Dumping of German Wheat.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 30th October 1929.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir George Newton Sir George Newton , Cambridge

I beg to second the Motion.

It is, perhaps, only natural that we on this side of the House, who take a deep interest in the welfare of the agricultural community and the prosperity of what we regard as the most important industry in this country, should welcome the opportunity which this Motion gives to us of raising this question in the House and of drawing the attention of the Minister of Agriculture to the serious menace which has been occasioned to the industry of agriculture in this country as the result of the dumping of bounty-fed cereals in our home markets. This new development of foreign policy has assumed alarming proportions, and has already done enormous harm to cur home producers in their local markets. Farmers and smallholders alike have found and are continuing to find it difficult enough to face competition in the markets of the world and to compete against world prices, but I do not think that anyone can expect them to face bounty-fed imports landed in this country in competition with their produce.

My hon. Friend indicated the magnitude of this question. He told the House how the imports had grown from 22,500 quarters last year to no less than 590,000 quarters this year. That is not a five-fold, or even a twenty-five-fold increase, but something more even than that. This great change has been brought about by the simple process of providing the German exporter of protected home-grown wheat with a licence to import an equivalent quantity of the foreign wheat which Germany requires for mixing with her wheat to make the loaf palatable and in accordance with the demands and wishes of her people. The exporting German farmer does not even have to take the trouble to become an exporter himself, for he is able to sell the certificate which he obtains for the export of his wheat, so that he is saved all trouble and the process is very simple so far as he is concerned.

The question that we would ask of right hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House is: When is the British farmer to be protected against unfair foreign competition of this nature, what steps do the Government propose to take, and when do they propose to take those steps? There is no reason to believe that the limit in this matter has yet been reached; in fact there is every reason to believe that, bad as the situation is now, unless steps are taken in the near future it will very soon become a great deal more acute and difficult. Seven shillings and six- pence per quarter in 1925 has risen to a bounty of 10s. 8d. per quarter now, and we are told that that bounty of 10s. 8d. per quarter will next year, 1930, be still further increased to a figure of 15s. per quarter. The benefit to the importer has risen, and apparently it is to continue to rise. The consuming public have not gained as the result of these imports; the price of the loaf has not, so far as one can see, been affected; but the interests of the British agriculturists have, we claim, been deeply injured.

I would like to remind the House of the statistics which are published by the Ministry of Agriculture so far as they relate to the production of wheat in this country. In them we find that in 1927 the acres devoted to the cultivation of wheat were 1,635,980. In 1928 that figure fell to 1,395,000. That is a very considerable decline, but when we look at the average decline during the last ten years we find that it amounts to 465,000 acres, or an average fall of 25 per cent. Those are striking figures, which must arrest our attention, and we cannot sit still with folded arms and half-closed eyes and refuse to consider the writing on the wall. The arable area in the Eastern counties has been helped recently by the introduction of the sugar beet policy, and in that matter all agriculturists would like also to thank hon. Members opposite for what they did to establish the new industry of sugar beet. It is perhaps not too much to say that, without it, arable agriculture in that area would have collapsed altogether. It is of the greatest importance that arable agriculture should be continued on a satisfactory basis. A hundred arable acres employ three men, and 200 acres of grass only employ one man. That is sufficient to show how very important it is to keep as much of our land under the plough, in arable agriculture, as possible. In answer to a question to-day the Parliamentary Secretary stated, perhaps with some measure of pardonable pride, that 100,000 acres of land were going to be drained. What is the use of draining land to bring it into a state of arable cultivation if you are not able to cultivate it at a profit?

I should like now to refer to the world position of wheat. In this connection, I would venture to advocate the perusal of the Report on the Marketing of Wheat in England and Wales recently issued by the Ministry. It is one of a series of Orange Books which contain most valuable and helpful information. It shows that the world acreage devoted to wheat is some 280,000,000, and, of that acreage, about 45 per cent. is grown in Europe and in North America 28 per cent. and in Asia about 12 per cent. The yield naturally varies from year to year and from country to country. In the five years average, 1923 to 1927, Australia is shown as producing some 6¾ cwts. per acre, Canada produces a yield of 9 cwts. an acre and the United States 7¾ cwts. If we turn to Europe, where the conditions are not so dry as in the United States, we find that France produces 11 cwts. Per acre, Germany 14¾, and Great Britain has the proud record of producing 17½ cwts. per acre. Therefore in the matter of wheat production our agriculturists— and I think we are entitled to say it with pride—lead the world. The view I am expressing is also given in the Orange Book, in which it is stated: The quality of the cereals grown in this country ranks high. Our wheat is good. Compared with the average product from abroad it is cleaner, sweeter and more palatable. It is free from insect pests, such as weevils, and yields a high percentage of flour of first-class colour and flavour. I think therefore it is worth while encouraging wheat production. So far as feeding our people is concerned, the British farmer produces the best, and has done and is doing the best by the workers on the land. It is significant to note, taking the British Empire as a unit, that wheat production largely exceeds Empire requirement and that there is a considerable surplus grown within the Empire for export to other countries. For every reason the British farmer should be given fair play. In Germany the hours of labour are longer, rates of pay are not so good and the conditions of employment are less favourable than in this country. I hope it will be held that the prosperity of British agriculture and the welfare of our country stands in a field by itself, in a domain outside party politics. I do not know how far hon. Members opposite are prepared to translate their words into deeds and how far they are prepared to implement the promises they made during the General Election. A manifesto was issued by the Labour party under the title of "A Labour Appeal to the Nation." It was signed by the highest officials and members of the party, including the Prime Minister. The burden of the manifesto was that farming must be made to pay. The Parliamentary Secretary, in a speech at the Agricultural Hall, on 23rd September, said: The main cause of the depression in agriculture in this country was that the industry had not been on an economic basis. The producer had not received for his produce enough to cover the cost of production and leave him a fair margin of profit. Therefore it was intended to do what was necessary to secure to the producer a fair price for his produce. That leads me to hope that agriculture may, in some of its aspects at any rate, be looked at from a non-party point of view.

There are two questions that may be asked by hon. Members opposite. One is, "Why did you not take some steps to deal with the matter when you were in office?" That is a very natural and proper question to ask but the figures which my hon. Friend has quoted show— when the Conservative party was in office and when a General Election was impending, and it is always difficult to do much under such circumstances—this question appeared only as a small black cloud on the political horizon. Since then it has developed into a serious matter. Then, again, it may be said that, if any steps are taken to remedy the grievance, "your food will cost you more." I venture to challenge that statement and to say that that will not be the case. There are many intermediaries between the farmer in his own homestead who cultivates the soil and grows the wheat and the housewife who buys the bread. The damage which has been done to the agricultural producer, to the farmer, and the smallholder under this foreign bounty importing scheme has not been reflected in any commensurate advantage to the housewife. I think that in this case at any rate to help the farmer will not raise the price of the loaf to the consumer. Moreover surely I am right in believing that every hon. Member opposite is a Freetrader. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I take it then that nearly every Member is a Freetrader. If that is so surely the belief involves a rooted opposition to bounty fed imports. Therefore, to be logical, they ought to do something to meet this difficulty.

If this position continues unchecked, I think it will not be long before the British consumer will be left high and dry at the mercy of the foreign seller. I know that it is true that the British agriculturist does not produce a very large proportion of the wheat which is required by this country or which is required in the world, but at any rate what he does produce has the effect of being a balancing factor. We have reason to believe that home grown wheat has more than once tended to stabilise world prices and nullify the operation of some of the speculators in the Chicago wheat pit and elsewhere.

The large imports of German wheat have produced a glut in our market. It used to be said that a fair week's pay for the agricultural worker was the value of a sack of wheat. I sincerely hope that that standard will never be reverted to if conditions continue as they are, because low as wages are now they would be still lower if the value of a sack of wheat were to be taken as the measure of a week's pay for the agricultural worker. I think that this question is not only a farmer's question and a smallholder's question but it is also a labourer's question. It will soon be an employment question and as my hon. Friend the Member for Tam-worth (Sir E. Iliffe) has pointed out it will be one more job for the Lord Privy Seal. Surely his hands are full enough already. I think that the damage which is being done to British agriculturalists is generally admitted. The policy of dumping is tending to make the wheat production of this country nugatory. Farmers are deeply concerned at the present conditions. They have made representations by deputation and other-wise to the Minister of Agriculture. They at any rate hold and I think fairly hold that conditions not less favourable than those which should obtain under a Free Trade policy must be restored to the agricultural industry. As to the nature of the remedy, a suggestion has been put forward to meet the difficulty, but I will not go over that ground again. I will conclude by thanking the House for the patient hearing which they have given to me and expressing the hope that the Minister will be able satisfactorily, promptly, and effectively to find a remedy for the difficulty which has arisen in such an acute form.