Clause 1. — (Variation of standard price of home-grown millable wheat.)

Orders of the Day — Wheat (Amendment) Bill. – in the House of Commons on 6th June 1939.

Alert me about debates like this

11.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr Thomas Williams Mr Thomas Williams , Don Valley

I beg to move, in page 1, line 17, at the end, to insert: (2) Without prejudice to the generality of the provisions of the foregoing Sub-section the committee shall, before making a report to the Minister, making inquiries into—

  1. (a) the desirability or otherwise of maintaining or increasing the acreage under wheat in preference to other forms of agriculture;
  2. (b) the cost of production of wheat 05 farms of varying size; and
  3. (c) the desirability or otherwise of establishing a board (if none exists) to regulate the marketing of wheat; and the results of their inquiries into these and any other matters shall be embodied in their report."
Hon. Members will not expect me, in speaking in favour of this Amendment, to make the fullest possible statement at this late hour. Those Members who have the Order Paper before them will see that we are asking that the committee, who have the power under Clause 1 of this Bill to recommend a variation of the standard price of home-grown millable wheat—that is, the indirect subsidy provided for wheat growers—ought to be called upon, among other things, to consider the question of the acreage of wheat that would maintain a fair balance in our agriculture. In so doing, they ought, in their next report, to give reasons why they think the existing acreage of wheat ought to be maintained, or why we ought to increase or decrease that acreage.

I do not want to go into questions of nutrition, the production of milk, eggs, vegetables and those kinds of things for which this country is particularly suited, but, at all events, it ought to be a very important part of the duty of the committee to examine the question fairly thoroughly, and to recommend to this House whether or not we ought to maintain the existing acreage; whether we should increase it or whether there should be a decrease. Then we think that the committee, who have power to recommend a variation in the standard price, ought to be called upon to investigate the costs of the production of wheat. In this country there is an amount of mechanised farming where the production of wheat will be much less costly than on small farms where mechanisation has not taken place. We think it should be part of the committee's duties to examine, in association with the Agricultural Statistical Department, the cost of producing wheat on various sized farms, on various kinds of land, and put all the information as to the production of wheat at our disposal. We also think that we should be able to call upon this committee to investigate the question whether some marketing schemes for wheat ought not to be introduced.

I do not want to go into all the facts and figures with which 1 have provided myself, and all the arguments I could adduce in favour of imposing these various duties on the committee, at this late hour of the night. When the Bill was in Committee the right hon. Gentleman said that with regard to the question of maintaining or increasing the acreage of wheat, or examining into the costs of production, he thought Clause I enabled the committee to do all that, but when we moved an Amendment to enable the committee to examine the possibility of marketing boards he said that it was not an appropriate committee to undertake such work and argued that if any committee was called upon to investigate the relationship between the production of one commodity and another over the whole field of wheat production it would take a very long time indeed. That was a job, he said, not for a committee of this kind, whose simple duty was to recommend a variation in the standard price, but rather for a Royal Commission.

If this is not an appropriate committee to investigate the wisdom of increasing or maintaining our wheat acreage, the costs of production of wheat and the advisability of marketing schemes, then provision should be made for such a committee in order to supply the House with all the information which can be collected on these vital points. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, having had one or two weeks in which to consider these questions, will have made up his mind that if this Wheat Bill, which is regarded by agriculturists and hon. Members opposite as the high spot in the National Government's agricultural legislation, is to continue, he has a duty to see that the purchaser of bread, who is contributing this year anywhere between £8,000,000 and £9,000,000 towards wheat production, does not have to pay more for his bread than is consistent with modern powers of production, and that what we are doing is strictly in accordance with a balanced agricultural policy and will not impose additional burdens upon families who must buy large quantities of bread. If we could impose upon the wheat producer a much more efficient method of marketing his produce than that existing at the moment, then we think that is the duty of Parliament. I hope the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will see the wisdom of accepting the Amendment and providing us with the information asked for.

11.46 p.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Acland Mr Richard Acland , Barnstaple

I am inclined to support the Amendment, because I think it is right in relation to the history of the Ministry of Agriculture as conducted by this Government. The Amendment asks that the Committee, in making a report to the Minister, shall take into account and include in their report recommendations in regard to the area under wheat in relation to other products, the costs of production, and the methods of marketing. Probably the Minister will reply that all this is provided for in the wording of the Clause at it stands— after considering general economic conditions and the conditions affecting the agricultural industry. If we were considering this matter without any knowledge of the agricultural history of the last few years, if we were considering it quite academically and simply as a matter of English, I think there would be some grounds for saying that those general words are wide enough to include those things which are specifically mentioned in the Amendment, but I cannot consider the Amendment except in relation to the history of agricultural legislation during the last seven years. It seems to me to have been marked by the three things which are precisely covered by this Amendment. The first is that whereas the Government have in one form or another given money to one branch of the industry and another— money which was not unwelcomed and not undeserved—nevertheless, these steps have been taken by the Government first in one form and then in another form, without looking at the agricultural industry as a whole. Each time one branch or another of the industry has seemed to be in distress and difficulty, the Government have asked, "What can we do for this branch, that branch or the other branch?" Never has one met a Minister of Agriculture who would regard the industry as a whole and say, "I have so much public money which I and other Ministers judge right to spend for the assistance of agriculture—what is the best way to spend this money for the benefit of the industry as a whole?" Subsection 2 (a) of the Amendment would deal with that point.

The greater part of the Government's legislation with regard to agriculture has depended upon the principle—-which was quite a right one—that costs of production were not being covered. While that argument has been made in principle, we have never had from the Government any attempt to make a statement as to what the costs of production really were. The Government have said that if we make an investigation, we shall find that the costs of production on different farms are surprisingly different. Quite so, but that might be useful, because in finding that they were different from farm to farm, one might find out something about why they differed, and one might be able to make some suggestions to the industry as to how to reduce costs of production. It is by reducing the costs of production, and not by assistance from the State, that the agricultural industry must ultimately find its salvation. I am sure the Minister will agree with that. Lastly, the Government have made deficiency payments and what not to one branch of the industry after another. Will they meet this payment out of public funds? They have not tried to see whether they could get some part of the £300,000,000 to bridge the gap between what the housewife pays for the produce and what the farmer gets for it.

Those seem to be three things on which the Government ought to be thinking and concentrating but, as I have seen during the last few years, they have not been thinking or concentrating as they should have been. In view of that historical fact I would welcome an Amendment which said, in relation to wheat, that it shall be the duty of the Committee to think about, consider and report upon just those three things.

11.51 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Morgan Mr John Morgan , Doncaster

I would supplement and support the Amendment which has been moved by my hon. Friend and, realising that the Minister is likely to take the line that this is not an appropriate committee for such a purpose, while admitting the good points of the Amendment and the general value of the case which has been made, I am prepared to accept that line of approach to the difficulty with which he will be faced, if he will undertake that there will be an appropriate committee for dealing with such important considerations as are raised in the Amendment. But that is not likely. Therefore I am hoping that we shall press this Amendment upon his attention.

The first point in the Amendment relates to the desirability of maintaining or increasing the acreage under wheat in preference to other forms of agriculture. What has been the main effect of the subsidy? It has been to raise wheat acreage from 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 acres. That means that you have actually directed your subsidy not at the million but at the half-million acres of wheat which you have raised. You could have kept in cultivation 1,000,000 acres. [Hon. Members: "No."] Well, within limits, we will say, of 100,000 acres or so either way; let us say half. You have directed your subsidy of £9,000,000 a year—as it will be this year—to something like 750,000 acres of land in this country. That is a very costly form of assistance to agriculture, running into the neighbourhood, if you take the lesser figure, of £9 per acre or, if you take the net value, of £18 per acre, which is more than the capital value of the average wheat land brought into cultivation. I am making the point not because I am condemning the scheme, but to show that there are more suitable ways which will operate without damaging the case in the minds of the general consumer.

The Minister is coming to this House for an extension of the subsidy to oats, because in Scotland they are not getting wheat assistance and have for some years been throwing their eyes, as it were, over the Border and saying: "Look at those English farmers, and at what you are doing for them. What are you doing for us? Nothing." "And so you are to give a subsidy to a crop which is consumed on the farms up to 80 per cent., a crop whose growth is reflected in the finished product and not in the article itself. So there is a by-product acreage in our development of wheat in this country which is affecting cereal development elsewhere.

The second part of the Amendment is in regard to costs of production. There will come a time in this House, and every section of opinion knows it, when this form of assistance to agriculture will be questioned. You are bound to raise it, when your retrenchment period sets in. How much stronger would be the position of a Minister of Agriculture if he knew the point at which he dare not yield, if he was thinking of the real interests of agriculture. At the moment he has not any idea of the price point up to which he can legitimately yield while meeting the fair case of agriculture. He is now giving assistance and setting up a committee, which is understood by the farmers to be with the view, not of reducing the subsidy but of providing for the expansion of the subsidy both in acreage and in the amount of money available. It will not always be the same Minister who will sit on that bench. There may be a Minister who will need support and buttressing, in defending the real interests of agriculture, instead of placating particular demands at particular times, especially three or four months before an Election.

Here is a point on which the Minister ought to do something. You have a tax on bread of £9,000,000. The Treasury are not interested in the transaction, or they would require a marketing scheme, as they have required one in every case in which they are interested, to protect their position. But the housewife has to pay ¾d. on every loaf. The farmer crowds his wheat into the market from September until December. He crowds from one-half to two-thirds of it into those months and he crashes his own market. He does so, first, because he wants the money, but also in order to qualify for the subsidy from the Wheat Commission of an amount equal to that which he gets for his wheat. He gets two payments in that quarter and he wants them as quickly as possible. So, we have the figures disclosed to me in answer to a question, showing that over the period of the operation of the Act, the disparity between English and Canadian wheat prices has widened dramatically. Before the Act came into operation, English wheat on a particular day made about 6s. 7d. per cwt. and Manitoba No. 1 made 73. 9d. But in January, 1938, English wheat only made 8s. 5d. and Manitoba had risen to 14s. That indicated that the farmer was selling on a weak position and was not sufficiently interested in the price which his wheat was making. That was because he was resting on a guaranteed price and because the housewife was there to make up any deficiency caused by the weakness of his selling position.

There is a substantial case for putting some sort of provision into the Bill to protect the housewife. The price of the loaf is open to the selling of 80,000 farmers in a thousand markets under conditions of weakness—selling to merchants in whose debt the farmers are up to the neck, and from whom they cannot run away. If the farmer sells badly, some poor housewife in the slums has to help to make up the deficiency and yet the House is not prepared to put in any safeguard, such as the Treasury would insist on, if they were advancing the money. Surely this is not a case which the House will allow to pass. There is substance in the Amendment which proposes that we should instruct the committee to take this matter into consideration. Failing that, there should be some form of undertaking that this will be provided in some other fashion. I support the Amendment, not because I want to see the scheme destroyed, but because I want to protect the farming industry from the volume of dissatisfaction which will arise if this kind of thing is done at the expense of people who are not protected.

12.0.m.

Photo of Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith , Petersfield

I am afraid that even after two or three weeks of thought, I am no more able to accept this Amendment than I was to accept a series of similar Amendments in the Committee upstairs. But I would like, if I can, to reassure the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams). I still hold the view that this committee is not the appropriate body to perform those tasks which the Amendment would place upon it. It seems to me that those tasks would be very much more tasks for a Royal Commission than for the standard price committee under this Bill. I do not propose to argue whether it would be a good or a bad thing to have a Royal Commission to go into these matters but if they are to be gone into, I do not think this committee is the body to do it. If the committee is to consider the desirability or otherwise of maintaining or increasing the acreage under wheat, in preference to other forms of agriculture, it would, in my view, entirely alter the type of committee which we have in mind. I believe that the question of what is the most desirable acreage to have under wheat is one which can only be decided by the Government of the day, because considerations such as defence have a great effect in determining what should be the proper acreage. There is no question about the fact that the committee will take into review the effect of the working of this wheat acreage upon agriculture in general. The last standard price committee took cognisance of that and brought to our notice their opinions on how the Act had operated and I imagine this committee will do the same, but I cannot see that it should be any part of their duty to decide what the acreage should be.

As regards the cost of production of wheat, I realise the feeling which exists and I can say that there will be no objection to the committee taking into consideration all the evidence which is available on this question. Indeed we shall be delighted to assist them with such evidence as we have at the Ministry and if any bodies appear before the committee seeking alterations in price, I take it that they will have to produce evidence in support of their case. But if we ask the committee to inquire into the whole cost of production of wheat throughout the country, it will be an extremely long job. It would take not one season but

three or four seasons, and it would be most unfortunate if they were precluded from reporting to me on the standard price for three or four years.

With regard to marketing, there is ample machinery in existence for dealing with it. Under the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1931, the wheat producers, if they think fit, can submit to the Minister a draft scheme for regulating the marketing of wheat, and it is open to the Minister to appoint an agricultural marketing reorganisation commission which would be charged with the duty of preparing a draft scheme, and it would then be up to the Minister to take such steps as he thought fit to bring that scheme to the notice of producers. Thus there is machinery in existence under the Act passed by the party opposite to deal with this question. I understand the anxiety which has been expressed on this matter, but I repeat that I do not think this committee should work as a reorganisation committee for marketing and I am unable to accept the Amendment.

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

At this hour it is impossible to debate this very important principle effectively. The Minister has missed the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. J. Morgan) with regard to marketing. There is no need to put the marketing machinery into operation as long as the farmer has a guaranteed price. However, I do not wish to argue it now and at this stage I shall simply ask my hon. Friends to vote for the Amendment.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted in the Bill."

The House divided: Ayes, 100; Noes, 175.

Division No. 160.]AYES.[12.7 a.m.
Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple)Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill)Griffiths, J. (Llanelly)
Adams, D. (Consett)Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)Groves, T. E.
Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.)Day, H.Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)
Adamson, Jennie L. (Dartford)Dobbie, W.Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel)
Alexander, Rt. Han. A. V. (H'lsbr.)Dunn, E. (Rother Valley)Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.)
Ammon, C. G.Ede, J. C.Hayday, A,
Anderson, F. (Whitehaven)Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty)Henderson, J. (Ardwick)
Barnes, A. J.Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H.Hicks, E. G.
Bellenger, F. J.Foot, D. M.Hills, A, (Pontefraet)
Benn, Rt. Hon. W. W.Frankel, D.Jagger, J.
Benson, G.Gallacher, W.Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)
Bevan, A.Garro Jones, G. M.Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath)
Buchanan, G.George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey)John, W.
Burke, W. A.Gibson, R. (Greenock)Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.
Collindridge, F.Green, W. H. (Deptford)Kirby, B. V.
Cove, W. G.Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A.Kirkwood, D.
Daggar, G.Grenfell, D. R.Lansbury, Rt. Hon. G.
Dalton, H.Griffith, F. Kingsley (M'ddl'sbro, W.)Macdonald, G. (Inee)
McEntee, V. La T.Poole, C. C.Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)
McGhee, H. G.Price, M. P.Stokes, R. R.
MacLaren, A.Richards, R. (Wrexham)Summerskill, Dr. Edith
Mainwaring, W. H.Ridley, G.Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Marshall, F.Ritson, J.Tinker, J. J.
Maxton, J.Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)Tomlinson, G.
Milner, Major J.Rothschild, J. A. deWatkins, F. C.
Montague, F.Seely, Sir H. M.Westwood, J.
Morgan, J. (York, W.R., Doncaster)Sexton, T. M.Wilkinson, Ellen
Morrison, Rt. Hon. H. (Hackney, S)Simpson, F. B.Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)
Muff, G.Sloan, A.Williams, T. (Don Valley)
Noel-Baker, P. J.Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)Wilmot, J.
Oliver, G. H.Smith, E. (Stoke)Windsor, W. (Hull, C)
Paling, W.Smith, T. (Normanton)Woods, G. S. (Finsbury)
Parkinson, J. A.Sorensen, R. W.TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. WStephen, C.Mr. Mathers and Mr. Adamson.
NOES.
Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J.Hambro, A. V.Raikes, H. V. A. M.
Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.)Hannah, I. C.Ramsay, Captain A. H. M
Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr. P. G.Harmon, Sir P. J. H.Ramsbotham, H.
Albery, Sir IrvingHarbord, A.Rankin, Sir R.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J.Haslam, Henry (Horncastle)Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin)
Aske, Sir R. W.Heilgers, Captain F. F. A.Reed, A. C. (Exeter)
Assheton, R.Hely-Hutchinson, M. R.Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)
Balfour, Capt. H. H. (lsle of Thanet)Hen cage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P.Reid, J. S. C. (Hillhead)
Balniel, LordHiggs, W. F.Reid, W. Allan (Derby)
Bird, Sir R. B.Hogg, Hon. Q. McG.Remer, J. R.
Bossom, A. C.Holdsworth, H.Rickards, G. W. (Skipton)
Boulton, W. W.Holmes, J. S.Ropner, Colonel L.
Boyce, H. LeslieHorsbrugh, FlorenceRoss, Major Sir R. D. (Londonderry)
Braithwaite, J. Gurney (Holderness)Howitt, Dr. A. B.Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)
Brass, Sir W.Hunloke, H. P.Rowlands, G.
Brooke, H. (Lewisham, W.)Hunter, T.Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.
Brown, Rt. Hon. E. (Leith)Jennings, R.Ruggles-Brise, Colonel Sir E. A.
Bull, B. B.Jones, Sir H. Haydn (Merioneth)Russell, Sir Alexander
Bullock, Capt. M.Jones, L. (Swansea W.)Salt, E. W.
Butcher, H. W.Keeling, E. H.Samuel, M. R. A.
Campbell, Sir E. T.Kellett, Major E. O.Scott, Lord William
Cary, R. A.Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose)Selley, H. R.
Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.)Shakespeare, G. H.
Channon, H.Keyes, Admiral of the Fleet Sir R.Shepperson, Sir E. W.
Chapman, A. (Rutherglen)Kimball, L.Smithers, Sir W.
Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston S.Lancaster, Captain G. G.Snadden, W. McN.
Clarke, Colonel R. S. (E. Grinstead)Law, R. K. (Hull, S.W.)Somerset. T.
Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston)[...]ghton, Major B. E. P.Somervell, Rt. Hon. Sir Donald
Dolman, N. C. D.Liddall, W. S.Spens, W. P.
Colville, Rt. Hon. JohnLlewellin, Colonel J. J.Storey, S.
Conant, Captain R. J. E.Loftus, P. C.Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Craven-Ellis, W.Lyons, A. M.Strickland, Captain W. F.
Croft, Brig.-Gen. Sir H. PageMcEwen, Capt. J. H. F.Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)
Crookshank, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. F. C,McKie, J. H.Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Crossley, A. C.Macmillan, H. (Stockton-on-Tees)Taylor, C. S. (Eastbourne)
Crowder, J. F. E.Magnay, T.Thomas, J. P. L.
Cruddas, Col. B.Makins, Brigadier-General Sir ErnestThomson, Sir J. D. W.
De la Bère, R.Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R.Thorneyoroft, G. E. P.
Donner, P. W.Markham, S. F.Thornton-Kemsley, C. N.
Dorman-Smith, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir R. H,Marsden, Commander A.Titchfield, Marquess of
Dugdale, Captain T. L.Mason, Lt.-Col. Hon. G. K. M.Tree, A. R. L. F.
Duggan, H. J.Maxwell, Hon. S. A.Wakefield, W. W.
Dunglass, LordMedlicott, F.Walker-Smith, Sir J.
Eastwood, J. F.Mitcheson, Sir G. G.Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Elliston, Capt. G. S.Moor:, Lieut.-Colonel Sir T. C. R.Waterhouse, Captain C,
Entwistle, Sir C. F.Morgan, R. H. (Worcester, Stourbridge)Watt, Lt.-Col. G. S, Harvie
Erskine-Hill, A. G.Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.)Wayland, Sir W. A.
Everard, Sir William LindsayMuirhead, Lt.-Col. A. J.Wedderburn, H. J. S.
Findlay, Sir E.Munro, P.Wells, Sir Sydney
Fleming E. L.Nail, Sir J.Whiteley, Major J. P. (Buckingham)
Fox, Sir G. W. G.Neven-Spence, Major B. H. H.Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Furness, S. N.Nicolson, Hon. H. G.Womersley, Sir W. J.
Fyfe, D. P. M.O'Connor, Sir Terence J.Wood, Hon. C. 1. C.
Gibson, Sir C. G. (Pudsey and Otley)Palmer, G. E. H.Wright, Wing-Commander J. A. C.
Gledhill, G.Peake, O.York, C.
Grant-Ferris, Flight-Lieutenant R.Peter:, Dr. S. J.Young, A. S. L. (Partiok)
Granville, E. L.Petherick, M.
Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester)Pickthorn, K. W. M.TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Grimston, R. V.Procter, Major H. A.Major Sir James Edmondson and Lieut.-Colonel Herbert,
Hacking, Rt. Hon. Sir D. H.Radford, E. A.

Bill read a Second time.