I am glad of the opportunity to say a few words in support of the Minister's proposals. I have been among the first to criticise a good deal of legislation that has been introduced, as hopelessly inadequate, but I do not think I am such a fool that I do not recognise a good thing when I see it. There is no doubt in the agricultural constituencies as a whole that the Ministry has taken a turn for the better. I received the following letter a few days ago:
In view of the slightly improved conditions in agriculture we propose to hold a lunch at the Royal Norfolk Show.
That was from a firm which has wide ramifications in connection with agriculture all over Norfolk. So we can feel that the agricultural community is behind the Minister in his task of securing complete recovery in the industry. I think he has started out in a very farmerlike manner in dealing with his job. A man taking over a derelict farm would probably begin very much as he is beginning. He would start by doing a little drainage here and there where it was necessary, laying down the most suitable crops, liming the ground and so forth. Although I yield to none in my admiration for the zeal and enthusiasm of his predecessor, I think the present Minister has started off in a way which will, perhaps, secure more immediate results. We do not wish to speak ill of the dead, even when they are merely buried in the office of Secretary of State for Scotland, but I could not help feeling very often that there was a great deal more jugglery with marketing schemes and one thing and another than there were cash results for the farming industry. However, we must admit that he staved off a revolt in the industry by sheer charm of manner for five years.
I listened with great interest to the intervention of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), and I agree with him when he said that agriculture was the biggest job the Government had to tackle, that they had to put it right, and that it was deplorable that men were drifting away from the land. But he gave to the Committee some figures which were rather misleading when he said that in 1881 12.5 per cent. of the population was engaged on the land whereas to-day there was only 4.7 per cent. on the land. He failed to appreciate that in 1881 the population was only 26,000,000 people, whereas to-day there are 40,000,000. If you take the percentages of the population you find that there were 1,600,000 on the soil in 1881 compared with 1,200,000 in 1931, a drop of 400,000, which is admittedly serious, but not a drop of a complete half as one might be led to expect from his figures. [An HON. MEMBER: "He gave percentage figures"] I have given those figures to show that there are two sides to the question.
The Minister of Agriculture announced that there would be a grant of 33⅓ per cent. to internal drainage boards, and that there would be a grant of 50 per cent. where pumping equipment was necessary in the Fens for dealing with the level of the water. I particularly welcomed that because, as representing a constituency a large part of which was under water for several weeks this year, and was in great danger of complete destruction, this grant will make a tremendous difference. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs said that some of the proposals announced by the Government now were in point of fact his own suggestions, and it would be presumptuous for a young Member to take credit for any proposals the Government bring forward now. But the Minister will bear me out that when I appealed to him at the time of the Fen floods for a grant for the internal drainage boards he said that it was not possible at that time to make a grant, and in announcing now that a grant will be possible, he is certainly meeting the wishes of those in that part of the country. The difficulty there that people have to face is that in such a thinly populated area it is almost impossible by raising the rates to raise sufficient money to carry out the drainage work that is necessary. In the village of Hilgay where I lived for six months a new pump was requires costing £600, and during the crisis when the floods were in full spate, the old pump had to be used and it was not really adequate. Yet a penny rate under the Hilgay Great West Fen Drainage Board only raises £4 12s. 9d., and it is clear that if you can only raise £4 by means of a penny rate, you are not going to do very much.