Dumping of German Wheat.

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

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Photo of Mr R.A. Butler Mr R.A. Butler , Saffron Walden

Speaking, as I do in this House for the first time, let me assure hon. Members that I will not claim the attention of the House for a very long period, particularly as I am, I think, one of the younger Members, and therefore my experience cannot rival that of the other speakers on this Motion. My reason for rising is that I represent, I think, probably one of the most arable districts in England, a district in the neighbourhood of North Essex and Saffron Walden which has been extra-ordinarily struck by the unfairness of the competition of bounty-fed German cereals. I do not say for a moment that everybody in that district, farm workers or farmers, understands the economic reasons for the troubles which they are undergoing. I do not suppose that they understand any better than I do the complicated system of licences and import questions which affect the matter of bounty-fed cereals from Germany; but the facts of the case are stronger in a district like that than, I think, anybody has hitherto put before this House. The hon. Member for East Leicester (Mr. Wise), who made a speech which everyone very much admired, spoke of facts about the working classes of the country, and I intend to try to give some facts about the working classes of the district which I represent.

The workers and the farmers as well— they are both the working classes—are at the present moment undergoing, in arable districts, a worse time, I think, than any they experienced even during the bad period of agriculture in 1879. To appreciate that, one needs only to go round the district, in the villages, and in the very badly constructed cottages of lath and plaster, and to see the difficulties which arable cultivation imposes upon all workers at the present time. When they are told by the important organisations which give them their economic knowledge that they are suffering competition from other quarters which are subsidised by the Government of a foreign power, they begin to understand some of the unfairness of the treatment which is meted out to them. I have been astounded to-day that, though we heard from the Minister of Agriculture that he considers that this is one of the most serious and appalling problems, he had not one remedy to suggest. Of the only two suggestions which I have heard, one came from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Runciman), and the other came from the hon. Member for East Leicester.

The proposal of the right hon. Member for St. Ives I hope to deal with in a moment. As regards the proposal of the hon. Member for East Leicester, I should have felt a greater sense of confidence had his leader, the Minister of Agricul- ture, put forward that proposal from the Front Bench—if he agrees with the policy of stabilisation and the policy of an Import Board to purchase our wheat. If that is considered by a Member of the Labour party, and by so able a speaker as the hon. Member for East Leicester, to be a possible solution of the extremely difficult problem of cereal cultivation, then in my opinion, if the Minister of Agriculture considers that the situation and the problems are so appalling, he himself ought to have brought forward that scheme and not have put it off to a later date. I must confess to a very great sense of disappointment that the only once mentioned the question of stabilisation and did not develop that question, if he really considers that that is going to help wheat cultivation in this country.

I said that I would give the House some idea of the effects of the difficulties in an arable area. So great an authority as Sir Daniel Hall has told us that there is 16 per cent. less employment now among youths under 21 years of age entering upon their duties on the land, than there was in 1914. I know that at the present moment, in villages in North Essex, there is a very great deal of unemployment. In Hempstead near Saffron Walden and other villages unemployment is steadily increasing, and the increase is assisted by the prospect of prices not getting any better. These men, when unemployed, have absolutely nothing to look forward to; they have no insurance; they have to go on the parish, and hon. Members can imagine what effect that has upon a British working man, in whatever capacity he may work. That is all due to the failure to adopt a suitable policy for dealing with the problem of wheat growing. I maintain that the plough is mightier than the pen, just as the pen is mightier than the sword; and if we could follow the plough and follow the policy of the plough I believe that this country would be very much better off and that the problems of the arable districts would be relieved. So much for the policy suggested by the hon. Member for East Leicester. That policy could not have come from more eloquent lips, but I should have preferred it to have come from the lips of those responsible for the policy of his party.

As regards the policy suggested by the right hon. Member for St. Ives, he declared that the subject ought to be dealt with by international agreement, and I absolutely agree with him. I go further. I resent the ideas which have come from the opposite benches that we on these benches must adhere absolutely to theories which, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, may have been out of date a great many years ago. In the few short minutes at my disposal I want to try to show the House that, as a young Member on this side, I at least do feel that certain of the old theories are out of date, and that we must look to international agreement to settle the problems of British agriculture. I consider that without international agreement nothing can be done to remedy the problem of price. Price is the question which is at the bottom of all the problems of agriculture at the present moment. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Agriculture talking to us about stabilisation unless he promises to stabilise the price at a level higher than that existing now. Stabilisation at the present level would make absolutely no difference at all, nor would a difference in fluctuation. What we want to know is, is that stabilisation going to be at a much higher level than it is now?

What I believe would deal with this problem of the importation of foreign bounty-fed cereals to this country is an improvement of the conditions of agriculture in all the countries of the world by some international settlement. The hon. Member for East Leicester referred to his knowledge of Germany. I had the good fortune to travel through North Germany this summer, and I was able to see some of the problems myself. The situation in German agriculture has been practically as bad as that in British agriculture, and the situation in countries where there is a protective tariff, such as Switzerland or Australia, is very often just as bad. I do not necessarily look to Protection as a remedy for our troubles, but I honestly and sincerely think that if there were an international conference to deal with the problem of prices and of the gold standard, that would make a greater difference to agriculture than anything else.

If you study the history of the agricultural problem from 1879, which was the most serious time that English agriculture has known except the present time, you find that it was a problem of falling prices. The question of falling prices affects agriculture more than anything else owing to the lag in agricultural finance and because it is impossible to reduce further the costs of production by lowering wages, because they are too low already. Therefore, agriculture is very severely hit by falling prices, and that question can be dealt with by some international decision as regards the gold standard. If that suggestion is any good, coupled with the suggestion that the right hon. Gentleman should approach the Foreign Office with a view to finding out whether this proposal is against the provisions of the Geneva Conference, I believe that something on these lines internationally might help agriculture in Germany and here and all over the world, and improve the severe and terrible conditions which are existing in the arable districts of England.