Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

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

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Photo of Sir Francis Acland Sir Francis Acland , Cornwall Northern

Surely, one may have increased confidence in the future, and, at the same time, be heavily dipped in the past. My point is that we ought not to expect too much from the farmers too soon, but should realise that it will require, if prospects; improve, as we and they believe they are likely to improve, and a good time is coming, something more to be done to help them to get out of all these debts, rather than just wait for two or three years until they struggle out somehow, because the burden is very heavy indeed. Although the accusation is often made that they are paying low wages, most of them to-day would like to be able to pay higher wages if they were in a position to do so. People naturally say, You are getting so much more, why cannot you pay more?" The answer is to be found in the question of debt. On that matter the only thing that would be in order for me to suggest in this Debate is that there should be some systematic clearing up of the most burdensome of the burdens, no doubt through a.more active administration. of the, short-term credits Act. I have never pressed the more active, administration of that Act during the worst of the depression, because for some time at any rate the men who most needed credit were able to get it on reasonable terms, while the men who did not deserve it were better without it. Things are becoming rather different now. Whatever happens, the dificulty in regard to indebtedness ought to be recognised as a very real handicap to many farmers, and it will be a difficulty before them for years unless they can be helped in some organic and definite way, and will prevent them from doing at once what many people expect them to do, but which they cannot-really do.

In drawing the picture, I hope the Committee will recognise that I have not tried to blame the farmers. On the contrary, I think we ought to have a, feeling of admiration for the Way they have hung on, and the way they have been helped by, the merchants and others of the agricultural community in the extraordinary difficult times through which they have passed. We all know of the deterioration in the fertility and adaptability of their land and we want to help them to remedy that. We also want to help them to remedy what is, most glaringly known to be wrong with the balance of agricultural production, which is well illustrated by the last annual report of the Milk Marketing Board for the years up to 31st: March last. That report shows that of the total milk passing through the board, more than one-third went to the factories. Less than two-thirds was liquid milk, and more than one-third went to the factories. In order to get the best figure for my illustration, one has to take the Board of Agriculture's milk year, October to September, and sometimes the Milk Marketing Board year, from March to March, If we take these, figures, we find that in the first,milk year which was recorded 632,000,000 of liquid gallons were consumed. That figure has increased b 676,0000000 gallons, an increase in the liquid consumption of 38,000,000 gallons. We are all very grateful for that increased consumption, Which is due, no doubt, largely to the milk-in-schools scheme. On the other hand, we find that, whereas 211,000,000 gallons of milk went to the factory, the total has gone up to 342,000,000 gallons, an increase of 131,000,000 gallons to the factories compared with the increased consumption of 38,000,000 gallons of liquid milk.

The way that those figures strike the ordinary consumer is obvious. Whereas the factories can buy milk at three farthings a pint, or less, it is illegal for almost anybody else with very few exceptions, to buy any milk except at 3d. a pint or more. I know what has been and is being done and that in the last Milk Marketing Board year there has been an increase in liquid consumption of milk of 12,500,000 gallons, but there has been in the same year an increase in the factory consumption of 8,000,000 gallons, or two-thirds the liquid milk consumption, so that the figures are still going in the wrong direction. If something big cannot be done to increase the proportion of milk for human consumption as liquid milk, there will be very wide dissatisfaction among milk producers, because the large amount which goes to the factories is always bringing down their prices. There will also be dissatisfaction among the consumers.

Among other things, we ought to make up our minds whether we are to go on making factory butter and factory cheese. If we are, the sooner we begin to grade butter properly and try to get a proper reputation for it, the better it will be. The ordinary consumer knows little or nothing about English butter. There is so much talk about Danish, Australian or New Zealand butter. I cannot see why as soon as it begins to pay a farmer better to do something rather than produce milk, it should be considered necessary to supply the milk and butter factories with milk at an extraordinarily low price. Why should not the factories when contracts are revised be expected to pay as much for their milk as is paid by the cream factories, or the condensed milk or milk powder factories, who are paying a good deal more than the butter and cream factories?

There is one further subject which serves to illustrate my point in regard to debts. When one talks to farmers in North Devon, they often say that it would pay them to turn over again from milk to stock. There must be farmers in other parts of the country who are of the same opinion. I do not wonder at it, having regard to the price of good stores, but the difficulty is that many farmers have not the capital to take up stock again, because the raising of stock is a long-term method of pursuing agriculture, whereas milk brings in a quick return which they need in order to pay instalments to their creditors and keep things going. If anything can be done to remove that difficulty and to let things get on to a more even balance, instead of having the balance so definitely on the side of milk production and so much of the milk going to the factory, it would be very helpful. One of the inevitable results of having to do things piece-meal is that the industry gets out of balance and where that happens it is extremely difficult to bring it back again.

The difficulty in these Debates is to say what one wants to say without being too long. I should have liked to have spoken on grass drying, drainage, labour, the warble-fly, the smallholders and my particular favourites, the allotment holders, for whom I rather stand in this House, but I forbear from dealing with those subjects, and will content myself with referring to the question of egg production. This subject has been brought to our notice by the study of egg prices made by Mr. 0. J. Beilby on behalf of the Agricultural and Economic Research Institute at Oxford. The point that I want to emphasise is the very minor part played in regard to egg prices by the control of imports and the major part played by home production and home demand. It has been found, taking the figures from 1925 to 1935 and ignoring the seasonal fluctuations in the prices of eggs, that a 10 per cent. change in imports will produce a 3 per cent. change in prices, while a similar change in home production will affect the price by II per cent. and a 10 per cent. change in home demand would be responsible for a price change of 23½ per cent. That is very remarkable.

The only other figures that I would give are derived from Mr. Beilby's conclusion as to what would put up prices by 20 per cent. He concludes that it could be done either by an increase in demand through higher wages and increased employment to the extent of 84 per cent., which is surely not impossible, or by a reduction of imports of not less than 64 per cent. He adds, sensibly, that such a reduction probably would be impracticable and it is certain that it would be politically inexpedient. Therefore, a reduction of imports would not put matters right. I hope that fact will be appreciated by the egg producing industry, who have been stressing this point of decreased imports as if it were the only thing that would affect their prices, whereas obviously that is not so.

If all goes well with the agricultural industry, as we hope it will, if a return to better times really works out, and if debts can be in any way cleared up or lightened by getting rid of the heaviest ones, and substituting for them some charge which the banks will hold, and if the farmer is really to be in a position for the first time of being able to show the country what he can do with the help that we have been called upon to render to him, what will the good farmer need in that case and what will he welcome? I think there are two things. The first will be something in the way of a stimulus to do his best. Farmers are apt to be very imitative. They are apt to take things a little easy if they see other people doing the same. If some are allowed to drag along without taking advantage of their chances to make their farms more productive and produce better stuff, others will be tempted to do the same and not take risks. If, on the other hand, some farmers take advantage of the offers which the Ministry of Agriculture are making to them in regard to lime, superphosphate, drainage and other things, there will be an inclination for others to follow the same example.

The second point is that we can minimise the risks that farmers will have to face in the future. It is no use trying to stimulate a man who still feels insecure. I have always felt that farmers are very good men to lead, but very bad men to drive. If we are to minimise and deal with the farmer's risks, we must give him, if we can, more security, security not only in the matter of a reasonable level of prices, but security that, even if the estate is broken up, the farm will not part from him and his family, and that any increased effort that he puts forward will not be liable to be mopped up in the form of increased rent. All these vital matters of stimulus, security and credit, were really worked out for those who were willing to consider these matters impartially in the policy which the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and his colleagues put forward and which became and remains the policy of the Liberal party. I am sorry that such a policy was not put into operation years ago, but the time will come when we shall turn to such a policy as something which it is necessary to do. I thank the Committee for allowing me to put forward these matters. I think they will agree that they are of general interest, not matters which simply affect my own constituency, and that they are worth the attention of the Committee.