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 Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg , Altrincham

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman who spoke last re-referred to the case of the agricultural labourer. The question of agricultural wages is one of the most important in connection with the whole subject of agriculture at present. But I am sure the hon. Gentleman cannot have been serious in supposing that that subject is not of as much interest to Members on this side of the House as it is to those who sit with him. I myself intended to raise that question because, as it happens, I have been for some little time chairman of a county agricultural wages committee and about this time of year we are faced with the appalling difficulty of fixing next year's wages. As I have reason to know the representatives of the agricultural labourer will make a convincing case for an increase of wages and the representatives of the farmers will make an equally convincing case to show that they cannot afford an increase of any kind. That is the position which always faces agricultural wages committees at this time of year. I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Minister has not forgotten that problem and that when he referred to the necessity of helping the agricultural producers, he was thinking of the man who works on the land as much as of the man who farms the land.

I believe that the problem of wages is fundamental, and it brings us back to the question of the cost of farming in this country at the present time. It is true that the displacement of agricultural population has been compensated for to some extent by the improvement in mechanical methods of farming. But nothing can replace the skilled man on the land. If those skilled men continue leaving the land as they are doing at present, the next generation will not have them at all, and it is no answer to say that machinery will do the work. We have to guard against that possibility. In my part of the country, as in many others if not in all, the agricultural labourer is leaving the land because he gets better wages elsewhere. He goes to aerodromes or other public works of various kinds and he will never come back. Therefore, the question of agricultural wages is urgent and must be dealt with. How is it to be dealt with? My right hon. Friend in his most interesting speech, on which I congratulate him wholeheartedly, dealt with the possibility of reducing the costs of production in agriculture, and mentioned some of the directions in which those costs might be reduced. He did not, however, mention one all-important direction and I was very glad to hear the subject of agricultural debt raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cornwall (Sir F. Acland).

I believe that is one of the factors which is telling most heavily against the farmer at the present time. It is not that all farmers are bankrupt but that they have not the working capital or the long-term capital to enable them to show all the resource, energy and inventiveness which is theirs. In every other country in the world, certainly in every Dominion, certainly in the United States, certainly in every European country that can afford it, there is a system of government cheap credit for agriculture and particular attention has been paid to it in recent years. I do not say that the question has been entirely neglected here. The Conservative Government in 1928 passed the Agricultural Credits Act. I need not trouble the House with figures, though there are very serious figures on the point, in order to show that that Act has not produced the expected effect. I think the Agricultural Mortgages Corporation has raised altogether about £10,000,000. £8,000,000 of it at 5 per cent. and £2,000,000 at 4½ per cent., and they lend back to the farmer at about that rate. That is no good to the farmer. The interest is far too high and I think the fact that the Corporation is not doing for the farmer what it was intended to do is proved by the fact that it has less out at the present time than it had four or five years ago. I believe it is a grave reflection upon the government of this country that so many other countries should have dealt with this question of agricultural credits during the crisis and that we should have ignored it for so long.

I have only dealt so far with long-term credit but as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Cornwall said, there is also the question of short-term credit. It is no blame to the dealer, and it is no blame to the farmer, but the farmer is far too much in the hands of the dealer, and it is a bad system altogether. It means that the dealer does not get cash, which he would much prefer, and it means that the farmer also suffers in the deal because he pays too much for his stuff and has to sell before the time. Another factor in regard to short-term credit is that, so far as I can make out from personal inquiries from farmers, they are going in more and more for the hire purchase system to get the things they want, That is a terribly expensive process; it is a very dangerous thing for the farmer to get into debt that way, and this burden upon the farming industry is increasing all the time.

There are many hon. Members who want to speak, and I do not want to keep the Committee too long, but I beg the Government to admit the fact that there is a case for inquiry into the question of working capital and long-term capital for agriculture at the present time, and to initiate such an inquiry. I believe that the National Farmers' Union has been trying to make an inquiry. I came across many evidences of the lack of credit facilities when I was chairman of the first Milk Reorganisation Commission. What is certain is that these facts will not be established except by a Commission appointed by the Government, and nobody else can really get at the facts. I say no more than to state my conviction that there is a case for investigation. What the answer may be I do not know, but I beg the Government to consider it for some very special reasons.

In the first place, inasmuch as we are committed to a policy of subsidies, let us recognise the fact that it is better not to subsidise agriculture by commodities but rather to subsidise the land. When you subsidise commodities, you are always upsetting the equilibrium of agriculture. What you do in one direction may do some good, but it may do harm in another, and the whole delicate equilibrium of this most delicate industry is constantly upset. Subsidise the land and give the farmer facilities to use his skill upon that land to produce whatever may be best for the market and for his own particular conditions.