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 Joseph Lamb Sir Joseph Lamb , Stone

If the right hon. Gentleman will wait a minute he will see that, in developing my argument, I shall give him a reply. It is in the interests of the community generally and manufac- tuners that we should have cheap food in this country, but it is also an advantage to agriculturists in this country, as it is to all other industries, that they should have adequate prices for the products of the labour employed in their industry. If every other industry demands that as a right, why should not the agricultural industry have the same right? I cannot see any way of attaining that position except by the giving of a subsidy, the effect of which would enable the consumers to have food at cheaper prices, and, at the same time, give an adequate return in respect of the production of that proportion of food which it is necessary, in the national interests, should be produced in this country. It is the first duty of the Government to decide the proportion of food required for the maintenance of our people. It is essential in the national interest to decide what should be produced in this country, and what proportion should be allowed to come into this country from other countries to pay for manufactured articles sent to them from this country. The farmer would only be too willing to do all that the Government asked him to do, provided he received a good return. If only a certain proportion of commodities were to be produced in this country, the farmer would be prepared to adhere to that proportion provided he was given an adequate price for his production.

The subsidy is paid from taxes, and not by the indirect consumer. If there is a higher price it is paid in larger proportion by the poorer people in this country than by the rich. Out of all incomes there is a necessary proportion for maintenance, and the further you get away from the lower to the higher income the greater the proportion spent in luxuries and in pleasure. Consequently, the indirect tax does weigh more heavily upon the poor person. If it is paid by subsidy instead, it comes from the tax, and in greater proportion from those in a higher grade of society. This may be a new thought, and it is one that I appreciate the opportunity of putting before the Committee. It is one that the Government would be wise to consider.

A great deal has been said also with regard to surveys, and I hope that the Government are not going to indulge in any large surveys again. We have all the information we want as to the con- dition of the industry. We want a remedy for existing evils, and do not want to look for other evils and find no remedies for the present evils. It is almost nauseating to keep on repeating that the farmer is desirous of paying his men more money. I know that there are individuals —you find them in every occupation, and in every trade—who would get as much work out of their employes as they could, but that is not so with the agriculturist, who would, if enabled to do so, pay his men better wages. The Agricultural Wages Act which was passed by predecessors of hon. Members opposite provides that the wage must be one which the industry can pay. That is where the committees to which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham referred find their difficulty. It is no use fixing a wage which will have the effect of putting men out of employment. It must be a wage which the industry can afford to pay. If the prices of commodities are such as to enable agriculturists to pay better wages, they will be willing to pay them. Agriculturists have been living for years producing at a lower level than was economic, and consequently they have inevitably got into debt. It is not their fault. It is the result of the position imposed upon them by other industries. I appreciate the fact that industries throughout the country are taking different views about this matter, and the views I have expressed about subsidies are dealt with in a very valuable report of the chambers of commerce. It shows that there are people who take the trouble to think seriously on the question, and regard it as one worthy of consideration by the Government and by the country as a whole.

It has been said that the men are leaving the land. I do not think I shall he regarded as unpatriotic if I say that I do not blame them for leaving the land. On one occasion I was asked whether one could not do something to compel the Government or, rather, to ask the Government to prevent the men from leaving the land. My reply was: "Is there anyone in this room who would not take a better job if he had the opportunity?" They could not say that they would not do so. Therefore I replied that they must not ask me to do anything with regard to the men from the land which could not be justified. It rests with agriculturists, with the country as a whole and with the Government as leaders of the country, to see to it that the industry is such that it can afford to pay to the men wages that will reasonably compete with the wages that are being offered by those who are competing with us for the labour of the men.

I am glad to see that the Prime Minister is present, because this is a very serious question, and its seriousness will be realised when the crops that are being grown now have to be harvested. I do not know where the men are to be found to do the work. The farms that are close to aerodromes are losing their men. I could give cases of farms where four or five men were employed, and those farms are now being run by the farmer and his son. A very different class of agriculture is going on now in many instances as a result of this draining away of our labour, and it is just as well that we should realise the fact. The person who will suffer least will be the farmer, because he has been released of his chief obligation, that of paying wages; but the country will suffer most. This question of wages for men on the land will come back to the country with redoubled force when the harvests have to be got in. Not only the armaments industry but other industries are competing for the men who have been engaged on the land. Do not let hon. Members run away with the idea that the man on the land is not a steady worker; he is the most highly skilled worker.

There is an idea that men are leaving the land because of the use that farmers are making of machinery and other implements. I do not believe that that is so. When I have bought new and better machinery my idea has been, not to reduce the number of men but to get through the work and to make it easier for those who are employed, and by that means to be able to keep better men. Generally speaking, very little reduction in employment takes place when machinery is introduced. Therefore, I do not believe that the bringing in of machinery has had much to do with men leaving the land. The chief cause has been the drain by other industries. For the most part farmers have not been able to afford machinery, and where they have bought machinery it has not been the cause of men leaving the land.

Comparisons have been made between this country and other countries in regard to agriculture. It has been said that a great many more men are employed on the land in other countries than in this country. One of the reasons is that in other countries, I think I am correct in saying, the cost of food is higher than it is here, arid also those countries are very much more highly protected than this country. I am not advocating higher protection but a better system than the present system which enables the large industrial population to benefit so much at the expense of agriculture.

I should like to put a few questions to the Minister in regard to the poultry industry. I agree with everything that has been said about the difficulty in which the specialised poultry keepers find themselves. One of the reasons why we do not hear so much about the depression in the poultry industry is that many poultry farmers are mixed farmers, and therefore while they lose on one they perhaps gain a little on the other. It is the specialised poultry farmers who are suffering most. I should like the Minister to disabuse poultry keepers of one hope which they have. That is perhaps not a kind thing to say, but to allow a man to live in hope which cannot be realised is more unkind. Many poultry keepers are still hanging on to the hope that there will be a levy subsidy for the benefit of poultry farming, to enable them to improve their industry. Where you have a home production of 70 per cent. and only about 30 per cent. of imports, I do not see how the levy subsidy could possibly work. Moreover, there would have to be some scheme for the distribution of the subsidy, and in an industry which is composed of about half a million people, it will be very difficult to find machinery to distribute the subsidy. If you only dealt with one half as being those who adopt the method of sending their eggs to the egg-collecting centre, you would find a feeling of disgruntlement on the part of the others. I should like the Minister to say whether or not a levy subsidy can be applied to the poultry industry. If it cannot, it is his duty to tell the industry, and so disabuse their minds.

There are two further points in regard to poultry. I recently put a question in regard to the marking of eggs. A great deal of advantage would accrue to the industry if the public knew what it was that they were receiving, and if they were not deceived, as they are so often, in regard to eggs. The cold-stored egg is marked. It is marked whether it is an home-produced egg or an imported egg. The imported egg is marked the same as the home-produced egg. All the eggs which come in from abroad are cold-stored in one form or another, otherwise they could not come here. They are simply marked as "foreign," and not as "cold-stored." If some alteration in the regulations could be made, the public might then know that an imported egg was inevitably a preserved egg and not a fresh egg. In the Egg Marking Order there is a provision that the egg must be durably marked. Unfortunately "durably" has not been carried out. Steps ought to be taken to see that these eggs are not only marked durably but indelibly. A very large number of imported eggs are duly marked, but certainly not durably or indelibly, for when they have been boiled and placed on the table the mark has disappeared, and people are then led to believe that they are getting an English fresh egg.

I hope the Minister will reply to the points I have raised, and I hope that the community as a whole will think over what I have said with regard to the nature of subsidies as subsidies, not stopping with the farmers, but carrying the benefit right through to the consumer. If that were done, I believe that the country would realise that there is very much more justification for subsidies than some people believe.