Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 7th June 1937.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir Francis Acland Sir Francis Acland , Cornwall Northern

I beg to move, to reduce the Vote by £100.

I think we shall all be very glad that this Vote was put down, and I congratulate the Minister on having got a very great deal into a comparatively short space of time. He was trying, if not to justify the ways of God to man, at any rate to assert the policy of his Ministry and to justify the ways of the farmer to the general community with the aim, which I imagine underlay what he said, of establishing a better understanding between town and country. I should like to tell the Committee of an incident which touched me very much a day or two ago. It was an account in the "News Chronicle "of an experiment which was made by the education authority of London in sending boys from one of the London schools out once a week to an ordinary green field in the country, and the writer of the account reported what some boys who came from Finsbury, thought about it. One said, "I like the sunshine. It is fine to hear the birds whistling, and to see nice trees." Another said, "The thing that I like best is the sunshine and sleeping in the sun when it is warm." It seemed to me rather a reflection on this town in which we work that sunshine should be so novel to these town boys. To me that little incident typifies the importance of contact between town and country, and what a lot of simple things the country really has to give back to the town, if only things can be properly managed, in return for the rather large sums of money and other things which our general population, which is mainly urban, has been asked to devote to agricultural matters, and will be asked to devote in the future.

I agree with the Minister in the restrained optimism of his survey and in the hopes that better times seem likely to come. The figures that struck me most, which were available to me and which do not really differ at all from his, were the index numbers of prices of agricultural commodities, allowing for the wheat and cattle subsidies, for the five years 1933–37. The January figures for these five years, compared with pre-war, 100, are 111, 119, 124, 125, and, this January, 133. The May figures are even more remarkable—105, 116, 117, 120, and, this May, 136. Those are interesting in several ways. There was a comparatively small rise between 1934 and 1936 in the May figures—one is glad that there was any rise at all—but there was that small rise in spite of the rather big and expensive things that the nation was being called upon to do. One sees the much quicker rise when one gets into the period of comparative national prosperity this year, a rise of no less than 16 points, and lastly—this struck me as of special importance as an augury for the future—while in the four years to 1936 there was a fall of six, three, seven and five points between January and May, this year, for the first time, there has been a rise between January and May of three points—from 133 to 136.

That illustrates a point that I have put before the Committee a good many times, that the farmer has far more in the long run to hope for, and is likely to get far more, from a general rise in the prosperity of the country than from anything that he is likely to gain from such measures of protection and subsidies as even a Government such as the present is likely to propose. The comparison between January and June suggests, what we all hope is true, that the improvement has come to stay for a fair time, at any rate, and that is borne out when one looks at the detailed figures of the particular commodities, because one finds, comparing May, 1935, with May, 1937, that there has been an improve- ment in every commodity. The only two which have remained rather steady are hay—anyone who remembers the quality of last season's hay crop will not be surprised at that—and store pigs, and that is natural, too, because people do not know at present what the scheme for pigs is to be. With regard to hay, it seems to me that the prospects are certainly better, because this year there have been violent attacks of fever, whereas last year there was no hay and consequently no hay fever. I would rather have it the other way round from the producer's point of view. The corresponding figure for rent is not 136 compared with l00, but 90–10 per cent. below pre-War. The corresponding figure for wages—I rejoice at the increase—is 185 compared with 100 pre-War. I do not want from that to argue anything in favour of the landlord class, but it comes into a matter to which I will refer presently.

I want to put before the Committee rather a large scale argument, which, I hope, they will be kind enough to criticise if they do not agree with it. I am not, in developing it, going to make any party point, but wish to consider something which goes rather deep. I will put seven points, each in a sentence. First, things are better—that is obvious; second, prospects are better—that is a fair deduction, and to the extent that these two facts are due to the action of the Government, I would like fairly to acknowledge that that is so. These higher wholesale prices will be reflected in retail prices and the costs of food, which have alraedy risen, will rise still more if the increase which has recently taken place goes on. To make a complete picture of my figures, I will give figures again, compared with the pre-War 100. The figure in May of this year was 136, as a matter of fact the same figure as the wholesale price, compared with 126 in May of last year and 118 in 'May of the year before. A rise all round of nearly 20 points in two years, nearly one-sixth, or 2d. in the shilling is a serious thing, particularly for the unemployed and to those with small means. [An HON. MEMBER: "And on the means test."] I mean the unemployed and those who are on the means test. That is the point.

My next point is that people in the towns will be inclined to become fairly impatient and discontented with the amount of help which they consider they are giving to the agricultural industry, and they will be inclined to ask two questions: What are we getting in the shape of better service in return; and to what extent are the better conditions for the farmer, as we see them, getting through to the agricultural worker? Unless these questions can be answered and the answers are easy to understand, the edifice which this House has been gradually building up during the last few years, and to which the Minister is going to add another storey in the policy about which he has told us something to-day, will tend to become unstable; and all these subjects will become matters of acute controversy, and uncertainty and insecurity will tend to take the place of the feeling of greater security which is now at last really beginning to get hold of the farmer, and which is so essential.

Lastly, as the result of that uncertainty, farmers will tend to play for safety, and there will not really be any obvious recordable effect of the policies with regard to fertilisers and other things which the Minister, rightly, is going to put forward, and, therefore, there will not be any recordable improvement in the service that the country can render to the towns, or, in the matter of national safety, which the Minister also mentioned, not to-day but before, as one of the main objects of his policy. Of course, if there is no real improvement of services, that will intensify the likelihood of these things becoming controversial matters, and the question of the continuation or the repeal of subsidies, and so on, will get into the middle of party politics, which is just where I hope none of us wish to see it, if it can possibly be avoided. Those who have been in touch with feeling in their constituencies, whether rural or urban, will realise that, taking the long view, the anxiety which I have expressed is not simply a night-mare One does feel it, and it may become a very real possibility. I would like to give one example. A man wrote to me from a small town in my division saying: I think, quite truthfully, that prices of meat, except that of the otherwise utterly condemnable rabbit, were getting quite beyond what poorer people could afford. He was referring to the unemployed people in that neighbourhood. He brought up with some bitterness all the ordinary points which one knows so well against farrners—the low wages, and the fact that they take in summer visitors and yet their farmhouses are not rated in anything like the smile way as the ordinary lodging houses which also take in summer visitors, and all the other things with which one is So familiar. I want those who are alive to that to follow me a step further. I want to make a point which seems to apply entirely in the direction of the farmer in considering his difficulty in giving a sort of return that he would like to give for what we are trying to do for him in wages.