them were very dark, the spirit of the nation seemed to rise as its fortunes fell, and in the very darkest hours, when the gloomiest forebodings darkened the whole horizon, all they asked was, "Tell us the facts, tell us where we are, because we are afraid of nothing, provided we are facing realities and we know." I think that a country which came through that time of trial is prepared to face the problems of reconstruction with the same character and high spirit. That, I am convinced, is the path of wisdom. It is the way of safety, and it is the only road that leads to permanent peace in all our industrial conditions in town and country. In particular, I would appeal for greater consideration to this great industry of agriculture. We say in our reminiscent moments that it is our greatest and oldest industry, but its greatness has not saved it from frequent adversity, and its ancient days has not saved it from very grevious neglect in the past. There were signs of a revived interest in the industry before the War, and the present Prime Minister, if I remember rightly, started a campaign and inaugurated a programme to deal with the whole industry, when the War intervened. But everything that has happened since has strengthened the case for a reconsideration of the whole question. The hon. Member who moved this Motion spoke truly when he said that a large share in the defeat of the German submarine belongs to the agricultural community of these islands, from the landowner down to the farm labourers, men, women and children. No industry played its part with greater elasticity, with greater industry and with greater sacrifice. We have all in this House pledged our word and adjured our consciences that none of the men who risked all, and nearly lost everything, in the great adventure, shall for the rest of their days feel the pang of penury or distress.
I do not think it is more than common prudence to say that we ought to see to it that those industries which stood us in such good stead in the dark days when the nation was in great extremity should not be allowed to fall into decay. It appears to me that the legislative instalments of the reconstruction programme of the Government already passed through this House assume that we ought to have a progressive agricultural policy. There is, for instance, the Ways and Communications Bill. That is to set up a system of railways, motor service, and other means of getting about the country in order to link up the inaccessible places with the hives of industry. That more or less assumes that we are to have a revival of prosperity in agriculture. Then, again, the very best Health Bill in the world will be of little avail to ourselves unless we can be quite sure that the dwellers in cities and large towns shall be every now and again recruited from the ranks of the countryside. Take, further, the Land Settlement Bill and its complement, the Land Acquisition Bill. These are designed to provide opportunities for men to settle on the land in increased numbers. I think it would be the most heartless mockery to ask these men to go and settle on the land, to work hard and train themselves for the work, to sink their little capital in it, and then to turn round and say, "We do not believe the agricultural conditions of the future are such as to be able to afford you a comfortable livelihood:" I hope very much, therefore, that the terms of reference, if the Government have decided to set up a Royal Commission, will be as broad and as wide as possible. Let us include everything. I would go so far as to ask them particularly to put in the very vexed and difficult question of nationalisation. After all, nationalisation is in the air in these days, and one of these next years it may very well come down to the land. When that time comes, it will prevent a great deal of aimless talk and unsubstantial thinking, if we have to guide us expert advice on these lines. Therefore, I would ask the Government if they decide to do this, to let the terms of reference be very wide indeed. In any case, there is no harm done, if they are not able to accept the recommendations made. The country will have gained a good deal. It will prove to the country, particularly to the agricultural community, that the Government are prepared, so far as in them lies, to deal justly with this great industry. It will also prove that they are prepared to continue the war-time practice, which is a very valuable one, of marshalling and organising all the resources of knowledge and the accumulated fruits of research, and harnessing them to the immediate needs of the community at large.
I represent a large division, which is equal to about one-half the county of Gloucester, and the former representatives of which bore a very honoured name in this House, namely, Hicks-Beach, both father and son. That division, as I have said, is equal to about half the county of Gloucester, and we have in that division almost every system of farming. In the hills there are the sheep and the barley farmers and in the valleys the milk producers. There is also the market gardening industry, and a good deal of mixed farming in various places as well. From all you have the one same complaint, that at the present moment there is a kind of paralysis for every one of these classes because they say they do not know whether it will be worth their while going on with the industry or not until the Government have formulated their policy. I want to point out, too, that the very question of housing in the country districts depends very largely indeed upon the line you take over agriculture, because, unless you are going to make agriculture prosper, there are enough houses in the country already, but if you are going to have a prosperous industry we shall want at once a good many houses, and we shall want them of a far better type, and even to-day, with the wages that are being paid, it is almost impossible for the agricultural labourer to make two ends meet.
I would like to point out a case which came before me the year before war broke out, to show the position in which the agricultural labourer then was, and I think you will see he is very little better off now. I happen to be the secretary, at Cirencester, in the middle of the Cotswold Hills, of a very large benefit society with some 15,000 members. A woman came to me about a little matter of a club account in October, 1913. She wanted a little help from the society, and this is the position in which she placed her financial budget. She said, "My husband is a good, steady man." I said, "I know he is. I have known him for a quarter of a century, and he has worked for the same farmer all that time." "Yes," she said, "and in the winter time he gets 1s. a week more than the ordinary labourer because he is a good man." His wages then were 14s. a week; that is,. 1s. a week above the standard rate of wages in that part of the country in the winter season. I said, "How do you manage to get a living out of that?" She replied, "My husband gets his 14s. a week. He is a very steady, careful, sober man, and he only keeps back 2s. a week for beer and tobacco." One-seventh of one's income for beer and tobacco is rather large, but 3½d. a day is not very much for tobacco and beer for a working man. I said, "That brings it back to 12s." She said, "We have a very good cottage indeed. I do not grumble a bit. It has three decent bedrooms, and the water laid on, and we only pay 1s. 6d. a week for it." I said, "That brings it back to 10s. 6d." Then she said, "There is 9d. to you and 3d. for the national insurance." "That," I said, "brings it back to 9s. 6d." She stated that there was 1s. for coal, which brought it back to 8s. 6d. She said, "There is my husband, myself, my eldest girl aged twelve, my youngest boy aged ten, and we have to live on 8s. 6d." I say that you can Hardly credit that people can live on that. But that man has actually saved £58 in the society of which I am secretary, showing that he must have scraped and almost starved himself rather than be a burden on the parish in time of need. We want to encourage that feeling from top to bottom, that the man shall be independent and not look to the parish, but look to his own exertions, and to-day, although that man is getting more than double what he got in 1913, yet, in consequence of the high price of commodities—of his coal, his clothes, his boots, his bread and meat—he actually is slightly worse off to-day, as we think, than he was at that time. That being so, can you wonder when the sons of these men are grown up—this man, by the way, has only one son—that very few ever go upon the land? They go upon the railway, into the shops in the towns, into the Post Office, into almost anything, and for two reasons: In the first place, they get wages which are much more commensurate to their ability, and the second point with many is this: If they go on the railway, or in the police force, or into the Post Office they get a good pension when they are incapacitated from work—and that counts for a lot—whereas if they stay upon the land no farmer is going to give them a pension, and they simply have to take the old age pension. From the labour point of view, therefore, to keep these men on the land, to keep them from crowding into the towns is to the advantage of labour. It is, I suggest, for the Labour party to see that they have proper housing accommodation and good wages; but these can only be obtained if the industry itself is prosperous and can afford to give good wages.
That being so, I wish with all the power and energy that I possess to support the Resolution to have a Commission appointed that shall report within two or three months, because I assure hon. Members that at the present moment the number of farmers that have given notice to leave their farms, or are seriously considering it, for next Michael as is very large. I have lived on the Cotswold Hills for thirty-three years, and I have never known so many farms taken in hand in the way of sales, and so many estates being broken up into small quantities. Certainly I never knew so many farmers give notice as happened last Lady Day and is in contemplation for next Michael as. This must be stopped if the country is to prosper. But so long as the present state of uncertainly exists, first, as to prices and second, as to whether they are going on in their farms or not, just so long you will not have increased employment in the country districts. We want increased employment on the land. That will mean better cottages, and it will give a great deal of employment to those people who are now drawing unemployment pay. By so doing I think the Government will do a good thing not only for agriculture, but for the country at large.
The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Sir Arthur Boscawen):
If this Debate has done nothing else, or if it were going to do nothing else, it has at all events produced three very excellent maiden speeches. I desire to congratulate the makers of those speeches upon their efforts this evening. I am very glad that the fortune of the ballot enabled my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Henley (Captain R. Terrell) to get round the difficulty he had experienced of catching your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. As regards my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, it almost made my mouth water when he talked of the place where the weary are at rest. I was for over two years Parliamentary Secretary to the Pensions Ministry—that was not a place for the weary to rest. When I was transferred to my present position a friend of mine said: "You will have an easy time now." I cannot say that I have found, up to date, that the Board of Agriculture, interesting as it is to the last degree, is precisely the place where, under present conditions, the weary are at rest. Well, my hon. Friend behind me who spoke last did, I think, put his finger on what is the crux of the situation. We all want to see a decent living wage—and, indeed, better than what is ordinarily called a living wage—paid to the agricultural labourer. But we want to be assured that the industry can pay such a wage. What my hon. Friend said touches really the important matter in the question. I have risen at this early stage in the Debate, not that I want in any way to stop the Debate—it may, perhaps, produce other maiden speeches as good as those we have already heard; and I hope it will, because the more the Members who interest themselves in this agricultural problem and who realise the immense importance of agriculture to the country at the present moment, the better—I have risen simply because I think it may be for the convenience of the House if I make a perfectly plain statement as to what are the intentions of the Government, so that the House may know precisely how it may view the present Resolution.
On behalf of the Government I am not going to oppose this Motion. On the contrary, before it was put on the Paper we at the Board of Agriculture had been considering the necessity of appointing just such a Commission as my hon. Friend suggests. The Government now have decided to appoint such a Commission forthwith. I am not in a position to-night either to mention the names of the Commissioners nor to give the precise terms of reference, but I may say as regards the names that the point which occurs in my hon. and gallant Friend's Motion will be taken into account and carried out—namely, that all classes interested will be represented. There will be representatives of such bodies as the Farmers' Union, the Agricultural Labourers' Union, the Workers' Union, and others. These will represent the farmers and the Labour aspect of the case; and then, perhaps, the Government will be represented. I must not be understood to give any exhaustive account of the interests to be represented. All material interests will be represented. Not only so, but it is our intention not to have a lengthy body which shall shelve the question for months or years. On the contrary, we want to get a quick Report on the main question so that we can base our policy on it in the next few months.
When I say a quick Report on the main question I mean as regards the economic position of the more important branches of the agricultural industry, such as the production of corn, meat, and milk. We shall desire to get a Report in the next month or two in order to base our policy. It is quite true that the Commission may have referred to it other matters—bigger and wider questions—but if that is done we shall ask for an interim Report very much as has been done in the case of the Coal Commission. We shall ask in respect to the major aspects of the economic position of the industry a Report as early as possible, because we are apprised, quite as fully as the House, of the necessity of stating our policy at the earliest possible moment. With regard to this policy, I fully admit the necessity of it. During the War, conditions were altogether abnormal and exceptional, and the policy that was laid down two years ago is not applicable at the present moment in its entirety. What do I mean? We had the Corn Production Act. That Act guaranteed certain prices for cereals; it also set up an Agricultural Wages Board. Between the minimum wage proposed in the Corn Production Act and the guaranteed price, which also occurred in that Act, there was a certain relation. The minimum wage mentioned in that Act was 25s. a week. The guaranteed price for wheat will come down, so far as the Act goes, to 45s. next year. It must be clear that if there was any definite relation, as I believe there was, between that minimum wage of 25s. and the guaranteed price for wheat of 45s., that relation is entirely upset when the minimum wage is raised far beyond the 25s. That is precisely what has happened. The minimum wage, on the average, at the present moment is not 25s., but the average throughout the country is 33s. An addition of 6s. 6d. is now to be made by the Wages Board, I think, almost within the next few days, and that brings up your average minimum wage to 39s. 6d. It is quite clear that if 45s. is regarded as a reasonable guaranteed price for next year and the years following when the minimum wage is 25s., it cannot be so regarded when the average minimum wage is 39s. 6d. Therefore, it is quite clear to us that there must be a modification of the policy.
I do not wish the House to think that I am in any way condemning the Wages Board for having put up the wages in the way they have, nor that I am in any way lacking in sympathy with the agricultural labourer in this increase in wages. The Agricultural Wages Board has been performing an exceedingly difficult task. I know the majority of its members have worked very hard and have performed their duty to the best of their ability, and I think the thanks of the community are due to them. Again, I am sure none of us were contented with the wages paid to the agricultural labourer before the War, and when you realise the great increase in prices that has occurred during the War it is literally and absolutely true that the increased wage paid now, though it may seem a great increase in money wages, is not any increase in real wages at all. I am sure there is not one of us, and I do not believe there is anybody interested in land, either as a landowner, or a tenant farmer or anything else, who does not desire to see the agricultural labourer well paid. In fact, one of the ideals on which I was brought up, and which occurs, I think, in one of Disraeli's books, was the great necessity for what he called a contented peasantry in this country. Therefore, I say that I am not in any way blaming the Agricultural Wages Board, nor am I finding any fault with the increase of wages, but we come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Cirencester (Mr. Davies), that you must be sure that the industry can pay these wages. Because, if the industry cannot pay the wages, what is going to happen? Not merely will a great part, in fact probably all, of that land which has lately been ploughed up for food production purposes during the War—a fact which contributed, as I entirely agree, so much to our winning the War—go back to grass, and in many cases tumble back to grass, but a great deal of what was arable before will go out of cultivation. If you are going to have wages, and I think you ought to have good wages, over and beyond what the industry can afford, the only result will be that the industry will diminish and you will get a vast amount of unemployment in the country districts. Feeling that as we do, we see the necessity of having a careful inquiry into the whole economic situation, in order that we may be able to arrive at a decision as to where we are, and to take care that right and sufficient wages are paid and that the industry is in a position to pay them. The view I take is that the country is not going to let the agricultural industry down. It wants to know precisely where it stands with regard to the agricultural industry, and therefore this inquiry is made.
We have been criticised, sometimes very adversely criticised, by hon. Members in this House, and outside, because we have not produced a policy up to the present moment. With some of the attacks that have been made on the Board, and with all the attacks that have been made on the President, I am sure the House has no sympathy whatsoever. There have been statements made that I think are absolutely unjustifiable, because I am perfectly certain there never was a man who, under most difficult circumstances, has done more for the industry than the present President of the Board of Agriculture. He has had to guide the industry in a period of unparalleled difficulty, when calls were made upon it such as have never been made before. After all, is it fair to say there has been no policy? How do we stand as regards this present year? Cereal prices have been guaranteed, and guaranteed at a figure which is equal to the maximum price which ruled last year. I do not know that the House or the country realises that that may cost the taxpayer a very large sum of money.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN:
That is a question that I cannot possibly answer, because it depends upon two considerations, as to neither of which have I any data to draw upon. One is, what are prices likely to fall to during the year? The other is, what is the acreage likely to be grown during the year? Until I know that—and nobody can possibly tell what those two figures are likely to be—it is impossible to say.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN:
It might be nothing, if prices do not fall. On the other hand, if prices fall considerably, it might be a great deal. Then, again, we do not at the present moment know what the acreage may be. All I am saying is that so far from there being no policy with regard to this year, prices have been guaranteed, and they may involve—I do not go higher than that—a very considerable charge on the taxpayer.
Sir A. BOSCAWEN:
I was coming to that in a moment. Therefore, as regards this year, if I may resume my argument, we have a policy. Where do we stand? As regards this year there is a policy, but I agree that a policy for one year is no use in the long run, and that we must have a policy for a term of years. In order that we may get a policy for a term of years we ask that this Commission may be appointed which will really give us the economic position, not having regard to profits which have been made under totally abnormal conditions during the War, but having regard to what is likely to happen in the near future. That is the point. It may be quite possible to prove that certain farmers during the last few years, with War prices, have made large profits, but those conditions are quite abnormal. What we want to know is what is likely to happen in the next few years, and what is necessary in the way of guaranteed prices to enable the industry to succeed and to pay the wages we wish to see paid to the labourers. After all, the country owes a great deal to the farming industry. At great risk, in a great emergency, at the call of the Government, old pastures were broken up and risks were taken by farmers which had never been taken before. Having regard to that, it is right and proper that the country should see the agricultural interest through the difficult transition period between war conditions and peace conditions.
I have been saying a word in defence of the Board as against criticisms which have been made largely by members of the farming interest in the last few months. There were also attacks made upon the agricultural interest. I have read in various papers this sort of attack: "The farmer wants big guaranteed prices. He has had the guaranteed prices for the last few years, and he wishes to screw the last possible shilling out of the guarantee." The farmer has had no effective guaranteed prices. There have been the guaranteed prices of the Corn Production Act, but the prices have never come anywhere near them, and all the farmer has had has been maximum prices, which are not in any sense a guarantee to him, which are no help to the producer, but which, on the other hand, limit his profits. It is only right that the House and the country should know that the Wheat Commission has been buying abroad during the last few years sometimes at no less than 30s. a quarter more than the price allowed to the producer here. That is a very material consideration. All this points to the fact that we have not got the data at present on which to base an agricultural policy for the next few years. If we are to have a policy, and I agree entirely that we must have a policy, we have to get those data and to get them quickly. We have got to appoint some body of people who understand their job to get those data. We have to ask them to report at the earliest possible moment. When we have got that Report we shall know where we stand, and we do not know where we stand at present.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the announcement he has just made, and on behalf of that part of the agricultural industry of which I have knowledge I think I can say they will unanimously welcome the decision of the Government to hold this inquiry. It is particularly necessary to hold an inquiry immediately, not only on the general grounds which have been stated in the Debate, but because there is at this moment a very serious crisis in the industry, and it is to that crisis that I wish to address my remarks. I was very glad indeed to hear my hon. Friend say there would probably be an Interim Report to enable the present position to be dealt with because, however complicated the Coal Inquiry may have been, everyone who knows anything about agriculture will realise that a really compendious inquiry into all agricultural conditions would be infinitely more difficult and complicated. There is no industry with such endless variety as agriculture. There is endless variety of soil. Even within these islands there is the greatest variety of climate. We have dry areas which suffer terribly from drought and we have other areas and soils which suffer terribly from wet. We have some of the best land in the world and we have some of the worst land in the world. We have land which grows grass better than cereals, and we have land which will grow cereals and will not grow grass. In fact, there is not a field in any part of the country which does not require special knowledge to farm it to the best advantage. To take another side, let me mention merely that of trying to arrive at a profit or a loss. It is absolutely impossible to state a definite figure of real profit or real loss in any given year for any farm or for any field on a farm. It is exactly the same problem as squaring the circle, literally and actually, because farming is an endless circle and a circle is an endless geometrical figure. The farmer is carrying on a continuous process in a circle, every part of which fits into every part of it and which is never complete in any month of the twelve, and it is impossible at any moment to strike a balance showing the exact profit or loss for any farming operation upon any field upon any farm, except by making a valuation of what is left upon the land at the moment by the preceding crop or by the animal, and also a valuation of the value to the animal or to the succeeding crop of what has been put into the land. What the real figure of the value may be which is left in the land or taken out of it depends upon subsequent factors which no human being can possibly calculate. It is, therefore, impossible to arrive at a really accurate balance. The only balance in my opinion after thirty years of practical farming, which has any real value is the cash account at the beginning of the year and the cash account at the end of the year over a reasonable period of years and with some regard to the stock which is actually upon the farm. I only mention that to show the extraordinary complication and difficulty of what is the oldest and is by some regarded as the simplest industry in the world. It is really the most complicated and the most difficult and covers the widest ground, and if it were attempted by any Royal Commission to go into all the possibilities of farming and as to whether this or that method of farming is making the best of this or that particular class of land, it would never get to the end of it. The immediate problem we have to solve is, Can we so organise our agricultural industry that it can afford to pay as good a wage in proportion to the skilled worker as can be paid in other industries in this country? That is really the problem that has brought this matter forward to the House. There must be an answer, and I say that the answer to that question in the rough must precede any considerable change in the present wage. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester (Mr. T. Davies) upon his very clear and able speech, with every word of which I agree, for I can confirm his views from my own knowledge of agricultural labourers. Apart from the general question, there is this fact, that in our rural districts a large number of railway workers live and who work at the local railway stations. These men are living under rural conditions, and are paying rural rents, and I do not think that anyone would venture to say that the work they are doing is any more skilled or more responsible than the work that is being done by their neighbours who work on farms. Yet the railway worker has obtained a minimum wage of, approximately, 50s., and he is living alongside the agricultural labourer who has now a minimum wage of 30s. It is obvious that in ordinary fairness, as a question of justice between man and man, and with reference to the value of their work in the country, that the value of the agricultural labourer is at least equal to that of the railwayman, and there is no reason why the agricultural labourer should receive a less wage than the railwayman. That is the view of the labour unions, and everyone sympathises with, them and agrees that it is reasonable.
Let us take the matter one step further. How does the railwayman get his 50s.? Where does it come from? Does it come from the profits of the railways? We have only recently been informed in this House that the country is finding £110,000,000 to enable the railway companies to pay these minimum wages. What would have happened if the railway companies had been compelled by Statute to pay a 50s. minimum wage without a subsidy of £110,000,000? The railways would have been bankrupt. Those are obvious facts which no one can contradict. Now what is suggested? It is suggested that agriculture is to pay a minimum wage which is to approximate to 50s. and to rise afterwards to 50s. if possible. Where is the £110,000,000 to assist the agricultural industry to pay this wage? Is it suggested that it is worth the country's while to say that it is to the advantage of the agricultural labourer to bankrupt by Statute the industry by which he lives in order to enable him theoretically to obtain a minimum wage which his industry cannot pay, and which would merely result in his getting no wage at all? That position has created the crisis. You have on the one hand the agricultural labourer, and you have the labour unions in whose hands the labourer has placed himself. The agricultural labourer has not yet had sufficient experience of labour organisation to conduct his own case. I think it is a weak point in the present situation that this question is not being conducted by labourers with real knowledge of the agricultural situation but by leaders of unions who have a full knowledge of labour conditions, and have every sympathy with the labourers, and look at the point from very sensible and reasonable points of view, but, as I have suggested, that is not the whole matter, but only part of it. I do not think they really understand how impossible it is, on a large proportion, of the poorer land of this country, that a higher wage should be paid and that the industry should continue to be carried on.
I speak with a full sense of responsibility, and I say that, in my opinion, there is a very large area in this country where under present conditions, and, so far as I can see the future prospects, unless very drastic steps are taken to help the farmers, they will be quite unable to pay even the proposed increase which is suggested in the increased flat rate of 6s. 6d. There are many farmers who can pay it. I can give my own experience. I have recently discussed this matter with farmers in two parts of England in which I have very intimate knowledge. In one of the districts the farmers told in that they thought they could pay the increased wage of 6s. 6d., but they found great difficulty and would find great difficulty on a good many of their farms with the reduced number of hours, particularly in the matter of the care of stock. That is a very difficult matter with them. In another district with which I am equally familiar, and which is a poor land district, the farmers are unanimously of opinion that it is impossible for them, under present conditions, to pay this increased wage. It will be very desirable that in those districts where the local wages board has not concurred in the proposed increase, that if that increase is to be enforced, it should be held in suspense until after we get the early interim Report of the Committee, and that if necessary it should be paid retrospectively from the date when any other general increase is given at a rate recommended after the real facts are known. I think that something of that kind should be done in order to meet the farmer's case. It is, in my opinion, unwise as well as unjust that this House, without a real knowledge of the facts which they hope to obtain from the Royal Commission, should say to the farmer that he must pay this increase, when after his record in the War he stands up to the country not in ones or in tens but in hundreds and in thousands, in poor land districts of this country, in the North, the South, the East and West, particularly in the East and South, and says "I cannot afford under present conditions to pay this wage, and I ask that, at any rate, you should defer it until the whole facts are known and until you know that I am in a position to pay it, and if you find I am not in a position to pay it I look to you to put me in a position to pay, and I will willingly do so." That is the attitude of the farmer, and I do earnestly hope the House will consider that in a proper light. Of course this House has no control over the Wages Board, which is an independent judicial body, and will do as it likes, but I do suggest that the present position is very critical and very dangerous, and that if land is once left by the farmer and goes down, it will be a serious loss to the country and it will be almost impossible to recover the situation.
There is another point. It is quite clear that under the Corn Production Act under which the Wages Board was appointed, the procedure contemplated was that the local committee with full knowledge of the local conditions should originate proposals for changes of wage, and that these proposals for changes of wage should be adjudicated upon by the Central Wages Board. That process was followed last year, and as a result we have the variable minimum wage which is fitted to the conditions of the various districts. This year, the process has been reversed and instead of the local wages committee having made proposals for changes of wage to the Central Board, the Central Board has proposed a flat rate increase of 20 per cent. on the original minimum wage—6s. 6d. would be practically 20 per cent. increase on the existing minimum wage, and that has originated not with the local committees but with the Central Wages Board. It is not strictly illegal, but it is against the general intention and purpose of the Act. It creates a difficult situation in the poorer districts that this 6s. 6d. should be made a flat rate, and not subject to the same local considerations which affected the original minimum wage, which was varied to meet the local conditions. I would even limit the suggestion which I have made as to the action which the wages board ought to take to this, that where the proposed increase is assented to by the local committee there is no reason to delay it, but where the local committee has not assented to it, the increase, in so far as it is not assented to, ought to be deferred until the Royal Commission has reported whether that particular district can or cannot pay, and then if it can be paid it should be retrospective. That would satisfy the farmer, that this House wishes to see justice done to him as well as the labourer.
It is not a case in agriculture, as in some other industries, of men receiving low wages from great employers with great resources, and large amounts of capital to enable them to tide over difficult times. A very large proportion of the farmers of this country have to live from hand to mouth almost as much as the agricultural labourer has had to do. They have to find the weekly wages bill, and they have to sell their produce to find it. In the interest of the industry and of ordinary fairness, and with due regard to the ability to pay of the different parts of the country, the small farmers particularly are just as much entitled to consideration, for they work quite as hard as, and sometimes a great deal harder than, the agricultural labourer for whom we all naturally feel and show so much sympathy. There is no class of the community, farmers or others, who, if they feel that they are not likely to receive fair treatment from this House, will not become despondent. The feeling of the farmers to-day is that this House and the Government are not treating them fairly, and the atmosphere in which they are living is not as favourable as it ought to be, in view of their war record. It is necessary to restore confidence. If confidence is taken away from the agricultural industry, it will be a very bad day for the country.
We should be very careful in legislating for the agricultural industry as to the result of statutory interference with such complicated and difficult natural conditions as the agricultural industry has faced. After farming through all the bad times, personally, I doubt if I ever felt so anxious or sometimes so hopeless, even in the 'nineties, as I feel now, in view of the present agricultural situation. Many farmers feel the same. After all, there was something in what David said, that he would rather fall into the hands of the Almighty than into the hands of man. When you are facing natural difficulties, you feel that there may be some hope that natural conditions will change. They are things over which you have no control. It is up to you to stand up to them and meet them. But when instead of natural difficulties, you are met by hampering legislation, then a man feels like a fish in a net, when he sees the only way in which he can make his business possible forbidden by Statute and that it is made criminal to do the only thing which he knows to be the right thing in the circumstances. That puts him in a much more hopeless position than he ever could be put by any natural difficulties he could encounter. The greatest drawback to all this legislation is its inelasticity. The great advantage of natural conditions is elasticity. Every man is free to do what is best in the natural conditions in which he finds himself. All legislation has to seek for uniformity, but you will never get progress by uniformity. Nature knows only one dead level—that is the bottom. All progress requires variety. This flat-rate legislation destroys variety, and it equally destroys all progress.
The only reasonable courses by which industry can prosper is that the minimum wage should be the wage at which the worst land which you require to see farmed at all can be farmed profitably. Let that be your statutory wage. There will be much land in many districts where a much higher wage can be paid. Let that be obtained by fair bargaining, as in other industries, between the employers' organisations and the workers' organisation. But by imposing a flat-rate wage, which will enable the average farmer just to pay his way, you are throwing absolutely out of cultivation all land below the average. That is what I mean by saying that uniformity is deadening. I feel deeply on this matter, because it touches me not in a theoretical but in a practical way. I go down to the country in the week-end. I have got to go into a field and settle what is to be done with it, and see how many men I can afford to employ on it. That problem has to be dealt with as a practical problem from week-end to week-end. At one turn or another I am met by legislation, passed with the best intentions by this House, which is absolutely destructive of all progress.
I hope that when this Royal Commission comes to that we may get these practical issues brought within the knowledge of the country. I agree with every word which my hon. Friend opposite and my hon. Friend below me have said as to the great advantage of publicity, as to the real difficulties of agriculture. Farmers have nothing to fear and everything to gain by this inquiry. The farmers' difficulty in paying the wage is much less than the Government's difficulty in finding a policy. It is a matter of the most extraordinary difficulty. We are all agreed that the labourer ought to have as good a wage as the railway man—a 50s. minimum. Farmers all agree that if it is possible they will gladly pay the 50s. wage. Then we come to the next point. The Government have to make it possible. How are they going to do that? Is the country going to pay a higher price for its food? The country has got to answer that question. Is the country going to sanction subsidies to a very large extent? How is it going to be possible to graduate those subsidies on the different processes of the farm, and the different produce? The problem bristles with difficulties. The coal problem is one of simplicity compared with it. I do not envy the Government their task. If they can carry it out, and make it possible for the farmers to pay a wage which in those circumstances they are perfectly willing to pay, then the agricultural industry may know a peace, happiness and progress which it has not known for some years past, certainly does not possess in present conditions, and is not likely to possess in the future.
I resist with some, difficulty the temptation to dispute or disagree with the right hon. and gallant Member who has just sat down (Mr. Pretyman) in regard to the action of the Wages Board. I happen to be a member of the Wages Board, which, as he said, is luckily a tribunal not subject to Parliamentary authority and which can take its own way, and no doubt if the President of the Board thinks it will be useful for us he will send on to us the remarks and advice which have just been given with regard to the action that we ought to take. There really is a great deal to be said for having recommended, after a great deal of consideration of the arguments put forward by both sides, an increase in the varying rates of wages applicable to the different districts of the country, in order, in the first place, to compensate for the rise in the cost of living, and, in the second place, to give the labourer, what really in effect he has never effectively had before, a margin over and above the absolute cost of the bare necessities of life; and there is something to be said for regarding that increase as a flat rate, the figure ultimately arrived at being 6s. 6d., to be added to the varying rates in existence in the different counties, rather than once more going through the process which we went through last year of receiving all sorts of varying recommendations, difficult to reconcile with one another, from the different counties as to what the increase should be to be given on account of the rather complicated position in which we found ourselves. I would like to come back to the subject of this Motion, which is a question of the Royal Commission, and there I quite agree, I think, with everything which has just been said, because a warning note was uttered by the last speaker in regard to what might be expected as the result of the Royal Commission. The Minister assented to the Motion, and said that a Commission will be appointed, which will be instructed to report quite soon, and which would really give us the economic position in regard to agriculture. I think the right hon. Member who preceded me uttered a very reasonable and right note of warning when he said you cannot arrive at the economic position, you cannot arrive at a balance-sheet with regard, say, to the cost of producing a quarter of wheat or a gallon of milk or something of that kind. There is, as he said very truly, all the difference in the world between agriculture and coal mining, and to think that you can in four, five, or six weeks' time get out as definite an answer to the problem, "What is the cost of growing a quarter of wheat?" as you can to the problem, "What is the average cost of producing a ton of coal in a particular coal field?" is really not a possibility. I am very doubtful, I am bound to say, as to the value which the public in general will attach to the findings of any Commission on agriculture which is instructed, I dare say with good reason, to report as quickly as it is desirable that this Commission should report. I do not believe four weeks or four months or really any time less than four years would be sufficient to give this country a proper, fair, considered, scientific answer to the question of what was the cost of carrying on ordinary farming operations, because, as has just been said, it depends on keeping accounts for the whole of the rotation and for more than the whole of the rotation and keeping accounts in an extraordinarily scientific manner, which it is very difficult to undertake on any farm, and which for practical purposes has been undertaken really on very few farms, and even then there will be an enormous realm of doubt as to the interpretation of the figures.
I am very much afraid that the Government will appoint a Commission composed of persons all of them interested in one way or other in the agricultural industry, that the representatives of the other general outside consumers of agricultural produce will be almost of a necessity practically excluded, and that without being able to bring forward one scintilla of scientific evidence of any sort or kind they will arrive at some figure based on extremely inadequate investigation, that they will tell us they are agreed that the cost of production of a quarter of wheat or a gallon of milk is so-and-so, and that therefore the guaranteed price must be so-and-so if a new level of wages is to be paid with any reasonable chance of maintaining that reasonable rate of wage and any reasonable chance of profit to the farmer. I think that there will be a tendency to try to recommend such prices as will keep going in all respects the system of farming in this country as we have hitherto known it. In the long run the system of farming in this country has got to change very much indeed. If you compare our system with that which has been arrived at in countries where the question has been the result more of science and less of custom and of chance, I believe you will find this for certain, that here we have much too largo a proportion of our farms too large for a man to farm with his hands and too small for a man to farm with his head. That was the conclusion that Sir Thomas Middleton came to after comparing our agriculture with that of other countries. We have a very largely predominating proportion of our farms of, say, from 120 to 250 or 280 or 300 acres, farms on which one, two, or three workers are employed, too large for a man to work simply with his own family, too small for him to be able to apply the best that can be done in the shape of up-to-date labour-saving machinery, skilled mechanics, tractors, and so on, too small to be run really as scientific businesses. Undoubtedly sooner or later a good deal of that sort of farming is going to be made very difficult and squeezed out. The tendency is going to be to the smaller holdings and to the larger holdings, but the inevitable effect of the appointment of this Commission at this time will be that all that intermediate class of farming, which I think in the natural course of events will in the next twenty or thirty years tend to give place either to smaller or larger holdings, will stake out its claim to have prices fixed at such a level as will preserve it with all those uneconomic tendencies and conditions of that particular part of the industry which have characterised it in the past. I think it would in a way be better that that tendency, which is sure to come in the long run, of making more smaller holdings on the one side and more larger holdings on the other, should be given something like free play, and that these really uneconomic sized holdings should not be, so to speak, boosted up with unnatural guaranteed prices as may be done—at any rate, there will be a very great effort to see that it is done by those who are put on this Commission.
There is another line which I think the Commission will be bound to take, and that is the argument that because agriculture is supposed to pay reasonable wages it therefore has a right to steady, permanent subventions from the taxpayer. That is a position which a small number of persons in this House, but a very, very large number of persons outside this House will by no means accept, and there will be no stability in that position, even if you do get it recommended by a Royal Commission and accepted by this House. Before the War it was an accepted commonplace of every political party that the agricultural labourer's wage was admitted to be a disgracefully sweated wage, and must be increased, and that some machinery must be introduced to increase that wage and no idea had entered into the minds of any political party that that involved guaranteed minimum prices or annual subventions from the taxpayers' pocket. I could quote Lord Lansdowne on this point, who said that it was essential that machinery should be established for increasing the labourers' wages, and in those days that was never linked up with guaranteeing minimum prices or subsidies to agriculture. I protested against that idea when the Corn Production Act was under consideration, and at other times, because I know that you will never get the public to recognise that because an industry is expected to pay what still remain the lowest standard wages of any of our standard trades there should be paid to it, year in and year out, sums out of the taxpayers' pocket, and it would be supposed that that industry ought to be able to find its own level and pay reasonable wages out of the profits it earns without annual subventions from the taxpayer. In the long run the country might accept the basis of giving guaranteed prices, not by yoking together the Clauses in the Corn Production Act with guaranteed prices and the wages fixed by the Wages Board, but by the powers given under Part IV. which the hon. and gallant Member opposite never mentioned, and that has been left out entirely in the Debate.
The hon. and gallant Member put it two or three times that because reasonable wages have got to be paid therefore agriculture requires subvention from the general taxpayer towards agricultural prices. I am glad to hear that Part IV. of the Corn Production Act is still present in hon. Members' minds, and that they recognise that there is a connection between the two things, and that the taxpayer may reasonably be called upon to guarantee certain prices for agricultural produce if he is going to be guaranteed a certain level of production and a certain standard of organisation.
When I talk of Part IV. I refer to the Clauses which give power to the Government to direct through the county executive committees exactly how each farm should be cultivated, and it is the perpetuation of that power through really strong county committees, and the certainty that each farm shall give a real quid pro quo in production, quality, organisation and the standardisation necessary, it is that sort of improvement of the produce of the land which the country may regard as a sufficient and proper return for guaranteeing minimum prices.
If it is put, as it has been put to-night, simply on the ground that agriculturists are entitled to certain prices because they pay certain wages, it is a very slippery slope. You may get this House of Commons to accept it, and you will get this generation of farmers to rejoice in what they can get out of it, but unless we set steadily to work, year by year and decade by decade, improving the production from the land, improving the organisation of the products, improving the quality of the article produced, keeping up, for instance, the amount of arable land which would enable us in an emergency to be self-supporting, making possible, as I think will be essential in a few years' time, periodical surveys, estate by estate and village by village, examining not only into the products of the estate but also into the social organisation of the estate, so as to see to what extent a small man is given a chance of rising, so as to see that several farms are not all gathered together in the hands of some farmer or family, so as to see the allotments are not inconveniently situated, and so as to see that there is a decent piece of common land—unless you are going to organise your rural districts so as to give the greatest possible security to the country, the best possible sort of products from the country, and guarantee the best possible life on the land, I do not think that you can hope to get the doctrine of guaranteed prices accepted as anything but a temporary thing. I agree with all the speakers that the one thing which agriculture needs more than anything else is stability of conditions, and therefore I very much hope that the Government will not let their representatives drop into the idea of simply linking the question of wages with the question of guaranteed prices. I hope that they will look at the whole of the conditions of the agricultural industry from A to Z, and steadily press forward against bad landlords and bad farmers as an essential part of their policy, because I am certain that it is only so that they can have anything like permanent justification for the policy which they have set before them.
It is not my intention to attempt to discuss this question in detail, not merely because we have been assured by the representative of the Government that they are prepared to concede the terms of the Motion, but because it must be obvious that it will be the business of the Commission to discuss the question in detail and to ascertain the facts. I rise because it might be thought, if nobody spoke from these benches, that we had no interest in the question. We most heartily welcome the idea of a Commission of Inquiry into agriculture. We would like that Inquiry to be as close and as careful as it is possible for it to be, and we are prepared to associate ourselves with it and to do our best to bring out clear and distinct all the facts that are essential for a proper judgment to be given with regard to the agricultural industry of the country. We would not like the terms of reference to be too narrow. I do not know whether it is possible or wise to limit the terms of the Inquiry even for the purpose of an interim Report, because if you do you will get a result that will not be founded upon all the facts, but possibly upon only a portion of them. We want all the facts brought out in order that proper judgment may be exercised in regard to these matters. I am afraid the right hon. Member (Mr. Pretyman) was very pessimistic about the results of this Commission. I quite agree with him that agriculture does present a problem which differs from most other industries. But I do not believe it is a problem that cannot be overcome. The right hon. Gentleman rather commented on the fact that labour in connection with agriculture is not represented by people who have a first-hand practical knowledge of the industry. That is not entirely so. There are very few of the labour representatives on the Agricultural Wages Board who have not actually worked at the industry of agriculture, and some of them have never worked in connection with anything else. If it is true some of us who may occupy official positions have not been associated with the industry, I am afraid that our friends the farmers must accept some responsibility in that respect. If they had not resisted the efforts of the labourers years ago to join their union—if they had refrained from victimising their labourers because they did join—and it is not so many years ago I stood at the roadside with a man whose furniture had been turned out from his house for no other reason than that he had sought to become a member of his trade union—if the farmers put restrictions of that character in the way of labourers you must not be surprised that we have not diverted from their ranks the type of men who could best help them in the consideration of questions of wage and labour conditions.
I hope a new phase of things is arising where the same freedom and liberty of action will be accorded to the agricultural labourer as are enjoyed by other sections of the industrial world. I think, perhaps, this call for an inquiry comes at a very opportune moment. It is very largely because of the demand that has been put forward by the labourer for increased wages. It is quite true that the wage which is being asked for—or rather the proposed wage issued by the Wages Board—has caused a great deal of alarm so far as the farmers are concerned. But I want to say most emphatically that the wages contained in that proposal do not represent in the mind of the labourer the wage he thinks he is entitled to. He looks upon it as something in the nature of an instalment of higher wages than is embodied in these figures, and if it is felt that this adjustment of wages does seriously prejudice the position of the industry then we have not the slightest hesitation in having the fullest inquiry in order that the facts may be ascertained so that we may know exactly where we are. It is interesting to note that the agitation that is going on at the present moment—which looks like seriously disturbing the industry—does not come from the workmen. It is the farmer who seems to be talking about a strike. I notice in some of the districts they are making an appeal for some sort of Napoleon to come and lead them in their resistance to the proposals that have been brought forward. If it is only to avoid anything of that description we would welcome this inquiry, because if our friends the farmers did seek by the methods of a strike to put their position forward, and, following the example of other strikers, sought to demonstrate, I am afraid that their appearance would not convey that depressed state of things which would convince the general public of their particular difficulties.
On behalf of those who sit on these benches I want to say that we have no desire to press forward points without there being an opportunity of ascertaining the facts in regard to the question with which we are dealing. We have sufficient confidence in the case that we seek to put forward to rely upon the facts which are ascertained by inquiry. I do not now discuss the question of whether the industry can afford to pay better wages, because that is not a question to be discussed by this House at the present moment. That must be a question for the Commission to consider; therefore, it is not worth while discussing it now. Because we are anxious to get a settlement of this question we are prepared to associate ourselves with this inquiry. We hope that the Government, will make its constitution as broad as it can be and will give Labour adequate representation, so that its views may be expressed properly and adequately. We hope that as a result of the investigation we shall be able to lay down a policy which will give the labourer a condition of things which will enable him to remain on the land. We do not view with any feeling of gratification a condition of things which tempts the labourer to leave the land. It is the best type of labourer that goes, and we want that best type of labourer to remain. We do not want the industry to have the dregs, but rather the best of the labour market. It is only by having a free and open choice in that respect that the industry stands any reasonable chance of success. You cannot hope to retain the best labour on the land unless you make the conditions so attractive as to make the town less a temptation than it has been up to the present time. On behalf of the Labour section who may be called upon to deal with this matter, we shall be ready to help in the investigation in order to ascertain what are the facts in regard to the industry of agriculture.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Camborne (Mr. Acland) made a very excellent speech just now, but there was one phrase in it which vitiated a good deal of the remainder, and what he said will require the attention of the Government in setting up this Royal Commission. He talked of the production of food for the people. If the Royal Commission is going into that question, it must be very carefully selected. The idea seems to have got abroad that we are likely to be in this country entirely self-supporting. Is it thought that this country, with rarely ever more than 2 feet of soil above chalk, gravel or clay, with its variable climate and uncertain summer, can compete against the corn land of Canada with its6 or 8 feet of virgin soil, or with the soil of Buenos Aires, or with that of Australia If the country wants us to grow wheat, they must pay for it. I have an instance of my own, of a bit of down which, in 1866 or 1867, under the influence of the then high prices of corn, were ploughed up. It took the tenant and my father, and the tenant's son and myself, a good many years to get that land back again to pasturage. We had just succeeded when the War came, and I had to plough it up again and produce oats from it. What is the value of that field now? It is not good for another corn crop. If you are going to try and go against nature and try to grow wheat for the nation under such conditions, then the nation must be prepared to pay for it, and that is one of the difficulties of the present situation. If you let farming alone as you let cotton manufacture or wool-spinning alone to develop on its own lines, and to make the best use it could of that which it has got it would be different. Here let me refer incidentally to the fact that we are in my district penalised in the price of our milk. We happen to be a little south of a district which has exactly the same soil and climate and yet we only get 1s. 4d. per gallon for our milk while the other district gets 1s. 6d., but that is a question of about which the Board of Agriculture will hear more. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Camborne also mentioned this matter as Cornwall is in the same boat. That is an instance of the folly of trying to fix prices for agriculture on a false basis. I agree with a good deal of what was said by an hon. Member opposite, but I think the instance of the labourer having been turned out of his house because he joined a union must have been a great many years ago. Possibly it was twenty years ago [An Hon. Member: "No!"] or ten years. [An Hon Member: "Five years ago!"] It was a very wrong thing to do, but I think the newer generation of labourers are quite fit to hold their own—they are getting more educated.
Whether you will ever get the country village to attract the younger men and women, as against the cinemas and the lights of the town, I am very doubtful. In these days we find that amongst every class amusement is very much thought of, and much more than it used to be. It ranks a great deal higher in the minds of both men and women than was formerly the case, while the desire for education is not so great with the present generation. That desire may, however, come, and I hope under the new regulations of the Board of Education that it will come. The Board is taking steps to ensure that the children are longer at school, and that not quite so many subjects are crammed into them in two or three years, but that they have more time to develop some subjects which are calculated to be of use to them. At the present moment, with every class, amusement and a good time is what is most thought of, and it is not unnatural that after four years of the great War there should be some such spirit displayed; but I trust it will pass away. Meanwhile, that spirit is there, and while it lasts you are not going to get the young men and women to settle down in the country. The village institutes are doing splendid work, and the village clubs are also doing good work in that direction, and in course of time you may be able to attract the best of the people back again. I am not sure that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Camborne, that the small 200 or 250 acre farmer is going to be altogether squeezed out. On the contrary, I think that a man who finds enough work for himself and to employ two others has yet got a very large interest in rural economy, and if we can induce him to imbibe the ideas of co-operation, I think there is still a very great sphere for the smaller farmer. But it must be through co-operation, where three or more men in the same village can either hire or buy their own tractors and threshing machines. I look to co-operation to do a great deal of good.
I am afraid I have rather strayed away from the Royal Commission the Government have promised, but all these things are parts of the agricultural question, which do require to be taken in hand by the Commission, and it is by no means as simple a thing as the Coal Commission, because that deals with rather fixed conditions for a fixed population dealing with a fixed material. In the Agricultural Commission you have got very, very different material with which to deal, a different scheme, different soil, different conditions of tenure altogether; and, above all, the. Commission, or the Government and the nation, have got to make up their mind as to whether they want farming to develop itself on its own natural lines, as it ought to, or whether farming is going to be harnessed for the good of the rest of the country, and be obliged to proceed in ways which are not natural either to the soil or the climate, in order that we may provide ourselves with a surplus stock of wheat in case of another European war or other great emergency. The country must make up its mind first of all, because if the country wants us to provide our own corn, the country must pay for it, as I have no hesitation in saying—and no one knows it better than the hon. Gentleman representing the Board of Agriculture—that this is not a wheat-growing country. Scotland may grow oats, and we can grow barley, but we are not a wheat-growing country either by climate or soil as against other countries, and therefore the first thing we have to do is to find out the mind of the country as to whether it wants the country to grow wheat and supply our own needs, because if it does, the country must pay for it. We do not want subvention for ordinary farming any more than cotton-spinning and wool-weaving want subvention, but if the country wants wheat it must pay for it.
You never can grow wheat in this country to pay the wages as such countries as India, the Argentine, and Canada. If, therefore, the country wants us to grow wheat we must have subvention; but if the country is content to let us do what we can, the country is perfectly able to do it without subvention, and with proper organisation and the future education, it is able to pay the high wages. But I go back a good many years, and I remember that the Royal Agricultural Society of England issued two balance-sheets of two farms—one in Norfolk and the other in Aberdeen. I forget the wages, but the wages bill in Norfolk was shared by twelve men, and that in Aberdeen by eight men. There is all the difference in that, and if our labourers are going to realise that the higher wages mean higher intelligence and more diligence in their work, well and good.
At the present moment it is not only the agricultural labourer, but almost every member of the working community, that thinks that higher wages mean less work, and less skilful work. But that is, I think, the effervescence of the War. It will pass. If our labourers will realise that if they get higher wages they will have to give better work it will be well, and I think we shall find it quite possible for the farmers themselves to employ fewer men. We have often men at low wages and low vitality, and no or little capacity. That is bad for the country and for the men themselves. If higher wages give us greater vitality and greater capacity; if a farmer, instead of employing twenty men at 15s. a week, employs a correspondingly less number at 30s. or 40s., agriculture will be the better, and the men will not be the losers. I end where I began. The country must make up its mind what it requires. If the country want the farmers to develop the land to its best capacity, leave them alone. Do not fix prices or anything else I think then we shall find that the farming community will prosper, that the labourers will prosper, and that we shall do something to bring back agricultural and social life to what it used to be in the years gone by.
I was much interested to hear the speech made by one of the Labour Members opposite in which he said that in this matter we were entering upon a new phase. It was desirable that he should make that speech, but let us look upon the Order Paper and see what is the next Notice of Motion, which deals with food prices. It reads in this fashion:
Mr. George Thorne—Food prices—To call attention to the question of food prices; and to move, That, in the opinion of this House, the prevailing high cost and shortage of food is largely responsible for the existence of industrial unrest in the country; and that it is essential that the Food Controller should realise stocks of Food now available and make arrangements for an extended import in order to bring about an increase of supplies raid a substantial diminution of prices.
I think it must be quite obvious that if that, and that alone, represented the Labour attitude towards this great problem, there would be a great deal to seek, for there is a very obvious gap. If the whole question of food is not to be faced with a view also to production in this country, we are in a parlous position, and thrown back upon the perilous state of the country when the submarine brought us very near to starvation. It so happens that I come to this House from a number of crowded meetings of West Country farmers. They were angry farmers. I will tell the Parliamentary Secretary why. At the moment they are particularly vexed and full of unrest because of the sudden decision which has been come to affecting their livelihood. They ask themselves, What has been done in the way of inquiry as a prelude to that decision? When I go to the other place across the corridor I learn from the President of the Board of Agriculture that he has really nothing to say. He says it is a matter belonging to another Department, that is to say, that we have a Government decision, striking a deadly blow at smallholders, at the very moment when we are anxious to bring smallholders upon the land—a decision of the Government imperilling the supplies of milk from one of the great milk-producing areas in this country fit the very moment when Ministers get up here and say; Above all things, amongst the most necessary things, is a greater supply of good milk for the population.
The farmer asks himself how can it be that, having a Board of Agriculture, and having a Government pledged to the hilt to support agriculture as an essential industry in the country, this decision is come to, and the President of the Board of Agriculture is bound to tell us, not that he was not consulted exactly, but that at all events, seemingly, he had little or no weight in that decision. You cannot wonder at unrest in circumstances of that character. The right hon. Gentleman opposite, in the interesting speech which he has just made, told us that agriculture must find its own level. I would ask him whether throughout the War the farmer was any less conscious of his responsibilities than he was of the benefits that he might receive from legislation. I do not know any section of the community that showed during the War a greater sense of responsibility or a greater desire to live up to that responsibility.
As I say, I have just come from a part of the country where there is much unrest among the farmers. I was present at three great meetings of farmers, one at Taunton, one at Bristol, and one at Frome. These questions were discussed with some heat, but throughout the whole of those discussions I never heard one word of protest against the increased wage to the farm labourer. There was a feeling, however, that the Government, somehow or other, did not seem to take care to inform itself as to the real position before it came to decisions affecting the livelihood of every one of these men. One word of warning. We do not want the Commission dealing with agriculture to take its example from the Coal Commission, in regard, I do not say the scamped way, but the hurried way, in which it did its work. In my part of the country, where there are a large number of coal mines, evidence from the owners was shut out because they were told that the date of reporting was 20th March, and the Commission had not time to hear them. It would be perilous to the agricultural interests of this country, with its great variety of conditions, if we were to have a similar experience when the Agricultural Commission set to work. We should take warning from the Coal Commission also in this respect, that members of the Commission themselves should not come to the inquiry with their minds in favour of a certain conclusion.
We are not talking of farmers alone, but of those capable of serving on a Commission. They should do it with knowledge, but not with absolutely pre-conceived opinions as to conclusions they must come to. I am sure the Government, in forming this Commission, will bear that in mind, and that the Coal Commission will be a warning as to the peril of taking any other course. I do not say you can get an absolutely unbiassed Commission, but Commissioners who are thoroughly sympathetic to the conception with which the Coalition party fought the election under the leadership of the Prime Minister. That conception was that the maintenance and security of British agriculture was a great and essential cause, and that we could not hope for the future of this country unless home production was increased, and those who worked on the land did so with some security for their livelihood.
I do not say anything of the sort, but I do most emphatically say that one of the planks of the programme on which the country voted so positively was this. British agriculture has been disgracefully neglected in the past. This country has suffered grave injury and almost the menace of starvation because of that neglect, and if the future of this country is to realise the hopes of its best friends and best citizens, agriculture must no longer suffer that neglect. I earnestly hope the farmers themselves will see the necessity of taking their share in this Commission. It will not do for the farming interest to be represented by witnesses who are not really representative of the industry. We have seen what has happened in the Coal Commission of witnesses coming forward who were not really able to inform the Commission on many vital points. I hope the farmers will in the selection of witnesses really try to get some departure from the sort of evidence we had at Exeter the other day on the vital milk question. It is hopeless to expect that you should have unanimity and, as a previous speaker has said, uniformity and inelasticity are deadly in a matter of this sort where you have such a vast variety of conditions to deal with. I strongly commend the Motion. Victor Hugo said, "Let us have light in floods; bats cannot face the dawn." I earnestly hope the Commission will at all events bring us somewhere nearer the dawn in regard to the agricultural position.
I am pleased that this question is likely to go to a Commission, and I hope the terms of reference will be as broad as possible. I am anxious that it should do so in order that the agricultural workers might have better consideration in the future than they have had in the past. I am not convinced that they have been paid the wages in the past, or are being paid the wages to-day, that the industry can afford. The cry that is put forward is the old cry of all employers, that the industry cannot pay the agricultural workers better wages. The same cry was put forward by the coal-owners, and that is why we got the Commission appointed. They said that they could not afford to pay the miners better wages, but the Commission proved absolutely that they could do so, and I am sure they can give the agricultural workers better conditions entirely than obtain today. No wonder the agricultural industry is in a bad state with the low wages and the long hours which the men have to work and the bad housing conditions. They are overworked and underpaid and ill-housed. Much has been said in regard to the great work the farmers have done for the nation. I do not want to belittle the work they have done, but there is another section. There are the allotment holders who have played a great part in producing the nation's food and saving us from famine. I know land that has been taken over. It could not have fed a cuckoo before, but the workers succeeded with great difficulty and fought against the landowners and the farmers. It will be said the agricultural industry is going to ruin. There are a lot of men in this country who, given the chance to work the land, will make it very prolific and better than it is to-day. There is no other solution unless the land becomes nationalised. We believe the time has come when it ought to be taken over by the nation.