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 Mr Benjamin Riley Mr Benjamin Riley , Dewsbury

I was interested in the concern of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr Turton) as to whether Members on this side of the House had an agricultural policy, and whether it was a united policy. I am not going into that question, but I think it can be said with some certainty that we have no doubt here as to what is the policy of the Government. It can be expressed, I think, fairly accurately as a policy to assist the landowning and capitalist classes. In saying that, I do not want to suggest that farmers, or landlords for that matter, are not entitled to a square deal. While I have a rooted objection to subsidies in any form to private individuals, I concede without any qualification the right of every section of useful producers, whether farmers or otherwise, to obtain a remunerative return for the services which they render. As a principle, I do not think anyone could object to that.

I do not object to a Government system of organisation, and even, sometimes, financial assistance within certain limits, for farmers or anybody else in order to increase the efficiency of the services which they render to the nation. But I think it is the bounden duty of the Government and the House of Commons, if they regard it as necessary to provide subsidies for any national purpose to a particular industry, to take into account the equity of the people who will be affected in the nation by the provision of those subsidies; and if, as I fear has been the case in regard to milk and in regard to bacon, and now is likely to be the case with regard to meat, the subsidies which have been given to agriculture are resulting in large sections of the community—the poorest sections—having to pay more than they otherwise would have paid, it seems to me that the subsidy is not justified, and that the Government ought to consider whether remedies should not be provided in their developments for the avoidance of inequity against the masses of the working class.

It has been said that, owing to the system of organisation of the Milk Marketing Board, the price of milk is at least twice, and sometimes three times, as much as that paid in other countries. An hon. Member mentioned a letter that he had received from a friend complaining that, owing to rises in retail prices since 1931, his consumption of meat was confined to rabbits. I had a personal experience yesterday as to rises of price affecting masses of the working classes. I asked my wife at dinner what was the price of mutton, and she said, 1s. 11d. a pound. That meant that a joint for a family of five or six costs 10s. It is obvious that working-class families cannot afford many joints at 10s. a time. When subsidies have that effect on large masses of people, they cannot be justified.

Everyone has expressed the view in this Debate that it is most desirable to raise the standard of agricultural workers. One of the most useful things that the Ministry could do would be to extend the development of the family farm, where the wages question does not come into the picture to anything like the same extent. In this country, with its great industrial markets, the family farm is a far more suitable development than farming on a large scale. We have been told that in the East Riding 60 per cent. of the farm workers have recently left the farms for better employment. That process is going on and will go on. All the evidence shows that you cannot maintain a capitalist farming system in this small country against world competition. More and more the small farm and the family farm will be the unit for farming operations.

A few months ago I asked a question as to the number of smallholdings now owned or rented by private owners and by the State respectively. The reply was that there were about 31,000 holdings in England and Wales owned by county councils and by the Ministry. These figures are practically no higher than was the case 14 or 15 years ago. The question was discussed in 1923, when the present Lord Halifax was Minister of Agriculture and he detailed the facts, that under the 1908 Smallholdings Act up to the outbreak of the War 15,000 persons had been settled, and in 1919, under the Land Settlement Act, some 16,000 were settled—the same figures that we have now. It is a striking commentary that in these 14 or 15 years, and particularly the last six or seven, when the National Government have had complete control, there has been no extension of this admittedly useful stabilisation of agricultural life on the best lines that you could possibly have.