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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Mr. Owen Evans:

I happen to represent a purely agricultural constituency, and not only that, but, although I have lived in other districts for many years, I have kept in close touch with agricultural conditions in Wales, and I can claim that, as I have followed my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) in many other respects, I have followed him also in this respect, that I have gone in for farming. I do not know, but I think that the results of my experience have proved to my neighbours that I could make a reasonable profit or else an accountable loss, and, after all, to say that you are making an authenticated or accountable loss means that at any rate you know, or hope to know, why the loss is made and what is its cause. I believe that one thing that is required in agriculture to-day is a close investigation of farming organisation and returns, in order to show whether the losses which farmers suffer now, and have suffered for many years, can be traced to some cause which can be removed.

When I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin), it seemed to me that he was endeavouring to be all things to all men. At one time he found great difficulty in following the policy which he now advocates in this House. In considering agricultural policy, we have to consider what the real policy is. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) drew particular attention to the conditions of the agricultural labourer, and I am not surprised that he put them in the forefront of his speech. But my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen omitted any reference to the conditions of the labourer. I leave it at that, and leave his speech to be dealt with by those Members of his party who are really anxious to put the position of the farm worker in the forefront of their arguments.

The Labour party pride themselves on having put on the Statute Book an Act for fixing the wages of agricultural labourers. They deserve great credit for that, but they must not forget that these tribunals or wages boards which have been set up are, after all, acting in a quite independent capacity. Some years ago in Cheshire the agricultural wages board fixed the wages at 25s., but in the same county to-day the wages have been fixed at 34s. I do not know that the Minister of Agriculture, or any other Minister, has any power to influence the decision of that board. I assume that these wages boards arrive at their decisions as fairly as they can, having regard to the claims of the agricultural worker and the means at the disposal of the farmer.

In my county, which is a poor county, the land that is being farmed is not first-class land at all. I suppose that inside my county there is no such thing as a first-class acre of land comparable in quality with the land that is to be found in England. We have good land, we have second-class land, we have third-class land, we have fourth-class land. Our farmers are hardy, and hard workers; they are as stem and dour as any farmers in Scotland; they are pretty determined, and they manage to make a living out of the poor land in that county; but even there there are farmers who have to pay a higher wage to their agricultural labourers than the actual statutory wage fixed by the board, and I believe we shall see a time of greater scarcity of really well-equipped, efficient, skilled agricultural labourers, when the farmer will have to pay a higher wage in order to retain those men, if he can afford to do so. But, unfortunately, it still remains doubtful whether agriculture is sufficiently prosperous to be in a position to pay those higher wages over and above the amounts fixed by the wages board.

I think one can say that, whatever charge may be brought against His Majesty's Government in regard to agriculture, the charge of inactivity cannot be brought against them, because there have been, I suppose, more debates and discussions on agriculture in this House during recent years than there have been for a very long period before. Indeed, one might say that the policy of the Government, if they have a policy, has not only been an active one, but a somewhat adventurous one in many respects, because they have reversed in a short space of time what was the accepted policy of the country in regard to food. The policy of having the markets of the country opened widely to supplies from other countries, which were to be paid for by the products of the mines and manufactured goods, gave us freedom to buy in the cheapest market. That policy has been done away with, not on economic grounds, but for political and social reasons.

The argument for abandoning that policy may be summarised in this way, that it is a necessity to maintain a successful agricultural industry to support a virile rural population, and there is also the consideration of defence in the case of war. For these kinds of reasons we are asked to regard the exclusion of cheap food from other countries, produced under more suitable climatic conditions, as a national gain. It is the same sort of argument that, if I go to a bazaar and buy a pound of butter, because of the good object for which the bazaar is held, I am likely to be asked to pay 10 or 25 per cent. more than the price of butter in the local grocer's shop. That is regarded as a good deed in support of a good cause, and it is a similar sort of argument that we are asked to accept, that we have abandoned the policy of freedom of trade in food for considerations not economic, but political and social. As far as one can judge, that policy will continue for a long time, and it is better for us to know that it is going to be continued than for the farmer to wonder how long it is going to last.

If there is one thing that is necessary for agriculture, as for any other industry, it is some security of continuity of policy, and therefore, it is better that we should know that even the alternative Government to this, according to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, will pursue a higher Protectionist policy than even the right hon. Gentleman and, if he represents the view of his colleagues, there can be no doubt that this policy will be continued. Apart from what the hon. Member says, there can be no doubt in view of the declared policy of leaders of the Labour party to establish boards to control imports of food, and exports as well, because if you control imports you must control exports. Therefore, the policy that they advocate must, of necessity, mean restriction and quotas. Therefore, the farmer can sleep soundly, as there is no immediate prospect of a change of the policy that has been adopted by the Government.

The critics of the Government policy are really among their own supporters, and they profess to fail to understand what the Government policy is. They even go so far as to ask, with an air almost of impertinence, whether the Government has any policy at all in regard to agriculture. We have had an example of the intervention of the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bère) only to-day, in the solemn, grim and persistent way in which he challenged the Minister to declare his policy. I am wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman will at last give way to the hon. Member and exchange places with him and let him declare the policy that he has in view for the Government. I suppose it is right and proper for anyone who takes an interest in agricultural affairs to scan the "Times" and carefully read the articles by independent correspondents, who are clearly men of authority on the subject on which they write. Anyone who wants to know anything about the condition of agriculture is bound to read Monday's "Times." Not long ago a well-informed correspondent said that the Government policy was most bewildering to the farmers, who did not really know where they were. I cannot endorse that altogether, because I think that the farmer ought by this time to know exactly where he is. Then there is the National Farmers' Union and its publication. In February it bluntly asked, if there was such a thing as an agricultural policy, what it was. By this time the National Farmers' Union may be rather more satisfied with the policy of the Government as declared by the right hon. Gentleman a few days ago, but I always think, when you talk of policy, a confusion is likely to arise between policy and the object at which you are aiming. You must, I think, determine the objective that you are aiming at, and then the course of action by which you propose to gain it.

If I might state in my own words what I conceive to be the aim of any Government, it is to use to the utmost degree the available land for the production of food; secondly, to treat that land, to cultivate it and organise production so as to produce at the lowest possible cost; and, thirdly, to secure the distribution of the product efficiently and cheaply so that it reaches the consumer at a price which does not exceed the level that he can afford to pay. We have heard in the course of this Debate that there are empty spaces now and that the aim of the Government should be to utilise them. If there are a million acres waterlogged and hundreds of thousands going out of cultivation, there must be something wrong. What are the Government methods aiming at this object? There are subsidies. I dislike subsidies. I should dislike to be concerned with the management on a large scale of an industry which obtained a subsidy. I believe that an industry which obtains a subsidy loses its self-respect and, therefore, on principle I am against subsidies. But subsidies are given. That is the method that is adopted by the Government. Then we have the policy of marketing boards, designed to ensure maximum supplies for the consumer with reasonable remuneration for the producer. That was to me a welcome declaration, because none of these things so far has given any very great help to the mass of Welsh farmers.

Here I should like to congratulate the Minister on doing something at last which touches Welsh agriculture very closely. I was reading an article a day or two ago by the agricultural organiser, a very able man, who keeps in close touch' with his farmers, knows them, comes down to their level and explains in simple fashion the scientific aspect of agriculture and writes a weekly article in Welsh. This article was on the Minister's recent declaration, and the effect of it was that, in so far as the county that I represent is concerned, if every farmer limed four acres next year, there would be £14,000 coming there. The one thing that the soil requires as a starting point for re-fertilisation is lime. Could the Minister say something more definite as to the means the Government propose to prevent a rise in the price of lime? What steps will they take to see that the benefit of this subvention will go to fertilise the land and will not go into the pockets of the lime producers? Given subsidies, what is the Minister doing to see that they get value for the money given? The art and the technique of liming has been lost in my country. Practically no liming has been done since I was a youngster. On the farm on which I was brought up there was one field limed every year, and a great deal of labour was spent upon it. There was a technique which I did not understand at the time but which I now more or less appreciate. What steps is it proposed to take to see that the farmer gives a good return to the nation in response to the help that he gets?

A great deal has been said about grass land. The Minister himself has expressed his view, and says that he hopes that by means of the result of the Livestock Industry Bill, by drainage and the application of lime, it will be improved. I should like to see greater security that that will be done. I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that farmers, if they are to be helped and public money is to be given to them, must in future have to put up with a great deal of supervision, and the Ministry should see that the work which they expect to be done to improve the fertility of the soil will be done to the reasonable satisfaction of those who understand these things. I have here the Journal of the Ministry for the month of April, and I should like to say how informative it is and how much better the farmers of this country would be if the mass of them would study the information given to them by the Ministry of Agriculture in their pamphlets and bulletins and in this Journal. I will read a sentence or two as to the condition of grass land in England from an article by Mr. Oldershaw, the agricultural organiser for East Suffolk: The condition of our grass land cannot be regarded with any degree of satisfaction. Sir Thomas Middleton places the production of ordinary pasture at no more than 90–100 lb. of lean meat per acre per annum and he considers—if both quality and quantity are taken into account—that the best pastures produce quite three times as much as the average "— and mark this— and are ten or twelve times as productive as the poorest. I would say in the presence of Members representing English constituencies, who represent what are called the broad acres and the pastures of England, that anybody can see simply by walking by them or by observing them from the train or a motor car that a good many of them are in a deplorable state. It is not only the pastures in the poorer parts of the country that ought to be seen to, but the so-called rich pastures where the production and the food value of the pastures can be increased enormously.

I have been in close contact with farmers all my life, and the more I come in contact with them the more I feel that they are entitled to the sympathy of the Government and of this Committee. No industrialist is in such a hopeless position as the farmer. The industrialist can control, to some extent, prices, organise his sales, has the technique of selling at his command, and technical experts he can call upon, but the farmer must be everything. In view of mechanisation he must be an electrical engineer, and to some extent a mechanical engineer, a physiologist, and a biologist. He must be all, and to some extent know something about everything. Therefore the farmer to-day, if he is a good farmer, and, therefore, a man who has made two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow in a spot where one grew before, deserves well of this House.