Orders of the Day — Cattle Industry (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 17th July 1936.

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Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

We have had a fairly long Debate on this Bill, and I wish to say at the outset to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite that the responsibility for any failure to conclude the Debate earlier must not lie at our doors. We were willing to take a Division earlier, and that would have been done, but for the pressure of hon. Members in other parts of the House. With regard to the Debate as a whole, I think the Minister has probably had as much criticism from his own side of the House as from this side, if not more. While there were points of criticism in the speeches of some of my hon. Friends on this side they did, at least, show rather more sympathy with some aspects of the policy adumbrated by the Minister than others who have spoken in the Debate. I think the Minister will see from the views expressed in all parts of the Chamber to-day that he will have to do a considerable amount of intensive thinking between now and the introduction of his long-term policy, if he is to get anything like the support which he desires for his cattle policy.

The more I hear of these Debates upon agricultural subsidies the more I feel that the Minister, however good his heart may be towards agriculture, is getting himself into deeper and deeper waters. He cannot go on as he is going, taking sections of agriculture stage by stage and satisfying nobody, with each stage of his policy only creating new difficulties within the industry with which he is afterwards faced. It seems to me, looking back over his policy in that connection, that it has almost been like a policy of Alice in Wonderland. The Minister makes one of his most characteristic grimaces at that remark. I am not complaining. These particular characteristics are Most useful to the caricaturist, and I have seen evidences of that fact in print more than once.

The hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) was insistent that apparently all the various sections of subsidy in agriculture that the Minister has followed have had no guiding principle. That is a charge that is made in the main from these benches. Not that I, personally, think that subsidies at any time are good for industries of this character. I think they are only artificial and only composed, as it were, of dope, and that the more dope you give the patient, the more dope the patient wants. While that is so, if you are going finally to embark upon a policy of subsidy, surely you ought to have a guiding principle in relation to that subsidy which is applicable to the whole of the industries affected. That certainly has not happened. If you take the actual policy of the Government in that matter, what do you find? You have subsidies on sugar—a very heavy subsidy—on bacon, by indirect means—and a very heavy subsidy, which does not go to the British farmer at all, but to the foreign exporter to this country—on milk, and on wheat. The last, as I gather, is about the only one of the whole lot which conforms to the principle laid down by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell), and that is that it carries with it a stabilised price for the actual article which it is intended to subsidise, but in the case of the other subsidies there is no guiding principle at all. In the end you find the agriculturists throughout the country looking askance at each other, with very great jealousy in some cases, with great resentment against the Government in other cases, and with no satisfaction.

I think that is a very great pity, because, remember, first of all the taxpayer is being charged. Do not for a moment think that this policy of subsidies is going on without the Exchequer having to pay. Make no mistake about that. The second thing is that the consumer in certain cases is also being asked to pay, and pretty heavily, and in these circumstances what I warn the Government representatives in this House to-day about is that the way they are going on, the way they are backing their Government in little bits of make-belief in agricultural policy, will drive the agricultural industry into exactly the same position as it was in over the Corn Production Act, 1920. What is really happening is that, by unsatisfactory stages of subsidies to agriculture, you are getting a charge made upon the Exchequer in some cases and on the consumer in other cases. Finally, you will get such an outcry from the two sources, from the consumer and from the taxpayer, that unless you get, as I hope you will, a Socialist Government in, the meantime who will approach it with a proper majority and be able to reconstruct the whole business, you will get a cry, not from these benches but from the capitalists, on exactly the same lines as the cry that went up for the setting up of the Geddes Committee and the scrapping of all the special methods of subventions from the Treasury or from the consumer; and you will get a Geddes committee in its modern form destroying all you have done.

Agriculturists themselves ought to see at once that that can be of no lasting benefit to them. They ought to see something else about this matter. This policy of subsidy to a particular section of the industry is only a part of the mad economic policy which the Government are following. One would think, to hear some of the hon. Members who represent agriculture, that this giving out of money here and there, either directly from the Treasury or indirectly from the consumer, to the agriculturists is all that is going on. The more you examine the position of the farmer to-day, however, the more you see that he is as much handicapped by other sections of the Government's economic policy as he is helped temporarily by the policy of subsidies. I know full well from my own experience of the Government's fiscal policy in other matters that the farmer is having his costs of production put up on the one hand while being handed a dole on the other. He is getting direct impositions of taxation on his foodstuffs and on the essential ingredients of his oil-cake. He is having heavy taxes on all the machinery that he uses. A White Paper is at this moment before Parliament asking for an increase still further of the tax upon the most modern type of tractor.

It does not matter which way you look, whether at artificial manures or at seeds. There are some exceptions in the case of seeds I am glad to see, but if you look all round it is seen that every ounce of benefit that the farmer thinks he is getting from direct subventions and subsidies, or from contributions from the consumer, is being offset by the other contributions which he himself has to make. It is so with all the other subsidies. The farmer was relieved of a large part of the rates upon agricultural land and the like, but the agricultural community as a whole are gradually having what they gained in that way taken from them by the Acts of the Government. They have now an increased charge for all the secondary roads because of the raids on the Road Fund, a fund earmarked for that particular purpose. The more I look at the policy of the Government, the more mad I think it must be on the part of any in- dividuals who in this House represent private enterprise and the ultimate triumph of private profit to continue to support the present Minister of Agriculture. From the point of view of maintaining the principles of private enterprise and private profit, it seems to me that every day he continues in that important office the Minister of Agriculture is making it more impossible for the system ever to have a lasting basis. The Minister may be the first to say that should suit me, because I want to see this system of private profit ended altogether.

What I do object to is that the general taxpayer and the consumer should be charged with this special subsidy, not for the purpose of making the great change-over to a decent and normal basis of organisation for agriculture, but for the maintenance temporarily of the private profit system, however uneconomical that may be. A good deal was said in to-day's debate and the debate on Monday as to the futlity of giving subventions and subsidies before there is actual reorganisation of the industry. I do not join with those who have criticised the Minister because he has not, as it were, forced a marketing scheme of itself upon the farming community. Under present legislation If do not think it is possible for him to force a marketing scheme on them, but I do complain that there has not been enough drive towards the reorganisation of the central slaughtering arangements and marketing arrangements I think that while the administration of this subsidy scheme which we are continuing was excellently carried out by the officials in detail, there has been a tendency towards keeping back sound and well organised marketing for the future.

With the statements made by the hon. Member for East Aberdeen about markets I entirely agree. I remember when some of us were asked, as representatives of both the consumers and of the butchery trade, to collaborate with the Ministry in setting up the machinery that we protested strongly against the enthronement of the auctioneer in the administration of the scheme. What my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg said about auction markets applies not merely to people who make a "ring" against a particular lot of bullocks which have been brought to market, but to the whole system of having to rely on the highest bidder at any particular time in order to get a price. If you are to have a definite basis of organisation of marketing you ought to eliminate the auction principle and have a definite marketing arrangement between the main distributive trades and the consumers' organisation and the producers themselves. It may be that you cannot get that working effectively until there is a system of centralised slaughtering. I do not go so far as to say that the remarks of the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) with regard to slaughtering arrangements in the debate on the Financial Resolution are fully justified. I should say he went a little too far in criticising the lack of progress in centralised slaughtering. I could take him to a centralised slaughtering place at Leytonstone in which the whole economic lay-out could justify itself, from the meat as finally presented to the consumer down to the use of the last ounce of every by-product from the beasts.

I do not think he could say that in some parts, at any rate, there was not progress, but seeing that this subsidy has been going on for two years, and in spite of repeated warnings from myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams), there has been very little progress made in this matter. Perhaps while I am speaking a plan for centralised slaughtering in the South East of London is being considered, and local vested interests are being allowed to oppose it being set up. At present there are no adequate powers on the Statute Book to enable the Government to come in behind us and see that the improvement is put into operation. In the light of this temporary subsidy, we have a complaint against the Minister for being so slow in moving towards that reorganisation of slaughtering, and therefore obtaining an economic price for the producer for his finished product.

I am conscious that time is going very rapidly. After the length of the Debate to-day, the Minister ought to have adequate time to reply. I hope that he is not going to get away with that quick, short sort of speech which he gave us on Monday. [Interruption.] I am not complaining, and perhaps I did not put it quite fairly. He did give as much as he could to all hon. Members, but there were specific questions put to him on Monday, in regard to what was the price factor to be operated in the long-term policy, and how he was going to base his policy of quality production, to which we ought to have had some answer. We ought to have an answer this afternoon to specific questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley as to the effect of the subsidy, which we are asked to renew to-day, upon the price. I am still in a quandary on that figure, as to what is the real average of the prices six months before the operation of the subsidy and six months after, when you average them between first and second qualities. I accept, from the printed paper at any rate, the view of my hon. Friend, which supports the general view which I have had in examining our business from week to week, that, since the subsidy was introduced, prices have, in the main, fallen very nearly to the amount of the subsidy.

While you have the auction market, and rings which operate in the market, if, for the last year or two before the subsidy came in, they were accustomed to get for their first quality about 42s. or 44s., what is the natural psychological reaction in the market? When they come to bid in the ring for a beast, they will say; "We gave 38s., but he will still be getting the same 43s. as he was getting three or four months before", and the tendency will be to bid upon that basis. This is, therefore, not a good plan for assisting agriculture. My hon. Friend's question, put both on Monday and to-day, about the price, therefore seems very important indeed, and we ought to have some answer about it. If that is the position, there is a strong case for the Minister to answer. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and the hon. Member for East Aberdeen put the point that if you must have subventions you ought to arrange that the subvention goes to the people whom it is intended to help, and they must either be at a fixed price, or if it is impossible to have a fixed price, you must arrange that they are not going to aggravate the consumer. If you aggravate the consumer, you lose your market.

Let me say, in conclusion, that here is the pouring out of money on no organised or decent basis, and without any means test. We hear of the dire state of this or that section of the agricultural in- dustry, but every month the "Land Worker" prints, as regularly as clockwork, lists of farmers who have passed beyond and whose estates have been proved for probate. They are in such a poor state that they are always on the point of financial bankruptcy, and always ready to come to the Government hat in hand; let us see how they have turned out. Here is one estate in Essex, valued at £71,000—not bad—[An hon. Member: "What did he start with?"] Some of these people started with a great deal less than they finished with. Here is another in Perthshire—I give the localities to show that the distribution is fairly wide—of £55,000. Then there are others in Lincolnshire, £38,000; Argyllshire, £35,000; Midlothian, £35,000; Lancashire, £30,000; Hertfordshire, £27,000; Lincolnshire again, £25,000; Huntingdonshire, £22,000, and so I might go on reading from that trade union journal's lists every month of probate returns of farmers in this country, showing that they are by no means that down-trodden, submerged tenth of the population who need to come cap in hand to this House for special subventions.

It is perfectly true, of course, that, as in every other industry, you will find some farmers who go in quite the opposite direction and file their petitions, but I am pointing out these facts because here we have another proposal to vote £3,000,000 this year, and £5,000,000 next year, on the top of all the other millions, absolutely without any means test, without any question of checking up what the income is or what the final result will be, while at the same time you have regulations imposing the meanest possible test upon every working-class family who unfortunately suffer from their unemployment benefit running dry—a mean family test, on almost every penny that they spend. At the same time we are to be asked willingly and without hesitation to hand out behind the Government these millions month after month to this and other industries. Indeed, I think that one of the great Bills which this Government ought to bring in before it comes to the end of its existence is a Consolidation Bill. It ought to bring in a Bill for the consolidation of all the subsidies passed by and voted by this Government. If all the subventions and subsidies of this Government, a large proportion of which we are asked to renew this afternoon, were put into a Consolidation Bill, the country would at last begin to weigh up and understand how rotten indeed is "the state of Denmark" in this matter in this country.

We were turned out in 1931 on the plea that we had let the country into a financial crisis. [HON. MEMBERS "Hear, hear!"] I am glad to hear that cheer, for there is not a single element, from the purely Exchequer point of view, in the financial position in this country today, on which all the charges made against Labour in 1931 could not be made against the present Government—a very adverse trade balance, a mounting adverse trade balance; reckless expenditure in subventions and doles given out every day to all classes of industry: heavy increases of taxation; 4s. 9d. in the £ Income Tax; £80,000,000 a year increase in Customs and Excise duties; taxation mounting day by day; unlimited expenditure proposed. Every item in the count against the Labour Government exists in the present state, but because on this occasion the doles are being given to the friends of the Government all is well. I believe the country will yet wake up to the fact that they are being once more duped because, as the Minister said on Monday, he would manage the Division on the Money Resolution and he would also manage the Election as he had managed it before. If he goes on in the same way, his tiny majority at Kelvingrove will be gone altogether.