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 Albert Braithwaite Sir Albert Braithwaite , Buckrose

Anybody who has followed the course of this Debate must be more than ever conscious of the united sympathy which exists among all parties for agriculture in the difficulties in which it finds itself. We have had sympathetic speeches from both the Labour Opposition and from the Liberal benches as well as from the Government side, and everybody has expressed grave concern as to the unbalanced state of the industry. I am not one of those who are ungrateful to the National Government for what they have done. I tell the Committee that there are certain branches of agriculture in my constituency which are actually paying. We have got wheat-growing on a profitable basis without much inconvenience to the consumer. A scheme which went through with the minimum of friction, is being operated successfully by all those engaged in the milling industry. We have a profitable situation in regard to sheep in my division, and certainly the sugar-beet industry is on a satisfactory level as far as the farmer is concerned. But there are certain things that are not right in agriculture.

For instance, the position of the barley crop, which stands next to wheat as the great cereal crop of our country, is entirely unsatisfactory. I want to give some figures of costings which I understand the official Opposition require in connection with these various commodities before they agree to sanction the use of Government funds. The barley crop in the average districts in the country costs £9 an acre to grow at the present rate of wages, and at the present prices not more than £7 10s. per acre can be realised by the farmer if he is selling the lower grade barley. When we come on to malting barleys and that kind of thing, the situation is entirely different, because a higher price is realised. I want this Committee to understand who gets the money from the barley crop. First of all, out of every acre of barley grown the Government take £60 per acre in Beer Duty, and the profits of the brewery companies make up another £20 an acre, while the farmer has to be content, even at the best prices, with somewhere round about £9 or £10 an acre for his labour. I am certain that it is the wish of every section of this Committee that the primary producer should be amply remunerated for his work, and I am satisfied that the Government can make some very substantial contributions to arable agriculture if they will do something to put the barley crop on to a proper basis. It is entirely unsatisfactory at the present time, and I am afraid that the new proposals of the Minister, which I am not allowed to discuss to-night, make no substantial contribution to the ultimate success of this very vital crop of the arable farmer.

Now I want to put to the Committee another aspect of the farmer's difficulties. We have seen during the past two or three years a rise in the price of practically every form of machine or commodity that the farmer uses. Some sections of agricultural machinery have advanced at a most alarming rate. The price of feeding stuffs has risen to an unprecedented height during the last few months, and yet the price of the product of the farmer has not risen to a corresponding level; and I think this Committee ought to appreciate most fully that the farmer has all the difficulties of an ordinary industrialist, because he has to pay these higher prices, he has not the same advantage of knowing what he will get for his commodity until he puts it on the market, and he -has the risks of the weather to encounter all the time. Last year, with all the rain and wet that we had in this country, farming had a very difficult time to go through.

I am glad that something was said during this Debate about agricultural wages. It is a most important side of our farming activities that we should have a settled population on the land, and it is quite impossible—and I think the Ministry and the Committee are aware of it—to keep people on the land at the present wages that are paid. The agricultural labourer has also had to face during the past few months a steady rise in the price of everything that he has had to buy, and the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) will be keenly aware that the agricultural labourer is paying his miners quite a substantial increase for the coal that they have sold in the country districts and the other commodities that he has had to buy. Unless there is going to be some opportunity on the land for farm labourers' wages to rise, in conformity with other prices, of course nobody will remain there. There are, to my knowledge, nearly 20 large farms near Driffield, in my division, where not less than 60 per cent. of the whole of the labour has gone during the past few months. It is a very serious thing. You have the crops planted and the harvest coming on, and the labour is not there to deal with the necessary carrying on of the farms. I hope that, in considering help to agriculture in the future, the Government will consider a scheme of subsidising wages on the land, which would give our farmers an opportunity of paying a higher level of wages and would ensure that an adequate supply of labour remains on the land.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Altrincham (Sir E. Grigg) raised the question of agricultural credits and the supply of cattle men for the farms. One thing that I would like the Ministry to inquire into is the cost of this hire purchase that is going on in farming to-day. I am told that in my division, where there are 4,000,000 sheep, 2,000,000 of them were bought on the hire-purchase system. I am told that there are farms in my constituency where the farmer does not own anything but the equity in a single head of the cattle and stock that are on that the land. I am quite satisfied that the charges that the farmers are paying are higher than those which were afforded by the banks earlier on, and I am quite satisfied that the joint stock banks and others have been relieving themselves of frozen credits on the lines of this hire-purchase system. I am told—I do not know how far this is true—that there is a pool of banks, including the Bank of England, which are financing the hire purchase of agricultural stock, and I would like the Minister to make some inquiries into this matter, to see how far it is true, and to give to this House an early opportunity of knowing how much per cent. this form of putting stock on the land costs, because I am certain that, if it can be done in a commercial way in the way in which it is being done now, the Government ought to be able to afford better credit for an essential industry than is being given in this form.

Some time ago I asked the Prime Minister who has just left office whether be would consider giving to the country some idea of what he expected from the agricultural population of the country in the form of a programme, how much he wanted the farmers of the country to raise in wheat, in sheep, and in the other essential crops and products which make up agriculture. If we can get a proper programme on which all parties can be united as an essential balancing factor for keeping the land of our country in a good state of cultivation, surely we can work out the costs of production and let the whole country know how much it is going to cost to keep farming on a proper economic basis. When we have got that programme, then I am certain that there is nobody in the towns or in ordinary industry who will not do everything they can to give us full support in this direction. It is surely the uncertainty of dishing out quantities of money at irregular intervals on forms of assistance to one branch or another of the industry that is so disquieting to our friends in the towns. I do not think there is any man working in any industry who does not regard the industry of agriculture as being of the greatest importance to the nation and who is not prepared to pay, in some form or other, for its proper maintenance, but I feel that the time is long overdue when we should have a complete disclosure of the level on which the Government of the country are prepared to put agriculture.

I heard the late Minister of Agriculture say that there was a point beyond which it was dangerous for this country's export trade to extend our own home production. If there is a danger point, I would like to know that point, and the farmers and the country too would like to know how far we can fairly go. It is quite a reasonable thing to assess how many tons of coals we are going to raise for a year. We do that under the quota system now, under a standard tonnage system. We know how much steel we are going to make, and when the demand calls for it we increase production in that way, but, as far as agricultural production is concerned, nobody in the country seems to have a fixed knowledge as to how much of any essential commodity, with the exception of the wheat crop, we are to produce.

I do not think it would be a waste of time for the Government to give the country at an early date some real assurance on this matter. It would be an immense help to farmers in framing their plans and it would give the agricultural industry a chance to say to the country, "If that is your programme, we can produce at this price and we shall know where we stand." I am sure that within the agricultural industry we have the requisite skill and knowledge to produce a satisfactory programme that will do credit to the farming community. I am certain that as things are to-day the industry is ragged, it is irregular, and it has not that necessary balance which makes for good farming. Many of my farmers in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which cannot be regarded as a badly farmed part of the country—it is generally regarded as well farmed—tell me that if they could know within reasonable limits what they were expected to produce, and had some rough idea of what they were going to get for their commodities when they were produced, they could balance their farms better, and make the necessary financial arrangements for carrying them on. Until they know that they will work very much in the dark.

Every time a special benefit is given to some branch of farming there is a sudden rush into it that swamps the market to the exclusion of other commodities that ought to be produced for the good farming of the land. We have had a race into wheat which almost killed the wheat scheme, and we have had a race into milk which has brought the Milk Board very nearly to the point of distraction. I hope that this kind of spasmodic effort will not be made in the same form as we have had it. I would like to see some general help given to farming over a whole range of commodities in order to restore a better balance.

I cannot allow the speech of the hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) to go without some criticism. He suggested that during the last year or two there had been a reduction of farm wages in East Yorkshire. That is not the case. Since the hon. Gentleman's Government was in power there has been a steady rise until now. Over 2s. per week rise has been afforded by the East Riding Wages Board since the Minister of Agriculture was one of the hon. Member's party. There has been no reduction in wages since that time.